[Commisioned for Arsenal, an internet project for Mercer Union, Toronto in 1996. As of this writing, the texts are still on-line.]


Love Flies Through the Air: Nelson Henrick's Emission and Shimmer


The video work of Nelson Henricks, though quite varied in treatment and theme, has worked toward the articulation of a single concern: How can love fly through the air and be received by me? 

This question is first explicitly asked in Emission (12 minutes, 1994), which begins with these words in voice-over: "There was once a man who could feel ghosts." These ghosts were "...beamed off satellites and through his body." In one sense, they could simply be leftover radio waves, bouncing around earth, satellite to satellite, before dissipating throughout the universe. Or perhaps radio waves have simply become a technological apparatus for ghosts to communicate with (that is: haunt) us.

Ghosts are not necessarily the manifestation of the unsettled dead. A ghost is produced wherever (and whenever) there are unrealized narratives — stories in which a certain trajectory of desire is apparent but not acted on — and the subject of these unrealized narratives is corporeally unavailable: dead, perhaps, but more likely simply unknowable in body (or, as we would say, "in person") due to spatial remoteness. While in general we might say a ghost is something we cannot meet which emits desire in our direction, Henricks seems to work with an expanded definition. As soon as his lover leaves his arms to step outside, he (the lover) becomes a ghost. (Back to Freud's fort/da.)

The problem with radio waves is that we can hear them — they are tinny and may sound lonely because they seem to come from so far away — but we cannot feel them. (Traditional ghosts have the opposite problem. We can feel them and sometimes see them but they cannot talk and rely on various indirect methods to communicate: moving objects or knocking on tables.) Henricks insists that ghosts can not only be heard but also felt. Perhaps this is the difference between a radio wave and a ghost. A radio wave is simply sound, while a ghost is a radio wave with the added incorporeal element of unrealized desires. And these unrealized desires must be recognized and dealt with.

So when Emission includes a telephone answering machine message from Henricks' mother asking him to call, it is a message from a ghost, a message from another dimension. And such messages are always a little bit foreboding, but also hopeful. They ask us to acknowledge that within every message, every emission, are encoded desires. If we decode these messages and acknowledge their existence (more concrete action is rarely called for, these ghosts merely want our empathy) we will be loved, will receive love. A 20th century miracle. Love transmitted via radio waves and making its way straight to us.

And this is the fantasy of Henricks' man-who-could-feel-ghosts. "He said, let me be your eyes and ears; your tongue, nose and hands. Let me feel for you."

Henricks has told me that he once had a lover who had a radio show and a newspaper column — the story is elliptically referred to in Emission — and often felt closest to this lover when reading his column or, especially, hearing him on the radio. Henricks explains it as a proximity thing, the secret knowledge of intimacy with a voice communicating via mass media, every message doubled, but only for Henricks. I am whispering into your ear, and the whispers are being broadcast over the city and into the universe . . .

The presence of the lover is more poignant via mass media than in person. This has nothing to do with the nature of mass media per se, but simply the ability of mass media to serve as an apparatus for ghost production. Idiomatic language comes to the rescue once again by automatically continuing the metaphor: it is easier to be touched by an incorporeal ghost than by a corporeal lover.

Shimmer (7 minutes, 1995) begins with the questions "Where do these voices come from? Where do they go?" These questions, I think, have already been answered in Emission. These voices are the voices of ghosts and come via the technological ether of radio waves. They land, perhaps, at Henricks and perhaps move on, or perhaps not. (This may seem rather vague, or even solipsistic, but we are not talking about communications theory here, but merely love which, in this schema, ends at the subject.)

Forgive me for also finding it necessary to point out that with such concerns the notion of "gay" or "queer" seems quaint, beside the point. (Or maybe not. Maybe new channels need to be opened for a love that is not only unsanctioned but vilified. Maybe every message has to be further coded, ready for a retreat, erasure, self-effacement.)