Birgitta Hosea

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Visitation (2004)

Visitation promotional image

artist statement

Visitation: a site specific video installation by Birgitta Hosea in the Crypt of St Pancras church, curated by Sandra Louison, soundtrack by Antony Brown, technical support by Anne Pietsch and Robin Pender.

Visitation was a site-specific video installation in the Crypt of St Pancras Church in October 2004. Video art visualising the guardian angels of London was shown in various tunnels and chambers. Inspired by interviews with people who have had angelic encounters, the video work used digital video manipulation and animated photographic collage to visualise the psychic realm and to investigate a sense of digital sublime.

This installation was created specifically for the Crypt of St Pancras church – an ancient, dark, dank series of brick tunnels housing family tombs in chambers and dating in part from the medieval era. An appropriate site for a project about the paranormal, it is a liminal space between the world of the living and the world of the dead; between the light and the dark; between the seen and the unseen: a portal into the underworld. The Crypt has a palpable presence, a spine-tingling ‘aura’ lacking from commercial gallery spaces.

The catacombs were filled with video projections and piles of old TV sets that were malfunctioning, detuned or incorrectly colour calibrated. The same video was played in synchronisation on all media. The result of this was to create a series of unique copies of the ‘original’ digital image – referencing Andy Warhol’s screen prints.

The underground space was pitch dark – lit only by the projections. The audience were not given directions or a map – just a torch – and so they explored the unfamiliar space with trepidation, following the dim glimmer of a projection barely glimpsed round the corner or the haunting soundtrack echoing through the tunnels. As they walked in front of the TV sets ‘interference’ was caused with the transmission of the video signal, so their actual physical bodies created an impact on the video image.

BJ angel

The intention behind this work was to create an experience that would provoke a phenomenological, visceral reaction rather than an intellectual response or a work that could be easily categorised and sold. In addition, the work was an experiment in representing the intangible, that which cannot be represented in words and is experienced through the senses, therefore, visual, aural, haptic, spatial rather than verbal. This state of being relates to Kristeva’s concept of the semiotic: the pre-linguistic blissful state into which a baby is born, which erupts and disrupts our adult, rational selves. It also relates to the Sublime.

In The Critique of Judgement, Kant considers the Sublime as invoking in the perceiver an overwhelming build up of sensory stimuli in the Imagination, which are incomprehensible to Reason and, hence, create an amazement bordering on terror. These feelings of unease were caused by a relation of discord between Reason and the Imagination. The sensory feelings cannot be logically defined and categorised by Reason and, yet, Reason confronts the Imagination with the idea that it has limits: it cannot grasp freedom. Lyotard placed the concept of the Sublime in a contemporary context, seeing modernity as a withdrawal from the real being more concerned with the relation between the presentable and the conceivable and postmodernity as a search for new presentations able to impart a sense of the unpresentable.

Kant categorised two types of Sublime resulting from an excess of sensory information:
* the Mathematical Sublime, an overwhelming sensation of immensity, e.g. looking at the Pyramids;
* the Dynamic Sublime, an overwhelming feeling of power, e.g. a thunderstorm.

Could the inconceivable power of computers be used to provoke feelings of the Sublime? The vastness of the Internet has led some people to consider it as almost divine. An exhibition at the Lux Centre a few years ago examined the phenomenon of cyber memorials – sites dedicated to providing memorials for the dead of the Internet age.

In our world of TV and blockbuster visual effects movies, digital techniques are used to portray immensity and power so frequently as to have become commonplace. These simulations are frequently evaluated in terms of ‘believability’ by conventions established by lens-based media. How realistic did that masked man look as he swung on his spider's webs across the skyscrapers of New York?

From title sequence

Photography and video, in particular news footage, have always been thought of as proof of ‘reality’: media of truth. It was photographed, therefore, it must have happened, must be true. Blockbuster special effects movies problematise this assumption with seamless digital falsification of images and, indeed, photography has been manipulated since its earliest days when Victorian girls ‘took photographs’ of fairies. Thus, although digital compositing as a technique has the potential to make the ‘unreal’ look ‘real’, it exists within the context of vast numbers of other simulations bombarding us through popular culture. It is believed on one level, but not really believed on another.

An angelic encounter is another example of an encounter between the real and the extra-real, as well as the self and the Other. (The term ‘extra-real’ is used so as to suspend any judgement on the authenticity of the experience of the person who said they saw an angel.) Frequently portrayed throughout the history of art, a visitation is a meeting with a messenger of God. An angel could be seen as a messenger who conveys the unrepresentable and tries to represent this to human beings. Indeed, Kant refers to angels. He believed that each person had their own guardian angel inspiring their original ideas.

Despite our secular age, thousands of people have reported that they have felt an angelic presence in their lives, seen visions and experienced life-changing encounters. They have created a fascinating sub-culture. This exhibition was inspired by interviews with people who have had angelic encounters. In particular, it explored the idea of the guardian angels of London and, by extension, whether London itself is unrepresentable and impossible to understand. Different theories of London were used to select the locations depicted. The first was ‘tourist London’ and the second ‘autobiographical London’. The video footage that was shown in the Crypt utilised digital manipulation and compositing of video footage to visualise an ‘unseen’ psychic version of these Londons visited by its angels. Buildings were taken out of their geographical context and reassembled disrupting their normal spatial relationships.

The angels themselves were portrayed by London characters: a dishevelled, discarded doll bought at Brick Lane market; a former Miss Lesbian Beauty now studying the Knowledge in order to become a London taxi driver and two cheeky teenage boys as cherubs.

The work was successful in achieving its aim of provoking a sublime reaction. Comments in the Visitors’ Book most frequently used descriptive words revealing fear or feelings of beauty. People were also perplexed as to which parts of the video were filmed and which were digitally manipulated. They believed in the authenticity of a turquoise digitally generated sky and yet could not believe that an angel with 6-foot wings could walk through crowds on London Bridge without being looked at. But that bit did actually happen.

BJ on London Bridge