Essay by Suzanne Carte
Honestly, I can’t look at images of zombies. The glamour of gore has an uneasy power over me. Horror films make me retch and haunted houses get me running for the door. I am the perfect audience for all zombiephiles to scare. In the presence of the ghastly, undead wanderers, I am terrified, sickened and revolted.
Poring over artists’ gruesome zombiefied sketches during studio visits would make me nauseated. Brooklyn-based artist Mario Schambon proclaimed that he likes to create work that makes him uncomfortable. So taking Schambon’s lead I organized an exhibition that made me uncomfortable, very uncomfortable.
How can one make efforts to overcome fear? There has to be a certain amount of pleasure in that pain. There has to be a particular amount of reassurance in fear, ease in anxiety, or solace in distress. Does one then find comfort in discomfort or is that impossible by its very definition?
I never feel desensitized. More images of carnage just made me feel more vulnerable, more horrified, and uneasy. So one could wonder: how can someone who does not participate in zombie culture comment upon it? I am not approaching the exhibition as an authority; I am working through the fear to investigate parallels between the seemingly apolitical action of the walking dead phenomenon and recent radical civic gatherings and ideologies in North America, through consideration of artists’ visions, fascination and representation of the monstrous creatures in a post-apocalyptic landscape.
BE ZOMBIE: RELATING TO THE UNDEAD
The zombification of all things pop culture has exploded. Mobs are taking to the streets covered in fake blood and ghostly makeup, garbed in tattered clothing, and letting out gurgled moans with outstretched arms and heavy feet. Zombie walks are mobilized to gain attention. The masses march (or shuffle rather) to express their dissatisfaction with political ennui in times of economic upheaval, war and environmental collapse. The undead are the perfect empty vehicles to mirror numerous involvements, interests, and issues; therefore the collective zombie gathering has no defined agenda. Devoid of any individualization, a walk can represent a number of concerns and fears within one action. Participants walk to protest neo-liberalist economics, comment on anti-social social media, uncover power dynamics, and express anti-consumerism sentiments by exposing the mass consumption of zombie capitalism.
Zombies are imaginary creatures used to illustrate problems about consciousness and its relation to the physical world. 1 They are never just one thing but a stand-in for an assumed lack of agency. They rally against compliancy by illustrating the abjectness of conformity. As Simon Orphana reminds us, “Romero’s first three zombie films suggest specific anxiety over technology, consumerism and the military, and a general sense that an undead collectivity threatens human society and individuality. The calamitous breakdowns of social order depicted in zombie apocalypse narratives offer a critical perspective on the various horrors implicit in everyday social life.”2
The upsurge in interest in the undead phenomenon has elicited numerous critical analyses on topics including anthropological studies; essays by geographical area; zombies in the media (Internet, television, etc.); zombie walks, performances, and other cultural expressions; new technologies and audiovisual media; reappropriations from Hollywood zombie movies; zombie cinema in the United States; and literary adaptations to cinema. The undead – that which is alive and dead at the same time – are great metaphoric framing devices to critique everything from capitalist structures to racism to gender-based politics.
End-of-the-world fears are mounting. Threats of nuclear war, bio-terrorist attacks and disease outbreaks have spawned real concerns about the unpredictable ways in which our genetic makeup could be altered and distorted. The artists in You Cannot Kill What Is Already Dead have works in their practices that are based on the notion of the paranormal apocalypse in a way that can at times come across as comical, but is based in this panic and dread.3 The works do not rely on existing sci-fi stories or popular narratives (as it is not fandom) but inhabit their own accounts of a frightful future or present reality.
Setting the stage, Mario Schambon brings the viewer into an apocalyptic wasteland. Black Body, a large snaking construction, emphasizes the precariousness of the space and warns of the impending zombie barrage. Schambon’s eschatological environment is equipped with low base frequencies and flickering black light to emphasize the catastrophic destruction. Being faced with annihilation, we can piece together what a future might look like and the haunted house-like exhibition leads us on that trail of darkness and despair.
In the darkness of goth teen death culture, Emily Gove’s practice is born. Examining the drives and desires of the subculture, Gove’s research led herto discover online fan groups dedicated to idolizing the sexy zombies of popular cinema. Fetishizing the incidental female characters, these groupies drool in the blogosphere. The female “sexy zombie” character is a staple in horror films. Relegated to the role of stripper or wild punk-rock groupie turned undead, the sexy zombie is designated to walk the earth partially or completely nude to titillate for all eternity. Iconic scream queen Linnea Quigley participated in the 2013 Toronto Zombie Walk festivities by throwing the severed head to kick off the parade. Best known for her role as the sexy, dancing punk zombie girl “Trash” in Return of the Living Dead, Quigley’s face is emblazoned on Gove’s fabric swatches. As homage to the characters, the feminine touch of stitchery removes the layer of pornographic residue imbued within the poor-resolution, digital stills online. The women are lovingly transformed into haunted feminist souls rather than vapid, sexualized creatures.
Teenage angst is not relegated to the drama of unfulfilled sexual desires alone but can also be found in the anxiety of newly adopted social and political affiliations. Patrick Lundeen conveys that anguish through the horrific masks he creates from vintage Mad Magazine Fold-Ins. Part of America’s teen culture since its inception in 1952, Mad focused on propagating non-conformist thinking on current politics and was best known for the old school interactivity of the back page spread. With a quick bend of the page, the seemingly innocuous image becomes a secret satirical message philosophizing on beliefs, debates and popular culture. In manipulating the pages of the publication, one is drawn into the hidden idea and implicated in its lesson. It is often the first exposure in adolescence to being able to decrypt a message that is designated for them alone, away from the prying eyes of parents or adults. The comics allow young (predominantly male) audiences to formulate opinions and bias by decoding the image for themselves and deciphering the real message concealed behind the veil of comic relief of the initial image.
Lundeen asks the viewer to fold into his work and consider donning the mask of the vacant minion. He invites the audience to become one of the faceless zombies staggering forward with arms outstretched, consuming all that is in its path, joining the angry mob with a hidden agenda. Many wear the mask of the zombie to conform, to blur into the masses and no longer feel ostracized, but under Lundeen’s candy-coloured masks lies a darker secret of disillusionment and anguish.
What would you do in a zombie apocalypse? Would you be the first to die, would you fight, or would you take your own life? Maya Suess and Atom Cianfarani have asked themselves that very question. As survivalists, the two artists have joined forces to build new strategies and emergency gear to battle the impending zombie army. Or at least so it appears on first inspection – yet perhaps it is not the undead that they fear. They turn a (suspicious) interrogative eye not to the monsters, but to their fellow human survivors. Fight the Dead. Fear the Living.4 Armed with duct tape, straws and hankies the artist-survivalists demonstrate a grassroots activism in their seriously constructed tools for foraging and protection.
We also fear that our own bodies will deceive us – turn on us – and decay before our very eyes. Bacteriophobia is already rampant. Sanitizers have become necessary amenities for public institutions in North America. Nadia Moss feeds off of that fear. Her characters spin out of control, floating in space while bacterial forces penetrate their bodies. Moss sustains our fear of contamination, of the body, of mortality, disease and infection. There is a distinct discomfort with our own bodies and the ways in which they react to infection and viruses. The walking corpses are an illustration of that fear. Zombies’ insides are visible on the outside and peepholes burrowed through flesh expose the mortal inner workings of our flawed forms. Moss’s delicate drawings on transparent plastic sheets can only be seen as light passes through them – making the insides perceptible. As zombie academic Sarah Juliet Lauro states, we are all, in some sense, walking corpses in awaiting death.5
The bodily dread of Moss’s work can also be seen in the horror and anxiety in Howie Tsui’s The Unfortunates of D’Arcy Island. Yet these are creatures not of the imagination but of truly distressing and real human conditions. Feared to be highly infectious, between 1894 and 1924 immigrant Chinese leprosy sufferers were ostracized by their communities and sent to live in a colony far from society in Greater Victoria, British Columbia. Family members were abandoned to fight the disfiguring disease alone and lived in isolation on the island in the Haro Strait just north of Victoria. The islands’ inhabitants were mythologized to a folkloric extent. Seen as an ancient curse, the residents of the lazaretto, or leper colony, were exiled with no possibility of reprieve. The lepers became un-human and therefore were treated as such. The strong anti-Chinese sentiment in British Colombia made it easy to encapsulate the disease as a plague restricted to Chinatown. The deformation of their bodies, due to the ravenous illness, created a visual prompt to further segregate a community that was already demonized and ostracized. By revisiting this atrocious chapter of discrimination in our history, The Unfortunates explores the concept of the infected ‘other’ and its role in socio-spatial segregation in the city.7 Tsui’s ghastly depictions of the colony offer a critical perspective on the various horrors implicit in the power of racism.
Like epidemic plagues, zombie outbreaks are events in which anxieties associated with social connectivity come to the fore – the more boundaries between the self and other are broken down in pandemic urgency, the more the contagion spreads.8 Zombie narratives are obsessed with “the source” of infection. Where did this thing come from? Who or what was the originating beast? What virus could bring a human to this undead state? Alex MacLeod takes on the daunting task of becoming the hated source, digitally. Spreading via Twitter, MacLeod’s witty, scientific commentary will be an irresistible source of infection for others. Social media as a platform is rife with compulsive repetition of information. It produces a generative force, gaining followers and constructing new zombies pushing forth (potentially erroneous and fabricated) information. Digital threads are created to see how far infectious intelligence can travel in our globalized cyberworld. Unreliable online “intelligence” conflates rumour and plague. The rhetoric surrounding infection circulates around contemporary social media according to a model of textual contagion. Follow @DEAD_etc #RIPetc and infect others in your feed with the toxicity of potentially harmful (pseudo-scientific) information.
If the zombie threat of information anxiety was not enough, a new app, LivesOn, has been recently released to allow Twitter users to tweet from the grave. Following one’s algorithms and areas of interest, this application acknowledges that even the undead have vital social lives. When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.10 If one can raise the dead through technological means and social impulses, then what about savouring the last moments of an animal companion with perpetual motion? As if by magic, artist Juan Zamora has breathed life, like a mad scientist, into the waking shadow of a dead pigeon. Caught in a purgatory of half dead-half alive, the gurgling silhouette of the deceased bird struggles to remain conscious. In an almost comical death rattle, the animal moans to stay present as it is trapped – like the zombie – in the liminal space of conscious and unconscious.
In the vitrines, Lena Suksi was commissioned to create the zombified version of the Canadian Federation of Students’ The Hikes Stop Here campaign. Guled Arale, VP External of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) mobilized a group of undead students to stagger towards the gallery reception.
Armed with Suksi’s placards and banners the students organized in protest to their escalating tuition fees. The artist’s work is displayed in the vitrines outside
of the gallery walls as a symbol of solidarity with the student federation to decrease the mounting provincial debt.11
To assist in fleshing out the ideas and pointing to the many academic and fictional narratives that comprise the apocalyptic discourse, I am joined by a host of brilliant contributors. Sara Matthews, Assistant Professor in the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, brings us “What Does A Zombie Want?” In this essay, Matthews suggests that the zombie offers an uncanny politic in its refiguration of the rhetorics of fear that characterize contemporary discourses of political terror.
Originally published in FUSE magazine, Natalie Kouri-Towe’s article queers the usual survivalist story.12 What will the world look like if the last surviving group does not follow the scripted heteronormative narrative? Kouri-Towe troubles the genre and sets out to disrupt the cinematic story of: “Boy meets girl. Boy kills zombie intruders saving the world from further destruction. Boy and girl repopulate the world with an army of love children. The end.” Instead she posits a new chronicle, one where lesbian renegades and gay rebels roam the post-apocalyptic landscape. Their refusal of reproduction is a real possibility.
Christian Martius also questions the instrumentalization of the body in popular storylines. In focusing on the politics of the undead body in the “normal” body, he critically examines what it means to be sick, well and between. Martius discusses abnormality and body productivity in reference to spectacle and our own impermanence. Our fascination with the zombie is a celebration of its immortality and recognition of ourselves as enslaved to our bodies.13
In the telling of the zombie story, the sci-fi devotee cannot be dismissed. Horror fiction fan and writer Farrukh Rafiq argues for the thrill of escape and dreams of a world where staggering zombies are a welcome diversion from the haunts of reality.
In truly being able to understand the impetus to form human posses of fictional undead creatures in public space, I needed to go to the foundational roots of the spectacle. In conversation with Thea Munster from the infamous Toronto Zombie Walk, I was able to understand the motivation of the thousands of attendees that shuffle annually through the City of Toronto. As the woman behind the massive undead revolt, she is unrelenting in her passion. She fights on behalf of all outcasts for increased visibility and is self-reflexive on the process of raising the dead every October. I would like to extend a big thank you to Thea who was an immense help in my formulating an understanding of the zombie phenomenon and graciously allowed me into her ghoulish group without hesitation.
The exhibition withdraws from the formulaic narrative of global capitalism as the sole reflective surface of the zombie but allows us to see the undead in all of us. The zombie can be a filter through which we embrace, not fear, the precarity of our lives in our flawed systems of operation, through ongoing social discrimination, along political wars, and in our dying bodies.