the fear of phantoms: testing the experiential effects of terra sigillata

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ELUSIVE EARTHS
An exhibition by Jennifer Teets at establishment d’en face projects

With Jean-Marie Appriou, Piotr Bosacki, Lorenzo Cirrincione, Ajay Kurian,
Anna Maria Maiolino, Robertas Narkus, Georgia Sagri, Anicka Yi.
Texts by James Clegg, Ajay Kurian in conversation with Corin Hewitt,
Muriel Pardon-Labonnelie, Arthur Macgregor and Jennifer Teets.
Opening Wednesday 10.09.14 at 7pm
Exhibition from 11.09.14 till 24.10.14

“It has a saltiness that takes over. Not like a food that’s too salty, there probably isn’t much salt in it. It’s not the strength of the flavour. It is its tone. The tone sets my mind to imagining my blood, my blood like rain. I picture small little transparent eggs, different kinds of liquids pressing against each other, like oil drops in water; the kind of skins you get on the surface of water, exchanging chemicals, cleansing and becoming alive.”

– Lotte

“I can’t describe the flavour in words. But I feel like it gives me impulses that might lead to words.”

– Simone

As projects such as the Harvard Placebo Studies Programme have demonstrated, subjective expectations can literally transform an objective reality (“Parkinson’s disease is associated with a shortage of a brain chemical called dopamine, and in studies of the disease, placebos have increased the production of dopamine”[1]; Four sugar tablets per day rather than just two can clear gastric ulcers more quickly – an undeniable physical transformation caused by a patient’s belief[2]). Indeed, placebo effects mark out a powerful ontological threshold that contemporary medical testing is fearful of. And ‘fearful’ seems to me to be the most appropriate word; the image of a sweating body contemplating an otherness that exceeds it.

As a scientist working across these liminal areas, it is certainly an interesting moment to test sealed earth pastilles (terra sigillata) – medicines entwined with belief and perception.

But there is a shibboleth here that must be overcome: the modern bastion that divides and forms a hierarchy of objective and subjective categories. Contemporary pharmacology has to concede that it is beholden to a transformative psychosomatic terrain: that statements of ‘fact’ will never be enough to push through the fear I describe. Because really, it is a fear about where truth might start and end. Let us remind ourselves that within this field, statements of fact largely serve an economic purpose. The neoliberal agenda that governs the medical industries of most developed countries has resulted in many medical trials being meaningless reflections of corporate interests[3]. My work has been controversial however, mainly because it targets a less obvious negligence within the field: the neglect of subjective experience. If what a person believes affects them physically, then we need to know what thoughts they had while recovering. We need to know what fantasies guided them through the darker moments. What dreams accompanied their profound metamorphosis from sickness to health?

terras 003 (2)

When the subject I have named Simone reported her wordless-words she bowed her head momentarily as if giving in to a feeling of shame. It showed a bashful side to her personality that I wasn’t familiar with in the ‘adult Simone’, despite her being an introverted, unsure individual. In these moments her face looked like it had pulled back the veil of her public persona. While this description may seem overly literary, the use of such metaphors within my practice allows me to be able to notice nuanced changes within the timber of a subject’s response. As Simone became more accustomed to the terra sigillata, the ‘dressing-up-box’ nature of her participation in the experiment became, in my notes, “deeply hypnotic for Simone and for those witnessing her apparent regressions”. ‘Regressions’ seemed to be the only way to describe the sudden depth and scope of her expression – an apparent immersion into a broader set of values. All these descriptions are crucial for understanding in a fulsome way, what happened.

The subject I have called Lotte would have been discounted from most standard trials because she was predisposed to the experiment by a sense of affinity she felt for my work (she was aware of an article I wrote against for-profit drugs testing[4]). Lotte’s son took his life following participation in a medical trial. He had volunteered to be part of a test for a drug designed to combat depression; at 17 it was part of a scheme he had to earn money to support himself through university. The drug led him to become severely withdrawn and after only one week he took an overdose of painkillers. Lotte wanted to find something to take her sense of loss away and she also wanted to take part in scientific work that she knew to be an irritant to the medical establishment.

At first Lotte considered Simone to be ‘ditsy’ or ‘kooky’. However, after sampling a number of the earth tablets she found a very eloquent way of summarising a change in the subjects’ relationship to one another.

“What we’re learning together in this trial gives learning a different meaning. I feel like we started a great distance from one another, but after the clay [sic] took effect that distance has paled in comparison to what has opened up.”

I appreciated Lotte’s choice of phrase here; a recognition of the group as an agent seeking enlightenment. However, a depth of description is required here again: it wasn’t a statement she put forward to summarise a sense of comradeship, but more to account for the intensity of feeling. The closing moments of the experiment were in fact marked by a singular animosity. The camera I set up shows Lotte literally holding Simone as she said this, seemingly trying to put some perspective on the events of the afternoon. In the footage, Simone’s tears have carried her overly heavy makeup down her face; Elise is sweating profusely; Lukas, Lukas is beyond the point of being able to speak and lays trembling on the floor.

Lukas had reason to be trembling. He had just confessed to murder.

The Goat

Let me backtrack a little. The first sealed earth tablet that was tested on these subjects was Terra Lemnia. From the experimental perspective this meant an earth tablet with a good proportion of haematite, the red pigment that gave earth from Lemnos its distinct colour, with a symbol of a goat pressed into it. From our subjects’ perspective, this was the most ancient terra sigillata and the redness – they were led to believe – may have been goat’s blood. The goat striding from right to left with two prominent scythelike horns was the symbol of Artemis, the Greek deity who possessed the ability to tame wild animals while being associated with the protection and cure of women. In order to start to foster some peculiarities in the group dynamic, to create waves to expose the individual personalities, I explained this symbolism while staring at Lukas. At this early stage I intentionally isolated him, although I couldn’t necessarily explain my motives now.

Elise, who was heavily pregnant, loved the smell of the terra sigillata. Pregnancy heightens a woman’s senses of smell and taste, which was one reason I had recruited her. Another reason was that I knew from her application that she had an occupation that involved her using her imagination and speaking in public.

The terra sigillata were all placed on a table, large enough for Lotte, Simone, Elise and Lukas to sit around while affording room for me to move in and out to prepare various parts of the experiment.

“In the past, scientists went so far as to administer arsenic to their subjects so they could test the alexipharmic properties of these tablets. That is, the antidote quality of the earth.” I told them.

The four smiled nervously. Lotte, who enjoyed Lukas’ discomfort said, “Better not trust Artemis to protect Lukas huh?”

Everyone laughed a hollow kind of laugh; I laughed a loud and long laugh, perhaps too long. Again, I recall, I did this with an air of contempt towards Lukas.

“What if you are already poisoned?” I then asked, letting the question hang with the aroma of the earth, which was all-the-while adding insistently to the atmosphere. Lotte, Simone and Lukas exchanged glances as if trying to work out whether I could really mean that I had slipped them some kind of poison earlier in the day. Elise enjoyed the playfulness of the question and smirked.

“I mean”, I broke the silence, “what if you’ve always been poisoned. Perhaps this will cure something that you never knew was wrong.”

You can probably guess the litany of complaints often levelled against my methodology, my choice of subject, my narrative introductions. This would hardly be considered ‘setting the patient at ease’. But my intention was to pass the time while I prepared the first of the Terra Lemnia, encouraging a broadness of feeling and openness to surprise.

“There may have been great ceremony in the preparation of these tablets originally”, I breathed, mixing up an oxymel and grinding in one of the pastilles. The result was a pleasing salmon coloured cream; the smell of the milk, honey and spice mingled with the mineral declination of the earth.

Lotte, Simone, Elise and Lukas were instructed to take turns at ingesting some of the mixture. Once swallowed, they were to wait for a minute and then stand up to describe to the others, not so much the effects, but the ideas the mixture gave rise to. The others must remain quiet and await their turn to swallow and speak.

“Try to let the words come from the terra sigillata”, I counselled, “not from yourself”.

They began uncertainly, Lotte volunteering to go first.

“Erm”, she faltered and opened her eyes, laughing at the others. They giggled in return. “The tablet doesn’t have anything to say, it’s just me”. Simone found this hilarious.

“Pull up your top” I directed Lotte. After a pause, she consented. I changed the lights for a moment so that we could see Lotte’s belly as a kind of floating object.

“The earth you have just consumed will pass from your stomach and down into your intestine. It will be separated and change; a process not so dissimilar from the external process undergone to refine it for us here. When does the earth become you? Is it during this prior process? Is it when its energy is used by you to enact your ego? Is it when nutrients from the clay join with the cells of your body? Is it when the chemicals in the clay affect your mind, the operations of your brain – something that might happen as soon as you begin to look upon it, look upon the image of the goat?”

I said this severely to force the group to concentrate. We stared at Lotte’s belly, seeing it not so much as her stomach but more as a kind of independent apparatus performing automatic processes quite distinct from anything we might consider ‘conscious’. But then, as Lotte would later remark, perhaps we should rethink what we mean by ‘consciousness’. Of course!

I reset the lights.

I pulled up my shirt. “You see, we all have them. Bodies, affected and changed by what we consume. Like flowers taking up water, they grow and change, they are part of nature.”

Standing, Lotte closed her eyes again, this time becoming less self conscious. Slowly a flow of words started to push out like an improbable eddy on a glacial plain. A kind of rhythm established itself between the group. In my notes I wondered if any of them would or could remember what they said; it seemed so automatic.

Lotte: So, I am the earth? Should I say ‘I’? Maybe I’ve not yet become what I may be in a moment. If Artemis tamed wild animals, perhaps I’ll become calm—although I feel sorry for the animals. I don’t know if I want them civilised.

Simone: I can’t describe the flavour in words. But I feel like it gives me impulses that might lead to words.

Elise: My taste lends me something. Some kind of path. Lends me… that’s how I feel I should describe it. My conscious self is just one of many nexus points. The taste leads me to think of other landscapes: outgrowths of bindweed, a rustling tide of barley, the fertile scents of celery and saffron. My stomach won’t tell me when the earth is part of my blood, these images must be based only upon the taste.

Lukas: I see a kind of passage way. Through an opening I can see rocky hills covered with blue flowers of some kind. I see myself carefully moving on all fours over the rocks, like a goat. I wear gloves so that I can pick the flowers without touching them. I sense that I want to be cured.

Lotte: I see a mother, with a daughter. Her daughter is 17 years old. She’s such a clever girl, full of bright ideas and invigorated by a sense of the future. How liberating it is – thinks the mother – to not know yet what you will be. The mother is realistic, but this hope and optimism still fill her with a desire for a happiness which is unworldly. They are poor, perhaps abandoned. They need to get food.

As Lukas and Lotte started to focus on these imaginary avatars, Simone – who seemed the least assertive – made a powerful interjection into the ‘game’. I was, at the time, shocked by the fact that that she would be the one to introduce a subversive clause into the emerging narrative logic.

 

The Crow

We trialled a different terra sigillata. I spent less time telling the group about its provenance, partly because it had such a pleasing quality in and of itself. It was a much darker earth stamped with images of crows. Crushed with vinegar, the ‘crow pastilles’ made a luscious, black collyrium (or eye ointment).

I gently applied some of the ointment around Simone’s eyes. But she insisted on adding more herself. A thick daubing of the charcoal paste made her look very different. After a moment she stood with a nervous assertiveness that startled everyone. She spoke as if terrified by her own sudden impetuosity – not that the rest of us thought she was being impetuous. With this we began again.

Simone: Tasting the earth allowed us to embody things. But I’m wearing my body now like a garment. I can see the desert you spoke of Lukas and to me it is just like printed wallpaper. I see your rags Lotte, but they aren’t real rags, they are rags printed on top of normal clothes. I see all these surfaces, like staring at a newspaper stand. I’m getting ideas that are outside the material world.

Lotte interrupted at this point, accustomed to Simone’s earlier deference. “Abstract”, she said, “It sounds like you are seeing the world in abstract.” Simone curled her lip and stared coldly.

Simone: Cures come at a cost. As you enter the worlds of these other characters, you must choose a sacrifice. To get better someone has to suffer.

Elise didn’t like this consequential change and elected not to try the eye ointment.

Lukas: Floating high, I can see the man crushing the blue flowers with a broad stick, crushing and heating them. The water goes violet. And he removes the plants carefully with the stick and buries them in the sand, hiding them; as the potion boils and reduces, thickens and coalesces. On the horizon another figure approaches, concealed by the sand and heat.

Lotte: I can see the mother again, and though this time from a distance, I feel I’m looking at myself too. She is alone, waiting. That’s all. She’s just waiting. She looks into a fire, reassures herself that soon she will be eating meat with her daughter.

The Scorpion:

“I’m less certain of the scorpion symbol, what it might have meant to people originally using these medicines. However, one of the general stories the Greeks told was one in which Gaia, the earth Goddess, raised a giant scorpion to destroy Orion. His intent to slay wild animals angered her.”

I crushed a more refined pastille bearing the image of a Scorpion into red wine. I had made these pastilles more of a yellow colour, like the pastilles Galen reported being present in Bithynia (present day Turkey). The subjects returned to ingesting the substance.

Simone: I sense that someone here has an intention they haven’t disclosed.

She looked at the group, breaking the rules to engage them as the individuals who that morning had attended a medical trial. Elise took a small amount of the potion as if trying to preserve something of the turn-based procedure.

Elise: I have come with prior knowledge of some of these subjects. Some understanding of mythology. I know that the Greeks used to reference a blue flower. It was known as Monkshood or Wolf-bane. But principally it was known as Akoniton. Akoniton means “without earth” – because it grew out of rocks. It is a powerful poison.

All eyes turned to Lukas who avoided the stares and took a large gulp of the wine emulsion. He closed his eyes so he didn’t have to see the others.

Lukas: The young girl is thirsty. She carries a bow and arrow. I laugh at it because it wouldn’t be any use for the animals around here, no use at all. Our young hunter obviously has little idea of how to catch anything, but the intention is there – she has furiosity enough. She’s out to kill something to eat for her and for her mother; to keep them alive.

Lotte looked on with a kind of pained disbelief.

Lukas: You are thirsty, I say. Drink some of my special tea, it’ll give you strength.

At this point the procedural nature of the experiment broke down completely.

“Fuck you!” Lotte Screamed. “Fuck you!”

“No fuck you! I have got to save myself.”

“How, why would you kill the girl?”

“I didn’t kill anyone, it’s just a stupid story!” Lukas didn’t know where to place his emotion.

“You could have done anything, made anything up. But instead you had to take that away from me. You had to kill her. Confess it, you killed the girl.”

Lukas looked genuinely hurt. He seemed caught in some kind of trap. Finally he said, “I had to.”

“Why?” Lotte screamed. Elise watched from a distance, trying to stay calm. Simone, whose black visor had begun to crumble, was anxious. She began crying and repeatedly said, “this is my fault”.

“I’m ill”, Lukas finally uttered. Lotte was too enraged to speak.

Lukas lay down on the floor, trembling, “I wanted a cure so I went along with the story.”

Lotte held Simone. Simone had tears in her eyes. Elise was sweating profusely. The experiment had come to a natural conclusion.

***

I remember a philosopher using the metaphor of a river washing down particles of earth to describe a certain kind of understanding; then as the particles settle to become sediment, to describe another kind of understanding. The former is always moving, carried like the river that might bring lemnian earth forward from the ground. The latter is static and has structure, but one that we must remember is always different from the particles in their previous state. Things transform as they solidify, but without this turning hard they will disappear.

To seal earth seems to me to be a very natural human reaction to this situation. As solid objects, Terra Sigillata embody a principle of permanence; a kind of standardised catalyst for change. Yet to consume the pastille, you have to crush its image, make it back into an emulsion – sympathetic to your body – which after all lives in the realm of the impermanent. The word ‘cure’ derives from a string of verbs, “care, concern, responsibility” ; yet terra sigillata show that like the medical industry we now consider synonymous with capitalism, the other fixed form of the word ‘cure’ has long been in existence.

Lotte, Simone, Elise and Lukas began a game in which they invented fictional characters. They created characters that they could care for, be concerned for and have responsibility for. And, care, concern and responsibility are exactly the same factors that allow placebos to work (more than faith in the medication itself, people recover when they feel the presence of others who want them to recover). These characters are the phantoms lurking in the shadows our current understanding. Medical testing is fearful of the subjective and social realms they represent – yet we must start to understand that any recovery is marked by these visitations.

Simone took to wearing only black following the experiment.

 

[1] There have been many such study programmes, but this one benefits from an easy to access summary. See: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Health_Letter/2012/April/putting-the-placebo-effect-to-work [Accessed 03/08/2014]

[2] For an accessible overview of the see Ben Goldachre: http://www.badscience.net/2008/08/my-placebo-programme-on-bbc-radio-4/

[3] Freedman, D.H. (2010) Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science. The Atlantic.

[4] Awaiting the result of certain legal proceedings I have removed this paper from circulation.

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