Hyperrhiz 14: Featured works

Kjell Theøry: An Empty House

Judd Morrissey

0. Growth of the New Forms

This investigation is chiefly concerned with the onset of instability.

Instability is to be always dying and always forming through morphological movements brought on by aptosis.

Glaciers recede, in the shape of a u, and we have a lush dramatic landscape with extreme cycles of darkness and light.

In the last two years of his life, Alan Turing began to visit Norway, seeking tolerance and following desire, after the forced estrogen treatment that left him with small female breasts.

He had shifted his focus to biology and was developing a theory of the morphogenesis of natural forms, a theory named, in his notes, for a male Norwegian love interest, Kjell.

His situation with Den Norske Gutt, the Norwegian boy, from Bergen, is poorly documented but evidence suggests that it at least threatened to escalate into further legal troubles in the time just before his alleged suicide.

He stands between darkness and light, life and death, male and female, synthetic and natural. He looks like a younger version of the prophet Tiresias.

The u does not recede as it should and he sinks under the weight of the word buoy.

1. Turesias

I read the above text as part of a 10-minute lightning talk, Turesias, for ELO 2015: The Ends of Electronic Literature. As I spoke, a visualization of chemicals reacting and diffusing according to Turing's description of morphogenesis created a negative space of letter forms: his patience at the center of the zero, while, in the circular portal of a live feed, letters streamed out of my eyes. This lettristic eye-tracking was juxtaposed with the song Prologue by Electric Light Orchestra, a nod to ELO as a double acronym and a gesture to invoke the Borgesian concept of paratextual elements as threshold spaces.

Just on the border of your waking mind
There lies another time
Where darkness and light are one

The performance-based lecture doubled as a response to the themes of the electronic literature organization's event while contextualizing my larger contribution, Kjell Theøry, an augmented reality (AR) poem staged, in this context, as a walking tour with virtual texts installed at three sites: a garden, a park that transforms at night into a gay cruising area, and the courtyard of a former leprosy hospital. Having returned with Kjell to its places of origin, its texts, glyphs embodied with the lush visual textures of its immediate environment, became a ghostly double to the real wooden houses, water and fjords.

Lightning talk for ELO conference. Photo: Chris Funkhouser.

1. The Empty House

For a few years now, I have been developing a poetics of embodied mixed reality, considering my texts as "places of seeing," to cite the etymology of theater, performative environments staged as a generative emptiness where, to invoke Mallarmé, nothing will have taken place but place.

Kjell Theøry began as an empty house in the landscape of Bergen, Norway, where I was living as a Fulbright Scholar in Digital Culture in the summer of 2014. I was considering Sherlock Holmes in the time when he was neither living nor dead, the interval between when he allegedly falls to his death in The Final Problem, and then resurfaces in The Empty House. In the latter, Holmes explains this undocumented period, in which Conan Doyle must have deliberated on whether or not to extend his fictional life, with the following: You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend. I borrowed the title of the story in which he returns, both in the flesh and perfectly reproduced as an effigy seated in the luminous screen of a window. Conceptually, I was connecting house to theater and the liminality of the undead to the semi-present virtuality of texts that inhabit a specific environment but can only be viewed through a software-enabled camera.

Screenshot of Kjell Theøry / The Empty House over Bergen.

The Empty House evolved as a geo-spatial poem, mapped to gps coordinates and altitudes of its physical surroundings, and taking on the visual qualities of its locale by using letterforms as masks for live-sampled satellite imagery. Later, the thematic foundation of the work was extended by another site-related missing narrative, that of Alan Turing's explorations of Norway, following rumors of male-only dances. Turing named his computing routines after various Norwegians including the playwright, Ibsen, and studying his sketches relating to morphogenesis, one can read the handwritten word Kjell among golden ratios, cellular rings, and formulae describing the biological patterns that generate embryos and flowers.

2. Daisy Bell

Turing was preoccupied with the natural world from childhood. One anecdote has him burying toy soldiers in a garden with the expectation that their broken limbs will regenerate. A drawing by his mother, called Hockey, or Watching the Daisies Grow, depicts a young Alan in a deep standing bend, oblivious to the clashing bodies of a game in which he is seemingly involved.

Kathi Inman Berens experiencing Kjell Theøry in Bergen. Photo: Jeremy Douglas.

To sample a geo-spatial AR poem from the Kjell Theøry project, you can visit http://judisdaid.org/kjelltheory.html and gaze at a flower with the augmented eye of your camera.

3. The Tits of Tiresias

Returning to the US in 2014, I carried with me a mental image of Turing as the blind prophet Tiresias, described by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land as an old man with wrinkled female breasts. I then came across Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Tits of Tirésias), the gender-morphing play by Guillaume Apollinaire for which he coined the term surrealism in 1917. In Apollinaire's work, an attempt to "augment" the tired conventions of drama, a woman, Theresa, wills her transformation into a man, Tiresias, and her husband gives birth to a litter of 40,049 babies. In Apollinaire's prologue, he recounts a wartime vision of stars that become the gazes of newborns, a hallucinatory invocation to the power of male reproduction.

5. Prologue

I am currently developing Kjell Theøry: A Prologue as a performance with my collective Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality (ATOM-r), entangling the bodies of Turing, Theresa, and Tiresias, and considering AR as an ophthalmological enhancement to visionary blindness.

Image from Measure Zero Vestibule, a iteration of Kjell Theøry at E-Poetry in Buenos Aires.

Apollinaire specified for the design of a specific theater in which Les Mamelles de Tirésias should be staged: "a circular theater with two stages, one in the middle and the other like a ring." This space was never built but it invokes a common avant-garde instinct to build a specific form to house the intricacies of work's event. Kjell Theøry: A Prologue, takes as a double starting point Turing's theory in which rings of cells give birth to forms and Apollinaire's theater of male reproduction. What new form will emerge when this unrealized circular architecture is destabilized by reactions on its morphogenic ring?


ATOM-r at Chicago Architecture Biennial (performing in Sarah FitzSimons's House installation). Photo by Ji Yang.