Escaped Lunatic

Escaped Lunatic
Steffani Jemison

“Ten years ago, I invited my father into my studio for the first time. We were coping with an unexpected death in the family: on March 13, 2009, my fourteen-year-old cousin Gregory Robinson was shot and killed on his way home from a basketball game one evening. Why was my dad so frustrated? It’s not only that he felt the pain of an unbelievably tragic loss. It’s also because he felt that even as things changed, they stayed the same. This is to say that the notion of progress that oriented his own ambition and produced in him a sense of direction has been constantly, actively, undermined by forces and people he could not control. The work in my studio, we discussed, was my attempt to materially reflect what I might crudely describe as the failure of ‘progress’ to save my cousin, the deferral that has taken the place of political answers, the endless reshuffling of explanations that are turned over and turned over again.  Those who know me well know that my work is still motivated by a position of extreme anxiety, anxiety that produces a kind of instability regarding what is at stake, which seems clearly to be everything and nothing at the same time. This might be inverted into another question—what is the mode of thought in which art is at stake?—to which I constantly return.

In the wake of my cousin’s death, I was thinking about stories, progress, and stakes. I was thinking particularly about the shared conventions of the literary novel and classical Hollywood cinema—conventions that rely on psychological explanations for cause and effect, stories that turn on individual growth or epiphany, protagonists whose free, autonomous journeys give form and offer resolution. I was thinking about the political implications of these story structures, especially their emphasis on the individual hero’s control over their own fate. It is obviously grotesque to imagine Gregory as the protagonist of such a story, when his death was neither the result of his own decision, nor a stage within someone’s larger journey, nor can his life or death be harnessed in service of resolution. If realism is defined by its insistence on a teleological or goal-oriented mode of progress, why bother to “fail” again and again according to those terms? Or: what forms enable us to affirmatively imagine and model our lives that do not always already situate black life as belated, or as failure?

I found myself particularly compelled by a moment just at the invention of cinema, a moment when it seemed that films might not look like 19th-century literary novels, when cinema seemed to require not only new modes of display, but also new models of spectatorship and participation, new approaches to intellectual property and ownership, new ways of thinking about life, death, and living in images, new ways of thinking about the relation between picture and language, and new ways of thinking about storytelling. I was drawn to the narrative strategies of the earliest fiction films, created between 1896 to 1907, which often featured repetitive, recursive narratives that valued aggregates over individual protagonists, ignored psychology, inner life, and decision-making; allowed one thing to follow another without tension or motive; and modeled change without epiphany or narrative ‘development.’ The videos I began to create during that time, including Maniac Chase and Escaped Lunatic, were inspired by turn-of-the-century chase films, particularly their emphasis on self-generated and self-generating movement, effects without causes, in which conflict is produced not by narrative or psychological motivations—choice is not an engine in these works—but merely through the tension between form and accident. In the original Maniac Chase (Edwin S. Porter, 1904) and The Escaped Lunatic (Wallace McCutcheon, 1911) films, an inmate escapes from an insane asylum, jogs through the grounds, followed by several orderlies, and eventually runs back into his cell. I have returned several times to Maniac Chase as a prompt, a way of checking in, and a way of physically engaging a historical moment of possibility. I used the title “Escaped Lunatic” for an iteration completed in Houston in 2010-2011 with actors from the community of parkour practitioners there.

As I developed this work in Chicago, Houston, and New York, I researched actual stories of turn-of-the-century escapees—the figure of ‘the escaped lunatic’ was a Victorian obsession. The anxiety surrounding these distinct concepts—‘escape’ and ‘lunatic’—rested precisely on the instability of turn-of-the-century categories of subjectivity and self-possession. Although our culture privileges travel and mobility—consider the romantic discovery narrative that correlates physical movement outward into the territory of the unknown with movement inward toward deep subjectivity—I am often reminded that not all physical travel is consensual, and not all mobility produces enlightenment. Consider, for example, forced migration, enslavement, homelessness, even rites of passage. Consider imprisonment. Of course, consider escape.” — Steffani Jemison