Wax, or the Discovery of Television among the Bees
David Blair’s 1993 Wax, or the Discovery of Television among the Bees was the first independent film to be edited using a non-linear editing system, the first film to be translated into an interactive and hypertextual online experience (Waxweb, 1993), and the first film to be streamed over a computer network. In its many incarnations, Wax tells the surreal story of Jacob Maker, a programmer of weapon and flight simulators for the USA government at a test ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico. In his spare time, Maker keeps a special Mesopotamian breed of bees. His life takes an abrupt turn when the bees take over his consciousness, allowing him to communicate with the dead. His hallucinations are visualized by psychedelic collages of computer animation, video feedback textures, home videos, archival photos, and found footage.
The story of Wax, not to mention its existence across multiple formats, resonates strongly with the concepts underpinning the upcoming exhibition "alien matter," curated by Inke Arns for transmediale 2017. Concerning the reciprocal relationship between technological artifacts and the “natural,” the violence inherent in much technological development, and esoteric responses to heightened rationalization, Blair’s early-1990s project is in many ways an uncanny precursor to contemporary artistic practices. In this Q&A, Arns and editor Elvia Wilk posed a series of questions to Blair about the evolution of Wax and its ongoing echoes.
Inke Arns: To me, the video Wax sticks out as a singular piece. I don’t really know any projects to compare it with. What were your inspirations content-wise and also formally?
The work had a long gestation, through the accelerating media environment of the 1980s, and somehow always managed to sit outside of the way I made it. Oddly, it started as a mainly non-verbal graphic/glitch video in 1981, at a time when I had no access to video editing or camera, but could record graphics and glitches in a duplication house where I worked. I thought I would write to finish it, so I went to the New York Public Library in 1984, with a game in mind. I called all the pre-1960 books about bees, keeping artificial language and mechanical television in mind, and somehow, almost immediately, found an odd and singular book that combined all three. The project expanded. Then there was editing, then there were real-time graphics, then computer writing, then the feature form—though much more complex than a regular feature—then computer graphics, then non-linear editing. After the end, the internet. And it was always something else, like an iceberg from the fourth dimension.
My inspirations were mainly metafictional, and easy to identify. Hoffmann, Borges, Pynchon, in the literary tradition of the grotesque, and video about video that wasn’t about video, as in Paik. So the story was always a representation of itself, of the world, and of its place in the world.
Elvia Wilk: As both a video and an expansive online project, Wax and Waxweb could be presented in a variety of contexts in very different ways. What was the original or ideal context in which you hoped it would be experienced by viewers? How was it presented at transmediale?
It was always meant to be presented as something other than what it was. For instance, it was a video, but I transferred it to 16-milimeter to project in commercial cinemas, back when video was extremely rare at the movies. So it was a movie at one point, but then it was streamed across the internet. Then it was reconfigured into a non-time-based but networked form for Waxweb. At transmediale 1997 I spoke at a panel about the project, as well as a project I’ve been working on ever since Wax, which also incorporates both Wax and Waxweb, called The Telepathic Motion Picture of THE LOST TRIBES.
I’m just about to launch the first episodes of THE LOST TRIBES. This ostensibly has a television structure, with 26 seasons and 26 episodes per season, each 24 minutes long. But unlike regular television, it takes place in many places, all at once, like live television. Being about revisionist history, it also takes place in an indefinite number of contradictory parallel universes at once. It is video, yet is also an audio novel, with lots of black. I use the formal structures of the two previous projects—and some of the story/visuals, embedded in a much larger matrix—as a sort of machine to make THE LOST TRIBES, and yet this new project is also a making-machine. There is no ideal form for presentation. There is only the audience. Listeners, looking, or of course, the reverse: senders, thinking.
Trailer for the 26-season, 26-episode Telepathic Motion Picture of THE LOST TRIBES, which Blair has been working on since Wax.
Inke Arns: Wax fits perfectly into the current trend of so-called “neo-paganism” or esotericist approaches to technology. There will be several similar positions presented in the "alien matter" exhibition this year, such as Johannes Paul Raether and Suzanne Treister. What was your inspiration to connect technology with esoterics?
Well, I should be very clear that outside of the form and the particulars that riddle the movie or its other protoplasmic transfigurations, this is/was a secular project with secular, mainly ethical aspirations. That is not to deny that the project was eerily haunted by the future of the past or its reverse throughout the “making of” period… the coming of the first Gulf War, or, more plausibly, immediately after thousands of miles of travel provoked by the singular book found at the New York Public Library, meeting the descendants of the author of that book in their apartment down a long block from the Public Library, by utter coincidence.
There’s a reason churches and pagan structures are built for one to visit everywhere, including inside books, or things people eat… it is always useful to place the unknown of time and its synchronic structures periodically on the strata of synchoric space—many times coexisting in the same place—or among symbols on a page, or among all the moving pictures, so that we can technically mark the unknown where we are while we’re going there, in the middle of life or a story, even if that happens in reverse.
Lots of people in recent years have picked up the past of technology, or of media—for example, in media archaeology—and used the indecipherability of these past inventions and their mutable histories to retell and make visible the invisible machines that make our mental space-time. A magic lantern is a sort of pagan object, but there’s no pope.
Elvia Wilk: In 1993 the film was the first movie to be transmitted over the internet. How did you end up collaborating with Sun Microsystems, who enabled this? Could you speak to the central metaphor of the plot, the beekeeper’s relationship to the bees, in relation to how movie viewing has exploded online in the last decade, or to internet use more generally?
To be literal, the guy who ran the Amiga computer store in the East Village quit, got involved with high-speed internet, asked me if my movie could be the first movie on the internet, and then put Wax in a VHS machine connected to a Silicon Graphics machine connected to a T1 line connected to the mbone [a "multicast backbone” for carrying IP multicast traffic online in the 90s]. Posting about the event on David Farber’s Interesting People list made New York Times correspondent John Markoff go to Sun HQ, where he wrote up the transmission on his own as if they were involved, but they were actually just signed onto the session, watching the transmission with us.
Bees apparently make wax and then make accurate hexagons from it by standing a certain distance apart from each other. When I looked up bees in books at the library, there were an indefinite number of oxymoronic pairs of opposing metaphors drawn from these social relations… in seventeenth-century England, they were used to explain why the monarchy should be abolished, but also why it should be restored.
If, retrospectively, I am to make a connection between these two facts, I can only guess that I and others always stand a certain distance apart, in relations that lead both to endless transmission and contradictory reception of all kinds of images on all kinds of screens, mainly mental but made from plastic and metal, and that this must go on until communal thinking replaces all of this somehow, and all paradoxes are absorbed. I am told a quantum age will do this for us.
Inke Arns: Why are Jacob Maker’s bees a Mesopotamian breed? This obviously has special significance—could you expand on it?
In the 1970s and into the 80s, many things happened. For instance, the appearance of literal-minded Christian warriors around a president who, it seemed, had only ever been in the movies. In the 70s, friends of mine read The Late Great Planet Earth, a narrative prophecy that mapped biblical events both onto time’s endgame and onto specific places in the East. Most of those were in Israel, but then of course you have your older parts of the bible, more pagan as you might say, closer to the end of time… Mesopotamia.
The Mesopotamian bees in the movie are “television bees.” The existence of television requires one to become involved in all the problematic ethics of action at a distance. Taking television as a sort of trope, to make ethical sense inside the trope, you have to have two-way television; you not only have to have improbable transmission from but also improbable transmission to places that are far away. In the original versions of the story, back before the Gulf War, I created a two-way television between the military base in New Mexico and Basra, Iraq. Unfortunately, the reality of that television was closer than I imagined when I made my personal space-time imagining of what might be bad in America, which was simply based on what I guessed was all around, and not so far away—and though actually far away, turned out to be near.