Pencil sketch of the title for the film Evil Dead 2


Introductory Sketches:
Thinking, Reading,
and (perhaps)
Knowing the Dead


Content Warning: Mentions and discussion of
Death, the Atlantic Slave Trade, and Colonization


Watching The Sound of Music with my mother is a haphazard holiday tradition. Not something that we have carved in stone, but something that just ends up happening most years while I am visiting my family in December. Nestled in this habitual return to my perceived point of origin is an understanding that we “start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” This is a clean, simple idea that disintegrates almost immediately when I begin to write. Though it is arguably the most linear form of communication, the unfolding letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs rarely come as one, long, uninterrupted string of ideas. Much like the way I experience time and memory, writing comes in pools, sediments, and shards.

Pencil sketch of the title for the film Dead Boys

Live people ignore the strange and unusual. I myself am strange and unusual.

Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice (1988)
 

Pencil sketch of the title for the film Dead CalmPencil sketch of the title for the film Death in VenicePencil sketch of the title for the film Bring Out the Dead

In several small European towns, when the cemeteries have filled or some other infrastructural impediment has been identified, Mayors and other elected officials have made edicts outlawing death.




I spend a lot of time wondering why the Dead feel so remote, so unreal to the world I live in. Most of the representations of the Dead that I grew up on were spooky¹, scary², or bizarre reflections of the day to day existence of the living.³ They were essentially ghosts—abstract, shimmering, translucent women in moth-eaten wedding gowns or Dickensian orphans in pageboy hats and fingerless gloves. They had issues to be sorted out with the help of the living, mostly concerning their wrongful deaths, sometimes coded as unfinished business (who’s life’s business is ever truly finished?). In short, they were portrayed at worst as narrative devices and at best as inhabiting a parallel existence which intersects somehow with the distinct world of the living.

¹ The ghost of Christmases past in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992).
² Chucky in Child’s Play (1988) or Samara in The Ring (2002).
³ The afterlife in Beetlejuice (1988) or Rufus in Dogma (1999).
⁴ In my copy of Camera Lucida, in which Barthes posits this imperfect definition of history, I found a piece of marginalia I wrote when I first read the text in 2013 which says “Is the ‘future' past our own lives also part of this history? This not-birth time?”
⁵ On the morning of 9/11, I sat in front of a television that had been obstructed by a black plastic bag, as a teacher tapped news footage of the World Trade Centre collapsing. The administration at my Middle School had decided not to tell any of the students about the unfolding events, a duty they shoved down the line to our parents or some other force in the world. When I asked the teacher what was going on he refused to provide details, giving only the ominous prophecy that “History was made today” and that I would tell my children about what happened on that day. Sometimes I look down at the dogs I live with and wonder how I might tell them about the events of that day but, like the teachers. I am at a loss when it comes to an appropriate communication strategy—and so I will leave it in this footnote.

I need contact, like skin on skin, hand against the air, or smoke slipping across one’s lips and cheeks. I want to know a haptic relationship with the Dead, a handshake across time. A cross-dimensional glance or a good slow, spectral fucking.




When I look at photographs, I have an urge to imagine I am looking into the past but the longer I contemplate these images, the more I see them as time travellers that have been hurled into the future. In these moments (and so many others) I am awestruck by the capacity of people and their ideas to persist across time and to endure that vast, unforgiving ocean of not only days and years but centuries and millennia.




For me, crossing certain thresholds (of conceptions of “life” and “not life”) inevitably involves encounters with Death and the Dead, following Barthes’ assertion that history is “simply that time when we were not born[…].”⁴ Though I think this conception of history has its own cracks (I certainly know I have lived through and witnessed events one could elect into an understanding of “history” while I have been alive⁵), I take from it a deeply felt conundrum of connection. What methods are available for bridging such a divide, between what we call life and what we call Death? Is it possible? Who has tried and how have they succeeded?




What happens to consciousness when we sleep? Is it a slight return to the void from which consciousness emerges? From the soup of the cosmos, the soul, or the nothing that bookends life?




I have always heard darkness described as a lack of light but I have never heard light described as an absence of darkness. Teju Cole has posited that darkness is “information at rest.”




Entrance into life and exit from it are often important markers for power structures of capitalism and patriarchy. Birth is either the inheritance of wealth or the emergence of new bodies to labour and/or consume. These links, or repeats form chains across time—a rational forward-moving trajectory for time. A nice, clean idea but not the whole story. The bonds of Queer kinship move in unpredictable and idiosyncratic ways that are not determined by biological conceptions of family. Queer lives emerge from the fabric of cis-hetero patriarchy, a structure which has trouble dealing with an ontology beyond its own warp and weft. This oblique connection, for me forged through desire and shame, produces an urge to connect to a past that many of my immediate family cannot fully comprehend. What one often finds early in a search for history is the immense and looming spectre of the AIDS crisis, with its incalculable losses and incomprehensible grief. Fellow Queer Millennial writer Sam Moore described this condition in their long-form poem All my teachers died of AIDS thusly: 

[…] A break in the middle of what should be my
history, a black hole consuming
everything around it, refusing to let the light in, refusing to
acknowledge anything except the 
absence left in its wake.
 


⁶ I am still unable to proceed knowing these feelings are real. I couch my interest, desire, belief in the affect of the Dead in a speculative realm, rather than an experience I live in or through. I wonder if I am still ashamed of “believing in ghosts'' the way a child is scorned for believing in Santa for too long. When I hold a memorial CD single for Biggie or Diana I think about the chain of people whose lives moved through or with this object, back to the people who inspired them, the people who made them, and the person I was when I first encountered them. 




My interest in the past comes lashed to my interest in “the Dead” as both an imagined force in the world, a historical reality, and also a speculative population with whom I might connect. I often wonder what a world would look like in which the Dead have political and social representation? A friend once commented on my practice, noting that there is a vein of thought that runs through my work which attempts to reconcile my desire to befriend dead people with the various social, material, political, and philosophical factors which might inhibit this desire as an attainable goal, or even a worthwhile thought experiment.⁶

Pencil sketch of the title for the film The Quick and the Dead
Pencil sketch of the title for the film MDC

I am consistently enamoured with photography’s ability to be both portal and surface. It is an ever shifting manoeuvre of revelation and concealment. A camera moves bodies, both in front of the lens and behind it. A photographer moves through the world towards a subject. A subject is moved into the field of view or out of it, wishing to be photographed or trying to resist capture. I knew a man who would violently shake his head back and forth whenever a camera was pointed at him so that his face would always be blurred. I also know people who are drawn to the camera’s gaze—hoping to be pinned to the night, the party, the opening, or another person caught in view. 




In a project deeply entrenched in the irony and cynicism of post-modernity, Thom McCarthy had articulated a conceptual project which looks to literalize the space of the Dead. The International Necronautical Society is a fictional group of scholars directed by McCarthy which produced a number of texts, performances, and installations. The project was initiated by a manifesto printed in the The Times⁷ which laid out the main objectives of the society. Chief among their objectives was breaching the boundary between the living and the Dead (imagining the afterlife in spatial terms) and crossing into this other space, opening it up for travel, exploration, and eventual colonisation. I doubt that the more sinister implications of this project were lost on McCarthy⁸, but I always pause when encountering this work to consider the sovereignty of the Dead. What are their rights and who represents them? How do they represent themselves and what would it look like to live in a world where the Dead had political representation or could wield political power, both officially and unofficially?

A daily newspaper in London. Generally conservative and considered to be a newspaper of record with global circulation and a large print-run.
⁸ He always seems to love playing the villain in a kind of sad-boy Joker way. I feel like I understand some of his motivations and I respect his work but I wouldn’t want to meet him at a party. He seems like he might delight in making others uncomfortable in social situations, given his interest in and reverence for the megalomania of Italian Futurism.





The Plantatiocine (a combination of the words ‘plantation’ and ‘anthropocine’) is a conception of our current socio-economic and environmental epoch (coined by Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing) which looks at the Atlantic Slave Trade (AST) and the rise of the plantation as a key shift in colonialism which enabled rapid economic growth amongst European Colonial powers. This, in consort with industrialization and the rise of the European industrial class, was one of the driving forces behind Modernity. The economic stratification of Eurocentric culture and the immense wealth that continues to fuel our world was built on the trillions of dollars of labour extracted from enslaved Africans and Indigenous populations on Indigenous land over the 300 years of the AST. In considering how enslaved people were instrumentalized on stolen or swindled land for the benefit of remote European Colonial powers, theorists such as Heriette Gunkel and Ayesha Hameed have stressed the importance of considering the millions of people who were taken from Africa but did not survive the Middle Passage. Though all enslaved people would be worked to death or worked until they died (is such a distinction possible?) all of these lives and deaths need to be understood as enabling (and haunting) our current, manufactured climate catastrophe, with all of its associated comforts and horrors. This is one of the many ways we inhabit people’s afterlives. It is for this reason I consider the place of the Dead in my life and in my work not to dramatize this relationship with seances or other elaborate theatres of connection, but because they are already felt here and now, their lives tethered to my own across a divide that is both gaseous and solid, traversable but remote. It is an abstract, oblique connection that I look to chart.



  1. The ghost of Christmases past in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992).
  2. Chucky in Child’s Play (1988) or Samara in The Ring (2002).
  3. The afterlife in Beetlejuice (1988) or Rufus in Dogma (1999).
  4. In my copy of Camera Lucida, in which Barthes posits this imperfect definition of history, I found a piece of marginalia I wrote when I first read the text in 2013 which says “Is the ‘future' past our own lives also part of this history? This not-birth time?”
  5. On the morning of 9/11, I sat in front of a television that had been obstructed by a black plastic bag, as a teacher tapped news footage of the World Trade Centre collapsing. The administration at my Middle School had decided not to tell any of the students about the unfolding events, a duty they shoved down the line to our parents or some other force in the world. When I asked the teacher what was going on he refused to provide details, giving only the ominous prophecy that “History was made today” and that I would tell my children about what happened on that day. Sometimes I look down at the dogs I live with and wonder how I might tell them about the events of that day but, like the teachers. I am at a loss when it comes to an appropriate communication strategy—and so I will leave it in this footnote.
  6. I am still unable to proceed knowing these feelings are real. I couch my interest, desire, belief in the affect of the Dead in a speculative realm, rather than an experience I live in or through. I wonder if I am still ashamed of “believing in ghosts'' the way a child is scorned for believing in Santa for too long. When I hold a memorial CD single for Biggie or Diana I think about the chain of people whose lives moved through or with this object, back to the people who inspired them, the people who made them, and the person I was when I first encountered them.
  7.  A daily newspaper in London. Generally conservative and considered to be a newspaper of record with global circulation and a large print-run. 
  8. He always seems to love playing the villain in a kind of sad-boy Joker way. I feel like I understand some of his motivations and I respect his work but I wouldn’t want to meet him at a party. He seems like he might delight in making others uncomfortable in social situations, given his interest in and reverence for the megalomania of Italian Futurism.

Nic Wilson (he/they) is an artist and writer who was born in the Wolastoqiyik territory now known as Fredericton, NB in 1988. He graduated with a BFA from Mount Allison University, Mi’kmaq territory, in 2012, and an MFA from the University of Regina, Treaty Four Territory, in 2019 where he was a SSHRC graduate fellow. In 2021 they were long listed for the Sobey Art Award as a representative of the Prairies and the North. Fluent across media, Wilson creates videos, performances and artist books, and writes essays and art criticism.Their work often engages time, queer lineage, decay, and the distance between art practice and literature. Their writing has appeared in publications such as BlackFlash Magazine, Peripheral Review, and Border Crossings.