Intimacy of Death, Pt 2: Department of Ultimology interview

by Rosa Abbott | 6th November 2020

Department of Ultimology: Fiona Hallinan and Kate Strain. Photograph by Paula Alvarez.

What is dead or dying? This simple but complex question is a driving line of enquiry for the Department of Ultimology. A university department invented by artist Fiona Hallinan and curator Kate Strain, the Department of Ultimology is part research project, part artistic collaboration. By looking at what is dead or dying in different fields – or perhaps more pertinently at times, what should die – the project gets to the heart of many academic discliplines and reveals the ways in which knowledge-production is changing in the face of globalisation and dematerialisation. For the second installment of our two-parter on death and intimacy, I (Rosa) spoke to Fiona and Kate about their project, its approach and methodologies, and how their research has shifted their perspectives on death, intimacy, darkness, decolonisation, and our ongoing doom era.

Programme for the first in a series of Smoking Concerts (co-organised by Ella de Burca) in the smoking room of l’Archiduc, Brussels, 1st March 2019.

Rosa: What is ultimology and why is it valuable as a field of study?

Fiona: Ultimology can be defined as the study of endings, or that which is dead or dying. We first came across the term being used to speak about endangered languages, by a person called Ross Perlin, a writer who set up the Endangered Language Alliance in New York City. We thought that it was a really fascinating hypothetical subject – something that could and should be a real site of knowledge-production. We started to use ultimology as a project and then set up the Department of Ultimology in 2016. It’s kind of taken two strands, one is a kind of curatorial, artistic collaboration between us, then the other is a research project that I’m working on, going deeper into what it means to say the study of death or dying, and how that could be used in an educational context.

Kate: It’s valuable as a field of study because it manages to cut through the lingo of expertise very quickly. When we started, one of the first things we did was organise lots of interviews with different academics and researchers around Trinity College Dublin. We found that by asking the very simple question what’s dead or dying in your field of study or what’s ultimological in your practice we’d very quickly get to the root of a situation, where we didn’t have to understand all the technicalities around it. We could be speaking to an astrophysicist, a heart surgeon or a glass blower. In all of these cases, even though we don’t have the correct kind of terminology and knowledge around the subject, we were able to understand what was at stake and what they were talking about. So it was a very quick way to get to a certain depth of understanding within a subject, without having to be an expert in that field.

Registration table at the The First International Conference of Ultimology, 2016

Rosa: Although it is positioned as a “department”, as in a university, the Department of Ultimology bridges many disciplines and fields of research/study, making a line of enquiry through disciplines, rather than dividing them. Could you elaborate a bit on how the Department of Ultimology sits within – and extends beyond – the university ecosystem?

Fiona: I think when we began to work together, that was really part of what we wanted to ask. What is a department, and can we call ourselves a Department of Ultimology? And if we do, what do we need for that to happen? So the project from the beginning was about asking what’s dead and dying, but then it was also about asking, what if we wanted to set up a department that studied this – is that possible? Is this world of knowledge-production taking applications right now? We would always start by asking people, what do we need to become a department. And they would tell us, you need a student, you need a budget, you need a room. And so part of our project was this idea of digging in to the institution and getting those things, and then getting to a point where by saying we were a department we became a department. That’s, I think, a really important part of artistic practice, the idea of performativity and declaring something into being. And I think this way that we work between disciplines, it’s also something that you see all the time in artistic research and artistic writing. For us, really what we are doing is just bringing that into the context – not really asking to be part of the institution but just saying that we were.

Kate: At the same time, we were welcomed in a very official way by the CONNECT Centre for Future Networks and Communications, which is in the Engineering Department. They were really interested in what we wanted to do from the perspective of bringing critical response into the centre through artistic research.

Their work and research is based very much on developing networks that will impact the future, and they are home to a group of artists and researchers working critically called the Orthogonal Methods Group, which we became part of.

So they invited us in, they gave us a home, an office, and they helped us open some doors to legitimise us as a verifiable department within the university. I think one of the things that they always liked the idea of, was to critically reflect on the practice of engineering. That was not typically part of the engineering department, so this idea of critical reflection, which for us comes from the background of artistic research and practice, was quite easy to translate and apply in that context.

Andreas Kindler von Knobloch’s Slab Clay Workshop, 2017

Rosa: Your website lists some of the different methodologies you use, including “Digging”, “Embodiment” and “Performativity”. I’ve never heard of some of these – could you talk us through a couple of them, and how they shape your practice?

Kate: You have kind of a new methodology, Fiona, that you’re developing, that might be really interesting to talk about…about darkness.

Fiona: When we started working on the project, we really started with interviewing people. That was the starting point – get as many different people as you can and ask them what’s dead or dying in your field of vision. Out of that, we developed these methodologies.

One example was this idea of Embodiment. Learning in your body seemed to be something that was dying out across multiple different disciplines. One example was that there has always been a glassblowing lab in the Chemistry Department at Trinity, but the resident glassblower, John Kelly, was set to retire in two years and wouldn’t be replaced. We went to speak to him and he showed us how he made all the bespoke glassware for chemistry experiments. It was such a physical and sensational experience. He’s really there making the glassware.  That practice is now going to be shipped out to an external supplier, and they’ll get standard glassware rather than this bespoke glassware. We started to notice that this was a common theme – a lot of physical workshops were being closed in the University and a lot more immaterial practices being brought in. So how do we mark the demise of the glassblowing lab? We don’t want to make a document to memorialise it and further end it in a way. What we thought could be interesting, would be if we learnt, ourselves, to be glassblowers. If we embodied glassblowing, or we taught a glassblowing class. So then we started to think our classes should involve the body, to bring that into it.

For one of the workshops that we had in CONNECT, we brought in the artist Andreas Kindler von Knobloch to do a clay-making workshop. We recognised, through conversations with engineers, issues around the attention economy and addiction to technology. So Andreas suggested making this clay object that would help people to distract themselves from their mobile phones. Then we had an actual workshop where people made it. In making that workshop, then you kind of continue the conversation about this thing that’s dying out. So that’s how our initial methodologies developed.

Then Kate mentioned working with darkness. That’s something that’s come out of my PhD research. I wanted to kind of investigate what we mean when we say something is dead or dying, so I started this reading group, On Death. We try to look at different material about death from across different disciplines, geographies, times and cultural traditions. Similarly to how we developed our methodologies from the interviews, I’m trying to develop a new set of methodologies out of this reading group about death. So – mapping different ways in which humans have dealt with death in places and times. The idea of burial; of clay, as a really common, tactile approach to dealing with death; timing; storytelling. One of those themes and processes is darkness. Bringing it back to the interview process, I’m suggesting that we bring darkness into interviews with people.

So for example, there’s an interview technique that I’m hoping to work called the ‘moment technique’. This was developed by a radio documentary maker called Stephen Schwartz who, in the 70s, made a documentary about a night watchman who would work alone in an Anatomic Institute. Schwartz wanted the interview to evoke the feelings of this person who worked alone as a night guard in this institute, looking at skeletons and bones and dead bodies. He couldn’t interview on-site, and he found when he was interviewing the guard he just wasn’t getting a sense of the place. So Schwartz asked him to lie on his back in a dark room, he lit a candle by his head and he told him to take some deep breaths and said, “I want you to describe the place like you’re there now. Not your memory of the past – tell me what you see when you walk into the room.” The guard started to speak and the resulting interview was amazing at evoking the atmosphere of the place; it went on to win lots of awards. So I’ve been really interested in how darkness could be used, and how the context of the interview – how all of these things impact on how knowledge is produced and how memory is produced and how records and documents are produced.

So darkness now becomes this other methodology. Throughout the PhD, I’m going to try and see if I can pick out other aspects of how we treat the dead and then use that to establish other methodologies for producing knowledge or for making ultimology real.

Kate: I think the reason you hadn’t heard of some of the methodologies before is that we made them up – they became ways for us to understand our practice. Also, for what we might ordinarily see as artistic or creative practice, [it can be helpful] to put a really specific term on it so that people not initiated in the practices of contemporary art could identify what we were doing or trying to do.

From Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, Stages: On Dying, Working and Feeling, discussed in On Death reading group session VI. Image courtesy the author and Thick Press.

Rosa: This interview is published as part of a two-part series titled “Intimacy of Death”. I wonder if you have any research or projects you could talk about that explore the relationship between death and intimacy?

Kate: There’s one that’s really relevant, and it came up during one of the On Death reading groups we did with a writer and playwright called Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. She had just launched a book called Stages: On Dying, Working, and Feeling, that we put under the microscope as part of this specific reading group, dealing with ideas of care and institutionalised care. Rachel was writer-in-residence for a whole swathe of time in an elderly person’s home, specifically for people who are coming to the end of their life. She set up a drama group in this situation and the book is all about her responses and feedback, and general observations on the different approaches that the residents had to her practice and what she was trying to share with them. Like, their reasons for being there – they were bored, or they had nowhere else to be. And then really beautiful observations like, actually for none of these people did their career matter at all towards the end. The only thing that mattered was that they were able to have a sense of humour. Or that they were able to make conversation with one another. And so she thinks really about the basic human condition and what that feels like, getting towards the end, and how that’s dealt with.

Rachel really focused on the staff of the institution, and how the staff either were or weren’t equipped to deal with the residents dying on a regular basis. It was a very interesting interrogation into the practices of care and how they’re institutionalised or not, and how they’re facilitated or not. One of the things she found was that if the staff had been given more resources or time off to deal with moments of mourning it might have been easier. And then a really interesting response we had to that, as part of the reading group, came from a totally different geographic location, so coming from a more European – specifically Irish – point of view, refuting her more American perspective, saying that actually maybe the care should be institutionalised, and the emotional response should be coming from the families more so than the staff. And so it was a really interesting opening up of her book and her thoughts, and her interrogation of what she was looking at in these rightly intimate moments of actual death and that being part of your livelihood – that being a thing that you see every day as part of your job. I think her research into that was really interesting.

It was published with a publisher called Thick Press, who specialise in books about care, institutionality, justice, community and intimacy. They have a really nice book out at the moment on care and intimacy called selfcarefully by Gracy Obuchowicz.

Rosa: Can you talk about the relationship between ultimology and decolonisation? There was an interesting segment in your radio essay, relating to a statue of Leopold II in Brussels… and obviously this year there’s been so much talk about statues and monuments and their place, the destruction of them or not… What can ultimology bring to the decolonisation struggle? How can it be used?

Fiona: I think it’s such an important subject at the moment, and something that I think we’d like to add to. I think what we could bring to this, or develop with the conversation around decolonisation, is how to bring about these conversations of grieving endings, mourning endings, or inducing endings that should happen. How we could bring about rituals of passing things on. Things need to be gotten rid of, for sure. That’s something that we’re talking increasingly about.

At the beginning, we asked people questions about “what do you see as dead or dying”. Then in 2017, we had an event called a Research Purge at CONNECT. The idea was that people brought up subjects or things that they thought should die. Having conversations around that is so urgent right now. We need to constantly question the curricula of knowledge production. Why do we learn this story and not that story? And that’s all part of decolonisation as well.

I just saw today that the artist we interviewed in the radio essay, Laura Nsengiyumva, is now part of this decolonisation working group in Brussels, with experts that have been brought together to talk about decolonisation . It’s such a huge topic where I am in Brussels, there’s so many streets that are named after figures of colonisation, and statues of Leopold II. So I was really pleased to see that Laura was involved with that.

The project you mentioned is one that we really wanted to put in the radio essay for people to hear about – making the statue of Leopold II in ice and then watching it melt. She talks about how it was done over an all-night exhibition in the city and she talks about children playing in the water after it melted. I thought it was so wonderful as an artwork, to think about this idea of regeneration – that when something falls, it’s not just an ending, it’s also another thing that takes its place and we can decide what that is.

I also just happened to find this really amazing project by Nicholas Mirzoeff called All Monuments Must Fall. It’s a syllabus about the idea of making monuments fall – which I thought was a really useful and important resource. Obviously a lot of people are actively working on this subject, where we could facilitate perhaps is in the development of rituals or processes around things passing on-and making that passing visible, discursive, collective and reflective.

Rosa: We keep hearing the era that we live in described as “end times”, a rhetoric perhaps first popularised in the aftermath of the political ruptures of 2016 (Brexit, Trump) and reaching a critical mass with Covid-19 this year. Department of Ultimology was first founded in 2016, so is contemporaneous to this “doom” era! How has your involvement with the project been shaped by the events of the last four years? Has it caused you to reflect upon our apparent fixation on our own demise?

Fiona: Beyond the project, just as a person, I’m almost more surprised by the denial of things that goes on. Strictly talking about the environmental crisis, I consider myself concerned with that, I read about it, I follow it, I post about it and I do things… but then sometimes I just totally don’t or can’t think about it. Like, I’m not making enough of an effort or a plan. It feels like there are so many endings upon us and apocalyptic thought, the idea of the billionaires building their bunkers in New Zealand… but at the same time, I feel like there’s a real collective denial. Perhaps this is to do with the feeling of responsibility that shapeshifts – we see so much that frames saving the world around individual choices when really the issues we face: environmental crises, pandemic, populism, racism, inequality are things that have to be dealt with collectively, and through systemic change. They can’t be fixed by posting a certain image or buying a certain product, or indeed by isolation and denial. What do you think, Kate?

Kate: I think that since starting Ultimology, I’ve maybe moved further away from a feeling of being proximate to death or the end. I’ve moved in a direction that feels more cyclical, and it feels more recurring. Every generation has its own apocalypse – you see it in every facet of every type of literature, every kind of record of human history. But I think I see it more as a process. Rather than “end times”, it’s more like, processual contingencies, or the continuation of things in other guises. And I think that the project overall has pushed me to consider time differently, and then pushed me to consider my own mortality with less urgency and less fear.

Fiona: I really love what you’re saying, Kate, about the cycle, and I think that makes so much sense. It comes up a lot in the reading as well. There’s this incredible cultural history book that I’ve been reading called The Work of the Dead [by Thomas W. Lacquer], that we looked at in the last reading group. A few times in that, it mentions this epicurean philosophy belief on death which is that, you don’t need to fear it because it’s exactly the same as before birth. So basically you’ve already been dead, and you’re just going back to where you were. I found it incredibly reassuring when I think about it.

Speaking in terms of cycles and apocalyptic thinking though, a really important thing we’ve come across is the point that people really have been here before, have had to witness their worlds dying and go on living. There’s a very interesting book by the author Mark O’Connell called Notes From an Apocalypse and in it he goes to New Zealand and investigates very wealthy people who are planning to escape there if things get really bad. He comes across this book from 1997 that is influential in the thinking of some of these tech billionaire transhumanists, called The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State. This book from the 90s predicts bitcoin: talking about the nation state as something corrupt (because it takes taxes from wealthy individuals) and on the brink of collapsing and becoming obsolete because the internet will allow new currencies to emerge, allowing a new class of “cognitive elite” to emerge as a separate class, building new city states in untapped places (like New Zealand), existing physically in same place as ordinary people but politically different realm. If you think about it, this sounds a lot like colonial thinking. And you have to reflect that people have experienced this before – colonised people, indigineous people, Black people, have seen their worlds destroyed by what is a utopian plan that destroys at all costs by another group – of usually white people. So I think it’s imperative to look to those narratives, highlight them, learn from them, recognise the devastation in them to see if we can learn from them. By the way, the book The Sovereign Individual was co-written by William Rees-Mogg, the father of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative pro-Brexiter.

Can you tell us a little about your ongoing project Survey of Risk? I’m aware it’s likely too early to disclose any findings, but perhaps you could elaborate on the rationale behind it. And to turn the survey’s questions back on you guys, what is at risk? What should we leave behind?

Kate: I’ve been actually filling out my answers to that survey almost monthly since we put it up. Just to see, because I feel like they change all the time, and it’s interesting to try to track that, my own thought fluctuations. But that survey came about really as a very responsive in-the-moment thing, when Covid came into light and the lockdown was starting. Fiona and I had a conversation about what was at risk, or how we felt like we could capture this moment of potential change, and how – through this very easy, very light-touch questionnaire – we felt we could capture a moment, like a little snapshot in time. I was surprised how useful I still find it, to think about on a daily basis.

Fiona: We didn’t have a specific audience in mind to make the record, and then we also wanted, in a way, to take the pulse of people. One thing we talked about a lot was anonymity. We decided to make it anonymous. And then I also… I always had found questionnaires strangely soothing. [laughs] I remember doing therapy where they’d give you a questionnaire at the start and it was so nice to do it. So I think that doing questionnaires in itself can be this kind of practice that’s meditative and therapeutic and I felt like people really needed that. We felt it would be worthwhile to do, even if we never do anything with the results. But because it’s anonymous, I think we could and should do something with the results.

Next projects:

On Death reading group (ongoing)

A talk on Darkness for conference on Endings, details TBA

Research residency at the Kunstencentrum Vooruit April 2021, marking end of the Majolica canteen lunchroom for artists and the internal team.

Liquid explores expressions of intimacy in the private and public realms, in our digital and offline lives.