Undead and/or Dead Living: The New Social Category

by Jonathan Griffin

Mateo Tannatt on Zombies

Mateo Tannatt’s diverse artworks are hard to summarise in general terms. However, one frequent point of departure for the artist is the idea that public urban space – particularly corporate space – is a stage for involuntary performance by all those who use it. Tannatt has made installations, photographs, paintings and films; for the recent Performa 11 biennial in New York, he devised Pity City Ballet, a performance resembling a television talk show which took place in the lobby of the Saatchi & Saatchi headquarters in Manhattan. The following exchange, with the art critic Jonathan Griffin, developed over the weeks leading up to that performance. Griffin and Tannatt are both based in Los Angeles.


Dear Mateo

When we met the other day, you talked about your idea of ‘zombies as a social category’, invented by the filmmaker George Romero. I didn’t understand what you meant at first. I was still thinking of your body of work ‘Rendezvous vous’, and your 2010 exhibition at Marc Foxx Gallery, which was inspired by two homeless men who were inhabiting a nearby abandoned building. But then I realised that the zombies you were referring to are not so much the homeless as the people who voluntarily inhabit public space, whose lack of public inhibition gives them a certain assumed ownership that is intimidating, or disturbing, to the rest of us. (Isn’t it funny that the words ‘inhabit’ and ‘inhibit’ are so etymologically similar?)

Days later at my computer, I was watching, enthralled, as the London riots unfolded. One of my friends commented on Facebook that it was ‘like Shawn of the Dead out there’. (I guess Romero parodies are now more widely known than the originals.) And watching shaky footage of these scenes of people behaving absolutely without inhibition – smashing up buildings, hurling stuff at police who tried to stop them, taking what they wanted from shops, assaulting passers by, and so on – these really did look like hordes of possessed undead.

Soon after that I was looking on Youtube for footage of the LA riots in the ’90s, much of it filmed from news helicopters. In one famous shot, rioters dragged a driver from the cab of his truck and attacked him. The first comment I read underneath was ‘ZOMBIES!’ I realised that clearly we’ve internalised Romero’s social critique, if that’s what it is.

It made me think about what it is to ‘live’ in a city, to be alive and active and conscious, versus what it means to inhabit it, as an unconscious member of the undead. Many people might argue that the rioters were alive and thinking for the first time – that those of us who docilely move through the city streets like sheep are the real brain-dead ones. But I’m not sure. Despite all the valid reasons for protest and dissent (in both London and LA), I can’t help thinking that there is something so unthinking about that kind of behaviour – oblivious to the future, contemptuous of the past, and only concerned with atavistic desires in the present moment.

Can zombies be social in a new way? Or are they by definition anti-social? I can feel myself drifting into choppy waters. Romero is like the boat that is allowing me to go there – and I guess these emails might become the oars for me to paddle back! I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Hi Jonathan 

I think of the modern zombie genre as a form of social critique, a level zero of human consciousness that allows for a kind of theatre of cruelty to ensue. Class and social ranking are all undone in these films, creating obvious but disturbing scenes of anarchy and chaos.

It was Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead (1978) as opposed to his first zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968), that made, I think, the most critical impact on the genre. This was mainly because it was set in a shopping mall. When one character asks why ‘the dead’ would all choose to return to the mall, another answers: ‘Some kind of instinct. Memory? Of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.’

So zombies are unconscious participants in society; they may not know why they are doing things, but they still have a shared memory of cultural behaviors. If we were to think about the way zombies ‘dwell’ in society, in a Heideggerian sense, then maybe this is a good place to start. Obviously they’re not interested in building according to the sense of Bauern – ‘to cherish and protect, to preserve and care for, specifically to till the soil, to cultivate the vine’. Far from it. But as far as the idea of being (or dwelling) as a positive, active process goes, maybe the consuming zombie (or looting rioter) fits the bill. Being, for them, equals consuming – whether brains or Nike trainers. Romero’s joke is that this is what constitutes a good citizen in the late-Capitalist West.

In many ways, I get this feeling that ‘the dead’ (or zombies) in fact represent the problematics of history, or at least a history ignored, or perhaps a history just past, and therefore not yet known. ‘The dead’ are reacting to a social change or a traumatic event that has rendered them undead, and has made them come back to life to correct the situation ­– to conform to past traditions and social mores. They are the dead of the just past.

I think it was Lacan who said that a civilization could be understood by the way it deals with its dead, which leads me to think that we have stopped dealing with our dead in a very meaningful way. They haunt us, not as ghosts or souls without a home, but simply as corporeal vessels which need to eat the living in order to survive (though I am not sure if the undead can die again).

This leads me to think about our conflicted attitude to postmodernity, specifically the way that people don’t like to be described as postmodernist. When the Victoria and Albert Museum invited Frank Gehry to participate in their ‘Postmodernism’ exhibition, apparently he initially refused. The exhibition ends in 1990, despite the fact that the movement still flourishes, in certain respects. (In an undead form, maybe?) But at the same time, High 1980s PoMo aesthetics are so outdated now that they have become hip again, in an ironic way. Which is doubly ironic because postmodernism invented the idea of ironic retro. How can we be expected to look back at a movement whose products refuse to die, and which keep coming back to life, bigger and stronger than before?

Perhaps this is why a zombie-like dimension pervades in our current moment.

We are empowered by communication and ease of technology, but, for most of us, this very dependency is responsible for our neurotic sensation of being dead to the great sense of purpose and urgency that contributes to instances of social breakdown, such as the riots of London or Los Angeles.

Well the process of communication – rather than its content – becomes the urgent job, the purposeful activity. We might dwell online but most of us do not build anything there.

I have always been curious to know what activities would survive or would be invented in the absence of authority.

Isn’t the Internet a good case study for this? Perhaps we riot, fight, fuck and steal whatever we can in the virtual dimension already.

And what art works would survive social unrest? I’d suggest that those monolithic public sculptures that exist in urban public space might stand for a kind of zombiefied notion of dead or undead art ­– art that exists in the social sphere of public space but participates at a scale that is unsympathetic to the living.

Not just unsympathetic but oblivious – we are expected to accommodate this zombie art, but it doesn’t even notice us. But it’s not as aggressive as the classic Romero zombie – it doesn’t try to eat your brains. In fact most of it is not interested in your brain at all.

Could we not say that human zombies are actually antagonistic to these artwork zombies, and everything they represent?

The rioting in Los Angeles erupted from a terrible state of latent frustration and class division, basically awaking the ‘dead’ living sections of society. I think there may also be an interesting question about who gets to call whom a zombie, who considers themselves to be the most ‘alive’ social contributor.

That’s interesting. When Hollywood creates these social codes and interpretations, it’s actually people who live in gated homes secluded in leafy hillside canyons (to generalize about Hollywood’s topography) whose fear of ‘the rest’ of America expresses itself in forms such as horror films. The zombie derives from an essentially antisocietal perspective. I’m imagining of the terror with which people in the Hills must have watched the smoke rising from South Central in 1992.

The zombies in these films are rarely ever alone, and there is a relentless brutishness to the behavior that is part of group dynamics. Their strength is in numbers and their ability to spread their disease. I think ever since the riots I have had an anxiety of large groups. There is an unharnessed power to group psychology. Perhaps related to this one could think of the dwellings of fraternities and terrorist cells, for example, and how they operate.

There’s definitely something unnerving about being part of a large group of people in a public space. Mutual permissions are released for people to behave in ways that they never normally would. Maybe the hill-dwellers have it right after all: that real civilization comes from detachment, removal, self-containment.

Or returning to an earlier thought: perhaps zombies really do propose a new way of being truly social.

In film they exist as parodic reminders of what passes as civilized society, pointing out the great gaps and absurdities we have created for ourselves to exist in. In the comedy Shaun of the Dead (2004), Shaun is very slow to realize that he has woken to a new state of epidemic zombieism – at first his town seems perfectly normal. Although Romero’s genre is based on horror, there is room for dark comedy, as it points to the disconnect between individuals’ needs and society’s desires.

There are people who gather to walk through the streets in zombie make-up. Sometimes they do it as a protest, sometimes as a flash mob or performance art. Other times people dress as zombies from Michael Jackson’s 1983 video Thriller. These events only really became possible through the Internet, through online announcements and Youtube videos teaching participants the dance. Perhaps it is a fan phenomenon, but I suspect it has more to do with the thrill of coming together for a singular, shared purpose. The zombie experience is not that of the autonomous individual; the zombie itself only survives if it is able to consume its living other, desiring nothing less than the organ of reason and beauty – the brain.

Our bodies are the homes we dwell in, and unfortunately we cannot free ourselves from them. They grow, shrink, age and wrinkle. Perhaps this is at the root of the desire people have to become ‘the dead’. Zombie walks are a profound demonstration of the inescapable everyday experience of life. 

Michael Jackson played with his own image with a grand sense of humour, but he was also driven by a need to reveal his existential loneliness and isolation. In many ways, the Thriller zombie Michael became a reality as he himself became more and more of an abstraction. The contemporary zombie genre has similarly become an abstraction of the human comedy of errors. Zombies are not people; they are the inverse universes of life. We who are the walking living will never be able to attain freedom as a society until we can come to terms with our true reality of being the living dead.

First published: P.E.A.R., issue no. 4, ‘Dwelling’, December 2011