Palimpsest Portraits

Neil Fried and Monica Duncan

jenny still

Palimpsests, the precursors to paper, are ancient parchments of animal skin upon which images and other forms of discourse were recorded and then rubbed away to make room for new information. Thanks in large part to advances in laser technologies, palimpsests have become “time capsules,” tomes of information that can be procured much in the same way that rubbing a pencil over erased text can reveal what was previously hidden.

We are all, in a way, palimpsests: creatures whose capacity to remember is constantly challenged by our propensity, if not desire, to forget. Some parts of our lives—people or places we have known, for example—are eclipsed or rubbed out by new events. Other elements are found to be much more tenacious no matter how hard we rub.

In giving an account of ourselves by using methods of performed portraiture in creating characters both us and not us, we are exploring notions of the ‘self as performance’, and possibly in the process, giving birth to ancestors waiting to be born in the stories we must tell.


Two essential processes are employed in making these portraits. ‘Encaustic Video’ is our term for real-time computer processing that “siphons off” portions of the video stream into a reservoir from which it is reintroduced to the live video feed. The two streams of video—that being captured in real-time and that from the reservoir interact according to luminosity parameters resulting in fades, fixes, and combinations. In this “hot wax”, skin, clothing, background, etc. interact in real-time leaving transfigured deposits according to their reflective values. Like the palimpsests of old, some areas must be rubbed out to admit the new, though they are never totally lost. Secondly, the performer is coached to find some element of self to explore—a wild hair, a previous career desire, a deep secret—then name it and write and record the narrative.


These portraits (and others in progress) represent the first phase of our project where traces of character and elements of place collide as community, in this case, in an art gallery. Their proximity to each other is both intriguing and problematic: how do they know each, do they fight, are any of them lovers?

Portrait creation will continue, but in of the next phase of the project characters will collaborate and improvise to find their relations; to grow a common history; to fabricate a virtual community that will be both Atlanta but also an impossible otherness of place, an invisible city at once familiar and strange–a collision of geology and genealogy.

The final phase will combine live performance with video projections in long-form, site specific installations that will point to how we construct ourselves in our social community and physical surrounds. The patterns of space and architecture transcribed though story and movement, processed to mimic memory; memory set out to play with fabrications of other pasts; lies that lead reality back to the archetypal—we will play with what is live and what is recorded.

Neil Fried/Monica Duncan


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