Broken H: External Hard Disk Drive

On Extensions of the Heart, Cuts in Time and the Uncertainty Principle

by Julia Sjölin

For the girl, for all the immaterial girls

I know this text, almost by heart. Because it has appeared to me during the past year and a half, in life. I previously wrote a note; Take the text from life. Write down what has been said and things that have happened. Extract some sort of continuity from the ever-changing movement.

I am making a new document with drawings sketched in words. Intertwined lines, laid bare. Reality noted down, delineated, developed, and folded. There are various episodes I want to describe. A couple of points that are of importance. You could say that this text is about laying out points in time. Arranging the points into lines, forming a net. In this network intricate layouts are unfolding.

An episode I call the butterfly took place when I was eleven years old, a recurring scene between a friend and I. Me lying on my belly with her sitting on my butt, dipping a watercolour pencil in a glass of water and carefully drawing across my back. Wings. I remember well the gentle touches of soft moist paint, goosebumps following the scratches of the pencil’s wooden tip, eyes closed in concentration.

 “Days start to skew slightly; we open to accident, although touching an animal
differs from feeling vibrations of its spirit or thinking of it.

Not as moths for example, meld light and thought.”1

The wings of the Albulina metallica butterfly refract sunlight, giving it a metallic luminescent sheen, changing its colour in a split second. Scientists these days are trying to mimic the structure of butterfly wing architecture because refracting light the way they do can among other things be used to harvest and store solar energy. The photonic nanostructure of Calloprhys rubi butterfly wings are a possible model for developing faster optical computer systems that can transmit information at light speed. “Bio-inspired replication into man-made functional materials guarantees enhancement of characteristics and performance.”2

In my video work Broken H: External Hard Disk Drive (2021), Clara’s fingers mark Camilla's back and arms as if to trace the attachments of wings, suggesting the potential to grow a pair or the remnants of a pair lost. The wing as a sign, and as a fluttering movement away from the body, towards the light.

Animula, the little wandering, hesitant soul, like the butterfly released from its chrysalis, though well aware of not being appropriable by the individual closed on themselves, it lets itself slip from a geometrically-developed universe, combining the atom, in its unpresentable and sensual materiality, to fluidly-moving gears and dynamic tension. This privileged association of the particle and the field is the juncture that the Greeks called harmonia; it is the interface between the soul and the material. The fragrant flat notes of fluids, the smells dear to Fourier, the tones of Harmony, project the atomic soul to the interstellar level of galactic empires, animating the icy course of celestial bodies, lodging it in the tiniest pores of our skin.”3

In their book Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007), Karen Barad explains how quantum physics can be used to see everything’s entanglement in an ever-changing motion as “time and space, like matter and meaning, come into existence, are iteratively reconfigured through each intra-action, thereby making it impossible to differentiate in any absolute sense between creation and renewal, beginning and returning, continuity and discontinuity, here and there, past and future.”4 Through double-slit experiments they explain that matter, like light, has wave-like properties; waves and particles behave differently depending on the instruments measuring them. The intention behind a question determines the answer, even in physics. Light and particles behave the same way, differently. As hold and withhold are both same and opposite.

Julia Sjölin, Broken H: External Hard Disk Drive, 2021. 2K video, sound, aspect ratio: 192:265, duration: 14:57 min. With Camilla Isola and Clara Sjölin. Film still.

A year passes, we are spinning another round. Traces and particles have been left hanging in the air since the last time we were here. The globe is dragging threads through space, forming knots that hurt if not combed out. Through the mouth and through the words, the hair of the heart is combed. The year of the heart continues. The hair of the heart extends to the holes, in the lungs and in the ears. The bubbles inside the lungs burst and the air escapes.

During a train ride one and a half years ago, my external hard disk drive fell off the table in front of me and broke. I opened the lid to carefully dislodge the metal arm stuck to one of the spinning disks. It is very important that an operation like this is carried out without dust getting into the sensitive technology. After my third attempt to mend it the hard drive began to beep even louder and in a closer interval. I gave up. I could not fix the drive, nor could I restore the material written on it. I opened up the lid one last time to film the circular spinning platter, and in that moment the hard drive, instead of carrying my digital material, became an image in my video Broken H: External Hard Disk Drive, conceptually tying together the entire work.

Information stored on a hard disk drive is encoded and decoded using electricity and magnetism. The actuator arm sweeps over the spinning disks while the head on the tip of the arm writes and reads the ones and zeros converted into bits. These bits are then formed into text, sounds and images for us to sense. I transcribed and re-recorded a YouTube video5 about how a hard drive works as a soundtrack for Broken H: External Hard Disk Drive. In my video, the instruction is torn from its context and abstracted. Arm and head no longer refer to the mechanics of the hard disk but to the human beings shown in frame. The body is merged with the technology, because the heart is no longer like a pump; it is a pump.

I remember I told her I am falling in love, I am falling still. Time broke and was extended. With my arms outstretched in an arc, everything is falling from my hands. Certain points are decisive for all time, like something falling from the edge of a table on a train. A cut in time. It is in the fraction of the body, in the cuts in time, that it is appearing; cinematic flowers, hair clips, hairpins—forget-me-not.

“I felt it as if it were invisible threads between us. I felt as if invisible threads from her hair still twisted themselves around me. And when she completely disappeared there over the ocean, then I felt still, how it hurt where my heart bled, because the threads could not be broken.”6

To Edvard Munch’s folder of graphics Alpha and Omega (1908–9) an accompanying poem describes Omega and Alpha as lovers and the only humans to inhabit an island. As the creation story unfolds, Alpha discovers that Omega initiates erotic relationships with the animals inhibiting the island, caressing their fur and teeth. Munch describes how Omega’s eyes shift, changing from light blue to black with splashes of crimson red when she beholds her lovers. The illustration titled Omega’s Eyes shows Omega with a flower stalk in her mouth as she is filled with her own appetite. Omega is feeding on the flower backwards in desperation to still her insatiable desire. Bored and frustrated to not be able to possess all of the animals, Omega leaves the island riding on a fallow deer towards the moon. Left with the semi-humans Omega gave birth to, Alpha mourns her, but when she returns, his anger overtakes him and he beats her to death at the water’s edge. Alpha sees the expression in Omega’s dead face and to his horror she looks exactly like she did when he loved her the most.7

The ballet dancer Marie van Goethem modelled for Edgar Degas as he made his sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen(1882). The original sculpture was in wax complete with a tulle skirt, bodice, shoes and wig of real hair. It was presented at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris and caused a scandal, never to be displayed again in his lifetime. The reason being both its subject matter; showing a plain girl, and its material; the sculpture was modelled in wax and clay, materials at the time used for sketches and not finished works of art. Degas, who often depicted ballet dancers, was aware of the precarious working conditions in which they operated with most of the Paris Opera dancers exchanging sexual services for rent and clothing. He wanted to be called a realist and was not interested in the spectacle on stage, but instead in the scenes taking place backstage, during rehearsals and in the Foyer de la danse, the room where paying men had access to the dancers during their warm-up. Despite his knowledge of the ballerinas’ vulnerable situation, Degas himself called them “his monkey girls,” and wanted to depict them raw and in pain. He confessed later in life, “I have perhaps too often considered woman as an animal” and “women can never forgive me; they hate me, they can feel that I am disarming them. I show them without their coquetry, in the state of animals cleaning themselves.”8 It was when Degas began to lose his sight that he switched from pastel to working in wax, as he called it; the medium of the blind. His worsening eyesight enabled him only to see “around the spot at which he was looking and never the spot itself”9, forcing him to shift from seeing to feeling.

Julia Sjölin, Broken H: External Hard Disk Drive, 2021. 2K video, sound, aspect ratio: 192:265, duration: 14:57 min. With Camilla Isola and Clara Sjölin. Film stills.

In Marcel Duchamp’s Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas (1946–66), the viewer experiences a deconstructed painting. The work, with a nude female figure visible through two peepholes, appears as a view seen through a camera before the photograph is taken. In the work one sees the becoming of a picture; it is the picture-making apparatus laid bare. The viewer’s eye is a naked eye in front of the naked object. The body is modelled after Duchamp’s girlfriend Maria Martins, the arm after his wife Alexia Duchamp. As Jean-François Lyotard writes in Duchamps TRANS/formers about Given:

“The device would be specular (and no longer ‘mirrorish’). The plane of the breach would be that of a picture that would cut the visive pyramids that have as their summits the voyeur’s holes. In an organization of this type, the viewing point and the vanishing point are symmetrical: If it is true that the latter is the vulva, then the vulva is the specular image of the voyeur-eyes; or: When these eyes think they see the vulva, they are seeing themselves. A cunt is he who sees [emphasis added].”10

In his dissection of the viewer/object position, Duchamp separates the female body from the illuminating gas and the waterfall, disconnecting the driving force, portraying the bride dead, displaying perfectly what a modern-day beheading looks like. In the figure of the girl, a brutality and a truth emerge. Because Duchamp/Degas/Munch continued to look and penetrate the girl with their gaze, they were able to express a condition that characterises our existence. The figure of the girl becomes conceptually dissected, her body cut open and mechanically displayed in search for the electrical sparks. It is through the fascination of the girl’s erratic desire, and the frustration the impossibility to control it provokes, that this world is spinning. It is in the appetite and the appetite’s relationship to the figure that she is constantly measured and valued, still.

I wonder, can everything be written down? Life unfolds in letters. In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle is called h, after Heisenberg. It is the principle that is constantly imprecise, that asserts a particle’s position and momentum as unpredictable. My hard disk broke, but like the cracks in Marcel Duchamp’s glass The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23), the accident made the work. Duchamp’s work, also known as The Large Glass, separates the Bride’s domain and the Bachelors’ domain by three layers of glass. The subject, which is simultaneously figurative and abstract, resembles a technical blueprint for a machine. In the apparatus, in the dynamic arising from the sparks of the magneto-desire and the artificial sparks produced by the electric stripping, the bride undergoes her cinematic blossoming.11 By using colours in grey and brown and dust, and by plotting out the parts of the machine in the linear perspective that we have grown accustomed to, Duchamp makes the motif of the glass almost invisible to our eyes. Rather than presenting a picture to the retina, he seeks to stimulate the grey matter: interpretation. “What the viewer sees on the Glass is the eye and even the brain in the process of composing its objects (…).”12 It was not until after the glass cracked during transportation back from its first exhibition that Duchamp considered the work to be complete, although given its emphasis on the interpretive process, it is in a sense never truly finished.

The position of Camilla’s body in the video Broken H: External Hard Disk Drive is taken from Alexander Adolph Weinman's neoclassical sculpture Descending Night (1915), modeled after the actress Audrey Munson. The figure is hunching with her wings spread out and her fingers gently touching her forehead. Her body expresses a heaviness as if she just gave in to gravity to touch the ground. Visitors to the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 saw Audrey Munson’s figure “ninety times repeated against the sky as she modelled for three-fifths of the sculpted works shown in the exhibition. After a suicide attempt and accusations of having inspired a man to murder his wife, Munson lived the rest of her life in a psychiatric clinic.13

“What becomes of the artists’ models? I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, ‘Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful?’”14

In Descending Night, the female figure is the symbol of darkness; she is the backside of the orb, in the shadow of the sun. Here, the female figure is the female body as negation, the absence of light, gazing inward. Inside this enlightened darkness there is cruel precision, eyes sharp as knives are cutting through the tissue. The bride descends through the layers of glass, because the girl inside her knows, and through her clear sight she rises sleeping to waking, breaking the virgin eyes made of glass.15

Awakened, naked, with a skinless heart. The mechanics of the heart operate with hooks of iron, clutching gently at first in a pleasurable embrace, later tightening their grip. The iron hooks holding my heart were dragged out for months, an operation which led to its current skinlessness. I woke up in the middle of the night to her voice saying swim to me. I sent back a text with a symbol, a tired heart shaped as an exclamation mark.

Julia Sjölin, Broken H: External Hard Disk Drive, 2021. 2K video, sound, aspect ratio: 192:265, duration: 14:57 min. With Camilla Isola and Clara Sjölin. Film still.

For me, the letter h is her, is time. During the recording of Broken H: External Hard Disk Drive I suddenly saw the tattoo in the fold of Camilla’s arm; H. Another coincidence; behind the performers, on the white wall, outlines of hands are drawn. I got my first tattoo a few months ago as a note to remember and as a call for action. The needle puncturing the skin on my right hand’s fingers, one dot at a time, forming lines, forming letters, forming one single word; LOVE.

A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner’s sociosexual video Community Action Center (2010) is a womxn-centric homage to gay pornographic films and tropes. By showing explicit sex between friends in a community built on collaboration and art it plays with the expectation and roles we perform in sex and in life. It shows sexual images of sexual bodies, and despite sometimes showing violent sex, the work becomes a safe place devoid of sexual violence. As Litia Perta writes in the accompanying zine; “this way refuses shortcuts. Here play is central, the catalyst to change, and trust essential. It is trust that constitutes this work, trust between the actors, but also trust in the person behind the camera—the camera is integral to the sexual act, the image is as close as a tongue.”16 In this work, visibility, the explicit, is pure light—braid my body, open my soul. It is with hairs that we, like cats, are sensitive to the world. Licking is larger than mouths, boots than feet.17

Ellen Cantor first impressed me with her film Pinochet Porn (2008–16). The film is a fictional story about five siblings growing up under Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile and is woven together with Cantor’s own experiences of love, sexuality, and friendship. Narrated as a telenovela, the work is based on her series of 82 drawings titled Circus Lives from Hell (2004). Cantor worked on the film for the last five years of her life, and it was completed by her friends and collaborators posthumously after her death in 2013, following her instructions. In the light of the film, her pencil drawings become documents showing the stages from experience to a work of art. Her point of view runs through her hands, becoming thin lines, figures, as she draws and sketches a body, of work, separate from but closely intertwined with her own. A script formed as delicate drawings, made to film, becomes a work so close to the lived life it becomes life. In Cantor’s work, the pain and the joy of the girl appear. She ages but continues to be a girl, layered. On the same stage as the girl, but under a different spotlight stands the figure of the woman. For the girl, the figure of the woman awaits far away, over there, at another time. But inside the woman a girl resides. I am sketching the line separating and connecting these figures, between the past and the present. Is this blurry line puberty, is it the sexual drive, question mark. Erase. The erased line holds two truths; the girl is sexual, and she is painfully sexualised.

The mother and daughter, both named Edith Baele, depicted in the documentary film Grey Gardens (1975) by Albert and David Maysles, oppose the linear development of girl to woman by returning to girlhood. Falling from New York high society into poverty, without money but with a mansion falling into decay, they exited their rigid social circles and entered a state of absolute play that transcended age and their roles as mother and daughter. Together their relationship grew into another form of intimacy, as wild as the garden surrounding their house, growing from within. They entered the state of the girl without end. Re-enacting old dramas and the social roles from their previous life, their existence plays out in imagination and memory with the house falling apart as their stage. Amidst dust and dirt they show how embracing the inner girl can be a refusal of societal norms, that doing so is an ever-present possibility residing within, and that girlhood is a grey matter.

The grey matter in the spinal cord is shaped like an H or a butterfly. The butterfly-shaped hair clip in Broken H: External Hard Disk Drive clings to the electrical cord running to the lamp, and the lamp is turned on. I previously wrote that I know this text, almost by heart. Because it has appeared to me for a year and a half, in life. Today I see I have been working on this text for several more years, and I still do not know the girl. I do not know the girl because she is uncertainty, but through my work I am becoming her, again, continuously.

Julia Sjölin, Broken H: External Hard Disk Drive, 2021. 2K video, sound, aspect ratio: 192:265, duration: 14:57 min. With Camilla Isola and Clara Sjölin. Installation view, HEART CUTS CONNECT, Udstillingsstedet Q, Copenhagen, 2022.

Back to the heart, and the operation of it. In Broken H: External Hard Disk Drive, the image is eventually breaking apart. The two takes of Clara and Camilla’s improvisation are played back side by side. After some minutes, the reduction of light and the heightened contrast fade out the cut between the two takes. The effects of the editing software blur the separating line in the motif and the performers’ bodies merge into non-light, leaving a hole in the projection. By diving into and beyond the image, the source from which the light is emanating becomes visible. This is where contours dissolve.

Love enters the body as a smell, breaking in through the nose. Electric lines are drawn between our eyes. My pussy is so heavy I cannot walk. A black viscous fluid lives in the heart. It is gross and it hurts. Birds are born in anger. A motorcycle is heard driving off at a distance. Run over my skin, through here, you evol force.

Julia Sjölin (b. 1992, Skellefteå, Sweden) is a visual artist working in Berlin and Stockholm. She holds an MFA from Malmö Art Academy (2020) and a BFA from Umeå Academy of Fine Arts (2018).

1 Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, “Animal Voices,” Hello, the Roses (New York: New Directions, 2013).
2 Maurice I Osotsi, “Butterfly wing architectures inspire sensor and energy applications,” National Science Review, vol. 8, 3, March 2021, https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nwaa107.
3 Guy Hocquenghem and René Schérer, L’Âme Atomique: For an Aesthetic of the Nuclear Era, 1986.
4 Karen Barad, “Preface and Acknowledgements,” Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham & London; Duke University Press, 2007).
5 “How a Hard Disk Drive Works,” YouTube video, published by Seagate Technology, July 25 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtPc0jI21i0&t=257s.
6 Edvard Munch quoted from his diary in Edvard Munch, Peter Watkins, 1974.
7 Edvard Munch, Alfa og Omega, MM UT 32, The Munch Museum. Published text. https://emunch.no/HYBRIDNo-MM_UT0032.xhtml.
8 Christopher P. Jones, “Degas’ Art and his Complex Relationship to Women,” Medium, 18 Jan 2022https://medium.com/thinksheet/the-misogynist-artist-who-was-obsessed-with-women-3bacb9003a0a.
9 A’Dora Phillips, “Edgar Degas’ correspondence,” April 17 2016, The Vision & Art Project, https://visionandartproject.org/edgar-degass-correspondence/.
10 Jean-François Lyotard, Duchamp’s TRANS/formers (Venice, California: Lapis Press, 1990), 175.
11 Ibid., 145.
12 Ibid., 181.
13 City Beautiful, “Audrey Munson – American Venus”, June 11 2019. https://citybeautifulblog.com/2019/06/11/audrey-munson-american-venus/.
14 Audrey Munson, “Queen of the Artists’ Studios’,” Hearst’s Sunday Magazine, 1921.
15 “All the virgin eyes in the world are made of glass,” Mina Loy, “Three Moments in Paris; 3. Magasins du Louvre”, The Lost Lunar Baedeker (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), 17.
16 Litia Perta, Community Action Center Zine, edit: A.K. Burns & A.L. Steiner, 2010, https://akburns.net/writings/community-action-center/.
17 “Licking is larger than mouths, boots than feet,” Mina Loy, “Italian Pictures,” The Lost Lunar Baedeker (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), 11.

Journal der Freien Universität Berlin

Berlin, 2024