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<nettime> "For some, technology and mental illness have long been thought to exist in a kind of dark symbiosis."

Art, Technology and Death: A Love Story

Theresa Duncan created acclaimed videogames. Jeremy Blake was a
digital-art pioneer. They were talented, successful and in love. And
then they committed suicide. How the technology that infused their
work helped destroy them.

By Tony Dokoupil
Updated: 12:51 p.m. ET Sept. 1, 2007

Aug. 30, 2007 - On July 10, Jeremy Blake returned to his downtown
Manhattan apartment from a day of meetings with plans to relax with
a bottle of Scotch. The 35-year-old digital artist, whose work is
already enshrined in the permanent collection of the Museum of
Modern Art, lived in a converted Episcopal church rectory with his
girlfriend of a dozen years, Theresa Duncan, a 40-year-old writer and
former computer-game designer. Before going upstairs to meet her, he
stopped by the office of the churchâ??s assistant pastor, Father Frank
Morales, and invited him up later for a drink. But when Blake got to
his place and opened the door, he found Duncan lying dead in their
bedroom, with a bottle of bourbon, Tylenol PM pills and a suicide
note next to her body. When the police arrived, Morales followed them
upstairs and found Blake kicking the walls and sobbing before settling
into a living-room chair. After the coroner took his loverâ??s body
away, Blake spent the next three hours with Morales, silently drinking
glasses of Glenlivet until the bottle was empty.

The following days were understandably tense. â??It was obvious that
he was a suicide risk,â?? Morales tells NEWSWEEK. â??We put him on
a 24-hour watch, I mean not even letting him walk alone across the
street for a cup of coffee.â?? Friends of the couple rotated through
the apartment, offering food and distraction until Blake appeared to
turn a corner. He started sketching again and made plans to drive
to Theresaâ??s funeral in Michigan. On July 17, the day before he
was supposed to leave, Blake boarded an A subway train bound for
Brooklyn, where he was scheduled to meet a friend, but he blew past
his stop and got off the train along Rockaway Beach. As the sun set,
he walked toward the water, took off his clothes, piled them neatly
on the sand and waded into the brownish Atlantic. Five days later, a
fisherman discovered his body off the coast of New Jersey. Near the
spot where heâ??d entered the ocean, authorities found a Jeremy Blake
business card with a short note. It did! nâ??t say much, just that he
couldnâ??t live without Theresa.

Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan seemed like the perfect couple:
beautiful, talented, successful and deeply in love. But beneath the
idyllic surface is a darkly modern tale of obsession and paranoia
fueled by instruments of a digital age. Duncan and Blake built
their lives around computers and the Internet, using them to create
innovative art, prize-winning video­games and visionary stories.
But as time progressed, the very technologies that had infused their
work and elevated their lives became tools to reinforce destructive
delusions and weapons to lash out at a world they thought was closing
in on them. By the end of their lives, this formerly outgoing and
affable couple had turned cold toward outsiders. They addressed
friends and colleagues from behind electronic walls of accusatory
e-mails and confrontational blog posts, and their storybook devotion
to each other slowly warped into a shared madnessâ??what is known as
a folie à deux. â??This wasnâ??t who they wanted to ! be,â?? says
Katie Brennan, a Los Angeles gallery owner and long­time friend. She
compares the coupleâ??s late-life delusions to â??a kind of terminal
cancerâ?? that overtook the true Jeremy and Theresa.

For some, technology and mental illness have long been thought to
exist in a kind of dark symbiosis. Blake and Duncanâ??s case follows
a long history that began when the electric age upended daily life
with baffling, complex innovations. The first victim is believed to
have been James Tilley Matthews, an 18th-century British merchant who
thought France planned to take over England with a mind-controlling
magnetic machine using technology developed by Frank Mesmerâ??from
whom the word â??mesmerizedâ?? is derived. More recently, the
introduction of television inflamed the minds of patients who believed
that their TVs were watching them or broadcasting secrets about
their lives. In this regard, the Web is especially powerful. â??The
condition of being super-social and super-isolated at the same time is
an Internet-era kind of thing,â?? says Fred Turner, a media historian
at Stanford University, who speculates that as Blake and Duncan
withdrew from friends, â??their only reality! check left was the wisps
of information on their computer screens. And unfortunately, that
isnâ??t a very powerful check.â??

Blake was cool and lanky with a shy, brooding demeanor. Duncan was
bracingly smart, bright-skinned and blond, with so much energy it
often seemed as if she were fueled by some inner reactor. They
met in 1995, when he was fresh out of art school and she was a
precocious grande dame of Washington, D.C.â??s computer-gaming scene.
That same year, Entertainment Weekly named one of her fantastical
video­games for girls, Chop Suey, the â??CD-ROM of the year.â?? The
two fell in love a few years later while working together at the New
York digital-media firm IconNicholson, where they teamed up for an
acclaimed series of narrative videogames. She wrote the stories; he
did the artwork. Raymond Doherty, a longtime friend of Duncanâ??s,
tells NEWSWEEK that he once asked her why the couple didnâ??t get
married. She just laughed. â??What more could I want than this?â?? she

That sense of transcendent romanceâ??somehow too big for such a
worldly concept as marriageâ??struck nearly everyone who met the
couple. â??They would stand almost physically on each other at
parties. Not in a weird way, but sweetly, with her hand swung over
his shoulder or his hand looping her waist,â?? says Brennan. â??They
always seemed to be touching.â?? Sometimes they seemed a bit too
close. â??Youâ??d e-mail him and sheâ??d answer, or youâ??d call her
and heâ??d suddenly be on the phone,â?? says Brad Schlei, a friend and
executive at Muse Productions, a film company in Los Angeles. â??It
was definitely that kind of relationship.â?? At the time, though, no
one saw cause for alarm, and in 2000 the couple had a critical success
with â??The History of Glamour,â?? a witty animated short film about
the emptiness of pop stardom that the Whitney Museum of American Art
included in its 2000 Biennial.

In 2002, Blakeâ??s career began to blossom. Fascinated with the
boundaries between painting, photography and computer art, he
pioneered a genre that he called â??moving paintings,â?? a series
of digital animations played on plasma-screen televisions. One
curator dubbed it â??painting with pixels.â?? Not long after, the
singer-songwriter Beck asked Blake to design the cover art and a music
video for the musicianâ??s album â??Sea Change.â?? That same year,
filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson hired him to create a hallucinogenic
dream sequence for â??Punch-Drunk Love,â?? starring Adam Sandler.

But as Blakeâ??s celebrity and creative confidence grew, Duncanâ??s
professional luck withered. The CD-ROM market tanked, and she
struggled to get projects off the ground in other media. Hoped-for
ventures with the Oxygen Network, MTV, Para­mount Pictures, Fox
Searchlight Pictures and the publishing house HarperCollins all
fizzled. Frustrated and bewildered, she began to suspect that the
Church of Scientology was deliberately thwarting her progress. In a
disjointed 2006 e-mail to an art-world friend, Duncan claimed that
Beck, a second-generation Scientologist, had told her about his
plans to leave the church. This knowledge, she wrote, would make her
â??priority No. 1 for their paranoid and dangerous security wing.â??
(A spokesperson for Beck denied to NEWSWEEK that the exchange ever
occurred, and a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology called
Duncanâ??s allegations â??absurd.â??)

Thwarted elsewhere, Duncan turned to the Internet, launching a blog
called The Wit of the Staircase that cataloged far-flung interests
such as cinema, perfume and the history of electricity. But the
blog also served as a base for Duncan to mount a case against
Scientologists and others who she believed had a vendetta against
her. In May 2007, she posted a sprawling entry that claimed a host of
peopleâ??including Hollywood executives, Republican media owners, the
CIA, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Securityâ??were conducting
a â??smear campaignâ?? against the couple. Duncanâ??s assault reads
like a multimedia performance piece, with hyperlinks and pictures
incorporating information from the dregs of the Internet.

Ever supportive, Blake defended Duncan, no matter how outrageous
her claims. More than a soulmate, he said that the two shared a
â??creedâ??: a lifelong pledge of love and protection. In e-mails to
friends, he railed against an organized campaign to stall Duncanâ??s
career. At one point in 2006, he accused Schleiâ??s girlfriend of
being part of the conspiracy. â??She has an unfortunate interest in
smearing Theresa because her masters told her to,â?? Blake wrote to
Schlei in an e-mail obtained by NEWSWEEK. â??Seriously?â?? Schlei
replied. â??Youâ??ve got to know that this sounds absolutely insane my
friend.â?? But Blake was unbowed. â??If you want me to get a lawyer
and sue her for defaming Theresa,â?? he wrote, â??that will be fun.â??

This past February Blake took a consulting job at Rockstar videogames,
and Duncan searched for traction on a new project. The night before
she killed herself, they met with â??Screamâ?? producer Cary Woods to
outline a noir filmâ??a dream project for some, but it was perhaps
too much for Duncan. Her friends speculate that she chose to end
her life rather than risk losing another film to forces outside her
control. Theresa herself wrote in an e-mail, â??The CoS is going to
have to kill us before we will give up ANY of our free will or any of
our constitutional rights to do and say what we please.â?? Instead,
Blakeâ??s final work, â??Sodium Fox,â?? is an abstract short film
that he called a â??self-portrait by proxy.â?? It ends with the image
of a ghostly smear of color over the ocean. There are waves crashing
on the beach, but the only sound is a crackling radio voice from
some mysterious signal, then an eerily prophetic voice-over: â??This
will take four or five years to des! cribe.â?? Perhaps, though as
a self-portrait of a quietly tragic end, its meaning seems all too

© 2007

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