Elisa Lam’s story has become a true crime documentary on Netflix. The only question is—how did it take so long?
I’ve been working on Poem of Elisa Lam since 2015, to do the opposite of “the Netflix treatment.”
This project investigates the last known physical movements, captured by elevator surveillance, of a woman hours before her death in a downtown Los Angeles hotel water tank. Released by LAPD in the effort to identify the body, this footage went viral, becoming subject to thousands of online conspiracy theories.
Mysteries and horror stories and even true crime procedurals ultimately exist in our culture to reinforce dominant hegemonies. In these narratives, patriarchal order, threatened by chaos in its most monstrous forms, gets restored in the end.
I saw how deeply this reactionary cultural training resides in us when I saw how Elisa Lam’s unsolved mystery—her private behavior in an elevator, her inexplicable death—was captured and disseminated virally. How she was interpreted once she could no longer speak for herself.
I seek to reclaim the inchoate intelligence in Elisa’s body, striving not to “solve” her, but to learn from her—to leave the viewer and myself more present in what cannot ever be known. I seek to undermine the capitalist exploitation of her story, the casual misogyny of how she’s read, the reductive analysis of mental illness and spiritual realities to which people default so easily and readily when they aren’t willing to face the limits of what they cannot understand.
I memorized Elisa Lam’s movement, second-by-second, in order to then excavate it. Working like a somatic detective, choreographically and cinematographically, I have created a sequence of performances and videos that puts her physical knowledge at the center of any possible attempt to “understand” her unknowable experience.