In the Epoch of the Near and Far

 

 We are in the epoch of simultaneity:

we are in the epoch of juxtaposition,

the epoch of the near and far,

of the side by side,

of the dispersed.

 -Michel Foucault[1]

 

 

There is an osmatic interplay between our physical and digital lives. Within post-internet culture, the image of the membrane is intrinsic to an understanding of this fluid interplay. Pushing towards and away from one another, these two realms exist across an extremely permeable barrier which is akin to a mirror in its capacity to absorb and reflect. Beneath the surface of the mirror’s membrane, competing pressures cause hybridisation, augmentation and flips which then fluidly re-enter the physical world. In the Epoch of the Near and Far considers the role of this osmatic physical/digital model in the creation of new meanings from old norms. It is not a comprehensive discussion, but it does identify a model of input/gestation/output common to the heterotopia of the digital. This model exists in a feedback loop, which is continuously flux and ripe now for investigation.

 In March 1967, Michel Foucault delivered a lecture entitled ‘Des Espaces Autres’ which would later go on to be published in October 1984 in Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité in October 1984.[2] Entitled, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias in English, this paper’s account of heterotopias pre-empted the multi-faceted temporal and spatial nature of the digital age in which we now live.

Foucault’s heterotopias are described in opposition to utopias. Utopias “are sites with no real place,” while heterotopias, “exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy,” in that it creates a composite of times and/or spaces.[3] These tend to be competing or contradicting spatial and temporal spaces at once.

Building upon this, an understanding of Foucault’s mirror analogy helps to locatecyberspace as a heterotopia. The mirror, says Foucault:

 

makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.[4]

 

Foucault’s statement suggests that there is a real/unreal binary that characterises the heterotopia. The image one sees in the mirror is not physical, it does not truly exist and, therefore, occupies a place of unrealness. However, the mirror also has a simultaneous ‘real’ function – the pressures of the osmotic forces at play – since it forces the individual reflected in the mirror to “reconstitute” themselves within the physical space they are occupying in that moment, by recourse of the utopian (placeless) image in the mirror. This is akin to the space of the digital. The mirror is a permeable membrane and a rich breeding ground for the heterotopia, just as the dimly reflective screen of the iPhone or computer is.

 Simultaneity is integral to an understanding of digital technology as heterotopic. Political scientist Dana Badulescu has suggested that the heterotopia’s “composite and indistinct spatiality” is embodied by contemporary phone calls and Facebook chats, which are “neither here nor there, simultaneously physical and mental.”[5] Cyberspace is a mirror in that it is simultaneously a non-space - one can not physically grasp it- and also  incorporates real human interactions and behaviour which originates in geographic space. So, not only is the virtual informed by and reflected back onto the physical world, but a number of opposing ideals can exist simultaneously within the virtual space which then reconstitutes the possibilities of their existence when reflected back.

 Furthermore, simultaneity exists in the digital in relation to the ‘liminal’ – the actual threshold in our mirror/membrane metaphor. The term liminal derives from the Latin limen meaning ‘threshold’[6] and was originally afforded a theoretical platform by Arnold van Gennep in his 1909 Les Rites de Passages.[7]  According to Van Gennep, a transition is characterised by a three-step process of “separation, margin (or limen), and aggregation.”[8] Within the framework of the digital discussion, the ‘separation’ phase of the post-internet condition is the input of information into a virtual, heterotopic space. Secondly, the ‘margin’ phase sees the augmentation of what Foucault calls “simple givens […] private space and public space, between family space and social space” and so forth.[9]

 It is significant that these “simple givens” are defined by their opposition because the final stage of transition, leaving the space of the liminal is “aggregation,” a term that suggests that combination of elements. I argue that the aggregation that occurs in the face of digital liminalities is the breakdown of socially accepted norms and definitions, such as public and private. Within the digital realm, the thresholds of certain givens resemble the opposite of their previously determined definition. The private, by way of digital advents like Facebook or Instagram, has now become the public. While public activities, including conversations, have been withdrawn into the space of a Google Hangouts, removing the need for face-to-face interaction. Thus, public and private exist simultaneously while also testing their thresholds.

 The creation of liminalities as the membrane of the digital/physical is distinctive in that the aggregation of opposites might result in flips. “Post-Feminism,” for instance, is now superseding second and third wave feminism, as well as negating older notions of the “post” prefix. Derek Conrad Murray observes that this change has been played out analogous to the culture of female selfies that have proliferated in previous years. Prior to this, the term post-feminism embodied the concept that “feminism had achieved its goals.”[10] In other words, the earlier incarnation of post-feminism was defined by its belief that equality of the sexes had been achieved and that feminism, therefore, was no longer necessary. Choosing instead to use it to “redefine the parameters and step out beyond the dogmas of the past,” post-feminism is building upon older waves offeminism through the lens of the digital.[11]

 The DIY webcam videos of Petra Cortright represent this new form of post-feminism as discussed by Murray. i feel u (2015), banksi unbrush ponitaeyel (2015) and antipte2 (2011) are indicative of Cortiright’s oeuvre of short-duration webcam videos in which Cortright is the protagonist. The repetitive subject of these videos fit into what Murray argues is “a radical colonization of the visual realm and aggressive reclaiming of the female body.” [12] Thus, The selfie redefines post-feminism by appropriating another opposition – narcissism – imbuing it with a positive connotation of self-empowerment as opposed to regression.[13]  It is then combined with repetition to reach full force. Within the context of selfie culture, and exemplified by Cortiright’s work, post-feminism reaches its threshold through means of a definitional flip, whereby it comes to embody that which it once stood in opposition to.

 Aaron Christopher Rees Telechiric Loop (2015), conflates subjectivity and objectivity. Unlike the work of Cortright, which negates definition in a single direction, Rees creates a hybrid where opposing ideals-emancipation and surveillance, subjectivity and objectivity - collide and become interchangeable. In the work, a drone follows Rees, a camera attached to it to film his movements. The significance of this increasingly available technology is that Rees is able to view himself from a height and angle that has previously been unknown to him. In this sense, the availability of a new self-view, a certain objectified subjectivity, is emancipating. However, this action is also form of perverse surveillance, held in tension with the emancipatory nature of the artist’s new view of himself. It is impossible to separate this emancipatory quality from the knowledge of the original military use of drones; the notorious killing of civilians in the Middle East as part of America’s “War on Terror.”[14] To this end, the heterotopic function of the drone is a confused dyad of good and evil, emancipation and surveillance.

Heath Franco’s DREAM HOME (2012) employs grotesque imagery to create an unsettling domestic scene which blurs the lines between traditional notions of public and private. The setting of DREAM HOME is a digitalised model house awkwardly superimposed into a dated, sparse and garish domestic scene. However, like a doll house, the contents of the dwelling are quickly revealed, and a myriad of increasingly grotesque characters each played by Franco are revealed as its inhabitants. Clad in cheap costumes, they are clearly all recognisable as the artist.  However, they occupy an awkward liminal space where they have ceased to be Franco while also failing to convince in the role of any character. In her essay Return of the Gothic: Digital Anxiety in the Domestic Sphere, Melissa Gronlund contends that a return to the gothic has recently proliferated in post-internet art. It is, according to Gronland, a device for communicating the reorganisation of the domestic space and the subsequent reorganisation of self that has occurred as a result of the internet.[15] She writes that there is a certain anxiety, a “sense of a splintered and recursive need, brought on by the camera, for the self to be actively and constantly performed”[16] culminating in artists employing a new form of gothic as a means of “representing the fears that accompany change.”[17] Indeed, the fear of change is seen in Franco’s work as a fear of the private and public conflation that is occurring today. A sense of constant surveillance, of constantly having to play out characters, is rife in DREAM HOME.

 An attempt to comprehend the trajectory of human values through the accumulation and layering of time is present in Marian Tubbs’s work Vulgar Latin (2014). Here, the poor image defined by Hito Styerl as “images that can be made and seen by the many. They express all the contradiction of the contemporary crowd”[18] is used extensively to not only evoke a certain democratic heterotopia where pop-culture is rife (the immediately identifiable images of the Kanye animated bit coins or the progress bar of the YouTube video), but to also demonstrate the archival value of the internet, now accumulated to staggering amounts in such a short timespan.[19] The result of this is the concept of the digital as a heterotopia of time slippage. As Styerl points out, the poor image- the JPEG for instance - easily reproduced and circulated, lasts but through a metamorphosis of incarnations. It is “an illicit fifth-generation bastard of an original image.”[20] The spilling milk GIF, derived from a 1999 Blur clip from[21] has since been copied and re-circulated via the internet as a huge array of GIFs.[22] The image of this GIF is immediately recognisable in its own right, but it also has an embodied history. Furthermore, shots of Tubbs’ native Queensland, as well as an abandoned dilapidated structure on a Greek island, suggest an attempted negotiation between history embodied in the landscape of the physical world and that of images readily circulated online. In this sense, the interplay between digital and geographic landscapes suggests the permeability of the cyberspace membrane. Likewise, this permeable membrane hints at the potential for histories to become ingrained in the digital landscape not unlike the way they are in geographic landscapes.

 The way that the body is evoked through the digital proves that the politic of the body is ever-present even when its materiality is removed. According to Hester Parr, “virtual space both enables a sense of technological disembodiment and yet simultaneously reconstitutes and reinforces the physical body.”[23] Thus, the input/gestation/output model is relevant to Parr’s simultaneous embodiment/disembodiment model, insofar as the body is disembodied by and simultaneously reconstituted by the digital. This is particularly true of the works of Keith Deverell and Emile Zile.

 Keith Deverell’s The Shrine of Triticum Durum (2015) creates an intersection between disembodiment and the physical. Deverell’s is an aesthetically rich installation that explores the possibilities of the digital in response to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.[24] Also known as Pastafarianism, the church, started online as a humorous parody of religion which opposes the teaching of divine creationism in schools. Since its inception, physical deities of the Spaghetti Monster have been springing up all over the world. The significance of ‘religion’ is that it has effectively materialised from a dematerialised phenomena. Furthermore, Deverell’s installation- an alter to the Flying Spaghetti Monster- provides a sensory overload, employing the use of digital technology including ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), a recent advent which uses aural stimuli to produce a tingling sensation in the body.   Thus, the work mimics the complicated intersection between, real and fantasy, embodied and disembodied, that Pastafarianism represents. In so doing, it applied an embodied layer to the disembodied, online religion, grounding it in the physical world.

Finally, and bringing us full circle in the feedback loop of the digital, Emile Zile considers the body as a portal for time-based experience. For his performance James Cameron’s Avatar (2015), Zile uses his body to create shadows, against the recent blockbuster film, Avatar. In so doing, the artist reverses time, conjuring older, communal versions of entertainment. There is, as Clare Madge and Henrietta O’Connor observe a “simultaneity of identity formations as one moves through virtual cyberspace and material geographical space as part of everyday life.”[25]  In the case of Zile’s performance, the simultaneity of identity formations is the futuristic, disembodied avatar, conceived through digital technology and the subsequent reaction from Zile, who chooses to counter the disembodied by layering the shadow of his present body over the top.

 Thus, two models of simultaneity, interconnected and reliant upon one another, operate in the heterotopic model of the digital in relation to the body: firstly all experience is based upon lived, bodily experiences which is largely forgotten when the digital is engaged and secondly, the disembodiment within the heterotopic space of the virtual can act as a catalyst for a re-exploration of the body after the fact of these technologies. Thus, the semi-permeable heterotopic membranes of the digital can fundamentally alter how we experience ourselves.

In the Epoch of the Near and Far demonstrates a desire to navigate and understand the post-internet condition. It is apparent that these new digital modes of being are becoming quickly naturalised into contemporary life, not without trepidation, and not without a re-evaluated of previously accepted norms. Despite the anxiety surrounding the speed and foreignness of these new technologies, it is also exhilarating to consider the virtual sphere as a heterotopic (un)space, packed with potential.  Shifts in definitions, flips and delineation of boundaries can and will happen when norms are subject to the input/gestation/reflection mirror of the digital. We are now simultaneous beings, closer to and more removed than ever from life. Near and far. 

 -Amelia Winata

Melbourne, September, 2015

Thank you Nicholas Cowley and Campbell McKay xx

 

[1] Foucault 1984, pp. 1

[2] Badulescu 2013, pp. 1

[3] Foucault 1984, pp. 4

[4] Ibid

[5] Badulescu 2013, pp. 2

[6] Madge and O’Connor 2005, pp. 84

[7] Turner 1985, pp. 46

[8] As quoted by Victor W. Turner who famously built upon van Gennep’s theory in his in 1964 essay, ‘Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage.’  Turner 1985, pp. 47.

[9] Foucault 1984, pp. 2

[10] Murray 2015, pp. 4

[11] Murray 2015, pp. 5

[12] Murray 2015, pp. 1

[13] ibid

[14] I highly recommend the Radiolab podcast entitled Worth for a chilling account of the use of drones in Yeman. Available from: http://www.radiolab.org/story/worth/

[15] Gronland 2014, pp. 8

[16] ibid

[17] Gronlund 2014, pp. 9

[18] Steyerl 2009, pp. 6

[19] Groys 2013, pp. 9. Groys writes: “Archives are often interpreted as a means to conserve the past – to present the past in the present. But at the same time, archives are machines for transporting the present into the future.”

[20] Steyerl 2009, pp. 1

[21] To see the milk carton in action and to relive all your Brit-pop dreams, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oqXVx3sBOk

[22] Here you will find a myriad of milk carton GIFs, including the one sampled by Tubbs:  http://www.se7ensins.com/forums/threads/the-biggest-dancing-milk-collection-ever.438443/

[23] Madge and O’Connor 2004, pp. 85

[24] The official website of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster can be found here: http://www.venganza.org/

[25] Madge and O’Connor 2005, pp. 85

 

- This essay was produced for the exhibition In the Epoch of the Near and Far which I curated as part of Channels: The Australian Video Art Festival. The exhibition took place at Grey Gardens Projects, Fitzroy, 19-27 September 2015.