239 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

All of our digital media leaves behind traces. But these are hidden traces that are present as invisible abstractions. These traces exist as digital binary structures of code that represent digital pictures, video, texts, three dimensional objects and more.

We leave behind cookies on our computers, we store most of our data in a cloud, but we also leave traces on each device that contains digital memory on its hard disk or flash memory. But these traces are invisible: we cannot perceive them as they are, we cannot perceive them directly.

The code’s structure does not readily yield the subject of what it represents. We can’t even perceive the structure unmediated, because we need a visualisation device. We might be able to directly perceive the physical presence of a small disc or a chip from our digital media device. But in the end the digital empire is only about what it represents: the functionalities, the images, the characters and combinations that form a coded language that, in turn, create the language we are able to understand.

Once I had the problem that I deleted the majority of my pictures, in a state of fatigue, from my hard drive. The first thing I did was google if I could somehow recover this data from my hard disk, despite having deleted it. I learned that a hard disk doesn’t actually physically delete your data, but reassigns the specific space that was used for the data, to be free to be overwritten.

This meant that the data was still there, but that the doors that lead to the used space on my hard disk where the images were housed had a little note on them saying that they were free to be taken up by new data. So, there’s a time between the reassignment of the digital space and the replacement with new data, which is a kind of no man’s land.

We are living in a less direct material world and a more digitalised one, where traces themselves seem to be a disappearing thing. Where we easily replace the old in order to maintain the clean and the new. The moment we throw something away, we also throw its trace away.

Maybe it’s time to become more materialised again. To be attuned to a greater sense of the things around us that we like to touch, feel and smell, in addition to the digital form of matter we indulge ourselves in. This must not be seen as a critique on our contemporary digital information- and imagery systems, but more as an essay to think about the value of the things we can see with our naked eyes, with our bare hands, our open nostrils, and our own ears.

Portret van de kunstenaar als jonge man, 1959

Portret van de kunstenaar als jonge man, 1959

Portret van de kunstenaar als jonge man, 1959

Portret van de kunstenaar als jonge man, 1959

Art’s main point of origin is no longer restricted to the solitude of a lonely studio. Instead, it is created through dialogue with others, whether or not they are physically present. Interactive elements form important aspects of the work. Originality and eternal value, so inherently characteristic of modern art, no longer hold the same importance. What does retain its gravity is what can be conjectured to be a deep seated need for immortality and the perpetual need for the self affirmative: ‘I exist!

Access to media and technical possibilities has democratised art even further. Every individual can easily express himself and make himself heard. In a similar fashion, the masses were able to make themselves seen through photography and film at the beginning of the last century. People will always want to leave a trace, no matter how trivial. One could interpret this need as the constant reshaping of identity. What they think and do takes a temporary form in the constant confrontation with the other. It’s this need that has become a basic necessity for the young today.

Internet and the mobile phone are very suitable as artistic devices. Especially the mobile phone allows us to exist in multiple contexts, or “thanks to the specific characteristic of it’s medium, mobile telecommunication disrupts typical narrative elements such as [unity] of space (setting) and linear casuality in time (plot) in addition to the image of a consistent, thoughtful character (unicity).’ Also, ‘people are exceptionally fascinated by experiences and non-rational, magical moments that they often consciously seek out’.

They are especially capable of sharing their own story—narrative, auditory, and visual—in relationship to others across the world.

Looking at artists’ work process, the exchange of image and narrative does not necessarily need to take form outside the virtual space in a desperate attempt to materialize. The temporary and imperfect character of art, especially in relationship to interaction and transition, is represented in Japanese with the term “wabi sabi.” This term expresses the relationship between beauty and transience. Leonard Koren explains wabi sabi as ‘a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.’ The artist increasingly makes use of fleeting images that, through media, are globally transmitted and progressively refer to a common frame of reference.

The work is no longer a representation of the artist’s living environment. The origin and starting point of the work lies within that or, better yet, it becomes part of it. It finds a place on the Internet and in the environment, the society, and in thinking. And once again, the artwork is no longer about mass communication or about interculturality. It is about articulation, confrontation, and the invention of shared stories without a set goal.

Nicolas Bourriaud typifies contemporary art as the arena of exchange: the virtual platform of exchange that the artist, too, is a part of. Because artists utilise an artistic form in lieu of the every day form, the every day becomes extraordinary and the extraordinary becomes every day. The traces, or memories, that their work leaves behind evidences their capability to be temporarily part of that culture in a virtual (or non-virtual) place at a specific moment.

Oculus Rift
Oculus Rift

I was born in 1985. The rise of the Internet is something that occurred as I was maturing into adolescence. Unlike my brother, seven years younger than myself, I remember a time before the Internet and remember vividly experiencing that pivotal point.

In the early nineties, my family was already in possession of a modem that accessed a Bulletin Board System (BBS). The BBS was limited to a network of local users who each stared at their black screens waiting in anticipation for the green text to light up. And text was all it was; even the ‘adventure game’ consisted of pure text, yet this was an entirely unknown world of excitement for me, a malleable world where interaction with other living, breathing beings was possible.

There are moments in life when you’re confronted with new technology and you’re immediately hinted at its significance. In-ter-net. It must have been ’96 or ’97. Despite my venture into the world of BBS, I had absolutely no conception of what this new world would offer. At this point, the only person I knew with an Internet connection was my techno-geek uncle. I remember my first encounter with the Internet at my uncle’s house and looking over my sister’s shoulder, who was patiently waiting for the excruciating slowness of the modem to yield her a full colour image on a Marilyn Manson fan page. The virtual world then unfolded itself to me in the form of ICQ messenger, Hotmail, Angelfire personal web pages, LiveJournal; and the rest, as they say, is history.

On a side note, the first time I ever heard of Hotmail, I was quite convinced that this would be a homoerotic website of sorts. I’ve always wondered if this was a shared first association or just my hormonal teen mind speaking.

A few other first encounters in technological history that I can clearly remember include: Facebook, Google, my first SMS, the first smartphone, etcetera. But let’s fast-forward to my latest, and possibly the most mind-blowing: the Oculus Rift. The idea of virtual reality has been around for ages. The Lawnmower Man, after all, came out in 1992. Computer technology has only recently caught up to the possibilities of virtual reality as an every-day household appliance. Although not yet widely available, (amateur) game developers are fanatically toying, experimenting, and creating new worlds through a premature version of the equipment as I write this article.

I’m at a birthday party at a friend’s house who happens to be a game developer. A group of excited partygoers is ushered down to his study where the promise of virtual reality lies in a pair of goggles, otherwise known as the Oculus Rift. I sit down and don the apparatus that covers my entire vision with two LCD screens that together form a complete image. I am suddenly in rural Tuscany. The sky above is filled with clouds, dust particles and fluttering butterflies. In the distance, rolling hills are covered with cypresses. The trees around me softly rustle their leaves with the blowing wind. I turn my head, and the world turns with me. I look over the balustrade of a balcony and the towering heights cause a twinge of a fear to course through my body. I pass my hands before my eyes and see nothing – ah, this must be what it feels like to be a ghost!

The eyes quickly adjust to the substandard pixelated screen of this prototype Oculus Rift, as though the brain wants to accept the total immersion in a digital world as truth. And that, of course, is where the crux of the ‘danger’ of this new technology lies: how will life change when the virtual world and the physical world are indiscernible? Will we never have to leave the house again? Will we prefer the virtual world over the real world? How will this affect the relationships we have with one another?

There is one major glitch to the Oculus Rift. Turning your head within the game is accepted and understood by the body. However, travelling and walking back and forth within virtual reality is not. The effect is similar to carsickness: the static body cannot cope with the travelling mind and thus, nausea ensues.

As I make my way back to the party, trying to cope with my turning stomach, I become more aware than ever of my movements and of how my body, mind, and vision are in unison once again. The discord had been lifted. But as I sit down on the couch and look throughout the room a creeping sensation comes over me: what if the discord is always here, and I’ve merely grown accustomed to it? What if what I was seeing every day was nothing more than a film covering reality? What if life was just a virtual reality of another nature? Of course, these thoughts are nothing new, but I had never before felt the possibility of the falseness of reality as intensely, as concretely, and as convincingly as before my foray into the world of the Oculus Rift.