by Yvonne Volkart
“One really does not travel in order to see and
hear the same thing at every stop.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1792
“O God! I could be bounded in a nutshell,
and count myself a King of infinite space …”
Hamlet, II:21Hamlet, epigraph to Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Aleph.”
Wearing a head-mounted display, I am standing in a measured-out space and navigating my way through Bern, walking around and nodding my head. I selected this city based on a world map on a display. Now I am moving through street canyons. I zoom in on façades, and hear the sounds of this city: train announcements, laughing, ringing. Then I select Perm, Ulan Ude, Seoul … What is special about these cities? Despite different languages and sound collages, they are somehow all the same: lined-up geometric cubes of varying height whose façades feature text messages, photographs, and advertisements. This is the Times Square of social media, at once clean and chaotic, transparent and opaque. Whereas in Bern, dozens of similar pizzas, explained in several languages, light up on the façades, in Ulan Ude the same attractive woman’s face constantly multiplies. And while in Seoul, Zurich, or London the masses of posts are a couple of seconds or minutes old, the few of them there are in Novosibirsk last for days and weeks.
It is barely possible to read the messages, since they quickly disappear again, are mirror-inverted, or badly placed. Some of the statements momentarily seem to make sense, but they remain indistinct and faceless, just like all of the “individuals” whose personal preferences simply interest no one in this mass: overload instead of voyeurism. Added to this is the fact that the respective “urban public” says nothing; has nothing to say. Despite all the individual statements and faces, the people remain a faceless mass whose content not only repeats itself 10,000 times, but who plaster an entire city, clutter the world, occupy it. What is left are patterns, modulations, variations.
Life, a Data Center
The interactive web- and telepresence-based VR installation 10’000 Moving Cities—Same but Different taps user-generated content, such as news, Tweets, images, videos, and sound, in real time from the social media networks like Instagram, Twitter, and Freesound and renders it compatible with the cubes placed in the exhibition space. It translates data into the model of a built city, thus bringing the cloud of a city into real space. The atmospherically condensed accumulation and materialization of site-specific live data, the existence of a city, can be experienced as an infosphere, as an endless torrent and chaotic condensation of apparently immaterial, globally networked data streams—and the loneliness of a searching, groping user, lost in the communications machine of others.
Marc Lee places emphasis on the loss of diversity in the world as the result of globalization. Today, cities are no longer built with local materials but with glass, steel, and concrete. He interprets these homogenized cities in the sense of Marc Augé’s non-places, “which could exist all over the world without any true local identity (mostly anonymous transition zones such a motorways, hotel rooms or airports.”2Marc Augé, cited at Lee, M. (n.d.). 10.000 Moving Cities – Same but Different, Mobile App. Retrived from: http://marclee.io/en/same-but-different/ His clean-looking 3-D installation, which uses the open source software Blender and Unreal, heightens this effect. It also brings home how strongly the software and hardware technologies we ostensibly use as “tools” engender the dominant perception of the world: structures that not only seem like a rendered piece of software, because we, permanently online, constantly see such images and “recognize” them by virtue of their reproduction, but which are, in fact, also built based on rendered models.
Of course, the inextricable entanglement of reality and its likeness or model is nothing new. As the film theorist Kaja Silverman established even before the advent of social media, people have always rendered things visible.3Silverman, K.(1997). Dem Blickregime begegnen In C. Kravagna, ed. Privileg Blick: Kritik der visuellen Kultur (pp.41–64). Berlin: Edition ID-Archiv. What is new is that images or, more precisely, the perpetual, immediate medialization, digitalization, sharing, and liking of the world, involves us in an unprecedented way. In the same way we, voluntarily, integrate ourselves into the dominant time and gaze regime, we are subjectivized, and normalized.
I read the homogenization of the world, and that means the reduction of worldliness, revealed in 10’000 Moving Cities as a symptom of current biopolitics. As Deleuze demonstrated with reference to Foucault, this is based less on the repression and obliteration of the individual than on control by machine and “dividuation,” the substitution of the concept of the individual with coded and thus decodable matter.4Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59 (Winter 1992), 3–7. (p. 5) The fact that dividual existence is coupled with increasing hyperindividualization is only an ostensible contradiction. By possessing larger volumes of data, which first become possible by possessing higher computer performance, “individuality” can be controlled in a new, algorithmic way and “dividuated” in specific modalities and variations.
In the following, I would like to show that each of Marc Lee’s virtually experienceable model cities does not only depict the real, user-generated infosphere of a specific city. Neither do they only pose the question of what the “city” is and how collective life associated with it works, based on the idea of the agora, an antagonistic, democratic public space. Rather, I believe that Marc Lee’s “cities” also restage the invisible verticality of powerful data mining and the geopolitical megastructure of capitalistic computer technologies. In other words: the geometric urban models render visible and spatialize the layers and grids of data squids and computer infrastructures on which our world relies today. In the case of these 10,000 cities it is, therefore, ultimately only a matter of just one: namely the paradigmatic, cabled, and wired architecture of the infosphere. It is the symbol of our society as a data center, in which data in planetary dimensions have become the administrators of our existence while the individual is dividuated to become the producer and supplier of a resource with which a great deal of money can be made.
Vertical Data Architecture
According to the media theorist Felix Stalder, it is a “characteristic of digital technology that any action we perform through and with it takes place simultaneously on two levels: on the level of communication readable by humans and the level of data readable by machines.”5Stalder, F. (2014; February 14). In der zweiten digitalen Phase. Le monde diplomatique . Retrived from: http://felix.openflows.com/node/287. (p. 1) Because it is geared toward exchange and openness, communication contains a horizontal element. Data, on the other hand, are “essentially vertical, hence that information that accumulates during each instance of communication—who is speaking with whom, where is he or she located, how long does the discussion last, what is its content, et cetera. Data “originate on a different level than the events that they generate”6Stalder, F. (2014; February 14). In der zweiten digitalen Phase. Le monde diplomatique . Retrived from: http://felix.openflows.com/node/287. (p. 1). The aspects of communication, and elements associated with it such as participation and collectivity, were built up in the first phase of the Internet. The second phase was dominated by “the data center—a black box with industrial dimensions, capital-intensive, complex, and opaque”7Stalder, F. (2014; February 14). In der zweiten digitalen Phase. Le monde diplomatique . Retrived from: http://felix.openflows.com/node/287. (p. 1).
What remains locked in the black box is the fact that the evaluation of data means making patterns recognizable. Data mining “is not simply a technical operation,” writes the mediatician and artist Anna Munster. “It is a technique that manages data perception by making data into the perceptible—data recurring as particular formations for us to see something in the already seen.”8Munster, A. (2009). Data Undermining: The Work of Networked Art in an Age of Imperceptibility. networked: a (networkeded_book) about (networked_art). Retrieved from: http://munster.networkedbook.org/data-undermining-the-work-of-networked-art-in-an-age-of-imperceptibility/ Munster makes reference to the dynamics inherent in data mining which, on the one hand, make what is imperceptible (data) perceptible (patterns) and, at the same time, causes it to become imperceptible again (black box).
Patterns lead to prognoses that, as mathematically calculated assumptions about the future, destroy both the present as well as the possible future. These interventions in subjectification qua “population managements,” which operate by means of stimuli instead of oppression, can be subsumed under the key word biopower.9Munster, A. (2009). Data Undermining: The Work of Networked Art in an Age of Imperceptibility. networked: a (networkeded_book) about (networked_art). Retrieved from: http://munster.networkedbook.org/data-undermining-the-work-of-networked-art-in-an-age-of-imperceptibility/, 18. What is meant by that is the regulation and production of dividuals, their perceptions, and their desires, made possible based on statistical analyses.
“The data provide the basis for prestructuring the environment in which people take action before they actually take action. By doing so, one gets the impression of individual freedom, although freedom only consists in selecting options that someone else made available for self-serving reasons.”10Stalder, 2. Hence, as long as there are pseudo-options that satisfy the discretionary competence of the consumer subject, no one is bothered about this restricted control system. Benjamin Bratton also speaks of a “vertical megastructure” that is generated by contemporary computer technologies; he calls it “The Stack” and describes six different layers: Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface, and User.11Bratton, B. (2014, March). The Black Stack. e-flux journal, 53. Retrieved from: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/53/59883/the-black-stack/ (p. 1)
Mimetization and Automation
The display of 10’000 Moving Cities works with the promise of freedom mentioned above: (Nearly) every city in the world is spread out before me. Simply select, look, and move, and I am already in another city tempting me with a “different” pizza. Moreover, a basic strategy of the installation is that it works with stereotypes: it translates one stereotype into another, the entirety “of the social media” into the totality of the rendered “city.” Thanks to this translation, the scenery seems even more staged and more model-like.
Marc Lee’s strategy has always been to operate from the interior of the machine—computers and their economies—and to do what machines do with artistic means. In this case this includes practicing data mining and making the patterns available. He taps the data exposed in social media networks and links them to produce an architectural pattern of moving images. The fact that in 10’000 Moving Cities it is about pattern recognition explains why, for example, one can barely read the text messages. It concerns the basic structure, the nature of the posts to become patterns. These patterns ultimately refer not only to data technologies, but also to travel patterns, time patterns, spatial patterns, world patterns: to get around as far as possible in as little time as possible and experience as much as possible—life patterns whose optimization tasks and chains seem like the algorithmic feedback loops from a machine operation.
High-tech VR equipment potentiates Marc Lee’s strategy of mimetization and automation. While nowadays VR glasses have become an everyday consumer device that makes the promise of more reality and authenticity public, the project-specific tracking interface involves a relatively large development effort. Marc Lee further pursues his strategy with the development of an app12Lee, M. (n.d.). 10.000 Moving Cities – Same but Different, Mobile App. Retrived from: http://marclee.io/en/same-but-different/ that enables exploring the project with the aid of a tablet or a smartphone: everyone can now immerse him- or herself in the brave new world of virtual cities on their individual device and explore their “differences.” Everyone has his or her own little personal helicopter.
The online work Airport Lounge (2018), which is related to 10’000 Moving Cities, also exposes the patterns of our “personal” movement behavior which, in turn, promotes the building of such homogenized places. Using Google Earth, one flies from airport to airport, zooms out and in from an exterior reminiscent of a militarized zone to an interior that suggests intimacy. As soon as one is at the airport, an Instagram post shows up: shadowy figures in the terminal, a cramped hotel room, or a glass of wine on a table—silent witnesses of a journey into predictability. And, in the period in which time stands still, in which the image lingers, and causes me to wait a moment too long until it disappears again and joins the continuum of the torrent of images, it hits me: what an enormous megastructure of resources, infrastructures, and greenhouse gases has to be activated in order to take a picture of a glass wine on a table.
What remains are the machine chains, the streams of images, the desire to immerse oneself in them—but also the feelings of loneliness and emptiness in the face of this obliteration of the world. What about the present in this live performance of my sharing and being shared?13Simanowski, R. (2016). Facebook-Gesellschaft. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.
With reference to Agamben, Simanwoski 2016 discusses the disappearance of presence and contemporaneity due to permanent recording and documenting in Facebook society. What happens with all the desires and feelings, these machine commands and feedback loops? How might these forces be directed differently? And what can art do in the face of this, our great entanglement and helplessness?
Perhaps the title contains the answer. Perhaps 10’000 Moving Cities means something different than I assumed at the beginning of this journey. Perhaps it is an oracle and answers paradoxically: There are 10,000 cities, there are vertical, horizontal, and transversal forces that—like in a movie theater—move or do not move us, something, the world, 10,000 times. And it is now up to us to build 10,000, a collective of streams, of dividuals that are capable of moving something—now.
I extend my thanks to Felipe Castelbianco for the discussion.