Moving Through The Narrative: Spatial Form Theory And The Space Of Electronic Literature – Lai-Tze Fan

Geoff Ryman’s 253.

The way that a narrative unravels has traditionally been understood to occur over time: the time that it takes to read words on a page and to process meaning, and the time frame of events as depicted in the narrative. As we increasingly encounter electronic literature, which are narratives that operate on the computer and through computer systems, it becomes necessary to examine how the facilities of new media offer different methods of communication and therefore different methods of storytelling. We must account for qualities unique to new media: the screen, for example, is a space in which the status of text is subordinated by the image.[1] In fact, the screen can hold a variety of representational modes that may be utilized in electronic literature, causing a reader to move among narrative spaces. This possibility raises the question: what does it mean to navigate through these spaces in storytelling? To answer this, my paper offers an understanding of how space operates in the electronic narrative and how it may be mediated through the electronic narrative in a self-reflexive, metanarrational manner.

One approach that can be used to inform an understanding is an examination of how space has been described in a branch of narratology related to reader-response theory. Spatial form theory is the perception that “a degree of spatiality may be achieved [in narrative] through leitmotifs or extended webs of interrelated images.”[2] The structures and modes of operation described in spatial form theory are directly aligned with how they occur in electronic literature. For example, a person reading a hypertext must explore a network of webpages in order to generate enough content for a narrative. So too in spatial form narratives is the reader “confronted with an open-ended array of thematically interrelated factors he must weld into a picture – into a ‘spatial form.’”[3] I will use spatial form theory to examine electronic literature as a spatial reading experience as well as a temporal experience. Following a theoretical exploration of reading literature on the computer, I will demonstrate the execution and mediation of spatial reading through a pioneering hypertext, Geoff Ryman’s 253.[4]

Reading into the “Jump” of Electronic Literature

To begin, I will examine how the spatial qualities of hypertext can be approached by reader-response theory, particularly by spatial form theory. Hypertext differs from print text in its incorporation of hyperlinks, which are embedded upon each webpage, and through which a reader may jump from page to page. These jumps point toward aspects of digital media that dictate the production and execution of digital communication. That is, through the novelty of electronic literature, we recognize that as digital media operate in an ephemeral medium, they inevitably possess unique characteristics of time and space.

In order to better understand these characteristics, I turn to new media theorist Lev Manovich, whose foundational text The Language of New Media proposes five principles of new media.[5] In attempting to distinguish new media from old media, these principles describe methods of communication that are identified in computer-based media. Of concern to my argument are the second and fourth principles: modularity and variability. The principle of modularity describes how the structure of new media is formed through separate parts: as each part is stored independently, the deletion, substitution, and addition of new parts is made simple.[6] The principle of variability explains that, in correlation with modularity, new media artefacts possess branches in their programming; with regards to new media, a user must navigate through these branches to operate the media.[7] As hyperlinks allow a hypertext to operate through branching-type interactivity, Manovich states that a hypertext reader must follow links to retrieve a version of the document.[8] The phenomenon that he identifies is multilinearity, a style that is not common in the traditional narrative. The narrative as defined by print culture has followed the customs of linear storytelling: whether a story begins in the beginning, middle, or end of a narrative, all facets of the story are revealed to the reader. A multilinear narrative, however, possesses more than one narrative trajectory, and the interweaving of these trajectories is what Espen J. Aarseth calls a multicursory narrative.[9] Multicursory storytelling adds an element of interactivity to reading that can be found in hypertext, digital film, and video games.[10] A reader must choose which sections to read first or which to read at all, thereby changing the reader’s experience of the story so that he or she is indeed left with a version rather than a whole.

Therefore, hypertext is unlike print because it is has a modular structure and is prone to variability. Also, it does not possess a material form except in the technological machine within which it operates. Despite these unique structural and operative techniques, “hypertext theorists frequently employ spatial imagery to describe the relations made possible by links and textons … This rhetoric fails to hide the fact that the main feature of hypertext is discontinuity – the jump – the sudden displacement of the user’s position in the text.”[11] The jump must be accounted for, as it is inherent in the hypertext form; with adequate understanding, the jump of the hyperlink provides for hypertext fiction a claim to being a literary genre in its own right.

The jump has in fact been identified as an important element of reader-response theory. The mental processing of a jump in literary narratives has been explored by Wolfgang Iser, who posits that in any given text, meaning is not derived solely from the explicit statement, “but aims at something beyond what it actually says. This is true of all sentences in literary works, and it is through the interaction of these sentences that their common aim is fulfilled.”[12] Iser proposes a theory of the Implied Reader, whose act of reading is “a dynamic, transcendent, meaning-making activity negotiated through the gaps or indeterminacies of a text by the reader.”[13] We may situate Iser’s readerly gaps by recognizing that, in the context of computer-based media, they are reified as hyperlinks. Through the selection of hyperlinks, a reader is able to jump between Iser’s gaps – or the cyberspace between webpages – in order to fill in the text’s meaning.

Manovich’s alignment of new media operations with cinematic principles allows us to examine aspects of film under the terms of modularity and variability,[14] and by extension, under the terms of Iser’s Implied Reader. The cinematic technique of montage follows that elements are also organized in separate sections, each with its own meaning and figurative agency for meaning-making. While variability does not exist for traditional cinema in the way that it may for new media, one may argue that digital cinema, in engaging a viewer with different trajectories of a film narrative, operates in a multicursory manner. Digital film can be understood as interactive because the Implied Reader must, as over the space of celluloid, fill in a text’s meaning frame by frame, shot by shot. The possibility of the digital montage’s direction, however, has now been multiplied over cyberspace.

The Implied Reader also becomes the writer of the hypertext, so that readers of hypertext fiction may also be referred to as “users,” in that they control the sequence of the narrative through the activation of hyperlinks. This paper will hereafter refer to hypertext readers as reader-users. Sarah Sloane explores the way in which hyperlink gaps are filled by re-assessing the act of reading in the face of hypertext. Drawing from Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede’s theory of “writing types,” Sloane considers the readerly counterparts to these types. Reading up is how she describes content-based reading, the process of cramming and regurgitating information.[15] Reading out and back are akin to reading aloud or to repeating information to an audience, thus engaging a reader with others.[16] When reading into and between, one reads into a text and between the lines;[17] that is, to read into and between is to have a deep engagement with and absorption of the text. From an internal mediation of content, a deeper meaning can be extrapolated. From each of these types of reading, there occurs the reader’s externalization of him or herself towards the text – a uni-directional movement.

Conversely, hypertext fiction functions in a medium with its own operative logic and is therefore able to engage with the reader-user. We concern ourselves with a different type of reading: reading across, whereby the reader and text reciprocate each other’s actions. There exists a permeable border of which reader-users are the gatekeepers and the decision-makers of how a text unfolds, and these decisions are executed as hyperlinks are chosen. I liken reading across to media guru Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism, process over product, as, in a reader-user’s process of interaction with a text through hyperlinks, he or she will execute the imagination and make mental connections between webpages.

Spatial Form Theory and the Implied Reader-User of Hypertext

Hypertext

Spatial form theorist David Mickelsen describes the reading of spatial form narratives in a way that could be interchangeable with the exploration of a hypertext: “Transitions are perfunctory or entirely ignored, and the arrangement of episodes is apparently not governed by a developmental principle. The chapters are blocks that might have been arranged at random without significantly altering the outcome – either for the protagonist or the reader.”[18] Regardless of the outcome of transitions, the human mind is able to configure elements of a text (whether static or fluid, whether print or hypertext) into a larger whole. The formation of this “whole” is the product of the act of reading, where

to complete the process of telling a story – of exchanging a narrative – the receiver must be constructive and produce or reproduce a coherent understanding of the message. Meaning is never contained or guaranteed by the text alone but requires the reader’s engagement and creative relationship to the text. The user relates to the given parts and generates a whole that makes sense in the receiving context.[19]

Mickelsen draws upon the Implied Reader’s style of reading for the purpose of articulating the act of reading spatial form narratives, as, “the reader’s collaboration and involvement, his interpretation [to fill in the gaps]. If ‘exploration’ is to be winnowed to ‘assertion,’ the reader must do it. Thus the ‘implied reader,’ in Wolfgang Iser’s phrase, in spatial form is more active, perhaps even more sophisticated, than that implied by most traditional fiction.”[20] The eagerness of spatial form theory to adopt Iser’s notion of the Implied Reader mirrors that of hypertext theory, and both have turned to metanarrative theory to describe the reader-user’s experience of interacting with a text.

Metanarratives, as described by Ann Daghistany and J.J. Johnson, are especially sensitive to relationships of fragmentation, which encourage reference and connection:

The reader of a spatial-form narrative cannot perceive the characters of their actions as he does in a traditional narrative – that is, he does not perceive separate, individual characters developing and interacting in a linear time frame, because this linear temporal development is largely missing. Instead, as he grasps the relationships between the parts through reflexive reference, the attentive reader of spatial form begins to perceive a pattern or whole form.[21]

By appropriating the notion and discourse of the Implied Reader, hypertext theorists may explain the self-reflexive processes by which the reader-user is able to make sense of the text. Other hypertexts that may also be examined through spatial form theory include Mary Flanagan’s theHouse, which simulates a three-dimensional space in which text can appear, and Lance Olsen and Tim Guthrie’s 10:01, which is a multimodal narrative utilizing images, text, sound, and multilinearity in its methods of storytelling.

253’s Self-Reflexivity of Spatial Movement

In this section, I will offer an example to demonstrate how electronic literature and hypertext operate through and are reflexive of digital space. I have chosen 253 because it is widely considered a pioneering hypertext. Published online in 1996 by Geoff Ryman, the hypertext demonstrates self-referentiality of the digital medium’s use of time and space.

253 is a hypertext that takes the form of a website with constituent webpages. 253 tells the story of a London Underground subway train travelling on the Bakerloo line and heading toward its destination of Elephant and Castle station. The reader-user is told that the train will not brake at Elephant and Castle, but instead, will hurtle past the station and crash in 7.5 minutes. The title of the hypertext refers to the fact that at full capacity, an Underground train carries two-hundred-fifty-two passengers across seven carriages – two-hundred-fifty-three including the driver. The “narrative” of the text consists of two-hundred-fifty-three passenger profiles, which reveal the following information about each passenger: “outward appearance: does this seem to be someone you would like to read about?”; “inside information: sadly, people are not always what they seem”; and “what they are doing or thinking: many passengers are doing or thinking interesting things. Many are not.”[22]

Each profile contains hyperlinks that reveal relationships between and among passengers, thereby allowing reader-users of 253 to form mental connections – figurative links – between people, and these links are explicit, provoked by Ryman, or arbitrarily conceived by the reader-user. In this way, 253’s theme of linking exists in its two related types of reading: reading through webpages as a reader-user explores links and jumps from page to page, and reading relationships between passengers. As such, linking exists in both the text’s form and content. In order to draw the reader-user’s attention to the theme of linking in form and content, the profiles are coupled with a series of false advertisements and explanatory hyperlinks, which the reader-user may access at any time, providing the possibility that these advertisements and explanations may also become part of the narrative. These additional links accompany and frame the profiles, making tongue-in-cheek references to the theme of linking in form and content, and referring back to the interactive style of reading 253. Whether the advertisements and explanatory links are accessed prior to, during, or after reading the passenger profiles, they serve as self-reflexive commentary on Ryman’s theme.

Self-Reflexivity of Medium

Geoff Ryman’s 253.

First, 253 is self-referential of its structure by calling attention to the medium in which it operates. In the text’s introduction, “253? Why 253?” Ryman states, “Numbers [sic] are reliable. So that the illusion of an orderly universe can be maintained, all text in this novel, less headings, will number 253 words.”[23] The illusion of 253 as an orderly, static, and autonomous object is not actually maintained, as Ryman illustrates the artificiality of the text’s structure through its rigid numerical structure. The “End of the Line” page refers to the temporal novelty available to 253 as a hypertext, as one may choose this option at any point of the narrative. Should a reader-user tire of reading profiles, he or she may go the route of “sensationalism and violence,”[24] and discover the fate of all seven cars. This section has the opposite temporal effect of the majority of the text, as, rather than expand 7.5 minutes of travel into the time it takes to read two-hundred-fifty-three passenger profiles, the reader-user may instead skip to the ending, jumping from A to B, and engaging in a temporal ellipsis. In this way, the linearity of a traditional narrative is shattered as the reader-user is allowed to explore different spaces and times of the narrative.

Self-Reflexivity of Structure and Operation

The advertisements are perhaps the most self-referential aspect of the 253 reading experience, as they call attention to the structure- and content-based linking of the text, while at the same time presenting both as “natural.” Advertisement 7 encourages the reader-user to make connections between passengers, whether they are explicitly stated or need to be arbitrarily created by the reader-user. The text becomes self-reflexive of the branching-type interactivity offered through new media structure when Advertisement 7 promotes the binary-based Ascii Code as a way of forming relationships between passengers. Ascii Code – American Standard Code for Information Interchange – is a numerical code system that uses the numbers one and zero to represent letters on computers. Whether the reader-user realizes it or not, 253 as a text is an exercise in using Ascii Code to form relationships, as all computer data – including hypertext and hyperlinks – are composed of binary code. When a reader-user jumps from page to page, he or she does so through binary code. His or her exploration of passengers and consequent relationships are formed through the use of code, and what appears to be a random means of association is in fact integral to the process of reading a hypertext.

Ryman suggests using Ascii Code in order to select a profile, so that a reader-user may begin the process of forming relationships. He suggests flipping a coin repeatedly to generate the numbers one and zero into a pattern, landing at a number that will dictate which passenger the user considers reading about next. In titling this webpage “The 253 Way of Knowledge,” it is suggested that, like the Ascii Code system, the “knowledge” that the reader-user gains of passengers may be as arbitrary as flipping a coin. The knowledge is based on chance, on the likelihood of the reader-user choosing a particular hyperlink and arriving at its specific code. Unless a reader-user explores the entirety of 253, those passengers whom he or she gets to learn about is based on chance as well. Chance, then, is a subtheme of how one explores the space of the hypertext.

Self-Reflexivity of User-Generated Content

Following the logic of filling in Iser’s informational gaps, the reader-user similarly makes connections between and across profiles in 253. The text becomes self-reflexive of the act of reading in hypertext, and especially of the role of the reader-user, which 253 likens to that of a Godlike observer. New media studies have long emphasized user-generated content as having a huge stake in the production of online information. By calling the reader-user a Godlike observer, Ryman reveals two things: first, that the reader-user’s choices of links will shape the outcome of the text, and second, that in this series of choices, the reader-user moves through the narrative, from subway car to car, from character to character. The reader-user weaves through different elements of the text.

On the first link of the hypertext, Ryman explains the position of the reader-user: “do you sometimes wonder who the strangers around you are? This novel will give you the illusion that you can know. Indeed, it can make you feel omniscient, Godlike.”[25] The illusion offered is one of omniscient power over a text; the reader-user is situated as an observer of the passengers. The role can be best described using literary critic William Spanos’ formalist treatment of metanarrativity: “the critical act begins for the formalist not at the beginning … but only after the reading or perceptual process terminates; at the vantage point, that is, from which, like an omniscient god.”[26] The omniscient Godlike role is reiterated on a second webpage, in which Ryman describes a hypothetical situation in which the reader-user has an omniscient knowledge of others. This webpage functions as a reminder of the reader-user’s “vantage point” in the space of 253, where, similarly to spatial form narratives, “the reader is encouraged to identify not as a particular human being with particular characters but as a human mind experiencing a form, such as a square or a labyrinth, created by the interaction of fictional beings with one another and with their environment.”[27]

Interestingly, the agency of the reader-user in directing the time and space of the hypertext is also counterbalanced by Ryman when he urges, “Please remember that once you leave 253, you are no longer Godlike. The author, of course, is.”[28] While he ascribes to the reader-user a seemingly powerful role, in fact, the reader-user is only “user” insofar as he or she may activate preordained links. The non-diegetic reader-user of 253 has no control over the direction of the links, which all lurch, temporally and spatially, towards the inevitable ending.

Concluding Statements

As reader-users of hypertext, what we encounter is a literary form that may play off of expectations of print narrative, and then invert them so to upset expectations of genre and medium. When asked by journalist Leo Winson, “Do you think hypertext fiction has to break away from traditional concepts to be effective in this new form?” Ryman responded, “Sure do. I’m not sure the word is effective, though. Justified is more like it. Why waste time and energy if the same thing could be done in print?”.[29] With the intention of justifying the hypertext as a unique method of storytelling, Ryman sets out to teach the reader-user as much about the “new form” as possible. The communication is different, the exploration of plotline or plotlines are different, the execution is original, and the reader navigates through the narrative in more than one way. Therefore 253 reveals its own underbelly: the text is conscious of what it and its genre offers the reader-user. It is not the passenger profiles of the text that mediate the hypertext’s form and style, but everything that couples those profiles: the additional links, which shake the reader-user into awareness – awareness of the novelty of digital space. By engaging with this space through electronic literature, the reader-user may recognize that the hypertext engages actively, and forces him or her to make choices and read in a different way. In drawing attention to its interactive nature, hyperlinks and the readerly jump become their own instruction manual. 253 is thus a crash course on hypertext fiction, where the reader-user learns the genre by doing the genre.

 

References

Aarseth, Espen J. “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory.” Hyper/Text/Theory, 51-86. Edited byGeorge P. Landow. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Daghistany, Ann, and J.J. Johnson. “Romantic Irony, Spatial Form, and Joyce’s Ulysses.Spatial Form in Narrative, 48-60. Edited by Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. New York Cornell University Press, 1981.

Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History Vol. 2 (1972): 279-299.

Jewitt, Carey, and Gunther Kress. “Introduction.” In Multimodal Literacy, 1-18. New York; Berlin: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.

Liestøl, Gunnar. “Wittgenstein, Genette, and the Reader’s Narrative in Hypertext.” In Hyper/Text/Theory, 87-120. Edited by George P. Landow. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001.

Mickelsen, David. “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative.” In Spatial Form in Narrative, 63-78. Edited by Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Page, Adrian. “Constructing Xanadu: towards a poetics of hypertext fiction.” The Question of Literature: The Place of the Literary in Contemporary Theory, 174-189. Edited by Elizabeth Beaumont Bissell. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Ryman, Geoff. 253. 1996. http://www.ryman-novel.com

Sloane, Sarah. “The Materials of Digital Fiction.” Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World, 65-106. Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000.

—. “Muddy Readers, Malestreams, and Splitting the Atom of “I”: Locating the Reader in Digital Fiction.” In Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World, 147-184. Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000.

Smitten, Jeffrey R., and Ann Daghistany. Spatial Form in Narrative. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Winson, Leo J. “A Reactive Interview with Geoff Ryman author of 253.” Dark Lethe. Reactive Writing. Web. 10 June 2012. http://www.leo.mistral.co.uk/hyper/253.htm

 

Notes


[1] Carey Jewitt and Gunther Kress, Multimodal Literacy (New York; Berlin: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003), 16.

[2] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 68.

[3] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 78.

[4] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996, http://www.ryman-novel.com/.

[5] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001).

[6] ibid., 30.

[7] ibid., 38.

[8] ibid., 38.

[9] Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 44.

[10] ibid., 48.

[11] Espen. J. Aarseth, “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory” in Hyper/Text/Theory, ed. George P. Landow (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 69.

[12] Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History Vol. 2 (1972): 282.

[13] Sarah Sloane, “The Materials of Digital Fiction,” in Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World (Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000), 76.

[14] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001), 141, 142.

[15] Sarah Sloane, ““Muddy Readers, Malestreams, and Splitting the Atom of “I”: Locating the Reader in Digital Fiction.”,” in Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World (Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000), 158.

[16] Sarah Sloane, ““Muddy Readers, Malestreams, and Splitting the Atom of “I”: Locating the Reader in Digital Fiction.”,” in Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World (Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000), 158, 159.

[17] ibid., 160.

[18] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 66.

[19] Gunnar Liestøl, “Wittgenstein, Genette, and the Reader’s Narrative in Hypertext.” In Hyper/Text/Theory, ed. George P. Landow (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994), 98.

[20] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 74.

[21] Ann Daghistany and J.J. Johnson, “Romantic Irony, Spatial Form, and Joyce’s Ulysses.Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 53.

[22] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996, http://www.ryman-novel.com/.

[23] ibid.

[24] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996, http://www.ryman-novel.com/.

[25] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996, http://www.ryman-novel.com/.

[26] Ann Daghistany and J.J. Johnson, “Romantic Irony, Spatial Form, and Joyce’s Ulysses.Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 50.

[27] ibid., 53.

[28] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996, http://www.ryman-novel.com/ .

[29] Leo J. Winson, “A Reactive Interview with Geoff Ryman author of 253,” Dark Lethe, accessed June 2, 2012. http://www.leo.mistral.co.uk/hyper/253.htm

 

Bio:

Lai-Tze Fan is a Ph.D. Student in the Communication & Culture Program at York University, Canada. Her dissertation focuses on the influence of new media poetics on contemporary print literature. As such, she is invested in the critical evaluation of an emerging and experimental body of literary texts, and in how literary, new media, social, and cultural scholars negotiate these texts in relation to – and while we are still in – the information age.

 

Volume 21, 2012

Special Issue: Digital Cartography: Screening Space

edited by Wendy Haslem & Athena Bellas

1. Reaching for the Screen in Nine Inch Nails’ Lights in the Sky – Katheryn Wright

2. I See You: the Posthuman Subject and Spaces of Virtuality – Rebecca Bishop

3. Cartographic City: Mobile Mapping as a Contemporary Urban Practice – Clancy Wilmott

4. Moving Through The Narrative: Spatial Form Theory and the Space of Electronic Literature – Lai-Tze Fan

5. The Digital Gesture: Rediscovering Cinematic Movement through Gifs – Hampus Hagman

6. Digital Memories: The McCoy’s Electronic Sculptures – Wendy Haslem

7. Red Riding Hood (2011): The Heroine’s Journey Into the Forest – Athena Bellas

 

Cartographic City: mobile mapping as a contemporary urban practice – Clancy Wilmott

Abstract: As the contemporary city becomes a site of complex negotiations between technology and people, the ubiquity of digital maps is disrupting traditional spatial paradigms. Here, the texts of the urban imagination are becoming increasingly geo-coded, changing constantly on servers updated with information by millions of people and are accessed on multi-functional mobile devices. The future challenge for researchers is to find new methods and theoretical frameworks so that the wider implications of context-dependent digital mobile maps may be understood.

Sydney

Figure 1 Google Maps for Mobile 2012: Sydney

How many maps, in the descriptive or geographical sense, might be needed to deal exhaustively with a given space, to code and decode all its meanings and contents? It is doubtful whether a finite number can ever be given to this sort of question. What we are most likely confronted with here is a sort of instant infinity, a situation reminiscent of a Mondrian painting. It is not only the codes — the map’s legend, the conventional signs of map-making and map-reading — that are liable to change, but also the objects represented, the lens through which they are viewed and the scale used. We are confronted not by one social space but by many indeed, by an unlimited multiplicity or unaccountable set of social spaces.[1]

 I opened Google Maps for Mobile and I searched for ‘Sydney’ (fig.1).

 

What I got was Sydney, city of foreshores and freeways, traffic routes and train stations. A Sydney so easily presented, just as if one day I happened to be flying over with the seagulls and snapped a picture, and then took it home to scribble over it with highlighters. In this Sydney, the sum of the inner suburbs are ordered with varying font sizes, eliminating Kings Cross and Redfern, Woolloomooloo, Wynyard Chippendale, Camperdown, Strawberry Hills and the Rocks – all geographically in the heart of the city, but not marked. There’s a big red pin dropped down on Town Hall, (co)incidently, marking ‘Sydney’, at its centrepoint (although more (co)incidently, not at Centrepoint). And over in the left-hand corner sits a little blue dot, myself, waiting patiently on the edge of a search result coded to be just wide enough to include both Sydney and I together.

This is a special kind of Sydney – it’s a Sydney that sits in my pocket, that I can look at whenever I want. It’s a Sydney that I can dress up in red and green traffic lines, or satellite images and coloured pins; or dress down into yellow streets and orange highways, and faded outlines of buildings on grey pantone blocks.

I could choose another Sydney. I could choose a Sydney that is covered in eating establishments, view tales of ice-cream and pancakes; or a Sydney full of friends conversing with one another, meeting up and drifting off.

Or, I could build my own Sydney – create my own places and add my own photos, tag my location and leave accounts of my experiences. I could document my street corner, or the chewing gum stuck to the footpath, the shops that have been shut down or my favourite pieces of graffiti. I can make almost infinite snapshots of Sydney through infinite accounts, stories that sit on digital maps carried about on mobile phones by thousands of people, which change information second to second, coordinate to coordinate, app to app.

The minute I switch on my mobile phone, I encounter these many versions of Sydney – and the possibility of many more. These interpretations may be cobbled together over the comforting and familiar backgrounds of traditional maps or hidden within the application’s functionality, entirely contrived by global positioning systems (GPS) and software code: “Facebook for iPhone Would Like To Use Your Current Location” – okay, if you say so.

The Sydney that I find on a mobile phone is a cartographic city. It is so completely dominated by and reliant on geo-coding systems, that it is impossible to avoid maps or to express the city without them. Maps form the architecture of the mobile city: they direct flows, produce spaces and position places. And the people who use them are engaged in everyday mapping practices, mediating their encounters with the city by reading maps and making maps, magnifying their experiences across multiple communities and landscapes.

As such, this paper proposes two things: firstly, that maps have moved beyond a simple textual interface to become dynamic and directive interfaces, capable of intertwining themselves into everyday practices; and secondly, that their influence on everyday practices is building new experiences and images of the city that are firmly grounded in epistemologies and ontologies – cartographic and otherwise.

The applications

Of all the maps and applications that may be used on mobile phones in Sydney, this paper focuses on just three – Facebook Places, Foursquare, and Google Maps for Mobile. Each of these applications has been selected because they perform subtly different functions, and are exemplary of the different ways that mobile maps engage the user, cartographic principles and the urban environment.

By choosing apps, rather than simply maps, this paper is also engaging in an expanded view of what constitutes ‘a map’. Not simply technical, cartographic drawings or prints, maps differ widely across time and culture. The rise of ‘critical cartography’ in the 1990’s saw a move away from assumptions that cartography was a scientific endeavour, which sought objectivity and accuracy as its aims. Instead, a new field of scholarship was produced, whereby critical geographers and cartographers built on the earlier work of theorists such as Michel Foucault[2] by deconstructing the map and arguing that the it, like any text was a deeply ideological social construct.[3]

Within critical cartography, however, discussion wasn’t simply limited to the power of maps: the argument over what constituted ‘a map’ was also important. Geographers such as John Pickles[4] and Mark Monmonier[5] pointed to a hegemonic western ideaology of ‘cartographic reason’ that privileged rhumb lines and politics. The consequences of this, they argued, was that is was forgotten that maps were simply representations of spaces and places, and that thousands of years of map-making practices, from cave drawings to Pacific Island tidal maps to the artworks and posters of the Situationist Internationale, had largely been ignored.

Thus, although two of the three selected applications, are not traditional maps, they have major roles in the contemporary popular representation of spaces and places. They also all operate using cartographic representations, and are based around the familiar framework of the map.

Facebook Places is an application developed from the social networking site Facebook, that utilises GPS technology to enable users to “check-in” at various locations by selecting a particular place from a list provided, specific to the user’s location. Combining location data and user information from Facebook, Facebook Places lists the ‘friends’ who have also checked-in nearby.

Similarly, foursquare can be integrated with Facebook and works in the same fashion as Facebook Places – as a ‘check-in’ style app that uses the phone’s GPS capabilities to provide a list of check-in locations. foursquare also houses a comment thread for each location, and the user with the most check-ins in the location is rewarded with a ‘Mayoralty’ in that location, a title that can bring benefits of discounts or bonuses, badges, and other incentives to continue checking in, in future.  Both apps allow users to record their own, personalised locations (for example, someone’s house), which can then be listed for other users to see and check-in.

Google Maps for Mobile is a more generic mapping application, using information from the Google Maps website optimised for a mobile platform.[6] It also incorporates GPS capabilities not available for its desktop version, that display’s the user’s location on the map via a small blue dot. Google Maps for Mobile’s main functionality is direction-based, with a search function, and information display options (style of map and traffic conditions) and can interacts with Google Latitude, an extended social networking tool that broadcasts the user’s location to a set of approved friends.

Mobile devices and software-texts

Even though these apps may be described as maps and are cartographic in nature, the assumption that ‘the map’ is a static representational object is no longer accurate, and deconstructionist approaches of critical cartography are no longer adequate for understanding digital processes of representation. [7]  A focus only on the semiotics of cartography, the glyphs and symbols that give the graphic map meaning hazards an incorrect underlying assumption that a screen is an easy replacement for paper.

Verhoeff[8] argues that the screens has seen a shift from representative cartography to performative cartography, via practices of navigation. For instance, depending on the device (I have an iPhone), a specific kind of tactility is required – tapping, clicking, pressing, swiping –  all of which eventually form a subconscious part of the process of calling on and adjusting the map. It is no longer as simple as ‘reading’ the map. Instead, the creation and navigation of the map is grounded in technological haptic practices that the user must engage in order to access information. I would go further to argue that haptic practices ingrains the map/cartographic imagination even further into the subconscious as traditional reading practices are subsumed by digital functionality.

Gone are the days when folding large maps down to the specific area required, or following the breadcrumb trail of adjacent pages on street maps, jarred the reader into a conscious act of ‘reading the map’, a specific skill that needed to be learnt. The ‘slippy map’[9], the continuous, boundless map that zooms in and out, and slides around, limited only by the size and resolution of the screen on which it is read. Navigating this map takes a finger and a thumb, moving the graphic field as required without searching for page numbers or following logic processes for the number of folds required.

Map readers do not even have to find themselves on the map anymore – with a tap, the device, in collaboration with the digital map, completes this arguably humbling process of self-location by adeptly and effortlessly offering to use your location and reconfigure the map egocentrically around the user[10]. Even when the device is not being used it is put away easily, where the ever-present possibility of the map sits heavily in the pocket of the user, and may be called upon and put away with comparative disregard.

Figure 2. Google Maps for Mobile 2012: bakery rozelle

The introduction of a divergent haptic engagement is the result of more fundamental changes to the medium of the map: with paper maps, the relationship between the text (i.e. the map) and the object on which it is represented (i.e. the paper) does not change. However, the mobile device that displays a map often also serves multiple other purposes. Depending on the model, it may also be a phone, a calculator, a camera, a music player, a sound recorder, a clock, a calendar, a compass, a notepad and/or any number of personalised applications. Sybilly Lammes[11] has expounded the shift between the static and the dynamic nature of texts and objects using a Latourian concept of the immutable mobile.  An immutable mobile is an object like a postcard or a photo which can be carried about, but whose image and purpose doesn’t change.[12]

 

Lammes refers back to traditional paper maps as immutable mobiles, and until recently paper maps could only be altered clumsily (with pen, by hand over the print)[13] or over time (with new editions printed every year, for example). Not only is this not true of apps like Facebook Places, foursquare or even Google Maps for Mobile whereby users can use digital interfaces to add information to the map with unprecedented accuracy, each of these particular examples are inherently mutable: the fields of representation, the texts, all change in consideration of the context in which they are viewed.

Because the map is not intrinsically fixed to the object, it needs to be ‘accessed’ or ‘loaded’: called upon by the device to be displayed from the digital server where it is being stored, as the app is opened. For instance, as I open Google Maps for Mobile, the device automatically accesses my GPS coordinates, and adjusts the map to suit my immediate surroundings. As discussed above, it may also adjust so that the map matches the direction that I am facing.  Via this process, the device and the digital map combine to become ‘the map’ which I then use to navigate.

But even then, this conceptual simplification ‘the map’ – is tenuous at best. The existence of ‘the map’ is dependent upon internet access, and a complex negotiation between people, space and technology. Data is flung through space: input on users’ experiences and memories is instantly reduced to one of a variety of programming codes and then transmitted via digital signals between mobile devices, radio towers, satellites and servers; reinterpreted by the devices and converted back into digital text and images to be read by other users, or adjusts to the required display. In doing this, this negotiation crosses multiple spaces: physical spaces of tactility and presence, virtual spaces of information[14] and the Hertzian space[15], the space of signals and bytes. Without every single one of these elements falling into line, the map would fail to exist.

Beyond the screen, the changes to ‘the map’ are even deeper. The map is a constantly updating, searchable digital text, meaning that it no longer manifests like a traditional text, but rather, a software-text whereby the data of the map is being constantly written and rewritten. In this case, the software-text is divided between the front end user interface that has the appearance of a traditional road map and the back end lines of code and scripting which give the map its interactivity.

Thrift and French[16] argue that software is a different kind of text to traditional representational and semiotic forms. Software is a series of coded, suspended instructions hidden behind the interface. It lies below the level of representation, below the familiar graphic of the map. These codes dictate the framework for the mapping application’s interactivity, determining what kind of information is displayed. Taking into account how the user reads the information, the way that it is displayed, and the way that information is entered, and placing it in the broader context of a spatio-temporal software text, it is evident that the software itself is ergodic,[17] subtly engineering practices of representation.

Let’s take as an example the ‘My Location’ circle on Google Maps for Mobile. By pressing a single button on the application, a little blue circle will appear with an approximation of your current location and a map of the surrounding area. This is more obvious when considering the expanded functionality of Google Maps for Mobile as well as Foursquare and Facebook Places. The process of mapping, of tagging information onto certain sites, or deciding a route to take, is so thoroughly overdetermined by the options provided by code that though it may appear organic and natural, it is in fact bounded by how the application works. It is not possible to direct the blue circle to another location, nor, if it’s in the wrong position, correct it, just as it is very difficult to have control over which 3 routes Google Maps provides (for example by excluding toll roads, busy roads, tunnels or major intersections).

Figure 3.1 Google Maps for Mobile 2012: Suggested route 1

Figure 3.2 Google Maps for Mobile 2012: Suggested route 2

Figure 3.3 Google Maps for Mobile 2012: Suggested route 3

Furthermore, Facebook Places and Foursquare depend heavily on pre-existing, user-entered locations, and certain specific sets of information being entered. You cannot enter a period of being ‘en-route’ or in constant movement (though admittedly, it is possible to tag yourself to a moving vehicle e.g. the 431 bus).

Software “…therefore is a space that is constantly in-between, a mass-produced series of instructions that lie in the interstices of everyday life, pocket dictators that are constantly expressing themselves”.[18] While Thrift and French wrote specifically about the role that interfaces like escalators and lifts play in producing space, it isn’t too far-reaching to say that, given the established relationship between maps and space and subsequent development from paper to digital maps, the role that software plays in producing space is reflected in the way that it produces maps (which in turn, produce space). While ‘the map’ may have the (familiar) appearance of being fluid and and malleable, the way that it operates and its limits of interactivity are determined by code which scripts the application.

Mapping moments: from digital maps to mapping practices

In attempting to study mobile maps given their dynamism and software, a consideration beyond the epistemology or semiotic structure of the map to include the ethnographic and the ontological is necessary. The importance of this inclusion is augmented by the most crucial difference between digital maps and mobile maps: mobility. Mobility means that mapping can now occur immediately in the same space that is being mapped. Each photo that is uploaded onto Facebook Places, or each comment that is left on foursquare is time-stamped, and adjusted relative to time, as well as space. For instance, so and so did such and such 42 minutes ago:

Figure 4 – Facebook Places 2012

This information is not static: it is simply the most recent point in a stream of continual tags, updates and other mapping activities. The map itself changes with new information, and while a screenshot (as used above) or photograph may capture the idea of what a map does in a particular geography, it doesn’t capture the way that it evolves over time. If I were to return to the exact same location where this map was created, it wouldn’t necessarily be the same. Other users may have come and left other tidbits of information, or deleted information, or done such and such only 4 seconds ago. The mobile map more closely reflects the urban landscape – as the café that I was visiting will erode and change over time, so too will the mobile map.

This, of course, makes it incredibly difficult to pin down. Rather than trying to capture a fluid text, perhaps it is more useful to view the creation and erosion of multiple mobile maps as parts of a continual process of situated mobile mapping, which occurs across both time and space. To do this, non-representational theories (such as those proffered by Nigel Thrift) offer a radical methodology that focuses on practices as the ‘stable feature of a world that is continually in meltdown’.[19]

Practices are not perpetual in and of themselves (they don’t last forever in their original form), but endure longer than representational forms (like books, art, or music) by leaving spectres and traces in contemporary habits. By studying mobile mapping practices, and trying to understand how mobile maps and mobile mappers may fit within them, it may be possible to transcend the ‘meltdown’ of the map as it loses its immutability.

Rather than attempting to capture the map as it shifts, I propose that it is far more useful to trace the multiple instances of situated mapping that occur in time and space. These instances may manifest differently, in either an automated or manual fashion. Overtly, applications like Facebook Places and foursquare while changing constanstly, do not do so at a consistent rate. Each piece of new information, each check-in, geo-tag and upload, adds to the map unevenly as users enter the information at varying and unpredicatable intervals, tagging the information onto the position. Differently, in Google Maps for Mobile the blue circle doesn’t just represent the location of the device, but also its movement over the landscape. As the user moves, the blue circle will also move, reflecting the changes in your position. Occasionally the signal is lost and the blue circle gets ‘stuck’ at the last known position, jumping to the correct location when service is restored. More evident in failure than function, although the blue circle may seem like a fluid representation of the users positionality, it ultimately is the product of series of microtemporal instances strung together to build a sense of movement. Thus, in defining the idea of ‘mobile mapping’ it is important to build an understanding of mobile mapping practices as ontological situated encounters imbued with immediacy, experience and affect.

However, it is difficult to demarcate these encounters in ontological terms, without privileging approaches that rely on time being suspended in an abstracted ‘moment’. Thrift suggests an approach stemming from the work of A. N. Whitehead which ‘is not willing to completely jettison the phenomenological (the lived immediacy of actual experience, before any reflection on it) and the consequent neglect of the transitive’.[20] As such, this conceptual moment is not isolated from other moments. Rather, affectual elements, ‘onflows’, flow from past moments through this moment and on into the future, giving a sense of continuum [21]. This increased fluidity of the conceptual moment also provides a more suitable basis for understanding the new dynamism in digital maps. By examining this ‘moment’, light may be cast upon the microcosm of activity and influence that underlies mobile maps, which neatly mirrors the intentions of more traditional maps. Simply put, to map is to take a ‘measure’ of the world.[22]

As such, it is via multiple instances that mobile mapping manifests as a kind of practice, as maps are developed through the evolving relationship between time, spaces, and people. This tripartite relationship becomes evident in examining a mapping ‘moment’; a period of time so brief that it is noted by the person recording it as a single button tap that posts an image, or phrase, but during which enormous amounts of information are transferred, invisible signals are sent and silent conversations between technology and space carried out, as discussed earlier in the section about software texts.

Using a ‘moment’ to isolate and magnify mobile mapping practice, it is clear that due to the sheer number of users engaged, making maps is no longer the sole domain of trained cartographers. The rise of the amateur mapper who can accurately tag and display information (or even make maps from scratch via alternative platforms such as Open Street Map) with relative ease and automation has resulted in a democratisation of cartographic systems[23], rendering them collectively accessible to a range of individual map-makers and a wide audience of map users. Familiarity with programming languages is increasing, and will contribute even more to this process of democratisation.

This, combined with digital publishing which has provided a low cost way to disseminate personal maps to thousands of people[24], has moderated the power of the professional cartographer by allowing multiple, contradictory, inaccurate and/or superfluous representations of space to be accessible, presenting a more diverse interpretation of spaces. This is conflated with the possibility for multiple users across space and time to work together collectively on the same map. Here, collaboration and crowd-sourcing becomes a key aspect in mapping practices.

For instance, structure of foursquare houses a vast amount of user-inputted information, which contributes to the blurring of the line between mapping practices and lived experiences. When arriving at a café or even a doctor’s surgery, it is possible via foursquare to see comments such as ‘try the couscous’ or ‘don’t get blood taken here, you’ll lose half your arm in missed veins’.  This kind of information works like word of mouth advice, if such advice sat suspended and anchored to the site in review, leaving the user to judge experiences by a combination of their own personal opinions and those of others lingering in the space, via software. As this information changes, it is then possible to trace its development via timestamps on each post.

Figure 5. foursquare 2012

Over time, space and a multitude of different applications, mapping practices become complicit in the everyday experience of the city.

Consider this – you wake up in the morning, and go for a run. An app traces your GPS movement, recording your route, the distance and the time taken. This information is stored, so you can assess this run in comparison to previous runs[25]; build a fitness routine, or log information for a trainer or team.  After your jog, you order your coffee via your phone, on the way to your local cafe[26]. On arrival you tag yourself and perhaps earn a discount or a free coffee for your loyalty, as the app tracks your visits and purchases [27]. You stop at a bus or tram stop to go into town, your phone noting where you are and when the next service should be arriving[28]. As you sit on the bus you pass various triggers that update you with information on the surrounding area[29]. Alternatively, you drive in and pay for your parking via your phone, adding credit throughout the day, when the app beeps to tell you your time is running low[30]. You can watch your movement on a map as you check out the traffic conditions ahead[31]. You can then select any number of applications that display specific information, goods and services within proximity of your GPS position: restaurants, retail stores, transport, events, cultural institutions, meeting points, monuments, tourist attractions. You can check out where your nearest friend may be[32] and meet them at a local cafe. In this everyday space, you can layer any amount of multiple user data, using your mobile device and software applications[33] – photographs taken by other users, minutes or weeks ago; articles detailing the history or significance of a place; recommendations of food venues and people’s experiences with retail or health services – an ever-growing archive of information that individual users have decided to make public, and link to a particular location.

As such, it is not too extreme to suggest that the experiences of the city are becoming heavily mediated through mobile mapping practices, to the point of being ontological. When I use maps in Sydney, the user-inputted data builds upon itself, and the sheer amount of too much information becomes overwhelming, culminating at its extreme in an experiential disorientation that leaves me unsurprised that people blindly follow satellite navigators into rivers, unwilling or unable to choose between their own sensory information and the mediated instructions from the application[34]. The continual disorienting presence of this cartographic information and its inclusion into everyday practices has become so pervasive that in many ways it exemplifies a hyperspace:

… postmodern hyperspace– has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world. It may now be suggested that this alarming disjunction point between the body and its built environment… can itself stand as the symbol and analogon of that even sharper dilemma which is the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects. [35]

In this reference above, Frederic Jameson describes the effects of post-modernity, whereby the subject is loses the perspective required to ground itself in the turmoil of media globalization. In the same way that Jameson described the signage foyer of Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as a pithy attempt to provide capitalistic direction (to shops and such) in the turmoil of an overwhelming post-capitalist space, maps too have always attempted to make sense of an overwhelming world. [36]  Drawing borders, routes, places and territories has been the repertoire of map-makers for centuries, and the maps that they have made have been key actors in the building of empires, economies and identities. Benedict Anderson outlines the role of the map (along with the census and the museum) in nation-building, essentially stringing together imagined communities of strangers with little in common except geography and cultural practice.[37]  John Pickles takes this argument further:

The drawing and reading of a line, the historical emergence of cartographic reason, the production and circulation of a map and lived experience are so thoroughly and historically intertwined and over- determined.[38]

Pickles argues that maps are not only responsible for framing identity and community, they are also inextricably linked to the everyday existence of the people who live in mapped spaces. Planning surveys, transport maps, street directories, topographical maps, Global Information Systems, aerial/satellite photographs, weather charts (to name but a few) all contribute to the almost invisible representation systems that inform where roads shall go and buildings will be built, how people shall move from place to place and via what routes, how weather events are managed, when garbage will be collected and where drains exist, which suburb you live in, which language you speak. These maps are typically modern – they are objects drawn by people with the lofty aim of demarcating space so that the future may be navigated.

In contrast, the modern subject, the author, has been all but subsumed to a more fractured subject, who, being deeply susceptible to the ‘endless barrage of immediacy’ imposed by postmodernity, has become lost schizophrenic presentness. What is specific about Jameson’s account is his terminology of a ‘hyperspace’ that is so real and immediate, that there is no bodily or informational intermediary between space and experience. The subject is caught in a persistent and unyielding present Jameson’s postmodern hyperspace is filled with media and stimulations that have superceded the original and authentic.

While the modern subject may once have been the cartographer who authoritatively drew lines over the earth, the post-modern subject has been subsumed by sheer amount of media, such as that captured in large-scale mobile mapping practices. The ubiquity of mobile maps means that the world is inundated with simulations, information and infinite hybridity, and this occurs in a situated experience, like a blast, when you attempt to read all the maps at once. Thus, it is unsurprising that Jameson should turn to cognitive mapping as the answer with which to manage this immediacy.

But mapping is as much the cause of the ‘barrage of immediacy’, as its solution. Maps in hyperspaces generate hyperrealities, in the most Baudriallardian sense of the term. They produce and reproduce representations of space, and when applied to digital mobile maps, replicas of lived spatial experiences.[39] Referring to a story by Jorge Luis Borges of a 1:1 scale map that was made of a land, Baudrillard recounts the disappearence of ‘the real’ to be replaced with simulations (simulacra): “Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference, between one and the other, that constituted the charm of abstraction. Because it is difference that constitutes the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real.[40] Here ‘the imaginary of representation’ the difference between real and representation, between original and fake is lost: “In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelops it anymore. It is a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.” [41]

While maps that speak about constructing ideology, mobile mapping points to the construction of experience. Facebook Places and foursquare do not exist as separate virtual spaces that users enter, as they once did on desktop computers. Rather, to the users who engage in them, mobile maps/apps are not virtual places burdened by representations but are instead, lived spaces and places where lived events happen. Through mobile mapping, heuristic knowledge, intuition and memory come into contact as I create referents of imagined, ontological and embodied space.

The most common and accessible images of the city, such as the birds-eye view of the thousands of walkers that Michel de Certeau described standing from the top of the World Trade Centre are reflected and simplified in the transmission of information from thousands of mobile mappers.[42] With the same ambition in Sydney, now, I would not have to climb to the top of the Centerpoint Tower to view the everyday acts of passing-by made by the city’s inhabitants. These acts are mirrored by the GPS signals emitting constantly from their phones. All I would require is an application like Google Latitude to trace these signals (as mobile phone providers already do) and present them on a map and a similar picture would be made from the ground.

So, instead, by understanding practices of mapping rather than maps, we can come to understand how the cartographic imagination becomes embedded in everyday ontologies and practices. Here the original point of the map, navigation, returns to the forefront as the user returns to the comfort of authoritative direction. As was mentioned earlier, it is unsurprising that Jameson should posit that cognitive mapping may ground the postmodern subject. Ironically, this is what mobile mapping is already attempting to do. As the user is inundated with an almost unmanageable level of other people’s mapped information, as they are caught in a whirlwind of mapping practices, moving people and multiple contradictory recounts of experience, they turn on app, “What is the best place to eat in Sydney?”, and the mobile map steps in to helpfully present a solution to a problem that is at least, in part, of their own making.

The cartographic city

As a graphic register of correspondence between two spaces, whose explicit outcome is a space of representation, mapping is a deceptively simple activity.[43] Maps are no longer static texts. Rather than immutable representations of space, they display ever-changing information dependent on time and location and, thus, are deeply ontological, as well as epistemological. Mobile maps are concerned with the specific context of each user, and influencing that user’s conceptualisation of themselves and their world by placing them at the centre of the map, and the map as the centre of their knowledge of the world around them. But it is not enough to say that the map has changed: the culmination of the transformations to the fundamental manner in which a map is conceived, communicated and read suggests a different kind of cartographic activity that is more casual, more subconscious and more performative.

In mobile maps, we may find the tales of the city, the stories of the places that certain groups occupy. In mobile mapping, we find the experiences of the city, the way that people operate and move, their daily routines and haunts. This is evident in the way that maps have been transformed into far more complex systems of representation that rely on technology, space and users to ‘come into being’, and the fact that these new interfaces have been disseminated to everyday users. It is also evident in the way that mobile mapping does more than build imagined communities and bounded spaces: mobile mapping builds ontologies, ways of being and seeing and communicating, and provides another terrain on which urban practices may be marked.

The hierarchies that exist in the city – the power that map-makers, urban designers, planners and other professionals exert to subtly orchestrate the experience of the city – is slowly dissipating, being undermined by amateurs with a few coding skills and the desire to have a conversation about what spaces and places, and, more specifically, home, means to them. For some, this results in an inundation – how can researchers ever hope to capture the volume of maps and mapping instances and explore their significance? But, for the cartographic city this multiplicity is important. While for now, it may be that users fall back on traditional representations of the landscape, fall back of maps to guide them it may also mean that via mobile mapping, new meanings are explored and new ontologies formed. Though this is partially because the hierarchies inherent in maps are also being broken down by the inclusion of infinite variations of information, it is the new mappers and new practices that ultimately form the basis of this transformation. The silences that left out people and places on traditional maps; the gaps that exist in between mapped locations, the absences of personal mobility or temporality, are slowly being filled in by the people that were forgotten.

To return to Sydney, a contested city that was built on the projection of a colonial empire, the everyday experience of spaces and places is slowly being transformed by cartographic practices. In the age of reason and rationalism, the maps that were made of Sydney reflected a particular way of thinking about the world that considered itself as being far removed from the subjective. Though traces of other people can be found at Bennelong and Barangaroo, the early maps were dominated by a powerful few who drew their names over streets, and named suburbs like Glebe after their churches and Ultimo after their avarice.

Such domination is not easily undone, but the potential of a Sydney that can fit in your pocket is to present a multiplicity of experiences and meanings, which are only just beginning to be examined. In a contemporary context, it is the practice of mapping Sydney that holds the real key to understanding what Sydney means. The act of stopping to tap a piece of information into a phone, to document your day to day experiences, to write paths on landscapes that stray off main routes, may tell a story of a different city than that shown by maps in previous eras: this Sydney may be filled with pedestrians or cyclists, street musicians, bands of roving party-goers, small bars, cheap eats or anything else that mappers desire. Perhaps, in time, our maps of Sydney will be filled with millions of tracings of people, their paths through the streets and their experiences of places. They may come to include not just the roads and the suburbs that were marked out in the original intent of empirical mapping, but may also accommodate new cartographies and reclaimed cartographies, with new lines, spaces, and boundaries. Our mappings of Sydney may show how spatial practices are written on the landscape, where, in turn, they may be rewritten across new landscapes. This Sydney must be understood as a city being mapped continuously and pervasively, a city bound by a new kind of cartography that is an experiment in everyday practice.

 

References

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Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994

Black, Jeremy. Maps and politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

de Certeau, Michel. The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984

Cosgrove, Denis. Mappings. London: Reaktion, 1999.

Crampton, Jeremy. “Maps as social constructions: power, communication and visualization.” Progress in Human Geography no. 2 (2001): 235-254.

Dodge, Martin, Kitchin, Rob and Perkins, Chris. Rethinking maps : new frontiers in cartographic theory. Abingdon: New York, Routledge, 2009.

Dolan, Andy. “£96,000 Merc written off as satnav leads woman astray,” Daily Mail Online, 16 March 2007, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-442730/96-000-Merc-written-satnav-leads-woman-astray.html,

Dunne, Anthony. Hertzian tales: electronic products, aesthetic experience and critical design. Cambridge Mass: MIT Press, 1999

Harley, John Brian. Deconstructing the Map in Writing worlds : discourse, text, and metaphor in the representation of landscape, edited by Trevor Barnes and James Duncan. London: New York, Routledge, 1992.

Ingold, Tim. Lines: A brief history. London: Routledge, 2007.

Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism. Durham, Duke University Press, 1991.

Lammes, Sybille. “The Map as Playground: Location-based Games as Cartographical Practices” in Think, Design, Play. Hilversum, 2011. http://www.digra.org

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1991

Monmonier, Mark. Rhumb lines and map wars: a social history of the Mercator projection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004

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Pickles, John. A history of spaces: cartographic reason, mapping, and the geo-coded world. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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Thrift, Nigel and French, Shaun. “The automatic production of space.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers no. 3, 2002.

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Notes


[1] Henri Lefebvre. The Production of Space. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1991.

[2] Foucault’s work was accompanied by a host of other philosophers and sociologists who used maps as exemplars of social, cultural, economic and political tools. For instance, Michel Certeau (1984) in The Practice of Everyday Life also wrote about the role that maps played during the medieval era in constructing the principles of modernity and Benedict Anderson (1991) in Imagined Communities wrote about the map as a tool that reinforced nationalism, and solidified the imagined national community.

[3] John Harley. Deconstructing the Map in Writing worlds : discourse, text, and metaphor in the representation of landscape edited by Trevor Barnes and James. Duncan. London ; New York, Routledge, 1992. Jeremy Black, Maps and politics. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1997; Jeremy Crampton “Maps as social constructions: power, communication and visualization.” Progress in Human Geography 25(2): 235-254, 2001; Mark Monmonier, Rhumb lines and map wars: a social history of the Mercator projection. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004

[4] John Pickles, A history of spaces : cartographic reason, mapping, and the geo-coded world. New York, Routledge, 2004, p.5

[5] Mark Monmonier. Rhumb lines and map wars: a social history of the Mercator projection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004

[6] Mobile platforms include mobile phones, as well as tablets. That said, optimisation is still heavily dependent on operating systems.

[7] Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin and Chris Perkins, Rethinking maps: new frontiers in cartographic theory, New York, Routledge, 2009

[8] Nanna Verhoeff, Mobile Screens, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012

[9] The term ‘slippy map’ was coined by the Open Street Map community. See http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/Slippy_Map for further information.

[10] See this YouTube clip for a full explanation of the how the blue circle works: http://youtu.be/v6gqipmbcok

[11] Sybille Lammes. “The Map as Playground: Location-based Games as Cartographical Practices” in Think, Design, Play. Hilversum, 2011. http://www.digra.org

[12] c.f. Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin and Chris Perkins, 2009.

[13] c.f. Tim Ingold, ‘Lines’ London: Routledge p.85-86, 2007

[14] To take the approach of Manuel Castells in the Rise of the Network Society (1996) in distinguishing the physical space, or the space of places, and virtual/informational spaces, or the space of flows.

[15] The term ‘Hertzian space’ was coined by Anthony Dunne in his book Hertzian Tales. The term was used to describe the aesthetic quality of the invisible ‘sea-like’ landscape of Hertzian signals that penetrates the physical landscape

[16] Nigel Thrift and Shaun French, ‘The automatic production of space.’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, no. 3, 2002.

[17] Espen Aarseth. Cybertext : perspectives on ergodic literature. Baltimore, M: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

[18] Nigel Thrift & Shaun French 311

[19] Nigel Thrift, Non-representational theory: space, politics, affect, London, Routledge, 2008, p. 8

[20] Nigel Thrift 2008, p. 6.

[21] ibid

[22] Denis Cosgrove. Mappings. London: Reaktion, 1999.

[23] Jan Ketil Rød, Ferjan Orneling et al. “An agenda for democratising cartographic visualisation.” Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift no 1. 2001, p.38-41.

[24] Michael Peterson 2007, ‘Elements of Multimedia cartography’, in Multimedia cartography edited by William Cartwright, Michael Peterson and Georg Gartner. Berlin: New York, Springer, 2007.

[25] MapMyFITNESS, ‘MapMyRUN’, computer software, 2007, last update 2012 http://www.mapmyrun.com/

[26] BeatTheQ Pty Ltd, BeatTheQ, computer software, 2011, https://www.beattheq.com/

[27] foursquare, foursquare, computer software, 2009, https://foursquare.com/

[28] Public Transport Victoria, Public Transport Victoria iPhone App, computer software, 2011, http://ptv.vic.gov.au/using-public-transport/customer-information-tools/

[29] University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Tram Trail, computer software, 2011, http://www.dupad.hku.hk/cusup/tram/

[30] Parkmobile International, Parkmobile, computer software, 2008, http://parkmobile.com.au/

[31] Google, Google Maps for Mobile, computer software, 2006, http://www.google.com/mobile/maps/

[32] Google, Google Latitude, computer software, 2009, https://www.google.com/latitude/b/0

[33] Layar, Across Air

[34] c.f. Andy Dolan,  “£96,000 Merc written off as satnav leads woman astray,” Daily Mail Online, 16 March 2007, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-442730/96-000-Merc-written-satnav-leads-woman-astray.html,

[35] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism, Durham, Duke University Press, 1991, p. 44

[36] Frederic Jameson 1991

[37] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London: Verso, 1991.

[38] John Pickles, A history of spaces : cartographic reason, mapping, and the geo-coded world. New York, Routledge, 2004, p.5

[39] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and simulation, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994

[40] Jean Baudrillard, 2

[41] ibid

[42] Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1984

[43] Denis Cosgrove, Mappings. London, Reaktion, 1999.

Bio:

Clancy Wilmott is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Manchester, researching mapping, mobile phones and urban environments. As part of this project, she will be examining the impact of digital mobile mapping practices on place-making, wayfinding and the spatial imagination in post-colonial cities.

 

I See You: the posthuman subject and spaces of virtuality – Rebecca Bishop

Figure 1: Jake Sully in his Na’vi avatar. Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)

Everything is backwards now, like out there is the real world and this is the dream. (James Cameron’s Avatar, 2009)

Over recent years, considerable scholarly attention and mass media speculation has been paid to the emergence of the figure of the posthuman – a vision of augmented human that has undergone radical transformation as a result of new biotechnological and informatic technologies. This posthumanity lives simultaneously in the world of the virtual and the biological, cast concurrently as the future of a biomedically enhanced humanity and a figuration for overcoming the identity politics of the past. Some are arguing that we will eventually leave the human ‘as we know it’ behind, in a techno-modified, cognitively enhanced evolution, while in critical theory, the posthuman is being lauded as an ontology through which the boundary structures of the EuroWestern legacy of humanism can be dismantled. What has been largely overlooked to date, however, is the way in which early twenty-first century science fiction cinema has added a striking new layer to the fields of discourse that currently weave around the notion of posthumanity. In the films The Matrix (Wachowski, 1999), Surrogates (Mostow, 2009) and Avatar (Cameron, 2009) we see the emergence of a representation of humanness as a multimodal, multipresent subjectivity which is produced in an embodied engagement with the material artifacts of contemporary technoculture. Tracing the history and scope of current conceptualizations of posthumanity, I will point to the way in which these onscreen avatars are indicative of what might be seen as a critical shift in the EuroWestern cultural imaginary, a shift from a core epistemological division between the real and the representational, to a metaphysical matrix in which subjects inhabit and switch between simultaneous physical, conceptual and somatic spaces.

Cyborg evolutions

While certainly broad in scope, both late twentieth century scholarship and cinematic representations of cyberculture were primarily concerned with three core and interweaving phenomena that would prove critical antecedents to the twenty-first century vision of the posthuman. Visions of the cyborg in both critical theory and popular culture offered the human/nonhuman hybrid as a means for interrogating humanist identity politics; the rapid rise of the internet and computer-mediated communications saw new concerns over the mediation and multiplicity of the self in interactions between computer users; and new virtual reality technologies led to an investigation of the nature of the boundary between the real world and simulated space. As I outline below, in each of these fields of representation developments in digital and medical technologies led to concurrent examinations of the teleology of the human itself, and new questions over the capacity of the human to evolve into something beyond what it had always been. This is an epistemological legacy many will now be familiar with, yet it is one worth briefly retracing in order to arrive back to the ‘posthuman’ present.

A hybrid of human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic, the cyborg was heralded in late twentieth century Western academic discourse as a contemporary technocultural manifestation of a legacy of boundary creatures; a figure that might represent the dismantling of the humanist binaries which the masculine military-industrial complex had so rigorously produced. Donna Haraway offered a world of permanently partial identities, a new ontology of hybridity, a “creature in a post-gender world” that had no truck with “seductions to organic wholeness”, and was “resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy and perversity” (Haraway, 1991, p.150, 151). Haraway’s cyborg visions preceded a number of investigations of historical hybridities and boundary creatures and spurred cognate feminist epistemologies (see, for example, Lykke and Braidotti, 1996, Braidotti, 1996, 2006). Yet while the theoretical cyborg was lauded as an emergent ontological figuration, the science-fiction cyborg in popular cinema operated on the fundamental binaries that its epistemological parallel attempted to overcome.

Figure 2: Surrogates (Jonathan Mostow, 2009)

The cinematic cyborg was a human/machine hybrid that operated as a border figure that exposed the potentially chaotic consequences of the conjoining of human and nonhuman. Cyborg films offered representations of a subject whose hybridity generated a fundamental conflict between the feeling human self/soul and cold digitality of the mechanical body; we saw human memory traces causing glitches in the cyborg’s operating system (Verhoeven, 1987), the emergence of human sentience in the black void of a cyborg soul (Marquand, 1983), and a myriad of cyborg minds who questioned and grappled what it means to be human. In a parallel, and often overlapping, trajectory we witnessed stories of machinic entities created by humans who became uncontrollable and ultimately tried to harm or destroy their makers (Lang, 1927; Whale, 1931; Cameron, 1984; Wachowski, 1999; Proyas, 2004). Two core cultural stories were woven into these cyborg representations; one, that the human was marked by a capacity for free will, a moral code, and fixed corporeal parameters, and two, that any attempt to technologically mess with the nature and purity of human corporeality could have potentially chaotic consequences.[1]

While popular culture was filled with dark visions of the chaotic consequences of human-machine hybridity, early scholarly discourse on the liberatory possibilities of the new human realm of “cyberspace” was certainly largely utopian in its tenor. Visual metaphors for the virtual abounded; Novak (2001) for example, described a fundamentally liquid space, which was “animistic, animated, metamorphic, as well as crossing categorical boundaries, applying the cognitively supercharged operations of poetic thinking…an architecture that breathes, pulses, leaps as one form and lands as another” (Novak, 2001, p.153). Spiller too (2001) saw this space as one of infinite technological poesis, a “world populated by vacillating objects, Dalinian exuberances, smooth but jagged surfaces and baroque ecstasies” (Spiller, 2001, p.305). For some commentators, this infinite and un-bodied virtuality offered new potentials for the recreation of identity; no longer hampered by the constraints of real world interactions between bodies, this emergent spatiality offered a new terrain for the construction of multiple selves and “dematerialized identity compositions” (Tomas, 1989, p.114). Franck (2002), for example, suggested that “virtual worlds will offer myriad opportunities to encounter and engage objects and spaces in new and different ways and to occupy other bodies, other entities, other species” (Franck, 2002, p.244). Identity, “as it is physically represented” she suggested, “will no longer be tied to the physical attributes of age, gender, race, size or even to the human species. Attributes of humans or other animate and inanimate objects will be chosen and mixed at will” (Franck, 2002, p. 242; see also Turkle, 1984, 1995).

Questions on the nature of the self itself in the context of virtual communications were raised alongside visions of the formation of communities no longer hampered by time, distance and prejudicial politics (Rheingold, 1993, see also Holmes, 1997; Shields, 1997). For some, cyberspace itself offered possibilities for a new modality of being-in-the-world; for JP Barlow (1996), cyberspace consisted of “transactions, relationships and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications…a world that is both everywhere and nowhere” (Barlow, 1996). In the cyberpunk rhetoric that circulated alongside these speculations on identity shifts in cyberspace, the human body itself was offered up as defunct wetware, a viscous fleshly entity that would have no place in the floating exuberance of the digital matrix. In William Gibson’s (1984) cyberspace, for example, the “body was meat” (1984, p.6); for MIT scientist, Hans Moravec (1988), the future was (and still is) a place in which organic bodies have been discarded completely, and “minds” are downloaded directly into networks of digital information.

A number of feminist commentators recognized this vision of defunct wetware and uploaded consciousness as one that was profoundly masculinist, a recasting of the male, transcendent subject of the Cartesian ego, the desire to be finally free of the immanent body in the ultimate disembodied transcendence (Plant, 1999; Sofia, 1999). Yet at the same time it was suggested that the virtual (or ‘Jupiter Space’) offered a terrain for “post-phallic formation”, a site for the construction of a matrix of subjectivities freed from the constraints of the phallocentric order (see, for example, Sofoulis, 1994). Inspired by Irigaray’s casting of the masculine as a quest to escape from the womb towards god-like transcendence, some argued that the virtual was represented in both image and language as a pregnant, womb-like space, a site both desired and feared (Plant, 1999; Springer, 1991; Wolmark, 1999).

Figure 3: ‘Stim-chair’ in Surrogates.

While the expansion of cyberspace prompted calls for the recognition that disembodied interaction might provide a platform for the sloughing of identity categories premised on embodied physicality, early discourses on the digital productions of virtual realities, where users might engage with simulated environments via haptic data gloves, headsets and bodysuits, prompted a new conceptual engagement with the ontology of the real.  A term coined by computer company VPL in 1989 to describe new technologies for user engagement with built virtual environments, the notion of “virtual reality” prompted a slew of questions on the nature of space itself. If a subject could be physically present in one space, and perceptually present in another, where did that subject truly reside? If one senses and touches a virtual space, moves within it, and alters the nature of that space, is the virtual any less “real” that the environment within which the physical body exists? Within this Neoplatonic rhetoric of digitally mediated shadows there was a strong initial sense that VR technologies would completely transform human engagement with electronic media; it would “enhance the power of art to transform reality” (Heim, 1993, p. 118), it was a means to “create, experience and share a computer-generated world as realistic or as fanciful as you would like […] a parallel world” (Briggs, 1996); it was “not a technology” but “a destination” (Biocca, Kim and Levy, 1995, p.4). A speaker at the first IEEE Virtual Reality International Symposium (1993) captured this sense of augmented perceptional futures when he noted that “we are building transportation systems for the senses…the remarkable promise is that we can be in another place or space without moving our bodies into that space” and that these “advanced interfaces will provide an incredible new mobility for the human race” (Furness, 1993, p.1).

What was particularly striking in these discussions of both creating and inhabiting new metaphysical territories was the emergence of an ontology of the digital which suggested that, mediated by technology, the human subject was capable of multiple modes of presence. The notion of telepresence, the perceptual “being-there” (Steuer, 1995, p.35-36) that occurs when one’s mind is transported into a virtual environment, provided the framework for conceptualizing new modalities of a trans-spatial human experience that was no longer limited by the “mind” located in a single, fixed corporeality. We have here the underpinnings of what I refer to as a multimodal subjectivity; a figuration of the human as a perceptual stratum capable of switching and inhabiting multiple real and virtual spatialities while maintaining its core ontological integrity. This was not a cyborgian notion of being, where one becomes-hybrid in a meshing of human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic, but a construction of the human self as a central point of fixity composed of multiple perceptual and embodied engagements with changing social and somatic environments – an emergent subjectivity that operates in multiple, and simultaneous, perceptual spaces.    These early figurations did not challenge the conceptual boundary between the human and its techno-material others (as many feminist scholars of technoculture have and continue to envision), but offered a new means of conceptualizing human being-in-the-world itself.

Posthuman emergences

The notion of telepresence manifested in late twentieth century virtual reality films which explored the nature of the border between reality and simulation in the context of developments in digital imaging technologies and the growth of the information network known as the World Wide Web. Here, stories exploring the blurring of boundaries between embodied and virtual, cyberspatial identities conjoined with dark tales of destruction caused when the fantasy world of the virtual reality headset spilled over into the real world of human relationships (Trumball, 1983; Leonard, 1992; Fleming, 1995; Bigelow, 1995; Roth, 1996; Leonard, 1995; Cronenberg, 1999; Rusnak, 1999).

Yet the film that clearly captured the twin-poles of late 1990s cyberspatial rhetoric was The Matrix (Wachowski 1999), combining cyborgian representations of machines that destroy their makers with an exploration of the boundary between real and virtual perception. The subject of a remarkable plethora of academic discourses on the way in which the film dealt with mediated virtuality and hyperreality[2], this tale of humans that led a fantasy virtual existence while their “real” bodies were harvested to provide a power source for machines captured the rhetoric of virtuality that circulated in the EuroWestern imaginary.

In The Matrix the self was revealed as capable of being transformed into pure digital information, carried into the realm of the simulation via the code-switching capabilities of digital technologies. Like earlier virtual reality films, the characters in this film “jack-in” to the virtual world via a portal in their bodies; their “wet-ware” is left behind as the mind or self is transported into a world of pure simulation. Losing consciousness of their “real” bodies while engaged in the simulation, these characters become-virtual as long as they remain in the spatial architecture of the Matrix. In this text, a chosen few have learnt how to leave the illusion of the Matrix, to transport themselves back into their earthly bodies, and ultimately, battle with the machines that keep them virtual prisoners of their own perceptual fields. Here, an emergent visual culture of the virtual combined with a legacy of cyborg narratives to produce a form of rabbit-hole that media audiences had never seen on screen.

In its focus on mad sentient machines and multimodal selfhood, The Matrix might be seen as a kind of semiotic bridge between late twentieth century cyberculture and the discourses on the posthuman that emerged in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In 1999, Katherine Hayle’s seminal How We Became Posthuman offered an analysis of the historical trajectory of the EuroWestern intertwining of human and machine, arguing that past conceptions of a cybernetic relationship between technology and biology were being displaced by an ontology of the posthuman. This posthuman, she argued, could be seen as “an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (1999, p. 3). In this merging of organic and inorganic bodies and matter, we find “a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligent machines [which] replaces the liberal humanist subject’s manifest destiny to control and dominate nature” (1999, p.289); a new ontology of being-itself in which “emergence replaces teleology; reflexive epistemology replaces objectivism; distributed cognition replaces autonomous will” (1999, p.289). Graham (2002) too maintained that digital, cybernetic and biomedical discourses and representations of the posthuman challenge “our very understanding of what it means to be human” (Graham 2002, p.1, see also Badmington, 2000; Haraway, 1997).  ). In a critical appraisal of posthumanism, Wolfe (2009) pointed out that we have entered “a historical moment in which the decentering of the human by its imbrications in technical, medical, informatics, and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore”.  However, unlike Graham, Wolfe offered the term “posthuman” as a means of interrogating the historic production of knowledge itself.  He insisted that we recognize that the human is at once one of a multitude of co-creating autopoetic beings and an ontological specific produced via engagement with “many forms of technicity and materiality” (p.xxv). It is time, he suggested, to find utterly new ways of thinking about and representing the nature of being, and to recognize the many human and nonhuman figures that together constitute and experience that nature.

Evocations of the posthuman were not limited to scholarly theory however; taking an utterly different perspective on the telos of the human, a number of scientists and writers variously used the term “posthuman”, “transhuman”, or “Human +” to describe an “advanced’ humanity cognitively, physiologically and neurologically superior to the human in its current state. NBIC technologies (nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive sciences), coupled with advances in genetic manipulation, robotics and artificial life, were heralded as the grounds for a form of technocultural ubermensch who would ultimately transcend the human itself. While some advocated the techno-augmentation of the body to produce a stronger, healthier and fitter humanity as a starting point for new evolutions (see for example, Bostrom, 2008, Kurzweil, 1999), others suggested that the body itself may have become obsolete, and that humans might in the future become pure, disembodied subjectivity. The World Transhumanist Association declared, for example, that “some posthumans may find it advantageous to jettison their bodies altogether and live as information patterns on vast super-fast computer networks”, where they might “employ different cognitive architectures or include new sensory modalities that enable greater participation in their virtual reality settings”.[3] Hans Moravec, a leading figure in arguments for posthuman transcendence over the material body principle, made a similar point:

Today’s virtual adventurers do not fully escape the physical world: if they bump into real objects, they feel real pain. That link may weaken when direct connections to the nervous system become possible, leading perhaps to the old science-fiction idea of a living brain in a vat. The brain would be physically sustained by life-support machinery, and mentally by connections of all the peripheral nerves to an elaborate simulation of not only a surrounding world but also a body for the brain to inhabit.

“Some individuals”, he suggested, “could survive total physical destruction to find themselves alive as pure computer simulations in virtual worlds”. [4]

These popular posthumanists have been the target of a plethora of critiques both on the grounds of their resurrection of humanist principles in a new technocultural eugenics and on their challenge to the ontological scantity of the human (see for example Fukuyama, 2002; Habermas, 2003; Kass, 2002); at the same time, however, these visions of the augmented and “uploaded” future human subject have had real resonance in cinematic popular culture. In the 2009 films Surrogates (Mostow, 2009) and Avatar (Cameron, 2009) we see a striking blend of social commentary with imaginings of the future human as a form of multimodal subjecthood that can be switched and uploaded between bodies. In these films, humanness is cast as an ontological essence that retains its integrity as it moves between metaphysical spaces; becoming indeed, as Hayles suggested, a “material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (1999, p.3).

Avatar Selves

Figure 4: Jake and his N’avi self in the film AVATAR (2009)

The films Surrogates and Avatar are key examples of the merging of late twentieth century cyborg imaginings with twenty-first century cultural representations of multimodal subjectivity. Each of these films produce a narrative of multipresence in which subjects switch between human and nonhuman bodies and spaces while at the same time maintaining a centralized human subjectivity. Both set in a future in which humanity has evolved into something-other, these texts can be seen as a culmination of the intersection of scientific imaginings of VR and a popular culture of cyborg bodies and posthuman becoming.

Surrogates is set in an American city in 2017, a world in which humans interact with each other via idealised, physically attractive robotic surrogates of themselves.[5] Their real bodies remain locked in their houses, sitting in “stim chairs” through which they are able to upload their consciousness, or “neuro-signature” into their surrogate bodies while at the same time, remaining conscious of their physical presence in the “real’ world. In this multilayered reality, surrogates can interact with humans as well as with each other, and surrogates can be destroyed without causing harm to their users, or “operators”. These surrogate bodies, we are informed at the onset of the film, are the result of military-industrial research, and have become a technology now so affordable that “98%” of people use them in “all facets of their everyday life”. The surrogate bodies, produced by the corporation VSI (Virtual Self Industries) offer the “ability to live without risk of disease or injury” and “have perfect looks without plastic surgery”.

In this world, a minority group of rebels oppose the use of surrogates and appear to develop a weapon which, when aimed at a surrogate, destroys its “real” operator as well. In the opening credits, we are alerted to the presence of this rebellion; a voice-over, who we later realize belongs to the rebel leader known as “The Prophet”, warns that the public must “unplug from your chairs, get up and look in the mirror”, because “what you see is how God made you; we’re not meant to experience the world through a machine”. As FBI agent Tom Green, sporting a more attractive surrogate version of his human self, tries to uncover who or what is behind these surrogate killings, we are drawn into a society in which purchased, surrogate perfection both masks and produces a myriad of very human vices, and in which the hedonistic illusion of the “self” is clearly promoted and reproduced by the advertising and commodity industry.

Clear visual allusions to MMORPG’s (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) and virtual worlds like Second Life (www.secondlife.com) feature throughout the film, as surrogates bump into strangers in public spaces and take part in banal chat, and engage in romantic and sexual relationships This is “life on screen” (Turkle 1995) with a twenty-first century technological twist; rather than watching their idealized selves on a monitor, these subjects literally embody the fantasy of their own making. This is a representation of multiple selves in virtual space that is certainly reminiscent of early scholarly commentary on cyberspace and selfhood, where “virtual worlds will offer myriad opportunities to encounter and engage objects and spaces in new and different ways and to occupy other bodies, other entities, other species” (Franck, 2002, p.244). Yet in this film these surrogates are, for their users, ontologically real – not simply costumes but alternate corporealities inhabited by a subject that exists in the same metaphysical plane as its constructed, corporeal other.

Figure 5: Jake, with his N’avi self ‘growing’ in a tank behind him

Set over 100 years later in 2154, James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) provides a representation of multispecies, multimodal embodiment and engagement, where subjects switch between human and nonhuman forms of life. The film rehearses familiar environmentalist and postcolonial discourse, framed with popular stereotypes of Noble Savages (the Na’vi), who spiritually connect with the planet on which they live (Pandora) and of an (American) masculine military-industrial complex bent on destroying that environment. In this text, we find a military/commercial operation desperate to mine the Pandora’s precious resource, “Unobtanium”. In order to do so they produce a technology which allows human consciousness to be downloaded directly into genetically bred, visually identical, Na’vi bodies, a download which allow them to enter the local environment and engage with the native population. In the manner of multispecies ethnographers, the scientists involved in the project intercept and interact with the local community in order to learn their cultural values and take botanical samples. At the same time, lead character “Jake Sully” (wheelchair bound in the human world) is asked by the military to use his Avatar to spy on the Na’vi and gain information on how to convince the population to release their Unobtanium – and how best to destroy them if they don’t.

As the story unfolds we find Jake stumbling with the pleasures and pitfalls of participant observation; he is accused of being “like a child” in his failure to grasp the spiritual relationship of the people and land, as well as in his corporeal clumsiness in his avatar body. Gradually though, Jake adjusts to life in this “other” state of consciousness and increasingly resists returning to his “real”, fleshly body; he falls in love, he begins to embrace Na’vi culture and he is slowly accepted by its inhabitants. He is, in part, what Bukatman (2002) has referred to as a “cybersubject”, where:

…virtual reality significantly extends the sensory address of existent media to provide an alternate and manipulable space [and to] be installed into such an apparatus would be to exist on two planes at once: while one’s objective body would remain in the real world, one’s phenomenal body would be projected into the terminal reality…(Bukatman, 2002, p.149).

Yet these are representations not of projection into a virtual reality, but of a subject that physically exists in simultaneous planes. In this switching between bodies and visual realities, Jake’s character struggles with the ontologically real, noting that “[e]verything is backwards now, like out there is the real world and this is the dream”.

In both Surrogates and Avatar hybridity has given way to convergence, cyborgian chaos to posthuman emergence, the virtual to the multidimensional. Yet this evolution is not simply a matter of linear teleology; like all things posthuman these narratives spin trajectories that intersect the legacy of humanism itself. In both of these films the resolution of the narrative rests on a return to a state of singularity, where multipresence is ultimately rejected in favour of a stable state of being; in Surrogates, a recognition that the illusory world of surrogacy corrupts the integrity of human nature and that one should live in one’s original state of embodiment, and in Avatar a decision to cease switching and make the virtual the “real”, leaving behind the wetware of the wheelchair-bound body.

In both Avatar and Surrogates, narrative closure rests on a decision of where to finally be. This cinematic end-moment, where the subject’s ontologically integrity is finally realized via an agentive decision to inhabit a singular corporeality, reveals a critical tension between humanistic narrative and posthumanisms in popular culture. Chaos, randomness and emergence, the unpredictability of multimodal presence, situate the posthuman experience as one of infinite possibility, unbounded by earlier social and corporeal constraints. At the same time, this unpredictability, this nonlinearity, creates a point of crisis or conflict within the subject that must ultimately be resolved in order to achieve narrative stability. Within this imaginary, posthuman possibilities become human predicaments, and like the cyborg narrative of twentieth century cinema, these predicaments must always be resolved in order to attain a state of balance, an equilibrium, between human and nonhuman forms of being, between lived embodiment and cybersubjectivity.  These subjects, it seems, must inevitably choose the space in which they will ultimately reside.

From the unity of the subject to ‘posthuman’ selfhood and back

Notions of illusory reality and alternate or multiple planes of consciousness have grounded both branches of Eastern philosophy and elements of Western metaphysics for centuries. Yet the interception of technology in the achievement of multipresent states can be seen as an emergent phenomenon; a “mode of revealing” (Heidegger 1933) that has travelled from representations of cyborg conflict between human and machine to visions of virtual realities that exist alongside the real, and now, to the realm of the posthuman.

Figure 6: A rescue: N’avi Neytiri removes Jake’s human body from device that transports human consciousness to its N’avi avatar

Cinema itself can be seen as a modality of revelation, a screen upon which cultural narratives are made manifest. The cinema screen today conjoins with the computer screen; the virtual visual of cinematic film co-existing with the cyberspatial, multimodal digital reality that is becoming an increasingly present part of the everyday life world. Digital technologies in themselves generate an everyday multipresence, an embodied switching between the 3-D real, the laptop, the smartphone; a multipresence in which users themselves must negotiate the ontologically real and the visually virtual. Twenty-first century cinema itself is beginning to provide stories of new forms of spatiality – spaces of multimodal perception, spaces of somatic transition, an emergent ontological reality in which subjects both physically and perceptually negotiate their own being-there-in-the-world.  What we see in these forms of story-telling are a number of complex interplays between historical conceptions of the human as a fixed, corporeal entity and the development of technologies which allow that human to “be” in multiple places simultaneously – interplays that produce both fantastic imaginings and deep-seated cultural anxieties.

Recent cinematic representations of the multipresent subject are always ultimately conflicted – they remain fundamentally humanist, and always find narrative conclusion in a return to a state of being a ‘single’ subject in the world of technological possibility.  We are meaning-making animals that turn to our histories to make meaning; however, we invent new possibilities, imagine new ways of being, generate new trajectories.  We can clearly see that current EuroWestern visual representations of a multipresent subjectivity have a rich technocultural legacy; these representations will in turn inform new figurations and imaginings of the boundary between the “real world” and “the dream”.

 

References:

Badmington, Neil, (ed). (2000). Posthumanism, New York: Palgrave.

Barlow, J.P. (1996). A Declaration on the Independence of Cyberspace.  Retrieved 9 February 2011, from https://projects.eff.org/~barlow/Declaration-Final.html.

Biocca, F, T. Kim and M. Levy. (1995). The vision of virtual reality, in F. Biocca and M. Levy, (eds), Communication in the age of virtual reality, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 3–14.

Bishop, Rebecca. (2007). A totally new type of being: framing the human in posthuman ontology, Interculture, Special Edition on Framing the Human: Mediated Notions Through the Disciplines, Spring 4 (1).   http://dih.fsu.edu/interculture/pdfs/bishop_rebecca_framing.pdf

Bostrom, Nick. (2008). Letter from Utopia, Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, 2 (1), 1-7.

Braidotti, Rosi. (1996). Signs of Wonder and Traces of Doubt: On Teratology and Embodied Differences, in N Lykke and R Braidotti (eds), Between Monsters, Goddesses and Cyborgs: Feminist Confrontations with Science, Medicine and Cyberspace, London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 135-152.

(2006). Meta(l)flesh, in Zoe Detsi-Diamanti, Katerina Kitsi-Mitakou and Effie Yiannopoulou (eds), The Future of the Flesh: A Cultural Survey of the Body, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 254-261.

Briggs, John C. (1996). The Promise of Virtual Reality, retrieved 18 October 2010, from http://project.cyberpunk.ru/idb/virtualreality_promise.html.

Bukatman, Scott. (1993). Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Franck, K A. (2002). When I Enter Virtual Reality, What Body Will I Leave Behind?, in N Spiller (ed.), Cyber_Reader: Critical Writings for the Digital Era, London: Phaidon, 238-245.

Fukuyama, Francis. (2002). Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Furness, T. (1993). Greetings from the general chairman, Proceedings of the IEEE Virtual reality annual international symposium, IEEE, NJ: Piscataway.

Gibson, William. (1984). Neuromancer, New York: Ace Books.

Graham, E.L. (2002). Representations of the post/human: monsters, aliens and others in popular culture, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Habermas, J. (2003). The Future of Human Nature, UK: Polity Press.

Haraway, Donna. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, London: Free Association.

(1997). Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets_Oncomouse: Feminism and Technoscience, New York: Routledge.

Hayles, Katherine L. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Heidegger, Martin. (1933). A Question Concerning Technology and other essays, (trans. William Lovitt [1977], New York: Garland Publications.

Heim, Michael. (1993). The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, New York: Oxford University Press.

Holmes, David. (1997). Virtual Politics: Identity and Community in Cyberspace, London: Sage.

Kass, Leon R. (2002). Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity, San Francisco: Encounter Books.

Kurzweil, R. (1999). The Age of Spiritual Machines, UK: Viking.

Lykke N and R Braidotti, (eds). (1996). Between Monsters, Goddesses and Cyborgs: Feminist Confrontations with Science, Medicine and Cyberspace, London and New York: Zed Books.

Moravec, Hans. (1988). Mind children: the future of robot and human intelligence, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Novak, M. (2001). Liquid Architecture in Cyberspace, in N Spiller (ed), Cyber_Reader: critical writings for the digital era, London: Phaidon, 150-157.

Plant, Sadie. (1999). The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics, in J Wolmark (ed), Cybersexualities, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 99-118.

Rheingold, Howard. (1993). The Virtual Community: Finding Connection in a Computerized World, London: Secker and Warburg.

Shields, Rob. (1997). Cultures of the Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies, CA: Sage Publications.

Sofia, Z. (1999). Virtual Corporeality: A Feminist View, in J Wolmark (ed), Cybersexualities, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 55–68.

Sofoulis Z. (1994). Slime in the Matrix: Post-phallic Formations in Women’s Art in New Media, in JJ Matthews (ed), Jane Gallop Seminar Papers, Australian National University, Canberra: Humanities Research Centre, 83-106.

Spiller, Neil.(2001), Vacillating Objects, in N Spiller (ed), Cyber_Reader: critical writings for the digital era, London: Phaidon, 304-309.

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Tomas, D. (1989). The technophilic body: on technicity, in William Gibson’s cyborg culture, New Formations, Summer (8), 114-5.

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(1995).  Life on Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, New York: Simon and Schuster.

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Wolmark, J. (1999). The Postmodern Romances of Feminist Science Fiction, in J Wolmark (ed), Cybersexualities, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 230-238.

 

Filmography:

Bigelow, Kathryn. (1995). Strange Days. USA: Lightstorm Entertainment.

Cameron, James. (1984). Terminator, USA: Hemdale Film.

(2009). Avatar, USA: Twentieth Century Fox.

Cronenberg, David. (1999). eXistenZ, Canada: Alliance Atlantis Communications.

Fleming, Eric. (1995). Cyber Bandits, USA: Cyberfilms Inc.

Lang, Fritz. (1927). Metropolis, Germany: Universum Film.

Leonard, Brett. (1992), The Lawnmower Man, USA: Allied Vision.

(1995). Virtuosity, USA: Paramount Pictures.

Marquand, Richard. (1983). Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, USA: Lucasfilm.

Mostow, Jonathon. (2009). Surrogates, USA: Touchstone Pictures.

Proyas, Alex. (2004).  I, Robot, USA: Twentieth Century Fox.

Roth, Philip J. (1996). Darkdrive, USA: AGATE Films.

Rusnak, Josef. (1999). The Thirteenth Floor, USA: Columbia Pictures.

Trumbull, Douglas. (1983). Brainstorm, USA: AJF Productions.

Verhoeven, Paul. (1987). Robocop, USA: Orion Pictures Corporation.

Wachowski, Andy and Lana Wachowski.(1999). The Matrix, USA: Warner Brothers Pictures.

Whale, James. (1931). Frankenstein, USA: Universal Pictures.

 

Notes


[1] I have argued elsewhere that these films represent a particular EuroWestern approach to the stability and fixity of the human;  and that much of the cybercultural discourse that surrounded these representations tended to universalize notions ‘the human’ that lay at the core of cyborg texts. See Bishop (2007).

[2] A plethora that indeed let Slavov Zizek to suggest that the “The Matrix is one of the films which function as a kind of Rorschach test, setting in motion the universalized process of recognition”.  Inside the Matrix: International Symposium at the Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, October 28, 1999.  Accessed 15 December, 2010, from  http://www.lacan.com/zizek-matrix.htm.

[3] “Transhumanism: Post-Human and Trans-Human” (n.d), retrieved 9 July, 2010, from http://www.miqel.com/transhumanism_nano/transhuman-posthuman-uberman.html.

[4] “Simulation, Consciousness, Existence”, (n.d).  Retrieved 9 July 2010, from http://www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/~hpm/project.archive/general.articles/1998/SimConEx.98.html.

[5] Originally based on  2005-2006 comic series, Surrogates, written by Robert Venditti, drawn by Brett Weldele, Top Shelf Productions.

Reaching for the Screen in Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Lights in the Sky’ – Katheryn Wright

Abstract: During the Nine Inch Nails’ Lights in the Sky tour in 2008, Trent Reznor made use of two semi-transparent stealth screens layered in front of a third screen through which the band performed the second and third acts of the show. A stealth screen is made from reflective elements linked together like a chain, and can appear either transparent or opaque depending upon the lighting. When these screens appear onstage during the concert, attention shifts from Reznor’s body in performance to his physical interactions with the surrounding screens. The screens are not only spaces for the projection of images, but physical objects Reznor interacts with during the course of the show. Reznor plays a game of hide-and-seek with his audience using screens to reveal and conceal his body. The downstage screen also transforms into a touch interface, where Reznor experiments with its responsiveness. Both hide-and-seek and the play of responsivity in NIN’s performance echoes the everyday interactions people have with their screen technologies. As such, the NIN’s Lights in the Sky tour maps emerging bodily habituations forming through the materiality of the screen.

Nine Inch Nails performing ’31 Ghosts IV’ during their 2008 Lights In The Sky Over North America Tour.

“We may debate whether our society is a society of spectacle or of simulation, but, undoubtedly, it is a society of the screen” (Manovich 94). In this quote from The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich recognizes the central role screen technologies play in the digital era. This “society of the screen” has taken on new life over the past decade. A few examples: Mirjam Struppek organized the first international conference about the aesthetic and political potential of urban screens in 2005. Released in 2007, the Apple iPhone brought multi-touch technology to a mass audience; a multi-touch surface can respond to two or more inputs, increasing the functionality of touch screen (or trackpad) devices like the iPhone. That same year, American Express sponsored a program for cardholders during the U.S. Open where attendees were issued handheld televisions to carry around with them during the event to enhance the live experience of tennis. In 2008, life on a spaceship involved living through your own personal screen in the post-apocalyptic film, Wall-E. And, the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 featured Olympic gold-metal gymnast Li Ning traversing the inner rim of the stadium with a media surface unfolded to display images from the torch’s journey across China behind him.

These brief descriptions capture artists, scholars, entrepreneurs, and athletes challenging what the screen can do. Scott McQuire traces the migration of the television set from the domestic spaces of the home to urban spaces of the city, a shift that has developed alongside the rise of global networks and the mobilization of media (2). McQuire and Sean Cubitt argue that contemporary forms of sociality occur through the materiality of screen technology as an architectural façade, a virtual interface, or a personal companion (McQuire 48, Cubitt 105). Uta Casparay, Erkki Huhtamo, and Cubitt trace the material histories of the historical precursors to urban screens and outdoor advertising. Experimental artworks incorporating large-scale video like Krzysztof Wodiczko’s projections on historical monuments or smaller scale interactive pieces like Chris Jordan’s Chrono Beam (2011) has received recent critical attention in the way they interrogate the intersection between the embodied spectator and the ephemeral politics of public displays (Susik 113-114, 118). In addition to advertising displays and experimental art projections, experiments with emerging screen practices are also going on in popular forms of entertainment, especially rock concerts. Trent Reznor, lead singer and driving force behind Nine Inch Nails (NIN), has written and performed industrial rock music for more than two decades, and since the height of his popularity in the nineties has extended his creative pursuits to include digital imaging, remixing, online distribution, and most recently composing for movies including Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). Added to this list are his experiments with screen technologies.

For NIN’s Lights in the Sky tour, Reznor introduced a new twist to the second act of each concert by adding two semi-transparent stealth screens positioned in front of a third screen (Gardiner par. 10). Because a stealth screen is made from reflective elements linked together like a chain, the combination of projection and light cues can make it appear both transparent and opaque at the same time. These screens function not only as spaces for the projection of animations or images, but material objects Reznor interacts with during the course of the show. The screens in Lights in the Sky are an extension of the design concept for his previous tour, Live: With Teeth, where Reznor used a big screen to display video footage throughout the concert. Lights in the Sky (designed by Reznor and Rob Sheridan, the artistic director, with lighting designer Roy Bennett and the company Moment Factory) combines laser technologies, particle-based animation that runs off several Linux-based devices, choreographed staged lighting, a high-resolution  n, and the two semitransparent stealth screens. In addition to these major elements, the production includes a closed circuit camera system streamed live through the Linux-based computer terminal and preprogrammed song cues controlled by the artistic director and lighting designer via the motherboard.

The collection of screens, lighting, animation, and sound create a media environment that Reznor moves within for the rest of the concert. Trent Reznor’s body is the critical touchstone around which every element in the performance revolves. For fans, rock concerts are about being in the moment and presence of the star. Reznor’s introduction of stealth screens during the concert creates an awkward situation where the people there to see NIN perform live do so through a technological interface. When I attended a live performance on September 29, 2008 in Jacksonville, FL, there were two primary types of interactions that occurred between Reznor, the transparent screens onstage, and audience. First, Reznor engages in a game of hide-and-seek where the screen is used to both reveal and conceal his body from the audience. Second, the play of responsivity between his physical actions and digital imagery creates a visual continuity between screen projections and his body in motion that reverberates through the venue. These interactions at the concert echo the habituations people develop as they use the variety of screen technologies at their disposal, making NIN’s Lights in the Sky a compelling case study to explore a privileged moment in time and space when the cultural significance of the screen is in flux.

Hide-and-Seek

The lights go out as the screens lower across the stage. Spectators murmur and wait for Reznor to reappear and begin the second set, but he does not immediately come back onto the stage. Instead, a blue field of light begins accompanied by some drums and a xylophone. The silhouettes of Reznor flanked on either side by the other members of the band appear behind the transparent screen. Only after the instrumental section has been going on for a few minutes, additional light floods the stage and spectators realize which body belongs to Reznor.

In this opening sequence to the second act of the show, the stealth screen initially masks and then dramatically reveals Reznor’s position on the stage. During the “Greater Good” track from the album Year Zero, the downstage stealth screen displays what looks like a time-lapsed recording of bacteria growing, pulsating, in a Petri dish – a mound of digital particles. For the first thirty seconds of the performance, these animations appear onscreen while Reznor is nowhere to be found. Then, extremely subtly, Reznor’s silhouette backs into the stage in front of the left corner of the screen. Dwarfed by the vastness of the stealth screen, he faces the offstage wing crouched over in a profile position. He is barely visible and remains completely out of view to many. After several beats, the movement of the digital particles takes the shape of Reznor’s face; the extreme close-up is a video recorded by an offstage camera. During this segment, Reznor’s body overlaps the live feed of his physical image being projected onto the stealth screen. He appears onscreen and onstage at the same time. Reznor hides. The audience seeks. This game adds an intriguing twist for the audience who came to hear and see NIN in person. Rather than getting to see the band perform for the entire set, the lead singer disappears from the stage for fairly large chunks of time. They perform songs like “Greater Good” behind the stealth screen and out of sight from the audience. As such, Reznor controls how much the audience sees him, on and offscreen, during the show.

During the performance of “Survivalism” in the third act of the concert, a closed-circuit camera system installed around the premises records live footage of the audience and projects it onto the big screen. In what looks like a collection of monitors located in a security station, spectators watch themselves watching NIN. This sequence is about the ubiquity of surveillance technologies contemporary American culture, but the audience cannot hide among the screens like Reznor can. Even so, those watching can use their mobile devices to capture the live event as it unfolds in real time. Smartphones enable audience members to communicate ideas and information via text, voice, image, and video. They can send what they record at the concert to NIN’s website. Ironically, audience members also use these same devices to capture a better view than they have while standing, zooming in to get a closer look at the action. The power Reznor has over his visibility onstage dissipates as the territory of the media environment expands into the World Wide Web. Although Reznor plays with the audience in terms of his physical visibility, the overall performance hinges on its technological infrastructure. The production team cannot always manage software, and screens at the venue. Computer glitches continued to crop into the flow of the performances during the tour, including when I saw it. In Jacksonville, animations on the stealth screen kept flickering on and off and, during the final “Head Like a Hole” encore, the red “NIN” symbol flashing on the downstage stealth screen had a part of an “N” chopped off. These glitches form a digital reality outside of any single person’s control. Spectators have no influence over their bodies on display.

When Reznor plays hide-and-seek with his audience using the screens surrounding him, this communicative act challenges the implied materiality of screen space. Critical discussions about the spatial relations of the screen media emerge in apparatus theory of the 1970s. Jean-Louis Baudry argues that the screen is simultaneously a mirror and frame that produces ideological distance between the conscious spectator and the dreamworld of the cinema (352 – 353). Manovich echoes the logic of apparatus theory in his cultural history of screen technologies where he distinguishes between the classical screen (Renaissance perspectival painting), dynamic screen (film and television), and the screen in real time (computer) (96). In all of these cases, “The act of cutting reality into a sign and nothingness simultaneously doubles the viewing subject who now exists in two spaces: the familiar space of his/her real body and the virtual space of an image within the screen” (106). For Baudry and Manovich, the screen marks a border between two qualitatively different spaces that may speak to each other in dynamic in provocative ways as decades of compelling scholarship in media and cultural studies has proven, yet they remain separate. The screen is important in as much as it frames the point-of-view of someone looking through it at whatever movie or show they happen to be watching.

Reznor’s game challenges the implied separation between real and virtual space that Baudry and Manovich trace in their respective theories. Establishing a connection between the spectacle and spectators through the screen transforms the display space into something more than a window frame to a virtual world. Reznor uses to the screen to shield himself from view, and to reveal his presence to the crowd. The juxtaposition between the stealth screen’s transparency and opacity highlights the basic attributes of its materiality. Its surface conceals and reveals as much as the edges frame what is on it. The stealth screen is like the cape a magician uses to hide the bag of tricks from the audience. The turn, however, is when the onscreen spectacle bleeds into the physical space the screen occupies. Through hide-and-seek, Reznor occupies a modular media space. So, too, do audience members who use their screened devices to get a better view of the show. Media scholar Adriana de Souza e Silva explains how “from the merging of mixed reality and augmented spaces, mobility, and sociability arises a hybrid reality…a hybrid space is not constructed by technology. It is built by the connection of mobility and communication and materialized by social networks developed simultaneously in physical and digital spaces” (265 − 266). She describes what others have called augmented space, simulacra, computer-mediated reality, or multimedia environments: concepts with varied connotations that attempt to describe the blending of physical and digital spaces. Reznor experiments with what communication feels like within these spaces that De Souza e Silva among others attempt to explicate. Ironically, the space between virtual and actual space symbolized by the screen for Baudry and Manovich seems to migrate to the body of the user, who in the case of the Lights in the Sky performance is Reznor and not the audience watching him.

Responsivity

A white field of particles fills the screen at the beginning of “Only” from the album With Teeth. A small opening grows out from the center to reveal Reznor’s body. The closer he moves toward the screen, the larger the opening. He walks across the stage, and the opening follows him. He moves upstage and the opening closes.  The field gives way to a violent streaming of digital noise that momentarily reveals the rest of the band playing behind Reznor. The white field returns to view. Again, Reznor paces across the stage as the opening follows him wherever he goes. The drummer comes out onstage and lights up a series of boxes by touching each individual square.

This transitional sequence leads into the performance “Echoplex” when the initial beat he establishes by touching the boxes merges into the song’s introduction. The drummer returns at its conclusion to deactivate the light boxes.

In these two instances, the onstage stealth screens transform into touch screens when lasers running along the back of the screens indicate their position. The animations generated in real-time record their physical movement in relation to the screen to produce the illusion of a haptic interface. Even if the performers do not actually touch anything, the sequences establish a sense of continuity between onscreen and offscreen through the responsivity of the screen. Responsivity refers to the quality of the digital connection between onscreen and offscreen. The screen interfaces of popular technologies like the iPhone react to the touch of a finger or pen. Touch screens work by layering two surfaces with an electric current or laser beam sandwiched between them. When somebody touches the surface of the outer screen, the flow of the current or beam is interrupted and signals the device to react in that particular spot. Slightly different from the touch screen, the remote responsiveness of game consoles like Nintendo’s Wiimote and Xbox’s Kinnect depend on a remote sensor or motion control. Reznor experiments with both types of responsiveness during the performance.

Reznor draws the second type of responsivity for the performance of “Terrible Lie” in the third act. At this point in the show, the three screens have changed position. The stealth screens have been raised to allow for Reznor and the band to move more freely on the stage. However, they remain staggered so as to continue to project images, although intensities would probably be the better term at this point given that approximately 90% of what is onscreen are bursts of color and light. Amorphous red, orange and yellow particles flash on the three screens in the same rhythmic patterns of the song. These animations translate auditory and haptic cues (rock music performed live can be felt just as much as it is heard) into visualizations. These sensory translations, like synesthesia, extend the aesthetic possibilities of live performance. Reznor becomes connected to the (digital, screened, animated) world through the responsivity of his onstage environment. The responsiveness between body and screen draws disparate elements of the performance together into a single rhythm during the course of the show.

During the concert, Reznor appears to cross through the frame of the screen. Even though he never actually steps through it, the animations create the illusion of breaking through the screen’s surface. The stealth screen offers a way to cross the frame that separates the spatial reality of the viewer from the virtual space of representation. The formal separation between real and virtual space plays a pivotal role in Western aesthetics. Writing about this divide, Anne Friedberg traces the cultural history of what she calls the “virtual window” to Renaissance perspectival painting, where the viewer is situated in front of a framed surface. Reznor challenges this tradition by linking the physical and digital through his body. Although screens continue to situate the perspective of the viewer towards onscreen content, Reznor temporarily acts as a node through which the onscreen and offscreen converge. Reznor frames the visual content for the audience by moving towards and away from the stealth screen. He determines the path of the real-time particle animations during the show. Still, he never actually crosses through the frame of the screen. This crossing is an illusion; Reznor remains trapped behind the screen in order for that illusion to work. To cross the frame of the screen is transgressive within the field of modern aesthetics, much like breaking through the imaginary “fourth wall” of the stage, but the interplay between screen and body during the concert translates into an optical effect for everyone watching where Reznor is, himself, on display. Like a painting or film, this performance can only be accessed through a proscenium, a frame, which separates the spectacle from those watching it.

Similar to the responsivity of the touch screen, the integration of sensory components during the show cultivates a sense of continuity between actual and virtual through Reznor’s body. He acts like a remote control for the live action onstage, altering the sense of presence throughout the venue. Every aspect of the concert feels connected, and nobody can get out of it because the surveillance cameras make everyone visible. This feeling of connection continues when video recorded with mobile devices extend into online archives after the concert. The attempt to capture the “live” experience through media by fans reinforces the responsivity that Reznor draws on throughout the second and third acts. After each concert concludes, NIN’s website archives fan videos and chats in an effort to collect the individualized performances together into the broader context of the tour. Like the multiple elements of the live show combining through the responsiveness of the screen, information comes together through the human-computer interface. Mobile devices enable spectators to participate in the concert by recording and archiving the live event. The website clearly organizes its galleries according to concert and tour dates so visitors can easily navigate through the streaming videos. The feeling of connection cultivated through the play of responsivity during the show was reignited when audiences come together to construct their own narrative about the tour through the documentary Another Version of the Truth: The Gift that was produced by fans and distributed through NIN.com.

From my perspective in the crowd, interacting with his audience through the stealth screens seems almost like a spiritual experience for Reznor, who is the obvious centerpiece around which the hybrid reality is constructed. He stands behind the screen and soaks up the spectacle while the audience looks on. For me, however, the experience was ultimately frustrating because the spontaneity and singular intimacy of a rock concert, that feel and smell of bodies cramming next to you in a collective push towards the stage, is lost. We were left watching NIN interact with cutting-edge screen technologies onstage without access to it. Even though the animations and lighting cues were generated live, the concert began to feel closer to performance art (like one of Wodiczko’s projections) than a rock concert. It is the same feeling I have when I watch someone text at the table at lunch, for instance. The person is there, but not in the same way as they would have been otherwise.
Screens for Sale

The Lights in the Sky tour combines industrial-alternative rock, live performance, new media technologies, real-time animation, ticketholders, critics, and fans like myself into a symbolic act of a body reaching out to touch the screen. The game of hide-and-seek and play of responsivity represent different ways people interact with the screens around them. A commercial for the Blackberry Storm smartphone released in November 2008 (and running throughout the following year) illustrates how the appeal of interacting with a screen interface, much like the games Reznor plays, stems from the symbolic act of crossing through its frame. This commercial sells the idea that by simply touching a screen you can connect more efficiently, immediately, and directly with what’s important in your life. The multi-touch interface allows users to make contact with their social networks through a phone, yet the commercial itself acknowledges the reality of the interface, the semi-transparent field at the center of the composition, as the primary point of access. Reznor stands behind his stealth screen; the woman stands behind a rectangular plane and faces forward as she navigates through the textural space of the graphic user interface. Different from Reznor’s live performance, however, is what happens afterward. Animations like the boy with a kite, rock concert, and photographs explode from the frame rather than being projected onto a screen. Touching the interface releases the three-dimensionality of life as it unfolds in real time. The advertisement suggests all we need is a Blackberry Storm to make our experience of the world more real, an ideology that continues to shape narratives about technology in the 21st century. Still, the promise represented by the screen remains tempered by the frame of the television set or YouTube video player. The life falling out from the flat plane, activated through touch, can only be perceived by sitting in front or standing behind another screen, another interface.

Being connected and simultaneously in sync with each other through actual and virtual space creates a sense of presence rooted in the modularity of media space. This spatial arrangement appears to situate the body as a locus of control, benefiting artists like Reznor who embraces the emancipatory promise of new media technology and multinational telecommunications companies like Research in Motion Limited (RIM), the makers of Blackberry, who hope to sell the need to connect with others by touching a really cool screen on your smartphone. Still, like anybody who uses a smartphone will eventually find out, Trent Reznor’s ability to control the terms of his physical interactions with the screens around him is a fantasy. His financial investment, celebrity status, and social positioning coupled with the obvious fact that he and his band are the only people allowed onstage during the concert make him a privileged participant. Reznor chooses what to release on the website. Reznor manages the NIN’s brand. The title of the documentary is called “the gift” because he released high-quality digital recordings to his fans so they could make the documentary. Still, this fantasy – the fantasy of control and connection – is something that commercials for new media technologies ranging from smartphones and video games to Project Glass from Google X continue to promote. Reznor’s onstage encounter with his screens during the Lights in the Sky tour represents a time and place when this fantasy was just beginning to enter into the mainstream, when the potentiality of hybrid reality is being tested within the volatile boundaries of popular culture, and before the games Reznor plays were written into the teleological narrative of technological change.

 

References

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Caspary, Uta. “Digital Media as Ornament in Contemporary Architectural Facades.” Urban Screens Reader. Eds. Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin, and Sabine Niederer. Institute of Network Cultures: Amsterdam, 2009. 65 – 74.

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Friedberg, Anne. The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft. The MIT Press, 2009. Print.

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Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. The MIT Press, 2002. Print.

Mattssnet. “Blackberry Storm – Feel Your Passion – Hot Girl.” YouTube. Web. 14 October 2011.

McQuire, Scott. “Mobility, Cosmopolitanism, and Public Space in the Media City.” Urban Screens Reader. Eds. Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin, and Sabine Niederer. Institute of Network Cultures: Amsterdam, 2009. 45 – 64.

–. “The Politics of Public Space in the Media City.” First Monday. Web. 14 October 2011.

“Nin.com [the Official Nine Inch Nails Website].” 13 Sept. 2008. Web. 14 October 2011.

Shelterslullabies. “Nine Inch Nails – Only (Lights In The Sky Tour).” YouTube. Web. 14 October 2011.

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Susik, Abigail. “The Screen Politics of Architectural Light Projection.” Public 23: 45 (June 2012): 106 – 119.

Vacantenigma. “Nine Inch Nails – The Greater Good – Philly, PA – 8-29-08.” YouTube. Web. 14 October 2011.