Recently, Rhizome.org invited me to contribute a long-form article to their Rhizome Writer’s Initiative, a new program designed to give emerging and established writers the opportunity to pontificate on the world of new media arts. I was glad to do it, especially when I realized that the exhibition I was to review is called “Beam Me Up” and that the themes it dissects coincide neatly with my recent re-appreciation of Star Trek. I include my finished article here on Universe because I think some of the ideas discussed in it dovetail well with the recent topics here–systems, complexity, isolation in the face of emergent technologies and computer screen disbelief. If you’d rather, here is the article on the Rhizome site.
“Beam Me Up” is the ultimate call for oblivion.
From Star Trek‘s transporter room to the tractor beams of our most fervent UFO nightmares, the very notion of “beaming” — of dematerializing only to reappear somewhere else, somewhere potentially unknown — represents a complete relinquishment of control, as well as a pure acknowledgment of the subjective, relativistic nature of human reality. After all, if you can spontaneously “beam out” of danger, or “beam in” to the frightful recesses of an alien craft, what is there to be said about the here and now? Or the me? To beam is to temporarily cease to exist in space and time, to blink into suspension, and, invariably, to invert the accepted order.
Besides being its namesake, “Beam Me Up” is a very apt starting point for Xcult.org‘s ongoing global exhibition about space, recently curated by Sarah Cook of CRUMB, the Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss. Beam Me Up takes place online, an alternative space which, perhaps incidentally, is probably the international human headquarters for the entire “beam me up” sentiment–that fervent, and often delusional, reach toward dreams of conspiracy, government mind control, and alien visitation (“I want to believe!”).
True to the medium, some of the pieces featured in Beam Me Up seem directly referential of, if not complicit with, the web’s endless bounty of accidental art and outré ideology: spiri-technical 3D video of Tibetan mandalas, hyper-imagist Second Life performances, and video clips of a nude Arnold Schwarzenegger (as the Terminator) traveling through time. As such, they speak cogently to the culture-as-file shuffle of everyday web surfing, and to the wild proliferation of that browsing, Tumblr blogging aesthetic of decontextualized online ephemera.
The rest of Beam Me Up, despite the exhibition’s labyrinthine navigation and the fumbling translation of many of the essays, compellingly runs the gamut of potential angles on the notion of space, from the literal (Jayanne English’s beautiful, scientific animation of cold hydrogen gas in the Milky Way galaxy) to the profoundly figurative, as with Joe Winter’s “Progressive Scan Studies” series, images all derived from a flatbed scanner’s earnest attempts to make sense of a moving picture. It’s clear that the project as a whole is uninterested in categorization — all of the pieces are offered identically regardless of theme or format — and willing to forego the traditional notion of “space” as being a uniquely physical, or even measurable, quality.
Image: Joe Winter, “Progressive Scan Studies” series, 2009 (Still)
Much of the work in Beam Me Up plays with a particular koan of the online: that any attempt to project an identity onto the Web is a twofold battle between intentionally presenting (and, more importantly, representing) the self to the space, and somehow representing the space convincingly to the self. Some, like the anarchist theorist Hakim Bey, might argue that despite the immediacy, or Being There-ness, of a digital-spatial environment (such as a first-person shooter game, or one’s position within a social network), a localization of the self anywhere other than in contiguous physical reality can only be representational. The problem, in this view, is that you simply can’t be “beamed up;” as a user of the Internet, a Second Lifer, or a traveler through outer space, you still have to exist–to be somewhere. You can’t blink into oblivion. With this in mind, the question of Beam Me Up becomes, does freedom — or free space — exist if the subject at hand is purely representational, or avatar?
Beam Me Up offers many strategies for this kind of spatial transcendence. Wild performances in Second Life, such as in Alan Sondheim‘s insanely visually complex piece, are one; however, these are still 2D, and are still housed in a network of intentional fantasy that is inherently dissociated with any kind of real metaphysical experience (Sondheim’s work also speaks largely to a post-Transformers II aesthetic sensibility). Reinhard Storz’ authoritative “Beyond The Borders: Film Clips for the Getting Over of Space-Time Order” serves as an incomplete catalogue of filmic materialization and de-materialization, from the obvious namesake of Star Trek‘s quasi-mystical “beaming” to the transubstantiation of Jeff Bridges from animal to avatar in 1982’s Tron.
Jeff Bridges in transition from animal to avatar, Tron
The best suggestion, however, comes from English, who has glibly titled her outer space animation, “Cosmic Sites: Remote Space and Personal Perception Meet at the Monitor.” English’s subtle conception of the computer monitor — that ostensible scenic viewpoint from which all of these pieces are witnessed — as the necessary nexus between two modalities of experience is key to this particular reading of Beam Me Up.
Video: Alan Sondheim, THE NOWHERE DANCE, 2009
It’s possible that the aim of an exhibition of this nature might not be to clearly delineate the substantive differences between physical space and what we call “Cyberspace.” In fact, as Dr. Guillaume Bélanger of the European Space Agency rhapsodizes in one of Beam Me Up‘s best essays, “Space, Experience, and Perception,” the real question is not where any finite space is but rather “where do any one of these spaces begin and where do they end? Where can we find any border, any separation? What do we really know? What do we really understand? Everything is so interlaced and so intermingled.”
Perhaps the goal, then, is only to postulate about transcendence, and try to simulate that blink of oblivion between different manifestations of space; if we could be beamed from place to place, what would the moments between dematerialization and re-materialization look and feel like?
Certainly, it speaks to a question many people (myself included) might ask themselves while watching reruns of Star Trek: what is it like to be beamed? What happens? Where do you go between the transporter room and the surface of the hostile planet? The interesting moment is neither the departure nor the arrival but those nano-instants when the body has been annihilated and is floating through the ether in microscopic fragments. Beam Me Up aims to address this issue by presenting the viewer with their own tool for transportation, their own “beam”: as English observed, the monitor. The monitor, which is mirror, proscenium, the in-between itself. The computer monitor is both meeting point and sounding board; it becomes the conjunction between the mind and the rest of the whirling, chaotic world; it’s also where the answers, the emails, and the vitriolic conspiracy theories are all pounded out. In a sense, it is practically hallowed ground. In every sense, it is the titular “beam” of this exhibition.
As it turns out, the transcendence of being “beamed” is not about being projected onto another place (with laser guns or transponders in hand), but rather is something experienced through the beam itself, our very screens. The screen, after all, is the gateway of our era. Every time we boot up our computers we are beaming up. We’re beaming up because we are temporarily buying into the reality of image as it moves through a sea of pixels on screen — a quotidian suspension of disbelief.