General Statement on Synworld
Moderator Statement on Synworld playwork:hyperspace, Vienna, May 29, 1999
I came away from the Synworld Symposium with a phrase buzzing in my head: This is the dawning of the Age of New Cartesianism, New Cartesianism... (doesn't quite go to the tune of Aquarius, sorry). It was a long hot day and flesh bodies had a bad time of it altogether. The age-old fascination with the embodied machine/machined body is in the foreground in the culture scene these days, as evidenced by many current exhibitions in Germany and Austria such as Puppen, Körper, Automaten (Düsseldorf); Der Neue Mensch (Dresden); LifeScience (upcoming in Linz); and the many machinic body exhibits promised for the Expo in Hannover. However, the flesh body was very little in evidence at Synworld – except perhaps as a negation, or as a repressed figure. What was in evidence both in the talks and in the many computer games and art-works on view, was the accelerated development of the automated and controllable body – the body on-line, and the sacrifice of the fluid and flesh body. Automated, virtual, and switchable identities and subjectivities are the stuff of fashionable gender and post-colonial theory today – but what does this mean for the majority of the world's population in actual lived life? While advanced computer science and biotechnology dig ever deeper into the data body, and the digitally mapped body becomes an action figure, the numbers of actual sacrificial bodies mount relentlessly.
The delicious and fearsome schizophrenia of experiencing fluid subjectivity and virtual genders while still inhabiting a sexed, gendered, fleshed body is currently the privilege of a relative few – mostly those who have the right class, gender, race, economics, and access. But what if you are only a chip (or chipmaker) in the machine? What if you don't have access to that downloaded pool of consciouness, or the complex ganged systems of parallel computers? What if you are not a willing and playful cyborg, but an involuntary or forced cyborg harnessed to these machines? (I do not apologize for the annoyance of appearing here as the doubting Thomasina, clouding the pure skies of virtuality).
Pleasure in skills, pleasure in being coupled with invisible and transparent nanotechnology, with the speed of light. It was all accessible at Synworld in a wonderful cacophony of games of all kinds. Kids of both sexes and all ages were standing at the keyboards and joysticks avidly staring into the screens, responding with their whole rigid little bodies as guns flashed, bodies exploded, rockets zoomed, airplanes took off, and evil armored figures appeared every where. They were one with the hero figures – be they good or evil. Even the female hero, Lara Croft, was easy to identify with: A lone heroine, a conquering, colonizing figure, who is (especially in Germany) the large-breasted darling of the geek imagination.
How can such virtual gender and identity traps be repatched? There were attempts in the exhibition. I spent time with VNS Matrix Gameboy and All New Gen. I toured Anne Marie Schleiner's Madam Polly patch for Marathon, and tried to win access to the free brothel by playing the Carbon Defense Leagues hacked GameBoy. The more I played and watched others play,the commercial games, the more appreciative I became of the difficulties faced by dissenting repatchers.
The Symposium as a whole again clearly raised questions about the differences between VR worlds and RL and the interface between them. John Casti explained the usefulness of systems which create silicon surrogates to experiment with things you can't do in the real world. He showed and described complex adaptive systems which can be used to model everything from traffic patterns to stockmarket trends. Ah, but which systems does one choose to model? And are they really interchangeable? And if one has succeeded in modeling, say, an engineered selective stockmarket crash, what is to keep one from actually implementing it? Who decides which projects are the ones to be funded, and how can the public have access to this information and to decision making regarding it? Who is watching the brains at the Santa Fe Institute? Casti implied that civilian or RL use of the knowledge gained was always helpful and useful, and always got into the right hands.
By contrast, Machiko Kusahara, presented a feminist reading of gender aspects of Japanese animation, and an analysis of various kinds of space (non-perspective space) and time effects used in Japanese animation. She addressed the interface between VR and RL in terms of subjectivity, speaking about the really deep feelings many Japanese developed for the Tamagotchi toys and the new post-pets – an email program for children. She took note of the real feelings that are developed by people in virtual spaces and about virtual idols. In discussion, Kusahara, again stressed the subjective differences between, say, Japanese girls and American girls and their preferences in comics and virtual personae.
Toshiya Ueno seemed upbeat about the rapidly developing international scenes of Technoorientalism and Media Tribalism. He attributes these to the spread of international society, and sees this new tribalism as a positive development. Ueno proposed that the international rave culture for example was developing a more open and cross cultural definition of tribablism which is inclusive rather than exclusive because it shares the same characteristics (the same party is going on everywhere) and takes advantage of a cultural diaspora and global culture. He briefly discussed the problem of Japanese essentialism expected from imported Japanese culture. His most controversial points were made in regard to the ubiquitous use of naked girl images in many of the comics. Ueno claimed that the rave culture provides a liberating cyborg subjectivity for women, women disappear into the machine and gender becomes fluid in this disappearance. Everyone merges into a larger wilder body. Ueno did not address how these moments in the gender free autonomous zone interface with the very real and continuing sexism and gender separation of Japanese society.
Lars Spuybroek tried to introduce his complex ideas on the Matter of the Diagram in far too short a period of time. That's the RW and RT for you, Lars (and real bodies too). For Lars, Form has become part of Time. He asks, how much actual is there in the virtual? When expressed in architecture this produces the idea of the geometry of the mobile. Spaces get used differently at different times by different bodies. Architecture tries to imitate or become like matter – constantly in motion. Lars put these ideas into action at V2 in his softsite design of the office. These are all good and welcome ideas; a kind of utopia to listen to especially in Vienna where one is surrounded by some of the hardest, most unpliable, empire exuding architecture imaginable. But I couldn't help thinking about the vast energy and sums of money going into this kind of utopian research which wasn't going to help the great majority of the world's housed or unhoused a bit. This made me think again about the issue of pure research and how there is no such thing. All research is political.
Karl Chu also played the utopian and mystical violin. His meditations have plunged him headlong into virtual alchemy. We are implicated in an evolutionary cosmology – he calls it the Infozoic Era. We have produced a machinic system (or a machinic system has produced us) which is generating a gnostic quest for fulfillment. The digital has entered the arena of poesis. The new evolutant ingests computers and allows them to generate worlds not yet imagined. This architectural system generates buildings that grow themselves. Hey Karl, what's the interface with RL again? The images Karl showed were dreamy, but he was far too in love with them to remember the real bodies who might inhabit these forms.
And then there was Rudy. Who bravely tried to speak in German and English and tried to convince us of the Dimensionality of Cyberspace. He got so carried away he started drawing in ink-pen on the projection screen. Now that is a great demonstration of the interface between the projected and the real. Thanks for that real life demo, Rudy. Rudy proposed that Cyberspace unites thinking and dimensionality. In other words, the space in Cyberspace is thought. OK, what does that mean, exactly? Well, navigating from one website to another, for example, which means your thoughts (and attention) are wandering, which implies space is being traversed. OK, how is that different than browsing through books? Are books cyberspace too? No, not quite, says Rudi.Then what exactly is it? And what is the relation to RL? It's more complicated. But I never did quite grasp how or why.
The discussion afterward got very heated for a few moments. My personal objection was that (with the exception of the two Japanese colleagues) none of the speakers addressed the political and social implications of virtual systems and virtual life, or the research they are involved with. They occupy intensely privileged positions in regard to these machines and the research that they do, but they do not make that part of their research. I missed a real analysis of the phenomena which was going on next door where the kids were glued to virtual worlds in a loud, hot, smelly, rather uncomfortable spaces. And meanwhile the stealth bombers were dropping yet more bombs on Kosovo, avoiding the shedding of military (but not civilian) blood. Synworld was an important project in that it allowed for the side by side examination, comparison, and experience of both commercial and artistic computer games and art works. The ever more complex questions of the interface and the interrelationships between VR and RL remain to be researched further.