Welcome to the Desert of the Digital September 2008
Noplace is an installation and Noplace Online is a companion piece of net art by Marek Walczak and Martin Wattenberg, who work together under the name MW2MW. According to the project website:
Noplace locates numerous utopian inputs from the Internet and uses these data feeds to create virtual architectures. Photo and audio streams of opposing utopias are played side-by-side; the text descriptions of the content used to synchronize divergent paradises to create a narrative flow… A museum installation includes multiple screens of different utopian visions, while a companion web version of the piece allows viewers to create personalized noplace worlds. These paradise types are endgames of ideological constructs, whether a vision of a classless society or a scientist’s vision of a sustainable environment.
As this description suggests the name Noplace refers to the derivation of the word ‘utopia’ from Greek -οὐ in Greek means ‘not, and τόπος ‘place’. It is of course the word coined by Sir Thomas More for his book of the same name about an ideal, imaginary community. In the Columbia Guide to Standard American English ‘noplace’, like ‘anyplace’, is defined as one of a number of colloquial American English words in which a noun and an adjective are compounded to produce an adverb, as in ‘he went noplace’. That such a compound adverb should be American in origin seems appropriate, given that much of America is noplace, or at least perceived as such. ‘There is no there there’ as Gertrude Stein famously wrote after visiting Oakland, where she had been brought up. The deserts of the south west are perhaps even more ‘noplace’, vast spaces which fascinated the design historian and theorist Reyner Banham, who wrote a book, Scenes in America Deserta (1982), describing his experiences of driving round the American desert.
Banham was not just fascinated by the near emptiness of the desert, but also by those constructions that defied its harsh and inhospitable environment, including the missions and churches of the original Spanish colonialists through to the utopian buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri and on to the full-blown fantasy that is Las Vegas. Thus the noplace of the desert produces, the noplace of utopia.
Perhaps it is not surprising that Las Vegas is a, if not the, birthplace of postmodernism, inasmuch as it was the subject of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s famous book, Learning from Las Vegas (1972), in which the gaudy architecture of the Las Vegas Strip, the four mile long section of boulevard in the city where most of the casinos are located, was used as a stick to beat orthodox modernism, with its dogma of ‘less is more’.
It is of course impossible to think about deserts without thinking about the series of desert wars now being waged in the Middle East. Here the desert, as the main source of energy for the world, returns to our attention with extraordinary force, to remind us of the limits of our resources, our ecological vulnerability and our propensity for violence in pursuit of what we need to sustain our lifestyle. Perhaps most famously the events of September 11th 2001 brought the consequences of American foreign policy in the Middle East back to the homeland. In his response to those events, ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’, the theorist Slavoj Žižek compares existence in the West to that experienced in the film The Matrix in which ‘the material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic mega-computer to which we are all attached; when the hero (played by Keanu Reeves) awakens into the “real reality,” he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins — what remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: “Welcome to the desert of the real.”’ (Zizek, 2002, p 15). Žižek continues that:
If there is any symbolism in the collapse of the WTC towers, it is not so much the old-fashioned notion of the “center of financial capitalism,” but, rather, the notion that the two WTC towers stood for the center of the VIRTUAL capitalism, of financial speculations disconnected from the sphere of material production. The shattering impact of the bombings can only be accounted for against the background of the borderline which today separates the digitalized First World from the Third World “desert of the Real”. It is the awareness that we live in an insulated artificial universe which generates the notion that some ominous agent is threatening us all the time with total destruction (ibid)
Lacan and Žižek’s concept of the Real can be compared to, or thought of in terms of Chora, the term that Jacques Derrida took from Plato’s Timaeus to describe ‘the spacing that is the condition for everything to take place, for everything to be inscribed’ (Derrida and Eisenman, 1997, p 3). It is ‘nothing (no being, nothing present)’, the ‘desert in the desert’ (Derrida, 2001, 59). Elsewhere Derrida suggests that Chora ‘is a matrix, womb, or receptacle that is never offered up in the form of presence, or in the presence of form’ (Derrida, 1981, p 160). This might suggest that perhaps the matrix in the film of the same name is not just the computer-generated illusion, behind which reality hides, but that which determines reality in the first place. Perhaps the traumatic experience of 9/11 was not a realization of the separation between ‘the digitalized First World from the Third World “desert of the Real.”’, but rather that the Real itself is already digital and it is perhaps the digital itself which is the real desert, the desert of the Real. Digital media, artefacts inscribed with material representations of digital data, may exist but the digital itself does not exist. ‘There is no there there’. It is just zeroes and ones. In whatever form or medium it may be materialised it is itself nothing but difference. It has, in William Gibson’s words, ‘infinite plasticity’ (Gibson, 1999, p 117).
Most famously early Christians retreated to the desert to escape persecution by the Roman Empire and more generally the chaos of that time and place. After Christianity was made legal by Constantine in the early fourth century young men still continued to do so as a form of asceticism, and to search for the Kingdom of God within themselves. The most famous of these developed reputations for holiness and wisdom and became known as the ‘Desert Fathers’ and their form of contemplative spirituality remains of interest to many today. The intense light of the desert brings with it a paradoxical darkness and blindness, which in turn produces the conditions for greater insight. Thomas Merton quotes the mystic theologian John Tauler to the effect that the unitive and mystical knowledge of God ‘is ineffable darkness and yet it is essential light. It is called an incomprehensible and solitary desert’ (p 93). As our own world descends into social chaos, political instability and ecological catastrophe, as we turn the world into a desert, is it any wonder that more of us are retreating to the solitude of the digital desert of the Web in the hope that we might gain some insight into our condition, and a glimpse, as with Noplace Online, of future paradise.
Banham, R. (1982), Scenes in America Deserta, London: Thames and Hudson
Caputo, J. D. (1997), The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Derrida, J. (1981), Dissemination, London: Athlone
Derrida, J. and P. Eisenman (1997), Chora L Works, New York: Monacelli Press
Derrida, J. (2001), Acts of religion, edited by Gil Anidjar, New York: Routledge
Gibson, W. (1999), All Tomorrow’s Parties, London, Ace Books
Merton, T (1973), Contemplative Prayer, London: Darton, Longman and Todd
Ragland-Sullivan, E. and M. Bracher (1991), Lacan and the Subject of Language, New York, Routledge
Venturi, R., D. Scott Brown and S. Izenour (1972), Learning from Las Vegas, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press
Žižek, S. (2002), Welcome to the desert of the real!: five essays on 11 September and related dates, London: Verso
Charlie Gere 2008
Marek Walczak and Martin Wattenberg present Noplace, enabling visitors to construct their own vision of Utopia by drawing image and audio data from the internet and compiling it into a movie