FUTURE SCREENS ARE MOSTLY BLUE
“The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become a blue flower in the land of technology.”
- Walter Benjamin (Writings on Media 35), The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility
Consider the blue flower. Its cold, unnatural luminescence. Its role in the German Romantic tradition of Novalis et al as absorptive placeholder for romantic longings of a future harmony of Nature and Self. Its sense of otherworldliness, as a result of its relative rarity in nature, acting as prop and stand-in for a striving towards an ungraspable, infinite beyond. A call to the horizon. How in pure sunlight blue fades and thus the blue flower’s preferred habitat in the threshold moment of evening, the disappearing sunlight slowly draining “warmer” colours of said apparent warmth while also giving the “cooler” colours of the spectrum a certain renewed luminescence in the moody twilit hues of what is known as “the blue hour.”
The seeming lack of more fully saturated colours in nature (as it is presented to human eyes), with its predominance of less vivid browns and greens set underneath a sky of unsaturated blue. The artificial supplementation of this “meagrely endowed” (Finlay 402) natural palette in the form of a primarily synthetic range of often vividly saturated man-made colours, each trying to catch the eye of the second sun that is the human visual cortex in ever more heliotropic stimulation.
Those synthetic blues of technology. Chroma key blue, signifier of a world predestined for post-production. The post-crash blue screen of death. The default “Bliss” wallpaper of Windows XP, one of the most widely embedded images of the digital age, with its pacifying blue-green pastoral… ah, the supreme flattery of Graphical User Interfaces and this particularly memorable “topography of pure departure” (Harpold 239). A fig leaf of an image.
Tech logo blue. Facebook blue. Soothing, corporate IBM deep blue. The chirpy, social pastel of Twitter blue and the vaguely translucent gradients of iOS 7 blue. A showy blue LED, the engineer’s metonymous accentuation, asserting a certain “technology-ness of technology” (Shedroff & Noessel 43). Blue, blinking Bluetooth, blue. This saturated glow of the digital and its attention economy; ethereal stimulant and banal sedative; blue pill.
So many blue avatars of the digital flowering all around, each striving to stand out and still fit in at the same time. Such is the seeming ubiquity of blue in the land of technology today and this little prelude on blue is intended simply to give a sense of how blue can be seen to serve as an “index of the zeitgeist” (Frederic Jameson 69), a signifier of the viscous spread of the the digital, its ubiquity and sense of givenness. A blue digital banality to which the post-digital would seem to partly be a reaction to.
As a preformative affix that will lay waste to its stem, the prefix of post- can be seen as signifying a recognition (and even premediation) of collapse. Perhaps it is partly intended to mark out another site of “so many ontological cave-ins,” similar to that which Rosalind Krauss (290), in her essay “Reinventing the Medium,” speaks of in relation to photography’s saturation into mainstream, everyday ubiquity. Drawing on Benjamin’s notion of the “outmoded” object, Krauss describes that particular moment of temporal limbo for a medium in which it takes on a status as outdated but not quite fossilised into what Hertz & Parikka (429) call the “archaeological phase” of a product’s lifecycle. For Benjamin, the onset of obsolescence is of interest due to its revealing of certain aspects of the object in question. By dint of its quality as impotent, denuded and ultimately discarded, the no longer valuable outmoded object can for Benjamin (The Arcades Project, 466 [B1a, 4]) act as a powerful “anti-aphrodisiac.” Or as Julia Cocuzza (8) puts it in her own reading of Benjamin, the outmoded object can be useful in the way that it “informs us of not just what society was, but what society currently is. […] Separated from the whirlwind of popularity and hysterical consumerism, the true gravity of the object’s value is revealed.”
Krauss (295) christens this in-between phase “the twilight zone of obsolescence.” In such a zone the outmoded object may be seen to cast what Benjamin (Selected Writings 209) describes as the “profane illumination” of its own afterlife, radiating an immanent and also potentially critical afterglow, both on its own form and out at the various mythologies it once helped to project. In the case of a media object, its status as medium, as an apparatus with various well- or loosely-defined technical, social, aesthetic, material, economic, institutional and other factors and ideologies that inform its everyday uses, the moment of obsolescence can be said to shed a certain light on these structures in the sense of their very disappearing out of view and noticeable, felt absence. One is reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s (24) vivid image for that transitory moment of visibility that occurs when a previously dominant mode of understanding is made obsolescent by a newly mediated form of understanding: “Just before an airplane breaks the sound barrier, sound waves become visible on the wings of the plane. The sudden visibility of sound just as sound ends is an apt instance of that pattern of being that reveals new and opposite forms just as the earlier forms reach their peak performance.” A rediscovering, even if only for a moment, of a different kind of gravity “outside to the totality of technologized space” (Krauss 304). Death becomes the medium, technology, object.
“Death” here is the obsolescence, the subsidence of a particular form of mediation, and a “blue hour” merely any instance in which a kind of temporal afterglow of mediation is presenced. In their book Life after New Media – Mediation as a Vital Process, Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska (55) stress the importance of understanding mediation as a being “primarily a temporal, multiagential phenomenon, a process rather than a spatialized and spatializing object.” Thus a particular media form is for them a sustained instance of a temporary “fixing” or “stabilization” of the originary, emergent and ongoing “vital process” (Kember & Zylinksa 67) of mediation itself. In this sense we might understand the process of obsolescence as being a draining of the relational vitalities of a particular medium, a process that might also offer up an illuminating afterglow in which the very felt absence of this vitality reminds us how, “Every medium thus carries within itself both the memory of mediation and the loss of mediations never to be actualized” (Kember and Zylinksa 21).
While the forward momentum in post-digital seems aimed at getting on with things, the potential in temporarily dwelling on such passing moments of obsolescence is for how they might prove conducive for tracing the contours of any particular condition of post-. Blue hours, such as those that Benjamin and Krauss outline, can be understood as providing a setting of relatively heightened atmospherics, in which mediation itself can be said to subtly flex the curvature of its horizon in a just noticeable fashion. At such moments, in such a zone, one might – like Newton fanning out the colour spectrum in his darkened room – temporarily suspend, stabilise or distinguish some of the many blended and overlapping rays that inform the so-called technological unconscious, including aspects of the technology itself and also those of the collective unconscious that continues to experience technology in certain instances as a potentially alien second nature (Benjamin, Writings on Media 37) and in others as naturalised extension of being. As hinted at above, a blue hour of obsolescence might well be compared to the “afterglow” of this year’s Transmediale theme, with its evocation of “the intense red glow of the atmosphere long after sunset (or long before sunrise), when most twilight colours should have disappeared. The afterglow is caused by dust in the high stratosphere, which catches the hues of the twilight arch below the horizon” (“Transmediale 2014″). One should tread carefully in the kind of dramatic theoretical scenes that evocative writers like Benjamin so tantilisingly set, but at the very least, one might be on the lookout for this particular scene of obsolescence, a transition period that might occasionally provide lucid, uncanny or prescient modes for perceiving the previously pervasive or oversaturated qualities of the media object in question, before it eventually subsides as residue back into the more generic atmospherics of mediation, inevitably playing a role, large or small, in the various ecologies that designate visibility, mass, time, space, velocity, value.
Scenes such as these suggest an aspect of something that was always there, awaiting its release. A capacity for rebirth that something like obsolescence, in various guises, can act as thanatological ground for. In order to give a name to this evasive yet potentially emergent quality, one might draw from discussions on anamorphosis, the optical technique of transposing a distorted projection within and according to the norms of the visual logic of linear perspective. In its most usual form, the anamorphic image requires that the viewer adopt a particular viewing angle or viewing device in order to reconstitute and better make out the enclosed anamorphic image (the iconic example of this technique being Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors). Similarly, by virtue of its common function of serving as both a memento mori and an embedded augur of the workings of the medium in question, anamorphosis can be understood here as a technique and concept that highlights the emergent potentials of obsolescence and post- via the way in which it can be seen to hint at both the ephermality and seeming limits of the medium or object under consideration, while also indicating towards other horizons, such as the seemingly innate capacity of images, objects, concepts and mediation itself to accelerate again beyond our ability to keep up with their dynamic potentialities.
Viewed from the perspective of post-digital, a particular point of interest here is the uncomfortable proximaty that post- hints at, and which the embedded quality of the anamorphic partly highlights. One could of course stretch beyond a notion of post- to discuss things such as the non-human or even non-digital, but post- signals at least some kind of lingering, umbilical connection between the progenitor and its late coming prefix. The primary point of enlisting a notion of the anamorphic in this paper is for the way in which the anamorphic is able to act as a potentially unsettling augur embedded within an everyday norm, employing the same tools of the media technique in question to create further indexical yet awry scenes which can tease out the very artificial nature of the everyday perspective in question. Such signallings of a kind of resistant, “anamorphic remainder” (Boluk & LeMieux), in their very dormant yet persistent fashion, can be experienced as a second, potentially alien nature that returns and confronts the mediating and mediated subject with the primacy and weird nature of its own uncanny contortion acts.
Jacques Lacan’s (Four Fundamental Concepts; Ethics) various writings on anamorphosis are worth turning to in this context, especially for the way in which his conception of anamorphosis alerts one to such a sense of alienation that is embedded and closer in the mirror than it appears. A potentially disturbing proximity that hints at topological structures of the self that further Lacanian concepts such as lack and the Real similarly address. In such a Lacanian register, we can return to the spectre of the profane illumination of the obsolete media object and speak of how this illumination can be parlty felt as a gaze of said temporarily animated object, in the way that those many scopic rays of desire, as they are mirrored here in oblique, anamorphic fashion, are experienced as being reprojected back out from the obsolete object in question. The “pulsatile” (Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts 89) afterglow of these possessive, saturated drives casting a dark shadow – the obsolescence of the object and of certain expended investments and energies therein. Those animating lines from Louis Aragon’s poem, ‘Contre-chant’ (counter melody), that Lacan (Four Fundamental Concepts 79) presents at the beginning of his introductory seminar on anamorphosis:
Toi te tournant vers moi tu ne saurais trouver
Au mur de mon regard que ton ombre rêvée
[Turning towards me you can find
On the Wall of my gaze only your dreamt-of shadow]
One might speak of a certain mirror of obsolescence and the “wall” that is this felt gaze of the object, presenting the “annihilating subject” (Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts 84) with a brief reflection of their own drives and the structures and ideologies which the object has been moving between, is mediated by and yet always can be seen to resist. In the case of a media technology, a moment created by an experience of topological resistance in the overlapping ecologies involved in the medium in question, one in which their relations are temporarily but noticeably distinct and sensate. On the part of the desiring subject, a transitory moment in which said drives are temporarily turned “inside-out,” before escaping again towards the vanishing points of yet further investments of this desire.
“No one really dreams any longer of the Blue Flower. Whoever awakes as Heinrich von Ofterdingen today must have overslept. […] No longer does the dream reveal a blue horizon. The dream has grown gray. The gray coating of dust on this is its best part. Dreams are now a shortcut to banality.”
- Walter Benjamin (Writings on Media 236), “Dream Kitsch – Gloss on Surrealism”
In his writing on surrealism and kitsch, Benjamin (Writings on Media 236-38) highlights how the Surrealists, in their crosshatching of the dream world with the objects, furnishings and “cheap maxims” of the everyday, “are less on the trail of the psyche than on the trade of things.” At the pinnacle of such a practice, “the topmost face on the totem pole is that of kitsch. It is the last mask of the banal, the one with which we adorn ourselves, in dream and conversation, so as to take in the energies of an outlived world of things.” In the face of its own unsettling anamorphic alterity and obsolescing drive, the digital subject has shown an impulsive readiness to latch onto the banal. Something like Instagram unleashes the social practices of digital photography with a few select visual filters that aestheticise the temporal through a technique of “fauxstalgia” (Memmott) that masks something like the selfie in sufficiently profane illumination. At the same time, online meme ecologies act as conductors of a craving for a replicable, utilitarian vernacular of rough and ready image macros that can serve as express circuits to banality.
One feature of banality here is this very compressed, easily circulated quality it latches onto. The meme, in its cultural form, readily co-evolves with technological provisions such as network bandwidth constraints, easily replicable digital formats, the highly-greased and quickly churning gears of social media platforms and so on. They partake in the naturalised “trade of things” in the digital and provide a vernacular “mask of the banal” similar to that which Benjamin describes. Indeed, while one might speak of many of the predominant digital platforms of the contemporary moment as wolfs in sheeps’ clothing – such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and others, with their cheery doodles and plain vanilla shopfront windows – the banal can be understood to act as a similar masking of certain more subversive strands of cultural expression. Luke Munn speaks of a “post-internet play” that is “often operating within technology frameworks in a collaborative or even playful approach (mitspielen), utilising the logic of branding and co-option for their own benefit.” Certainly it was in a somewhat similar vein of mischief that the Surrealists were carrying on.
In something like the popular surge towards the accessible photo filters of Instagram, one senses a kind of, part defence mechanism, part tactical countering at play in its an employment of a filtered mask of the banal. To begin with, there is the much commented upon way in which the applying of a filter casts an artificial aesthetic of age and materiality upon these digital photos that are bound for an almost immediate obsolescence due to the abundance and digitally proliferated nature of the streaming content interfaces and ecologies into which they enter. Such a filtering might be understood as signalling a certain self-awareness on the part of Instagram users, or a more subliminal acknowledgement of the anamorphic, mise-en-abyme like hall of mirrors and saturation of the ever-proliferating qualities of the digital, which an apotropaic mask of the banal can both assuage and also potentially reenergize in its ability to tease out those memes and digitally-informed vernaculars which are felt to be of particular communicative power. Indeed, in many cases the banal has a knack for plucking out the cultural markers of the contemporary moment, in which one can often sense an embedded, self-aware and even implied or charged critical commentary within.
Now almost a decade on since Tim O’Reilly’s formulating of the rise of “Web 2.0,” in the mainstreaming of things like user-generated 4chan memes into mass market forums such as daily morning news shows and Facebook wall posts, one senses a kind of moment of popular, collective self-awareness – “Oh Internet” – in regards to this saturation of the digital. We are all producing “internet-aware art” (Guthrie Lonergan, in McHugh 10) now, and everything is now potentially possessed with a degree of understanding from the digital, to the point where saying so carries little value. Is any kind of “blue spill” of the digital even noticed anymore? Each discrete part, each ecology, readily overlaps on the other. And overlaps, and overlaps. In such a condition, the emphasis seems no longer to be on startling juxtapositions of everyday objects such as the Surrealists were after, but rather in the increasingly natural, i.e. banal, overlap of what was previously felt as unnatural. If anything, in such a landscape the anamorphic might be said to be itself yet another potential mask of the banal with which one might adorn oneself. Thus, perhaps, the trendings of memes such as “creepypasta,” “weird Twitter” and all things H.P. Lovecraft. In response to the viscous spread of the digital, its seeming horror vacui (“fear of emtpy space”) and kitsch-like lack of restraint and drive to cover every niche and corner with its own internet of things, why not adopt the recycling tactic of a banal ecology (or garbology) of memes in which one can make oneself at home in, or indeed tactically mask other maneuvres within.
This very ubiquitous exchange of the banal in the digitally informed ecologies of the moment could be seen to have a certain resilience when viewed through a lens of the post-digital. In formulations such as those of the theorists above, one senses a recurring theme of resistance on the part of these digitally informed media objects – and subjects. Florian Cramer (“Anti-Media, Ephemera on Speculative Arts”) describes how the terms “‘art’ and ‘media’ refused to go away” and proclaims a kind of revanchist genre of “anti-media,” which is defined as “what remains if one debunks the notion of media but can’t get rid of it.” Another hinting towards a potential for resistance embedded in the stubborn object or medium that, when viewed from a particular angle or caught in a particular relational juncture, can act as, not so much the dreamed for blue flower in the landscape of technology, but rather as “anti-aphrodisiacs” or antidotes for reencountering the ubiquitous, mythological and/or everyday ecologies in which said beings exist, relate and extend across – as well as resist against.
As a brief example of a blue hour of obsolesence that touches on some of the themes of this paper, consider Kevin Bewersdorf’s digital performance piece PUREKev (2008). The plan of execution for the piece was noticeably barebones and conceptually humdrum and even old hat. Over the course of three-years (2008-11) an automated performance would play out, in which a looping clip of over-exposed home video footage depicting a flickering firecracker would very gradually diminish over the three years, extinguishing at a provisionally imperceptible but steady rate for its visitors, gradually becoming a field of “pure” blue. This blue void, rather than the flame, seems to be the key performer here (McHugh, 2011, 40), surrounding its increasingly pitiable flame, pushing it down and forcing us to scroll, and scroll, and scroll… hunting for a figure, no matter how fleeting, that might release us from this amorphous ground, the “MAXIMUM SORROW” that is Bewersdorf blue.
Bewersdorf’s PUREKev performance, like his Monuments to the INFOspirit series, contains an anamorphic-like, memento mori reminder and imprint of the dotcom crash of the digital and the Totentanz, post-crash condition of “2.0,” a reoccurring quality that together with his prominent use of blue is noticeable throughout Bewersdorf’s practice. One is reminded of Krauss (291-2) speaking of photography’s transition from an exciting new medium to yet another commodity that was “swallowed by kitsch,” a transition that in turn yielded a kind of faux response of “artiness” on the part of some photographic practitioners of the time, one that partly “betrays a social class under siege.” Echoing Benjamin’s classic reading of photographer Eugène Atget in “The Work of Art…” essay, Krauss points out how Atget’s photographs can be read as a kind of antidote to this “fraudulent mask of art” in the photography of the time: “Atget’s response to this artiness is to pull the plug on the portrait altogether and to produce the urban setting voided of human presence, thereby substituting, for the turn-of-the-century portrait’s unconscious mise-en-seine of class murder, an eerily emptied ‘scene of a crime.’”
In Bewersdorf’s works we witness a similar aesthetic, a pulling of the plug of the digital and even an outlining of a crime scene of sorts. Within this vacuum of the outmoded one can still sense the lingering afterglow of a pervasive, corporate INFOspirit that clearly once inflated the drama of its digitally inflected subjects while also seeming to drain them of a certain sense of vitality. Bewersdorf’s “MAXIMUM SORROW” motto, with which he brands the images and characters of his melodrama, suggests a bubble burst, a feeling of the blues or burnout that emanates in a vaguely atmospheric fashion throughout his works. It is also hard to miss the reoccurring use of blue throughout these works, which here seems turned almost inside out and serves in its own way as a kind of anamorphic call to the horizon or vanishing point – “a sensitive spot, a lesion, a locus of pain, a point of reversal of the whole of history” (Lacan, Ethics 140) – an abstract but notable signifier of the digital against which Bewersdorf can offset and perform a world of a banal, everyday, overlapping, almost sacrificial obsolescence.
Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel? Why blue? Why post-digital? This paper began with the riffing on blue as a meme-like signifier of the digital, a readymade scaffolding and prevalent filter of the digital imaginary. Having initially indicated towards the romantic conceit of the blue flower, the question returns now as to whether the post-digital is itself a conceptual blue flower? Indeed, can something as nebulous as “the digital” even be treated in a remotely similar manner to an object or a medium? Can it really become obsolete or post-? Such is the potential mire and haze of “fuzzy” (Cramer, “Anti-Media, Ephemera on Speculative Arts”) and seemingly converging concepts like “digital media.” At each turn, this very emulsive, ever-proliferating nature of the digital seems to both cling to and yet elude our grasp. Perhaps this is in part an issue relating to the particularly burdensome imposition that a prefix like post- puts on an already sufficiently problematic stem, reminding one of Frederic Jameson’s grapplings with the posited “total flow” of postmodernism and “how the thing blocks its own theorisation, becoming a theory in its own right” (Jameson 71). One would also do well to keep in mind the easily “po-faced” nature of any such applications of post-. The reactive, self-propagating nature that such a theoretical manoeuvre can readily get carried away by. At least the simple sounding of a speculative death knell of post- in relation to the digital, rather than positing it as any kind of definitive term, might act in a similar way to the moment of obsolescence, the suspending quality of its hyphen creating a temporary tension, a zone of uncertainty or wobble that might somewhat unsettle the stem that it still implicitly admits it cannot necessarily escape from, nor even wants to. The title of Florian Cramer’s recent talk on the matter, “Post-digital: a term that sucks but might be useful,” gives some indication of these kinds of strands that come into play.
In this post-PRISM revelations present maybe there is also a sense of a renewed or heightened sense of awareness and reflexivity in relation to the various ubiquitous and dominant forms of digitally informed practices today. A kind of tipping point moment, in which we are reminded, yet again, of how so many blue horizons and promises of the digital end in yet more false dawns. A time for a potential cleansing of a misguided or overused palette, one that can bring our attention to other significant shadings in the media spectrum, such as the more indiscernible, unobtrusive, uniform and unremitting “gray immanence” of “evil media” that Fuller & Goffey highlight (13-4). Or likewise, in considering the temporal and immanent qualities of media that obsolescence highlights, one can, as the likes of Hertz & Parikka have already outlined, excavate post-digital blueprints for an ethico-aesthetic DIY practice that is able to respond to the embedded post- of planned obsolescence, with its environmental saturation of obsolete technologies whose relative material permanence endows them with an extended afterlife in which they may be rediscovered, recycled, remixed, reinterpreted. Adopting “customized, trashy and folksy methodologies” that go against the grain of the still dominant “glossy, high-tech ‘Californian Ideology’” (Hertz & Parikka 427). Enacting a shift in focus from the illuminating qualities of immanent or recently occurred death, to that of the never-really-dead “untimeliness” of “media undead” (Wolfgang Ernst, cited in Hertz & Parikka 429). From dusk to dawn. The sun also rises. To trace out and get hands on with the kinds of horizons of speculation and everyday encounters that the post-digital proposal, in an interventionalist modality, might nudge into relational or resistive being.
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