PART TWO: Glitching the Collective Mind (Dan Power)
“Living in a globalized, economically destitute society has turned us into neurotic Internet-dwellers with our nerves relentlessly racked by political failures and a media industry that runs on the fumes of our panic and anxiety. We do everything we can, from colorfully invoking a better world on Instagram to adopting the fashion trends of a vague past era, to distract us from the existential reality that under late capitalism we are miserable.” – Grafton Tanner (2015)
In the last instalment of this series, we saw how the surplus of online content makes constructing a coherent conception of the world through the internet an impossibility. We’ve seen that this content is produced by and for an increasingly large mass of people. Being active internet users, all of these people must be experiencing information saturation, and producing content which responds to, or at least participates in, this saturation.
> We also saw that the internet is a hyper-object and therefore nonlocal. However, we understand it using a range of spatial terms; we visit different web ‘sites’, using search bars to ‘navigate’ between them. We saw that the internet is a database and so atemporal, and yet we refer the constantly-growing feeds of information on social media sites like Twitter as “timelines”, as if the data isn’t all existing online simultaneously, uploaded then frozen in time. Perhaps as a way to make this info-saturated hyper-object seem less ineffable, a language of repurposed non-digital terms has emerged. This betrays an ontological disparagement felt by internet users who simultaneously are inhabiting real and virtual space. Considered alongside the omnipresence of code/space, which causes the digital world to leak into the physical, this reality-masking language becomes increasingly problematic.
> The surreal short film icced (2017), which we examined briefly before, is a depiction of how non-spatial and atemporal virtual worlds might be understood in physical and temporal terms. Characters in conversation appear in the same frame, as if they’re physically located within the same space, and yet they can float away or dematerialise at will. At one point they appear to be in a convenience store, but later an exterior depiction of the building reveals the store not to be on a street, but floating in an indeterminate part of outer space. The store is a recognisable location, and yet we are given no information which can locate it in any specific place. It is both ubiquitous and anonymous. It is, to use a term from the influential anthropologist Marc Augé, a non-place.
> Augé (2008) writes that “if a place can be defined as relational, historical, and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, historical, and concerned with identity will be a non-place”. While modernity brought with it the establishment of cities and so created a sense of being in a place, supermodernity produces non-places, areas within places which bear no qualities that identify them as being anywhere specific. The “essential quality” of supermodernity, Augé states, is “excess”, and excess creates the need for anonymous public spaces to be mass-produced. Mass-production creates clones, replicas of an original place rather than places which are new and have their own distinct identity. An example Augé provides is “the big supermarket”, a symbol of excess consumerism which was made necessary by people’s desires to purchase a wide range of goods with minimal effort. Aside from superficial branding, the experience of being inside a supermarket is the same regardless of where in the world it is found. Each supermarket is defined not in relation to the area it exists in, but to existing ideas of what a supermarket is. If a supermarket in one country is interchangeable with a supermarket in another, then the experience of entering a supermarket is the experience of exiting a place and entering a non-place.
> Place is important because it provides something around which the occupants can build a sense of identity. When the features which distinguish one place from another are removed, stable sense of belonging and understanding are removed with them. The non-place “creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude and similitude” – its lack of identity strips visitors of their own identity, forces them to become anonymous.
Virtual space, being non-local and homogenized in structure, is a non-place also. In order to understand the problems post-internet surrealists are confronting we must update our conceptualization of the internet. Not only is it one single work with innumerable contributors, but it’s a work which the creators and observers can inhabit and interact with. The virtual plaza can be entered from any internet-connected place or non-place on the planet. As such it is not just an artwork which changes our understanding of the world, but by belonging in a place in inextricable from a person’s sense of self, it’s an artwork which makes us redefine our conceptions of identity.
> The ‘virtual plaza’ is a phrase borrowed from the author and experimental musician Grafton Tanner (2015), who uses it to conceptualise the interactions of internet users between content and each other. He describes the plaza as a non-place through which “we drift and consume, lulled by the saccharine tones of muzak”. The lulled drifting through this nondescript plaza evokes the same melancholy as Augé when he says that “The [supermarket] customer wanders round in silence, reads labels, weighs fruits and vegetables on a machine…”. In digital non-space the supermarket becomes a hyper-market, and the alienating dislocation this inflicts on its visitors takes place on a global scale.
> Bridle (2018) writes that the “ubiquity” of smartphone computers make “the entire world” a code/space, and by extension this standardises “culture itself”. Writing on memes and online culture, Shifman (2013) notes that “contemporary participatory culture” consists largely of “user‐driven imitation and remix”, with internet users continually adapting and readapting existing ideas to create new ones. Nothing new is created, and nothing old has immutable associations. Because this has taken place in the virtual plaza for years, the reference points for things which are being remixed are often themselves remixes of other things. The lamb sauce memes we encountered in the last chapter function as in-jokes, with only those who have seen the original lamb sauce clip, the remix, or variants of it being in on the joke. This meme can only be understood in relation to other memes. In the corners of the internet where this meme is popular it has constructed its own virtual space of signification which does not rely upon anything in the real world.
> Bruenig observes that in surreal internet comedy “loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration… until nothing coherent is left” (2017), but perhaps a more accurate assessment would be that nothing appears to be coherent from an outside perspective. There is an internal logic to each meme which is created and sustained by the internet users who deploy the content or frames in consistent ways. Internet culture, if such a broad concept can be meaningfully invoked, has reached a point where its reference points are also part of internet culture. As such this culture is self-sustaining, and evolves in an entirely separate way to cultures offline.
The virtual plaza is inherently anachronistic, with the oldest posts and websites being as instantly accessible as the most recent. Online, the past and present co-exist without contradiction. The past, like the present, is made of data. This makes subcultures within the internet unique, since they have developed without a stable sense of history. Augé notes that the mass-production of homogenised place leads to places being built which bear no signifiers of temporality. Non-places appear one day and immediately function as if they have existed for years, so that a supermarket built today might be interchangeable with a supermarket built in the previous millennium. This not only dulls the influence of history over the feel of a place, but replaces individual understandings of local history with a standardised, globally “collective history”, the “reference points” of which are indeterminate and so “unstable”. Online this instability is further amplified, as Bridle observes when he says that, online, “history is networked and atemporal”. The internet’s database structure takes the identity-stripping atemporality and a-spatiality of non-place to its logical conclusion: by finally creating a place without a physical location, and where cultural artefacts are interpretable only in relation to other data objects, the internet deletes the cultural identity of all those who move through it, and requires them to construct a facsimile of themselves before they can manifest within the virtual plaza.
> We all enter the virtual plaza in a state of anonymity, and in order to lose this a new identity must be constructed. If every individual online is doing this, and if enough people’s constructions resemble each other, then the idea of a distinct and significant post-internet cultural identity becomes a tangible possibility.
One subculture which was born online is the vaporwave community, built around the musical genre and aesthetic of the same name. Vaporwave artists take mass-produced commercial muzak and distort it until it feels haunted and unnerving. Vaporwave identifies itself as “a descendant of punk”, and both genres share an output of lo-fi content with anti-establishment sentiment. Like punk, the aesthetic of vaporwave “has been associated with the Situationist détournement, where mainstream culture is edited to convey alternative and oftentimes subversive messages” (Jimison, 2015). In this case, the mainstream culture being edited is the heartless muzak which saturates non-places. As opposed to music, muzak is designed to not make an impact on the listener: it’s background noise, designed to keep you stimulated but pacified as you move through the plaza, or cheery and more willing to spend when passing through a big supermarket. Music is made for listeners to enjoy, muzak to manipulate them into acting in a certain way. By putting this background content at the foreground of their own work, vaporwave artists intend to “wake us up to the corporatist society in which we are trapped”, replacing the “mask” of consumerist art with the “dead stare of unfettered capitalism”.
> All vaporwave art, being a product of the virtual plaza, is a form of remix. What separates this content from the rest is the creators’ uniformity of intent and the execution of ideas. Not only are they manipulating commercial music to reveal its omnipresence within the virtual plaza, but they distort it so that anything which might once have been comforting becomes sinister and dark. Floral Shoppe, released by electronic musician Vektroid under the alias MACINTOSH PLUS (2011 – see figure 3.1 above), is one of vaporwave’s seminal albums, and the track ‘リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー"’ (or ‘Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing’) is almost synonymous with the genre. Throughout this album pre-existing songs are slowed so that the melodies become drowsy, the vocals deeper, and with massively increased reverb they become slurred and ghost-like. Looped melodies are overlaid slightly asynchronously, so the songs feel perpetually on the verge of collapse.
> Vaporwave is a movement bent on alienation. Every aspect of Floral Shoppe– from the convoluted and untranslated titles to the space- and temporality-busting combination of historical artefact and virtual space on its cover (figure 3.1) – exists to serve the deconstruction of artificial reality. Tanner notes how “electronic media’s propensity to glitch and malfunction” can put users into a “sudden state of disarray”, and this same effect is achieved in vaporwave’s clunky deconstruction of highly-polished commercial music. This disarray constitutes a kind of “horror”, a sudden collapse of what we perceive to be real.
> Stephen Curtis (2019) suggests that the glitch is a kind of existential awakening, the systems operating below the surface of the plaza revealing themselves, and vaporwave artists have certainly tapped into this mode of thinking. Their artefacts exist within the non-physical plaza, where sounds and images are the building blocks of a virtual reality. When these malfunction and glitch it appears, from the perspective of an immersed internet user, as if reality itself is breaking. Through its disruptions of the digital diegesis, vaporwave abruptly disengages its listeners from the virtual space, and so frees them of its dread-inducing effects.
Escaping the virtual plaza in this way can be blissful, as seen in Lucien Hughes’ S-U-N-D-A-Y S-C-H-O-O-L(2017). This video remixes clips from The Simpsons (1989-) into a music video for the vaporwave song ‘Teen Pregnancy’ (Blank Banshee, 2012). It depicts Bart Simpson listening to the track and dissociating from reality. The diegesis we perceive is governed by Bart’s internal mood, and only begins to change when he presses play on his cassette player. As he dances through the streets of Springfield the space deconstructs – the sky becomes vectored, the colours saturated and hyper-real. Objects slide over each other unnaturally, as if fighting for space, and the world goes through phases of appearing blurry and distorted. Bart has flashbacks to his early childhood and the space deconstructs further; past and present locations are spliced together, the overlaid glitch effects become more intrusive, and clips unexpectedly skip or repeat.
> The manipulation of diegetic reality through the glitch, manifested as an apparent error in the hardware sustaining the digital object’s existence, allows the filmmaker to alter the film on a fundamental level. As with vaporwave music, the glitch here breaks apart digital reality, and when deployed as an aesthetic tool, reconstructs a reality from the diegetic rubble.
> In a state of dissociative bliss, Bart barely reacts to the environment changing around him. As we drift between day and night, location and year, he continues to smile vacantly and dance away. His new world is infused with signifiers of the virtual plaza: a Windows 95 logo flickers across the sky, the pink grid sky and a cartoon stone bust evoke the cover of Floral Shoppe, and we even an earlier clip of the video loading on a computer screen.
> There is a temporal displacement not only within the video’s narrative but in its composition: the saturated colours and flickering lines across the image give the impression of an old camcorder, while the background shown above is fractured in the style of a digital glitch. The video reflects the atemporal environment in which it exists. The use of a classic Simpsons episode, fixation on Bart’s cassette player, and sampling the iconic riff from Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’ (1982) all invoke nostalgia, while simultaneously the glitching images make the video’s post-internet status apparent. This is a depiction of the past distorted by technologies of the present. The past is only accessible to us through documents and artefacts, and online these become artefacts become files. In the case of S-U-N-D-A-Y S-C-H-O-O-L, these files have been corrupted.
The spilling of the past into the present, and the temporal and ontological disarrays which result, are hallmarks of a hauntological work. Tanner invokes Derrida’s concept of hauntology in regard to vaporwave, which exposes “the haunting of present culture by the past” by generating works which eschew temporality. Importantly, this haunted restructuring of muzak forms part of the genre’s social critique. Tanner explains that “hauntology posits that the past notions of the future have in some way failed”. The emergence of fully networked information through the internet brought with it the promise of digital global enlightenment, but this future hasn’t arrived. As Bridle said in the first chapter of this series, “that which was intended to enlighten the world in practice darkens it”.
> Derrida (2006) describes the haunting of late capitalism as being conducted by “neither soul nor body, but both one and the other”. Hauntology is conceptual, but still provokes a tangible hauntedness. Something “crucial” to the haunted nature of consumer culture, Mark Fisher (2006) explains, is the “temporal disjuncture” from which the hauntological feeling arises. Since atemporality is intrinsic to a database structure, and the internet is one giant database of databases, there is a haunted quality inherent in all internet media. Digital space is saturated with ghosts of the past, and the continuous mixing and remixing on which internet culture is built stirs these ghosts into the liquid concrete of the future’s building blocks.
> Tanner observes that “vaporwave is the music of “non-times” and “non-places” because it is sceptical of what consumer culture has done to time and space”, and this certainly appears to be true. The identity-stripping alienation of non-place is evoked through the layered pseudonyms of artists such as Ramona Xavier (Vektroid / MACINTOSH PLUS), and the temporal instability of networked culture is foregrounded in the movement’s continual remixing and recontextualisation of disparate cultural artefacts. Rather than surrender to the existential crises posed by the haunted virtual plaza, or obscuring them with pacifying commercial entertainment, vaporwave artists confront them directly in an attempt to reconcile atemporality and alienation with sincere artistic practice.
> Jimison writes that, as with “the historical avant-garde, Vaporwave appears to want no part in the institutions of entertainment and art, but to produce a radical space of their own, on their own terms”. Digital networks have made cultural progression in reality increasingly difficult. By operating within the network to start a culture from scratch these artists are forging their own reality, a reality of which atemporality and aspatiality are a part, and in which hauntings are not a horror but part of the enjoyment.
Tanner argues that “producers making simple, radical vaporwave dissolve the notion of progress both in its creation and in the feelings it invokes in us”. If progress entails the dilution of feeling in increasingly commercialized music, and the dilution of meaning which results from too much information, then vaporwave is wilfully regressive. Importantly, if the future we’re hurtling towards is dizzying and overwhelming, then regression can be its own form of liberation.
> Bridle expresses a similar sentiment when he writes that “we have much to learn about unknowing”. His point might not be that ignorance is bliss, but that unlearning obsolete modes of communication and cultural proliferation are a necessary first step towards progression in a highly-networked world. He describes ‘the network’ as “us and our machines and the things we think and discover together”, meaning that humanity is an active part of the network, implying that cooperation between humans and machines is necessary in order for the network to advance society. The virtual plaza is essential to the running of millions of people’s daily lives, but since it dissolves our fixed conceptualisations of history and identity we must adapt to fit in. This requires casting doubt over some things we believe to be fundamentally true – that history is linear, that identity is individual – but this shouldn’t be alarming. As Bridle muses, “uncertainty can be productive, even sublime”.
In the final installment of this series, we will see how post-internet surreal filmmakers are responding to the same concerns of meaninglessness in a networked and atemporal world, and do so in a similar manner to the vaporwave artists before them. They have much to teach us about unknowing. In abstracting the minutiae of daily life almost beyond the point of recognition, and so challenging our most basic concepts of how objects move through space or how a sentence is constructed, they manage to find comedy, insight, and create a powerful dissonance which often borders on feeling sublime.
Full list of works cited plus bonus discography are available here.
Text: Dan Power