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Refract or Collapse:
Notes on Disappearance


















I.

In 1943, H.G. Wells addressed the British Association Conference on the topic of ‘Science and the Citizen’ proclaiming, perhaps too vehemently, that the newspaper is ‘dead as mutton’ and journalism a form of prostitution.|1| While the sentiment echoes, pre-empting the hegemony of digital technologies that would become the primary mode for reporting on global events, much like the death of painting, the prophecy of the medium’s demise was premature.




68 years later, and over 500 since the proliferation of the printed word, Adam Curtis expressed his frustration with journalism as an insufficient mode of reporting on global events in a Frieze talk in 2011. He claimed that contemporary Journalism has no critical self awareness with which to make sense of the emerging narratives of the age.




He maintains that such frameworks are at least in part necessary in understanding global affect and the emergence of certain economic, political, ecological and systemic issues,  and insists that:




...it is wonderful and liberating to be a free individual, because there are no elites to tell you what’s what and to tell you what to do. But because there are no elites, and there are no benchmarks, its very difficult to have any benchmarks against which you can judge stuff you are told, the big stories, the stuff out there… you are on your own, and therefore you become prey to all sorts of waves of myth and fear that sweep through society, because you are free, you are also alone, and that can make you very weak…|2|




Curtis locates the beginning of this fragmentation during the late 1950s to mid 60s, in the aftermath of the Second World War and the moment of America’s burgeoning hegemony, a time, he contends, in which you could feel the beginning of these uncertainties.




The melting pot of global media at this time was certainly being brought to the boil, and we can trace this through the phenomena left behind. It is an archive swollen with anxiety: Cold War propaganda and the fear of nuclear annihilation; Joan Didion’s The White Album, which deals with vocalising her own uncertainty towards the latter half of Curtis’ timeline; the events that triggered the unrest of May 1968.




How is it then, that we have failed to find a way to learn from this troubled past? That even with the wealth of documentation we can access that reveals to us the noxious distention of this ‘collective outpouring’ of anxiety, the feeling of uncontrolled acceleration towards some distant possibility of nuclear proportions still permeates, and has in recent years mounted to a whole other plateau?|3|




II.

As seen in many of his documentary works, including ‘Hypernormalisation’ and ‘The Power of Nightmares’, Curtis’ practical combatant to the rate of acceleration of reality, and the subsequent fragmentation it engenders, is ‘slowness’. He uses duration as the framework through which stories emerge organically and resists the journalism of mainstream television which thrives on the need to keep moving. Taking as its stimulus momentary rushes through which a story is constructed, this way of working leads us to ‘the cutting room floor’, an emphasis on the relocation of power into the hands of the editor; a paradigm explored by Orson Welles in his final and typically extravagant cautionary tale ‘F for Fake’.|4| Curtis goes on to address the need for drastic reform in today’s Journalism. ‘How do you know that what you are told is true?’ He questions unsentimentally. ‘And what do you do if you suspect that the narratives being told to you are incorrect? How do you rebuild them?’|5| 




The trend for ‘slowness’ as a potential antidote for acceleration can be tracked through the work of filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky, David Claerboutb and Michelangelo Frammartino, who take exhaustive duration as an opportunity to challenge the tendency of the eye of the contemporary spectator towards speed.




Virilio and Baudrillard observed that one of the greatest issues of our time is the exponential velocity with which the production and proliferation of technology and information sciences occur.|6| It seems speed is central to the problems facing our slippery techno-centric discourses and devices.




Virilio utilises a scientific standard definition of speed as the product of the relationship between distance and time (or the distance of an object travelled per unit of time), finding its most absolute form in light. Light is absolute speed, and collapses both space and time.|7| This is echoed by Dean Kuipers in his work ‘Notes After Disappearance’ which appears as an introductory text piece in Doug Aitken’s documentary-film still book ‘Diamond Sea’;




D.’s former colleagues didn’t see the point of physical space when spacelessness was available in the dematerial electronic world. They found sunlight oppressive and controlled light their lingua franca. D. now questioned “control”. For centuries, light has symbolised knowledge, and its transfer from one consciousness to another. No matter how corny, information was understood as bits of light. How else would you picture it? New information itself - data, manufacturing, spiritual entities - would create new forms of light… Lighting the darkest corners of experience.




The consideration of ‘light’ as a spectral manifestation of knowledge, and our will to control it, to tame its evanescent nature, may point towards something of the obstinate ‘lymphatic flagellation’ of the postmodern subject, ‘…like everything that has lost the formula for stopping itself…’. |8|




…the twentieth has not been the century of the ‘image’, as is often claimed, but of optics - and, in particular, of the optical illusion.|9|




Arguably, slowness resists our collective consumptive attitude towards culture, and these artists offer as a substitute the emergent narratives borne out of aesthetic minimalism. The result is sometimes difficult and banal, but also sometimes masterful and enchanting cinematic realism.




However, the waters of ‘slowness’ are shallow. Duration provides the context through which ruptures in the flow might emerge, but it does not actively intervene in the flow, slowness is not a rupture in itself, only endurance of rupture. In that way, slowness fails to ‘engage constructively’ with anything other than surface.|10| If we are truly to understand the ‘acceleration of reality’ as it occurs through the prosthesis of technological development, the ‘globalisation of the gaze’, the ‘limit-performances’ of post-modern science, we need the unanticipated growth that ruptures provide, in order to grasp something to hold onto as we continue to accelerate.|11| When acceleration is exponentially powered by its own momentum, it seems that slowness offers only weak and momentary inertia. At the point where speed becomes light and therefore disappearance, at the moment of collapse - we can choose to either condense or refract. Ruptures of lateral, multi-directional heterogeneous motion at this point of no return, I would argue, are a counter force to acceleration and disappearance that may prove more powerful than slowness as blind and sluggish resistance.




Duration is of course an important part of this - an ongoingness of encounters and bodies that allows for these ruptures to occur.




III.

Coinciding in an ironic convergence of timelines, Paul Virilio passed away on 10th September 2018 — the day that also marked, ten years prior, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN going live for the first time.|12| |13| The allegory of the LHC is perhaps what Virilio termed ‘science of the excess’: The violent collision of atoms, on an extensive scale, at the ‘absolute speed’ of light, to allow researchers to observe the controversially named ‘God particle’, recalls overwhelmingly the ‘dizzying whirl of the acceleration of reality’.|14| |15| Such an event leaves us oscillating on a ‘knife edge’: a ‘picno-leptic’ state of consciousness that grapples with the ‘conditions which make experience possible’.|16| |17|The observation of the Higgs Boson brought this into focus with renewed fervour.




The time of the finite world is coming to an end and, unless we are astronomers or geophysicists, we shall understand nothing of the sudden ‘globalisation of history’ if we do not go back to physics and the reality of the moment.|18|




The acceleration of the global-force of Science, particularly Techno-Science, in the totalising manner that wants to be everywhere and to know everything, could perhaps be considered as the seat of power for contemporary societies. However, it is ultimately directed by the Billionaire backer in the periphery (“There is nothing, no ‘naked life’, no external standpoint, that can be posed outside this field permeated by money; nothing escapes money”). |19| |20|




IV.

In the introduction to ‘The Aesthetics of Disappearance’, Jonathan Crary highlights another convergence:




As they were for Foucault in the 1970’s, questions of time for Virilio are of interest primarily as the consequences of a given field of forces and effects. Thus both Foucault and Virilio were aligned, at least for a time, in their related concerns with how individual and collective experience is shaped territorially by strategic relations of power. |21|





This concept of ‘power’ is for Virilio a product of speed, of disappearance. On the dark side of disappearance - the ‘black hole’ of an absolute condensing of matter into singularity - there is the process of being disappeared, that may apply to people as much as industries and devices. ‘Missing’ is described by Hito Steyerl in relation to the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox; a state of ‘superposition’ of the unobserved, which results in an omni-present indeterminacy between life and death; being neither here, nor elsewhere.|22| Is ‘missing’ then, a state of disappearance?




In Schrodinger’s paradox, observation of the subject is the determining factor of its live state: that is, the cat is neither dead nor alive until this is determined by the observer through the act of observing. There are echoes of this to be found in the covert acts of certain authoritarian political regimes, which strategically erase the lives of individuals or collectives deemed a threat, or perhaps dispensable.




D. mentioned his own disappearance infrequently. In any case, it was only half complete. He was in a messy state in-between.




The global state of disappearance is equally messy: Half submerged in user illusions, devices diminish and interfaces collapse into themselves. It produces its own materiality as a “frictionless landscape of interconnected objects and subjects”, and in its slipperiness, disallows for marks to stick and thereby always deviates back to the Same.|23||24|





Such a seductive and totalising power, as outlined by Adam Weg in an annotation of Virilio’s text, is exemplified in Foucault’s Panopticism; an omni-present state of both presence and invisibility producing an insidious definition of disappearance as deception, illusion.|25|




The other verb for dematerialisation was disappearing. The term was chic but misleading. It referred only to the user interface. Physical processes like mining and agriculture and warfare were known to most people only through the media. Disappearing whole industries meant taking down the images of actual works and putting up images of the digitised ideal instead. One by one they were disappeared.|26|





V.

The increasing disappearance of technology is complicit in the way it pervades our lives. What is at stake here; our lack of awareness of the technologies of this disappeared power. Manifest now in computational techniques such as facial recognition, fingerprints, IP address analytics, which appear (or rather dis-appear) as a web camera function, or an empty doorway in an airport. How can we navigate technologies we cannot see? Where is the line currently drawn between the necessary omission of total personal privacy for the lives and benefit of the collective? At what point does that line indicate certain biases that may be inherent in the system, such as the alienation of people from an invented ‘standard societal norm’? Who is codifying the belief systems of our technologies?




The subjective manipulation of virtual symbols becomes a structural form of agency in this (pre-formatted) landscape of proximate and immediate contact.|27|




A society of transparency that calls for total visibility, is, like water, impossible to contain or to grasp. Its very lack of optical form may render it the perfect milieu in which to disappear.




Disappearance can afford agency to those most vulnerable to being disappeared. When emancipatory, said disappearance can be liberating. Perhaps in reclaiming this ‘non-being’ as an act of resistance, disappearance allows for the creation of spaces that are beyond the reach of more pernicious institutional bodies. The will to build spaces that afford this freedom through decentralisation was partly the intent of the ‘founding fathers’ of the internet, like Ted Nelson.|28| Although admittedly this is increasingly hard to do.




Indeed, one of the most present concerns for hippie-cum-tech-guru Jaron Lanier, who has worked closely with Silicon Valley titans such as Microsoft, Google and Apple, is the increasing adoption of a ‘global perspective’ in online spaces and global media outputs alike; a homogenisation of voices detrimental to social groups not typically afforded a platform.|29| 




We had no doubt forgotten that alongside wealth and its accumulation, there is speed and its concentration, without which the centralisation of the powers that have succeeded each other throughout history would quite simply not have taken place: feudal and monarchic power, or the power of the national state, for which the acceleration of transport and transmissions made the government of dispersed populations easier… But this local city is now only a district, one borough among others of the invisible world meta-city, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere.|30|




This is not to say, in the fashion of thinkers like Agamben, that power lies totally with the City-State, rather for contemporary societies, it is perhaps better located in the boardrooms of those ‘disappeared’ corporations that fashion their devices in the shape of our consumer desires.  




Neither disappearance nor total visibility should be proclaimed as forces of ‘good’ or ‘evil’, they are transcendent principles of human affect - according to Virilio.




In the instance of internet, diluting public and private spaces to make of them one unbounded open space that affords neither personal privacy nor collective security has a dichotomous effect resulting in transparency, which in turn may produce disappearance. Whereas, to be disappeared may be a gesture of the reach of authoritarian regimes, most sinister in its methodologies, erasing lives and snatching their voices in a process of dissolving them.




While the path to circumvent these issues is largely uncertain, and neither the ‘slow eyes’ of the filmmakers of Slow Cinema nor emphatic Accelerationism can resist or rupture the current flow, what remains is perhaps refraction, lateral motion, multiplicity and the ‘stickiness’ of more ‘lumpy’ terrains that may allow for a more heterogeneous becoming of velocities, and one thing can be discerned from this: the journey is far from over.|31||32|








|1| H.G. Wells, H.G. Wells on The Future: Science and the Citizen, BBC Archive. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/hg_wells/12409.shtml. First broadcast 21st March 1943.

|2| Adam Curtis, Transcribed from a recording of a Frieze Talk, London 2011.

|3| Prof. Johnny Golding, Lecture at Glasgow School of Art, 12th October 2018.

|4| Orson Welles, F for Fake, 1973.

|5| Adam Curtis, Transcribed from a recording of a Frieze Talk, London 2011.

|6| Idea highlighted by the authors respectively in Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb, Trans. by Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2000) and Jean Baudrillard America (London: Verso, 2010).

|7| Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009) Speed and Politics (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009)

|8| Baudrillard, America, p39.

|9 Virilio, The Information Bomb, p29.

|10|Gary Zhexi-Zhang, ‘Art Versus Silicon Valley/Are Artists Losing the Conceptual Advantage?’ Frieze, September 2018.

|11| Virilio, The Information Bomb, p.2, p.3, p.18.

|12| Mackenzie Wark,’ How Philosopher Paul Virilio (1932–2018) Spoke to an Age of Acceleration and Total War’, Frieze Online. Available: https://frieze.com/article/how-philosopher-paul-virilio-1932-2018-spoke-age-acceleration-and-total-war.

|13| CERN website: https://home.cern/topics/large-hadron-collider. Accessed: 05.10.2018.

|14| Virilio, The Information Bomb, p.3.

|15| Ibid, p.3.

|16| Gian Guidice, TED Talk, Why Our Universe Might Exist on a Knife Edge, May 2013.

|17| Jonathan Crary in Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, Trans. by Philip Beitchman (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), p.10.

|18| Virilio, The Information Bomb.

|19| Zhexi-Zhang, Art Versus Silicon Valley/ Are Artists Losing the Conceptual Advantage?

|20| Hardt and Negri, in Empire, cited from Lemke, Thomas, (Translated by Eric Frederick Trump) Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction, (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

|21| Crary, in VirilioThe Aesthetics of Disappearance.

|22| Hito Steyerl, ‘Missing People: Entanglement, Superposition and Exhumation as Sites of Indeterminacy’ p.139 in The Wretched of the Screen, (New York: Sternberg Press, 2012)

|23| Benjamin Bratton in ‘Logistics of Habitable Circulation’ an introduction to Paul Virilio’s, Speed and Politics (London: Semiotext(e), 2006

|24| Golding, Lecture at Glasgow School of Art.

|25| Adam Weg, Annotation on The Aesthetics of Disappearance, (University of Chicago, 2004)

|26| Dean Kuipers, ‘Notes After Disappearance’ in Diamond Sea, Doug Aitken, ed. Stefan Kalmar, (London, Book Works, 1998)Aitken, ed. Stefan Kalmar (London: Book Works, 1998)

|27| Bratton, ‘Logistics of Habitable Circulation’.

|28| Zhexi-Zhang, ‘Art Versus Silicon Valley/Are Artists Losing the Conceptual Advantage?’.

|29| Aaron Lanier, Intelligence Squared podcast, Jaron Lanier on the Future of Our Digital Lives,17th November 2017. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwbmlBzLXDk.

|30| Virilio, The Information Bomb.

|31|Kuipers, ‘Notes After Disappearance’ in Diamond Sea.

|32| Donna Haraway, ‘The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies’ in Feminist Theory and the Body (London: Routledge 2010).









Rebecca Gill studies Fine Art: Painting at the Glasgow School of Art. She has been asked to speak at the Dark Mycology reading group run by A+E Collective. In 2019 Rebecca will be exhibiting in the UK YA City Takeover in Nottingham and attending the AADK residency in Blanca, Spain.



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