The Occult Contemporary
1:1 Talk, Import Projects, Berlin, October, 2013
Today’s incredible systems of description shape the ‘real’ world as much as reflect it. In so doing, they both enable and circumscribe our existential possibilities. It is a simple fact, however, that it is impossible for anyone to be fluent in every language that orders our experience. Obscure functions, principles and vocabularies govern the everyday lives of rocket scientists and street cleaners alike. This is to say - The contemporary phenomenology of techno-capitalist-science is, for most people, occult; a paradoxical condition that drives much cultural production today.

What do I mean by occult? For most people the term invokes the domain of hocus pocus, Halloween costumes and heavy metal - a field devoid of intellectual credibility. I want to use it in a more specific sense: In medicine the adjective occult is applied to a disease or process that is not accompanied by readily discernable signs or symptoms. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the example of blood ‘abnormally present, e.g. in faeces, but detectable only chemically or microscopically’.1 The term comes from the Latin occultare (‘secrete’), which is frequentative of occulere (‘conceal’). How does this pertain to our discussion? Imagine a digital image: Something kitsch, like a woman sitting on a tropical beach. The scene is only the surface of an architecture that is of a different descriptive order altogether; a process whose technical foundations are not readily discernable, though they underpin the final effect. I know what you’re going to say: “Most people have no idea how their jpegs are made, but you don’t have to know how to take an engine apart in order to drive!”. To this I must respond – so-called driverless cars exist, and they are already taking people for rides.

Even as it synthesizes palm trees and lagoons, the digital support can do other things. Constant Dullaart’s work Jennifer in Paradise exemplifies this, operating not only on the level of the image but its code – which contains a steganographically encrypted message. The content is pay-walled, its decryption key only made available to the work’s purchaser. Herein, a commercial function ‘abnormally present’ within the image of Jennifer’s body – like a fleck of microscopic blood. Beyond Dullaart’s work, countless particles – of what else? – are distributed throughout the ever proliferating corpus of digital images, and by extension – this is important – within so many novel systems of social representation. These occult process are the core of virtuality.

Our lives play out in digital representations, yet most of us are adrift on the image surface – never diving into code: The constantly changing skein, the façade, dazzles as it obscures. We delight it the way it refracts, the way it seems capable of producing a panorama of selfhood. Its glittering mutability hints at our own proliferation and rebirth – a million selfies; pouting and posing, informed by the discourse of ‘performativity’ as digested by the culture industry. But what moves through the guts of this cornucopia? Within this image matrix (and here I use the term in its traditional sense, as womb) we fail to discern our twin: that is, the real (foreign) body that is being made for us – and which may yet take us for a ride. Our digital doppelganger is not a photograph or a status update, much less a manifestation of playfulness or unfettered possibility. It is a parasitical cluster of instrumental functions and disciplines that would collapse us into their own image. It is our actual body that is at risk of becoming the avatar of this virtual twin. In this sense we are living the emergence of machines in the areas we thought our ghosthood – consciousness, memory, desire and sensation.

Most of us are not coders or cypherpunks, but more of us must be. Without an ability to penetrate the screen, to influence the mutations and parasitical functions of our government and corporate approved virtual agency, then we will remain at the mercy of processes beyond our control; languages that we do not speak. It is just as important that more coders become philosophers – so that the dross of techno-capitalist-libertarianism can be challenged. Artists need to be both. But until that time (and because, as I mentioned earlier, we on cannot become fluent in every descriptive system) they must also do other things. Specifically, they must help us understand the stakes in dealing, and living, with the occult processes of our day-to-day machine imaging. If we cannot avoid having an unchosen double (save for complete luddite renunciation of online experience), and we do not understand the internal functions of this virtual self, then let us have a critical engagement with the phenomenology. The metonyns, the ciphers and symbols by which we navigate this terrain must be examind and challenged. We must develop a vernacular idiom – an set of aesthetic tools - capable of describing how formal languages produce everyday experience.

Performing the obscure captures attention in a culture whose ideological rhetoric – at least – priviliges visibility. Manifeting opacity – not making transparent, not hiding, but publically invoking the hidden – is a timely strategy. Here are a few examples of this approach:

Surf clubs involve the creation and display of a private language, one that is on full display to outsiders, but which can only be understood by initiates fully immersed in the play of iconography. You can look at one icon but will not understand what it means unless you are proficient in recognizing how it fits into a semantic topography – a constellation of meaning. Of course, many of the well known clubs have since wound down, but a similar play of revealing opacity – like the iconography of the freemasons on banknotes and public buildings – is at work in projects like the Eternal Internet Brotherhood: a group who go on a retreat to a greek island (a mythical place) and tell everyone that they’re going but do not invite an audience.  

Elsewhere, the performance experiments of Ed Fornieles, Ben Vickers and Relational Data in London involve artists’ role play in real social space, appropriating the avatars and pseudo-agencies associated with cybernetic capitalism: working in marketing, operating a social media profile according to genre conventions – in the case of Ed Fornieles’ work, in the performative guise of an unreflective American college student. Here, the criticality turns around being seen to live a virtual double – the coded doppelganger.  

That this coded doppelgander so often resembles a zombie is most apparent in the work of Ryan Trecartin: Communication between Trecartin’s characters plays out as a fast-extending scroll of pseudo-aphorisms – both spoken and given as on-screen subtitles – whose individual brevity indicates their equivalence to the commands of a computer program or search query. Despite the fact that the characters address one another their incessant verbiage seems to be more a case of instructions issued in staccato bursts of text(uality) than a conversation. Trecartin’s footage is often sped up and the consequent pace at which his characters operate is at odds with lived time as we know it. In this respect they seem like grotesques from a parallel universe. The nature of this temporal shock – compounded by Trecartin’s quick cut montage technique – is also bound up with virtual space. The characters’ ‘conversations’ jump around and so the initial effect on the viewer is disorienting. Yet this seeming diffusion is – somewhat paradoxically – the result of constant self-situating: When the characters talk about a subject they make extreme horizontal references to related information in a manner somewhere between free-association and hyperlinks. What appears to be lack of concentration on their part is the manifestation of a subtending ‘web’ of information processes. Their social patterns reflect the structure of browsing and, accordingly, they spew forth data without respite. Again, the question of agency rears its ugly head. Wild-eyed and smeared with colourful makeup, Trecartin’s people are like terrible puppets mouthing the master speech of twenty-first century information capitalism – ‘dummies’ in more than one sense.

The tighter the ratio, the more opaque our virtual double becomes – the less we control its limbs, its speech, its intellectual and economic functions. Our 1:1 other is alienation itself. If we cannot be fluent in every code or descriptive system, artists and thinkers must set themselves the task of addressing the phenomenology of opacity, so we may yet survive our collapse into the technical image.

Constant Dullaart, Jennifer in Paradise, 2013