Fade in to a summer storm, raindrops on windows, the sound of the subway rattling under the bridge. A close-up of a bathroom mirror, steam on the lens, a palm pressed up against the glass cross-cut with water dripping from a faucet, bare feet on lino, the suction sound of a body opening, or closing.
The jump-cut of wish
Flash pan over a close-up of a Creamsicle, the orange sheen melting in the orange sun, an open mouth, the top teeth and the tongue just visible underneath. “Strangelove” stirring on the speakers, somewhere else. [page 62]
(Acceleration into absurdity)
When I space out at the movies it’s never because of the poor production. It’s in the film’s capacity to overtake me. When the moving image threatens to metamorphose into the image of real life. And then it does. Real life becomes a hallucination and vice versa. The medium of the screen isn’t a wall. It’s a window.
It’s the same whether I go to the movies or not. Thinking of people constantly as actors in a film I wrote. A film I am right now writing. Looking at them with an expectation of emotion and anticipating a response that I myself contrived. And always heedful of the discrepancy. The film gone off the reel and replaced with something monstrous. A friend’s head becomes a cockroach as he relates last night’s party over a Bulleit on the rocks. My lover’s arms become tentacles when I blink. And blink again.
It was difficult to imagine “virtual reality” because I’d always lived in one myself, simultaneously in each world, embodied through the disembodiment of sensory perception and my propensity for killing time. Paint a picture. All artists do. It’s our way of inhabiting the world, populating it with our own projections and projecting ourselves into it as it continually re-forms. As we continually re-form. Our way of possession. Control. It’s why it’s hard for us to relinquish it. We want escape, but only toward the rules and scenarios we’ve already made. What good are the ones that have already been made for us?
Moreover: what could VR do for me that I haven’t already done myself? And: could I turn off my camera eye long enough to turn on to something purely artificial, something born from a machine instead of in the body?
Unable to focus on what another person is saying because I want to understand what the connection is between the last sentence and the eyelash on your cheek.
I’ve always been hiding behind my eyes. Seeing without showing exactly what. In public at least. Not willing to allow myself the opportunity to really show anything except the semblance of who I [page 63] am playing at being in this moment.
I started to learn how to see myself. To know myself and feel myself inside of me.
Even exhibitionism has its role. You show yourself with such excess so as to really hide yourself, in your own way, among the exhibition. And it’s always better to dissemble than to simulate something you aren’t. Always better to pretend to not have what has always already been inside of you.
There’s an element of retribution here. Re-claiming. Salvation. But from what? It is almost like I want always to save some of myself. For myself. The apex of narcissism re-produced in the body, the gesture and mannerisms of living inside of one. Probably.
I never want to lose my looks
Which I take to mean my way of looking
At people and things
A minute in our life passes. To write it into language. To become that minute. And then to pass it on.
I like parties like I like a moving image. Any room is a backdrop for an unassisted tour; I move through and take photos in my camera eye. Click click click. The party becomes a movie. The point is not to participate.
I think I am ready to learn how to look.
When I step into Jump Into the Light, it’s still daylight; the sun pours in across the windowed entrance; I watch people just getting off work, briefcases and backpacks swinging, pushing their way toward the subway or a Six Point and a Sazerac, crisscrossing Bowery toward another sort of altered reality.
The light at the corner of East Third changes, the traffic subsides, the small stretch of road opens up, at least for a little bit; the hour is about to shift, which you could say means more than just the [page 64] time on my phone. The idea behind Jump Into the Light was conceived when its founders realized that the only places where you could have a VR experience were in trade shows and film festivals, a situation that involved long wait times and long lines for a brief encounter with transcendence. A doctor and two savvy entrepreneurs set out to change that, democratizing VR and, in doing so, showing how virtual reality has already been mainstreamed into our everyday lives while doing their part to help usher in the future. It hasn’t taken long. What began in laboratories and the military in 19291 is now available for the living room, is now available for the master bed and bath. And after turning the knob, Sky Rolnick, Mehow Skalski, and Michael Deathless are only beginning to understand just how open the door is.
“We’ve been working with local artists and developers to push the industry forward,” Sky says, sometime after I take my headset off. Unless it’s still on. “Recently, we’ve adopted an artist residency program that allows artists to use the tools of VR to create new, inspiring pieces of work. Some of this work was featured at an art auction in which the first piece of art created entirely in VR was sold to raise money for underprivileged children.”
If the future of looking involves re-defining how we look at or into art, virtual reality might provide the means to see. But more than that, much more than that, is the kind of art that virtual reality makes possible: the flesh made manifest or vice versa. Sky’s PhD is in particle physics; if anyone at 355 Bowery knows how to split open reality, gather the scattering pieces, it’s him.
For pleasure or for cultural production, this has taken the form of four alternating VR experiences inside Jump Into the Light. The VR cinema has a variety of 360-degree videos from a wide range of genres, while the Oculus Rift modified with Leap Motion is available to allow participants to use their hands, integrating their physical body into a virtual world. The HTC Vive headlines the back of the long and narrow studio space for expansive-environment VR and, should you feel especially introspective, 3-D body scanning. Jump Into the Light, which opened in the summer of 2016, is more than just a cinema and play lab. It is a place for developers to meet and work on projects, to exchange ideas, to [page 65] collaborate and communicate without, often, having to speak.
“We hold regular events that bring artists and programmers together to work on their latest projects,” Sky says, as I wipe cold sweat from my brow. My pants are damp, my wrists are still shaking. Reality delay, I think, which is not a term, or if it is I’ve made it up, the way I do with everything. Reality delay seems fitting. My mind is still moving, somewhere else. My body is right here in front of you. Sky continues, either not noticing my tremors or applauding them, thinking it’s a job well done; thinking, This is everything you were missing. Everything you are right now missing.
Sky elaborates. “We provide resources for them, such as a green screen room for mixed reality filming, motion capture studio for game animations, and even volumetric video.” He pauses. “Volumetric video?” I ask. Sky smiles. “A new way to record full 3-D video rendered from any angle.”
Soon virtual reality will be integrated into the fabric of our everyday life, any angle at every passing moment, as normal as uploading a selfie in the stall of a public restroom and re-producing your toilet-papered vantage point for the world to ogle; the same way the Internet insinuated its way into our own self-consciousness almost overnight, quicker than the time it took to dial up your AOL account from your neighbor’s modem.
(Growing up, I couldn’t afford to connect.)
In a culture that has systematically abolished privacy, the pleasure we still most desire is the private experience. The function of walking with headphones down a crowded street, except entirely immersive. What is more private than connecting our bodies to the VR apparatus, individualizing our imagination so as to stay inside on the outside?
There’s an amazing photo behind you.
And you’re never going to see it. Typical for anyone without eyes behind them, or to the side, or probably also on their ankles. On [page 66] the soles of their feet. Typical for anyone who isn’t made of cameras, and even though we always have one on us, we’re limited by the range of our eyes. Or we used to be.
The first real emotion I experience during my virtual reality is frustration. I spin around the chair I’m seated on. I spin again. I spin again. I spin again. I spin again.
I spin again.
It’s my attempt to see the whole picture, even though the picture is just as live—or pretends to be—as me. The illusion of anything can happen, even though I know this scenario has already been programmed. Even though I know there’s no deviation from the scenario as it was experienced a day ago, an hour ago, five minutes ago, right now, at the same time as me in the eyes of the person sitting to my left. (I can hear feet shuffling if I close my eyes.) Departure, I think, depends on how you turn your head, and when. And since the moving image is three-dimensional, I can’t see everything. The point is to give up, surrender.
But I’m used to being the eye of God. All spectators are. Long before virtual reality or the Internet, oil painting altered the role of the viewer to also assume the role of Creator by the fact of the painting’s arrangement on the canvas: everything was laid out to be seen in its entirety, in a singular and instant gaze. The contradiction was temporal as well as spatial. Despite the perspective, the viewer could only be in one place at a time. After the invention of the camera, this contradiction became apparent to anyone who sat and looked at a photograph, understanding that the moment captured could have only been captured in that moment; a photographer decides where to shoot and how: their personal way of seeing the world becomes our own, the moment we take the image as reality. The difference is in choosing between looking and the reality looked at. It hardly occurs to the observer though, the one looking at a photo after it’s taken. We become the other’s eyes. Our eyes reproduce exactly the position of the photographer’s; their view is our own. What we see depends upon where they were and when.
But the advent of cinema at the turn of the century taught us that a [page 67] reproduced image could be just as dynamic as the human eye, and it could be as unreliable. Whip pans, dissolves, jump-cuts, the freedom to close your eyes and be transported from moment to moment, a center that no longer holds because there is no center.
The title Dreams of Dali flashes across my eyes and I begin to enter a painting. Elephants on stilts. The desert wind and sand. A purple night sky and the shadows of temples appear in the distance as I go deeper into the picture. It takes me a moment, maybe three, to realize that I am actually in flight. Motion sickness. Nausea. Because your eyes think your body’s moving but your body knows it’s not. Jump-cut to a dance floor, pulsing lights in a room full of mirrors. I’m reminded of the scene from Conan the Destroyer, the one where two dozen red-hooded monsters emerge from several mirrors before merging back into one as Conan looks on, furrows his brow, looks aghast, or tries to. Conan can only hurt the monster by destroying his many-mirrored representation, but it doesn’t occur to him until much later. It occurs to me that I can only view anything through the lens of pop culture—even in virtual reality, which is another way of saying, even in my dreams.
Later, I receive a private tour of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, as physicists and engineers look on, often looking at me; looking at me or looking through me, as if I weren’t there or as if I were a ghost, a structureless assembly of atoms like the ones they’d been studying, before I arrived and probably after. Virtual reality is not only about inhabiting a general fantasy; it is also about consummating the specific fantasy of the voyeur: the experience of looking at someone without the possibility of them looking back.
Other scenarios felt like an advertisement for Pixar. Probably because they were—passive teasers showcasing the power and promise of the new technology, something which suggested that even as I was in it I was still missing out.
The notion of advertisements is useful in any discussion of virtual reality. As John Berger had noted as early as 1972, ads are effective because they feed upon the real. And yet no ad can offer the real object of pleasure, whatever that ad is meant to portray; a fantastic [page 68] scenario in which you are not only enlivened by the product-to-be-acquired but you become the product. In virtual reality, too, is it not you who becomes the scenario? Or rather, is it not the scenario that inhabits you? Playing on or off your inhibitions and desires, your imagination. And so VR is less about the present moment of inhabiting a scenario and more about the hypothetical future tense: what happens when I disconnect, remove the headset, exit through the shop doors? Just as an ad is about the future that is not yet here—and will never be if you fail to make your purchase—virtual reality plays on the scenario of our own deferred death drive. Berger said that the happiness of being envied is called glamour. I say that virtual reality has turned glamour back into envy, the next iteration in the production of pleasure that delivers on the dream of happiness, and yet declares, in the midst of dreaming, that it can only ever be a dream. Where do I go from here? you think, after paragliding in Mexico, after a helicopter ride over Hawaii’s Sacred Valley. Where do I go now? And maybe more urgent:
Who steps in when I step out?
The thing that interests me most about photographs is not what’s captured, but what’s been abandoned. What’s outside the frame. In virtual reality, nothing exists outside the frame. And you are no longer the spectator or the creator but the subject of the picture. Cubism endeavored to show a picture in its three-dimensional entirety. Virtual reality destroyed the fourth wall. You’ve entered the image; the image has entered you.
Wittgenstein initially wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world …” (Tractatus 68) before revising his thoughts to say “… to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life” (Philosophical 8).2 Virtual reality is no longer just another new technology; it’s a new language. A new religion which brings with it a way of life that used to be called imagination. The frontier isn’t temporal or spatial; it’s virtual. Which is another way of saying more or less, simultaneously borderline and without borders.
My insistence to control the environment is our culture’s collective insistence on being a spectator, our affinity for watching, our [page 69] penchant to play the role of the voyeur. If nothing else, I think, even as I am inside a simulation of a Frieze art show in New York City,3 virtual reality will re-teach us about how to interact with a work of art. Virtual reality will re-teach us how to consume an experience.
But first, we need to re-teach our eyes how to look.
In the highest-rated episode of Black Mirror’s Season 3—“San Junipero”—two women meet and fall in love, eventually embarking on a new life together. People seem to like it because, unlike so many other Black Mirror episodes, this one is upbeat, optimistic, even utopic. At least according to the reviews. I don’t know what episode everyone else is watching.
San Junipero is a reality simulation, a simulacrum of whatever era the user—the deceased or those that are on the verge of dying—dictates. I like the opening of the episode mostly because of the panoramic backdrop of a Lost Boys poster, hanging over the vaguely eighties Southern California purple night sky like a streak of lightning. When people plug into the simulation, they can look however they want to look. Paraplegics, like Yorkie, one of the two protagonists, are able to dance. Kelly, who has three months to live as the episode opens, looks like she stepped off the set of “1999,” Prince’s vibrant, vertiginous music video shot in 1982. The two characters aren’t people, they are avatars, and when their users die in real life, they can live out eternity in the pleasure dome of San Junipero, a computer-generated heaven to replace the one we’ve all idealized—at least once—in our own minds, Belinda Carlisle crooning “Ooh, heaven is a place on earth” in the background, or not (San Junipero’s version begins and ends on this note). After they meet, Kelly tells Yorkie that the other people in the club “try so hard to look how they think they should look; they probably saw it in some movie.” The same way we have, re-framing our version of reality to meet an unattainable fantasy.
“But I like these,” she says, as she touches Yorkie’s frames, regarding her eyeglasses, which are useless in a digital sanctuary. “You’re authentically you.” [page 70]
What’s so utopic about a fantasy that enters fruition? I’d rather keep dreaming, only so I know I’m on the verge of awakening; only so I know it’s the dream which is unattainable, not reality. When fantasy replaces the reality that wills it into being, the scenario of chance also disappears. And in its place? Algorithms of expectation. A long slow stretch of sand and sky and boredom. Video games. I’d kill myself, I often think, if that’s what heaven is like. The digital version, the physical one. I’d kill myself if I weren’t already dead.
In an early scene, Yorkie tries out the arcade games at the discotheque; a man in glasses comes over to tell her that Bubble Bobble “has different endings, depending on if you’re in one or two player.”
Two people meet, by chance, and fall in love, eventually embarking on a new life together. How familiar it sounded to me, or still sounds. How familiar.
Except the two people are projections of flesh and blood, of a physical disembodiment re-embodied with pixels and the cool caress of VR. What kind of intimacy can we have with a replica of something real?
You’re different than what I was expecting, a woman tells me, when we are sitting beside each other at the bar.
Really? I ask, without really asking. What were you expecting?
Later on, I’m still thinking about the episode, humming Belinda Carlisle while I await another body. Another body of text or moving image. Another message. An avatar and my own projections. Opening credits and a theme made familiar by its repetition. Are you happy playing the game alone? Or do you need a player two?
Our obsession with death marks our language, but it’s also modified our physical relationship to art and to the artist. In earlier moments, maybe yesterday or even this morning, we went to the [page 71] theater, concert halls, music venues, museums, art galleries and installations. We wanted that human element, that breath and touch, and the energy and surprise of the unexpected live performance; the faint mark of human error in the real thing that distinguishes it from its flawless counterfeit cousin. Art could be viewed in the face, between the eyes. Although we were not allowed to touch the paintings, we could get close enough to use our fingers, if we wanted to.
How art works—the way it interacts with you, how it makes you feel, what it makes you think about, what you think about it—is determined by what surrounds it, or in other words, what surrounds you. Where you are and what you are doing, besides being in communion, hopefully, with the work of art.
Is it more moving and more beautiful to be looking at the Sistine Chapel on Google Images, alone, with the time and solitude to savor it in the bathroom of a Starbucks? Or in person, surrounded by a mob of people videotaping their experience? Snapchatting selfies from various angles of the marble floor, each snap destroying the nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, but also rebuilding it; re-formation as the foundation toward a new appreciation of art; a new understanding of what art is and where it can take us, even and especially if we’re nowhere new, still and silent and looking through a re-presentation.
And perhaps more pressing: Have we reached a moment in our culture where art is actually better on the Internet than in real life? Pixelated and dead and drifting and forever and forever
Art itself mutates, evolves, and escalates along with technology; just as musicians re-conceived the ways they should sing with microphones or for the phonograph after the advent of recorded music, so, too, have artists learned to use the infinite—and ephemeral—landscapes of a rapidly shifting Google Image search to find a new form, casualness and collage, a flattening of time and space that resembles a world, and words, without end. [page 72]
In the same way that music could be liberated from its cultural trajectory by holding an instrument like the electric guitar with organic (i.e. human hands) means, art has been uprooted from time and space by applying our analog techniques to our digital landscapes.
Except when there’s no longer place, there’s nowhere to go.
Maybe apps like Fake-A-Text and SimiSimi,4 which deliver texts to your cell phone whenever you want, anytime, anywhere, to make you appear as though you are disconnected from the physical world and busy, are really making a point about our insistence for immortality, making a point or showing us the way. Because if we have a future in being forever, immortality is going to present itself in data. Everything we do, all the time and at the same time, even the things we’d never admit to in person, even the things we’re not quite conscious of and yet which make us who we really are; what we’ve become when we think no one is watching. It’s why the web is still a wave, even if we no longer refer to our browsing history as surfing. Instead we are pulled along, often far off course or where we’d been intending to go, ultimately washing ashore with puppy photos belonging to an ex-girlfriend’s best friend’s uncle.
How did I get here?
Companies like Facebook, which know even the length of time we linger5 on a photo or post, don’t care how; they only care that they know more about us than we know about ourselves. Most of the time.
In a way, the less we are available in real life, the more traces we leave of our existence in the digital world. Long after I die, my traces will still permeate and populate the world wide web, which means that the Internet can re-make me long after my flesh rots and the worms are crawling through the sockets where my eyes once were.
More and more of us have the opportunity to perpetuate ourselves by the grace of the upload button and the silhouette of our social networks, the digital archive of identity that makes Borges’ [page 73] sprawling “Library of Babel” look like the corner devoted to POETRY at Barnes & Noble. It is this data-rich premise that provides the plot twist of another Black Mirror episode, Season 2’s “Be Right Back,” in which a grieving widow is able to use an AI service to turn a blank body into an android that resembles and mimics her deceased husband.
When you speak to the dead, do you ever actually want a response?
Eugenia Kuyda did, or does. Two years after “Be Right Back” aired in 2013, Kuyda designed a chatbot called Replika, meant to mimic a user’s personality. “One day it will do things for you, including keeping you alive. You talk to it,” she said on screen, as a reporter from Bloomberg asked her questions and nodded her head, “and it becomes you” (Huet).
And when the dead speak, what do they say? In earlier years, technology had already afforded us an automatic response, like the voice message mailbox whose voice outlives its moment of recording. You call, the voice on the other end responds; whether or not they are dead or living makes no difference: it’s always precise, always on time, always present; presented with a view to the future. I can’t be reached now … but I’ll call you back later.
And so our love for the dead is always pure because the dead cannot actually ever speak from the grave. They have lived, will never live again. They cannot give us anything more than what they have already given us, which was their life. It is we who now give to them. But we speak to them so that we may hear our own echo. The echo is our grief; upon hearing our own words met with silence, we are able to grieve. But because machines can now speak for flesh, decayed or decaying, a chatbot like Replika has replaced death—and our devotion toward our loved ones that have passed. And in their place? Another echo, except it’s only what we want to hear.
The video beside me as I write these notes projects another scene: Eugenia typing “I miss you” as Roman’s chatbot responds, “I miss you too.”
Are we really talking to the dead, or are we still talking to [page 74] ourselves? And if the only aspect of the conversation that is being replaced is silence, how will that alter how we deal with death, how we deal with life, a year from now? Tomorrow?
But Replika is already popular, because silence is as obsolete as answering machines and landlines, and probably, even phone calls. We’d rather type out how we feel, so that we might feel it.
In October of 2016, the chatbot was tested with 1,000 people. The average user sent forty-six messages a day to their personal bots. By comparison, the average smartphone user in the US aged 18 to 24 sends nearly fifty texts a day. Soon people will rather talk to the dead than the living, and why not? We curate everything else about our physical existence. Our conversations, too, need that same kind of meticulous, truncated articulation. We still want to hear our self talk, talking to ourselves in the guise of another. Social media capitalized on our vulnerability by removing it from the equation. Chatbots like Replika are capitalizing on our inability to deal with death, by removing it from life.
Every desire for enjoyment belongs to the future and the world of illusion, one reason why advertisements are so effective. But a chatbot is a product which needs no advertisement, or rather, a product that is itself also an advertisement. And what happens when we, too, are dead? How will we advertise ourselves, and who will advertise on our behalf?
If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. Our browsing history is already tracked, profiled, shared, and sold by online marketers. They’re called data brokers. They act as auctioneers and traders of data collected from our digital traces, all the movements we knowingly and unknowingly make. You are right now being auctioned, and you don’t even know it, or how much you’re worth. How much your data fetches on the market.
The real marker of technology’s triumph in Post Internet culture is measured not by its degradation of life, but by its degradation of death, of human corpses turned into countable data, a ritual production on the assembly line. Death on credit: a payment that is always and endlessly deferred. [page 75]
In ancient Greece and Rome, the obligation to hold a funeral was so strict that in the absence of a body, law required a wax or wooden double to be burned in its place. Today our data doubles outlive us, without having to go through the fire. And we can be even more useful to companies in death than we ever have been in life. Except what happens when apps like Replika become mainstreamed? When they become as commonplace and popular as Instagram’s or Snapchat’s “live” stories? When messages about a memory from the holiday in the Alps are interspersed with advertisements for the new Madonna, or her hologrammed avatar? What happens when, out of convenience and comfort, out of our propensity to multitask and mask our realities, live people start using chatbots, to talk to the living?6
If the technology is good enough—and it will be—who would know the difference? Talking to the living, talking to the dead.7 How do you know you aren’t already talking to a machine?
1. Edward Link’s Link Trainer was the first commercial flight simulator, eventually used by over half a million pilots for introductory training and improving their navigating skills.
2. Philosophical Investigations was published posthumously.
3. What’s more hyperreal than being inside a simulation of New York City while you’re in New York City?
4. Invisible Girlfriend (and Invisible Boyfriend) apps will send convincing text messages and even voicemails from a virtual partner as “proof” of a relationship, for around twenty-five dollars a month, which is probably the going rate for intimacy in today’s market. According to the founders, the service creates a safe space for you to “practice texting with a real human if you’re out of practice.” On the app’s website, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “What if we hit it off, and I run out of texts?” The answer is currency, proof of purchase as proof of life. “You can purchase more at any time.”
5. Actually, Facebook even knows the things we don’t do. Its researchers are specifically interested in whenever we type something and then delete it, a sort of self-censorship that kept the company from making money, or at least more of it, until it [page 76] unveiled the curated newsfeed. When Facebook users don’t feed Facebook with the data it desires, profits dip.
6. Algorithmic systems are like iterations: repetitions intended for a desired effect. These data sets are defined by their own creators, based on the goals they are trying to achieve. Don’t want to engage in a conversation involving disagreement? Would you like your views and opinions bolstered by the undivided support of a likeminded person or group of people? We already use Facebook for that. When the data is biased, an algorithm will produce biased results. Biased results produce biased decisions. The fantasies of a few will eventually replace the realities of our everyday life. What is it we want, but to be loved?
7. In late 2016, a Facebook algorithm accidentally posted that 2 million living users were deceased. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was among the people declared dead. Coincidentally, or not, if you Google the event today, your search results will point you toward several links, all of them broken, or dead.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Penguin, 1973.
“Be Right Back.” 2013. Black Mirror, written by Charlie Brooker, directed by Owen Harris, season 2, episode 1, 2016, Netflix.
Huet, Ellen. “Pushing the Boundaries of AI to Talk to the Dead.” Bloomberg, 20 Oct. 2016, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles /2016-10-20/pushing-the-boundaries-of-ai-to-talk-to-the-dead.
“San Junipero.” 2016. Black Mirror, written by Charlie Brooker, directed by Owen Harris, season 3, episode 4, 2016, Netflix.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness. Routledge, 2001.
---. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, Basil Blackwell, 1958.