Image Credit: Claire Turner @clayohr

I came across a video essay which outlined the history of the Facebook Alegria art style, commonly found in Corporate and editorial promotional materials. You would have by now seen it on Google banners, in editorial columns and Facebook’s entire virtual ecosystem. Although one American design company has claim to the original style, there has been a success of imitators across the Corporate landscape digitally spilling out into the real world. Additionally, there is a noticeable wave of critical disdain toward Corporate Art since the beginning of 2021. It seems as if all businesses have begun using the same friendly and approachable art style which has gone under the radar for too long and now people are taking notice of how bland it all is. Here, I’m not going to go that deep into the aesthetic and stylistic design choices since Solar Sands covered that well in his video on the subject. Instead, I want to examine the cultural impact of its omnipresence and, much as Art Deco spoke of the decadence of the roaring 20’s, see what Alegria says about the times in which we live.

The meek and inoffensive figures of Alegria greet users throughout their journeys in cyberspace on most Big Tech webpages. Their disproportionately styled bodies and pastel skin tones make them instantly recognisable as representing a trusted brand. They are engaged in acts of happiness like watering house plants or sharing coffee with a friend. Even when there’s a 404 error their happy “Oops!” reassures you that its okay and to stick around, save you become a lost visitor. What this brings to mind, and is apt given the artstyle was originally found on Facebook, is a group started by late cultural theorist Mark Fisher in 2015 called “Boring Dystopia”. Seen as a commentary on the then polite ineptness of new tech in the United Kingdom, it was an image dump for broken ATM’s and glitched out digital billboards. The sentiment was summerised by Fisher as “…Californian ideology without Californian sunshine.”

Fisher shut down the page in the same year but its popularity spawned imitation pages and subreddit groups awash with examples of the absurd and slightly baffling future no one expected. The concept has since broadened to encompass politically motivated and social themes but the original idea of the broken robot is the enduring legacy of Boring Dystopia that I want to focus on. Specifically, the following quote from the Motherboard article linked above, seems to sum up the current state:

“… because there’s this mixture of Silicon Valley ideology, PR and advertising which distracts us from our own aesthetic poverty, and the reality of what we have. Which is just all these crap robots…”

Alegria’s ubiquitous style spawning in all walks of life, even in the UK Government and NHS Covid-19 campaign posters, clearly speaks of this aesthetic poverty. This is due to the massive influence that Big Tech has on the aesthetic decisions of institutions with in-house design consultants still trying to emulate Silcon Valley. It further spreads the corporate-onotology that is present throughout all sectors now; that every University, Hospital and library all run for profit gain, have service users and operate with the same hierarchical staff structure. Moreover, Alegria’s characters predominately characterise us as the endusers of that omni-service. Our Alegria clones are not so much “crap robots” but the languid and acquiescent projected images of the digital self. Their long, distorted limbs have atrophied through lack of any real meaningful activity. They have distinctive quirks to distinguish themselves on the most shallow of levels from each other; bright hair, curly moustaches, designer frames. The engage socially but disengage from each other happily. To better understand these metaphors, it may be prudent to imagine Alegria as a Country entirely of its own by way of a classic science fiction serial.

George Orwell’s “1984” is often quoted, and misquoted, with regards to the dystopia of the future. We think of stark, brutalist structures, oppressive regimes and war-like imagery keeping the inhabitants of prison worlds incarcerated. But I think Alegría, as a community, looks more like the Village from 1967 television show “The Prisoner.” There’s an implicit acceptance of their role in the Villages’ inhabitants with only Patrick McGoohan’s defiant Number Six rallying a cry for resistance. The villagers are allowed to go around their business and make merry as long as that tacet agreement of compliance is upheld. They dress in a style unique to the village but with enough freedom of expression to satisfy creative needs. For most inhabitants of the Village the resistance has been completely bred out of them with not even a thought of ever leaving. Much is the same for Alegría; all its residents have had all their needs and desires catered for, they are unique aspiring individuals, why would they ever want to leave? In fact, why would you ever want to leave?

In fact, if you come to end of Alegría, or take a wrong turn, its citizens usher you back to the safety of front page when you receive a 404 message. The term “lost visitor” refers to a user stumbling on a broken link and leaving the website altogether. However, the goal of the graphics on a 404 page is retain the user within the same domain. Take, for example, the Google Dinosaur game which brilliantly holds the users attention until the connection is restored. This is the attention/retention economy, where the greater the duration a user spends interacting with a website the greater the data and therefore profit, that user generates. It is attention which is captured and retention ultimately the goal; like getting a fish caught on a line and never releasing it back. For more on this, see the late Bernard Stiegler’s work on protentions/retentions. There’s a good primer here.

Alegría is therefore its own prison but a prison where there are no guards and the security systems are the polite broken billboards of the 404 message. The cells that hold the Alegrians are made of their own design, their social media profiles, and seeing their own virtual reflection as perfect they have forgotten it is a prison entirely. It is a narcissistic panopticon which caters for all desires. To round off this metaphor, Andre Gregory’s words on New York in the 1981 film “My Dinner with Andre” sums up not only the state of Alegría but, for me, the schizophenia experienced in the consumer as both prisoner and guard of their digital self.

“I think that New York is the new model for the new concentration camp, where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards, and they have this pride in this thing that they’ve built—they’ve built their own prison—and so they exist in a state of schizophrenia where they are both guards and prisoners. And as a result they no longer have—having been lobotomized—the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made or even to see it as a prison.”

Image credit: Dr Dawn Woolley “Tongue”, © Dawn Woley 2018

There is something very disconcerting about the acceptance of advertising on social media. By this, I do not single ou just one platform but many of the new additions seem to worse for it than their predecessors. Most of the themes I have explored over the history of this blog have in some way or another featured social media. I think because it is such an exponentially evolving facet of human social interaction that it outstrips any forecasts and theory relating to it. As little as 12 years ago, social media profiles had to be updated via remotely accessed terminals such as laptops or home computers because mobile phones only had limited access to the internet. Now, Smartphone technology brings the online immediancy of social media into the constant proximety of our daily lives. If we have a smartphone by our side, as many do, then we are online.

The fact that these platforms have become so entangled with the mudane lives of millions globally has produced an ever increasing range of phenomena. So many, in fact, that you’d be hard-pressed to discuss them all. Some, the programmers are responsible for and others have grown organically in the interactions between users. Make no mistake, social media is a fertile ground of novelty; configurations of the human condition that even the most powerful imaginations could not fathom. And, at times, I read or see something that makes me think this is end of culture, there’s no getting back out of this cul-de-sac and yet, I am continuously astonished by its re-generations. Through post-modern pastiche and back around to the unprecendented, satire into sincerity.

What can be pointed out is the way in which the Utopian ambition of the webs founders has so far been left behind. John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996) has its place in the history of the internet as this defiant polemic trying to head off the conquest of this new virtual nation before its becomes a global hypermarket of the enslaved. But from I stand in 2021, it is what we have and, most alarmingly, this is what users wanted. As compaines began to trade over the internet in 1994 the first advertising followed, small on-site banners began to click bait users into following links through to products and services. However, the process wasn’t direct enough and advertising had always relied on stereotyping demographics, and for some, it still does. The rise of social media through the 2000s gave a way for companies to exploit the data which the users were creating for them to directly hyper target them for advertising purposes. Targeted advertising has been around the web since the late 1990s but in its new form the online identity created by the user could be directly sold to by using their preferences. Social media advertising meets the demand of the identity reinforcing its digital construction and, as byproduct, produces data to exploit for profit gain. In essence, it is a near perfect form of advertising, one that creates an instant reciprocal exchange.

Now there has been efforts to regulate this from a consumer rights position and throughout this time concerns have been debated on an international level regarding privacy and third party data trafficking. Data appropriation has been met with hard new laws by the EU and GDPR became an important factor in the decision making of compaines globally. However, it feels like the response of the mandated browser “consent request” which outlines the T’s and C’s by which the online company will use your data, was the return of the Internet’s Original Sin, the pop-up ad. Much like terms and conditions, consent requests are clicked away with abandon by many users, part and parcel of the online process. Without a doubt, they succeed in purpose but fail in communication since the pop-up is dismissed so readily. Maybe, users are happy with data appropriation. My guess is they are.

Shoshana Zuboff’s work “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” (2019) really is the treatise on the above subject. Her detailed and well articulated exploration of this time period alludes to the fact the users indeed wanted the global hypermarket and not the Utopian visions of Cyberspace Barlow and his kin fought for. The reason why this has occurred is the relationship between identity and advertising. As I alluded to above, the feedback loop of targeted ads and online identities reciprocally defines social media platforms. Load up an app of any social media platform and the overwhelming bombardment of adverts is frightening. It is entrenched in the fabric of their delivery and, by users, it is accepted and shockingly, reproduced.

As an example, social media allows micro-businesses to develop and flourish entirely within the confines of their platform started by entrepreneurs who see an opportunity to sell a product. Here, the advertisement can come before the product is even developed, similar to the way in which big brands or film studios create hype with teasers. The audience can be generated through a social network of contacts before they ever receive the product or know the quality of what has been offered and online quality is only as important as the message. (see McLuhan – Medium is the message) What I am defining here is that the advertising format of social media IS the users format. We are all marketing our message to each other, communicating our brand and service. Every post is an advert with a message even if the product is the message itself.

I risk writing “things were better when…” but I do miss when adverts were confined within the parameters of billboard frames, squeezed between the breaks in scheduled programming or sandwiched between articles. It feels now as if they broke free of their shackles and infiltrated human social interaction, poisoning the reservior. The online entity communicates through advertising and as I stated at the beginning of the article the acceptance is very disconcerting.

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The Eye of Horus – Giclee print (by Jasper Goodall) http://www.jaspergoodall.com/

Since around 2012, I have been fascinated by this particular idea that pop culture moves as the ebb and flow of two polar opposites; a sinewave undulation of aesthetic novelty and ideological shifts in perspective. It was first conceived by Ian Spence in his esoteric work The Sehkmet Hypothesis (1995) and later popularised by Grant Morrison in Supergods (2011) where he claims it influenced the writing of his major work The Invisibles (1994-2000). The concept has never left me alone even to the point where during my MA I proposed to write a dissertation on it. My supervisor rightfully advised against it citing the lack of clear evidence and how massive in scope it would have to be in order to convincingly put the argument across. I wrote, instead, on a particular tangent of nihilistic youth culture which only seemed to strengthen my interest in revisiting Spence’s idea once it was completed. Based on my research, I found the hypothesis can be viewed as quite an accurate framework but is difficult to present in an academic sphere. Part of me wants to agree with Morrison that it falls down under scrutiny and ends up simply being an excellent parlour game to play with friends. However, the other part is transfixed by signs that suggest it would make a powerful framework for trend forecasting in media and consumerism. I guess it would be best to a little groundwork on the hypothesis first before forecasting any predictions of my own.

It is first to note that Spence distanced himself from linking the cultural movements to eleven year solar cycles. I think I understand the reasoning behind tethering the hypothesis to something quantifiable but it becomes too much of a constraint to the nebulous sphere of popular culture. As Simon Reynolds methodically dissects in “Retromania” (2011), pop culture is collage of previous artistic movements revisited and pastiches to produce novel reincarnation. Occasionally, new formulations will emerge but there would still be ways of picking out the influences and the shoulders of giants on which they stand. So rather than being set to co-currently run with solar cycles, the movements seem to ebb and flow much of their accord. With that said, a basic summary of the cycle – pop culture moves between a punk maximum and a hippy maximum, spirit of 68 vs spirit of 76. This was first picked out in a correlation that Robert Anton Wilson drew between the flower child and friendly weakness, one of the four life scripts that Timothy Leary proposed – “I’m not okay, you’re okay”. Spence went on to develop this idea in The Sekhmet Hypothesis as a fully fledged sinewave flow of hippy into punk, rave culture into nu-metal (Stormer as he called it) and Morrison attempted to weave Spence’s wave into his comic books, missing the mark with Gerrad Way’s Black Parade as his predicted negative invert of Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club. Come 2011, I began to make predictions of my own, on how the psychedelic imagery of the summer of love would next manifest in the digital age.

During 2012, I became fascinated with digital emergence of the New Aesthetic, spearheaded by James Bridle’s blogpost in 2011 and Bruce Sterling’s writings. I even wrote one of my premature entries on the idea. To me, this psychedelic vision of the future wasn’t just the appearance of digital aesthetics in public spaces but the novelty of video games characters spilling out into consensual reality. Comic-cons and cosplay conventions were littered with the trappings of nerd culture which had, whilst my back was turned, become mainstream. I saw this as the manifestation of the new hippy movement, as nerd culture absolutely typifies the friendly weakness life script and fictional characters coming-to-life as a pretty psychedelic occurrence. However, I was short-sighted and biased toward my own slice of counter-culture becoming mainstream “cool”. I forgot that the hippy/punk maximums were themselves counter-culture and held the most power positioned as such. Once consumerism cannibalises the aesthetic into its all-encompassing homogeneity it loses any radical potential it once had with the exception of any enduring ideological transformations it contributed during its reign (free love/do-it-yourself grassroots).

On his K-Punk blog, Mark Fisher, whilst discussing surrealism, wrote “Like punk, Surrealism is dead as soon as it is reduced to an aesthetic style.” I feel the same can be said for any counter-cultural movement with the exception of Nerd culture which was little other than aesthetic styles picked from the pre-existing genres of fantasy and fiction. Moreover, what I didn’t understand then was that the battleground for counter-culture was no longer being fought in gig venues and music halls but in digital space and music had taken a back seat from informing the ideology of identity formation. This period of counter-cultural development is critically examined in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies (2017) which tends to focus on the development of the Alt-Right subgroups of 4-Chan and Something Awful but also criticizes the leftist identitians of Tumblr. What I think she covers well is how the development of internet forums gave rise to identity formation through the sharing of personal experiences anonymously. People were no longer bound to their geographical proximity in order to find others like them but could share opinions in spaces where others agreed and, in term, strengthen their own conviction in their positions. Along with humorous in-jokes (memes) and the freedom that anonymity brings to identity formation, these groups developed sub-cultural climates of their own. Global counter-cultural movements that are spread entirely through digital text, image and sound and very rarely face-to-face.

These online ideological perspectives spilled out onto the streets, onto university campuses and into office spaces, but with so many radical identities formed in the plain-sight secrecy of over-populated forums any discourse between them would naturally result in conflict. If the past decade will be remembered for anything it is that has been rich with the division of ideological position. Moreover, think of the past decade as a speculative historian and one presence seems to dominant the cultural discourse more any other which is Pride. Here, the ideological transformations that LGBTQ+ awareness has affected on global conscious has been just as powerful as those affected during the 60’s and it will endure in the same way. However, with it’s transformations comes it’s critics, it’s opposition and just like any other counter-cultural movement before it, the divisive nature of position. The more I considered the decade and saw past my own bias towards understanding counter-culture as ideological message delivered through music the more I understood Pride as sum total of the ideological shift in this decade. One which is towards acceptance of identity in whatever form it may take. Whereas the beginning of the decade saw this movement spreading its wings around the world, it soon became engulfed in a battle against itself as consumerism devoured it from the inside out; so-called Rainbow Capitalism. It became reduced to a rainbow cloaked aesthetic, rather than a nuanced expression of self-determination. I think it is sad that this greater awareness of gender and sexuality has been co-opted to be used as corporate advertising but like those before them, all is devoured and repurposed toward the goal of profit generation.

In Part Two, I will elaborate on the critique of Rainbow Capitalism and where the wave has moved to at the close of this decade, preparing the next for its counter-cultural iteration. As said in the opening, I think looking at counter-cultural in this way is fascinating but academically is difficult to justify. These are my own musings and I do think there is a lack of historical context, especially around the history of the LGBTQ+ movement, but I don’t think that story is for me to tell. There is many a decent writer out who has covered that struggle who has a more legitimate stake in that battle for acceptance. What I do feel I can do is critique consumerism since, in the Western world at least, we are entrenched in it and there exists a struggle for all of us for authentic individuation against the ceaseless tide of advertising, marketing and the false idols of manufactured pop-culture.

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Yoko Seyama and Norrdans “Pepper’s Ghost” (2017)

The illusion of choice in video games has often been covered by journalists and media theorists and, more often than not, it is discussed in reference to how certain prolific titles play with the conventions of the subject. How some titles may force the player to make difficult choices by railroading their decisions or how others are a meta-commentary on the subject itself. But what I want to talk about here is something that struck me whilst recently player Polish game company Bloober’s Cyberpunk horror title Observer (2017). In it, you play a tech-enhanced detective who can interface with suspects via their neural implant, diving into their unconsciousness minds to uncover clues that help solve murder cases. These sequences take the form of disturbing dream-like fragements interlaced with glitch-laden distortions and nightmarish imagery. However, moving through these sequences is like riding a fair-ground horror attraction. The illusion of choice is manufactured through the players control of the characters movements but the content is fixed; it is impossible to completely rewrite the story through action.

To some extent, all narrative games have this same haunted house mechanic. It is up to the player to progress through the game to gain access to the content they have purchased. Sometimes this can be used to great effect in horror titles where the unnerving atmosphere forces careful deliberation on how best to proceed However, the way a game unfolds to its conclusion is, in some ways, its biggest shortcoming. Many reviews speak of game length and whether it is value for money based on the time it takes to complete. Players become therefore completionists, where all trophies, unlockable content and rewards have to be achieved. This leads to the games replayabilty – how many times the story can be replayed without it becoming tedious. This factor, which is unique to gaming, causes the consumer to repeatly engage with the media to gain full appreciation of their purchase whilst remaining consciously indifferent to the illusion of choice problem. Developers attempt obfuscate this fact with mechanics like multiple endings, easter eggs and open-world settings as well as playing into the completionist collecting frenzy.

Even if a game allows the player multiple ways to solve a particular puzzle the content that comes after remains the same as it is inherent to a narratives conventional design. For a game to calculate every possible outcome to every choice that a player could make would require coding billions and billions of scenarios at every stage of the game. We aren’t far from this kind of computing model. Google’s Deepmind AlphaZero taught itself how to play chess at a master level in less than 24 hours through reinforced learning – playing itself continuously without interruption. In this way, all scenarios are found to have contingencies as they are played through again and again. So we can imagine a future of games where this same reinforced learning programming allows any action a player can conceive to be allotted for.

Till then, content is locked beyond the players progression through the game; waiting to be accessed and always to be repeated in exactly the same manner. Here, this virtual content speaks of the haunted nature of media itself. The temporal frozen moments of paused film and music scores which play back the past as an exact echo of a lost moment. Simon Reynolds did well to discuss this in Retromania (2011) as recorded media being the ghost left behind by musicians; an impression or trace of an exertion on reality. Magnetic tape, optical disc and intangible cloud data hold ghostly voices and autonomous puppet reflections of living and deceased actors which spring to life at the press of a button. Video games, too, store such animations of the past in FMV sequences which play back to us like a house of ghosts locked between mechanical gateways. We hold the keys to hear the voices of the living and dead displaced from their hosts but approach from different angles. What’s more, these are the ghosts of our collective pop cultural memory which conjure significant personal attachments to the voices of musicians and actors. Our gestalt time of omnipresent media has given us strange personal ghosts which haunt us as the return of our childhood memories. This is what the late Mark Fisher discussed as the hauntology of media and the breakdown of temporal diversity in Ghosts of my Life (2011).

One final thought on the spectral immortality of media and the illusion of choice. I think that the two subjects share commonality beyond just being topics of video game theory. There is a free market idea called choice paralysis where faced with overwhelming options the consumer is struck with incapacity to decide what they actually want. The more I think on this, the more it seems to me the partial cause of many issues that millennials and GenZ have, being consumers first and workers second. The longing for an authentic experience is partially due to being surrounding by the simulacrum of media and growing up with overwhelming choices in all fields of life; choice which is manufactured for continued profit success. Moreover, the free market choices we make have always been illusionary as they constantly serve higher functions than ourselves even if we reap the benefits. Therefore, we pursue it only to find artificial ghosts occupying the place of our desires, reproduced perfectly but never the thing itself. The ghostly reflection in the hall of mirrors of this neverending fairground of late capitalism.

 

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Rosie Kay Dance Company “MK Ultra” (2017)

The recent phenomenon of “fake news” and “alternative facts” produces a sceptical enquiry into what sources can be trusted in our daily routines of navigating social media and news feeds. This investigation, exploring which facts are accurate and which have been falsfied, can lead to a shadowy tear in the fabric of mundane cyberspace; one filled with clandestine cabals, ancient symbology and brain-washed celebrities. This is the rabbit hole that Rosie Kay fell down in 2012 and became the subject of her moist recent work. “MK Ultra” is the latest performance by the Rosie Kay Dance Company, who received mulitple awards for their much praised “5 Soldiers.” However, this is a very different production compared to the Frontline body exploration of their previous comtemporary dance performance.

The lavish mirror pool, on which the performers contort and convulse in hyper-sexualised dance moves, reflects archive footage of CIA experiments and testimonials given by curious young theorists. Pounding, repetitive beats skip over the rise and fall of the dancers bodies with a mesmerising athletic acumen. It conjures a surreal world inhabited by celebrity sleeper agents, programmed to deliver subliminal messages to the masses, and encoded music videos that mark the oblivious pop star as a member of the sinister “Illuminati”; the nerfarious secret society in question. Staring into this dreamlike space is gazing into a mirrored hall that reflects objects infinitely so the original becomes lost in a continuous stream of replicas. A place where questions only produce more questions.

Kay and her collaborators capture an unseen side of the internet which for many is rarely happened upon. Most dimiss such theories as pure fantasy, thinking of the “conspiracy theorist” as a derogatory term for people that entertain bizarre beliefs about the structure and state of society. Conversely, as Kay herself notes, the landscape of the phenomena “is ripe for artistic exploration.” Their achievement is to understand that world through contemporary dance and bring the trappings of that paranoid reality into this one. The piece empowers the performers to tell real stories about the price of global fame at a young age and the commodification of their bodies to further the agendas of billionaires.

“MK Ultra” provides an alluring look at celebrity culture, paranoia and conspiracy. The tour runs to Thursday 18th May, finishing at Macrobert Arts Centre at the University of Stirling, Scotland.

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After watching this Canadian horror flick last night, I am compelled (almost from beyond) to write something on it; a review or critique, or maybe even a theory piece? Whatever it is I write know, firstly, that this pastiche of the horror masters (Carpenter, Cronenberg, Barker) manages to weave together Hellish imagery with a modern hyper-aestheticised 80’s symbology that feels like an awakening (or reawakening). This fusion brings about something entirely more original than the remakes of the Slasher flicks produced by New Line Cinema and is fresher than many of the stale Possession offerings the Horror audience have had to endue in the past decade. It deserves to sit aside the “Gateway-to-Hell”/Body Horror sub-subgenre films that I  love and also, be of its time; not sentimentally replaying the past.

It accomplishes this through a number of devices, aesthetically devised but not forcefully contrived. The plot reimagines Hellraiser/Event Horizon in a sleepy, backwater hospital; a setting reminiscent of Brookhaven in Silent Hill or the Hotel in the Shining. Whilst rushing into the horrific pretty quickly, and without provocation, the isolation from the outside world and the descent into the bowels of the building, which mimics the journey into hell, transforms the hospital into the threshold between being and unbeing. On the otherside, the human form is twisted, spun-out, exturded and dispersed in the nothingness, as if the non-space has an automonious will; the Cthulhuian Outer God indifferent to the veneration of its worshippers. This straddled presence, being in two worlds at once, conspires to transform the flesh toward the inhuman, tentacled mounds they become. It is an ambient psychic virus that infects the mind and implants the desire to find the abyss within, to know what is behind the curtain, that leads to the films gruesome body horror.

It is then a dedication to the prothetistic creature design and effects, obviously influenced by genre defining Survival Horrors games Silent Hill and Resident Evil, that goes beyond a nostalgic gesture toward its predecessors. Steps toward a resurgence in the craft of creature prothestics have been crawling, slowly, through the industry with propenents like Guillermo del Toro leading the way. Here, the creature work has to be mentioned in detail. More than just amalgamations of human and animal to create the alien, these “Thing-esque” monstroities are inside-turned-outward, like those who seek the abyss within find the body (flesh, organs, bones) folded out onto itself. The product of this transformation imitates the human chrysalis it was born out of; shuffling, shunting and blindly grabbing its victims with repurposed organs, now tentacle-like apendages. These are not things from another world but the vacuumous space found within the human body’s molecular structure – the empitiness between the atom and the nucleus – given the autonomous power to overcome the materiality of itself. It motivates the everted corpse like a puppeteer manipulating a marionette. The true Horror is not the mulitalated corpse but the inner-abyss possessing it.

The doorway between the two worlds is symbolised by the triangle. Other, almost illegible, renderings of heremetic arrays are found throughout the hospital which broadly associates the central symbol with the Alchemical triangle; “squaring the circle”. The presentation of the symbol, and the gateway set piece, have a very modern aesthetic which would not be out-of-place in a chic London nightclub. The damned industrial space of the hospital sub basement, with its carrion waste of failed experiments scattered throughout, sharply contrasts with the illuminated triangle doorway, jarring the viewer with an incongruous absurdity. The reaction is the want to remove either the triangle from basement or rehouse the triangle in a suitable enviroment like a music video. This juxtaposition, whether intentional or accidental, provokes a weirdness in the first encounter with the doorway. The weird is characterised by Mark Fisher in his essay “The Weird and the Eerie” as:

“…Constitued by a presence – the presence of that which does not belong… The weird is marked by an exorbitant presence, a teeming which exceeds our capacity to represent it.”

Against the backdrop of the subterranean charnel house, devoid of life, the excessively stylistic triangle presents an inescapeable example of weirdness. Understandably, the set design in this climatic scene could come under scrunity but, for me, the doorway-at- odds-with-itself works in its alien and extraneous apparation.

Periodically, throughout the film, there are moments which echo this juxtaposed clashing of mise-en-scene. The robes worn by the acolytes, again, feel disjointed; more like the backing dancers to a pop music video. And in a similar vein to Dario Argento’s use of lighting, most notably in “Susperia”, the hospital is plunged into a deep red auxiliary lighting system. This is the vibrant red gorefest of the Splatter films transposed into the films lightning rig. The result is an unreal atmosphere inside the compromised hospital. Notebly, it is at the point of compromise, when the barricade that protects the outside from getting in, that the auxiliary lighting system kicks in. The obvious connotation of red with blood is apparent to the point of too real and when the doors are broken, the upper level of the hospital now strewn with corpses and remains, the effect of Zizek’s Imaginary Real floods the corridors of the building. The true horror of the situation becomes the means by which the victims navigate and use to escape the darkness.

The Void invokes its influences to find, out of the abyss, something in its infancy. As interest remerges in the design and crafts of classic genre flicks and new studios and teams take up those challenges to bring stories, that might have been told but are reimagined to shed new light on them, we have the beginnings of exciting times ahead with great new filmmakers and directors.

“And why wander in these labyrinths? Once more, for aesthetic reasons; because this present infinity, these “vertiginous symmetries,” have their tragic beauty. The form is more important than the content” Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, Jorges Luis Borges

At the beginning of 2016, I do not think I could have predicted this year. In my wildest dreams, I could have hoped in the spirit of anarchic enquiry, for Brexit and a Donald Trump Presidency but reasoning, moral sense and past evidence would make me postulate more conservative conclusions. Neither would I have expected the number of celebrities departing this world. This year has seen an unprecedented number of beloved actors, musicians and visionaries shuffle off this mortal coil. Today, as example, lyricist, singer and master of his craft, Leonard Cohen passed on to the next world. The man lived without compromise;  a true poet of life, death and love.

The utterances of social unrest have been witnessed in the Black Lives Matter protests and the intensification of the Hard Left’s move for censorship in education and the media. Also, this year has seen the steady creep of an anti-establishment right wing across Europe and in the West with Marie Le Pen’s National Front party becoming ever more popular. Whilst these events have not been on the radar for some, for others it has been their whole year, and events like Brexit and Donald Trump have only increased the uncertainty for the future.

Bookending every event of this year, and with previous years, an interesting phenonemon of our all-pervasive social media culture reveals itself. With instant access to public comment, users are quick to post their thoughts and opinions regarding the current event without review. What I am interested in is this public reaction that, now, inevitably follows every media event. In telephony, a Mass Call Event (MCE), is associated with an overwhelming number of telephone calls an area receives regarding a public event or occurrence. In some cases, an MCE leads to network congestion which consequentially means a degraded service or even service outage. Here, I have reappropriated the situational term to refer to not just what is trending but also the sweeping consensus in these posts which, I believe, is a type of performative virtue signaling. Thus, in a Mass Post Event (MPE), the area in question is the internet but instead of speaking to a switchboard operator, the users fears, worries and anxieties are publically aired in relation to the social media circle, they themselves, havecultivated.

On the run up to the US election, critics of Facebook outlined an issue which has been lurking behind the innocuous feed for some many years. As a response to the various streams of information a user was filtering into their news feed via their “like”, “add to feed” and “follow” functions, Facebook developed an algorithm that curated the feed that users saw based upon what they interacted with the most. The consequence of this is that users would become encircled by a bubble of cultivated information which reciprocally feeds back their own opinion; reinforcing themselves to themselves. The opposite argument would, therefore, become a violent intrusion in the steady stream of safe information and would challenge the status quo with users less likely to even acknowledge the counter argument. Many refer to it as an Echo Chamber where you can only hear your own voice as you call out into the bowels of the cavernous internet. However, this echo chamber effect has a secondary expression; that of the MPE.

The idea of a web of social connections one maintains via social media supposes that there is a public persona one must maintain whilst on the internet. This is subject of image crafting and using visual content to define oneself in a digital environment. It should be noted that much in the way of liberation has been achieved by the internet being a platform which allows such a freedom of expression. However, with the ability to define oneself anew the user becomes increasingly protective of this new and fragile form. One must continuously reinforce the subject image with content to ensure its stability least the mask slip and the true self be revealed. Posted content is rarely unpopular opinion or fact unless it is framed in such a way as to elicit a specific response nor is it content the user would not want public; only what enforces the subject image. I am reminded of the film One Hour Photo (2002) where the character Sy Parish notes how families keep pristine records of family photos omitting the negatives, unhappy moments of life:

“Family photos depict smiling faces… births, weddings, holidays, children’s birthday parties. People take pictures of the happy moments in their lives. Someone looking through our photo album would conclude that we had led a joyous, leisurely existence free of tragedy. No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.”

Thus, social media has a performative quality where content produced reinforces the subject image and in turn, other users produce content reinforcing themselves and reciprocally, then, others. So we can reimagine the echo chamber as a vast labyrinthine construct, so expansive in scale that you would mistake the distant echoes of others trapped within its recesses for your own voice. In the same way that during a MCE, switchboards would receive thousands of calls surrounding an public incident, social media receives millions of updates all regarding the trending topic. Whereas, the phonecalls of the MCE were somewhat factual in their report (“He has just been shot”), the MPE is opinionated, performatively and consensually, and such reactions are largely based on adherence to the filter bubble of the user’s own creation.

It is hard not to place the technology at the center of the blame. Mark Zuckerberg, following the election result, rejected the idea of the filter bubble, comparing it to 20th Century news networks, newspapers and journals. Whilst this comparison is understandable, it does not approach the underlying issue. The sources of news are now shared via “trusted” links in the chain, designated “Friends”. Though, I doubt users believe many, out of the hundreds of connections one maintains, are close and fruitful friendships, the term carries with it a sense of trust and social responsibility for the way you conduct yourself. There is already a bias of relationship based on what, I believe, the term “friend” culturally signifies.

It is important to reiterate that is not the technology, itself, at fault. The internet is a very robust engineering system of processing, producing, cataloguing and manipulating data and the phenomenon of the filter bubble has more to do with semiotic shifts of language and social contracts of engagement than any nefarious algorithmic operation. This is not conspiracy but more a case of Hanlon’s razor in operation. For, I do not believe it was the intention but rather the eventual zenith of social media, the point at which self sovereignty is the most prominent feature of social interaction and we can only find comfort in the validation of others.

Thus, we have the phenomenon of the MPE where one could mistake the consensual cries of outrage, shock and abhorrence for meaningful communication in which, with an outstretched hand, the dismayed seek solidarity in the face of crisis. The purpose, however, is not to start a dialogue or discussion around the subject, to better understand it by sharing it with the world views of others and find solutions to these reactions, but simply to engage and then disengage. Like the coughed up sputum you manage to stick to the underside of the bridge and take solace from the fact that countless others have done the same. A million gleaming stalactites hang as you wander through the echo labyrinth, staring  at your own reflection in the slime covered walls.

london_startup_weekend

Last week I got the chance to visit Google Campus in London. Amongst the trendy tech types sipping flat whites and rolling up chinos whilst conceitedly chatting about what programming codes they use, I saw straight into the bowels of Tech city. I witnessed the vapid horror of their ethereal talk which dispersed before it even had chance to hang in the air long enough to be remembered. I walked around the open networking space where odd looking urbanities were sprawled out on beanbags and Ikea flat-pack stools, and I was suddenly hit by the powerful revelation that shocked me like the steam whiz of the espresso machine. It seemed to me like all these innovative entrepreneurs just wanted to be back at university. Like they couldn’t cope without that intense social space and as such, startup spaces, like Campus, exploits this yearning to be back in the comfort blanket of the educational system. In fact, the name of the space is no coincidence – it is called Campus because  the whole building replicates the same environment as a university dinning area!

I have begun to think that this is a bigger issue to do with the emphasis society places on attending university. Schools and universities don’t prepare young people for public or private sector work. I would go as far as saying that it indoctrinates them into a specific lifestyle which they struggle to get away from. The world outside of the university bubble comes to replicate the world inside with young professionals finding themselves in shared rented accommodation and working at highly convoluted tech startups. Interestingly enough, I also noticed they could attend business seminars if they so wanted which are very much like attending lectures.

Many graduates faced with the dumped realisation of the commercial world find themselves trying to raise the funds to return to the warm bosom of the university in the form of a post-grad degree and to suck on mothers milk of curriculum. Unfortunately, the climate has become such that a Masters degree doesn’t count towards employability. It becomes an interesting footnote on persons record rather than the career accelerator that some make it out to be. Some even return to get another degree just so they can be an eternal student.

Essentially, the education industry holds the public hostage to its mode of operation due to the current system of employment. The public needs qualifications to, as it is perceived, gain access to higher payed jobs in a field of their choosing and therefore, one must be processed through the system in order to reach an end goal of a career of your own choosing which pays well. This is how the established order holds the keys to your future, as the analogy goes. But the more that the sector became an industry, the more the business model was rolled out and any notion of teaching students to work hard and work honestly was disregarded in favour of meeting targets of results for the institutions overall appearance in the league tables. Teachers are no longer teachers, they are skills managers who train students in the subject to the level at which they can pass an exam. Truthfully, a student would have more of a chance at the exam is they constantly studied around the subjects at the same time as being given their training.

There is a big difference between training and teaching and I believe the two have been confused. The entire setup works more like a call/canvasing centre than a institution of learning. It wears the mortar board but underneath is a sales representative of an curriculum awards body which sells their product to the institution, not because it will enlighten the students on the subject and create passion, but because it will achieve the best results.

And at the higher levels, academics, themselves, do not want to push the forefront of their field, learning and challenging more to build better and better models, but to perpetuate the established order as a matter of necessity. To engage in research that would revolutionise the industry would upset the balance so any academic research that is undertaken is circulated around only the academics themselves. For someone to take an interest in the latest theories in a specific field either costs an extortionate amount, or is impossible to obtain. Everything is bound together in a tight industry which is self-facilitating. To learn you have to pay to engage in the education at an institution only because institutions of education can access high-end research because of the centralised nature of the information itself.

And all this time, students are only taught up to a specific level which is in order to meet the targets of the establishment, even when the research is there to be explored and to disproven. I have personally witnessed what becomes of teachers that do not meet the target grades for classes and it is sad to see creative, smart individuals held back by the constraints of curriculum. I understand the importance of curriculum as standardisation however, that does not give those award bodies license to sell to institutions curriculums based on what achieves the best results regardless of content and ability to maximise the individuals potential.

The bottom of this, the point which I wish to underscore and cast deep into stone , is this; students are no longer students, you are customers. You sign up to a course like you sign up to a phone contract. In the same way that you would have a phone contract by meeting the requirements of having a phone and using it for the set years of the contract, so to must you meet the responsibility of attending to meet the requirements of the course. And like a phone shop, they offer a plethora of courses listing all of your interests. Whether it actually teaches you anything or not is no longer important. All a customer has to do is meet the target which is complete an exam or submit coursework which ticks a box.

Maybe it is that I am too unrealistic about the way it should work  and it means I end up terribly disillusioned by the highways of the aspirational career path. My quixotic belief is that education should develop students, regardless of employment, helping them becoming better, more happy and comfortable people. There should be funding that can be sunk into young people rather than educational establishments having to adapt to the commercial market just to survive.

Once again, it boils down to the slickly sludge and bubbling ooze of the money politic. One massive underwriting narrative that controls the state of things and shapes the operation of society itself. It is such a tired conclusion to once again reach that I may release an almighty exhaustive sigh which deflates my lungs, collapses my ribcage, flattens my digestive system and I lie, two dimensionally, in a pool of my own squeezed out bodily juices, moaning with disenfranchised grief.

Catholicism has a new pope tonight after Ratzinger decided to abdicate, suddenly, back in February. During the conclave, it was said that the cardinals started the election process in a sort of stalemate, with the race to fill the papacy being “highly contested”. Obviously, it wasn’t as much of a deadlock as first thought, but the coverage was very reminiscent of the way that any public election process in recent history appears to be a close call. It doesn’t do for there to be a clear winner from the onset of the race, since the media lavishes drama so, every selection process is made out to have the nerve-racking roller coaster of tension straight out of an X-Factor final. So, in the same way that the colosseum style talent shows create the final drama, many modern political spectacles are billed to be nail baiting, edge-of-your-seat experiences.

Unfortunately, most of them don’t live up to the hype and everyone is disappointed when the event itself ends up being boring, dull and superannuated. Many try to instil the importance of tradition into the youth of today, who are never entirely sure why they are told to like the thing in question and are dragged along, usually in the pouring rain, to events marking the passing of something for someone. It is further evidence, to me, that modern culture and society is sort of stalling, like an engine that turns over but never starts. The UK economy seems to be going nowhere fast and all that is left to do by many is distract yourself so you don’t look out into the jammed gears of the outside world. Science and technology don’t seem to be affected at all, in fact, they’re making more discoveries and innovation than ever before, turning fiction into reality, but the systems and structures by which we govern and organise are beginning to look a lot like the old terrace houses that dot the towns and cities of England – obsolete.

The product of this stalling, or the liquidity of modernity (to throw a little Bauman at the problem), is it is much easier to look back at what we know to be static, instead of addressing the slippery and complex problems of the present. As a result, we are inundated with this climate of overwhelming nostalgia and sentimentality for the past in all forms of media, whether it be television specials, internet memes or standup comedy but its getting past the point of fondly remembering and turning into lamentation, a lachrymose yearning of the times we “knew”. Take, for example, the BBC’s Golden Age of the Record season from February just gone. The main BBC4 programme, presented by Danny Baker, was an hour long tour-de-force of some of the best pop albums over the past 60 years. When the panel arrived at the modern day, they deplored it and lamented the passing of great music. By the end of the show, they sullenly dipped the lights on podium containing all of the albums chosen, like they were burying the dead. Now I’ve spoken about music and its current problems but there’s no need to only look back and not listen to whats coming out now. I wouldn’t suggest that any of the panel don’t listen to new music, but why not champion the unconventional, the underground and uncommon? The real problem is, I am not much better.

I, too, am affected by this lamentation for things that were once better. I was privileged to have been assailed by an unrivaled period of Western animation aimed at selling toys to children when I was young. The concepts, themes and style was incredibly original, psychedelic even – like Jayce and Wheeled Warriors, how that got passed, I’ll never know – but now only Eastern animation prevails with many children and teenagers turning to anime. Now, there’s nothing wrong with anime, I think the same arguments that could be brought against anime that could be made against 80’s cartoons but I just don’t think they capture the essence of Good vs Evil that, say, Transformers did. And here, I fall down and so, too, does my argument; on all fours, crawling along, releasing it was nostalgia alone that carried it forward on bloody knees and nostalgia is a hollow argument.

I know not if it is the actual case that things used to be better and now they’re crap. I stand by my claim that it feels like we have stalled in modern society, either because of an overwhelming amount of information or that nothing new can reach the surface because of antiquated systems and structures we deploy. I also believe that our look back at past fondly has changed to this melancholy pining something static and sentimental and now we’re stuck in this state  which I’ll call “the great lament”.

I leave you with Stewart Lee’s very fine words from his Guardian Blog over the weekend. The article is about the decline in thinkers and how, he jokingly, foretells of their extinction. I think he really has a point, there doesn’t seem to be the same intellectual curiosity in the modern world that there used to be, since the Universities have become institutions that will get you a job *cough*, instead of a place will educate you and make you a better person. Everything appears answerable now (just Google it) and people don’t strive to think about complicated concepts. Anyway, enough lamenting, here’s the penultimate paragraph from the article:

“But we will miss the thinkers when they are gone. Our rulers’ systematic extermination of thought may not be deliberate but one day, perhaps in 30 or 40 years’ time, a momentarily bored David Cameron may turn to the bookshelf in an airport newsagents and wonder, for a second, why all the novels have embossed covers and don’t seem to be about anything.” Stewart Lee, “Never Mind Endangered Animals – It’s the Thinkers That We Need to Save” The Guardian

Between the trend in Japan of young girls renting out their legs for advertising space and the news that the Egyptian government is considering putting the pyramids and the sphinx up for the rent, it appears no where is safe (or scared for that matter) from a bit of profit generation. Japan, to cast further light on the citizen’s strange money making schemes, has long since thrown the baby out with the bath water and must have had a meeting where the finance minster said “fuck it, what haven’t we done yet?” Another bizarre idea, except from leg billboards, came in the form of rent a friend; for the lonely businessman who works 60 hours, does very little else and, in between sobbing into his ramen, hires out a young socially adapt type to just hang about with him. I personally think this service does an injustice to escorts but I suppose some people just want friendship. Someone to go out to the karaoke bar with, hang out with you while you shop for suits (because that’s all you have the time to wear) and crack a couple of jokes so you squirt bubble tea out your nose.

The nature of work is changing in the modernised, interconnected world. Countries, like China, still operate massive labour production sites to create all the trinkets and gizmos we, in the west, hold so dear. Word was that the conditions they live under, in the these Chinese labour camps, are so poor that Apple had to install suicide prevention nets around the base of the factory; how do you like your Iphone now? But since the deindustrialisation of Europe, with only Germany still holding the fort, labour, much like the rise in data over matter, works not to produce the physical but the obscure immaterial service. Take, for example, these modern job titles – social media architect, social engineer, division administrator, identity analyst, brand infrastructure consultant; I don’t know what any of these jobs entail! To me, business structuring has become so abstract in its form that its speaking gobbledygook and am not sure that people appointed to these positions know what they are supposed to do. As the jazz artists of the ’30s used to say “fake it till you make it” and I would say most young professionals head into these obscure positions and wing it, hoping they’re doing it right. Its okay though because the person directly above them – the senior, regional brand infrastructure consultant – doesn’t have a bloodly clue either and hes been blagging for the past twenty years!

As long as you can attend meetings, fire off professional sounding emails, spout phrases like “We’ll touch base”, then you can work for one of these corporations and earn £35k a year. No one stops to ask what exactly is going on, what “dovetailing” actually means or to question abstract, sometimes antiquated, policy. Its not the case that I would rather be running myself towards an early grave slogging my guts out deep in some Yorkshire coal mine or having to deal with the heat of the steel foundries in Sheffield but at least the work bared some semblance to what you were actually doing. Even Marx was aware of the coming abstraction of labour when he wrote “The abstraction… becomes true in practice” but maybe it should be understood as Zizek wrote in “Living in the End Times”:

“Abstract labour is neither ‘substantial’ nor a performance – it is, of course, a social category and, in this sense “performative”, but as such it has an actuality of its own, as the structure of the actual network of social relations.” Slavoj Zizek p285

So just like the rise of internet and the way in which intense socialising governs so much of our interactions with others (or as I should modify the past claim to “the ability to intensely social”) so too has the workplace come to depend upon a social economy, rather than legitimate skill. Maybe I deplore  it because I’m not cut out for it; the whole thing turns my stomach, makes my back hair stand on end and overall, weep. I would rather be skilled at something and have the work , I can produce, valued by someone, not trained to scrutinise, who can arrive at a conclusion though experience. The problem is in the training and organisation aspect fo business which makes its so intangible and lacking in form.

It reminds of the fact that the English police service has allowed a new policy where an outside applicant, who can have no pervious police training, enter at the level of superintendant. So instead of a bobby who has walked his beat for the past 8 years getting a promotion, eventually working his way up to the position, you can have senior management figure from a Dutch company come in at the top. It somehow seems wrong.

In closing, I read a post on Quiet Babylon that talks about the science fiction fantasy of the sentient AI going rogue, ala Terminator, actually being a rather good analogy as big corporations. The nefarious product of our own creation which was designed to work for the betterment of mankind being ultimately our downfall as it facilitates its own agenda. Tim Maly wrote:

“What if the private pursuit of profit was—for a long time—proximate to improving the lot of humans but not identical to it? What if capitalism has gone feral, and started making moves that are obviously insane, but also inevitable? For a very long time, the AI dedicated to maximizing profit saw the path forwards through innovation, new products, better living for customers. But then at some point it realized that is had the ability to just reshape the planet in its image. So it did that instead.” Quiet Babylon

A chilling prospect…