At The Moment of Creation

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“On the monitor before us, cryptic fragments of source code flash by. While earthly physicists still struggle to find a unified mathematical framework for all phenomena—the No Man’s Sky equivalent already exists. Before us are the laws of nature for an entire cosmos in 600,000 lines.

“The universe begins with a single input, an arbitrary numerical seed—the phone number of one of the programmers. That number is mathematically mutated into more seeds by a cascading series of algorithms—a computerized pseudo-randomness generator. The seeds will determine the characteristics of each game element. Machines, of course, are incapable of true randomness, so the numbers produced appear random only because the processes that create them are too complex for the human mind to comprehend.

“Physicists still debate whether our own universe is deterministic or random. While some scientists believe that quantum mechanics almost certainly involves indeterminacy, Albert Einstein famously favored the opposing position, saying, “God does not play dice.” No Man’s Sky does not play dice either. Once the first seed number is entered into the void within the program, the universe is unalterably established—every star, planet, and organism. The past, present, and future are fixed indelibly, with change to the system only possible from a force outside the system itself—in this case, the player.

“In one sense, because of the game’s procedural design, the entire universe exists at the moment of its creation. In another sense, because the game only renders a player’s immediate surroundings, nothing exists unless there is a human there to witness it.”

Text: Inside the Artificial Universe That Creates Itself, Atlantic Monthly

Beyond the Reach of Archaeology

“In English, the word “apocalypse”—ety. Greek, n. apo (un-) + kaluptein (-veil)—has three non-exclusive meanings. The first and most common is simply the end of the world, whether by divine punishment or whatever transpires in movies directed by Roland Emmerich. The second is any form of calamity, representational or real, man-made or no, that resembles the end of the world, like the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Chernobyl, or the movies directed by Roland Emmerich themselves. The third is what the Greeks intended apocalypse to mean: the revelation of knowledge through profound disruption, which is why the final book of the New Testament is called “Revelations” (composed, it is thought, to reassure Christians during their widespread persecution by the Roman emperor, Domitian). In other words, the apocalypse either is the end, looks like the end, or helps us understand the end.

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“Like books, movies, and the visual arts, video games are well acquainted with the apocalypse. Scores of them have been set in the final days of mankind; countless more ask the player to prevent them. Yet, as mere setting, the apocalypse can never be true to its name—when Mass Effect 3 ends and the galaxy has been saved/altered/destroyed, you can always boot up the series’s first act and play it all again. The finale is not the end. In the curious lexicon of games criticism, we often speak of “world-building,” yet rarely do we stop to think about its opposite. Anything made can be destroyed, yet destruction in games is rarely the destruction of games. What masterpiece of eschatological design could possibly convey the all-encompassing, crushing finality of a true apocalypse?

“Since the 1990s, when the rise of reliable home Internet access made persistent game worlds both commercially and technically viable, the game industry has developed over 300 massively multiplayer online games, some gargantuan (The Old Republic, etc.) and others slight, like the thoughtful browser-based government simulator NationStates. The majority of MMOs, of course, don’t experience the runaway success of World of Warcraft or EVE Online and eventually adopt a free-to-play model once it becomes clear that subscriptions alone can’t sustain ongoing costs. But a smaller number—44, if Wikipedia is to be believed—have shut down, and with their closure, their persistent worlds simply phase out of existence, beyond the reach of any archaeology….”

Text: Will Partin, When a Video-Game World Ends, The Atlantic

Image: Kazimir Malevich, Black Circle, 1915.

Saturated In Neon

“Can there be a science fiction photography? This is not a question critics working in the field of the fantastic have ever asked, as far as I’m aware, even though the conception of the visual cultures of sf has been continually expanding, through comics, cinema, animation, and computer gaming. There has been some attention paid to painterly modes of fantasy, the kitsch art of the sf pulps, and the vernacular modes of futuristic architecture (from New York skyscrapers to streamline deco to space age design) , but I have found virtually no commentary on the relations of sf and photography…

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“The most science fictional of […] photographers, in my view, is the British artist Dan Holdsworth. Holdsworth openly deploys the traditional iconography of the sublime. The World in Itself is a series of images of the glacial landscapes of Iceland, territories of ice and rock that are aeons older than the first human settlements on Iceland and which come closest to alien landscapes on earth. Holdsworth has talked about these landscapes in the same sort of multi-temporal terms I’ve been outlining here: these images, he suggests, explore “the nature of the archaic in contemporary society and how that manifests itself” . But more typically, Holdsworth investigates the frontiers where the natural and the technological force a reconfiguring of the sublime. In one of the images for A Machine for Living, Holdsworth invokes the classic iconography of the sublime cliff, but replaces the lone Caspar David Friedrich figure at the summit with an electricity pylon, the power lines containing the chasm beneath. Elsewhere, in a series called At the Edge of Space, Holdsworth explored the strange territories of the European Space Station in French Guyana. He has also documented closed scientific environments that are baffled against the intrusion of sound and abolish echo. His most emblematic series, though, are the images he takes at night of human developments on the edges of cities. A Machine for Living includes night-time images of the empty networks of car-parks and roadways, saturated in neon. Megalith, an iconic Holdsworth image, is a long night-time exposure of a motorway advertising gantry – yet the title suggests some gnomic object of an advanced civilisation from a tale by Arthur C. Clarke. It stands over the terrain like a Wellsian tripod. Holdsworth never works inside cities, but at the suburban edges where develop- ments run into older, natural landscapes and create odd hybrid territories which feel deeply uncanny. He never photographs human beings in these images, and it is as if, at night, and through the magic of long exposures that reveal more than the unaided human eye, these new terrains reveal their truly alien nature.

“Given Holdsworth’s 1998 series Autopia, night scenes of empty motorway architectures, it is unsurprising to find critics reaching for J. G. Ballard’s title, Myths of the Near Future, when trying to explain the weirdness of these images. “The transformative mechanism of the camera allows Holdsworth to project those imprints into the near future, to the edges of our aspiration and into our unconscious ‘inner space”‘ . Ballard’s iconography is full of striking images of future ruins, rusting space technologies, and poisoned nuclear test grounds. Angus Carlyle has argued that Holdsworth is using the iconography of the sublime to photograph a second nature, places that are “dizzying grey zones [where] uncertainty opens up, the ideas of nature and culture find themselves suddenly stuck by provisionalising apostrophes” (43). We might also reach for Bruno La tour’s language of tangled objects or provisional assemblages to describe this sublime second nature.”

Text: Roger Luckhurst, “Contemporary Photography and the Technological Sublime, or, Can There Be a Science Fiction Photography?” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. Pocatello: 2008. Vol. 19, Iss. 2; pg. 181.

Image: Dan Holdsworth, Autopia 01, 1996. C-type print, 121×101 cm

Nature Within

“Might is a power which is superior to great hindrances. It is termed dominion if it is also superior to the resistance of that which itself possesses might. Nature considered in an aesthetic judgement as might that has no dominion over us, is dynamically sublime.

“If we are to estimate nature as dynamically sublime, it must be represented as a source of fear (though the converse, that every object that is a source of fear is, in our aesthetic judgement, sublime, does not hold). For in forming an aesthetic estimate the superiority to hindrances can only be estimated according to the greatness of the resistance. Now that which we strive to resist is an evil, and, if we do not find our powers commensurate to the task, an object of fear. Hence the aesthetic judgement can only deem nature a might, and so dynamically sublime, in so far as it is looked upon as an object of fear…

“Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piled up the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanoes in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force, the high waterfall of some mighty river, and the like, make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might. But, provided our own position is secure, their aspect is all the more attractive for its fearfulness; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature.

“Sublimity, therefore, does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind, in so far as we may become conscious of our superiority over nature within, and thus also over nature without us (as exerting influence upon us). Everything that provokes this feeling in us, including the might of nature which challenges our strength, is then, though improperly, called sublime, and it is only under presupposition of this idea wihin us, and in relation to it, that we are capable of attaining to the idea of the sublimity of that Being which inspires deep respect in us, not by the mere display of its might in nature, but more by the faculty which is planed in us of estimating that might without fear, and of regarding our estate as exalted above it.”

Text: Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, translated by James Creed Meredith, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.

Image: Megan Jenkinson, Atmospheric Optics X, 2009. Lenticular photograph, 101x90cms. Via Stills Gallery.

Nature’s divinely instituted grand scheme

The Voyage of Life was “modern” in its own way: in particular, that it had enough in common with cinema to be considered, if not pre-cinematic, at least proto-cinematic. Thomas Cole’s images had width-to-height dimensions not so different from the 16mm films I was presenting in my film classes; and like most commercial films, they focused on the development of a single character.

“At first, it seemed a stretch to see Cole’s paintings as cinematic in any but the most general sense, if only because his four compositions are presented in extreme “long shot” (a function of Cole’s interest in seeing human development as part of Nature’s divinely instituted grand scheme), a far cry from the modern commercial cinema’s usual articulation of long shots, medium shots, and close-ups. As I watched students engage The Voyage of Life, however, I realized that those willing to engage individual images of The Voyage of Life and their relationships to each other inevitably developed an experiential process analogous to what modern film directors achieve through editing: that is, most viewers see each of the sections in an “establishing shot” and then move in to make their own “medium shots” and “close-ups.”

“Of course, what viewers discover as they explore the individual paintings is that Cole’s articulation of the particular qualities that define each individual stage of human life make sense only in juxtaposition with the qualities defined in the other three paintings. As a result, many viewers move back and forth from one painting to another–creating their own intercutting between the four stages of life. Further, Cole’s decision to use four successive paintings with considerable time gaps between the stages of life depicted is analogous to the way in which film editing condenses time as a means of generating storytelling energy…”

Scott MacDonald, “Voyages of Life”, Wide Angle vol 18 no2 (1996) 101-126.

Image: Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Manhood, 1840.
Oil on canvas, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art (Utica, New York, United States)

Infinitely extending lines

“For mathematicians, the parallel is defined by lines extending to infinity without intersecting. Gursky invites us to imagine that his lines not only go on forever, but that they are everywhere, underlying not only the disciplined orderings of culture but the unconscious life of nature. His parallels suggest a forever beyond the photograph, a forever of lines extending beyond the frames of each image and, more frighteningly, entirely beyond reason, representation, and calculation. Despite the formal harmonies of these photographs, then, Gursky’s infinitely extending lines evoke the sublime. Thus with their beauty comes a kind of terror…

“Of course, postmodernity has encountered and embraced the sublime before, as theorized in what are now its most classic articulations. Jean-François Lyotard famously pits the postmodern sublime against the eclecticism of “anything goes.” A genuine postmodernism, refusing to value art according to its profits, launches an enthusiastic defiance of conventional forms and expectations, the desire to “put forward… the unpresentable in presentation itself”. If for Lyotard this sublime can happen in Montaigne as well as in Mille Plateaux, Fredric Jameson argues for a sublime particular to the emergence of the vast, decentered complexity of multinational capitalism. Jameson’s sublime, like Lyotard’s, reveals the limits of figuration, but it results specifically from the attempt to grasp the “impossible totality of the contemporary world system”

While Lyotard’s sublime is evoked by unprofitable novelty and Jameson’s sublime emerges from the endless surfaces of a world overtaken by commodification, Andreas Gursky’s parallels seem to offer something older, something more metaphysical. In their extension from frame to frame the lines imply a constant, a depth beneath the surface, an underlying pattern or structure. As if Gursky was a faithful reader of Kant, his work appears to present something like an enactment of the Critique of Judgment: his lines offer a formal harmony and also, in their infinite extension, they rupture that harmony; they frame the world and they also break that frame. Thus unlike Jameson’s bewildering postmodern architecture, which dislocates and disorients, Gursky’s photographs embrace an order that is disordered only by the fact that the same forms eerily spread from one photograph to the next. In his allegiance to a venerable formalism, Gursky also seems to invoke an older philosophical paradigm. Indeed, his loving references to Romantic painters reinforce the notion of a sublime that belongs to the late eighteenth century. We see echoes of Caspar David Friedrich in “Seilbahn, Dolomiten” (1987), and we find J. M. W. Turner’s mysterious and illegible landscapes neatly framed by parallel lines in “Turner Collection” (1995)…”

Review of: Andreas Gursky. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 4 March – 15 May 2001.
Peter Galassi. Andreas Gursky. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2001.

Image: Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent Store, 1999.

Vividness of a lightening flash

“As I am addressing a person so accomplished in literature, I need only state, without enlarging further on the matter, that the Sublime, wherever it occurs, consists in a certain loftiness and excellence of language, and that it is by this, and this only, that the greatest poets and prose-writers have gained eminence, and won themselves a lasting place in the Temple of Fame. A lofty passage does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself. That which is admirable ever confounds our judgment, and eclipses that which is merely reasonable or agreeable. To believe or not is usually in our own power; but the Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no. Skill in invention, lucid arrangement and disposition of facts, are appreciated not by one passage, or by two, but gradually manifest themselves in the general structure of a work; but a sublime thought, if happily timed, illumines an entire subject with the vividness of a lightning-flash, and exhibits the whole power of the orator in a moment of time. Your own experience, I am sure, my dearest Terentian, would enable you to illustrate these and similar points of doctrine…”

Longinus: On The Sublime, 1st Century CE.

Image: Walter de Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. Catron County, New Mexico. Dia Art Foundation