After Earth

Isobel Harbison


A film poster advertising the release of another Hollywood post-apocalyptic thriller shows the silhouette of lone man facing a distant, vegetal horizon from the roof of an advanced aircraft. ‘1000 years ago’, the caption goes, ‘we left for a reason’. There’s something hypnotic about this image, this familiar cinematic trope, the intoxicating mind-numb of that thought experiment in which you might be the only person left standing on Planet Earth. Human life is entirely wiped out. Ground zero, the point of the earth surface directly above or below an exploding nuclear bomb; the site of the World Trade Centre after those infamous invasions; the point at which the world knowledge that has congealed over time, judicial, political, medical, scientific, technological, epistemological, illogical, all of this along with all the media that forever claims to represent it, in one instant, dissolved.


In 1989, American moving-image curator Martin Heiferman wrote the following in the catalogue for an exhibition of contemporary art that responded to media images called ‘Image World’;


The sun comes up. The screens go blank. The plane comes down. Another day in Image World begins. Today, more than 10,500 Americans will be born and at least 5800 will die. This morning, 260,000 billboards will line the roads to work. This afternoon, 11,520 newspapers and 11,556 periodicals will be available for sale. And when the sun sets again, 21,689 theatres and 1,548 drive-ins will each play for 7 hours; and 41 million photographs have been taken. Tomorrow, there will be more.


This was written the same year as the mobile phone was invented but long before it was widely available, two years before Internet was developed, six years before DVDs or web TV were brought to market, twelve years before the iPod came to spawn the many ‘smart’ hand-held music and communication devices we use today, sixteen years before ‘Youtube’, and ‘Facebook’ and seventeen years before the worlds' major newspapers and broadcasters created their online platforms. Heiferman was writing in the early days of digital technology when the number of images the average working North American both generated and absorbed might have seemed somehow still calculable. Now with digital technologies and the Internet, how we produce and exchange images has changed again and their numeric register surely becomes incalculable.


In 1982 Wim Wenders hired a hotel room during a film festival and asked his peers “What is the future of Cinema?”. Sitting between a television and the video camera that was recording them each film director responds differently; Antonioni is pragmatic, Spielberg’s business-minded, Herzog is poetic. Mike de Leon is grumpy and refuses to play ball. Every generation invents new corrective technologies and then finds itself confronted by the inevitable changes, and losses, it brings. Our generation faces the Internet, a networked source of news and entertainment. But uniquely, it interfaces with it too. Technological change is another evolution, following the shift to television, or to radio or to cinema before that. But while those past media spoke to us, this new one would seem to speak through us – a new ‘forum’ for communication, face to interface. So while every generation sees things differently through the vagaries of technology, our generation also seems to learn new speak.


I watch everything on demand now and often, I’m Googling too. Television marketers ensure online content teams up with the stuff of broadcast, people ‘research’ biographies, backgrounds, historical facts as they watch. If the print press collapsed the concept universal knowledge, a knowledge across fields, then the Internet surely chips away at the opposite axis: rubbishing the notion that one might somehow know a single discipline, subject or field. Search, link, click, first tab, second, third, fourth, wikipedia, tweet, blog, tumblr, gorgeous vacuous diversions. Simple searches become mini-marathons, Joycean escapades, murky information-crawls roving further and further across the irrelevant and banal. I am catapulted across the surface of things at increasing speeds: my knowledge is in-breadth not in-depth and I’m loving it. During a Goldsmiths lecture last year, Mark Fisher recounted his experience as pedagogue, confronted by desperate parents who had to disconnect their home’s electricity mains in order to ‘unplug’ their adolescent daughter from the Internet. I empathise with her not them; image surfing is completely addictive. Mark Leckey confesses his online sensations, ‘In the Long Tail’ (2009), of feeling both ‘bound in a nutshell’ and ‘king of infinite space’. Why rest on one point any more, when there is so much other stuff out there to see, watch and read. Content is humming at us to come along and join it. We find ourselves hurtling faster to information-overload and knowledge-Armageddon – what point is image-ground-zero anyway?


German artist Hito Steyerl makes films and writes essays about the proliferation of the digital image, its material degradation, global deterritorialisation and all the socio-political implications along with it. Beneath her advice that we newly empathise with the ‘poor image’ as ‘a thing like you and me’, is the subtext that the non-represented political subject achieves new levels of invisibility in an oppressive, patriarchal image economy. In an essay on the Spam image, she writes, ‘Visual representation matters, indeed, but not exactly in unison with other forms of representation. There is a serious imbalance between both. On the one hand, there is a huge number of images without referents; on the other, many people without representation. To phrase it more dramatically: A growing number of unmoored and floating images corresponds to a growing number of disenfranchized, invisible, or even disappeared and missing people.’ In short, just because there are more images around does not mean that more diverse people are represented in politics, ‘the media’ or any forum in between.


What way through this, does she suggest? And where? Making art of course, or at least experimental documentary, and allowing it rub uncomfortably against other images and moving images in a range of viewing spaces. In another essay about the moorings of moving-image production in the flow of online information, she writes that experimental documentary can ‘increasingly immerse itself into malleable streams of digital data; it intercepts, appropriates, copies, and distributes. The printing lab is replaced by ripping software. Authorship, copyright, intellectual property are reassessed… This type of production taps into the streams of dramas and desires that are invisibly flowing around the world and traverse our bodies in the form of WiFi signals.’ Her ‘new documentary’ works in a new space of creative and subversive potential, she claims. Distinction between ‘types’ of broadcast are broken down, ‘classical documentary film production, experimental and artistic works have dispersed into a fluid and uncertain space, neither exclusively governed by the claims of specific national cultures nor by any single clearly distinguishable market logic. This space extends from alternative public spheres into the art field, from university auditoriums to Youtube and self-organized projections, from glamorous film festivals and blockbuster art shows to the informal distribution of video tapes in activist circles.’ Steyerl calls this space an ‘ambivalent zone’, which is ‘defined by various conflicting interests. It would be extremely exaggerated to call it a zone of artistic freedom. It is based on the divergent effects of techno-logical development, creativity hypes, social concerns and general downsizing. It is a laboratory for mainstream innovation, just as it can accommodate formal experiments and pockets of civil disobedience.’


I like Steyerl’s idea of an ‘ambivalent zone’, defined by ‘conflicting interests’, the genre-defying moxy and filibustering potential that her sub-clause promises. It’s not an architectural space necessarily, but one in which one image is allowed to impose, imprint or contravene against another and challenge the kind of mind-drift and attention-deficit to which me and my fellow image-gluttons shamefully resign ourselves. It might be a space for the ongoing proliferation of meaningless content to be seen (in gallery or website alike) or, equally, a platform for works with creative value and conceptual purpose to temporarily defibrillate our paralysis. An ambivalent zone might be an art gallery, a film festival, an i-phone, a train station or a website. You might be 'in it' as you read this. It might also be a useful paradigm in dissolving meaningless distinctions between the various architectures of screening spaces. While methods and politics of distribution change dramatically, while how we see and what we search for changes, the art gallery, the screening auditorium and the host website are all conflicted territories, but each with potential for conflict or ‘civil disobedience’. So on our way to a fantasy image-ground-zero, where representation fails entirely and nobody remains visible, what we have left is this ‘ambivalent zone’ where we recognise that we are all plugged in, understand the force of the pulse and face the politics of its current.


John Hanhardt, Marvin Heiferman and Lisa Phillips, Image World, (New York: Whitney Museum of Modern Art; 1989), MH p.17
Room 666, Dir. Wim Wenders, 1982.
Steyerl, Hito, ‘The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation’ published in ‘The Wretched of the Screen’, Berlin: Sternberg Press; 2012, p. 170
Steyerl, Hito, ‘A Language of Practice’, published in ‘The Green Room: reconsidering the documentary and contemporary art’, ed. Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl, Berlin: Sternberg Press; Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Center for Curatorial Studies and Hessel Museum of Art Bard College; 2008, p. 229
Green Room, 230