VIRTUAL CONCRETE
http://www.arts.ucsb.edu/concrete

by Victoria Vesna

Without realizing it, California's inhabitants are conditioning themselves to make a smooth transition from living in an artificial world formed out of sand and oxygen to navigating cyberspace propelled by the same elements.

Three locations are particularly intriguing as examples: Hollywood, the established Dream Factory with its well oiled machine, whose stories and images are sold around the globe; Orange County, the leader in building new large generic developments first generated on the computer screen; and Silicon Valley, the cradle of the semiconductor and software industries that drive this imagery on both the concrete and etheric worlds. These are three constructions of California life in which human bodies and plants are modified with silicone.

Drawing a line through these locations we discover the "Wall of California," slowly coming down now, as discussions of conversion to peaceful technologies are taking place. This is the Other wall, whose demolition is not as visible as that of the concrete Berlin Wall, although the consequences are similar in degree. The land of sunshine, beaches, and palm trees, once married to the military/industrial complex, is undergoing a major mutation. The artificial sense of serenity and security is occasionally shattered by the loud noise of military helicopters passing above the landscape, also serving as reminders of soldiers practicing on the sand in virtual combat.

These vast, desert areas could give everyone an insight into what the "Silicon Era" holds. Different chemical configurations of the basic sand--oxygen mixture weave through every aspect of our lives. Silicon and oxygen compose 75% of the Earth's crust and, in their bonding as clays and rocks, literally hold together the skin of the Earth. A few typical molecular structures are related to some of the most important materials in our society, from glass to the computer chip. Silicon is the substance of the world on which we walk and drive as well as the cyberspace in which we travel...

The history of silicon use reflects our gradual alienation and growing arrogance toward nature. With the chip and building of the I-way, one could speculate that we have reached the peak of the concrete and are ready to take off into the abstract. This, techno-euphoric point of view immediately comes into question once we surf the worlds which are under construction in cyberspace and discover that they are in fact simply a transferring of a concrete train of thought and a materialistic point of view into another dimension. A "turn to the concrete" has emerged as the most fundamental feature of mid-twentieth century continental European philosophy and Existentialist strands of American philosophy. The Latin of the word "concrete" relates to materiality, matter, and we have given expression to that relation in both our thoughts and our materialization of the idea--which, like anything under too much tension, cracks.


Highways, Superhighways

The trivialized analogy between highways and information super-highways invites reflection on the relationship between the concrete and the abstract. It is not unusual for Californians to spend three to five hours a day in a car, so we have time to test the comparisons. Here the body/machine relationship has been firmly established; one simply cannot function without a car.

Driving daily for hours down the freeway, one develops the ability to process movement through space and time simultaneously while the higher thought processes function on a conscious level. The body is still in a sitting position with the simple task of guiding the vehicle and observing signs along the way. This effort becomes the subset of the thinking/thought process. Automatic cars require minimal physical interaction with the machine, but one must be alert and keep the eyes steady. The gaze--the orientation, the intention of moving through space while seated in an hermetically sealed capsule--is focused, and the element of ever-present danger keeps one in a constant state of alert.

This small, enclosed environment provides a multi-dimensional experience for sight and sound. The same voyage is experienced in different ways: in total silence with the windows sealed or with windows open, being bombarded by the loud sounds of motors passing and exhaust fumes entering the car in a forceful, powerful stream. The driver may be listening to the radio, the news, talk shows, or sports, or perhaps may decide to shut out the outside world altogether and listen to celestial music or hard rock. Most travelers on the highways are single, traveling alone. The addition of the cellular phone changes this space dramatically, the driver is connected with the world--wired. Eventually, the traveler could be seated at home or office or in a theme park and have an identical experience.

Highways, as predecessors of the I-Ways, have paved the way for the middle class to explore far off places, for non-places to exist. Perhaps a similar possibility lies ahead for worlds elitist and closed to most, as in the arts. Perhaps.

Geologically, the California region is one of the most rapidly deforming areas in North America, if not the world. This tectonic deformation creates a varied landscape and some disturbing earthquakes. Extraordinarily, the concrete highway has a structure similar to glass, the only difference being that some of the silicon atoms have been replaced by aluminum atoms. And here we all have in the back of our minds the prediction of the "Big One," the earthquake that will destroy one and all. This is a major aspect of a daily existence: history takes a backseat, allowing every citizen to adopt a "Here and Now" attitude and encouraging passive denial of potential disasters.

The similarity between concrete and glass was demonstrated in the LA riots and the recent earthquakes which destroyed many freeways. The inhabitants of the land of illusion discovered that its infrastructure was as thin and brittle as glass. What was considered concrete was shattered in seconds. Similarly, our collective concrete thoughts of the "Walls" collapsed as we witnessed the televised crashing of the Berlin Wall.

Finally, when considering the Information Super Highway, which we tend to think of as transcendent, as if related to Heaven, "pure" silicon is the driving force and the opposite of our daily concrete life.


Architecture

When first confronted with the Internet one has a feeling similar to that of being lost in vast desert spaces and generic architecture. Although the Internet is frequently compared to an ocean, the analogy to a desert is closer because of the identical architecture created on the very same computers. There is no sense of control, with no landmarks to remember--no way to internalize this space. You are alone, realizing that there are many out there zooming past you, driving or lost just like you. A predictable response is to attempt to control this space by splitting it into parcels and creating your own peace/piece of mind.

Consider the Southern Californian city of Irvine. It was a pure desert, then orange groves until 1971 when the city was incorporated. By coincidence, the semiconductor revolution was taking place simultaneously in Silicon Valley, and "personal" computers started making headway. Irvine is a direct materialization of developments conceived and drawn on the computer screen. From a bird's eye view, as in a aircraft, one is struck by the resemblance of the city to a motherboard. The gated communities are analogous to the gates around the chips, the gateways to the Internet.

The nature of the control taking place here is phenomenal--humans willingly submit to it in order to gain a sense of security. If your geraniums grow beyond a certain height or if your garage is open for more then half an hour, you risk getting a ticket; changing the color of your house introduces you to a bureaucratic maze. But this environment offers a safe space from which you can watch the horrors next door or a continent away on television. Inspired by Disneyland, Irvine is used as a prototype by builders from around the world who are creating these safe zones in remote places. The motto of the city is "Another Day in Paradise."1 It goes without saying that these kind of paradises only exist thanks to modern technology. If cut off from electricity or water delivery alone, they would disappear in days, leaving future anthropologists to ponder the mysterious disappearance of this civilization!

There is, however, something liberating for the body occupying these spaces. The architecture ceases to have such a strong presence, an historical importance; it is reduced to generic structures with no sense of weight, resembling the facades of Hollywood sets. In this kind of reconfigured space, we discover the inversion of importance, and the human being assumes the feeling of the architecture. Such a shift in body/architectural spaces is necessary to evolving virtual spaces.


Nature

In a silicon-based society the control of nature becomes a full-time occupation, and western deserts are transformed into landscapes reminiscent of the East Coast and Europe. Large areas of green, green grass, tall eucalyptus trees, and pines are especially prized in a land where droughts are common--these limited parcels require huge amounts of water for maintenance. An illogical response to the natural environment--as if driven by nostalgia for spaces that are easier to internalize (feel in control of)--obtains by the installation of greenery, alluding to the Anglo-Saxon, "upper class" look. In contrast, the indigenous and self-sufficient cacti and the large desert spaces stand alone and seem unfriendly. Like the cacti, the inhabitants are used to this kind of alienation and could easily be characterized as unusually cold and selfish by horrified visitors from the East Coast or Europe. We drive alone for hours, live far away from each other and, needing self-sufficiency, build strong defensive systems.

Related to cacti are palm trees, which, although not indigenous to the area have become an established symbol of California. Reference to the Hollywood dream would never be complete without them. Palm trees thrive in the Californian "landscape," and people are so in love with their image that a whole industry of preserving them has evolved. Silicon has also been put to use in the process of preservation of nature: mummification in factories produces this postmodern hyper/cyber realism. Referred to as "product," the trees come with a three year warranty. The most popular has been the Washingtonia palm, a desert native, environmental cousin of Saguaro cactus, Agave, and Ocotillo. Once again we have an example of the transition from a natural environment to a building interior, which could serve as an analytical model for the impending virtual world.

The technology of preserving palm trees has run parallel to the perfection of animation and motion-capture systems. Just as digital technology has paved the way to endless reproduction without any loss of quality, so here we witness the same kind of endless replication of mummified species of trees. Similarly, generic housing and chain stores within chain malls sprouting around the world are part of the connectivity being established which in turn is responsible for our changing relationship to space in general.

Lay down concrete on top of earthquake faults, and it will crack. Implant silicone in breasts, and it will leak, causing cancer and chaos. These are constructions of a culture which is inherently based on the division of the body and the soul, in need of solid "proof" and bent on making "order" out of the fluid and chaotic nature of the Virtual Concrete.2


Notes

1. "Another day in Paradise," an interactive installation which was shown at SIGGRAPH '93, Machine Culture, and at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, is a piece consisting of three preserved, reconstructed palm trees. The surveillance tree, the video tree, and the touch screen tree create a circle alluding to a safety zone, an island, and give the viewer possibilities of different levels of involvement.

2. "Virtual Concrete" was installed at the Huntington Beach Gallery as part of the "Veered Science " show, July-August 1995. An 18ft concrete path was constructed, upon which lay larger the life electrostatic images of seemingly dead/fragmented male and female bodies. Once the paper was removed, the remaining pigment bonded to the concrete, thus creating a digital fresco. The viewers on the physical site walked and crawled on the art, reading the text, triggering sounds of cybersleaze and legalese via sensors, all the while being watched by a camera/eye connected to the Net. Those away from the concrete virtually participated as voyeurs, watching who was walking on the bodies, constructing and commenting on the bodies in the gallery. The virtual site continues its existence at http://www.arts.ucsb.edu/concrete.



|| contents || features || artbeat || views || aperçues ||