Texts/Visualising Relations
Troels Degn Johansson, 2000
Paper for the Asia Europe Forum 2000, Kyongju, South Korea, October 23 - 25, 2000
Visualising Relations


SUPERFLEX’ Relational Art in the Cyberspace Geography


1. What if ..? Staging Futures in Visualisation

For a global, visual culture in the age of the Internet, “visualisation” has become an increasingly popular notion for “thinking” the world by means of its images. This notion probably stems from contemporary science where visualisation is about “staging” virtually a field of a certain subject matter in a computer and perhaps to observe and analyse its development in time, that is in terms of so-called scenarios. Scenarios are in this sense models, i.e., the spatio-temporal organisation of complex data in a computer program in accordance with the assumed laws of this subject matter, that may be laws physics, of economy, of the social life, and so on.However, scenarios are different from prognoses in that scenarios are not supposed to show us “the future” of something as such but to “stage” and analyse a little “piece” of the world in a certain environment, and studying it in the context of those factors that may influence its development. Scenarios are in this sense per se always plural and have a certain fictitious, or perhaps rather reality-suspended character. Hence the adverb to be associated with scenarios is not “when”, as if when something particular will happen, but “if”. “Now, if I do this, what will happen?” If I chance this variable what will be the result? “What if. ...” Visualisation and scenarios are about possibility and future. Secondly, visualisation seems in a certain sense to integrate the scientist-modeller as the interpreting observer on the same “stage” as the subject matter, not only as a vigilant interpreter but also an agency to be found topologically “on the stage” as a virtual viewpoint, a “camera”, or “eye”. In this sense, analysing the world by means of visualisation and scenarios should imply a particular reflexivity, which not only befalls the object studied but also all those instances which may determine its development. In a sense, what should be important to the observer on the stage of visualisation is not the object as such but all those relations that this object reflects and which may possibly determine its development in the virtual environment. Visualisation is about staging relations, and the reflective observer studies the virtual environment as a set of relations in its totality. 

2. Staged by Art: Working with SUPERFLEX’ Relational Strategy

Apparently the concept of visualisation has become relevant also for the study of cultural phenomena. At least so does Danish art group SUPERFLEX’ so-called relational Internet art projects “Karlskrona2” and “Superchannel” seem to indicate. For in the geographical 3D Multi-User Domain (MUD) of “Karlskrona2” and “Wolfsburg2”, this art group seeks precisely to “make things happen” by establishing and “staging” a variety of relations between individual human “agents” and to investigate their development in a computer mediated communication environment. 

The concept of Karlskrona2 -- which not only has been applied to the old naval and industrial town of Karlskrona, Sweden, but also the home town of Volkswagen, Wolfsburg in Germany -- consists of a 3D world which is based on a virtual model of the city centre, and a large video screen that displays online images of the virtual city taken from more or less the same location as that of the screen itself. Karlskrona2 is thus meant to be a public participation system in which citizens may discuss the future of their city on a strategic, yet very concrete level. Local citizens are allowed both to chat, move around, and make simple, virtual buildings, whereas non-locals are allowed only the privileges of “tourists”, that is to chat and move around in the on-line environment (Fig. 1.).

SUPERFLEX often labels Karskrona2 as a “free-space”, and Karlskrona2 does indeed represent a popular ambition among both planning and Internet critics, namely that “information must be free”, i.e., that citizen users should be able to retrieve and share the visual information that he or she finds the most relevant for decision-making. As a work of art, however, Karlskrona2 is more than “just” a concept for a public participation project in cyberspace. Karlskrona2 examplifies perfectly what Swedish curator and art critic Åsa Nacking (1997, 1999) has described as SUPERFLEX’ general strategy as a critical art group, namely to “relate” or intervene in various functions that are believed to have a strong impact upon society; that may be functions of, say a technical or economic character. According to Nacking, SUPERFLEX should be seen as subscribing to a recent tradition in art often designated as “relational aesthetics” or “socializing art”, which ‘has firmly established itself during the 90s. This type of art often comprises elements of interactivity, but its most noticeable characteristics is its socializing effect. This is a type of art that wants to bring people together and to increase understanding for each other and for our own situation.’ (1999: 41-42). Indeed, SUPERFLEX works perhaps mainly with social processes as their artistic material, or form. Working as a critic of planning communication in cyberspace, SUPERFLEX’ strategy of processual intervention has in turn made me try various positions, some of which have been quite traditional (i.e. as a critic, a commentator, and a media scholar with national applied research interests) and some more unusual (as a discussion partner, an exhibitor, and recently also a fund-raiser). Åsa Nacking notes that ‘SUPERFLEX’ projects are such that they have to consult with specialists to execute them. SUPERFLEX come up with the idea, but that the actual realisation of the project happens together with the collaborative partners that they seek out.’ (p. 43). It should be noted here that I did not take part in the initial project development of Karlskrona2 as such, but joined in later as a “discussion partner”, having an obvious interest in their work because of the orientation of my current research. Looking back at my first year of collaboration with this art group, my experience of thus taking part in the “project community” surrounding SUPERFLEX is very much that of being “facilitated”, perhaps sometimes even of being “staged” -- not always knowing the precise agenda for a meeting, who will turn up, and so on. A group member once told me that this uncertainty is very characteristic of the everyday life in the art world of which they, SUPERFLEX forms part. Nacking notes that ‘As with interactive art, one sees here a desire on the artist’s part to affect and influence the viewer [or in my case, the discussion or project partner] more directly, sometimes with unexpected and unconventional methods.’ (p. 42, my insert) As a project partner and a “user” of SUPERFLEX’ art I am in a sense staged three times at the same time, namely first as a common user of Karlskrona2 as a geographical 3D MUD, second as a planning studies scholar who is invited into the “art scene” to talk about how I make use of relational art, and third as a scholar who is using Karlskrona2 as concept and as a technology in my own field to realise certain objectives as a researcher affiliated an applied research institution, namely the critical promotion of Internet-based planning communication systems. This “concentric” character seems to characterise the stages of SUPERFLEX’ relation-making. In the other project, Superchannel, SUPERFLEX uses an art gallery, a public library, or any other public “art space” which is easily accessible for a local public as the centre of a web-based communication environment in which an Internet audience may follow a web-casted streaming video presentation and perhaps comment on it via chat in the course of its duration (Fig. 2.). 

As communication environments, Karlskrona2 and Superchannel thus share a concentric character which privileges a local group in the “core” and let others in the perifery follow and comment on the central stage. In SUPERFLEX, communication seems to have its own geography (Fig. 3). 

In this manner, SUPERFLEX strategically makes use of the Internet to fulfil their main objective as artist, namely to “connect people”, that is to paraphrase a possible source of inspiration from telecom business. As such, SUPERFLEX has been invited to facilitate cultural collaboration in and between Asia and Europe on a distinctively local level. SUPERFLEX thus takes a sincere concern in the development of applications for the Internet, and as artists as well as human beings they seem particularly interested in the technical aspects of their art. Still, however ingenious their applications may be, SUPERFLEX’ work functions not entirely on a technical but also, of course, on a conceptual level. For SUPERFLEX, information technology is perhaps just as much a “state of mind”, a “cyber spirit” whose characteristics may also be applied to, or found in very different domains. Hence SUPERFLEX’ third main project, Supergas, a light-weight bio-gas system for nomad farmers in equatorial countries which will now be produced by a fellow artist, Rirkrit Tiravanija of Thailand. Rirkrit Tiravanija employs a similar strategy to “connect people”, as far as I know not so far by means of the internet but by initiating industrial production processes in order to realise a given product concept. It should be noted that both SUPERFLEX and Rirkrit Tiravanija maintain a business approach to their enterprises, and that money matters are seen as an artistic material in much the same way as the Internet. Money also connects people. Still, this “cyber age state of mind” seems to be the main “artistic material” for this type of contemporary, so-called relational artists; a material whose main characteristics seems to be possibility and future; or dolce utopias, sweet utopias, as another relational artist Maurizio Cattelan has it (cf. Bourriaud 1995: 34). In this paper I shall try to demonstrate how the work of these artists may show us ways to benefit more fully from cyberspace in terms of making stronger bonds between human beings on the continents. Returning to the concept of visualisation, I seek to outline what I refer to here as the cyber age state of mind; a state which by the artist is associated by possibility and future, but perhaps not quite in the sense that we are used to. SUPERFLEX seems to work by means of a certain suspension of reality, yet a reality which is thought of and mapped out quite concretely in terms of geography. To demonstrate this I first go on to outline what in research today has become known as “cybergeography”, i.e. the geographical aspect of cyberspace but also the geography realised by means of cyberspace. Secondly I discuss cyberspace and notions of future and utopias in terms some “continental” traditions, and thirdly I return to SUPERFLEX’ relational aesthetics to demonstrate how their work may lead us to think of time and space in a new way. 

3. Visualisation and the World Stage of Cybergeography

Geographers and other “spatial minds” are of course especially delighted with the concept of visualisation and the computer technology that supports this world-view. Indeed, leading scholars are now speaking of a “new” geography of information technology: a virtual geography, or sometimes a cybergeography, not to designate a new discipline but rather a new field of study and perhaps also a new way of experien-cing scientifically this new “geography”, or world of geography, that is an epistemology (cf. Johansson 2000b). What is referred to in these terms is the world of geographical data that is given before the scientist following the convergence of the Internet with a number of other systems of information technology, especially remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS), geographic positioning systems (GPS), wireless application protocols for remote lab-top user access, and so-called smart city technologies. First, remote sensing, i.e. the recording and transmission of data from a distant source made possible the distribution of data from a particular location to the entire world via a web-server. We have now become familiar with a popular version of remote sensing on the Internet, namely the live web-cam, which may show us the current outdoor conditions such as weather or traffic via a simple photographic picture that uploads with a given frequency. A Japanese web-site, Sensorium, was quick to present live pictures from a number of web-cams from all over the world on a single web-page, so that the entire world could see the sun rise over Mount Fuji, while it shone in New York, and set in Dub-lin. And current US president candidate Al Gore wants a permanent satellite in space, the Triana mission to show us a live web-cam picture of the full sunlit Earth from space, so that anyone can assure oneself that one is really present there on this wonderful place in space. Whereas the former project very strongly thematises time on Earth, the latter seems to annul time, showing us a world of eternal day. However, both concepts make use of the Internet to give us a distinctively new, global and local sense of space and time, a world spectacle that seems important to a global culture in the cyber age. Secondly, the convergence between the Internet and geographical information systems (GIS), i.e. data bases for the recording, analysis, and presentation of geo-graphical information made it possible to model and visualise web-served, perhaps live geo-data so that the virtual laboratory of geographical visualisation would no longer be separated from the world but indeed in principle made available on-line for all Internet users and entered for multiple use. This is a basic principle of the much celebrated notion of cyberspace originally envisioned by American science fiction novelist William Gibson. Many of those who use public transportation on a daily basis may have become familiar with the handy on-line travel planners that employ a web-served GIS application to tell us the best, current connections between to places. Thirdly, geographical positioning systems (GIS) and wireless application protocols (WAP) add to this cyber-age world perception that the user does not assume the transcen-dental point of observation, the godly point-of-view on which Renaissance cartography based itself, but indeed a mobile agency to be found in the very same geographical field that he or she may seek to handle in data modelling. And finally, so-called “smart” technologies such as “smart cities”, “smart architectures”, etc. organise geo-data for the more or less automatic management of cities, that may be traffic and public transportation, sanitation, and the supply of energy, water, and food. The geographers of this “wired nature” find themselves in a world, a “geography”, which is not to be taken for a place in the traditional sense, that is, as a piece of nature which is not yet appropriated by science. The world to be found “out there” in the cyber-age is a world which in a sense is already given as data and mediated by an infrastructure of geographical information systems. 

4. Cybergeography’s “Second Age of Geographical Discovery”

English geographer Michael Batty (1997) uses the term “cyberplace” to designate place in cybergeography, a wired nature and a world in which nature seems no longer to precede ontologically its technical and scientific elaboration. What is “there” before the intervention of the geographer is not nature but a global infrastructure and a system of data to be modelled, visualised, and navigated in. Hence the notion of cyber-geography which both mirrors the system theoretical perspective and the moment of navigation. Indeed the very notion of cybernetics, the Greek for steersmanship, has been picked up by Netscape in their ship steer logo for their browser application, and along with this steermanship has now become an important metaphor for the interaction with, or “navigation” on the world wide web. In Batty’s view, the world of cybergeography thus consists of four levels, or domains: 1) place in the traditional geographical sense, that is, something to be appropriated by geography as scientific space, 2) virtual space to be modelled in a computer on the grounds of appropriated place (i.e. geo-data), 3) a cyber-space to be gradually unfolded on networked computers, and 4) a world of cyber-place which is mediated by cyberspace and which again is to be re-appropriated by geography as suggested in the circularity depicted in Batty’s model (Fig. 4). 

The notion of re-appropriation is important here, for what is to be re-appropriated in and by cybergeography is in this sense not nature as such but data. Whereas the system of data does refer positively to nature (or cyber-place), the cyber-cartographer should not necessarily maintain the two-dimensional ground on which classical European cartography based itself, namely the ground on which the Earth was projected and mapped in the course of world discovery. Whereas the Earth, i.e. the “geo” still stands as the primary referent also for the cyber-cartographer, he or she is now free to model, visualise, and navigate in the world of cybergeography, not only in time and space but indeed in multiple dimensions to capture its more abstract aspects. The space of cybergeography is in other words no longer subordinated the space of cartography, and this leads us to think of space in a new way. This perception seems to correspond with Ameri-can architect Michael Benedikt’s suggestion that space and information in a certain sense should be considered identical. Benedikt asks: ‘is information in space, or is space in information? I [i.e. Benedikt] submit that this is a pivotal question. In fact, we should get ready to take the next step, which is to explore the more radical idea that space and information are one and the same thing’ (Benedikt 1996: 163). Setting off from German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz’ argument that an entity, say an atom’s identity is given by its realisation in time and space-- thus ruling out the possibility of not only twins but identical entities as such without a spatial realisation, hence Leibniz’ principle of the Identity of Indiscernables. Benedikt defends the necessity of a spatial information theory, and that information thus becomes inseparable from space and vice versa. Cybergeography is in this sense not only about the discovery, or disclosure of a new field, i.e., cyberspace, but also of setting free a general concept of space from its subordination of traditional science. Cyber-geographical re-appropriation may lead to what American geographer Michael Goodchild (1998) has celebrated as a Second Age of Geographical Discovery. Although today our world maps have no more white parts, no more “terra incognito”, a new age of geographical exploration seems still to have been initiated. Goodchild is care-ful not to lay out this notion of discovery in too imperialistic terms. What he refers to is neither the re-discovery of something already known, yet perhaps forgotten, nor the observation of something “for the first time”, evoking the stereotype of the Western hero of the Age of Discoveries. Goodchild: ‘... geographical rediscovery means visiting old places with new eyes, new tools, and greater insights. [/] Of course this is the ideal territory for GIS. GIS lets us observe at scales, and from viewpoints that were simply not available to the first explorers.’ (1998: 3). To make his point clear, Goodchild refers to Charles Darwin’s so-called discovery of the Galapagos Islands: ‘Hundreds if not thousands of people must have visited the Galapagos Islands before Darwin, but none had his insights. In that sense Darwin rediscovered the Galapagos, discovering the theory of natural selection by visiting an area that is superbly designed to reveal a general process that we now know occurs everywhere, but is also invisible almost everywhere... ‘ (Ibid.). Following Goodchild’s argument, even the Age of Discoveries was in this sense also in some respect an age of re-discovery, of re-discovering the world in the optics of the Renaissance. In any case, following Goodchild the age of cybergeographic re-discovery does seem to resemble that of the Renaissance in the sense that in both worlds, the explorer finds himself in an imperial space which is there to be traversed and mapped entirely, leaving behind no white spots, no “terra incognito”. Explorers of both worlds find themselves from the outset not in a place but in a “geography” as it were, as if that place was always already apropriated by science in terms of latitudes and longitudes. “Geo-graphy” as “earth drawing” does in geography quite literally imply the artistic dimension performed in the discipline of cartography, but also the “traveling-drawing” of the field-work geographer, whose work could be taken as a twice inscription into geography’s “body of knowledge”, namely as (encyclopedic) inscriptions into the library of geography, of course, but also concretely into the world, for instance by the establishment of scientific land marks. This coalescence of geographical inscription is perhaps most imaginatively evoked in what must be a very popular dream among geographers, namely to drift ashore on the “A” of the “Atlantic Ocean”. In cybergeography as well as in the Renaissance, space makes what French philosopher Michel Serres, commenting on Jules Verne’s “Voyages Extraordinaires”, has called an “inventory of the adventures of knowledge” (Serres 1982: xi). But in cybergeography, space is liberated not only from its subordination to scientific space but also from the topology of home and away, of the university and the field. In cybergeography, ideally one may log in anywhere in a field of wired nature and find one self in the field of the world laboratory of ones visualisations. In this sense, cyberspace is of course more fully a realisation of an inventory of knowledge. 

5. Asia and Europe in “American” Cybergeography?

For Asians as well as Europeans, the space of cybergeography does not quite seem to resemble the way we are used to perceive the space of our continents, not that is compared to the Americans. Much has already been said about the globalisation of American, or perhaps rather Californian culture in the cyber-age, one of the most sceptical being probably German “cyber-critic” Florian Röetzer who sees cyberspace as nothing but the alluring image of an ideology which is supposed to base itself on American “new frontier” mythology. In his well-quoted article ‘Outer Space or Virtual Space? Utopias of the Digital Age’ (1998), he seeks to interpret the “utopianisms” of this “cyberspace ideology” while contemplating the millenial doomsday fears of his contemporaries. To Röetzer, 

‘Only the ruling class in the United States seems to be able to refer back in an ungloomy way to an image of itself at the time of colonization. This is why, especially in this class, dreams of the good-old-world of the frontier that must be tamed are flourishing. Unlike Central or South America, in the United States colonization produced a new, untouched world, a “God’s Country.” Throu-gh the nearly complete extermination of its indigenous population and by living by the maxim that guarantees the right to the pursuit of happiness, the immigrants were liberated from their ties to their countries of origin. To many, the subjugation of the American continent, the independence from Europe, and the conquest of the Wild West still stands as a model. The taming of the frontier, the exodus of individuals and groups, and the escape from the state structures all belong to the identity of the frontiersman ...’ (Röetzer 1998: 124).

Röetzer’s analysis is perhaps correct in some respect. Going west, Canadians and Americans (not to mention Australians) do find themselves in the imperial geography of so-called “original” settlement; a land which to a large extend is divided in terms of latitudes and longitudes rather than natural barriers or ethnical groupings; still this is a continent whose geography in this sense is multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and indeed modern, in a way that at least Europe will never be. Further, the new frontier mythology seems very easy to recognise in the popular perception of cyberspace, not least as concern the political interest taken in cybergeography. ‘Named after Rodrigo de Triana, the lookout who first saw the New World from Columbus’ ship’, the NASA Triana mission seeks apparently to build up a popular perception of America as a somehow natural starting point for the “Age of Re-Discovery.” Being a main objective in Al Gore’s cybergeographic vision of a “Digital Earth” (DE), the Triana project may lead Americans to rediscover not only their own continent but also to find themselves again “out there”, as a people of explorers in yet a “new world”. In this sense, according to Röetzer, cyberspace comes handy for a nation whose geo-political interest is trying to identify its new territory after the implosion of the Sovjet Union and communist Europe: 

‘Finally, after the Cold War and programs like Star Wars are long over, a “new frontier” is born, the dream of an American people. “Go Cyberspace” replaces “Go West”. Cyberspace is the latest American frontier. Hackers are celebrated in the same way as conquerors of new territories or outlaws were in the past, at least when they are finally integrated into the economic system after having sowed their wild oats in the new Wild West ... The conquest of cyberspace follows the example set by the settlers, cowboys, heros of the Wild West and soldiers who subjugated a continent that, in their eyes, didn’t belong to anyone -- pure colonialism.’ (:131) 

However, along with this Röetzer finds that since ‘... the Wild West no longer exists and the globe has become rather small ... It is now possible only for individuals and not entire nations to set off for new frontiers or simulate discoveries in limited geographical spaces on Earth, in the style of adventure holidays. Thus the search for a new frontier is blending more than ever into technological development, led by America, which have not only created new possibilities here on Earth but have also permitted mankind to enter outer space and virtual space for the first time. America, the supposed land of opportunity, shall serve here only as an example to outline the contours of the techno-imaginary on a social level.’ (Röetzer: 124-5) 

Now, one may emphasize the somehow narcissistic, or self-indulgent character of the Triana mission (e.g. Polsami 1998), the Digital Earth initiative, and its evocation of the new frontier mythology for the American nation, a self-indulgence which no doubt applies not only to the adventure holiday of the individual but also to a national identity of Americans. Still, the new frontier mythology is hardly reserved for Americans only, and Roëtzer’s so-called “techno-imaginary on the social level” should be seen as applying to a global cyber-culture who may lead Europeans as well as Asians to consider themselves in this respect “Americans”. When Röetzer is referring to America as the land of opportunities, he cannot possibly be addressing the continent as such but the sense of opportunity incarnated by “America” as the name for a cyberspace “ideology” which is far more general in its scope. Although admitting that ‘cyberspace is grounded in and influences reality’ (Ibid.:127), Roetzer finds it suspicious as a European that this ideology is thriving amoung left wing as well as right wing political environments, and that in it, ‘liberal, individualistic, and sometimes anarchistic thoughts combine unproblematically with a glorification of capitalism and its Darwinistic principles to form an amalgam that seem to unite the new virtual class above and beyond all other differences.’ (Ibid.: 127). Quoting from Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s paper, “Californian Ideology”, Röetzer assumes that “The far-reaching appeal of these West Coast ideologists doesn’t only result from their contagious optimism ... While celebrating this apparently admirable ideal at the same time these sponsors of technology reproduce some of the most diabolical characteristics of American society, especially those that are rooted in the legacy of slavery. Their utopian vision of California is based upon deliberately turning a blind eye toward the other, far less positive characteristics of life on the West Coast: racism, poverty and environmental destruction.’ (Barbrook and Cameron quoted in Roetzer: 127-8). Accordingly, Röetzer simply concludes that “Therefore, cyberspace enthusiasts, probably without much reflection, regard free access to the web and freedom of expression as the redemption of democracy while at the same time neglect, or simply ignore, the living conditions of real life.’ (128). Accordingly, to Röetzer 

The success of cyberspace as a new utopia is not only due to technical innovations and the promises of profit that go along with it. The entry into cyberspace is interconnected, above all, with the urban reality of cities. The decay of public areas, increasing suburbanization, and the setting up of the dual city. [/] Cities will no longer be geographical condensations of capital, power, culture, and knowledge. They will eventually become places where you are locked up in or try to escape from, where you erect sealed-off areas, apartheid zones, secure high-tech bunkers and closed spaces that are monitored by the same technologies that are used in the construction of cyberspace. (ibid.:128). 

Now, Röetzer’s dystopic visions may very well resemble those depicted in Ridley Schott’s feature film Blade Runner (1981) and its inescapable Los Angeles of year 2021. In fact, according to Röetzer, ‘Too many people see the future as obstructed. Images of declining culture, in large part of cities in decay -- as in the film Blade Runner -- haunt us. Unemployment, poverty, social struggle, the retreat into the private sphere, and decreasing living standards produce insecurity, fear, and individualism. America is falling apart.’ (140). Today, however the claustrophobic motifs of Blade Runner seem rather to recall the world war and cold war depression’s film noirs (from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Taxi Driver (1976), Chinatown (1977), and indeed Blade Runner, rather than the multidimensionality of The Matrix (1998); a time whose fiction was obsessively occupied not with the future but the past, crime being the dominant genre, and the private detective the main protagonist. Getting on the track of the “virus” that caused cyberspace’s “contagious optimism”, Röetzer appears himself as a detective from a time long gone. Röetzer may well allude to the image of Los Angeles in modern popular culture: The final destination for the nation’s as well as the individual’s exploration of the “new world”, yet one cannot help finding Röetzer’s analysis of “cyberspace ideology” as far fetched, far too crude, and completely out of touch with his contemporary high economy US and the so-called “Californian” state of mind. Affected perhaps rather by a European inferiority complex, Millenial fears, or the first years of depression in the re-united Germany, Röetzer suggests that ‘Europeans should ask themselves whether, in spite of the fears of no longer being attractive as a location, they really want to follow this strange mixture of an individualistic and liberal sense of mission together with national emotionalism and the desire for economic dominance ... Investment of time, capital, and passion in cyberspace will probably reduce the number of individuals who can be employed in the “real world”. The difficulty of securing jobs in a global economy combined with the fascination created by the new virtual world and its forms of action and communication could lead us to abandon reality; abandon it to the point where life inside the space of places and life inside the space of data transmissions drifts increasingly apart’ (ibid.: 132) Now, today, even after the maturing of the NASDAC index, everything indicates that this is a poor analysis of the new economy and therefore a rather bad advice to state policy makers. More importantly, however, Röetzer shows us perhaps here his true face, namely as the alienated critic who sees in cyberspace the “abandonment of reality” and the annihilation of place. Still, Röetzer seems completely unable to grasp that the “new geography” of cyberspace may very well imply a kind of suspension of reality without causing its complete abandonment. In a sense, Röetzer seems to take cyberspace “utopianism” too serious. According to Röetzer, ‘Europeans have learned from their own history that utopias that are blindly embraced only produces new horrors.’ (Ibid.: 132) Still, as English sociologist Graeme Gilloch notes, commenting on Jean Baudrillard’s analysis of American culture (1988), ‘In America, utopia is an immanent principle rather than a transcendental goal. Americans prove themselves to be pragmatic utopians’ (Gilloch 2000: 131). As Baudrillard has it, we Europeans ‘remain nostalgic utopians, agonizing over our ideals, but baulking ultimately at their realization, professing that everything is possible, but never that everything has been achieved. Yet that is what America asserts, Our problem is that our old goals -- revolution, progress, freedom -- will have evaporated before they were achieved, before they became reality: Hence our melancholy ... We live in negativity and contradiction; they live in paradox (for a realized utopia is a paradox)’ (Baudrillard 1988: 78-9). 

6. The Immanent Utopia of Cyberspace’s New Frontier

Gilloch’s notion of an “immanent utopia” and Baudrillard’s “paradoxical utopia” may lead us to understand not only the “new frontier” character of cyberspace but also the sense of utopia suggested in relational art. As an instrument for re-discovery, the NASA Triana project realises perfectly the American’s immanent utopia: To find oneself again out there as an explorer of the new world. What is important here is obviously the pragmatic rather than the ideal conception of what this exploration will bring forth. The point is that one sees oneself as being just at the point of exploring something, not simply that one has been an explorer, or that something will be explored. This is American “utopia achieved”, as Baurillard has it. “Being at the point of something” implies a peculiar congruence of the three grammatical tenses, a present participle, that is a “presence of participation” -- an emphasis on process that mirrors both original settlement and future exploration, yet without suggesting any heavy, historical teleology. The important thing about the frontier does not seem to be the prospect of imperial colonisation. This is probably a far too European way of thinking, and in Röetzer’s case paradoxically a very European image of America. The “point” of “being at the point of” something is perhaps rather the true “nature” of cyberspace’s new frontier. The importance of the “new frontier” is not its transgression but its seductive character as border, it is indeed the alluring image for the most radically modern and superficial mind of the so-called “American” that we probably find everywhere today as a “cyberspace spirit”, a cyber epistéme. 

7. Relational Art and the Cyber-Age Epistéme

SUPERFLEX’ relational art seems somehow to accord with this general “American” level of modernity, which we recognise in a new form in cybergeography. Rather than superficial, one ought perhaps to think of SUPERFLEX’ approach as “artificial”: They are in a sense using art to suspend reality; still by inducing this suspension they appear to set free a reality level of future and possibility that seemed inconceivable before; a level of reality which also characterises the cyber age epistéme announced in the beginning of this text. As Nicolas Bourriaud has it, these artist ‘represent models of space-time zones which are added to the global operation of society (they are not “alternatives,” but are continuations and show real behaviour patterns) ... Artistic practise ... demonstrates our rights to micro-utopia, the “dolce utopia” that Maurizio Cattelan spoke of: a utopia without a teleology...’ 34). Addressing Plato, Bourriaud thus concludes that ‘the art work can be approached as a form of reality, and no longer as the image of an image.’ (Ibid.: 34) In other words we are asked to think of art’s images as invitations rather than representations; invitations that call for a participation in and continuation of the so-called “space-times” born in art. According to Bourriad, this art seeks to establish a ‘network or relational universe: current art is composed of these mental entities which move like ivy, growing roots as they make their way more and more complex’ (ibid.: 36). Relational art is in this sense very much about making successful invitations, it has a poetics of involvement to it which in Karlskrona2's log-in interface is depicted by a double arrow (Fig. 5.) I suggest that we all accept the generous invitations from the relational artists, and that we try to learn from the practise of Rirkrit Tiravanija, SUPERFLEX, and still others who have already begun to develop further the strong and complex networks between the continents; a network which should thus be understood in both the technical and the organic sense. This paper of mine is itself a concrete manifestation of how this organic continuation works out in practise; it is in a sense just another root or branch protuberating from a seed once sown. I sincerely hope that you feel encouraged to bring home a seed or a slip of this great network. By making it grow, you will yourselves form part of this work of art. 



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Troels Degn Johansson (b. 1967). Ph.D. Scholar at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the Danish Forest and Landscape Research Institute, Ministry of Environment and Energy. Assistant Professor at the Copenhagen IT University, Department of Design, Communications & Media. Chairman of the Nordic Summer University 1999-2000. MA in Film & Media Studies at the University of Copenhagen, and MA in Psychoanalytic Studies in the Humanities of the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK. Currently involved in a research project on 3D-visualisation of landscape in web-distributed computer media with special reference to public planning communication.


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