Suzanne Treister

Heaven in a Box

Catalogue essay for exhibition 'Q.Would you recognise a virtual paradise' at Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo, Japan. 1995

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The virtual and the interactive operate outside linear dictates, even though each individual moment or choice does necessarily operate within linear time.... after another. However each choice we make suggests the ghosts of all the other possible choices that are not made at that moment, and which are brought into being through not being done: this ghostly host multiplied at each stage of the progress, existing in the same space and time of the actual choices made: Therefore rather than a line of occurrences there is a multi-dimensional tree of possibilities. Thus certainties cease to exist and the text that we are following or writing becomes one of all the other texts that can be inscribed, erased and re-inscribed within the multi-dimensional realms of the hypertext, each narrative simultaneously there/not there – this multi-generation taking place in a space that is also there/not there. That is the space of the virtual. That is the space of these works by Suzanne Treister.

Within this complex of actualities and their ghosts, all laws become suspended, the antithesis of each law is also there, as well as a simultaneous absence of the law. In this environment histories become unanchored. Everything is up for grabs, to the extent that the matrix for this space – that of technology, the computer, becomes unnecessary or redundant. The virtual space has floated away, surrounded, enfolded the point that at one time anchored it (that of technology), and has subsumed that point within it. The idea is now entirely enough: It is a new cliché of techno-talk that William Gibson, the creator of “cyberspace” was computer illiterate when he was writing the book that gave us the idea of  “cyberspace”. In this he was prognosticating the future of this space, which would dissolve the machine that generated it. Now the concept, the space, exists within language without a point of origin and with no boundaries.

Treister has always worked with the idea of the narrative painting, inviting us to imagine linkages between objects by placing them in the same space, even if, at the same time denying our easy readings of obvious stories between these objects. That these new works are narrative paintings is indisputable, and many of the roots of the narrative – both of the paintings and the world that they are narrating – lie within the field of “fantasy” or fantastic fiction. This in turn draws from the dark Gothic world of the fairy tale. Castles, dungeons, dragons, a context within which all is made animate. This realm has always been one that contains and articulates occluded hopes and fears, and which, through the suspension of “ordinary” cause and effect and the acceptance of the non-linear has mapped possibilities and nightmares. It is a commonplace of pop psychology that these stories and the terrain that these stories transverse are isomorphs of the unconscious and of atavistic structures of belief and meaning. These narratives are complex and dangerous narratives.

The Victorians and the Romantics had a particular fascination for “the land of Faery” and for the fantastic, and it is tempting to see this as a reaction to the increasingly structured systems of capital and production that were the results of the industrial revolution and its technological innovations. It is fitting that a descendant of Babbage's calculating engine has been the catalyst for the creation of a new space of hypothesis which has overlapped and subsumed many of the mechanics and images of the fantastic, and which is, like the world of the Grimm brothers, “active”, in which all has, or has the potential of meaning, action, and animation. In virtual space or in the computer game the dungeon may speak, the picture change, and objects and events align themselves in (paranoid) matrixes of meaning that surround and enfold the traveller.

The causal link between the realms of the fantastic and the irrational and those of the technological is neither new nor surprising, one helping to define the other. Necessarily the two realms must also invade and duplicate each other, especially when “technology” and its developments picks up such a hallucinogenic vortex of speed to change tense as so to exist in future possibility as well as current ubiquity. This overlapping not only generates the models and languages of science fiction, but within the “real world” it produces advanced exploratory technological cultures such as that of Nazi Germany with its combinations of rocketry and the Brothers Grimm, the autobahn and astrology, the mechanisation and technologisation of blood libels. Currently this dynamic informs the current debates and rhetorics in publications such as Mondo 2000 which combine the languages of hi tech with the millenianistic eschatologies of re-wiring and re-invention that are from both the drug cultures of the sixties and older mystic narratives of gnosis and the loss of the physical self. Any history of these milleniastic movements makes clear that more often than not they end in exploitation, destruction, and death. As if the drive towards a too concrete paradise necessarily invokes the bloody termination of those who seek (or seek to impose) that paradise.

The software packages here recognise the false equation of 'technology' with 'rationality', or inevitable “development”, and deny that technology is inevitably on the side of enlightenment. The use of the languages of the romantic - the seascape, the Bavarian castle, the library interior - inevitably draws us back to certain European contexts that are melancholy in their implication and in their histories, and which cast long and dark shadows over what are usually the sunny horizons of a techno-clean future. In their combinations of European romanticisms and the “new” spaces of technology, inevitably previous histories of such combinations are remembered, even if within this context these are but one of many possible histories, depending on which line is pushed on the menu-board and which choice is taken.

This is not to say that these works are dystopian. That is too easy and clichéd a reaction. The works map out areas of love and desire, even if love morphs in the space into a Gothic expression. Rather they celebrate the possibilities of this space that is now all around us, but remind us that slates are never wiped clean. Currently there is a great temptation to see the possible spaces of technology as a value-free zone, one which offers the possibility of escape from the specifics of a certain narrative. For instance the way that “techno-porn” is currently popular: as if the fact that the “newness” of the format somehow eradicates or erases the previous structures of value and power. It is only too clear though - as if it has not become clear before in various histories of various revolutions -  that structures rebuild themselves in different contexts if the structure's history is merely forgotten or ignored, rather than actively dismantled.

A virtual paradise is a complex thing full of contradictions, ambiguities and monsters. It is not the uncomplicated idiot nirvana of the techno-dorks with smart drugs and disease free virtual sex, neither is it the necessarily evil dehumanised space of the two-culture dystopians to whom any innovation defines a space of anxiety. Rather the virtual paradise - which we may not recognise to be a paradise at all - is a space of play, but a space in which play has to be taken seriously since all decisions have their actions and reactions and nothing is without implication. The dungeons have their dragons, and the dragons have teeth, and dragons teeth when cast to the ground grow into soldiers as Jason found in pursuit of the golden fleece. The virtual world is also not virtual, it is actual. In both the bodies of action that constitute play have shadows; a virtual paradise is the product of various actions, reactions and interactions, as well as containing and reproducing these. Technology has too often been a final solution, and Suzanne Treister's work, in suggesting the many possibilities that this space has generated, and in mapping its spread into and over and within the realms of language and imagination and articulating its various histories and narratives, reinforces the ambiguity and danger of Heaven in both the “real” and the “actual” world, as well as its many possibilities. 

Richard Grayson 1995