30 Cyber-Days in San Francisco 1.5
Welcome to the (Digital) Neighborhood
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker
Be Here Now
Recently, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco,
there was a new technology and art exhibit that was the talk of the digital
town. Titled, "Be Here Now: Welcome to the Neighborhood," it's Michael Naimark's
upbeat vision of the digital village in the convergent 90s. And it's cute. You
enter the de rigueur black-curtained room with its huge screenal wall,
step onto a slowly rotating platform, and think you've suddenly gone glaucomic
and are seeing double images in stereoscope until the observing guard taps you
on the shoulder, laconically handing you 3-D glasses. And that's fine dude,
because like a splendid digital epiphany you can see again, and what you see is
the digital village. There are four buttons of choice for simu-images of the
virtual world around us: Timbuktu, with slowly ambling rows of camels and some
neat guys in I'd-just-kill-for-it deep blue camel tending outfits; the Wailing
Wall in Jerusalem, complete with thousands of children who have just blasted out
of their schoolyard prisons, got their energy up, and are chattering and yelling
and whistling and making eyes and flirting and fighting right by the dour eyes
of the Wailing Wall as they sidle on by; Angkor Wat with its jungle-overgrown
religious monuments, where you can still almost smell through the screen the
tears of the killings; and very grimmest of all, a square in Dubrovnik, just
empty streets and unattended cafe chairs.
We look at each other looking at the images with our oversized
50s-style 3-D glasses, spinning around on the platform, and know that we just
wish these weren't simu-images of UNESCO officially labeled "endangered sites,"
but real time floating vectors of life around the globe. Sort of a digital
village we could get into, maybe even build a Web hut, stick our miniaturized
Hubble Telescope out the mud window the better to take a peek at our new digital
neighbors, flip open a superlight Sintex Infinity cellular phone cum fax/modem,
and settle in like the very first of the digital geezers. "Be Here Now" as
PictureTel for gated communities.
But it's not to be. Because right there in the control center of
"Welcome to the Neighborhood", with its choices abundant, is a gargantuan
hyper-red button marked HOME, obviously the privileged default position. So,
with a sigh, we whisper goodbye to our new best digital friends, think last Club
Med thoughts of stepping out of this North American too-tied-down-schedule life
and trying our luck as a nomadic camel driver, wave goodbye to the kids in
Jerusalem, and zap HOME. And, of course, it's digitally perfect. Just like the
monitors in all the software parks of Silicon Valley that scan the surrounding
verdant programmed grounds for internal consumption, HOME gives us the
tech/nature wonders of the Yerba Buena Center: roaring water falls, beautifully
landscaped terraces opening out onto pristine views of downtown office towers,
with the ugly hulk of the Marriott hotel which bills itself as an "art site"
sharply foregrounded, and even video strolls through the Martin Luther King
It's all just too overwhelming.
What's particularly interesting about "Be Here Now" is neither its
tech (the imagery is frozen in second-order simulations) nor its aesthetics
(multimedia redux), but its politics. This supposedly "artistic" exhibition has
a lasting value as a brilliant manifestation of liberal thought in the era of
digital reality. It's an astronomy lab for peering directly into the mind of
digital liberalism, and the price to be paid for the appearance of the fully
realized technological universe.
And why? Because the big red button, HOME, with its empty telematic
images of the slick Yerba Buena Center, emptied of people but fully convergent
with all the key power referents of (our) digital future - telecommunications,
computer software, art, and entertainment - is the site of a major urban
displacement. In the 1970s, good old HOME was built on the blood of body wipe:
4,000 roomers and pensioners and poor people were thrown out of their old hotels
along Third and Mission, the first victims of the violent strategies of the
so-called "War on Poverty." Now, it's not that the Yerba Buena Center doesn't
own up to its past. We're talking about cynical piety here, about the
simultaneous erasure of people and their instant (art photographic) recovery, as
the quintessence of digital liberalism. Probably because all of the 4,000
displaced victims of HOME are now too old, too sick, and too dead to do anything
about it, the Yerba Buena Center, right smack in the middle of Star Trek San
Francisco, counterpoints Naimark's digital vision of "Be Here Now" with a
quieter, but intensely sad, photographic exhibit of the urban victims of "Third
and Mission." It's evocative: the photographs tell the story of old and poor and
unemployed people living in rooming houses and run-down hotels who, with all the
courage and skill that ex-merchant marine sailors and ex-boxers and ex-welders
and even ex-cops could muster, fought the creation of the Yerba Buena Center for
the Arts, inch by contractual inch.
Now, it might seem that this recovery of (photographic) memory is an
act of atonement by the Yerba Buena Center, sort of a settling of accounts by
the official arts scene of SF before we all zoom off to the happy ersatz
community in the Naimark sky. Maybe it is. But perhaps it's something else.
Perhaps this is a story of the "doubling" that is always at the center of
digital liberalism: an ideological code that works by always balancing a
projective future ("Be Here Now") with an aestheticized past ("Third and
Mission"). Two erasures then, and both aesthetic: Naimark's erasure of the
digital future into an auto-loop of staged communication, and a photographic
erasure of the memory of the Yerba Buena Center victims by recovering their
violent displacement aesthetically, only better to forget. Two simulations - one
past, one future - and both specious.
But not to worry. Michael Naimark's artistic introduction to "Be Here
Now" gives away the key ideological code. It's the true confession as the ruling
"A sense of groundedness, by definition, is the opposite of being
In the feel good, goody-two-shoes aesthetic universe of digital
liberalism, groundedness is only the apparent opposite of being digital.
That's the multimedia spectacle of "Be Here Now" as only the apparent opposite
of the sad photographs of "Third and Mission." Virtual groundedness and
simulated virtuality: these are only apparent opposites that fold into each
other, and that, taken together, form the happy harmony of digital liberalism.
What's ground? And what's virtual? Today, in art as in politics, apparent
opposites only confirm the irreducibility of the liberal will to master the
digital future and the staged past. All remembrance is memory wipe. All
projection is digital amnesia.
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