Reflections on philosophy and culture


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Robert Overweg's Virtual Derive

Recently, I came across a fascinating new kind of found art - the virtual photography of Robert Overweg. Each 'photograph' is a screen cap taken by Overweg while wandering through video game landscapes in ways that flout the purposes for which they have been constructed. His practice amounts to a kind of virtual dérive, and his photographs are the documentation thereof.

Particularly impressive are the works in his "Glitches" series. Overweg's paths through virtual space naturally lead him to points of view that an ordinary player would never inhabit - and thus to constructions that no game designer thinks to account for or correct. It is these constructions which Overweg documents: glitches - remainders which exceed the design of the game in the same way the grain of the stone exceeds the design of the sculptor. And in doing so, Overweg reveals what dérive has always had the capacity to reveal: that dimension of things which Heidegger called 'the Earth.'1


The roots of this notion lie in two theses - the first metaphysical, the second phenomenological. First, what makes something worldly is the fact that what it is isn't exhausted by our encounters with it.
There is more to the coffee cup than the bits of it I see, the properties I think of it as having, the uses to which I put it. It exceeds all of this, and in doing so becomes something I can genuinely encounter, something I can come to comprehend. But more than this, this excessive dimension in worldly beings is, paradoxically, something which shows up to me in my encounters with them. When I look at it, the coffee cup doesn't just show up to me as having those properties which are on display in my experience. It shows up to me as having properties not currently in view. This is the fact about experience which Husserl tried to capture in his notion of 'internal horizon.'2 On this side of an object's internal horizon are those features I take it to have which are in view - the color and texture of the cup as I see it right here before my eyes. But on the hither side of this horizon are those features I take it to have but which are nevertheless not in view - e.g. the side of the cup turned away from me, its color and shape. The cup's other side is invisible yet nevertheless present in the visible. What I see of the cup, in other words, shows up to me as having a side unseen of such-and-such a character, and its phenomenology is shaped by the perceptual presence of this unseen side.

In rare moments, this peculiar dimension of experience is radicalized. An object of a kind that I deal with routinely - this cup, the landscape out my window, this body which I inhabit at every moment - doesn't merely have an internal horizon. It doesn't, that is, merely show up to me as having determinate properties that are not currently in view. A rupture seems to open up in the world around me, and suddenly this banal thing shows up as having unseen and perhaps unseeable depths - not this or that feature presently unseen, but aspects that are wholly mysterious to me. The limits of my own comprehension and practical mastery of the object show up to me: the object shines forth as something containing secrets it does not occur to me to imagine are there in my ordinary encounters with it.

Heidegger calls what we encounter in such rare experiences 'the Earth,' and contrasts it with 'the World' - his way of describing a thing insofar as it is comprehended in our encounters with it. And, he takes the work of the artist to be the evocation of the Earth in the World - the paradoxical appearance of what exceeds the co-ordinates of my ordinary life in a special kind of encounter with the ordinary.

Evoking the Earth in anything is a difficult enough task - we are prone to forget about it and immerse ourselves in practical engagement with the World. The task is all the more difficult when dealing with virtual objects - the inhabitants of digitally constructed worlds. We tend to think of these worlds using Cartesian tropes of the mental - i.e. of mental phenomena as exhausted by their appearance to the persons in whose minds they are found. Thus, we think of virtual landscapes as akin to internal tableaux being surveyed by the mind's eye, exhausted by our construction thereof in the way an imagined landscape can offer the imagining subject no surprises. We tend, therefore, to forget the dimension of Earth within them - that they, like anything worldly, constructed or not, have hidden depths. They exceed the purposes for which they have been made, and the ways we have of coping with and comprehending them.

Overweg's photographs put the Earthly excess in virtual objects on display. To what end? The Situationists tried to find emancipatory Earth in city environments through the practice of dérive. By taking non-preordained paths through urban environments, they tried to remind us of the fact that those spaces overflow the administrative ley-lines that have been imposed upon them. This is something of which we are always at some level aware but which we normally ignore for the sake of practical convenience. Overweg's task is parallel and in some ways more ambitious. For those who imagine virtual spaces to be thoroughly constructed ones without any Earthly remainder, he puts on display spaces which have been warped or broken by the limits in their designers' intentions, mutated partial births which normally remain unseen. He doesn't so much remind us of the uncanny presence of the Earth but rather reveals it haunting unexpected places. In his photographs, we discover hidden depths in virtual landscapes just as we do in real ones.

To see more of Overweg's virtual photography, visit his website.

1: Cf. Heidegger, Martin, "The Origin of the Work of Art," in Basic Writings (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008), pp. 139 - 212. Also, cf. his "...Poetically, Man Dwells..." in Political and Philosophical Writings (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc: 2003), pp. 265-78.
2: Cf. Husserl, Edmund, "The horizon-structure of experience. The typical precognition of every individual object of experience," section 8 of the "Introduction" to Experience and Judgment, trans. James S. Churchill and Karl Ameriks (New York: Northwestern University Press, 1975), pp. 31-9.

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