Essay originally pubished as a commissioned response on the PAR+RS website

Despite the compelling historical assessments of our geographical evolution it can also be argued that there is a single notion that alone defines the contemporary understanding of the space that we inhabit – and that is the simple notion of ‘my space’. Not necessarily the myspace of the web domain of the same name, but more the notion of personally augmented reality that is at the heart of our digitally enhanced world. When Thoreau describes in Walden the beauty of solitude, he could also be describing the tension between our physical realm and this augmented space that allow our tentacles to reach into so many worlds; “I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls."

The development of this boundless notion of the individual and the associated recent individualisation of technology have both been reinforced by a range of interesting and novel methods of marking and inhabiting our personal space. The work of Hakim Bey describes a ‘temporary autonomous zone’ which he defines as the space that we make around us and which is bounded by the frontiers of our senses – something which is now augmented and expanded from how it was in the pre-digital era. But he encourages us to put a historical context on this state of being, usefully pointing out that “the last bit of Earth unclaimed by any nation-state was eaten up in 1899. Ours is the first century without terra incognita, without a frontier. Nationality is the highest principle of world governance—not one speck of rock in the South Seas can be left open, not one remote valley, not even the Moon and planets. This is the apotheosis of “territorial gangsterism.” Not one square inch of Earth goes unpoliced or untaxed”

So Bey’s concept of the personal zone can be seen to extend far beyond the immediately known physical realm into that other place – the place that is not yet place – a place that we sometimes call space and which can be though to exist beyond our physical realm. The myspace of Bey is also not neutral. It is a free space, a zone which has an ethical or political dimension. But space is also, as we are told, the final frontier. And this statement, like many others of the modern era, implies the kind of mythology in which certainty is always just a byte away and remains hidden (like the WMDs) in the known unknown. That a new, more complete, mode of living is upon us, if only we could see the uncharted dimension it represents – or at least buy the product that promises to deliver it to us.

But if knowing you are upon the final frontier is helpful in physical navigation, it doesn’t always work so well if that frontier is defined as that equally elusive concept of space. A frontier is a line, a demarcation, whereas space is a no-thing, a no-where. The geographer Tim Creswell describes the process of transformation of a ‘space’ into a ‘place’, while the French anthropologist Marc Augé talks about the contemporary phenomenon of non-places “The multiplication of what we may call empirical non-places is characteristic of the contemporary world. …They are spaces where people coexist or cohabit without living together.”

Space defies frontiers in the way that it defies anything that tries to enter it – anything that tries to de-space it, so to speak. But there are more definitions of space than this somewhat extraterrestrial one. We seek space, we grow space, we put a bit of space between us – and in applying these meanings we invoke a philosophical notion that has both physiological and psychological attributes – the reinforcement of a desired isolation that is constantly negotiated with those around us. Space to think, space to be myself. Clean dry space.

But the desire to locate this space in the digital realm is confounded by the fact that digital space is dirty and full of broken transmissions, false trails and dead ends. Despite assumptions about the potential purity of digital space, we are more often faced with a combination (of the conceptual simplicity of our notion of space and the logical purity of the digital) that produces only eddies of complexity. It’s right to say that the internet may be something we have built which we do not understand, but I’d argue it is far from being the only thing. In some ways, I’d argue that we understand very little of what we have built (for example who understands television, radio, or even electricity). Consequentially it seems that all the experiences that we transmit through these media are fragmentary – like the packets of fragmented data that are essential to a working email system – and as users we synthesise experience from these fragments like we synthesise happiness or sight, only unlike email we have no error correction functions to ensure the message is true.

While this process of synthesis of experience cannot be said to be solely technologically determined (any more than our senses might be defined simply as technological apparatus), synthetic success does rely on a fluid relationship between our interior and exterior worlds, as it is reliant on us being able to navigate this space in which we hold the data we have received prior to processing. Art can be said to exist in this space, being generated in the transition from object to experience – and likewise neither the indoors nor the outdoors is significant alone in our experience of myspace – it is the dialogue and the exchange between them that is most significant in our contemporary realm and some artists like Susan Collins, Blast Theory and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer have certainly created work in this space.

The digital forms of technology such as wifi and smartphones that are used by these artists can be said to be materials in the architecture of this realm, but they do not define it. In the same way that we use, but do not understand, these technologies, we understand even less about our own interiority and how it relates to the exterior that our interior seeks to define for us. An understanding of technology can be a factor in clarifying this, but clinging to the marvels of technology can also obscure our ability to be self aware. In his book The Victorian Internet, which discusses the development of the telegraph in the 19th century, Tom Standage warns us of the dangers of ‘chronocentricity’, “the egotism that one’s own generation is poised on the very cusp of history”.

Samia Henni is correct in that the outdoors is always the ‘other’ – the vacant place, the space beyond the frontier. But while it is defined by this elusiveness or by its inability to connect with the contemporary realm, we should respect its inability to be bounded by our analysis. We place both the indoors and the outdoors where we want them to be in order to reconcile our own existential crises. But essentially it is an analogue world and the values we seek are analogue in nature. They are perceived, not counted, and if we assume that they exist anywhere in a binary absolute, then we simply engage in a futile resistance of our own complexity – As Thoreau states again in Walden;
“Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed by them; and the bad neighborhood to be avoided is our own scurvy selves.”

Clive Gillman 2011


© Clive Gillman