Laid Out Flat:
Of Maps, Being Run Over, and Virtual Reality
Beneath the summer sun of 2016 the adolescents of Italy are roaming the city, all the way out onto the jetty, in search of Pokémon. The choicest such creatures make but a fleeting appearance, like the Virgin Mary at the end of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. “I saw her! The Virgin Mary!” exclaim two chosen children. “She was there!” And the fervent crowd follows, craning for a glimpse of the invisible. Then the children run in the other direction: “No! She’s over there! Look!”
The adolescents cross paths, with the paths of men from South to North, endlessly, along the beach, hawking their lighters and swim trunks. The men are from Senegal or Nigeria. They have survived a Mediterranean crossing, or imprisonment, or deportation from the island of Lampedusa. The refugee camps designed by Geneva’s office of the High Commissioner for Refugees all have the same 2D checkerboard layout, wherever they are on the planet. The oldest or most informal camps amount to a heap whose strata substitute for the layout, and the youths of these camps, in Lebanon or Turkey, say: No map, no future.
A few months ago on the campus of Columbia University students were demonstrating for fossil-fuel divestment. They had spent the previous night making big cardboard signs, painting them with slogans and images. Old techniques applied to an utterly new purpose: the fight against global warming, but through an attack on the financial system that helps produce it. Singing and chanting, they made their way to the steps of Columbia’s Low Memorial Library, where they had planned to gather, but another group of students, testing a new “VR” (i.e., virtual reality) helmet, had gotten there first. These students did not see the demonstrators; they were busy examining the inside of their helmet. Oddly, they raised their faces to the sky: oddly because to use that other virtual reality—the garden-variety, 2D virtual reality of our computers, tablets, and smartphones—we cast our eyes down.
The image that matters, the extraordinary image, which appears out of nowhere and is thus magical, must come from above, as with the movie screen, which is bigger than we are.
But here the comparison of virtual reality with cinema ends. As André Bazin pointed out:
“The theatre,” says Baudelaire, “is a crystal chandelier.” If one were called upon to offer in comparison a symbol other than this artificial crystal-like object […] which refracts the light which plays around its center and holds us prisoners of its aureole, we might say of the cinema that it is the little flashlight of the usher, moving like an uncertain comet across the night of our waking dream, the diffuse space without shape or frontiers that surrounds the screen.
The usher’s little flashlight is also the flashlight of the spectator’s gaze, of her infinite liberty and unpredictability, and thus of her capacity to be moved for life by an image or a film. That flashlight, that beam, which points a direction and thus provides meaning, is not what underlies the so-called documentary “VR” projects that have lately received such acclaim at festivals. VR allows the spectator to immerse herself in the reality of a Syrian refugee and offers stories of the “choose your own adventure” kind. VR also puts certain Holocaust survivors center stage. Their testimony, previously filmed and compiled in a database, is now embodied in holograms, which we “meet” one-on-one in a VR cabin or helmet. Algorithms based on the public’s “frequently asked questions” for Holocaust survivors allow the holograms, with their much-vaunted interactivity, to answer any question. Under the pretext of keeping “alive” people who are near death we have made robots of both the survivors of a monstrous death machine and the expectations of the public—a public that, on the contrary, ought to be bolstered in the infinite mobility of life and mind, and not entertained with ghost flesh. The simple postulate of naturalism, the “documentary” aim, and the interactive mechanism do not necessarily guarantee any trace of actual human presence: they will never substitute for the gaze of a filmmaker (documentarian or not) on the real. Indeed, why should we necessarily want to moralize virtual reality?
We would, of course, like technology to keep us on our feet. With its ability to suggest a 360-degree “reality” that calls on almost all of our senses, technology could fight against flattenings. For instance, it could restore to its former verticality, life, and size what has since been reduced to a stain on the ground. In this sense the summer has provided us with two striking, haunting images, because they are human traces—prints—left behind. Some have taken the cries of mourning and resistance from Black Lives Matter in the United States and turned them into outlines painted in white on the ground, appropriating the visual lexicon of the forensic police to signify the spot where a body—the black body, again and always reduced to the black body—fell. The captions read: “Am I next?” On the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice, the dark, infinitely flat blood stains of bodies curled and twisted under crushing pressure long remained on the concrete.
Like asphalt and fabrics, cinema preserves and produces human prints. In Nice the children will continue to play Pokémon Go, and so much the better. But where in the night of our “waking dream” will we find our choicest creatures?