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<nettime> The Art of Escape
Konrad Becker on Mon, 8 Jun 1998 19:28:25 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> The Art of Escape


The Art of Escape

In a world that is increasingly torn apart by regional conflicts and zones
of exclusion, escape becomes a more and more important concept - not only
in politics but also in art and a politically conscious culture.

Human beings need possibilities to escape not only on account of political
oppression or exclusion: they have to find ways to escape the vicious
circle of forced work for wages and imposed leisure. It is necessary to
evade symbolic dominance and cultural entrainment; it is inevitable to
flee the "reality" of everyday life and it is necessary to escape the
flatlands of binary logic and three-dimensional world. 

Society's disapproval of a "flight from reality" quickly unveils itself as
a propaganda lie targeted at the educated classes. Ultimately, it cannot
be determined which reality is meant in this scenario ravaged by the
misery of the normal and the terror of normality. Not those are sick who
flee from these representations and concepts of the world but those who
have no more power to escape the straight-jackets of these so-called
realities: reality as a normative hallucination is the virtual prison of
systems of social organization. 

Systems of representation and images of the world as a simulation of
reality are highly efficient inductors, and a lot of money is spent to
sustain them. Maps as representations of geographical topology are
processed and manipulated for strategic reasons, and access to
high-resolution satellite cameras is restricted. 

Maps of the world are an instrument of political power. Proportional
distortions resulting from the projection of three-dimensional space onto
a flat surface are embellished by an aura of objectivity and then used for
propaganda purposes. Ways of life are flagged and tagged. Maps do not only
offer an abstract view of the world itself but also contain information
about those who create them. This becomes particularly obvious with old
maps. If we want to find out from which perspective the world is
presented, we just have to look for the center of representation - the
"land of the middle," the center of the surrounding satellite states. 

The reduction of complex multi-dimensional structures, such as a ball,
onto a plane inevitably leads to ambivalences and distortions as well as a
subjective representation. The loss of perspective on the context doesn't
only lead to a shift of proportionate dimensions and forms but also to
visual tilting effects similar to those that occur in illustrations of
optical illusions or the Necker cube. (In the middle of the 19th century,
L.A. Necker noticed during his examination of crystals that the spatial
appearance of three-dimensional objects can be interpreted differently.)

A unified perspective hinders the perception of depth. Proportional
relations can't be verified anymore. The restricted and prefabricated
perspective that facilitates a variety of special-effects illusions in
movies is also applied in order to create "necessary illusions" in social
systems. In that process, the freedom of the individual vanishes in the
same unspectacular way as the statue of liberty once vanished when a
well-known illusionist made it disappear: in a miraculous way, it suddenly
is out of view. 

The trick is to direct attention to a specific area, evoke psychological
leitmotifs, and highlight one aspect in order to leave another one in the
dark. The increased focusing of attention on the spectacle has the effect
that everything lying outside of the horizon of events disappears. 

Proven to be successful beyond gastronomy, the principle of the menu
opens, through simple interaction, the view on pre-defined "windows" -
artificial environments that offer a selection of solutions via menu
navigation. A menu is only a special form of a plan, a symbolic system of
orientation that traditionally is the subject of military and geopolitical

Not only the flight from a predetermined or imposed system of coordinates
but the "flight from oneself," the process of leaving behind self-made
representational systems, becomes a necessary practice of artists whose
(form)language has turned into an ornament of the commodity market. The
iconography of the underground is quickly appropriated by the mainstream
and transformed into a sales pitch for soft drinks and accessories.
Artists fulfill the function of test pilots for new media and become
conveyors for advertising and manipulation. Comparable to the Chinese
workers that built the railways across the American continent, artists
have worked on the information superhighway to later find their place in
the ghettos. 

This development is accelerating and the increasingly hastening
commodification of artistic expression requires strategies to cope with
this phenomenon. The art of vanishing is therefore becoming increasingly
important. The disappearance of the author behind collective identities,
project names or pen names and the disappearance of the object, the
artistic artifact, in the space-time of process-oriented work becomes an
exit for escaping the "evil eye." 

The presupposition for the successful flight of the escape artist is to
master the terrain. Navigation requires the manipulation of symbols in
significant representations of spatial-topological structures. The virtual
control secures its hegemony over the resources of interpretation. In this
sense, cultural activists (in accordance with a new understanding of the
artistic position) use networks as meta-data tools - a new method of
linking data in panopticon of world views. Guerrilla-semiotics and the
inspired interpretation of data presented on the display of commodified
world representations replaces the supposed act of creation with a
recombinant techno-voodoo-synthesis of the memetic surroundings. 

Flight as retreat is of particular importance as a tactic for individuals
or small groups (for example in guerrilla-warfare). Fleeing instead of
resisting gives small, flexible, and mobile units an advantage over large,
hierarchical structures of dominance. To evade an attack instead of
looking for confrontation, a successful escape, is the foundation for a
future victory. 

Through its wide public resonance, the attraction held by popular escape
artists such as Harry Houdini who quickly became a legend reveals the
symbolic character of the big escape. The escape artist is an expert on
the topology of the knots that bind him and a specialist when it comes to
the warps and distortion of planes, lines and forms. 

Network topology is the science of the connective structure of information
channels. As a science derived from geometry, topology deals with the
characteristics of physical and abstract elements that do not change when
they are contorted or deformed - bent, stretched or strained - except when
they break or tear. This means that a triangle is topologically equivalent
to a circle but not to the segment of a straight line. A cube could be
transformed into a ball but not into a torus; a ball isn't topologically
equivalent to a ring. 

Topology studies space considering how spatial representation can possibly
be changed through perspective and dimensional effects. Gravitational
forces constantly change the correlation of time and space. Time is
stretching in relation to the observer, space shrinks - not only on the
fair-ground of attractions but also in the web of our world, which
consists of dark attractors and white holes. 

Black holes warp space through their gravitational forces. The economy of
attention creates singularities, dark stars in media space as social
sculptures, telematic flesh as focus of thoughts, capricious as African
fetishes. Personified attractors - generated by the economic struggle
arising from the competition for attention span - draw their
self-confidence from the unconscious of the target audience. 

In the battle for the psycho-cybernetic coordinates of world models, the
stargazers rule. Cybernetics, the study of communication and control
mechanisms, appears to be a science of the interconnection of symbols. The
interpreters of the referential framework are the navigators and
navigation artists. The old tradition of hypertext connects star patterns,
writing and abstract beings on various levels of meaning and with
ideographic methods of visualization. The hierarchical coding of
information and knowledge is closely connected to the interrelation of
gravitational force fields. Some memory "files" only seem to open in
certain contexts and moods. Only the transition into the phase cycle of
the attractor allows access to the system. 

Hyperspace pioneers suggested not only up and down, left or right but also
ana or kata as additional categories for spatial differentiation. The
normative view of the world is the two-dimensional projection of
perception into the flatlands of the dual logic of yes and no. 

For all technological diagrams and technically logical structures working
with dynamic complexity, the expansion of logical space into the realm of
hyper-dimensionality - the assumption of more than 3 dimensions - is a
necessity. The architecture of supercomputing has to rely on the
assumption of a hyper-cube. 

The "invisible" dimensions are usually explained as folded within visible
space. Intermediate spaces shrink or expand in the change of dimensional
perspective and are related to the warps or wrinkles in dimensional space
that are created by gravitational forces. The escape artist uses the
smallest gap as an open space for planning his flight. 

As a luxury of prolonged adolescence, this freedom of the open space
becomes obvious in the dream machine of the movies - financed by the
pocket-money of the international teenager. In the movies, as a technical
version of Jacob's ladder, the film strip works like the extended ladder
of a fire-engine - but instead of the movie audience, the frame is moved.
The intermediate space turns into steps taken towards an exit, a vision.
The modulated, transparent opening becomes an (image)carrier. The
functional principle of this exit is symbolized in the international
symbol of the fire escape. 

Openings often hold valuable content, such as mineral resources, hidden in
a crevasse. The open spaces of semantic suggestion as well as questions -
the open, "right" kind of questions - seem to be more meaningful than
definitive, "right" answers. The evocative effect of the question allows
for a much more subtle and efficient impact on world views. If the world
becomes increasingly one-dimensional, the fissures in the monolith gain in

The bipolar world of the Cold War has facilitated the development of
"free" spaces in the cleft between the political systems. The propaganda
efforts of the Western world financed a good deal of welfare and art as a
by-product of the battle against the evil empire, and the Central
Intelligence Agency showed itself as a generous sponsor of art magazines
and abstract expressionism. Since then the playfield has become smaller
and the net of the so-called free market has been woven tighter. 

In the age of increasingly networked machines and control systems leading
towards total surveillance, Harry Houdini - whose spectacular acts of
escape became famous in the beginning of the century - turns into a role
model. Surveillance and control become a leitmotif of information society,
computer technologies offer new possibilities to create and manipulate
social relationships. The electronic panopticon; the ideal prison in the
tradition of Jeremy Bantham, a leader of utilitarianism (since his death
in 1832, his embalmed corpse presides over the yearly dinner held at the
University College of London which he founded); the ubiquitous and
pervasive surveillance described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish: The
Birth of the Prison as a model for society to exert control; they all turn
into a panspectron. 

Machinic supervision, the transfer of control from the body to the machine
that marked the beginning of software development, is part of a historical
process aimed at disciplining the human body in order to increase its
potential and at the same time gain control over its newly acquired

We profit from the automation of various administrative and working
processes and don't want to give up the comfort and methods we just
acquired. While more and more things become technically feasible, the
awareness of the long-term effects of these developments - made possible
by electronic information systems and computer networking - hasn't made
that much progress. This development opens up problematic perspectives:
are we on our way from information society to surveillance society? Is big
brother transforming himself from a virtual presence into an oligopoly of
information economy? 

The "brave new workplace" as the slave galleon of the global
cybersweatshop: measuring of keystroke activities, automatic filtering of
electronic mail, bio-sensors, urine analysis and the storing of our DNA.
Datamining, the analysis and cross-referencing of electronic traces in
data bank systems: all forms of electronic interaction provide
psychological experts with a basis for the creation of psychological

Mass dataveillance, the ubiquitous reconnaissance by software agents that
invisibly attach themselves to the slimy traces of our data bodies.
Cameras on the main roads leading into and out of big cities read the
license plates of the cars passing by. More and more applications of
biometric technologies - such as electronic fingerprints, the reading of
hand geometry, software for face recognition, and the scanning of the
retina - push into the market and promote the interconnectedness of man
and machine. 

Security is a booming industry but the increasing need for exact
surveillance and identification stands in opposition to the idea of
individual autonomy. These new technologies do not only allow for an
interference in the private sphere but are similar to an invasion of the
most intimate realms of the individual. This is the leviathan scenario
which makes human beings trade in their right to self-determination for
personal security by exploiting the human quality to adjust to a social

The concept of the "evil eye" easily becomes transparent in this
omniscient, totally pervasive network of surveillance. Identification and
tracking systems for the masses form a data body and create a ghostly
double that imperceptibly assumes our identity. 

"Lockpicking the future" requires multi-dimensional maps of the world for
new exits and safe havens in hyperspace; it needs passports that allow
travels from normative, global reality to parallel cultures and invisible
nations; it requires nomad supply stations on the routes taken by the
revolutionary practice of aimless flight; it needs psycho-geographical
road maps that show the way to dreamtime and public transport to Kaddath. 

More than a few people want to escape gravity and travel to the stars ...
autonomous astronauts work with space-time warps created by gravitational
waves of black holes that open ERP-bridges (named after
Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky) to parallel universes and distant realms of
space-time. For a long time, science fiction and popular culture have been
using practical applications of poly-dimensionality and the possibility to
travel the dimensions - faster than light - through the gravitational
channels of wormholes. 

Refugees of a refugee republic are not only capital but successful escape
artists. They have capacities that become increasingly important and form
the basis for a culture of escapism that transcends simple hedonism - in a
society where fear has advanced in boredom, escape artists and hedonic
engineering provide escape routes from an anxiously bored society. 

In the long run, critical escapism will become a far more successful model
than ordinary pancapitalism. 

                                                          Konrad Becker


this piece appeared  in the catalogue of the exhibition Refugee Republic,
Ingo Guenther Kunsthalle/Kunstmuseum Duesseldorf, March 1998

Christiane Paul, Konrad Becker

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