On Aliens, Abstraction and 2Kism
Dike Blair

I remember being exhilarated by the imagery in Ridley Scott's Alien when I first saw it (3 times during its opening weekend). What I loved about the look of the film was the superimposition of Geiger's Gothic, surreal organism upon the future-contemporary modular design of the spaceship Nostromo. The stylistic juxtaposition and the grid/gesture relationships seemed the essence of postmodernism. Last week I saw Robert Zemeckis's Contact and, although I didn't consider it a great film, the special effects of Ellie Arroway's (the character played by Jodie Foster) "trip" through a wormhole in space really interested me in a similar way. Again there was a juxtaposition of two different aesthetics. The wormhole is an abstract, 3D computer animation lined with fractal type patternsthe imagery of postmodern mathematics. In the foreground Arroway is live motion; her face is morphed and tracked across the screen like an animated Francis Bacon portrait. This live motion footage is rapidly accelerated and decelerated, at least I think that is the technique, giving the effect of jittery, totally whacked-out, looping time. Aside from the sheer spectacle and technical sophistication, I was impressed with how acceptable, how concrete, the abstract geometries of the wormhole were to my eye while the human body became strange and somehow abstract.

I was struck by something else, the relationship of these two images to each other didn't feel postmodern. When I first started thinking about "abstraction" for this piece, I realized that contemporary abstract images are many times the patterns which have been generated by mathematical algorithms and the computer. Ideally and by definition, abstract images, like mathematics, have no physicality in fact or in referenceso the computer generated images are, to some degree, more abstract than those painted by Kandinsky. The abstraction is made even more complete in that there is no particular ego or subjectivity involved in the creation of these patterns, and even the technical artists who assemble the patterns on the coordinates of a 3D frame they've designed don't exercise the kind of decision making that was involved in creating modernistic abstractions because their goal is to create something that looks concrete.

Labels like "abstract" and "concrete" and classifications like "modern" and "postmodern" are very contrary and slippery, and perhaps their connotations have a limited shelf life. My sense of these labels is rooted in how they apply to the plastic arts. However, the more I contemplate what is considered "abstract" art, the more material and object oriented it becomes; while the tenets of illusionism that support a figurative art start to seem very abstract. So, keeping in mind that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, it is helpful for me to turn to other disciplines for perspective.

Sherry Turkle, a Professor of the Sociology of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (she analyzes computer culture), sees two aesthetic schools, abstract and concrete, in the coding of computers.1 She describes computer languages, like MS DOS, that offer a transparent interface between user and machine, as abstractusers can visualize their typed commands translating into the essential, abstract binary code. The concrete she defines as the interface of simulation like that of the Mac or Windows platforms. These platforms create the illusion of things like desktops, windows, and icons. As this platform represents a world of things, simulacra or not, she identifies it as "concrete." Turkle then goes on to describe the transparent, abstract platform as "modern"the modernist impulse being to reduce things to their essential character. She refers to the opaque, concrete platform as "postmodern." 2 The postmodern impulse she describes as an intuitive bricolage of "surfaces" which combine to create meaning.

20th Century physicists, from Einstein to Hawkings, had pretty much determined that time is directionless and that the apparent forward flow of time is an illusion. Recently, a Belgian physical chemist, Ilya Prigogine, caused a stir in Europe by claiming that our perceptions weren't wrong; time does, in fact, flow forward.3 The directionless time physicists basically operate on principles of Newtonian physics (that evolved into quantum mechanics) and that see the movement of particles as being definable, precise and reversibleit doesn't much matter whether a particle or a planet revolves in a clockwise or counterclockwise fashion. Prigogine, a humanistic philosopher, a physical chemist and one of the founders of chaos and complexity theory, thinks the movement of individual particles is too complex to analyze, so one needs to consider them as being part of larger dynamic systems, most of which are unstable, to which thermodynamic laws can be applied. Once one views the universe primarily as a complex thermodynamic interaction between systems that may be unstable but whose properties are quantifiable, things like friction and time-irreversible entropy are no longer illusions. If one were to apply Turkle's analysis to these two views of time, the time-reversible particle physicists with their transparent, bottom up construction of the world would have the "abstract" and "modern" view of the world. The time-irreversible scientists and their complex dynamic systems and top down approach would then be "concrete" and "postmodern."

Now back to art. In this issue I interviewed the sculptor John McCracken and the filmmaker/multimedia artist Doug Aitkentwo artists that are several art world generations apart age-wise and planets apart in their approach to art making. Their art can be categorized in the same fashion as computer interfaces and theories on the nature of time. McCracken's sculptural approach is reductive and, as such, it resembles the transparent interface; and like Einstein (albeit for different reasons) McCracken believes that time is an illusion. Doug Aitken facilely mixes media and his mediated self into his experimental works. This self-aware bricolage is analogous to Turkle's platform of simulation as well as Prigogines's unstable dynamic systemsso it can easily be said that Aitken's art is "concrete" and "postmodern."

But something is missing and it isn't simply, or only, that aspect of visual art that always eludes description. Those descriptions would suppose that McCracken's work looks dated or that Aitken's work deals mostly in surfaceneither of these suppositions are true. Certainly McCracken's minimalist work is refreshing after a long stretch of bric-a-bracish contemporary art but other minimal artists of the same generation, like Judd, don't seem nearly as resonant. It's probably true that we are nostalgic for the modern but I think what makes McCracken's work resonate with the times are its metaphysics. If abstract art is the thing that allowed us (20th century man) to worship God without having to give him an image,4 it may not be modernist abstraction that we miss, but the excuse to worship. I think Aitken's work succeeds despite some of its apparent postmodern stylings and ironiesit is best when it is least ironic. His latest work, "Diamond Sea," strives toward a hyper sensual sense of place that suggests a romantic and transcendental urge. Aitken's desire to invisibly disseminate himself into the media isn't mystical but it has a dematerialistic spiritualism to it nonetheless. Perhaps the concepts behind the words "abstract" and "concrete" aren't too useful when describing contemporary art because their connotations, if not their meaning, are shifting as we move beyond the postmodern. Like it or not, we may have to swallow our postmodern cynicism and face the fact that the zeitgeist of our secret desires may include a New Agey Millennialism.

If these are post-postmodern times, we need a new labelhow about "2Kism," a term which was coined (I think) in Katherine Bigelow's film Strange Days?. I would like to propose that the characteristics that distinguish 2K from postmodern times are its oft anticipated and noted mystical and spiritual impulses. However, I don't think that it is so much a matter of the magic, the anticipation or the fear of a triple-zero date that is behind our behavior as it is that those concrete postmodern years were not only lacking in abstraction but also in spirituality.5 So 2K spirituality, fuzzy and otherwise, owes more to where we've been than to where we're going. Let me see how this plays out in the other disciplines.

It's probably no coincidence that the Heaven's Gate members were html programmers. I'm not suggesting that mass suicide is an occupational hazard associated with computer programming but I know that the computer has influenced our behavior and that the neo-Gnosticism practiced by the cult was within the bounds of American religious practice.6 Their world denying faith is not so different from Platonic logic and, as such, is pretty abstract. And the accelerated digital efficiency of the information age fuels the twin urges behind spiritualism and mysticism. We aren't satisfied with our computers as mere super tools that give us the Godlike ability to construct alternate worlds, we want more. We want our creations to have intelligence and we want to believe in the God in the machine. The Computer Age can be viewed as an evolution in the acceptance of computers as intelligent machines7 and the nature of artificial intelligence has been the subject of extensive theoretical research for the last 30 years. It's also the subject of a lot of our science fictions. I think part of the urge to create AI is that in doing so we will have proof that we could have been created ourselves proof of the existence of God. That's 2kistic.

Although we weren't happy with the modernist version of time that defied our senses, I don't think we want time to be quite as quantifiable as Prigogine's postmodern versionthat version makes our mortality a bit too stark. Physicists' work exists in opposition to mysticism and uneasily with religion and spirituality. I only have a grade school grasp of physics, but I doubt that physicists can give us what we wantrecipes for eternal life or proof of an immortal soul.

So the physics of time resist a 2Kistic interpretation; but pop science and philosophy can still accommodate itwhich brings me back to Contact. Robert Zemeckis really knows how to give us what we wantremember that he gave us the easy answers to life in Forest Gump. Contact is based on a novel by astronomer Carl Sagan, a pop scientist whose fame was based on his belief in extraterrestrial life, who was also a close consultant on the film (he died just before its completion). Keeping in mind that ambiguity is central to their equations, Zemeckis and Sagan provide the soft science that supports the version of time that we want. Ellie Arroway passes through a wormhole putting her beyond the normal limitations of space and time, but that's not enough. Relativity doesn't give immortality, it only lends one a relatively longer life so it's up to the super smart aliens to take care of our 2K needs. They show Arroway an Unspeakable Beauty and they resurrect her dead father. Actually what's implied is that they're so far beyond us that they have to manifest themselves as Arroway's father which they construct from her memories or they couldn't be meaningfully perceived. The aliens aren't quite God but they're fairly effective and abstract middle men. This November Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection (Alien 4) will be released. In it Ripley is reincarnated and has sex with an alien. Given the plot and Jeunet's superlative art directionit sounds like it could be very 2K.


1 Turkle, Sherry, "Life on the Screen," Simon and Schuster, New York, 1995. This simplistic synopsis of Turkle's views is derived from Chapter One of her book, pages 29-73. Turkle acknowledges Frederick Jameson as the source for her definitions of Postmodernism.
2 Turkle goes further with her analysis and suggests gender politics and a masculine and feminine orientation to these platforms.
3 Rothman, Tony, "Irreversible Differences," The Sciences, July/August 1997, p.26.
4 Artist, John Lindell quoting his conversation with Tom Kalin.
5 See my essay, "Meanderings on the Age of Blur," in Purple Prose #11 in which I describe blurring as an aesthetic antidote to the Information Age.
6 Lehmann, Chris; "That Old Time Religion," Feed, an online magazine, 3/31/97. Lehmann gives a history of Gnosticism in America.
7 Turkle, Sherry; "Life on the Screen,". see the chapter, "Artificial Life as the New Frontier," pp. 149--174.