[NetBehaviour] Alan Sondheim's 'Suicide' and the Sublime

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Fri Jul 7 07:47:38 CEST 2017

Hi Edward,

Thank you for coming of course, and thank you so much for the reference 
and description below; it does seem apropos and more than useful. Clearly 
there's some sort of split between the technological and what we take for 
the natural world (and in fact, has always been there); the question, 
among others, might be where does artifice fit in? Is there a way that 
artifice itself can be considered external - and I think your description 
and my experience with the piece both indicate it can be. It's a tricky 
realm to disentangle, expecially given that the technological seems to 
tend towards closure in the hands of humans - I keep thinking of people 
living by and through the screen they carrry in their hands, completing 
the circuit of arm/hand/finger/screen - and then through the air, to 
sight/site/cite, much like Ouroboros. Burke's sublime also seems to carry 
the grace or diacritical mark of a way out, since the sublime in his 
description through you, also carries a sense of the obdurate/inert - it's 
_there,_ present, not necessarily of us...

Thank you so much

On Thu, 6 Jul 2017, Edward Picot wrote:

> I attended Alan's presentation at Furtherfield Commons yesterday evening,
> and one of the pieces he showed was a Second Life-based piece called
> 'suicide' (http://www.alansondheim.org/suicide.mp4) which I hadn't seen
> before, and which made a strong impression on me. For those who don't know
> it, it's a blurry grey-green maelstrom of shapes and transitions - one of
> Alan's characteristic 'edgespace' experiments, where he takes a virtual 3D
> environment and pushes it to the point where the software can't handle what
> he's trying to make it do, and everything starts going into meltdown. This
> one is a particularly extreme example, and seems to have caught even Alan
> himself off-guard, as you can see from a number of text-comments he posts
> on-screen as the piece unfolds - 'What the hell? Where did that come from?'
> etc. All of a sudden, in the middle of this whirling chaos, a cube appears -
> Alan comments that he's sure he didn't put that in there - followed by what
> looks startlingly like a fertilized egg trying to achieve its first
> cell-division - 'Fuck it's a cell of some kind... It's a ctenophore', says
> Alan. Then the software crashes, or rather jams, and the message 'You have
> committed suicide' appears onscreen.
> It struck me on the way home that this piece ticks a lot of the boxes in
> Edmund Burke's theory of the sublime, from the eighteenth century -
> 'Edmund Burke was not the first philosopher to be intrigued by the power and
> complexity of the idea of the sublime but his account of it was exceedingly
> influential. He broke the idea of the sublime down into seven aspects, all
> of which he argued were discernible in the natural world and in natural
> phenomena:
> Darkness ? which constrains the sense of sight (primary among the five senses)
> Obscurity ? which confuses judgement
> Privation (or deprivation) ? since pain is more powerful than pleasure
> Vastness ? which is beyond comprehension
> Magnificence ? in the face of which we are in awe
> Loudness ? which overwhelms us
> Suddenness ? which shocks our sensibilities to the point of disablement'
> (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/christine-rid
> ing-and-nigel-llewellyn-british-art-and-the-sublime-r1109418)
> In a nutshell Burke's theory was that things which overwhelm and bewilder
> us, fill us with awe, carry us beyond the bounds of our own power of
> comprehension and force us to confront the otherness of the non-human world,
> have a more profound affect on us than things which are orderly, harmonious,
> symmetrical, explicable and unsurprising. The sublime was therefore more
> profoundly affecting than the beautiful and the picturesque: mountains,
> cataracts, thunderstorms, ravines, avalanches and so forth were more
> profoundly affecting than placid rivers, lakes, sandy beaches, gardens and
> pastures.
> Of course in Alan's piece we're getting the sense of obscurity,
> confusion/privation of the senses, shock, bewilderment and otherness
> described by Burke - but we're not getting them from nature. On the
> contrary, we're getting them in just about the most unnatural way possible.
> And for Burke, the fact that we were getting these experiences from nature
> meant that we were getting them from God. A glimpse of the sublime was a
> glimpse of the Almighty. Yet here we are, it seems, having those same
> experiences in an environment which is entirely man-made, albeit distorted
> and pushed beyond the limit of its own rules to the point where those rules
> seem to disintegrate and something else seems to emerge. I think Alan made
> the remark 'It felt as if some other intelligence was in there' - because
> the cube and the cell-creature seemed to pop up of their own accord, without
> any agency on his part. A glitch of the software and a trick of the
> imagination no doubt, but a bona fide experience of the sublime
> nevertheless, which is what's so intriguing about it.
> Just thought I'd mention it.
> Edward

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