The Lost Dimension (An Internet City)

By Paul Woodrow, 10 March 1996

A project by Alan Dunning

In the package distributed to interested participants, the Digital Village project (November 1st to December 22nd, 1995 at the Art Gallery, University of Maryland, College Park, MD ) is described as being available to a world wide virtual community. Participants, using a Web browser will be able to visit the gallery and experience the projects and events on line. The Digital Village site consists of a home page which links viewers to all aspects of the exhibition, from individual artists' projects to critical writing and biographical information. Some artists request direct participation through the use of artists pages. Artists pages are also linked to outside servers so that the exhibition is not exclusively located at a particular site. For web visitors a virtual walk-through of the exhibition is available.

The Lost Dimension by Alan Dunning is a project in which viewers and participants are invited to write a description of any inanimate part of the city. According to Dunning, "Descriptions should not include references to human presence, but, should concentrate on providing as detailed an image of the structure of a city as is possible.. Your submissions will form the basis for translation into an interactive 3D walk-through of the city. Descriptions may be as long (pages) or as short (one line ) as you wish to make them. All descriptive passages submitted will be made available on line and will be active, fluid texts open to change. What you may read and write today may or may not be here tomorrow."

These descriptions are incorporated by Dunning into an interactive three-dimensional rendering of the city, a "walkthrough" which allows the viewer to choose where to go by clicking on the computer screen. As new textual information is contributed and accumulated, the artist periodically updates the rendering of the city. Viewers in the gallery watch the city being built, by observing the evolving textual description, and the walkthrough monitors. Both text and visuals also appear as large scale video projections on the gallery walls. Online visitors to the Website can observe the growth of the city by reading the changing texts, and by watching the weekly updates to an image bank.

Dunning' s project comprises three parts: descriptive texts, a 3D walkthrough, and the disembodied human presence of those accessing the project through the World Wide Web. "In entering the city no two participants are aware of each others presence except through the index of each otherÕs absent life. Invisible tourists leave only a trace of their passage through the city in the growth and decay of the texts and images." In the preface to the project, Dunning makes reference to the ideas of the International Situationists. " Guy Debord speaks of the "derive " and of a search for the new North West Passage in the alleys of Paris in pursuit of the urban spectacle. The invisibility of past lives is embodied in Debord' s recalling of Thomas de Quincy' s image of two people searching for each other in a city, each unaware of the other's presence a mere street away. The traces of past lives fill our cities and wait only to be discovered.

Dunning's work has consistently been concerned with the architecture of space, from the subjective interpretations of the reader of his books to the more public manifestations of his installations. Dunning's continual inquiry into the processes of identification and articulation of "worlds within worlds " constitutes the content. The passage from page to book, from wall to room, from screen to network suggest a consistent structural methodology which parallels the work of other artists over the past decades. In the early Seventies, Ben Vautier, the French Fluxus artist wrote the following when addressing the legacy of Duchamp, " The post-Duchamp artist naturally will be no longer interested continuing art formalism but in questioning the very nature of art. That is to say that since one cannot change anything in the room, it becomes necessary to try to change the room itself, or to leave the room entirely. "<1> Whilst the Sixties' and Seventies' obsession with Duchamp has subsided, nevertheless, the desire for communication has resulted in the development by artists of a networking mentality. In the Nineties, as artists, we are still pre-occupied with the problems of leaving the room. Some of the most recent forays into cyberspace use the room as the basic structural unit. Within the framework of the artistic use of virtual reality there is a tendency towards the exploration of interior spaces- rooms within rooms-bodies within bodies. This is not to suggest that the associative possibilities of the room or the body have been presently exhausted. On the contrary, virtual reality marks the beginning of a more complex examination of interior relationships. In his essay, "Media: the bio-technical rehearsal for leaving the body "Because essentially communications is the way the body supports itself. The whole technical system can be seen essentially as a biological system. The whole biological system can be seen as a communication system. "<2>

Since 1987 Dunning's site specific and ephemeral installations (Good Government, 1987, Billy Budd's Stammer, 1988, Speaking in Tongues, Commonwealth and Greenhouse, 1989, Mother and Abduction, 1990. By their arm and Chevaux de Frise, 1991, Elision, 1992, Spellbound, 1993, Will 0' the Wisp, and City of Lights 1994 ) have employed a wide variety of materials and image making processes: found images and texts, recontextualized signs and symbols, photographic images, xeroxed images, silk-screen images, images derived from television, cut -out images, typography and words.

In Greenhouse (Neutral Ground,1990), the gallery space - a single room - has been transformed. Five sets of cibachrome prints are arranged along the base of the walls. Above the photographs and extending as far as the ceiling, 28,000 individual words (processed to appear aged ) have been collaged to the wall. Along the length of the Gallery floor lies a silk screened tapestry patterned with grain leaves. The photographic images include numerous Oriental deities, nineteenth century watercolours of English streets, typical views of English countryside, as well as many references to the natural world. Through the apparent non-narrative arrangement of the forms it is possible for the viewer to become aware of the operation of mediated representational forms whose combined effect is the daily reinforcement of cultural mythology, whether it is from the privileged position of the Fine Arts tradition or from the simulacrum of merchandised production values. Is Dunning's Greenhouse the model for a cultural production centre? By permitting a certain degree of transparency in the reading of the installation the viewer acknowledges for him or herself the process of seduction. As in most of Dunning's installation work, the dynamism inherent in the choice of language (metaphor ) allows the viewer to act as a producer of signification rather than a consumer of previously arranged meanings. Alan Brandoli puts it eloquently in the exhibition catalogue: " We seek to envelop existence with this permutable textual skin, a coextension of our perceptions, without being fully conscious of its complex fabrications, illusions and predispositions towards myth and facsimile. As exhausted operations of consciousness sense their fraying limits, we can dimly feel the depths of an indifferent existence where our illusory sense of centrality dissipates, and whose essence remains overwhelming and amorphous: without structure or end. " <3>

The City of Lights / Ville de lumieres (National Gallery of Canada, 1994) presages the Lost Dimension project. Again the gallery room provides the context. On the end wall a large coloured Duraflex photograph (14 x 25 feet) of a darkened Baroque room is displayed. On the surface of the richly textured image it is possible to make out patches of light. At first they appear arbitrary. However, upon closer examination, it is apparent that they have been culled from an inventory of lighting effects, either from theatrical sources, or from film or photographic sources. In fact they are passages of light and shadow extracted from film stills (The Eternal Mask, Metropolis, Blithe Spirit and others ) and used to illuminate the digitally darkened room. What the photograph suggests or reveals is the presence of another world, a world which is not located in the apparent naturalism of the setting, but invoked through effect. The patches of light are of a different order. They are not a result of the sun's action, but belong to the world of artifice - the world of culture with which we are so familiar. The play on the notion of what constitutes interiority is framed in ambiguous terms. Printed descriptions ( in English and French) of locations, objects, spaces, physical states, and conditions referencing the city have been assembled on adjacent walls. e.g. " an inclined ramp leading to a narrow door, an unmade bed, arabesques que dessinent les neons des motels " The phrases and descriptions act as doorways or windows, leading to other worlds, each one ripe with possibilities. To Walter Benjamin's, " the inventory of the streets is inexhaustible "<4> we can add Marx's somewhat unfortunate comment on urbanity, " Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image: everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive." <5>

Many of the concerns, issues, strategies and structures, that Dunning employs in his installations are also to be found in his book works. Since the late eighties Dunning has produced seven books, mostly published concurrently with similarly named installations and all generated through digital language and image manipulating software. What Dunning feels about the nature of installations bears a close resemblance to his notion of the function of the book. For Dunning, books are containers of image and text, condensations of time and space, yet without a discernible narrative structure. Even though Dunning's books possess a more concrete life than his installations, nevertheless, Dunning places emphasis on their ephemeral qualities. The reader is invited to step into a conceptual space, to become fully immersed in the image/text. In her essay on Dunning's books, Nancy Tousley uses Umberto Eco's notion of reading as taking " an inferential walk ". This idea echoes the social readings advocated by Benjamin and Marx. Dunning's strategy in producing books is one of deconfiguration of both image and text which allows for the readers' participation as author/producer. Dunning's latest book, City of Lights / Ville de lumieres consists of three sections: written descriptions of aspects of the city, a computer manipulated image of a bolt of lightning, a series a black rectangles, underneath which are printed scenarios, extracted from TV Guide synopses of movies. The black rectangles double as screen-like portholes or conduits to other worlds, ironically mysterious and perhaps foreboding. The choice and conjunction of the written scenarios play on the obsessive desires, banalities, and idiosyncrasies that characterize our present culture.

The Lost Dimension extends Dunning's quest to establish a metaphoric space, which is non-hierarchical, non-argumentative, and not subject to authority. Dunning's imaginary space transgresses the principles of narrative structure. In an attempt to remove the speculative narrative of Idealism from the picture Dunning includes in his structure an ever' changing process of formulation, one which has the possibility of being constantly re-written, re-inscribed and restructured.

The virtual city which Dunning has constructed has much in common with the images of cities found in cartoons. The exteriors and interiors of buildings both appear as facades. Human traces, as found in the natural world, are no longer present. It is an image of a world which has been completely sanitized.. Dunning's Internet City is like an image of death - a city located at the end of History - a city which is brand new all the time, and is permanently in the process of re-creation. Its urban spaces are haunting, The absence of sound creates a perceptible silence which allows the fictive spaces to enfold the viewer's body and imagination. What sound or sounds can possibly correspond to the experience of virtual spaces other than silence ? The sounds of internal organs ? The sound of blood pulsing through the veins?

The contrast between the manner in which the viewer experiences the images and the texts is striking. As the viewer navigates the walkthrough, he or she becomes aware of the deficiencies of the representation. There is a noticeable lack of visual records, of historic traces, of the means to call up that which is now past. The silent image produces a state of reverie- almost forgetfulness, whereas the textual descriptions appear to trigger memories which present themselves directly as souvenirs of past excursions.

The ambivalence towards computer technology by many artists rooted in the material tradition is that it tends to produce passive isolation. Dunning's Internet City invites participation. In one way it demonstrates that communal labour is an effective means of creating integrative images and texts that represent a diverse population. On a more critical level, there may be danger ahead, especially if we accept the recent thinking of nihilistic writers like Arthur Kroker whose recent forays into wired culture have resulted in the prediction of a virtual class. Kroker describes one of its members as, " A virtual self with a digital ego that knows only the Internet as its electronic leviathan ". <6>

The issue of labour is an integral part of Dunning's work. Dunning's installation and book works require massive amounts of time and physical labour for their completion. In some of the earlier installations (Greenhouse, Chevaux de frise ) there are also references in the images and texts to the Nineteenth Century English Arts and Crafts Movement which Dunning uses to address the issue of the role of labour in a contemporary world. It is noteworthy that the physical evidence of the labour demanded by this digital representation does not leave a noticeable trace. The Internet City has taken the best part of a year to assemble. After the conclusion of the exhibiting phase, Dunning intends to continue working on the city for another twelve months.

In the Lost Dimension Dunning appropriates the Situationsist strategy of the "derive, " treating it more as an animating engine which drives the work rather than as a means for socio-political critique or psychogeographical analysis. Drifting, modified by silence, displays of incoherence and compassion, is more appropriate than argumentative posturing. The title of Dunning's work is also the title of a book by French theorist and critic Paul Virilio. Especially relevant to the Internet City is Virilio's use of the quote from the Mayor of Philadephia, "From here on in, the frontiers of the State pass to the interior of the cities " The following passage from Virilio's book is a fitting epitaph for the Internet City.

"..with the screen interface of computers, television and teleconferencing, the surface of inscription, hitherto devoid of depth, becomes a kind of " distance, " a depth of field with a new kind of representation, a visibility without any face-to-face encounter in which the vis-a-vis of the ancient streets disappears and is erased. In this situation, a difference of position blurs into fusion and confusion. Deprived of objective boundaries, the architectonic element begins to drift and float in an electronic ether, devoid of spatial dimensions, but inscribed in the singular temporality of an instantaneous diffusion. " <7>

Paul Woodrow, January 1996<pwoodrow AT> <dunninga AT>

<1> Ben Vautier quoted in Marcel Duchamp : A European Investigation. Alberta College of Art 1978<2> Les Levine essays. Media; the Bio-technical rehearsal for leaving the body. Alberta College of Art. 1979<3> Greenhouse catalogue essay. Alan Brandoli. Neutral Ground. Regina. Sask.1991<4> Walter Benjamin quoted in Inventory. Vol 1 No1 1995.London.England<5> Karl Mark quoted by Guy Debord in Internationale Situationiste # 2 December 1958<6> Data Trash. Kroker/ Weinstein . New World Perspective. Montreal 1994. Canada.<7> The Lost Dimension. Paul Virilio.P12. Semiotexte.1991. New York.U.S.A.