By Benedict Seymour, 15 August 2020
Image: The Box (still from the film Primer, directed by Shane Carruth, 2004)

Benedict Seymour's speculative fiction on the post-internet artworld in London dates from June 2013 but points forward to the apotheosis of Trump (developer and author of 'The Art of the Deal'), and June 2020 (the George Floyd Uprising). Step inside the box...


They took from their surroundings what was needed and made of it something more.

– “Primer” (2004), directed by Shane Carruth.

What I write now in a cell in the fort of Taureau I wrote and will write under the same circumstances for all of eternity, on a table, with a pen, wearing clothing. And so for all.

 – Louis Auguste Blanqui


Oedipa Physical-Harddrive entered the self-storage warehouse. From across the car park she had seen herself leave the large, anonymous building. Two or three of her watched as she moved about the corridors, into or out of the self-storage units. Her coming and going was staggered across the whole bland schema. Once tranquil, now increasingly teeming, she had brought new life to this wedge of junk space between the Olympic Park and Hackney Wick, but at what price?

There was no beginning to her story, or so it now seemed. It had already happened who knew how many times, in multiple iterations, going back as deep as the ’60s. Maybe it went further, as far as the Bateau-Lavoir, perhaps. All the way to Baudelaire and Haussmann, why not? Time was incorrigibly corrugated; each era dreamed its supersession as a mall or a shanty. But for the sake of fabula let us say it started with Oedipa, with Oedipa and her cohort, Unfortunate PHD, the day they arrived, a few miles from here, in Deptford, South East London. That was, or will have been, where it began.

Deptford, the “New Shoreditch,” “Dept II,” aka Deptford Prime. It was just the latest in a chain of “creative hubs”— beacons of renewal stretching from ten or twenty years before the first crunch, and forward in time to—well, could we even speak of “the future” anymore? What if Unfortunate’s time machine had dissolved its very conditions? All that was solid had long since melted into air. Had Oedipa and Co. just moved into the vacuum?

Deptford. Back then the name still had its residue of stigma, as if blight were the last refuge of the particular. Deptford—the very word was like a knell, tolling you back to debt or death. But the PR mill was working its grist, positively rinsing things out. Deptford prime, purged of its poor, would form a node between the old and new (cultural) tourism upriver in Bankside. Mediating Greenwich and the hipsterized Peckham, it could siphon tourists up the Creek from the familiar attractions of the river's edge, a “creative” adjunct to the meridian’s colonial splendor. A zone of anomaly just beyond the Observatory’s Cartesian ley lines, the spatial cognate of a time de-metricated, set loose from the old (that is, modern) forms of measurement. A quantum complement to Greenwich’s Newtonian determinacy, perhaps. Deptford II would rub companionably against the grain of GMT and Royal Society, the jewels of Greenwich, all the better to open and expose itself to the movement of capital. It was the classic “edge zone,” ripe for a blast of the no longer dull but rather all too exciting compulsion of the economic. Having endured the brutal equivalence of the WWII bombing raids, the leveling violence of the Blitz, then the more benign egalitarian economies of post-war planning, the whole of South London was now being restructured around islands of non-equivalence, salvageable idiosyncrasies and spots of pre-industrial time. Deptford would be written up with claims on the grand and first modernization, the original “creative economy” that brought us science, the Bank of England, the colonies, and the nation-state. The new Deptford’s highly selective PR pedigree ran from the Elizabethan spy and playwright Christopher Marlow, author of Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine, down to Deptford’s post-punk DIY music scene. This more recent wave of creative punks would no doubt soon be disinterred and conscripted to the cause. From Samuel Pepys and his diary to the factory where tinsel was invented to “Deptford Fun City” in the year zero of the “indie” underground—all assimilable lineages would be swiftly annexed to the latest swatch of un-London.

Here it was that Unfortunate PHD would inaugurate their new project, in a seam of space-time cracked open by the credit crunch and reinscribed by place branding agencies. With the patronage of Oedipa’s friend, the developer Anthony Gland, they swiftly secured a competitive lease on a large retail unit. It occupied the ground floor of a recently completed—and still mostly un-let—apartment complex, Novum. Novum was the first of a series of developments Gland planned for the area. His property group, MCM′, had also been novel in that it boasted its own in-house (and en suite) theory & culture lab. After state arts funding was slashed some of the more entrepreneurial critics and creatives had sought to disintermediate. Only logical – but not quite sustainable, alas. Within a few years, Gland had had to outsource this part of his operation, in the process coming into contact with Oedipa and her crew, though he continued to keep several cultural studies graduates on as interns. It was one of these unfortunate General (or was it organic?) Intellectuals who donated the Group’s logo. Working knowledge of Marx’s formula for accumulation – M-C-M′  – hadn’t got him a job in academia or brand consultancy as hoped, at least not yet. But it did at least lead him to furnish Gland with a catchy moniker. He’d talked his boss through the acronym, flushed with pride and a rising awareness that he was giving something – could one call it ‘himself’? – away. M was for money, C for commodity, M′ – for more money. Money prime, in Marx’s terms. The basic code of capitalism, the series for the mighty, apparently self-expanding movement of Value. Now more than ever it seemed to repeat itself everywhere, tattooed on every surface, like that anti-theft invisible ink, seeping into every pore and tissue, every cell of the social organism. And yet, the more explicit it became, the more it functioned independently from any obvious relation to the extraction of what Marx had called ‘surplus value’. This was evident in a ‘recovery’ without jobs, or for that matter, recovery. The ecstasis of M-C-M′ coincided with its inoperancy, at least in most of the commodified activity now busting out everywhere. Without passing through the detour of constructing any means of expanded production, without necessarily involving the payment of a wage or the replacement of depreciated capital or environmental resources, most of what went on was captured in the simpler and shorter circuit from M to M′ via – well, Gland favoured real estate and/or culture. Of course even a property wizard such as he necessarily depended for returns as much on the workings of his derivative portfolio and the magic of the world financial system – that noumenal time machine turning digital signs into claims on labour and other inputs of value. A much shorter logo would have sufficed, observed one of the interns, on a dejected afternoon at the MCM′ office. Surely M-M′, or just a naked M with a flashing prime, better encapsulated the current mode of accumulation? (M&Ms was taken, sadly). In the absence of profits returning to productive investment and so driving further growth, what we had was recycling and the recycling of recycling. Looting and meta-looting. For, of course, that glowing, radiant prime – that ‘special character’ – had to be propped up with something. Nothing came of nothing, there had to be some basis, whether in land or labour or any of the other vast accumulation of ‘free inputs’ that passed for a planet, something to keep the ever aggregating ′ afloat.

And so it was here in Deptford, one more sub-prime site primed for revalorization and all the derivative returns consequent upon it, that UHPD would being their experiment. They would be the catalyst in Gland’s machine for urban renaissance. Novum was an enclave dropped into the still heterogenous market streets of migrant and indigenous proles, homeless and unemployed persons, victims of work, worklessness, and now workfare. Amid so much that was wounded, donating diversity and color unpaid, amid post-crunch start-ups and immiserated immigrants, Unfortunate PHD set up their lab.

Oedipa looked back at her earlier selves, wondering if this was where it had all gone wrong. The decision to collectivize their production process, to join together into a new trans-personal entity. Hadn’t that already contained the seeds of their respective dehiscence? The initials of her double-barreled surname would not be enough to contain them. And no amount of memory could encompass the fractal vageries of that “PHD.”

The austerity had made collectivization the rational choice, though it had presented itself initially as a political imperative, a blow against the ego, the market, the gallery system. Of course they had already been second or third order, the third (4th, 5th, or nth?) generation of “radicals” to undergo multiplication. But back then they wished to produce a new kind of collective, a new modus operandi. Transdisciplinary, transgender, transpontine—what they would do today in south London they would do for all history. Wasn’t it the capital of the twenty-first century, the left hand of an immaterial economy, the promised—or at least mandatory—land of a new wave of looting?

UPHD’s politics were one with their geography. In the slack spaces, a new kind of entrepreneur would come and make the petrified relations melt with a kind of feminine jouissance. Utopian, but disabused; anti-materialist but predicated on a lag in commercial property; communal, but dedicated to the market; aspirational, but face to face with a growth curve as flat as the south London flatlands. The more artists and creatives poured into the swamp, the sub-riverrine and depressional marshes, the more it absorbed.

Et in arcadia ego—UHPD’s collective motto, ripped from Poussin—captured their inner conflict. Their project was micro-utopias, socio-political “apps.” They engaged in a polyamorous dalliance with social, political and entrepreneurial impulses. Should UPHD be a micropolitical mirror of the “Big Society” celebrated by the Condem government, or a postinternet replay of pro-internet reveries—now fully submersed in the economic? If at times their faux corporate tendencies came off like a second order reproduction of the dotcom moment, this time the money was running in the other direction. Doing nothing for something had been exchanged for doing something—indeed, more or less everything—for nothing.

Rather than being bankrupted by the collapse, all the critical claims of the dotcom and post-dotcom days seemed to be coming back. The foregoing decade’s massive issuance of cultural, theoretical, and political junk bonds continued in the “critical art” scene, a convex mirror of the wider stagflation. At times it almost seemed like nostalgia. When the ideologues had believed in an immaterial labor reich—then it had been easy to mock, to criticise the elitism and self-absorption of the mentally laborious. But now that the old idea of a paid job where you used some semblance of “creativity” was itself rehypothecated, reflated critical ideologies grew almost alluring—if only as reminders of the previous delusion.

So UPHD combined reflections on cognitive capitalism with a penchant for pageant. They hedged politics with ritual and ritual with politics. What else could you do? Everything was as complex and futile as a mobile phone contract. Action ran the perpetual risk of degenerating into—or never rising beyond—flashmob or meme. All existing conduits of subversion seemed choked with silt. The hipsters were ravaged with tattoos—what had once been adornment had spread to become vestment, ink tunic. Figure and ground were beginning to merge. UPHD fit right in. They wore shirts and ties, chain mail, or bras, went to demos, orgies, and dinner parties, high on whatever was available, nursing their burgeoning armies of Facebook friends, networking, and recycling whatever the early ’00s hadn’t already sufficiently exploited, every shred of its dead end. They doubled down, they reconsumed the same concepts to a higher power. A kind of cultural hardcore—in-, ex-, and re-gurgitating that which their forefathers and foresiblings had themselves revived or excreted. It was in the air, in the climate, in the swamp, the slump.

And so—as if the whole economy hadn’t once already collapsed under the weight of such misrecognitions—they spun their webs. Complaining about the old things again, in worse conditions, was enough to line a gallery or two, fill out an apartment’s un-lettable retail guts.

Unfortunate PHD launched with a series of talks on the unbearable precarity of post-crunch reality. The funding came easily enough with the patronage of Gland and his circle. International interest in residential property had exploded now the global rebubbling was fully underway, and critique was as good a vehicle as any. If state funding was no longer available, even for the children of the European elite, art remained a viable makework scheme. Gland and his oligarchic clientele were answering a number of pressing needs. It wasn’t just about valorizing those half empty residential-retail boxes flung up on the back of the government's post-crunch bailout to volume house builders. It wasn’t simply the “Quantitive Easing” still trickling off the end of the government’s liquidity hose. A sense of the “new frontier,” a mythology for real estate’s continuing derive across the metropolis, remained a requirement. If not a transformative progress through time then at least there would be a spatial fixing to leave its track marks across the city’s surface. On no account should history—or was it just geography?— be allowed to come to an end. Shed settlements might be proliferating on the fringes of the city, migrant workers sleeping rough in the garbage bin areas of housing estates and in suburban garages, but the vanguard of retrogression must continue to perfect the formulary of the new urbanism.


As Oedipa watched herself walking back across the space of the self-storage warehouse she recalled that meeting with her collaborators. There had been four of them at the beginning. Funny how the collective had contracted as its de facto leaders self-replicated. . .

Back then it was all about the team. Each had their part in the gestalt: Tiny Siegheil---the relational experimentalist, Nicolas Balard—the in-house theorist; Robert Sprung—the interface, fluent in funding and nicing those that needed to be niced; last, but most of all, Oedipa—director of research and development. She was a sphinxlike figure, bewitching all who fell under her gaze. Oedipa, an enigma wrapped in a non-disclosure agreement. It was she who had proposed the group’s horizontal structure. Each would put forward something to work on when their turn came—“one Führer at a time,” they joked. It was Robert’s idea to make the unit into a social laboratory, but everyone knew the patent on this concept was already Tiny’s. Tiny—the anti-materialist, the poet of diminished resources, a man whose protest against consumerism was a filigree of gesture and social nuance, a garland of interactions and in-sourced memories. Siegheil constructed immaterial utopias, islands of incommensurable exchange. He could infiltrate the most intimate spaces of his subjects and make them over into a gift. Liens on innerness, collateralized transience. Each encounter he choreographed was a present from his human material—the actants—to you—the participant.

Balard—the critic, curator, writer of funding proposals—had theorized Tiny’s practice in a number of lionizing texts spanning every point size. His manifestos were no artspeak fluff. Spiced with Rancière and Badiou and indictments of those that would slice the world into subject and object, his realism was speculative, his actuals rational, his rationalism actionist. The moment to realize philosophy may have been missed, but as a result it kept coming round again, ripe for reworking. Balard limned the alter-now of renomads in the immer-digital. He had coined the terms regenerant and regenerand­, redefining the division of artistic labor within a larger state situationist project. Art must be the passage of a few people through a brief moment of time, on a regular basis, with clear research outputs. The gallery-compatible, structured, and leveraged realities Tiny propagated were the epitome of Balard’s vision. He would describe Tiny as the architect of provisional constructs and precarious contracts. Once populated by his human contents, they became the antithesis of consumption, in a format ready to plug and play in any gallery, shanty, or pop-up Guggenheim across the de-developing globe. His ballet of transient encounters and voluble objects were the living alternative to a world of dead stuff; they dissolved the social and its ugly addiction to thingness into a flux of becoming. In Tiny’s magic circles new relations could form. There was frequently food but not as signifier of status and still less still less for eating. Siegheil’s space—which Balard theorized as a lebensraum of congeniality—was one in which all things became props to the aim of a greater sociality. His was the project of a communalist overcoming of the merely material, a project he was not afraid to call spiritual. Tiny’s gift was to give the people back to themselves, to deliver from each the gift of co-being, of becoming his volatile, voluble medium.

Oedipa was the one who made it all happen, driven forward by her relentless quest for an artistic answer to the overwhelming social question. The scientist of imaginary solutions, the entrepreneur of the immediate. It was she who saw in Deptford, in Novum, the potential to do more than just catalyze a new set of transient interactions. Balard and Sprung were itching to have some fun with the new infrastructure. Why not make the most of the funding and the new means at their disposal—Gland had been more than generous?

“They’re just showing off,” Oedipa had told Tiny. If you have it, you have to use it. But Oedipa wanted more than to just repeat the Siegheil magic in a new venue. They could do it without expensive materials or fancy formal gimmicks. Unfortunate PHD could be a superconductor of the social by using the very stuff of their environs. In a condition of austerity, less could be more, it could be an opportunity.

Robert bought her pitch, it was easy to see this whole move as a strategic downsizing, contracting to expand. He had been eager to play around with the new situation. Balard was charmed—if the self could be defined as a thing that thinks, why not turn the white cube into a thing that shrinks?

Oedipa kept mum, hesitant to let Sprung and Balard in on the scope of her idea. There was value in this thing, of that she and Tiny were certain. But what was the application? In a matter of hours they had discussed everything from off-site biennales to a machine for the elimination of the social mass, imagining devices the size of Documenta. The Queen’s next Jubilee as a self-organized sacrifice. Bataille’s Acéphale transposed to the Olympic Park or Epping Forest. Could this be the model for a larger solution? The blueprint for a machine to reduce, and so repair, the atomized socius?

This initial public offering was simple enough, a kind of latter-day Tiravanija installation: a “social sculpture” in which a group of individuals could interact in mutually enriching ways. Visitors were let into the space one by one from the street outside, like droplets from the end of a pipette, each one given a single line directive by Tiny. Abstracted from the social and economic world outside, once within the enclave the participants themselves became the context to which subsequent entrants would respond. Each agent in this relational meshwork was free to obey or to walk away, yet the game depended on a certain investment from all players to carry on reproducing itself. Tiny and Oedipa presided over it all, at once immanent and dissociated, humble and omnipotent. Their status was reflexively determined by their subjects’ conduct. As long as the game was in motion Tiny was nano-Führer, the unassuming author of the prompts. He stood in a corner protected by his fringe, feeding each new arrival their instructions while Balard took notes from the back of the unit, iPad in hand.

The visitors would react in various ways to the instructions given them, but not before being confronted with the full mania of the unfolding performance already underway as they entered the space. They were soon confiding the details of their most embarrassing sexual incidents to others who in turn performed into a microphone a self-impersonation of difficult bowel movements, or mimed the ascent of an endless ladder. The chaos gathered like a clockwork actionism, everything rolling on, self-elaborating, until—no one was sure quite why—a mutiny would bring the day’s cycle to a close.

Oedipa always relished this moment, the climactic seconds when somehow something in the cycle would jam—the incipient approach of closing time, the realization that there was no end point written into the performance. The state of exception would slowly and then suddenly gestate its own internal (meta-)exception. With a shudder the atomic mini-mass would come to a collectively executed stop. The visitors would abandon their routines, shout out and applaud, as if relieved—it really was that easy just to cease and desist, to stop and walk away. And then the autopsy would begin in the bars of the increasingly fashionable old market streets outside Novum. The time of interpretation, the bleeding out of the experiment, its contamination of the world beyond that slot in time.

Oedipa, watching from the sidelines, had documented every facet of the unraveling. Their goading of the individual to begin acting collectively, to refuse the consumerist script that Tiny’s instructions parodied or exaggerated to the point of obscenity, seemed to fail. She had grown convinced that whatever they came up with in the laboratory of “alternatives” was itself already somehow instinct with the logic of the wider system. The wildest excess or indiscretion still reproduced the imperative to consume—the mechanics of an “experience economy.” They must push further.

Tiny saw the opening. It was toward the end of one tripped out afternoon, as the motley social surplus in the box was coming to a boiling, babbling crescendo. A louche south London couple locked in a loop of dry humping, a visiting collector from Mönchengladbach reprising his Harlem shake for the twenty-fourth time that hour. All of a sudden the lights went out, plunging the whole unit into darkness. A collective and wordless gasp, and then the predictable laughter. At first everyone—except UPHD—assumed it was part of the program. With no access to each other’s scripts, how could the participants know if it was scheduled or spontaneous? But around this contingency, like a pearl around grit, there quickly began to form a new sequence of unscripted divagations. Halting their orbit of the space—now pitch black and humid with exhalations—the sightless spectacle’s constituent voyeurs began to literally grope their way forward, each seeking an exit from the pitch black box. Tiny’s camera sucked it all in, flicked hastily into night vision mode. He peered into the luminous screen, lit from below like a ghost in the machine.

Watching the video back that night in the quiet of the now empty unit, Oedipa observed a strange combination of repulsion and attraction in the moments after the shutdown. The footage showed new combinations forming and breaking apart as quickly as they arose. The more erotically adventurous components of the human apparatus seemed to be extrapolating from the already somewhat suggestive instructions issued by Tiny (describe your most depraved sexual act to one of the other participants; pretend you are in a call center, wanking through a mortgage application). But in the background, like dark matter in the universe of visible and “sensible” redistributions, others had begun to forage. A night-time economy less erotic and more primitively acquisitive had begun to blossom like a nocturnal flora. Hands moved into pockets, smart phones moved out of bags and into jackets, Blackberrys were transposed from palm to palm, a phantasmagoria where the objects did the socializing while most of the people stood frozen like statues. It soon became clear that not all those in the dark of the unit were of the same social status. Certain differentials existed in its “mixed and balanced” ferment that could only manifest in darkness. Concealed into revealing themselves, these gaps became open for exploitation. The impromptu outbreak of blind man’s bluff ended as one of the participants, exiting with a bag full of digital swag, punctured a hole in the blackness. With the unit’s door thrown open and the daylight streaming in, the temporary deviation from the score of improvisation itself dissolved.

Property and propriety rapidly reimposed themselves after the brief and wordless riot. The video revealed a kind of relational flash crash, the sudden inversion of communalist utopia into a condition of blind looting. The rip in the woof of patterned interactions had opened up an under-commons where things took on a life of their own. Half in shock, half inspired, Oedipa began to draw conclusions. The next project would have to anticipate or preempt such a convulsion. What had arisen as contingency must now be programmed, computed into the process. The zone of openness in which they—the artificers of the interactions—were trumped by the spontaneous deeds of the actors must be distended, made a permanent feature of the piece. They must strip everything down to a clinical simplicity. A bachelor machine with only the faintest hint of a bride. They would supply only the basics—the bare minimum—and the work would grow itself, like mold in a damp confined space. All they need provide was the dark, and let what was already latent in the atmosphere, the social climate—make itself visible.

Tiny decided to call the new piece “Drop Out.” The locals, even some of the artists and “makers,” were rather wary at first of UPHD’s odd portal, peeking in and scurrying out. Many seemed repelled by the apparent absence of anything taking its course. Not so much as a video to ignore or a sound piece to talk over. But soon enough, driven by the pressures from without (the pressures of without) attendance began to pick up as word went around the wider “community.” A free space in Deptford. An empty box where there was shelter. Soon a handful of indigents began to gather in the condominium’s empty “offer,” a first round of the disinvested. They gathered and, unlike “Drop In,” this time an increasing number did not disperse. Day by day a few more remained within the vacant retail space. Whether by dumpster diving or some other alchemy of recycling, the unit’s other forms of absence soon became furnished, little by little accumulating amenities. Free scraps of skipped food, a rising rill of vodka, occasional trails of powder sparked off impromptu meals and parties. But throughout it all, like a swelling ground bass, there was the unit’s new and unsignaled function—a place to crash. From retail via art and back to residential—as if something in the circuit of regeneration had miraculously shorted or gone into reverse. There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no one should go hungry, wrote an anonymous visitor in the show’s newly-donated guest book.

Unfortunate PHD themselves had stayed away from the space at first, stepping back and letting Tiny’s hidden video camera capture everything. But this review from inside the space suggested that darkness had only been an initial condition. The privations outside the box were at once replicated and overcome within. As food and booze and then light and mattresses came, the unit began to secrete social relations at a speed far faster than anything transpiring outside. Inside the unit time itself seemed to flip flop, no one could say for sure what was going on, as if the very act of squinting in, let alone removing one of the human actants from the experiment and interviewing them, was enough to alter the conditions scrutinized. The very gesture of presenting a questionnaire, observed Oedipa, would foul the whole equilibrium worse than a jobseeker’s interview or compulsory workfare debriefing.

“It’s Schrodinger,” declared Balard, on first looking into Tiny’s video documentation. We cannot discuss it or describe it without it becoming something which it was not. So we should not look within. Instead we must find a way to talk around it, endlessly. Of a space of absolutely indeterminacy we must speak non-consequently.

This was all he needed, he could publish. The author of After Making and Alterstuff would soon be delivered of a litter of new memes. Oedipa could almost hear them mewing like internet kittens.

All had gone perfectly. But Balard had spoken a little too soon. On closer inspection—or extended measurement, one might say—the contents of the unit proved rather less beatific, rather more determinate in their negation. Like the moment when the box was first accidentally plunged into darkness, this protracted doze of social reason seemed to be breeding monsters of its own.  

There was no money inside “Drop Out,” but there was still the imperative to perform, to seek employment, to conduct drudgery, albeit meta-drudgery or futile tasks generated by the original wave of occupiers. “Drop Out” was becoming a haven for. . . drop outs, or rather for those who society had peremptorily dropped. Soon a small crew of petty gangsters had started to assert their claims to the space. The artists and hipsters who at first found the venue congenial, if edgy, were progressively displaced by the homeless and workless. Others willing to exploit this moment of South London “perestroika” were soon letting out the mattresses at the back of the lab, organizing crowd-funding for the space online (and taking a percentage) while casualized labor rosters congregated in the door way, ready to sell their labor by the day or hour in the new apartments. . . Tiny surmised it was only a matter of time before some kind of mafia took the whole thing over and put them to work in earnest. The local authority workfare team and “social purpose” companies could not be far behind.

Shocked that the experiment had switched so rapidly from Heisenbergian apparat to a nigh Brechtian engine of alienation—a Threepenny Hovel complete with twenty-first century Peachums and their prey—Oedipa and Tiny decided they had no option but to shut it down. Only they had seen the full extent of the second phase of degeneration, the collapse of virtuous into vicious cycle. They shielded Balard from the reality, whispering around him and the ever-avid Robert. These two would have to remain in the dark about the next phase lest their flow of funding cease. It was easy enough—Balard was busy writing up an idealized version of the “congenial laboratory” for an Italian art magazine, and Sprung was distracted by a string of biennials and retro-socialist soirees. But Oedipa had seen it all as it unfolded, just as sure as she saw her doubles coming and going amid the corridors of the self-storage warehouse.


Tiny was resolute. The new thing had potential. But what was it that they had created? Within that vacant retail unit, when it was fully powered up and cycling on its own momentum, something had happened. Temporality, historicity, had become scrambled and accelerated. Time did not flow there as it did outside. And then there was the gift economy of the piece, the motor of the interactions. It had become a lurch back and forth between utopia and cannibalization, sharing and looting. An unstable oscillation between giving everything away and seizing anything available. At once potlatch and primitive accumulation, it had been special, or at least exemplary. What they had created, or so it seemed to Oedipa, looking back from her vantage in the self-storage warehouse, was not just a social condenser or catalyst of “humanized” exchange. The unit had become—quite by accident—a machine which suppressed and reorganized time. A time machine.  

As the time—measured out in GMT—ticked by, the machine’s cycles of temporal retrogression seemed exponentially to accrue range and depth. It gradually, then qualitatively, potentiated its scale of reversal. Within the first week or so the initial self-organizing dynamic had switched. The progressive phase of “give away” had folded back on itself, becoming a dynamic of expropriation. Oedipa thought of those occupied factories in Argentina but running backwards, worker self-management seguing into self-exploitation. As it accumulated momentum, so their machine seemed to carry its human “contents” downward into ever deeper strata of capitalist time. Soon it was plunging through Novum’s foundations and into unregenerate swamp, somehow replicating the site’s mercantilist history. Within a week the unit’s precarious cargo were back in the ’20s, reprising a world out of the Threepenny Novel. The box’s precarious population became caught up in the drama of cut throat capitalism, in hierarchical Edwardian horror, Dickensian striving and struggling, ever further retrograde into social conditions and forms of life not seen this side of the enclosures. Down through the days of Deptford’s Dockyard, past the scams and subterfuges of the workers, “socking the hogshead,” stealing back time and provender from their inhuman masters, then back further still to the original acts of dispossession creating them as proletarians, as men with nothing to sell but their capacity to labor.  

Tiny and Oediapa could see it all as they reviewed their surveillance footage. The video images reeled past them like a zoetrope spinning backward off its axis, as if the box were recycling and recombining all previous orders of exploitation or rehearsing disasters to come. Pursuing their modest proposal, they had created a new tool whose uses exceeded all instrumentality. But they had lacked the moral maturity to master it, to adapt to it. All they could do—like the dealers confronted with the swooning markets of the flash crash of 2010—was throw the off switch.

And now the way ahead seemed suddenly clear. They would have to relocate, to start again from the new preconditions the experiment had produced. As ever it was Oedipa who made the connection with Madame Real Estate, while Tiny handled Mr. Capital. She had found the self-storage warehouse, a big yellow shed at the edge of the A12, just a decaying ’90s road bridge away from the tranquil greenness of Victoria Park. It was the perfect solution. A single unit of the self-storage warehouse was cheaper than any hotel room or flat in the city, secure and concealed from prying eyes, easy to access and sterile enough to reconstruct the original experiment. Except this time, things would be different. Rather than inviting in the public, the usual casual supply of raw materials, declared Oedipa, they must conduct the experiment on themselves.  

They couldn’t rely on observation as of some inert mass, use the people as their proxy; the very act of watching was—they had found—decisive. And the traveler in time and social space must be able to act independently, to determine the point at which they enter or leave the unit, else they would remain the objects of the process rather than its masters.

They had been immature, lucky—or as their brand would have it, unfortunate— enough to discover something bigger than all of them. This time they must be self-conscious, the agents of the history into and out of which they would climb.

Building a single box in their unit would enable them to maintain complete isolation of all components. They would climb inside the social sculpture and wait for the researches to begin. Time travel required the most rigorous precautions if they were to avoid paradoxes, the catastrophic possibility of meeting their doubles or erasing their own past histories. Their trips would be even more, far more, constrained than the historicist raiding of regeneration or the wayward plunder of Elizabethan river mud accidentally performed in the Deptford “Drop Out.” It was risky, but they were ready for it, or so they then hoped.



Looking back now from the far side of the warehouse’s parking lot, watching as a silver Mercedes rolled in and Tiny climbed out, for the fourth time that morning, it was clear to Oedipa that things had gone slightly otherwise than planned.

It seemed that they had constructed a device for their own self-replication. You could see it in Tiny’s eyes as he walked toward her. That he, too, saw himself seeing himself, his doubles, and hers. It was evident even as he was about to agree to participate, to take up Oedipa’s offer of a place in “the single most important thing that any living organism had ever witnessed.” He knew.­ For by then there was a whole race of them, marching or limping toward the truth. Coming and going, two by two, about the warehouse, like a second Ark. They stood there and read each other’s notes, written in increasingly illegible hand, in ballpoint pen or in pencil. Yes, it seemed that they had accidentally constructed an enormous Xerox machine. What was a time machine, in the end, but a means of reproduction? An engine of delirious replication? Despite their careful preparations the paradoxes had soon begun to accumulate and flourish.

With every new timeline a new set of doppel-Tinys and hyper-Oedipae. All this proliferation only multiplied the task of supervision, the incipient stress of competition. For they had soon enough grown suspicious of each other, this once dynamic duo, splitting in two. Within weeks the experiment had generated a veritable crisis of over-population and reproduction. Oedipa grew as multiple as she became spent, her every waking moment consumed in monitoring her double’s schemes and plans, appearing for meetings, making her speeches, repeating her earlier dreams.

Exhausted and disoriented from climbing into and out of that live-work box, Oedipa had discovered the time machine and its secret, sure enough. The device that would make everything cheaper, easier, more social, that would cure the crisis. . . It had ended up requiring all their time and energy just to keep track of the teeming alter-Oedipae and para-Tinys. They were prisoners of the quantum entanglement of their timelines, victims of the duplicity and avidity of their rivals, hungry for time and space.

And now, pacing back and forth within the rows of corridors, the seemingly infinite set of identical units, each with its batch of clones, Oedipa began to wish she was blind. Not only was the self-storage warehouse becoming over-run with their doubles. Stranger—or was it more familiar?—still, some of them may even have allowed others to come inside their units. There were signs that the self-storage cells were not secure. The Tinys’ and Oedipas’ collective cochleas-each dripping an earpiece like policemen or bouncers or call center drones—were filled with the scripts they themselves, in some earlier versions, had unwittingly dictated. Each had at some point determined that in order to escape their paradoxes they would have to attempt reenactments, to circumvent their own proliferation. They stumbled forward, shattered, through the litany of phrases, banal or decisive, reciting their “personal stories,” their trademark reactions and pronouncements.

As each had begun to distrust the other, they had become increasingly absorbed in trying to outwit their rival, their semblance, themselves. In the search for a personal solution to social alienation and economic austerity, they had instead created a relational hell of competition that consumed all available space, all their resources, reproducing their doubles and triples but displacing everyone and everything else.

Oedipa began to grasp that it was she, indeed, that had brought the plague to this place. Perhaps a higher order reiteration of the same program could undo what she, or they, or whatever it was that battened on her actions and words, had done. But what could make good her helpless self-replication, her chronic over-accumulation?

Tiny’s eyes—if they were Tiny’s, if it were really Tiny, if it still mattered—were bright. It was as if, flung out of the flip flop of the time machine’s non-linear regression, he had spun the other way, come out the other side of Oedipa’s despair.

He gazed directly at her, earpiece in its socket, as if receiving his words directly from the beyond:

– Only a coordinated contamination of all the self-storage units could redeem us. But who are we? Should we be in control of the process at all? Do we even know when it started?

– Sure, the looping puts all our individual memories in doubt. For all we know we are obsolete. Even more redundant than we appear.

– But perhaps we shouldn’t even struggle any more to reclaim ourselves through this flight back into time? Instead accept that we have become. . . many? Is it not time now that we stepped aside?

– Not self-storage but self-abolition?

– If not of us as individuals, then maybe as a class, yes. Yes, I think so.

With that Tiny turned, and, without any last relational gesture, began to walk toward the exit of the self-storage warehouse. He walked out through its gates, over the road bridge, then dissolved into the green screen of the park.

Now all that was left was Oedipa—and Oedipa, and Oedipa to the second or third power. Collectivized at last, there was nothing but she and the remaining cohort of Tinys. All of them working night and day in their live-workhouse, trying to have done.


Originally published in Monday Begins on Saturday, the Bergen Assembly 2013 catalogue, Sternberg 2014. With thanks to Jill Winder and David Riff for editorial labour, precision, and inspiration

Benedict Seymour is a writer and film maker based in London