IMAGINING A STONE: VIRTUAL LANDSCAPES


Sue Thomas

(abstract at http://va.com.au/ensemble/enslogic/index.html )

Resources for this paper:

Readers may find it useful to look at Andy Goldsworthy's work at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian/issues97/feb97/golds.html before reading further. Accessing the images first will also load them into your cache and make it easier to refer to them whilst reading the text.

There is also a site to help you access the online discussion meeting arranged for Wednesday 24th July 1998 at 1pm GMT

 

BEGINNING WITH THE IMAGINATION·

The first virtual landscape I ever encountered was neither an interior nor an exterior landscape, but an abstraction which, despite its lack of corporeality, provided one of the most intense experiences of my life.

In September 1995 I received an invitation to an online event organised by VNS Matrix, the Australian cyberfeminist performance group. Spiral Space called itself a site specific project but, unlike most site-specific work, it took place at a number of sites including the YYZ Artists Outlet in Toronto, Canada; the virtual world of LambdaMOO; and anywhere in the world that people happened to be able to log on.

The 'background wallpaper' (here shown as sentences beginning with >>) for the bizarre interactions which followed was created by artist/programmers collecting phrases used by participants as the performance proceeded and feeding them back into the space as randomized text. This background made for a powerful texturing of our live interactions and somehow provoked us - the participants - to relate to each other in an intense and heady manner which held me rivetted to my chair for two hours. The environment we created together was an abstract landscape of the imagination. It was one of my very first MOO interactions, and it got me completely hooked. Here follows a short extract to provide a flavour of what happened. (G. , it turned out, was actually three people at a computer somewhere in Australia - I forget where. The 'you' is me. The >> is randomized text.)

__________________________

G: I swallow....almost drowning

>>beg for it

G: I feel no teeth ...only the heat of your lips....you taste pearls.

>>bend

>>touch it

G: soft flesh and lustrous

G: sink

>>do you like it like this?

G: salt and sweat...mingle...nothing...now only us

>>explore......taste my flesh

G: the water booms in your ears....

>>touch me way in the back of my soft throat

>>wet

>>do you like it like this?

>>slide inside

G: primal fluids rushing...birthing

>>push me farther and I'll push you faster

G: smooooth

You say, "Squeezed together in a tight red vein

G: round....perfect circle

You say, "A cell."

>>wrap your lips around my

G: no longer alone

You say, "You in me and me in you."

G: two rings spinning... penetrator... enveloper...both one and the same...only speed the difference

>>let me do it now

>>I want to feel you

You say, "Joined together in a breath."

>>I'm hungry...feed me...lay out your banquet

>>how much variety is there in slippery friction of mucous membranes?

G: the warmth of your lungs to mine and back

>>be my toy

You say, "Sucked in by someone else - coursing through their flesh - we are an infection."

__________________________

An infection. My imagination was infected that day by the realisation that 'place' is not just a tangible area, like a house, or a beach, or the inside of a car, but it can be a programmed virtual space too, where nothing is actually real, and yet the sense of 'being somewhere' is a powerfully realistic sensation.

Let me take that one step further and move us from from physical landscapes we all experience every day to the virtual landscape described above, to the purely imagined landscape.

There was a time when my lover and I owned a room in Iceland. Well, in fact I guess we still do, since neither of us has forgotten it, and it has only ever existed in our imaginations. But the time I am referring to is a time when we talked about it, and in talking about it we made it corporeal.

But wait. I say we 'talked' about it but we didn't actually speak in the sense of sound vibrations travelling through air and their counterparts travelling through wire. We met first in cyberspace and, as I remember it, when we created this imaginary room in Iceland we were still only virtual to each other, meeting every day in virtual rooms we had built for ourselves in the text-based virtual community of LambdaMOO. (By 'build' I mean they were written or programmed in text.) That was a time when each of us was no more than a construct of the other's imagination, with no real proof that anything we said was even partway true.

But there we were, occupying an imagined space inside the computer system which houses the text-based virtual world of LambdaMOO. We had a lot of fun, revelling in the knowledge that we could build anything we wanted; BE anything we wanted· and yet when times got tough we fell back on pure imagination and retreated to a hotel room in Rejkavik where the furniture was simple and we could stand arm-in-arm at the window to watch the ships in the harbour and the Northern Lights in the sky. As we type-talked online we described the view and the room but it was all on the fly, without record in the computer system. Our words were merely a conversation. They had no permanence and there was never any desire on either side to actually write or programme this room into some sort of actuality. Perhaps this was because Lambda was where our new Real Life was forming, and sometimes things got rather intense. It was fast becoming as real to us as the flesh world we also inhabited, and sometimes we needed to escape to a place where even the reality of virtuality could be set aside. A place we could jointly share, telnetting into each other's minds and hearts in the manner which had come to us so easily right from the start.

In terms of my own personal relationship with virtual space, the room in Rejkavik was unusual not only in that it was doubly virtual (having been imagined inside virtuality), but also because it was a room with windows - it had an inside and and outside. All of the places I have actually built in virtuality are clearly interior or exterior and although one can travel virtually between them they do not have doors or windows. This has not been deliberate, and indeed it is not especially common. Many programmers build rooms with doors leading to the outside, or gardens with entrances leading inside. Lambda House itself, modelled, they say, on Pavel Curtis's own Californian home, is a complex of indoors and outdoors, with a patio, hot-tub, and pool as well as the usual internal accommodations. Most MOOs feature a vast range of inhabited spaces, some of which are fairly standard and recognizable places, like a Museum, or a Library, or a Kitchen, whereas others spring from impractical and fantastic imaginations - the reservoir of a fountain pen; a remote control; or various places inside the body. The anarchy of space which occurs in virtuality extends as far as the minds of those who inhabit it, in a rainbow of hallucinatory images.

 

IMAGINING A STONE AND A FOREST

The work of the artist Andy Goldsworthy can be said to operate with a similar sense of virtuality. His constructions are not, and often cannot be, naturally-occurring, and yet they look as if they have occurred independently, formed by the forces of nature. He dresses a rock in seaweed and it looks almost like a million other seaweed-covered rocks. Almost. But not entirely. The lines are a little too clean, the colour a little too regular, the edges a little too sharp.

In the same way, I use words to make a forest in Holland like the ones I knew as a child, and my words make the picture almost right - almost, but not exactly. Words are always just a little bit too pinpoint compared with reality, they always fix the picture too tightly and remove some of the necessary blurs. And so the virtual:

Sand Forest

Warm and dry but shifting underfoot. This land used to be sea-bed but within the last hundred years it has been reclaimed, drained, and planted as new forest. It is littered with white sea-shells and dark pine-needles, both of which can slide between the toes and pierce the skin. Beyond the young trees lies a stretch of shallow water reflecting the summer sky and enclosed by the perfect line of a dike. There are few sounds here - just the occasional bird, or a distant car passing along the elevated road. Everything is geometrically regular: the water is at a constant depth of one metre; the dike is exactly the same width and height all the way along; the trees are equidistant and of the same species, although nature has created some variety of size. Everywhere you see only verticals, horizontals, and the spaces in between. A geometry of newness and calm.

 

LEAVING NO MARK

Goldsworthy moves through the physical world implementing ephemeral changes which never last. They decompose, collapse, melt and dissolve. He must always photograph his work at the moment it is completed because it is constantly degrading even while it is being built. It never lives beyond the moment. Likewise, it has been said that as we traverse through cyberspace we leave no visible tracks. Although our movements may be recorded in caches and histories, and although we may record them ourselves in bookmarks, we currently leave no footprints on the web to mark our passage, although this will soon surely change as marketing and tracing becomes more refined. Right now, this electracy is evanescent in the extreme. We browse from one site to the next like ghosts; we telnet at will in and out of libraries, museums, playworlds, MUDs and MOOs; we hurl email through the ether with nary a thought to its physical passage. So when Andy Goldsworthy lays down upon a rock in the rain in order to leave a body print on the fast-drying stone, we virtualists understand his desire to mark, even if just for a moment.

When I built _^^~^___ the fields---_____~~^_^-~~ ____^^___~~~~~~
at LambdaMOO, I wanted to recreate some marvellous Autumn afternoons walking my dogs in the English countryside. Trapped in my office when I longed to be out in the fresh air, I made this room to log on to in one window of my screen while I worked on documents in another.

_^^~^___ the fields---_____~~^_^-~~ ____^^___~~~~~~

They stretch as far as the eye can see.

It is autumn, and the ground is stubbled with the remains of the harvest. On its way to Africa for the winter, a sheet of birds darkens the sky in a turning twisting mass, then disperses and moves on as a scattered cohort towards the far-off hills and, beyond them, to the open sea. A single curving line of elder and willow marks the path of the sunken stream which has etched its way through the landscape from west to east. Several fields away, a tractor is slicing new furrows in the compacted earth. They gleam darkly against the white of the following seagulls. The sky is an English grey, as if the mists of Autumn are held fast in a canopy above our heads; a canopy which at any moment might fall and surround us, billowing out to hide the stream and the trees and the tractor and the wheeling birds... until we are left alone and silent in a muffling quilt of cloud.

(Rm #14691 LambdaMOO)

Where Goldsworthy uses film to capture the moments of his creations, the writer working in text-based virtuality is at the mercy of a different kind of ephemeracy. MUDs and MOOs are notoriously fragile, entirely dependent upon the computers which host them and subject to a variety of 'weather conditions' such as time-delay (lag); sudden reboots, and loss of data. When they go down, they may be down for five minutes or for a month. In occasional catastrophes, whole days or weeks of programming may be destroyed. Unless one keeps text copies of everything one has built, and all the coding used to build them, it may be impossible to reconstruct a damaged virtual environment. Perhaps an even worse drama occurs when the programmer who created the template you used for all your building decides to leave the MOO forever. Unless they take precautions (and sometimes in bloody-mindedness they simply don't want to) their designs and templates leave with them, creating the strange effect of turning your work into a vague and dysfunctional shadow. It's rather as if the person who invented the concept of the kitchen has suddenly removed it, leaving you with a sink and a stove but no idea of how to configure their position in your house. Thus, the very body of the places you make is often subject to the whims of others.

 

NEW MATERIALS

Where writers are limited by their determination to prioritise text, Goldsworthy is limited by his insistence on using only materials at hand in order to create his work. Process is vital to the act of making. Thus, he will spend as long as it takes to gather leaves of exactly the hue he needs, then even more hours stitching them together with stalks. He does not use glue, or staples, or thread to bind and connect his materials, but daisy-chains them with thorns and stems, moistens them together with water, or sticks them with spittle. In order to form the shapes he requires he offers them up to the elements, allowing them to be patterned by the flow of a stream or the direction of the wind. The result has many features of a natural formation but still retains that tone of deliberately-constructed unreality which is the trademark of Goldsworthy's work.

As a writer working in virtuality, I can build a similar dysreality. The Damp Darkness was created for Liis, one of the virtual characters in my novel The [+]Net[+] of Desire. It is an ancient and sensual place which seems to be 'real' and visitable - until we reach the red seed from which Liis was born. This is the same moment as that when the leaves which eddy to the margins of Goldsworthy's stream are understood to be a construction, and we realise that this clearing in the woods can only exist in the imagination, and only in virtuality can it be real.

The_Damp_Darkness

A clearing in an ancient wood. The patch of short grass in its centre is almost exactly circular in shape, its surface uneven where the remains of trees fallen long ago form humps and bumps beneath the shawl of green. There are rings upon rings of toadstools at different stages of growth and decline, and the trees make yet another circle around this secret place. One is much larger than the rest, an enormous towering sequoia thousands of years old, its bark gnarled and pitted, its bole a mass of whorled crevices. Here, deep inside one of the fissures, lies a red pod. It is no relative to the tree, indeed it is not kin to any of the species in the clearing, but for hundreds of years it has lain here in the damp and perfumed dark, making a place of peace and sanctuary for the beautiful Liis.

(Rm #52249 LambdaMOO)

 

ICE ~~~ LAND

To turn the pages of a book* of Goldsworthy images is to be stung by isolated stabs of crimson or yellow or green. A heap of gray lichen-covered boulders hold in their midst one of their fellows coated with wet brilliant red poppy petals. A field of bluebells hosts a ring of yellow dandelions pinned to willowherb stalks with thorns. Holes are torn in the leaves of a chestnut tree then stitched into a perfectly regular circle. As it happens, these colours make up the view that my lover and I see from the window of our imaginary room in Iceland. The red roofs, yellow brick, and careful greenery of Rejkavik echo exactly Goldsworthy's economical palette. But in the end it is the ice which finally connects us.

I have no frozen virtual room; no igloo; no ice-house, no glacial cave. My imagining of cold is private, and I have never thought to build it. Perhaps it is something to do with the body? I don't know. I have read ice-narratives and loved them: Ransmayr's Terrors of Ice and Darkness; Wilde's The Selfish Giant's winter garden; Andersen's The Snow Queen, and of course Shelley's ice-bound pursuit of the lonely monster. A favourite story of bravery is of the man who, lost in the northern oceans, froze his hands to the oars so he could row himself home. Indeed, Goldsworthy has done something similar. In Scotland, he uses only his own spittle to join together icicles in a spiral around a treetrunk. He calls it the "soul" of the tree.

I don't know how I would describe the "soul" of my own virtual exterior landscapes. Some of them are not exteriors at all, but are as abstract as the Spiral Space I visited nearly three years ago. Here we have come a long way from imagining a stone, because nothing tangible remains. The [+]Net[+] of Desire itself is an abstract area, a playground for the virtual body, where we float in the darkness and it is hard to know whether we are in a blackened room, or out among the stars of the universe. This seems a suitable place to end, in a moment of mesmerised abstraction:

THE [+]NET[+] OF DESIRE

Here you are weightless in the dark, spinning in the soft velvet air.

Your bodies are

*everywhere*

~twisting~

and

~coiling~

lusciously pleasured by the delicate tendrils of the Net of Desire.

You have a thousand limbs - or none.

^Stretch out!^

^Reach!^

^Open!^

 

(Rm #87887, LambdaMOO)

END

 

* A Collaboration with Nature Andy Goldsworthy, Harry N Abrams Inc. 1990

If you are unfamiliar with text-based virtual worlds, check out The Guide to Becoming Virtual at http://www.innotts.co.uk/~thomas/virtual.html

Biog:

Sue Thomas's books include CORRESPONDENCE, WATER, and WILD WOMEN. CORRESPONDENCE was shortlisted for the 1992 Arthur C Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. She writes about technology and inorganics, and is Director of the trAce International Online Writing Community http://trace.ntu.ac.uk Her own homepage is at http://www.innotts.co.uk/~thomas

 

Sue Thomas 1998