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On Critical Simulation

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A woman has her back turned to the camera and is reaching to touch the wall which has a projection of their face looking upwards.

Roslyn Orlando, Simulation 1.6 - God’s Eye, performance still. Courtesy of the artist

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In a simulation, everything (every thought, action, object) must be coded into language before it can exist. In a simulation, language precedes the things that language describes. It is this relation between language and the construction of reality (language —> reality) that distinguishes simulation from reality as we traditionally understand it, which is perceived as (reality —> language). The internet in all of its extended forms, is something of a semantic playground; a rudimentary network of simulated realities, an elastic prism that warps and displaces meaning. This relationship between object and meaning stretches. Meanings proliferate, shooting back and forth between the physical and the virtual planes, until they are enmeshed, until they are held together.

Consider the differences in meaning that have been generated between the way we understand an organic rose, and a rose online. At a basic level, the online rose is no longer in a garden, cared for, watered, subjected to the wind and the sun, rooted, dying. This online rose, which we still call a rose, exists differently. This rose is floating in an absurdist multidimension. There is no residual association of smell or touch. Its context endlessly warps, its meaning endlessly shifts as its unique binary code is summoned by phone, tablet and computer screens globally. In this way, the rose multiplies, becoming stitched amongst the detritus of human lives: photos no longer function as an alchemical process of light distilling time onto a physical surface, but rather they function as signals towards ideas that have been expressed in other places at other times. In some instances, the online rose sits alongside countless other roses—roses that have a similar colour, similar petal count; some of these not even being photographs at all, but artificially generated deepfakes. A rose is not a rose is not a rose is a rose.

Online, the rose’s value becomes contingent upon a heat map of relational engagement: views, likes, comments, shares. But even though the online rose is quickly lost, it doesn’t die. It doesn’t decompose and get turned into some other energy-matter. It simply becomes archived in an algorithmic soup of infinity, floating in the liminal space between existence and non-existence. In this way, the organic rose and the online rose become completely different things. The meaning of the word ‘rose’ has been stretched to encompass a whole new set of relations; and a whole new material sensibility.

This loss of ‘function’ or ‘semantic territory’ is not unique to the internet, but it is symptomatic of the way in which global capital continually rearranges the very structures that shape our ontologies, and indeed that shape us. The semantic playground of the internet is forged on an ideology that values unbridled global wealth creation for the language holders. The internet as a ‘90s utopia, that is, as a decentred, self-governed, horizontal information network; a system that could have radically shifted siloes of global power through the act of coding collectively, has been usurped by corporations obfuscating systems architectures behind the aesthetic supremacy of design facades that promote user experience. The educated elite of Silicone Valley imbue design with syntactical limitations, barring the way to user self-empowerment. One implication of building a relational sphere of language severed from direct material implication, and then algorithmically enhancing it to increase advertising revenue and inflate share price values, is the acceleration of unidirectional global capital flows: billions of individuals inextricably implicated in the mesh of post-geographic production and consumption.

In A Thousand Plateaus (1988), Deleuze and Guattari described this kind of deterritorialised, post-modern world as a rhizome: an inexplicable system of lines of flight and zones of intensity, creating a non-hierarchical matrix of multiplicity: constructions of the subconscious; productions of reality.

On page 12, they illustrate the rhizome through the apparatus of the map: “The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation. Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome is that it always has multiple entryways.”

This metaphor of the map follows the publication of Baudrillard’s outlandish tome Simulations and Simulacra (1981). On the opening page, Baudrillard references a fable derived from On Exactitude in Science by Luis Borges (1946) in which a great Empire creates a map so detailed that it is as large as the Empire itself. Baudrillard argues that it is the map itself that people live in, that the map does not mimic reality and indeed has no relationship with reality whatsoever, but has become its own set of parameters for existence.

Today, our lives are rendered legible by consciousnesses encoded with the significations and symbolisms of algorithmic culture and media. These constructs of reality are so complete in their detail and in their layered multiplicity, that we have become detached from all living proof of a sense of the ‘original’ real, if there ever even was one. It used to be that to make art about technology was to use new and novel apparatuses of innovation as types of lenses or mirrors with which to reflect our lives back to us. Today, to make art about technology is akin to making art about life itself.

The map is total. The binary between interiority and exteriority has collapsed. There is only an interior: the interior of the capitalist regime, and the multiple, mutable layers enfolded within. Within the paradigm of the capitalist-imperialist map of total simulacra, all entrances arrive from inside, all exits lead back inside. The map we have drawn is a capitalist’s map, a map with contradiction and conflagration built in to its defining condition. No stone has been left unturned; no territory has escaped the interminable line of the capitalist-imperialist cartographer.

As Mark Fisher articulates in his book Capitalist Realism (2009), “capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizon of the thinkable”. All ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ cultural zones, which began as lines of flight out beyond the map, have become hollow signals, dying echoes petering out in the desert of the unreal. PC millennials “endlessly repeat gestures of rebellion and contestation as if for the first time”.

As artists, our ideas are inevitably gentrified, appropriated by the PR machine of a decentralised, algorithm-driven media landscape. Aesthetics no longer function, and no gesture is purely genuine. In trying to think our way beyond the map’s horizon, we continue to extend the map in every direction, abiding by the pre-emptive logics fed to us through the machine, propelling the realm of this dominant power further into the abyss. The interiority of our realities extends endlessly before us.

So, what happens when we realise that mapping offers no “lines of flight” to where we want to go? What happens if we find we have been tricked; that the zones of resistant intensity we thought we occupied were not mapped by us, but pre-empted by the apparatus itself?

Deleuze and Guattari describe the map as an “experiment in contact with the real”. But as Baudrillard points out, the map and its relation to the real has become irrelevant. In the hyperreal, which is where/when/how we are now, all origins have been blanked out. All we have are endless simulated iterations of an idea of reality. As he notes on the opening page: “The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control—and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these… the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials”. Umberto Eco articulates concrete examples of this in his book Travels in Hyperreality (1985), in his analyses of the wax museum and Disneyland, and Las Vegas as “a city that functions in order to communicate, rather than a city that communicates in order to function”. The map has been obliterated by the simulation; the rose has an infinite supply of body doubles.

Critical simulation attempts to look for the transformative potentials of this situation, to locate the zones of agency, trickery, hackery and subterfuge that might tear a small hole in the grey curtain, for us to travel into the unknown, together.  

Critical Simulation is part thought experiment, part artistic methodology, and offers a way to understand how we might slip through the overarching systems of neoliberal production, to burrow in, like a worm, to find reprieve from the capital relation.

It’s a pretty preposterous idea, and the possibilities for achieving this kind of escape, especially collectively, are slim. Firstly, the conditions for success require a kind of tricking of the self, a covertness to the point of not noticing what you yourself are doing, to do it with enough conviction until you are elsewhere, until you arrive at the unknown without knowing it. Importantly, the unknown needs to look and feel like the known. To be simultaneously aware and unknowing. Self-induced placebo.

Secondly, you need to, at all costs, resist the oppositional binaries that feed prevailing dominant structures; to evade a revolutionary stance; to resist the ‘to be’ (or not to be) of conjunctive thinking, as Berardi would say, and to instead embrace the concatenated “and, and, and” of simulation. You need to weaponize the zones of intensity drawn by machinic algorithms along the simulated map; you need to use the tools most potent to the maintenance of the technocapitalist apparatus with a kind of asymmetrical inversion that sweeps the rug out from beneath its feet.

Simulation in this context, is not tied to the idea of a technological reproduction of a kind of ‘base’ reality. It is not a mode for predicting some future state, where we upload ourselves into the Matrix (or Meta as the case may be) and forget about our bodies. This version of simulation is not akin to ‘simulation theory’, where the world is a Descartian delusion, built by some omnipresent alien master race who press buttons to unleash natural disasters. Nor does it refer to the notion that a group of theological coders decided to “set and forget” our world, leaving us confined to a set of prescribed parameters as a kind of existential experiment in anguish and randomness.

Simulation is a semiotic process, a framework for understanding the ways information is copied and transmitted through all the channels of reception available to us. It is a way of reconstituting the body and the self as distributed and disturbed, implicated in all the attachments of its otherness, from bacteria to smart speakers, from texting to fucking.

Critical Simulation is a process of reordering order through repetitive and iterative processes of production and reproduction, a process inspired by medieval sorcerers who understood magic as an alchemical process aided by art and music to induce fantasy, to cast nets and create bonds, to conjure experiences of reality beyond the body. Critical Simulation produces a meta-awareness of the shifts that occur at an elemental level when practicing semantic subterfuge.

Critical Simulation operates within a hyperreal environment. Baudrillard defined hyperreality as a total environment of simulacra. I reconsider the definition of hyperreality to refer to any number of simulacra environments, totalised or partial, physical, mental or emotional, nevertheless realities that extend beyond present states of spacetime.

In my work I seek to trace lines already inscribed on the map of reality. To repeat these lines as if to reinforce dominant structures but in uncanny subterfuge, to utter and gesture, to modulate and to mime and to improvise along these lines, beyond the affects of semantic satiation, and into a state of some kind of raw desire fulfilment. I aim to enter into hyperreal states of simultaneous time, encouraging experiences of life on the surface of the map to aberrate, physically and metaphysically.

Three central components for enacting Critical Simulation in my own practice include using predictive and intelligent technologies to produce language, using the voice to utter this language and using gesture to enact this language. Performance is a way to feed simulation back into itself.

Performing a methodology of Critical Simulation is an attempt to get as close to the fire as possible. I want to see if methodologies of Critical Simulation can, through practices of tracing and replicating, through gesturing and deep-faking, through improvising and voicing, beckon us into the depths of the uncanny valley, towards the warm swamp of not so much the unknown, but the unseen. To use deterritorialization to reorient us collectively into the unknown unseen, without Big Brother realising that we are no longer here, despite appearances.