GEOGRAPHY OF DOOM. A SET OF POSSIBILITIES
Redesigning samples from art history, military history, science, media, folklore, pop culture, Happy Doomsday! is a metaphor-based war machine, and also a game about game playing. Happy Doomsday! is a project of Calin Dan and V2_Lab. (www.v2.nl/projects/hd)
was presented in 1998 at the Ars Electronica Festival with a single user
prototype and at the Dutch Electronic Art Festival with a multiuser installation
My first research for creating the computer game "Happy Doomsday!" was targeting the possibility of visualizing history through the dynamic of border shifts in Europe. Installed as we are on top of 5000 years of military conflict and territorial division through peace treaties, I was convinced that a chaotic behavior could be extracted from there. Then I dropped on a piece of software called "Centennia", developed by a Chicago based company whose web site sells the product as used in the teaching of European history to the US Navy officers. "Centennia" provides a functional way of looking at the political map of Europe: VCR-type interface for play/fast forward/fast backwards; zoom in and out; and a stripe of text trying to keep up with the graphic events. One could zap through the arcane of European conflicts and come out unscathed by the effort. The flatness of the visuals and the minimal interaction pattern might seem appalling - considering the subject - but they actually build a product with some historical significance.
"Centennia" is - at the brink of a new era of militarization but also of anti-Americanism in Europe - a double mirror, reminding the cross Atlantic parties what makes their marriage so difficult: imagology. Imagology, as we know by now, is self reflexive, and so is military enterprise: no matter what kind of propaganda effort wraps the latest war, all conflicts are unified by an urge for gratification. That is why military history looks so repetitive, retrospectively speaking. And that's why geopolitics (GP) was invented: to simplify the logic behind that urge and to offer fast argumentation for its fulfillment. The "Centennia" cartoon confronts us with a self-centered vision on land and history (actually on matter and time). And that vision, although it is more explicitly convergent with the American dream, is relevant as well for the Europeans, Asians, Antipodeans.
Portraying Europe: The Euclidean Puzzle
Software is determinant in shaping visuals. While trying to figure out Europe (as a geographic shape, that is) Happy Doomsday! stepped from the abstract and somehow sad visions of genetic algorithms and fractal waves in the direction of game semiotics, with happier narrative-&-content oriented 3d environments. The map of the continent remained a crucial element in the project, but its main functionality was confined to the Tactical level of the game. The continental plate was divided into separate entities, each of them following the general outline of a specific country and situated at its respective geographical position (Euro-map of 1998, date of HD! production). The shapes of countries were generated by a process of simplification, in the way puzzles are designed. Then those 2d stereotypes were extruded into 3d boxes, to which the minimal details of a fortress wall and a concrete gray texture were added. The countries are separated from one another by deep trenches; filled with lava and interconnected in a maze they are reproducing actually the borderlines of Europe. The whole construction is floating on a deep blue sea.
Without even a preliminary calculation, HD! Europe was shaped along the fundamentals of modern politics: defensive systems with offensive capabilities; entrenched positions forcing the potential enemies into a cohesive relation. The geometry of power and the progressive disappearance of geography under the pressure of political institutions.
The direct model for the HD! map was the design of fortifications as it developed from the 15 century on, under pressure of the increasing use of guns in both siege and defense. The star shaped forts progressively hiding under layers of earth were enacting actually the paradoxes of modernity itself: fractured relations between function and emotion, between symbols and facts, between the integral calculus of artillery and the Euclidean description of con|solid|ated spaces. And they were also enacting a visual model of geopolitical thinking, which happens to be a byproduct of modernism as well.
What is geopolitics?  Sex & Karma
The ultimate reason behind the elaborated speculations of GP is WAR. In a positive perception, GP helps make obvious that under the many layers (economic, scientific, cultural, emotional etc.) of any geo-analysis there is a unique engine, where power and fear chase each other in a stimulus loop. That loop is finally spinning off in WAR. Along the process, GP can reduce the geographic prejudices to their essential psychoanalytical ground. From there on the individual option (freedom/protection) becomes a matter of will. As with one's own sexuality, the acknowledgment of the dark sides connected to domination and violence could be liberating, if so decided by the patient.
The lesser side of the story comes when GP acts as a substitute of destiny, reducing therefore the status of societies to a pre-determined pattern. To extend the sexual analogy: in the negative option, when people fall from innocence, they fall both into their death-linked sexuality and into the prison of their geopolitical faith. From here on, no matter what happens to the social tissue, the individual and the community is pre-determined, and therefore exempt of any moral (legal?) consequence. Russians belong to a huge & nervous country under continuous threat from the Asian nightmare; USA is a big and lazy power overseeing the globe from a distant position; England is an arrogant island between Europe, the North Pole and America; the Balkans are a mish-mash of frustrated identities, etc. Belonging to a specific area by birth becomes a karmic thing, containing its own reward or punishment, without any logic.
The main function of the HD! tactical map, like the function of any puzzle, is to enhance the details while keeping open the perception of the whole, so that the zoom-factor never deletes the context-factor from the play. Both the user and the interface are huge and small, comprehensive and fragmented, dominated and dominant, in an ever changing relation. The user can keep a holistic vision of the continental maze (the so called satellite prospective), navigate on top of it at middle height (the balloon prospective), but also land on the surface of a country, be part of it (the grass hopper prospective provided by the Ground level).
That's what happened to Gulliver's perception while he traveled from Lilliput to Brobdingnag. The difference is that in HD! the process is simultaneous. That is why Voltaire's hero, Micromégas, is a more appropriate analogy here: a giant for the terrestrians and a dwarf for the inhabitants of other planets, Micromégas is not an innocent observer and a passive commentator who experiences his adventures as they come (Gulliver), but an advised explorer of the universe, who KNOWS about and TAKES ADVANTAGE of his ambiguous situation. Unlike Gulliver, Micromégas is constantly IN & OUT of his story - an essential difference.
A complete map of Europe can be navigated virtually, but only room by room, space by space, country by country. Due to the consistency in design, the perception loop is closed and the user gets an almost impossible feeling of tactile control over geographic realities. Countries are a continuum only from the static/vertical perception of GOD; from the horizontal perception of the inhabitant/traveler they are closed spaces, linked only via controlled segments of space. While playing HD! at the Tactical level, users participate in two separate processes of identification. The Micromégas helps to cumulate them and therefore to understand the emotional essence of GP: its reality cannot function out of a fictional convention, where the citizen and the user merge, becoming the owner of a fiction (geography) and the character in a play (politics). In other words, one cannot respond to a GP environment except by being simultaneously a controller (the god of interaction) and a symbolic property (the manipulated avatar).
What is geopolitics?  The citizen and the user
GP is actually about aesthetics more than about strategy. Mapping the streams of interests in scale politics is a cosmetic operation meant to impress the users with an interface of logic and force. From the first attempts to map the world to the clean wars of the 1990s, a propaganda machine worked relentlessly to hide the messiness of war through the harmonious logic of mediated geography. Conspiracy theories & geopolitics are con substantial in the implication that there is a superior order in political decision, and also an objective necessity to support that order. While the democratic apparatus denies both domains, it secretly relies on them for arguing the infallibility of the state. In the follow up of this assessment one could push further the analogy (geo)politics = gaming and say that Citizenship is an obsolete concept, since it doesn't reflect (anymore) the status quo. Usership is more accurate and more comprehensive, describing both the attitude (curious, but distant and self-absorbed), and the positioning of the electorate with respect to the political landscape: in for the entertainment/out for the responsibility!
L'État c'est moi  The Muscles of the Animal
HD! relies on a physically aggressive interface and on a conflict oriented virtual geography. Users are asked to assume as avatar an existing country by selecting it on a touch screen; then to work out on a fitness machine in order to increase their virtual identity by direct muscular force. Generated by an attitude of dada-like cynicism (linking war to muscles and politics to fitness), the overall HD! concept evolved as an expression of the crisis confronting the zoón polytykon which hides in the user.
Since the political animal is absorbed by entertainment, the only efficient way to circulate information might be precisely by using entertainment's channels and formats. Moreover, since media acceleration is decreasing exponentially the user's sense of participation while giving h|e|m a fake (over)-awareness, the counter method might be connecting physical exercise to larger topics, crediting the body as a gate for re-accessing attention, (true) awareness, direct participation.
What is geopolitics?  Going Bananas
The wealth belt connecting Milan to London, the crop density in the USA, the traffic of transatlantic cargo, the draught affected areas, the drug production and transportation, the light weaponry distribution in Eurasia, all seem to organize themselves according to a BANANA pattern. Belonging to one BANANA pattern or another can be of immense consequence. Let us consider a country in a skinny banana cluster, say Afghanistan: what chance is it given by geography (relief, soil, climate, neighbors) and by history in order to reach what are considered to be the Western standards of democracy? None, if I may be blunt; at least not for the foreseeable future. Afghanistan, amongst others, belongs to what Mircea Eliade used to call peoples under history, with an identity so much oppressed that history itself seems to ignore them.
What statehood brings to these areas (where the "peoples" themselves are shifting between ignoring history and waiting for its advent) is usually oppression, tribal hatred, political violence, ideological/religious fundamentalism. What those places are/could be outside of statehood depends very much on their position within the respective banana and on its demographic density. In the skinny bananas fragmentation can bring survival, while agglomeration (of interests/infrastructure, resulting in statehood) means (almost) certain collapse.
What is geopolitics?  Protéger et Punir
What statehood brings to the fat bananas floating on the mainstream of history a diminished place for individualism in exchange for an increased space dedicated to its administration and punishment, protection and service. A number of writings (among them Foucault's "Survéiller et Punir") emphasize the oppressive functions of the modern state, feeding the idea of adjustments in favor of increased individual freedom. In one of those strange paradigm shifts which occur without raising much questioning, the claim for increased individual freedom started to be spun into a generic argument for neo-liberal tactics: largely the dissolution of states within the corporate strategies of global control.
Patterns of development along those lines seem to be at work already, and what has been a cold war favorite subject for SF distopias (cyber-punk just adding an edge (and a closure) to the long line of doom visions based on global government) changed significantly during the last decade into scientific analysis and prognosis. Political decisions at the top (Euro currency, NATO policies), the uncovering of older surveillance schemes (Echelon), as well as the double aspect of media acceleration (freedom and control) came to feed the debate.
What appears surprising in the polemic between neo(right)-liberals and (neo)left-intellectuals is the dilemma of the last with regard to the situation, position and faith of the state. Embarrassed on one side by their own anarchist luggage (acquired in order to build a distance from the realpolitik of Communism) and on the other by the nationalist discourses firing from all directions (republicans, Catholics, royalists, Protestants, "former" communists, etc.) the critics of the corporate offensive are neither able to define a realist alternative to the state nor to defend it as being the lesser evil. Of course the state has already entered a process of self demolition. But typically for unsolved psychoanalytical conflicts, the relation of the intellectuals with the state remains sensitive, and the present crisis stays unadressed.
What is geopolitics?  The Aquarius Handicap
Protection/Punishment is a commonly known psychoanalytical conceptual pair associated with parental care. They define the paradoxes of individual development, forever oscillating between two fundamental needs: shelter and freedom. What the 1960s actually did was translate that dilemma of the family cell into the social theater. But the symbolic immolation of the father and the sexual revolution didn't stop at the level of individual liberation, as it seemed for a while. The psychoanalytic resentment fashioned by the baby boom generation as a social issue in the 1960s was promoted by the same as a political strategy in the 1990s. And since politics are now consistent with marketing, the same trends can be followed into the mainstream of consumerism, pop culture, and global policies. The forever young ideology of the 1990s is the marketing version of the flower power from 30 years ago. And the neo-liberal doctrine is the new face of "power to the people". A normal (d)evolution, somehow, considering that the inhalers of the 1960s are the political leaders of this moment.
L'État c'est moi  BALKAFRICA
We should assume that the "statehood of one's own body" is not just an obvious way of moralizing on the issue of direct responsibility in politics and war, but also a way of questioning those domains, their dynamic and their borders. The over-present physical interface of HD! was designed as an instrument of doubt, as a teaser of the institutional body through the minimal performances of the physical one. A year and a few conflicts after the project was completed, the fitness machine metaphor has acquired a new edge of significance.
If Balkanization is the term that made history in political-&-media language with reference to things that turn messy somewhere in the world, what would be then the word for coining the last 10 years of continuous mess in the Balkans proper? AFRICANIZATION is my guess for a good replacement, not because it points at an area which competes (with very little success, it is true) for the same media attention as the Appendix of Europe, but because it stirs in the user streams of irrationality that belong actually to its (past) fears as a citizen.
Africa is a place to which any AMEROPEAN user has a special relation through colonial guilt, racial difference and/or cultural attraction. Meanwhile, the space of Africa is mentally accessible only with the distant abstraction of a dark fairy tale. It has no geography except on safari areas, and no geopolitical structure beyond the rims of urban density along the coastal line (mainly the Mediterranean and the Cape areas). The obstinate way in which war is waged in Africa makes politics incomprehensible, since it is not implemented with familiar tools (of which GP is maybe the most important, emotionally speaking). Still, African conflicts are instructive for the Ameropeans precisely because the only familiar reference they get there is the physicality of the body at war. That means mutilation, rape, massacre, displacement. Since the GP context is both banal (everybody "knows" that Africa is the back yard where (super)powers play poker with resources and ideologies) and totally obscure, the body is finally the real hero of conflicts, their object, instrument and goal. War in Africa is beyond any glamorous speculation, untouched by literature and film and uninteresting for the prime time media. It is JUST war.
How do the Ameropean users react to this different type of reality? With frustration mainly: no interaction is possible in the African war game; just masses of people, individualized by the cameras only for the few seconds needed to show some maimed limbs. People so unhappy that it makes you angry; so constantly oppressed that you start hating them. It's just too stupid to be one of those victims, to be constantly in the way of violence. Hate and anger are good: they pull the user out of its status of expectation, they almost force h|e|m towards citizenship. Almost.
In the Balkans, like in Africa, the human ordeal has somehow managed to transcend the geopolitical dimension of war. Over-intricate national conflicts are packed in areas of density impossible to comprehend by the usual standards; military effort is invested in the conquest of barns; orchards become strategic areas; tactical knowledge is deployed in a family vs. family and door-to-door attrition. Under the circumstances, war became again irrelevant beyond the direct involvement of the body. Once again war proved to be so ugly and unglamorous that it looked dull, except for the unbearable sufferings of people on all sides. Over-powered media interpretations contributed unexpectedly to the emotional saturation (everybody "suspects" now that the former Yugoslavia is the back yard where (super)powers play poker with resources and ideologies). And maybe for the first time since la Grande Guerre, war within Europe is perceived as deprived of any objective necessity, historically speaking.
At the end of the decade AMEROPA is looking through the news screens at BALKAFRICA with an exhausted anger: victims are there all day long, brought by a media that wants users to feel guilty, while it conspires to keep them impotent.
//end of Exercise//
What should be extracted from this is a total rejection of the political body, as inefficient, selfish, and dishonest. While politics (and war) can function only by compromise, the individual involvement in conflicts is uncompromising, effective and irreversible. When people die, they stay dead, when they lose their house - it is lost, when they kill their neighbors, their environment is damaged for a generation. The AFRICANIZATION of the Balkans proved that "community" is as unreliable and as dangerous as the state, that geopolitics and village politics obey the same dirty rules, that there is no place for individuality at any level of the social body.
As a consequence, the only way out of this crisis is the self-extraction of the individual from the interfaces of historical determinism. The HD! interface should be understood in the end not as a means for working out the relation with the institutions of war, but as an exercise in dissent and rejection of all institutions, as far as they interfere with the integrity of the body.
Vienna-Ljubljana-Amsterdam, May-July 1999
A longer version of this text was published in "Geopolitics and Art", Ljubljana 1999.
about Calin Dan >>