30 Cyber-Days in San Francisco 1.5

Welcome to the (Digital) Neighborhood

Be Here Now

Recently, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, there was a new technology and art exhibit that was the talk of the digital town. Titled, "Be Here Now: Welcome to the Neighborhood," it's Michael Naimark's upbeat vision of the digital village in the convergent 90s. And it's cute. You enter the de rigueur black-curtained room with its huge screenal wall, step onto a slowly rotating platform, and think you've suddenly gone glaucomic and are seeing double images in stereoscope until the observing guard taps you on the shoulder, laconically handing you 3-D glasses. And that's fine dude, because like a splendid digital epiphany you can see again, and what you see is the digital village. There are four buttons of choice for simu-images of the virtual world around us: Timbuktu, with slowly ambling rows of camels and some neat guys in I'd-just-kill-for-it deep blue camel tending outfits; the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, complete with thousands of children who have just blasted out of their schoolyard prisons, got their energy up, and are chattering and yelling and whistling and making eyes and flirting and fighting right by the dour eyes of the Wailing Wall as they sidle on by; Angkor Wat with its jungle-overgrown religious monuments, where you can still almost smell through the screen the tears of the killings; and very grimmest of all, a square in Dubrovnik, just empty streets and unattended cafe chairs.

We look at each other looking at the images with our oversized 50s-style 3-D glasses, spinning around on the platform, and know that we just wish these weren't simu-images of UNESCO officially labeled "endangered sites," but real time floating vectors of life around the globe. Sort of a digital village we could get into, maybe even build a Web hut, stick our miniaturized Hubble Telescope out the mud window the better to take a peek at our new digital neighbors, flip open a superlight Sintex Infinity cellular phone cum fax/modem, and settle in like the very first of the digital geezers. "Be Here Now" as PictureTel for gated communities.

But it's not to be. Because right there in the control center of "Welcome to the Neighborhood", with its choices abundant, is a gargantuan hyper-red button marked HOME, obviously the privileged default position. So, with a sigh, we whisper goodbye to our new best digital friends, think last Club Med thoughts of stepping out of this North American too-tied-down-schedule life and trying our luck as a nomadic camel driver, wave goodbye to the kids in Jerusalem, and zap HOME. And, of course, it's digitally perfect. Just like the monitors in all the software parks of Silicon Valley that scan the surrounding verdant programmed grounds for internal consumption, HOME gives us the tech/nature wonders of the Yerba Buena Center: roaring water falls, beautifully landscaped terraces opening out onto pristine views of downtown office towers, with the ugly hulk of the Marriott hotel which bills itself as an "art site" sharply foregrounded, and even video strolls through the Martin Luther King Memorial Park.

It's all just too overwhelming.

Digital Aesthetics

What's particularly interesting about "Be Here Now" is neither its tech (the imagery is frozen in second-order simulations) nor its aesthetics (multimedia redux), but its politics. This supposedly "artistic" exhibition has a lasting value as a brilliant manifestation of liberal thought in the era of digital reality. It's an astronomy lab for peering directly into the mind of digital liberalism, and the price to be paid for the appearance of the fully realized technological universe.

And why? Because the big red button, HOME, with its empty telematic images of the slick Yerba Buena Center, emptied of people but fully convergent with all the key power referents of (our) digital future - telecommunications, computer software, art, and entertainment - is the site of a major urban displacement. In the 1970s, good old HOME was built on the blood of body wipe: 4,000 roomers and pensioners and poor people were thrown out of their old hotels along Third and Mission, the first victims of the violent strategies of the so-called "War on Poverty." Now, it's not that the Yerba Buena Center doesn't own up to its past. We're talking about cynical piety here, about the simultaneous erasure of people and their instant (art photographic) recovery, as the quintessence of digital liberalism. Probably because all of the 4,000 displaced victims of HOME are now too old, too sick, and too dead to do anything about it, the Yerba Buena Center, right smack in the middle of Star Trek San Francisco, counterpoints Naimark's digital vision of "Be Here Now" with a quieter, but intensely sad, photographic exhibit of the urban victims of "Third and Mission." It's evocative: the photographs tell the story of old and poor and unemployed people living in rooming houses and run-down hotels who, with all the courage and skill that ex-merchant marine sailors and ex-boxers and ex-welders and even ex-cops could muster, fought the creation of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, inch by contractual inch.

Now, it might seem that this recovery of (photographic) memory is an act of atonement by the Yerba Buena Center, sort of a settling of accounts by the official arts scene of SF before we all zoom off to the happy ersatz community in the Naimark sky. Maybe it is. But perhaps it's something else. Perhaps this is a story of the "doubling" that is always at the center of digital liberalism: an ideological code that works by always balancing a projective future ("Be Here Now") with an aestheticized past ("Third and Mission"). Two erasures then, and both aesthetic: Naimark's erasure of the digital future into an auto-loop of staged communication, and a photographic erasure of the memory of the Yerba Buena Center victims by recovering their violent displacement aesthetically, only better to forget. Two simulations - one past, one future - and both specious.

But not to worry. Michael Naimark's artistic introduction to "Be Here Now" gives away the key ideological code. It's the true confession as the ruling lie:

"A sense of groundedness, by definition, is the opposite of being virtual"

In the feel good, goody-two-shoes aesthetic universe of digital liberalism, groundedness is only the apparent opposite of being digital. That's the multimedia spectacle of "Be Here Now" as only the apparent opposite of the sad photographs of "Third and Mission." Virtual groundedness and simulated virtuality: these are only apparent opposites that fold into each other, and that, taken together, form the happy harmony of digital liberalism. What's ground? And what's virtual? Today, in art as in politics, apparent opposites only confirm the irreducibility of the liberal will to master the digital future and the staged past. All remembrance is memory wipe. All projection is digital amnesia.