Zach Blas talks exorcizing Silicon Valley’s tech determinist demons with the queer mysticism of “Contra-Internet” in London
“[CONTRA-INTERNET: JUBILEE 2033] really began with two research questions. One was how and why did the internet make this transition from a place of political possibility from the ‘90s where the World Wide Web is getting distributed and there is the proliferation of cyberpunk and cyberfeminist work, a place of potential liberation. And today that’s just clearly not where we’re at,” Blas rolls his eyes, “The other question I was interested in was why is it so hard to imagine an outside to the internet? Why is it that when you Google Image search ‘the internet,’ you get the world?”
The internet and capitalism run parallel in their sense of totality, thwarting the notion of an outside. “At the World Economic Forum in 2015, the previous Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, was asked to predict the future of the internet, and he said that it would disappear,” Blas says, “What he meant by that was that the internet would disappear into the world, and there would no longer be a separation between the two. That particular idea is swirling around a lot in this project.”
An important reference point in CONTRA-INTERNET: JUBILEE 2033, meanwhile, is the 1995 essay “The Californian Ideology” by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, who characterize Silicon Valley as a mix of cybernetics, free market economics, and counter-culture libertarianism. “Originally this film was going to be a documentary, which is funny, because this is not that,” Blas jokes. Instead it brings together a queer/camp sensibility in terms of humor and songs referenced, not to mention a fully queer cast. The storyline follows Ayn Rand (played by legendary queer actor Susanne Sachsse) and two other members of the Ayn Rand Collective — Alan Greenspan and his ex-wife Joan Mitchell — meeting in New York City in 1955. They then take LSD (in a scene hilariously titled ‘Objectivist Drug Party’) and are guided into a techno-accelerationist future by an AI fembot, named Azuma.
“It’s not exactly a realist film but it definitely begins from a realist point. The characters that I chose are historically the people with whom she would meet. Every week Ayn Rand would meet with the rest of her Collective, while she was writing ‘Atlas Shrugged’,” Blas explains, “I highlight this to examine different political programs and their relationship to the world, and of the internet being attached to one of them.”
Blas talks about the playful and humorous references to Silicon Valley’s connection to mind-bending substances and mysticism that are littered throughout the exhibition. Like the queer, contra-sexual AI prophet Nootropix (played by Cassils) is a reference to nootropics: smart drugs or cognitive enhancers. Including LSD, smart drugs are consumed in microdoses to increase work capacity in Silicon Valley, an example of accelerationism in the social sphere. Looking at the etymology of nootropics, it quite literally means ‘mind-bending.’ “The play on this was not an obvious ‘take drugs and hallucinate’ but more that it’s mind-bending to have this militant, utopian vision of something that is beyond the internet.” Using the classic device of sci-fi dystopia, the film allows us to re-address our own reality.
Azuma’s character is particularly interesting as she is a real AI chatbot that is currently available for pre-order. Seemingly straight out of an episode of “Black Mirror,” she embodies the gender divide within Silicon Valley and beyond. “I’m interested in Azuma because she’s the first commercial AI that’s a servant or assistant with a full body. Conjuring Azuma allows Rand to encounter this vision of a hypersexualized femme who is also programmed to be a servant. There’s a racialized aspect to her as well, and the first scene is essentially about awful white people who are extremely conservative. Even in Silicon Valley there is a racialization based on labor. A work that focuses on this is Andrew Norman Wilson’s WORKERS LEAVING THE GOOGLEPLEX.”
The film ends with Nootropix mirroring Atlas holding the world, before bursting into a joyous dance in a William Gibson version of cyberspace, with Andrea Bocelli’s “Con te partirò” as soundtrack to the scene. Blas talks about his fascination with the fact that this is Elon Musk’s favorite song. “I’m very interested by what he had to say about it — that it captures the essence of beauty in the world. And that’s another evocation of the world, so I decided that this has to be the song,” Blas tells me, excitedly. Cheerfully speculative, Blas goes on, “I also made this work in April about this AI chatbot Tay with Jemima Wineman, and we were really interested in Google’s Deep Dream, thinking about it as Silicon Valley psychedelia.” Through speculative realism, Blas likes finding moments in time where something could have potentially happened, and using these moments of possibility to fuel his projects. “It’s interesting to think things through with technologies that have these concepts embedded, and continuing the train of thought that has already been started with them.”
“It’s fun to play with history, and think of the time this takes place in 1955, when Alan Greenspan got his first job at the Federal Reserve, and at the same time the CIA was conducting secret mind control experiments with LSD. So if you want to play with history, this is the time that Alan Greenspan could’ve gotten access to LSD.” The instance of the ‘Objectivist Drug Party’ becomes a fleshing out of potentiality, “I love trying to flip this image so you can see that there is something incredibly psychedelic happening in Silicon Valley.” Blas’s focus on this junction between technology and mysticism shifts the idea of data-driven practices as being inherently objective. [...] “For example, there was an NSA program that was called MYSTIC. Why it is that tech companies present themselves in this way? They evoke magic repeatedly — and in giving it a name, you start to understand it more precisely, as a working process.” [...]
Interested in politicized network alternatives that fracture or challenge the overriding infrastructure of the internet, Blas is still hopeful in the consideration of alternatives to the internet. “There are politically-driven infrastructure projects going on right now, which are about getting out of the commercial internet as we know it. I took a lot of motivation from those — they’re actually art!” While these alternatives are still limited and local, such technologies have been developed in different parts of the world, during large-scale protests or for community social justice projects. “For me, it is believing in an alternative to emerge, and part of that argument is that if you don’t actually believe there is an outside to capital, then you will never achieve that anti-capitalist alternative that you’re supposedly invested in.”
Zach Blas’s “Contra-Internet” solo exhibition was on at London’s Gasworks, running September 21 to December 10, 2017.
(Sukanya Deb: “Zach Blas talks exorcizing Silicon Valley’s tech determinist demons with the queer mysticism of ‘Contra-Internet’ in London,” in: AQNB, 14 December 2017, URL: http://www.aqnb.com/2017/12/14/zach-blas-talks-exorcising-silicon-valleys-tech-determinist-demons-with-the-queer-mysticism-of-contra-internet/)