Mad in the Meatspace
At one point during lockdown, our brains started to malfunction and people got under the shower with their glasses still on. In part a neurological response to overwhelming and continued stress, many suggest that this is just an acceleration of the already serious effects the internet has had on our brains. After all, screen time has been up by over 100% over the last year, and while the kids may be alright, the adults aren’t.
As Paul Preciado pointed out in the spring of 2020, the pandemic turned the “horizontal worker” – think of Hugh Hefner in his rotating bed, surrounded by a serious set-up of telephones – into the prototype for a new workforce. The technological set-up, however, has become much more powerful and Hugh is a homeschooling mother, ready to wreak havoc at the next Kultusministerkonferenz. While the hardware remains at the safe seeming distance, that is “at the tip of our fingers”, the subjects produced by these regimes of “microprosthetic and media-cybernetic control” “do not have hands”, only “bodies of data.” Preciado’s swansong to the organic body with its “lips and tongues” tastes a little cultural pessimist and appears rooted in what Nathan Jurgenson has termed the “digital dualism.” Same with most binaries, the belief in the inherent separability between the digital and the physical sphere is a goner. In actuality, things feel different, both the things felt and the things feeling. The weird thing about “lockdown brain” or “brain fog” then is that it’s not only a diving board for theoretical hot takes but a lingering reality. I for one have started to dream of emails.
In his SciFi novel “Neuromancer”, William Gibson describes cyberspace as a “collective hallucination”, alluding to the dream-like, speculative and straight-up fictional nature of the internet. When people remember the early internet as a space of possibility, they tell stories of dreaming big and dreams coming true. A deterritorialized space in which the technological means for once matched their possible, not their actual uses. The heroes of those stories had to be mad in order to get it. Today, the internet appears much more pathologized. Its integration into national institutions and the marketplace is nearly total – there are innumerous protocols and vast systems of surveillance as well as self-help industries making sure that you use the internet correctly, in a sane way. And rarely has that felt more wrong. So if, excuse-moi!, we were to switch positions, that is to get off the analyst’s couch onto his or her chair, what would the diagnosis be? If pathology is error à la Georges Canguilhem, a digital error is a glitch. In her recently published “Glitch Manifesto”, Legacy Russell offers an account of the emancipatory potential of the glitch as a necessary error, indicative of “how failure can be emancipatory.”  Any such potential rests on a condition that states that the internet is exactly as shitty as the rest of the world, where the law of the land is that of property, capital and racialization. But in that land, everyone is lower-case mad. In today’s affect economy, the internet’s propensity to drive its users mad is part and parcel to its business model. This is an individualized failure of a system working. On the one side, we have Elon and Bezos, equipped with egoes of a size only matched by their wealth, and on the other we have Twitter, where everyone is always losing their fucking mind.
In an eponymous text accompanying her exhibition, Anna M. Szaflarski reflects on a critique levelled against artists who rely on biological narratives – such as rhizome romanticism or Tomás Saraceno’s interspecies dialogue – and which states that such a move is inadvertently naturalizing and effectively apolitical. Instead, Szaflarski insists that we need to examine those narratives themselves, especially if they demonstrably inform our realities. Her latest exhibition at Klosterruine could be read as one such attempt as she carefully traces the biologizing narratives of pathology and the network and/or systems of collective behavior through past and present designs of the internet. The internet is totally ubiquitous, yet still very young: it seems to outgrow the stories told about itself faster than our collective imagination allows. Driven both by intellectual curiosity as it manifests in the extensive research that goes into her practice, and a series of ethical and political concerns possibly best described as anti-capitalism, Szaflarski jump-starts our imagination, allowing the viewer to grapple with the entirely artificial and anything but innocent nature of the internet.
Providing a sort of legend to the entire exhibition, Szaflarski has installed a large reproduction of a drawing next to the front gate of Klosterruine. The drawing offers an almost cosmological vision of a world, or better, of three connected worlds, the analog world (hello, flat earther), the internet and the darknet, all mapped onto a virtual plane. The three worlds are arranged hierarchical and are yet connected through various circuits and loops, an anachronistic infrastructure consisting of analog and digital, human and non-human elements, in equal parts science-fiction, “psychobuilding” and paganist icon, evoking a future that never was.
Let’s begin with the background. It’s a virtual map, all horizontal, evoking the vast and ungovernable space libertarians dream of. Yet, as we all know, the problem with non-proprietary space is that it needs to be shared and Jack Dorsey doesn’t share. Their freedom has historically always been somebody else’s problem. In Szaflarski’s worlds, everybody has a problem, or in other words, shit to do. Humans are stuck in pods, their faces illuminated by their phones, their attention systematically harvested…by ants, that in turn labor away, in collective harmony, whether they want to or need to or both. The collapse of that distinction rings all-too-familiar. A chain of eyes recalls ubiquitous surveillance, looking both inwards and outwards and yet blind to the altogether more sinister things unfolding below. Below is where the darknet is. Szaflarski presents this space as one of possible anonymity, but also as an appendix to an already compromised system, the literal basement in which teenagers surf the darknet only to score some MDMA.
Despite the disconcerting vibe of all this, Szaflarski’s exhibition doesn’t offer critique. It’s an equally totalizing and totally blurry vision. A real wait, am I still wearing my glasses? moment. In her practice, Szaflarski has a propensity to develop fictions that devour themselves, that spill over and thus end up messing up the real. At Klosterruine, you run into this mess very quickly. Looking at her drawings, its cosmological, astrolabe-like outlook suggests order, an objectifying perspective, but how and where exactly do I as a spectator figure into it? Stuck on that sad-looking disc that is the quote-on-quote real world but with its edges determined by my search engine results? Or is the whole thing only in my mind, offering a rare glimpse of that ubiquitous base that structures my thinking and feeling in today’s late-late-capitalism and if so, is Szaflar-, sorry, S. paranoid?
At Klosterruine, the images manifest as large-scale sculptures in the spectators’ physical world. Made from mud, these objects appear as having been constructed by ants, real ants drawn out from the ground of Klosterruine. While the monastery church subsists as a ruin, the former monastery is still largely underground, raising the pertinent question if these ants are former monks, because of course they are. The mere size of the sculptures turns the spectators into protagonists of the myriad narratives unfolding in the space. And their stories are confusing. There are tales of networks, yes, but these networks are as much about collectivity as they are about the continuous mediation of meaning, operating as a sort of hypertext to her own exhibition as images and references continuously skip from one media to the next. And there is madness. Szaflarski evokes the madness of the internet that almost actually existed – a fever dream of transgression and universal connectivity, an original “interruption technology” that short-circuits the real with the possible. This is an altogether different animal than the madness of capitalism.
And not just any animal, actually. It’s that ant that found its way onto your hand while you hung off a rock during that climbing trip on your one day off…so the same ant that made its way up your arm, into your ear, through your ear canal, across the cranial nerve, all the way to your brain stem, where it gave you meningitis and eventually became an angry thought under the shower: But my emails.
 John Perry Barlow is often credited with having termed “meatspace” as a synonym for the real, read analog, world.
 This is not to mention the … that is Preciado’s suggested continuity between the face mask and the EU boarder.