slow motion existential catastrophe (set to music)
Paypal-inventor and SpaceX-rocketeer Elon Musk believes we live in a computer game. Not Space Invaders naturally. The graphics are too crude and we would have noticed our houses slowly disintegrating under saucer fire by now. Besides God is not some kind of retro-futurist hipster tapping out the Akashic Scrolls on a typewriter a la Lady Gaga. Nor is it a Doom or Quake-style shoot ’em up however consensually appealing that might be to wanna-be spree killers, nor a role-playing fantasy number, not even an online civilisation building-type deal complete with an alternative economy and Zombie-like fanbase devoted to realising a fair simulation of Musk’s original contention. No, nothing so palpably absurd but we are living in a computer game nonetheless, albeit an ineffably advanced, dizzyingly complex, pan-dimensional and apparently infinite one, says Musk. His argument goes something like this: according to the all-possible-worlds theory, we live in an infinite multi-verse where everything that can be true is true. In best mad inventor fashion, Musk then applies a species of reverse Occam’s Razor to the theory in which because it is possible that we are living in a computer game then it must be so, as to create all of this organically would be much more difficult.
Musing thus the Ambassador and I decided to check out New York artist Jess Johnson’s Eclectrc Panoptic exhibition at the Talbot Rice. For those of you that haven’t seen it yet, Johnson’s occult diagrams have been rendered into a fully immersive virtual reality by artist Simon Ward using computer game software. The result Ixian Gate is a 3-D world of digital DMT architecture tricked out in electric blues and acid greens, where motifs from Johnson’s artwork such as Dune-inspired giant worms spiral and flesh-toned cybernauts merge into each other in vaguely suggestive ways around you as you are slowly transported up Escheresque stairways through swirling Time Tunnel tunnels to towering Lovecraftian temples on a ‘moving’ platform. This is a purely passive experience; you are provided with goggles but not a glove nor an avatar. You can not interact, merely observe. Workmanlike electronic muzak parps along inoffensively in the background. However, as a predictive sketch of our post human future it is compelling and frankly unsettling; looking down as your spaceport travelator bridges over empty ‘space’ between architecture is nauseatingly vertiginous. You are confronted with a yawning abyss of Bridget Reilly geometry extending into a Matrix-style infinity. You could get irrevocably and definitively lost here and never find your way back to…?
Obviously, it is absolutely brilliant and totally trippy. The gallery’s blurb namechecks cult Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ritual magick, loopy sci-fi writers Christopher Priest and Russell Hoban and arcane-themed comic book artist Alan Moore. An even more germane reference would be madcap artist, architect and reclusive genius Paul Laffoley whose astonishingly beautiful and detailed techno-mandalas and esoteric obsessions had been prefiguring Johnson’s from his Boston base since the late Sixties until his death last year. Indeed, Johnson’s 2010 work Boston Visionary Cell is an eponymous tribute to Laffoley’s solo think tank and artistic school. Throw in the grandmaster of all metaphysical art, the early twentieth century witch and Royal Academician Austin Osman Spare whose sigil magick and menacing paintings are the praxis to all the aforementioned theorists plus the DMT-drenched cinema of Gaspar Noê‘s 2009 film Enter The Void and we are beginning to triangulate on Johnson’s aesthetic. Here is the digital mysticism heralded by psychedelic evangelists such as Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna, the druggy brave new world where everything and nothing is real, the dawning of a post human era where Hassan i Sabbah’s deathbed ontology makes perfect, paradoxical sense.
In this context, Musk’s Klein Bottle-logic begins to seem almost plausible. Just load up on longevity drugs, cryogenics and the latest digital interfaces and press go. But if ‘space’ is not space and ‘movement’ is not movement then why is our Silicone Valley Bond villain bothering to relocate to Mars in his SpaceX rockets? Rather than move to a vat in a data farm under the Bay of Stockholm, Musk is poised to hop on the mag-lev express to his launch pad. The Ambassador and I don’t know about you, but when we colonise space our ships will be built and piloted by steel-eyed, flinty engineers not some bit coin billionaire Stanford brat on a Segway who thinks we live in Minecraft. Virgin Galactic’s plans for scheduled commercial space flights are in tatters after the tragic crash of its SpaceShipTwo in 2014. Sadly, Richard Branson’s witless adventures in hot air balloons and gliders now seem to be playing out on an even grander scale. The Russians are possible candidates if the flight crew manages not to drink all the aviation fuel ahead of launch. Escaped Nazis would be good. You might have to endure regular calisthenics and a eugenics program but Werner von Braun and Willy Ley would have got you there in one piece. Whatever the respective merits of rival rocket systems, Musk is hedging his bets suspiciously. Perhaps the reiki therapists, baristas and tattoo artists crammed into steerage will look back and see Musk’s jump-suited employees wiring up supercomputers and drip feed ayahuasca to a group of brain surgeons, dot com millionaires and, well, rocket scientists. Sold on a ticket off our crippled planet, the rubes can head for the asteroid belt while Musk and his minions divvy up Hawaii.
We will have to wait and see. SpaceX Rockets now plan to go beyond Mars with the Moon, Venus, the asteroid Ceres and Saturn and Jupiter moons Titan and Callisto all on the itinerary. The fact remains that Elon Musk is deeply sinister. His former business partner Peter Thiel, who secretly bankrolled Hulk Hogan in a proxy legal battle aimed at bankrupting NYC satirical magazine The Gawker after it outed him, is a ruthless corporate vulture who makes Darth Vader look sympathetic. Musk’s choice of friends only compounds the caution that any eccentric billionaire with their own rocket program should be treated. Meanwhile Jess Johnson is currently hacking reality as part of a group residency in Omaha, Nebraska entitled Sci-Fi and the Human Condition until November 18. Mainstream virtual reality languishes in the hands of professional drone racers who mount cameras on the noses of their craft and pilot them round aerial obstacle courses in aircraft hangars using VR headsets. So as the concrete rushes up to meet us but before our screens finally go black, the Ambassador and I ponder: if I die in virtual reality will I wake up in the next bardo?