Wasting Art, Wasting I

The hellish passage was tinted in black and red, seemingly bleeding me towards the swallowing doorway at its end, the glowing, pulsating mouth of some near death experience. I walked through it, silence; my eyes squinted from the harsh glare of fluorescent tubing, everything so uniformly white that angles did not exist.

What hits you at first is the smell. It was like a morgue, clinically clean, yet not even the strongest detergent seemed to remove the smell of decay and death lingering in the background. My eyes were naturally drawn towards the centre of the room where its only feature lay: a hospital gurney, surrounded by plastic pouches of food solution and bodily waste.

And there lay the withering Randal Perkins, dying.

Some people have called him the greatest artist that has ever lived; others consider him to be dangerous, crazy and just another suicidal. There are rumours that an almost religious-like cult has grown up around him viewing him as a modern day messiah, while others praise him as a prophet for the Transhumanist movement. He himself would say, “I’m just me.” Whatever the truth, The Exhibit of Randal Perkins is the most extreme art exhibit ever staged at the New Tate Modern, because while Randal Perkins’ body is clearly dying, he is very much alive, in what he sees as the real world: a virtual game.

Next to his bed is a small plastic chair for each viewer to sit (the gallery only allow one visitor at a time, closely monitored, they say, via hidden cameras). Sitting there, it’s hard not to feel your stomach wrenched by the sight of his muscle-wasted body. His face is hidden by a Skinner, the black goggles cutting off his vision. He has not removed them in over two years. In fact, he has not moved his body once either, not since the Tate agreed to his exhibit and he was strapped down to the bed for the first time. The restraints are purely for show however, since he’s the physical equivalent of brain dead: he can no longer use his body at all, not because of the wasting, but because the necessary motor-neuron functions were largely disabled under Randal’s direction, as well as most of his pain receptors.

Under the agreement formed with Tate, they have to keep his physical body alive for as long as possible with the help of a team of specialist doctors and nurses that visit him each day. The catch, of course, is that while they keep the body functioning with food and water, they must allow the body to continue to decay. He may live, I am told, for at least a few more years, but he’ll probably resemble something like the sloth from classic cult film, Seven.

People have watched him 24/7 via live cams, contact and neural networks, and a special, dedicated channel on Dream, showing both the exhibit room and his virtual world in which he now lives. It has all earned him the nickname of the “True Man” in dedication to the classic film The Truman Show from the late 1990’s. In that film the whole world watched Truman, a baby who from birth was placed in a huge film studio and filmed as a TV show until he becomes aware and breaks free into the real world. In this exhibit however, Randal is working backwards: he wants to live only in the virtual studio.

He has been the subject of endless debates as to his motives, interviewed countless times, and so I had decided I wanted to meet him in person, experience the exhibit itself, and hear what he had to say. To do so meant going into his world: not only can he no longer move, but his vocal cords were severed. He cannot hear anything in this world, either.

A similar Skinner headset hangs from a thin metal hook on the side of the bed, and I put it on. The room is suddenly full of digital people. There’s a party going on: a DJ in the corner spinning decks, lights flashing, a bar running down one corner of the wall buzzing with the talk and movement of people, and Randal is dancing with what appears to be three girls in bikinis. There is life, noise and smell. A virtual brunette avatar bumps into me as she walks past.

Welcome to the world of Next Life.

Similar in concept to the retro Second Life and its successor, Life 2.0, Next Life has caught on around the world as the most popular TARG, or Tran-spatial Alternate Reality Game that converts the Internet of Things into a real, digital world. Every real world person who has agreed to take part adds their arphid data, from both their own personal tags as well as any possessions they want to allow, to the Next Life network, creating an alternate reality that maps itself out spatially according to the real world.

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to someone who’s never taken part, except that it is like experiencing the whisper or ghost of reality: there, but not. You can feel, smell, hear and even taste everything here, but it’s simply brain stimulus with no physical interaction at all. And it’s here that Randal has chosen to live.

He sees me, excuses himself from the group of ladies, and walks over. The blonde-haired and blue-eyed, muscular man coming towards me is a far cry from the wasted figure on the bed; that, and the fact that digital imaging has still not achieved the same sort of realness as we’re accustomed to in the real world.

“Follow me,” he says.

He leads me to the wall next to the DJ booth, opens a seemingly invisible door and we step through into a small, quiet room consisting of two chairs and a table with a small black ashtray on top. We sit down, and it’s only then that I notice the visitor badge on my own digital avatar, guessing that was how he knew who I was. He smiles and reaches out his hand.

“Good to meet you,” he says, as we introduce each other and shake hands. “We’ll have a few minutes to talk in private before you’re disconnected and I can go back to the party. This is the one place I’m not filmed constantly as per my agreement with Tate, so I’ll answer whatever questions you have as truthfully as possible.”

I watch him intently for a few seconds, wondering how I should ask. His smile widens slightly. “I guess the first question you want to ask is ‘Why?’ right?”

I give him a small laugh and nod. “Bet you get that a lot, but yeah.”

“Well, it really is like you’ve probably read. I got sick of that world. Life meant more to me here than out there. The people I met here, the things I could do, how I felt: I was alive here.” He lights up a cigarette and grins. “Plus, these things don’t kill you here. Well, not yet anyway.”

“Some people have said that you’re doing this as a protest. Are you?”

“In a way, but I wouldn’t say I’m protesting. I have my own views, but whether I like or dislike what’s happening doesn’t really matter. I prefer ‘teaching’.”

“Teaching what, exactly?”

He looks thoughtful for a second, as he breathes out some smoke.

“I am showing people the consequences of globalization, mass consumerism, materialism, technologization; take your pick. What’s happening to my physical body is already happening to theirs, to the world, thanks to the latest in consumer tech. The only thing is that it’s happening so slowly that they don’t notice.”

“And what’s that?”

“We’re staring at our digital reflections so long that our physical bodies are dying, along with what we long considered to be reality.”

“You’re talking about McLuhan, aren’t you?”

He smiled, pleasantly surprised.

“You know his work. Yes, the narcissus effect. The medium,” he waves his hands around, directing towards the surroundings, “will consume not just us as people, but everyday objects, animals, everything, even time. In this place, I can move backwards in time; everything has history here. Remember the Way-Back machine? It’s like that, but the archive is an image world of what you think of as the real world. I suspect one day we’ll move forwards in time, too. Archive is the wrong word though. The fact is that when Reggio spoke so many years ago about technology being our nature, the natural progression for that was for it to become our existence, our reality. The other world is in fact becoming a poorer copy of this one.”

“Do you see yourself as the modern day version of someone pouring petrol on themselves and setting it alight to draw attention to this?”

“Maybe some people see me as that. I prefer to think of myself as just giving people a glimpse of tomorrow.”

“But you’re not truly in this world, are you? I mean, your body is still out there, and when it dies, you’ll die here, too, right?”

He leans forward across the desk, the same grin appearing on his boyish face, like he knows something I don’t.

Are you so sure of that?”

He sees my hesitation and carries on: “If I can download and save my entire brain into this avatar, which is growing increasingly likely, would I not be me?”

“Are you saying you’re a brain?”

He shakes his head and laughs. “The Minds I. Very good. No, what I’m saying is that’s what we’re becoming: logical, rational, structured and ordered. There is no place for irrationality in this world.”

“You said you have your own views. What do you mean by that?”

For once, I seem to have stumped him, as if he doesn’t want to say any more. He’s looking at me curiously, as if weighing up the pros and cons. He puts out the cigarette in the ashtray, leans back in the chair and closes his eyes.

“I don’t consider my own views to be that important since they only really matter to me. We’re largely responsible only for our own actions, after all. I just want people to be aware of where we’re headed. I guess my only hope is that people would pursue goals based on future consequences that are grounded in reality, rather than future hopes grounded in wishful thinking.” He opened his eyes again, staring at me intently: “In my experience, utopia is simply dystopia with good PR.”

Suddenly, there was darkness. Transmission terminated, my time was up. I took off the Skinner and hung the goggles back on their hook. After adjusting my eyes I stood up, looking at the emaciated body for one last time, and left.

As I headed back down through the tunnel, I couldn’t help but feel I was descending from Randal Perkins’ heaven back into one of Dante’s hells. Yet there was increasingly less difference between the two, except perhaps one crucial point: I still have a brain. But, I wondered, how long would it be before we are one?

Written by Steven Eduard, published by Re-Wired magazine, 2032.


There are 2 comments for this fragment. Why not join in?

  1. Comment by joy @ 11:35 am

    this is my favourite so far. sent me off on a wild tangent of the mind and re-introduced me to mcluhan again. thanks!

  2. Pingback by thehumansarecoming @ 1:19 pm

    […] NB! Craig’s writting is really good and I’d highly having a look at Future Fragments. Why not start with Wasting Art, Wasting I […]

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December 17, 2006
  • Written by at 5:36 pm.
  • Filed under Interview Fragments.
  • There are 2 comments, and the most recent is by thehumansarecoming: "[...] NB! Craig’s writting is really good and I’d highly having a look at Future Fragments. Why not start with…" More.
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