Social Media Ego Death Trip

[UNLOCKED] bonus 013, 4th August, 2019

Hi everyone,

Austin here with your latest bonus instalment of Nothing Here. This time around I bring you an experiment in non-non-fiction. The genesis for this (now probably defunct) project came about via my interest in installation art and experimental military technology. I did quite a bit of research for this project, so if you want to further explore some of the concepts contained within, you’ll find yourself travelling down some strange rabbit holes indeed!

I hope you enjoy this exercise in “liminal journalism”, and thanks as ever for putting down some of your hard earned dosh to support our little newsletter.

Take care, and we’ll talk to you again soon.

//

SOCIAL MEDIA EGO DEATH TRIP

A Review of David Micheline's headspace//headcase

David Micheline told me a story, and it went like this: Once upon a time, during Gulf War Part One: Operation Desert Storm, back when George Bush Sr. was leading the United States of America and his son was busy ruining baseball teams, back in a forgotten time when The Simpsons was still good and people thought Rap music was just a novelty that would stop being A Thing any minute now, some war nerds had a plan.

The nerds were trying to orchestrate an Iraqi uprising, and one particular boffin had a creative approach that no one had yet considered – they would get God Himself to be their official spokesman[1]. He would appear to the Iraqi citizenry and tell them directly to overthrow Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

Boom. Revolution = Sorted.

“That’s butts-nuts koo-koo crazy,” responded one General after hearing this plan[2]. “How the fuck are we going to get God to do that? We don’t even have his deets.”

“Not to worry,” said the boffin, chomping on an expensive cigar custom-moistened with the tears of brown people[3], “we’ll just use a mixture of holographic technology and intracranial sound waves.”

And so they set to the business of researching and developing this revolutionary technology under the codename of Project Blue Beam. In order to complete the Project, their extensive investigations found, they would need a whole bunch of neat stuff: a one-mile wide space mirror, a portable nuclear reactor, and the kind of moral compass that usually guides only jumpsuit-clad supervillains. While they had the last bit, they couldn’t raise the funds to get the first two things up and running, and so had to settle instead for a military campaign that would claim over 30,000 lives and sow the seeds for a destabilized Middle East that continues to cause global chaos to this day.

Result.

“But what I found,” continued Micheline as he finished his grim story in an attempt to explain his latest freak out of an art installation, headspace//headcase, “is that the technology for actually creating this kind of divine visionary experience did exist, just on a much smaller scale. So I set out to try and find it, and make it.”

Micheline is a striking man who makes striking work. His personal aesthetic is located somewhere in the realm of Private School Goth: his rake-thin frame is generally clad in vintage thrift store suits, always dark in colour, always with a skinny, black tie, ankh pendant and alligator skin shoes de rigueur. He has a skin condition called vitiligo, which causes pigment loss, and in his case it’s primarily located in his scalp, giving him a streak of white hair. He also smokes cigarettes. Constantly.

“Take US patent 4877027 A, for example,” he said as we shared a fag or two outside of his favourite New York dive bar[4]. “It’s for what they describe as a ‘hearing system’, but really it’s a device that allows high frequency electromagnetic energy to be projected through the air right into the head of a person. You hear voices in your head, quite literally. It’s a schizophrenic’s nightmare, but for me? As an artist? It’s a bloody dream. ”

Micheline went about constructing his own version of this device – his own homebrewed intracranial sound cannon. And it is this machine that is at the heart of headspace//headcase.

Like so many of Micheline's artworks, there is a sort of vetting process to which the audience must submit before they can enter the installation itself. In the case of headspace//headcase it involves two steps: Firstly, you must complete a 20 question multiple choice survey, primarily focused on your theoretical emotional response to a number of scenarios, these situations ranging from the seemingly innocuous to the profoundly disturbing[5]. The way the questions are phrased reminded me of the Voight Kampff test used to detect the robotic replicants in Blade Runner. In the second part of the process, you download a custom mobile app, digitally sign a waiver[6] and allow the app to access to the gamut of your social media profiles[7].

The whole process is unnerving, to say the least, but I didn’t see a single audience member who started the application opt out when they were asked to share their information in this way. Whether it’s the hype behind this particular artwork, Micheline’s grand guignol reputation, or just the kind of devil-may-care personalities attracted to this sort of experience, people were happily laying their lives bare so that Micheline could torture them more effectively, all in the name of Art.

What actually transpires within headspace//headcase reminded me more of a bad acid trip than anything else. It’s designed to replicate what the artist described to me as “a kind of social media ego death trip” – once you’re alone inside the installation, once you’ve followed the blinking neon lights to the maze’s centre, you stand on an elevated platform, your attention directed to a five-metre-tall screen. What you see and hear next will differ from viewer to viewer, but essentially it is a greatest hits parade of all of your deepest fears, anxieties and insecurities, terrible sounds beamed directly into your skull, accompanied by doctored visuals mined from your social media streams and theme-appropriate, procedurally-generated footage. The most miraculous thing about headspace//headcase is that about 70% of the time you will literally hear the voices of your loved ones saying terrible, soul-crushing things[8]. During this intensely focused and realistic narration they will belittle you, they will point out your flaws, they will insist that you have committed terrible crimes, and they will emphatically tell you that you have no intrinsic worth or value in this world. It’s certainly “effective”, but I feel like I should make this very clear: if you’re of a fragile disposition, depressed, anxious or hungover, I would definitely avoid this installation. I generally have a pretty high self-loathing quotient, so I thought I’d be immune, but I still found myself feeling like I’d been strained through a sieve of misery and the raw, shattered end product reconstituted into something only vaguely human.

Make no mistake, headspace//headcase is an immensely effective intersection of technology and art, a profound experience, and a massive, total bummer.

When the screen went blank at the end, I wandered dazed back into the gallery. Micheline was there, waiting for me, grinning.

“What did you think?” he asked.

“I think,” I replied, “you’re a giant fucking bastard.”


[1] Specifically, the region-specific version of God known as Allah. You might have heard of Him.

[2] Probably.

[3] Probably.

[4] Full disclosure: We’d been drinking. He drinks vodka rocks (Grey Goose or fancier) and I drink whisky (whatever is at hand, preferably Irish).

[5] I only distinctly remember one of them: You have broken up with your long term partner. You were unhappy, and you sensed they were too. In response, your now ex-partner sleeps with a close friend or sibling. Do you blame: A) Yourself B) Your Ex-Partner C) God D) Society

[6] Yes, just like Micheline's astounding The Paranoia Room, you have to forfeit any subsequent legal action if you should suffer permanent physical or psychological damage from exposure to headspace//headcase.

[7] If you don’t have any social media presence, you will not be allowed to access the installation. Micheline described this as the sole “win condition”.

[8] I have no idea how this part is done, and the artist wasn’t forthcoming when pressed. It’s probably more of Micheline’s homebrew psyops juju, but I have seriously considered the idea that maybe he’s just a wizard or something.