Transmission – Marie-Anne McQuay 2010

Charlie Tweed – Notes I, II & III

Whilst masquerading as a fiction – a future dystopia transmitted in episodes by a post-human life force – Charlie Tweed’s Notes series, like all dystopias, mirrors the concerns of the present moment; specifically twenty-first systems of control that perpetuate ideologies of fear.

In the sci-fi tinged universe created by the artist, the twentieth century totalitarian regimes that fueled the nightmarish visions of Orwell, Huxley and Zamyatin1, in which citizens watch others whilst also watching themselves to ensure total loyalty to a technocratic authoritarian state, have now been completely decentralized and virtualized. These new systems of social control extend “throughout the depths of consciousness and bodies of the population”;2 they are distributed, networked, digitized and internalized: they are biopolitical. The register of fear they produce is crucially set at a low drone, rather than maintained at the unsustainable peaks and troughs of terror; constant anxiety about ‘known unknowns’ thus manifests as an overwhelming desire to control risk by continually modifying one’s own behaviour: this is Tweed’s dystopia.

In the Notes series which is comprised of seven short videos divided into three chapters3, Tweed uses the device of overidentification through personifying control methodologies as a way of highlighting their effectiveness. In order to do this, the artist has created an anonymous yet omni-present power base who are affecting change on a global scale. Their plans are inexplicable yet apparently urgent; in order to ensure our collective safety, they will bring forth a world wide flood (‘We are the above’), and, more mysteriously still, capture “all of the birds” in order to, “store them securely in places where they can operate freely”‘ (Where we are now’’). More akin to a computer virus than a definable group, ‘they’ are depicted as swarm-like in their movements, declaring themselves to be “undetectable, invisible” (‘We are the above’). In addition, since they talk only of themselves as ‘we’, they seem to imply our complicity in their collective actions and so, if they speak on our behalf, they may well be ‘us.’

The voices that narrate each episode are computer generated, calm, authoritative, and accompanied by melodic music. Even when they stutter and glitch in places, repeating or mispronouncing words as if struggling to process information, the effect is still hypnotic. In a world at the edge of an unknown civil and environmental disaster, they or rather ‘we’ have a plan and the seductions of a certainty of purpose exceeds any concerns over the logic of these actions.

The scripts, which are the origins of each of the Notes episodes, resonate with the present moment in part because of their non-fictional origins.  Tweed, for example, incorporates the contemporary phenomenon of ‘rewilding’4, taking its theories to extremes and the end of civilization, whilst  also hypothesizing on the outcomes of the predicted scenarios in which we arrive at the moment of ultimate technological advancement (‘Singularity’). The final transmission, (‘Zappisale’),  in which all networks are to be “disrupted”, is guided by the writings of a real-world, anonymous collective ‘The Invisible Committee’ who predicted the imminent collapse of neoliberal capitalism in their anarchist handbook The Coming Insurrection5. This video ends in abstraction, with broken down, overexposed images, identifiable only as colours and shapes, as if following the logic of a narrative bent on disruption, by destroying itself frame by frame.

The collaging of real world schemas into scripts is mirrored by the montaging of clips from freely circulating digital sources to form the visuals of Tweed’s ‘worst of all possible worlds’. Extracts from broadcast documentaries, Youtube clips, instructional videos and amateur news footage are stripped of what remains of their original context. These contemporary ‘poor images’, a term coined by Hito Steyerl to describe the particular quality and status of the low saturation byproducts of digital distribution6, are generically but not specifically recognizable as mountains and sea, power stations and mobile homes, climbing walls and medical procedures, floods and storms. Further distorted with effects, such as additional pixilation or analogue noise, they are almost impossible to place in terms of a specific time or geographical location, other than being ‘of the world’.

Consequently, when accompanied by Tweed’s insistent narratives, formerly banal images are cast in apocalyptic light, raising questions as to whether individuals are playing or fleeing and whether groups are assisting or attacking. As the transmissions accumulate and chaos is the only constant, we start to experience “the ordinariness of the extraordinary” that Doris Lessing identifies in her 1974 dystopian novel The Memoirs of a Survivor”7; in which self-protective rationalizing of the ‘extraordinary’, an unnamed catastrophe that is potentially a nuclear war, distracts, initially at least, from the irrevocable consequences of this event.

Ultimately, as we watch Notes I, II, III, we, the viewer, remain uncertain as to whether what we are experiencing is avertable or if this is a portrait of a future that has already taken place, a time-traveling echo of scenes in which we will have participated as “the above”, as “the now”. We may therefore already be complicit in the total change of everything we know in order to (paradoxically) maintain our safety, our continuity: our  surrender may already be historic. It is therefore possible that those of us who are viewing the Notes series on-line, projecting what we think are our singular subjectivities onto this flow of words and images, are instead merely glitches in the machine, flaws in the system, ghosts in the network.