Reviewed by Sarah Bay Williams
Earthling, is a satire of spectacle. It makes mincemeat of the torrent of information and imagery that we consume (and that consumes us). It reconfigures global media subjectivities. It resists. It reprograms. It ruffles my casual disregard for the everyday onslaught of the headline.
The book is about the size of a National Enquirer supermarket tabloid and is just as juicy—a banquet of full-bleed spreads. Fronted by a ruminative short essay by Barry Schwabsky and a lovingly casual but sharp-as-a-tack interview between Neidich and Hans Ulrich Obrist, the book is throughout illustrated by several installation shots of Neidich’s previous work and drawings.
The photographs are real-life representations of his particular perspective on media and consumption. Each photo is a rich, somewhat high-contrast, colorful composition of someone reading in a café, obscured by their respective newspaper or magazine: National Enquirer, International Herald Tribune, Interview, The Guardian, Newsweek, Daily Mirror. Roughly-cut holes in what they are reading reveal their eyes, looking out, sometimes up, sometimes over, and, most ominously, right at the camera.
“What is this eye, what is this gaze, that pierces the plane and meets my own…. What is its function? What or who is it spying on? It is tempting to answer: it’s spying on me. And yet that doesn’t seem quite right,” writes Barry Schwabsky in his essay for the book. There is a hypnotizing force to media—an eerie and foreboding force. Neidich’s images employ the simple human gaze as scalpel to the words of authority—the media, the politicians, the celebrities, the church—it’s creepy and funny enough to make me reconsider the page.
Neidich explains that what led him to shoot in cafés began with an interest in “indeterminate spaces, spaces where people kind of linger and then move on.” Originally, he would use any magazine that happened to be lying around. Soon, headlines on the newsstands began to catch his eye, rich with potential, and he began to collect them, eventually amassing an archive of piles and piles of periodicals. He couldn’t stop.
I was in sick in bed for a week thinking about Earthling. I also learned how to shop for groceries online. I sent e-mails. I looked at websites. What websites? Lord if I know. I accomplished less than I expected. The last time I had a cold that flattened me like this I think George W. Bush was president.
In the old days, I would read a whole book between assailing naps. This time, I planted my computer on my belly and waited for the Alka Seltzer/Metamucil muse to rouse me to bursts of creative heights. After day four of this not happening, I began to realize that I was in a rut: lying in bed, tapping on the computer, following web threads over here and over there, in and out, up and down. Etcetera. Then sleep.
I immersed myself in sickness, and I wondered if this could be my future. If something in my brain could snap and make everything else seem unimportant except what was online: seeing friends, making meals, doing dishes, washing the cat. I felt like doing nothing. I would be one of those shut-ins who spends all of their time on the computer, never venturing outside, becoming a major contributor to Wikipedia, getting into huge fights on Slate.com comment boards, ordering more groceries online…
But, I had recently been reintroduced to the films of Adam Curtis by a friend, the British documentarian responsible for scores of films for the BBC, most known for his docu-essays on topics ranging from our brains in the machine age, to our brains under the influence of psychology (and how advertising takes advantage of this), to the fear mongering of politics, and all the mistakes we caused as a species when all we really thought we were doing was something interesting, good, progressive, and fulfilling. They are compositions of caution set to an effluence of visuals—and quite good music (which is actually at the base of some of the criticism that brushes him off—his penchant for creating the eye/ear-candy experience).
After seven hours of slotting Curtis films in between my voracious web-surfing and naps (three one-hour episodes of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, and four of The Century of the Self), I came away with this: the more independent, eccentric, and individualistic we become, the more wasteful and greed-satisfying products are invented by insidiously creative corporations for us to feed into the abyss of our independence, eccentricities, and individualism. We innovate and we introspect, and time and again, the fruits of our explorations are swept up by a supercell of capitalism, monetized, and blasted right back at us covered with the stink of our own curious souls. And we are dazzled, and we consume.
I began to consider all this time I was spending online—billions of images, kajillions of words, clips galore, and cats. I was consuming—in quantity—meme-worms, viral advertisements, cats, cats, and more pictures of cats, all material that seeped in and zapped my neural networks.
Or so Warren Neidich might say, based on my impression of Earthling, and supported by his more recent writings on cognitive capitalism, neuroaesthetics, and neuropower (which I read on the germ-laden flight that probably put me in bed for a week).
Where Curtis sees us becoming more and more individualistic with more and more products at our fingertips, Neidich sees a more overarching threat: “the production of objects has been superseded by the production of psychic effects and new powerful tools such as software agents that trace our choices and calibrate the level of our desire, the ability of neuropower to map institutional paradigms upon the materiality of the wet, mutable organic surface of the brain itself is being realized,” he writes in his 2012 paper, “Neuropower: Art in the Age of Cognitive Capitalism,” delivered at the conference The Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism: Part 1 (organized by Neidich, along with Arne de Boever of CalArts and Jason Smith of the Art Center College of Design).
In his earlier interview in Earthling with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Neidich tells Obrist that “my work is about the construction of an Earthling, of a global subjectivity. I really think that we are moving, that information is moving, that economies are moving, that people are moving very very rapidly and the globe is becoming a very very small place. As a species we are evolving this way whether we like it or not,” he also counters this and foreshadows his later writing in the above paper “Neuropower” by adding, “art has to produce new sensations and new perceptions that in the end create new networks of relations, networks that allow the mind and imagination to create new possibilities that can be interpreted and written about, that make the history of thought possible.”
In 1995, Neidich began calling what he did in art neuroaesthetics, inspired by his previous life in the 1980s as a doctor and devotee of texts on neuroscience. By 2012 Neidich writes that cognitive capitalism and neuropower exist, and that “they”—the media, drug companies, software developers, spectacle-makers—are changing the way your brain is shaping reality, the “neural plasticity,” on the level of “neurons, their axons, dendrites, synapses and neural networks.” This is nothing new, he adds—our brains were also altered by simple nature until villages, towns, cities, train travel, highways, and air travel were invented. These latter developments, of course, also caused shifts in neural plasticity.
The title of his paper, “Neuropower: Art in the Age of Cognitive Capitalism,” of course references Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Neidich cites the version in Illuminations, Benjamin’s collected essays edited by Hannah Arendt). Neidich, at the heart of it, is fascinated by his enemy—if you can call it that—and I think this shows, too, in Earthling. (Recall that he keeps an archive of magazines—is awed by them—at least at the time of his 2005 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist.) Neidich celebrates the opportunity for resistance—something to move us forward as a species, perhaps in the same way that Benjamin, I think, ultimately saw the creative potential of mechanical reproduction. In the “Work of Art” essay, Benjamin carefully considered the possible democratization of art by means of reproduction during the nascent stages of a very exciting avant-garde. Maybe Neidich takes on cognitive capitalism as a sounding board for artists who make the most daring art. He writes in “Neuropower”: “‘Cultural Creatives’—in all their many forms as visual artists, poets, dancers, musicians, cinematographers, and so on—are able to play a role in the production of resistant cultural regimes.” Also: “the power of art, in its most utopian sense, is to create or recognize externalities existing at the margins of cultural milieus, in order to release a cultural potential.” If there were no margins, would this art get made?
Today, software developers, media, Big Pharma feed us information about our brains, just as they may be targeting them for their products. Neidich is a curious soul, and I think he finds this interesting, and a worthy puzzle to solve. After all, without one’s adversary, one would have nothing to change or resist. And life would fall into a rut.
Warren Neidich, Earthling, (Pointed Leaf Press, 2005)
Images: Cover and interior image of Earthling