New Hypothetical Continents (NHCs) is a project that invites reflection on how interpretation of the present is often shaped by utopian accounts of the past.
This pattern is promoted by global digital communication networks where visual media are increasingly prevalent, and where aesthetic modes of representation such as those associated with art play a leading role.
The figure of utopia has emerged with growing frequency in recent art. Vermeulen and van den Akker (2015) go so far as to describe what they see as a “utopian turn” in contemporary art, where a “structure of feeling” that moves beyond the postmodern has emerged. This “turn” is realised as a (paradoxically) ubiquitous and absent presence, such that:
[T]here is no need to dig deep or look far and wide for the figure of utopia. It appears everywhere and nowhere across the arts and contemporary culture. (Vermeulen and van den Akker 57)
Indeed, the ambivalent quality of utopia — evanescent, yet all about — the authors describe coheres with cultural developments during the 2010s, which have given rise to collective aesthetic and intellectual movements that engage with the impact of global flows of digitised capital and culture, and the expanded influence of related industry such as high-tech manufacturing. Examples include “Vaporwave” (music), “the New Aesthetic” (design) and “ruin porn”, each of which are only made coherent by presenting consistently ambivalent responses to the effects of technology, and very frequently these responses rely on high-tech means of creation and mediation. Each movement is emergent, in the sense that they are not intended or centrally governed, but instead are spontaneous creations of extended networks of individuals. The participants appear to respond to a broad set of themes and conditions via aesthetic means, rather than the particular circumstances and politic that tended to define the art movements of the 1900s.
These movements express dissatisfaction with the utopian presentation of technology and its impacts by the agents of late capitalism that dominated the period leading up to the end of the second millennium. Digital communication and media, high-tech manufacturing and the computational devices and processes they rely on are the subject of direct or indirect comment. Typically this is achieved by removing and reframing the output from the circumstances of its production, in the mode of appropriation that underpinned the art movements of modernism. These aestheticising procedures are executed with goal of participation in a self-corrupting joke: one intended to fail at all but the expression of ambivalence.
If the “new” quality in these contemporary aesthetic engagements with history is to be distilled, then, it must be as a frustration with the utopian presentation of the role technology was to play in our lives. Intentionally paradoxical, the participants express a distaste for the very process of appropriation that underpins the movements in the first instance - and a sense that beyond the remix culture that they comment upon is an empty nostalgia that leads only toward the allure of utopia itself. This is why each movement engages with themes such as control and surveillance, corruption, decline, decay and ruin via high tech means that hypothesise dystopic visions of impossible present day coherence. There is no such thing as the New Aesthetic or Vaporwave: they are dark comedy instead, parodic of coherency, and perhaps better understood as representing a sensibility than recognisable movements.
This sensibility fits neatly with the contemporaneous definition of utopia offered by Ruth Levitas, who in her book on the topic conducts a thorough review of the many and varied applications of the concept, before concluding:
[W]e learn a lot about the experience of living under any set of conditions by reflecting upon the desires which those conditions generate and yet leave unfulfilled. For that is the space which utopia occupies. (Levitas 9)
The space of unfulfilled desires, and the weight of expectation it is freighted with fits the recent resurgent interest in utopia in the arts and a broader ambivalent sensibility in contemporary culture, but in attempting to understand this sensibility, it is useful to look across the history of utopia. Utopia has been variously defined as preoccupied with a past that never was, a future yet to be realised or a forcibly imagined present in the mode of fiction. The last became orthodox in early modern utopias, where fictional islands became the site of seminal works that are now considered precursors to the modern novel. Strong examples are works such as Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), and Henry Neville’s The Isle of Pines (1668), which became effective critiques of dominant ideology by offering fictive solutions to social contradictions of that time.
Each of these fictions hypothesise a space, and present narrative portrayals of elements of the real world in a new, “ideal” configuration “as-if” they were real. This rhetorical as-if gesture contrasts the virtual dimension of the utopia with the reality outside these imagined spaces, inviting reflection on each. For instance, the full title of More’s fictive work of political philosophy was De optimo rei publicae deque nova insula Utopia. His defining name for the island society herein described - Utopia - combines the Greek prefix "ou-" (οὐ), meaning "not", and topos (τόπος), meaning "place". This (very likely) satiric construct describes a model society founded on slave labour in a non-place, or a place that does not exist.
More’s ideal construct was likely intended as a comment on the dangerous quality of assuming ideal situations are ever able to exist. However, given their proximity with the world beyond the fictional construct, utopian narratives are ever in danger of collapsing into the real, and being mistaken for reality itself. They rely on reflection, and time taken to contrast the as-if with that which lies beyond it. In recent history and the present, speed of information flows and mobile access mean permanent connection to large volumes of data in real time for many - and that the remainder of us are entangled with the effects of this connectivity.
Lev Manovich (2013) argues that rather than engaging with databases or archives, as we once did via the World Wide Web, we now live in the “data present”, as is evident in ubiquitous construct of social media, where feeds create a continuous flow of events he calls the “data stream”. Each event works to “push the earlier ones from the immediate view. The most important event is always the one that is about to appear next because it heightens the experience of the ‘data present’”. The data stream participates in what Manovich calls “a quintessential modern experience (‘Make it new’), only intensified and accelerated”. The new, in our present world, replaces reflection with speed, such that any challenge or resistance created by utopian fictions is overwhelmed by immediacy and volume.
Paul Virilio describes the influence of this ubiquitous digitising of experience in terms of the presence of a “sixth continent”. Under these conditions, Virilio argues, the body becomes lost, creating a:
confusion in feelings of belonging and with the drift of the five continents that make up geographical space towards the sixth continent of cyberspace, [such that] suddenly the morphological stability of reality is threatened with collapse. If it goes down, it will not only drag culture down with it, but also – equally – the most durable reality there is: the reality of the orientation, not of some ‘hypnotic’ vision now as in the past, but of the very fact of being-in-the-world and the rationality that goes with it. (University, 86)
His terrestrial creation, the sixth continent, inhabits a virtual space, but with the effect of destabilising the relationship between presence and rationality. This pattern, Virilio insists, is consistent with a history where the powerful shape narrative representations of the present.
In “cyberspace”, such fictions of the present operate with sudden potency, and as a result, the usual pattern of conquest and control is being repeated. Virilio argues this “hypnotic vision” is elevated to the position of reality, replacing the existing geographic construct, and writes of the recent “neocolonial conquest of this ‘sixth continent’, of a virtual space that replaces the real space of the other five [continents]” (Stop, 77). For Virilio, reality itself is at stake, where the contest over being challenges the ontological stability of more than individual and collective perspective on history: into the bargain, a collapse of rationality threatens to remove any and all sense of being-in-the-world.
In sum, Virilio’s dystopic vision is framed in terms of hypothetical “places” that spring up in the digital milieu, created using technologies that rely on the internet, tapping frightening potentials to generate fictive utopias that threaten to dominate the non-space of the sixth continent. Framed as a challenge, this vision poses a vital question: how are we to resist the impetus of the sixth continent? Is it possible the media on which this emergent hypothetical continent is based can push back toward the real?
Some hope for an answer in the affirmative can be discovered in the argument that the sixth continent is also inhabited by the kinetic agents of resistant, radical groups. Networked individuals and collectivism is able to formulate alternate places that supplement the most visible territories of the sixth continent. Here, we might foster and provide opportunity for the imaginary presentation of alternate continents: the new hypothetical continents.
The NHCs project/s will seek to identify scenes of origin for such myth generation, and use these as the basis for reality driven representations and performances of history. The intent of these new hypothetical continents is to disrupt, and paradoxically stabilise the bodies that intersect and become tangible via digital networks that establish the database as a stronghold: an archive to anchor against the destabilising speed of the data stream, and the data present.
Levitas, Ruth. The Concept of Utopia: Reissue with New Preface by the Author. Oxford, Peter Lang AG, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, 20 Jan. 2010.
Manovich, Lev. “Future Fictions.” Frieze, 16 June 2013, https://frieze.com/article/future-fictions. Accessed 16 Nov. 2016.
More, Thomas, Bacon, Francis, and Neville, Henry. Oxford World's Classics : Three Early Modern Utopias : Thomas More: Utopia / Francis Bacon: New Atlantis / Henry Neville: The Isle of Pines. Cambridge, GB: Oxford Paperbacks, 1999.
Vermeulen, Timotheus, and Robin van den Akker. “Utopia, Sort of: A Case Study in Metamodernism.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 87, no. sup1, Dec. 2014, pp. 55–67, 10.1080/00393274.2014.981964.
Virilio, Paul. The futurism of the instant: Stop-eject. Polity, 2010.
----. University of disaster. Polity, 2010.