Mapping Cyberspace: Passengerfilms/UCL Urban Lab on ‘Virtual Space and TRON’, St John’s Church, Bethnal Green

Nick Jones reports

Is there any way of imagining the interaction enabled by digital networks other than as a Cartesian grid? This was a question posed by Rob Kitchin, a prolific writer on cyberspace visualisation, at the recent Passengerfilms/UCL Urban Lab event on Virtual Space. The event included talks by Kitchin and Sam Kinsey, a screening of the 1982 Disney-produced cyber-masterpiece TRON (dir. Steven Lisberger), and short films from Keiichi Matsuda and Factory Fifteen, the latter introduced by their British creator Paul Nicholls. However, at the end of the night it was not so much the manifestation and mapping of the digital world which played on the mind, but the tendency for the ‘augmented reality’ of cyberspace to seal an individual within a protected environment from which real, lived place can barely intrude.

If Matsuda’s Augmented City 3D showed a delirious materialisation of the kind of visual play made possible by the average smart phone, with pop-ups dominating the screen and incessantly pulling attention away from the real world, then Nicholls’s work showed this kind of augmentation to be fundamentally un-sociable and isolating. His screened work for Factory Fifteen, a small London company of creative computer-programmers, consisted of the shorts Golden Age – Simulation andGolden Age – Somewhere. Both use ornate and surreal computer effects to show the visual appeal of technology, but also question the social impact of simulated reality and global connectivity: in the latter, a woman socialises with people across the globe using a series of screens, but a computer crash reveals all her surroundings, even her dog, to be digital constructions.

Virtual space was then theorised by Kinsey and Kitchin, who spoke about technology’s relationship to space, how virtual networks may increase connectivity but keep actual, lived connections just out of reach. The material consequences of technology (the working conditions involved in cheap Chinese labour, the civil wars in Africa related to the control of mineral resources vital to mobile phone production) were stressed alongside its capacity to code and re-code space in new ways – an example of this being the event itself, which had changed the St John on Bethnal Green church into an atmospheric cinema using a laptop and a portable projector.

Returning to earlier visions of cyberspace, the screening of TRON revealed both the consistencies in presentation and also what has changed over the years. In both this film and the shorts by Factory Fifteen, digital networks are places where the human body can locate itself and interact. However, while in 1982 this could be the source of thrilling adventure, Nicholls’s Golden Age projects suggest that the spectacle of cyberspace has become almost mundane, and that the lost physical connections with people and objects permitted by contemporary technology are serious social issues that will need addressing in the very near future.