…the way anywhere in this city, Kidd realized, was obviously to drift. -Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren
The “Arts” section editors of The New York Times publish a regular feature, which both lists and reviews shows running at the numerous galleries in New York City. For approximately one year (late 2005-2006), I informally logged this index of contemporary art in order to track the degree to which digital art had achieved sufficient commercial and/or critical success to warrant private gallery showings. Commercial/critical success might also include curatorial spotlighting in the space of the gallery, reviews in mainstream venues such as The Times, and marketing exposures designed to lure the private collector to engage and purchase this “emergent” form of art—(then called) “new media.”
At the time, several major museums such as the Tate Modern in London had committed funds for the acquisition and the curation of permanent collections of digital art works. Non-commercial galleries, online and festival-based exhibitions of digital art enjoy at least a twenty-five year history, and that excludes the presentation of video, which goes back quite a bit further. The selection and placement of “virtual” (digital) work in curatorial “real” space lagged behind in both commercial and institutional contexts. Most often, the work that did find its way into shows and collections tended to be television-sized, wall-mounted display or user-screened digital video. Nam June Paik and Bill Viola emerged as analog video (tape) artists and later composed in digital video. The work of these and several other prominent video artists came to be understood as the genre of digital art (in the context of the U.S.). Digital media art’s visibility gained its early institutional and commercial footholds based on its skeuomorphic qualities. In other words, the legibility and reception of this genre occurred because of its touchstone resemblance to prior forms of analog visual media: (analog) video, television, and cinema. Legitimacy of digital art was framed through a logic of formal reproductive legibility, with cinema, videotape and television functioning as “fathers” of digital screened media.
On November 11, 2005, Ken Johnson reviewed one piece in a new show for The New York Times “Arts Section.” The work was entitled “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)” and was made by “up-and-coming” Danish digital artist, Ann Lislegaard. At that time, it was not entirely unheard of for The Times to review either a relatively non-established (female) artist or an artist working in digital animation and installation. Yet, the combination of these two factors and the prestige of the reviewer certainly made a regular reader of these reviews take notice. In fact, this show was the only digital work to be reviewed that week. Johnson’s review received a privileged place in the print layout of the review section, above the fold on the left, and received the most privileged space in the online addition, the opening page. And for both the print and digital renderings of this review, a still graphic taken from Lislegaard’s “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)” stood as centerpiece for the exhibition:
From October 22 through December 23, 2005, the Murray Guy Gallery presented Lislegaard’s work. The show presented several video installations, both animation and live-action, by Lislegaard and other artists. After New York, Lislegaard’s work moved on as a stand-alone show to Amsterdam, La Biennale di Venezia, and to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab where Lislegaard became an artist in residence during the show’s tenure.
Johnson’s review commented only on “Bellona,” the largest piece in the show. It was also work that explicitly referenced and quoted Afrofuturist and speculative fiction writer Samuel R. Delany and his 1974 post-apocalyptic novel, Dhalgren. In this novel, the city of “Bellona” has mysteriously become an obliterated urban milieu due to some cataclysmic and unknown singularity. Johnson describes the work as an adaptation of Delany’s fiction and in his review he also quotes directly from the novel:
Twice during the course of the 11-minute loop, a woman’s voice intones plaintive words from Samuel R. Delany’s science fiction novel “Dhalgren” [sic]. It concerns the extra-planetary city of Bellona, where it seems as if the walls keep changing direction so that the city becomes “like a great maze––forever adjustable and therefore unlearnable.”
Johnson notes the multimodal composition of the adaptation and deploys an odd combination of his own observation and direct citation from Delany’s text to describe Lislegaard’s animation. The suggestion of an unmediated and direct translation, from Delany to Lislegaard’s work, and presumably its reversible obverse, is not quite accurate. While Delany’s 1974 novel may in fact serve as a rhetorical source to describe Lislegaard’s visual and aural work, Johnson does not deploy Lislegaard’s compositionally inventive sonic and visual design as rhetorical sources to describe Delany’s work. Instead, Lislegaard’s “Bellona” is verbally linked to “60’s-style Color Field paintings” as part of a particular genealogy of artistic movements, a reproductive paternity of styles. What might it mean to treat Lislegaard’s multimodal digital installation as a non-discursive rhetorical analysis or assemblage of Delany’s print analog novel rather than only treat the novel as an insemination device for a mutant adaptation?  Even were we to construe Lislegaard’s piece as “speaking” in the languages of sound and images or aural and visual rhetoric, how might the alphabetic genres of description, argument and analysis be expressed? Or is Lislegaard’s “Bellona” a simple literary adaptation, a narrative translation, a complex adaptation, a material transformation to meet the demands of a contemporary ecology (in this case, technical, aesthetic, rhetorical, political), a transmediation, a digital extension of an essential narrative structure out of which many versions, sequels, prequels, or sidelines may be expressed? All of these possibilities begin with and propagate the primacy and paternal pregnancy of the narrative. And within literary, film and media studies, adaptation and transmediation are terms closely linked to the cinematic envisioning of a novel, wherein the milieu and narrative become visual, or more currently the transit between web content, video games and digital cinema, wherein the milieu and narrative become animated and interactive. And, I would argue, milieu and narrative also become more fundamentally embodied and contextualized, more feminist and queer, which even at the level of content is explicitly clear in Delany’s text and methodologically so in Lislegaard’s multimodality. This embodied difference queers “forms of expression,” becoming queer “motions of making.”
Lislegaard’s “Bellona” works in different and several media, some discursive and some non-discursive, and plays in at least three perceptible temporalities: the viewer’s body, motion graphics, and sound. “Bellona” is a multimodal installation, composed of a large tilted screen set on an oblique x- and z- angle to the viewer and as the sole object in a room. On-screen, animated architectural images, oversaturated in a color field palate as well as starkly contrasting chiascuro, include a gray-scale visual rendering of combined alphabetic excerpts taken from Delany’s novel and placed on an inset screen mirroring the oblique angle and placement of the primary screen. Meanwhile, heightened ambient noise, vaguely mechanistic and clanking sound effects, low mono-toned music, and a voiceover twice performing the same excerpted text from the novel (as displayed by the inset visual rendering) fill the room with sound waves. One thing becomes clear: there is an enormous variety and amount of discursive and nondiscursive sensation and physical impingement, consciously perceived and not, and the combination of which I will term affect, designed affections. And these affections register and re-register as cognition, recognition, emotion (secondary affect or autoaffection), discursive and non-discursive understanding and experience. Lislegaard’s urban composite works to design a fully material and temporal, a sexy experience. From the point of view of production, I call this designing or coding affections, and from the point of view of reception it offers an actual adaptation or transformation (or sex-ing) of the bodies of participant viewers. These are not separable. These are feminist and queer in the transduction of bodily affects to and in excess of narrative understandings.
Affect is the ability of a body to impinge upon another and the capacity to be impinged upon. Affects are queer, modular, nodal, networked, and function in ecologies and feedback loops, across multiple and variegated temporalities and types and scales of matter, including matters already assembled in slow, homeostatic sedimentations, regulations and composites, in other words, bodies. Further, Lislegaard’s queer composite happening, or performatively queering composite, occurs simultaneous to cognitive and re-cognitive processes as well––such that longer lived and practiced processes of engagement with systems of narrative structuration (pattern recognition), signification (cognitive extrapolation and interpolation through language), representational understanding (relational cognition), and imaginative play (autoaffective cognition feeding back on itself) continue to produce meaning-filled results and a complex process of Heideggerian worlding, ongoing, emergent, and ethological, that is furthered by transductive infolding, a queer experiential remaking.
…sex, and for that matter queer, could function as verbs rather than as nouns or adjectives. Conjugated, they could be fully conceived as activities and processes, rather than objects or impulses, as movements rather than identities, as lines more than locations, as motions of making rather than as forms of expression. -Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn, Sexy Bodies: the Strange Carnalities of Feminism
Fundamentally, at the heart of this essay is an investigation of the cross-mediation between digital media and rhetorically oriented literal art/literary studies. While it might seem rather more obvious to investigate the inhabitation of digital media in literary studies by examining eLit, or electronic literature, I have explicitly chosen not to put this closer kin, electronic literature, next to print literature for several important and somewhat symptomatic reasons. To begin, I prefer not to use the terms “literature” or “literary” but rather use a more capacious understanding of media, including text and print, terminology, and therefore employ “literal art” to capture all expressive language-based, writerly/readerly production and reception and their corresponding literacies. This extends academic fields of practice and inquiry quite a bit further than our current disciplinary boundaries and in fact queers many of the disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundaries. For example, where is the line between digital, creative non-fiction and any number of genres of multimodal composition? Or between digital video as digital media studies and digital video as film studies? Furthermore, in correlating the term “literal” to “expressive language-based” production and reception, I am not specifying what sorts of “languages” are at stake––natural, procedural, gestural, computational or performative, to name several––nor am I specifying what or who is doing the reading––a computational machine and/or a human. Where this term falls short is in the writerly, compositional, ludic, and interactive processes of many literal practices and objects. “Literal” also falls short in several rhetorical categories, but most particularly delivery.
Moving on to my second concern with eLit’s relationship to print literature — though it has perhaps ebbed a bit in the past couple of years — an extensive and ongoing debate over the differences, superlative positions, and legitimation of two of the medial delivery of literal art, electronic and [print], rages on. Fundamentally, the question, “what is literature?” –– wherein the “what is” stands in for “what counts as”––is the crux of the debate. This question is not nearly as provocative as, “what is literal?” or “what is media?”––wherein the “is” references substantive, material, medial, and processual workings. More often than not, the first question alone has been at stake and the second two have effected a bracketing off of technology and media as instrumentalized technicity, skills, and tools.
This debate produced an in-house disciplinary conversation in which proponents of eLit immediately sought institutional legitimation from their colleagues on aesthetic, cultural, and development grounds. To crudely summarize these issues, eLit is: 1) more sublime and closer to the truth of a “reader’s” experience; 2) digital culture is contemporary culture and therefore digital literatures are contemporary literatures; and 3) this new, enhanced eLit does more than old, limited white-paper literatures. This battle primarily plays out in hiring and tenure decisions rather than in discussions of the modes of production. The substantive battle moved from one between digital and analog scholars to another amongst digital scholars (immersion or interactivity? Are games literature?). Often these discussions have been hamstrung by an explicit or supplementary faith held to a particular (and rather pre-poststructural) idea of literature, in which aesthetics, taste, high modernist values, and a crude and deterministic structuralism constitute the bounds of scholarly repartee. Questions of inter-disciplinarity, longer-lived material histories of literal technicities (quill, typewriter, computer), the inflection of cultural studies and critical theory have as yet to occur and are now being redressed in special journal issues such as this.
So while this essay certainly invests itself in the literal, narrative, and representational worldings effected by both Delany and Lislegaard as instances of each category, print and the digital, and by examining Lislegaard’s piece, an installation that stands more outside than inside more conventional understandings of “electronic literature,” queering our boundaries allows us to attend to the undisciplined processes whereby productive and receptive affections of print modes of literal work and digital modes of literal work become assemblages. These motions of making are cross-mediated, cross-adapted, and materially transmediated as feedback loops in which we might mark out discursive and non-discursive transfers, medial and narrative substrates, embodied transductions and the modulation of affects.
This leaves open the question of method. As a critic of “Bellona,” Johnson reverts to the print book to critique the multimodal digital installation. Is critique a one-way, uni-modal or text-based method of inquiry? Criticism and critique are the hallmark methodological activities of the humanities. They are always-already affective politico-aesthetic assemblages of reception, the motions of making of which are so utterly familiar that the intensity of their affects are “running out of steam” to borrow from Latour. Given the medial transfer of narrative and affective feedback loops between these works, what transmutation and differentiation of methods and practices would be required to engage these works within a “critical” framework?
The term “critical” as used here refers to cultural, hermeneutical, and representational practices of “reading” “texts” derived from critical theory, cultural studies, and post-structuralism. Johnson uses Delany’s language and a report of his own observations to read Lislegaard’s installation, but how might this process work in reverse? Is there a method of non-discursive critique and should this be the work of the critical posthumanist working with digital media? Non-discursive expression tends to be considered “art” or “creative” work––the very objects of conventional critique. “Creative criticism” is one such answer to the problem of affective and critical method, and one that I take up elsewhere. For the immediate purposes at hand, I would like to trace a plan for a non-discursive “reading” or “criticism.”
Given the processual transduction of the Bellona narrative, from print to pixel, it is necessary both to be basic, in the sense of the microphysics of materiality, perception, and analysis in the evaluation of the collective delivery apparatus, and also to be quite literal, i.e. “readerly.” How does the idea of “readerly” mean for computational, visual, and multimodal media?
This presumes that computer code/software, visuality, and other non-literal expressive modes function like or in fact are languages. If we accept this for the moment, what sort of language system is the projection of digital animation onto a room-sized screen with multi-layered sound? It is allographic (written and spoken), visual, symbolic, procedural, performative, musical, aural, and code-based. And yet this list of the possible language types through which we might critique the work does not quite capture the complex interplay of synaesthetic, experiential, sensory and affective modalities through which the critical and rhetorical functions of Lislegaard’s “Bellona” works.
The word “critique” means to bring to crisis and presumes the subsumption of material substrates and structures in the production process that may be revealed by means of hermeneutic recovery. And methods of critique itself have been brought to crisis, not because one cannot read a work, but because the impact and power of such reading does not resonate as it once might have done. Critique is in crisis not due to a lack of availed discoveries, but by the overwhelming surplus of informatic revelation made possible by informatics delivered through digital media. The cross-mediation of digital media and our critical methods produce far greater impact upon our work in the humanities than the first and second generation of objects produced digitally. Given the exponential increase in informatic speeds and access, our contemporary milieu has become one of incessant crisis, many following upon many more at an increasingly rapid pace. While the narrative of an individuated crisis may work superficially as meaning-filled revelation, the preponderance and multitude of crises populate networks of media distribution as constant affective modulations of everyday life: celebrity culture, war, global economics, national security, and the weather. We are brought to multiple crises on a minute-by-minute basis. Too many to unpack properly. Too overexposed to reveal a veiled history. Too thinly constituted for the mechanics of critique. Too continually modulated and refreshed for sustained inquiry. Too networked in feedback loops and nested variables to delineate structures. Too fast to uncover and reveal any substantial history beneath the thin and populated surface.
Critique itself, as an analog and representational method of analysis, has been brought to a temporal and material crisis. The clock of critique operates on a time scale of human perception and consciousness. The temporality of critique is historical, documentary, and mammalian, and the materiality of critique is agglomerate, large-scale, embodied, thermodynamic, and mechanistic. Processes such as allographic and “natural” language practices function well at these scales of time and materiality allowing for the theoretical and methodological assumptions that language and signification are primary; however, digital media functions through faster (and multiple) time scales and more haptic materialities than those of human perception and consciousness. The temporalities of digital media are literally electron-ic but may also be rendered in anthropomorphic time, as we see when our computational devices render the seemingly sustained visuals of our computer’s graphical user interface. The materialities of digital media are also intra-active and electron-ic, their inter-operabilities functioning at several material scales simultaneously and with perceptible and non-perceptible ramifications.
Affective modulations and the critical endeavor
…architectural instability is reflected in the film by swinging doors and walls, changing colors, shifting transparencies and a constantly revolving point of view, which all challenge our ability to map the whole cognitively. That, in turn, becomes a metaphor about living in a world in which few truths seem to remain stable for very long.
-Ken Johnson, reviewing Ann Lislegaard’s “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)” for The New York Times, November 11, 2005
To illustrate this crisis of critique, particularly in the humanities and in the context of analog and digital objects and analytical practices, let us return to language used in the opening of this chapter. In the description of Ken Johnson’s review of Lislegaard’s “Bellona,” two different delivery methods presented themselves: the printed newspaper and the online newspaper, both The New York Times. In the print version, Johnson’s article was placed in a privileged set of coordinates in the layout of the Arts Section. This place on the page is fixed. In the online version, Johnson’s review occupied a privileged space in the rendering of the web design. As time passes, the online review transforms, subject to The Time’s odd archival habit of removing images and in some cases content from earlier pieces. More importantly, the review, no longer one article among several on a webpage, eventually inhabits its own space or unique URL on the server, coded with interactive and dynamic content accessibility. In other words, the content of the review may change, images may be deleted, and today’s top and related content will render when I access an older piece. In the digital archive, the past and the present visibly occupy space, modular space, together. Johnson’s 2005 review appears above today’s content, whatever today it happens to be. Digital media not only executes across times, but also in doing so, inherently possesses the capacity to transform place into temporally inflected location, or space. And while these comparative descriptions of the print and online versions of the review aptly demonstrate the effects of cross-mediation, the re-composition of temporality, materiality, and signifying documentary content and the very capacity for their modulation demonstrate the affective circulations impinging our cognition and sense of the world.
The cross-mediated movement of Bellona between Delany and Lislegaard might be provocatively approached through queer transductions and what I will call “digi-logics.” Digi-logics might be thought to simultaneously summon Bahktinian echoes of dialogics as well as the composite and feedback functions that deploy and retain digital and analog capacities and qualities in mutual revision and relation. Lislegaard’s digital multimodal installation retains Delany’s representational narrative and its affective milieu, summoning together the remains of an entropic post-apocalyptic urban core but now introducing the perfectible reconstructions of pixilated coding to these remains. The digital/analogic qualities and movements by which the city of Bellona is reconstructively and dynamically expressed in both media predicate a continuous interchange and flow, a queering urban composite.
Lislegaard’s work is not an adaptation of the form of Delany’s project to her genre of choice, but rather a re-scaping of the world and city of Bellona that affectively, dialogically, and digi-logically assembles with and supra-tends Delany’s work. “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)” moves transversally across, through, and with Delany’s text (and ultimately the reverse as well). Taken together, they function in mutual interlocution, contest, review, update, critique, compassion (co-passionate), and functional co-ordinates in a complex compositioning of queer, cross-mediated movements and motions.
Queer motions of light, motions of making: one description, one passage
While Lislegaard’s animation was produced by means of pixilation, the presentation of the video at the gallery was not, however, rendered by means of pixilated screening. It was projected onto a standing, back-tilted screen. The choice to project (throw light onto a white screen) rather than pixilate (back light through a black screen) offers a number of material and interactive medial affordances that produce a non-discursive critical relationship to Delany’s novel. The skeuomorphic nod to cinematic projection generates a vague anticipation for screened realism rather than computational “virtuality.” Both in terms of the visible production of light and in terms of the size of the piece, Lislegaard’s Bellona does not evoke user-screened or wall-mounted digital video. Instead, the size and the directionality of the thrown light from the projector and the refracted light from the screen  carve out the viewer’s and the animation’s movement in three-dimensional space and real-time, movement and shadow. The milieu becomes at once reminiscent of the cinematic and phenomenologically anthropocentric in its pace and distribution––analogic in the affective quality of experience.  Despite this spatializing projection, the pixilated visual and electronic aural production of the digital video animation stealthily permeates the room with the perfected gaseous-ness of the codified digitization of light and sound, a distinctly nonhuman or a-human constellation. Together these strains evoke strangely turbulent and even more strangely compatible sensations, a multiplicity of indeterminate and uneven, albeit ubiquitous, qualities of movement. This is an experience of digi-logical impingement, the perception of multiple worldings in process––not modulated and fine-tuned to the mammalian human, but attuned to a human and to a nonhuman sensorium, queer embodiments fed back through pervasive computing in mixed environmental media.
Authentic nonhuman milieux, or the affections of mixed materialities
In addition to light and sound, the architecture of the curatorial environment, the fixed, locative placement of the installation, at the Murray Guy Gallery added provocatively to the generative multiplicity of sensations produced by the installation. The space of the gallery/installation catalyzed this essay and my exploration of the non-discursive critical modalities produced by Lislegaard’s piece in relation to Delany’s novel. The room exerted essential and intensely physico-material tensions. Despite its location in the posh, super-post-bohemian, gentrified art district of Chelsea, the Murray Guy Gallery space held little pretension to the upgrade and renovation ethos of the neighborhood. In fact, the gallery was pleasantly aged, cramped, biotic, and musty, much like many of the spaces in pre-renovated tenement buildings that were once an environmental and architectural norm in New York City and other hyper-urbanized cosmopolitan cities. Most significantly, the architectural and interior conditions of the gallery called the interior descriptions of Delany’s Dhalgren to mind and to sensation.
Breaking from the meandering and animated interiors presented in Lislegaard’s video, the animation converts the color saturated interiors to visual imaging of alphabetic language—taking the form of a secondary, inset screen doubling the perspectival angle of the primary screen and displaying explicit quotations from Delany’s novel, excerpted and recomposed in paragraph form, composited in lines through motion graphics.
This textual moment first renders illegibly—or pictographically, such that the viewer cannot read the text and must treat the language as animated visual symbols. Simultaneously, the voiceover performs the text, and the addition of aural information sets up a generative tension that occurs between seeing, hearing, and reading the images as language. However, when this image sequence repeats, the visual rendering of the alphabetic information is legible, the visual images automatically become words. The words become language presented as formally instantiated text, allowing the lines from the novel to be read, to be literal.
The miracle of sensory and cognitive order restored, the process by which the non-discursive cognition of visuality transforms into discursive cognition now becomes perceptible. The correlation between the denotative content of the second screen and the affective experience of transfer between the first and second screens, the illegible and legible, is possible through queer, transductive cross-mediation.
Furthermore, the affective and material impact of the aged gallery space, coupled with Delany’s post-apocalyptic descriptions of Bellona, produce a jagged resonance in their stark contrast with the qualities of the digital animation. These sensory disjunctures create a stunning transversal complement to what is heard and read where “in this spaceless preserve any slippage can occur. […] As if all these walls on pivots […] after one passes, they might suddenly swing to face another direction, parting at this corner, joining at that one […] forever adjustable” (Lislegaard, “Text Slide”). Moreover, the force of memory plays into the tense decoupling. The viewer who is a reader familiar with the novel will recognize the lines and perceive that the text itself is a revised composite of lines taken at different and critical points in the novel—producing a queer digi-logic, a transversal quotation, as it were, a cross-mediated visual reading of the force of the novel’s milieu taken through its word-things. Taken as a whole, the digi-logic of the installation is one continual queer cross-medial movement, transduction and inter-modulation.
The digital video animation offers a meandering and idealized visual travelogue through simultaneously high-tech and seemingly high-modernist interiors, and as mentioned earlier, they are described by Ken Johnson as “illuminated by hanging globe lights and dyed in the ravishingly rich hues of 60’s Color Field paintings.” Despite Johnson’s citation of Delany’s novel, his vision of Lislegaard’s work summons modernist geometrics and a pure color spectrum, not the burnt-out urban core clearly articulated in the narrative of Delany’s novel. Artforum reviewer, Claire Barliant, more specifically describes the architectural feel of these formally perfected and pixilated interiors:
the rooms are almost entirely empty, save for a few doors that lean against the walls and some hanging globe lamps that give this strange dwelling a retro-futuristic feel […]. Vivid colors bleed into one another: […] floors and walls are shiny and reflective to the point where they might be mistaken for windows looking into the next room” (January 2006).
In addition to the context and physical conditions of the interior of the gallery itself, the world outside the gallery set conditions for the worlds within. In November of 2005, one could have been deafened by the (then) euphoric discourses heralding and proliferating the “real estate boom” and celebrating the international reality of intensive, debt-driven, green-lining gentrification. Seen within this affectively swirling and cacophonic environment, Lislegaard’s installation tends toward a correlation to the qualities of spatial movement and visualization that subtended the digitally mediated marketing strategies of speculative real estate developers, and particularly those engaged in selling “loft-condos” or renovated historic townhouses in “formerly distressed neighborhoods.”
At the time of Lislegaard’s show in New York City, the developers of these massive projects worked with media marketing consultants to generate highly performative digital media renderings of design for real spaces and showed them in online and onsite digital presentations. One might inhabit the perfection of finished virtual spaces as a promise of the yet-to-be-completed real analog construction or renovation. Standing in the midst of the installation of Ann Lislegaard’s “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany),” at what would have been considered the pre-renovated Murray Guy Gallery space, a marked alignment of the qualities of Lislegaard’s digital animation to those of a developer’s industrial video for potential buyers struck me with force. A compelling cross-medial schism between the qualities of urban movement invoked by Lislegaard’s perfected “Bellona” with/and/of Delany’s entropic “Bellona” converged with the discrete mediation of the works and with a particular contextualized construct of spatialization that might be entered by Delany’s suggestion that in order to get to Bellona, we might “pretend […] that we’re in a city, an abandoned city” (Dhalgren 64). In fact, Lislegaard’s “Bellona” is abandoned, and in its moment, this would be felt speculatively as a joyous affect produced through a value-extract-able, queer urban composite.
An abandoned city: 1974/2005
But what of this recombinant city…transfigured by some unspecified process, where nothing remains quite as it was…?
This city had no specific locale, and its internal geography was mainly fluid. … a territory of inexpressible possibilities, a place remembered from no dream at all. -William Gibson, foreword to Dahlgren, xii
Like the qualities of the Murray Guy Gallery and Lislegaard’s installation, the contrasts, complementarity, and supplementarity of styles, spatialization, and temporalization traversing Dhalgren and “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)” resound and harmonize. Much of the novel, the physicality of the text and its representational powers, is composed as nomadic wanderings across a destratifying set of modular interiors. The video does not present landscapes, exterior space, or access to any exteriority at all. The condition of the urban landscape presented in the novel is such that some unspeakable and un-memor/iz/able and catastrophic unhinging of the city, spatial stability, and temporal linearity occurred, and this contagious decimation virally infects or just simply queers the logic of hermeneutics and the semiotic terrains of the text:
There is no articulate resonance. The common problem, I suppose, is to have more to say than vocabulary and syntax can bear. That is why I am hunting these desiccated streets. The smoke hides the sky’s variety, stains consciousness, covers the holocaust with something safe and insubstantial. It protects from greater flame. It indicates fire but obscures the source. This is not a useful city. Very little here approaches any eidolon of the beautiful. (Dhalgren 75)
Since Dhalgren’s publication in 1974 and the 1990 interview, Lislegaard’s video non-discursively and multimodally posits what became of the “great feeling of death” in smoky “ruined urban areas” articulating “holocaust.” Lislegaard’s ”Bellona” suggests new qualities of movement in the abandoned and cross-mediated city post-1990 and pre-2008. In Harlem, the Lower East Side, and nearly Every Inner City USA, post-tech and post-real estate booms, we found credit leveraged, economic neo-liberalization coupled with neo-conservative political militarized globalization. From the early 1990’s through the turn of the millennium, the red-lining pen of urban abandonment and desiccation was swapped for a green-lining one that had urban renewal, revitalization, renovation, and white-ink gentrification at its tip. The smoke cleared and indeed speculators received a burnt offering, leaving behind the need to reconsider what affective by-products the burns of tech and real estate booms give off in their aftermaths.
“Gentrification Changing Face of Atlanta: Historic Black Share of Population Declines”—the headline of an article by Shaila Dewan in the March 11, 2006 edition of the New York Times “Real Estate” section––might be taken as one such example of the outcomes of pre-gentrification “blocks of devastation,” or what the article terms “soft-core urbanism,” in digitally remastered and cross-mediated spatial markets.
This feature discusses the political, economic and social transitions occurring in Atlanta as numbers of “blacks” declines. Described as a process that “expanded the city tax base and weeded out blight,” the piece comments that this shift in racialized populations corresponds to a white (non-specific ethnicities and racialization populates the article) suburban “run” on real estate in the city proper. But despite the “explosion of [white] wealth,” gentrification “has had an unintended effect”: the historically majority black population is “declining” and “the white percentage is on the rise.” Economically, this racialized “population shift” is described in terms of income: “In 1990, the per capita income in the city of Atlanta was below that of the metropolitan area as a whole, but in 2004 it was 28 percent higher, the largest such shift in the country.” Note the date from which this transition was measured—1990. The post-crash moment of 1987, with its statistical foreclosure spikes and debt, was managed by a “class” of “white” wealth in the form of finance capital and unsecured debt, “virtual” money.
A similar article by Sam Roberts, published on April 3, 2006, in the “NY/Region” section of the New York Times called out, “New York City Losing Blacks, Census Shows,” and states unequivocally, “The analysis of migration from 1995 to 2000 also suggests that many blacks, already struggling with high housing costs in New York City, are being priced out of nearby suburbs, too.” The “tides” of immigration and emigration of the African-American populations into and out of New York hinges explicitly on the moment noted by Delany: “Reversing a tide from the South who altered the complexion of the city earlier in the 20th century, the number of American-born blacks leaving the city has exceeded the number arriving since at least the late 1970’s” (Roberts).
This quick demographic check brings us to the “abandoned city” of Bellona from 1974 to 2005. Lislegaard’s piece suggests a then-contemporary, digi-logic tincture of reimagined technologies reterritorializing the catastrophic decimation across urbanscapes––a different composition, cross-mediated set of forces, the obverse of Delany’s red-lining context, “clean[ing] up” the ashes of “blight,” and clearing away the smoke. The pre-1990 urban deterritorializations or blights were traversed by a different cycle of forces and motion: finance capital and the strangely oxymoronic new mobilities of real property, even in micro-segments––individual buildings and “units”––in terms of capital. The catastrophic urban terrain and its partially segmented remains were exposed to and absorbed by an enormous inflow of affective and impinging energy and intensity in forms of capital, interest, and legislative funneling through redevelopment funds for investors and juridical redistribution through re-zoning compliances—all of which transmogrified topographies of urban “blight” into speedways of urban “renewal.” This speed and intensity of forces worked across cities, neighborhoods, and blocks to capture space (“reclamation”) for quicker markets that “move this house.” Buildings, blocks, and boroughs were smoothed out from the exterior by demolition and smoothed out from the interior by gut renovation. The clear-cutting motions of capitalism remake urban composites.
Dia-logics of decimation, catastrophe, and reterritorialization
…the interstices of the timeless city, portents fallen, constellated deities plummeting in ash and smoke, roaming the apocryphal cities, the cities of speculation and reconstituted disorder, of insemination and incipience, swept round with the dark. – Dhalgren, 646
Lislegaard’s installation at the Murray Guy Gallery phenomenologically averred and captured qualities of desolation, including the utter evacuation of messy humans, organic life, and signs of contemporary lived-ness—with the exceptions of door handles, a portable radio, and the anthropocentric point of view in the animation. The installation provided the viewer with an experience of “having the place to oneself” or that this eidolon of perfected, modular color and form had been reterritorialized as a high-tech experience of the total pleasure of capture, ownership, and individuation. “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)” suggested a coded germinality in the 2005 Bellona reterritorialized by codified and procedural design to eradicate the infectious morbidity of the 1974 Bellona in Delany’s Dhalgren.
Lislegaard’s capacious and affectively conflicted installation resonated with the reorganization of urban spatiality as the aftermath of effects and affects from 30 years of red-lining forces and the subsequent 15 years of green-lining forces across urban landscapes. It was conceived as a set of modulating interiors in an urban any-and-every-space. These design-driven interiors have resulted in another sort of economically coerced evacuation of cities, which, in the case of the show at the Murray Gallery in New York City, was made superbly evident by the contrast of the interior of the gallery itself to its location in what is historically called the meat-packing district. The great catastrophic event resonated in the plosive “housing-boom,” and the clearing of smoke or the “improvement” of “bad neighborhoods” and revealed an obscured fire, offering the modulating and affective sensations of a “society of ownership” without the real material means to sustain it. Furthermore, Lislegaard’s work also suggests the possibilities of modulating and codifying interior design as a queer affective and transductive methodology of utopian national, racialized, community, and home (land) “improvement.”
Delany in Dhalgren describes navigating the taller buildings of “the injured city” as:
a refracting grid through which to view the violent machine, explore the technocracy of the eye itself, spelunk the semi-circular canal. […] With such disorientation there is no way to measure the angle between such nearly parallel lines of sight when focusing on something at such a distance. (Dhalgren 84-85)
The protagonist’s struggle with the mechanized technocracy of visuality in the midst of vacated high rises disorients him, but this symptomology or queer visuality is eradicated through the technocracy of visuality afforded by the streaming capacities of digitally integrated media. A digital rendering offers algorithmic and kinesthetic designates with coded and temporalized spatializations rather than the unruly analog qualities of bodily kinesthesia and queer sexualities as experienced by Kidd walking in the mixed architectural concrete alleys of Delany’s Bellona. Digitized landscapes capture bodies in a regularized, rhythmic, and intensified bio-aesthetics as seen below in stills taken of attendees at Lislegaard’s installation at the Venice Biennial.
These stills demonstrate the fully embodied integration of viewers, architecture, and projection. The discrete digi-logic capture of light, coded time, and space moves across and through the viewers and the room as much as the digi-logic capture of the attentions, lived time, and space of the viewers and the architecture moves through the digital animation. But Bellona is still not predictable or “nearly parallel.”
The shifting spaces and temporalities of Bellona in the novel belie a transversal modularity shared between Delany’s and Lislegaard’s Bellonas, such that “The miracle of order has run out. […] I don’t need more imitations of disorder. It has to be more than that! Search the smoke for the fire’s base. […] There are objects lost in double-light” (Delany 96). Analog media is not analogous to disorder against digital media’s claim on perfection. In the light of a gallery and the pixilated space and light of Lislegaard’s video, a veering is in progress; not as an interrogation of sources, but instead we find queer mobilities and temporalities in coded and germinal, double-lit spaces that are in progress and assemblage. Analog and digital media both may tend toward political purification and a parallelism of space—a graspable infinitude. This longing in Euro-American cultures can be traced from the infinitude of perspectival vanishing points in the paintings of the 14th century to globalized-village visions of the there-then simulacra of world, times, and places becoming the always already now-here imaginary of global, integrated, digital communications systems and universal networks of connectivity.
Analog and digital deconstructions: queer cross-media composites
In the case of green-lined digital space, Mrs. Richards, Delany’s stand-in for white, middle-class, hetero-hysteria imagining itself under urban siege, offers her (albeit self-deluded) assessment of the (pre-post-renovated) Labry apartments in which she lives: “they don’t let just anyone in here” (226). Mrs. Richards’ characterization of the complex follows a recounting of the family’s move from “a tiny house” (in the suburbs) to an apartment “as nice as this” (226) and is followed by her anxiety-ridden infection narrative of the family’s relocation to a better unit in the abandoned building.
Do you know how I thought of this moving? As a space, a gap, a crack in which some terrible thing might get in and destroy it, us, my home. You have to take it apart, then put it back together. I really felt as though some dirt or filth, or horrible rot might get in while it was being reassembled and start a terrible decay. But here […] I couldn’t live here any more.
To this, Kidd replies, “but if everything outside has changed—” (227). Digital rendering does precisely what Mrs. Richards describes. It takes apart, captures, codifies, compiles, reterritorializes, and puts something together again. It composites, but with the capacity for differential and multiple speeds, exposures and intensities. Qualities of movement and the capacities for transversal motion change. So does urban renewal. Both contain the dreaded anticipation of the glitch (already a queer figure), the space, the gap, the pocket of undesirables, a crack, bad code, a bad neighbor, but most of all, a slow-down in the market, that “might get in and destroy us” or “start a terrible decay” by infiltrating the realization process. In 1974, Kidd of Delany’s novel points to a slow burn to remains, and in 2005, Lislegaard’s contained interiority critically point to a multiplicity of fast burns that speed up the circuits of “hot” media and “hot” properties—until 2008.
What finally fleshes out these spatial circulations in Lislegaard’s work is the nonhuman and the abject absence of life—aside from the interfaced viewer. These spaces, movements, and surfaces are pure. They are porous and yet impenetrable—reflective modulations, perfectly clean and unfolding onto a limitless universe of tendential and tangential closure. The viewer is the purified protagonist. Through the ecology of Lislegaard’s Bellona, viewers become open and individuated bodies in closed and controlled circuits (informatics). Access, or getting in, is the new liberation, or the old getting out. In closed circuits of affective circulation, there is no out once in—only embodying movement in space. In Dhalgren, Kidd’s body is remarkable for its precise directionality and composition in unfolding spaces, and the bodies that populate Bellona are open and socially populated bodies in a contained but leaky and dying circulation (thermodynamics). Delany registers this dynamic in the shifting spaces and temporalities of the novel in suggesting, “time runs backward here. Or sideways” (377). The impossibilities of spatial or temporal linearity dilate, stream away or toward, circle back with an accumulation of difference or radically diverge, and catastrophically bifurcate in the continuum of the present. There is no reversibility in a thermodynamic system, only the burn and the remains. Kidd practices his queer body as deregularizing speeds allowing the reader to “place” him or to pace through him affectively rather than critically and thereby affectively composite, construe, and interpret topography of the text.
Qualities of movement and qualities of life
It is not that I have no past. Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now.” –Dhalgren, 10
Digital art in general is a composite medium of code, visuality, rhythm, immersion, and temporalities that construct mobile spaces rather than site-specific places; morphologically fluid objects rather than the spatial phenomenology of fixed bodies; and unfolding movement rather than narrativizing contiguously montaged sequences. There is no rational cut because there is no cut. Given our queer cross-medial context, wherein we find the past, the future and the present together simultaneously, Delany’s work in Dhalgren experiments in the alphabetic medium with queer composite aesthetics in such ways that the novel becomes a cognate with/to/for digital media and art. Lislegaard’s take on Delany’s Bellona resonates through a shared composition of the emergence and immanence of spaces, bodies, cities, and temporalities that provoke shifting relations and materialities of integrated digital and analog processes. It points to a critical shift in the politico-aesthetics of social organization and cultural production in the presence of both pervasive computing and pervasive life, one inextricable from the other.
Delany’s work in Dhalgren flows as a splay of “incidents,” movements, and interactive kinematic systems and states, suggested in the rant against “form” by militant social justice advocate, Reverend Amy, “Logicians love it here. […] Here you can cleave space with a distinction, mark, or token, and not have it bleed all over you. What we need is not a calculus of form but an analytics of attention, which renders form on the indifferent and undifferentiated pleroma” (472). The novel reads through the gerund—leaving behind a “calculus of form” in order to move into becoming “an analytics of attention.” Dhalgren does not resolve, but diffracts to mobile attentions, pro-tensions, and affective intensities. The formal textual experiment begins, moves and ends in catastrophic openings, “considering the lacunae that pass without comment” (662), and it is the navigation of “lacunae,” the affects of passage without the capture of rational commentary that make the novel tend toward events and incidences as gerunds rather than a sequence of participled and plotted action. Kidd’s wanderings are not simply reported as plot, but instead the rhetoric of the novel wanders, collides, and morphogenetically evolves as the impossibility of formal resolution of doing in relation to done, functioning as a radioactive or queer isotope that leaves its aporetic textual trail of interactivities broken into and off, emerging and swerving from temporal incursions “with” rather than spatial causality “against”—a catastrophic cascade of dynamic textual and material transformation and transversal movements across and through what constitutes and is the city, the urban composite. Its polyphonic if not cacophonous multitude of voices might seem to occlude readership but does not. It does not, because the reader engages the text in a feedback loop of affective transfer as well as of cognitive signification.
The material dynamics of Lislegaard’s animation re-flesh our rhetoric and certainly operate through an analytics of attention, an informatics. This does not mean, as the catalogue description of Lislegaard’s Bellona suggests, that “norms and standards seem to dissolve into a chaos of anti-hierarchical conditions.” Like the simulacra of our debt-driven financializations and the economics of affective valuation, we have never been there––to that Bellona––but indeed here we are––in this one… and they are modulations of a self-same multiplicity. As mentioned earlier, a moment of legible text appears in the video that intimates that Bellona has become another city now. It is a city “forever adjustable, therefore unlearnable”—a city not to be captured but navigated by qualities of movement and affect. Affective digi-logics are not cultural production labored to fixation by zero-speed compositional structuration and movement, to object-hood, stillness, generic identifications, and petrifaction. There is no outside, no slow, clear space of objectivity from which our critical discoveries may reveal a sustaining and sustainable truth. We are captured inside the procedurality of cross-mediation, queerly practicing, consciously or not, a digi-logics of affective analysis – the motions of making, of what I call queer creative critical compositionism. In this milieu, several things should be clear to the (post)humanist in the digital age, to the digital (post)humanist, and to the digital media practitioner: 1) the issues of computational and digital media literacies today are comparable to the issue of alphabetic literacy in the 19th century; 2) the critical function in digital media is creative and aesthetic as well as technical and works through affect and design, and as such, we must become modular scholars, makers, and coders; and, 3) affect and non-discursivity demand our immediate queer “analytics of attention.”
In the shifting spaces and temporal aesthetics of Delany and Lislegaard’s work, taken together across oscillating topographies of analog and digital media, “any slippage can occur.” As the imperatives of movement dictate continuation, even in closure, we need to consider whether we are prepared to articulate a social or political ethos (if such categories might hold their rhythms long enough to remain provocative categories) in such gaseous mobility and morbidity. I recommend we begin with queer, non-reproductive experiments (because we will not paternalize ourselves out of this mess). I recommend we make and that our making is done through an ethos of queer creative critical compositionism. We must queerly invent. So again:
…the way anywhere in this city, Kidd realized, was obviously to drift” (487).
- Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2007.
- Barliant, Claire. “Ann Lislegaard: Murray Guy.” Artforum. January 2006. http://22.214.171.124/~murraygu/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Barliant.Artforum1.pdf.
- Bianco, Jamie “Skye.” #designed_affections. Laundry Day (Feminism, New Media, Science and Technology). 2012. http://fembotcollective.org/blog/2012/06/21/designed-affections/
- —-. “Techno-Cinema: Image Matters in the Affective Unfoldings of Analog Cinema and New Media” in The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Ed. Patricia T. Clough. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 2007.
- —-. “This Digital Humanities Which Is Not One.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
- Dewan, Shaila. “Gentrification Changing Face of Atlanta: Historic Black Share of Population Declines.” New York Times. March 11, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/11/national/11atlanta.html?_r=0.
- Delany, Samuel R. Dhalgren. 1974. New York, NY, Vintage, 2001.
- Eliot, T. S. “The Function of Criticism” in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. New York: Harvest Books, 1975.
- Grosz, Elizabeth and Elspeth Probyn. “Introduction.” Sexy Bodies: the Strange Carnalities of Feminism. Ed.Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn New York, NY: Routledge, 1995.
- Johnson, Ken. “Art in Review: Ann Lislegaard.” November 11, 2005. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A0DEFD9123EF932A25752C1A9639C8B63.
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- Mbembé, Achille, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15.1 (2003): 11-40. Also available at http://publicculture.dukejournals.org/content/15/1/11.full.pdf+html.
- McCaffery, Larry. Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
- Murray, Joddy. Non-discursive Rhetoric: Image and Affect in Multimodal Composition. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. 2009).
- Murray Guy Gallery. Exhibition Catalogue. http://lislegaard.com/?p=220.
- Roberts, Sam. “New York City Losing Blacks, Census Shows.” New York Times. 3 April 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/03/nyregion/03blacks.html.
Bianco, J.S. (2013) Queer Urban Composites: Any City or ‘Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)’. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.3. doi:10.7264/N33F4MH2
This article has been openly peer reviewed at Ada Review.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
- Hereafter referred to as “Bellona.”
- A 2010 stage work adaptation of Dhalgren was produced at NYC’s The Kitchen; see http://io9.com/5506079/samuel-delanys-dhalgren-becomes-a-bizarre-experimental-stage-play.
- I borrow this term from Joddy Murray and from his 2009 book Non-discursive Rhetoric: Image and Affect in Multimodal Composition. While we agree that language, particularly allographic and natural language, is not the singular emergence point for cognition, his assertion that the visual occupies this primary and singular role reconstructs the same problematic framework: the location of cognition in an isolated and excerpted aspect of the complex material ecologies that produce embodiment, environments, sensations, perceptions, and combinatory expressions of these networked ecologies. The obvious question of concern in response to Murray’s argument would be, “if cognition depends upon the primacy of the visual, do the blind have cognition?” Of course the answer is “yes.” We also do not share the same understanding of affect. Murray’s reading of affect begins at the level of cognition or mindedness, rather than the materiality that becomes incorporation (corporeality) or embodiment. I engage this issue of affect throughout this work and specifically in “Techno-Cinema: Image Matters in the Affective Unfoldings of Analog Cinema and New Media” in The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, ed. Patricia T. Clough. (Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 2007). I attend to questions of affective methods in multimodal form (sound essay) in #designed_affections in Laundry Day, also published by The Fembot Collective (Feminism, New Media, Science and Technology (2012).
- Literary adaptations ultimately operate unilaterally. The question hinges on the question of representational fealty, as in “was the film true to the book?” While it exceeds the scope of this work to expand on the differential constructions of familial fealty between different adaptive genres, I would note that in the transition between video games and digital cinema and other modes of transmediation, explicit narrative fealty is not the primary mode of valuation. The correlation of the feel (affective constellation) of the experience in ludic and specular modes while actively or less actively inhabiting a narrative field is. Retaining, extending, elaborating, and inventing more of this same feel for a world (narrative field) dominates transmedial storytelling and fan fiction as well.
- See Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn’s “Introduction” to Sexy Bodies: the Strange Carnalities of Feminism (x).
- Versus a modernist or formal aestheticism.
- T.S. Eliot’s objection to “creative criticism” centers on this feedback loop. The object of criticism must first and foremost be considered an ‘object,’ outside, distinguished from the critical process that acts upon the art object.
- See my “This Digital Humanities Which Is Not One” in the 2012 edited volume Debates in the Digital Humanities.
- I prefer the use of the term “digital media” to “new media” for the clear temporal limitations and the allusion to a problematic (and universalizing) developmental narrative of machines. Further, I prefer “digital media” to “information and communication technologies” (ICTs) because the rhetorical, expressive, and creative capacity of these networks and associated appliances exceeds the informatic and communicative, and likewise, the materiality of the term medium is more accurate than technology. For example, a human mouth is an informatic and communicative technology but it is not digital media.
- At the level of the electron, materiality and temporality are inextricable and in fact, ‘intra-active’ (see Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway).
- Analog bodies and practices are always already composed at micro- and multiple scales, the point here is that within the analog domain, these micro-physics do not register at human thresholds of perception and conscious cognition nor do they seem of significant import or for that matter, to signify at all. As I hope to make clear as the article progresses, these multiple scales of matter and temporality always mattered. And human consciousness and perception do not constitute their material thresholds.
- I would argue that in fact this legible affective modularity of digital media contributed enormously to the early discourses describing digital mediation as “virtuality” versus analog (including the organic body) mediation as “reality” and likewise digital objects and computational rendering were often ontologized as “immaterial” versus organic and mechanistic “materiality.” There is nothing immaterial about digital media or objects produced through digital technics. The differences lie in the scale of observable material action and the capacities afforded by micro-scaled and speedy, code-able technology. We do not register the firing of a synapse in the mammalian brain, nor do we refer to this event as immaterial. A cascade of these firings, as with a cascade of binary code may or not reach the threshold of human observation and action. The difference here is in the computational capacity of digital media to author the code and design the action discretely. Nevertheless, analog renderings, be it our brain or the growth of a plant, and digital renderings generate compassable but not comparable worlds.
- A direct and material capture and play with Delany’s description of Bellona, where “objects are lost in double light.”
- The affective aesthetics of designing a digital process to constitute an analog experience is the inverse process discussed in my essay, “Techno-Cinema: Image Matters in the Affective Unfoldings of Analog Cinema and New Media” wherein analog cinematic production was designed to create the affective aesthetics of digital media.
- In fact, previous and subsequent exhibitions of the piece offered much posher environments suggestive of another level of modulation in Lislegaard’s piece.
- This is a description of the gallery in 2005, not its current condition. This particularity of experience, a profoundly important one for my purposes, would not have occurred had I seen this show at MIT’s Media Lab or The Venice Biennial, where the exhibition spaces are far more sanitized.
- After the financial swindling resulting in the recession of 2008, we might track movements back toward Delany’s redlining bent by extractive, informatic financialization. This is a topic for another essay and perhaps for a digital artist.
- Chaos etymologically refers to a gap, not a mess.