OK, let’s take a
how many of us
grew up praying for
the end of the world? Is it
so bad to desire
the end of the world?
— Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta
A few months ago I attended the third annual World Wide West summit, a gathering of about fifty artists, writers, technologists, and other people interested in new media arts and digital culture. Most of the weekend was run un-conference style; people signed up to lead virtual reality drawing in the living room, painted with smashed computer innards, and held domain-hoarding self-help circles. Everyone cooked and cleaned and camped out in a clump around a fire pit. We awakened each morning with the amniotic sac of the fog around our tents.
On day two I crawled out just as the damp was peeling back from the fields, and walked over to a pit dug into the ground with wooden benches sunk just inside its circumference. Artist Nancy Nowacek was leading what she’d announced as an “Alt Slack Channel,” and though I’m not a user of the team organizational tool Slack, I was curious. I was also drawn to Nancy’s strong stance, muscular arms, and repeated assertion that though she’s a graphic designer, it’s crucial to her to “show up with a body.”
She described feeling that she’s expected to be always on Slack and receive messages instantly, and wanted to model this experience with bodies and rope. Our job was to loop a round of the long nylon rope around our waists and attempt to communicate wordlessly with one another. Should we need to get the attention of the team we could tug on our section of the rope and participants would pass it on.
“Instead of ‘jibber-jabber’ and ‘flimflam’ like Slack uses,” she told us, “feel free to put your hands on someone’s shoulder to communicate care.”
We slung the rope and giggled as it grew quiet and the sound of swallows and wind floated in. Every motion rippled through our circle and caught as each of us tugged and gained the slack we needed. One participant arrived late and we managed to include him without verbal instruction, and when post-its and pens materialized, I used my hands to form a writing surface. These small status updates drifted across shoulders and arms; some fluttered down to the ground, lost to the dust.
In one dramatic moment, a participant leaned her back against the rope, her weight tightening it around the waists of those around her. Distress moved quickly across faces and we rushed to place more slack in the rope. As the sun moved high above us, we raised a nearby plank of wood above our heads in silence, carefully launching a rusty shovel off it for our crescendo. It felt like a huge accomplishment, but as we laughed and broke our silence, Nowacek was only half-satisfied.
“I meant to communicate to everyone that the purpose was not to do anything,” she told me later, “not to try to accomplish anything, but just be together as a group.”
Jay and I are at the Joanne Kyger memorial reading at Moe’s Books in Berkeley. We are near the back of the packed room, perched on the stairs. Alli Warren references Kyger’s “dailyness,” and another participant reads a letter to Kyger, reminding her that one must just wait until the moment comes for writing. The audience exhales audibly at this.
“A different Bay Area,” Jay whispers to me, as nostalgia leaks across the rows of us: we no longer live in a world where it feels attainable to wait around all day for inspiration, to smoke grass, as Kyger writes, and be in leisure under redwoods.
“In this world that has got closed over by houses / and networks, I fly out / from under the belly,” Kyger writes, and we sigh for it.
Late capitalism rockets us toward our devices and our day jobs, and when evening comes we are just tired enough to swoon over Kyger’s backyard fog life in Bolinas, a California era lost to us as we hunch again over our phones.
In her introduction to the exhibition catalogue for ENERGY THAT IS ALL AROUND, a survey of San Francisco’s Mission School, curator Natasha Boas writes:
The word nostalgia — which comes from two Greek roots, nostos meaning “return home,” and algia, “longing” — could be problematized as not only a simple “longing for a place” but also a yearning for a different time or, even more abstractly, a different “sense of time.”
It is this yearning for a different sense of time that I feel in the sighs at the Kyger reading, and also in the tenderness of the roped-in Slack channel. We long for a California in which we do not have to work three jobs, do not have to wait three weeks to schedule a coffee date with our closest friends.
“It’s our fucking phones,” Jay says, and raises hers in her fist as we walk out of Moe’s to the damp Berkeley night. “Our phones keep us too busy to live Kyger’s life.”
It’s an easy argument to make, and not without significance. But I bore easily with it, the way it collapses those who can afford expensive, distracting phones with those who work multiple jobs to survive. Too often being busy wraps this mysterious disempowerment around us, and I find myself wanting to poke around in there for the specific.
I mean, Kyger just wasn’t hustling for money, Alex says a few days later when I whine about how I want her life. I don’t think she ever had a job.
And this settles me in its way — his practical assessment in contrast to the romantic charm of Kyger’s life. Alex shrugs.
It doesn’t make her a bad person, or any less of a good writer, he smiles, she just wasn’t writing under the conditions of someone who has to work. And my friends do have to work, so things are different for us.
“If the nostalgia is a longing for something concrete,” writes Valeria Luiselli, “it may perhaps be weakened by eclipsing the memory of what was with the overwhelming presence of what is.”
What interests me more than whether a pre-phone era was somehow better than now is what we do now; with our phones, our jobs, our different positions in relationship to privilege and work. We are not living Kyger’s life or time, Warsh’s time, Ginsberg’s time. What do we make, then, with this one?
This question feels especially intriguing at World Wide West, surrounded by people who work in or with technology (so often postured as the rich bad guy in the fight against gentrification and skyrocketing rents in the Bay Area), in the golden open fields of Point Arena. Benjamin Lotan and Tara Shi’s land is walking distance to the renowned Highway 1 and the cliffy beach of the Stornetta Public Lands, preserved by President Obama as part of the California Coastal National Monument. And Point Arena is a town with a large population of 1960s back-to-the-landers and marijuana growers panicking about legalization — each in different ways proto-typical Northern Californian desires to live unbothered by the realities and needs of an interconnected, organized, and legislated world. So many have run away to the West, specifically to Mendocino and Humboldt counties, chasing dreams of escape. What does it mean to bring technology to these foggy grasses, these grey-wood cabins? The internet, after all, has finally come to Point Arena. What does it mean to admit defeat in the dream of escape?
On the opening night of World Wide West, the event’s organizers (Lotan, Shi, Liat Berdugo, and Sam Kronick) held a satirically somber “opening ceremony” by the pond on the property. They gave some serious admonitions (“check your body for ticks,” “watch out for large holes on the property”) and some lighter ones (“remember, there are bugs in the internet,” referring to a literal infestation of termites in the fiber optic cable box).
They also introduced what would become the symbols and catch phrases of the weekend, captured on blue and white buttons and magnets reading “take care,” “ruin,” “maintenance,” and etcetera. Participants were enlisted to form the letters WWW with rubber cords, and from them, vault two crystal balls (the symbol of last year’s summit, the theme of which was “forecasting”) into the pond. As the balls plunked into the water, the four founders shouted: “forecasting has failed us!” The crowd gathered in the dark was invited to echo their words in a murmur.
“Apocalypse poeticizes the entire discourse, gives it tragic stature,” writes Michael Sorkin in his introduction to California Counterpoint: New West Coast Architecture, 1982, “The ‘big one’ could strike at any moment. Potential apocalypse gives nature an edge. Things are so beautiful and yet…”
It wasn’t only beauty (the silk-dark pond, the bright blue jumpsuits) that snagged me that night, but a whiff of invention and play that I’m often nostalgic for but just too tired to have.
“The Internet is defined by openness,” writes Bettina Korek in her foreword to Doug Aitken’s The Idea of the West, “The spontaneous order that once characterized the West is still at play in the digital universe.”
Of course, we’re no longer in the early days of the internet, and that “spontaneous order” has largely given way to many harmful things. We can’t avoid hateful trolls, fragmented focus, and existential digital loneliness. The optimism that once characterized the internet is itself reckoning with ruin.
“I’m curious how people behave when we decide something is ruined,” said one participant during the free-form reading group I held under a cypress tree at World Wide West to discuss — among other texts — Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. “Like how apocalyptic thinking makes us act our best or worst.”
From one stump I picked up Illness as Metaphor and read aloud: “The disease is viewed as the occasion finally to behave well.”
World Wide West is one small answer to our illness (née apocalypse, crisis), a beauty made of the material we think is eclipsing us: its theme of ruin, its Western reinvention impulse, as if the fog muddling the wild oats each morning might wash clean our rusting foundation.
“I have great nostalgia for the future,” Sorkin goes on, and I feel this in World Wide West’s cross-section, as well as in its Domain Hoarding Self-Help Group, where one self-professed addict said, “I feel like I owe [my unused domain names] something, like the least I can do is make something of them.”
As participants departed World Wide West on Sunday, organizers shouted to their cars “take care! Do take care!” their tone landing somewhere between admonition and tenderness. We were, after all, near steep drop-offs and dangerous riptides, and any of us might be prone to texting while driving.
World Wide West did not restore my faith in technology’s inimitable progress, nor assuage my critiques of digital culture. Of course, tech start-ups, too, go “off the grid” for the weekend, bring in mindfulness experts and outdoors people to lead employees in bonding exercises and skills for collecting the scattered mind. World Wide West evokes this, in the way participants said they felt “refreshed” afterwards and “ready to make things again.”
There are dangers here: of never escaping capitalism’s compulsion toward productivity, innovation, and pivoting, of following a screen off a cliff to one’s death. But what World Wide West presents best is canvassing the material of digital ruin — the ruined capacity to focus, the ruined earth, a ruined ethics of care — to make things from that ruin itself. We don’t get to throw up our hands in defeat, or pine sentimentally for a Bolinas of the past, especially when so many of us don’t have the privilege to escape for more than a few days at a time — and others of us don’t have that capacity at all.
We don’t want to descend into ruin porn, mused Berdugo at the weekend’s final circle. We need to stay implicated and conscious of where we stand in relation to particular ruins. And I sense that this stance is an underlying project of World Wide West: to be conscious of its — and our — relations.
In her book A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause, Shawn Wen recounts how Marcel Marceau reflected on remaining friends with one of his ex-wives: “In this sense my life is not a failure.” I imagine the mime must have used his multiple complex break-ups as material for scenes. I imagine his stark painted face moving from exaggerated frown to smile as, in the air, he salvaged his relationship with his ex-wife. And I think of the participants at World Wide West who constructed a painting from smashed parts of obsolete computers.
“The world of transformation / is real and not real but trusting,” writes Kyger. I read this as a reminder that in an unstable field one can remain constant with the available material. We might also choose to interpret nostalgia in this way — a necessarily fraught but trusting friendship with the wrecked, the transformed.