My thoughts about destruction, visual effects, software and spectacle have recently been intersecting with ideas of the Gothic. On sharing these ideas with various friends working in the arts, I’ve begun to notice heads nodding, and the sense that a wider contemplation of the Gothic and Romantic (or magical, mythic and superstitious) may be afoot. If you’re in any doubt, dubious trend forecasters K-Hole just released their new report, which champions doubt itself as a consumer strategy. Feel free to take that with a pinch of salt or not. Anyway, my feeling is that this potential reawakening is very much tied to networked neoliberalism and an antipathy towards tech utopianism. To explain my thinking, I’d like to chart how this interest in a Digital Gothic emerged for me, rather than prescribe a lofty manifesto or start talking in academic abstracts.
Late last year, I visited the British Museum’s exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. The image above, shown at the exhibition, is by John Martin and has taken on an almost talismanic quality for me. Martin was a fringe painter but well-ahead of his time in his embrace of the spectacle – his paintings toured the UK to unprecedented numbers due to their vertiginous perspectives and terrifying subject matter.
Here we have Ray Harryhausen, special effects messiah, talking about John Martin, who he calls ”one of the first Art Directors of motion pictures”. The perspective, clarity and epic scale of Martin’s work were targeted directly to the adrenal gland in exactly the same way as a neo-disaster movie like San Andreas (2015).
I’ll put the obvious formal DNA aside as it’s not the idea of the spectacular and sublime image that particularly interests me in this instance.
In fact, it’s something that ran a bit deeper in the Gothic Revival. It was a movement that turned away from the Renaissance and looked to the dark ages for inspiration. It rejected the increasingly predictable world of science, the boom of empire and the fresh infusion of classical Greek and Roman ideals. It was superstitious, transitory, fanciful, heretical and otherworldly. It looked towards the unknown and unknowable, the lost and ruined.
Gothic art, architecture and literature was filled with dilapidated cathedrals, abbeys and monasteries, unearthed manuscripts, fragments of letters and cursed books. So much of what the Gothics created were follies: their ruins, elaborate chambers and forged letters were charged with mischief, mystery and romance – qualities that may have felt lacking in an increasingly Cartesian world. What the Gothic revival really thrived on was doubt. In an online essay accompanying the Terror and Wonder exhibition, Professor John Bowen writes:
Gothic is thus a world of doubt, particularly doubt about the supernatural and the spiritual. It seeks to create in our minds the possibility that there may be things beyond human power, reason and knowledge. But that possibility is constantly accompanied by uncertainty.
Everywhere you look in music, film, art, literature, you can detect the Gothic narrative: from Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley, to Umberto Eco and Carlos Ruiz, the enchanted treasures of Indiana Jones, Lord of The Rings or The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to the MacGuffins of JJ Abrams' Lost and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The Gothic is everywhere, but the conditions that created the Gothic appear less frequently.
This to me gets to the heart of what the Gothic was, and that’s what I’m really interested in – the impulse, rather than the subsequent lineage. I wanted to consider how the antagonistic relationship the Gothic Revivalists had to the spread of Renaissance knowledge might have a contemporary analogy in the relationship we have with networked knowledge.
In short, how might a concept of the Digital Gothic begin to appraise, oppose or evaluate the changes brought about by the Internet? What ghosts and monsters might surface through our newly organised world of information - our networked infrastructure of code, devices, servers, apps and software? How would the Gothics construct a digital folly? Does the concept even make sense?
The film is about an apparently average guy called Martin Armstrong. In the 1980s, Armstrong came up with a computer model that he claimed predicted events in the financial market. A self-taught currency and stamp enthusiast, he’d developed a prodigious feel for the market and claims to have predicted the crash of 1987 to the exact day. Central to his theory was the idea that “some manner of economic panic occurred every 8.6 years”. His Economic Confidence Model was often eerily accurate and whether through insider dealings or painful predictions, he drew the attention of the federal court who kept him in prison for seven years for failing to hand over his data. The film tells the story impeccably, leaving us with an ambiguity as to whether Armstrong is a chancer, a fraud or a genius. Could a working-class boy from New Jersey have developed a computer model that predicted cataclysmic financial events? Way back in the eighties?
What is it about the details of the story that seem so pertinent to me? Was it the inability to verify or disprove Armstrong’s supernaturally prescient model? His long spell of imprisonment? The buried treasure? His carefully accrued trove of financial data going back a hundred years? Maybe it was the fact that the film was barely released, was surrounded by conspiratorial whispers and continues to be hard-to-find (or just really expensive)?
I think it’s all of these things, but the attraction of this Gothic tale is especially rooted in the eerily ahead-of-its-time computer model, fed with a century of stock market data, left fallow or bricked as its creator remained imprisoned under circumstantial charges. Through the archive of carefully sequenced VHS footage, a buried treasure is uncovered, resurfacing in age where technological anxieties and financial scandals appear in highly mediated real-time HD.
I think the latency of the story appeals – the idea that it was there all along, both Armstrong’s model as well as the data that pre-dated and informed it. Again, Professor John Bowen writes:
Gothics often take place at moments of transition (between the medieval period and the Renaissance, for example) or bring together radically different times. There is a strong opposition (but also a mysterious affinity) in the Gothic between the very modern and the ancient or archaic, as everything that characters and readers think that they've safely left behind comes back with a vengeance.
In a focus on transition, we have a way of cracking open the potentials of a Digital Gothic. We could look at a variety of ways artists and writers have charted, documented, romanticised or mythologised the transition between pre- and post-internet timeframes.
In art, Constant Dullaart is a great example. He imaginatively re-evaluates seminal tech figure John Knoll, progenitor of Photoshop filters and the Instagram model. Dullaart filters images not only through those original Photoshop tools, but through historical vantage points: we are prompted to think from the perspective of Jennifer in Paradise, of John Knoll himself, and from the generations of designers and artists that helped create their digital legacy. As viewers, we get a chance to ponder recent tech history as if it was an origin myth. Jennifer is the monster, Knoll – and the rest of us - are Frankenstein. Sorry, Jennifer.
Elsewhere, Hito Steyerl produced an imaginative and absurdly speculative video essay that addressed the inability to form coherent counter-narratives to those provided by increasingly hegemonic and opaque networked media structures. Mark Leckey uses a monolithic Samsung refrigerator to give voice to network anxiety, imagining the Internet of Things as a remote otherworldly plane of confused AI ghosts.
In film, it might be It Follows, a kind of terrifying alternate-universe 1990 where the director confuses time periods with odd props and a strange sense of condemned youth. The conch e-reader subtly invokes yet confuses a time period with its incongruity.
It might also be Capturing the Friedmans which, like The Forecaster, thrives off an uncanny feeling that the analogue is haunted – that there are VHS stories buried just beneath our digital present that are repressed, forgotten in the rush to get online. In fact, many found footage films seem to play off this ambiguity. The very concept of lost footage or found footage supposes the question of what can be lost in a digital age.
Why not a clearer example of digital found-footage, like Paranormal Activity? Well, despite it being one of the most popular and profitably horror films of the past few years, it is Gothic in the same way that goth music, cybergoth or steampunk are - too comfortably entrenched in genre to offer the discomfort the Gothic impulse promises.
The ambiguous, horrifying, uncomfortable Digital Gothic can be found, however, in the overlap between the artists of label PC Music and the Vaporwave movement. Artist like QT, Hannah Diamond and A.G. Cook produce high-concept pop that recreates audiovisually the suffocating vacuum of the latest cellophane-wrapped iPhone. They purposely over identify with this very modern aesthetic, yet they also look backwards with a strange type of fondness: the squeaky vocals, naïve phrasing and smooth sine tones reference 90s kiddiepop.
These artists are all Millennials – their early teens coincided with the arrival of the Internet. Their aesthetic is like a fugue state that returns them to a less cynical time, though they do this with enough cynicism to give the genre some ambiguity. It is infantile and sterile, like a wipe-clean bib. And it is somehow creepy and inhuman in the way that S Club 7 and The Disney Club are. This image of Hannah Diamond reminds me, rather uncomfortably of Victorian mourning portraits.
With this fairly cursory variety of touchstones, I’m suggesting that the Digital Gothic might treat the evolution of technology up until the internet as if it were a very tricky - or even truncated - adolescence. It might trace the traumatic transition between the pre-networked and networked digital age. It might jump the divide or find ways back through, legitimate or fanciful. It might look at the eighties through a digital lens, or look at the present through an analogue one. It might involve researching those thousands of individuals who were part of the digital revolution and those that faded away, whose technologies were appropriated and repurposed or whose half-finished algorithm is their only legacy.
There’s a clear Gothic theme, here: the forgotten, lost and buried. To go a little further, what I think is especially beguiling about The Forecaster is that it takes this idea of the Gothic chamber and ports it to the bricked computer.
This (Gothic) genre was at first identified with a particular kind of edifice. In later variations any kind of enclosed space, so long as it is associated with mysteries or secrets, may serve.
So, the Digital Gothic would summon as relics machines that are now too old to boot, with obsolete operating systems, corrupted drives, missing cables and rusted connections. It might imagine a memoir or a novel that was never finished, locked in a beige box with no clue to its content. A box of floppy disks in a landfill that reveal a secret that changes everything. Something trapped in one of those rolls of films you never developed. In a time where our online behaviour is so rigorously documented, perhaps the attraction of gothic magic is a reaction to the impossibility of mystery online? What can be hidden? Do we have to invent it to feel it?
In short, myths of the near past: digital archaeology, but not necessarily as part of an objective, rational expedition. The Gothic thrived on the semblance of proof but an inability to verify it using new technologies. The Digital Gothic would react against the predictive nature of advanced software simulation, the quantified self, online surveillance and big data. And that reaction would resurface through the present, causing us to question our version of events or suspend disbelief through a speculative alternative.
In a world where data may never die, let’s look back at the data that we never thought would live again. Those are our ghosts. The ghosts of non-networked computing, early digital and analogue media surfacing improbably through HD digital waters. A ghost without a face, without an interface. Imagine that: a ghost node that never networked.
The Digital Gothic could propose that the dawn of the global information age has cast long, mysterious shadows in which a compendium of alternate genesis stories lie. It could envision how the pseudoscientific, the superstitious and the radical other could emerge through technology. This is not tech evangelism, far from it. The Digital Gothic would be a haunting. It would recoil from the 360 degree daylight of Windows 10.
We Millennials switched the lights on: we were the first to open email accounts, use chatrooms, download music and take digital photos. We grew up alongside consumer tech and it seems an integral part of us, a twin timeline. But somewhere along the line something diverged. So many switches came on at the same time: what if just one of them is still off? What will it illuminate?