Porcupine Condos – What is that Thing?

“Viola’s essay is enigmatic,” says Zzzz. Absolutely. And compelling, and haunting. And not just for porcupines. I know my favorite reading comes up every week, but “Will there be Condominiums in Data Space” really (really) makes the thinking juices flow.  To paraphrase one of my grad school mentors, “anything worth blogging once is worth blogging again.”  So my earlier thoughts on the porcupine and the condominiums are below.  I highly recommend the two videos of Viola: the first interrogates the intertwining of big “why” with big “how” and suggests how easily diverted we are by the little how. The second addresses the “What is data space” question (start about 4′ 15″ in if you are in a hurry).
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Porcupine Condos

Bill Viola‘s “Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?” is one of the richest and most perplexing readings we engage in the New Media Seminar. As rhetorical questions go, “Will there be Condominiums in Data Space?” is a bit consternating, since the point of view behind it is not immediately clear. Going in, you don’t know whether Viola thinks condos (in data space or elsewhere) are a good thing or not, so it can be challenging to work through an essay that starts with an observation about the unbroken nature of individual existence and then spends quite a bit of time exploring the ways different cultural practices work to create memory systems and idea spaces that presume a kind of holism of experience and creativity. But then you get to this: “There is always a whole space, which already exists in its entirety, onto which ideas and images can be mapped, using only that portion of the space needed.” (NMR, p. 465) Ah ha! someone committed to an infinite conceptual geometry is probably not a fan of sub-divided, individually owned living spaces. Therefore condominiums are probably bad. Whew. And near the end, Viola (writing in 1982) says they would indeed be built into data space: “Today, development of self must precede development of the technology or we will go nowhere — there will be condominiums in data space (it has already begun with cable TV).” Got it. Take care of ourselves or be colonized by condos.  Nurture your networks and pull the plug on the YouTube cat memes. “Little boxes, on a hillside…..” Then, in a most un-McLuhanesque moment, Viola warns that “Applications of tools are only reflections of the users — chopsticks may be a simple eating utensil or a weapon, depending on who uses them.” (NMR, p. 469) Lots of food for thought there.

But the kicker comes in the form of a coda about a porcupine’s encounter with a car on a dark night:

Late one night while driving down a narrow mountain highway, I came across a large porcupine crossing the road up ahead. Fortunately, I spotted him in time to bring the car to a stop a short distance from where he was standing. I watched him in the bright headlights, standing motionless, petrified at this “dose encounter of the third kind.” Then, after a few silent moments, he started to do a strange thing. Staying in his place, he began to move around in a circle, emitting a raspy hissing sound, with the quills rising up off his body. He didn’t run away. I realized that this dance was actually a move of self-defense. I cut the car headlights to normal beams, but he still continued to move around even more furiously, casting weird shadows on the trees behind. Finally, to avoid giving him a heart attack, and to get home, I cut the lights completely and turned off the engine. I watched him in the dim moonlight as he stopped his dance and moved off the road. Later, while driving off, I realized that he was probably walking proudly away, gloating over how he really gave it to that big blinding noisy thing that rushed toward him out of the night I’m sure he was filled with confidence, so pleased with himself that he had won, his porcupine world-view grossly inflated as he headed home in the darkness. (NMR, pp. 469-470)

What do you do with that???? I’m sure our fearless discussion leaders will have their own ideas about the significance of the porcupine’s “grossly inflated” world view, and I look forward to hearing what the group thinks about Viola’s advocacy of matrix structures.

I find something new and invigorating in this piece every time I come back to it.  This time, I was struck by Viola’s artistic commitment to tap into the essential aspects of our humanity – the life cycle and our collective experience.  (You can check out many of his video installations on You Tube.)  I also appreciated the understated summons to think about the “why” as much as the “how” that underlies “Will there be Condominiums…?”  The first video below offers a more explicit discussion of the importance of the why.  The second complements the middle section of “Will there be Condominiums” really nicely it you still aren’t sure how data structures relate to art.  If you are already clear on that, check out the last bit (starting at about 4’15”) on the internet as a representation of human social relations and the “real” meaning (and limitations) of “code.”