“Maybe in some distant place everything is already quietly lost. Or maybe at least there exists a silent place where everything can disappear, melting together into a single, overlapping figure.
“And as we live our lives we discover, drawing toward us the thin threads attached to each, what has been lost.
“I closed my eyes and tried to bring to mind as many beautiful lost things as I could. Drawing them closer, holding on to them, knowing all the while that their lives are fleeting.”
It was during a time I can just remember, so long ago and so different from today. I’m not really sure if it was real, or if in my memory it is simply another wistful fantasy, a custom-made upload, a copy of a dream.
In the beginning, all I ever wanted was to live in the moment, to lose all perspective and exist in two dimensions. I wanted to squish my face up against the wall, so everything would became a huge foreground of details and close ups: the leaves in the trees, the earth beneath my feet, the weave of the bed sheet, the molecules of your face; your skin like a map, crisscrossed with tiny roads that go nowhere.
So I began to withdraw and nature took hold.
At night I would crawl into the undergrowth or force my way into the hedgerow, close my eyes and freeze.
For hours I’d stare into the darkness while cars hummed past with headlights full beaming.
The darkness terrified me; the cold, hushed noise of the wind through the trees and the closest I ever came to death in those days was a far off crack of wood beneath the foot of some small creature.
Beneath a flight path, it’s amazing what you’ll find when you actually look. Beyond the surface beauty, the infinite noise and carnage within the still and the silent.
I was out of my depth and getting lost.
And, searching for hours while you all slept, I discovered the sunrise. But it did not help.
The memory of the world.
“A single volume would be sufficient, a volume of ordinary format, printed in nine or ten point type, containing an infinite number of infinitely thin leaves […] No page is the first; none the last.”
And I remember the advertisements, they read: “The extinction of mankind is clearly a sad prospect, but shedding our tears does not improve things.”
And on the news they explained how they were “building a central memory of mankind, trying to store it all in the smallest possible room, something like our own brains’ individual memories.”
So every single moment, memory, fact, idea, word and image, end to end until the end, a monstrous materialization of humankind’s desperate desire to live forever, eternity, shining in all of its vanity and arrogance, a meaningful existence beyond a meaningless existence.
It was difficult to fathom, but somehow I just knew and became convinced that it was this that would somehow make sense of everything I had ever asked myself and of the world.
Everything I had been looking for.
And I wasn’t alone.
I entered the web of a nearby metropolis and took a job at one of the central offices.
Centuries past while we invested everything into that single mission, giving it our lives. Determined that the traces we left should exist for all time to come. We hadn’t discovered the meaning of life, so we created it.
It all seems so futile now, but nobody could see it back then.
“Nostalgia born of the immensity of the Texan hills and the sierras of New Mexico: gliding down the freeway, smash hits on the Chrysler stereo, heat wave. Snapshots aren’t enough. We’d need the whole film of the trip in real time, including the unbearable heat and the music. We’d have to play it all from end to end at home in a darkened room, rediscover the magic of the freeways and the distance and the ice-cold alcohol in the desert and the speed and live it all again on the video at home in real time, not simply for the pleasure of remembering but because the fascination of senseless repetition is already present in the abstraction of the journey.”
Many years later, things had begun to progress so much that it was no longer possible to make any journeys outside of a darkened room, and even if we could, who indeed would want to? Nobody seemed to know, nobody seemed to care.
“I sat at the kitchen table and watched the sky grow lighter by the minute.
“It had been a long time since I’d seen the dawn.
At one end of the sky, a line of blue appeared, and like blue ink on a piece of paper it spread slowly across the horizon.
“If you gathered together all the shades of blue in the world and picked the bluest, the epitome of blue, this is the color you would choose.”
The landscape was not as I remembered; it had altered unrecognizably beyond any romantic representation of the picturesque, its vastness an unexpected disappointment. I had been led to believe what they told us was only a small portion of the whole, but I slowly discovered it was not true. I roamed the earth from within a soundproof booth, built from one-way mirrored windows. My eyes peeled, expectant and excited, but over time I became impatient and generally uninterested.
It was at this point I became aware of the downward direction in which we were headed, and because of the speed in which time was passing by, it became near on impossible to stop and investigate what was actually happening or indeed what had and would.
Images, conversations, faces, moments, also languages, cultures and complete histories began to blur on top of one another. I could see everything was getting swept up in one huge wave of living history. Of course, alongside the human labour, there was a highly sophisticated system in place for meticulously organizing and archiving all of this history and memory, but it was the sheer volume of information (image, sound, text and data), both public and private, and the pressure of time passing, our finite lives, which denied any of us the opportunity to really take stock and assess what we were creating. Or, more importantly, as it seemed to me, what we were losing in the process.
As all of these things became digitally compressed and stored within a virtual space, something essentially human seemed to be getting lost. It seems so obvious now. Every important detail was there, but it was the everyday details that got left behind and forgotten, and in real life these details were beginning to fall out of focus too.
I began to wonder, what if “only what passes without leaving a trace really exists… There comes a time in which a yawn, a fly in mid-air, an itch seem to be the only treasure just because we cannot use them. They are given just once and they are forgotten forever, they escape the dull destiny of being stored in the memory of the world. Who can ever rule out that the universe is just a discontinuous network of unrecordable moments.”
Maybe we didn’t need everything. Or maybe our idea of everything wasn’t enough. They took no notice of me. Their vision was complemented only by its algorithmic perfection.
“When I sit alone vacantly with nothing to do, at some point memories come to me. There are times when the memories are faintly sweet, slightly bitter. At those times, I can see a woman beyond the light bitterness, and in the background hangs a faded page of a map and a page of a calendar. They are the map I once followed with the women and the calendar whose pages we turned together. They are extremely yellowed now and parched, so that the traces of ink have gone thin. I have lost all feel for the days and route between meeting that woman and parting with her, they are blurred on the far side of time. The contours of the towns I lived in with the woman have turned fuzzy, the seasons I passed with the woman are long gone, and everything about the memories has become a distant reality.”
She called it “the blue of the distance. Blue […] the light that gets lost […] the colour of solitude and of desire, the colour of there seen from here, the colour of where you are not. And the colour of where you can never go.”
I call it oblivion. It has no colour but black.
“Both elbows on the table, I covered my face with my palms.
Inside that darkness, I saw rain falling on the sea.
Rain softly falling on a vast sea, with no-one there to see it.”
Flashbacks from that period of the great industrialisation of nature frequently appear on screen and in my mind. Death imitating life or death converted into more death. Nature replaced and, before long, time destroyed.
Mankind’s distortion of time brought about a new experience of the world around us: past, present and future. We gradually began to understand that, before now, we had all just been living out our lives one frame at a time and, now in the years that followed, as if determined to prove that every single moment was meaningful and perfect, we willingly went about watching our lives played-back on a continuous loop.
Time was laughing at us.
What did I miss?
It all quickly began to weigh heavy on my conscious. I had to get out, withdraw once more, head for a high place above the thick cloud of industry. For the first time in my life I was desperately in need of perspective. I quit my job at the central office and took to the road.
“When you’re in a car and cutting across a steady succession of scenes, an abundance of images flee behind you. In the instant you cross, they leave a faint sensation of brushing past. And they leave behind only an accumulating sense of loss towards scenes and things. However, the innumerable scenes that have once fled become other scenes inside me and appear out of the blue some days. These will be regenerated within visions that entirely transcend space and time, within consciousness that is severed from logical connection.”
Was this real? Is this how the memory of the mind has always worked, photo collages of past time randomly arranged together amongst thoughts, feelings and dreams? I felt like I was losing my mind.
The speed of car travel reflected too closely what was happening in the cities. So I abandoned the vehicle in a town near the coast and continued on foot.
Now, just a traveller with nothing to my name, no sense of direction and nowhere to be, I found solace in this newfound simplicity. Time, for me, had stopped as I began to live on the fringes of society, even occasionally passing through an existence close to the nature from which I had begun. But these were only brief moments of relief. I couldn’t ignore that around me the world was continuing to slowly time-lapse towards a self-destruction.
The organisations continued to grow exponentially; harvesting everything they could get their hands on. The collection and communication of information became a global product and currency.
We had all done our part and took immense pride and pleasure in our work.
Reaping and sowing, investing, consuming. It became a never-ending Black Friday, a free-for-all and an eat-as-much-as-you-like.
It was Mankind’s greatest achievement.
And we lost control.
“Just look around you: artificial islands mimic genetically manipulated plants. Dental offices parade as car commercial film sets. Cheekbones are airbrushed just as whole cities pretend to be YouTube CAD tutorials. Artworks are e-mailed to pop up in bank lobbies designed on fighter jet software. Huge cloud storage drives rain down as skylines in desert locations […] A nail paint clip turns into an Instagram riot. An upload comes down as shitstorm. An animated GIF materializes as a pop-up airport transit gate. In some places, it seems as if entire NSA system architectures were built, but only after Google-translating them, creating car lofts where one-way mirror windows face inwards.”
In the end, the world’s virtual memory storage system reached capacity, broke its banks, and spilled out across the globe.
Everything became engulfed in an algorithmic soup of code and chemical reactions, wash off and rundown. Product and waste indecipherably mixed into a dense film that covered and contaminated everything.
Moving more slowly now, wading through that toxic accumulation of memory, like a bog it threatened to suck me down and consume me. Why did I resist?
“Sensations of being on the road, which I had begun to forget, came flooding back to me […] the various fragments of images from being on the road before gradually began to appear as genuine scenes […] just like playing with a jigsaw puzzle, where in the process of putting together a number of indistinct pieces the overall image suddenly becomes visible. Before my eyes, a highway comes into focus, stretching into the distance as a long gray line, and beyond it, in succession, appear the white scenes of a roadside in midsummer, a serene scene of fields and mountains in early autumn, a dark scene of a strait in harsh winter, and the evening scene of lights going on in an unfamiliar town. Following these images in my imagination, I sense the ceaselessly occurring, pulsating archipelago, and feel a momentary impatience. Who is doing what in the world right now where, what is and what is about to happen?”
And on the surface of it, suddenly it became painfully clear that the Earth had disappeared beneath an exact replica of itself, multiple times over.
I walked among the tatters of that reality; through layers upon layers of images, sound and data, scanning my surroundings for anything that could be what was once known as the real, an original or natural thing. But it was impossible to be sure what I was actually looking for. How would I know if I found it? The perpetual, ever-increasing illusions of past lives had forced me to distrust everything I thought I had ever known. The idea of memory itself not even really a memory now. Existing in the nowhere and everywhere all at once.
“I haven’t kept a calendar for years. Each day is more gray than the one before. It is cold and growing colder as the world slowly dies. No animals have survived, and all the crops are long gone. Soon all the trees in the world will fall.”
Information is all that is left. “This has been life on Earth […] mankind; its memory, its inventions for communicating and remembering.” But whose memory is it exactly, unrecognisable and completely useless? And who will be left to remember it?
Where am I? If only I knew. I continue to travel the world, an ocean planet, floating now from one hydrothermal vent to the next. Staring out across an infinite landscape of noise in a continued search of even a glimpse of a former world, a hope that all is not lost. But I never arrive anywhere beyond my own body, however unrecognizable that has become.
I have come to realize that I am alone; I have become the atmosphere, the light that has been lost, that epitome of blue.
Perhaps it is not about the loss or gain, but rather the act of longing that gives meaning to anything. For indeed, if there is nothing alive to notice the loss then what is lost at all? The endless and hopeless search for meaning within a vast sea of space and time, information, both known and unknowable, is that which creates life. Beyond the act of looking is the desperate belief that there is something to look at in the first place. Remove this, and it’s as if we were never here to begin with.
Time continues to trickle slowly by, as it had always done before. The dust clouds settle and the evidential fragments of catastrophe fade thin to air, fossilize, and crystalize. And human time joins the compressed strata of the land, just another layer of death on top of the rest.
And finally, I also return to the darkness.
All words by Jonathan Haydock, 2015-2016, except:
“Axaxaxas Mlö” title taken from Jorge Luis Borges story “The Library of Babel”
Other quotes throughout the work have been borrowed from:
Verses by Robert Wyatt
A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Memory of the World by Italo Calvino
Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
America by Jean Baudrillard
Memories of a Dog by Daido Moriyama
The Blue of the Distance by Rebecca Solnit
Too Much World by Hito Steyerl
The Road by Cormac McCarthey