A Brickbear In These Trying Times

I first posted about these checkpoint beta streams in August 2020. I called them  “generative streams” made “in attempt to test out some musical and visual ideas,” which … is true, but not much by way of context. I wasn’t sure what I was after, I don’t think. Just chasing some vague technological ideas and affective outcomes. I’ve done a number of these since – almost all of which have been archived and posted for Patrons. In that time, a few of the ideas have solidified, many of which are in response to how I currently feel about The Internet™ generally.

I named these “checkpoint” streams after the selection of mostly ambient, mostly Japanese songs uploaded to YouTube (though a piece by Eliane Radigue, who I count among my biggest inspirations, has made it into the canon)¹. These pieces act/acted as a kind of shared haven before, but then increasingly so at the “height” of the pandemic in 2020, during which the idea of there being a communal shelter from Inclement Affect was powerful to me.

What does this mean? Reading through the comments on these videos, there is an earnestness, self reflection, and vulnerability absent from many other corners of Public Feed Internet (and certainly from many YouTube comment sections). Under these videos, people share their fears, and their challenges. They reflect upon the calm the music brings them, the sense of safety or care. This has continued, though abated somewhat, as a half-recognizable version of normality has shambled back through 2022.

In a few comments, the YT watch pages for these pieces are deemed “checkpoints”, a reference hard to detach from from its videogame-connotations: locations where one might rest a moment and take a break from the stress of forward progress, somewhere to return to once things have gotten too tough. Insofar as these videos represent some particular location in the psychogeographic expanse of the internet, it seems to be a remote one. The comments often linger on the specificity of the music, how it feels written for them. This is not pop, nor popular music – but something off the beaten path, and meaningfully so.

horse_ebooks rendered a diamond of sentiment that seems only to be increasingly true: everything happens so much. The prevalence of the internet in the milieu I know best is certainly partially responsible for this so-much-ness. We are awarded/cursed/burdened with/promised deep insight into whatever events we desire knowledge about; an endless grocery store of mostly snacks, unless you know where to look. This, as the line between “internet events” and “current events” blurs more and more dramatically. The not-entirely-networked world is big enough; the networked one is practically infinite. So the sheer amount to stay abreast of has increased infinity-fold. We are awash in doings, never-not transpiring; it’s difficult to know what needs, or deserves attention.

A different, past me argued that there is no “offline” because modernity mandates, and assumes, a connection to a global network of machines. It is how we make ourselves (yet another me), and how we must engage in society at a practical level: renewing car registrations, managing healthcare, job applications and so on. The illusory nature of an “offline” is even more-so now, a decade on from those-me’s. Even if one were able to responsibly and completely sever their individual connection to the network, it would simply find them again. In the past we’d remark “the internet is leaking” when something Particularly Online slipped, wormhole-like, into meat space. But the vessel which once held the internet is now empty. The internet is no longer contained; the leak has ceased, the spill is complete.

Along these lines, the artist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl has said² that the internet has died. Not that is has disappeared, but more like the internet-object has vacated its internet-location. The internet is gone, it’s missing. It has “moved offline”, and rung a subset of realities (urban and/or liberal and/or middle class and/or etc) with a swirling mote of media. “Reality,” she writes “now consists largely of images […] This means one cannot understand reality without understanding cinema, photography, 3D modeling, animation and other forms of still-and moving images.” It can be a bit much. Steyerl positions Borges, and Baudrillard against one another. The former thought the map which stood for the territory would “wither” in meaningfulness; the latter thought reality would be the half to disintegrate. What has actually happened, Steyerl argues, is that both map and territory remain, infusing and suffusing each other, “…confus[ing] one another: on handheld devices, at checkpoints and in between edits.”

Steyerl asks how we treat a world into which the internet has fully leaked. The norms of Meat Space have always held sway online to one degree or another, but what about the reverse, she wonders: “Why not apply fair use to space, parks and swimming pools?” How might the Internet Spill empower us… make us Toxic Avengers in our image-laden, Superfund Site of a culture?

I wonder where, and how, can we turn down the frequency of the “everything” which “happens so much”? What planks float in The Spill? We must fight but we must also rest, and reflect. We won’t, and seemingly can’t, escape the deluge of images. This leads us only towards methods for managing and selectively ignoring some percentage of The Feed, as whenever we attempt to leave it simply pulls us back in. Beat against the current, float, repeat. And so I return to communal shelter from Inclement Affect. The “checkpoints” seem to me like the suspiciously calm eye of some storm; a stationary rock in the rapids.

This guides the thing I’m after – using Content™ Platforms™, vaguely internet-vernacular imagery and a slight sense of unease to create a kind of … stopping point. A set of images to challenge other images, a sonic environment which cradles an information environment in a slower context than it may otherwise have (after all, we can never assume this stream or that is any one person’s singular focus; what is it like to be the 3rd stream on one screen?)

The ability of sound to create this environment is powerful. This is doubly so for non-commercial music, I think: strange sounds, unclear structure, long duration, unstable harmonies. The bore, the drone, the lull, the hum. There is a regrettably difficult case to make for the value of music generally in 2022, and doubly so this sort of composition. But perhaps this is a strength: one less demand made upon the audience (though one additional stresser on the creator? 😅), a form which lacks an insistence on it’s own value… at least in a way that’s clear to popular perception.

Digital Humanities professor Geert Lovink asked: “What is the social in Social Media?”³ Quoting Dave Winer on the future of news media, Lovink writes “‘Connect everyone that’s important to you as fast as you can, as automatically as possible, and put the pedal to the metal, and take your foot off the brake.’ This is how programmers these days loosely glue everything together with code. Connect persons to data objects to persons. That’s the social today.” What social experiences we wring from social media, across and with and within Content™, are fleeting byproducts of an over commercialized environment built upon venture capital, developer hours, and ad sales. The human-social is the water in the stone of social media: it’s in there, but only with great strength, and perhaps some trickery, might we squeeze it out.

To be clear, I am not sure – at all, even a little – if anything I have, am or will try will “work”, in the sense that it will successfully create some vibe-based oasis, some useful context pushing, some fleeting space where people feel as safe as they do in the comment sections of those “checkpoint” videos (Hiroshi Yoshimura I am not, lol). But it’s fun, and instructive, to try.

Recently, I’ve switched some of the tools I’m using (from Jitter to Unreal Engine and Blender, most notably) and I’m hoping this opens up further avenues down the line, specifically to not only stream thesepieces, but distribute them as software. I.e., what happens when we try to do the same things to “games” as “social media”? Not sure, but maybe later we’ll find out, and close the loop on the videogame-connotation of making things called “checkpoints”.


¹ Thanks to Jenny, forever ago, for the links / playlist.
² “Too Much World: Is The Internet Dead?”, The Internet Does Not Exist, e-flux inc, eds. Aranda et al
³ “What is the Social in Social Media?”, The Internet Does Not Exist, e-flux inc, eds. Aranda et al