The Sublime 3.0: Fear & Awe is featured in The Wrong Biennale, pavilion 37, where we showcase how New Media artists are shaping and pushing the boundaries of the contemporary sublime. Divided into four categories: the (dis)embodied, the eerie, the technological and the natural sublime –  we invite you to explore our virtual realm of fear, awe and destabilising beauty.

Gabriella Gasparini  | Ed. Peter Traynor  |   16 April 2022

The Cyber Sublime, Between Myth and Reality

Women in Digital Art: The Sublime 3.0: Awe and Fear - Cyber Sublime category by Agora Digital Art
The Sublime, Agora Digital Art (2021) © Courtesy of the artists S4RA, Linda Loh and Sandrine Deumier.

What is the cyber sublime? To understand these contemporary phenomena, we will first step back in time. Back to a time when the cyber or digital sublime didn’t even exist, an era where mythologies and everyday realities merged without the complicity of a screen, but rather via word of mouth, legends and religious scripts. To understand the experience of the sublime and its forceful abandonment of the senses, we will look to mythology for answers. 

But what is a myth? And how do myths relate to the sublime event? As we look at both ancient mythologies and the myths of our time, we expose their role in forming the sublime experience. In fact, we will argue that both the sublime and the myth trigger the same kind of subconscious drives: drives that stem from a psychological lack, and manifest as something we want but cannot fully satisfy. 

Myths, which are neither truth nor falsity, gradually add the fuel required for our mind to experience the sublime horizon, an event where all motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” Here, astonished and confused, those very myths penetrate deep into the psyche of society, partially appeasing our desires, hopes, anxieties and fears. But will the cyber sublime live up to its mythological status, and is its digital appeal powerful enough to keep our subconscious drives at bay? Three new media artists will help us explore the cyber sublime, in all its shapes, narratives and forms. 

The Birth of Mythology

“A myth is a fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events, and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena.” – Oxford English Dictionary 

All myths stem from a lack. A lack of answers, a desire to understand and a wish to give purpose to an otherwise meaningless world. The human mind constructs complex fantastical narratives, oftentimes using nature’s unpredictable yet powerful character as a blueprint for society’s behaviours. But how are myths formed and why do they play such a significant role in society?

According to the anthropologist and semiotician Barthes, “myths are a type of speech” but a type of speech that goes beyond the structure of language itself and transcends into any form of messaging: photographic, performance-based or poetic. Barthes told of myths as part of the semiological system espoused by Saussure, the forefather of 20th-century linguistics. According to Saussure, language is made up of signs and each sign is composed by:

  • a signifier (the sound a word makes) 
  • a signified (the mental concept or representation of this word). 
The-Sign-Map-by-Roland-Barthes-Barthes-1957 - The Cyber Sublime - Agora Digital Art
Sign & Myth, Mythologies, Roland Barthes (1957)

To understand a sign, think of it this way, if I say ‘ocean’ some might think of a relaxing holiday but others will associate it with fear.  Both mental images are signs. But it gets a little more complex when Barthes adds a secondary level of significance to the sign. This second level or meta-language is the world of myths; and in the world of myths, an additional signifier takes over the sign as a virus would with a host cell. It enters the body of the sign and mutates it, adding additional representations, sometimes completely disconnected from the original signified so that “that which was a sign in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second.” For example, a mythological narrative would take the sign ‘fear of oceans’ and turn it into a signifier for something else, so that the mental image we conjure is now that of moral decay. In this mythological language, immoral people drown, just as the immoral inhabitants of Atlantis did in the story-cum-myth once recounted by Plato. 

Myths thus operate at a subconscious level, harnessing the power of our fears, anxieties and hopes, the same emotions triggered when faced with the sublime Burke spoke of in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. In fact, Burke stated that “it is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration and chiefly excites our passions.” This ignorance or lack is filled by the mythologies of our time, which are able to communicate our inner turmoils a lot better than any conscious narrative could ever do. In both the sublime event and the mythological narrative, we are thus confronted with unknown and powerful forces that force us to face our insecurities, lacks and ignorances.

From the Myth of Nature to the Mythology of the Cyber Sublime

“​​Myths are more than fabrications of the truth. As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss asserted (1978, 1987), myths are stories that help people deal with contradictions in social life that can never be fully resolved. They are one response to the inevitable failure of our minds to overcome their cognitive or categorical limits to understanding the world.” – Vincent Mosco

If myths communicate our inner fears and desires better than signs, then we could argue that myths are a truer reflection of the human psyche. Operating at a more subconscious level, myths extrapolate our deeply rooted anxieties and represent them via complex and often mysterious narratives that sometimes bypass logic. This may explain why art, dance and cinematography often communicate a feeling better to us than literature. This also explains why myths, albeit with their dubious origins and factuality, sometimes explain our frustrations better than anything else. We cling onto the myth because it offers us a way out, an answer to the anxieties of our times. It pacifies and gives a teleological narrative to an otherwise bleak world.

John Martin, Sodom & Gomorrah (1852) - The Cyber Sublime - Agora Digital Art
John Martin, Sodom & Gomorrah (1852)

If we look at early myths like Noah’s Ark or Sodom & Gomorrah, they all tell the story of radical change,  a sudden rupture in the lattice of existence that then overwhelms the world with forces powerful and unknown. It doesn’t matter whether they are true or not, what does matter is their ability to radically change the narrative of humankind.  These myths paint pictures of violent natural catastrophes, willed by the power of an omnipresent God and enacted by the moral justness of its mythological leaders. Back in ancient times, humanity’s anxieties revolved around nature and its force and unpredictability. Floods, unexplained catastrophes, diseases… all these events preoccupied the minds of our ancestors, events that would later become integral to the natural sublime. 

The natural world scared humanity to such an extent that myths about humanity’s superiority over nature had to be created in order to justify our insecurities and shortcomings.  Through such a narrative, nature’s wrath was to be commanded by the power of the Gods, and justice to be served by the heroic men and women of legends.  It is only through the redeeming qualities of such humans that society would be able to tame nature. This God-given power trickled down into the divine right of kings and then to its manor lords and its knights, to form a society of rules imposed to try and control nature and our basic natural instincts. 

In Hobbes’ Leviathan, the philosopher told of a social contract. This contract posited that humans should agree to surrender the freedoms of the natural world such as violence, sexual impulses and primitive drives in exchange for the safety of the rule of law. In other words, society could be free from the pain nature could cause, but in this exchange, not free to act according to their basic drives and instincts.  The scary, unpredictable world of nature with its many freedoms but explicitly perilous essence can be exchanged for the structured regimen of laws, the security of walled cities and the implicit violence of governments. And yet, constrained by the rule of law, society had to forgo or repress some of their most primitive sexual and aggressive drives. Again, humans are faced with a lack, should they give up their drives and co-exist within society or give way to their instinctive drives?

Freud, in Civilisation and its Discontents, spoke of a tension, a deep rooted frustration that assails all humans living in society, the fear that they cannot express their true nature and must thus repress it. Primitive emotions like violence and sexual impulses are forbidden in these societies and dutifully punished. And yet, according to Freud, our most primitive impulses build up, forming a population of repressed individuals that needs to find an outlet in other ways. As such, Freud argues there are three ways society can cope: by creating “powerful distractions… intoxications… and substitute satisfactions” To come to terms with our internal struggles of inferiority, we create myths about power and law, coping mechanisms that help distract us and sublimate our dangerous instincts. 

No wonder the power of perilous mountains and dangerous seas elicit experiences of the sublime – they remind us of the violence we had to forgo. And similarly, it’s no surprise that the building of infrastructures like dams, forts and other technologies amaze us, reminding us of the power we are able to produce if we live in an organised society. And yet the tension remains, one myth not being powerful enough to supplant the other. The myth of civilization was erected at the expense of nature and the myth of security in society at the expense of our freedoms of the drives. But could a society ever gain security (freedom from pain) and also appease its primitive instincts (freedom of the drives)? 

In 1989 the world wide web was launched, a global collection of pages, documents and images all linked by hyperlinks and URLs and accessible via the Internet, itself an interconnected communication network system. This new medium through which society would communicate, learn and interact, operated on a scale never seen before, allowing people to talk, message and share content to people across the globe in a matter of moments. With a tool so powerful, ever-expanding and where opportunities seemed so limitless, it is perhaps unsurprising that many myths about its potential to radically change humanity were spawned. Barlow in 1996 wrote the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace stating: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” In this new cybernetic world, the rules and laws of the world don’t apply. The worldwide web has no borders, no governments and no laws, it operates via a binary of zeros and ones that allows its contents to transcend physical form and time. Could we now expose our primitive drives without the fear of physical pain or rule of law?

The word cyber – interestingly – derives from the ancient Greek kybernetes meaning steerer or navigator, a nod to the millions of internet surfers of today. Distanced enough from the perils of nature, but close enough so that it could reproduce it virtually, the cyber aesthetics fits the original sublime definition as expounded by Burke:  “when danger or pain press too nearly, they are simply terrible; but at certain distances and with certain modifications they may be delightful”. Online, nature’s green pastures become immortalised in VR headsets. Dirty old money turns into bitcoin, the only allusion to the ‘real world’ being an ironic nod to ‘mining’. And our desires for violence and sexual satisfaction sublimated via the transgressive safety of dashcams and webcams. 

And yet, with everything recorded and our every move tracked, our cohabitation within the cyber world has been one of excitement but also of concern. Online, without the direct threat to physical violence, we are inhibited, but we are also more exposed psychologically. After all, without our biggest organ (the skin) to protect us, online we are porous and malleable, shapeshifting into whatever character or avatar we desire. But then again, without organs or physical bodies, we are also liberated of pain – online we are capable of extending past our own mortality, finally making the myth of heavenly eternal existence a possibility, or as Thomas Hine stated “an attempt to invest our lives with a meaning and drama that transcend the inevitable decay and death of the individual.” 

In an attempt to get the freedoms we had exchanged for security back, we now embarked on a mythological crusade via the synthetic world of the internet. And yet, amidst this virtual realm, we ended up trading our own privacy for the fleeting illusion of those original freedoms. Yes, online we can appease our basic drives for violence and sex, and even forgo our identities completely, but in the safe neutrality of cyberspace, secure behind the screen, is that transgression as powerful as the harsh reality of the real world? When the internet first launched, it arrived packaged within its own mythology: a mythology of freedom, self-expression, growth and egalitarianism. Yet unpacking it has revealed some unexpected items in our cart… 

Visualisations of the Cyber Sublime,  (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.

Then, the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and take care of it. – Genesis 2.15

It is with such words that digital artist S4RA leads us into their cybernetic world. They too chose to use an ancient myth, that of the expulsion from the gardens of Eden, to forward their digital creation: privacy-GrDN.infoBut that’s not the only nod to mythology S4RA chooses to use. This digital artwork, representing the merging of the natural and the mechanical worlds, is an emblem of the myth of digital communication itself. Like in Hobbes’ Leviathan, society initially traded in their freedoms in exchange for security. Now, in the cybernetic age, we exchange our personal data for the illusion of freedom instead. Our data and privacy and thus, our security are at stake, meaning we are now more vulnerable than ever, if not physically – definitely psychologically. Inscribed with codes, internet lingo and fluid cybernetic aesthetics, S4RA’s experimental animation conveys the idea of a liminal world where nothing is set and everything is possible, but only if you’re willing to trade your personal privacy in exchange for a few moments of fantasy.

Linda Loh, Beyond Agog (2021) video 02:41 min. based on the VR work Agog (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.

New media artist Linda Loh also takes inspiration from the natural sublime, but not in the form of snowy mountains and deep blue oceans – rather, in the form of towering ‘non-ordinary spaces’ as recreated in her virtual reality animation Beyond Agog. Spaces that remind one – faintly – of nature, but in such a way that the images conjured no longer correspond to signs but rather take on forms and significances completely of their own as myths. This new ‘nature’ catapults digital surfers into an uncanny land, a land that is just recognisable enough to remind one of the natural phenomena, but distant enough for the element of surprise and awe to supersede. Loh’s artwork tells of the myth of cybernetic possibility, reigniting our curiosity for new worlds and untapped lands. Just like the Grand Tours of the 19th-century, notions of the romantic sublime emerge, a desire to travel into the depths of our new digital world and be amazed, confused and made to feel insignificant amidst the vast number of pixels lighting up. 

Sandrine Deumier, Realness – Intimate Garden (2019) 360° video animation 09:15 min. © Courtesy of the artist

Another new media artist working within the mythological realms of the cyber sublime is Sandrine Deumier. In Realness Intimate Garden, perhaps an allusion to the mythological Garden of Eden, we are confronted with a version of humanity that is reduced to a blank slate. The rich colours of nature are muted and restrained by a beige interchangeable mass of pixels that float and collapse into one another, seemingly without rule. Amidst this arid landscape, we are confronted with mythological winged creatures that seem to blend with the technological landscape around them, in constant flux. In this entangled web, the estranged creatures don’t really interact with one another, choosing instead to connect with the pseudo-technological devices around them: cables, modems, electrical plugs and so on. In this world, foreclosed from pain or physical touch, its inhabitants live perennially connected in a quasi-catatonic state. It is not life as we know it, but it isn’t death either. Perhaps, as Thomas Hine stated, this garden represents our desire to outlive ourselves and forever exist as mythological versions of ourselves, free from pain, anxiety, and physicality – a state forever in motion but never settled. If Adam and Eve chose to pick from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Sandrine here picks the forbidden fruit from the tree of life, allowing the creatures to live forever, safe in their own binary code, for us all to see and exploit. The question being… is that life?

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Credits: the concept of the Sublime and the text wall in the exhibition were both written by Gabriella Gasparini

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