Where Reality and Virtuality Collide: (Urban) Architectures in Cyberpunk and the Visual Strategies of the Dystopian Fantastics
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.
Lars: Great visuals in your presentation. Would you agree that there are not just cyberpunk elements (technology, holograms) in Altered Carbon, but also a lot of Gothic elements?
Dominic: What kind of Gothic elements do you mean?
Ana: Oh! The Gothic elements of Altered Carbon is a fascinating question. Thank you, Lars. Poe immediately comes to mind, but I’m sure there’s others
Dominic: Ah, that kind of Gothic… As an Art Historian I am using this term only for the medieval period
Lars: well, there is an urban uncanny in there, the dark and seclude alleyways and the Raven/Nevermore hotel, but also the caves and the forest
Ana: Well, Gothic always makes me think of things like the dead coming back to life, ghosts, etc, and as you know I talked quite a bit about those things in association with that cyberpunk technology, holograms
In fact, one could argue that there’s a thread of uncanniness running throughout the entire show based solely ont he dead constantly coming back to life, etc. But I’m sorry if I took your question about Gothic on a complete tangent
Dominic: So you are referring to the Gothic Novels of the 18th and 19th century… Yea, there are many many references to the Romantic period in the beginning of the 19th century But when it comes to architecture, there are not that many references in the world building. One of the oldest buildings shown in season 1 is Suntouch House and that’s more 1920s
Adam: Hi! Just to say thanks for your talk, it was really interesting to have the environmental world-building of Altered Carbon picked apart more. I wondered first what your thoughts about Blade Runner’s environments might be? Particularly BR2049 offers a very different contrast to murky, Cyberpunk streets than AC does, and I was interested in your response to that.
Dominic: Well, when only focussing on the architectural aspects of SF movies/tv shows, I think it is really difficult to separate them by genres… Most more dystopian settings share the same visual structures but belong to different genres. The original Blade Runner has many historical references but BR 2049 more general futuristic architecture that we can also find in other movies
Joseph: Aren’t there aspects of cyberpunk futurist urbanism that are invisible rather than apparent? These unseen elements, reflecting the unconscious, are often more powerfully orienting/controlling the space of the city than the seen elements, right?
Dominic: Here I try to leave it to the experts in this fields. As an Art Historian I am focussing of what can be seen. But of course space, distance, empty room is also an important factor
Joseph: And the uncanny contains the fear of blindness–so, to fight the anxiety of blindness in the Ultra City, you open your eyes wide and try to see it all, see it all before the light fails
Adam: And also I suppose, it comes with the idea of ‘theft’ of sight, which definitely plays into the paranoia of the cluttered, busy streets. But maybe I’m chasing the tangent a little far
Joseph: no, you’re not going too far at all. the preponderance of things to look at is not much different at all then a field of vision in which nothing is seen. Too much becomes overwhelming, the subject turns away, turns it off. Though we’re on the knife’s edge of talking about the postmodern sublime.
Joseph: “For Lyotard, however, the postmodern sublime occurs when we are affected by a multitude of unpresentables without reference to reason as their unifying origin.” The accidental tourist, someone who hadn’t already experienced the Ultra City whether by mediated or unmediated means, wouldn’t understand the vision of the future city-scape, it would act as the postmodern sublime. For the initiated, though, the power of capital is expressed clearly with the soaring highrises and the neon glowing lights. The postmodern sublime fades away as the subject orients himself, rationalizing the origin of the vision.
Pawel: Dominic, so what’s your take on the organic character of some of the architecture in AC? That is distinctly different from either of the two Blade Runners and pretty much every other cp-inflected movie.
Dominic: Absolutely… I for myself had the association with biological enhancement, cyborgs, the connection of human and machine and biomechanics when seeing the Bancroft tower in AC … it is a bone-like structure with only one purpose: holding the mansion like a spine. That is what I meant with saying that the show creators are a bit too easy to understand what they mean with their symbological associations
mlex: If I understood your point in the talk, Dominic, the architecture reinforces the social divisions, with only the elite able to live in the bright light, while all the rest toil in the rainy dirty darkness. I wonder if you could comment about this in terms of cyberpunk as a device to undermine the reality of those divisions?
Dominic: Cyberpunk, like all fantastic genres, is like a mirror showing current social or other situations, alienating them and making them bigger, so we can understand what is going on under the surface… if that’s what you meant?
mlex: is it only a mirror? or a monkeywrench?
Adam: As a further question, Dominic, I really liked how you picked out the Golden Gate bridge in the sweeping shots and wondered what your thoughts were on the repurposing of landmarks, particularly how the Golden Gate bridge has become a slum in both Altered Carbon and Johnny Mnemonic before it? Why do you think this happens in Cyberpunk ‘neo’ cities, or what effect do you think it has?
Dominic: I think it is a symbol of some sort of closure with the past and a way to turn away from tradition and history. In AC you can see this very well with the police station in the old church, too… In the novels the Golden Gate Bridge is not even known by name anymore, so this part of history is gone and shows the domination of the new technology/technologies and their influence on society and life itself… History will be forgotten if we do not act actively against this
All the fantastic help us to understand the society of their time, I think. They are perfect tools, imaginations and doors for our minds to reflect, criticise and create alternatives
Joseph: The Golden Gate bridge as slum is a kind of inversion of the sublime–those architectural feats that once inspired wonder now evoke disgust.
Dominic: Oh absolutely… Things can change if we do not take care of them… and something like a bridge is not needed anymore when having flying cars
Dominic: oh yeah… but is this only a CP thing? You can find that in all fantastic media and genres, I think
Adam: I wonder if the Golden Gate Bridge itself is interesting as a slum because that’s also a location for reclamation and use for others. A slum is presented as an inverse to the sublime but, for instance in Mnemonic (if I, ironically, remember it well enough), it’s a location for resistance due to its repurposing
Joseph: also consider the visual purpose of the bridge is to connect. if it’s instead a slum, it no longer signifies correctly. it points to a loss of mobility between classes.
Ana: also the interesting thing about bridges is that, in the middle ages, houses used to be built on them. They weren’t just for crossing a river; people lived on them.
Ana: I love the idea of the postmodern sublime. That the city is incoherent and too much to grasp for the uninitiated, but resolves into coherency (of sorts) for those familiar with the visual codes… If I understand correctly, that is.
Dominic: but is this only post modern? if you are not familiar with the codes, you never understand the culture or content of a certain piece of art, architecture, a city or cultural aspect
Joseph: that’s right. the postmodern and cyberpunk version is a maxed out visual field, but the ancient spectacle of piles of dead bodies could serve just as well… consider walking up to Vlad Dracul’s castle and seeing heads on pikes.
Ana: Funny you mention Dracula. I’m in a group that’s doing a 27 week reread of it at the moment!… in terms of whether it’s only postmodern, while it’s true that you always need to know the codes to interpret something, I think the different is that cyberpunk is marked by, well, its sprawl, its fragmentary nature, its overwhelmingness … that “too much”-ness is part of the aesthetic
Joseph: Dracula figures into cyberpunk fairly heavily. He’s secretive, he moves in the cover of the night. He prefers dense urban spaces to follow his marks.
Ana: Interesting! Have there been cyberpunk texts where he makes an appearance of some sort! (Dracula, that is) …
Joseph: Not Dracula himself but check out the Underworld movies. They have a cyberpunk/vampire aesthetic
Ana: I know those movies but had never considered them that way. Thank you!
Adam: I’m all in for the Dracula, the Cyberpunk reboot
Joseph: I could be wrong, but it feels like an intentional hybridization of Gothic vampirism with late 20th century urbanism and capital
Ana: That’s a lot to chew on… Given that Dracula itself is a reverse colonization narrative of sorts, he comes to London (the urban space) to hunt … in fact, and this is me thinking out loud, the whole genre of the urban gothic that emerged in the late 19th century seems to me to be in the interstices of cyberpunk: that fear of something lurking in the urban space;
the newly-constituted, overwhelming urban space
Carmen: YES!! (Sorry for the enthusiasm)
Joseph: yes! dracula functions as a kind of return of the colonized repressed
Joseph: yes, and there’s something quite dark about how the newly constituted space is one that preys upon living bodies, taking them in and destroying them as part of the city machine. London reads that way. By the 1500s, it was a vast city with a soaring mortality rate due to disease, crime, the accidents and incidents of living so close to so many others. But fresh bodies were always pouring in.
Ana: Yeah, the late 19th century (my area of study) had a lot of fears about the city and urbanization (products of the industrial revolution) that manifested themselves as the Victorian/urban Gothic … not just Dracula, but Jekyll and Hyde, Dorian Gray…so many Victorian urban monsters
Adam: Just building off this, maybe it would be interesting to look at Shadowrun, as a text that draws onto monsters and fantastical elements verging closer on gothic elements such as vampirism. I don’t know it well enough for how it represents vampires, for example, but it could be an interesting more overt intersection
Josh: The sympathetic interactions with vampires and ghouls in Shadowrun: Hong Kong would be an interesting place to start that inquiry, I think.
Adam: I really need to finish Hong Kong, it’s the one of the 3 I’ve not yet got through, but Gaichu definitely was who sprung to mind for this
Dominic: Sadly, I have to leave again, I am still at work and need to finish things… It was a pleasure and I hope we can continue
Ana: of course! We’ll be here and so will the chat
Joseph: thanks, dominic! great presentation! great discussion!
Carmen: Sorry I was late to this but will read the channel when I have the chance! Thanks, Dominic! Loved your talk!