Abandonment, Metaphor for 21st Century Mediation

Ashley Scarlett (Alberta College of Art and Design), ‘Abandonment, Metaphor for 21st Century Mediation’


Suspended across a quadcopter, motion-capture system and data projection, Charon (2013) is an interactive performance space, executed by contemporary media artist Sterling Crispin. Online documentation of the work starts with a whiz as a drone rises from an x-marked tarp and begins moving through a technically-outfitted “virtual reality room.” The drone surveys the scene, its initial gestures indicating its response to an underlying ‘virtual weather pattern,’ established autonomously from meteorological data feeds online. Shortly after taking flight, Crispin enters the scene, launching into an improvisational dance with the increasingly erratic drone. While appearing without reason, the performance forefronts the simultaneity of the actual and the virtual, presenting the drone as the instantiated mediation of both, its performative expression materializing the coarticulatory collapse of body and autonomous algorithm.

According to Crispin, Charon is intended to critique how interaction with algorithmic and prehensive devices is reorienting the contemporary media situation, ultimately redefining how we understand what it means to be human. What becomes particularly curious within this context is the subtle disinterest displayed by the quadcopter as it repeatedly drifts away, senselessly abandoning the interactive environment. Each time, Crispin draws it back into play with an unobtrusive tug, reinitiating a theoretically counterintuitive (Hansen 2015; Parisi 2015; Zielinski 2008) gambol between human and indifferent machine.

Advanced as an allegory for the 21st century media situation, this paper undertakes a close reading of Charon to problematize the application of ‘withdrawal’ as a productive means for conceptualizing the grounds of 21st century media phenomena (Shaviro 2014; Thacker 2013; Morton 2013). While ‘withdrawal’ stands in for those parts of mediation that appear inaccessible to human consciousness, it is by definition unable to account for the relational ‘tug’ that reestablishes contemporary interactions between human and computer. Drawing critical connections between Crispin’s work and recent theorization of 21st century mediation, the paper unpacks the philosophical terms of ‘abandonment’ (Agamben 1998; Nancy 1993; Simondon 2007) as a promising way to account for the novel complexities of the emerging media situation.


Ashley Scarlett is an Assistant Professor at the Alberta College of Art and Design, Canada. Her research, writing and curatorial practices explore the theoretical contours of digitality, with a current focus on the intersection between visual programming languages, technological aesthetics and philosophies of affordance. Recent publications on conceptualizations of digital materiality in the contemporary media arts appear in Parallax and Digital Culture & Society.

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