Updated: Mar 18, 2020
There are at once countless layers and none in Island (2019), the digital terrain that Sepideh Majidi created within the framework of the Digital Earth fellowship — in keeping with the relation between local and global, infinite and finite, zero and one, the work explores virtual space as a realm of transcendental thought and (actual) subjectivity. First presented as part of the Digital Earth Symposium, Aesthetic Warfare, at Khoj International Artists’ Association in Delhi, Majidi’s animated video is both a journey and a portrait, rooted in the relation between an evocative island described as a “speck of dust in a Heraclitian flux” (a “zero”), and the “infinite” ocean that surrounds it.
The video begins with the emergence of a pixel-sorted image of a quivering island form that moves from predominant tones of pearlescent blue to fuchsia, its edges pushing outwards to form a jagged coastline against flat digital black. A warping and ominous hum reminiscent of a muffled, sluggish bassline accompanies the video’s roughly 20-minute run; interrupted by what sounds like a glitched cymbal tap or whip snap. The first time this sonic punctuation is made, the voice of a young girl states: “I have never left the island. I have never been on the island. The island must be with its parts; a sparkling speck on the ocean.” These same lines are immediately echoed by a woman whose voice forms part of a group that narrates this digitally rendered landscape as it comes into various points of view, but she continues the sentence to elaborate on the ocean itself: “modern”, “foreign”, and “reminiscent of the pure language of the deep.”
From the outset, the island is described as a zero: an unknowable space whose edges are defined by vast and constantly moving waters that surround it. This outline draws on Kant’s use
of the immobile house and moving ship to diagram the mediation between the objective “transcendental unity of apperception…through which all the manifold given in an intuition is united in a concept of the object”, and “the subjective unity of consciousness” in which the parts of a composition — say, the four walls and roof that constitute a cottage — is understood as a series of successive or simultaneous representations whose associations are contingent on appearance and perception. Between the words that designate reality and the subjectivities that understand and interpret them, things are understood through the objective boundaries of their defined representations, while the myriad subjectivities that engage with these representations represent the indefinite possibilities of their interpretations.
This conception of the defined object shaped from a sea of possible perceptions is likewise extended to the subject. As Kant reasoned, an empirical unity of consciousness is not universally valid since one person’s understanding of a word could completely differ with another’s. Majidi’s script understands this subjective reality through the island’s frontier, which is described as nothing more than an edge that perceives itself as the centre, in the same way each human experience is perceived as central to whoever is perceiving the world first-hand. This centrality is a limitation and constraint. “Just as a ship moored in the water thinks that, simply because it is a ship, it is floating freely in the ocean,” one narrator explains, “it is actually anchored, though not conscious of it.” Thus, Island seeks to take the viewer — an island, another zero populating the infinite ocean — through the terrain of the island itself in order to cross its boundaries towards an “integration into the structure of the ocean, with relations parallel to the observer and to the whole.”
This decentring trajectory is mapped visually, with abstract pixel-sorted masses and liquids giving way to figurative interjections that enable a broad reading of what an ‘island’ could mean in Majidi’s odyssey. In one moment, a young child says a thought should communicate with other thoughts in order to become one, as white and black masses filled with emoji eyeballs come on to screen, one hand emerging from each side, as if two people — or inhabited landmasses — speaking. In another instance, the child describes the island’s “limited” and “deceitful” shores, with deceit being the islander’s only possibility of being, as a single fish-like eye pushes out of a clean digital black surface, as if fervently observing a just-visible void beyond a newly punctured boundary, in an experience of decentring. Such images work in the same way that Lucio Fontana’s cuts into canvas revolted against the flat surface, revealing the limitless possibilities of representational space through an expansion of its limits. As one narrator explains, the subject ‘needs to understand the boundaries between the local structure of experience, and the universe of which she is a part.’ Only then, the voice continues, is the subject able to ‘answer the question of what the boundaries are’ and ‘violate or transgress them.’
It is this transcendent terrain that Island leads its watchers to — a space beyond that which is clearly defined, where “infinite locales”, as one voice in the video describes them, “exist in many dimensions”, each “harnessing and transforming this relational force and system to construct its local ground anew.” The video concludes with an image that recalls being underwater, as if swimming along the edge of the very island that came into view at the outset of the animation — a shimmering fluidity of pearlescent globules moving along a flowing current together but independently. An ocean of potential.
In the conversation that follows, Sepideh Majidi elaborates on the research and the processes that went into the development of Islands.
How does Island fit into your wider research? There are references to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in the narrative, but you have also talked about the influence of the concepts of local and global within the context of Reza Negarestani’s writing.
In the question of locality versus globality, we cannot assume that we have the map, or have access to the universal or global. In fact, all we can do is to start from the local position, which is also as unknown to us as what we call the global. As in the allegory of the island, we must start from this remote locality. This is the very idea of the transcendental subject, who thinks she is floating on the ocean of transcendental thought. But transcendental thought is an island itself, and at this point we are not even aware that it is, in fact, an island. How can we know who we are? How can we know there are other agents and other islands?
The point of the stories that are narrated in the work, is that even if the agent is born on a desert island, disconnected from human society, she still has a chance to connect back to human society. Even if the locality of the thought is parochial, using different methods, we can turn this island into an infinite ocean of possibilities. Or we can make a boat and traverse the ocean to arrive at other islands, like Friday or Hayy ibn Yaqzan.
I am attempting to work with the idea of movement from the island to the ocean, since the ocean is a different type of reality. The idea of navigating through the ocean in order to connect to other agents first requires a methodology to move from an island of locality to the ocean itself. It also requires certain specific ranges of navigational methods that can allow one to navigate the bad weather, shifting tides, through night and day, to arrive at other islands, and meet other islanders.
When you talk about moving from an island of locality to the ocean itself, this relates to the narrative in the video in which you describe islands discovering other islands; a movement from a singular local to many. Is that the ocean for you? A connection of islands?
This is about the locality and the globality of the transcendental subject. We can think about this locality exactly like an island in an infinite ocean. This is the specific condition of the intelligence of our island-inhabiting observer. The Island is a metaphor for the transcendental constitution of the specific agent, in our case the human, creating a possibility that leads to a transformation of her environment in relation to the ocean.
The sensible, perceptual awareness of the environment is extremely limited. It is always of the island — of this specific locale in which it is imprisoned. The only way to get out of this for good and sail upon the infinite ocean, is to invent new forms of thought, because these new forms can reassemble and reconfigure; they can reinvent sensory data in new ways, such that we can come across new agents, otherwise hidden from our perceptual awareness.
So, is Island a diagram of a working methodology when it comes to the way you engage with these concepts of local-global, or does it operate as a reflection of the conditions through which a methodology is being worked out?
The task that Reza Negarestani gave me was: How can we see ourselves in the world as being part of the world? The first concept I used was the ‘navigation between local and global’, which is referencing Reza’s essay ‘Where is the Concept?  (localization, ramification, navigation)’.
At first, I worked with navigating from local to many locals under the main set of concepts of continuity, temporality, self, identity, trauma and contingency.
Then I looked at navigation from local to global. I selected the Island, Ocean, and Ship models from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. This methodology helped me to navigate the streams of concepts and theories unpacking from this Island and Ocean, which is my main current project.
Also, there is the global-global to local relation, such as the Hegelian Absolute, in which I am looking at the construction of the ocean, and its interaction to itself.
These are the three basic dialectical relations between local and global I had to cover to study the navigation.
Could you talk about the process of making this video, the ideas it is communicating, and how it extends from experiments you have made with digital imagery in your practice?
The digital material undergoes a multi-layered process, consisting of many iterations to the extent that it produces new forms of life. For example, introducing and applying perturbation to the surface of the screen by banging on it, breaks the consistency of the image. Through time loops of the video, it enters into dynamic loops of flow. Basically, it introduces a new type of dynamicity to the invariance. by adding more of these layers of processes, it arrives at new types of accumulation and collective massing within the flow, zooming in repeatedly on different regions to expose new types of motions and materiality. And transform into entirely new and unrecognizable domains. This process works at least on two levels: the surface level and the mechanistic level, because the trauma is ingrained in the memory, and within the framework of coding, it’s being transmitted and stored.
How does the way you produce or conceive of these images relate to ideas of trauma in your research? In one description of the work, you describe the idea of applying trauma to the landscape, which then ‘internalizes the immediate surroundings’. This relates to the way your digital videos are produced by a relentless zooming into the digital terrain so that it opens-up new landscapes.
When trauma is applied to the landscape, it internalizes the immediate surroundings in relation to the degree or magnitude of perturbation — or intensity — added in Time.
Trauma at the surface could lead to an internalized threat through introjection. To attack what is haunting me from the outside, I adopt an alien body with the characteristics of trauma. Or a fall back of itself into itself.
The Local that is being endowed with the trauma falls toward the depth of the plane and experiences the contingency of reality and materiality. Yes, this can be compared to when we are zooming in: we are already deeper, in the sense of increased permutations. But, at the same time, we need the functions and concepts in order to be able to understand/construct what we are discussing. The question is: Can we get to different levels — for example ‘Ocean’, or mechanism of the island — just by the use of manipulation, such as trauma, at the sensible level? At least here, we have discontinuity everywhere, and I am not sure all these can be connected through trauma. This leads to many types of localities. The fields of currents and waves are outside of the space of the local, in that sense.
I mean, we might have discontinuity and continuity as types of functions and concepts in our world building. For example, we see the model of Island and Ocean as an old model of the phenomena, noumena; noumena — which is beyond the limits of knowledge — in order to create a limited and clear boundary for cognition and sensibility, something being possible as a result of a limiting function or a lack of something else. Here, Kant is dealing with determinate boundaries and the mediation of states in his construction.
So, in order to just move on the ocean in a little boat, for example on the steam or flow of determinate states of a heteromorphic structure, we might lose our cognitive sphere. Or else we might simply die.
You have talked about the idea of degenerative architecture when discussing your videos. Could you elaborate on what you mean by degenerative architecture, and talk about how the application of trauma to a landscape relates to this concept in terms of your image-making process?
This is a concept that I’ve been developing for a while. Its roots are in the ideas surrounding our current state geopolitics combined with the rapidly changing climate. It’s about inequality, displacement, conflict, dwindling resources, and this hyper-technological revolution that’s happening around us simultaneously. As architecture loses its materiality, and also its place, it’s becoming necessary to study different modes of habitation. As we are traveling between landscapes inflicted by the effects of global politics — and its accompanying degenerative forces, both societal and environmental, upon local regions — we see that the existing models no longer apply. As a concept, I am still developing it. I am in the process of organizing an event based largely on these issues. I will keep you informed.
How are you developing this project and the research that feeds into it, since the Digital Earth fellowship?
So far, I’ve written a fictional narrative about the island, as well as several short papers and frameworks based on the research. This project has been a great learning experience for me. As I continue studying philosophy, I will keep developing this research.
About the author
Stephanie Bailey is Ocula Editor-in-Chief, a contributing editor to ART PAPERS and LEAP, and the current curator of the Conversations at Art Basel Hong Kong. She also writes regularly for Artforum International, Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, and D’ivan, A Journal of Accounts.