with stills from SHRINE MAIDENS OF THE UNSEELIE COURT
a videogame by TABITHA NIKOLAI
view and download the original artwork in Issue 007: DESIRE
For last month’s Supporters article The Mirrored Eye, editor Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon reflected on the limitations of the digital, as experienced through and past the pandemic. She ended with a set of questions, borrowed from L. Ayu Saraswati’s Pain Generation: Social Media, Feminist Activism, and the Neoliberal Selfie, which we’ve since posed to a selection of past Stillpoint Magazine contributors—you can read their reflections below. You can also read an essay by Saraswati commissioned by Stillpoint Magazine, Ethereality at the Edge of Social Media, in Issue 008: ETHER.
Why do we imagine? Who do we imagine with and for? With which/whose tools do we imagine? How may we imagine outside the parameters of dominant discourses that provide us with the language/tool/cognitive machine for our imagination? Once we imagine “the otherwise,” how may we call it into being?
I make things with my friends that are akin to video games and accordingly inherit the baggage that comes with those tools—systems of cinematic deception, systems for compulsion and careful incremented reward, systems for simulating infinite fresh atrocity. I use these tools because they’re what I grew up on. In a way this is unfortunate, but I think the process of identifying, reassessing, and subverting that which made us is a vital process. I’m hopeful that video games, both in their complexity to produce and play, have liberatory potential overlooked by those using the medium predominantly for extraction. In using them, we can build tangent worlds that evoke empathy, new experiential abstractions, and forms of subject/object relationship that might not otherwise be possible without the medium’s immersion and plasticity.
Despite all this I’m a secret-not-so-secret techno-pessimist. Not because technological “progress” doesn’t hold potential for human care and connection, but because the matrix it grows in is defined by inhumane imperatives. We’re producing new cognitive machinery much faster than our internal machinery is capable of comprehending, and the keepers of the emerging artificial intelligences know this. As has been said, “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” hence, part of the polarization we are living in now is between a hyper-literate techno-priesthood advancing capitalist empires and a populace too burdened by subsistence (and spectacle) to understand or counter the terms of existence being imposed upon us. I don’t think the option to disengage from these tools is practicable though. I don’t think there’s a cottage-core way forward, especially not as an extension of inward focused American individualism (e.g., preppers, or consumerist manifestations of hygge or witchy stuff.)
I don’t have an answer to this mounting complexity. All I know how to do is make digital things collectively. The physical weighs heavy for me and a lot of people I know, so the lower gravity of the virtual provides a sense of potential. When we make things, we come together physically—to eat, talk, work, party—because not having access to these nourishing experiences is part of what drove us to the digital in the first place. I hope in this way we can balance each other, and grow the solidarity we need for when things become more dire still.
Shrine Maidens of the Unseelie Court (still)
We imagine in part because when we look outside, reality is insufficient. John Cage told us to get out of the cage we find ourselves in. While I agree with a lot of their arguments in theory, whenever Jodi Dean and Žižek complete their lines of thinking with a leap to communism as an answer, my eyes roll—it’s too loaded a term with too much treacherous historical baggage to attract widespread appeal. That Bernie Sanders branded himself as a staunch socialist ostensibly hindered his political prospects, though I’m glad to see he’s still plugging away with his to-do lists and at least works with a president who is receptive to his ideas—Hillary wouldn’t have given Bernie the time of day. Perhaps Bernie should have done a Biden and just said his policy is Bernie policy, call it Sanderism, or just something, anything, else! Branding and rebranding matters, even if technically you’re selling the same (well intentioned) shit.
Or maybe we need to go further than a rebrand and get to new conceptual frameworks, the more the merrier, that libertarians and forlorn leftists can get behind and be drawn to. The right, for all its flaws, possess impassioned consistency. The left is all over the place and maybe doesn’t actually know what it wants. The conflicting reactions to Biden’s withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan is a case in point. I think the late Moishe Postone was correct to say that glorifying the working class is not the answer to the problems of capitalist dynamics, that this is where the conservatives go. Postone made an interesting claim that dead labor can be the source of emancipation, that the accumulation of the past is in constant temporal tension with the present. Maybe the same can be said for imagination? Our ability to imagine as it stands is too reliant and codependent on future technology to finish our thoughts for us and to engineer ourselves out of ecological disaster. There needs to be another narrative option aside from capitalist decadence/techno-acceleration, aside from communist utopia, aside from Arcadian regression and/or hippie communes. None of those options are particularly imaginative or even exciting.
I like to think imagination comes to fruition through negation—it contemplates what’s not desirable in order to determine what could be. It’s in the gaps that imagination happens, for better or worse. On the other hand, maybe we place too much emphasis on lofty imagination at the expense of actual, achievable pragmatism. What could possibly appeal to the worst cynic in the room? Which, okay, is probably me …
To read previous responses in the Provocations series, visit Provocations #1: Climate Crash and Digital Overgrowth, and Provocations #2: Matters of Movement both featured in past Supporters Issues.
TABITHA NIKOLAI artist
Tabitha Nikolai is a trashgender gutter elf and low-level cybermage raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, and based in Portland, Oregon. She creates the things that would have better sustained her younger self-simulations of a more livable future, and the obstacles that intervene. These look like: fictive text, videogames, cosplay, and earnest rites of suburban occult. Currently she teaches and manages galleries for the Portland State University School of Art + Design. Her work has been shown at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Vox Populi in Philadelphia, Ganka Gallery in Tokyo, and has been covered by i-D Magazine, The New York Times, and Art in America. She hopes you’re doing okay.
Tabitha was featured in Issue 007: DESIRE with the full artwork Shrine Maidens of the Unseelie Court.
JC HOLBURN writer
JC Holburn has work published in Art Agenda, The Brooklyn Rail, The Drunken Canal, Fence, Filthy Dreams, Full Stop, Topical Cream, among others. She hails from Australia and is currently based in New York. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.
JC was featured in Issue 008: ETHER with the essay “Ethereal Thresholds and Surplus Aesthetics.“
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