The following are extracts from Nina Kock’s final project at the Royal College of Art — a science fiction travelogue on the Californian desert, solar plants and sentient computer game landscapes.
You’re standing in the desert and you can see a range of sand dunes in the distance. The terrain immediately around you is modelled with triangular polygons and the polygons are quite big, the average edge is probably about the distance from your foot to your hip. If you were able to see the edges of all these polygons, it would look like a network of quite large triangles extending all around you. However, the landscape looks much more detailed than that, doesn’t it? That’s because of the maps. You can see this wavy pattern of lines in the sand. That impression is created by a texture map, which has the colour of the sand in it — ranging from very pale brown to the very dark grey of the shadow — and on top of that there’s a bump map. As the camera rotates around you, it seems that the shape of these little tiny undulations in the sand are higher at some points and at some points deeper. A bump map has to do with shadows and height and depth, and a specular map determines the highlights and the shininess. You can see that the sun is coming from the left-hand side, casting a long shadow from you. It’s quite low in the sky. The way that these maps are combined is determined by the shader which combines the different maps to create different kinds of effects. You see the sand dune that is most prominent, the one you’re walking towards. It’s produced in exactly the same way as the sand you’re standing on, but because it’s far away, the shader is combining all the maps in a different way than it’s doing with the polygons that are close to you. The sand dunes that are very small in the very distance aren’t drawn in the same way as the nearest sand dunes — they are painted onto the background, like the very pale clouds in the sky. That’s a skydome or a sky box. You paint the things farthest away onto the surface. The draw distance tells the graphics engine how far into the distance it needs to think about the polygons. You would always draw the skydome, even though it’s further away than the draw distance. The skydome travels with you, in the same relative position, just like the horizon in the real world. Imagine that the skydome is an umbrella that you’re carrying with you. From interview with Richard Lemarchand (associate professor in the Interactive Media & Games Division of the School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California) 31 March 2015
In the flight from London to Los Angeles a feeling begins to unfold. I click on the touch screen to follow the route of the flight and the screen zooms out like crazy and gets stuck on the edge of the Pacific Sea in an extreme bird’s eye view for maybe five minutes. I stand up and go to the back of the plane and look out of the window. We’re travelling towards the sun and the sunset has been stretched out as a thin, glowing line during the whole flight. It’s late afternoon, maybe an hour before arrival. The sun is setting and the light is glowing and dim and feels ultraviolet. I can see the desert underneath as a crinkled sheet.
“There’s something about the way that the sun makes the desert expand even more. It doesn’t feel like the normal sun.”
“What do you mean, the normal sun.”
“It’s like noon, noon doesn’t feel like the normal sun either. It’s too bright, too amplified.”
“Yeah, it’s too flat. All shadows are wiped out. It’s like things are hallucinating. You’re right, they don’t seem normal.”
Extreme light is like darkness, the way things become obscured but in a white, blazing way. The mountains we’re driving towards are covered in a blue, smog-like, atmospheric mist. I write in my notebook: “A dimension which is impossible to get to or get to know. Jupiter / aerogel. Why?” You could basically go all the way through Jupiter without ever reaching something that could be called a surface. It looks solid, but is made up of gas. Which kind of place is this? It’s a flat, radiant surface, obvious and transparent, but somehow we’re going deeper into it. Immersed and suspended at the same time. We reach the mountains and the blueness has replicated itself and moved forwards. It feels like we’re entering something without actually entering. Aerogel — a synthetic, translucent substance made of 99.8 percent air — looks like a volume without an outline, even though its surface is flat and smooth and really strong. It looks deep and secretive. Why does something transparent and simple seem mysterious? Maybe I’m just imagining things.
We’re asleep in the car somewhere in the Mojave Desert. Suddenly I hear my friend’s voice outside. I open my eyes and he’s sleeping in his seat next to me, but for some reason I open the door and get out. My sight is strange, sort of muddy and wavy. It’s in the middle of the night and it should be freezing, but it’s fairly warm. I walk for a bit and lie down on the ground. The moment I close my eyes, I’m back in my seat. I get panicky and I want to get out, the car feels possessed. I open the door. My sight is really dark now and I almost can’t see anything, but I walk for a while. I lie down and just as I close my eyes, I realise that I shouldn’t have done that, but it’s too late and I’m back in the car. I wake up and understand that I’ve been dreaming, but the setup is the same as in the dream — waking up in the car, feeling that something has forced me to return — and my first reaction is to get out. I’m just about to open the door when I become aware that I’m awake and the desert is out there and it’s the month of January and freezing cold and completely dark. My friend is deeply asleep. I sit there for a while, staring out of the window.
We continue up north through the Mojave Desert and along the sharp, diagonal border between California and Nevada. Finally we get to Death Valley. The mountains look like huge solid sand dunes or layers of glue blobs that have dried on top of each other, not like anything I’ve seen before. It looks like it’s all one layer, carved, or like a giant piece of cloth has been draped over the whole landscape, strangely undramatic and smooth. A strong feeling that something is missing, of hollowness. The foot of the mountain dunes spread out like fingers. I note: “Which kind of surface is the desert? Flat / deep. Materiality and energy. Behaviour.”
I take a picture of an orange sign which looks like a warning sign. White circles are spreading from a dark orange sun and SAVAGE SUMMER SUN is written in capital letters across. There’s a picture of an orange desert with mountains on each side and a white sky in the middle, drawn over by thin orange heat lines. The text reads: “Skies are bright and clear. Few clouds filter out the summer sunshine. Warm, rising air expands and starts to cool, but it picks up more heat radiating from the hot valley floor and walls. Confined by the high valley walls, the heated air must rise. Heavier, cooler air aloft settles to replace the rising warm air, and it gains heat by compression. Together with the radiant heat of the sun, this process continues each summer day to create the record high temperatures — until the sun sets.”
The Californian landscape is a Basin and Range landscape which is a flat desert surface surrounded by mountains ranges. It’s the result of extension and thinning of the lithosphere, the outermost shell of the Earth. Intense heat from the mantle has pushed against the crust and forced it to swell and stretch and thin and eventually crack. John McPhee writes in Basin & Range that most mountain ranges around the world are the result of compression, of segments of the Earth’s crust being brought together and mashed and folded into mountains, but the ranges of the Basin and Range came up another way — they are more like “stretch marks”John McPhee, Basin & Range, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981 (ed. 1982), pp. 51-52. The upthrust edges have become mountains and the downward edges — the cracks — have slided down and become desert valleys, like a smooth fracture.
There’s a concept in computer games called 2.5D, two-and-a-half-dimensionality: two-dimensional objects simulating the appearance of being three-dimensional. The two-dimensional object rotates around a pole and faces you all the time as you move around, which produces a three-dimensional effect and makes the object look solid although it’s really just a surface. The computer graphics do what they can to save render energy. There’s no need to render surfaces if you don’t see them, no need for a z-axis, no depth. It’s all simulated. Obviously these objects seems rather obedient and submitted to face you as you move around, like the moon locked to the Earth’s rotation. But what if the moon wilfully turns the same side towards the Earth all the time? What if the objects are secretive and sentient rather than passive and obedient, hiding rather than following.
Hidden surface determination is the process used to determine which surfaces and parts of surfaces that aren’t visible from a certain viewpoint in the computer landscape. If a surface lie behind an opaque object, for example, it’s not rendered. That means it doesn’t actually exist until you’re within a certain distance or situated in such an angle that it would make sense for it to exist. It’s not embodied as a physical, visible thing, but it’s still embedded within the landscape. Hidden surface determination is necessary to render an image correctly, so that you can’t look through solid things, walls for example. When that happens, it’s called ‘clipping through’: when your shoulder goes through the mountain wall, or if you fall in the river and before the water comes, you get to see the thin, sharp line which is the surface.
I go for a walk with my friend in Los Angeles. It’s late afternoon and overcast and the light is weird. I say that it makes me a bit insane, normally your pupils know whether to dilate or contract, but in this greyish light they feel paralysed and sort of vibrating. My friend says that the light is ‘grave’ and I ask him what he means. He says there are no shadows and I realise he’s right. All depth is wiped out, things are glued together in this flat, monumental way, smooth and wide. A thick two-dimensional surface, as if everything has swallowed itself. It’s strangely weightless and suspended and I get confused by the word ‘grave’, but then I realise that it’s perfect. I’m sure the word isn’t meant in any particular way, besides describing the quality of light, but gravity feels very present, in an unusual way, the way it’s levitated and drawn into things.
There are two kinds of deserts out here: the one that is smooth and flat, where the ground has squeezed itself together — a sharp horizon, like a lump of clay cut open with a piece of string — and the one that feels soft and blurry, or doughy almost, like something that has been underwater for a long time. But it’s never two separate deserts. We’re driving through successions of basins and mountain ranges. Death Valley looks strangely liquid, like pale, congealed lava dunes, but besides from that, the rest of the landscape is flat deserts surrounded by iron-coloured or dark brown mountains, dyed blue.
You lose your sense of scale and dimension in the desert. The eye scrolls, but it can’t measure. Distance fog — blurring things out gradually across a computer game landscape — is an easy way to obscure things that are too far away to be rendered. It’s a larger-scale form of hidden surface determination, like the horizon. Things show themselves gradually as you get closer. It depends on your draw distance, also called depth buffer or z-buffer, which is the amount of land that the landscape allows you to see, the maximum distance of objects drawn by the rendering engine. The draw distance is the steady, invisible diameter around you as you move forward, like a sensory flashlight. It’s almost like a screen you’re pushing forward in front of you, a hard surface moving in a refractive way, softening the landscape. Something one layer thin that seems to be infinitely deep. There’s an underlying algorithm of the surface and how it presents itself, how it’s replaced and expanded in this self-initiated way.
It’s in the middle of the night in London and I’ve stayed up to skype with Erik DavisFrom interview with Erik Davis (author and journalist living in San Francisco) 25 March 2015, author of TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (1998), a book about technology and mysticism. I want to talk to him about animism, especially that kind of animism that takes on something occult, a certain paranoia. He lives in California (which is why I’m up in the middle of the night) and has also written a book about the Californian desert. I ask him about the Basin and Range landscape compared to a completely flat desert, how the Basin and Range landscape is empty in different way.
“Which kind of emptiness is it? It’s like the emptiness and distance wraps itself around you in a distinct way. There’s something about the way the landscape is rendered. You have a feeling of being both suspended and submerged when you’re within a basin. It’s like being on the verge of being within something, but the ‘within’ is stretched out. You never reach the thing that holds you, you never reach the actual thing that you’re feeling, you never reach the mountains. You’re suspended in this strange way.”
“I experience that as a general condition of being in nature, but then it’s taken to a much stronger, more cosmic dimension in the desert. There’s a certain emptiness that I think is very profound. There’s a sense of an aesthetic topography of the space in front of you, but it’s so far away that you’re unable to ever actually be in the space that you see. Even if you drive towards it for twenty minutes, it doesn’t change that much. It feels like it’s very consistent and yet you never arrive, because on such a large scale it dissolves once you’re inside of it.”
There’s the long, flat desert, the absolute, clean, bright emptiness like a piece of paper with no edges, and then there’s the replication of basins and mountain ranges, the edge that keeps unfolding, a kind of elastic emptiness. A huge, empty desert is alien and anonymous, and either completely transparent or completely opaque — either it lets you in immediately or it doesn’t let you in at all. The Basin and Range topography is different: it’s both transparent and opaque, anonymous and intimate. I found it unsettling that Erik called it ‘subtle’. But then you realise that it’s not intimate at all. The machine-like replication. Held within a large-scale topography, something inhuman.
“The action is not on the human scale, the action is on a different scale,” Erik says. “It’s on the scale of topography. There’s so much repetition. By looking closely at any given area and recognizing how much larger units are interacting at a larger scale. This has very profound effects.”
Things can pop up from nowhere as you move through a computer game landscape. You take a few steps and all of a sudden a mountain is there in front of you, and then you take a few steps backwards and the mountain disappears. Your draw distance is hitting that place ahead in the landscape where the mountain is ‘seeded’ or encoded and told to exist, a sort of border crossing or intersection between the visible world — your draw distance — and the not-yet-rendered exteriority. Things that are drawn and rendered are within ‘the clip region’ and things that aren’t are ‘clipped’. Your clip region is also connected to an outside on the x- and y-axis, the actual frame of your field of vision. Polygons in computer games are made up of lines which are connected by vertices, and the lines within the clip region continue into the adjacent, not-yet-rendered, clipped area outside, as vertices seeded and embedded within the frame. From your position you’re only able to see half of a mountain, which means that the rest of the mountain exists and doesn’t exist at the same time: it doesn’t exist in the very literal sense that it’s not there, it’s not drawn, and yet it exists as imaginary lines about to be drawn. The frame around the clip region is not actually a frame, but an interface between the physical, visible clip region and the eclipsed, not-yet-rendered, about-to-exist, the withheld.
I’m approaching a surface and all of a sudden it twists around on itself, creating some sort of inverse fold that juts out at awkward angles. The shadows move strangely and unevenly. It looks jagged but I can slide through it. Glassy and cracky but in a pliant way, some kind of ambient sharpness. A mountain is blinking in and out of existence. I pass through, but I don’t have the sensation of passing through, the surfaces just disappear and fall back into place. The cuts are precise and self-healing. Which kind of place is this? There are two layers of clouds, precise and thin like two water levels. The sun is bright and white. I approach it and see that the light source is not the sun, but an invisible point hanging in the air, probably somewhere on the upper cloud layer, emitting what looks like frozen laser beams. They turn into a thin, translucent surface when I move closer and then a white line, slicing the air like a knife. I slide down what looks like a silver needle. The sun disappears before I get to it and the sky, too, replaced by a turquoise flat nothingness. I move onto the ground, into the mountains which are now transparent. Some of the smaller hills are still visible, the ones sloping down towards me, I think. I zoom out. Everything is dark from this point. I don’t move and the landscape starts drifting by itself in a liquid way, like black watercolour floating out from a brush dipped in water.
There’s a more extreme form of clipping through called ‘no clip’. It’s a deliberate mode, a hacker-like code you enter before going into the landscape which allows you to pass through solid things. The ‘no clip’ mode is not really clipping through, but rather annihilating all surfaces — the landscape becomes malleable and loses all substance. It looks solid and fairly normal from a distance, but touching a surface will make it disappear. Normally you’re stopped by surfaces you bump into because ‘collision detection’ is on — the intersection between you and a surface — but the no clip mode turns it off, which means that everything becomes one layer or one substance, frictionless and immersive and Jupiter-like. There’s no differentiation between any surfaces, neither between you and the landscape. When you touch a surface it disappears so you can pass through. Does it become transparent or does it disappear? And if it disappears, where does it go? It’s immersive, but in an evasive way, as if a larger, 2.5D-like sensation is wrapped around the landscape. When there’s just a landscape moving by itself, who is it for?
I visit Kodwo Eshun, co-founder of The Otolith Group at his home in LA and I ask him if computer game landscapes have some sort of consciousness.
He replies: “I think there are certain moments in computer games where you’re not moving and there’s no action as such and suddenly you see them as landscapes. And in those moments, when there’s just a landscape moving by itself, who is it for? The landscape just seems to be functioned by itself, it seems to have its own reasons for existing and its reasons are nothing to do with any specific humans. It’s a kind of artificial intelligence or consciousness of games, or rather some kind of sentience — a quality of being alive, of agency, of acting in the world. It doesn’t have to have intelligence or consciousness to act and behave.”
“Computer games are just a layer thin which means that underneath them is this kind of cosmic void that they try to hide in a way. But you can break past and there you are. It’s like falling. A figure goes into an ocean, it’s a layer thin and he goes down and at a certain point underneath the ocean turns into a void, this surface-volume-void. It’s like a non-volume-volume.”
I tell him about the no clip mode which is as if you’ve fallen out of the world and into it at the same time. When you zoom out of the landscape, and all the way out of the skydome, space around you becomes a flat, solid colour. I once read a description of a particular computer game void which is divided into layers, it becomes ‘deeper’ the further down you get from the terrain. It looks like a lava sea just below the surface and as you’re descending, it becomes darker and darker, changing from blue to black.
I ask him how he would link the ‘volume-void’ to the desert.
“The desert is a space where you encounter deep time. You could say that’s a sublime experience and it’s partly that, but I think it’s more than that. In the desert you can see a certain kind of infinity, or you can see a future in which humans no longer exist.”
The Islamic word for prayer is ‘salat’ which means ‘to crave for’, ‘to communicate’, ‘between, right in the middle’Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Melbourne: re.press, 2008, p. 167. According to pre-Islamic nomads in the Arabian desert, salat should take place in the middle of the day when the sun was directly above the head, in an upright position to form an axis with the vertical sunrays and “a burning perpendicular orientation to the leveled surface”: “It connects the desert to the Sun through the intermediating agency of humans who are destined to be immolated in order for the communication between the desert and the Sun to take place.”Ibid. p. 168
On our way through the Mojave Desert on Interstate 15, just before the border between California and Nevada, we pass the Ivanpah solar power plant. It’s late in the afternoon and the sun is low, but the solar plant is still all white and radiant. It looks like a panel of giant silver armour, but it’s not trying to protect the ground, rather the opposite: it’s offering itself to the sun, making contact, alive with something that has nothing to do with nature, like the faraway, blue mountains or the heated, synthetic water in the lake. I realise that the solar plant is exactly what the desert wants to be: something artificial and cosmic, a connection to another dimension.
The Ivanpah solar plant consists of three horizontal, square planes of mirrors tracking the sunlight and reflecting it onto a tall tower standing in the middle of each plane. The mirrors are constantly adjusted during the day to track the angle of the sunrays and all the rays are directed to the a fixed point on the upper part of tower which looks like the window section in a control tower without windows. It’s completely white when the sunrays are hitting it, but underneath it’s painted black to swallow as much light and energy as possible. The tower is connected to the solar plant and not the sun, but there’s something about the way it’s pointing up to the sky, making contact, forming an axis with the sun in an upright position. Which kind of contact is it and which kind of sun is shining? It’s a powerful sun, like the sun at noon, a radical zenith-sun shining at its brightest, insisting and strong and full of impact. Not the normal sun. The solar plant looks like a pyramid. It’s a landscape moving by itself. Who is it for?
I once read in a book on magic and patterns that we perceive something to be magical when we can sense an underlying pattern, but we can’t pin down how it arises and how it’s behaving, it’s taking place at a level below perception. It’s the shape and the pattern. It looks like it’s spiralling towards the centre and at the same time it’s undulating outwards, like round leaves, an actual plant growing under the sun. Maybe the pattern isn’t that important, but the thing is: I can’t figure out in which direction it’s turning and what it wants. It looks occult, like a portal or a magic circle. I don’t know if it’s cold and immune to the sun or transfixed in a much more extreme way than the desert. A solar plant can take much more sunlight. It has direct access, like a clip through into the thing outside. The widest zone, like the highest point when it’s lightning. The sunlight is magnetic. Intense heat from the mantle pushing against the crust to get closer to the sun.
There are different kinds of light sources in a 3D computer program. Spotlight is shaped as a cone that can be widened or narrowed down to a sharp, pointed spear. Directional light is a bit like spotlight, but it’s more frontal and radiant. It’s illustrated by a luminous, white line running diagonally over a black square and its position is a cluster of four arrows. I place the arrow cluster on top of the landscape and point it downwards, directly at the round sphere I’ve placed on the ground and and turn the intensity all the way up and render the scene. The upper part of the sphere, a bit more than fifty percent, becomes all white. I’ve asked in an online forum for 3D computer graphics: how would you make a blazing sun, one that’s really close by? Like if you’re on a nearby planet. People agree: directional light, but you don’t build the sun in a computer landscape, you paint the sun on the skydome and then you build the effects, in the way that the sunlight would fall. There’s no actual sun, just effects. I ask what the difference between volume light and area light is. They are quite similar, coming from all directions and not really seen directly, but sensed as a depth, working with the brighter light sources. I place a volume light in the landscape. It’s shaped like orbits around a small light source in the middle and looks like a magnetic field. I ask why you can choose from inwards and outwards volume light? Don’t make it go inwards, it wouldn’t look real. Someone writes: but that might be what you’re after if you want a strange sun.
Nina Kock (b. 1986) holds an MA in Critical Writing from the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London (2013-15). She has previously studied comparative literature at University of Copenhagen and architecture at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. She currently lives and works in London and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org