Issue X: Flat

For every mountain, a prairie; for every boss, a worker; for every server, a peer; for every body, a screen. Nearly every sector of our lives has a continuum with one end marked, if only through analogy, as flat. The list of the not-flat is nearly endless—sharp, bumpy, irregular, striated, hierarchical, shallow, unbalanced, dynamic, askew, lumpy. These terms play out in discussions about the distributed web and the future of the internet, best practices in interface design, the organization of political movements and companies, and our lived experience with a ubiquity of two dimensional screens. For thinkers like Hiroki Azuma, the flat (or hyperflat as he would have it) refers “to a characteristic that is thoroughly planar and yet transcends the plane. The hyperflat world, represented by the computer screen, is flat and at the same time lines up what exists beyond it in a parallel layer.” While for some, the flat is a paradise, a goal towards which we ought to strive, for others it represents everything that could go wrong. Either way, flat is always an absolute, always an extreme. The journal’s inaugural issue, Flat, will unpack these associations and ask how and where flatness lies in our world, functionally or dysfunctionally, shaping (or is it unshaping?) everything from visual culture, to politics, economics, and technological topologies.

What does it mean to be Flat? What is the not-flat? How flat is too flat? Where do the flat and the not-flat collide? What are the political expressions of flatness? How does flatness inform and influence design and art in both a contemporary and art historical context? What technological structures and forms of media question, deploy, ignore, or take advantage of flatness, and to what ends?

Issue 01: Halt

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920, Oil transfer and watercolor on paper, 31.8 x 24.2 cm. Courtesy of Israel Museum, Jerusalem

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

—Walter Benjamin on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus from Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940

Dear readers, clickers, lookers, and listeners,

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, in the fall of 2019, the editors of FLAT journal convened to discuss the theme of the journal’s second issue. The theme and title of the journal would be a call to inaction, “HALT.” But little did we know at that time just how imminent a total world “halt” was. And now that something appearing like a halt is here, do we really want it? Is it enough? Is it really a halt at all?

Let’s bracket, for a moment, COVID-19, and ask why originally wanted to pose this sudden call to inaction?

Since the year 2010, Facebook has gained 2 billion users worldwide; a youtube video reached 200 million views in 24 hours; Instagram has redefined celebrity in the attention economy, causing over 259 selfie deaths; and over 200 million people have been displaced due to disasters worldwide. Americans perceive that the continued development of automation technologies will result in decreased numbers of job opportunities, and similar fears abound in a world in which, as Paul Virilio puts it, social technologies are used to synchronize mass emotion. In response to this, the last decade concluded with authors like Jenny Odell (How to Do Nothing), Jia Tolentino (Trick Mirror), Astra Taylor (from The People’s Platform to Democracy May Not Exist…), Jaron Lanier (Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right now), and Ted Chiang (Exhalation), subtly or not so subtly telling us to turn around and look at ourselves in a moment of pause. How could we reflect on what we have done with the last ten years without slowing, turning, and halting — our eyes wide and mouth agape, as though goosenecking past an accident on the highway?

Well, the accident has come and we are stuck in traffic, staring at it; a decade of accelerated technological development–without the equivalent in social change–has come to an eerily “socially distant” and deadly stand still. We entered the 10s with calls to Occupy Everything, and started the 20s only able to occupy our homes, if we are lucky enough to have homes. Is this the moment of reflection we were looking for when we wrote the paragraph above 6 months ago?

It feels like we’ve stopped, but have we? Is this halt truly a pause if we are all slowing down at different rates? As the economy and “business as usual” takes severe blows, it is the working class whose livelihoods are most at risk. Over 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment while millions of others are forced to work under precarious conditions. Many of whom, jobless or not, do not know how they will provide rent, mortgage and medical payments, or food for their families. This looming dispossession on people’s minds has been something the unhoused have faced for decades. When the rest of us become just as vulnerable, will we sense the urgency to address dispossession? Does every living body deserve the right to live? Even if they can’t be productive, even if their sense of progress may falter?

The engines of capital, entertainment, commerce, education, grind on. There is no doubt we are experiencing a profound and abrupt shift in social proxemics. From “social distancing” to the screen-based telepresencing of boardrooms, classrooms, and birthday parties, we are living in a new social milieu, one built for beings that see and hear, but don’t touch, or smell, or taste. What new cultures are emerging through the use of these media? What does it mean to be “socially” distant? And in a socially distant society, where does the burden of social responsibility fall and fail? How will media technology, and/or the related arts, change as a result of this halt?

So we begin the new decade with an interruption; one the consequences and quality of which is as yet, in April, unclear. Our question may be temporal. With the ever increasing fragmentation of time enabled by technologies and enforced culturally by the market, is halting this acceleration of reality possible? Is it desirable? Is opting-out an option? Can we really just prefer not to? So under these new conditions, living a counterfactual to our original proposition, we ask again, What does halting mean to you?

Letter from the Editors

A year ago, we asked what it means to halt. We wondered if the concept of halting could be turned into a useful form of resistance or if it could provide some framework to cope with or understand our present moment. Then 2020 happened; the context of “halt” changed dramatically. Around middle school, we learn about the relationship between speed, time, and distance: d = r * t. We learn to understand speed through this relation. How far will we go in how much time? How long will it take to go X distance? Now, however, it feels as though time has lost all sense. It has fallen apart, a day takes an eternity, but a month passes in an instant. As for distance, we only have one unit of measure for that left, somewhere between 6 feet and 2 meters, and this measure is just to remind us of a space not to cross, a negatively defined measure of “away from.” So all we have left is speed. Pure intensive speed, unbound from distance, freed from time, an intensive quality that can only be understood relative to itself, faster-than, slower-than. Going nowhere and out of time, speed is all that remains.

The responses to our call, and its post-covid update, were overwhelming and stunning. Through a variety of media and styles, the artists and authors in this issue lay bare what is lost through the entwined processes of acceleration, globalization, and industrialization and suggest possibilities for resistance; they highlight how moving quickly and without attention transforms habits and default settings into ideology. Shot through most of the works is a concern with strange, beautiful, and often troubling relationships between our bodies, our selves, and technology, and media; from images that demand attention, to a beautiful misappropriation of machine vision, to a post-corporeal-ai-driven future, to the everydayness of screen-driven interactions.

Together these works form an image of the present, not as a deep-fake photoshopped collage, but as if through saccades, as an unmistakable awareness of what is and what can be.

— The Editors