Oh, Ambient Demons: ἰὼ φίλοι δαίμονες, ἀμφιβάντες πόλιν
Already, these words address both space and time. At first reading, they refer to the future of the ambient. But more can be read into them.
For instance, consider equilibrium: if we stand firmly in one spot and try to reach as far forward as we can, we soon have to balance ourselves by reaching equally far back. Standing on the present, trying to reach deeply into the future, we must reach equally deeply into the past.
That’s static equilibrium. If, on the other hand, like Angelus Novus, Walter Benjamin’s past-facing angel, we are thrust into the future by the wind of progress, then no such balance is necessary, at least as long as we keep moving — but, if we stop, we topple. In the blur of our movement, we are blinded —the future is behind us, invisible, and the past, though visible, recedes in pieces, torn to shreds by the storm of advancement. The moment we pause, the moment of potential clarity, is also the moment of collapse.
An ambience is a surrounding. We begin there. Nothing surrounds us as completely as time. We begin there, in time, surrounded. What is the past, present, and future of ambiances?
Ambiancé, the as-yet-incomplete 720-hour experimental film directed by Anders Weberg, will only be shown once, in its entirety, when it is completed; then it will be destroyed. For now, a 72-hour trailer is available. How does one watch a 72-hour trailer, let alone a 720-hour movie? Even more than Christian Marclay’s 24-hour “The Clock,” the only way to watch Ambiancé is to enter its ambiance, to allow fact and fiction to blend into life itself.
Or, consider virtuality — as physical cities crumble or become aggregations of uncorrelated computer-generated forms that reach the sky but neglect the street, corporate body against human body, the coherent architectonic ambiance that permeated actual cities vanishes into the cinematic. The architecture of the city is now experienced in movies. The infinite wisdom of the market’s “invisible hand” has decided that it is most efficient to provide atmosphere-in-spectacle and generic utility everywhere else. To this is added the new VR-triumphant, virtual-reality re-emerging from its long wait for the right conditions, finally armed with all the necessary enabling technologies, to a generation prepared to receive it, under perfect conditions. How positive this may be, if it indeed allows us to advance “the poetics of space” — Bachelard’s phenomenological perceptiveness of ambiances, so necessary to a healthy psyche — and still remember to bring back what lessons we learn to the actuality of our lived spaces — and how terrifying it may be, if we use these technologies to further neglect and already overly-neglected world.
Ambiances: the ambient, the Latin ambiens and ambitus, in the end, the ancient Greek αμφιβαίνω (αμφι/amphi/ambi/both sides + βαίνω/vado/to proceed, to encircle), to walk around something, hence to surround it. Words that are related to others we know: amphitheater, amphibious, amphiboly, all about the reconciliation of some kind of two-sidedness that contains the contradiction into a new condition and a new whole.
What is this for our time?
Aeschylus, in “Seven Against Thebes,” has the citizens call upon “ambient demons” to protect the city. Ambient demons, natural forces personified, surround the city as guardians, and the citizens call upon them for protection. We find the same perception in Shinto and in all indigenous cultures that respect their surroundings. And what about us? What of our present, and our future? What demons guard our cities? Is it not clear? Computing daemons, impersonal background processes, armed with machine vision, global senses, artificial intelligence, and the wisdom of the market, all hand and no heart, form an ambiance of surveillance whose stated intention is protection, but whose origin and outcome are paranoia and fear and not reassurance or comfort.
Perhaps our future can learn from our past. Perhaps Aeschylus can teach us something about ambiances:
ἰὼ φίλοι δαίμονες,
Oh beloved demons
λυτήριοί τ᾿ ἀμφιβάντες πόλιν
Atoning for and ambient to the city
δείξαθ᾿ ὡς φιλοπόλεις,
Prove yourselves lovers of cities
μέλεσθε θ᾿ ἱερῶν δαμίων,
Take care of the sacred offerings
μελόμενοι δ᾿ ἀρήξατε·
Accepting them, defend them
φιλοθύτων δέ τοι πόλεος ὀργίων
Being fond of the city’s sacrifices
μνήστορες ἔστε μοι.
Be protectors of them, I ask