An inescapable Sense of Confinement

About Mathilde ter Heijne's For a Better World.

Arie Altena

For a better World is not a pleasant CD-ROM. That is hardly surprising, given its deadly serious theme that of self-immolation. In her digital work, Mathilde ter Heijne is not concerned with entertaining her audience. She employs the empathetic potential inherent in digital media in order to approach and understand the emotional states of people under extreme circumstances, and to render them recognizable. That is unpleasant; it's tough, and given the user's patience and willingness to go along with the artwork it is confrontational. Who, after all, would voluntarily choose to imagine oneself amidst acts of war, or grieving for innocent victims? We can see it in the media on a daily basis, but we do so through a self-protecting screen (or if not, then the media themselves reduce those same acts of war to an easily digestible B-movie format by providing each sequence with some corny soundtrack). And so it is, or it appears, that the media have not rendered us more sensitive to other people's suffering, but rather less so. Could not one of art's main 'tasks' be to bring us closer to the other's suffering? It's a cliche, I admit, but apparently one that needs to be remembered every so often.

American author William T. Vollmann considers it his task to approach, understand and convey the experiences and suffering of the other. He does not shrink from pathos, nor from describing his grotesque failures in his attempts to offer help. Vollmann's poetics is marked by an engagement in its purest form, and by its inevitable failure. After graduating from literary studies and filled with naive notions of freedom fighters, he set out for Afghanistan in the early 1980's to offer his assistance to the mujahedin. Instead of his being of any help to them, however, they had to help him across the mountain passes. He merely got in the way.

Vollmann takes up an extreme position: in his work, he is willing to believe that everybody has the best intentions for the world and one's fellow men even Pol Pot. Thus, in his writings, Vollmann manages to get very close to violence, to what it does, to how it affects people, and to the powerlessness of the outsider. (See, for instance, his reports on the civil war in Bosnia Herzegovina, or his hallucinatory accounts of the violence in Cambodia.) Vollmann manages to cause the reader to empathize with the scum of the earth his grim, sometimes darkly romantic preference for prostitutes and petty criminals notwithstanding.

Watching For a Better World, I was frequently reminded of Vollmann's poetics. For a Better World takes the viewer very close to the extreme emotional state of self-immolators and their desire for a better world. In this respect, it is a vastly different CD-ROM from Cesare Davolio's Annunciation (Mediamatic Off-Line 10#2). If Annunciation represents a private deliberation on the Aldo Moro case and the Red Brigades that takes the Italian political and historical context into account as well, this context is deliberately missing in For a Better World. Instead, it is an attempt to approach and understand the emotional state and psychology of self-immolators on their own grounds. The risk of Ter Heijne's approach is that the viewer may get the awkward impression that her artistic view is formed at the expense of other people's suffering.

For a Better World succeeds in conveying an inescapable sense of confinement. One wanders around in a gray nightmare, where no clues or directions are being provided. The sound of a pencil scratching on paper the very pencil that is creating the drawings through which one navigates serves to strengthen this sense of claustrophobia. The feeling increases with each encountered exit news footage of an act of self-immolation; another room; a next drawing until at last one stumbles on the final room, where an exhibition on self-immolation is being held from which there seems to be no escape.

This confinement is a metaphor for the self-immolator's closed world view and psychology; the scratching pencil is their desperate grating, caught as they are in their delusions, their desire for a better world, for which they ultimately sacrifice their lives. The self-immolators featured on this CD-ROM all seem to suffer from a lack of contact with the world, a lack of realism. They have isolated themselves. That is how they arrive at their act of extremism. Their path to a better world is not a liberating flight, not an escape, but being scorched by fire.

Psychologically, the 'self-immolator for a better world' would appear to be similar to the suicide terrorist. Yet in my view, most self-immolators are too desperate, more likely psychiatric cases; moreover, they help no one to paradise but themselves. Suicide terrorists, I imagine, act on ideological beliefs, bombing themselves and others to paradise in the calm conviction of an unquestionable and unshakable faith.

Interestingly, the navigational techniques employed on this CD-ROM (derived from QuickTime VR) both suit its subject matter and enhance its emotional effect. But they also give rise to a second artwork an unintentional, abstract work, embedded within its digitalized drawings. A maximum enlargement of the pixel structure produces a sublime 'pixel noise' that lies aesthetically somewhere in between Peter Luining's abstract Flash Art and Jodi's interference images. Add an incorrect playback of sound files, such as happened in my case, so that the pencil's scratching is distorted into a relentless drilling, the timbre of which reminds one of sixties electronic music, and everything falls into place. Bliss. Umberto Eco would call this using an artwork, as distinguished by him from its interpretation on one's own terms.

Such usage of digital art is simple, especially if it is presented 'openly.' A fine and pleasant quality of such open presentation is that text, image, and sound files are separately accessible. Nothing stops the user from starting up QuickTime, for instance, and viewing or listening to the files on For a Better World. Thus, one can follow the process whereby the artistic vision took shape, as well as the way its interactivity has been 'programmed,' through its selection, processing, integration and scripting of files. In doing so, one creates a certain distance between oneself and the artwork.

The possibility to take some distance is more than welcome with this CD-ROM. Of course, we are not supposed to merely view and listen to the files in separate order, which would mean to miss out on its artistry and emotional claustrophobia, but it does provide us with a little air. It enables us to employ that damned old indispensable critical detachment, which is intentionally abandoned on For a Better World in order to approximate so closely the self-immolator's emotional state. For hopefully we will manage to escape, to take a little distance, not to succumb to despair, not to go mad with emotion so that more may yet await us than the sun's blinding, scorching fire alone.

translation Pieter Bijker


published in Mediamatic Magazine Offline 10#3, available december 2001
some rights reserved
Arie Altena
november 2001

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