“Singen. Welches?” is the title of an on-line project I realized in the context of the international public art exhibition “Hier, Da und Dort”, held in the German city of Singen between April and November 2000.
As art is called upon to play an increasingly crucial role in complex aestheticization processes – many of which involve urban space – and art events such as “Hier, Da und Dort” are devised to fuel the city’s symbolic economy, I took the rather unorthodox decision of allocating my budget to an act of electronic disturbance aimed at altering geographic information and sabotaging the use of art for place promotion – the international art show in question was meant to underpin Singen’s aspiration to feature on the art world map, revamp its image, and gloss over an embarrassing past.
By adding five spoof promotional websites to the existing one run by the municipality of Singen, I not only intended to raise awareness of how easily people can be duped into the falsehood of “everyday cybernetics”, I also contributed to subvert Singen’s strategy of place- marketing on the web.
Though the five virtual Singen I designed have no counterparts in the lifeworld, in the hyper-real (and often surreal) world of the web, where simulation has played havoc with our inherited epistemologies, the distinction between a “virtual real” city and a merely “virtual” city is suspended.
The official website of the “real” Singen is itself an example of place simulation. The city is described as being “situated by the lake of Konstanz”, when in fact it is separated from the lake by a 5 mile-long industrial sprawl; the website provides a very partial account of the city’s civic history, silently passing over the infamous forced labour camps that during WW II attracted investment from the rest of Germany and Switzerland; moreover, it fails to mention the presence of a very large immigrant population, and yet the so-called “guest workers” amount to one third of the overall population and contribute to Singen’s economic wealth, social fabric and cultural life.
How many Singen are there in the so-called “real world”? Most probably one can find as many Singen as the number of its inhabitants and visitors. Each Singen a tangled web of memories, desires, fears, dreams, experiences… tied to the materiality and physicality of spaces shaped by the interplay of social, economic and political forces. When we deal with cities we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense. Therefore it goes without saying that any representation of Singen is necessarily partial, inevitably reductive. Yet not all representations are a private matter, they are not equally powerful and persuasive. Representation is never a politically neutral and innocent activity. With cyberspace and virtual reality technology, this kind of warpage and tunneling of the fabric of reality has become a perceptual and phenomenal fact. But cyberspace is not just a description or staging of an uncanny reality, it institutes a virtual reality as a functional, objective component of physical reality. Increasingly the architecture of physical space and cyberspace are superimposed, intertwined, and hybridized in complex ways. A simulacrum of the city is growing in cyberspace. This virtual city is ramifying through the real city and in the process reproducing it.
The economy of material property, which is inherently spatial and which dominates the classical economic theory, is subsumed in cyberspace by the economy of information and with it the idea of time as the only scarce resource. One of the distinctive features of the information age is the proliferation of data whose meaning becomes obscure. As information increases, meaning decreases, and with it our ability to make sense and distinguish between information, misinformation and disinformation. Now, how many Internet users have time to stop, think, compare and probe the mass of data intertextually and interactively in order to spot possible discrepancies? Not only has the Internet altered how we look at and explore geographic information, here the boundaries between image and reality, fact and fiction, are becoming increasingly blurred and often erased altogether.
Simulations and simulacra have always existed, but what is significantly different today is their scale and scope: thicker layers of hyper-reality now blanket the world, strategic and convincing simulations of the real reach more deeply into the immediate spaces of our daily lives – in cyberspace, information-intensive institutions and businesses have a form, identity and working reality that is counterpart to the form, identity and working reality they have in the physical world.
The Sign (now, as simulation) no longer serving the traditional referential function of mediation, effectively becomes “weightless”. By this very token, however, its power becomes immense, because it can be employed to serve the discursive agenda of those in a position to direct, to control, indeed, to manipulate it: hence to define and structure the very intelligibility of a collective social world. As Internet users we are brought to the world, the world to us, all mediated through the ideology of the screen.
This transition to a political economy of simulation, to borrow an expression coined by Baudrillard, seems to justify the call for a new, critical epistemology. Cyberspace, the space behind the screen, is virtual and real at the same time; categories of the Real and the Unreal, for instance, are insufficient today because each is infused within the other; planes of immanence are replacing planes of reference.
In this passage to a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor of truth, the age of simulation thus begins with a liquidation of referentials… It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself. (Baudrillard, Selected Writings, p. 167, ed. Mark Poster, 1988)
Taking my cue from Guy Debord, who in “Comments on the Society of the Spectacle” hinted at a potentially subversive use of disinformation, a sort of homeopathic remedy that could counter the power of the integrated spectacle and foster incredulity towards its narratives, and appropriating another Situationist practice, that of détournement, theorized by Raoul Vaneigem, a parodic destabilization of the spectacle which involves taking elements from a given system to turn them against it, I initiated a proliferation of Singen homonyms on the Web. After registering the following domain names: singen.at (for Austria), singen.it (for Italy), singen-heidiland.ch (for Switzerland), singen.cz (for the Czech Republic), and singen.dk (for Denmark), I put on line five websites that would make the task of differentiating between a website which dissimulates something and websites which dissimulate that there is nothing almost impossible.
The choice of countries such as Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark and the Czech Republic was determined by the conscious attempt to produce what Roland Barthes described as a “reality effect”: not only do these countries share borders with Germany, they also host German-speaking minorities, making the presence of the German toponym “Singen” highly plausible.
The websites I designed look similar to those run by many municipalities: they feature a historical profile of the city, tourist attractions and landmarks, a calendar of cultural or sport events, maps, transport information, and links to businesses such as hotels and restaurants.
These virtual Singen have very little “artistic added value”; they are decidedly different from artists’ creations of utopian or dystopian environments, aesthetico-technical ideal cities, Simcities, 3-D representations of literary loci and so on. Instead, I chose to operate below the threshold of artistic visibility, so that my critical intervention could not be safely recuperated under the category of “art”.
The promotional websites I created for the five fabricated Singen are conceived of as mere showcases, with tourism and business promotion in mind. They are the product of a prosaic rather than a poetic assemblage of iconic and verbal texts downloaded from the Internet and manipulated to suit my needs: overlaid graphics, low-resolution images, conventional descriptions borrowed from on-line guide-books, and the customary inaccurate English translations.
These spoof websites enjoy a high visibility on the Net, and compete with the “real” Singen for tourist attention: after typing “singen” in any web browser, you are more likely to hit a spoof than Singen’s official website.
The Austrian Singen is presented as a picturesque, mountain village in Tyrol, where one can ski in winter and engage in outdoors activities in summer, relax the mind and recreate the body.
The Czech Singen on the other hand, is described as an ancient mining town, surrounded by walls with bastions; it boasts a medieval historic center, a Baroque square, opulent churches, one of the most noted bells in the Czech Republic, and a monument to Karel Havlicek Borovsky. Despite the fact that Borovsky is a figment of the imagination and most of the pictures illustrating the texts are poached from Austrian, Slovenian and Hungarian websites, I received several emails from Czech tourists trying to reserve rooms in Singen.
The Danish Singen is described as the most successful municipality in Denmark when it comes to the privatisation of municipal tasks. A role model for modern municipal management not only in Denmark, but also worldwide. The “authoritative” source for this bombastic claim is no less than the Bertelsmann Foundation, which allegedly studied the municipality and the way it is organised in greater depth and named Singen as one of the top ten municipalities in the world. The town lies by a lake, is known for its natural beauty and for “its lovely blend of old village atmosphere and modern architecture”, features a sculpture park, a shopping mall and 50 kilometers of cycling paths.
The Italian Singen combines “a long and exciting history with the vibrant life of a modern commercial centre”. It hosts a museum of hunting and fishing in one of the Tyrol’s finest baroque castles, gothic frescos by Hans von Bruneck, and a mining museum. Its town hall, dating 1468, houses a Roman altar dedicated to the Persian god Mithras and a Roman milestone. According to the historical profile, “the spacious interior of the Town Hall proved useful for a number of historic gatherings, including the Emergency Council hastily summoned during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1525, a number of sessions of the Tyrolese Diet from the 15th to the 17th centuries, and numerous receptions for visiting royalty such as the Emperor Maximilian, King Philipp of Spain, the Archduke Ferdinand, the Empress Maria Theresa, Joseph II etc.”
The Swiss Singen is in Heidiland, a region that has been packaged as a theme park by the Swiss Tourist Board. A ski resort, it doubles as a sports mecca in the summer. It offers aeronautic excursions, mountain biking, canyoning, climbing, fishing, minigolf, hiking, a toboggan run, paragliding, in-line skating, tennis, squash and water sports in the Walen lake. Here one can also experience a “truly Swiss lifestyle, guiding the cows down from the Alps, blowing the alphorn, and making cheese.”
On the Net where everything is within reach and “geographical distance is eliminated, distance is reproduced internally as spectacular separation” (Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, p.165). Authenticity is staged and becomes folklore, it is “own-ness” simulated for others.
To fit into this order without arousing suspicion, I had to keep to the rules: hence my spoof websites reproduce ideological suppositions, and reinforce existing stereotypes about the different countries I selected. Once you falsify something you cannot stop halfway!
Though it is hard to assess the impact that the proliferation of Singen in cyberspace is having on the economy of the “real” Singen, it is now clear that the presence of six towns bearing the same name and located within a relatively small radius has proved baffling to some. I received hundreds of angry messages posted by those who drove for hours trying to locate one of these virtual Singen, while two municipalities (Vipiteno in Italy and Achen in Austria) claim that singen.it and singen.at provide misleading information to tourists visiting their regions and have started legal proceedings against the host of my sites.
But even if I cannot measure the extent to which the creation of spoof sites impinges on the rationalising forces of the business world, I believe that throwing doubt upon the legitimacy and truthfulness of the information that is produced and disseminated within electronically-mediated environments is one of the possible ways we can raise awareness about the cybernetics of everyday life and the phenomenology of screenal space.
Websites can be strongly persuasive; their graphic narrative, texts, and pictures are potent rhetorical weapons that can both orient and disorient subjects through the physical word. In spite of the fact that dimensions, axes, and coordinates of cyberspace are not necessarily the familiar ones of our natural, gravitational environment, they nevertheless mirror our expectation of natural spaces and places.
As I have shown, almost anyone can develop a spoof site, fabricate reference, and mislead a large number of people; simulation seems inherent in cyberspace, as referentiality becomes intertextuality and coherence can be found only within the text and between texts. Creating geographic fictions has never been easier.
Author: Laura Ruggeri (born Milan 1964) is a cultural activist, writer and professional troublemaker. After studying semiotics with Umberto Eco, and joining a “semiotic guerrilla” collective in Bologna, she went on to teach in graduate programmes in Milan and Hong Kong. In 1997 she spent a very cold year in Berlin as artist-in-residence at Künstlerhaus Bethanien and curated a film retrospective of Gordon Matta-Clark in Milan.
Her academic work, critical analysis and research interests converge with her art practice. For the past ten years she has been realizing urban scale art projects across Europe, investigated the relationship between body and architecture and promoted attention to meaning construction and its articulations.
Always a foreigner, in crossing borders she has changed discomfort into a base of resistance. She writes in borrowed languages, lives on a borrowed time in a borrowed place, Hong Kong.