"Can we make this house a home?"

Inspired by the exhibition Portal Park by Maria Mombers, writer and former MaMA director Nathalie Hartjes wrote a critical and personal note about our increasingly digital world, touching upon the exhibitions related topics like hyperreality, dream-core and social media-content.

Since my twenties, I have been having a recurring dream. I am in my home and as I move from one space to the next, I find myself surprised by a new corridor or door. My regular response is something like ‘Silly me, I didn’t notice this before’ followed shortly after with a sense of anticipation and excitement, thinking of all the opportunities these new rooms (sometimes full-blown hallways and gardens) present to me. Over the past decades, this house has shapeshifted a lot. Sometimes, it has presented itself as an attic apartment or it resembled my childhood home. In the past five or six years my chimeric home has started to consolidate into an Escher-like presence, some rooms have become steadily fixed in the same position. I know where I can find the staircases, the cellar, and how the garden runs around back and past a sunroom – curiously belonging to obvious but always absent neighbours. Yet every attempt to draw a floorplan of the structure leads to the conclusion that some spaces lie over one another, or even devour each other. It’s a maze over whose exploration I only have partial control. 

It is common knowledge that the architecture of dreams is treacherous, that nothing within these cloudlands remains solid for long. But no matter how ephemeral, the borders of these lands draw upon me at daybreak and keep me safe and able to distinguish the confusions and illusions from that what we call reality as I go about my daily life again. 

I encounter a different kind of shaky architecture in the daytime. As I toggle from screen to screen, each rectangular frame on my laptop represents a different relationship I have with someone or someplace. As I sit at my desk writing this paper, I am virtually connected to MAMA and envision its offices, though now layered with Nieuwe Vide wallpaper reminding me of the first place I encountered Maria Mombers. Through the imaginary windows I see the showroom looming in the distance and I see the outlines of Portal Park. As long as I keep within this window, these are my surroundings, but it only takes a message notification to catapult me to another place. Responding to an e-mail will place me in Groningen, and working on something else later today will attach me to Limburg. Although I am in the comfort of my own home, I am no longer exactly where I am. 

As I toggle from screen to screen, each rectangular frame on my laptop represents a different relationship I have with someone or someplace.

The flow of other places intruding on us has grown extraordinarily over the past decades. Since we hold our smartphones in our hands, our actual surroundings have faded more and more into the background and become substituted by the virtual set pieces we (more or less) choose ourselves. We call upon meadows to see unlikely friendships unfold between dogs and deers (or panthers) as we tune out the grime and rumble of the underground; when we lack a buddy to chuckle with we can quickly invite any of thousands of jokesters (each and every one with their particular brand of zaniness) into our home to make up for anything resembling boredom; and equally our sense of safety inside our warm homes becomes compromised when the virtual gates open up to – only too often – give way to the harsh and bloody realities on other places on the globe.

“Pic’s or it didn’t happen!” I would locate the peak popularity of this phrase somewhat between 2015 and 2017. Instagram had already taken off, but Facebook was still relevant. The medium for sharing our lives was quickly becoming an obligatory tool to offer proof that our lives existed to begin with. Increasingly the sense that our experiences needed to be validated by their visual records (and views by strangers) began to encroach on me. My reactionary, and somewhat helpless, response was withdrawal. If the internet represents something of a virtual architecture to dwell in, I became a ghost…

It was not just my resistance to the pressures of external validation that made me hunch my virtual back and drape an invisibility cloak to cover my online movements. Simultaneously the savviness of other users, facilitated by filters with premeditated ideals, created visual standards and encouraged a form of customized behaviour, that I did not feel comfortable with. The shoot from the hip, grainy photography of early Facebook taken with bust android phones was slowly but surely being replaced by gloss, by better camera’s, by ring lights and an always professional attitude. People learned to pose and everyone became a model. As we were imaging our lives, the flatness of the frame forced us to act flat to fit into it. 

Together with many other misfits, I became a lurker. We are still here, but we are silent. We have not deleted our accounts, but roam from frame to frame, through the hallways of content produced by others. In Filling the Void (2017), Marcus Gilroy Ware offers a critical and bleak exploration of social media. He positions the endless feed as a means to regulate our emotions, offering us the distraction we need to escape the economic logic and reality of this woeful era of late Capitalism. And ironically by doing so, we help to fortify this system. His book offers much more and is close to prophetic in its description of the dynamics of mis- and disinformation, offering an early analysis of shadow-banning practices and corporate implicitness in shushing the voices of the marginalized. However here, in this article, instead of combatting the system alongside him, I accept that as much as I am an inhabitant of a capitalist society, neither can I completely escape inhabiting a digital space. Even if I don’t interact much or at all, I too feed off the feed. As a parasite inside digital walls. Not really there, uncomfortable in my avatar´s skin, not quite knowing how to move through this new world.

wb84qd6vull61source: IG @dreamcore.liminal

This new world reminds me of the house on Ash Treelane, as described by Mark Z. Danielewski. It has the defining quality to encourage us to get lost, playing with our tendency to respond to extreme emotional triggers, benign or malicious. In his debut novel House of Leaves, Danielewski offers us the disorienting tale of Will Navidson, an adventurous filmmaker who has promised his wife to choose a safer and more comfortable life for which they settle down in the countryside of Virginia. Their desired boredom gets interrupted by the sudden appearance of a corridor in their house which, unsettlingly, seems to be just ¼ of an inch longer on the interior than the exterior of the house allows for. As Navidson starts exploring, the newfound void keeps on expanding, leading to an underground architecture of unreliable dimensions and shapeshifting walls.

The house on Ash Treelane is akin to the internet in two ways; its architecture is not the same for anyone, and its image is built up through an amalgamate of documents and testimonies whose veracity is hard to decipher. 

As the plot of the book develops it becomes clear that the house´s shape, depth, and threats are different for each protagonist. The house feeds off the vulnerabilities of its inhabitants and explorers, it is suggested in the book that the house has become the representation of each individual´s psyche, and most of all it becomes clear that it is unstable and deteriorating state, physically threatening those who move inside it, is the result of their own failure of mental maintenance. 

The story is mostly told through the pen of two distinct authors; old man Zampanò who has passed away and left an unfinished manuscript, a pretentious (wannabe) academic inquiry into the house, based on footage shot by Navidson of his decent, accompanied by the manifold writings those images have spurred, apparently sourced from academia to gossip magazines. All these fictitious sources are jumbled in with references to work from well-known philosophers, poets, and historians, and as a result, in this mixed bag, it becomes impossible to distinguish the legitimate from the imaginary. The manuscript is found by troubled deadbeat Johnny Truant, who we follow as a reader in the footnotes, as he tries to verify and, or complete Zampanò’s unfinished business, throwing in a few of his own interior struggles and references to his traumatic childhood as he goes along. 

It is meaningful to mention that House of Leaves was published around the advent of popular internet. It is a paper-based experiment with the literary potential of meta-data, but most of all the book addresses a loss of reality. Even if there is an abundance of documentation, their truth value is no longer to be trusted. Danielewski employs uncertainty as the carrier of the sense of horror. He does not need gruesome imagery, monsters, or carnage, to unsettle his readers, disorientation is achieved by using the conventions of how knowledge is normally presented, and then undermining them. 

Reading the book now in 2023, one wonders if Danielewski might have foreseen that if Zampanò feels like the embodiment of traditional media, clamping on to a reputation of trustworthiness, Truant is then the conspiracist who has fallen into a rabbit hole. It’s a battle between fact and affect.

schermafbeelding-2023-12-20-om-13-28-05source: IG @dreamcore.liminal

A similar sense of horror echoes from current dreamcore imagery. Is it coincidental that these are also often images that play on shaky architecture? I believe it speaks to the way the internet, the other world, has infiltrated our homes. These recent images are horrific because they call into question the trustworthiness of the last barrier keeping ´reality´ solid and distinct from that endless virtual void: our domiciles. It is their resemblance to conventional architectural renders that increase their haunting quality.

Perhaps if we think back to the early popular internet of the 90s and early 00s and compare that to the current shape of our internet experiences, mediated through our own web 2.0 applications, we can imagine an open landscape (promising even, often envisioned with a utopian gaze) that has become urbanized with the houses we built in the name of Social Media. 

The House on Ash Treelane might be read as a warning sign applicable to our digital homes, reminding us that if we forego our own mental maintenance, if we don’t build the virtual structures around us with care, we end up with nothing more than shanty towns. A shaky mental architecture that might collapse on us.

At the beginning of this year, I decided I can no longer remain a ghost in the virtual realm of social media. Being present but passive does not decrease the emotional triggers I receive when I wander along the infinite corridors of the internet. Instead, the emotions bottle up, increasing my anxiety and feelings of helplessness. I am still present in that world filled with affect but have given up my agency. I felt I needed to either pass over completely and leave that realm behind me or start living again. 

I sought help from a coach to help me navigate a world that now has an added layer of elasticity and plasticity. She supported me in defining a set of ground rules for engagement – call it a blueprint – that felt authentic to me, a toolbox to help me reclaim agency over my virtual life.

Because in this reality, getting rid of the virtual was never really an option. Resistance (to technology) is futile. And in the past weeks as Israel´s disproportionate repercussions on Hamas violently and continuously rain down on Gaza, I find myself visiting my digital home more and more, and growing more and more convinced we cannot see the world fully without this mirror. Or even be in the world fully, as it offers a space for mobilization for which I am thankful. I have defined that instactivism is not part of my toolbox, I do not possess the materials to build a strong house on those foundations. Yet I do humbly and gratefully visit those buildings of others, which encourage me back to the streets where, together with thousands of other people, we can shout, scream, and cry our calls to #CEASEFIRENOW. Being together is a grounding experience and helps to combat the sense of disorientation as the regular news broadcasts continuously downplay the numbers of those who stand with Palestine. Slowly my virtual ghost is being resurrected, I find more ease in sharing my testimonies to these events as I feel the urgency to underpin that “We are thousands, We are millions, We stand with the Palestinians”. Our digital urbanizations also offer a solution for those who simply cannot take to the concrete streets. A virtual demonstration on the virtual reality platform Roblox has garnered over 60.000 protesters  (This figure dates from 26 October 2023, and is probably many more by the time this article is published) worldwide in solidarity with Palestine within two weeks, mostly children and teenagers.

“As we engage with the digital, it encourages us to challenge the world around us, and, through this constant redressing and challenging, change the world as we know it, prompting the creation of entirely new worlds altogether.” writes Legacy Russel in her book Glitch Feminism. It is interactions such as these from our global youth that spark hope within me. Admittedly, I am quite envious of the digital natives who seamlessly glide through the virtual waters. This younger generation never ceases to inspire and activate me. I think of GabsWildebras, who has grown his platform by unequivocally sharing his passion for animals in an unapologetic urban vernacular. His work doesn´t only spread joy, it also questions and reframes the image of Biology (as many other sciences) to be logically or ´naturally´ dominated by white people. Meme-account Hetiseenhefla is another noteworthy account that has grown quickly in popularity, because of its sharp political commentary in a covert language unintelligible for many white, middle-aged, middle-class people, addressing widely felt concerns amongst young people and offering a bit of solace in disorienting times. Both examples have started their platforms in independent online niches but are finding their ways to a general media; Hetiseenhefla still modestly with a short segment on Omroep Zwart’s (a small public broadcaster) program Stemmingmakers – an online series to encourage Gen Z’s interest in politics just ahead of the national election; and Wildebras was signed to another significant broadcaster VPRO to host a youth show.

I also find new encouragement to engage in Russel’s work which dispels the negative image of a ghost on the internet. She celebrates the shapeshifting qualities the virtual offers us, allowing us to play with absence and presence as a means to disrupt existing societal expectations. I think of Wildebras and Hetiseenhefla and imagine Happy Phantoms breaking through hegemonies and glass ceilings, or in the words of Tori Amos ‘Chasing nuns out in the yard’.

I feel my skepticism slowly fading, my invisibility cloak is becoming heavy and uncomfortable. I see the ways some of those internet-savvy folks have managed to seize control over and create their immaterial worlds, creating new and solid buildings. Edifices that offer more than just shelter, but are schools, libraries, or care facilities in their own right. A wave of anticipation comes over me, similar to that feeling in my dreams. I just might be able to find a new room around the corner, one filled with opportunities. I am aware that this daydream is filled with lights cast deceitfully through a prism of misinformation, and that this mirror world is not made up of just one reflecting the truth, but rather a maze. But contrary to my nighttime shelter, here I am in charge of its design. I just need to start the construction work, even if it means tearing the whole thing down and starting from scratch.

Nathalie Hartjes works as a writer, advisor, researcher and mentor in the visual arts. After seven precious years at MAMA, she is now pursuing a freelance career and has been involved in a wide variety of projects: She developed the digital platform for curatorial collective P1 and guided their junior curators in their research for the Gelderland Biennale. She is part of the mentoring team of Cultuur + Ondernemen and she also provides strategic advice and supports independent arts organizations with developing their long-term funding bids.
But most of all, she has the ambition to develop a practice she likes to call ‘writing around art’, arriving at texts that as a personal response to art, rather than an explanation, giving space to her own personal associations. Some more recent and older texts can be found here. 

The line between physical reality and the digital realm is becoming increasingly blurred. Thanks to lightning-fast developments in technology, we are at the dawn of a new world – as virtual and tangible, on– and offline in one: Enter Portal Park: a new world in the heart of Rotterdam– a play paradise, a staged reality, a place of illusion, disillusion and possibility…because behind an exit hides an entrance, behind open doors– an empty field. Welcome to Portal Park. Welcome to this new reality.


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