Digital Penetration: CALIFUK-ing in The Monument Space

by Paulo Shalldon

Our monuments are our anchors to the past, throwbacks to things that shouldn’t be forgotten—or that can’t be—hooks into our shared history, that keep some part of us behind, resisting the drag and the flow of time. They “are the grappling-irons that bind one generation to another,” as the French essayist Joseph Joubert put it. But our monuments have evolved—from standing stones to pyramids, from humble cairn, to hulking artifice—and now the technologies of the age are changing not only the way that we remember our history, but the way that we revisit it as well.

Our technology has become so inseparable from who we are that even our mind’s eye is shaped by it. If I asked you to picture Big Ben in your head, you probably could, even if you haven’t actually been there. While you can construct that image in your memory from the countless ways you’ve seen it depicted in television, film, books, or on your friend’s Instagram, there’s still a broad gulf to the actual experience of being at Big Ben—the feeling of crossing the damp streets, the whirr of the airborne pigeons, and the hustle of the industrious migrants flogging touristy crap.

Our monuments are traditionally objects that speak deeply to a personal presence. One can see an image of a war cenotaph and be moved, but no photograph can begin to capture the visceral experience of running your fingers over the faded names carved in the stone. Yet technology seems to be evolving at such a rapid rate, that even our monuments are beginning to stretch a leg over the divide from the real world into the digital.

Currently under construction is Daniel Tobin’s Traces, an AIDS/HIV memorial in the shape of three separate trace fields—groves of vertical beams illuminated from the top. Each field has it’s own purpose. The first honors those who supported the AIDS community, the second memorializes those who have passed, and the third informs the public on the current state of the disease. Traces will integrate augmented reality into each trace beam, meaning that the presence of a smartphone will completely change the experience of the monument, and therein its interpretation. An auction to raise money for the project will take place at Milk Studios in Hollywood on October 1st, and the monument itself will live in West Hollywood at the intersection of Santa Monica and San Vicente.

In London, Hans Haacke’s “Gift Horse” is the latest work erected on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square. It is a sculpture of a horse skeleton adorned with a ribbon that displays a live feed from the London Stock Exchange. In this case too, the technology is essential to the interpretation of the art. The work speaks to art, commerce, power, greed, history, and politics, and while there is some ambiguity in its message, evidently, without the technology of the live market updates, the work would elicit a totally different response.

We are more integrated into our technology than any generation that has ever preceded us. Our phones are our memories, our gatekeepers, our safety nets, and our friends. It seems only reasonable that our monuments ought to reflect this. Perhaps in future aeons (perhaps in future decades if Al Gore is right), the batteries will run dead on Haacke’s horse, and some errant nomad wandering the detritus of our culture will stumble upon it. What will they make of this civilization that only worked when the power was on?

Of course, perhaps we underestimate the potency of our own technology, and it is these digital artifices that will far outlive their stone counterparts. Perhaps we are like Horace who realized that through his words:

I have completed a monument

More lasting than bronze and far higher

Than that royal pile of Pyramids,

Which the gnawing rain and furious

North wind cannot destroy, nor the chain

Of countless years and the flight of time.