words by madeleine stack
It’s a super trendy art party and I know nobody. I begin to wish I didn’t come. A woman on a stool at the end of the gleaming bar, dressed in a silver gown. The thing I notice first is the object in front of her, which from afar looks like a crystal ball emitting flickering lights. I walk towards the bar, pretending to beeline for a drink while really casting my eyes sideways to read the small screen she’s propped up next to her. GLASSBLOC FORTUNES HERE. I realize the object in front of her is a router with a strange clear casing; the coloured lights flashing inside showing the internet moving through. I find myself standing in front of her. Are you a fortune teller? I ask shyly. I prefer the term cyber futurist, she replies. I feel surges like electrical charges, and I can sense the imprint people leave on their personal devices. She holds out her hand and I pass her my bloc, still warm from my breast pocket, where it lives touching the heart. She lays it face-down on the bar and places a palm on its blushing steel surface.
You use the app LoveMe, right? she asks. Yes, I murmur, not admitting to the frequency or the duration of my engagement. I’m embarrassed that that was the first thing she asked; though with the young and hip demographic of this party, maybe it’s just a good cold read. There’s a lot of sexual energy expended on the surface, here, it’s imprinted quite strongly with the Left / No and Right / Yes binary decision-making process, which is a telltale sign of that app. And a kind of pulsing glow – that’s the ego boost you feel when the Partners start to stack up.
I begin to become more interested in this woman. What are you doing, exactly? What is it you’re reading? I ask. Do you remember the phrase ‘leaky app’? she replies pleasantly. I remember an old housemate with some kind of dodgy information-dealing startup. Yeah – when a security agency gathers personal information vacuumed up by a game or something. So, there’s another kind of leak, one that the agencies are still trying to quantify. You leak emotion into it. It’s very viscous – it does something to the mechanics of the bloc itself. That’s that euphoric feeling that leads to bloc ‘unboxing’ videos – a factory-fresh bloc carries only the emotion leaks of the young children working for pennies who built it. The corporations only pay for rich, first world emotion leaks – it’s like the difference between packet noodle seasoning and organic bone broth. Rich leaks are worth more, of course, and because you’re leaking so much valuable information into it, you get attached, it becomes a fetish object. You think you need it, it touches your skin more than any lover, the cycle continues.
I think of a girl I saw on the subway on the way to the party, smiling down at her phone as the train came aboveground for a few stations; when we went down again into the dark, the shadow of her dreamy, secret pleasure remained, infusing the passengers around her with some of that leftover beloved light.
It’s a delusion of this culture, of course, but it’s not new, she continued. We have always looked to perfect objects to compensate for the messiness that characterizes human thought. Ritual objects, religious objects, art objects: though all made by humans, they suggest the existence of a wider network of knowledge beyond what we can download to our own flesh. Communal knowledge, a network.
Do you mind if I take a look inside? she asks delicately, flipping the bloc over to show its glassblack face. It lights up to her touch, and before I can reach over to unlock it with my fingerprint, its defenses swing open with a stroke of her elegant index finger. I must look shocked because she laughs. It’s a gift, like being a horse whisperer. Images that I hadn’t posted on the public channels begin to swirl across the surface of the screen like oil on water. I feel edgeless, embarrassingly foaming over, overflowing, fleshy, like she’s turning my life inside out and the metal casing can’t hold all the liquid in. Her long fake nails painted glassy dark green with little gold charms pierced through the ends which dance and click against the glass as she scrolls and swipes.
I’ve seen them all, she continues, bad blocs, black hearted ones. Blocs trigger detonations in warzones, they isolate on screens bodies marked for death, they carry the voice that gives the order to kill. They are the receptacles for everything, black holes that vacuum up the dregs of humanity, things that can’t be categorized. They’re vessels and they thrum with what’s been poured into them. You write your dreams in here, you’re informed of death, you see images of your lover’s most intimate place on the same screen as holds horrific images of torture and violence, images that cannot be separated from the vessel that holds them. The language of images doesn’t differentiate.
I remember learning of a far away death in the family, breathing in the air of the one who’d informed me through the bloc’s speaker. For the first time I could hear distance, a kind of ambient grey sound as my ears cleared suddenly after crying.
You elect lovers here, she says, flicking to LoveMe, the faces sliding by left-left-left-right-left so quickly they melt into one. She chuckles. Don’t forget, you’ll never get to the end! It’s not a game for completists. And don’t look at it before sleep or first thing when you wake up; the faces penetrate your consciousness and stay there, she counseled. You need to have your defenses up. Don’t look straight into the lens in the images you use for selection; have your pupils shifted elsewhere. It’s too easy to send curses through otherwise; see here? You’ve left yourself wide open.
As she plays at hyperspeed the images of my life back to me, the music of every sound ever emitted into the bloc begin to stream out of its speaker. Breakups, whispered dirty talk, the pizza guy, a colleague asking about the latest figures, a dealer telling the pickup spot, a parent sobbing with news of a death all slipping forward and backward across time, voices transmitting as though from underwater, warping beats like a shitty cab radio, glitches, a warped siren song from a box.
Blocs come naturally to women, because they’re taught from birth about representation, about surface, about liquidity and adaptability, about the power of the seamless image. They know about cumulative seduction, about fluid adaptation to circumstance. About casting spells from afar. About changing form to escape danger. The image of a TV show dating from around the birth of the consumer internet flashes into my head, of a teenage girl whose ability to melt at will into a sentient puddle of mercury solved all her problems.
We’re better at the internet because we already knew by heart the rules of self-representation. Men are afraid of formlessness, and that’s what the world is now. It’s baggy. There’s no target, no map. Women have always been slippery, performative. She fondles the beautiful halo of the rose gold bloc’s home button as she speaks, and it purrs in response to her touch. The O, the circuit connecting. Who’s better engineered for this new world than us? Fake girls you cant stop looking at. Cunts that fit in a pocket, light up bright when you stroke them.
I have so many questions for her. How does the affect of the angelic faraway face transmit into and out of a little box with a time delay? Do you ever put it between your thighs and let the incoming messages buzz through you? Do your girlfriends send naked pictures dozing on exotic beaches to make you laugh? Do you send them back? Do you notice raindrops from overhanging scaffolding rainbowing as they land on the shining screen? Do you know that person in the corner of the dancefloor face lit ghostly from below as they tap a response? When you’re alone, do you sometimes flip the bloc facedown because the dormant blackness of the screen out of the corner of your eye freaks you out?
Why don’t you like to speak verbally? You never answer your phone. She muses, answering herself: Because you’re worried that people will put their problems on you. You want it in a text, where you can read and reflect before replying, or not reply at all. The faces swim up of friends whose missed calls I never returned, who asked too much, who couldn’t be satisfied with seeing me on the other end of a screen. Fixing me in a long and terrible gaze, she rotates them towards me one by one, in crystalline detail. I am doused in the glow of my shame.
You look at it first thing in the morning, don’t you. The bloc’s imprinted with the traces of your dreams. It washes them away, that bright light. Try to wait a while, let them marinate. She invokes this quality I've tried so many times to manifest in the clearer fogged logic of the half-dream brain composing in the note app as I roll over tap to snooze. I just want to see clearly. I want to be so transparent, a distorted reflection, a hologram that floats on the bottom of the water. Her hands continue to dance across the screen.
The faces of many, many women start to swim to the surface, women I’d loved, those I’d envied, those whose public profiles I’d trawled incessantly in bouts of manic self-hatred, the ones I’d crushed on, bad-mouthed out of misplaced jealousy, every woman whose face awakened in me resentment or failure or longing or love. A long sequence of girls in different cities in different kitchens taking pictures of themselves with their front-facing cameras at magic hour eyes closed basking golden in that solitary light.
I start to become scared. I want it to stop, I say. There are too many. They want too much, or they don’t want me at all. With a flick of her long talon the screen returns to black. She shoots the bloc back along the bar to me, chiming an edge on an empty wine glass. The ringing continues for too long and she turns away, seeming bored. You can PayMe later, she said. I have your details. I leave the party, wobbly and exhausted. On the way home I feel my bloc beating malignantly in my pocket, and resist the urge to gaze into its seductive face. Later that night, safely in bed, I guiltily ignore her advice about dreams and as I drop into sleep scroll through the beautiful images of the lives of the ones I love, far away: fox slinking around a carpark at night, three little figures on a blue-grey overcast beach, children dancing with a carnival puppet drenched in blinding sunshine, a garden in fog, a page of poetry, doves being released at a wedding, a cat dozing, a candle flickering in a dark bar, a street in Kathmandu in the rain, a pile of rubble inside an art gallery, a wedge of blue ocean with the water glinting off it, fragments of the gorgeous ephemera of our lives time-stamped and ordered neatly in ultra-HD. The next morning I don’t remember any of my dreams.
grace kevill-davies, lantana, 2016 (video still)