Terminal Immersion

“Terminal Immersion”, Visual Communication, Sage, Vol. 6, No. 2, June, 2007.

Terminal Immersion

“Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle… The modern spectacle… depicts what society can deliver, but within this depiction what is permitted is rigidly distinguished from what is possible… The spectacle is self-generated, and it makes up its own rules: it is a specious form of the sacred. And it makes no secret of what it is, namely, hierarchical power evolving on its own, in its separateness, thanks to an increasing productivity based on an ever more refined division of labour, an ever greater comminution of machine-governed gestures, and an ever-widening market.” Thesis 25, Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle.

The passage of the image from the representational space of a static frame in a salon, to the window of the carriage, to the windscreen of the car continues to travel still further. Successfully delivered on time to the world’s destinations, the passenger-spectator has become the subject par excellence for the protocols of today’s networks of power. Where once the passing landscape was abstracted from its ground and animated on the windscreen by the motion of the vehicle, now we travel inside a technological bubble that screens us from the world still further. Automobility projects its cinema on the front and side windows of the car, the glass both reflecting an image of place and shielding us from the the contingencies that all places throw at us. Unleashed from its theatrical frame, the spectacle now safely envelops the passenger of global air space at each step of the journey. Rendered motionless in a bubble hurtling to its destination; shielded from the ground; screened from the sun’s harmful rays; protected from the elements and the vagaries of local weather patterns: we drift around without ever having to touch the earth.

Air travel radicalises the separation from ground and from the atmosphere already present with the advent of the automobile. Air, light, temperature and smell are all screened out by the huge encasements of the terminal structures. The airplanes we board are nothing but flying air-conditioned towers, horizontal groundscraper terminals that launch us into jet-propelled bubbles. Floating above the horizon, immersed in a set of logistically ordained trajectories, we look out the window and see nothing, while expecting to see it all. We go, precisely, nowhere, while imagining we have traveled the world.

The global air terminal network is a system of interconnecting tunnels and tubes from which we never emerge. We hardly notice when we enter and when we leave this enframing system, such is its current ubiquity and technical finesse. It moves with us from our doorstep to the terminal, engulfs us, surrounds us with images-as-things. It is a viral architecture of exponential reproduction, a briefly habitable image-bubble that trades under the sign of “One World” and “United”.

Hard rhythms: silence and uproar alternate, time broken and accented. More astonishing than the incongruous look of the passing multitude. Time to capture the rhythms, a sort of mediation over time, the terminal, the consumer-as-passenger, the passenger-as-bit in a network of packets. Beside this inexorable rhythm that rarely ceases can be found other intensities and types of rhythm. Flows and conglomerates follow one another, increasing or decreasing but always accumulating in the edges, awaiting their moment to be sent off on another trajectory.

Immersed deep in the network, we see all and nothing at the same time. Separated from the landscape, lifted from the ground and located any-place, we float like spectres through the planet’s air corridors. They lead us all the way to the ends of the earth and back again. We remain ‘”in the bubble” that phrase blithely used by air traffic controllers to describe their feeling of being in sync with the network and in control of its myriad flows and pulses while being profoundly out of touch and out of contact with anything else on the “outside world”.

The world the inhabitable techno-bubble holds up to view is at once here and elsewhere; it is the world of the infinitely transportable and digitally reproducible commodity ruling over all lived experience. The global YES of VISA, MASTERCARD and AMERICAN EXPRESS.

The nature of experience has been profoundly influenced by these evolving forms of mobility. The airport offers a cocoon-like immersive space that separates at the same time that it connects us to the world, conceived as an experiential commodity in itself. Its network of tubes and hermetically sealed mobility machines is a self-generating, self-organising, self-sustaining environment. By way of multiple feedback systems, it monitors and modulates its own functional hierarchy. From the inside, it appears self-contained and sufficient unto itself, though we know it is always part of a still larger network-form that straddles the entire planet.

Cinema and tourism, television and rapid transport systems, each in their own way, contribute to this growing abstraction of space and its reduction to the visual. Distinctive places are being radically disconnected from their geographically-specific sites, from each other, and from history. And yet they remain interconnected in a dynamic circuit of flow and exchange. One World is ruled by a very particular traffic in images and commodities, whose pace is regulated by the demands of the international marketplace.

Somnambulistic wanderings in transit zones devised to provide the greatest of luxuries, all branded with the recognisable imprint from a screen we left hours ago (or which we still carry somewhere on our person).

“A square horizon, the traveller’s screen has gradually but radically altered the skyline of travellers of old. Encouraged by the immediacy of broadcasting, we are no longer waiting for anything more than the film’s sequel in this global programme where the world puts itself on show through the intermediary of a monitor or, more precisely, a TERMINAL. Suddenly the interface of the cathode frame replaces the line of the surface of the ground and of the volume of the sky, of every ground and all the skies, from the extreme limit to the extreme proximity of the antipodes! … If everything is there, already there, within reach, within earshot, then incarceration has achieved its apotheosis, confinement knows no bounds.” Paul Virilio, City of Panic.


Such is the cost of immersion in the global system of network security (and brought to our attention by Terence Riley and Guy Nordenson in their “Tall Buildings” exhibition at MoMA in 2004.

As is often said, we live in a surveillance society, a regime of observation and control with tendrils that run much deeper than the camera in the terminal, the credit card in your pocket, or the mag-striped ticket that allows authorities to trace the movements of every mobile citizen. The tendrils create paths for us to flow through, and while inside these tubes, we see nothing we haven’t already seen before. Vision is maximised, and yet we cannot see beyond the walls and windows that separate us from light, air, the weather, and place.

If we used to talk about a mobilised gaze for the passenger, now we see nothing, feel numb, wait nervously while the network’s machines process our bodies, tag our identities, arrest and divert our motions according to the mechanistic demands of flow. Our bodies, our multiple selves are delivered up to the spectacle itself, absorbed into its every pore that stretches far beyond the frame of image displays. We inhabit a visual realm, certainly. But the demands of the supposedly limitless heights of the market keep us floating through this endless cocoon space, as if the bubble will never burst, has never popped and never will.

The familiarity of the tunnel-vision created by the gigantic groundscrapers that criss-cross the planet assures us. Now distanced completely from the hinterland itself, our views are embedded into the software of everyday life and the interlocking discursive regimes of CODE SPACE. There is no OFFLINE any more, which has been routinised and backgrounded into the travel space of transit terminals, arrival halls, airport malls and other network spaces. As passengers, we are coded into the ticket, coded into immersive transit space.

As we plunge into this terminal space, endlessly augmented by informatics, we remain insulated from all of the ills hyper-capitalism has promised to cure. And here we wait, certain that we will be delivered from all evil, from any catastrophe, by the an-aesthetics of the air terminal.

Ross Rudesch Harley
Sydney December 2006.