Vortex Ghost Engine: Science Fiction and Finance Capitalism

margin-call-300      oblivion_the tet
This lecture-screening was held at Kunsthalle Fri-Art, 19 March 2014
In this screening, science fiction film scenes will be intercut with two films that portray aspects of financial capitalism. Margin Call, a 2011 independent film by J.C. Chandor takes place over a 36-hour period at a large Wall Street investment bank and highlights the initial stages of the financial crises of 2007-2008. In focus are the actions taken by a group of employees during the subsequent financial collapse. Crises in the Credit System by Melanie Gilligan adopts the format of a TV mini-series in which a group of employees participate in a financial industry related role-play. The selected SF films include Man of Steel, Oblivion, Thor 2, a video game trailer for Mass Effect 3, Demon Seed and a trailer for the upcoming film Transcendence.

Both the science fiction and finance thriller scenes depict high stress scenarios where the usual world order is radically destabilised because of an existential extraterrestrial threat. The massive alien destruction ships can wipe out entire cities within minutes. Similarly, the collapse of a large investment bank might send out shock waves that can bring entire economies down. In both events, the alien invasion scenario and a financial breakdown, the consequences are of global order.

In the upcoming film Transcendence, a powerful Artificial Intelligence system steps out of control. In the trailer, self-regulating nano-material seems to self-assemble and build its own infrastructure. The algorithms behind financial products have become highly sophisticated over the last years; the global economic system in its entirety might already be beyond human understanding or control. George Soros stated, “The salient feature of the current financial crises is that it was not caused by some external shock… The crisis was generated by the financial system itself” (New York Review of Books, December 4, 2008).

At the beginning of Battlestar Galactica: The Plan (2009) there is a scene where the evil Cylon race prepares to annihilate planet Caprica including its human-like population. The Cylon spaceships align for battle like dancers in a choreography of destruction. An organic machine voice accompanies the positioning of the spaceships; the voice recites abstract, utterly beautiful doom poetry. Parallel to the Cylon ships alignment, scenes show the daily life on peaceful Caprica. The whole sequence perfectly shows the simultaneity of contemporary developments; a cheerful, perfectly functioning daily life and a concurrent, hidden, potentially lethal build-up.

Today’s economic systems intrinsically link countries, corporations and lives together. While 1950s and 60s SF narratives internalized the fears and paranoia related to communist infiltration, current science fiction films seem to mirror collective notions of insecurity and threat concerned with the next economic crisis that promises to be even bigger than the one before. Spaceships and nano-machines ‘give image’ to the otherwise obscure data streams hidden away in highly protected Canary Wharf or Wall Street bank buildings. Complex financial products exist in the abstract realm of computer networks; but if their full toxicity is unleashed, entire real-world economies may fall. Science fiction blockbusters are usually made for the masses. In case of a major breakdown, it is the moviegoers’/taxpayers’/people’s money that is asked for/directly taken to safe bankrupt finance institutes. The image economy comes full circle. Therefore we, the collective, are directly affected by fictive or real acts of economic destruction. By watching these CGI scenes, we the collective can, at least, see, taste and anticipate some of the real to come. And the scenes truly are spectacular.

text by Mathis Gasser

Film scenes shown in the presentation (in chronological order):
Demon Seed (1977, directed by Donald Cammell)
Star Trek: First Contact (1996, directed by Jonathan Frakes)
Crises in the Credit System (2008, by artist Melanie Gilligan)
Battlestar Galactica: The Plan (2009, directed by Edward James Olmos)
Margin Call (2011, directed by J.C. Chandor)
Mass Effect 3, Game Trailer (2012, supervised by Casey Hudson)
Thor: The Dark World (2013, directed by Alan Taylor)
Oblivion (2013, directed by Joseph Kosinski)
Man of Steel (2013, directed by Zack Snyder)
Transcendence, Trailer 2 (2014, directed by Wally Pfister)

Nafeez Ahmed, Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/mar/14/nasa-civilisation-irreversible-collapse-study-scientists
Nick Bostrom Blog, nickbostrom.com
Nick Bostrom, The Superintelligence Control Problem (Lecture on Youtube), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyxMzPWDxfI
Melanie Gilligan, popularunrest.org
Melanie Gilligan, crisisinthecreditsystem.org.uk
Heiner Mühlmann, MSC Maximal Stress Cooperation: The Driving Force of Cultures (Springer, New York, 2005)
Benedict Singleton, Maximum Jailbreak, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/maximum-jailbreak