Real Presence

Real Presence, 2010, a digital video, 16 min., 2 x 0.7 x 1.2 meters, data projector, DVD player, sound speakers, 2 headphones, laminated chipboard, metal, view from the exhibition You Are the Object, I am the Impulse, Václav Špála Gallery, photo: Babora Mrázková

It happened some years ago. Ten, I think. In a former satellite town. In the vicinity of the centre. In one of those uninteresting 20th century houses. I experienced something there... something... well, I’m not exactly sure what... I’m talking about that instant when you’re forced to do something... something you really, really don’t feel like doing... but you do it anyway... you say yes... because at that moment you can’t say no... you can’t run away... there’s nowhere to run to; and that changes you. The way you speak to others... what you say to them... what you want from them.

It all began with an invitation. At the time I’d already been working for the guy for several months. He wanted to meet up. It was odd. I had no idea he remembered me... and that I was that important to him. I got it over the net... the invitation I mean. It said where and when. Nothing else. No explanation. Nothing. But I went anyway.

I remembered the house. I used to ride past it on the bus on my way to do holiday jobs out in the country beyond the town... when I was still at university. Why this house in particular? It’s unforgettable. It’s the biggest in the area. Everything about it is huge ... the doors, the windows, the garage. To give you some idea. Here. One, two, two and a half metres. Well, let’s see if I can remember... it was about five, maybe six times wider than this room and... five times longer? I don’t remember that anymore. As to the height... well, here it’s three metres... well, it was definitely twice as high... maybe even more... six and a half, seven metres. Do you know that originally they were orange or red? Hard to believe, isn’t it? Looking at the flaky plaster on the walls, full of holes with glass wool and polystyrene bulging out like prolapsed bowels. I also remember that it had unusually large gratings on the windows and doors; massive metal frames and dense wire mesh. I was fairly far away from them, but it seemed to me that they were fixed in such a way that the doors and windows could not be opened. As if they weren’t intended for use. Oh, and before I forget; there were surveillance cameras on high poles. One in each corner. Quite bizarre, no? I began to get unsettled by it. Why did he invite me here, of all places? And why me, of all people? I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Maybe I’d got the wrong house, or something. I don’t know. You know what I mean, right? Those minor fits of nervousness. You keep wandering, over and over, whether you haven’t made a mistake. You feel embarrassed, even though no one is around, to check – to reach into your pocket and pull out your phone. In the end you can’t resist it and look at it anyway. Everything is as it should be, but as you become increasingly nervous, you keep pulling it out more and more often, staring at it vacantly. That was more or less the situation I was in... back then, in front of that building. I was examining the house. I was looking for some kind of sign. Everything fit; the GPS position, the number of the house.

All of a sudden he appeared. “Don’t take too much notice of what the place looks like, we bought this house with the plot of land mainly because of the price and the garage.” He unlocked the gate and let me through. As we approached the house, he continued: “They’re right in the middle of the wall... that suited us... we needed to be able to get the arm of the digger through them.” Then he inserted a key into the lock and slowly opened the garage. Light flooded in and illuminated something that I didn’t understand at all, not at all. It looked as though the house had no walls or floors. At the same time he put his arm on my chest - “Mind you don’t fall...” He was right, a few centimetres from my feet the concrete ramp ended, and darkness began. Despite his warning, I leaned forward.

“You know,” he began, “all this dates from the time when we decided to do our own research. It was our first project. We were short of money; for construction, materials... well, in short... this house came in real handy.”

I tried to see what was actually concealed inside. It looked like a sphere constructed from steel beams. Leaning over, I tried to focus on its contours, to understand its structure. I guess he noticed, because he felt around the inside of the wall. The interior space was illuminated by electric discharges and the whole thing... that was inside... gradually emerged from the darkness. There really was a huge iron sphere inside. Only the outside walls of the house remained, everything else had been removed. We stood there looking at its upper hemisphere, the other half was below us. I said that the house was about twelve metres wide, didn’t I? So this thing was about ten metres in diameter, about that.

He continued: “You know, at the beginning there’s always chaos, on a daily basis, omnipresent. That’s why we decided to build this.” For a moment he looked at me, as if waiting for a reaction; I didn’t get it all. “It’s not as complicated as it looks. Come, let me show you.” He stepped out onto the catwalk connecting the concrete ramp with the structure. “We needed to create a machine that would help us give this chaos real presence and make it more ordered... to create detachment... to see sharply... to be able to investigate its subtle details... that’s why we did all this...”

I wasn’t listening to a lot of what he was saying. It was unbelievable. I was just looking at it; I was starting to identify parts of the construction, to tell where one part began and another ended, the way everything was interconnected. They’d mostly used those... well, for hanging electric circuits and that sort of thing... There were also old tubes... to reinforce the walls. It reminded me of when I was at primary school. One time they built scaffolding around it with these tubes; to renovate the facade. Well, and once they’d made the repairs they dismantled it again and took it away. I watched the workers back then. The whole afternoon. Fascinated. A couple of hand movements and the tube was out of the coupler. It was like that here. They formed a network... in some places a highly deformed one. Every now and then it simply hadn’t worked out right. I looked beneath me and realised that the entire construction was held up by several concrete pylons.

As I was examining it... I realised that there were others there... smaller and smaller. Assembled together. They reminded me of footballs. In terms of their structure. Pentagons interlocking with hexagons. I crawled inside. It was a little dangerous. Not so much because I might fall. I had to watch my head and hands. So as not to cut myself. The ends of those... I remember what they’re called now – I-beams... their edges were quite sharp. There was no other way. The catwalk ended just before the structure. If I remember right, there was a gap about so wide between each layer... something between 50 and 70 centimetres... I think... Yes. Inside there was a platform... about the size of this... no, that’s not right... this isn’t an octagon... there it was... constructed from iron grates... but the surface area was about the same... the poles also... and on them there were dozens of old projectors... all of them pointing outwards... away from the platform... They probably projected something, onto the textile. In addition, there were also some other devices. I examined them for several minutes but couldn’t figure out what they were for. They were very old. Suddenly it all seemed to me like some weird antiquated projection machine... those spheres and screens... they probably create the illusion of space. Oh, I forgot to say that as I was crawling in, the spheres started to move in various ways... Maybe because of the way they were all turning with respect to each other and the way the projectors cast light on them... Probably...

I wanted to tell the boss, but I had to crawl out again; he was waiting on the catwalk. “I think I finally understand what this thing is for, it’s probably some old way of achieving the illusion of reality, eh?” He regarded me for a long time before answering. “You’re basically right, it’s a screening room. We built it at a time... when we thought that everything was heading in the direction of - total physical control. You know, this isn’t just some ordinary projection room. It’s a scanning device which works... how can I illustrate it... like a lie detector; with the difference that here it’s possible to visualize what the person being interviewed is thinking about and why. A helmet was placed on the person’s head which was connected to the detection apparatus and the projectors. They projected images onto screens inside the structure. It turned at high speed so as not to disturb the interrogator... and thanks to the individual layers... he could find his way around the thoughts of the person under interrogation.” “Like Cerebro from the X-Men,” I interrupted him. “Excuse me?” he said, looking at me, and because I didn’t react to this quip, he continued: “Unlike the X-Men this works. We wanted to sell it to the police, security agencies, airport terminals. Well, in short wherever they do full body searches and screenings. We didn’t expect, however... You can well imagine, how much this would have cost. Add the cost of transport, installation, operator training. We simply didn’t realise that projects like this would gradually be abandoned. And that’s why I’ve invited you, you’ve only been with the company for a short time.

I was taken aback. Suddenly it was about me. I’ve always tried to be as average as possible; in everything. I didn’t like it when other people remembered me, when I was the object of other people’s interest.

“As I said,” he continued: “You’ve only been with us for a short time. It’s important... to have young people like you. That’s why I’m surprised by how little you’re active on the net. Every time I look at your profile I’m surprised by how little I find out about you.” He was watching me... I must say this... in a very peculiar way... as if that instant, that moment amused him. There was expectation behind it... at the same time a great resolve to find everything out. “Are you sure that’s how you want it? You won’t get any trust points that way.” I answered: “I do want them. It just seems strange to me to write about every stupid thing that ever happens to me and post it there.” I’d stepped over the line somewhat. “Decide what you want. To have a good job, to travel. If so, then you have to accept this. Don’t be afraid. Thanks to those stupid things you’ll get them. Those are the details that will convince everyone else. They don’t want to know about your achievements... No, they want to know about your problems; those that are like their own. That’s how you’ll gain their trust. Then you will get them. The points.

“I like this machine. Even if you don’t know what it did, it always astounds you, it’s fascinating. You can’t say that about the net, it has no aesthetics. You appreciate what’s exceptional about it only after you accept it, only once you’ve become part of it. And that must be voluntary. Otherwise you’ll never understand it. You have to make that decision on your own.”

I remained silent. The meeting was over. What was I supposed to say? I preferred to stay silent. I was really upset. But I knew very well that he didn’t even have to talk to me and could have just stopped employing me; nothing would have happened. I work for him on a freelance basis with a trade licence. He has no commitments in respect of me. He can hire engineers from China or India whenever he wishes. They’ll gladly collect points.

I have to laugh at my own foolishness. I had designed network control applications; those that are used by the police and state administration, that’s why I didn’t trust the net. No, that’s not the right word... I was indifferent to it. That’s it. I also thought that by working on its administration I would myself be able to avoid it. That I wouldn’t have to present daily proof of my innocence. I’m not surprised that my boss found it odd. In fact I have to thank him. Sometimes I need a little nudge like this to become aware of something.

So I’m collecting points. I write about how my head hurts after the party on the previous night. I show photographs of my wife, my children. Sometimes I have to make a big effort to log in, but once I’m there... I have a lot of fun... a lot.

I’ve collected more than two hundred trust points already, another fifty or so and I can take the family on holiday. My wife has collected enough points for at least three by now.

Something like that.