The “Space of Flows” as Social Imaginary: Interpretation and Representation in Digital Artistic Practices (Part I) | MARISA GÓMEZ

Part II

According to many scholars, the cultural change produced by the ICTs has entailed a modification in the traditional notions of space and time, as basic coordinates of human experience and as socially and historically constructed notions.

But, what direction is taken by these new concepts and practices of space and time in relation to the ICTs? As we know, by means of the real-time interconnection possibilities, the ICTs have enabled communications to definitively overcome the space-time barriers, thus challenging the traditional notions of place and mobility. In addition, the development of a Cyberspace as a new virtual space for communication, works as a fundamental element in the reconfiguration of space according to a model based on dynamism and constant change. Consequently, the spatial paradigm characterising the so-called Informational Society responds to what the sociologist Manuel Castells denominated as “Space of Flows.”

The purpose of this article is not only to analyse the scope and configuration of this paradigm or, in Castell’s words, that spatial logic that stems from the use of the ICTs –although also influenced by other political, economic and socio-cultural factors– but to further determine the way it leaks into social thought through a series of imaginary settings associated to it. These imaginary settings manifest themselves at a conceptual level, but also in the production and reproduction of social spaces and its images. To this end, we herein consider some examples of artistic practices, which, in keeping with their time, adopt the ICTs as creative tools and further adapt its technical possibilities to experiment and reflect on contemporary socio-cultural structures. Thus, we’ll see how the “Space of Flows”, perceived as a current dominant theoretical paradigm or spatial imaginary, has its equivalent in the field of visual representation, which assumes a key role in the understanding of such spatial paradigm and in its conformation.
The Imaginary as Analyticial Perspective

Before discussing in detail the notion of “Space of Flows”, we must first engage in the task of theoretically approaching this spatial paradigm from the perspective of the imaginary.

As we know, the image has acquired a fundamental importance within the contemporary context. Heidegger already talked about the “age of the world picture (or world view)”: press, film, television and now digital image, have shaped a new environment in which, as noted by Rojas Mix, there has been a transition from a textual epistemology to a visual one. In our culture of images, the study of the Imaginary –understood as a visual intelligence, as a set of images and their meanings- has become an essential option for understanding the world[1].

It is precisely through the image and its relationship with the imagination how social groups build and transmit their symbolic meanings, and therefore, it is through the imaginary how they constitute themselves as societies. In this sense, the concept of Social Imaginary developed by Castoriadis is especially relevant. He defined it as “that which is visible or thinkable for each society and culture, that which grants meaning to the social, to the individuals and their experiences”[2]. In other words, Castoriadis sees the Social Imaginary as a specific society’s comprehensive worldview of which they depend and where all meanings, affections, practices and discourses are shaped. This comprehensive worldview is expressed or makes itself visible through representations and visual constructions –whether regarding urban space configurations or an image, regardless if it is filmic or digital, produced in the mass media context or in the artistic sphere. These representations are what Castoriadis named “Secondary Imaginary” and are a symptom of the “Radical Imaginary”, which corresponds to the original creation of fantasies or the capacity of formulating that which is not there[3]. Therefore, the imaginary could be defined as the “creative capacity of generating representations and set of representations, affections and desires arising from the same”[4].

However, how can one integrate space in this analytical perspective? Based on the premise that reality is a social construction shaped from the imaginary and symbolic dimensions shared by a group and that, accordingly, it responds to a specific spatio-temporal context, we can affirm that space is necessarily a constitutive element of reality. But moreover, reality is not only inscribed in space from a contextual perspective (geographical and identitarian), but also from a material one. As Castells points out, space –socially understood- “is the material support of the social practices sharing time”[5]. And as a material support, space –and also time since they are inseparable– “are essentially created from the practices and processes used to reproduce social life”[6]. In other words, the material construction of space (and time), its formal configuration, its structure and organization, the establishment of its uses, its representation, etc., are linked to the social practices and always entail a symbolic meaning associated with these same practices and with space itself as an identity and subjectivity framework. Consequently, in keeping with Lefebvre’s terms, each society “produces” its own social space (and time), materially and symbolically speaking, and does it according to the material practices regulating that society. In this way, while the production of space is inherent to any society[7], the ways in which it is produced and reproduced –the discourses, images and symbols, as well as the ways in which these are expressed– are in close relationship with the material and socio-cultural practices of each era or context and are essential for making sense of society, the individuals and their experiences. Space is therefore a key element of the Social Imaginary; understanding the ways in which a society conceptualizes, represents, symbolizes and assigns meaning to its space is fundamental for comprehending such society.

In this way, the “space of flows” is not only the new type of space that emerges from the contemporary material practices related to the ICTs, but also the representation of a new epistemological model linked to the same. The “space of flows”, as a spatial logic, is the conceptual transposition of a social imaginary linked to subjectivity, the end of certainties and dynamism and the quickness of social changes. At the same time, it is the transposition of an imaginary which is specifically technological and associated with velocity and the instantaneous nature of information and which, –in regard to capitalism’s ideas, progress, Globalisation and the spatio-temporal control desires linked to the same– seems to have completely eliminated, by means of the ICTs, all the spatio-temporal distances by des-materialising the body and the objects, now transformed into virtual information.

In this sense, the concept of Cyberspace becomes fundamental. For Pierre Levy, Cyberspace is identified with the network: its defined as “the new communication media emerging from the global interconnection of computers” and includes not only “the physical infrastructure of digital communication, but also the large amount of information contained, as well as the human beings who navigate and fuel it”[8]. It is a virtual space -understood as that which only potentially exists- and therefore lacks any material existence . It has no other physical form than the one determined by the very flow of information it contains[9].

One of the characteristics attributed to it, precisely because of its intangible nature, is its ability to “generate several concrete manifestations at different times and places but without being bound to any particular place or time”[10]. In other words, it is characterized by its disconnection from the physical coordinates of space and time.

The importance of Cyberspace is that –as explained by Castells– modern society, which he calls “Network Society”, is structured according to this communication space in the Internet. This means that the network absorbs all logics pertaining to this permanently interconnected society, including the spatial logic. Therefore, since the network understood as Cyberspace is considered to be disconnected from the physical coordinates of space and timethe traditional “space of places” would be replaced by the “space of flows”. Consequently, what prevails in our spatial logic –with Globalisation as backdrop– is the mobility of information, people and resources grounded on the virtual information’s own mobility. Therefore, the virtualization of culture entails an imaginary virtualization of physical space, which not only adapts itself materially and symbolically to the new social practices, but also seems to acquire its characteristics.

However, beyond interpreting the “space of flows” concept as the representation of a new social imaginary of space linked to the ICTs or the Cyberspace, we will focus on the ways in which this notion of space affects its logics of display, transforming not only urban morphologies, but also the ways of representing and experiencing the city; we will focus on the Imaginary of the “Space of Flows” as a set of images that represent and comprise it.

[1] This is demonstrated by the multiple studies which, over the past decades and developed from different areas of study, have adopted this perspective to approach reality from its symbolic and cultural dimensions. In the case of space, this perspective has been widely applied to the field of Urban Studies. Together with the Cultural Studies and following the footsteps of theorists like Bachelard, Lefebvre, Focault or Bourdieu, the analysis of the Urban Imaginaries has acquired a fundamental importance, especially in the Latin American context.
[2] Quoted in: CASTRO NOGUEIRA, Luis (1997), La Risa del Espacio. El Imaginario Espacio-Temporal en la Cultura Contemporánea: Una Reflexión Sociológica. Madrid: Tecnos, p. 16.
[3]CASTORIADIS, Cornelius (1998), The Imaginary Insitution of Society. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 283.
[4]CABRERA, Daniel, H., (2006), Los Tecnológico y lo Imaginario. Las Nuevas Tecnologías como creencias y Esperanzas Colectivas. Buenos Aires,: Biblos, p. 17.
[5] CASTELLS, Manuel (2005), La Era de La Información. La Sociedad Red. Vol. 1. Madrid: Alianza Ed., p. 489
[6] HARVEY, David (1989), The Condition of Postmodernity. London: Basil Blackwell, p. 204.
[7] Baeza explains this process in terms of “appropriation”. He argues that human beings are incapable of inhabiting a space seen as uniform and undifferentiated, just as living an eternal time, only registering the biological or instinctive behaviours. This causes the need to create a physical reality (or a purely symbolic) for the intelligibility or construction of the world; it is necessary to “appropriate” space and time. This is how distinctions arise between, for instance, a sacred and profane space-time, but also other forms of organizing the social uses of space and time. In: BAEZA, Manuel A. (2000), Los Caminos Invisibles de la Realidad Social: Ensayo de la Sociología Profunda sobre los Imaginarios Sociales. Santiago de Chile: RIL.
[8] LEVY, Pierre (2007), Cibercultura. La Cultura de la Sociedad Digital. Barcelona: Ed. Anthropos – UAM, p. 1.
[9] For this reason, one can only access it with the device used to visualize this information, the interface (the computer screen, the screen of a mobile phone or other device with Internet connection), which acts as the membrane simultaneously joining and separating these two spaces.
[10] LEVY, Op. Cit., p. 33
.*An extended version of this article has been published in Space and Flows: International Journal of Urban and Extraurban Studies, CGPublishers – University of Chicago..