Dreaming Hot and Cool in the Time of Corona

“Spiral Jetty,” Robert Smithson, 1970. The Great Salt Lake, Utah. Photo: Barry Vacker, 2013.

High temperatures, hot planet, hotter tempers. Corona fever, global warming, flame wars. Spiraling dreams, screening delirium. It’s all connected. Deeply.

It’s a world of screens, filled with high densities of image, information, and energy. Phone gets hot in my hand, laptop heats on my desk. Screens are instant proximity to all events, getting hotter every moment. Corona spreading, death count climbing, some claim hoaxing. Hot screens, hot takes, hot planet. System overload.

I scroll through my Twitter and Insta feeds. NASA and the world’s telescopes bring deep space into my eyes. Nebulae, galaxies, the expanding universe. Everything is far away. My mind cools, wanders, wonders. So I chill on our tiny rock in a big universe, while stuck at home in a pandemic on a hot planet.

I dream hot and cool in the time of Corona. Maybe art can help my words convey the dreams and fears.

“Hot Planet, Cool Media,” mixed-media painting by Barry Vacker and Liza Samuel; 3 panels, 6 feet x 10 feet. Developed for the “Hot and Cool in the Media(S)cene” exhibit for the 2019 Media Ecology Association Conference. Hosted at the University of Toronto (June 27–29). Photo: Barry Vacker, 2019.

In the image on the canvas above, a controlled burn protects the Hobby-Eberle Telescope from giant grass fires, in-part caused by global warming. Located at the McDonald Observatory in far west Texas, the Hobby-Eberle is the fourth largest optical telescope in the world and is currently studying the expansion rate of the universe. The contrast between fighting hot-as-hell grassfires and contemplating the massive universe symbolizes where are on Planet Earth—trapped between hot and cool.

Hot

In my loft in downtown Philadelphia, I wake up before sunrise. I get my coffee and sit on my balcony. The streets are quiet, a few birds chirp. I see the skyglow in which we all live at night, the orangish orb of electric light that blocks out the stars, effecting a 24/7 civilization that never sleeps—but is always dreaming, often in delirium. Meanwhile, our civilization has altered the ecosystems and surfaces of Earth, ushering in the Anthropocene, the human epoch on a hot planet.

“The Medium is the Message,” Printed images on foam core, 4 feet tall, 10 feet wide. Designed by Barry Vacker, julia Hildebrand, and Sara Falco, 2019. Developed for the “Hot and Cool in the Media(S)cene” exhibit mentioned above. Image owned by Barry Vacker

Soon my hand grabs the phone, my fingers scroll, my electronic eyes roam the planet. Packed with tribes, fans, and feuds. Day after day, it never ends.

My phone is a vision machine, its direction of gaze shapes how I see. On the screen, all events are coming toward me, all points end in me. I’m the vanishing point. You’re another vanishing point. That’s why the smartphone is platformed narcissism, ready to consume, like fast food. That’s why selfies proliferate and people dance in 10-second videos in Tik Tok. Social media are really ego-media, humans gazing at humans, crashing toward each other, with thumbs up and thumbs down.

As shown in the canvas below, I’m surrounded by hot media. Tweets, timelines, status updates. Cell towers, satellite dishes. Street lights, electric lights, LED signs. “Grids” cover the surface, “Clouds” move above. Acceleration, short attention spans, instant feedback loops. Temperatures are higher, tempers are hotter.

“Hot Media.” Printed text on white canvas. 4 feet tall, 5 feet wide. Designed by Barry Vacker, Julia Hildebrand, and Sara Falco, 2019. Developed for the “Hot and Cool in the Media(S)cene” exhibit mentioned above. Image owned by Barry Vacker.

On my screens, everything is an all-at-once “reality.” Signs and symbols, clones and copies, fakes and facades. Echo chambers. Implosion. There is no future to see. It is an endless now.

Is there no exit? Am I trapped in Jean-Paul Sartre’s fictional hotel room, where I cannot shut my eyes and cannot turn off the electric lights. Am I stuck in the hell of delirium?

“Space Station Anthropocene (L.A. at Night)” mixed-media painting by Barry Vacker and Liza Samuel; 3 panels, 6 feet x 10 feet. Developed for the “Hot and Cool in the Media(S)cene” exhibit. Photo: Barry Vacker, 2019.

In the image above, we see Los Angeles at night from the International Space Station, as a massive storm approaches. And big-time lightning storms are flashing on our screens, streets, and planet. We exist at the electric vanishing points between past and future, delirium and dream, hot and cool.

Cool

On my screens, my mind roams near and far, while I go nowhere as I shelter in place. I see pics of the Large Hadron Collider smashing atoms beneath Earth. I see pics of the Hubble Space Telescope peering to the edge of the universe. I feel hope for the human species.

Scientists search for dark matter and dark energy. I search for meaning in the voids. I yearn for radical wonder. That’s my spirituality—the sublime, an existential aesthetic, an embrace of the infinite and infinitesimal samid the vastness. Like being in the center of Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” I stand at the infinitesimal on a spinning planet, as the universe spirals away toward the infinite.

The opposite of ego-media, telescopes are exo-media, casting their gaze out and away from me and Planet Earth. Telescopes are also vision machines, telling me an inspiring story about our species and the universe I inhabit.

I was born in the Milky Way. I am made of stardust, 4–5 billion years old. I am a member of one species, the human species, the product of eons of cosmic and biological evolution.

Earth is below me, the stars are beyond me, and galaxies are moving away. Lower densities, distance, drift. Temperatures are lower, tempers are cooler. Deep space, deep time, deep futures.

“Cool Media.” Printed images on background of nebula captured by the Hubble Telescope. 4 feet tall, 5 feet wide. Designed by Barry Vacker, Julia Hildebrand, and Sara Falco, 2019. Developed for the “Media(S)cene” exhibit mentioned above. Image owned by Barry Vacker.

Social heat meets cosmic chill. No popular political narratives for the cool. Hot politics freeze in the cosmic background temperature.

I’m a cosmic minimalist, the center of nothing, surrounded by negative space. My enlightenment welcomes nihilism, from which new meanings can emerge. I feel the universal over the tribal. Deeply.

In the Time of Corona

Civilization reels. Most nations and people try to cooperate. But not all. The nation most trapped in hot media is America. Its future is imploding and ground zero is the White House, from which the electronic heat radiates across America and the world.

Doctors and nurses save lives, while scientists search for cures. Most Americans try to keep calm, stay sane, and keep their friends, families, and strangers safe from the Corona filled droplets. They wear masks, they social distance. They all want to triumph over Corona. With science and sanity, they will. But it will be harder because of the other Americans

Amid a global pandemic, many Americans rage against science and reason, many don’t wear masks, and neither does the reality-TV star acting as President. Online, scientists and philosophers battle hoaxes and conspiracy theories. “Patriots” scream at nurses battling a pandemic. Protestors trained at Fort YouTube brandish semi-automatic weapons and threaten violence. Q serves the lost narcissists, feeling special with secret scoop. It’s all goin’ down! Led by the Top Men of macho madness, Trump and Pence, the White House is completely incompetent, except at spewing lie after lie—all doublethink while standing astride delusion and catastrophe. And Corona deaths climb. And climb. 100K. Trump-Pence, the tipping point into a totally hot America. Implosion. Collapse.

Shock, delirium, nightmares. Yet, the economy is opening. Ads pop up on our screens and millions are eager to consume. Many will toss the leftovers into streets, landfills, and oceans. Society is firing up the fossil fuel machines, spewing CO2 into the atmosphere. It’s hot media in the time of Corona.

“Blacktop Vanishing Point,” Hwy 54 between Van Horn, Texas, and Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Photo: Barry Vacker, 2019.

Stuck inside, I am more than ready for my annual summer road trip to the desert southwest. It most likely won’t happen, as I see no evidence for safe travels in America this summer.

I admit it. I burn a lot fossil fuel in the summers. But, I have to get away from the dense downtown metropolis where I live. It’s too claustrophobic for an entire year. I need to see wide open spaces, to walk on the rugged landscapes, to gaze across vast vistas. I need vast distance, not utmost proximity. I need the cool of the desert, not the hot of the metropolis.

In the far west, I camp and hike. I drive into vanishing points on the remote two-lane blacktops, asphalt scorching hot in the desert sun—reminding me that I am alive on a planet orbiting a flaming ball of hydrogen. The top is down on the convertible, cruising the unlit highways at night, the warm air rushes past as the Milky Way glows above.

I often park on my patch of desert land with a spectacular view in far west Texas. Silence. There is almost zero sound among the yucca, cactus, and creosote, with a fragrance that fills my senses in the breeze. I walk around the plants and lava rocks in my “Old Gringo” cowboy boots, made by artisans in Mexico. If the moon is out, it casts a silver-gray glow. It’s peaceful, beautiful.

I eventually lie on my cot or just push the driver’s seat back, top still down. I gaze at the stars and feel the cosmic chill. I fall asleep. I dream.

Dreaming

I dream of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I dream of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I dream of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. I dream of massive land art I have visited in the American deserts — Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative,” Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels,” Walter de Maria’s “Lightning Fields,” and Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.” I dream of other art, movies, and books.

“Sun Tunnels,” Nancy Ross, 1972. Photos: Barry Vacker, 2016.

I dream of a future beyond the heat, the hate, the hot media conditions.

I dream of a living on planet where our species is united and cooperates as the enlightened species we claim to be.

I dream of a society where we’re free and possess universal rights, yet still act reasonably and respectfully and benevolently toward each other, regardless of race, gender, class, identity, and so on.

I dream of a species that funds art and science on much greater scales.

I dream of a species that mandates affordable healthcare and higher education, for all those that need help, for all those that desire to learn and expand their horizons.

I dream of a healthy planet, a planet with clean rivers and oceans, with expanding wildernesses and larger national parks, with abundant wildlife and no endangered species.

I dream of a sustainable civilization that is free of fossil fuels and mindless consumption, a future where knowledge and wonder are more valued than logos and brands.

I dream of a planetary civilization that has ended war, that goes into space as a single species, not as warriors, but as thinkers, artists, scientists, and tourists who protect the landscapes of the celestial places they visit.

I dream of a collective consciousness inspired by art, science, and philosophy based on our actual place in the universe, as revealed by cool media telescopes and 21st century cosmology.

I dream of visions with vistas.

I dream of a future born in the cool.

“Between 2 Storms,” Selfie, taken on my patch of desert outside Marfa, Texas. Barry Vacker, 2017.

This poetic text was inspired by my essay “Hot and Cool in the Media(S)cene,” which won the international 2019 John Culkin Award for Oustanding Praxis from the Media Ecology Association. The co-author was Julia M. Hildebrand.

Theorist of big spaces and big ideas. Writer and mixed-media artist. Existentialist w/o the angst. PhD: Univ of Texas at Austin.