The smaller is to the larger in exactly the same proportion as the larger is to the whole.

On July 11th 2013, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s appearance on the news was unlike any before it. The main reason, a household appliance. Until then, whenever he was featured, the focus would be his association with Al Qaeda and his status as the confessed mastermind behind numerous terrorist acts, including the infamous 9/11 attacks. From his arrest in 2003 onwards, his entire life would be scrutinized by a myriad of articles, even though not much was really known about him. Since the events following his arrest were all classified, practically nothing could be known of him, starting with his exact whereabouts, which supposedly went from black sites in Romania to the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

And then came a vacuum cleaner story. News outlets all over the world carried it: somehow someone got a hold of a former senior CIA official who stated that Mohammed was designing a vacuum cleaner while in prison. People were interviewed, his lawyers were asked for information, the CIA was contacted; but nothing was ever confirmed (nor denied). All for security reasons: “confirming or denying the very existence of a vacuum cleaner design [...] would apparently expose the U.S. government and its citizens to exceptionally grave danger” somewhat ironically stated his lawyer. In an official letter, the CIA responded that the designs, “should they exist”, would be considered operational files, thus exempt from ever being released to the public.

Being allowed to design the vacuum cleaner was a mental health related measure. Mohammed, who is now probably in solitary confinement for more than a decade, was subjected to water-boarding and sleep deprivation as “interrogation methods”. Which makes it pretty safe to assume he was going insane. “We didn’t want them to go nuts”, declared another former senior CIA official when asked about the reasons to allow the vacuum cleaner project.

As the news circulated, many theories were put forward as to what exactly were Mohammed’s real intentions. Some suggested the vacuum cleaner was a ploy, as he would probably be more in his element designing a bomb. Some said it was plain and simple insanity manifesting itself. Or even that he wasn’t designing anything, the plans would contain encoded messages which were being, somehow, relayed to his terrorist peers in and out of prison.

A message

In any case, if there is an encoded message, one should also consider if it might have been only between the lines, in the very act of designing the vacuum cleaner. Of all things, why would he decide to design a vacuum cleaner, this most bizarre of home appliances? We all know, but maybe tend to forget, how a vacuum cleaner works. The name implies it already: it is basically a machine that produces vacuum, or at least tries to. In order to suck the endless amounts of dust everywhere, the vacuum cleaner hopelessly attempts to produce enough negative pressure to draw it all in. And it always fails. Not only because we produce so much dust, the ever present remains of our activities, but also because vacuum is really hard to make. After all it is not something which can be made, it is actually an unmaking of something else (an atmospheric condition, the very omnipresence of air). Removal, withdrawal, not only cleansing dust, but air itself.

Still, probably the most important issues surrounding Mohammed’s case are not his intentions, but the supposed CIA explanation of it and how it was dealt with by the majority of the media. It is not a message from him that has to be recognised, but another one which ended up being addressed to all of us. The reasoning that a man is allowed to work and that this work is as a means of keeping his sanity was not only reproduced by the media, it was done as if there was not a grain of oddity in that (the emphasis was always on how bizarre of a choice the vacuum cleaner was, and not much else).

Ice cream sales cause shark attacks

Media, from Latin, literally, “middle”. The in-between, the mediator, supposedly a connection between people and events. The invisible party continuously translating reality into message. The fourth estate, the always present third element of a two-party conversation or two-way communication.

Long after self-reflection was spilled over from philosophy, science and art into the whole of social space (mostly via technology), media is increasingly in crisis. Connecting the dots in an over-informed society is as much a problem as it is a task less and less reserved to the traditional media. The once bearer of explanations, the official voice even, media is now split. It is without clear identity or well accepted purpose. Is it the investigative reporter contacting former CIA officials? Or is it the opinion piece printed on a broadsheet which was written by the not-so-very-expert journalist? Or links to paywalled articles endlessly shared and commented on social network statuses? Or to a blog post lost somewhere on the web? Or even the post itself, maybe on a micro-blogging platform, reverberating throughout the world? A short burst of inconsequential information? 140 characters, a headline, a catchphrase?

Ice cream sales cause shark attacks. An obviously exaggerated example of a logical fallacy which attributes a cause-and-effect relationship to events occurring together. In it there is clearly a third, missing, term. A gap, which is so evident in this case, but usually isn’t at all. Summer: a certain time of the year in which people go out to beaches and into the water because it’s hot, a certain time of the year in which people need refreshment, when ice cream sales increase dramatically, and so do shark attacks. The removal of a part makes the whole (partially) visible. Exposing our inherent inability to see the evident, our addiction to looking for the hardest and most improbable of ways to reaching the simplest of obviousnesses.

Infinite time is no time at all

Mohammed’s own feelings about his vacuum cleaner will probably never be known, yet some of the news suggested his vacuum cleaner design could be related to a means of treatment, relaxation, distraction and even fun. If one goes back just a few decades to think of how a forced labour camp was once regarded — and, mostly, still is —, a problem becomes evident.

By the end of the 19th century, during the transition period known as the Industrial Revolution, the “eight-hour day movement” emerged in England. Its main demand was the reduction of the workday to eight hours (at a time when working ten to sixteen hours a day was the norm). According to a rational division of the day in three equal periods, the slogan used by the movement was “Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest”. More than just a rational redistribution of time, its radical aspect maybe resided in the objective of recovering time itself.

Yet now, we spend most of our waking lives undivided between labor and recreation. Because when working, we loveTM what we do (would you like some fries with that?) and when relaxing we are unknowingly working for Facebook’s and Google’s ad revenue growth (among others, of course). And even while we sleep, our phones, computers and servers work for us, or, better yet, heighten our anxieties for tomorrow’s amassing work.

And what better than a shallow notion of an artist to serve as the prototype for this ideal worker? To begin with, the artist never stops being an artist. Supposedly she/he is always “thinking”, always “creating”, always “producing”; connected, networked, informed, socially engaged and so on. In one word: the artist is always working. A precarious worker almost by definition, the artist doesn’t have many rights either. And the precariousness is aggravated by the fact that, on top of it all, the artist supposedly “likes” what she/he does: no complaints are acceptable. And why would they be? Socially stigmatized as the slacker, the artist hangs around, “thinks” and “creates” from his own personal “inspirations”, “worries” and private interests, and all in his own time. All while, contradictory, having the guaranteed approval of his social existence, even if supposedly moved by a certain inner desire, a libido, his life has a positiveness ascribed to it, the artist’s actions are “good” and “constructive”, society’s lubricant.

As long as one likes what one does, doing it quickly becomes a form of leisure. Then confusion, an indistinction emerges between work itself and recreation. The possibility that previously separated times become condensed into one turns into an imperative. Alienation is multiplied. It is impossible not to remember of Googleplex, Google’s headquarters in the USA. Repeatedly named as “the best place to work at”, the building mixes and shuffles not only what is public and private, but goes well beyond: leisure and work, entertainment and formal, residential and corporate, service and rest, shopping and idleness and so on. It is not by coincidence that it has become commonplace to blame information/communication technologies as concrete proof of the nearly unavoidable situation of work: notebooks, Blackberries, iPhones and iPads always within reach guarantee that one can always work whenever and wherever (the computer is not restricted to the office, almost all of the work tools are available everywhere). Working becomes a permanent condition.

Time out

Certainly this ever more common way of understanding work determines a certain perception of time (and vice-versa). Time goes too fast because there is so much to do and time seems to drag because every moment is indistinguishable from any other as a moment of work or shadowed by potential moments of work. And not only time is always, and increasingly, time for work, but also a time of anxiety, scarcity, there’s a constant lack of time.

It is as if time were to us in very much the same way that gravity is to a scale. Always within, but without. Because if there is one property which all scales share, no matter what scale, it is gravity. No functioning scale has ever existed which didn’t have gravity (even if gravity faked by another force in some space station or ship). An yet, gravity has never been (and cannot be) an intrinsic property of a scale, that is, no scale has ever possessed gravity. Not so much unlike the vacuum cleaners, every scale is condemned to being different and apart from that which determines it the most. The insatiable void, a defining gap.

We are the vacuum cleaners of the world, except our vacuum is time itself. Forever trying to suck it out of somewhere else, and failing continuously, we accumulate out of nothingness, we produce nothingness in order to accumulate it as if it were something except destruction. And much like vacuum, time is this strange thing, a certain nothingness we can measure and talk about, but which we don’t know for sure. And yet in time we exist. It is only because you are in between these two moments shared by every living thing’s existence that you can read this. In media res. This weird third stage, undefinable, flanked (or contained) by those which are, totally unlike it, instantaneously defining. Birth, death. A little comma.

And in this vacuum, in this time, our order is to produce, to continuously add, to make. The never-ending task of filling emptiness. But what if making itself could be turned inside out? Not time, not vacuum, but destruction. Subtraction as a mode of production. Perhaps if ecology would worry about it, it wouldn’t have to be concerned with the conditions of making, recycling nor the ethics of production; but all their opposites. Erasure, total removal, oblivion. And then the question would become: how is something to be removed? In what terms can the removal be considered? Is there such a thing?

Take debt. All debt is removal, the index of an absence. And all money in existence today is debt. From its creation, our money has always been debt, someone’s debt, that is. It is a simple fact we tend to forget (or chose not believe in the first place). When the first chinese emperor wrote someone a letter promising he would pay such and such amounts of what-have-yous, then there it was, money. And now, strange as it might seem, accumulating debt has become the goal of an entire society. No wonder the destruction, no wonder the crisis.

The whole is to the large in the exact same proportion as the large is to the small.

Roberto Winter, 2013.

Published on the occasion of the exhibition “Ice cream sales cause shark attacks” at Mendes Wood DM gallery, São Paulo, Brazil.