Screening / Matthew Turner

screening 1

Straightening up and bracing for an impact that I knew would never really come, I held my iPhone lightly with the tips of my fingers on both hands and counterbalanced it with my thumbs towards its home button.

The left part of my face was cleanly cut off in the reflection, and the rest of its geometry was compressed into its surface, overlaid and blurred through with an abstract cartography of smeared fingerprints and scratches. Over my right shoulder I could see the reflection of more screens as my colleagues worked; the scene seemed to glitch as the phone amplified my sleight movements of hand. It looked like a Claude glass, those small mirrors, slightly convex in shape and tinted black, which were used in the 18th century by picturesque artists to help them capture and displace a scene from its surrounding landscape and smooth out its tonal gradations. This had already happened in the office though, there wasn’t any need for a device to subdue and average out all its colour tones further; it rendered the reflection down into nothing.

I pressed the home button and the screen slowly lit up, the fingerprints and scratches evaporated and everything was clean again. With a light touch I swiped left with my thumb and tapped the screens left, then right, left again and centre to unlock it.

The message was already written, I just needed to send it, so I read it over and performed a downward arch with my thumb to send. I locked the phone immediately — wanting to detach myself from it — and light iridescently reflected off the screen and different colours rippled through the greasy tracing of my thumb’s radial movement.

He had his back to me — and even this was scattered and diffused through the leaves of a large pot plant —so I looked at his phone instead and waited for it to vibrate on his desk. His head twitched instinctively towards it when it did, but he went back to his computer, before directing his head back to the phone again, as if he was conjuring some banal montage. He skimmed the phone’s surface rapidly right, mirroring my own movements only moments earlier, and he started to stare at the screen with his index finger hovering over the point it had last touched, shaking in the hum of the air conditioning. His head tilted forward as he continued to read and his index finger violently flexed away from the screen a moment later. He fanned his hand with curled fingers over the whole screen and paused.

screening 2

The shirt he wore was a tight sports type, which was ribbed on the arms —his right arm and hand were the only parts of him I could see clearly— to delineate his muscle structure. This allowed me to see his muscles clench as thoughts, no doubt, skimmed through his mind. It was strange, I speculated, that our obsession with bringing the insides of the body to the outside — good bacteria, bad bacteria, healthy guts, lean muscles — would also betray the infinitesimal muscles’ reactions of thoughts. It added an extra layer of detail and resolution to his emotions, as if I was watching a high definition television screen.

All I could see of the rest of his body was the faint pixelated shadow his head cast on the computer screen. His hand then rotated left over the screen with stiff muscles as, I think, his whole body turned to face someone on the other side of office. I looked to the same direction and, as I already knew, there were just empty desks.

He put his hand flat on the phone’s face and fanned it up and down slowly. Then turned it over. Turned it back again. Then he picked it up with his right hand and slid its right edge across the desk to pick it up, it slipped from his grasp, he reached down to pick it up and held it tightly to his stomach —making physical the velocity of the impact, and brought up his left hand to support it. He got up and with his back still towards me went through the door on the far side of the office.

I looked back at the phone screen in front of me and saw the empty trigonometry of my actions played out in the residue left on its surface. It read like braille as I tilted it in the lights above —balanced on thumb and forefinger and pivoted with my little finger — to reveal different signs: dot, gap, dot, diagonal sweep, dot, arch, swipe left. I ran my finger up and down the screen to wipe them off, along with some foreign identifying whorls, and then turned the screen back on so the light could completely bleach them out.

I went to the toilet to take a piss and I threw the phone out of the window. It stuck in the earth and I could see the surrounding landscape displaced and fragmented in its reflection. The clouds moved and it seemed to disappear in the glare of the sun.

Removing my own phone from my pocket and checking the time, I decided to go for a cigarette. Holding it in the palm of my hand I dropped it back into the loose folds of my coat pocket, as I let go I allowed my index and middle fingers to slowly traverse its right-hand edge and, pausing on the pocket’s outer rim, I withdrew them gently from the fabric cleft.

 

* * *

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was one of the first architects to realise that glass is not really transparent. Despite this, many companies still use the material, as a sign of their organisation’s honesty, when designing their headquarters.

A few weeks later I was in the lunch area on the top floor of the building. It had a canteen, a chill out area —where people mostly looked stressed— and a swimming pool with a glass bottom that spanned between the two buildings that made up the companies head quarters. Swimming in the pool, as people often did after lunch, you could see the iridescent bodies of the people walking below, warped through the changing contours of the water. By night, you could see the lights of the financial district in the distance from here; the red lights on top of the buildings hung off the air like a static explosion and often, through the smog, they looked like bandaged wounds.

A bar table skirted the inside of the glass cubicle that formed the canteen and I sat in the corner, at the meeting point of three inclined glass screens. I watched my fellow employees queuing to select food from the bar, and the other people reflected in the glass that sliced through them and merged with their bodies. Refracted through the glass floor, I could see some kind of champagne reception happening in the communal space below. It must have been quite chaotic for them down there, as their stomachs pulled them around like they were on the catering equivalent of an Ouija board, jerking between drinks and food —but to me, it was all mapped out. I could see that employee A would never collide into B, but they didn’t know that in their panic. I felt in control of them, even though I was just sitting there. They just felt like images.

I noticed a corridor was reflected perpendicular to the queue, and it ploughed violently into the waiting workers. I often sat in the same spot at lunch times, but I still couldn’t tell where all the reflections came from. I would concentrate on one layer of the faint mirror images, but then some muscle in my eye would get tired and the whole configuration would change again, the edges all running into each other.

The therapist said that I wouldn’t know what the trauma was, or how bad it had been, till it was over— but how is it possible to delineate its perimeter? I tried not to think about it anyway. The reflection was extremely beautiful, and it was relaxing to be sealed off from the world in its enclosure, but as the corridor’s reflection swung back around and careered into the lined up bodies again, I thought of some kind of immaterial terrorist attack.

I had been working for the company for some time now, nine years I think. They were a housing developer, and they specialised in displacing communities in London — they didn’t say that of course, but they did. They would encircle a deprived area with crystalline new buildings, this would then make the deprived area look worse, and, labelled as a ‘sink estate’, they could then move all its tenants out. The tenants would then be sent on random journeys all over the country to find new places to live. Civilisations mostly drifted west, however in this instance they were usually sent east from London. The clouds from above echoed themselves slowly over my feet.

screening 4

You might call these random journeys ‘dérives’, but instead of being revolutionary they are now a subtle — in the same way that everything is becoming increasingly subtle— form of control and social cleansing. The dérive is a negative now, and just like everything else we strive for or find attractive, it ends up attacking us in the end. We don’t see free movement as liberating, but we fear it; we fear the movement of immigrants, and we fear that when walking down the street a car may liberate itself from the rigid confines of the road and drift into the inhabitants of the sidewalk. There was such free movement in my visual dérive in the reflections, which was nauseatingly confusing, but I couldn’t help but be attracted to its beauty.

I worked as a visualizer —or digital artist as it’s sometimes called — for the company, and throughout my nine years with them, I think I had modelled every part of London, a job I did more precisely than was ever needed. I liked the precision and allusion of control it gave me; I think the architects liked it to. The exactitude however, was a red herring and it allowed them to ignore other, much greater, concerns— which, I guess, was the same for me too.

Anxiety, before I started the job, was something I heard a lot from other people, but I hadn’t suffered from it myself. But after around three years it started to creep in. The world of the computer was safe, and I could control everything; from the texture of the floor I imagined myself walking on, to the lighting conditions and the people that inhabited the particular scene I was working on. But once I stepped out of the office or turned my face momentarily away from the reflected world of my computer screen, I became incredibly anxious: everything seemed extremely random in comparison.

The model then, had become more real than reality itself, and my actions outside of it seemed to have no consequence. I had started to gamble with this recently, committing random acts to see if it would trigger anything in me. It didn’t. So I didn’t believe in the reality outside of the computer, but I believed in my fear of it.

screening 5

The normal logic of the world was similarly smeared in the reflections. Bodies were no longer solid, feet were walking by other people’s heads, figures walking towards me were also walking backwards, large bodies scattered behind me were thrown against smaller bodies in the distance — reflections of other reflected screens cut the bodies variably into sagittal, coronal and traverse planes; it was a real autopsy of my subjects.

It was this type of smeared logic— my therapist had told me— that managed to ensnare people in abusive relationships, and the same logic that made it so hard for people who hadn’t been abused to understand them. I thought about how I was sealed off in the vacuum of reflections, and that in itself was quite comforting, even sublime— I didn’t have to understand anything, simply because I knew I couldn’t; but its by this same token, that you don’t realise that this beautiful insular world has ensnared you, and the underlying tumult is so confusing, you don’t know why, or how you are trapped, or, see a way out.

The alternate logic in the reflection, and the fragmentation of the body and mind that it entailed, was a near perfect diagram of the geometry of gaslighting — those seeds of doubt that eventfully make you question your own memory, perception and finally, sanity — that I’d fallen victim to; at least, that’s what I was told anyway. The people did become, in the glass, like a gas within the vacuum of the office lighting. The geometry of the ethereal gas that had once seeped into me was bleeding into them too, though they couldn’t see it. They were washed over with incessant breakers of unordered conflicting opinions and fake news.

A mirrored image usually shows what’s already passed, what’s behind you— even if you’re looking at yourself, the image is slightly old, a delay of fractions of a section— but this particular reflection said a lot about the current state of things. It not only delineated abuse, but also the current system of control that ensnares us all. The world is stunning with its endless flows of data, and we can have access to all of it. But what we don’t always realise is that nobody can fight such fluid systems of constant echoes and shape shifting flux; because nobody can grasp it— nobody can a carve a recognisably whole to fight against. I saw my own streaked reflection finishing my sandwich, and I went back to my computer.

Freud would not look at his patients directly, instead he would talk to them through this mirror positioned in the window of his study. Looking through the window to the exterior of the building, we are faced by yet another reflected interior.

I just wanted him to see, I thought, as I walked to my office. A few weeks previously, added on to the end of the weekly newsletter, I had read about someone jumping onto the tube tracks. It made sense that people often threw themselves on the tracks during rush hour, in front of others with similar jobs. Even their final act of free will needed to be witnessed by the infrastructure that had caged them, ratified by someone from human resources, and frowned upon by a health and safety representative.

 

Matthew Turner is a writer living in London. He studied at University College London and is now working as writer and assistant editor for LOBBY magazine while also teaching at Chelsea College of Art.
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