The Vanishing Map

By Stephen Barber


A digital Europe emerges blinking into the light

From the western parapet of the bridge which Hitler had designed for the city of Linz at the end of the 1930s, I crossed the empty traffic-lanes and tram-tracks to the far side, and entered the Ars Electronica digital centre. After paying the admission fee, I was given a bar-coded sticker to attach to the back of my hand, allowing me to access all of the centre’s exhibits. I took the elevator to the top floor, and walked through the rooms of corporeal simulations, where the centre’s visitors were able to materialize ghost images of their own heads on plasma screens, by triggering three-dimensional scans of their facial muscles’ involuntary or intentional movements; talking while being scanned produced a violent digital blur. The glass-faced southern side of the building overlooked Hitler’s Nibelungenbrücke, and as I passed down from level to level, that bridge changed shape, initially poised in cold magnificence against the city, then progressively declining in grandeur as it came closer to my eyes, its cracked tarmac and cut-price execution visible, its form flattening out from splendour to the banality that had finally offended its original architect.

At the southern end of the centre’s second floor, an overhead annex had been constructed, where three or four earnest young technicians were ready to operate an experimental virtual-reality system that allowed one user at a time the opportunity to fly digitally over Europe. Alongside the vast window looking out over the Nibelungenbrücke, several high-powered computers had been attached to virtual-reality headsets; a number of grey-and-red flight suits in different sizes, each equipped with harnesses, lay ready for the centre’s visitors. I watched several fathers attempt to persuade their children to be hoisted-up for flight, but after inspecting the equipment closely, the children backed away with alarmed faces.

I read the text stencilled on the wall beside the exhibit, which was sponsored by (and named after) one of the salubrious, image-screen-facaded department stores located in the avenue that ran south from Hitler’s bridge: ‘On the Cyberdeck, the new Humphrey is waiting to take you along on a flight through virtual worlds. The user is positioned in midair by pneumatic muscles and uses arm movements to manoeuvre as a force feedback system simulates the physical forces at work during flight. It’s completely intuitive, though skill and practice are necessary to record a top time in a race through a course marked out in the virtual airspace of Europe.’ I turned away and passed through the other floors of the centre, then returned to the Cyberdeck. It was still empty, the technicians looking restive alongside their underused equipment. One of them caught my eye imploringly. The expensive exhibit had taken several years to programme and had only just been installed; those young technicians’ jobs depended on a mandatory minimum number of daily digital flights.

I stepped into one of the flight suits, put on a virtual-reality headset that engulfed my vision, and was hoisted fifteen feet into mid-air by the technicians, harnessed around the chest and shoulders, and bound flexibly to the data collection points on the ceiling by cables attached to the headset and to pulse-registering bands around my wrists. The headset’s earphones were playing an organ-piece by Mussorgsky. At first, the intensity of the high-resolution pixels hurt my eyes and made me momentarily nauseous, but soon I was flying, my arms outspread, the directional data transmitted from my eye- and arm-movements sending me headlong through the sky of a digitally-generated Europe, exhaustively replicated to the last building and tree. Although the system marked out a set course to be followed by its users, I disregarded it. At first, I was flying over Linz itself, dropping almost to the tarmac of the Nibelungenbrücke, before sweeping upwards in elation, far above the summit of the Freidberg hill. Then I headed east, following the Danube, over the heart of Europe.

The exhibit had been designed as a ‘race’ for its user, to be conducted in alliance or conflict between the body in movement and the speed of the eye; I found I could travel with almost limitless velocity by synchronising the concentration of my digital vision and the muscle-tension of my arms, though the effort required for that simultaneity soon began to grow painful, gradually forcing apart my aching body and oblivious eyes. Within a few minutes, I was over Budapest, compulsively circling the digital city, its animation rendered so exactly, updated constantly by satellite data feeds, that I could see every detail of the liberation monuments, the pioneer railway, and the gesturing figures of Lenin and Comrade Ostapenko in the outlying Statue Park of redundant monuments. Pivoting my eyes and outstretched arms, I then headed due north, flying over the quarry-indented forests and polluted cities of central Slovakia, across the Tatra mountains and the border with Poland, until I reached Cracow.

I sped over the city’s market square and castle hill, circled the vast steelworks on the eastern edge of the city, then began to turn west, towards O´swi?ecim. Abruptly, I heard a sharp crack within the virtual-reality headset, directly in front of my eyes, and began to lose height and direction, diverted from the course I had chosen. I was suddenly blown backwards, the pixels that composed Cracow rapidly breaking up, fragmenting into virulent blocks of colour. The soundtrack cut off, and I could hear the urgent voices of the young technicians, anxiously trying to locate the source of the malfunction.

No longer able to control my course, I started to plummet towards the river Wis?a, on the city’s southern edge, expelled from that flight over Europe. At the exact moment I hit the surface of the river, just to the south-west of the Powsta´nców bridge, the headset flashed in fiery white-heat extinguishment, blinding my eyes, then snapped-off into darkness. I could feel the technicians hoisting me back down to the steel floor of the Cyberdeck; they removed the headset and checked my vital signs, apologising for the mishap, and blaming that digital crash on the caprices of the inadequately-tested new equipment. I stood upright, vertiginous, staring straight ahead. For a few seconds, my jarred vision failed to adapt, and a haywire concoction of all of the digital cities of Europe layered itself over my eyes. Then that apparition mercifully faded, and, with profound relief, I saw Hitler’s bridge cohere directly in front of me.

Stephen Barber writes on experimental culture and experiential topography; many of his books are published by Creation and Reaktion Books. The Vanishing Map will be published by Berg ( in July.