Electric Light and the Abyss: Digital Media and the Representation of Disaster


Session Title:

  • Political Discourse on the New Media

Presentation Title:

  • Electric Light and the Abyss: Digital Media and the Representation of Disaster




  • The advent of digital media and its rapidly developing online and urban manifestations has changed our understanding of the city. From large format urban media screens to iphone Google Earth apps, the contemporary ‘overexposed city’ described by Virilio can be understood as a fluid, animated surface of extreme light; symptomatic of the exponential development of ‘urban spectacle’ identified by Guy Debord where content is irredeemably driven by consumption.

    Popular culture is also strewn with visions of urban spaces. In cinema, the rise of graphic-novel derived films set in alternative or futuristic cities, such as the Gotham of Batman or Bregna of Aeon Flux, as well as disaster movies such as The Day after Tomorrow, I am Legend and Independence Day, nudge popular imaginings towards ‘new’ urban forms and disaster narratives. In these imaginings, the city-as-light of Virliio can be traced as a recurring motif.

    These super-luminous images of the city are increasingly defined in relation to notions of landscape, seemingly spurred on by ecological concerns and the portrayal of war as well as ecological crisis – the antithesis of the city of light  – in the media and entertainment industries. How do contemporary artists navigate this territory? This paper addresses various modes for the current digital imaginings of urban disaster in contemporary art. It draws upon Lev Manovich and Paul Virilio to consider the conditions of vision, ‘digital light’ and their ability to address these notions of disaster, the city and the sublime.