Before us, a landscape is bombarded with explosions. Then, a new city unfolds from within it, in non-Euclidean geometry. The image glitches along to glitchy music. A dragon arrives, in neither the same realm as this projected city, nor the performers standing in front of it, nor the space inhabited by us, watching on. Instead, it occupies only the thin layer of our screens. Reality has been augmented to fold these disparate realms into one event. We hear screaming, but we cannot pin down its source.
This is K-pop group NCT 127—Neo Culture Technology, subunit: latitude of Seoul—at their virtual concert Beyond the Origin on May 17, 2020. NCT 127 is one unit of the (current) 23-member group, first introduced by SM Entertainment in 2016. NCT is not limited to these members; the line-up can change any time. N City, as we sometimes call them, are like a community unto themselves. As NCT 2020, they arrive like delegates from a future UN, to sing us songs of a new world.
The floor beneath NCT 127 is lit up; they are boxed in by LED screens that display images. They are surrounded by galaxies, whales, a highway running through a desert, a boxing gym. They are surrounded by hundreds of faces via webcam. We realise this is the source of the screams.
Some of us are represented only as locations receiving data, hidden in our homes, while others appear before the idol group as a crowd, separated into a grid. When the production staff allow it, our voices can be heard. We can wave signs of their names, but we sometimes forget that the letters will appear mirrored. This is no replacement for a ten-thousand strong mass screaming and singing, energy building through fan chants, acknowledging each member in turn, echoing words of the song. The webcam wall is more like a hubbub, but it allows us to stay connected. Mark asks, ‘Is your Wi-Fi ok?’ when the audio of a fan’s question stutters. Lag comes between us. Not all internet connections are made equal.
At the group’s request, we wave the green light sticks that indicate we are nctzens—netizens/citizens of the neo-cultural technology network. It is encouraged to be a financial member of the official fanclub, though it is not a requirement. We can participate in the network through passive viewing and listening, although many compete for higher numbers with each comeback, setting streaming schedules and mass purchasing. As with all K-pop artists, there is a constant flow of content to consume.
Haechan says, looking at our faces and the stream of comments and emoji in the chat box: ‘This is technology.역시 Neo Culture Technology.’
NCT is a fantasy of a future that was imagined in the past, with neon lights, lasers, concrete and motorbikes. Digital renderings of hypothetical spaces emerge from cyberpunk narratives. NCT’s music video sets and concept photos would not look out of place in cyberpunk films like Welt am Draht (World on a Wire) (1973), Tron (1982), Brainstorm (1983), Akira (1988), Total Recall (1990), The Lawnmower Man (1992), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Ghost in the Shell (1995) and The Matrix (1995).
As a genre, cyberpunk examines changes in social order due to advancements in electronic technologies and new information networks. It explores our interactions with these new technologies—technologies that sprawl, invade, pervade, surge and revolutionise. It imagines how communities could be structured in a new virtual world, as sub-cultural enclaves, as pockets of radicalism set against the sites of neoliberalism, which are infested with the corporate entities that make up platform capitalism. Cyberpunk’s dystopic futures embody the logic of late capitalism, where dizzying amounts of data charge about as wild vectors, forming a global net and leaving consumers trapped within a system of predatory multinational corporations.
As avatars gathering in increasingly digital spaces to socialise, to learn, to work, we have been re-enacting cyberpunk visions. MUDs, MOOs, and MUCKs lead to MMOs and MMORPGs. Second Life, Club Penguin, Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite attempt to realise ‘The Metaverse’ of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), where visitors adorn avatars and inhabit a shared virtual space, albeit one whose real estate is owned and managed by private organisations. These communities are massive and multiplayer and online.
Our contemporary social order is being restructured by the emergence of COVID-19. Out of necessity, our interaction with each other has retreated from our physical bodies further into abstraction. We cannot gather together in crowds, where we touch and sweat and breathe on each other. The types of concerts we were used to must now be mediated through a device. Publishers, developers, promoters, musicians and audiences are turning to video games and social media platforms, replacing venues and bringing performances into individual homes.
In Fortnite (developed by Epic Games, 40% owned by Tencent), concerts arrive as programmed animation, or played on a screen inside a new game mode. In Minecraft (owned by Microsoft), recorded audio is combined with an artist’s avatar, the crowd gathered in a custom space built by members of a community. Roblox is similarly developing its own version of a virtual concert, a mix of Fortnite and Minecraft. Artists perform at home live on Instagram (owned by Facebook). K-pop concerts are live streamed through V Live (developed by Naver, South Korea’s primary search engine), Twitch (owned by Amazon), YouTube (owned by Google), or other apps like Weverse (developed by Big Hit Entertainment, BTS’s management company who have just recently applied for an IPO). To enter each of these venues you need the right kind of software, an entry code, or a paid ticket.
NCT 127’s recent concert was a part of Beyond Live, a series of exclusively online concerts developed as a collaboration between V Live, SM Entertainment and JYP Entertainment. These concerts, (which were held between April and August 2020, and included groups SuperM, NCT subunits 127, Dream and WayV, TVXQ, Super Junior and Twice), are the first of their kind in the industry. For a fee of 33,000 won per concert, a link is provided that can be streamed live on two devices simultaneously. It can then be re-watched simultaneously on five devices as a VOD after the concert’s conclusion. To be a part of the webcam wall costs extra.
These are uniquely digital experiences, optimised for mixed reality. AR cannot exist without a screen through which to see it. A top view camera shows us choreography formations that interact with the floor displays beneath them. Some concerts offer multicam, and we can choose which member we want to focus on, or we can constantly switch between them all. We can revisit each one as much as we want through the VOD.
Light sticks that represent us appear as AR in the places we would usually be seated. At the same time, we hold our own physical light sticks in our hands, and, if we have the most recent version, connect the light stick through Bluetooth so it can flash in synchronised patterns with the music.
If we are watching the concert illegally, we cannot actively participate in this way. Our access is mediated through a third party; we cannot choose which camera to watch, we cannot select the video quality, we cannot type to the idols in chat. We find ourselves scrambling for a new link as one after another, they get shut down. Someone will always manage to find one and it will be spread to others through DMs. For every stream, there is a counterstream.
Other online K-pop concerts, fan meetings and festivals have since occurred, with many more to follow. Some are free and some are ticketed. They replace concerts that have been cancelled, allow companies to recoup pandemic losses, and connect groups with fans they have been cut off from. For a fan in India or Africa, for example, where these groups haven’t toured at all, this has been the first chance to ‘go’ to a concert. Management companies and promoters see this as a way to reach countries that have typically been considered financially unviable. For a virtual concert, there is little risk involved.
We hope the servers don’t become overloaded and that the stream doesn’t buffer. We hope our internet doesn’t cut out. We beg other viewers: ‘Please don’t spam the chat.’
The idols say: ‘We get the comments in real time and we’re reading all of it.’ They are laughing at the screen names we have given ourselves. They say: ‘This is a bit awkward, but online concerts have good things too. You can eat whatever you want and lie down whenever you want. It’s the front row for everyone.’ Closed captioners and translators, official and unofficial, work swiftly in multiple languages.
As idols perform, tigers leap around them.
• • •
Weapons have been disabled, so there’s no enemy fire to pull us out of Travis Scott’s ‘Astronomical tour’ in Fortnite. No BM from other players to kick us off the server and miss the performance. There are 12 million of us gathered together, separated into servers. This is bigger than Marshmello’s virtual stage with virtual dance floor; this performance encompasses our whole in-game universe.
The mic stands are on fire and a speaker-cored planet arrives. Voice effects echo, it’s liiiiit. This is a pre-programmed performance, but we are here with our squad, reacting in real time through in-game voice comms or personal discords. Travis Scott slams into the ground, a giant, and we all bounce into the air. He walks around the island, usually surrounded by an energy storm, picking up stars, altering the already unreal physics.
We try to run at him, but at a point we are just running in place. He keeps pushing us back as the world crumbles. Travis’ face reveals a cyborg inside. We fall through a dark world into an ocean. We speculate if swimming will be a new game mechanic.
In Fortnite, we are all the same height, we can easily climb on top of things, and move through the crowd. The code means we all take up equal space. But here, we battle lag and frame drops. We rely on our city or country’s infrastructure to give us fast and clear access.
While we attempt to walk alongside our squad, sometimes we teleport through space. Smooth movements become punctured. An interruption from the flow of data causes someone to vanish from the crowd. The package that defines their existence has been corrupted. Where are they now that they have been suddenly ejected from the system?
As the world breaks apart, is it confirming that there will be a new map? Is the old map coming back? Is Fortnite saved? Where is this figure taking us? Is this clickbait?
We are flying with debris towards a new horizon.
• • •
We learn that BTS are debuting their new music video, ‘Dynamite’ Official MV (Choreography ver.) in Fortnite’s new ‘Party Royale Mode,’ followed by yet another new remix.
We say, ‘I can’t believe BTS is making me download Fortnite,’ and ‘the things I do for them!’ But we also say to each other, on opposite sides of the planet, ‘I will meet you there.’ We can dance together, using pre-purchased emotes. We can go into creative mode and explore the music video’s set. We can recreate it, although we only have seven days before copyright claims will be issued on YouTube. But that’s ok because we love to defend copyright.
We will report you to the company if you share the concert stream on Twitch or watch it illegally! It is illegal! You are in violation of copyright law! It isn’t fair to the people who have paid! The right thing to do is to pay for a concert with twelve songs and multiple ad breaks. Don’t you want to buy a car? We don’t mind because we want to support ‘our boys.’ We say, they ‘outsold,’ and they are ‘kings.’ Commitment and love are measured by financial contribution. We are pleased to announce a corporate briefing with the community.
There is no outside of this system. We apparently ameliorate the exploitation of idols by spending more money. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Who said that? Fredric Jameson? Slavoj Žižek? Mark Fisher? They should have copyrighted it so we would remember.
The threat of punishment is not enough to deter us from searching for free points of access. We watch an anonymous streamer illegally stream the official live stream. In some instances, we watch the video in the video in the video. The content passes through multiple platforms, multiple downloads and uploads, multiple assemblages. Each stream is made unique to us by packets of data arriving on our screens slightly differently.
Just who exactly was it that inserted that image of hands holding on to jail cell bars before the illegal stream of Seventeen’s fan meeting Caratland was cut off? We jump from stream to stream, but this image follows us closely behind.
Was it the streamers, becoming aware of their impending shutdown, flashing an image and sharing a final joke with the viewers? Or was it an attempt at a threat by the management company Pledis (recently acquired by Big Hit Entertainment), pushed through the individual stream sourced via the Weverse app? We still do not know.
We chat about how we will access future concerts. We discuss if **** or **** will have links, passed through DMs. We are still told that we will be reported and that action may be taken against us. We smile and we nod. We hashtag ‘[fandomname]goingtojailparty.’
• • •
What kind of mixed realities could be on offer, beyond 4K, beyond AR, beyond VR? The nerve-induced participatory music videos of Greg Egan’s Permutation City (1994)? For whom exactly are these streams available, for how long and for how much? We are connected even though we are being kept apart, but that connection is limited through a small number of platforms operated by an even smaller number of huge corporations. The art and the commodity are entangled, two nodes of the same network. The stream and the counterstream.
Fred Stiller in Welt am Draht announces to the board of the Institute of Cybernetics and Futurology: ‘We’ve created a miniature, artificial world out of circuits, switches, electronic impulses and reflexes. When fully functional, it will lead a life of its own according to our rules and with its own dynamics.’