Falling in a Groundless World
Locating Conspiracy and Vertigo Within a Creative Practice

Bryne Rasmussen

Bryne Rasmussen


Our brains are “post-hoc” narrative building machines that quickly respond and adapt to rationalizations based on incoming stimuli. We are strange self-correcting systems engaged in constant feedback loops with everything around us. For the sake of functioning day-to-day this process must be taken for granted. When we experience a glitch or a disruption in what is considered normal functioning we become acutely aware—perhaps even long for a return to the “normal” state. Do these disruptions destabilize and thus lead to a questioning of one’s subjectivity or do they actually reinforce the construct?

Through these questions I would like to examine two impulses in contemporary society that I have become fascinated with: conspiracy and vertigo. I would like to map their applications and ongoing effects, while also considering how they became entangled in my art making practice. My goal is to connect the human desire for understanding, clarity, and narrative as an organizing principle for human life with the rise of conspiracy in contemporary culture. If we think of conspiracy theories broadly, as a desire to reveal the true narrative, comparisons can be made to other ways our brains create shortcuts when processing the onslaught of information we encounter as our bodies move through space.

I am interested in vertigo not only as an actual medical condition or bodily sensation, but also as a metaphor or diagram for our present social condition—as a visual model for how we experience the world. Humans have always had the desire to diagnose, to map, to visualize the complex conditions of their moment, but as our ability to collect data about the world seemingly outpaces the capacity for any individual human to grasp even the smallest part of it, we sense that we are stuck—left spinning in the chaos.

This disruption may also be triggered by the overwhelming volume of information available for consumption on the internet, which leads to even more questions. Is the scale of data really inhibiting our capacity to act? Are we seeing a rise in conspiracy theories and alternative worldviews due to the glut of data that needs to be worked into a narrative so that we can properly deal with or respond to it? Disparate interpretations from the same data set exist despite the common belief that the combination of globalization and the internet may have created a transnational monoculture when in fact companies invested in online behavior are just finding more and more invasive ways to monetize and commodify all fringe activity on the web.


Bruno Latour in his 2004 essay “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” describes the deleterious effect that postmodernism has had on the social sciences, and specifically academia, and on the ability for anyone to interpret any one set of data and make an argument based on it:

While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. (Latour 227)

We are now inhabiting a world where conspiracism may be the main mode of interpreting these “matters of concern.” I find Michael Barkun’s definition of the three main principles of conspiracism from his book A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America quite useful:

Nothing happens by accident. Conspiracy implies a world based on intentionality, from which accident and coincidence have been removed. Anything that happens occurs because it has been willed. At its most extreme, the result is a ‘fantasy [world]…far more coherent than the real world.’

Nothing is as it seems. Appearances are deceptive, because conspirators wish to deceive in order to disguise their identitities or their activities. Thus the appearance of innocence is deemed to be no guarantee that an individual or group is benign.

Everything is connected. Because the conspiracists’ world has no room for accident, patterned is believed to be everywhere, albeit hidden from plain view. Hence the conspiracy theorist must engage in a constant process of linkage and correlation in order to map the hidden connections. (Barkun 4)

My entry point into conspiracism was a fascination with internet subcultures that seemed at first to have amazingly complex alternate world views. One example that I stumbled across—at its most extreme—explained children on the autism spectrum as beings from space being born in human form to bring about some kind of ascension process. As I researched this subculture it led me down a rabbit hole of youtube videos and obscure blogs to other subcultures operating within a logic of conspiracy. I started to see my own patterns or hidden connections in these different subcultures—particularly in the way they structured their arguments and language usage—which led me to create the video Mysteries of Existence Solved (2012). The underlying logic of conspiracism is also what set in motion my new work Don't Know Where To Point (2013). As I started to inhabit this phenomena through my work I realized that the impulse was not very different from any religious or spiritual belief system and that conspiracism had become a new secular faith system. The overwhelming amount of information at our fingertips, the speed of the 24 hour news cycle, and the new paradigm of a horizontal authority structure on the internet are contributing factors in the rise of conspiracism. Latour sums up the situation quite poetically:

Now we have the benefit of what can be called instant revisionism. The smoke of the event has not yet finished settling before dozens of conspiracy theories begin revising the official account, adding even more ruins to the ruins, adding even more smoke to the smoke. (Latour 228)

Taking Latour's metaphor of “smoke to the smoke” further I would say we are in a type of constant fog of war—a fog of facts—or as Stephen Colbert refers to it: truthiness. Latour goes on to describe the different things pointed to in this game of cause and effect:

Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes—society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism—while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below. (Latour 229)

Conspiracies are often created out of a feeling of powerlessness. Creating the narrative can be comforting or even empowering. The desire to be able to point to an evil cabal is still at its core a humanistic activity—it still wants to assign agency to humans—as opposed to the terrifying thought that we have no control over our destinies. People become fatigued by the negotiation of complex facts that is required on a daily basis in our present condition. This loops back to Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s idea, from his book After the Future, that we are being fatigued by speed and an overwhelming amount of information: “…It relies on the proliferation of chatter, the irrelevance of opinion and discourse, and on making thought, dissent, and critique banal and ridiculous. (Berardi 109)” This could also be seen as adding chatter to the chatter. As artists, though, we also like to employ this chatter as a tactic. Conspiracy and art can often have a similar series of effects in the world. Once a conspiracy is launched—no matter how “crazy”—it has an effect. Doubt attaches itself to the authoritative history or account of an event. The kind of disparate connections that art is able to achieve and the discourse around it can also function in this way. What is our responsibility in this condition of chatter? Could this kind of effect or disruption be similar to the disruption of one’s senses that occurs with vertigo?


My interest in vertigo began after experiencing it, which was quite frightening, but also strangely exciting. It brought to the forefront how strange my own body really is—that my inner ear was miscommunicating with my brain, and the rest of my body—that suddenly I was spinning out of control. Then sometimes it just felt like the world was spinning out of control and sometimes just the inside of my head. Hito Steyerl in her essay In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective describes a similar kind of sensation as free fall:

Imagine you are falling. But there is no ground.

Many contemporary philosophers have pointed out that the present moment is distinguished by a prevailing condition of groundlessness. We cannot assume any stable ground on which to base metaphysical claims or foundational political myths. At best, we are faced with temporary, contingent, and partial attempts at grounding. But if there is no stable ground available for our social lives and philosophical aspirations, the consequence must be a permanent, or at least intermittent state of free fall for subjects and objects alike. (Steyerl 13)

Steyerl points out exactly the kind of connection I am interested in making between my experience of vertigo, and the realization that it was an interesting model for our present condition. She goes on to explain:

As you are falling, your sense of orientation may start to play additional tricks on you. The horizon quivers in a maze of collapsing lines and you may lose any sense of above and below, of before and after, of yourself and your boundaries. Pilots have even reported that free fall can trigger a feeling of confusion between the self and the aircraft. While falling, people may sense themselves as being things, while things may sense that they are people. Traditional modes of seeing and feeling are shattered. Any sense of balance is disrupted. Perspectives are twisted and multiplied. New types of visuality arise. (Steyerl 13)

This confusion between one’s self and other things around one’s self is very fascinating as we start to discover that we really never were discrete objects despite former ideas of man vs. nature, and the Cartesian distinction of body and mind. There is a paradox here as we start to lose our sense of being a body in space, that yet we may also feel more like an object at the same time. This also relates to the amplification of our sense that we are commodities, objects being tossed about in a complex system, winners and losers in hyper-capitalism. Steyerl claims that feelings may also be shattered, which also connects to Berardi’s take on the loss of the body and affect in our present condition:

…the time available for responding to nervous stimuli has been dramatically reduced. This is perhaps why we seem to be seeing a reduction of the capacity for empathy, because it becomes increasingly difficult to perceive the existence of the body of the other in time. In order to experience the other as a sensorial body, you need time, time to caress and smell. The time for empathy is lacking, because stimulation has become too intense. (Berardi 68)

This feeling of precarity caused by our bodies being in this extreme condition could be terrifying or liberating depending on how one responds to it. As a visual model for how we deal with our present condition it could also offer us new possibilities. Steyerl describes it further:

A fall toward objects without reservation, embracing a world of forces and matter, which lacks any original stability and sparks the sudden shock of the open: a freedom that is terrifying, utterly deterritorializing, and always already unknown. Falling means ruin and demise as well as love and abandon, passion and surrender, decline and catastrophe. Falling is corruption as well as liberation, a condition that turns people into things and vice versa. (Steyerl 28)

How do we point at anything when we are falling in a groundless world? Is being in free fall a position that we can also employ strategically? Is this just another visual construct to help us diagnose our present condition?


Timothy Morton, professor at Rice University, in his book The Ecological Thought proposes in the chapter “Thinking Big,” to think “bigger than we can conceive (Morton 20).” If we accept Morton’s account of “the mesh” or “the interconnectedness of all living things and non-living things (28)” perhaps he is suggesting something even more dramatic needs to happen to our style of thinking, and therefore being in the mesh, that human words like “thinking” and “big” cannot even begin to cover. The most important aspect of the mesh is that it is not a new formation, but that it just IS—without beginning/ending, that there can also be no center, and no inside/outside dynamic either: “Some of us will eventually think that we inhabited this deep, rich, lost world. Others will realize that even this sense of loss is an illusion created by our current modes of seeing. (56)” Earlier in his writing though Morton contradicts this conclusion by describing this in terms of a loss similar to schizophrenia:

The ecological crisis makes us aware of how interdependent everything is. This has resulted in a creepy sensation that there literally is no world anymore. We have gained Google Earth but lost the world. “World” means a location, a background against which our actions become significant. But in a situation in which everything is potentially significant, we’re lost. It's the same situation the schizophrenic finds herself in. She is unable to distinguish between information (foreground) and noise (background)…Everything seems threateningly meaningful, but she can't pin down what the meaning is. (30)

“Threateningly meaningful” seems to perfectly capture the feeling of being immersed in the overwhelming amount of data accessable on the web. I wonder though whether the schizophrenic state is somehow “natural” and we only convince ourselves of meanings to gain our bearings in this mesh of “strange strangers”? It seems like his argument is still based upon the whole structure of some original state. It seems like all of his linguistic and visual metaphors fall apart under the weight of his own metaphor of the mesh. We may have discovered a clue that this was an impossible task when he started by asking human readers to think “bigger than we can conceive (20),” because we will always fail. Perhaps it should humble all of our human constructions?


Bruce Wexler, professor emeritus at Yale, describes in his 2010 essay “Shaping the Environments that Shape Our Brains” the biological feedback loops each generation experiences:

Individuals are now able to act on the general environment and do so largely to make the environment match the internal structures established by the mix of elements in their rearing environment. Since their rearing experiences and associated internal structure are different from those of their parents’ generation, they act to change the general environment from on that matched the internal structure of their elders to one that matches their own internal structures. These changes include new art forms and images, new music, new public structures, and new built environments. These actions on the environment by one generation create new rearing environments for the next. (Bruce Wexler 144)

French philosopher Catherine Malabou describes in her book What Should We Do With Our Brain? the inherent responsibility of our widening understanding of the brain: “What should we do with our brain? is a question for everyone, that it seeks to give birth in everyone to the feeling of a new responsibility. (Malabou 14)” Do we think each generation is burdened with more responsibilities, as new scientific and technological advances are made? Or is there always just a new set of ethical quandaries tied to how we should be in the world?

Andy Clark in his essay “Cyborgs Unplugged” from the book Natural Born Cyborgs describes humans as: “cyborgs without surgery, symbionts without sutures (Clark 34),” but I would argue even further that we were always being constituted by the world around us, other beings, non-living things, phantasms, and invisible forces. We are more than “primed by nature to dovetail our minds to our worlds (34)” but that it is a complex ecology of feedback loops or dovetailing. From this vantage point I connect with Donna Haraway’s use of the cyborg from her book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature as “a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality and as an imaginative resource suggesting some very fruitful couplings. (Haraway 150)” I feel that part of my responsibility as an artist is, yes, to remind myself and others that we have accepted a whole slew of naturalized ideas as fact, but also that we can also insert alternative phantasms into this ecology, that could have both invisible and concrete consequences. Haraway also uses the cyborg to question the notion that our bodies were ever just natural discrete objects to begin with:

The boundary is permeable between tool and myth, instrument and concept, historical systems of social relations and historical anatomies of possible bodies, including objects of knowledge. Indeed, myth and tool mutually constitute each other. (164)

This supports the notion that the model of the cyborg could have been applied to humans at any point in history, but that perhaps it took a more concrete visualization of the merging of technology and human to help us become aware of it. It then becomes more important to apply the cyborg model to our understanding of this ecology now that the technologies and phantasms seemingly proliferate and mutate faster than human comprehension. I wonder if we are currently living this multiplicity of phantasms of conspiracy theories that Haraway and the cyborg suggest, but that instead of creating possibilities for escaping oppression, an unintended paradox is created where—like the pilot’s experience of free fall or vertigo—the more immersed in the system we imagine we are the more alienated from it we feel.

Works Cited

Michael Barkun, Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, Berkeley, CA: Univeristy of California Press (2003)

Franco “Bifo” Berardi, After the Future, Oakland, CA: AK Press (2011)

Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence, “Cyborgs Unplugged,” Oxford University Press (2003)

Michel Foucault, The Care of Self: The History of Sexuality, Vol. 3, “Part Two: The Cultivation of Self” Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage (1988): 39–68

Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in in the Late Twentieth Century,” New York: Routledge (1991): 149–81

Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brain?, “Introduction: Plasticity
and Flexibility—For a Consciousness of the Brain,” New York: Fordham University Press (2008): 1–14

Timothy Morton, Ecological Thought, “Thinking Big,” Boston: Harvard University Press (2012)

Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective,” New York: e-flux journal books (2012) 

Bruce Wexler, “Shaping the Environments that Shape Our Brains,” Cognitive Architecture, eds. Hauptmann, Deborah and Warren Neidich, Rotterdam, the Netherlands: 010 Publishers (2010): 142–67