In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1969 film, Le Gai Savoir (Joy of Learning), the characters talk in an empty TV studio, searching for images ‘of a society reduced to its simplest expression’. Like most of Godard’s script, the line comes from elsewhere, in this case Claude Lévi- Strauss’s memoir Tristes Tropiques (The Sad Tropics, 1955). ‘I had been looking for a society reduced to its simplest expression. That of the Nambikwara was so truly simple that all I could find in it were individual human beings.’
Created in 1984 by Annabel Jankel, Rocky Morton and George Stone, Max Headroom was a pre-internet, post-human tv presenter, portrayed not by computers (the technology wasn’t up to it) but by actor Matt Frewer inside a complex latex mask. The character – a journalist turned into a computer-generated head following a traumatic accident – was launched in the TV film Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future (1984). The style borrows from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), but the premise uncannily resembles Robocop (1987), as a half-dead human is brought back to life by technology with disastrous results. In the late 1980s, the character was spun off into two TV series, including The Max Headroom Show, a music-video showcase.
In this photograph of Frewer being made-up in his latex costume, we encounter the uncanny valley. He looks simultaneously human and synthetic: both are plausible, neither is fully convincing. Despite hailing from the early years of Channel 4, amidst a proliferation of art on British television, Headroom was not the direct product of an art commission, although it echoes many artists’ broadcast interventions, such as General Idea’s Test Tube (1979) and Shut the Fuck Up (1985). Headroom feels like an early tactical manifestation of accelerationism, something dreamt up in Nick Land’s short-lived Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at Warwick University in the late 1990s. Listen to the audio performance of Land’s essay ‘Meltdown’ (1995) and watch Headroom with the sound off. He represents the end of Lévi-Strauss’s ‘individual human beings’ and the start of a sinister ‘society reduced to its simplest expression’. At the creation of the Headroom character in 20 Minutes into the Future, his programmer calmly says, ‘This is the future, people translated as data.’