Up/Down

The desire to fly and view the world from above always characterised human beings’ dreams.

Today, this is easier than ever thanks to airplanes, the internet, satellites and other technological devices. Although, this still seems not to be enough. Likewise gods on earth, human beings, encouraged by the desire to reach the unreachable, continuously seek for omnipotence and omniscience, and the view from above – also known as bird’s eye view – is what enables them to simulate their sought form of divinity. Technology, as the ability of manipulating nature, has always been the mean through which humans can expand their power while imposing themselves as superior and intelligent beings over the other animals.

From ancient myths, Leonardo Da Vinci’s first studies on birds’ flight, the first prototype of a flying machine to the first journey on the moon, the fascination for elevation striking man’s imagination hasn’t changed. The fear that characterised us as primitive beings left us the moment we managed to manipulate those elements of which we were victims. Height, as much as fire and other calamities, was one of them; because our inability to fly we felt inferior to those beautiful creatures, the birds, that could travel and see the world in its totality. 

The thrill stimulated by verticality and elevation triggers our ambition toward immortality.The bird’s-eye view, for its superiority, both in height and, symbolically, in strength, represents humans’ attempt to domination and totality. The Internet and social media, thanks to the power and the velocity in capturing information from all over the world, are themselves another attempt of reaching godlike omniscience and a modern representation of the bird’s-eye view.

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Phillippe Petit, Twin Towers (1974)

Like a new Humanism, while keeping a man-centred view, the men puts himself on a pedestal to impose his potential while also shaping a new hierarchy between his body, the surrounding architecture, the resulting landscape and the city dwellers.

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László Moholy-Nagy, Vertical View from Radio Tower, Berlin (1928)

Interesting is the point developed by de Certeau‘I wonder what is the source of this please of ‘seeing the whole’, of looking down on, totalising the most immediate of human texts. […] When one goes up there, he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors and spectators.  An Icarus flying above these waters, he can ignore the devices of deadfalls in mobile and endless labyrinths far below. His elevation transfigures him into a
voyeur. It puts him at a distance. It transforms the bewitching world by which one was ‘possessed’ into a text that lies before one’s eyes. It allows one to read it, to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god. The exaltation of a sceptic and gnostic drive: the fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more. Must one finally fall back into the dark space where crowds move back and forth, crowds that, though visible from on high, are themselves unable to see down below? An Icarian fall’ (de Certeau,1984).

Nevertheless, this powerful feeling of omnipotence and immortality conferred by man’s elevation has an end. And like Icarus, who believed of having faced his subordination to gods’ omnipotence by escaping the labyrinth, man as well are destined to feel the weight of their finitude and ephemerality once reached the ground again. In conclusion, what triggers men feelings of omnipotence is the thin line that separates his potential of succeeding from the possibility of disaster. The thrill felt when looking down the highest building of the city is provoked by man’s believing of knowing and being able to do everything while also realising his smallness and transience.

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Tom Ryaboi, aka Roof Topper

Bibliography:

  • Certeau, M. and Rendall, S. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 91-92-93
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