For Vilém Flusser, the prefix “tele-”marks the hope of bringing near that which is unattainably distant: things, places, ideas, and most of all the other. The nearness in question is one that can be realized by means of electronic networking. Flusser derives “telematics” from the “tele-” of bringing near and Automatik, “automation”: “Getting closer, especially to the other, in order to open up fields for a kind of action that can- not be automated.” (“Ich habe keine Lösungen,” in: profil, no. 13, March 25, 1991, p. 96; translated from the German). He thereby opens up a semantic field in which the hope bound up with the nearness of the other can be articulated. The field spans the cognitive dimension of telepathy (sharing the feelings of the distant), the affective state of teleorgasm (the sensuality of the telematically mediated), technological prerequisites such the telescope, telegraph, and telephone, and, lastly, telepresence as a mode of existence (of people or things) in telematic proximity.
Telepresence proves to be a dialectical movement: when that which is far away is brought nearer, distance also disappears – space and time collapse in telematic transmission. In 1990 –1991 the exhibition Vom Verschwinden der Ferne [On the Disappearance of Distance] was mounted at the German Postal Museum in Frankfurt am Main. Curated by Peter Weibel and Edith Decker, it dealt with the phenomenon of “teletechnology,” that “product of the human longing to overcome spatial and temporal distances” (unpublished concept paper for the exhibition, Vilém Flusser Archive; translated from the German). Along with other thinkers on media, Flusser was invited to contribute to the exhibition catalog. The resulting text, titled “Nächstenliebe” (meaning “compassion,” “altruism”; literally, “love for one’s neighbor”), was intended as an explanation of the ethical and existential dimension of telepresence. It was not included in the catalog, however, as the catalog had to be published in reduced form, according to a letter from the museum found among Flusser’s papers after his death. The text was later published in the magazine KUNSTFORUM International (vol. 112, March/April 1991), and an abridged version appeared in ARCH+ (no. 111, March 1992) under the title “Das Verschwinden der Ferne” [The Disappeareance of Distance]. In it, clearly influenced by Martin Buber’s and Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophies of dialogue, Flusser defines the most important characteristic of telepresence as “the disappearance of all distance in tangible togetherness” (ibid., p. 32; translated from the German).
Original article by Daniel Irrgang