The Prime Directive/Primärdirektivet is a bilingual poetic multimedia work by Swedish poet and artist Johannes Heldén. It was published in 2006 on the Danish site afsnitp.dk in Swedish and English. The two versions are translations of each other, with minor differences. Upon entering the work, the reader finds the images of two books spinning against a black background. If you click number 1, you are taken to “Fragmentets flyktväg/The Path of the Fragment;" click on number 2, "Primärdirektivet/The Prime Directive," and you will encounter five animated texts that can be found by moving the mouse across the image of a decaying machine or dilapidated structure of sorts.
The work is easily navigated, but requires engaged and prolonged reading of the text fragments in the work. The first section, called “The Path of the Fragment,” contains an image of a dense environment of intertwining and meandering paths and structures. A Swedish reviewer suggested that it is a cross between the Italian painter Piranesi and Æon Flux (1). One could easily add Escher’s drawings, or the urban cityscapes of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element. At one point, a truck moves along one of the paths, leading the reader to surmise that this is indeed some sort of distorted urban space. To read texts, the reader must move around a square that allows for a greenish vision of a section of the urban space. This image resembles looking through night vision goggles as the level of light goes up and down on, as if night and day pass. The dystopic urban environment is underscored by ambient music that sets the tone for an eerie, almost threatening experience, which yet at times even becomes calm and soothing by its very slowness. Nothing much happens in terms of navigation, animation or change of scene. Rather, the reader is encouraged to delve into the combinations of aphoristic poetic sentence fragments that appear in the upper right corner, and that interchange between black sentences and green ones (upon click).
The Swedish texts have a harsher, perhaps defiant character by way of truncated, emotionally charged mini-narratives, but the English texts, too, emphasize brief dense images, such as “You open the hatch, your features distort/perhaps sleep is necessary” (the first part of the text appears on mouse-over, and the second part upon clicking that same spot), or “Behind the robot/effects of what we saw earlier this day.” There are many ways to interpret these short texts; the “you” is perhaps a sleep-deprived soldier trapped in an urban zone of war; perhaps you is an isolated human trapped in a future technologically crowded urban landscape (suggestive of Blade Runner, The Matrix, or other dystopic sci-fi fictive worlds).
Of course, the title “The Prime Directive” can recall the fictional universe of Star Trek in which the prime directive refers to the law that there should be no interference with the internal development of societies that do not have sufficiently sophisticated technologies to engage in space travel, and therefore do not yet realize that other civilizations exist. With this intertext in mind, Heldén’s work suggests then that for all our sophisticated technologies, humans are yet to live so closely entwined with their technologies as science fiction narratives often portray. “The Prime Directive” offers a grim possible future for our world should we choose to embrace technologies in the manner in which sci-fi narratives foreshadow. In suggestive images and short lines, “The Prime Directive” links the technological and biological with war technologies. The one Swedish citation in the English text: “aldrig mer för oss kunskapen” (Never more for us the knowledge) seems to speak of an impending loss should we choose to embrace our technologies further. But the line also suggests that war technologies already usher in that dystopic violent world of hard technologies and distorted human lives dependent upon the reality of living with, even in, her technology: “You open the hatch, your features distort/perhaps sleep is necessary.” The "you" in the text yearns for, and repeatedly speaks of sleep, of being transported to another world. Perhaps the pastoral scene of the image on the first screen of The Prime Directive. Yet, of course, the work itself is produced and published with digital media, and therefore seems to undermine those earlier strong technological fears and visions of dystopia.
The reader is rewarded by re-reading the short texts of “The Prime Directive” in different orders, pondering upon their links and possible meaning. The texts along with the music offer a reading experience which works upon the senses, making the twists and turns of technology almost viscerally palpable through exquisite yet frustratingly imagistic sentences. Reading is very much the focus of this poetic work.
(1) Jonas Thente. "Konstnärliga korsformer." Dagens Nyheter 5/12/06. http://www.dn.se/kultur-noje/konstnarliga-korsformer-1.428425