Real

Sally McLaughlin and Aaron Fry


In this paper we describe issues explored in Real, a digital installation developed by the authors. The project grew out of an interest in two bodies of work The first, the work of the Situationist International with their focus on the social and cultural mediation that occurs in urban environments. The second, the work of writers such as Heidegger, Gadamer, Wittgenstein and Foucault. We were interested in developing a visual and physical response to the insight that we are always already located within constellations of practice, that all experience is interpretation. The paper explores the development of the project in terms of three processes – framing, articulating and automating.


Digital installation, exploration of contemporary environments, response to our being always already situated within frames of reference, discourse on the authenticity of objects, environments and experiences – Real is the distillation of diverse processes of investigation, an artefact that has become a locus for reflecting on products and processes that shape our reading of contemporary environments.

Real – the installation – consists of a database of images. Images were chosen that had the potential to raise issues of mediation and authenticity – details from postcards, signage and survey forms, street scenes, museum displays and advertising. The images are categorised according to terms such as nature, prosthesis and body – terms that reveal something of the practices, often implicit, that are at play in the interpretation of contemporary environments. The digital medium allowed us to construct and explore a matrix of associations between images and categories in the database. Sequences of images relevant to a category are displayed over multiple monitors. Through the juxtaposition of images with images, and images with categories, shifts in understanding occur. Assumptions about the real are brought into play.

The project grew out of an interest in two bodies of work The first, the work of the Situationist International with their focus on the social and cultural mediation that occurs in urban environments. We were particularly interested in the Situationist strategy of the dérive (drift) as a means of renegotiating and reconceptualising encounters with lived environments. The second body of work was that of writers such as Heidegger, Gadamer, Wittgenstein and Foucault. We were interested in the metaphors that they explored in articulating alternatives to metaphysical concepts of interpretation, truth, language and representation. In particular we were interested in developing a visual and physical response to the insight that we are always already located within constellations of practice. All perception is mediated by prior understanding. All experience is interpretation.

We were also interested in developing modes of expression that draw on specific qualities of digital media. Processes of classification and random combination lie at the heart of the work. These are supported through the use of a database and random generation algorithms. Combinations of images and categories that might not otherwise come to light are constructed.

The images themselves are marked by digital technologies. Video footage was captured on small hand held cameras. This allowed relatively unobtrusive access to environments. The variations in depth of field resulting from the use of this technology played into the construction and selection of images. The final images are stills extracted from video footage. They read as fragments in time and space and thus refer to a context from which they were ‘extracted.’ In contrast to the desire for self-contained simulation that lies behind many virtual reality projects we were interested in activating references to external phenomena. Finally the consistency in the format and presentation of images achieved through digital processing facilitates the construction of relationships between the images. The viewer is encouraged to read coincident fragments as a whole.

In the course of developing this project we found ourselves focusing on three key processes – framing, articulating and automating. All three processes were prevalent in our practice. Perhaps more importantly, all three processes are prevalent in our day to day experience. The framing of experience is the central preoccupation of entire professions – public relations, advertising, the various design professions. We negotiate the outcomes of these activities on a regular basis. The articulation of values is similarly entrenched in our day to day negotiations. The articulation of these values may be explicit – as in expressed opinion – or implicit – expressed through our actions. Finally the automation of activities from travel to preparing a document is something that is so familiar that it typically resides in the background of our conscious experience. The database, in particular, has far reaching implications in terms of the nature of activities that we engage in and will engage in the future. In the following sections we describe the ways in which the processes of framing, articulating and automating informed the development of this project.

Framing

Information economies are in large part economies engaged in defining orientations – in framing. Branding and identity systems are perhaps the most explicit outcomes of this enterprise but the framing of experience permeates all aspects of our lives – it is manifest in the technologies and the specialist paradigms that we employ, in our self perception, and in our perception of objects and environments.

A case in point is the ‘branding’ mentality associated with many urban developments: the development of Times Square, New York as a ‘family friendly’ urban space [Delany 1999]; Baron Hausmann’s nineteenth century development of Paris as a city of boulevards; the mid century preoccupation with zoning [Jacobs 1962]; and more recent experiments in the construction of ‘ideal environments’ such Celebration, Florida [Ross 2000]. Each of these projects may be considered to be an implementation of a particular view of urban environments. Each of the projects has been open to charges of ignoring the diversity of existing urban environments.

The framing of urban environments was a theme taken up by the Situationist International in the 1960s. In The Society of the Spectacle Guy Debord [1994] laments the reorganisation of Les Halles, a part of Paris that had been a marketplace since medieval times. As in the case of Times Square, the bars, drug dealers and sex shops of Les Halles were ‘redeveloped.’ The site became home to a large shopping arcade and cultural center. A single interpretation of Les Halles, it's economic function as a marketplace, was retained. Its street culture was resurrected as museum culture.

Debord saw this transformation as undesirable not because he opposed destruction of tradition but because it paved the way for greater regulation of the urban environment. He believed that western cities were possessed of an inexorable will toward regulation of the most important aspects of individual human experience. Urban time and space were to be organized with a view to ever increasing efficiency. This regulation streamlined the operation of a capitalist economic and cultural system.

In distinguishing authentic from inauthentic experience, the Situationists advanced the idea that the images and objects that surround us have the capacity to shape our behavior because they are touchstones that inscribe habitual associations and trigger particular memories. Combinations of images and objects coalesce forming networks, sequences or clusters of meaning that accrue the capacity to elicit particular and often predictable responses and modes of behavior. The distinction between authentic and inauthentic experience has important parallels in the work of Heidegger [1962], particularly his discussion of ‘idle gossip’ and ‘the they.’ Congealed, conventional modes of understanding are characterised as inauthentic. Authentic understanding requires a more engaged, reflective, primordial encounter with the phenomena being investigated.

Our current project – Real – is an exploration of contemporary environments. We were interested in the ways in which contemporary environments are conventionally framed and in possible alternatives. In some senses the work is a response to the work of the Situationists – we were interested in exploring the legitimacy of their distinction between authentic and inauthentic experience. We were also interested in the strategies that they developed in an attempt to encounter urban environments in ways that subverted conventional perceptions of those environments.

The Situationists bring a process orientation to framing the city. In the strategy of the dérive the city is used as both raw material and performative site. Environments are observed without particular ideas of function and utility in mind and then information is reflected on and processed in ways that reorient possible interpretations. The dérive lets go of the first premise of urban travel, to arrive at a destination, encouraging the imaginative reorientation of intended functional modes of the object and image world. The absence of separation between city, participant and observer acknowledges the shaping power of experience.

The strategy of détournement involves the reworking of existing materials. The original form is imbedded in, and integral to, the meaning of the reoriented form. Both these strategies can be described as interventions into existing systems. Both strategies highlight the tension between the stability of the object within the total system of congealed function and the interpretive transformation it may be subjected to.

The strategies employed in Real are loosely related to those of the Situationists. We maintained the process orientation of the dérive, bracketing functional concerns, recording video footage at random, reflecting later on the possibilities of that footage. We were interested in inserting technology into the process. The formal qualities of the images produced using a hand-held video camera play into readings of the environments documented. In a move that has parallels with the strategy of détournement, the materials of the environment are reworked. In the digital installation the images are constantly being recontextualised through juxtaposition with other images and with database categories. Again there is interplay between the original form and a revised reading of that form.

One final point should be made with regard to framing relates to concepts of power manifest in the framing and reframing of environments. Whereas the Situationists considered the congealing of particular points of view to be driven by the interests of a capitalist economic and cultural system we would like to admit the possibility of a more implicit tendency towards order. Here we draw on the insights of writers such as Heidegger [1962], Gadamer[1989], Wittgenstein [1958] and Foucault[1983], insights which point to the fact that the orientations that we bring to our understanding of situations are largely implicit. We develop these orientations through the taking over of practices. We are often unaware of the orientations that we are bringing to particular situations. The task of bringing a partial understanding of these orientations to the fore involves considerable reflection and encounters with alternative points of view. The promotion and incorporation of particular points of view, then, is not necessarily driven by conscious intention. Furthermore, where conscious intentions are at play we will inevitably encounter a background of practices that exceed those exercised with intention.

Articulating

Real and virtual; authentic and inauthentic; fact and conjecture – oppositional terms that permeate our language and structure our understanding. These terms make sense to us. We are continually making distinctions between representation and ‘reality,’ between statements that seem more or less believable, between the authenticity of product, people, experiences and environments. As cultural producers we know we must bracket our use of these terms – we understand that understanding is perspectival, that representations are for us and that to claim any truth value for our statements outside an appeal existing practices of interpretation makes no sense. We know that the potential exists for redescribing the world in a way that many of our judgments about the authentic, the real and the true may change. In fact, when we stand back and try to justify conventional distinctions between reality and representation, fact and conjecture, authentic and inauthentic products, persons or experiences, we find that possibilities for subverting conventional assumptions are rife. We see that representations are integral to our perception of ‘reality.’ We see that fact can only ever be conjecture. We see that distinctions between authentic and inauthentic are malleable.

Much has been made of the contingency of our ‘take on reality.’ What tends to be overlooked is the remarkable resilience of our interpretative practices. It requires conscious effort to remind ourselves of the potential contingency or our perspectives. We can construct arguments that subvert conventional assumptions only because these assumptions are relatively stable.

Real is a response to both the stability and the instability of our practices. Part documentation of contemporary environments, part catalogue of concepts, part machine for provoking shifts in understanding – Real occupies ambiguous territory between artifact, archive and argument.

As an artifact it acts as a locus for reflection on the interplay between constellations of interpretive practices. Images and terms are juxtaposed in varying combinations. Interpretations are invoked and superceded. The temporal aspect of the medium is employed with a view to directing attention to the practices of interpretation that are brought into play.

As archive Real is a repository for visual documentation of diverse aspects of contemporary environments: the rapidly constructed infrastructure for commercial use in Shenzen, China; the leveling of time and place that occurs in the British Airway’s Go campaign; Christmas displays in store fronts in Hawaii, the practices of museum display in Te Papa, New Zealand. The images are indexed according to terms that convey assertions about ways in which the phenomena documented play into our orientations. The term prosthetic, for example, is used as an index to images that reveal something of practices that extend the possibilities of our bodies, relationships, and even time. The term nature, is used to draw attention to practices that posit distinctions between the natural and the artificial, the natural and the mediated, or nature and man.

As argument Real is an assertion about both the resilience and the contingency of our interpretive practices. The fact that associations can be made between images and between categories and images brings to the fore the significant stability of our interpretative practices – practices that allow us to make sense of the material presented. On the other hand the juxtaposition of images with images and images with terms provokes reflection on the material presented. An image initially viewed in one way may be interpreted in a different way when considered in the light of a subsequent image. The potential for change in our interpretative practices is highlighted.

Automating

As already noted, one of our interests in this project has been the exploration and acknowledgement of the perspectival nature of our understanding. Our interest in working with digital technologies lies in part in the opportunity to engage with those technologies that are used to order information in the digital realm. In particular we were interested in working with the form of the database.

Database technologies are now ubiquitous. They may be seen as the product of a desire to stabilise perception by congealing information – the phenomenon that the Situationists observed in the development of modern cities. Computerised databases take practices of organisation and order further than city planning ever could. Database templates are designed with a view to avoiding interpretive ambiguity. Databases encourage normative orientations toward information. Databases serve up information in predefined and largely predictable ways.

Our use of digital technologies embraces an important, and perhaps contradictory, aspect of the medium – the potential for executing random combinatorial operations. Because digital media are malleable it is possible to conceive of digital data as endlessly fluid. While this is true at a technical level it should be remembered that in database projects digital data tends to be subsumed by a structure that emerges from the assumptions and projections about the purpose of the data at a given time. If archived digital data isn’t as malleable as we would sometimes like to believe it is also not as fixed or stable as we tend to believe in other circumstances. Obviously possibilities exist to interrogate an identical body of data in a number of different ways. Even if we restrict ourselves to pragmatic, utilitarian motivations for organizing data different pressures arise, different points of view develop, that lead to data being either configured, viewed or interpreted differently. If we view the desire for order that underlies database design as a desire to know the world (the encyclopedic impulse) then we see that data archives are always contingent – they are representations of the world from points of view that are prevalent at the time of their creation – but the potential is there for subsequent reinterpretation and possibly reconfiguration.

Our use of the database brings to the fore a rich set of interpretative possibilities against a background of order established through the database structure. We sought to enhance the potential for reinterpretation through the random recombination of images within the confines of that structure. The encyclopedic impulse is frustrated by the fluidity of responses to images and responses to categories.

One final point should be made with regard to the issue of automation. In many ways Real is a mechanism designed to illuminate an argument. Mechanism is central to the work. The medium is mechanism, image and language. Technologies can be every bit as influential in constructing our perceptions of the world as images or language. The computer for example has given us metaphors of communication, community and mind. It is very easy, however, to engage in the habit of conceiving of the computer as a passive medium for the display or distribution of the content. In this project we wanted to foreground the technology, to provoke reflection on its operation as both mechanism and metaphor, to highlight the potential of mechanism as a mode of expression analogous to painting, sculpture, and literature, to reflect on the medium through the medium itself.


Acknowledgements

This project was supported by research grants from The Waikato Polytecnic, New Zealand and Massey University, New Zealand. Further support in the form of accommodation, equipment and technical advice was made available by the Massachusetts College of Art, Massachusetts.

References

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