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REALITY VS. REPRESENTATION / essay

RealityAndRepresentation-diagram_Adigard

REALITY VS. ITSELF: A QUESTION OF REPRESENTATION
Most everyone starts and ends their day on a screen. It is a condition in which three notions conspire in a dynamic triad to establish what we know as “reality”: the act of making, our engagement with things, and our experience of being.

“How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?” (Plato, The Allegory of the Cave)

TIME
1• ABOUT BEING: present reality is a construct of representations
Even if we live in times of great speed, we still do not move our heads. We have managed not to do so while deeply transforming our world. We are moving through an ever reduced present, away from an ever increasing past and toward an ever eluding future, all the while augmenting our potential scope of selfhood ad infinitum—our experience of being.

To grasp such a conundrum is to start by positing that representation has always been a reflection on reality.  As soon as a hand appeared on a cave, man appeared to himself and the cave turned into a space of representation—invented with a wide portal but little possibility of exit. It is a parallel world filled with familiarities, highly controllable and even more controlling.

The relationship between reality and representation is not unlike the chicken and egg problem. It is an infinitely puzzling process which continues to raise the timeless questions of who created what and what created whom.

To define the questions of reality is to frame the notions of “presence” and “being” within the duality of the self and its environment. Do we “exist” as fully part of an infinite universe, in the scope of a human life, of an observation, or of the blink of an eye? Reality is the timeless glimpse of what we perceive. Often, it only is the reality of representations that we have designed. Fireworks, commuting time and door bells do frame our present in distinct ways.

Temporality in western culture is built on an asymmetric relationship between present (realtime) and past (history). We live in and through representations that are anchored in the past—a duality of realtime vs. history. The representations invented yesterday were inherently meant to be viewed today. We are conditioned to perceive reality as a pre-packaged experience.

We control reality by design and even compete in doing so. We have colonized nature, knowledge, space, time and emotions, all the while attempting to establish these experiences as the true essence of life. Through a process of iterative design we have conceived ever refreshed (and often conflicted) representations—a succession of eggs and subsequent realities leading to a modernity where representation and reality are all together blurred and undifferentiated. Narratives have turned into synthetic realities reinvented as quickly as they are consumed.

Our present is one in which the shift between yesterday and tomorrow is perceived as a tension between physical and symbolic realities. “Being” is now experienced, quantified, negotiated and valued through and by representation. Concurrently, the anthropocene may be redirecting our existence into three separate realities: back to our ancestral caves, away toward future planets, and in the sustained state of representation anxiety that we all know, in which the eggs we have designed sometime produce monsters, tsunamis or KFC Boneless Wings, instead of chickens.

HANDS2• ABOUT MAKING: creation renegotiates all previous creations
In our hyper mediated times, Walter Benjamin’s notion of “dialectical image” seems more potent than ever. It reminds us that Plato’s subjects didn’t escape their curse through the door, but through the shadows. Over millennia we learned to master the fabrication of image and escaped the caves to explore worlds of fetishization and eventually of “iconubiquity.” We create therefore we are. We create a lot therefore we are a lot.

In time, representations are discarded, archived, recycled, reframed and/or objectified into what one might call “thingmages”—representations that we live with as if they were artifacts, e.g. the image of an old handset on our smartphone.

Hands have made tools to improve their own making powers. These tools, and their developing brains, are in turn progressively supplanting the need for hands. If the trace of a hand on a cave could mark the lasting presence of humanity, it is now the geo-marking of a finger on a screen that precisely indicates the what, where and when of our presence. It is also questioning our capacity to remain on this planet while representation is increasingly becoming autonomic, that is to say with its own functions, needs and metabolism.

Concurrently, an emerging culture is reversing this path and reminding us to reenter reality with new eyes, minds and hands. Aside from a world of ideas, a world of matter is calling for new creators to bypass the visual culture that we are so accustomed to, in order to explore a culture of the sensorium more than of the spectacle.

THINGS3• ABOUT THINGS: hands, tools & creations invent each other
If hands do make things to their liking, the neo-hands have learned to make neo-things that aside from dazzling us, increasingly distract us away from the liking of making things, which in turn leads our attention to the realm of design.

Design is imagination combined with problem solving. It doesn’t need nor claims to be art and yet it is driven by an idealistic creative impulse to invent and improve functions and meanings. These often escape the realm of the functional to invoke that of the mesmerizing, provocative or sublime. We may idealize our Instagram, Audi bike or Versace handbag when they seemingly reach far beyond the practical. Such things sometimes migrate away from the realm of fabrication, consumption and profit to that of culture, subjugation and metaphysics—even if to be forgotten after one season.

It is representation that gives reality its “handles,” substance, meanings and interpretations. Ultimately, through “distraction” it augments reality into allegories whether they be claims, victories, brands, empires or myths.

For being the mere reflections of things, representation cannot claim for completeness, however they are not neutral, and therefore, even when existing as clones, they may claim a status as singular entities. An iPhone is more than the image of a highly mutated phone, and more than an evolved image of the previous version. Things become hyper real when their representations have gained canonic powers. Through a reverse engineered process, a representation can escape the pull of its model and turn into an idea and therefore become holistic, e.g. as religious artifacts. The Buddhas of Bamiyan prove that even in their absence, the aura of their image can remain, not only through our imagination’s memory but because they retain pervasive representations through billions of printed and electronic images.

Images are caught between many neutralizing opposites such as the fake and the authentic, the false and the true, the expensive and the free, or the mundane and the artistic, all for viewers ranging between the iconoclast and the iconodule. There is un-intentional unity between representation and the reality it refers to. Images therefore are concepts of reality—shifting concepts sometimes constructed and other times evolved through usage as we are increasingly seeing in the regime of social media.

One might question if representation has any future if all eyes are gone—another chicken and egg calling for different eyes one might speculate.

Misunderstandings are the medium in which the noncommunicable is communicated. (Theodor Adorno)

Erik Adigard, M-A-D / 2017