Jackson Lukas

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Mark Foster Gage On The Aesthetic Disruption of the Real

Janurary, 2018

The Aesthetic Disruption of the Real   Excerpts from the MFG lecture at SCI_Arc, January 26 2018

Manhattan Skyscraper Proposal  Mark Foster Gage Architects


        I want to talk about the conceptual framework through which we understand reality.   But what I really want to talk about is what’s been referred to as the great flattening.  By flattening I mean a removal of systems of hierarchy across multiple disciplines like philosophy.  Certainly SCI_Arc here with the presence of Graham Harman and David Ruy and the introduction of object-oriented ontology into the discourse know about the flattening of ontology as the removal of the primacy of the human subject in favor of an equal ontology.  This operates as a way for us to think of new ideas about reality and new ideas about architecture.

        But the flattening isn’t only in philosophy.  It happens in subjects like social rights and social equality.  You see movements like Black Lives Matter and MeToo where there is real drive for people who have rights to exercise those rights when in the past they have been more dramatically oppressed. This is by no means an easy task but we can see a drive in circles of social justice towards this type of flat equality. You see it in economic structures, which I would say in America we’re probably the worst at, but you see it in movements like Bernie Sanders or Occupy Wall Street calling to address inequalities of income.

        The one thing I want to talk about a little bit more is the flattening of the media.  In the past most of the 20th Century had this Meryl Streep figure on the left… if you have seen this movie, The Post, with Tom Hanks which is what this image is from, then you know what I’m talking about. The movie is basically a story about the editing of news and the editing of reality.  In the past we’ve had a structure where there was news, there was a journalist and it all flowed towards an editor and that’s what was called an integrity gap.  In that integrity gap you have an ombudsman in a news organization whose only job was to decide if the news was truthful and accurate. Once that decision had been made then cones switched and it was broadcast to the population.  So, there is this kind of funneling effect which is of course a form of hierarchy that went to limited groups of people from multiple journalists and in that final group the story would turn around and be broadcast to the rest of our culture.

        One of the after effects or side effects of the flattening is that we’ve had a flattening of media.  Michael Young writes very eloquently in an article in the most recent issue of Log where he talks about the Internet being a flat archive of information. For the first time in human history humans aren’t being given information, they’re going and getting information and what that produces in our society is a little bit of a problem because humanity, or at least American culture, hasn’t really developed good defenses against so much information which means that there’s a skewed idea of reality in many different bubbles across many different circumstances.

        This phenomenon has been referred to as like trying to drink from a fire hose.  There’s too much information and people are unable to suss out what’s true and what’s not.  Some of the statistics done by recent Stanford studies were that 50% of Facebook users believe that a piece of news is true if it includes a logo or graphic.   Eighty percent of Facebook users believe that if an article includes the word “sponsored content” it’s more likely to be true.  Four out of 10 students believe that if there is a picture of a mutated daisy on the same page of an article on Fukushima, it meant that Fukushima was causing radiation mutations. Probably most scary is that preteens, obviously people from 7 to 12, spend an average everyday a 7 ½ hours online outside of school. That’s 7 ½ hours in which people are absorbing information, none of which has been vetted. So this is the downside of the flattening.

        Furthermore, the media has an impact on assumptions about reality and how we understand reality. We all know this picture, obviously.  This woman and her daughter are at a trump rally.  Trump’s tweet says in quotes “don’t believe ‘sources said,’ by the very dishonest media.  If they don’t name the source, the sources don’t exist.”  But then the very next tweet from Trump says, “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.”  So there’s a problem in how Americans are thinking about reality in the realities that we’re given.

        Some statistics to go along with that are that 85- this is a Newsweek magazine study from July of this year… 85% of Republicans believe that free press has a negative impact on the country. Fifty percent of Republicans say that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country. Now what kind of reality do you have to exist in for those statistics to makes sense? What kind of reality do you have to believe in were you believe the free press is bad for our country?  What kind of reality are you given that teaches you that and how is it that so many people believe it?

        So there’s some things we can do about this.  This is my Trump library. I was asked by a publication to design the Trump Library, so this is it. I actually presented this as an example of what not to do, but regardless, here is an example of how we can address this problem with reality and the political consequences of it. Moreover, this is an example of satire and smugness and here we’re just going to invent something clever, we’re just going to be smug so that we can feel superior. So we have areas on the plan like… lets see… this is… the vault for Kellyanne Conway’s soul.  C indicates the hall of caged nasty women.  O is the hall of actual accomplishments. It’s tiny. A is “mostly empty” which is the largest room in the plan.   K, L and M are unknown because they’re owned by Vladimir Putin. But satire and smugness only get us so far. We can only watch the daily show and MSNBC to feel better about ourselves so much, and it really doesn’t have any significant impact on anything.

        Another way to think about this is with critical thinking which is a philosophy of thought emerging from the Frankfurt school in the 1930s and has been guiding much of architectural social agenda for the last for decade. But in a sense what it says is there’s a True reality and it’s the intellectuals and academics job to reveal that reality for people who can’t understand it for themselves.  That’s actually a very hierarchical position; there’s a reality that other people can’t understand but we can give it to them. I think this project largely in philosophy is at a dead end.  Notably a lot of the writings from Jacques Ranciere say that the oppressed are rarely cognizant of the circumstances of their own oppression. People don’t need to be told how they are oppressed, because it’s irrelevant to them.  They need foremost to be told simply that they are in a state of oppression.   

        Criticality is actually at a dead end in terms of its ability to address social inequality.  You can call out the producers as liars.  You can call Donald Trump a liar but that doesn’t change the political situation at all. You can search for real data instead of saying, “Well, we think Obama was born Kenya and we speculate that his birth certificate is fraudulent when it says he was born in Hawaii.” Of course the production of real data just gets lost in the fire hose.  Getting to the problem, there is an architectural position right now being advocated by Michael Meredith that indifference is a sort of valid response to what happens in history. This position has been taken before.  It’s happened many times in our past in various practices. While I disagree with that position strongly, I’m glad there’s someone articulating it in an intellectual and rigorous way, so I look forward to having more of that debate moving forward.

        Finally there’s another strategy called the Aesthetic Disruption of The Real, which is what we’re going to talk about tonight.  Now Aesthetic Disruptions of the Real include a number of different categories, some existing and some not yet invented.  It includes counter-factuality and para-fictions, the latter of which Michael Young writes very eloquently on.  My work deals with the former.  We see evidence of these practices happening in other industries.  Black Mirror is essentially a counter-factual proposition that says if technology is developing, and it has to be developed in a certain way, these are some of the possible outcomes.  What gives Black Mirror its power is that it happens in a recognizable reality. We realize that they are using iPhones and Apple products and how society has spun out of control in some of these scenarios.  It’s using speculative fiction and counter-factual ideas that produces a future that tells us a lot about our present.

        The Handmaid’s Tale, which is on Hulu, even has some of the adds that say “We are not so different.”  It’s a counter-factual premise where a political regime has taken control of the USA and takes full control over women’s bodies.  We know that it happens in the United States because they have Chevy Suburbans and American houses and 2014 Mercedes.  There are recognizable things that tells us “this is happening in your reality.” The reason why the Handmaid’s Tale has become so potent is that the political regime in which we exist is so close to tipping in the direction- not necessarily becoming that, but we’re one supreme court justice away from women loosing legal control of their uterus and it’s not a huge step to go from loosing control of your uterus to loosing control of the rest of your body which is why the Handmade’s Tale is garnering so many rewards and drawing so much attention.

        In para-fictional practices like Damien Hirst’s most recent “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” he comes up with a premise and the premise is that he has discovered an Egyptian Pharaoh’s treasure barge that sank in the Indian ocean and he’s paid all the money to recover these items which he’s then selling on the art market.  So he did these sculptures, submerged them all, hired scuba divers to lift them back up so he can take the photographs and legitimize this as something that really happened.  But it’s a para-fictional argument and he provides clues that it’s not real.  For instance, this sculpture is Mickey Mouse.  If this barge sank 2000 years ago, how would you bring up a Mickey Mouse statue that’s covered in 2000 years worth of coral and aging?  There’s little areas where he peals up the fabric of the reality that he’s producing and the idea of para-fictional art is that it encourages people to do that with their own realities.

        There’s a correlation between being asked to do that in a creative practice and being willing to do that in your own life.  The idea is that you’re not being told what reality is, but rather you’re being encouraged to look at what’s been given to you as your own reality, as a description of your own reality and consider the consequences.  Now surprisingly enough Hal Foster the art critic seems to have taken a turn towards this para-fictional argument and he asks what relationship might there be between these types of para-fictional art practices and fake news and fake realities.  We too are asking that question.  I am asking that question.  Others in the art world, entertainment and in architecture are asking that question.  It’s a project on the table which I think is more promising than the other avenues that I spoke about earlier.

        The interesting thing about this show is that Hirst spent an estimated 50 million dollars of his own money making this project and its expected to bring in an estimated over 2 billion in the art market.  More importantly, what it’s adding to the art market apart from money is a fiction.  Fiction in an art world where the artist is creating not only the art objects and the world in which it’s embedded, but also providing clues about the fictionality of the reality.

        Why is that interesting to architects?  As it turns out architecture has a very deep and long history of calibrating people’s perception of reality. If you look at a project like the Parthenon from Periclean Greece roughly 400 BC there’s a number, and I’m sure you get this in your history classes, of optical refinements.  Greek architects realized that things didn’t look perfect to you when the got to be a certain scale so they manipulated structures to look perfect. Some of the design moves of the architrave and freeze tilt at a one to twelve ratio forward so they are not actually flat. There’s not actually one straight line in the entire Parthenon, which you may or may not have heard before. The stylobate is curved.  Not only this, but in the entire floor as well as the foundation they have found that when you build this large things tend to warp.

        The Greeks were already correcting the perceptual apparatus humans have. Vitruvius, 400 years later, in 31 BC wrote a system of architecture and he gives an analogy for us to consider as architects. Look at an oar underwater. It looks like it’s broken because the water reflects the light from the oar but you know it’s actually straight, so how do architects calibrate that reality to match the actual truth of the situation? He gives us the rules.  He tells us what limestone to use, how to make the foundation, and he says very prominently that we should do all this but if it doesn’t look right people we should just change it!  There is a reality disclaimer in the very first book ever written on architectural theory.