Travels in Hyporeality / by Bryce Hidysmith

< Soundtrack: Swans - The Burning World > 

There's a really excellent video essay by S. G. Collins that describes the logistics and economics of faking the moon landing at a time contemporaneous to the actual Apollo mission. He demonstrates that simulating lower gravity for the extent of time depicted was not possible with the film technology of the 1960s. I've kept it close to my heart for a few years as a decent metaphor for the nature of inauthentic production and the cost of lies in relationship to truth. 

I think we can take something of a general law from this: A forgery, by virtue of being synthetic, cannot gain any economic advantage over its real equivalent. The cost of the circumstance of production and the produced object's characteristics existing in misalignment is always nonzero. The quality of the forgery in relation to its original must decay, even if said original is the pure counterfactual possibility of there having been an authentic version of said forgery in the mind of the forger or viewer. There is nothing strong enough in this world to derail the path that got one to the moment at which the artifact is created. There is only the potential to discern methods for the more efficient use of the material available at the moment, leading to greater economy of design and degree of freedom in the creation of a structure. Even if the facade is to extend into the structure of the design, if it is too far a turn from the trajectory of the world the material will decay. One must imagine the pseudo-metal enamel of cheap jewelry, the industrial adulterants in foodstuff, a bad quarto written by a man simulating a remembered play rather than the psyche from which such a play was derived. 

Even if we think of the most emotionally resonant candidate for faking the moon landing—Kubrick—and think of his space movie—2001, we think of things like the flight attendant walking across a tilted floor towards a pen suspended from a clear pane of glass, not simulations of true weightlessness. We had the V1 & V2 projects to piggyback off of, thanks to good old Werner getting paperclipped to NASA. The system of the world determined to make rockets and radio transmission, not video cameras that could take consistent long takes. Acting against it was not only strategically unreasonable, it was impossible.

Regardless, in spaces of strategic unreasonableness, the forgery wins out. Before radiocarbon dating made it more than a bit harder for men like Elmyr de Hory to churn out Modiglianis, Elmyr de Hory was actually churning out Modiglianis, It was possible to sell some lines of charcoal on a piece of paper for for the ransom of a small prince before recent inflation, as the buyer desperately wanted to believe. To that note, one must consider the strategy of Han van Meergeren, the greatest of all imitators of Vermeer. It was not as though Meergeren's works were parallel to Vermeer's paramount gifts. Meregen was chemically deft enough to fool but lacked magic. The mind of the client filled in the failures and imperfection with the unknown pleasures of an artist's genius, an apophenia of nonexistent taste. Faking is usually limited to objects of compressed meaning: art, money, and so on—data compressed structures whose symbolic significance is more than the sum of its parts. We might think of them as being able to serve as currency, detaching that word from monetary capital as we know it to broadly include that which pretends contains multitudes, but cannot physically. 

The Apollo Landing sticks in the minds of many solely because of the fact that it was a political action worth more than the sum of its parts—the meta-narrative concerning the defeat of the Soviets—while simultaneously being wildly improbable, the sum of its parts—god damn space travel—being enough to justify it. In most cases, it's not all that useful to create entire forged events and scenarios out of whole cloth. At least, it's not the dominant strategy for the kind of forces that can typically benefit from the control of narrative at that scale to engage in such behavior. The kind of agent that can can use wholly false events as currency in this era or the preceding Modern and Postmodern periods is typically either a State, a Megacorp, or other non-state actor who aggregate enough power to blur distinct categories. There are of course exceptions. The Big Cons that David Maurer has written about extensively are perhaps the greatest example: whole Western Union offices set up for a rubeish mark, the reality of Mamet's reproductions.  

Yet, the Big Con's forgery of entire events and locations is not typically a dominant strategy. Maybe there's a Reichstag Fire or a Maine to remember once in a while, but almost never the control of reality itself, down to levels that would resemble Fincher's The Game or the real world's Canadian Caper. This manner of phenomenon seems to only emerge when the currency of a given agent's concern is historical causality. The sense that an agent can engage in historical causality feeds into the moral authority of said agent's governance, thus limiting this behavior set's utility to to governments, religions, and other steersmen of society. However, as we have seen from twentieth century business and politics, the primary strategy has been varying degrees of frame control rather than something typically analogous to artistic or theatrical production in the historical sense of the wholly synthetic. The eventual asymptotic form of this artistic technique appears to be something akin to reflexive control and non-linear warfare emergent in the Crimean conflict and predominantly attributed in the Western states to one Vladislav Surkov. 

Still, the question of whether or not Vladislav Surkov is an artist is less interesting than the question of what this "art" thing we were talking about actually was in the first place, as regardless of discussions of semantics, the role of Modern Art in society is qualitatively different than the role of pre-Modern art, not to mention the chaotic decay of delineated genre at post-Modernism took hold. Surkov seems to be using art in its atavistic, magical sense as the control of communicative information. If we are to think of what art meant in the world before the commodification of art objects in the manner described previously that allowed them to be used as currency, we must think of a general plan of informational encoding expressed in much the same way across cultures. To think of the informational design methods of the Achaemenid is to think of something akin to the Aztec or the Malian Empire, with all of them present in entirely different spheres of geography and moments of time. The rejection of ornament in the Modernist period, best characterized by Adolf Loos' essay Ornament And Crime, was a rejection not only of baroque ornament, but of high fidelity visual communication. 

It's odd. I don't think there are very many people in the world, or in my life, who can conceptualize the notion of using art for communication, rather than simply as a method for overvaluing objects made out of otherwise lower-value materials. There is a confusing lie in this: people can conceptualize the idea that there is money in attention, but the attention itself is conflated with money. The thing that we're calling art at this point could just as easily be understood to mean something like "consumer products" as the iPhone's in art museums, whereas historically it referred to a set of specific methods of skillful production. The work of art in the age of digital reproducibility is qualitatively different than any of Walter Benjamin's predictive observations about mechanical reproducibility. It has embraced a new labor-value that conflates fame with prowess, as well as attention with money and money with capital.

At this moment in time, we are in a strange situation where the extension of the phenomenon of art to the whole of consumer behavior points to the possibility that the use-value and the trade-value of a given object are now synonymous, perhaps because the trade-value is the most obvious use-value for a given object. As far as I can tell, this can only have happened if we are living in a social reality that only uses a finite-set of the world's total information to make decisions, creating something that is equivalent to a collective hallucination of prices. Even in this environment of perverse incentives, modern art is deadly serious as it provides the viable patterns for controlling people's minds. One must think of Abramovic, Ono, or Burden as those who carried on the research of Zimbardo's prison in less ethically regulated territory. The title of Claire Bishop's Artificial Hells is probably most of what you need to know. 

This phenomenon of "art" in the modern world is moving largely into three directions while the standard museum/gallery world remains stagnant. One of them is the pseudo-artisinal Veblen goods, characterized by $4 toast and coffee and $1000 firewood. The last is a deadly serious attempt to create successors to Disney and Bernays' control models. This is characterized best by Surkov in Russia as described above with the total aestheticization of politics. Another school is well-characterized by augmented reality gaming such as Pokemon Go in the United States and Japan that use far more technocratic elements befitting a Stafford Beer or Eliot Noyes. I was close to a minor alternative school of thought that has managed to hold on to subsistence if not success in San Francisco. It might be characterized as both neo-Situationist and attempting to run the remnants of the 1990s/2000s Alternate Reality Game scene as an equivalent to the museum/gallery remnants while also simultaneously being interlaced with the local (semi-simulacral) counterculture in orgiastic excess while maintaining a playful, almost family friendly tone in other arenas. 

This topic got back into my head because I was talking in a tiny bar/church in SoMA with my friend Gabe who I hadn't seen in a few years. He's the executive producer of The Headlands Gamble, which is both an extremely interesting art project, one of the jewels of the San Franciscan scene, and something that I'm completely not the target market for. Gabe is in that last category of hoping to do the impossible task of popularizing experience/post-real environmental design as an art form. I respect his mission, but at the end of the day it seems as though there's a different conflict in play in our world than the hope that we might create new ones with the same systems of production as the past diverted to aesthetics playful interactivity instead of objects.

What I told Gabe in the moment as nicely as I could was that I believed that his plan was a quixotic economic impossibility. Synthetic realities are always going to be far more expensive than non-synthetic ones, the only real niche for the art form of post-real design was going to be therapy. It would be effective for bringing people who were used to only feeling safe in artificial environments back into the real world at a pace they might be comfortable at. He runs a multi-thousand dollar counterfeit mystery for couples to bond over, but all of the detective work I've ever done never cost me anything but well-spent time. 

When the late Umberto Eco wrote Travels in Hyperreality initially as Il costume di casa in '85, the Hollywood plan of polymorphic production without respect to material reality was in full effect. The Mall rose in the Arizona Desert, its air conditioned, its products lacking the context of the supply chain and infrastructural stack that produced them, instead contained in a retail outlet that was, itself, a commercial product. It's worth noting that by the 1980s, everything you consumed was increasingly meant to contain a kind of highly personal metadata about the brand of the object's description of your personality. Everything was art and nothing was. Nothing meant anything, exactly, because all of the meaning was subjective and driven by purchasing power. Even that subjective meaning was driven by a trend towards polymorphic indistinctness justified by the supposed ineffability of personal taste. You could be anti-consummerist in one way or another, but that would be sold back to you quickly. Everyone I know who came of age in that period has some degree of damage to their understanding of cause and effect. Eco's revision to the essay simply bolstered the thesis in '95. The totally context-free nature of Neoliberal trade policy actually peaked in the 1990s, and has just been fading in efficiency since then. The sense was, during the period of cheap energy and world trade, that you could do anything, anywhere, provided you threw enough money to cut out the climatic conditions.

All of this was a lie. This is just one of many of the methods by which humanity was sold on a version of the mutability of reality that was never delivered. The brand-world of the end of the second millennium and the beginning of the third was supposed to be a world of self-expression, progress, and pleasure, animated by the invisible hands of the market. While there's much to be said about the collapse of the polymorphic production plan in America with the 9/11 attacks, 2008 financial crisis, and present political crisis, it seems more worth focusing on the psychological effects of it on individuals for the moment, and saving the grand narratives for a platform that contains easy ways of writing footnotes and really embracing the non-linear dynamics of what happened/is happening to us. 

Exposure to the polymorphic production plan seems to install in people an ontology that I would describe as a productization of mental classes, where individuals are capable only of understanding something equivalent to consumer products, much in the way that art has become synonymous and thus non-descriptive described earlier. The standard mindset in the Western post-industrial state can only conceptualize of things in an inherently consumerist fashion. This again is keyed into the conflation of trade-value and use-value, where the average American can only understand the symbolic value of things, rather than their physical or strategic utility. More and more of the economy is mediated through a productization of the environment, and the various elements of transmedia storytelling and situational design are an attempt to take this design philosophy to its logical conclusion where art invades life, but remains a predicable, largely consumerist experience, ideally advertised truthfully and thus pre-determined and safely invariant. This is of course not limited to the art world. Denying all of the obvious elements of consumerism, we have to look at things like Effective Altruism as a misguided attempt to replace charity with consumerism. Similarly, in a rather perverse way, postmodern BDSM influenced sexual consent norms are impossible to meet, in that a chaotic and collaborative experience has to be pre-determined for anyone to actually give direct verbal consent about a specific act.  My list would continue with the Maker Movement's modern form as it became adapted to the productized economy, though certainly not earlier or parallel hacker groups. None of these systems are inherently analogous to consumer behavior, and yet they're constructed in a way that makes use of established design patterns that the population has been trained on. An incredibly literal example of this phenomenon in practice might be The Leather Work, a temporary shock art installation disguised as an expensive bag shop in Bangkok. 

To specify the pattern, a "product" is made up of an almost entirely ornamental object which may be ownable or experiential, a price, the branding/advertising around that price, and the metadata of the cultural context of the product. Everything is mediated through various levels of retail-aesthetic infrastructure, and so the consumers are completely alienated from their consumption, not to mention their labor. If a significant enough amount of the population believes that this is the only meaningful ontological category, they attempt to artificially simplify, and thus damage, their civilization. In a bizarre contrast to someone like Elmyr de Hory, we might think about the modern case of an organization like PC Music, which instead of artificially suggesting a natural system of production is instead artificially suggesting a more artificial system of production. What with the emergence of things like Kung Fury or, more obviously, San Junipero in recent years, we've developed a great nostalgia for the great heights of the Polymorphic by simulating it ourselves in the same terms that it decided to simulate the rest of the world. This strikes me not as a triumph of aesthetics, but the kind of kitschy phase a civilization goes through when it finally wakes up to the fact that it's losing many of its capabilities. The shopping mall will be the characteristic ruin of our Rome, not the forum. We are fetishizing our poverty without scarcity rather than embracing enough scarcity to allow ourselves wealth. This whole line of economic behavior is a complex trap that we must escape from. 

It's worth noting that the last place I'd seen Gabe were I think the synthesis to the thesis of forgery, and the antithesis of this essay: the former home of the artist David Ireland, which now is open for public tour and contains a space lived in by an eccentric man, adapted to his needs and aesthetics through the simple actions of daily life. Gouged, broken boards are memorialized by plaques, the walls are modified with an unlikely material, there are studies in the material of concrete and dirt, trophies of his time as a safari guide. To quote Antonin Artaud speaking of ancient Mexico: "There is no art: things are made for use. And the world is in perpetual exaltation." It is not as though he is suggesting that Mexico or Mexicans lack aesthetics—on the contrary he is highly impressed by them. It is as though, instead, he is interpreting the whole of the Mexican world almost as a gesamkunstwerk. As we advance in our physical technology, our relationship to the world becomes increasingly debatable, and there is a likely possibility of restoring the consistency and literalism of nature and pre-modernity at a higher level of human agency. The question is how to get people who currently are thinking in the productized mindset to realize that someone like David Ireland is just a representative of what is effectively the dying human tradition of trying to have morphic control over one's life and environment. From my perspective at least, this is what being a normal person probably means, rather than some kind of glorified automata. 

The trouble was that the standard, panglossian Whig History model of this coming to be because of some kind of abstract notion of progress is completely absurd, and faith in it has given us the crisis of the last twenty-one years since Eco revised Travels in Hyperreality. The only reason that I know about the world possibly being in perpetual exaltation as Artaud put it is through its echoes, its artifacts. It has felt, for the whole of my life, as though I was walking through the ruins of civilizations that had lived and died so quickly that almost nobody had noticed they ever existed. In the case of San Francisco, for instance, there were two civilizations with ruins within walking distance: the Jewel of the West, characterized by the ruins of Sutro Baths and the Palace of Fine Arts, and the Military-Industrial civilization, characterized by the bunkers built to defend against a Japanese invasion which only stayed in power for about 45 years at my estimate, and is now dying a painful, protracted death. It was these that were remnants of reality, rather than hyperreality, or its decayed, half-assed form of hyporeality. It seems worth picking up the pieces, and stitching them together. Potentially, this might have the effect of bringing the systems of production in consistent intentional line with that which they hope to produce, rather than this world of gilding, of facades, of printed patterns of marble rather than the real thing. I can love my visits to the International Art Museum of America, but I accept it'll never live up to ruin value. I can know Disneyland will not decay gracefully as well, but I can't really accept it. The memory of the world, outside of any given witness, needs at least one Ozymandian experience with Donald Duck. I'm not sure about Meow Wolf, and that indeterminacy gives me hope.