The world is increasingly divided into different parts defined by alternative factions. Whether it’s at the level of government where red states compete against blue states or one’s personal taste that favors one form of entertainment over another, the variety of options and realms in which one can enjoy life has multiplied since what some might call a “simpler time.” Whether this is a result of the proliferation of new forms of media such as movies, television, and digital media or a logical evolution of ways in which humans create and organize ways of representing themselves and others to create a sense of a shared world, is irrelevant. The consequences of this shift and the lingering assumptions of operating based on the rules and regulations of an earlier way of doing business has come to wreak havoc on how people relate to one another and to the built environment that forms the stage on which we play. Central to these misaligned assumptions, is the extent to which many still believe in a unified world of representation that triumphs over specific moments of cultural, religious, and political relativism.
What, however, do I mean by “representation” and “world of representation” and “plane of representation”? Through “representation” I define a situation occurring as a thing, place, person, or event in an inhabited world existing some distance from a natural condition. A still life that “represents” how objects are situated in proximity to the natural condition of a table without objects, an account of the exchange of those objects as numbers on a page in relation to a condition prior to when exchange occurred, a portrait of the owner of these objects before a natural landscape, an elected official charged with advocating for the beliefs of those who elected her, a building that traces a history of design and relationship with the earth, and a movie that re-enacts a murder, are all engaged in the sort of “representation” that I am interested in discussing. This broad understanding of the term “representation” begins to illustrate the extent to which a wide array of realms of representation, the possibility of these realms competing and contradicting each other, and the extent to which misunderstanding and failure of representation not just in one realm but in all realms is a possibility if a higher order of representation does not come to act as a unifying force.
Such a unified plane of representation was strongly present in the lives of most. It existed in the form of absolute authority invested in the hands of the church, monarch, and eventually philosopher. The church was primarily concerned with visual representation. Artists and priests created an image of man in relation to God as well as man in relation to man. The monarchy was less concerned with creating images of the world and more with accounting for the world via money and credit. The philosopher was concerned with representing the world via spoken and written language. While each of these realms of representation was absolute, the existence of this difference to begin with opened the possibility that one might dominant over the other. In many cases, wars and acts of intense negotiation arose in order to decide which realm would dominate a particular place and time. The successful exertion of absolute authority in one realm of representation often led to the desire of this absolute authority to enter another realm of representation. Monarchs who were successful at taxing peasants often sought acclaimed artists to paint portraits of their family history, merchants often were added as extras in religious scenes within churches, and royalty often commissioned elaborate palaces.
While there may have been a time when the temple or palace was the sole authority, this originary state before the fall and before the world was split into so many different factions is largely a myth. Nevertheless, this myth of unity and absolutism was maintained for thousands of years and only recently may have run out of energy and advocates to keep it alive. Most men and women, however, still continue to operate as if this myth were alive and well. We believe that representations reflect the situations form which they arose – ignoring the myriad languages and planes of representation that complicate how they are read, confound an absolute meaning, and diffuse their impact.
What, however, is the desired impact, function, or purpose of representation? An act of representation occurs when a person or group is confronted with a need to have their interests accounted for in a realm to which they cannot travel. This might include being “represented” in the court of a monarch, before a religious leader, after death, to the public as a celebrity, or as a transcendent vision of the world. These acts are essential as they allow men and women to function in multiple locations simultaneously, operating as a farmer who cultivates the land while also able to act remotely through those who represent his or her interest in the capital. They allow for successful visions of how the world might exist in the future under different parameters to come before leaders and the public such that alternative ways of living that might prove more beneficial to a multiplicity of individuals might take hold. Failure to achieve successful representation and misplacing where a representation is directed, received, and understood, results in people and situations remaining disconnected from the forces that affect these people and situations such that people are forced to devote energy to physically presenting what otherwise would have been represented. As a result, situations go un-acknowledged until they explode as an event. People become increasingly angry that their perspective is not being heard and are forced to stand up, protest, and revolt.
Why then does the myth of clear unified representation linger? Why have we not abandoned the notion of a unified plane of representation or even that representation can occur at all? We easily could have become disillusioned with the splitting of the world into micro-spheres such that we decide to abandon attempts to find cohesion and embrace minor reflections and adjustments in order to meet the many needs of those living on earth. While such a broad coordination of a multiplicity of perspectives may be an ultimate goal, it certainly has yet to appear on the horizon as a viable reality. Karl Marx understood exactly why this remains the case in his analysis of the relationship between the base and the superstructure, production and reproduction, presentation and representation. For Marx, the base – ground – is where production and presentation occur while the superstructure – government, religion, or realm of ideas – is where representation of things presented on the base occurs. It is also where reproduction of things produced by the base occurs.
In the context of art, this organization can be used to understand all art as a work – force – that reproduces and re-combines tropes and symbols that were produced and understood at the level of the base. Representation cannot occur at the level of the base just as much as production cannot occur at the level of the superstructure. If representation is a necessary balance and reflective act for presentation, these realms must continue to exist as complementary and yet independent. It is essential for a loop to occur that consists of transference between one level and the other such that meaning can be generated in the exchange between levels. This occurs through human actors, their technological prosthetics, and the communal bonds that they form within their local group and with other groups at other levels. It is certainly possible to imagine that multiple bases and multiple superstructures might arise, creating a rich set of potential exchanges as a result. The greater the number, the greater the likelihood of confusion and misunderstandings when different superstructures clash and transference between the base is received by a superstructure that acknowledges a relationship with another base as its primary purpose. The result is confusion and mis-representation, lack of production, and a desire to return to the myth of a unified plane of representation.
This desire would be of little consequence were it not for the broad effects of this desire on how we live in the world, relate to one another, and relate different spheres of human activity to each other. To better understand this desire, it is helpful to imagine that the possibility of competing levels or planes of representation and presentation is tantamount to suggesting a class structure – either culturally or economically driven – that is not rigid and unchanging. This maneuvering opens the possibility of liberating the human actor from being tied to a class by displacing the things that defined membership in a class to a level in which those things still exist, but do so independently of any one human actor through reliance on the material force of their design and innovation.
This shift from class to level – from being maintained by groups of actors to being maintained by abstract corporate orders – is not only conceptual, but is witnessed in the un-mooring of the culture industry from the elites that once supported it. It is marked by the possibility of almost anyone entering the culture industry if their aesthetic sensibility – realized either through the shear beauty of their body or the power of their faculty for design – is sufficiently refined. Competing centers and planes of influence characterize this shift. The heterogeneity that results is deeply compelling – offering sites of inspiration, cross-fertilization between cultures, and new products that make the world a more beautiful and efficient place in which to dwell.
This sphere of cultural production is, however, concretely limited by the broader world and its economy. A finite number of actors produce this culture. This number that defines this finitude is proportional to the number of actors that relate to and consume the culture that is produced. The characteristic of the culture is in turn defined by the spread of different qualities of relating to culture that range from a cultural product that is just a little beyond utility to a luxurious product whose “purposiveness” is immaterial. The concentration of products at different regions of the spread is defined by how a given society concentrates wealth and the extent to which that society has moved beyond faith in absolute representation and fixed class hierarchies.
The splitting of spheres of presentation and representation, production and reproduction and the rise of a calculus of existence that attempts to make sense of operations in an effectively infinite series of spaces defined by different logics and allegiances, creates a wide opening. Instead of lamenting this crisis of representation that began at the beginning of the 20th century as an incipient challenge to the grand narratives of modernity, that culminated in the Holocaust, and that ended with the post-modern turn, I hope to take advantage of the opening in order to find how the various qualities of art, design, and architecture are up-in the air, mis-assigned, not received and yet still present and real. The expansion of the cultural sphere in order to accommodate more consumer and producers should be predicated on situating art, architecture, and design with greater presence in spheres that have misplaced these activities to the point where their existence and reception is threatened. In order to do so, we must understand what the crucial characters and attributes of these activities are, who they might affect, and where this affect might be registered in order to provoke new opportunities for inclusion within the cultural sphere and new physical and immaterial affects on other spheres.
Art is born as if by magic and serves a purpose beyond purposes oriented around physical and bodily survival. Art serves a higher purpose agreed upon by a community. Unlike the object that is made through crafting, honing, combining, cultivating, rendering, and refining, the art object – although using these techniques – exists as a function of the Idea of its creator. The “birth of art” is, in this sense, not all that different from the birth of a human. The Idea is substituted from the Seed. Mastery of the Idea, however, has been possible in the sphere of art long before it became possible within the sphere of genetic biology. This minimal difference has been proven over thousands of years as the majority of what has been termed art has been concerned with representing and reflecting the human image. This has occurred in painting, sculpture, music, poetry, dance, fashion, pottery, and jewelry.
Architecture encloses and serves the direct purpose of covering, protecting, and ennobling as well as providing a field before which the human conception of dwelling can be enacted. Architecture, in this sense, should be understood primarily as the backdrop and cover for existence. Rather than simply being a practice of building units for living in that go largely unnoticed and before which little acting occurs, architecture is the elevation of this basic function of building to a higher plane where it serves as the back drop for the drama of human existence that is something more than general interpersonal strife. As theaters, temples, churches, capitals, palaces, mausoleums, monuments, memorials, and eventually as stores, restaurants, arcades, and movie theaters, architecture serves to create a sphere in which, however physically separated in may be, human action takes on an elevated meaning. In this sense, architecture serves as a support for art.
Design structures and serves humans in their life from day to day. In this sense, design is minimally distinguished from strictly technical processes such as forging or crafting. Systems and objects that have been designed serve their intended purpose beyond the standards set to begin with. The designed object takes on an icon and often aesthetic quality through the form that is created in order to attain this heightened level of functionality. Design, in this sense, applies thought, research, and analysis to pragmatic problems in order to solve those problems and, in the process, elevate the user or person or situation that was faced with the problem to a new plane where they come to realize the benefit of the problem through the elegance and joy of interacting with and experiencing the solution. Design serves to supplement the realm of the everyday. At the same time, design serves to support art and architecture just as art and architecture serve to support design.
In this sense, art, architecture, and design each involve an elevation from a realm where the same activities go from being understood as production to reproduction, or presentation to representation. The passage between one realm and another and the ever widening gap between these realms – even the inability to locate and visualize these realms to begin with – is of great interest because it will help us understand how entities existing in the world beyond the gallery or museum might be elevated in order to become something understood as art, architecture, or design so that their respective purpose might benefit the world in which they are situated and ultimately create. The manner by which design serves to elevate the basically pragmatic such that it can serve as an element of architecture and the way that architecture becomes the support and elevating platform for art, suggests the necessity of understanding and maintaining the relationship between these spheres and those explicitly concerned with production and presentation. This elevation has historically been intimately linked with the medium in which a given activity occurs. Media such as painting and sculpture were often elevated over and above media such as photography and ceramics. Churches and palaces were elevated above common dwellings and for a significant period design was largely marginalized. Recently, the media in which a work exists has become increasingly ambiguous and the status of a work is no longer contingent on its specific status with regards to a given media.
While opening art, architecture, and design to new definitions and possibilities, this relationship between spheres causes some degree of confusion and even difficulty when it comes to the process of elevation. In light of recent socially engaged art forms, the question of whether art can be presentation arises. Performed songs, acted plays, staged dances, installed objects and images, and acts of public intervention are no longer clear representations. The criteria by which a work is judged, once tied to how well the artist controlled, exploited, and mastered a given medium becomes less valid as artists become increasingly nimble at jumping from one media to another – at times operating conceptually and beyond a material realm entirely.
At the same time, patrons, receivers, and subjects of a given art may no longer feel comfortable as media that they are less fond of or explicitly objectified by becomes included alongside the media that once drew them in. Those who receive art assume that elevation has occurred or will occur in spite of the fact that they take and judge the art in the moment and without a broader unifying structure at their disposal. They do so without any guarantee that it will ever be elevated or that the time they spent with the art will be validated as being worthwhile – failing to transmit some kernel of truth stemming from a unified system. The result is that artists are increasingly inclined to deny elevation and locate meaning in the moment of experiencing the art. In the process, receivers of the work become less inclined to linger in the moment and more inclined to receiving as many works as possible in hopes of finding a transcendent experience that transports them beyond the art.
For building, the problem of elevation to a status of architecture lies in a similar confusion to that faces art. In the case of architecture, it is a result of a desire to judge architecture based on its productivity rather than how well it presents. While architecture focused on reproduction was concerned with fidelity to classical orders, reproductions of unified styles across empires, and endless variations on the rectangular room, productive architecture is focused on originality, differentiation, and variation of form. Architecture as a built and physical manifestation is productive in the same sense as a machine. It transforms the raw material of a human body into a formed entity defined as the comportment of the body while participating in a program that only the building makes possible. Such activities might range from strictly confining the body during manufacturing to open plan offices that provide room for ideas to grow.
While space may encourage certain uses or inspire ideas, it has yet to be proven that they can make anything new without the introduction of machines and skilled workers. The introduction of a complex production process to the building itself through parametric software often leads to little more than the production of an atmosphere through the intrigue of the resulting surfaces. In the process, architecture comes to produce art as it is increasingly understood through its sculptural qualities. Architecture finds an opening to being something not-built and invisible. In this sense, an opportunity to cultivate a loop between production and reproduction is established. “Architecture” that remains strictly visible, however, may not be as successful. The skyscrapers that produce space to an almost infinite degree – taking advantage of standardized structural and cladding systems in order to create space for commerce – remain very successful, but fail to inspire new uses through their form and ultimately may be fall out of use as society evolves.
These towers, however, present a level of difficulty when we ask whether they are “architecture.” My intention is not to belabor a semantic distinction, but to call into question whether the entirety of these buildings function as a stage on which a human conception of dwelling is elaborated and enacted. The emphasis on the productivity of architecture, and in particular on the potential of architecture to lead to incredible returns on speculative development based on bubbles and the celebrity status of the architect, has led to a splitting of the field and of buildings themselves such that moments within the building are elevated to the status of architecture while others remain realms in which a vast majority of the population is forced to live and work without hope of accessing or modifying the fabric of the built environment that envelops them. The result is a set of spectacular swimming pools, ballrooms, board rooms, lobbies, sky decks, and arcades where photo opportunities occur and another realm of all the other space that makes these moments of architecture possible. Within this context, “architecture” might shifts scales and changes media, now occurring on paper, as models, in galleries, as projections, within movies, as sets, and generally beyond the realm of brick and mortar.
For design, the problem of elevation is somewhat different. The present moment is defined by elevating design more so than occurred in the past. Design is within a period that both architecture and art have already passed through. For design, this has meant shifting away from it existential function as defined by human needs and towards cultivating notions of “design thinking” and “creative consulting” as routes to increased profit. By relying on the iconic nature of “good design” and the hypothesis that form and function are intimately linked, designers and businessmen go beyond a simple function that serves a singular purpose to the function of making a consumer desire the product through the “extras” that allow the consumer to achieve status with other consumers by being associated with the lifestyle promoted by the designer and business. While this has led to a massive boon for the creators of such products, it has also led to an incredible degree of waste and confusion as to what the true value of objects within a given life is. By capitalizing on the iconic nature of these objects, the consumer is unexpectedly confronted with a situation that once would have been provoked by art. The exaltation of design increasingly makes it unaffordable – not just to those making art and architecture, but to the majority of the population.
The elevation of design, however, allows for greater capital to become available for reproducing high-end designs as derivative products that are streamlined for mass production and made of less expensive materials. In this context, the challenge might be to situate the high-end design more broadly in the world to begin with such that its immediate energy can be productive. Art and architecture might also follow this call to situate their high-end practices and products more broadly and in direct confrontation with the world. This action would make room for bringing the creative process of making art, architecture, and design out from behind the closed doors of the studio, down from the level of the superstructure, and into contact with the base. This confrontation would expose the ambiguous relationship between production and reproduction, presentation and representation. Moreover, it would allow for different conceptions of these terms as embodied in different art practices to come into direct confrontation with each other rather than remaining safely beside one another in the anesthetic realm of the museum or gallery.
Different spheres would come into contact with each other. The co-presence of spheres would challenge rigid hierarchies of culture and offer room to find comfort with different levels of culture as embodied in art, architecture, and design rather than allegiance to different classes of culture as embodied in personal appearance, surface décor, and codes of language. As a result, the relationship between levels becomes more important than how any one level appears. Levels of art, architecture, and design operate on the home, the office, government buildings, university, publications, objects, websites, vehicles, and even on the ocean and outer space. Moreover, these different levels would operate under the influence of different spheres such as countries or belief systems. This diversity causes increased ambiguity concerning where generation and reception occur, where meaning is conferred, and how recognition, understanding, and elevation happen. The possibility of operating simultaneously in different spheres – adding or subtracting from one or another in the process – opens the possibility of a complex accounting procedure and exchange system.
Current regionalism fails to take into account the inter-relatedness of spheres of operation that achieve meaning through what they are not and how neighbors behave. Competition failing to account for interrelatedness leads to a general segregation and differentiation of “my” art, architecture, and design versus “yours.” This process becomes a tool to cultivate a vulgar sense of identity. The tragedy of cultivating identity in this manner is that the underlying forces that are eminently human, ancient, loving, and communal are rendered invisible by an alluring illusion of a sumptuous world that is promised as a reward for attaining a certain identity. The confusion over the spheres in which art, architecture, and design operate as well as the route by which they are judged as such has dire consequence for the quality and longevity of human life. The ability of art, architecture, and design to provide the basis for community and the standard of what appears as good and right is challenged as they are co-opted by activities such as business, politics, real estate development, home and body decoration, exploitation, and oppression in order to break the communal. In response to instrumentalizing art, architecture, and design – remanding it to a permanent state of exception in design departments, merchandise marts, glossy catalogues, galleries, and museums – we should attempt to expose this state. Through this opening, we create room to re-instate art, architecture, and design in the world through elevation and in direct coordination with different spheres and addressed to different levels. In so doing, the makers of art, architecture, and design might work together in order to create a communal space and framework of value that currently does not exist.