Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Real Fake

In her 1999 book The Unreal America, Ada Louise Huxtable made a critical distinction between categories of the “real fake” (which she applied to Las Vegas), and the “fake fake” of nondescript shopping malls.  In many ways, she echoed Baudrillard, who described simulacra as a defining characteristic of all America, excepting Las Vegas and Disneyland, which he saw as uniquely authentic places; for him, the simulacra was “anywhere but here”. Both of these opinions seem to recognize that when qualities of pastiche and excess are presented openly, consistently, and “honestly”, without pretend shame or aesthetic hypocrisy, they create a sense of place as memorable and striking as any “real” historical environment.  Authenticity is created by exorbitant excess.

Ever since I moved to Doha, I was trying to determine whether this place is real fake, or fake fake. There is certainly an excess of borrowed imagery here, and a sheer audacity of making the impossible happen. There are also fragile fragments of history, and traces of traditional Arabic culture. What is authentic Doha – these disappearing traces of the old, or the new Villagio Mall, complete with Venetian-style canals with gondolas, frescoed ceilings, and polished marble floors?

These thoughts were triggered again this weekend, when, walking at the local trade fair, I saw an object that defied a name. It could best be described as a “coat hanger masterpiece”: a series of generic coat hooks mounted inside an ornate gilded picture frame. It was a staggering example of kitsch – but a kind of kitsch that could be easily “borrowed” by the likes of Philippe Stark or Marcel Wanders, and placed in a trendy boutique hotel. In such new setting, the object will become a “real fake”, something that might generate attention, a smile, or an ironic wink of a design buff who’d appreciate the transgression.

What are we to do with objects like this? Should we continue a Quixotic fight to eliminate them from the face of the Earth, or try to embrace and interpret them? I did see people buying these frames. They will likely go well with their home décor. Perhaps, in absence of any acceptable universal truth, the real fake is the next best thing.

Blogger RWordplay said...

Our Uncle Quixote sought another reality in dreams. We impatient moderns have little faith in dreams and want what we want when we want it, and we want it stamped, certified, and when possible, in limited editions. The whole of it:We are quite indifferent to whether something is authentic, or "the school of..." or a copy, or even a counterfeit.

We are not only indifferent, but unable to distinguish between simulacra and the genuine article. The glory of consumerism has made everything possible, every place within reach, even as an increasing number of our new realities/experiences, are little more than increasingly manufactured, highly immersive digital product. This is not a bad thing, this is the only strategy to conserve the planet, as we know it, as the population swells to ten billion people.

The result: For the lucky minority "a preferred" reality, made up of a mishmash of remnants, running, to use a quaint metaphor, on a film reel, on an endless loop. They can pick, enjoy and discard the increasingly managed place i.e., Venice, Vienna, Paris, Prague, etc. They can rummage through lifestyles a bit of Provence here, New York City there. Urban or rural or undeveloped, they live on the surface of the world, like ants on a balloon.

The great majority will taste reality in its most horrendous forms, a world without borders, language without meaning, seeing through their minds eye the "real" world prepared for us by prophets such as Hieronymus Bosch or Rodin, or even the one prepared for us by gentle C.S. Lewis in the "Screwtape Letters."

The Unreal America is now the Unreal Earth. My Dear Boym, "eliminate," embrace," or "interpret'? All responses are irrelevant. At best, if we're aware, if we're grateful there's a bit of pleasure. A moment's wonder. However, there is no more passion, so no more transgression. There is only consumption. Or, as Robert Sawyer wrote some time ago: "There is no meaning, only markets. Enjoy everything now, the fire sale will ignite soon.

June 12, 2011 at 11:03 PM  
Blogger cb said...

I tend to agree with you. Yet it is so hard, being a teacher in a design school, to carry on with such pessimistic, if not cynical, attitude. They still believe they can make the world better.

June 13, 2011 at 2:01 AM  
Blogger RWordplay said...

Not cynical, critical.

The question, I would pose to my students is "better than what?"

It's lovely to be idealistic, but our young should be continually reminded that making the world better inspired any number of "would be" designers, from the from the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders and Conquistador—let's jump to the modern world to mention the Jacobins, Bolsheviks, Fascists, Nazis, Stalinists, and also the United States in Southeast Asia. Today, we have the jihadists and, again, the United States in the Middle East and in North say nothing of Apple, Google, Facebook, EXXON, Walmart, etc. etc.

Few things have introduced more terror than the impulse to make the world a better place. Your students should be inspired to design a more efficient tea pot or gardening tools.

June 13, 2011 at 8:12 PM  

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