The Aestheticization of Everyday Life: Session 3
Design critic and instructor at the Design Criticism MFA program, School of Visual Arts, New York
Architect and critic; partner, Fake Industries Architectural Agonism
Artist and writer; coufounder of The Serving Library
Artist and writer; member of Bernadette Corporation, author of Rich Texts
Finally, I wanted to more directly discuss the overall subject of this forum, the “aestheticization of everyday life.” We do live in a world that is much more design saturated than it was a decade or two ago. I would argue that there has been a democratization of design as well, that the divisions between high design and low design, between, say, Target and MoMA, have dissolved. Not that this is a bad thing. I am a sucker for eye candy, and I can spend hours in, for example, the appliance aisles of Bed, Bath, and Beyond studying the evolution of the coffee maker.
My question is whether all this emphasis on design brings us closer to reality—the essence of things, how they work, what they are—or further insulates us? Has design become a thick, fluffy cushion that shields us from cause and effect? I was reminded of this by something John Kelsey said in Session 1 about “the cloud”:
“Actual keyboards and buttons disappeared into the screen, virtualized. Of course these disappearances aren’t complete, because the cloud in fact consists of huge refrigerated server farms taking up real space out in the suburbs, and actual low-wage workers are out there manufacturing our touchscreens.”
The whole notion of “the cloud” strikes me as peculiar. It’s a very lovely, poetic word for outsourcing or moving certain operations off-site. We seem to have shunted a lot of things to “the cloud.” Arguably, drone warfare is a product of the cloud.
There was a period, circa 1989, before electronic technology completely took over, when I was deeply concerned about transparency. My sense was that it was going away. That every new interface between human being and world (almost every design is an interface; a potato peeler is an interface between human and potato) seemed to add another layer between us and whatever we were trying to accomplish.
Now it seems like it’s too late to care about transparency because it’s pretty much gone. And we are content to live without it. Our knowledge of the world ends at the interface. We know how to manipulate the interface but have no idea what happens beyond it. We accept endless visual stimulation and constant connectivity as a substitute for being in control. Or maybe we never wanted to be in control in the first place.
Some people are actively stripping away layers. Efforts at making food, clothing, and other products directly and locally can be read as a return to transparency. Learning to write software code might offer a parallel path to a deeper understanding of how the world works.
But I keep thinking that the very sophistication and intensity of our design culture has a pacifier effect. It’s like Aldous Huxley’s drug soma. It contains us by keeping us happy.
Is an antique tea set any less “aestheticized” than a contemporary hotpot? Or graphic interface? While the values of a culture show up in its artifacts—not only in how they look, but in what they’re made of and by whom, how long they last, how much they cost to produce and to purchase, who owns them, etc.—it’s difficult to accept as a legitimate political problem “the aestheticization of everyday life,” or even the idea that said aestheticization is on the rise.
One could argue well, however, that increased aestheticization (if it exists) and a related opacity (as opposed to transparency) between means and ends (e.g. objects and the effects of manipulating them) are characteristic or symptomatic of a particular political orientation. (The values of modernism, after all, are purportedly expressed in forms that reveal the process of their own construction.) The making and selling of food, clothing and other products locally in reaction to perceived aestheticization and opacity could then be considered politically motivated responses to those symptoms. In that case, though, it would be more instructive (and structurally consistent with the nature of the complaint) to scrutinize the politically motivated activity—the “how”—rather than the product—the “what.”
I would like to start by making a distinction between access to information and actual access to high or low design. We can easily see online the $5,000 special-edition works by Damien Hirst that Gagosian Gallery sells, but that doesn't mean that we can purchase or enjoy them. Similarly, I would also differentiate between good and bad quality design. There is unfortunately a distinction between an Issey Miyake dress and the kind of cloth we could find in, let say, Walmart. In architecture we could say the same: we can read in any newspaper the details about buildings completed by Pritzker Prize winners, but that doesn't mean that we can afford (or want) to live in one of the condos around the High Line built with their collaboration. There is also a clear distinction between the highly questionable quality of the corporate apartment buildings that are all over the city (despite their price) and, let’s say, the Fallingwater house by Frank Lloyd Wright in Pennsylvania.
In terms of transparency, I would point out that technology and design have changed our conception of information in an unprecedented and unexpected way. It is true that the overwhelming amount of information to which we are exposed creates a type of general anesthesia, but it is also true that WikiLeaks, a highly designed project based in the participation of anonymous users, has unveiled data that was completely inaccessible until now.
You could say that design has gotten between people and their worlds, blocking our view or whatever, or you could say that it’s the technical media themselves that become invisible precisely in order to function. We know how to use a smartphone but we have no idea how it works, and we’re mostly blind to the ways it’s using us (data mining, etc.) in order to extend and complete a communicating system. The black box appears to us as a cool, personalized interface that constantly makes demands on its user. I would say that increased transparency on the part of users is what the black box produces in order to make itself opaque and complete the circuit. The apparatus is us: self-design. But as operators we don’t exactly control or invent anything, we just operate. Meanwhile, many things disappear in the interface in order to make it appear—like time. And at the same time, many things are definitely freed—like time—but also in order to improve the circuit.
It’s debatable whether the interface produces happiness. I’ve heard the opposite: the same thing happens in our brain chemistry whenever a message pops on the screen that happened to primitive man when a tiger jumped out of the bushes: a surge of adrenaline. But now we get a thousand tigers per day, and this frequency actually decreases our serotonin levels, which explains our need for Zoloft. This reminds me of neurologist George Beard’s diagnoses of nervous disorders in the mid-19th century. He wrote the first popular self-help book, wherein he named steam power, electric light, printed news media, and the emancipation of women as the leading causes of nervous exhaustion in his time. Ironically, he also declared the only cure for modernity was even more modernity, specifically in the form of electrified belts that individuals could strap on to charge themselves up like a batteries. So I don’t think people are happier or more energized now than before, they’re just more individualized in relation to ideas like happiness and energy, and likewise more personally responsible for their ailments and lack of energy. We’ve learned to imagine ourselves as either empty or full, on or off, and as operators we’re offered all these means of self-adjustment. And it’s not even about psychology anymore, it’s just about degrees of performativity.