The Wasteland Management of the Image Wilderness

The wasteland and the wilderness are not real. They are cultural constructions formulated to describe specific relations to nature that escape human use value or mastery. Both terms describe a nature outside of and in distinction from culture. They are our own artificial abstractions. I mean this both conceptually and literally. Wastelands are places that threaten human activity. The wilderness describes places that human activity threatens.

There are ethical ideas driving both categories. The struggle to transform the wastelands of swamps, deserts, mountains, and jungles into useful resources; cities, agriculture, industries, is part of the history of civilization. [1] This can be described as a work ethic capitalizing on the conceit of providence. The ethics driving wilderness preservation comes from a sense of responsibility, of stewardship. The determination that certain areas should remain outside of human intervention. Both of these desires lead towards problematic conditions. By labeling something as waste, its visibility becomes undesirable and can be excised from cultural sight and made available for "improvement". These actions often literally create new wastelands through the damage that human activities bring. In order to label something as wild, cultural intervention must be regulated, limited, distanced. This requires drawing a line around an area, an abstraction maintained through policy, representation, and infrastructure. We encircle the wilderness, which is now inside a cultural construction, while we are outside, looking in.

There are important epistemological aspects also at work here. The terms wasteland and wilderness are used to test the limits of human culture, to provide a boundary for the construction of knowledge. These are places where we experiment at a distance, and places that we try to understand from a distance. (For instance, we exploded nuclear devices in the deserts of Nevada and New Mexico, and the Marshall Islands ((named the Pacific Proving Grounds)). These places were deemed remote enough from us to handle the trials of massive destruction.) The wilderness requires that we study it through remote mediations, mappings, and measures made at a distance to limit our interference, we call these spaces laboratories. The wasteland and the wilderness prove necessary limit conditions in the development of systems of mediation for the cultural practices of science, ecology, technology, politics, and warfare. They provide "the other", the outside, the world without us, the real.

Strange. The wasteland and wilderness are artificial constructions, thus not real, yet we use concepts like these continually to define the real. To say this in a slightly different manner; we use abstractions to define realism.

The following essay is not an ecological discussion, our if so, it is analogical to these concerns. The topic at hand is the image culture spread through the Internet. To see the Internet as waste that must be managed, cultivated, and harvested, or to see it as wild, requiring critical study and decoding, fits into the ethical and epistemological narratives regarding the wilderness and the wasteland. The Internet sometimes feels outside of our cultural control. It can seem random, amoral, contingent; a place where every image is meaningless yet stored forever. Images proliferate and spread like weeds and viruses throughout the screens and databases of the planet. The Internet has also quickly become the dominant place for how we understand the world to look. A world curated by millions of human and non-human actors capturing and posting the appearance "out there", for consumption and capitalization by others "in here".  It is a network of linked landscapes, their interrelations coded; abstract, logical, programmable and conceivably controllable. Yet this is rarely how it feels and behaves. For the control and knowledge of how this operates does not lie with the viewer, the user of the Internet. The vast majority of us are marginalized, outside of the inner workings of this landscape. We typically condemn it as either a wasteland of inhospitable threatening images, or a wilderness of random contradictory information.

It is this condition of a world becoming mediated outside of human guidance that brings the parallel between the Internet image world and the constructions of the wilderness and the wasteland. A great deal of our current anxiety regarding the Internet is similar to our anxieties regarding the conditions described as waste and wild. We are fearful that our imaging of the world, our representations of it, are now outside of our use and control, outside of our understanding, and not to be trusted as real or truthful. Architecture fears that this image proliferation will amount to a loss of criticality as architecture becomes mediated in manners that we have little disciplinary discourse to address. This is ultimately a fear of the image, specifically the image of realism.

This becomes clearest within aesthetics. The photorealist image is viewed as seductive. At best it prolongs an antiquated pictorial view of the world that conceals bias. At worst it is used as propaganda for nefarious means. But, if we follow the development of realism as an aesthetic, we find that it is never a naive naturalistic picture of the world. It is instead the tension produced when reality begins to look other than assumed. This puts a pressure on how we previously viewed reality, it creates a doubt in our mediations and representations, and leads towards a desire to understand this tension, to produce knowledge. An aesthetic concern for realism is the tension of the wasteland meeting the wilderness. It takes the image as given, appropriates it and combines it to challenge the assumptions of how the world is made sensible. It is not concerned with the use value or the processes that produced the environments, it is concerned with how they look, what affective qualities they have, what allusions they provoke, what spaces of articulation are opened up. It is also a mode of engaging the world that is equal to and independent of ethics and epistemology.

"Before it is cognitive, let alone conscious, thought is primordially an affective and aesthetic phenomenon. This is best grasped as a process of what Alfred North Whitehead calls "feeling". Whitehead uses this word, he says, as "a mere technical term" in order to designate "that functioning through which the concrescent actuality appropriates the datum so as to make it its own". What this means, in more familiar language, is that every entity becomes what it is by "appropriating" what is left behind by other entities that precede it. Most crucially, an entity perpetuates itself by appropriating its own prior states of existence. But an entity also appropriates other entities in its surroundings. It picks up whatever it encounters: whatever affects it, or provides conditions or resources for its own continued existence." [2]

I suggest that there are three possible responses regarding architecture's current inundation with images. These are rejection, critique, and embracement. For the purposes of this brief essay I wish to make two points. One, these three responses reflect three modes of relation to sensible information. The three modes are ethical, epistemological, and aesthetic respectively. I will argue that these three modes each have different implications and should be understood as equal in their footing, not subservient to each other. Second, although the quantity and speed of image consumption has accelerated, this change is largely a difference in degree not a difference in kind from earlier image regimes. If it is only a larger, faster distribution that we are dealing with then there is little cause for alarm as the concerns could be dismissed as generational, or even evolutionary. But, there is something different at play here. What is different is the relation between abstraction and realism. This tension has shifted, and the manner in which we interpret and create images within the Internet regime calls for a revaluation of ethical, epistemological and aesthetic modes of engagement.

Option 1: Rejection - The Ethical Response

It is a legitimate response to distrust the images that we see online. We know that they have been selected, edited, and manipulated to present a pictorial vision of the world which is not necessarily true. Or if we do trust them to be documents of a mechanically reproduced reality, we are clearly aware that the context has been excised to influence how we receive them. The ethical response is one which asks questions regarding truth and veracity; questions about what is the reality we are given access to via the image. At its extreme position we have the foundations of Western Philosophy in the Platonic dialogues. For Plato, all images are to be distrusted as they are a second order simulation; our vision itself is not to be trusted. The true is transcendent of our senses, it is in the realm of ideas; the model is the abstraction of geometry.

The discipline of architecture has rejected images many times throughout its history. This desire has rarified itself into the disciplinary specific sets of measurable orthographic line drawings. Here, as in Plato, geometry provides the verifiable truth of what an architecture actually is. Leon Battista Alberti was among the first modern commentators to recommend that architects reject perspective drawings, for they create distorted illusions as opposed to true proportions. We see this trend again today with a number of practices rejecting the image in favor of the drawing. The circumstances may be motivated more by the desire to distinguish a young practice from the computer generated renderings of the previous generation, but at the core of this is also an ethical response against the image. The image is seductive and outside the discipline, the drawing is abstract and disciplinary specific.

This is also an aesthetic based on an ethic of labor laid bare. This is an extension of craft based aesthetics, where the craftsman has truthful access to the relations between technique, material, and use. It carries the mantra of a "truth to" category: Truth to material, truth to site, truth to program, truth to process, truth to structure, truth to representation, truth to .... Aesthetics is the secondary fall out of an appropriate ethics. This response also aligns with the tendency to treat modern art as a form of transcendent abstraction opposed to the pictorial naturalism of the art that preceded the 20th century. Abstraction in this mode, lays the process of mediation bare while pictorial images lie, concealing these truths under the guise of a desired image of reality.

An ethical stance regarding the effects of architecture in society is fundamental. It is something that all architects have a responsibility to uphold. It is something that is under constant threat given the economics that fund the development of the environment into built form. My question is, does ethics help us navigate contemporary image production and reception if its primary stance is distrust and rejection? It could be argued that all mediations are partial and biased regardless if they are a drawing or a photorealistic image. The visual residue of labor and the disciplinary encirclement of a expertise are not enough to validate one form of representation over another. If all mediations are ethically suspect, then we will have an extremely difficult time addressing any media culture. Furthermore, should we assume that abstraction is an expression of "truth"? Does it not seem just as likely that the reduction to an abstract essence removes and ignores significant attributes that would be necessary in formulating an ethical stance towards "the real".


Option 2: Critique - The Epistemological Response

This second position demands that we engage the culture of image production as one which cannot be rejected, but one of which we must become critically aware. Awareness is the key desire here. A critical response to images does not dismiss them as outright falsehoods, but instead seeks to reveal the power structures beneath them that are driving their appearance. Once the observer has the knowledge of how these images are manipulating them, towards what ends, and by which forces, they will no longer be fooled. They can move from passive consumption to engaged interpretation. Awareness shifts the power of an image's seduction from the creator to the user. It has at its base a desire for emancipation in line with the philosophies extended from the Enlightenment.

What does critical awareness look like in relation to Internet image culture. Would it be awareness of the institutions and businesses that fund image production and dissemination? Would it be awareness of the impacts that these images have on various demographic groups and the manners in which these images act nefariously or oppressively? Would it be awareness of the consumption patterns, the popularity, of how visual information is distributed and monetized throughout the Internet? Would it be an awareness of the algorithms that sort similarities and differences between appearances to create our personal image worlds? Would it be the knowledge of the curator who can weed through the wilderness of images to collect the salient moments? All of these are important, all of these need to be pursued and exposed, and all of these lead to data.

Data is the end result of a critical practice regarding Internet image culture. It also, as in all bureaucracies, is the information in the bureau that gives the holder of that information power. [3] It could be argued that data in itself is not a critical project, it is how this data is represented and theorized that becomes crucial. The aesthetics of data mapping and network diagrams are attempts to visualize these ever-changing systemic interconnections at work in modern society. For a critical awareness project, the reduction to these abstract diagrams is the aesthetic desire, for in these, relations can be made clear and intelligible, they can form knowledge. They describe the deep structure underlying appearances. It is obvious, but I will point it out anyway, that aesthetics here is a secondary category subservient to and legitimized by epistemology.

Throughout the history of architecture, numerous methodological proposals for aesthetics generated through knowledge have been proposed. Each new methodology replaces the previous by structuring a critical argument against it. This critical attack on the dominant aesthetic is a crucial component of epistemologically based aesthetics. For early 20th century modernism the methodology to critique was the academicism of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. In the late 1960's there was a critique of modernism's functionalist methodology with proposals for re-grounding the discipline in historical knowledge. In the 1990's there was a rejection of Postmodernist referential irony with proposals for an aesthetics based on the procedures of digital technology. This last methodological argument finds its most recent propositions falling under the titles of parametricism and big data analysis. It may sound odd to lump parametricism in with other critical practices, and I'm sure there is a collective sigh at the suggestion, but to argue that a building's form is the direct result of data collection and processing is to argue that aesthetics is the outcome of an epistemological position. It may be technologically driven, (and uncritical about that); it may be too positivistic regarding the reduction to measureable data, (and uncritical about this as well); but at its core, parametricism is an attempt to mobilize the computational abstractions running much of our contemporary culture for an aesthetic outcome.

It should be noted here the presence of an abstract aesthetic. This is a different abstraction than the ethical desire to exclude visual resemblance towards an essential truth. An epistemologically based aesthetics of abstraction is actually about verisimilitude. If the world is increasingly abstract, its aesthetics should look increasingly abstract. This becomes the representation of the abstractions of modern economies, policies, and mediated social relations. As Peter Halley expresses, "In fact, abstraction in art is simply one manifestation of a universal impetus toward the concept of abstraction that has dominated twentieth-century thought." [4]


Option 3: Embracement - The Aesthetic Response

Our last option here is to accept and embrace image culture for what it is. It is a given, a "new nature". It is the database for how the world looks, the world as image spit out by the millions of image capturing devices located everywhere, all the time. To produce art in this environment is not to produce novelty from scratch, but to extract and recombine images as given. We are all now appropriation artists that select, extract, cut-out, and recombine. To aid this aesthetic endeavor, the Internet is the greatest image archive ever created. Everything is available to search. Everything is encoded in the same manner, leveling the field for manipulation and recombination.

This aesthetic embrace of appropriation and recombination is one of the dominant creative paradigms in contemporary culture. "Since the early nineties, an ever increasing number of artworks have been created on the basis of preexisting works; more and more artists interpret, reproduce, re-exhibit, or use works made by others or available cultural products....this new cultural landscape marked by the twin figures of the DJ and the programmer, both of whom have the task of selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new contexts." [5] To look towards the recent past, Pop Art took the images of popular culture, repurposed and combined them for a different audience and institutional context. Further back are precedents in the combines of Robert Rauschenberg and the readymades of Marcel Duchamp. Boris Groys has made the argument that all production of novelty in 20th-centruy art consists of taking the culturally valued and devaluing it, while at the same time taking the undervalued and valorizing it. Making the sacred profane, and sanctifying profanity.[6]

This is an aesthetic position that treats all of the image culture available as raw material. This material has various forms, colors, textures, and resolutions that can be used in the production of art. It is concerned with how this information is made sensible, how it appears. It asks about an image's affective qualities and the sensory response produced. It does not begin with a question regarding an image's actual truth, instead it asks if it looks real or fake, and uses the qualities accordingly. It does not begin with who produced the image, but with what allusions it has to other cultural images. It is not concerned with process, but with effect.

To return to an idea presented earlier in this essay, we could say that many of the ethical and epistemological responses reflect a distrust of realism as an aesthetic, and a recourse to abstraction as the method for image management. This happens ethically as a resort to essential geometry, epistemologically as a recourse to diagrammatic structural logic. But, what is the relation between abstraction and realism regarding the digital image? Firstly, it is important to note that the digital image is not the medium of photography, even if we evaluate the image sometimes in terms of photorealism. The digital image is completely abstract in its construction, manipulation, storage and transmission, regardless if it lays these abstractions out as the end visual appearance. The digital image knows no difference between something that looks "abstract", and something that looks "natural". This difference is brought by the observer. Zoom into any image, it is a collage of discrete pixels, each of which only posses three variables: hue, brightness and saturation. Image recognition algorithms scan the data of these variables for patterns of adjacency. In a way they are computing the seams of the collage, the seams that we use to determine if an image looks real or artificial. The aesthetic assessment of these images does not come from its source (ethics of origin), nor does it come from its production (epistemology of process). It comes from an aesthetic of appropriation, using abstraction in a different guise. The de-contextualization and re-contextualization of appropriation uses abstraction to create the aesthetic tension of realism. Aesthetically speaking, these two terms of abstraction and realism are not antithetical, but wind their way through each other. This aesthetic tension is not in search of an underlying essence, or in service of legitimizing knowledge structures, but hopes to open up new combinations for the appearance of the world.

The aesthetic embrace views our image world as the manifestation of where the wilderness meets the wasteland [7]; a closing of the artificial loop that ethics and epistemology seek to break apart into manageable terrain. This situation asks to no longer believe ourselves to be the caretakers or the exploiters of this background, but instead it requires that we are able to maneuver, re-purpose, appropriate, creatively consume the image world. It is with an aesthetic stance that we politically intervene.

[1] Di Palma, Vittoria, Wasteland: A History, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014

[2] Shaviro, Steven, Discognition, London, UK: Repeater, 2015

[3] Latour, Bruno "Vision & Cognition: Drawing Things Together" H. Kuklick (editor) Knowledge and Society Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, Jai Press vol. 6, 1985

[4] Halley, Peter (1991) "Abstraction and Culture" from Selected Essays:1981-2001, New York, NY: Edgewise, 2013

[5] Bourriaud, Nicolas, Postproduction, New York, NY: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002

[6] Groys, Boris (1992) On the New, London, UK: Verso, 2014

[7] I am indebted to Peter Galison for this phrase of the wilderness meeting the wasteland, from a lecture at Princeton University School of Architecture in April, 2013.