Elastic Reality. Synaesthesia of the Real or Reality as a moving target

Benjamin Weil


Almost twenty years have elapsed since the use of Internet became available to all, and about five since it became accessible from anywhere via mobile hand-held terminals.  These major technical evolutions have profoundly modified our understanding of the world. We now live permanently connected, in a time/space that is in perpetual flux, with a totally decentralized and constant flow of information, resulting from the dynamic combination of mobile telephony/computing with distribution platforms offered by the network (video or photo-sharing websites, social networks, etc.). More importantly, rather than being passive recipients, we all participate in the making of information.  In doing so, we also question the traditional hierarchy of information: one sends and receives texts, photos or videos from anywhere, which may originate from experts or best friends, hackers or neighbours; one keeps oneself informed irrespectively of the most minor doings and movements of our relatives, our work colleagues and personalities of all sorts. During the course of the last decade, a hypermedia constellation of information has emerged, where the links between the different elements are woven and unwoven to the rhythm of the flow of new batches of data, and according to individual interests.

“Reality” as a concept is redefined in real time. Data and images augment and reshape our experience of our environment, thereby modelling a sort of moving landscape; telepresence reconfigures human relations and our consciousness of living in a multidimensional world which mixes the “here and now” of each individual: the mediated space is a shared realm that is incorporated seamlessly with the physical space; the boundaries between these two components of our daily life have erased.

In this info-world, where real facts mix with rumours, and personal information with official “news”, it has becomes practically impossible to tell them apart. Conceptual conflations, such as Reality-TV, docufiction or edumercial, signify a state of culture wherein the Real  – or the Truth – blends fluidly with the fake or the imaginary. More than ever, the landscape is a construct, a composite that is as much an interface as are our multiple screens, which in turn tend to increasingly look like landscapes.

In a world where it is sometimes easier to access the Internet than running water, a considerable – and ever growing – number of human beings lives in a realm that blends experiences “in real time”, and others in “real space”, each of these layers of reality readjusting themselves in order to create an ever more fluid continuity. This bears an eerie resemblance with the world American author Neal Stephenson described in Snow Crash[1], a novel he published in 1992; a world wherein knowledge is constantly merged and reinterpreted, in which a sort of chaos combined with almost military order reigns.  In this realm, one simultaneously walks down the street and moves around the “Metaverse”, a virtual world to which one is connected permanently by way of screen-goggles that create a perfect continuum between the here and elsewhere.

As a result, Reality is now a condition that results from the bringing together of individual experience: it is no longer a set of shared conventions. Rather, individuals regroup according to their interest, perhaps more that to their belief. Somehow, the consensus is superseded by a fragmented or stratified realm fashioned by a fluid and simultaneous affiliation to several rather than one group, a phenomena already described in 1988 by the philosopher Michel Maffesoli in Le temps des tribus[2]. Reality, in that sense, is readjusted to the rhythm of file sharing and other virtual exchanges, which complement – or is complemented by – meetings in the flesh (or “meat space[3],” per the expression coined by Anglo-Saxon geeks).

To a certain extent, the relationship between reality and fiction has been somewhat reversed. Or maybe, the narrative quality of fiction has infused our daily lives in unprecedented fashion.  Oscar Wilde stated over a century ago that: “life imitates art[4].” Thus, he developed a theory of anti-mimesis. His observation applies perfectly to the cultural condition of nowadays. One could for instance point to how digital personal music players and their playlists have enabled the real time mix of a sound track for one’s daily life, just as in any film production.  The same appliance may also be used as GPS, and therefore superimpose a map onto the territory. Beyond the debordian concept of Society of the Spectacle[5], we have entered a sort of hyper-reality, a state of culture in which the original and its replica co-exist but where the “fake” is sometimes larger than life, which is what Umberto Eco pondered, upon his return from a trip to California in his column ” Viaggi nell’ipperrealtà”[6](“Travels in Hyperreality”) in 1975.

This state of things, whether understood from a practical or more philosophical standpoint, affects the creative process; the formalization of ideas, and the way art is shared or distributed.  Furthermore, the work of art tends to be more and more instable formally: it changes, adapts itself to the space and the context, and may morph, from document to experience, creating a cultural constellation of sorts.

To these conditions, one would add that, since the end of the 1950’s and perhaps even since the duchampian and Dadaist experiments, artistic practice has never ceased to explore the tensions between the creative process and the work of art resulting from this process.

Classic art forms tend to obliterate the conception and production of the work: the spectator is invited to contemplate, to admire and to a certain degree, there is an important element of myth. However, in a world where one has difficulty telling the real apart from the imaginary, revealing – or even staging – the creative process has become an integral part of artistic practice: the work of art nowadays is often thought as a set of conditions that are meant to create a real time experience, proposing in a way art as the last outpost of a certain authenticity.

Two phenomena seem to have come back in force in the artistic practice of the last few years. On the one hand, the reintroduction of the body – that of the artist’s as well as the one of the visitor – is meant to stress the importance of a physical experience of the work and the concern for a certain interactivity; and on the other, the idea of a process-centric form, in order to showcase what in the past would have been ensconced.

As a consequence, installation, a relatively recent artistic form, has become considerably widespread. It often bears formal resemblance with the theatrical set. However, its dynamics is informed by the notion of the spectator being the actor or activator of the work: thus, it is he or she who forms his own experience, his own “artistic reality”. Reality in that sense might therefore be what is tangible, what one can touch or feel in a defined time/space.

Realidad Elastica relates to the many terms that have been coined today to describe the changes brought to “reality”, whether it is “virtual reality”, or “augmented reality” – just to name the most common. The concept of elasticity posits a degree of continuity that may not have been so obvious earlier on.  It is precisely the work on new interfaces that has accelerated this process of integration of these different facets of “reality.”  The exhibition juxtaposes various projects, which, when put together, offer an interesting perspective on the way contemporary artists reassess such traditional notions as the landscape, the narrative, as well as representation.  What we see is a set of conditions that confront the viewer with experiments, and the conception of different types of interfaces to share them with the public. As the world evolves, these snapshots proposed by the artists almost become landmarks of a cultural environment in flux, where most of our reference points are either obsolete or have disappeared.

[1] Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash. Bantam Books, New York, 1992.

[2] Michel Maffesoli, Le temps des tribus, La Table Ronde, Paris, 1988

[3] Meat in this context refers to human flesh. Meat Space therefore refers to « real » space, as opposed to virtual space.

[4] « Life imitates art far more than art imitates life » quoted from The Decay Of Lying – An Observation, published in 1889.

[5] Guy Debord: La Société du spectacle. Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1967

[6] « Viaggi nell’iperrealtà »a column published in the Italian weekly L’Espresso in 1975.