Envisioning Banality

“There is no real and no imaginary except at a certain distance. What happens when this distance, even the one separating the real from the imaginary, begins to disappear and to be absorbed by the model alone? Currently, from one order of simulacra to the next, we are witnessing the reduction and absorption of this distance, of this separation which permits a space for ideal or critical projection…”

“Reality was able to surpass fiction, the surest sign that the imaginary has possibly been outpaced. But the real could never surpass the model, for the real is only a pretext of the model. The imaginary was a pretext of the real in a world dominated by the reality principle. Today, it is the real which has become the pretext of the model in a world governed by the principle of simulation. And, paradoxically, it is the real which has become our true utopia-but a utopia that is no longer a possibility, a utopia we can do no more than dream about, like a lost object. Perhaps the SF of this era of cybernetics and hyperreality will only be able to attempt to “artificially” resurrect the “historical” worlds of the past, trying to reconstruct in vitro and down to its tiniest details the various episodes of bygone days: events, persons, defunct ideologies-all now empty of meaning and of their original essence, but hypnotic with retrospective truth. Like the Civil War in Philip K. Dick’s The Simulacra; like a gigantic hologram in three dimensions, where fiction will never again be a mirror held to the future, but rather a desperate rehallucinating of the past. We can no longer imagine other universes; and the gift of transcendence has been taken from us as well.

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“Classic SF was one of expanding universes: it found its calling in narratives of space exploration, coupled with more terrestrial forms of exploration and colonization indigenous to the 19th and 20th centuries. There is no cause-effect relationship to be seen here. Not simply because, today, terrestrial space has been virtually completely en- coded, mapped, inventoried, saturated; has in some sense been shrunk by globalization; has become a collective marketplace not only for products but also for values, signs, and models, thereby leaving no room any more for the imaginary. It is not exactly because of all this that the exploratory universe (technical, mental, cosmic) of SF has also stopped functioning. But the two phenomena are closely linked, and they are two aspects of the same general evolutionary process: a period of implosion, after centuries of explosion and expansion. When a system reaches its limits, its own saturation point, a reversal begins to takes place. And something happens also to the imagination…”

“From this point on, something must change: the projection, the extrapolation, this sort of pantographic exuberance which made up the charm of SF are now no longer possible. It is no longer possible to manufacture the unreal from the real, to create the imaginary from the data of reality. The process will be rather the reverse: to put in place “decen- tered” situations, models of simulation, and then to strive to give them the colors of the real, the banal, the lived; to reinvent the real as fiction, precisely because the real has disappeared from our lives. A hallucination of the real, of the lived, of the everyday-but reconstituted, sometimes even unto its most disconcertingly unusual details, recreated like an animal park or a botanical garden, presented with transparent precision, but totally lacking substance, having been derealized and hyperrealized…”

Jean Baudrillard and Arthur B. Evans. “Simulacra and Science Fiction (Simulacres et science-fiction)”, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3, Science Fiction and Postmodernism (Nov., 1991), pp. 309-313

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Experimental space

The notion of reverberation is linked to a measurement of the time it takes for a sound to decrease by 6o dB. Etymologically, the word comes from the Latin verb reverberare, meaning “to strike back, to reflect.” In the displacement of a sound from its source to the ear, only a small part of the sound energy travels in the most direct way. A large portion of the sound energy follows indirect paths, as it is reflected on the ground and the environment of the milieu: walls, ceiling, facades. Since these routes are longer, reflected sound energy takes more time than direct energy to reach the ear. This discrepancy is the basis of reverberation. […] The phenomenon that we just described in time can also be characterized in space: if we place a constant-power sound source in a closed or semi-closed space and measure the intensity of the sound source while moving away from it, we can see that the sound normally decreases within a certain distance. Beyond that distance, the intensity does not decrease further. This distance, which depends on the space, is called “critical distance” (CD).”

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Psychology and Physiology of Perception

In everyday practice, reverberation is omnipresent; even if measurements indicate weak physical variations, the correspondent hearing perception may be strong. The he average listener tends to valorize reverberation when he or she becomes aware of it, sometimes having the impression that sounds are interminable. In fact, because of air and material absorbtion, reverberation is always mediated. If reverberation was infinite – if sounds did not fade away and were never absorbed– a single sound would “circulate” constantly and the sound level would increase to infinity, making all communication impossible. Although limited, the reverberation of large spaces such as churches or concrete and glass buildings may illustrate this lack of intelligibility.

On the other hand, in a totally absorbant milieu it is difficult to be aware of space. In an atmosphere of quietness and absecence of sound, our impression quickly becomes unpleasant. We can hear our own heartbeats, and body sounds acquire incredible proportions. These impressions can be experienced in an anechoic chamber (an experimental space in which all reverberation is eliminated): the space seems to be squeezed in on itself, narrow and stifling, even if its physical volume is large.

Blind people listen for subtle variations in the reverberations from the sound of their canes in order to find their way and to detect a wall or an angle they are approaching. From this point of view, large, empty places are unsuitable for good perception of the sonic space. Reverberation frequently plays a role in our perceptions:

  • the perception of the presence of something or someone beside oneself (through the modification of the reverberated field)
  • the feeling of “collectivity” and the sharing of social communication (through the envelope it creates)
  • the propensity toward a narcissistic attitude as a sound mirror in situations of individual sound productions (singing or whistling in a bathroom, for instance).

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Sociology and Everyday Culture

Reverberation is socially perceived as an indication of solemnity and monumentality. It signifies volume and large size. This monumentality can be sensed as functional and inherent to the use of some locations (cathedrals, concert halls) or as unpleasant and residual for others (train station halls, concrete underground parking garages). Reverberation is also perceived in terms of “resonance,” a term referring, in everyday speech, to reverberation in general. Through its architectural representation, reverberation is easily associated with various functions of power (religion, justice).’

In the domain of culture, reverberation is synonymous with a crowd. It is linked to large ritual or solemn gatherings in churches or sacred caves. Reverberation also plays a role in large press conferences, where, paradoxically it reduces the intelligibility of the message. In large spaces, a poor sound system may emphasize the shortcomings of natural reverberation.

Every epoch is characterized by specific types of reverberation linked to specific places, but a history of this effect remains to be written. Even if we consider the example of cathedrals, which are the oldest large enclosed spaces in the West, it is extremely difficult to have a precise idea of the diverse acoustics they contained because of the evolution of interior decorations and arrangements. The original reverberation is still unknown, and would be quite difficult to reconstitute.

Textual and Media Expressions

Reverberation is abundantly used in media expressions: horror and science-fiction films, westerns, and advertisements emphasize the connection of reverberation to large spaces, even if the location is often not adapted to such an effect (desert, interplanetary space). Reverberation can also refer to sociological aspects emphasized in the preceding locations (power, justice).

Augoyard, Jean-Francois & Torgue, Henry, eds. “Reverberation”, Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press. 2005. pp  111- 117.

Image 1: Al Held, Black Nile III, 1971. Via ArtNet

Image 2: Al Held, Roberta’s Trip, 1985. Acrylic on canvas, 243.8 × 365.8 cm. Via Brooklyn Rail

First and last men

“On waking one morning, B was surprised to see that Shepperton was deserted. He entered the kitchen at nine o’clock, annoyed to find that neither his post nor the daily newspapers had been delivered, and that a power failure prevented him from preparing his breakfast. He spent an hour staring at the melting ice that dripped from his refrigerator, and then went next door to complain to his neighbor.

“Surprisingly, his neighbor’s house was empty. His car stood in the drive, but the entire family—husband, wife, children, and dog—had disappeared. Even more odd, the street was filled by an unbroken silence. No traffic moved along the nearby motorway, and not a single aircraft flew overhead toward London Airport. B crossed the road and knocked on several doors. Through the windows, he could see the empty interiors. Nothing in this peaceful suburb was out of place, except for its missing tenants.

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“Thinking that perhaps some terrible calamity was imminent—a nuclear catastrophe, or a sudden epidemic after a research-laboratory accident—and that by some unfortunate mishap he alone had not been warned, B returned home and switched on his transistor radio. The apparatus worked, but all the stations were silent, the Continental transmitters as well as those of the United Kingdom. Disconcerted, B returned to the street and gazed at the empty sky. It was a calm, sun-filled day, crossed by peaceful clouds that gave no hint of any natural disaster.

“B took his car and drove to the center of Shepperton. The town was deserted, and none of the shops were open. A train stood in the station, empty and without any of the passengers who regularly travelled to London. Leaving Shepperton, B crossed the Thames to the nearby town of Walton. There again he found the streets completely silent. He stopped in front of the house owned by his friend P, whose car was parked in her drive. Using the spare key that he carried, he unlocked the front door and entered the house. But even as he called her name he could see that there was no trace of the young woman. She had not slept in her bed. In the kitchen, the melting ice of the refrigerator had formed a large pool on the floor. There was no electric power, and the telephone was dead…”

The Autobiography of J.G.B, The New Yorker. Read more

Old Republic

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“Like adding New York to Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, then squaring the result. The capital of the Old Republic takes urban sprawl to the extreme and realises the vision of Greek City planner Constantinos Doxiadis of an ecumeonpolis: a single city that covers the whole of a planet. The ‘New Architecture’ style common to the Senate Area of Coruscant is characterised by Manhattan-like skyscrapers nestled among blade-thin obelisks that resemble the soaring minarets of Cairo…”

Top 10: The architecture of Star Wars, Architects’ Journal .

Du lac Dulok

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“It would appear that the Star Wars Universe owes another debt to architecture. A reader sent in the above image with a note saying that the Hotel du Lac in Tunisia may have served as the inspiration for the Sandcrawlers used by the Jawas to travel across Tatooine. Another visit to Wookiepedia […] tells us that filming for A New Hope largely took place in Tunisia, so it’s entirely possible that this building did, in fact, have an influence on the production design. BONUS: a little trivia for you Extended Universe fans — “du Lac” was the origin of the “Dulok,” the natural enemies of the Ewoks. Obvs. But wait, there’s more!…”

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Rem Koolhaas, Tunisia, and Sandcrawlers, Life Without Buildings

Coz We Like It Like That

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Hans Ulrich Obrist: In 1971 you also said, “Violence is probably going to play the same role in the ’70s and ’80s that sex played in the ’50s and ’60s. There’s what I call in my book The Atrocity Exhibition the ‘death of feeling,’ that one is more and more alienated from any kind of direct response to experience. And the car crash is probably the only act of violence most of us in Western Europe are ever going to be involved with, is probably the most dramatic event in our lives apart from our own deaths, and in many cases the two are going to coincide. What do you think of that statement retrospectively? What about now?

JG Ballard: Violence does seem to play a dominant role in our imaginations, perhaps for good reasons: a symptom of our need to break down the suffocating conventions that rule our lives. Human beings today display a deep and restless violence, which no longer channels itself into wars but has to emerge in road rage, Internet porn, contact sports like hyper-violent professional rugby and U.S. football, reality TV, and so on.

HUO: In this same interview of 1971, there is an almost unbelievable statement that you make. You said, “I think that the biggest need of the painter or writer today is information. I’d love to have a tickertape machine in my study constantly churning out material: abstracts from scientific journals, the latest Hollywood gossip, the passenger list of a 707 that crashed in the Andes, the color mixes of a new automobile varnish. In fact, Eduardo [Paolozzi] and I in our different ways are already gathering this kind of information but we are using the clumsiest possible tool to do it: our own hands and eyes. The technology of the information-retrieval system that we enjoy is incredibly primitive. ” It’s really a premonition of the Internet! So now, do you think it changed the way artists and writers look at and interact with the world?

JGB: Yes, it was a premonition of the Internet, which I relish for the unlimited information it provides, and the unlimited possibilities. Large sections of it strike me as remarkably poetic. It may turn out to be more important and more innovative than television. It’s a kind of collective lucid dreaming.

HUO: What do you find of specific interest in works made by young visual artists today? And what is your opinion on contemporary literature?

JGB: I take a keen interest in what today’s painters and sculptors are doing. On the whole, my views coincide with those of the great Brian Sewell, but I see the young British artists of the past ten years or so from a different perspective. They find themselves in a world totally dominated by advertising, by a corrupt politics carried out as a branch of advertising, and by a reality that is a total fiction controlled by manufacturers, PR firms, and vast entertainment and media corporations. Nothing is real, everything is fake. Bizarrely, most people like it that way. So in their installations and conceptual works, the young artists are rebelling against this all-dominant adman’s media-landscape. They are trying to establish a new truth about what an unmade bed is, what a dead animal is, and so on. Our mistake is to judge them by aesthetic criteria. By contrast, the novel resists innovation, and is much closer to the TV domestic serial.

Boutoux, Thomas, ed. Hans Ulrich Obrist Interviews Volume 1. Milan: Edizioni Charta. 2003. pp 62-63.

Image: David Pelham’s classic 1977 cover for Ballard short story collection, via The Art of Penguin Science Fiction