The passage from the 1800s to the 1900s was a major watershed for our way of understanding and producing visual culture in the western world. With a century torn by the tussle between Neoclassicism and Romanticism, and a gaze already aimed at the new industrial society, artists like Picasso and Braque, founding fathers of Cubism, investigated the pathways of art that were then opened to the post-Impressionist break-up of the painting, adding newspaper clippings and textures of wood to the canvas, juxtaposed with leftovers of imagery formulated with painterly technique.
Today, in our era balanced between the inertia of the solid world and the expansion of digital horizons, we are seeing a symptomatic resurgence of this type of assemblage – not fragmentary, however, but suavely refined – in the Nepente collection of décor complements designed by Matias Sagaria for the debut of the Honesta brand at Design Week in Milan. The project, which interprets the brand’s desire to interpret Made in Italy with the languages of recent international creativity, gives rise to graphic figurations with a virtual tone, assembled with wooden patterns that are combined in pieces of great sophistication, bringing together the long reach of the Post-Modern (recently revitalized by the Instagram aesthetic: see “Temporary Eternity” in Interni 701) and a new way of conceiving of the object, no longer as a ‘concrete metaphor,’ but as a ‘solid image.’
This has to do with the power of shaping visual matter provided en masse by digital technologies, which is radically changing the perceived relationship between reality and image. Just consider the ‘deep fakes,’ generated by artificial intelligence algorithms, that start with the photo of a person to create an extremely credible video adulteration, making the people say and do things they have never done or said. But the deep fakes are just the extreme, twisted tip of a much larger phenomenon, namely the (technological) possibility of establishing a physical, sensory, ‘sensual’ relationship with images, starting with the way we relate to the screens of smartphones (full of images made to be touched), all the way to the role of virtual renderings in the aesthetic definition of real objects (see ‘Gentle Materiality’ in Interni 711).
During the lockdown, this contorted ‘reverse semiotics’ of the digital era, in which it is not the representation that adapts to reality, but reality that struggles to keep pace with the image, has been further exacerbated. Forced to interact with the world only through a screen, users boosted their expectations (cognitive and sensorial) regarding what an image can provide. Therefore we increasingly demand a relationship that is not flat in its tactile essence, but grainy and even ‘tasty.’ As if to say, given the fact that the relationship with reality is more fully positioned on the smart surface of an interface, we expect it to take on the reality of the carnal dimension.
Hence the image becomes object, and as such the visual material becomes ductile, like a materic compound, fluid but with zones of resistance. This can be seen in the carpets of Richard Hutten for Qeeboo, derived from the elastic stretching of a bouquet of flowers, or by a ‘glitch’ in the decorative pattern (almost a déjà vu of Matrix). And it appears in the visual material with which Elena Salmistraro has designed the lamellar mix of the Sangaku tables for Driade, an aesthetic substance similar to the one used by Bethan Laura Wood in the Meisen cabinet and desk for Galleria Nilufar, which come full circle with the solid graphics grafted into the material portions of the Nepente furnishings shown above.
In the past we thought of reality as something firm, stable, whose representation had to conform to – and thus speak – the ‘truth.’ Today, on the other hand, ‘real’ objects are forced to rush to keep pace with very mobile and popular images. This is having wider repercussions above all on the generation of digital natives, even more so after the gentle and persistent earthquake of the lockdown, which may not have split the earth beneath our feet, but has slowly, inexorably washed it away, until after a few months the outcome of this imperceptible movement becomes evident. What happens in and through the screen is so central to our existence that it has taken the place of reality itself, now taken as a ‘background’ experience of reference, but without – and this is the point – permitting the ‘old’ reality to have the same degree of stability and reliability.
It is as if the cardinal points were no longer fixed in the reliable dance of the celestial mechanism, but melted and re-forged day by day in different arrangements. No longer the moves that can be made inside a game, but the very rules are now subjected to a constant ‘creative’ action of erosion. This implies consequences for the cognitive health of everyone (as we predicted in Interni 664, “Cognitive Sustainability”), since the human way of organizing the experience of the world has to pivot on a stable base, which today is neither reality (exempted of the task of being ‘real’) nor its representation (which is mobile by its essence). Having entered the era of post-truth, we have also entered the era of post-reality, a new condition which design, through poetry and hope, is beginning to explore in order to discover new outcomes.