Surface Residue

Daniel Felstead, Designer and Researcher

The unconscious, which I represent to you as that which is inside the subject, … can be realised only outside, that is to say, in that locus of the Other in which alone it may assume its status.1

Jacques Lacan

Remember the TV advertising campaign for the new iPad; the close-up shots of the latest Apple device resting on it owner’s lap, set in different urban locations. The uncomfortable posture of the models, their bodies awkwardly twisted and distorted, desperately trying to contain the sleek and sexy device that lie confidently on their thighs.

One is struck by the difficultly to pinpoint the location of the viewer. Contrary to the apparent intended user’s standard viewpoint, like Michael Hanake’s film Seventh Continent2 it’s as if there is another acousmatic3 viewer, floating just in front of the human user, from which we are sharing this phatasmatic gaze.

From this viewpoint one is drawn to the absolute flatness of both the background and the model’s legs, as if they have turned to wallpaper, the body and environment reduced to a mere Photoshop-ed background, completely detached from both the iPad and the user’s caressing fingers in the foreground.

Certainly the iPad’s release takes us one step closer towards our complete abdication of the all too material body of ours – that messy, smelly and fleshy container of bone, tissue, blood, plasma, and organs – which we so grudgingly lug around, and whose slow decay we attempt to escape through virtualisation – a “war against fragility, pain, wear” 4 as Pierre Lévy suggests. And so we turn to the screen, where the very texture of our modern social experience is illuminated like a movie, “presenting our world in all its tragic glory”5 as Paul Elliman observes. Like the x-ray body scanner installed in airports world wide6, we have allowed it to penetrate through our fabric to our core, revealing every last layer like a peeled onion.

It has become an extension of the human body and mind delivered to us through fractured, multiple windows, malleable and interactive, through a highly concentrated channelling of the body into the hand, which frenetically organises and manipulates the compositional arrangement of pixels embedded in electronic displays. From this new digital domain the hand emerges as the embodiment of our mass of parts and thoughts.

Like the iTouch and iPhone, the iPad’s screen is a scratch-resistant glass, controlled by bare fingers through its electrical conductivity. In direct coloration to the hand and fingers elevation to a God-like role, “holding the internet in your hands”7 as Steve Jobs rejoices, we see the body being reduced to nothing more than a humiliating electrical power source. In a exaggerated expression of liberation our hands and fingers frantically move around the screen: clicking, dragging, and gesticulating, compulsively repeating the same actions again and again, seemingly out of our control, though crucially remaining at the core of our being, acting like an autonomous partial object, what Slavoj Žižek describes as “an organ which can magically survive without the body whose organ it is”. 8

Derrick de Kerckhove observes that by way of technology becoming an extension and replacement of our bodily and mental functions, it also becomes an externalisation of our inner selves, with design giving form to this extension. Kerckhove argues “technology comes out of the human body and design makes sense of it…mind and body are so intermingled that it is pointless to separate them”. 9 The screen (where design takes shape) at the interface between our Inside and Outside, the same interface that as André Nusselder indicates the unconscious straddles, where content is intermixed with form, acting as skin in what Nusselder describes as a Lacanian “technological externalisation of the function of fantasy”. 10

What emerges is fundamentally an interface of a psycho-architectural dimension, mirroring the architectural interface between the Inside and Outside, what Alejandro Zaera Polo (writer, and partner of Foreign Office Architects) terms “the envelope”, which he sees as a membrane, regulating the energy between a building and its environment “the surface and its attachments”. 11

The architectural envelope takes on skin-like qualities with its multiple functional spaces hanging like organs within its enormous body. The transparent skin acting like a giant screen, highlighting the performative nature of the entire building; the public as actors and the entrances, cafés, shops, etc. as the set and props, all stage-managed by private security agents who choreograph the spontaneous public performances.

Walter Benjamin foresaw the performative nature of buildings in his essay Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century12 with his analysis of the Garnier Opera House in Paris, with its grand staircase where women would parade their new dresses, and men would stand around smoking and conversing.

However Zaera Polo points out the inevitable excess between the Inside and Outside, which cannot be contained or quantified, is precisely where the envelope emerges, as a form of regulation of this tension and disconnect between the two.

Like the skin of a living creature, the envelope is the primary actor in the complex process of maintaining homeostasis. In human life however, the closed circle of homeostasis is opened up by psychological, political, social and cultural surpluses. The façade of a building functions not only on a purely biological level. It assembles the building’s interior, which it protects, and the external public realm with which it communicates. The surface of the building has a kind of double existence intervening in two disparate worlds: the private inside and the public outside. It is the boundary which does not merely register the pressure of the interior, but resists it, transforming its energy into something else. And vice versa. The envelope is the result of an act of violence on both spheres.13

The screen too regulates the energy between the Outside body and the ‘content’ Inside the device, thereby functioning in a double existence, acting as a physico-virtual, mind and body membrane. It is in this difficult two-way bridge that information becomes crucial, as it attempts to reconcile and mediate the excess of this violent redoubled relation. It does this by forming into a necessary regulatory layer, sitting on top of ‘content’, and the more immersive the topic the better. Spaces devoted to the fulfilment of Jouissance14 (such as porn-sites) thrive on it being controlled by the addition of information. The repeated series of checkpoints forcing you to select “what you are into” are surely testament to that; straight, gay, bi, big, small, black, white, two-way, three-way, the categories are seemingly endless. Augmented reality is simply a more visually apparent display of this, where reality itself is supplemented by this info-layer.

What results from this is a lucid example of false activity: the incessant demand to interact and participate aimed not at creating a change, but principally to prevent this tension from erupting, so that the coordinates of the scene will not change.

In fact we rejoice in this false activity, celebrating the universal communication which it generates, where information flows freely through the global network, where everyone communicates with everyone, everything is seen, and intimacy is exposed to all gazes, as Gerard Wajcman remarks “intimacy has actually become “extimate” (extime), to use Lacan’s term. It is no longer a matter of thinking that the innermost core of the subject is outside him, but that intimacy this time is no longer extorted but exhibited”. 15

In this way, the desire to obfuscate this tension between Inside and Outside is inscribed into our reality by the liquefaction of in and out, by the apparent removal of borders into a flexible space, “what was in is turned inside out, and what was out invades what was in16 (Wajcman). However what emerges from this is a further traumatic feature; disorientation, our basic coordinates have in fact been distorted, so we don’t know where we are, like catching an unexpected sight of yourself and the image not looking back. Even our own gaze is extracted, objectivised, observing ourselves from outside, no longer ours to own, stolen by the absolute eye, which must see everything.

And what we are left with is the layer of greasy residue smeared across the iPad screen, the result of our frantic dexterous activities, an unexpected, unwelcome and all too material deposit of our own inside, spilling out onto the outside. This sheet of bodily excess, this disturbing barrier forces us to confront on the one hand the horror of the universal gaze, which seems to penetrate every part of our existence, and on the other hand the desire we have to entertain it by exposing ourselves with ever more frequency and degrees of revelation.

The universal tension between Inside and Outside acts as the glue binding the two sides of an Möbius strip, and whose joint the screen endeavours to obfuscate, feverishly attempting to answer the deadlock of this excess.

And just like the hand, the absolute eye, this universal communication; blogs, social networks, twitter feeds, not to mention the ubiquitous automated content managed and self populating sites, mutate into their own form of autonomous partial objects; immortal, constantly regenerating, insisting on going on, never dying even when we turn off the screen.

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