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Stereography of Celebration: Perspective and virtual happiness (part 1)

Pascale Pressicaud

 


Stereography of Celebration: part 1 | part 2 (with photographs) | part 3

 

Goldsmiths University of London
New Cross
September 2005

Introduction

My affair with Celebration, Disney’s new town, stems from a 25 year quest into the realm of visual perception and the mental process that follows the action of seeing. Being a child of the 1970s and having been raised in a family where the arts, painting in particular, are greatly valued, as a teenager I developed an irresistible empathy for the photorealist art movement and the work of American painters Richard Estes, Chuck Close and John Register. Being passionate about their more than real painted replications of the world, had the secondary effect of anchoring deeply in my psychological make up a certain type of imagery, a blend of non-places encompassing anonymous interiors of “American diners, waiting rooms and bus depots, empty chairs in old hotel lobbies and vacant, mundane offices, the environs of Los Angeles, urban streetscape and suburbs”(1).  The very same panorama for which Marc Augé’s has the following comment “what is significant in the experience of non-places is its power of attraction, inversely proportional to territorial attraction, to the gravitational pull of place and tradition” (Augé, 1995:118). I later understood that my interest in photorealist or hyperealist work of art could well be explained by a default in my eyesight and a loss of acuity as I developed myopia. However, unaware at the time of the reasons for my impulse, I desperately wanted to look at images with the power to seduce me and indeed, they had it. They offered sharpness, accuracy and overall, distinguishable shapes unlike the indistinct blur that filled my daily environment. I can only, here, refute Baudrillard’s affirmation that “you never know what it is that seduces you” (Baudrillard , 1990:5). With insight, yes I did, but at a cost: I was discarding the excitement inherent to the mystery that forms the outer shell of desire. I knew the reason that made me like them. Yearning is for the inaccessible and the mystery that surrounds it. It must be inscrutable. I was identifying the origin of desire, fleshing out my virtual journey into a place yet to be born that would be named Celebration and a new quest for the inaccessible. Could I have anticipated that getting to know the real Celebration would have, for me, the same effect as understanding the consequences of visual impair on my psychological make up?

Another important factor has contributed, along the years, to the ongoing of my interest for anything associated with the action of seeing and, in a way, compensated for my eye-sight weakness. All the electromagnetic impulses, the mechanical and chemical reactions taking place in my brain through visual stimuli had a more gratifying discharge than those resulting from other sensual perceptions such as hearing, touching, tasting or smelling. I was accepting the fact that visual stimuli had a bigger repercussion on my living practice than any of the other sense organs presented.

Finally, and as I was getting familiar with the concept of hypereality whilst immersing myself in a trend branching in and out of it, another aspect of visual perception became more and more dominant, that of perspective and the sense of reality that it occasions.  Throughout the content of this essay my aim will be to contextualise and examine the correlated aspects of perception, perspective and desire.

An embryo called Celebration

In response to growing concerns related to its devouring urban sprawl, America is seeing the emergence of an interdisciplinary movement, ranging from within the medical, social, environmental and urban planning sciences to determine the means to sustainable growth. They propose alternatives which have either proved successful in the past or are currently being engineered, pioneering as well as accelerating the development of what is now identified as New Urbanism. It is generally accepted that the situation today, is a sequel to the car culture and its breeding ground, the highway framework. Its unrelenting expansion has been made possible through various factors such as a liberal development of the industrial sector for over fifty years and the impact associated to a growing and informed population whose increasing demands are supported by financial muscle. The American population surged during the babyboom in the 1950s and has kept growing, although slowly, until the 1980s(2) with a distinct rebound in the 1990s. Demand for goods, for the same period, has grown exponentially.

New urbanism condemns the way cities, towns and residential/industrial areas have expanded in the United States, reconsidering the relationship between man and space. Concrete measures have been taken with, for example, the implementation of steps leading to the repopulation of decaying city centres coupled with the conservation and listing of landmark sites/buildings, the revitalisation of neglected (sub)urban space instead of building on new land, coupled with the protection of farmland and open space, the development of affordable housing to restrain speculation, and, in particular, the attempt at restoring civic sense and community values, which retrospectively are considered to have been effective in sustaining and promoting social cohesion. A little more than ten years ago, this last point became central to Disney’s strategy when Celebration’s embryo found its way into their laboratories and matured into a real estate venture. Not only, the idea would appeal to a great deal of the new American middleclass looking to buy into the suburbanite myth and disillusioned by the extent of the sprawling, the urban crisis and the rather, by comparison, unimaginative developments on the rest of the territory, it could also translate in terms of marketing tactic to stimulate the sales of the newly built properties at a premium whilst preventing questions about their actual size. Ultimately “most [home buyers] could see that the sacrifice of lot size was connected to the sense of community they had bought into”. (Ross, 2000:34)

After extensive market research to define, in Ross’ words, “the kinds of communities, lifestyles, and products [prospective buyers] would want in a new town”, partly conducted in EPCOT, the original model city of the future (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) envisioned by Walt Disney during the 1960s and opened as a theme park in 1982, “the results clearly fed into the final conception of the town as a place with old houses and new toys” (Ross: 2000:28). Much more than creating an idyllic suburb from a cluster of dream homes wired to the information technology global network, Celebration was getting retrostyled. In other words, it was engineered to replicate, including the landmark and patina of time, the bucolic image of a traditional American small town, legacy of successive generations and memorial to the American Dream, an entirely recreated place of memory anchored in the permanence of the collective imaginary. Marc Augé observes that “the inhabitant of an anthropological place does not make history; he lives in it” (Augé, 1995: 55). In a sense, and paradoxically, this is true of Celebration, where residents not only have acquired a piece of land, they inhabit a techno-landscape permeated with the synthetic stratums of tradition and time expunged from any organic decay that it is deemed to produce along the way, “expos[ing] the relative nature of certainties inscribed in the soil” (Augé, 1995: 119) and their mutability. Celebration is a pioneering techno-town within which residents are free to formulate their own identity, their own reality and their own relationship with history, unconstrained by its burden. In addition and given the scope of the information technology structure on which Celebration exists, its resident “empowered by the personal computer, liberated by virtual reality, […] becomes the God of his or her own universe” (Wooley, 1992:9).

The town was modelled on traditional downtowns and “Main Street”, principal artery of the famous theme parks where the frontiers between fantasy and reality are blurred. Promenades and avenues, “where individual itineraries can intersect and mingle” (Augé, 1995:66), stretch out and display neatly manicured lawns with their fluorescent green contrasting sharply against the immaculate facades. The most opulent mirror the grand houses of former plantation estates, like those of the Deep South, whilst the more modest, multi-unit dwellings, exhibit porticos and wrapped around balconies encasing polymer stucco with the dual function of protecting the walls from moisture whilst emblazoning colonial design. Originals, unfortunately, are left to dissolve on Bourbon Street and the French Quarter in New Orleans. The community is divided into several point of focus featuring a more than real creek, a golf clubhouse and several manmade lakes, all engineered to harvest and reproduce real fauna & flora. The movie house remains a major landmark profiling its twin modernist towers in the distance, retrovisions of a past that never was, illuminating downtown at night with bright neon lights just as in a vintage American postcard.

In a world where everything has become accessible, where self-indulgence is a way of life, where fulfilment and the illusion of happiness are no longer the privilege of a few, the past remains an abstraction, a foreign territory that still cannot be reached. Today, however, it is a luxury that artificiality has made almost accessible to the residents of Celebration but at which cost can they experience it? As Benjamin Wooley puts it “what are the extents and limits of the artificial? Is there, can there be, any contact with reality when it is possible to make fat that is not fat, when the fake become indistinguishable from – even more authentic than – the original, when computers can create synthetic worlds that are more realistic than the real world, when technology scorns nature?” (Wooley, 1992: 2).

The effort and commitment from the social engineers, architects and planning committee involved in the project have triggered precious value added that could translate in terms of well-being and the basis for happiness for all the residents. In Ross’s words “it was a place of general happiness where no one had reason, other than his or her own personal misfortune, to be disenchanted” (Ross, 2000:237). However, the price to pay would be twofold: an inflation of at least 30% above the neighbouring real estate values and a long list of contracted rules that Disney imposes on Celebration’s residents so that the picture of perfect happiness is maintained.

Perspective and perception

I have mentioned above that our psychophysiological make up not only took part in the different functions of sensual perception and its reception/processing, it played an important role in the way reality was projected and established. In R.H. Day’s words, “perception can be defined as the organism’s maintenance of contact with its environment” involving “keeping in touch with objects and events physically removed […] but also its internal states and self-induced activity” (Day, 1969:1). It could be implied therefore that the formation of reality resulting from visual observation is entirely subordinated to whoever produces it and in affecting “the decision-making behaviour of the observer” (Day, 1969:30) creates a rather relative postulate on reality. We will not unfold the path about the relationship between representation and reality, here, as this is not the objective of this paper. However, it can be said that the space within which that reality takes place appears to be and can be defined as an assemblage of forms, shapes, sizes, colours and movement, each with varying degree of complexity and all subjected to a lighting determinant. In other words, the intensity and wavelength of a light source reaching the retina, be it incidental or reflected from a surface, determine the degree of complexity of the elements filling that space. The extent of reality perceived is determined within a frame proportionate and correlative with the visual field deployed by the retina. At this stage, the exogenous information contained in the frame remains a textured but flat two-dimensional surface, an undivided membrane caressing the cornea of the eye. The optical nerve, part of the binome that constitutes the human vision mechanism, ensures the mobility of the eye in a peripheral motion and the subsequent browsing of reality forming before it.

Depth emerges as scanning of the surface is performed exposing through its motion an apparent layering of the various forms and shapes contained in it. These layers are all interconnected by invisible converging lines producing in a three-dimensional space, an illusion of depth, solidity and coherence which seems to support our conventional sense of reality. Those lines have been recognised for “at least as long as the seventh century before BC” (Wright, 1983:1) and established within the theory of perspective. Today, resourceful mechanisms, rapidly adapting to the digital age, reproduce the binocular function of human vision. It is manifested in their replication of the visual information accessible to the eye. By recognising parallel perspective, the invisible converging lines that we have mentioned above, they produce an illusion of relief and depth from the flat surface of a three-dimensional image. Wright informs us that “as late as 1775, Joseph Harris in a treatise on optics note the power of binocular vision to produce relief” (Wright, 1983:11). Stereoscopy involving “two superimposed images separated for delivery to left and right eye […] in the hopeless pursuit of the illusion of solidity” (Wright, 1983:13) contributes to the formation of virtual reality. In replicating the world that we understand and the depth element on which we base all our assumptions, the stereoscopic image also substantiates our earlier observation that visual perception offers a rather relative postulate on reality.

In the context of the hypereal, in other words, the simulacrum of the world that we understand, stereoscopy offers a language similar to the work of the photorealist painters that have made an indelible impression on my mind. Observing the work of American photorealist artist Duane Hanson, Friedrich Jameson offers a perplexing comment: “the world [that we have learnt to recognise] thereby momentarily loses its depth and threatens to become a glossy skin, a stereoscopic illusion, a rush of filmic images without density. But is this now a terrifying or an exhilarating experience?” (Jameson, 1991:34)

Dissecting Celebration’s perception

The images illustrating this text have been produced in a place where my quest into the realm of visual perception has taken me, namely Celebration. At the risk of appearing ordinary, I have arranged the series to follow my journey chronologically. Indeed, my experience of Celebration has greatly influenced my perception of tradition and conventions, guarding me from fearing the dogma of stereotypes. After all they are the product of socialisation, a democratic acceptation of our co-existing realities and a short-cut facilitating the communication process by avoiding ambiguous or equivocal information. Any social scientist should agree that given the nature of social interaction as we know it through its study, and we know that social interaction is produced through the process of stereotyping, Celebration, with its happily maintained relational network, is a testimony to the benefits of stereotyping. There, I have rediscovered the virtues of relativism as I realised that the only bigot in town was me. I was full of the prejudices and presuppositions that one acquires through the reading of texts that aliment the Disney’s myth. I was naively portraying an ostentatious community, voluntarily oblivious to the decay, be it human or environmental that is building up a few miles outside, in the tail of the urban sprawl. I thought its members were brainwashed by the dream factory and entirely devoted to a divinity called Disney. Let us recall however, how Mickey Mouse became a popular icon in the first quarter of the last century. In a pamphlet on the merits of Mickey, Walter Benjamin established the little mouse as “a rejection of the ‘civilised’ bourgeois subject […] unmasking social negativity” (Leslie, 2002:81). The cartoon character was the expression, the mirror image, of a generation “living in a world of impoverished experience, sadism and violence” (Leslie, 2002:83). As Esther Leslie has summarised it, Benjamin’s paper defines “Mickey [as] a spirited and insubordinate animal in a world of lively things. Mickey Mouse was not respectable” (Leslie, 2002:81) but he was loved. He had not, yet, traded his soul to service the capitalist machine.

I have realised, that just like me and many others in the Western world, Celebration residents are practising a way of life, looking for an ideal and the best conditions to raise their children who, in turn, will raise their own. On the equation that defines humankind and its existence in the universe, there is an important parameter, that of immortalising itself through reproduction. With that prospect governing their destiny, they have seized the unique opportunity offered to them that appeared to conform to the archetype they aim to preserve. I was sceptical about the pursuit of an existence being moulded within the realm of artificiality, in a place where scientists, as Benjamin Wooley puts it “could manipulate reality to the point of being able to create it.  Artificialisation is no longer just a matter of cultural observation or intellectual angst, it had become, well, real.  It is for this reason that reality is no longer secure, no longer something we can simply assume to be there” (Wooley, 1992:5). I have now resolved a few issues but opened the door for more to spring. So let us now take a break and explore the subject of our investigation with the help of the visual support attached.

Continue to part 2 (with photographs)…

 

More Radical Urban Theory:

Beyond Sprawl
Bank of America’s ballyhood denunciation of suburban sprawl.

An Offbeat Walking Guide to Lower Manhattan
Exploring Lower Manhattan through its history, people and architecture.

Crime Rave
Law-and-order demagoguery.

Stereography of Celebration
Perspective and virtual happiness.

Radical Urban Theory