Rendering the Desert of The Real

June 2019

Tobias Revell is an artist and designer. Spanning different disciplines and media his work addresses the urgent need for critical engagement with material reality through design, art and technology.

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Like all technological phenomena, the manipulation of images has a long history in lockstep with the technological and political tendencies of the times. We can look to the famous example of Josef Stalin’s tendency to literally and figuratively erase figures from history throughout his increasingly paranoid dictatorship of the Soviet Union.

Stalin, particularly during the purges, attempted to rewrite history through the doctoring of official photographs. Photographs have been used as documentation and evidence because they are perceived to have an air of ‘truth’ about them as if somehow the camera, as a machine seemingly devoid from human influence, is objective in its capturing of events. We now recognise, thanks to historical precedent and the practice of artists that the photographic image is as mailable as the drawn, half-remembered one and that like any data capture system, is a product of the context of its production more than the mechanical means by which it has been produced.

Stalin’s doctored photographs always appear to be vaguely ridiculous; how could Stalin believe that people would think these images were real? It’s important to bear in mind two circumstances unique to the context that have changed between then and now. Firstly, is the significant increase in visual literacy particularly amongst western audiences. The quantity, quality and discussion of images in pop culture has exploded since the 1930’s. The average person has significantly greater confidence in reading and interpreting images than they would have done almost one hundred years ago. This makes us scoff at something that perhaps wouldn’t have caused so much derision back then. Think for example of how an older person might struggle to understand the difference between Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. The very concept of a social media platform connected through phones is relatively new, let alone different types of interface and interactivity suited to different tasks. This is a heavy-handed example, but in the 1930s, the average person, particularly in a relatively undeveloped Russia, might have felt similarly about technologically produced images.

Secondly, all technologies are entangled in their political context. In Stalin’s USSR, the state, in the body of Stalin, was the arbiter of truth. There was no fifth estate to question or critique, there was no-one in the intellectual class alive to present alternatives, there was no opposition party able to ridicule. It seems hard for us to imagine the non-critical interpretation of these images that would have been present in the 1930’s, but it demonstrates to us how far we’ve come in both the means of production and interpretation of images.

Today, undetectable image manipulation takes the form of computer-generated imagery (CGI). What I find most startling about the proliferation of CGI images is both the speed of their spread and how little it has been noted upon. While news articles will gripe on about camera angles when Jeremy Corbyn sits on the floor of a train, or how magazine covers are photoshopped, relatively little is noted, at least in popular discourse on wholly artificially produced images that increasingly dominate visual culture. For a simple example take Ikea catalogue images; as of 2014, IKEA estimated 75% of their catalogue images are rendered. In 2012, that number was 12%.

Ikea catalogue images may not seem particularly critical, certainly not to the same degree as Stalin’s doctored photographs, but they provide a kind of watermark of the prosaic fantasy world of CGI images in popular culture. We’re aware of the fantastic application of CGI when it comes to video games or film, and the monumental industrial practices of large-scale CGI are popular talking points, but they distract us from the seep of CGI images in to every day culture.

While the CGI of Marvel’s latest blockbuster might be technically impressive and visually overwhelming or even, in many cases, visually distracting there’s something quite uncanny and disquieting about browsing a catalogue of images of places that never existed; of imagining these never-places in your own home, of desiring a play of light and materials that was carefully calibrated based on impossible physics. This is Jean Baudrillard’s Disneyland on the screen, supported by vertexes and meshes, HDR maps and no real world behind it.

Similar to the folks of Stalin’s USSR we don’t have a critical visual literacy for these images. They suffuse popular culture, marketing materials and advertising, piggy-backing on the same unquestioned mechanical objectivity as photography thanks to the increasing availability and cheapness of photorealism in desktop rendering. The critical cultural impact of CGI Ikea kitchens is, at worst, marginal but the unquestioned proliferation of these images does begin to have concerning implications as we look forward.

The production of rendered images of future homes, of future buildings, of future cities have also been prosaic and normalised. Images of the type produced by Crystal CG – one of the world’s largest industrial architectural render farms are familiar to all urbanites. These images are mass produced to architect’s plans and have created a hegemonic visual language of the future that does start to raise difficult questions.

These images fill the city, usually presented on hoardings that reach above eye level and form a kind of boundary marker for public space with a wallpaper of rendered futurism. Their aesthetic richness – usually highly saturated, dramatic and glossy – as well as their physical size overwhelms us into an unquestioned sense that this is the future. Once again, they piggyback the camera’s perceived objectivity but this time into a kind of hyper-real fantasy so convincing that any disbelief is suspended. Here we find a neat parallel with Stalin’s doctored photographs – images of the future so compelling that they may as well already be real. These types of images used in advertising and marketing by everyone from real estate developers to product designers create a kind of aesthetic predefinition. While sketches and models leave room for critical interrogation and questioning, CGI images are too real, too compelling to leave any room for critique.

This is where a critical literacy of CGI becomes necessary and an increasing amount of critical artistic practices has grown up around this very need. The manipulation of CGI images is much simpler than photographs. Advances in hardware and software have made real-time photorealism accessible to desktop users with relatively little training and as such we begin to see a proliferation of apparently realistic images doctored in real time without a critical capacity to interpret and contextualise them. Deep Fakes, the artificial generation of images and video of celebrities or politicians in compromising situations is an eye-opening example.

It’s quite possible that Deep Fakes, Ikea catalogue images and fantasy skyscrapers are looked back on in one hundred years with the same derision that we now look back on Stalin’s photographs. However, unlike the political context of the USSR we do have the capacity to critique and ridicule, to technically deconstruct and interpret and the body of work engaged in this practice will become increasingly important as we try and build a critical culture around CGI.

(The commission of this essay was generously supported by Molior London)