In the contemporary world, nothing we produce as architects is what it seems at face value. Familiar outputs in the form of drawings, models, and photographs — now produced through a spectrum of digital tools and techniques — masquerade as replicas of their predecessors when, in fact, they are entirely other. These products of electronic imaging have expanded the discourse concerning images and operate in the world as decoys and depictions. Decoys & Depictions: Images of the Digital examines the role of digital images as grounds for theoretical development, vehicles for the production of form, physical components of buildings, and mechanisms through which architects and artists can form new audiences for our disciplines and contribute to social and political change.
Decoys are objects that share characteristics with images, and depictions are images that have the qualities of objects. They are not oppositions but bookend the working space in which those architects and artists that are invested in constructing images operate. Generally thought of as representations, doubles, or fakes, they operate like staged scenes or props inserted into the existing surrounds. However, while the parameters of vision drive decoys and depictions, they are attuned to the visual world for a fraction of their existence. Beneath the surface, they respond to a complicated matrix of applied pressures. Their special visibility is only rendered when we see the invisible effects of the informational formats, material frames, fictional objectivity, and accumulations of data that underlie them. To see the images of the digital we cannot simply look at digital images, we must look through them to the logic of their construction.
Digital images are inherently multiple artifacts that are in perpetual translation, forming composites of ever compounding information that distorts as it is shared, accumulated, stored, uploaded, downloaded, edited, and reformatted. Like theater, there is an inherent collectivity to these images; multiple actors interface across collaborative platforms, and captured images anticipate constant possible audiences. These visually comprehensible piles of information speak to the complicated web of materials that they chart, geopolitical boundaries they cross, and energy they consume. Images are inherently political enterprises that can rewrite material, informational, and spatial boundaries.
Architects have long had to contend with translating layers of information between image and object. Translations that are specific to the discipline of architecture require cyclical flattening and inflating, unfolding and reassembling, causing image and object to impinge on one another. Contemporary architectural problems concerning images are revealed in work that deals with this exchange in new ways, recasting images as objects and examining the imageable characteristics of objects.
This collaborative discussion between architects and artists raises questions about our operations concerning contemporary images: How can a deeper understanding of electronic imaging and the ongoing technological developments therein reshape how we design and build? How might we reconsider conventional methods of display in relation to the circulation of images through social networking and web-based media? How can interfacing with images directly change how we structure design pedagogy? Decoys & Depictions: Images of the Digital aims to address critical questions about the capacity of images to transform architecture through a dualistic analysis of data and picture.
Formats are presumed preexistent, inescapable, and remain invisible to the standard observer, however, the contemporary world is ever more imprinted by digital frameworks. Electronic images endlessly reconfigure to fit physical and virtual containers, non-linearly rewriting their histories. “Format” refers to the arrangement, layout, size, shape, and proportion of the support. In a digital context, it is expanded to include the structure for the processing, storage, or display of data. However, contemporary formats are not defined by any of these alone; they are the confluence of these, as continually redefined through the working space — the merged space of production and presentation — of the image.
Digital formats destabilize design by putting disparate things into conversation with one another and by opening up infinite potentials. This panel examines the productive constraints and parameters of the frameworks or platforms that define the potentials and relations between things. Image Formats privilege numerical data and are invested in defining aspects of measurement, quantity, and distribution. There is an intentional conflation of presentation and process. However, what might be said to be a presentation of process — given its procedural, documentary, or operative nature — is instead a presentation of labor, economy, information, and circulation that combine to produce the qualities of images.
Questions: How are the rules that govern how we design, realize, and display work, redefined by digital formats? How might images that draw attention to their formats challenge systems of value or existing economic frameworks?
Accumulation rules the present. Repositories of artifacts, documents, images, and data are incomprehensible in scale and expanding at inconceivable rates. These accumulations are surpluses of attention, capital, information, energy, or matter. At the same time, production and consumption — in particular, visual consumption — has accelerated. This has provoked new ways of looking: looking through digital devices in order to collect and store images for later viewing. In this context, each digital device is a perpetually growing reserve of deferred knowledge; wherein memory relies on access to storage rather than mental retention.
The role of the architect is defined by accumulation: gathering together various disciplines, organizing vast amounts of information, and enclosing worlds of multifarious things. However, architects often ignore or dismiss the anti-spatial realm of storage, the collections of objects within architecture’s interior, and the data that underlies form and material. Image Accumulations are an examination of the architectural effects of excess, ranging from hoards of unlike things, to aggregations of similar things, to diffuse atmospheres of things. This panel confronts physical and virtual densities and quantities, scrutinizing the capability of architecture to confront a magnitude of information in the fusing of data and picture.
Questions: What are the consequences of virtual and physical accumulations to the built environment? How might architects contend with increasing densities of information? How does memory-as-storage reshape how we think about history?
Images form the atmospheric backdrop of our mediated present. Illuminated or projected on screens, raster graphics dominate the visual scope. These images are constructed in a stratum, from multi-layered LCD screens to printed pages upon which ink is dropped or electrically charged powder is fused. The digital models in which we work are real-time animations composed of infinite frames, wherein image and model are mapped onto one another and made visible through electronic signals. Masked just beyond this visible information is data, and that data is equally material in that it is processed energy. Images are inseparable from the layered processes at play in their storage; image data consumes power and occupies volumes. Material frames bound, animate, and structure constructed images.
While architects have long worked through images, images of the digital are distinct from their predecessors. Image Frames operate in the slippery physicality of digital media and uncover the material properties of disparate frames. This panel investigates the gap between the layered material logics of raster display, physical output, and data. Strategies are borrowed from photography or scenic design, employing faux materials, the thinness of cladding, and materiality located in computer hardware. Image Frames brush up against physical surfaces and incite the blushing of images.
Questions: How can we confront and mobilize the physical attributes of the image frames in which we operate? How might an understanding of the layered material composition of images change how we represent and realize architecture?
Increasingly, the boundaries between “real” or virtual, fact or fiction, are blurring. We are able to generate images of convincing faces that have no human analog, produce videos of speeches that were never delivered, and create immersive environments that never existed. At the same time, images are fundamentally restructuring our understanding of vision; artificial intelligence and machine vision turn an “objective” gaze toward a vast repository of images that are collected, analyzed, capitalized, and used to chart and regulate human behavior. From visual media devoured by human audiences to image data gathered by non-human ones, images define the narratives of the present.
Architects often mistake realism for reality rather than recognizing realism’s capacity to conflict with reality. While the work of this panel engages with the patina of realism or with data-driven images, photorealistic techniques and “objective” image types are deployed not to represent reality or truth, but to throw these into question. Image Fictions are not strictly fictional, but instead, push against and challenge concepts of fact, truth, and reality to reveal all the nuanced states of information and strangeness that exist in the everyday. Drawing strategies from film and painting, and relating to estrangement, defamiliarization, and the uncanny, Image Fictions delay perception and challenge us to repicture the world.
Questions: How does architecture, a field tasked with confronting the “real,” contend with the complex overlap of virtual and physical realms? How might our projections of future “realities” take on political postures rather than respond to the desires of capital?