SECTION 03: LEARNING TO REPRESENT
Le Harem du Palais, Gustave Boulanger / 1824-1888
“The Orient and Islam have a kind of extrareal, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing th orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.”
Edward W. Said , Orientalism
“A standard way of relating politics to art assumes that art represents political issues in one way or another. But there is a much more interesting perspective: the politics of the field of art as a place of work. Simply look at what it does—not what it shows.”
Hito Steyerl, Politics of Art
The fruits of learning to see, and learning to mediate, in my opinion, are borne in the enterprise of representation. The concept of representation embodies several meanings, ranging from the mathematical, to the political. But in the paragraphs to come, I focus on the political implications of the concept.
Representation has long been associated with notions of truth, reproducibility, and similitude to the real. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “[a]n image, likeness, or reproduction in some manner of a thing.” Hence, we see that a representation is what stands between the viewer and the real. It is a mediating entity, and this notion of representation “standing in for some other thing or person” is borne out in subsequent definitions of the word in the OED. This second definition of the concept is a deeply political one, opening the door to historic debates about the utility of representation in society.
To Plato, representations of reality through media was an inherently deceptive enterprise giving rise to “worlds of illusion,” making him opposed to the practice. Whereas Aristotle was more favorable in his views toward representation, because to him, it was an important epistemic channel—one of the very few methods by which we understood the world.
While he was right in that representation was indeed an important conduit to reality, Aristotle had much to answer for. What did it really mean for one thing or person to represent a larger group of things or people? The idea of using a unit to typify the nature of a larger group was a dangerous idea, as it reduced or flattened any diverging traits within that group. I deal with precisely this problem of representation in the projects to come.
What does it mean for designers to represent something truthfully? Is such an exercise possible? What is a designer’s role in capturing and representing testimony? To me, designers, by creating, mediating, and representing content, partake in the pivotal exercise of knowledge-creation; a project with far-reaching repercussions. By representing events, tragedies, histories, testimonies and people through a range of media, designers mediate how much a society learns about a particular subject, and each choice that they make in representing a subject is an ethical one.
The Silence of Nduwayezu, Alfredo Jaar / 1997
Attempting to represent the tremendous loss of human life in Rwanda during the civil war of 1994, Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar chose to focus on the eyes of one boy, Nduwayezu, who witnessed his parents being killed and was paralyzed into silence for several weeks as a result. Jaar scattered approximately one million printed images of the boy’s eyes on a backlit table to represent the one millon lives lost in the conflict, and conveyed through the intentional cropping-out of the boy’s mouth, the silence of the world as the conflict raged on.
Inhabiting a media landscape inundated with increasingly creative phrases such as fake news, alternative facts, truthiness, and reality-based community, one might be tempted to point to the ineffectiveness of representation in guiding people to the truth. I would however make the opposite point: it is precisely the effectiveness of representation—albeit of a dubious form over a credible form— that has caused a general disillusionment with the mainstream to emerge. And what this development speaks to is perhaps my biggest learning from studying the concept. It comes from the media theorist W.J.T. Mitchell who urges us to stop seeing representations as only particular kinds of objects, but instead to think of representation “as relationship, as process, as the relay mechanism in exchanges of power, value, and publicity” noting that “nothing in this model guarantees the directionality of the structure” instead suggesting a dialectical reading of the concept.
I contend with precisely these questions— of the utility of representational devices such as narratives, images, and data—in capturing the discordant, complex, and labyrinthine nature of reality, in the projects to come.
1 Vukcevich, Mai. “Representation | The Chicago School of Media Theory.” Accessed May 16, 2020. https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/representation/.
2 Hall, Stuart. 1997. Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices. London: Sage in association with the Open University.
3 Mitchell, W. J. T. 1994. Picture theory: essays on verbal and visual representation.