Object lessons

I finally got around to watching Objectified on Netflix. It’s a documentary about industrial design, by the makers of Helvetica. Both films are excellent. As I was watching it, I realized that many of us actually live inside an almost entirely pre-imagined world. This is true even if you dwell in the suburbs. A house and lawn are both products of human design. They involve completely natural components, like mice and chickadees and grass and rain, but the grass is cut, and  chickadees nest near the bird feeder and mice are sniffing peanut butter in traps and rain gets sluiced off into downspouts. The overall feel of living in a suburban home, or really almost any home, is an experience produced by shaping, tending, adjusting, and adapting to an imagined vision of what daily life should feel like. But for city dwellers, or anyone who lives in some kind of urban environment, you can go through a day and encounter almost nothing that isn’t the product of the human imagination. Spend a day walking through Manhattan and you are living inside a completely imagined world: it was all thought-up by somebody at some point. The roads, the lights, the buildings, the billboards, the vehicles, the hot dog stands, the subway, the signs in the subway, the t-shirts on the people in the subway, the guitar somebody was playing which gets smashed over the musician’s head by somebody who doesn’t like the guy’s acoustic version of Free Bird—everything but the few scarce bits of vegetation poking up through the concrete and the little rectangle of sky overhead. Even the faces and poses of other pedestrians or subway riders are consciously shaped, designed to express indifference and aloofness, usually, if we’re talking about New York. The point is, the world you inhabit was, at some point, an act of imagination. The filmmakers don’t make this point explicitly but I think it was really behind the motivation to make the film: an insight into the fact that we invent a design for our world and then, subliminally and ubiquitously, that design begins to invent us, or at least our experience and behavior. Human design literally structures the world we inhabit. Painting also creates the sense of a world, though it’s one only your imagination can inhabit. Design is an imaginative act, but its ultimate goal is behavioral: it governs how our bodies and minds interact with the physical world all day long.  One Japanese designer in the documentary, Naoto Fukasawa, says that he looks for the moment when “design dissolves into behavior.” In other words, it becomes so integrated into how we make our way through the day, we forget it’s there and it becomes almost categorical, something that undergirds experience, a foundation of behavior, like gravity—it actually becomes part of the way our bodies and minds work. (Think of how software design shapes your daily experience through computers, phones, tablets, ATMs, all of the things you do only because the software makes it possible.) This particular Japanese designer was a delight to watch as he talked about his work. He looked as if he’d brought a spirit of playfulness into everything he did: he said when he was a kid his mother would peel potatoes with a knife and he noticed how a round natural object became this geometric model with all these little sharp edges and flat surfaces. It would become a kind of polyhedron. So he designed a cell phone that had all those same little flat surfaces, a potato phone, basically, with very few curves, like a sort of shrunken, deflated geodesic dome. He said everyone who used that particular phone would play with it compulsively, palming it, turning it, rolling it around in their fingers, just subconsciously impelled to feel all the edges. He grinned at how the design of the phone could inspire a compulsive, tactile experience—how it “dissolved” into that experience. It created behavior.

Design and visual art are separate but overlapping fields. Painting isn’t about usefulness at all, but more about stirring the subconscious with an intuition of something whole, the intimation of a world of values and a sense of the isness of life itself. But when you look at a painting it’s an immersive experience: it becomes your world, even if briefly. It creates a world. Most of our daily life is an experience of living inside a world previously imagined by the human mind. This is what most struck me as I watched the film. Human beings are now able to imagine and then create the world we want to inhabit which is reminiscent of Romantic notion of imagination as the world’s central creative force. Painting is only one way the imagination shapes a world into being—yet anyone who uses any humanly fabricated product, or lives inside one, as we all do, understands intuitively why painting matters. It’s about visualizing a world, a sense of life as a whole. It can be about imagining the world you want to see, and it always is, to some degree, even when it’s realism attempting to get the banal surfaces of ordinary life down just right. Something else gets imbued into the image on the way from eye to hand–because that line of transit  usually passes through the heart. The urge to paint is, at some level, the same as the urge to build a better mousetrap. It’s, at least in part, the urge to feel a little more at home in the world.

4 Responses to “Object lessons”

  1. Woody Burby

    An excellent observation and you put it well, Dave. Perhaps this is why some of us run off to the wilderness now and then. We have an urge to escape the crushing weight of human imaginings. We can’t do it, of course, not completely and not for long, because in order to stay alive we have to bring some human stuff with us. Still, it’s nice to get away to places that are not designed by our hand, places that are the same as they were before people showed up.

  2. dave dorsey

    Yeah, I was thinking this is partly why it is such a relief to get away from civilization. We’ve colonized our own minds, to some extent.

  3. Richard Harrngton

    When I was a kid I wanted to homestead in Alaska. You know how that went. But that really is what my large landscape work is about- or what I am trying to express- the contact we have when we immerse ourselves in the natural world. For me at least, there is an essential sensation there that I am removed from in the controlled, manufactured, designed world. I kind of come untethered when I am too separated from the natural wold.

  4. dave dorsey

    I thought of you and your recent work when Walt replied to this. I tend to agree: painting is a way of getting out of your conscious mind, which is what we’re surrounded with today: consciously generated experience. I was thinking more, when I wrote this, of how beneficial it is to be able to shape the world to human needs. On the upside, through design and engineering, you get to visualize and “choose” the world you want, making it “better” or at least more comfortable. Friendlier maybe. You could take that to the level of genetic design and insect resistant crops. But ultimately, as you two pointed out, living in that kind of environment becomes an overload of prefabrication and makes you want to head to Waldon Pond. Or Alaska. Or, in my case, to sit and meditate. Or . . . paint.