The Manual Caff is an exhibition by Omar Ghazal and Hugh McEwen.
And It Emerged on the Horizon of Appearance
Jean Baudrillard once said that the simulacrum does not hide the truth, but that it is the truth, meaning that ‘reality’ has receded and been replaced by a world of appearance. The Manual Caff represents a full-scale engagement with this blurring of the lines between appearance and reality by playing on the notion that, insofar as ideas are realised in any form, there is no longer any meaningful concept of reality.
The essential idea is that reality has been obscured by the proliferation of information, digital representation and electronic processes. Whilst things occur in tangible space, we only ever experience and engage with them in intangible time, rendering ‘reality’ at worst nonexistent and at best meaningless. Everything that occurs does so at the level of mere appearance with nothing behind it; it is only through this all-consuming façade that we can have any connection with the world at all.
The point, for Baudrillard, is that it hardly matters any more what is behind this façade, since reality is so irrecoverably obscured. He holds that the basis of experience is the simulacrum – the world of appearance – which, throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, perpetuates simulation. That is, in place of reality, we have only a series of references with no referents; a simulated, hyper-real enchantment of the world. The Manual Caff is an idea, but is no worse off for that, since its drawings, objects and the manual itself refer only to an idea, a concept; but the SSE itself is not in a privileged position of reference, for it only also refers to a conceptualisation of modern living. In both cases, the immaterial idea is the basis for any concrete object and is used to simulate a way of living that depends robustly on concepts without any essential referents other than those traces in appearance which are necessary to sustain the concept in the mind of someone living.
The totalising effect of simulation can be seen everywhere, from news bulletins to social media. A tantalising example of this is Baudrillard’s outrageous claim that the Gulf War did not take place: out there in the desert, an unseen invader and an unseen enemy exchanged not fire but heavily mediated images which constituted a media circus; a simulation of a war took place in virtue of both sides parading images of fire, prisoners and destruction in order to convince the world at large that something important was occurring in the desert. In real terms, the catastrophe that unfolded on the ground was overridden by its mere appearance.
As such, there are no boundaries around what can be thought to occur, since the appearance is constructed not from events in a world of things but from mere electricity – there is, to the philosophers’ dismay, something out of nothing. In this sense, The Manual Caff is a mirage on the horizon as much as the Gulf War, for it is only a well of endless possibilities which can be manufactured at will by the divine hand of the artist out of whatever materials are present to hand with vanishing indifference to whatever we might affectionately call reality. Ideas, it seems, have to be realised in concrete form, like colourful ashtrays and plush cushions, but they do not have to be born from events; the Caff will emerge at will just like the image of catastrophe.
The simulation of war is only an extreme form of a phenomenon that occurs at every level of the death of reality. It is more than merely desensitising a populace, more than simply packaging existential crisis for a mass audience; it is the murder of reality on an industrial scale. It is the construction of a hyper-reality in which nothing ever happens except the harmless flickering of images on a screen. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, nowhere was this crushing indifference better captured than in the television drama, Generation Kill, which focused not on military operations but on how the sheer absurdity of modern warfare is reflected in the boredom of the troops on the ground. It plays, with tongue in cheek humour, on the idea that whilst the media perpetuates the idea that a bloody war is occurring, there is nothing happening on the ground but the uninteresting lives of young men and women.
The Manual Caff, then, capitalises on this same hidden emptiness: as Jean-Paul Sartre said, ‘everything is always normal in cafes’, capturing the terrifying existential insight that just living, simply being in the world, is in itself uneventful; the events that occur are only those which we choose to paint upon the blank canvas of our experience. There is no more existential content to the ‘real’ SSE than there is to The Manual Caff: in both there are walls and tables and coffee, but all the content which makes them a real life experience is layered on through dressing up the appearance. A café simply emerges out of a concept of modern living, a way of life which has as its conceptual content an idea about how we would like to appear as functioning members of society: for Sartre that idea was as a thinker, for The Manual Caff it is as a radical design experiment. This takes seriously the death of reality by questioning how far the appearance can convince and at what point an appearance emerges with such zeal that we can no longer cling to reality.
The death of reality is all around us, as if we are constantly tiptoeing our way through the gruesome remnants of its corpse in order to get anything done. Social networking offers the opportunity to be the person one wants to be, to construct an ideal persona who goes to the right parties, plays the right sports and basks in a life of hilarity and achievement. Social media devotes itself to manufacturing the appearance of something happening, everywhere, all the time. The entire infrastructure of the media is geared towards presenting the world as we want it given to us or as interested parties want us to see it. Wherever the reality of our loneliness, insignificance, failure, helplessness or idiocy may threaten us, there is a simulation of something altogether more glamorous to fill the void, for everything else there is an app.
The situation is grim if it is analysed at anything other than face value, which reminds us that, as Zizek is so fond of quoting, ‘there is chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent’. For all its omnipotence and apparent malice, the simulacrum is not an enemy to be vanquished; it is not depriving us of engagement with reality, setting us at a conceptual distance where we lose crucial traces of ourselves, rather it is our friend protecting us, through the proliferation of appearance, from the stark emptiness that lies beyond the simulation. The Manual Caff’s central triumph is that it is a novel layer of simulation pasted onto an entirely quotidian simulation that we take for granted, raising the brutal question of how we choose to represent things as we do when there is such scope for alternatives.
The idea that there is some bygone age of social interaction and authentic human drama to which we must return is what Marxists would call the myth of the original fullness: just as there was never a fulfilling mode of production or economic system that capitalism usurped, there never was a better reality than this – the myth of the original fullness serves only to romanticise a former epoch as a digestible objection to this one.
The murder of reality is not, however, a perfect crime, says Baudrillard. This is evidenced by the fact that the appearance we have enables us to long for something else at the same time as taking primordial delight in the simulacrum. Hours spent on Twitter, the synchronisation of all your contacts, an aesthetic joy in Damien Hirst’s vast cabinets of synthetic pills, mass consumption of every form of information, everywhere, all the time, all constitute much enjoyment of modern life. But at the same time, eventually we are left wanting to be involved in real events, to see all the people we have ever known, to have a pill for every ailment and to feel, rather than just know, the happenings of the world. The crime cannot be perfect because it leaves traces: it leaves desire unfulfilled, even though there is no perpetrator, no victim, no weapon, the crime cannot be perfect because we are still able to imagine a world beyond. For Baudrillard, the only perfection in this crime is in its totality – in the unconditional simulation which consumes everything.
It is in the idea of the trace of reality left circulating in the appearance and the crucial duality between primal delight and the dissatisfaction of desire in the simulacrum that The Manual Caff does its best work. The central proposition of The Manual Caff is of a café within a café, where the actual space of SSE becomes amalgamated with the imagined space of The Manual Caff through a delicate integration of elements. The fabrics of the two spaces are merged as the project develops through drawing, objects, performance and intervention, bringing into question the identity of the appearance.
It begins with a trace of The Manual Caff encroaching upon the SSE, as if the desire for something more than that which is given cannot be escaped, and ends with The Manual Caff, detailed and documented to the extreme, usurping the SSE which itself becomes a trace of a former appearance. The trick, the sleight of hand that is here performed is in the fact that, from the very start of the narrative, The Manual Caff is just as tangible in its objective remnants as the SSE, all the while suggesting that there is not – and never was – any reality other than the mere appearance. Whilst the SSE is but a simulation of a life that one lives vicariously through the possibility of postmodernity, The Manual Caff is an alternative simulation.
There is, then, no concept of the real, but only the perpetuation of the simulacrum. On this view, there is no interesting difference between the SSE and The Manual Caff, except perhaps that one is already constructed in its totality while the other is at the start of a journey towards its revelation. In particular, the manual itself has a curious parallel with Baudrillard’s idea of the news media: it is itself an idea which gives scope for the construction of simulacrum that depends upon nothing more complex than the limits of logical possibility. And then, it is only moral decency that prevents it from transcending logic. The manual communicates an idea at the same time as drawing a wry parallel with any form of material realisations of ideas, which is that what appears is more important than what is. The limitation of the Caff or the café is not the idea or its possibility but its means of representation, just as there is no meaningful limitation to what the café can serve but only to how it could be represented on an exhaustive menu.
In the final analysis, it is not interesting that The Manual Caff is an idea, but it is interesting that any café is an idea – that everything we take as meaningful is an appearance behind which there is nothing. The Manual Caff does not, after all, hide the truth, it is the truth.
[The Manual Caff runs until 20 October 2012 at SSE Space, London]