Mediated Visual Perception
In “Mass-Minded Systems: American Architecture and the Rise of Social Media,” I question the social function of site-specific architecture in the wake of newly-invented and ubiquitous digital social media. Rather than see them as opposing elements, I argue that architecture has the potential to mediate the gap between digital and physical worlds by becoming a third “middle” space for human interaction. Building on this research, my thesis at the Cooper Union continues to explore the digital-physical divide, as well as underlying questions about the role that distance, mediation and representation play in informing, or misinforming, our perception of objects and places.
In this thesis, I trace the historical development of the telescope from its origin to today with the dual focus of understanding its role as an apparatus for the augmentation of human vision, and its function as a tool for the production of two-dimensional representations. Specifically, I explore the mid-twentieth century moment when emergent digital technologies first displaced scientific observers from the real-time process and space of making direct observations through telescopes, instead transforming them into interpreters of visual representations through which we construct our total perception of vastly distant objects. I argue that this method of perceiving objects and places – perception that is entirely visual, mediated, and absent of embodied experience – has special relevance to architecture and its allied disciplines, where twentieth and twenty-first century digital technologies that developed out of the telescope, such as satellites, drones, and Google Earth, greatly transform our experience of the built environment far beyond historical and traditional methods of architectural representation.
My argument is anchored by two overarching claims. Firstly, where photography, drawings, and renderings offer static representations of the built environment, Google Earth, for instance, collages these images in an attempt to simulate the experience of circulating through space from otherwise inhabitable – but also uninhabitable – vantage points. Secondly, while this collage of imagery gives the appearance of being an objective representation of the built environment, in reality these images represent a world that does not exist. Each image is captured at a different time from a different vantage point and is potentially altered and edited, thus becoming a mostly arbitrary amalgam of history and fiction that, for many, either constructs one’s total perception of a particular place, or continues to inform one’s perception of a place even after having physically encountered it.
Several questions guided this research. For instance, what issues arise when perception of an object privileges vision over our other senses? At what point does representation transition from being a tool for cognition and imagination to being a veil between subject and object? How does a lack of physical proximity mitigate our ability to perceive objects, and if visual perception, particularly through images, is increasingly what we seek, then what is increasingly absent from what we find? Lastly, if embodied experience is critical to our perception of objects and places, then how can our engagement with them be informed by both analog and digital means?
Structured primarily as a design research project, I chose to investigate these questions through the act of drawing and making as well as through writing. And so in addition to this text and my other drawings and models, the culminating proposal of this research is a solar-powered drawing machine created to re-conceive the methods and tools by which we represent objects in space. While our perception of celestial objects is readily mediated through optical devices and digital imagery, the drawing machine is a tool that allows new analog techniques of representation by focusing sunlight – the light of the celestial objects themselves – to draw, etch, and cut surfaces, thus shifting both human observers an the objects themselves from their passive roles to become active participants in the creation of their own representations.