On the corner of Orchard and Canal in New York’s Lower East Side, there sits a bench in the shape of a squiggle. A faded, curved pink block of concrete, it rests outside of Coming Soon, a design store curated according to an aesthetic that looks both retro and current, vivid and pastel, mid-century modern and yet devoid of time altogether. Its taste is ubiquitous online, dubbed “avant basic” by various online magazines for its initial quirkiness that quickly became mass-reproduced. Squiggles, checkers, and psychedelic patterns pop up throughout the store’s bendy pink shelves, among the glass carafes, twisted candles, and smooth furniture. If a bright checkered couch is meant to evoke the sixties, it is not because the couch is vintage; many of the items’ finishes are completely smooth, easily translatable to an economy of digital images that are not conducive to texture. The objects embody a commercialization of aesthetics to the point of the uncanny, a movement of design without origin.
Online, on visual media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, images circulate in a space where tastes are formed, where aesthetics become categorized and evaluated. Physical objects, regardless of how they were actually constructed, become 3-D printed in a metaphorical sense: hollow, ahistorical. They are digitally-disseminated renderings of images one has seen on the internet. One’s actual experience of looking at, sitting in, or owning a chair has less to do with the chair and more to do with that metaphysical magic of what the chair represents—its owner’s implied tastes, identity, capital. Perhaps someone enjoys looking at the checkered couch, but the enjoyment comes from one’s engagement trend cycle, from the couch’s connection to current design moments and affirmations of individual taste. One enters the trendy interior design store to purchase the objects to place in one’s physical homes for the purpose of producing an image. Even if one does not take out the camera, engaging with this kind of space, a store of empty aesthetic references, one is still engaging in the act of image production. It is a photographic act in the sense of photography as representation, in the sense that one is rendering a scene sourced digitally, into the real world. The apartment with the squiggle chair or the checkered couch becomes the rendering, and we are the avatars, turned through digitally sourced tastes into image products.
In 1981, Jean Baudrillard wrote that “simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory.”1 A society of simulacra is a society that feels treacherous and doomed in the most inarticulable way, for it reminds us of the uncanny. The notion of the desert of the real comes from this text, and its influence since its release can be traced not only to the Matrix trilogy but across film, philosophy, and the general psyche of a slightly worried public. Much has been written, in both popular and academic contexts, about the internet as simulation, as an increasingly uncanny representation of real life. The internet undoubtedly contains in its own design that dangerous ability to trick and convince one of its reality.
It is easy, then, to say that the internet is society’s ultimate simulacra. But there is an order to Baudrillard’s model of the hyperreal. First, the image reflects reality. Second, the image masks and denatures reality. Third, the image masks the absence of a profound reality. And last, the image has no relation to any reality; it is its own pure simulacrum. The history of the internet unravels in a similar fashion. In the beginning, during the Web 1.0 era of blogs and text-based communication, the internet reflected reality. The internet masked and denatured reality when it took on the character of representative media, when people started using social media to construct an enhanced, less real version of themselves. The internet masks the absence of reality when, say, social media influencers created by CGI and artificial intelligence begin to emerge. These are the first three stages. What, then, is simulacrum?
Upon entering McNally Jackson, the bestseller’s table looks a lot like the internet. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, The Body Keeps the Score, anything by Sally Rooney—the titles are echoes of images that you have probably already seen on social media, due not to a general public relations campaign but to content algorithms that have identified your identity and cultural taste. Perhaps you entered the bookstore to peruse a few new releases, but you have “heard of” (or saw online or talked to someone who saw online) this new novel about a young woman’s identity growing up on the internet, and that is the book that is familiar and therefore enticing. Awash in these bright two-dimensional book covers, the table is less a collection of stories selected for their transcendental values than a display of objects meant to reflect and sell a mood. Human beings have not selected these books to share with readers, though human hands may have moved them onto the table; the objects are placed there with the hollow pleasure of recognition as an end.
Do things become popular on the internet because they are popular in real life? Or popular in real life because they are popular on the internet? The bookstore may have emerged as a straightforward and purely functional medium in order to sell books, but the bookstore-as-cultural-object and curation model feels more real, or present, or popular, in the contemporary world. Just as the trendy home accessory becomes a rendering, so too does the book, allowing and even encouraging us to abandon the original purpose of literature. Perhaps the author did not write the book with the intention of it becoming a social media hit, and perhaps the bookstore owner is simply placing books onto the shelves based on demand. But, again, this is irrelevant. An individual’s innocence of the internet does not prevent the internet from consuming all it touches. Physical spaces become reflections of what happens online, whether that is intended or not. The map engenders the territory. Now, the internet is the map that engenders the territory of the real.
Is the only logical answer, then, to log off? Deleting social media is an experiment that has prompted dozens of personal essays, unrealized New Year’s resolutions, and, most of all, simple and fallacious fantasies of non-participation as a method of social change. To quit using social media posits that virtual reality exists or should cause worry only if one actively engages in that virtual reality. One can opt-out by deleting Instagram but the logic of default still applies: The person who walks into the bookstore and has not seen any of the books on the shelf trending on TikTok surely exists, but they are nonetheless in a space affected by the visual and communicative movement of the internet. Disengagement from the internet does little to prevent its accelerating course; to disengage in order to return to the real assumes that there is some sort of innocent real to which one can return.
But there are now people whose lives are bound to the internet, whose lives are the content of internet culture. They may be social media managers or podcasters or internet culture writers, or even influencers and TikTok stars, but more than that they are everyone, or really everyone hyper-young and hyper-online––everyone as far as the internet is concerned. The world’s dependence on the internet’s services is less concerning than youth culture’s dependence on internet media, which is far more insidious, more inescapable, more unavoidably real. On the platform of the internet now exists an entire reflection of society. No longer is it secondary to the real world anymore; its existence takes precedence. In virtual reality, life is media and media is life. The internet may have at one point been an uncanny representation of real life. But real life, its own pure simulacrum, has become an uncanny representation of the internet. The source of reality springs not from the physical environment but from the digital world which reconstructs the physical environment, which reconstructs social relations to be relations between digital tropes, which produces in it a logic of the algorithm in which everything collapses into sorting and reading and pattern recognition until all is confused and lost. Physical space is a set, people are characters, and it is through our consumption of media that alienation ensues.
“When I see a photo of myself,” Hilary Pecis said. “I just don’t think it sums up who I am. It’s just a flattening out of a person.”2 The Los Angeles-born artist paints interior scenes, the living rooms and breakfast tables decorated with the accessories of the tasteful: mid-century jewel toned sofas, Georgia O’Keefe art books, caned furniture, monstera houseplants. In one painting, entitled Dinner (2019), a sleek glass carafe sits atop a dinner table; the same carafe can be bought at Coming Soon, if one is interested.
Her paintings, and her philosophy behind those paintings, emphasize the absence of the person who lives in these homes. Though some paintings imply life more than others (there might be a half-finished chess game or a plate of apple slices, or an elbow in the corner of a frame), they are still life portraits of the objects with which we associate ourselves. For Pecis, the items on a coffee table portray the twenty-first century person more accurately than a portrait ever could. One writer noted her skill at “framing . . . how we represent ourselves within our own environments”; a curated collection of objects serves as an eternal placeholder for the imagined people themselves.3
Pecis’s paintings have been described as “if Matisse had Instagram,” and also as a depiction of “the world enjoyed offline.”4,5 Antithetical as these analyses may seem, her paintings occupy the space in which people find comfort in the contradiction, in the ability to have both. Nowhere in her paintings is there a laptop or an iPhone, or really any explicit references to the now –– the scenes are interior and serene. But, with “an influencer’s eye for framing,” as one writer put it, her interiors are not innocent of the internet’s aesthetic grasp.6 Casually arranged art books and crossword puzzles could show up in her paintings, but they could just as easily show up in one’s Instagram feed, a feigned effortlessness in taste and style. Depictions of the staged offline world, soothing and beautiful, do quite well online, and Pecis is no exception. Her paintings do not celebrate the offline; they celebrate our internalization of the online, and our ability to convince ourselves that representation is the same as reality.
A curator working with Pecis likened her paintings to the real experience of calm: “There are mornings when shit is really rough, when the fascists are here and the earth is dying. But even then I can still walk into my living room, see the light hitting something in a certain way and I can think, ‘That is so beautiful.’ There’s something like that in Pecis’s work and it’s very powerful.”7 This sentiment is widespread, and deeply relatable: there is a real, psychological experience of looking at something like Pecis’s paintings—images and objects and images of objects that do not challenge our aesthetic understanding of the world. The internet in general already presents ethical challenges; offline depictions of the internet as escapism from the internet threatens our capacity for embodiment altogether. To look to aesthetic forms for representations of a reality refracted through the gaze of social media—this is to deny the original world itself.
Digital media will not move us toward reality, even and especially when the media posits to represent reality. When writing about simulacra, Baudrillard was thinking about the rise of cable television and talk radio, two forms of media that now seem quite far removed from the language of dystopia he employs. Since then, and particularly because of social media over the past decade, technology and the internet have become extremely sophisticated in their ability to portray our lives and, perhaps even worse, their ability to make us constantly want to portray our lives. It feels natural not only to photograph, but to arrange, to posture, to represent. In getting more accurate, closer to closer to the real, we have become further and further away, immersed in the media of our lives. The spaces and images that we encounter in real, corporeal life which clearly employ the internet’s aesthetics and ways of thinking can instill a sense of comforting familiarity—a peace in knowing that we are not about to encounter any stimuli or surprise or unease. But when we are allowed—encouraged, even, as we often are—to remain in the passivity of our own consumer tastes that have been fed to us online, the real world disintegrates completely until all we have left, everywhere, are images of the internet’s soothing nothingness. The sense experience of being, the discomforts of daily life, force us to exit the paralysis of virtual reality. The idealistic goal of humanity should not be to make life as soothing as possible, but to learn to encounter the unfamiliar and the real.
- Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, translated by Sheila Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.), 1.
- Taylor Dafoe, “‘She’s Kind of Our David Hockney’: How Hilary Pecis Set the Art World Aflutter With Charming Paintings of Life in Los Angeles,” artnet, June 10, 2021.
- Emmalea Russo, “Hilary Pecis at Rachel Uffner Gallery,” Artfourm.com, N.D.
- Dafoe, “‘She’s Kind of Our David Hockney.’”
- Sara Barnes, “Exquisite Oil Pastel Drawings Showcase Women Enjoying the Quiet Moments in Life,” brwnpaperbag.com, N. D.
- Dafoe, “‘She’s Kind of Our David Hockney.’”
- Dafoe, “‘She’s Kind of Our David Hockney.’”