Material Media

or…
Framegrabs from the edge of the next millennium

Ross Rudesch Harley, Los Angeles, 1995

[originally published in Realtime, March 1995.]

“Making a dinosaur for Jurassic Park is exactly the same as designing a car.” That’s how Ed McCracken, CEO of computer mega-corp Silicon Graphics, figures it. Truth is, few of us would disagree.

Entertainment and commercial manufacturing have always made good bedfellows, though in the past we would seldom mistake one for the other. American industrial designers of the 1920s and 30s like Henry Dreyfuss and Norman Bel Geddes may have dreamt up sets for Broadway, and General Motors car stylist Harley Earl may have lived in Hollywood, but that’s about where the connection ended. Well almost. But at least there was an epistemological difference between their stylised sets and props on stage or screen and the built environment of consumer products.

Nowadays their interchangeability hardly raises an eyebrow. Hollywood and Detroit work out their ‘”market ergonomics’” (a niche for every body) and concept development on the same computers, sell their products through the same media (TV, radio, print, billboards) and dump their goods in the same old places (western suburbia or third world economies). Makes no difference to them.

At the same time, television has been let out of the studio and shoved headfirst into the world of space, time and architecture — NBK-style.

There’s no denying it. Media, telecommunications, marketing and computing are congealing into newly corporatised urban landscapes that bear none of the dark romantic hallmarks production designers Lawrence Paull and Syd Mead materialised for Bladerunner’s bad-new-future. Forget the utopian soothsaying and gothic crystal-ball gazing. For the large majority of us the future is already here — and it’s not what you’d call pretty. It’s planned, it’s calculated, it’s flashy, it’s corporate-global. It’s most probably at a shopping complex or video/computer/TV screen near you. And it’s gonna cost.

Our sprawling cities provide the new outlets for a determinedly material culture in which design appears to know no limits. We see and hear evidence that things have been deliberately cast (as if we don’t know by whom and to what end) at every turn — from fetishistic consumer objects to urban planning; from TV graphics and virtual voyaging to the loud packaging of cereals for the supermarket shelf or for television; from the austere public bus shelter to the new tollway or tunnel that decreases the distance between home and work even as it’s annihilated.

It is increasingly hard to avoid contact with a world designed on the totalising scale of global media. Everyone and everything is plugged-in (especially when it’s advertised “Unplugged”). We all know this: the distance that used to separate the media and the world it conjures disappeared seasons ago.

But here’s the rub: real life is now designed and experienced as an extension of commercial media, and not (as we used to think) the other way round. North America remains the pioneering source of material media — the phantasms and obscenities of traditional media (from Hollywood to the Fox Network) have been concretised in a bombastic web (I hesitate to call it a system) of consumer objects and places. Small wonder American architecture and design are now so closely aligned with the diverse (often perverse) interests of multinational media conglomerates and magnates, providing the model upon which countless other cities-as-urban-theme-parks around the world evolve.

The following banal “framegrabs” are not from the near or distant future. It’s still 1995, and the theme remains the same: consumption is fun. So what if it costs a little?

Frame 1. Even at 30,000 feet. No-one can escape the right to consume, with the credit card of your choice. The High Street Emporium guide, (just like the other Skymall shopping catalogues) gives me instant access to merchandise I wouldn’t look twice at on the ground. Inside I find exciting gift ideas for family and friends, as well as items I know I can’t live without. Like the solar-powered ventilated golf cap, complete with six 1/2 volt solar cells to power the fan, which directs a constant breeze toward my forehead. Or the vacuum-powered Insect Disposal System. It may look like a simple handheld cleaner, but it’s not. Really. Lined with a non-toxic gel (harmless to humans and pets) and powered by a built-in rechargeable NiCad battery, the 14,000 rpm fan System lets me quickly capture and dispose of insects at a comfortable distance without ever having to touch them.

Freedom of choice is a wonderful thing. I continue browsing: the Portabolt (to lock myself and my loved ones safely inside any opening door), the Auto Toothpaste Dispenser (of course), the world’s smallest 8-digit credit-card-sized calculator that records up to 20 seconds of instant voice-notes, or the odour absorbing PoochPads for dog owners who love their dogs but hate the mess. Just call the 1-800 number conveniently accessible on the Airfone Service the phone company have installed in the seat in front of me. These telephones aren’t for talking to people. They’re for ordering more stuff.

Frame 2. I remember this the next time I dial a 1-800 number to purchase some other stuff (tickets for a 3D Imax movie at a brand new retro-styled multiplex cinema at Lincoln Plaza, Manhattan — the screen measures eight stories high).

The call is promptly answered by a friendly female voice who thanks me for using their service. “Welcome to the Sony Cinema network. Please enter your zipcode to locate the theatre nearest you. Press 9 for more information, or 0 for the operator.” Nothing strange about this — though I can’t recall my zipcode, and the theatre I want is not in my neighbourhood anyway. I press 9 and the increasingly irritating calm voice thanks me again (as she does for the nine remaining multiple choices). “If you would like to see the following movie, please press the corresponding number now.” This is the future of interactive TV.

More instructions. If I want to see the Underwater Movie press 1, the Buffalos press 2, the … Next, enter date of the booking. And the time of the session.

“I’m sorry, the 3pm session is full. Please choose another time.” I do, making sure to punch in the number of tickets I require, the number of my credit card, and of course its expiry date (a rigorous safeguard against fraud I presume). Tickets confirmed, funds are invisibly sucked from one cyberspace to another. I’m ready to watch the show. After one more machine transaction that is — at the front of the lobby, attached to the wall in front of the long line. Swipe my card, and out pop three tickets for the 5 o’clock show. Amazing. Only an extra buck per ticket.

Frame 3. At Universal City’s ET Adventure ride, cards and telephones find another convergence. Sponsored by telecommunications giant AT&T, the ride flies dozens of bicycle riders at a time to a land somewhere beyond the narrative limits of Spielberg’s original filmic universe.

After waiting in line, everybody gives their name to the tour hosts. In exchange, we’re each given an individual “passport” (coincidently the same size and dimension of a regular AT&T calling card). Everybody clears “Customs”, and we riders soar off above the earthly world — with noisy jeeps and a swelling John Williams soundtrack in hot pursuit. On towards the night sky, and in a minute we’ve reached ET’s cute cartoon planet — a world we’ve never seen (in the movie at least). The most magical highlight is left till last. As we swing past the animatronic Extra Terrestrial waving us farewell at the end of the ride, we are all called — individually and by name — by Him, ET. After such an experience, who could ever forget how to call home again?

Frame 4. At the motion-platform Omnimax ride, Back to the Future — a fifteen minute experience that ushers the participants through an architectural maze of corridors and checkpoints inside the neo-brutalist Institute for Future Technology — we make it home via other means. For a quarter of an hour at least, we’re supposed to go along with the idea that we’re actually participating in an extended narrative from the film of the same name. The uncomplicated labyrinth that distributes us from one checkpoint to the next— complete with surveillance cameras, familiar actors giving us backstory on video monitors, written LED instructions, and real Institute “assistants” — is only vaguely engaging.

Being strapped into the eight seater DeLorean time-travel mobile is another matter entirely. The reality effect rapidly accelerates, and time slows as in a dream (or nightmare). Crashing headlong through a seamless collage of 20th century shopping centres, town squares, Ice Age landscapes, Hill Valley circa 2015, prehistoric volcanoes, exploding Texaco signs and cineplexes of the future, the four-minute ride is the most visceral experience in the entire complex.

Souvenirs can be purchased at the Time Traveller’s Depot on the way out. But everybody seems to know you can get that stuff anywhere.

Frame 5. Like the recently opened New York Skyride on the second floor of the Empire State Building, these flight-simulator attractions blur the distinction between architectural reality and cinematic illusion. The ride propels the traveller from the stasis of the monumental site to the mobile world of the camera. The mechanical simulation and computer controlled movement may be clumsy, but the thrill lures riders back for countless rides.

Of course, it doesn’t compare to the “real view” from the Observatory on the 86th floor. But who said it would? It’s a supplement, an addition, an orientation to a world which is in its own way just as inaccessible. “Look at the cars down there! They look like ants!”

Plenty of stuff to buy down there.

Frame 6. Which isn’t to say that the rest of the built environment hasn’t learned from such entertainment machines. The young LA-based architect Mehrdad Yazdani’s motion-reality theatre at Universal’s Citywalk also incorporates kinetics into its design. Its folded fibreglass screen on the facade functions like an electronically liquid marquee, as if to set static architecture in motion.

Regardless of the building’s success, such considered designs endow these entertainment complexes with more than a little Culture. Like the radically deconstructivist KFC outlet in the middle of LA (designed by Frank Gehry disciples Jeffrey Daniels and Elyse Grinstein) or the Planet Hollywood restaurant designed by Anton Furst (the late production designer of Batman), these places make a virtue of the high pop-moderne culture surrounding us — by selling it back to pop’s corporate initiators as Status. So what’s new?

Frame 7. Indeed, Gehry, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, Michael Graves, and Robert Stern have all furnished Disney (under the corporate leadership of Michael Eisner) with designs for some of its most critically successful buildings. Why stop at Florida’s Disney World or Euro-Disney in France? (For despite the failings of the European excursion, a Saudi Prince — assured in his wealth since Dessert Storm — has poured over $US300 million into rescuing the operation from its own unpopularity. Go figure.)

If, as critic Michael Sorkin has recently put it, “in theme park nation, life is a ride and everything — transportation, assembly, learning, leisure — must therefore entertain”, we’re in for a lot more fun. Not just in theme parks either.

Frame 8. Disney again. This time with Gehry at the helm, planning to build a retail and hotel complex at New York’s Times Square, just down the road from Disney’s New Amsterdam theatre (currently under renovation). A Virgin superstore and an MTV complex are expected to follow hot on Disney’s heels. More tangible still are the hundreds of total experience entertainment retail outlets mushrooming in major cities — over 300 Disney Stores worldwide, with Warner Brothers Studio Stores fast catching up. With over $US65 billion a year to be made from merchandising, stores like those in Santa Monica Plaza or midtown Manhattan are blue-chip investments. That’s the image unstable media empires have wanted to project all along. Toontown is rock solid.

Frame 9. So is Sony. Not content with the string of movie theatres they inherited during their takeover of Columbia (not to mention the musical interests of CBS and Epic), they’re into diversification in a big way. Not only do they want a living museum like Sony World in downtown Chicago, they want kudos of the sort Philip Johnson gave AT&T with his infamous po-mo skyscraper on New York’s Madison Avenue. Now it’s called the Sony Building. It’s public atrium was criticised when the telephone company (somewhat disingenuously) gave over its plaza to palm trees and wrought iron benches. All that’s gone now. In its place is a sprawling retail playground of Sony Style, Sony Signature, and — you’ll never guess — Sony Wonder Technology Lab. This 18,000 foot amusement park is free, and in America that’s as good as being “public”.

According to interior designer Edwin Schlossberg, “we wanted to make it human, but in a New York way… We wanted to fill it with props, with stuff.” Stuff you can buy. If not now, then soon. This is the Universal City of consumer electronics. Sony’s toontown sets are not quite inhabitable film or television, but they’re about as close as it gets.

Frame 10. That is of course until we finally get to see computer squillionaire Bill Gate’s “San Simeon of the North”, currently being completed in the suburb of Medina, across Lake Washington from Seattle. Partially tunnelled into the hillside, the five acre waterfront house has journalists debating whether this is Batman, Dr No, or Citizen Kane revisited. Truth is it’s probably all of the above. While architects James Cutler and Peter Bohlin say they’re trying to avoid ostentation and pretension, there’s no mistaking Gates’ intention to let architecture make concrete what Microsoft can only conjure with floating point geometry. William Randolph Hearst once had a similar scheme.

That doesn’t mean the electronic media baron won’t find a prominent place for software in the architectural scheme of things. As the New York Times has it, the Gates Xanadu will have a network of computers that “will alert the boulder-rimmed hot tub, the video-art walls, the climate controls, the library, the trampoline room and other sections that the master has arrived and expects an evening tailored to his mood.” So why is Gates remaining so tight-lipped about the details for his intelligent entertainment mansion?

I’m sure it has nothing to do with the New Establishment leader’s current fascination with animation. It seems Gates is desperate to have designed a universally recognisable Microsoft cartoon character along the lines of Mickey Mouse or Bart Simpson. But after a recent meeting with Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, Uncle Bill decided his work was too cutting-edge for the Microsoft demographic. And so the quest continues.

One thing’s certain though. When his search is finally over, you can bet your last megabyte of RAM it will only be the start for the rest of us. And we actually have to live here — here on the edge of the next millennium these corporations are constructing so obliviousy.