New Investigations: Antiques and Antiquities, Anomalous Objects, Human Scale in the Technological Society

by guy keulemans on November 2, 2008

Before I rewrite my abstract in response to feedback from Bas Raijmakers and the other M+H mentors, I want to quickly outline some new directions of research I discovered in the build up to the mid-terms.

Antiques and Antiquities:
One of the comments made at mid-terms is the use of the phrase “long-lasting” in my abstract. Indeed, in my introduction to my verbal presentation, I mentioned my disappointment with modern consumerism and the obsolescent design it engenders in the manufacturing industry. One of the problems (or benefits depending on your perspective) in the currently vogue “Cradle to Cradle” mentality is that as long as materials are recycled correctly, endless re-making of products is considered sustainable and in fact desirable to promote industrial economy and technological change. For all the advantages of the system Braungart and McDonough have detailed, I don’t subscribe to that viewpoint, even if (solar) energy was freely available without cost. Rather, I see the way forward is to produce timelessly functional and resilient products that survive for far longer than the time spans envisioned by contemporary manufacturers. The purpose is to not only reduce the energy required for redesign and remaking, but also to create a communication channel to the future; a strengthening of design tradition. In the same way we are informed by the antiquities of the past, we must inform the generations after us in order to give stability to the cultural zeitgeist.

And so I imagine my investigation into the characteristics that help antiques survive over centuries will cover both practical considerations such as production and functional qualities, as well as less tangible aspects such as cultural significance, rarity, collectability, preciousness and future utility.

Images above are of a three legged sugar bowl by silversmith G.L. Connell, dated 1937. Below, an illustration of the Elkington and Co. showrooms, from the 19th century.

Deformations of the natural proportions of figures in historical sculptures and objects:
Many artifacts, if not most, from history use non-standard proportions for human figures, such as seen in this fascinating Aztec obsidian vase.

The Venus figures of pre-historical Europe are interesting, because having little historical context for archeologist to investigate, the reasoning behind the form is impenetrable.

One theory is that the form of these figures, such as the Venus of Willendorf above, represents a pregnant women’s own body from her own perspective, that is, looking down at her own body. So her breasts are massive and her toes tiny or non-existent in the distance. In a time before mirrors and unable to see her own face, her head is morphed into the form of a plant or vegetable, a representation of the woman’s own burgeoning fecundity.

The Nasca Lines, and other curiosities of the region:
The Nasca Lines, geoglyphs dug into sand and rock in a plateau of the Andes, are an example of the sacred and gigantic. While researchers cannot agree on their meaning, religious purpose is assumed.

Some of the most famous Nasca geoglyphs:

– The Spider, approximately 46m long,
– The Monkey, 55m long,
– The Guanay (guano bird), 280m long,
– The Lizzard 180m,
– The Hummingbird, 50m long,
– The Killer Whale, 65m long or
– The Pelican – the largest of them all – at 285m long.

And the mystery of the Nasca extends outwards to some other weird stuff relating to scale; nearby, giant deformed skulls were dug up by archeologists in the 1830s. Its believed these skulls were “designed” by binding the heads of infants, and that they were considered beautiful. In addition, the eventual inhabitants of this area, the Inca, who conquered the Nasca around 600AD, had a their own “profane giant” myth. According to Royal Commentaries of the Incas the legends refer to a coming of giants from across the ocean. At first they were peaceful and concerned with engineering their own survival in the new lands, but eventually grew restless and began terrorizing their smaller neighbours, the Inca. Womanless, and finding the Inca women too small for their purposes, they engaged in sodomy, openly, in plain sight of the Inca and their gods, until they were eventually struck down by the these gods for their profanity, freeing the Inca from tyranny.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome:
This syndrome is described by Wikipedia a neurological symptom causing object to appear larger than they are in relation to one’s own body (macrophasia) or smaller (microphasia). Its usually a symptom of migraine headaches, or a few kinds of more serious viral diseases. And of course, psychdelic drugs.

On a broader note, the Alice in Wonderland stories are ripe subject matter for discussing scale; at a surface reading I see it as Lewis Carrol’s exploration of a “god complex” – that is, Alice’s shrinking negates her divine status as a giant, and given its context as a childrens book, this divinity is related to child-parent relationships, and therefore the miniature becomes a metaphor for childhood.

The scale of perceptual distance changing in the modern era:
Some of my scale research so far has involved distances of perception, or the scale of perceptual distance. Mostly in terms of optical effects, but a deeper understanding of this concept can be seen in the writing of French theorist Paul Virilio. In his book Open Sky, he discusses it in the context of the information society, much in the same way that John Thackara laments our loss of intimacy with locality in the age of information networks; Virilio believes we have created a “pollution of distances”. This relates to our loss of of the human scale in technology; the ability to access distant places immediately in-substantiates the very value of their distance. The human point of view derived from the our physical relationship to the natural world is now changing rapidly and he asks, do we need a grey ecology to match our green ecology? From my point of view the question is, how can objects mediate this loss of human scale in a technological society?

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