The Terror and Romance of SketchUp

This is a post about Romanticism and technology, about the way the technologies of representation shape the ways we see, about models and love and fear.

But first, somethings come up. Something I’d like to think about a little bit more soon. Its something about what the point of architecturally oriented websites like this are actually for. Its an important question, one thats got me thinking about the mechanisms of digital presentation that we have come so familiar with – things like the WordPress engine which Strange Harvest runs on frames the content in restrictive and problematic ways. This is much the same argument that Zadie Smith makes about how Facebook frames the idea of friendship:

“Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is.”

She ends by describing the wider impact of the mechanisms of social networks:

“500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”

But I wanted to try to think through the implications of another piece of programming on how we actually think.

This year at the AA we’ve been using freeware SketchUp models. This has caused much snooty tutting from the massed Grasshopper and Maya ranks that make up majority of the school. And it’s easy to see why. These are on the whole amateur products made for who-knows-what-reason. Maybe it’s the same reason people build fantastically detailed railway models in their attics or models of Blenheim Palace out of hundreds and thousands of matchsticks. Maybe in these oddball projects there is a physchology at work where the act of modelling the world is a way of somehow understanding or controlling those things which are far beyond our control: The things which screw us over, screw us up; The things that are too big for us to contemplate. Modelling in this way performs a kind of therapy. There’s a calmness in the model. Its scale, its distance and position in relation to us, its frozen and timeless sensation – the functions of its ‘unreality’ – are a place outside of the anxious fuzz that so often swallows us.

So, the SketchUp model. This has none of the charms of, say, a model village, or the amazement of a matchstick model. It’s an ugly format, an ugly medium. Basic, dumb, utterly devoid of expression.

But yet, but yet …

Isn’t it possible – actually, isn’t it important – to understand this medium? To interrogate what it includes and excludes from its representational repertoire? (after all this issue of inclusion and exclusion is how we figure the invisible ideology of the technology, just as Zadie Smith explains that Facebook is the representation of the idea of friendship as conceived by a Harvard nerd. The possibilities of expression are limited by the language of expression, like the difference between Shakespearean ‘love’ and Hallmark-ian ‘love’).

And when we start to look closely, isn’t there some kind of strange sublime operating in the SketchUp landscape? Even when there’s nothing there, there’s the green flat land and the simple graduated fill sky. A landscape whose utter, terrifying banality we ignore so easily in our eagerness to get on with whatever task we have at hand. What if we just looked into this landscape. What would we see? What would we learn? This after all, is a model of the world. Maybe it’s the truest way of seeing the world as conceived by Google? Or perhaps it’s the real view of landscape after the Internet, or the surface of the planet as viewed by the military-industrial complex?

Maybe this is something we could call SketchUp sublime: A landscape of horror and beauty that might take the place of the now-commercialised wildernesses where sensations of the sublime originated.

And what if we were to reconfigure this landscape as a conceptual terrain. One in which we might place things into that don’t belong there. Or perhaps we should use its tropes as a way of exploring unlikely subject matters.

These images – not that they are much to write home about – are a quick experiment in just that. A kind of public auto-therapy that’s an attempt to shake something. An attempt to inhale SketchUps dead calm, and attempt to throw the image of moments and places into something that might be a possibility.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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