Powerless Replicas & Dud Twins: Thoughts On Placebic Objects

I’m taking part in a show called Image for a Title : Placebo Effects In The Cultural Landscape curated by Workshop for Potential Design in the Brompton Design District of the London Design Festival that opens on the 14th Sept.

Curators Tetsuo Mukai and Bernadette Deddens write:

The point of departure for the exhibition is the idea of placebo effects in the cultural landscape, or how conditions and expectations affect the way we form ideas about an object or an image.

We often make sense of the world through objects we see and use everyday, though it is quite evident that the conditions in which the interaction happens and the expectations we have about these objects affect greatly how we perceive them. This is of course a general and common topic in the media driven, image rich society we live in, but it also holds a certain significance as a possible opening for a discussion on how we could potentially bypass all this, or even exploit this mechanism for our own ends.

The exhibition and the accompanying publication review this phenomenon and propose alternatives, speculative scenarios and other possibilities between us and the things that surround us.

Exploring this idea of the placebic object, I’m showing this clay cast of a basketball. It came out of the following piece of writing that was trying to think through the potential (or role) of the placebo in design.

Solid Shadow

Despite originating from the minds and hands of humans, designed things can often seem as mysterious as alien artifacts. Sometimes the forms and shapes of things appear entirely logical, appropriate and satisfying. At others they are completely inscrutable, as if from another world. The shape of a chair, say, or the curve of a car that pleases one person disgusts in another.

It’s a phenomenon usually described as taste. Depending on your politics, taste is a by-product of socio-economic conditions or a feudal refinement that combines morality and breeding. But our relationship with objects is far more nuanced than tastes binary likes and dislikes suggest. Taste imagines objects as subjects of our whim, as things judged from our privileged animate position. The intimacy of our psychological relationship with things means that this relationship is far more complex. Designed things originate from our imagination before they become things. Though born into the physical world they will never quite shake off the shroud of their psychic origins. Objects are thus not only assemblages of material, but physiological constructs too.

Think, for example, of the placebo effect. Originating in 18th century medicine, the term placebo was used to describe “any medicine adapted more to please than to benefit the patient”. The inert placebo takes on the powers of the thing we imagine it to be. The placebo projects back into our imagination from the physical world. Something in combination of semiotics, fraud and plausibility psychologically animates it. Or, more accurately, while the placebo remains inert we psychically construct version of it so real that it works. Like the iconography of the orthodox church, a placebo – if it ‘works’ – becomes the thing that it represents. A psycho-alchemic power the representational into the real.

Much of a designer’s job is to give something qualities that it doesn’t necessarily have. The look and feel of objects cues particular responses. The shade of a colour, the curve of an edge, the sheen of a surface, the weight of a hinge or the action of a lift button might not change what something does, but can certainly alter our sensation of their performance.  Sensations that are apparently entirely real are magicked out of material inertia.

Through this magic is remarkable, its the total inertia of the placebo that marks it as remarkable in the universe of designed objects. In medical tests, the placebo acts as the control, as a baseline of nothingness against which the performance of active substances can be measured. Outwardly, it may appear as medicine but it is pharmacologically redundant exerting no change whatsoever on its subject. The placebo is a thing that acts as though it was not there at all, doing absolutely nothing at all.

The placebo is always an object that exists in relation to something else. It is a powerless replica, a dud twin, a three dimensional solid shadow with all function sucked out of it. The placebic object simultaneously resembles its active twin while embodying the zero point of that activity. The gap between the active object and its placebic doppleganger is, as in medical trials, the space in which we can see the way objects exist in the world.

The idea of the placebo suggests that things are psychological constructs as much as they are functional or material objects. It suggests that the idea of a thing is as intrinsic to its nature as its physical substance.

Ideas, especially ideas that originate deep in the mires of the subconscious mind or in the ancient mists of human culture, are often mysterious and unintelligible things. Especially when they are embodied in the inscrutable language of objects.

What, for example, is a wheel? What does this most fundamental of human objects actually mean? Its effect is not in question: no doubt that it accelerated our passage towards human culture out of the mire of nature. But, we can ask, how did the thought of the wheel become possible? How did the thought of an object in a constant state of rotation appear? How did the notion of a looped surface whose beginning is also its middle and end become appear in the world? Is the wheels symbolic quality intrinsic to the ability to imagine the wheels actual physicality? And what might that symbolic quality be? Is it both hole and whole? A sun or moon? An Ouroboros eating its own tail? The encoding of celestical orbits into a tool? Are its mechanics an expression of its symbolism? Do the high performance wheels of a Formula One car resonate with the same significances as the wheels of a medieval cart? Or are they different objects entirely, so vastly different in conception and technology?

Perhaps design’s cultural purpose is not just to make things work better. Perhaps design can help us flesh out our understanding of things. Turned in on itself and tasked to trace its own effects, maybe design can help reveal the contours of the synthetic environment we call home. Perhaps the only way to understand the world we have designed is to design things that can explore it.

Image for a Title : Placebo Effects In The Cultural Landscape

Paul Elliman
Gemma Holt
Sam Jacob
Tim Parsons & Jessica Charlesworth
Study O Portable

Open daily 11:00 – 18:00
14 – 23 September 2012
8 Egerton Gardens Mews
London SW3 2EH

Private view Thursday 20th 18:00 – 21:00
Bar by Peter Marigold

Organised by Workshop For Potential Design
with support from Brompton Design District

Enquiries: info@workshopforpotentialdesign.com

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