Such would be the successive phases of the image:
it is the reflection of a profound reality;
it masks and denatures a profound reality;
it masks the absence of a profound reality;
it has no relation to any reality whatsoever;
it is its own pure simulacrum.

Jean Baudrillard – Simulation and Simulacra


When we fly these days (which I do not recommend, just stay where you are), the airport terminals are now configured such that one has to walk through the duty-free store in order to reach their plane. As rule it is aggressively bright and there are screens positioned directly in the line of sight that ceasely play glossy video advertisements for the products therein.

One of the moving images caught my eye: the one where a lady rides a horse up a flight of stairs. It turns out the lady in question is the mononymic Zendaya, and that this is an ad by Lancôme, promoting their Idôle fragrance:

Perfume commercials are sort of enjoyably bonkers, I suppose in an attempt to convey the inimitable properties of their scent in a visual medium. Whatever Idôle smells like, I’m sure it isn’t the pungent, but not unpleasant, essence of horse sweat.

It’s not that advertising is intrinsically bad. You have a product, you want people to know about it. Fine. But as we will see, in its contemporary practice it corrodes value, meaning, wilts every real thing it touches. So yeah pretty bad actually. But the interesting question is what we can do about all that. How do we go beyond critique to creating something can manifest a rebuttal to the empty promises of consumerism.

We’ll need to use a more sophisticated analysis of the mechanics of image than Advertising is Very Bad, even if that happens to be true. So we’re going to lean heavily on Jean Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacra here.

Open up a Sears catalog from a hundred years ago. The advertisements extol the efficacy, the durability, the egalitarian availability to one and all. There is already the darwinian race of the superlative, of course. But it is a representation, which “stems from the principle of the equivalence of the sign and of the real (even if this equivalence is Utopian, it is a fundamental axiom).” What Baudrillard would call a representation of the first order.

A false representation is still representation (second order), as it is testable against the real.

Today we accept a further aspirational difference between the advertised use of a product and its actual experience. Even if we purchase and use the product we will not be as coiffed and coordinated as the actors that demonstrate it for us. The product demonstrated is as much the actors and setting as anything. A third order representation, it conceals the lack of the real.

All original cultural forms, all determined languages are absorbed in advertising because it has no depth, it is instantaneous and instantaneously forgotten. Triumph of superficial form, of the smallest common denominator of all signification, degree zero of meaning, triumph of entropy over all possible tropes. The lowest form of energy of the sign.

Jean Baudrillard – Simulation and Simulacra

What is striking about the perfume style of advertisement is that it does not reference any reality whatsoever; it is pure image. We cannot criticise it for being untrue in its claims, because it does not make any. It 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.” The fourth order of representation, a pure simulacra.

There is a logic in the hypertrophy of the luxtury image, as there is no way to make the appeal about anything other than pure image. By definition, luxury objects are non-essential. Truth in Advertising laws attempt to counter the second-order (false) representation, but there is no prescriptive way to counter the third and fourth order representations as they are not testable against the real.

I am using the example of advertising here as any simulation uses the form of advertising, but it’s only that: an example, a symptom. There was never any way to restrain something as gaseous as the simulation, and it corrodes every piece of reality it touches. In “liking” or “favoriting” a post on social media, we denature liking, the very essence of enjoyment, enthusiasm. In the political sphere, we trade ideology for ideological posture, and lose the ability to actually effect change.

So what do we do with all this? It’s a grim diagnosis, I’ll agree. But this is where we part with Baudrillard. Nothing real can ever be truly lost. The simulation cannot enfold wonder, intimacy, sensation; it can only reference them. And when we get a whiff of the real thing we see (for a moment at least) how drained of color the simulacra really is. Everyone has a serving of such experiences in their life, without such the simulation of them would not be intelligible. There is a spark of hope in how miserable the simulation makes us, even as pandemic life has deepened our malaise. I think it’s possible to run the machine backwards.

About Idôle

It’s in this spirit that I’m working on Idôle, a video art installation. In converting representation-without-reference into pure non-representational experience, I’m attempting to create something with some value and meaning as pure experience. The real, after all, is nothing more than what it is.

In execution, this is still very much a work in progress. The hardware is a proof-of-concept that I built to figure out the technology and what the RGBW addressable LEDs can do, but I hope to develop it into a full-size installation. I’m also figuring out a color profile that will display the video colors accurately. In the example videos below, there is currently about a one second delay between the video and the generated patterns– I figured out how to fix that but didn’t want to take new videos.


For the media inputs, I’ve selected five 30-second commercials as an exhibition which demonstrate Baudrillard’s concept of the third and fourth-order representation.


We have the original genesis of this concept, the Idôle commercial by Lancôme. Lots of subtle pastels which show well with the RGBW LEDs.


Marlboro cowboy commercials. What cigarettes have to do with cowboying I don’t know, but this was a very effective ad campaign judging by the adoption of Marlboro cigarettes by the ‘country’ kids in high school. The ‘city’ kids smoked Camels.


An ad for McDonald’s promoting their seasonal Mariah Carey menu.


I can remember this Marines recruitment from my childhood, and thinking even at the time that it was completely bananas (no video of the generated patterns for this one):


Walmart Spark of America commercial. This is actually a third order representation. It masks the lack of underlying reality, that America’s small-town communities have been atomized, by the opiate crisis (created by Purdue Pharma as a way to sell more Oxycontin), by the successful demonization of organized labor with the people who cold benefit it most, by Walmart itself. At one point it shows the small town main street that Walmart has destroyed, which is just a real piece of work (no example of demonstrated patterns with this one):


This selection of advertisements demonstrates another common denominator: they are often fundamentally distasteful products. Most of the Marlboro cowboys died of smoking-related cancer. McDonald’s is not actually food. Walmart’s business model forces their employees to try to cobble together two or more jobs just to pay rent, and many of their employees are forced to go onto public assistance. Meanwhile the Walmart heirs have more wealth than the bottom 50% of Americans, combined. If you don’t want to work for Walmart, sign up for the Marines, get a $10,000 signing bonus and the promise of free college, but in the meantime get shipped off for some forever war. This is all Very Bad, but it’s also an emporer-has-no-clothes situation.

This piece is titled Idôle, named after the perfume whose advertisement first grabbed me as I hustled through the duty-free gauntlet. But it is perhaps a bit more apt than that. An idol is a physical manifestation of an abstract concept. It is not a representation, as it contains some part of the power it manifests. You cannot copy it endlessly as you can with a representation. Likewise, the real is always here, right now, unfolding in its infinite variety. It can be represented with varying degress of accuracy, but never captured in a representation. It is always possible to dig through the strata of representation to reach the bedrock of the real.

Thanks for reading, please leave a comment below and I will try to respond!

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