Authenticity?

I interviewed lighting designer Allen Hahn recently about his curatorial approach to the lighting designs in the US National Exhibit at last summer’s Prague Quadrennial of Scenography.  He explained that the curatorial team identified a trend toward “authenticity” in the contemporary design aesthetic:  “Authenticity in terms of spaces created by set designers and lit accordingly – spaces that didn’t present themselves as scenery but more as architecture presented on stage. . . .Well into the age of the Internet we are very aware of authenticity.  A simulacrum doesn’t pass muster in the way it used to, unless it’s used as a style. “  This last reminded me of something director Peter Sellars asked me rhetorically twenty years ago or so, “Which is more real, a Noh stage with a pine planked back wall painted with a tree, or a set for Plaza Suite with fully articulated moldings carved of Styrofoam, working doors and windows with plexi-glass, and all the doorknobs,” The answer, as obvious to me then as it is now, is the Noh stage, because the painting of the tree is an authentic painting of a tree, it is not trying to be anything else.  The molding on the set of Plaza Suite is as fake as a three dollar bill.

This in turn got me thinking of Allen’s other statement: “well into the age of the Internet we are very aware of authenticity.”  But are we?  How do we know what – or more to the point who —  is “authentic” on the internet.  I’m not just talking about the little fibs we tell about ourselves  (if everyone who described themselves on a dating site as “athletic and toned” were really as described, this country would not have an obesity problem) but about the substance of being on the Internet.  The question of “is there any there there?”  I’ve become a more active user of twitter lately (follow me @LindaInPhoenix), which has led to an expansion of my universe or twitterverse of online-only acquaintances.  Some of these are people who know people I know, so I believe them to be authentically people.  Others, however, are some other kind of entity: a business using what seems like a person as an effort toward humanization or, more interestingly, a person purporting to be a business entity but having no actual organizational existence.  As one of my twitter followers noted (thank you @krysVS),  “people don’t like authenticity as much as they like the *illusion* of authenticity…”

Krys’s comment is particularly interesting in light of the comments Allen made about American stage design.  When we place something “authentic” on stage is it authentically authentic, or merely presenting an illusion of authenticity?  Some years ago, I designed a production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (the play, not the musical).  Because I have always had a distaste for the fakery of much traditional scenery and because I wanted to hear the sound of shoes on the cell floor, I insisted that the prison cell be encased in real concrete.  Where there was not real concrete, there was real brick.   At the end of the play, the stage, which had seemingly been a neutral black expanse beyond the cell, filled with a full-stage projection of orchids.  What was more real, the cell built of 2X4 and plywood, albeit covered in real concrete or the projection of flowers.  The projection, of course, as it was meant to be a projection.    Yet, the illusion of authenticity of the cell was successful dramtically as the illusion of authenticity often is onstage.  Whether the illusion of authenticity of shell entities in my twitterverse will be successful at whatever it is they are trying to do is anybody’s guess.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is director of Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Programs at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, including its award-winning arts entrepreneurship program, Pave: http://pave.asu.edu The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of ASU. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix and "like" the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship at http://www.facebook.com/pages/pave-program-in-arts-entrepreneurship/386328970101 Find Pave's journal, Artivate, at http://artivate.org
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One Response to Authenticity?

  1. Linda, I’m glad the concept resonated with you.
    It’s an idea I stumbled upon through being on stage, but it applies throughout different media.
    A stand-up comic bases their material on real life, but it’s not *actually* how their life is.
    We’re obsessed with *reality* programming but it’s highly produced and edited – no one wants to see all the unused b-roll of the cast of Jersey Shore.
    We use Facebook to feel connected to one another, but it’s a false, filtered faux intimacy.

    So I guess all of us as artists and content producers are trying to walk that line – including flavors of authenticity without scaring people off.

    Great post.

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