CAN'T TOUCH THIS

In our historical juncture, smoothness has become synonymous with perfection. This pervasive equivalence is not only found in technology, where quality depends on seamless functionality, but in everyday life as well. It is about time
we step behind flattened surfaces and find beauty in error.

 

Text by Laura Storfner / Images by Sascha Bente

Pattern_03cmyk.jpg

In the opening pages of Samuel Beckett’s “Worstward Ho” it says, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” 

This phrase — detached from its original text — is currently living a second life as a shallow motivational slogan. In particular, the fresh multitudes of entrepreneurs have appropriated it enthusiastically as the motto of their scene where failure as an abstract concept is fetishised, so long as it’s likely to turn into some sort of economically relevant product. For Apple the attitude seemed so inspiring that at the end of the nineties, Beckett was chosen (almost ten years after his death) as the face of their first “Think Different” campaign. Today, the firm’s former underdog status and the financial crisis are only remembered vaguely.
In addition to Steve Jobs, there was one other
person who contributed to the brand’s success — Jonathan Ive, chief designer and Bauhaus admirer. Influenced by their concepts, he has been designing new smooth surfaces for iPhones, iPads and MacBooks for more than a decade now, helping construct flawless compositions of seamless aluminium and glass — a signature of today’s life.

Philosopher Byung-Chul Han identifies smoothness as an imperative of our time. He refers not only to the reflective surface of the smartphone, but also to the success of Brazilian waxing, shortterm relationships, and the gleaming sculptures made by Jeff Koons. For Han, the smooth surface of our mobile phones is an invulnerable skin; even if it is fractured, it can be replaced within a few days. This emphasis on invulnerability has also short-circuited love. Afraid of being hurt, people cut ties before hearts can be broken.

Instead of living in a relationship, people
distribute “likes” on Facebook. And while symbols of love are handled generously in the virtual world, the feeling of closeness is missing in everyday life. On the other hand, it is almost taboo to express sincere negativity on social networks. No matter how many petitions are signed, Facebook will never introduce the “dislike” button. Following Han, the “like” feature accelerates communication, while “dislike” — a symbol of rejection — interrupts it. Under the pressure of positivity, “discussion” is as fleeting, thoughtless and superficial as the emojis that infantilize our language. 

 

People themselves, then, are also commodi-
fied as images; exhibited as surfaces without
secrets. Dating apps drive the process on, until we realize we’ve already woken up in a “transparency society” — a world that does nothing other than repeatedly exhibit itself to itself.

At the same time, our desire for self-realization is the mechanism that pulls the strings of this blatant exhibitionism. Behind the smiling face ofour neo-liberal “multi-option society” (which applys skin cream every morning to cover its dark circles) hides a dictatorship of self-exploitation, that follows the unspoken law: “I sacrifice myself in the illusion of fulfilling myself.”

In the eighties, Gilles Deleuze and Félix
Guattari investigated the “smooth” and the “striated” in relation to each other. The “smooth”, unstructured space was nomad territory, while “striated” lands were reserved for the sedentary. These two different strategies were set out as a basis for
orientation – one could either float and assimilate, or utilize tools to dominate space and leave marks.

Today the roles are even more blurred. Digital
nomads yearn for sovereignty over virtual space, unable to realize their fundamental disorientation in the data stream. While floating their fingertips over the screen, their bodies remain motionless, as if their writing was without consequence. As philosopher Michel Serres claims, a new type of individual is born through this cultural technique — following the latin root “digitus” (which means finger) he sees the digital native as Little Thumbling, who marks his trail in the virtual world.

Does our selfesteem and our desire to communicate change with the possibility of limitless accessibility? While everyone is busy trying to be different, it is certain that we are undergoing a change where a “hell of the same” is created, in which all men are incorporated into a system without realizing their conformity. It is a scheme which finds itself in all ages and professions.

Such limitless disclosure and systemic chaos are detailed in Sofia Coppola’s film “The Bling Ring”. Based on a true story, it is a film about a series of burglaries on the Hollywood villas of celebrities. Coppola’s metaphor: for several minutes, the audience witnesses how a completely glassed villa is robbed. The “glass man” sees his own reflection in the transparent, smooth architecture.

Coppola explains, “In the past, celebrities were surrounded by a mysterious aura, the
public knew very little about their private life.
In today’s culture, however, there is transparency”. Her film sketches a picture of a digitally self-expressive generation. The teenagers believe that moving in the virtual space of their idols entitles them to the same practice in reality. Besides their obvious moral disorientation, their total disregard for privacy seems to have reached worrying levels never experienced before.

Even contemporary art is blunt (at least the type that sells). Jeff Koons’ sculptures are flawless: no cracks, breaks, sharp edges, or seams. Everything flows in soft, smooth transitions.
His objects can be interpreted as a tribute to surfaces in which man reflects well on himself
and rests reassured. They are mediums of selfaffirmation — similar to the glossy surface of the iPhone — in which one recognizes their own value, even without taking a selfie. 

 

Of course, with all these comments on smooth-ness, the current fascination with haptics (print magazines, the new crafts movement, beards) cannot be left aside. In these cases of civilized patina, the “rough surface” remains an illusion while production and maintenance pursue excellence: no kinks, no cracks, no moments of irritation.

During the 16th century a new aesthetic principle, which was directed against the uniformity of the prosperous class, was developed in Japan. Wabi-sabi considered the highest form of beauty no longer immaculate, but vile. Subtle forms that only reveal themselves to those who take time began to signify elegancy.

Working within this concept, Kintsugi was developed as a method for repairing ceramic that does not eradicate the blemish, but emphasizes it. Cracks are plugged with Urushi lacquer, a powder consisting of gold and other metals, which turns the error into part of the object’s story. It causes compounds that emit traces of fracture for eternity and lets the “scars” be visible as part of the form. Failure never looked better. Samuel Beckett would have agreed.