1. Reality Bites: Thoughts on feeeels
As the World Wide Web enters its fourth decade, it is tempting to believe that the world is, in fact, flat. Not in the ways that Reddit’s conspiracy-theorists would argue (an ice wall contains the world’s oceans and landmasses in the form of a glorified circular pool), but in how the internet has compressed space, time, and human experience in previously inconceivable ways. The formerly tangible — news, money, letters, photos — move through space with new fluidity and at unprecedented speeds, as if all physical barriers have been leveled.
This perceived flatness, however, ignores the inescapable materiality of the internet. The misnomer “cloud” deceives, tempting us to believe that the sky’s apparent absence of infrastructure means that the internet is actually immaterial. But if we look, we can find physical traces of it in obscure spaces — beneath ground and sea, at remote windowless data centers, and in satellites barely perceptible to the human eye. To think about the Web as material is to conjure a complex physical system, undoing the convenient illusion of an invisible, impartial, and autonomous digital landscape. Where one used to have to “see it to believe it,” this newfound confusion between physical and virtual space has made the litmus test for reality more layered and complex. Considering material culture as central to our ever-changing (dimensional) world plants us firmly back in a reality that the internet has done such an excellent job of obscuring. Next time the internet goes out, imagine a shark unwittingly gnawing on a fiber optic cable, and the entire “cloud” concept lying dead in the water.
Can You Feel It?
feeeels examines the margins between the material world and its immaterial representations. We focus each issue of this publication on one tactile adjective related to the sense of touch. By assigning tactile metaphors to nebulous concepts, we can associate the immediacy of touch with subjects that are often difficult to parse and impossible to hold in our hands. Though we may abstractly describe these extrusions as slimey, sharp, squishy, or slippery, it takes no more than a sinking feeling in one’s stomach to understand the metaphorical resonance of “sharp.” These are words you often feel even when you only hear them.
Though touch is just one of five human sensations, we feel that it is the most powerfully intimate, relying on physical proximity in ways that are completely at odds with our current digital culture. We take care, however, not to frame the importance of touch in a digital world as a nostalgic longing for the pre-digital (we’re not looking to write this note with a typewriter). Rather, we wish to use tactility as a lens through which we might intimately address issues facing our overwhelming cultural present.
Technology has been “flattening” the world for millennia, bringing us “closer” together through tools of communication that, as they inspire efficiency, also obfuscate their human labor and environmental consequences. In 1991, Geographer David Harvey, citing Karl Marx’s post-Industrial Revolution observation, notes that “progress entails the conquest of space, the tearing-down of all spacial barriers and the ultimate ‘annihilation of space through time.’”01 Digitality is merely the most recent catalyst turned cause for anxiety.
We can’t always trust what we see on the internet or hear on the news. Tactility, by contrast, inspires confidence in our experiences. The inherently interactive nature of physically feeling something offers a connection we crave, one that is often substituted with avatars and virtual interactions in the digital space. And so, we invite you to consider again the physical — one tactile metaphor at a time.
Why did we decide to focus the first issue of feeeels on a word like “fuzzy?” For one, it sounds like the sort of provocatively unexpected topic an art publication might land on — seemingly innocuous, yet ripe with biting criticism and underlying surprises. And moving past this playful, deliberate misalignment of language and intention, many more fully-rendered and relevant concepts begin to brush against the surface. Just look at the definition of the word itself.
Fuzzy, a descriptor that simultaneously conjures both the adorable and a sort of unsettling disruption, is the type of linguistic contradiction that widens the more time you spend with it. To meditate on the word’s meaning presents some immediate conflicts of interest. On one hand, we might think of the endearing muppets of Jim Henson’s imagined universe, the itchy warmth of Santa Claus’ beard at the local mall, or the gentle touch of a childhood teddy bear you couldn’t fall asleep without. On the other end, equally as viscerally felt, might be the violent blast of an overdriven guitar amplifier, the sharp, harsh edges of a digital image that’s been copied too many times, the furry mold growing on food left in the refrigerator for too long, or the frustratingly low-resolution security footage of an anonymous assailant you’re desperately trying to identify. The very descriptor that can comfort with its pacifying feel-to-the-touch can also conjure something dangerously out of reach, imperceptible to the senses, difficult to discern, and therefore potentially hazardous or harmful: the unknown.
To describe fuzziness is to describe a fraying at the edges, a lack of definition, where details become either so small as to be individually imperceptible or so outsized as to become illegible. The dynamic borders that typify fuzziness might accurately describe our constantly shifting understanding of the world around us. Armed with this interpretation, can our particular political moment be designated as anything other than fuzzy?
Rough-edged fringes take center stage in a world where the easiest way to be noticed might be through provocation, be it physical violence or digital insidiousness. Just look at our commander-in-chief, a master manipulator of crafting his own narrative and inserting it directly into the conversation in short but chaotic bursts. His worldview is just warped enough to fend off reality-based rebuttal. His imagination is so limitless that we cannot fathom it, in turn forcing us to question everything we know. The fringes of reality, meaning the space between possibility and certainty, now encapsulate the entire human experience. Reality has become a moving target — always obscured and just out of reach. Our new narrative is being written by people who don’t know exactly where the line is drawn, and, frankly, aren’t interested in finding it.
We find ourselves at a distinct point in human history — an epoch where what we believe and what we refuse to believe are often trading places — where our reality can be as difficult to accept as anything our imaginations could dream up. feeeels attempts to explore this moment indirectly through the lens of this perceptual bait-and-switch. We explore ideas and experiences that our senses can’t accurately perceive or comprehend: the disparity between traumatic memories of a destructive hurricane and the impossible beauty of plant growth in a recovering Puerto Rico; imagined fur monuments, at once gentle, gargantuan, and heartwarming; the unfair ideal of borders and how their arbitrary definitions create illusory divisions and incite violence; modernist architecture reimagined floor-to-ceiling with the soft comforts of traditional textiles. Our senses can’t always be trusted, but it’s usually a good place to start.
Welcome to feeeels.
01. Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Pengiun Classics 1993, quoted in Graeber, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Wiley-Blackwell 1991.