Meaning, prims, and sense-making mechanisms.
Last night I visited @sorornishi's Second Life art exhibit, Transubstantiation. I'd read an interesting blog post on it by @botgirlq (who's Machinima I thoroughly recommend you check out!) so thought I'd drop by. As beautiful as it is, one thing I found particularly intriguing was the philosophy behind it. Soror writes:
"The Prim 1 contains my body and my blood... my essence. How? ....Every Prim I build is actually a REAL part of my psyche... (there is nothing virtual in this argument/statement). .. and so this artistic process is a transubstantiation. I am a god, The Prim is a god, I am in The Prim and I manifest through Transubstantiation."
Soror has hit on an interesting subject - what is an object and how do we make sense of it? Is what an object means to one person the same as what it means per se? Although one can give an object shape and substance, can one actually give it an essence, which is to say meaning? My feeling here is no, but that isn't to say it's meaningless.
There is no meaning inherent in objects, and thus there can be no meaning given to them. Buddhists have got it right when they talk about the dichotomy between (to borrow a phrase from Shunryu Suzuki) mei (light) and an (darkness). Whereas mei refers to the thinking world, the meaningful and interpreted world that we see around us, an refers to the way things actually are in their purest state, absent of thought. Meaning is something entirely attributed by the person perceiving the object based on an array of different variables unique to them. I might see an object as being beautiful because I have a concept of what beauty is, or I might try to eat it because I've eaten things like that before. Situational, cultural, and historical factors all have their roles to play, even our identity affects how we shape the world. A person who's never used Second Life before may fail to see why anyone would want to spend a dollar or two on a virtual chair. Yet an SL resident interprets it using a different framework and sees it not as just a virtual chair, but one they can interact with, decorate their virtual home with, and socialise using. Both the outsider and the resident share the concept of chair, but they do not share the background relevant to the interpretation of its virtual aspect.
So art and design aren't about imbuing an object with meaning, 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' after all. Instead it's the artist's attempt to accurately predict the sense-making mechanisms of his or her audience in order to create an object that leads them to draw particular conclusions. And should the object be particularly complex or novel, an artist may supplement the audience's sense-making framework itself with new information (such as a background philosophy). If successful, the artist demonstrates the overlap between creator and perceiver, where shared understanding and an almost intimate cognitive link is achieved. So rather than simply imbuing an object with meaning, an artist or designer utilizes their remarkable understanding of human psychology to manipulate their audience's sense-making frameworks into attributing complex principles to quite unique creations.
- For readers unfamiliar with Second Life, prims are the basic shapes (such as cuboids and spheres) that Second Life users can create, manipulate, and transform in order to create more complex objects. ↩