Reality TV is increasingly inspiring the fusion of news and entertainment, blurring the lines between factual events and stylized narratives. News programs mix politics with entertainment to make it more appealing to mass audiences in an age of hyper proliferation of information. Viewers transform an “environment of information into learning experiences… this is an understanding of learning as personal and social action… the value of factual television as a resource for learning is especially apparent when information can be gathered from a variety of media and non-media sources” (Hill 2005, 169-170). Kevin Robins describes the sociological and political perspectives of reality TV as pointing
“to an increasing compartmentalization of society in which we build up “safe environments” where we no longer need to share physical space with the underpriviledged, where the more problematic aspects of reality are locked out. With its focus on rescuing us from nature and technology gone awry and protecting us from criminals, reality TV could easily be interpreted as converging an ideology tailored to such a development... It might express a longing for a lost touch with reality, prompted by the undermining and problematizing of indexicality… it also is obsessed with conveying a sense of connectedness, of contact with the world” (Fetveit, 131-132).
He continues to describe the security and safety we have in watching the news and other
‘reality’ TV from the comfortable confines of our home.
“The powerful urge for a sense of contact with the real is inscribed in much of the reality TV footage… it comes with a unique promise of contact with reality, but at the same time it promises a secure distance. Too much reality is easily dispensed with by a touch on the remote control. [There is a] tendency to replace the world around us with an alternative space of simulation” (qtd in Fetveit, 130).
Virtual reality (to which reality TV anticipates) “is inspired by the dream of an alternative and compensatory reality… so attractive because it combines entertainment and thrills with comfort and security” (qtd in Fetveit, 130).
Since reality TV arrived arrived on the television screen in earnest in the 1980’s, the genre has morphed and hybridized with other entertainment formats. Popular factual television is often regarded as a the populist dumbing down of the more elitist and prestigious documentaries. While the reality TV genre draws its cast from ‘everyday ordinary’ people, increasingly, “these real people are always necessarily ‘scripted’ by producer treatments and ‘clues’ announced on screen… So the most authentic direct-cinema mode – following a group of real people through their daily lives as a microcosm of some bigger truth – becomes a stylized testament that such persons are actually in someone else’s fictive test tube, in this case, the producers… it is a producer’s artifice” (Caldwell, 273). While the reality TV audience continues to grow and follow the cast and characters of programs through a variety of media, they are also aware of the heightened entertainment aspect of the programming and question the validity of their truthfulness. “The more emphasis is placed on spectacle and style, the more audiences look for authenticity in people’s behavior, emotions and the settings for representations of reality” (Hill 2005, 16). The spectacle/performance paradigm asserts that media is constitutive of everyday life. “Contemporary society is performative, spectacular, and focused on the self and individual identities” (Hill 2005, 20). Television is a major source of ‘people watching’ for comparison and possible evaluation” (qtd in Hill 2005, 200).
In this sense, the genre becomes a bridge between formulations of cultural and individual identity, both reflexively influencing the other. Reality TV programs translate the emotions and experience of its ‘real’ participants into entertainment, while viewers utilize this entertainment to formulate their own emotions and experience. In discussing the genres of factuality of programs “viewers process this generic material, making existing and new associations, adding personal meaning to the material, and in doing so are playing a part in the transformation of factuality” (Hill 2005, 95). Reality TV viewing is like a ‘mad dream’ “between fact and fiction, and public and private, viewers are caught in intermediate space,” between consciousness and unconsciousness, which can create a powerful self-reflexive experience (qtd in Hill 2005, 108).
Bollas describes this space as similar to the consciousness between waking and dreaming - when we are dreaming but ‘awake’ enough to see ourself dreaming and reflect on it. “We are always working on our psyche and we never fully make sense of our self-experiences… we explore the messages from factual content and experiences in order to continually reinterpret and make sense of ourselves” (Hill 2005, 89). We witness TV but also witness ourselves as viewers. With ‘factual’ programming we are always working through what is and isn’t real. “The intermediate space of factual genres is transformative, and at times we will personally connect with something in a program, reflecting on what that person or real event means to us, creating a powerful self-reflexive space. The intermediate space of factual genres can also be troubling, a negative experience that challenges viewers to address their personal motivations for watching different kinds of factual content” (Hill 2007, 89).
There is often a ‘troubling side’ to watching reality TV, a dark side that causes viewers to be self critical of themselves. This ‘dark side’ is similar to Carl Jung’s discussion of the “shadow as the dark side of the human psyche. The shadow is the hidden part of the unconscious, something we try to ignore but which is a powerful aspect of ourselves. To be conscious of the dark side of the psyche is important for self-development” (Hill 2005, 108). “Reality TV viewers describe themselves as looking in a mirror and not liking what they see” (Hill 2005, 111). The audience often classify ‘performers’/participants as weird and in comparison the viewer feels he is normal, placing himself in a superior position. This has precedent throughout history, weird people being entertainment for the masses… ie. Traveling fairs of the Renaissance, Roman gladiatorial games, Victorian freakshows (Hill 2007, 207).
As the distinction between fact and fiction become increasingly blurred, the traditional boundaries between the public and private spheres are reorienting themselves. “There has been a breakdown of the boundaries between the public and popular, a focus on spectacle, emotion and personality, a new aesthetics of the real. There is an understanding that reality TV has become so bloated and extreme that it has instigated its own relocation into light entertainment and drama. One of the outcomes of the restyling of factuality is a move back to reality, away from the spectacle of reality entertainment” (Hill 2005, 214).
Caldwell, John. “Prime Time Fiction Theorizes the Docu-Real” in Reality Squared: Televisual Discourses on the Real, ed. James Friedman. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press (2002). 259-292.
Fetveit, Arild. “Reality TV in the digital Era: A Paradox in Visual Culture?” in Reality Squared: Televisual Discourses on the Real, ed. James Friedman. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press (2002). 119-137.
Hill, Annette. Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television. New York: Routledge (2005).
Hill, Annette. Restyling factual TV: audiences and news, documentary and reality genres. New York: Routledge (2007).
In its broadest sense, this research investigates how one should design the physical environment for the contemporary subject of the Digital Era. The ease and immediacy with which one can access the preponderance of information available through digital and electronic media has complicated the development and understanding of self-identity in popular culture, and by correlation how one engages with society. The significance of the public institution as a center for information exchange and civic engagement has diminished in favor of new media , which has become a staple at home and is trending increasingly mobile.
While architectural investigations of the past two decades contemplate the formal possibilities of digital technology and the affects of new media on physical objects, few architectural proposals consider how the proliferation of these media and technologies directly affect the subject in society. This project rethinks the design of the contemporary upper school as a model for considering the affects of new media on individual and community interaction, the dissemination of information and the evolution (dissolution?) of public institutions.
This thesis challenges contemporary formulations of identity and societal engagement in an age increasingly dominated by the proliferation of digital and electronic information and interaction through the proposition of an architecture which fosters critical awareness of the (re)presentations of actuality in new media and directs critical engagement between the new subject of the digital era and the public sphere.
My complete thesis preparation document can be viewed here: Rethinking the Contemporary School