What are the consequences of believing in the synchrony of representation and space? Usually not confusion. More often hucksterism.
The Louise Vitton company produced three “soundwalks” this year for travelers visiting Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong. They cost US$17 a piece.
The soundwalks are sold in two parts; first, an MP3 that you play on your iPod and, second, a map that you use to follow a route that corresponds with what you hear. Each hour-long track is narrated by a venerable Chinese actress, who points out things you’ll see as you walk – parks, shops, landmarks. She speaks about the landscape in nostalgic terms – youthful romance, family, an elderly bicycle store owner who collects bells from around the world. Sounds, interspersed throughout, serve as nostalgic triggers. Orchestral music so heavy-handed that it borders on comical plays without pause. But the company and its products are never mentioned.
Why would a fashion designer sell soundwalks that bear no obvious relationship to its wares? Their effort is, in fact, part of a long advertising tradition, developed perhaps more intricately in fashion than in any other industry, and exemplified by the model. Just as fashion models are the ideal wearers of a given piece, scenic images and rhetoric generate its ideal contexts. Recall the catalogues of the J. Peterman company, satirized by Seinfeld:
The outlandish language of Peterman’s catalogue offers the consumer a narrative model, an imaginary world he or she can work to create, outfitted of course in the proper wool shirt and sturdy safari pants.
Bruce Weber is a famous fashion photographer whose campaigns for CK and Abercrombie, among others, are foundational. The summery, wistful style of the image below is Weber’s trademark:
His campaigns depict a fantastical universe of budding sexuality, shirtlessness, and wet golden retrievers. We immediately recognize the character types, and link them with what they wear.
Commercial soundwalks are a lateral movement from the Peterman and Weber campaigns. They are in truth no more enveloping than those ads, but they do operate a bit more powerfully in the contemporary moment. As Dyson argues, many people are apt to believe that hearing something through headphones dissolves the channels of aural mediation – truly and fully placing us in a separate world. The actress on the soundwalk MP3 seeks to “transport” the listener to “[their] Beijing” through an overlay of sonic triggers on what is properly regarded as the purely specular field of the city. Reality, in the problematic sense of the word that Dyson critiques in the rhetoric of “virtual reality,” is thereby branded, but the brand itself, like the technology, is invisible. And out of sight is, ontologically, out of mind.
All that matters about the reality so represented is that people be enchanted by it as an idea on the horizon, that they be willing to see themselves in it and work towards it as consumers. Its empirical nature is of no consequence to its creators otherwise, which should be worrisome.