Walking out of school today with my youngest child, as the low winter sun began to set behind the school walls, we had a discussion about shadows. We marvelled at the size of them and the depth of the darkness within them. We do things like that sometimes. He has an artist for a mother, he expects it.
This got me thinking: what do shadows and my virtual reality drawings have in common? It’s quite simple. They are both real, we see them, yet we cannot touch them or ever capture them. They both have wonder, yet we cannot hold that wonder in our hands, or pass it to someone else. Isn’t that in itself magical? I think so.
Shadows and my virtual reality drawings have another element in common, and that comes in the form of a question, a rather ancient one. It is a question that we have been asking about shadows for centuries (indeed a question we ask about the digital world today): Why do we regard such visual non-tangible reality as inferior to solid reality?
I asked my son: is a shadow real? He replied in the affirmative, of course it is real. He backed that up with the evidence: he could see it. We both can see it. I countered that with: but we can’t touch it. He thought about this but concluded that despite that, it was still real. I asked him why. He replied: well, we can still see it so we can’t say it doesn’t exist. My next, Plato-inspired question was, is the shadow you see as interesting or important than the person or object making the shadow? He thought some more. It is as interesting, and as important, he decided, as the real thing. Of course it is, it is just different, he mused. That doesn’t make it less important or interesting. He seemed quite baffled by that notion.
I almost whooped for joy. Yes! That is the answer I was hoping for. That is the conundrum I’ve spent the last two years thinking about and churning in my head, thanks to the influence of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (introduced to me by my final year tutor as I completed the BA). There is beauty in repetition. My son sees that. As do I. The original isn’t the purest form. Why do we continue to think this? The copy is valid. The beauty comes from the difference in the repetition from the original to the copy to the copy of the copy and the copy of the copy of the copy. There is no dilution in quality. There is dilution in form. That’s not the same. Quality and form are not the same. The shadows on the walls of Plato’s caves are as important and interesting as the makers of the shadows despite what Plato told us. We still believe him (or at least I don’t).
There has always been a ‘shadow’-like unreal world that coexists reality, and we continue to believe that it is a ‘prison’ and a danger. We thought this about art, about photography, about video and now about virtual reality and the digital world. When will be realise that there is an equality of ontology of all things? We are all equal. We are all individuals.
My son and I disagree with Plato. We find beauty in the shadows. We find beauty in the digital. We find beauty in the things we can touch too. There is no single source.