Philosophy

Artificial Skies

Premonitions beneath a painted sky

The Temple of the Attainment of Happiness, originally built in 1398 in Nara, Japan, now at The Philadelphia Museum of Art

I get weak in the knees whenever I stand beneath an artificial sky. A ceiling painted pale blue. Diffuse lighting. Perhaps an artist’s rendition of clouds. These things trigger a warm blush of dopamine, an uncoiling of the nerves. There is nostalgia here, a smudged memory of the safety I felt doing arts and crafts in a classroom while a storm beat against the windows: a child’s fantasy of living within a diorama, of inventing better worlds without any sense of time. And I catch a small thrill in the belly because there’s the sensation of a premonition realized, of standing in the future while my brain lights up with aerodynamic phrases like Spaceship Earth, Biosphere, and the tape-recorded skies of Neuromancer’s Freeside.

But there’s also dread. I remember the illuminated photographs of cherry blossoms in the drop ceiling of the hospital room where my father lay dying. This synthetic attempt at normalcy reminded me why clowns are so disturbing: their happiness without reason, the painted smile that must conceal a terrible expression underneath—else why the make-up? The cocoon of a climate-controlled simulation promises protection from the world’s unpredictability and violence, but sooner or later you begin to wonder what might be going wrong behind its walls. A representation implies the real thing must be lost, ruined, or otherwise unavailable. And there’s a connection here that I cannot quite articulate without sounding clumsy, some deep-boned fear that the screens we inhabit today are rapidly becoming an artificial replacement for something that can no longer be salvaged.

Further Reading: Edmund Burke, The Sublime and Beautiful; William Gibson, Neuromancer.

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