Simulacra and Simulations: Debord and Baudrillard

Imitation, fake bags, artificial realities, looking at both photography and cinema.
Computer technologies, areas in our everyday lives – weather forecasting and gaming.

Sean Cubitt on ‘simulation’

‘a copy without a source, an imitation that has lost its original’.

And he adds that: ‘the theory of simulation is a theory about how our images, our communication and our media have usurped the role of reality, and a history of how reality fades’.

Sean Cubitt, Simulation and Social Theory, London: Sage, 2001, p.1.

  • Replication of reality.
  • Image comes to dominate after the first world war. Society of spectacle.

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (1967)

‘all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation’.

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (1967), Exeter: Rebel Press, 1987, s.1.

  • Idea of false.

Gucci ad campaign


  • Commodity rather than the actual object, not based on how well it can carry stuff.

‘Simulacrum’ and ‘Simulation’

A ‘simulacrum’ is defined as:

‘1. any image or representation of something.

  1. a superficial likeness’ (Collins dictionary).

‘Simulation’, though involves more than simply imitation and can be defined as:

‘1. The action or practice of simulating with intention to deceive; false pretence.

  1. A false assumption or display … a surface resemblance or imitation, of something.’ (OED).
  • Decline of reality, pushing ideas, reality as dessert.

Baudrillard’s ‘Simulacra and Simulations’ (1981)

If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts …and rotting like a carcass … as the double ends by being confused with the real through aging) – as the most beautiful allegory of simulation …

Sean Cubitt – on Baudrillard and reality

‘reality itself has been so profoundly altered by its infection and ultimate integration into spectacle that there is no outside, no remaining reality, to compare the simulation with.’

Sean Cubitt, Simulation and Social Theory, p.42.

  • Image of the product replaces life itself.

Jean Baudrillard ‘Simulacra and Simulations’

Baudrillard sees the rise of simulacra as occurring in four stages in the evolution of the image:

  1. It is the reflection of a basic reality.
  2. It masks and perverts a basic reality.
  3. It masks the absence of a basic reality.
  4. It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.
  • Create their own reality.

The ‘hyperreal’

Baudrillard defines the hyperreal as the realm of ‘the hallucinatory resemblance of the real to itself’.

Baudrillard, cited in Cubitt, Simulation and Social Theory, London: Sage, 2001, p.46.

  • Can refer to the Gucci ad campaign; super glossy, reality can’t compete with it.

The ‘desert of the real’

Cubitt explains that ‘the real itself has died’, but that ‘the image of the real has been resurrected posthumously in the form of images and stories, the mass media production of data and evidence, news and ‘objectivity’ in place of the dead real’.

Sean Cubitt, Simulation and Social Theory, p.52.

  • Displaced by adverts, cyberspace, world of the hyperreal. Element of exaggeration, ad dominates our lives.

Disneyland Park, Florida.


  • Infantile
  • Simulation, America is Disneyland – Disneyland masks the reality of America.
  • Artificial reality.
  • Baudrillard claims that Disneyland exists as a simulation that is ‘there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland’.
  • Disneyland exists, Baudrillard claims, ‘to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation’. Baudrillard, ‘Simulacra and Simulations’, p.172.
  • Examples of the journeys you can make within the space of one city. Simulations of different areas around the world.

Ski Dubai

  • Massive environmental cost, real snow, penguins in a -4 degree simulated environment.
  • The reality of what it looks like from the outside, massive air conditioned building.
  • Part of one of the biggest shopping centres in the world. Mass Consumerism.

Seagaia Ocean Dome Miyazaki, Japan.


  • Guarantee of safety, a risk-free environment.
  • Paradox.
  • Disturbed relationship with reality.
  • Simulation and what it relates to next to each other.

Andreas Gursky

  • Simulating the land.
  • Fits into the art market.

Reiner Riedler, Fake Holidays, 2009.

  • Alternative reality.
  • Making it clear it’s not real.
  • No sense the people in the images believe they’re somewhere else.

Zilla van den Born

“I did this to show people that we filter and manipulate what we show on social media–we create an ideal world online, which reality can no longer meet . . . My goal was to prove how common and easy it is for people to distort reality. Everyone knows that pictures of models are manipulated, but we often overlook the fact that we manipulate reality also in our own lives.”
Zilla van den Born, 2014.

Discussion point – Zilla van den Born’s fake holiday.

  • What are the most interesting issues raised by this example?

The way it is possible for people to create a fake reality, in the days before photoshop and editing technologies this wouldn’t be possible, but now we can fabricate any reality we want with the right skills and software on our computer. The goes against what the photograph was meant to be in the beginning; what once was meant to be used as evidence can now be used to essential lie.

  • What does it tell us about our sense of self-identity and the role of social media?

There is a pressure for people to have an adventurous and interesting lifestyle, people don’t tend to put everyday things on social media. People want to look the best version of themselves on social media, and this sometimes means faking a more luxurious lifestyle than they do.

  • What does it tell us about our relationship with reality and the role played in that by the photograph?

Reality and the photograph can now be disconnected, we don’t have to show the real in images anymore, we can create our own. This makes the relationship very complicated between the real and the photograph.


The Truman Show (Dir. Peter Weir, 1998).

  • Replaces his original life. Baby adopted by a company, grown up in a TV show.
  • Real world – part of the Disneyworld site, artificle.
  • Commercial links.

The Matrix (1999)


  • Makes a direct reference to Simulacra and Simulation.
  • Reality of a simulation.
  • Computer technologies central.

Discovery of Lascaux caves, Montignac, France, September 1940.

  • 30,000 years old collection of images found in a cave.
  • Able to travel back in time.
  • Mould started to appear after human interaction.
  • An artificle cave was made next door to it, 90% likeness to the original cave.
  • Number 4 planned to be a full simulation of the entire cave. Full body experience.

Thomas Demand

  • Models out of paper.
  • Cardboard, based on a postcard of a grotto.
  • Simulation of being inside a grotto.
  • Relationship with nature.

Joan Fontcuberta, Fauna, 1987.

Fontcuberta writes that: ‘We experience the contemporary world as a series of overlapping simulacra’, and that ‘appearances have replaced reality’.  Fontcuberta writes of the ‘naivety’ of the common belief that ‘every photograph is evidence’ and describes his project in terms of demonstrating how photography is constructed: ‘photography does not lie’, he says, ‘but photographers certainly do’.

Joan Fontcuberta, Pandora’s Camera, London: Mack, 2014, p.7-8.

  • Authenticity
  • Naturalist recording, drawings and sound.
  • Created a narrative – they found all the work and are just displaying it.

Joan Fontcuberta, Orogenesis, Pollock, 2002.

‘The process of mountain formation, especially by a folding and faulting of the earth’s crust.’
Joan Fontcuberta, Landscapes without Memory, New York: Aperture, 2005.

Using a topographic computer program that converts map contours into three-dimensional images, Fontcuberta has scanned landscape paintings and photographs, then used the program to select an alternative viewpoint from within the digital scan to make a new work from the old.

Joan Fontcuberta: Stranger than Fiction, exhibition guide, Science Museum, London, 2014.

  • Sublime.
  • Landscapes no one has seen before.
  • Simulation of a landscape working with existing data.
  • Landscaped with no memory.

Fontcuberta writes that he was concerned with two issues:

  1. ‘the way in which the refinement of these programmes threatens the iconic status of the photograph as a literal transcription of reality’
  2. ‘the crisis of landscape in art and photography – the loss of landscape as place and its environmental destruction’.

Fontcuberta, Landscapes without Memory, NY: Aperture, 2005, p.5.

‘These are landscapes without memory, without history: nothing has happened in them …’.

Fontcuberta, Landscapes without Memory, p.7.

Geoffrey Batchen

Geoffrey Batchen observes that the results ‘are surprisingly similar’, regardless of the source of the image, and that the programme seems to know what kind of spectacular, unconquered landscape that we prefer. The outcome is a mix of nature and art, but Batchen says the result is ‘indeterminate’: ‘neither art nor nature, his landscapes are a simulacrum of both’. Reality, he adds, is ‘left out of the representational equation altogether and is thereby cast into doubt’.

Geoffrey Batchen, ‘Photography by the numbers’, in Fontcuberta, Landscapes without Memory, p.9-10.
Batchen, ibid. p.10.

Joan Fontcuberta, Sputnik, 1997.

  • Secret soviet space program that failed, secret tragedy.
  • Simulated photography implicated in truth, can lie to us.
  • Some are too ridiculous and excessivlely humorous, interesting ideas can get lost.

Cristina de Middel, The Afronauts, 2012.

  • I started researching true stories people don’t believe and fake stories they do. If you play around with reality, it gives a completely different dimension to the idea of photography as a document. Normally, photography is understood as being true: we assume nothing is manipulated, especially if it’s in a newspaper.
  • One day, on a trawl of the internet, I came across a YouTube interview with Edward Makuka Nkoloso, leader of the short-lived Zambian space programme in the 1960s. I couldn’t believe it was real – then I realised I was in the very situation I wanted to set up. I became aware of my own prejudice, in thinking Africa couldn’t possibly go to space. It also brought home the fact that the continent is often treated unfairly by the media: most news pictures we see from Africa show war and suffering, even though there are other things going on.
  • Cristina de Middel, interview The Guardian, 11 June 2014.
  • Done in Spain, borrowed space suits.
  • More lyricle.
  • Reseached true stories and fake ones.
  • Wanted it to have credibility.
  • Small production, just the images in the book.

Essential Reading: Baudrillard, Jean, ‘Simulacra and Simulations’, in Baudrillard, Selected Writings, Polity (2001).




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