The Shed at Dulwich – Hyperreality and Engineering Perception

The Shed at Dulwich

The Shed at Dulwich was London’s number one ranked restaurant on TripAdvisor – and it’s not even real. It was a project by VICE’s Oobah Butler, a young fellow who had been earning his cash writing fake reviews for restaurants. Eventually he got the idea of trying to see if he could get a non existent restaurant ranked number one one Tripadvisor.

It only took 8 months.

What does this mean for our society?

There are two tacks I could take for this post. One is that this is an exhibit for how far down Baudrillard’s rabbit hole of hyperreality we are. The other is that this is an example of how set and setting predictably condition space to create a desired and engineered experience. Ok, so there are really three tacks, because I am going to talk about both.

Let’s start with Hyperreality.

The Matrix and our favorite dining experience in a  London back yard

The Matrix was one of my favorite films growing up, and while its visual effects haven’t aged the greatest it is probably more culturally relevant today than when it was first released. It asks the question “What is real?” and provides us with the answer that the real can be simulated and experience can be false in terms of reality, but true in terms of the feelings associated with it. In the beginning of the film there is an allusion to the book Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, a book about the hyperreal.

In semiotics and postmodernism, hyperreality is an inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, especially in technologically advanced postmodern societies. Hyperreality is seen as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins.[1] It allows the co-mingling of physical reality with virtual reality (VR) and human intelligence with artificial intelligence (AI).[1] Individuals may find themselves, for different reasons, more in tune or involved with the hyperreal world and less with the physical real world. 

The basic claim of Baudrillard is that human experience in our current society is a simulation of reality that has been replaced by symbols and signs. For example: a shed in London that serves moods instead of meals, but doesn’t actually do that, because it doesn’t even exist – only the signs that represent it do.

How it works

The Shed at Dulwich may be one of the first great examples of a fourth order simulacrum that I have encountered. Baudrillard speaks to something like a devolution of reality that follows a four step progression. The sign, aka the simulacrum, is the thing that is hyperreal. In this case the restaurant The Shed at Dulwich.

The Four Stages of Simulacra

  1. The sign is a reflection of profound reality
  2. The sign perverts the real but hints at a reality which it cannot represent
  3. The sign pretends to truly represent the profound reality, but does not – aka the order of sorcery
  4. Pure simulacrum in which the sign does not even pretend to represent reality – signs only reflect other signs – without any reality to back them – like a restaurant that doesn’t exist.

What made The Shed at Dulwich successful?

Part of what made the shed so successful was the fact that it wasn’t real. It was a game of imagination. The creator, without having the constraint of physically delivering on promises, could let his imagination run free. Instead of meals there were moods; a helping of love, a plate of comfort, a dish of contemplation. The dining takes place outdoors, which is magical when the weather isn’t a concern, since there is no real seating. No limits on what one says or does. Nobody to disappoint since there would be no diners.

It was an engineered experience of engineered experiences. The restaurant was more than a restaurant, it became this thing… a mythical unicorn of dining experience. There had been so much praise, so much difficulty in finding a seat at a table, that when it came time to drop from a fourth order simulacrum to a third order simulacrum, the meal people ate was the one in their minds, not the one on the table.

What did they actually eat?

The diners did not eat food at The Shed at Dulwich, they ate an experience. They ate the exclusivity generated from 8 months of all the coolest cats of London trying and failing to get a seat at the dining table. They ate the mystical reviews of previous fake diners at TripAdvisor. They ate the artistic presentation of a DJ playing dinging sounds and the down home at the farm feel of live chickens walking about. They ate the table on the roof and the blindfolds.

They ate almost everything but the food on their plates… but even when they did, the taste was the taste of nostalgia for the microwave meals eaten in childhood. They ate the hyperreal, and the taste did not disappoint. So much of reality is conditioned experience. It’s what we expect based upon the past, what others have told us, the mood we are in at that moment. What does that say about objective truth in regard to subjective experience? Are we all fools of our own minds?

I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

Dr. Fox is the author of several unusual books designed to make you first ponder, then evolve if you paid attention.

Dr. Fox on Amazon

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