This article highlights a new and particularly exciting cinematic lineage, sprouting up in ever-increasing numbers, which some intrepid film student should definitely trace. It encompasses unique, violent, heavily documented acts that blur the line between art and reality. Let’s call this lineage The Leap.
Requirements/parameters: 1) Theatricality. Cinema is in so many ways a child of the theatre: there’s a viewing space and a theatrical space, divided on a single axis by a proscenium, and a 4th wall. Part of the reason we enjoy going to the movies or to the theatre is because we enjoy our own performance in a very structured event… with rules, guidelines, limits, and expectations. But we also enjoy going because there’s at least a small bit of us that wants that traditional structure to break down somehow, to get reinvented, not by ground-up reconstruction, but from within, by violent coup. 2) Bridging divides. Not only do these moments inject one form of art into another (performance art into fine art, film into theatre, etc.) but at best they inject the spirit of art into daily life– that is to say, daily life becomes charged with tension, the possibility that a never-before-seen creative act can happen at any moment. This bridging erases the mundane out of the routine, revealing a rhythmic latency, an empty stage with an audience, that exists in every room, every car, every street, every elevator cab, every DMV line. And this leads to 3) Immediacy or instantaneousness. Or as John Malkovich’s character in Art School Confidential says, a certain “nowness” that connects us to the world at large. These acts are like social wormholes: they allow us to grasp things much larger than us, which by some natural laws we weren’t supposed to be able to experience.
This is a refreshing tonic to the locked up starving artist stereotype of the middle of the 20th century, the new rubric for the essential ‘narcotic moment of creative bliss’. It could, with the aid of smartphones and social media, become the driving force of a new movement in art, just like grand political shifts spawned dozens of movements 100 years ago. Here are our examples:
Art School Confidential
Where a struggling art student gets falsely arrested for murder, which he doesn’t care about because he is desperately in love with a girl.
Where a commercial actor desperate to demonstrate his artistic integrity actually shoots himself on stage.
Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales): La Bombita
Where an explosives contractor is so desperate to speak to a human being at the DMV that he commits an act of terrorism.
Go watch those three movies if you haven’t yet. They all celebrate that Leap, as the protagonists, in transgressing, finally gain the recognition they’ve been desperate for.
And who better than Thom Yorke to disdainfully give a nod to this very phenomenon when he sang “You’d kill yourself for recognition” on High & Dry.
A character taking a leap out of everyday life, into something totally new, that no one thought was ever possible. Often it is a violent act, but there always remains that hue of madness which tethers it to the sandbox of art.
Stockhausen’s statement, while crude, was very incisive into such acts that tear down barriers between art and life. In a reality where most of us are conditioned to believe that “art imitates life”, at moments like this the creative act leaps ahead and for a moment takes the lead in the march into the unknown. When art like this is made, it suddenly has serious consequences. Consequential art is a seldom-encountered, continually endangered creature. The Leap may help proliferate it once again.
My post on Bernini made me recall a critique in advanced drawing seminar under Sue Gussow. That time she invited a guest professor who identified a simple dichotomy. Looking at my drawings– charcoal on bond on the left, ink wash on mylar on the right– he noted the contrast in technique represented a larger duality, one that happens to bracket the entire history of drawing: that is, the Cartesian style of drawing, and the Euclidian style of drawing.
Mapping the movement of a body: Simon Winters
Rejection of universal grids & axes in favor of planes & masses of light & dark: GB Piranesi
It was the first time the distinction had been described to me that way.
Pencil and pen are archetypes of the former. With thin lines, minimally varied, drawing in the Cartesian style is an exercise in mapping: the delineation of points, borders, edges, lengths– in essence, vectors. The distance between a nude model and a series of 3mm thick lines on bond paper is one of the furthest distances we can achieve in representation– this makes the illusion of mass that much more astounding. The aforementioned points, edges, and borders do not really exist in the world they represent.
Cartesian drawing is the perfect example of applied mathematics. The time when communication with pictures needs to be absolutely clear and unambiguous is the time when those pictures must get mathematically abstracted. Cartesian drawing relies on suppression of how the human eye works: emphasis on numbers, a maximum of one unknown at a time, and proportionality (in the way a mathematical equation is proportioned).
There is no silhouette
Charcoal sits in between both extremes because it does have a finite girth, but is nonetheless treated as a line… ink on the other hand is a liquid, without a maximum girth or even any constrained form. Instead we impose bottlenecks on it (most commonly the brush, but can also be a fingertip, a quill, a sponge…) after the fact, at the moment of drawing. Architectural drawings are done by and large in the Cartesian manner, in 3 senses: 1) the lines are represent abstract borders between materials, 2) views of a building or element are largely orthographic projections which humans cannot see, and 3) the drawings are not ends in themselves– they only serve as instruction for construction. The advent of autocad further accentuates this vector-based modus operandi– and we the architects unnoticeably grow more and more accustomed to representing space using vectors. It was thus pleasing to the professor in question to witness the attempt to delineate space using a painter’s or sculptor’s sensibility.
Why this division in the first place? From my perspective, it seems to hinge on when, in the course of creation, do we allow for subjectivity? Architecture requires an effort of such coordination (always has) that to anticipate the intersection of labor and materials requires us to establish a relationship where there is a definite answer– in other words, to delay the intoxicating subjectivity. The correctness of that answer only needs to be integral within the system. In the meantime, one suppresses drawing, thinking, and working in the way that our eye and brain may initially suggest– ways which, according to the laws of perspective, are disappointingly egocentric. If multiple people can be expected to create something together, there need to be rules. That’s why we have constitutions.
The benefit of working as an individual artist is that of subjectivity: you are expected to be answerable only to your own perception (ie your own intention).
Look at this guy. All about me, me, me.
There’s a strange balance at play here. I don’t want to make the distinction as simple as: surface & mass = egocentric subjectivity, lines & vectors = universal objectivity. Because, after all, how can representing a mass only as light & shadow be subjective when all people perceive this way? Where does the egocentricity come from? Can we not simply trust our fellow humans to be seeing exactly what we’re seeing? If the perception of mass & light is the only norm, then why do we disagree with interpretation of those images?
It is doubtlessly enriching for all architects to attempt to work a priori with surfaces and mass, rather than points and edges. It survives to this day, but only in the necessity for renderings, to represent the architecture to everyone else. By contrast, the Cartesian drawing method is only a large detour on the path to realizing a building. Ultimately, most architects want spaces to communicate using light, mass, texture, and sound– that is, in a Euclidian manner. The Euclidian drawing method should use the same part of the brain that fires when logging perceptions and memories within built environments. It got me thinking: could there be a renaissance in store for Euclidian drawing in the building profession? It would, I think, be more of a renaissance in our own minds– developing or exercising a kind of perception favoring that method– while the technique abides.
Browsing Book Court’s New York Review Books shelf, one of my favorite publishers of late, I encountered its edition of The Unknown Masterpiece from Honoré de Balzac. Though he kept it short and sweet and I enjoyed it very much, none of the story has stayed with me closer than the epigraph (such is the curse of excellent epigraphs– they sometimes sum it all up better than the whole of the work to follow):
“I think a man spends his whole lifetime painting one picture or working on one piece of sculpture. The question of stopping is really a decision of moral considerations. To what extent are you intoxicated by the actual act, so that you are beguiled by it? To what extent are you charmed by its inner life? And to what extent do you then really approach the intention or desire that is really outside it? The decision is always made when the piece has something in it that you wanted.”
I have had similar struggles with one particular story of my own. I began writing it long ago, in the mid 2000s, at a time when my enthusiasm for the medium overshadowed my rigor which had yet to burgeon. Intoxicated with exploring the nature of the creative mind through the narrative of a New York artist and using the staid prose mastered by Paul Auster, I conceived of a story so thin, so vague, so sparing in plot that is seemed to be impossible to complete, as I attempted to start filling in blanks. Somehow its vagueness made it impossible to tack on enough substance without changing it. Over the course of half a decade, I’d change the story over and over, riding on various mini-revelations– from how to start the story, to what words to use more of, to entire episodes in my characters’ lives, to entire revamps of writing style. It still hasn’t attained that satisfying combination of meat and emptiness that I was after in the beginning.
Sometimes a story seems just to exist, independent of its author on the one hand, but completely inside his/her head on the other. Part of me wondered what this kind of story would be like, from a philosophical, Barnett Newman-y, never-to-be-published point of view… then I realized that I may have touched upon an essence. Over the years I had come to treat the story as a repository, a sketchbook-story, a sandbox where I can experiment with styles and events and anything else, before incorporating them into other stories I am working on. The vagueness, thinness, and bare-bones quality of its world suits it perfectly for experimentation, and it also detaches me just enough to not be overly concerned with getting things right.
This story has about six or seven versions in existence currently, and it is pleasing to me to observe how it shapeshifts as I gain in influences and desires in writing.
While everyone has their own methods, idea-management in any creative medium makes up the greater part of a work’s lifespan. Also, once it transitions from idea to matter, it is still only its creator who is aware of its existence. That grey zone, that private life of an artwork, must be understood and mastered for any artist to become an expert in his or her craft. That is the essence of Barnett Newman’s words. With the moral decisiveness he posits comes a sense of urgency, a sense of one’s work not being entirely in one’s control, and with that urgency comes the feared factor of time, and with time come questions of originality of output, the dread that someone else will claim this frontier as their own if one is not pioneering enough.
On a few occasions I have come up with ideas that either get done later by well-known artists or have already been done (and I simply did not know the precedent). Some of these are intentionally stuck in my head, just like my hobbled phoenix of a story. And while the first reaction to this news is bitterness, I am overcome with a sense of pride in having shared something with great artists. The two most notable, most recent examples are:
We were both on to the way the overlapping personal space of two people encountering each other becomes suddenly magnetized, especially when the encounter occurs in unexpected places and at unexpected scales. While Abramovic’s is more stripped down, a case study, or well-designed experiment, mine relished more the varied and unpredictable urban stage. Two people sit facing each other just as above, but without a table. At a pace so slow it is nearly impossible to notice, the two chairs move apart (via wheels presumably). By the end of the performance, the relationship between the two staring individuals is quite different from the beginning. Passers-by might start to cross the magnetized interstitial space. One could then continue the performance on other days by placing the two actors at any distance apart, from several yards to several city blocks. Hopefully the project would evoke that feeling of longing for someone, the need for someone. It would also emphasize how fleeting these connections are, just like the connection I experience with Abramovic herself. Sometimes we are each other’s compasses, each other’s Meccas and Jerusalems. We magnetize each other.
My version of this story takes place immediately after an asteroid grazes Earth, knocking it off its orbit, and plunging the climate into a deep ice age. One man survives by maintaining a fire in the Library of Congress, using the entirety of documented human history as the fuel. It was interesting to me to be faced with the choice: allow yourself to die for the chance that humanity may be remembered, or sacrifice history so that you may survive.
Of these I am most irritated of having been beaten by those works that have impossibility built into them– works that are intentionally impossible to conceive because of various physical limits. In these, the famous thread that Duchamp began a century ago is picked up: it is only the idea that matters. It simultaneously empowers every individual but it also frustrates the heck out of me because I totally could’ve published that! One great case in point is Douglas Huebler’s Variable Piece #70, which set out to photograph every living human being. Nice little analysis from Notations, with subsequent comparison to John Cage’s legacy.
My question always is: how is it that an idea seemingly so destined to dead-end in the studio, in its private life, before seeing the light of day, spread to our consciousness? How is it that it’s now known as “the Huebler conceptual photography project” (indeed, these are the exact words I used when I appealed to Dennis Adams for help. He answered immediately)?
The famous artist can say that the idea is all that matters, that the present work is just there to illustrate that idea. Duchamp and Malevich are both granddaddies of this priority: all that matters is the will of the artist. The communication, the representation, all of that is secondary if not irrelevant. But! To deconstruct that would be to say that those statements themselves rely on being uttered by famous artists, or people with an audience. They are aware of their audience (that they even have one) and can thus get away with more. Sure, how many artists, alone in their studios, had painted the black square before Malevich, just as I had imagined two individuals sitting across from each other for a long duration before Marina Abramovic? The latter was just in the right place at the right time. Anyone who has seen Exit Through The Gift Shop and felt frustrated at the end by Mr. Brainwash’s rapid success is feeling the same thing– shortchanged because they sense that Thierry Guetta’s alter-ego acted only on account of knowing he was in the right place at the right time, not because of some sincere desire to create and move.
Charlotte suggests these two ideas: 1) multiple individuals acquiring ideas in synchronicity and 2) “being in the right place at the right time” demonstrate that some ideas, concepts, or technologies only gain popular traction (come out, explode) when the world is ready for them. Technology for photos, for example, had existed long before the daguerreotype– the foundation for 12-tone music had been set midway through the 19th century, yet it only really started its friction against the public 50 years later. It’s like a multiple choice question: the solution is actually there in front of you, you just need to find it. This runs contrary to the blank canvas maxim/truism/cliche. But of course, there is ALWAYS a precedent, ALWAYS a pre-existing conflict or dialogue. It shows that there is more at play in “progress” than just the availability of technology, or the brilliance of any particular individual. It is a delicate mix of them, plus aesthetics, public opinion, politics, economics….. and the ingredients need to be brewing just right before the next revelation comes.
For me, there is no better remedy to an uninspiring day than an excursion to the Met. I have been there over fifty times and am still discovering things. I brought my sketchbook– there were architectural thoughts nervously brewing which needed a playful nudge.
I lucked out, because the Bernini Sculpting in Clay exhibit was just up in the West Wing (the octagon, my favorite Met Wing). For three hours I’d spend my time doing what many masters have done before me; copying the masters.
One hour in, I passed his study of a horse. The piece itself was unassuming, little more than a leg emerging from a brick-sized lump of terracotta. What drew my eye away from the piece itself was ironically what opened up the depths of it immediately thereafter. The blurb below it had a photograph attached, illustrating one of Bernini’s common sculpting techniques: starting with a mass in the center, he pulls material away from the center using a circular motion around the axis of the limb. This interested me in three ways: first, in that he begins with the entire mass of clay needed already in place, he simply displaces it using a specific motion; second, that motion is perpendicular to the thrust of that which it is sculpting and hence slightly counterintuitive; and third, and most important, that this rounding-out motion has to happen over and over and over, with great intent behind each stroke, each contributing minutely to the formation of an arm or leg. Like a living lathe this displacement and rounding-out of materials reverted me to a consciousness of drawing which I believed I had exhausted and abandoned years ago. Ever since switching permanently to ballpoint pen (itself largely a decision founded on my reinvigorated interest in writing for which no other pen will do) I began thinking pejoratively of wealth of lines, becoming a convert to clean, singular lines. I thought I was simply channeling the nature of the material, doing what it instructed, like using arches with brick and lintels with wood. But the big con of this kind of drawing is its resistance to displaying process. Oftentimes, a sketch must be worked out as you draw, and for this you need a technique that will allow for gratuity (if you’re skeptical) or multiplicity (if you’re accepting). Bernini helped throw my conception back over half a decade and rediscover the potential for drawing when using that same carving and rounding-out movement in my sketchbook. I felt reinvigorated. I was unafraid of multiplicity of lines, and by extension unafraid of breaking continuity of those lines. There is something deconstructive about adding multiple lines to define a single edge: first of all, it accepts the simple fact that there is no real edge, and second that drawing anything to begin with is a creative and interpretive process, and thus needs to anticipate and accept self-contradiction.
There on in I found myself staring more at the backs of the small sculptures than at the predictable areas such as the face and hands. There, I was trying to discover more evidence of Bernini’s working methods and techniques. And before even arriving at a revelation, any viewer should be greatly taken with the craggy ranges of the clay figures– lumps of clay, the streaks of tools, even fingernail pinches and fingerprints, all loosely coming together, as if frozen in the moment just before collision.
Turns out the curators and conservationists put together a lecture series just before the exhibition opened, the final talk of which I located online. Anthony Sigel’s talk, while half-boring, is a great investigation of Bernini’s techniques and opens up a universe of details. I love Bernini’s own sketches and the x-rays. The exposition made me think of how artists really are forced, as creators, to contemplate and address every single detail– not just the details themselves, but also how they all share space– a single space which ultimately coalesces as an angel, a saint, or a lion.
Above: Angels; Bernini’s flat-faceting technique; the back-of-the-neck fingernail pinch; rounding out limbs from the core; sketches for the lion at the Four Rivers fountain.
I realized that the blurbs accompanying every artwork in every museum are just tiny windows into the immense world of art preservation and conservation. If one is to look at that world as complex, intricate, beautiful work in itself, then its initial impression of shallow attempts to definitively explain a masterwork fades away. It becomes a symbiotic world, a world just as concerned with the big questions of “why” and “how” as its reference. Who can deny that for over a century now, every “movement” (artistic, political, technological…) has included within its structure an instrument or a figure whose job it is to record and document it (a stenographer), as opposed to expecting that figure to follow separately afterwards?
Note the descriptions in the opening and eighth paragraphs:
“Everything is in flux, moving swiftly and sometimes violently. Bodies struggle, twisting and turning in different directions…. The clay itself, visibly imprinted by Bernini’s fingers and variously worked with sculpturing tools, seems as alive as the figures it embodies…”
That very twisting, contorting, flowing motion is indeed the first impression most are struck with before Bernini’s work– and especially when that work is sketchy by nature: intentionally gestural, quick, and incomplete.
We know we are supposed to solemnly accept the final work as the definitive statement of the artist, bracketed and packaged. We should be able to reap all the information we need from that which we see on the pedestal or in the frame. But oftentimes we are drawn more to the history behind it, the collection of events unintended for display, all that which had to happen in order to create the present work. We come to these events with varying motives (……), and we find in them stories, questions, struggles, perhaps a more intimate inspiration for our own work.
Thus I stood corrected in gallery 955 of the Metropolitan Museum, realizing that my sketches and the Met’s illustrated blurbs were one and the same thing.
Though the details I design daily are not on par with those brought to my attention by Christian (with Peter Pennoyer; resplendent in all their curvature, skirting between the Euclidian and the organic, awash with white plaster…) eroticism figures in our discourse enough to warrant a more than cursory investigation of its stake in the architectural domain.
Together with words like fetishism and void, eroticism slipped into quotidian use in our lives sometime during the Cooper years, a setting where enough pressure is exerted from without to tacitly discourage elementary exercises like looking words up and breaking them down in simple English. I was thus very pleased when Christian defined eroticism in exactly that fashion for me as the following: treating all form as a reference to or symbol of the human body. The rest of what’s ever been said about it is implicit therein.
Immediately I remembered the hundreds of projects that have been explained in corporeal terms:
–SKIN (facades & weather protection systems)
–LUNGS (courtyards; and on a larger scale, parks, after Japan earthquake circa 1910)
–EYES (Windows–to the soul, of course– and symbols of revelation)
–DRESS (I believe it was Alice Coltrane who once spoke of buildings in New York as wearing lingerie. Diane Lewis, imploring us to let our designs ‘just lift the skirt up a little’, agrees.)
–RIBS (Vaults and slabs)
–KNEES (structural braces)
–PHALLUS (Its latest expositor, Trump, displaying his big black erect cock standing as a symbol of the profession, of masculinity, of the rape of nature*.)
-and, of course, BUTT JOINTS
Analogies such as these are common for good reason: they are universally understood. We all have bodies, no? We all spend our entire lives confined to this complex and complicated structure, which allows us to experience many wonderful things but also demands maintenance and care.
(I recall many a critique at my alma mater where professors would wax theoretical about the “body in space.” Now that’s strange, I thought– architects rarely work out, eat crap, drink caffeine and alcohol, smoke, reek (especially in the proximity of deadlines), and spend most of their days staring into screens, immobile in chairs. Who the fuck are architects to talk about “the body in space???”)
But don’t let me forget the use of “eroticism” before architecture became involved in the conversation. The Greek God Eros points us to the big idea: eroticism deals with desire. So how then does desire factor into the design and experience of buildings and spaces? Bernard Tschumi has perhaps expounded upon architectural eroticism most clearly– in Architecture And Disjunction, Part II: eROTicism; pp.70. There, he takes a further step, setting up the direct relationship of architecture to eroticism, both characterized by a duplicity of universal concepts and lived experience. They operate on both levels simultaneously, and are really no different from one another. The practice and the experience of architecture will never lose its appeal to the senses and to the mind, and its ultimate goal which is to give us the space to reflect on ourselves (our desires).
Architecture is also a second womb. Shouldn’t women should be the original architects– all the political and civil rights discussions aside, the one decisive difference between men and women is that women are more pressured to understand their bodies’ cycles and mechanisms– especially in the light of the still-present expectation to be a hard worker, an attractive extrovert, and a tender housekeeper all at once. We have witnessed the role of the architect changing from an actual builder to an orchestrator. By logic, this means that men would perform better as contractors, women better as architects. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, while men were out hunting, women remained at home and cultivated that half of the human physche: the home. I don’t need to repeat what many (most notably Bachelard) have written on. Suffice to say the wilderness and the home are two pillars of humans’ relationships to the world around them. One is through another enveloping body, the other through the enveloping darkness.
The fact is unavoidable that sex will always play a part in architecture by its association with desire and pleasure. When we think of the softness of wood or the smoothness of stone there most likely hovers similar associations of softness and smoothness of other human beings in the background. Since we are social creatures, our obsession with that which makes us alike is instinctual– and hence, when we enclose spaces mutually we are finding bodily analogies in those enclosures, almost as a secret means of communication.*
Is eroticism a label for something universal? Or has the invention of the term drawn our attention to this new sandbox where we can play in the space between immediate experience and cultural overtones (now inescapable)?
It made sense for the 60s and 70s to pursue whimsy and make room for the irrational and unexpected to thrive, after the world realized that the clean-cut undecorated modernism of decades prior could not surmount its puritanical and unsentimental first impression. But it is strange that we strive to find the metaphor (sometimes, audaciously, the simile) for the human body in our buildings considering how different they are.
Architectural symbolism is a brand of out of body experience. They are not just visceral or lucid, symbolism plays a significant role in the interpretation of architectural elements– the end result being an ability to perhaps see humans as actually succeeding in bringing substance to their delusions of grandeur. In matters concerning the divine, which we must admit is a human invention, this grandeur is precisely the goal. Churches used to be educational tools, not just of narratives but also of sensations. Rod Knox can give an entire seminar on the pointed arch (its generator the vesica, a stylized vagina), and the ensuing analogy of entering the kingdom of heaven through (Notre Dame) The Virgin Mary herself.
For builders, the body used to be the primary tool. Not just in the sense of digging, bricklaying, and sawing, but also as a measuring device. The Vitruvian Man says it all. So do the imperial units (inches, feet, yards). The body was the generator of perfect proportions which were considered objectively beautiful. That is, not open to polemics and debate. Since then, the body has become the servant, particularly in light of industrialization. One of Marx’s lasting notions describes every object around us as something produced by the capitalist mode of production– that is, the tandem of material and labor. Space itself has recently joined this category, which has frightening implications itself. In this light, each and every object acquires a history and a genesis which can be traced back to our bodies– this time as a whole (“the human body”). Then in the 20th century the modernists, withdrawn and relying on Marx’s definition of products to objectify the body, started to frame it anew as a machine in itself (unsurprisingly, WWII saw the birth of cybernetics). Following the second world war, however, the seeds of a separation were planted. Beneath the new steel and glass skyscrapers, artists began realizing the body as a tragically fragile thing, and something which it turns out is holy to almost all people. The desire then arose to push these buttons, and to examine the emotions associated with the invasion of the territory of the “self”, of the boundary between me and the rest of the world. The body could be manipulated, cut, burned, painted on (Klein), fragmented, as a helpless toy in the hands of a ravenous toddler. The unstylized, and its inescapable ugliness, became the new standard. And as one feared, it slipped to the extreme, a state where being in one’s own skin is no longer comfortable. From built-up anxiety and this sense of separation came a brief explosion in protest (the 1968 Paris riots), after which the body slipped further into culture’s dark cavities wherein the rejects lay in refuge. The raw work that emerged from there (Mapplethorpe, Acconci, to name just two) still carries on today, albeit with a more playful nature. We are neurotic, we are unfocused, we are fragile, we are molecules. There is an attempt, through the illusion of life and thought and feeling, to usurp the previous age’s overwhelming backdrop and bring things that we find nice back to the generating board.
It also comes down often to the continuous desire and drive to build things. It’s of course what separates architecture from design. Jody Brown’s quip on the matter. I was irked by the responses, fanfaring the original definition of “architect” (which I do not argue with in principle, except for when it’s being fanfared) and failing to acknowledge Jody Brown’s real qualm: does something have value before it’s built? Of course it does! Like any powerful ideas, ideas about building can have profound effects. Philosophically speaking, and under the magnifying glass of a profession so slow, it is impossible to build something– nay, do anything, without thinking about it first. I fall into the well-grooved middle road as usual. But it’s true and is worth repeating: architecture must always strive to be built, but mustn’t sacrifice the power of the imagination in order to get there. It is seldom the fault of the architect if an idea doesn’t get built. Does that mean that a then-yet-to-be-formed notion gets completely sapped of its value instantly? As Louis Kahn’s memorial on Roosevelt shows, visions are worth preserving. Because, at the very least, who knows? They may yet see new life come their time. The desire must always be there to affect change in the world on a scale, ironically, larger than oneself. It is an odd and vicarious pleasure, but one that may motivate the design and construction of large-scale projects more than any other.
The responsibility of architecture, as far as eroticism and living bodies are concerned, is to address the immediate, because this is what bodies respond to: the feel of stone, the chill of a breeze, the antsy irritation when a view is slightly blocked, the smell of wet wood. It seems that the long-lasting effects of lived experience weigh more on the intellect, on reflection and knowledge filtered (necessarily) through time– but there are pure and delightful movements that occur in the gut of audience members witnessing a great performance (McCoy Tyner on My Favorite Things, John Coltrane listening reverently aside; the ending of City Lights; MLK’s, Whitney Houston’s, and Dylan Thomas’ voices…) that architecture should certainly aspire to. Not only because it broadens the experience of it to the immediate, performative realm, fostering empathy and establishing a standard of positivity for all people, but also because it loosens the grasp held upon it by the realm of the visual. All thinkers, from Nietzsche to Pallasmaa, have long called for this liberation. It is one of the more erotic exercises around.
*Architecture, like sex, is a violent act. There is nothing redeemable in digging a hole in the earth and sticking something foreign inside, to the detriment of the former. It is hard to see a time when architecture, and the building profession as a whole, was or ever will be fully harmless.
The manipulation of nature (psychologically and physically) is the linchpin of homo sapiens’ separation from it. The psychological manipulation begins with the word “why” and the physical begins with architecture. Perhaps a hypothesis such as the following may be posited:
Architecture (as differs from building) is simply another means of communication– a human invention. At the deepest level, inasmuch as we are prisoners of our own perspective and hence our own language, architecture’s communication aims for the same thing as the first grunts and gestures did. Architecture is the grandchild of body language. The day that buildings become expressions of the desires of computers, we may start having much less sex than we used to. Let’s let every piece of architecture be solely for the purpose of copulation– every other activity is a bonus. Sex in bedrooms. Sex in attics. Sex in temples. Sex in schools. Sex in libraries (come on, the French will love it!)…..
The many Shakespeare-inspired performances about lately, plus one more, and my admiration of them all, provides the runway this time, public/private space as the control tower, skies are blue, and we are cleared for takeoff.
Above, from top: Alan Cumming’s Macbeth; Sleep no More’s Macbeth; New York Classic Theatre’s Twelfth Night; Pina Bausch’s Orpheus & Eurydice
Two of the four productions are of the same play and fittingly follow a very similar aesthetic, almost as if belonging to the same fictional universe. Set materials, colors, sounds, headspace, and the core idea of who is the real actor, where the play ends and life begins, vice versa, originating from Mac the Knife’s famous soliloquy.
The mutual collapse and inversion of the stuff which fattens the separation between the real and the unreal occurs elsewhere too. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky*, a great Soviet relic of a writer, wrote in Memories of the Future (if I recall correctly) about music, suggesting to the reader to see not music determined by time, but the other way around, as time residing in music. Think of it analogously: if time were like God, the intangible omnipresence that we invent to explain and reference unsolved riddles, then it certainly makes sense that Time (capital T) is manufactured, like an ostentatious statue or road sign. Music is the most visceral, consumable, renewable resource (and perhaps more importantly: the most dispensed to its own manufacture), the fossil fuel for the production of Time, which flares up near the end and vanishes. Coming back from music to daily life, we have a new formula for imitation of life. Via the creation of something proximate and second-degree, life or reality suddenly comes into brief focus. Just like through music are we able to suddenly sense time, through acting are we able to experience life and its complexity, play with it, experiment on it. This is the entire premise of Lincoln Center’s Macbeth: evidenced in how Alan Cummings’ character, who we as the audience (and the doctors in their little crimson-curtained booth– a brilliant role reversal in itself) understand is stuck in this life for eternity, creates an alternate reality for himself and therefore a purpose, a meaning, a role. And of course, as far as he is concerned, that is just as fulfilling as the reality he used to inhabit outside that mental institution. Tantalized, I began inventing a past for him.
The play ends with the same line as it opens. “When shall we three meet again?” The looping device triggers many ideas. It makes it all more crazy. It frames the entire happening of the play, its entire chunk of time, as something created: something real while we’re in it, but something absurdly false once the lights go out and we realize that it’ll begin all over again once we’re flung out of the picture. Symbolically and metaphorically is it the equivalent of living in a cage: a forcefield or membrance, outside of which infinity may lie, but within which there is no segregation of direction. In the gut of a cube, you turn around at every corner and rush to the next, unable to tell the difference, and a mad loop begins, like those bouncy pong-inspired screensavers.
Sleep No More one-ups this degree of madness. It starts with the loop, but shuffles it all up like a deck of cards, which according to Ian Stewart, if done perfectly, will eventually result in shuffling the cards back to perfect order again. Like anything should, the scattered fragments culminate to give us a moment of supreme observation (the dinner)– something of a denouement.
Turning now to in the park….. and Pina Bausch’s . I was lucky enough to experience New York Classical Theatre’s Twelfth Night at both ends of its production life: firstly when the rehearsal stumbled upon me while I was sitting in the park some months ago (I was at one point surrounded by all the actors, repeating lines fron the final scene), and secondly for its closing night in Battery Park. The delightful sauntering and glimpses of improvisation by the characters with the audience became a picture made whole upon the backdrop of New York Harbor in the sunset, leaves whispering, and confused tourists passing by. Somehow refined theatre and those cheesy historical reenactments we attend in historic towns like Williamsburg VA had had a handsome child.
During the intermission in Pina Bausch’s Orpheus & Eurydice, my people-watching was interrupted by Charlotte’s comment about the origins of the pace of modern storytelling. I am constantly reminded by my classical music buffs living in Vienna that opera used to be the golden standard of all artistic production (Wagner’s emphasis on the Gesamtkunstwerk) and that opera involved all disciplines. The performance itself (which is what draws my interest presently) was equally as involved. People would spend an entire weekend at the opera house, a few hours each day. The idea was to go home and contemplate what one had just seen, allowing it time to stick, then forcing one to commit more to the story and the outcome. This pace is what modern television is meant to approach. Even today many hold the opinion that TV series binging saps the viewer of any long-term commitment to the characters. Giving an audience a day or a week in between episodes forces one, in anticipation, to mentally enter the story. The brilliant turn is that while you’re in the world of the show, you may realize that the story is in fact mirroring your every day life.
I turned my attention back to the folks on the balcony in the David Koch Theater with champagne flutes in their hands. Below, loafers and shiny white pants were ordering gelato from a stand. Avery Fisher hall, the fountain, and the opera house loomed across the way. Was I in New York, or in Europe? Back at the opera house, circa 1850, wealthy patrons sit in the upper balconies and have tea served them as the drama unfolds below. This detail is incredibly vital: suddenly their attention is divided between two things. Suddenly the possibility of missing a line of dialogue arises. Suddenly I realize that the glacial pace of opera was in fact manageable because it in fact didn’t demand unceasing focus for 4 hours at a time. The stretching of events happened even at the scale of seconds. Of course you’re not going to catch every single detail, nor were you supposed to. It was more of a background happening (see: Happenings — and their champions Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Vito Acconci, Robert Whitman et al.) in the presence of which you’d stumble upon observations or notice events take place, and which gave you an alternate, outer zone to withdraw to engage in contemplation, but which wasn’t necessarily exalted as a perfectly composed thing. In a way it is a nod to life, an homage to the way life seems to pass us by, taking opportunities and events with it before we get the chance to catch them.
(As an aside, and opening the portal to an entirely other conversation, the difference between politics and art is actually the attitude of the audience. Here I use politics a bit more fluidly to include events, lectures, elections, protests, war, and the like. In these there is an invasion of privacy, a pushing up of the front of the extraordinary against the battlements of the mundane which we mentally erect in order to attempt to force patterns upon an inherently discorant and moment-to-moment existence. The concept of “day-to-day” is an invention credited entirely to civilization. Of course, nothing is completely insulated from disturbance, and this results in perhaps a slight “observer’s blues”, or an arthritic passivity, due to the simple fact that this strange event occurring before you is a species you’ve never seen before– nothing like the tame, docile creature of everyday life. It’s aggressive, confrontational, but not deadly. It magnetizes attention. Remember OWS? I suppose Slavoj Zizek would encourage one to see the moment through and do it justice by engaging it full-on, absorbing its energy so that the subsequent withdrawal back into daily life may make one appreciate their opposing extremes. I suppose my father, on the other hand, would resolutely refuse to follow the crowd, as goes his theory that mediocrity is a universal state in humanity– aligning with Hobbes– and knowledge the exception, and it must be protected at all costs. Attempts at its dissemination should also be avoided, he says, because ignorance behaves like a black hole, and will remain empty no matter how much you try to enlighten it. But tracking back, what I am trying to highlight is the performative nature of any event; and the key detail to pay attention to is the individual audience member.)
Allan Kaprow invokes a happening.
Occupy Wall Street
Before art was the “escape” from life, but now that principle is not only knee-jerk but also actually false. Art and life are now invading each other’s space more, and art is not the escape from life but more of a parallel universe experienced with just as much importance as the day-to-day.
Logically, this draws me to an observation quite close in pitch to one I made in Yarn II of Abstraction to Figuration, namely the broadening, over the past few centuries, of artistic merit and legitimacy to include ideas in rawer and less developed states.
Our generation is unhindered by such fathoms of possibility because we are handed an equally vast set of expressive tools to communicate and publish with.
Does this then mean that, barring diversions from the current trajectory, there may come a period in which people no longer “go” to theatrical, operatic, cinematic, or musical performances (architecturally eliminating the demand for “venues”), and instead where those performances exist organically (for lack of a better word) in everyday space? Performers and films would be playing out continuously, music would be ringing out at any moment for anyone interested in listening, and all performative art forms would take on a life of their own that is indeed whole and completely independent of those interested in perceiving them. And purveyors of those art forms would be living a new incarnation of art for art’s sake.
*Excellent writing that flows and drags through reality, distorting it into dreamlike form. Links to reviews here, here, here, and here.
I know you will shrug this off…. but you aren’t the first to (not) be doing what you are(n’t). Anti-trendsetting has been exuded by quite a few notable figures. And don’t lie, I know you listen to SOMETHING I know when you go home, or read SOMEONE I’ve read, or go to SOME museums that I’ve been to, or drool over the dream of SOME 9-5 corporate employment and imbibing happy hour (dirty) martinis at Gingerman behind all our backs. Which means you need to (un)embrace your condition, and elect a progenitor. The first, the original hipster. I present the following ballot of eccentrics, the vanguard of the avant-garde, who would be genuinely shocked at receiving recognition for their humanitarian (or at least humanities-degree) efforts.
Andy Warhol wasn’t fooling anybody– it was plain from the get-go that he was after fame and money. And he got it. Good for him. And he left us with some memorable work and quotations. So what’s so hipster about him? Well, for exactly the reason that he had a LOT of money, knew a LOT of people, aaaand that’s about it. No additional talent to speak of. Beneath the greying crop I see two boyish eyes, and beyond them a man who was really, really determined to make it big in the art world no matter how much posturing he had to do. And posture he did. His films? Meh. His music? Eh. His silkscreens? Come on, he was doing little more than giving the public what it wanted but had no idea it already had. He was a real Trustafarian.
And do not forget the Factory, Warhol’s brewing pot and hangout, from which was ladled disjunctive films, disjunctive music, and all in all some of the weirdest shit we have seen in the last half century.
Some quotations, to make it truly obvious:
“I never understood why when you died, you didn’t just vanish, everything could just keep going on the way it was only you just wouldn’t be there. I always thought I’d like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph, and no name. Well, actually, I’d like it to say ‘figment.'”
“Think rich, look poor.”
“In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”
“I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is ‘In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous.'”
“I am a deeply superficial person.“
If you can intellectualize jazz while simultaneously being so unintelligible, especially to the critics (have some love for the critics!!), live near Tompkins Square Park for a spell, waste all your money on very strong, very dangerous drugs, form a band and slip in the obligatory ANIMAL THEME (Ornithology and The Yardbird Suite got Animal Collective beat by decades), innovate by rejecting existing form (ewww passing tones), and inspire an entire story basically about you (told from the point of view of– that’s right– a critic) by a member of the goddamned Mount Rushmore of mid-century literary intellectuals Julio Cortazar [which contains a sentence like “This is not the place to be a jazz critic, and anyone who’s interested can read my book on Johnny and the new post-war style, but I can say that forty-eight– let’s say until fifty– was like an explosion in music, but a cold, silent explosion, an explosion where everything remained in its place and there were no screams or debris flying, but the crust of habit splintered into a million pieces until its defenders (in the bands and among the public) made hipness a question of self-esteem over something which didn’t feel to them as it had before.” And is fairly similar for the rest of it], you definitely deserve a nod.
If for no other fact that he co-founded Dada. In fact, I should just asterisk the entire Dada movement in here. His art makes Duchamp’s R.Mutt stunt look like a piece of fucking Renaissance marble. Performance art as we know it today really took off with him. Performance art is rooted deeply in Ancient Greek Cynicism, or a philosophy detailing a life rejecting affluence and living happily and simply in accordance with Nature (like dogs: skylos / kynos). What that really means is that in Ancient Greece, they most likely had Occupy Acropolis. All they needed was a flock of tofurkeys. Thanks to folks like Mr. Tzara, the definition of Cynicism has slowly deteriorated to the shape it is today: the skeletal structure of hipsters.
Again, (children beware of the example set by him), balls-out rejection of form to fulfill creative means is a first-class ticket to hipsterdom. Oh yeah, I’m just gonna write these instructions one per line and call it a poem. Oh, yeah. Note the brilliant final line as well. It effectively says “It’s ok that you’re a weirdo cutting printed words to make poems all by yourself in your room. If people don’t understand it, just compare the bastards to cattle.” Sorry, Tristan, but I do not resemble a mangled newspaper.
When it came to being exclusive… James Joyce took the cake. He really set the golden standard for circulating in-jokes. Because he wrote Ulysses, a several hundred-page book with densely layered narrative, abrupt shifts in time, and obscure references, JUST TO KEEP THE CRITICS BUSY… Yeah, my left nut you don’t care what people think about you. Hey! That’s exactly what I muttered at a drunken plaid-clad youth in Stuytown last weekend!
Case in point, and to help prove that this is not pure conjecture, legend has it that when Joyce was dictating Finnegan’s Wake (OH I’M SORRY– Finnegans Wake. Joyce is helping me rise above word processors’ squiggly red underline) to Samuel Beckett, the milkman came in and Beckett transcribed the entire conversation right into the space of the story. Later, he read it back to the Joyce, who apparently thought it was brilliant and requested it be kept in. I guess that would explain the entire novel, because the only scenario in which the words of Finnegans Wake make any sense is the conversation between a milkman and a one-eyed writer.
“His whole MO was being impenetrable, mixing up his personal in crowd references with references to the entire western canon. Oh yeah, and he wore an eye patch.” -Charlotte
None of these guys could be reached for comment– because they claim not to have phones.
For inventing the look, living off his dad, and selectively hanging out with only twelve friends at a time (who worshipped him)– and what clique would be complete without a token loser (get it)? Here’s leering at you, Judas.
For starting his career as an actor, and for deeming contemporary English to be way too mainstream thereby inventing a slew of obscure words that only became understood two generations later when, it seemed, the collective western intellect proclaimed “OK, William, you win.”
For using his profession solely as an excuse to do drugs.
Yarn I: It seems one of the primary artistic trends of the 20th century (with spillover, maybe the last two centuries) was the increased acceptance of sketches and raw, undeveloped ideas as legitimate “works of art” ripe for an audience. The beginning of the last millennium would not have indicated this, though– the market and prevailing aesthetic became awfully formalized and refined, to clientele richer and to art with corresponding burdens of grandeur. Art was occupied with things entirely other than presenting an idea. Most of it was advertisement and record-keeping for posterity. Here we have some Medicis, history’s greatest accountants.
Cosimo II, patron of Galileo.
Lorenzo (the Magnificent), famous patron of the Arts.
Medici Chapel in Florence. The two best-known tombs, seen on the left and right, are those of Lorenzo’s kid and grandkid.
Memory in space.
A large portion of art was also used by the church to convey extant episodes of morality and ethics in the grand story of Christ et al. There seemed to be stricter rules, or at least expectations, in place about the conception and reception of artwork. Slowly that formality has eroded and now an artist can display almost anything, and almost nothing– a single line, an empty frame, a person standing still– to an audience, giving the latter more interpretive work to do. Or so you’d think. Because instead of compensating for new forms by expanding its visual vocabulary, the audience has duly complied with the artists’ lead and become lazy at its end. Nowadays, the simpler a piece looks to the average gaze, the more likely it is to need explanation– and hence, justification. It’s obvious that if an artwork needs excessive analysis and explanation by experts on behalf of the masses, then you have a problem. Perhaps this all conceals another truth: that what we call art has in fact changed its scope of services to society entirely in the past millennium. Before, it served even the poorest churchgoer, with strong, understandable language of form as its base, and practicality and relevance as its engine for communication. Since then, the art world has dwindled to serve, and with decisively less practicality, the intellectual accumulation of a select few.* In a way, though, this has given painters and sculptors the freedom and the license to conceive of almost anything, trying always to break that next ceiling in the endless skyscraper of taboo. The first steps of that: adoration of the sketch, and the slow and ultimately successful creep towards accepting things in a raw and newborn state. Here is a rough visual timeline, from the 1850s on:
1930s, The Futurists….
You could read many things from this trend, such as the effects of war on mankind. But I am presenting these simply as visuals, as images experienced here and now.
Yarn II: With rawness now accepted pretty much as a style, it has begun translating into our daily lives. The artist’s sketch does two things for us: 1) it evokes those emotional responses that art is so good at doing, and better that something overly worked-on (and potentially heavy-handed) and 2) inspires us to say “my kid could paint that. Heck, I could paint that!” Steadily, it seems technology has given us just that ability. We are now given the option of entering a constant stream of auto-biography, with every next piece of technology promising things delivered in “real-time.” Compared to earlier when I had to wait months to get a book published, I can now type a little and click a little and have my book online and available to anyone within one night. With Twitter, I’m not even confined to my laptop anymore. There is increasing legitimacy given to the most mundane musings. Check out Conan’s Twitter feed. Now before I make my next statement, picture language (that is: English etc.) abstractly, as nothing more than a tool or mechanism for communicating ideas. Like smartphones, it is a brilliant thing. But also like smartphones, it is imperfect. There are some ideas that the English vocabulary somehow cannot grasp, and on top of that, think of how laborious it is: before the person across from you understands your thought, you have to figure out what to communicate, communicate it, then they have to receive that sound (pretend you are just talking with no visuals– on the phone, for example) and process it themselves. On average this transaction takes roughly 2-5 seconds. Quite inefficient, isn’t it? Why that second processing phase? And isn’t there a way to actually make communication real-time? That is, I don’t have to find equivalents in the realm of words and gestures to convey my thought– I can literally put that thought in an interlocutor’s head. Well, herein I make my prediction (which is extrapolated to occur sometime in the 100th millennium (100,000 AD): imagine moment in our evolution when we reach some level when we are able to communicate our thoughts to each other purely and instantaneously. In a way, it won’t be communication at all, because communication implies that primitive slog of processing and gesturing and so on. It will be more like us floating in an ether: an ether that receives a thought from one person in it and which would instantly be understood by everyone else in the soup. To get a feel for it, try thinking of something, then communicating it to yourself. You see, the need for communication is gone, because you had that thought in your mind already. It is maybe very similar to Nirvana. This, I envision, is going to be a huge step in the evolution of man. But that’s obvious, because you must have already concluded that. (Case in point?)
*Evidence: those de Koonings at MoMA (hanging for the benefit of the public). The reason they are up there is not because the public immediately got their underlying message 50 years ago, but because some highly reputable individuals did, and explained it to us, upon hearing which we collectively uttered “Ooooooooh…” Furthermore, their intimacy is leagues separated from shock art featuring Jesus and heads of state, and encroaching on that feels completely at odds with their white-box homes. These paintings might belong in the studio.
:this, not this:
Though its schism from the church was a good thing in my opinion, there is one thing from that time that is missed in fine art: its ability to communicate powerful messages, cheaply and quickly, to and for the benefit of many. I guess film & television now hold those reigns.