I discovered very intimate evidence that our brains are always aware of the time– and not just by casts of a net or any such wide margins, but down to the very minute. And it is only exhaustively heightened by images. In this peculiar case it was an instance of realizing something that had been present all along as opposed to an uncovering. The former turns out to be more haunting, and, of course, more interesting to analyze in retrospect.
One Saturday I happened in on my parents re-watching an episode of Columbo, Double Exposure, from 1973. In this one, the murderer manipulates his victim with clever use of subliminal cuts placed in a short film– single frames which the eye detects but does not consciously process, in other words, that one does not “see” (thus confirming our long-held suspicion of advertisements). The whole premise is rather nebulous, but we entertain the horror of it just to allow Columbo one more thing.
I had sat down, engrossed. But by pure coincidence (or was it) I realized it was after 9pm and I had to go. Exactly 11 minutes after 9. (My father loves being dramatic, and pretends to freak out every time he sees the clock read that for the past decade.) With thoughts of subliminal cuts still fresh on my mind, I thought there had to be something related between them and the seemingly increased amount of times the clock says 9:11 whenever I check it. It’s strange, after all, that a number that 15 years ago was fairly arbitrary (“nine-eleven,” as opposed to “nine-one-one”), should in any way become less objectively arbitrary and actually increase in gravitational pull, as it were, towards it, after some incident. The explanation for that would be fairly clear: it’s not to do with the number itself, but the amount of times it’s been printed and spoken (and thus– read, seen, and heard) since then. I wish it were easier to dig up, but surely there must be some statistics on the number of times “9/11” has been mentioned or printed by the media since that day.
Since then, those three numbers and four syllables have become so charged that merely uttering them opens up a whole series of unconscious responses in our brains. And this is where I make a bold assumption: I think our brains try and force us to bring those responses. Why? Perhaps our minds will do anything to feel more at one with the world around us (that is– having stimuli to react to). Or maybe it carries a unifying spirit, a combination of anger and camaraderie that binds some of us together and paints others as enemies. A quasi-religious, wholly human trait. To make sense of the world, we need friends and enemies. We create good and bad, right and wrong, to guide us. So our brains use this simple tactic of somehow making us that bit more nervous, reminding us to check the time, in order to identify patterns and paint a picture, which speaks thousands of words to us, organizing and giving purpose to these isolated responses relative to a collective whole.
Surely the media has thought this through already….
It’s not hard for the brain to know what time it is. Forget the internal mechanism, I’m talking about down-to-the-minute accuracy. Think of all the places and times that two numbers with a colon in between occurs in your field of vision. Between waking up and sitting down at work, I see my bedside clock, my laptop screen, VCR, clock in the kitchen, New York 1, NPR, cell phone (about once every 5 minutes), microwave, church bell tower, train ticker, useful little news screen in my elevator, even my work telephone. Each display the time, and these are all within one hour. Of course my brain is going to know when 9:11 is. I also happens to fall right on one of the most stressful times of the day: the beginning. I realized, horrified, on the train platform, that even with the train display and the courteous robot PA voice, people still lean out to check for themselves if the next train REALLY IS far away and still out of sight. I couldn’t bear the stress of checking the time the second I emerge from the train station. What difference will it make? I’m going to walk the same distance at roughly the same speed anyway. I had to return to my Scandinavian roots: where some clocks are made that look like this:
The idea being that you don’t ever need to know EXACTLY what time it is, to the second. In fact, maybe even the minute hand is excessive. One need just to look at the clock and realize, “Oh, it’s time to eat.” or “Oh, it should be getting dark soon.” And here I had always wondered what those silly log clocks were for, with that one short hand that never seemed to move.
“Can you miss a plane by 5 seconds?”
The second hand is something of an invention, something we need just to indicate that time is passing.
This was all too much for me.
So I stopped wearing a watch.
Oftentimes we find ourselves, as creators, at odds between extremes– streaming either towards conceiving of something purely of our own, something unique, or towards ‘creating’ something ‘plucked’ from the surrounding world, with as little interference on your part as possible. Both are legitimate. Both present debatable ideas. Both are also impossible.
As I have already stated, there is no such thing as pure creation, out of nothing. (Our definition of concepts like space clue us in on this: O. F. Bollnow refers to Aristotle and the German language [“Raum”: creating a clearing, esp. from a forest and esp. for settlement.] to produce proof that space is not at all infinite and objective, as Newton said, but rather more like an infinitely thin membrane which surrounds life. Lived space. Space experienced. Human space.) Every work arrives at this stage; when it needs to decide: footnote or parentheses, and address this duality, as it has entered the collective eye of the audience and they will inquire of it eventually.
Creation has always, since its birth, included reference and copying under its umbrella of legitimate bringers of form. Many times in the history of the western world have people rediscovered an interest in the worlds of antiquity (rediscovered) and begun reviving aesthetics therefrom, so much so that it changed the course of the status quo. If artistic progress were a road, would these revivals be considered a U-turn? A backing up? An empty tank of gas? I think they are neither, for these carry a negative connotation. As I said, certainly every work that has been created ever since ever has had some precedent. In a morbid, very Lacanian sense, art, as the “self,” can never not have precedent. As a necessary aside, this finding of a point of no precedent (something more interesting than the Big Bang) is another chain of thoughts. As Nate Harrison mentions late in the recording, even the first fire witnessed by man wasn’t without preexisting conditions. We should be thankful for these conditions, because they are what give us limitations, real or imagined, and which provide that fantastic freedom-within-constraints which is so vital to the human imagination.*
Nate Harrison starts to skirt the surfaces of a crisis around 7:06. He mentions “fetishization” at 7:26. Hooray.
At a meeting today, the question came up of “do we make this building actually mobile, and moveable, or do we make a solid piece of architecture that implies or symbolizes time, and change, at a less perceivable rate, and those who can readily read architecture will see the implicit gesture?” I said, “Think of hundreds of years ago when architects were probably considered idiots for dreaming of moving buildings. They had to come up with inventive ways of indirectly expressing it without being literal.” (We do after all use adjectives like ‘swooping’ ‘soaring’ ‘floating’ and others for old buildings even though they don’t actually. This is the power of the imagination, both as a force that creates these illusions and as a lens which allows for the interpretation of those adjectives in the final product.) The first thing we learn about Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple is its apparent emergence from (and camouflage with) the mountains behind it. Of course it isn’t literally doing that but the evocation is strong.
We know for a fact that the Eiffel Tower isn’t about to launch itself into outer space, but it certainly gives that vertical thrust of a feeling, even from a distance.
Then, of course, we get the buildings that are too wannabe-moving without actually being moving. When I see Frank Gehry’s buildings, I am starkly disappointed upon realizing that it doesn’t do what it looks like it can, because the illusion is so sought after perfecting that my imagination gets screwed with and upon entering and seeing right angles, familiar materials and construction methods, I am angered that I was led on like a baby getting boo-boohed and gah-gaahed.
This kind of architecture pays no heed and plays no tag with the human imagination, as architecture should. The spectacle is glorified and the ideas are so juvenile that I am left to wonder whether this architect really considers the wholeness of the building, the relation of inside to outside, of plan to elevation, of assembly to detail.
Architecture is an art that is primarily immobile. Still is. Granted, mobile buildings have been built and the result can be fantastic. But technology is still prohibitively expensive to accommodate such construction and entertaining these ideas of buildings that embody these verbs literally as opposed to evoking them poetically should, for all intents and purposes, not leave the napkin. Near the end of our meeting today, we agreed that there’s a give-and-take– the more moving parts the building has, the less iconic and sculptural it becomes. We are not there yet. We cannot build buildings in our likeness. But that’s one reason why we have this fantastic imagination thing.
A tug at the anchor chain…
The reason I brought up buildings is that it is a direct analogy of the sampler and what it did to music in the 80s. Instead of evoking and referencing styles and songs and other artists indirectly through one’s own creations, you could now reference things directly. Use musical quotation marks. I’m afraid there is something of the human imagination that is left behind when we abandon that purity of creation and shift to direct recycling. It of course traces its roots back to quotation in the textual sense, which may have been the first time (and the easiest) that someone appropriated someone else’s work as their own. But I can think of an earlier example– the first teacher.
Teaching, and handing something down is an artform no matter what the substance, is inherently about copying and repetition. Repetition, in fact, to the utmost extreme. The closer you get to the original, the better, and the more effective the teaching. It is also the struggle to attain the unattainable [an ideology], as with each passing-down there is an iota that changes and is subjected, again, to the onslaught of the imagination, and in the larger sense, to our brain’s tireless thinking of thoughts. In the failure to pass something on verbatim and as an exact duplicate one discovers the glory of the conscious mind. Teaching is the backbone of progress. Imagine the history of human creation compressed into one human life. Imagine you were taught nothing. How would you communicate? When would you learn to use tools? Express your ideas? Teaching and the faculty of passing down information has become all but an instinct (a logical offspring of the instinct driving communication), and it is a fabulous example of the significance of the new extremes homo sapiens must take stands between: between faith to the story and faith to lucid communication.
Nate Harrison sounds to life the anchor and calls this, at 11:10, “the spirit of a pledge to new forms.” And later, “of potentials for new connections and meanings.” I would love to pose some core questions about why we search for meaning. But that’s a sort of second volume. So later.
The large number of questions posed at the end only reflect the unresolved state of the piracy and free speech debate, which SOPA and PIPA have just thrown to front stage. And ends the recording with a pedagogical technique befitting its topic: a quotation. One that rings true and is one of those truths that’s like the darned sun and just won’t go away every time we pray the glare away. Kozinski really hit the nail on the head with his “accretion” comment. And, any judge whose final comments in a high-profile case (contesting Barbie’s status as a sex object….) are “the parties are advised to chill” gets a huge plus in my book of don’t-take-anything-too-seriously-ism.
*See post entitled [Reference]
A little bit of inspiration for the day. Possibly even the week and the month.
It pains me to see birch wood– [oh, the beautiful birch! Jewel of the subarctic! It serves me peaceful reminders of cooler days with its snow-white bark when I look upon it from behind a cloud of June-horny blackflies. It burns hot and easy (I like my women like I like my birch wood), and is a sauna’s perfect match. I can peel thy skin and answer the thrush on your branches. After the rains you exhale the very embodiment of “aroma”, and I go a-roaming. oh, the beautiful birch…..!]– reduced to this. You see what’s going on here? First it was books, now it’s wood! The bookends of the timber industry have been fetishised. And indeed, Marx knew it was going to happen long ago.
Logging is my father’s new favorite hobby. Let’s see how he reacts to this.
This actually leads me to a general problem I have with globalization. We were on the road to instant gratification far before the internet. Many centuries ago, we began exchanging goods heavily as trading routes opened up between the larger civilizations. Today we move a lot of shit. By wing, wheel, or hull. Either us to the product/good, or the product/good to us. Both consume massive amounts of energy. In the short run, the benefits may seem great. But is it sustainable in the long run? One numbnuts step, at least for us architects, towards significantly cutting costs is bringing in materials from as close to the worksite as possible.
What is embodied energy? Here’s Sustainablog. (Be sure to check out the video.) The big idea: cutting down on shipping costs means that we strive to “control all aspects of our lives.” More abstractly speaking, a physicist would say that of all processes involving Work (aka energy expended in using a Force to move a Mass), the human body itself is among the most efficient in the long run. Inevitably, because we do not live in a vacuum (which I until recently could not remember how to spell until I realized it’s being pronounced wrong– if you pronounce it like a word of the same suffix, like continuum, the spelling becomes obvious), ALL work done and energy produced involves some “loss”. Usually it’s through friction. There is a long and still-unsolved history of finding the perfect machine. But this waste can come in many forms, from sensible heat to sound. One could calculate the waste produced in walking 10 meters there and 10 meters back– a theoretically zero-sum exercise, and compare it to driving 100 meters there and 100 meters back. Assigning as many tasks as we can to that which we can achieve with our own bodies is a very clear definition of sustainability. This is a call to immediacy.
I digress. We used to have to wait till summer to eat our avocados and peaches and bananas. Now we can get them year round. In sidestepping spoilage of our food, we have spoiled ourselves. Let’s hope the small-but-growing trends in support of localization can become… well, global.
Designer firewood brings to mind an incident I was present for several years ago at an old friend’s brownstone in Kips Bay. Her grandmother and uncle had just flown in from London and the hosts (my friend and her mother) decided to light a fire in the fireplace. I gave a “Eeeeeeh” but the only response was “Don’t be silly.” Somehow they light some wood that’s been sitting there, immaculately arranged (almost edibly arranged), and we all take a seat around it and chat. Smoke starts rising into the room. Hm. Soon the mantel (or where the mantel normally is) is completely black with soot, and smoke is filling up the room. The uncle keeps insisting, “No, no, don’t open the door. No, no, don’t put the fire out. I like this smell. It’s nice and… woody. It’s supposed to smell woody, isn’t it?” The fire alarm begins howling. By the time the fire department arrived, I could stand on one side of the living room and not see anyone at the other end (which I think I did intentionally to disassociate myself with them as much as possible). I think the firemen were dumbfounded and just didn’t have the heart to tell us “Next time, you should check if your fireplace has a flue. You know what a flue is?” Instead they told us not to ever use that… unusable… fireplace again.
For now I’m not complaining about the cold, and instead I’m enjoying the excellent oranges. Oranges often play a pivotal role in my feeling good during wintertime, partially because since orange juice is so sugary and the fruit is disgustingly dry in warmer months, my anticipation builds.
What is your favorite season? As kids the answer was obvious. But as I’ve learned to give trivial matters more and more unnecessary thought, fall has emerged as the new frontrunner (it’ll stay my favorite so long as it continues to support color diversity). Especially in New York, the weather gets dryer and cooler, right into that long-sleeved sweetspot. People all return from the holidays. And of course fall is the season of the harvest, the season of the fire, and the season of homecoming and storytelling. To come full circle here, fall is when we remember to work with our hands, together, and reap the rewards.
The historians opine,
Sampras may be the greatest,
The winners opine,
Federer may be the greatest,
The perfectionists opine,
Nadal may be the greatest,
The athletes opine,
Djokovic may be the greatest,
The rankings opine,
But when I hit that winner up the line,
I, I, was the greatest of all time.
[dated February 2011]