A CONVERSATION BETWEEN RITA GONZALEZ, GABRIELA JUAREGUI, MAGALI ARRIOLA, AND WALEAD BESHTY
on the exhibition "What once passed for a future or The landscapes of the living dead" exhibited at ART2102 March 4 - April 2, 2005.
Rita Gonzalez: A reality show is now in production that allows cities in the U.K. to nominate a building for demolition. Recently, an entire Scottish community nominated their town as a candidate for destruction. Another group of Scots asked for the destruction of a building on the campus of Edinburgh University. A group of Brits also called for the destruction of Columbus Towers. All the buildings held in common post-war Brutalism. All the buildings were highly regarded (even awarded) after their construction. Now the sites of high modernism are the new stars of a reality television make-over show.
All of the work in the exhibition plays against the extreme repulsion of the core audience of "Demolition," choosing instead to represent the "ruins" of modernism as spectral, as hollowed out... What kind of charge do these buildings set off for you? You de-narrativise these sites to a great extent by removing any signs of life or any references to the uses of the architecture in question.
Gabriela Jauregui: Magali, I’m interested in what you think might be the relationship between monumentality and ruin through construction, destruction and memorialization in the works presented in “What once passed for a Future”? Do you think the works here question/problematize the experience of the ruin? Can we say that they re-contextualize or redefine the term “ruin” taking it beyond what both Speer and Smithson envisioned (each with his different emphasis on the future), and collapsing (no pun intended) both past and future, birth and death (calling to mind Derrida’s “In the beginning there is ruin”); decay and preservation into a new interstitial category --like the zombies or living-dead? I know that in your text you mention Picon, who seems to differentiate between the ruins of traditional landscapes and contemporary cities, which he likens to the living dead but if the works in this show redefine “ruin”, then could we say that now ruins are also like zombies? (This might bring in Walead Beshty’s notion of “colonization of subjectivity”, which he relates to the myth on contemporary cities and, presumably, their ruins, but also to what zombies do: colonize subjectivity on a different plane…)
Magali Arriola: I think that both of your questions somehow overlap, so I´ll try to reply with a long answer. Actually, when I started to think about the show, there was some kind of fascination with the idea of ruin and decay, that as you say Rita, seems to play against the repulsion of the audiences of Demolition. Still I find it fascinating too that there is a massive audience for such a reality show. It says a lot about how people fantasize on destruction as such, and on how this seems to have turned into such an easy thing to do -and to publicly celebrate. This raises several questions regarding not only the importance of architecture and urban planning, but also participation and social responsibility. Maybe Channel 4 and RIBA are assuming the responsibility of destruction under the guise of a democratic élan (or rather some sort of public of catharsis), but I wonder who is going to assume reconstruction. Besides that, following the examples you mention, there are different implications in tearing down a building, a monument, a shopping mall and a whole town, and we should also think about the reasons given to justify that destruction. As far as I’ve seen by googling the issue, they range from “ugliness” to “making people´s life miserable”, and “the aim of the show is to make people feel they can influence the process and be aware of the difference between good and bad architecture” –a very simplistic and dangerous polarization, as recent political events have already shown.
This, of course, opens again the discussion on the articulation of public space as an ideological construct, by simply bringing to the forefront who decides on how public space is to be used and inhabited. It’s rather ironic that Demolition’s argument is to tear down a building just to replace it with another for which construction there’s, this time, no public participation. Who is going to decide on the replacement? Why should its fate be different from the one of the original construction? This of course brings to mind Walead’s piece on the Oriental Gardens included in the show. (Besides that, we know that destruction is actually a luxury, it costs a lot of money, and from that perspective it’s directly related to speculation, not good will or bad taste. That is clear in Santiago’s and Walead’s pieces, they both address the issue in a very direct way: these structures often remain because it’s just too expensive to demolish them). The fact that each of these buildings Rita mentions were awarded is also related to the idea of decay, preservation and monuments that Gaby mentions, and to another important issue which is how cultural memory is forged -a selective memory.
All this media sensationalism is, I think, closely related to the WTC attacks and memorials, which brings us to the Tribute in Light project which was widely criticized because of its similarities with the searchlights used by Speer for the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg. We should wonder too about the significance of this eagerness to destroy post-war brutalist architecture, not only for the sake of aesthetic taste and its transformations, or because of its lack of functionality, but as symptomatic of an era that needs to be erased, -and then draw some parallels on how this reflects in the general amnesia that seems to pervade in contemporary (mass or even political) culture. There is a big tension between the spectacular collapse of the twin towers as a symbol, and the hysterical hurry to erect a memorial literally to replace them. But bigger.
Now, regarding the show, my interest was on the one hand how, when putting into perspective the notion of future, one usually ends up dealing with some sort of nostalgia of what could have been but never was, or hasn´t yet happened. I think that both Speer an Smithson –which of course overlap in Derrida, as Gaby mentions–, end up having a very romantic position, even though they are separated in time, and were working in opposite contexts, and with such different interests. I guess there is always an uneasy feeling about nostalgia because of the ideological manipulation it can imply, but at the same time the image of a ruin an the idea of deterioration, often end up triggering a stirring experience. My interest in the vision of ruins as exemplified in the show is that the works somehow cancel that particular nostalgia, and allow to rethink the status of the ruin today -of the contemporary ruin- in order to recover different sorts of narratives around it. It’s not only about finding out why those buildings and constructions are in a state of decay, but also what is their actual function or utility (socially and culturally speaking) and–again–their potential future. I think that contrary to what Rita mentions, it is precisely the fact that these ruins are discreetly inhabited and constantly changing and redefining their function, which is interesting. The ruin ceases to be perceived as an empty and inaccessible icon, as we usually conceive it. So, rather than removing the signs of life and de-narrativise these sites, its more about rescuing the underlying narratives.
Santiago’s piece is addressing a situation which is widely known in Mexico city: that the building is inhabited by a floating population of homeless people and street vendors… so there is a narrative and a life, it’s just that the signs seem to be missing. I recently walked by this other house that collapsed during the 1985 earthquake, one of the very few ruins that remain intact from the 1985 earthquake and that seemed to be abandoned all these years. It now has the street number on the fence that used to isolate the debris, a mailbox and –being early January- all sorts of Christmas decorations. So there is a whole range of unnoticed and unspoken situations. There is a similar appropriation of space in Alexander’s piece, and an interesting twist happening in the sudden transformation of what was meant to be a shopping mall into the political police headquarters, conveniently perched on a hill and looking over the city. This again is a “temporal appropriation” although, as Alexander mentions, everybody knows that it might very well be a definitive one in the long term. And in taking a close look at Walead’s work, regardless of the walled windows, there is a strong feeling of people trying to lead a normal life in some of these suburban housings. There is another interesting thing in the text by Antoine Picon that Walead gave me while working on the show which is “Why does rust frighten us so while the ruin is adorned with a reassuring character? The ruin restores man to nature, rust on the other hand confines him in the middle of his production as if within a prison, a prison all the more terrible since he is its builder.”
Coming back to Gaby’s question, I think there is a hint of fatality in Smithson, Speer and Derrida’s words, as if everything was meant to fail, which is a common statement today when thinking about the fate of functionalist utopias of modernity. I guess –as Picon´s text suggests- that the difference between a traditional and a contemporary ruin is actually a simple one, it lays in the short distance that separates us from those constructions which are still active, and from their projection into the future. This also relates in way to George’s models and their “retro-futurist” nature that, while taking as a point of departure a scaled and concrete situation he has envisioned, still remain unlikely and difficult to locate. By addressing the way we relate to space, and trying to recover a subjective and aesthetic experience of it, his work might offer a starting process of de-colonization of subjectivity –using Walead’s term.
There is some obscure and uncertain presence in all of these half-inhabited/half-abandoned buildings and constructions as if they were in a state of suspension that made sense to me when I read about the living-dead issue in Walead’s The City Without Qualities, Photography, Cinema and the Post-Apocalyptic Ruin, and then in Antoine Picon’s text. But I would say, coming back to Gaby´s question, that it’s not so much the ruins that are conceived as the living dead, but we are. In the way that we inhabit them, and in the way we inhabit and use public space, always as a mediated experience (physically and aesthetically). This zombification or colonization of subjectivity by the media also relates in a way to the relation between aesthetics for the senses and an anesthesia of the senses -as Susan Buck-Morss pus it. In that sense Walead has done very interesting work, not only in the series presented in the show but in his research on abandoned strip malls –something which is interesting to read next to Alexander´s piece. I am sure he can say much more about this.
Finally, there’s also some interesting points to be made here regarding the way each context builds its relation to historical memory as a cultural and political construct, and regarding the role that media play in the formation of that cultural memory –not only on the long term, but on the short term. Here we are back to the Demolition reality show and its relation to the preservation of memory: on the one hand, under whose custody is any building or monument to be destroyed, preserved or rebuilt? And whose interests is this going to serve? On the other hand, what is then to become of aesthetic experience and cultural practice? So all this comes to the fact that everything is easy to destroy, but who is going to take care of the pieces? Without wanting to be melodramatic, sometimes I think that it is as if each generation inherits the cultural, historical and political debris of the precedent one, and now it is up to us not only to make sense out of them, but maybe try to build something. RG: I’m still chewing on your thoughtful responses, Magali, but want to keep moving through these ruins brusquely…and I’m sure we all would like to hear from Walead, George and Alexander (Santiago too, if possible). So just to return to my question, in mind I did associate all the works in the show with either a refusal of narrative or at least a distillation of narrative. What first came to mind was Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), a sustained portrait of the Empire State Building. In Warhol’s case, there is a definite tension between the teeming capitalism within the structure and the dim, dormant quality of the exterior. I suppose you could draw cinematic comparisons to all the artists’ use of framing, lighting, and casting of space. Magali, you mentioned critical comparisons of Santiago to Leni Riefenstahl. Santiago certainly does not take the social documentary approach to exposing the hidden population of the building, but he does blast the building (poor folks who were trying to sleep inside) in the interest of making visible a generally invisible situation/condition. Walead, you used light (and a particular lens, I’m assuming) to create the quality of day for night. Was there a reason for this particular cinematic reference? Twilight conditions usually soften or invoke the sublime, but what the image moves toward is really something quite different. MA: Just a quick thing: in your second question, Rita, you mention I did a comparison between Santiago´s piece and Leni Riefensthal, I was actually meaning Albert Speer´s columns of light in Nuremberg and the World Trade Center memorials…
RG: Magali, I'll clarify my statement. I made the jump in my mind from the staging of the Fascist spectacle to its documentation (in Riefenstahl's films). I don't know if Speer's columns of lights were indeed documented by Leni (I'll check). My interest was more the documentation of Santiago's performance (and an extension of what I found to be the cinematic tropes in
all the work). I did not comment on the WTC--a great comparison-- but let me think about the facet of memory & reckoning in relation to monuments. I actually think Alex's work puns on the monument in a fascinating way.
GJ: Ruins are uncanny. In their familiarity/unfamiliarity they cause us to feel comfort/discomfort. As it has been mentioned already, they also enable us to project our fantasies for the future, creating utopias and also dreaming up historical narratives about the past and present. They are also uncomfortable markers for mortality and fatality, markers of time. Even though I have not read the text, perhaps that’s the distinction that Picon notes between rust and ruin: the latter is memorialization and monumentality. The former, sheer decay and mortality--? The show reminds me of the dystopic element already present in Benjamin’s Arcades Project and I imagine that Walead’s photographs of empty shopping malls also touch on this. Magali/Walead would you care to comment in light of the notion also brought up by Demolition of consumption both of the public space and of the ruin/destruction --which better space to bring both together (consumption in general and consumption of public space in particular) than in (abandoned) shopping malls? In a way, like Magali said, all the ruins in the show stand for an era, and I would add they stand for a phallogocentric worldview, which calls to mid Alexander’s piece of course, where this monolith is being “whited-out” by a fountain spout that ends up recalling the “money shot” in a porn film, covering the subject with cum. And it is perhaps no coincidence then that the shopping mall would have been taken over as a police headquarters, for are they not two sides of the same coin –two ways in which subjectivity is colonized (again, to borrow Walead’s term)?
On a different note, like Rita, I am also interested in the lighting in Walead’s piece, and indeed in this case more than point towards the sublime, I agree that it moves in a different direction. I would like to ask Walead if it would be fair to speak of an uncanny element in this piece. As I mentioned previously about ruins, this piece in particular has an element that is utterly familiar and yet completely alien, unheimlich. And I was wondering if this is not partly a result, on the one hand, of the lighting, but on the other a result of the doubling of the image (whether or not we end up seeing it as a 3-D image, which in my opinion, even enhances its uncanniness). The doubling here calls to mind the whole concept of the uncanny which has to do with this sense of something which feels familiar or known, the “original” moment or thing lived but which is then transported into a second instance, new and unfamiliar but which recalls the familiarity of the original. I feel this is also the case, formally speaking, of what takes place in this photograph. It oscillates between the heimlich/unheimlich. The two sides of the image are identical, almost identical and this is what enhances the feeling of the uncanny, which I then link up with the living-dead (also uncanny). And of course the lighting effect day-to-night underscores this as well. Walead, could you speak more of this uncanny doubling in your photos (especially in the large one but also in the photocopy although there the process is different because it’s a mirror image)?
Magali, you speak of this show as a way in which, freed from nostalgia, we can begin to build (pun intended) or at least rescue (think earthquakes) the underlying narratives behind these redefined, contemporary ruins (since we haven’t the luxury of demolition then we have the duty—is this a fair word?—of recontextualization?). I think this is not only interesting but ultimately politically relevant, Walead/Magali would you care to expand?
Walead Beshty: I feel as though I have much to say, and one of the issues is ordering it so that it might be somewhat coherent. Perhaps it is best to start with the genesis of the work in the show, as this links up to the tradition of U.S. Brutalist architecture as typified by Rudolf, which started from a position of social utopian programs as realized through radical form (the relationship between fascism and radical formalism has been pointed out repeatedly, Benjamin Buchloh’s text From Factura to Factography first comes to mind) which progressed to an idea of autonomous form, a kind of architecture as sculpture, whose lineage is most evident in that oversized reflector sitting in downtown LA. As a legacy of modernism, Gehry’s use of reflection and light, I find quite interesting. Le Corbusier or Mies Van de Rohe used this reflection as a kind of camouflage, a way the skyscraper became integrated into the fabric of the city, and acted as the ultimate container of the city in so far as it is contained in its form the city as image. This occurs through interplays of transparency and reflection, and it comes to a head in Gehry whose buildings stand as purely autonomous structures, completely abandoning any dialectic of integration and totalization. They reflect, though they do not function like a mirror but a lens. The downtown Disnaster simply shimmers, it blinds you, it gives you pure light. It is the WTC memorial, in the sense that it is a structure that whose impact has no physical correlative; it is designed to dislocate the optical understanding from a physical one. What’s interesting to me, in the case of that memorial, is that it makes a connection that is often not apparent. The gesture operates equally well in the service of aestheticizing trauma to justify a move away from liberal humanist principles (realized in both military actions abroad, and the unprecedented restriction of civil liberties domestically) and the condition of subjectivity in contemporary commodity culture (i.e. Nuremburg, or a movie premier or a used car sale). Here laid bare is that the totem for object fetish is synonymous with fascism.
I think this is the sense of architecture as a kind of modernist sculpture, which negotiates a position in a situation that exists only to behave as a backdrop (the gesture must be more grand in a city context, which is perhaps why Gehry finds it necessary to literally blind you while in its presence, to obliterate everything around it). The “Thing” show is telling of such ideas about contemporary sculpture. In this mode, sculpture is exclusively an object that is concerned with the primary relationship to a viewer that is located outside, that is separated by the gaze. This is a sense of ahistoricality, an outside of history, outside of social negotiations. Cumbernauld, the town proposed to Demolition, was a utopian ideal, an endgame of urban design. It didn’t contain its growth within form (like organic growth), it was, from the outset, proposed as a conclusion. Thus the desire to destroy it seems inscribed in its making, its completeness as a worldview begs the fantasy of its obliteration. Mies perhaps contained this social function by presenting a mirror of it, it stood above and outside, but like Baudelaire’s flaneur, the ultimate subject of modernity, it contains within itself a mirror of the totality and itself as a part (here is Baudelaire’s core anxiety, disappearing into the mass while standing above it). This dialectic prevents a conclusion, it is schizoid. I believe this is where, and please forgive the circuitous way I’ve gotten here, the question of narrative has already been abandoned by these structures as a fundamental tenet of their construction. This is where the apocalyptic fits in, because the apocalypse is not after history, not after the stories, but outside of them, it is atemporal. I see the apocalypse as a breakdown in signification, there is only an externality in the apocalypse, a space between, the only oppositional term to modernity’s progress as the inevitable outcome of all human endeavors. It is a band-aid. It also replays the gap between signified and signifier, and tries to fill it. It seems modernity always maintained this fact. Why then should almost all high-modern architecture be pictured as completely vacant, vastly under used, clean, hermetically sealed? Isn’t this the antithesis of architecture, Corbusier who said architecture was a machine for living in, pictured his buildings vacant. This is a trope of architectural photography that persists from high modernism, which itself presents an important part of the worldview of the architects to which it was in service. It was apparent to those practitioners who were obsessive about the control over the images of their work that pictures traffic architecture (Mies, Corbu, Gropius et.al.). Such places contain their own destruction because they were imagined as abstractions, as models.
In terms of Freud’s uncanny, certainly this is implicit within the endless repetition of mass production and the rise of commodity culture, to which photography plays a direct role both as a parallel advance in the spectacle, as a lead form to disseminate these ideas, but also because it contains the notion of endless repetition within it. This is why I find Robert Adams’ work The New West, and What We Bought so compelling. A repetition of homes, of domestic spaces, of the familiar which, when rendered as multiple, becomes strange. They are mass-produced like images. This is one way I understand implications of Marx’s idea of alienation in terms of psychoanalysis. The locations that Adams photographed were settled because of the American Geological surveys: the mass-produced image leads to their settlement. This is also where I believe Lacanian notions of repetition, trauma, and sublimation apply to the photographic. The stereographs implied desire is to contain optically what occurs spatially, to clean up experience, to reintegrate us into technology (the stereo viewer is a primitive model for the head, a schematic of the physiognomy of seeing) to bridge a gap. In terms of the work, I find the stereograph returns the buildings to the models they originated as, allows them to reoccupy their original space of conception, which is spectral. The people were never present in the model, never existed in its conception, they were something to be opposed to save the original idea from contamination, they must be planned for, subdued, like weather and treated in aggregate. We can create a narrative that reorganizes, that apologizes, or masks the connection to spectacle, by describing the impacts or historical conditions… This requires reinserting ideas of history and liberal humanism, but this would be a suspect endeavor. Fascism, or more dramatically, genocide, is inscribed within liberal humanism. This would make their existence palatable, sublimate the implications. To more directly answer part of Rita’s question, I found the cinematic as a bridge into the stereograph, as an orginary form of photographic spectacle that draws the implications forward. The day for night effect is something of a symbol for a specific state, a physical state that is abstracted into an artificial form. It doesn’t look like the proper night, but we know it is meant to be night. As for the stack of offset prints, I wanted this repetition to be restaged within a primary medium of distribution for architecture, as an ephemeral picture one could take away, that would deteriorate with time and wear.
I agree very much with Magali’s observations, and especially her comment about making sense of what has passed, and attempting to produce something from it. This is a very tricky question, one that I think of often. How does one avoid recreating the endgame strategies we’ve inherited? In terms of a colonization of subjectivity, and this is borrowed to some degree from Deleuze and Guattari, and also Althusser’s discussion of interpellation. One solution is to relocate meta operations within habitual operations. A reinvestment of the process of thinking through these problems into aesthetics as an active part of seeing, to avoid both story telling –which I am intensely suspicious of— and nihilism. In relation to these forms, we are zombies, not because we don’t see, are deluded or some other thing. This would require the artist to be Jesus, the great liberator… this is my issue with some forms of Marxian eminent critique strategies. But we are zombies from the position of the construction of works themselves, we are aggregated, unified, a crowd as singularity. This is what Baudelaire saw; he had a primal subject object confusion. But this construction is not real, but a rupture in two descriptive systems. Not a fact of existence, but a dysfunction in our tools to talk about existence. Perhaps the questions, not the answers are problematic…
MA: Rita raised a very interesting comparison by introducing Andy Warhol’s Empire,
that I guess sums up many of the issues that have been raised here and that actually seems could now be seen under a new light. Its sustained portrait as you say has something of a sedative mise-en-scène, which is also present in Walead’s piece and Santiago’s video. It actually reminds me of some sort of blurring the idea of mirroring and transparency which has been one of the more instrumentalized aesthetic approaches since it stands as a symbol of democracy (closely related to the dislocation that Walead mentions) and that has determined to a certain extend our lectures and consumptions of public space. This reminds me actually the work of Norwegian artist Knut Asdam whose work addresses the authoritarian and phallocentric aspect of minimalist corporate architecture. Asdam is very much inspired by the notion of psycasthenia that he took from Roger Callois in which the idea of camouflage that Walead mentions is very present as a phenomenon of schizophrenic psychic condition, a depersonalization by assimilation to space, which refers me again to the living dead (and taking things further the muselman..).
I very much liked the idea of casting architecture as a backdrop for its own mise-en-scène addressed and symbolized by the cinematic experience and it its relation to light. The comparison to Leni Riefensthal cinematographic work is also interesting if we think about (of course, not only the edition of images but also all the information they convey ), which brings me again to how easy it actually is to turn something into an icon, which in turn can be praised as a monument.
What is important in all this is that if urban is space is the perfect site for ideological construction it also has the possibility to remain one of the few spaces in which our experience and consumption is not entirely mediated, since consuming is also destroying or at least implies some kind of degradation. I guess in the so-called third-world countries as in any forgotten territories that kind of consumption of space is something very natural, it’s just about finding your own way in some sort of harmonic social equilibrium. As I said that is very much where all these narratives are actually happening. Therefore, I wouldn’t see the re-contextualization of those narratives as a duty (I would have problems with the moral authority of that word) for civil society but as a responsibility that sometimes people acquire by default, unless they’re prevented to do so by a superior structure, which is often the case. This is an issue that has been in the air a lot lately, as an alternative model of society, which of course recalls in a way the Situationist city vis-à-vis the society of spectacle. And, coming back to the flaneur issue, that was very much recovered by the Situationists, it’s interesting to recall that, long before that, Walter Benjamin said that the “sandwich man” was the ultimate (and unfortunate) condition of the flaneur that, as Walead mentioned, was both an observer and little by little an active participant of the urban dynamics; Benjamin meant by that that the flaneur was one of the first urban actors to be co-opted by mass culture since the modern forms of this social type slowly evolved into a chronicler and reporter, to the point of further putting into practice social control and justifying the fascist incarnations of the masses.
Facing the commodification of subjectivity, there is an urge to find new configurations of collective subjectivity as far as it represents interplay between the political and the social, which is not as easy task to imagine from an individual standpoint. Maybe the most effective way to actually rethink the consumption of space can be by producing and relocating some intermediary fields. In that sense they might be more linked to Foucault’s term of heterotopias which also been circulating for a while.
I guess what most attracted me in George’s work is in a way the fact that they are models and that they establish a luring game with scale since they should project some kind of purpose, and are instead completely useless and wrecked. This of course brings me back to the a-historical aspect that Walead mention about utopias (thinking of models as utopia) that seem always to fail in the minute they are put into practice as this goes against its own nature.
I am really interested in Walead’s notion of the apocalypse situated out side of history, in that sense it seems to be again the reverse of utopia, as some kind of fantasy that we are constantly looking for (and this has to do with the September 11 effect and its traumatic impact on north American imaginary as it’s been read by Zizek) where everything that seemed so in place just crumbles down. That is something that has already been there for a while and that now is coming back more and more. I am quite fascinated for example about the Christian evengelical Left Behind series, not only a best-seller but also one of the main readings of the soldiers in Iraq… but I guess this is already taking me to another place.
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