Yesterday, I discussed Bowie and his prescient understanding of network culture. But what of Bowie and architecture? Shouldn't I say something about that?
Generally speaking, architects have been unwilling or unable to learn Bowie's lessons, stuck in an idea of branding borrowed from business books from the discount table at Barnes and Noble and history borrowed from art historians seeking the hand of the master. Many of the architects who would be the easiest to compare to Bowie in the way their were able to put on different masks—Charles and Ray Eames, Erik Gunnar Asplund, and 1950s Corbusier—preceeded him.
So what of Johnson and Bowie? Of course there is a similarity in that both had a flirtation with fascism in their youth, but in Bowie's case there is no evidence of any actual political involvement. Bowie's coked-up ramblings were meant to scandalize and were dropped soon enough. Johnson's political activities lasted the greater part of a decade and he never rejected them as bluntly as Bowie did in his derision of fascists in Scary Monsters or criticism of imperialism in Let's Dance. But the issue at hand would be the ability to transform. Johnson likely learned from Bowie's shape shifting as he returned to prominence to the 1970s, but in fairness, Johnson was more like an aging crooner and if, like Bowie, he was always a provacateur, he lacked Bowie's technical and formal instinct. With the exception of the AT&T Building, none of his works after his return in the 1970s were "hits."
Then there's Koolhaas. Jeffrey Kipnis mentions Bowie in a reference meant to contextualize Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, Madelon Vriesendorp, and Zoe Zenghelis's Exodus or the Voluntary Prisonerso of Architecture: "London's Architectural Association 1970-72: a school awash in sex, drugs, and rock and roll. David Bowie hanging at the bar. …" But this is hardly history, rather it's name dropping meant to build up a myth. Even so, it deserves mention. At one point Koolhaas did seem like Bowie. The early 1970s work followed by Delirious New York, a bad period of terrible work in the 1980s, then a comeback in the 1990s with works like the library at Jussieu, the TGB, the Kunsthal, and Zeebrugge. For a time, it seemed like Koolhaas might wear many masks, but by the early 2000s, his career became less like Bowie's and more like Johnson's. Where Bowie repeatedly put his career at risk to pursue his artistic vision, Koolhaas has been in a nihilist death-spiral for 15 years, out to produce more junkspace than anyone else. No way would Bowie have ever put out a clunky salute to authoritarianism like the CCTV building.
I don't feel comfortable adding myself to this mix, but as I've already publically stated that I've been influenced by Bowie, I suppose I have to. Simply enough, early on in my education I realized that architecture—as conventionally practiced—was too slow and too tied to capital to keep pace with my ideas. Influenced a bit too much by Manfredo Tafuri on the one hand and reluctant to call myself an artist when my father had that market cornered pretty well, I began as a historian of architecture. After about four or five years, I set out to look at urban infrastructure and work with the Center of Land Use Interpretation. Toward the end of this period, I began to work with Robert Sumrell to create AUDC and our Blue Monday project, a book that we consciously conceived of as a sort of historical-philosphical LP.* From 2008 to 2015, I was engaged with a number of participatory projects under the guise of the Netlab at Columbia, such as the New City Reader. Over the last year, with the labs experiment at Columbia's GSAPP—which one day will be seen as a formative moment for architectural education—drawing to a close, I've rethought the Netlab's role as an independent entity and shifted the focus of my attention more toward Europe and less toward the US. There will be new work, which I hope you will find as compelling as I do from Leigha Dennis and myself, operating as the Netlab on exhibit in from early June to August at the Šiuolaikinio Meno Centras/Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania. The focus of my contribution to this exhibit will be large, physical, constructed and something that I think hasn't been seen yet. I'm not suggesting that I'm living up to what Bowie did by any means. But rather, that his ability to transform himself is something that has remained intriguing to me over the years.
As Simon Critchley points out in his book on Bowie, this re-invention was not a lack of authenticity, but rather an understanding that authencity lies at a deeper level than style. It's unfortunate that in instead of being taught to experiment, architecture students are urgerd to relentlessly hone a particular look and even hired on that basis: being able to sum yourself up in a one-liner is more important than depth and the ability to come back and reinvent yoursef. The latter is what network culture demands and the inability of architects to do so is quite boring, isn't it? *Which is not to say that there won't be future AUDC books. Far from it…
So much to say and not enough time. Never enough time. Bowie's dead. I hadn't expected this would happen. I've been trying to finish this post all day.
I had hoped to make a year end post, just as I had hoped for the last four years, and failed again, just as I have for the last four years. The last year was a tough one, with my mother passing away in September with my transition from full time teaching in the United States to focus on the Netlab, and now this.
Perhaps it's odd to speak of the death of a pop star and of the last of one's parents in the same post, but perhaps not.
In the case of Bowie, I always thought that while he was alive, I would still be young. With my mother passing and Bowie's death in quick succession, it's become suddenly clear that I am no longer young. I guess to anyone else, it should be obvious, but such things are rarely obvious.
The death of my mother was a largery a matter of private mourning for my family and those who joined us in Vilnius at her funeral. She was hugely important to me and my father's work would have been inconceivable without her and a discussion of her life would pit the decline of sociability today against the role of the salon for earlier generations of artists, something rarer and rarer today. But that remains a matter for another day, for working through over time.
In the case of David Bowie, the death is public and epochal. I feel the need to go through the cultural implications on this obsolete medium.
Its clear to me, and has been for some time, that Bowie was the most important living cultural figure. There is no one comparable to him. Bowie redefined not only rock music, but also fashion and gender, even science fiction. Some of the points being made about Bowie today on the Net surprised me. He was—and once I saw it, I was reminded of it—a pioneer on the Internet, possesing an email address in 1983, and creating not only the first downloadable single, but also Bowienet, an online network launched in 1998, a community where fans could interact with each other. Bowienet was remarkable as it was one of the earliest networked publics based on culture, not technology.
More than that, Bowie understood the deeply transformative effect that networked publics would have. Check out this 1999 video with BBC interviewer Jeremy Paxman.
Here Bowie states that he became a musician because it "was subversive in the age before MTV, before wall-to-wall blanket music.…It was very hard to hear [rock and roll] music" but that he was drawn to it because understood that "this is the thing that will change things."
But, Bowie observes, that world was gone, "music has become a career opportunity. … The Internet is … now carries the flag of being subversive and possibly rebellious, embodying the chaotic, nihilistic…"
Bowie understood that there would never again be individuals like himself, "I embrace the idea that there is a new demystification process between the artist and the audience…The point of having somebody who led the forces has disappeared." This is, he stated, "personified by the rave culture of the last few years, where the audience is at least as important as who is playing at the rave."
Paxman responded to Bowie's prophecies about the Internet saying that there wasn't anything cohesive about the it and that it wasn't as radical as the youth revolution of the 60s. Bowie, who in the video has begun to lose his patience, explains that in the 1970s there was a "single, absolute, creative society … an era of known truths." With the "singularity" of culture gone, "we are living in total fragmention." For Bowie, the Internet had the capacity for being both good and bad, wonderful and terrible, "we are actually on the cusp of something exhilirating and terrifying."
Still unconvinced, Paxman said the Net is just a tool. Bowie lauging, responds, "No, it's not, it's an alien life form."
And that's what it was. Where better to see the fragmentation not just of culture and the concomitant fragmentation the self than in the below scene from the Man Who Fell to Earth?
I turned on the television this morning to reach out to some kind of greater community, but there was nothing about Bowie on the network morning shows, MTV or VH1. 1,000 channels of garbage. I was horrified, and I guess I still am, but eventually I realized that, for better or worse, that was the condition now, and that there was a community of other people out there who were sharing their grief on social media. This is the world that Bowie predicted and if we can be thankful for anything, it's that we're lucky enough to be able to see a little bit more of its inscrutible alienness…
I ran into the following article by Michael Hanlon recently, "The Golden Quarter. Why has Human Progress Ground to a Halt?" Hanlon's thesis is that even if we all have supercomputers in our pockets, the big advances—landing men on the moon, computers and the birth of the Internet, the Pill, feminism, the gay rights movement and so on—all happened in the 25 years from 1945 to 1971.
This is true enough, I suppose, although we could argue that personal computing, smart phones, self-driving cars (which I believe will be common by 2020), cellular phone access for the entire world, and the (largely illicit) digitization of much of the world's knowledge into freely available libraries are in fact radically new. If Sputnik and Viking were important, the Mars Science Rover is a massive advance as is landing Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and (we hope) flying New Horizons past Pluto. So, too citing the birth of the women's rights movement may be disingenous, its seed having came much earlier, in the suffragete movement. The advances in gay rights during the last five years have been massive. The networked publics that have emerged in the last couple of decades are an unprecedented shift in how we relate to each other and our own decade is likely to be remembered as the one in which knowledge-based artificial intelligence has spread into everyday usage in the developed world, not a minor point in human history.
But what's interesting to me about this article is that it is so applicable to the humanities. When I went to graduate school, it was an incredibly exciting, even revolutionary time, when French theory was making massive headway and every visit to the academic bookstore promised something new and cutting edge, if sometimes impenetrable, to read. But the humanities have come to a crashing halt. When theory is talked about anymore, it is in terms of concepts like "biopolitics," "postcolonialism," and "the control society," formulated long ago. Maybe I'm grumpy or these fields are no longer new to me, but I suspect something is up.
Here I think that Hanlon's point really does apply, and that academics in particular has become risk averse. The biggest innovation in academics during the last decade hasn't been in theory, it's been the development of a digital humanities that has largely traded scholarly advancement for funding. With universities increasingly corporatized, academics are expected to fundraise, not to take risks or create innovative theories. Stories of brilliant scholars who don't get tenure due to taking risks and programs being shut down for being too edgy are common.
Moreover, theory itself has become quite conservative. To talk about "accelerationism," for example, or even suggest that we are no longer under a postmodern condition, is widely met with derision by tenured theorists who might otherwise expect to have sympathy with such experimental thought. But no. Take architecture, where a rather pat formula has emerged that everyone seems to follow: find a largely obscure architect or event from the 1950s or the 1960s, head to the archive, make a few conclusions invoking French theory (generally Foucault), and you're done.
What to do then? Being Samogitian, my natural demeanor is gloomy rather than optimistic. But I'd like to suggest, optimistically, that leaving the academy may be an opportunity, or at least another possibility.
Marx, Freud, and Benjamin, to take only three key intellectuals operated primarily outside the university, as did Clement Greenberg, Le Corbusier, Donald Judd, and Robert Smithson. This isn't to say that it would be necessarily easy outside the university—for one, the conditions of journalism today have become quite difficult as well, so that route is a problem—but it points to a line of flight that it seems to me most worthwhile to explore these days.
I am delighted to be one of ten scholars, writers, and artists speaking at the Baltimore Museum of Art this Saturday about ten chairs from the collection in their newly re-opened American Wing. The event starts at 2pm. If you are in town, please join us. I'd love to say hello.
I will be talking about the Elastic Chair, produced by Boston manufacturer Samuel Gragg. In 1808, long before Charles Eames or even Michael Thonet, Gragg patented a technique for bending wood with steam. Inspired by the Klismos, an ancient Greek chair, together with the ancient Greek methods of bending wood, Gragg's elastic chair employed the highest technology of its day. As we look at it today, we confront a time that is curiously like our own, faced with a past that forms a massive repository of precedent that we can’t get away from and an obsession with the possibilities of technology as a means of advancing both industry and society.
I will be speaking at the University of Toronto's After Empirical Urbanism conference this coming Saturday, February 28th. It's a great treat to be seeing so many of my friends and colleagues and to be in fabulous Toronto again, even in February (not that it's more than a degree or two warmer here in Montclair!). Below is an abstract for my talk, wrapping up many of the thoughts I've been having over the last few years about atemporality and alternative modes of practice against its grain.
Architectural History for Atemporal Times Kazys Varnelis
The Last Great Time War is over. * Jean Baudrillard was right; by the time we finished the countdown to the millennium we reached the end of the end of history. Now we face a new condition, in which the phenomenological experiences of simultaneity and acceleration dominate like never before. Fulfilling Baudrillard’s paradoxical prophecy, we live in a time so saturated by information that we can’t orient ourselves within it.
Bruce Sterling describes our attitude toward history as “atemporality.” This stems, he observes, from the philosophy of history itself. We historians have become so averse to the totality, so terrified of master narratives and so obsessed with microhistories (the more micro the better), that we have played into the hands of a culture that is concerned only with the now and the proximate future. Our horizon is measured, not by epochs but by the length of Kickstarter campaigns. Take architectural education. Little by little, history has been whittled away to a bare vestige. Nowhere in NAAB’s accreditation documents is there any mention of critical thought as a skill that architecture history teaches or history as offering anything beyond a survey. But we can’t really lament that historians and NAAB are in step with the times. Such an approach fits the broader culture of atemporality that Sterling observes.
As Sterling suggests, it isn’t merely history that is undone, but chronology and temporal sequence as well, collapsing under the pressures of a computationally enhanced global capital that seeks to execute trades in milliseconds or microseconds but rather in nanoseconds. If the 90s had the Generic City, today we have Generic Time, without any idea of what time we live in.
But how to react to this condition? Accelerationism would be one option. If there is any one end looming, it is either the end of capitalism, the end of the sustainability of human life as we know it, the technological singularity, or perhaps, as ISIS hopes, the Apocalypse. If accelerationism is one option, it is a difficult one for many of us, especially historians, who generally have problems with those sorts of ideas.
If we historians want to respond to this historical condition, we need to develop new ways of remaining relevant. Turning back to Walter Benjamin’s idea of “history against the grain,” I will conclude by discussing the New City Reader, a project that I did with Joseph Grima at the New Museum's Last Newspaper show and with the Network Architecture Lab at MoMA's Uneven Growth show as a way in which history can be deployed as a critical project in the city, utterly out of step with atemporality as that may be.
* The Last Great Time War is a name for the war between the Time Lords and the Daleks, occurring between the 1996 “Doctor Who” film and the revival of the series in 2005 and seen in the fiftieth anniversary special. The war results in the Doctor’s home planet, Gallifrey being frozen outside of space and time.
Valdas Ozarinskas passed away yesterday and a bad year became much worse. I had heard he was not well when I was in Vilnius last week and I feel awful that I didn't make an effort to see him.
Valdas was a brilliant architect. For years he practiced at the Šiuolaikinio Meno Centras/Contemporary Art Center in Vilnius, Lithuania, creating exhibitions that were stunning. Minimal but aggressive, Valdas's works were comparable in force only to the very earliest moment of minimalist art, before it became a style, an architectural equivalent of industrial music (I mean from the days of Throbbing Gristle, not the drum-machine driven works of the 90s). Valdas publically eschewed ideology but could probe theoretical questions as deeply as any architect I know. We had many conversations whenever I visited Lithuania, generally about the problem of the individual in a post-industrial society. Had he spoken English and had he written his thoughts down others would have understood how deep a thinker we have lost. The loss, to put it in a Lithuanian context, is comparable to the loss of George Maciunas 35 years ago, another figure of similar force, but who I only had a chance to meet once. Their minds were not dissimilar: both Sloterdijkian kynics in the best sense.
He made many projects, but I will only reflect on one here. Valdas often collaborated with Audrius Bučas and together they produced Black Pillow, which was shown at the ŠMC in 2011 and subsequently at the Liverpool Biennial. The show'sweb site wrote that given its exhibition at the peak of the economic crisis in Lithuania,
The two architects’ formalist idea was initially supposed to appeal exclusively to the limits of the viewer’s phenomenological experiences. However, it quickly got wrapped in various stories and interpretations due to its unusually large dimensions, menacing black colour and the moods that prevailed in Lithuania at the very peak of the economic crisis. Black Pillow took a symbolic shape and dimension accumulating all the possible personal and collective failures of our lives.
From our discussions in the gallery next to the black pillow it was clear that Valdas understood and intended such a symbolic dimension from the start. Or more specifically, he intended—as he often did—to give us a neutral but cathetic object that we could project onto as we wished. Never melancholy, Valdas was always relentlessly positive even about the bleakest of conditions, albeit often astounded at the stupidity of our world.
Alain Badiou's 12th thesis on contemporary art reads "Non-imperial art must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star." Nothing could describe Valdas's work better. One night over beers at the ŠMC cafe, its Lithuanian Soviet modernism itself brilliantly reconstructed by Valdas, I read the theses to him, translating them into my broken Lithuanian as best I could and we shared our analysis of the theses.
Even last week Valdas was putting together a final show, at the Antanas Moncys House in Palanga. That we have lost such a mind only proves how stupid our world is. To talk to Valdas was to hear the Lithuanian word "siaubas" or "horror/terror" over and over. That was the madness of this place we inhabit, a world in which we battle against zombie bureaucrats and power-mad psychopaths, where goodness is rarely rewarded but idiocy is. To remember him, what can we do but we keep marching forward, one foot in front of the other and say, anything is possible?
It's a privilege to be speaking about the work of Aleksandra Kasuba at the National Art Gallery (Nacionaline Dailes Galerija) in Vilnius this coming Thursday at 5pm.
One of my earliest memories, from when I was four, is crawling through her Live-in Environment, which she had installed in the townhouse that she and her husband, sculptor Vytautas Kasuba owned. You can imagine the impact it had on me.
In my talk, I will focus on Kasuba’s constructions of the 1960s and 1970s in which she worked with high technology fabric from Dupont to create environments that occupy a third spatial order, neither art nor architecture. I will also read her work against a larger discourse on art and architecture in New York City at the time, revealing her own approach to problems that challenged other avant-garde artists and designers of the day.
The occasion is the opening of a reconstruction of her 1975 project "Spectrum, an Afterthought " which she conceived of after the installation of "Spectral Passage" at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.
Kasuba's work is uncannily similar, and in many ways to the digital architecture of the contemporary era (not to mention Richard Serra's torqued ellipses). Still, the diaphanous qualties of the fabrics that she worked with give it a lighter feel and mark it as distinct from architecture (she was neither trained as an architect nor did she consider herself to be one). Instead, it strikes me that these kind of inhabitations are closer to tents, perhaps structures that nomads might construct within the non-places of the contemporary world. Imagine if airports were filled with structures like these, as spaces to pause in.
If you are in Vilnius that day, I hope you can make it. I'm afraid that my talk will be in English although I'll be delighted to take questions in Lithuanian as well as English.
I promised I'd blog more about our project for the Uneven Growth show, but it took longer than I expected to get around to it. In the meantime, I've refreshed the Web site a little, cleaning up a few links here and there and I discovered a great new event at the Van Alen, recently redesigned by Collective-LOK (which includes my good friend Michael Kubo).
"Ultimate Exit: the Architecture and Urbanism of Tech-Secessionism" is taking place next Thursday December 11. See more here. This promises to be a truly fascinating event with the brilliant architect and theorist who I am priviliged is one of my closest friends, Ed Keller, accelerationist theorist Nick Land, Bitnation CEO Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof, Geoff Manaugh of Bldgblog, artist Andrea Crespo, and artist Martti Kalliala whose works, together with Daniel Keller's will be a backdrop for the discussion. I wish I was going, but instead I will be making my own escape, lecturing that evening on the tensile structures of Aleksandra Kasuba at the National Art Gallery of Lithuania.
The organizers have put up the following text:
Can the titans of tech engineer an escape from government oversight? Initiatives like Seasteading and talk of Silicon Valley’s “ultimate exit” are part of a growing tech-secessionist movement in which a variety of actors from venture capitalists and companies like Google to cloud-based communities of individuals are imagining city-state-like sites escaping state jurisdiction.
What might these enclaves look like? How do the architecture, urbanism, politics and psychology of exit intermingle?
After Manfredo Tafuri and Karl Popper, responsible historians aren't supposed to predict the future, but I'm a bad historian, or at least an irresponsible one, so I do that all too often. The event that I'm going to miss brings to mind another section of our Uneven Growth proposal, our scenario entitled Hong Kong, 2047.
Where our collaborators set out with a deligtfully poetic interpretation of the city's future, the Netlab has based our research on demographic and economic projections and we grounded our reading in a scenario based on three key drivers: peak population in Hong Kong and China (and the decline from that peak), the consequent collapse of a strong nationalist center on the mainland, and—most pertinent to the event at the Val Alen—the emergence of powerful city states on the Chinese coasts, led by the model of Hong Kong.
Nor will this stop in Hong Kong. On the contrary, what we call global cities today will form an archipelago of cities across the world that will increasingly take steps to formalize their status. This will be easy in places like the European Union, where countries are ceding power upwards to the EU or downwards to the region. In places like the PRC or the US, it will be a little trickier, and may require the disappearance of the nation states into broader regional governments or alliances in order to assuage nationalist feelings (after all, the logic goes, if the country expands, maybe some devolution to the rising city-states would be ok…).
This is only one aspect of escape. Another crucial aspect of escape—which we don't cover in the HK 2047 scenario—is escape from cities themselves, the construction of enclaves outside of cities for various purposes. I've written about enclave urbanism before at some length here, but for now, suffice it to say that that threats of terrorism, contagion, and economic collapse are all prompting the wealthy—and even not so wealthy—to ensure that they have holdouts in the countryside. But even more than that, enclaves of exclusivity are emerging, and are often defined by the difficulties of reaching them. More at that link above.
This is not, I now understand, opposed to city-state urbanism, but rather a constituent part of it. Even as finance pulls out of Manhattan for safer, more nimble and virtual venues, the city-state remains, a massive capital sink or spatial fix and a site of luxurious indulgence for archipelago urbanists.