The Netlab's exhibit in the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania, Detachment [Atotrūkis], opened on Friday the 17th with work by Leigha Dennis and myself. There is a lot to say about it and I'm afraid it isn't really designed around sound bites. That'll probably turn off a bunch of you right away. Sorry (not sorry).
This show is the first of my ventures after I have (at least temporarily) retired from full-time teaching. While I remain at the University of Limerick part-time, teaching in the United States just doesn't make sense to me presently. Conditions have changed—not only for me, but in the institutions themselves—and the opportunities outside the university seem much greater than the conditions inside. Architectural education, constrained by financial limitations, accreditation, and vested interests, is becoming stagnant fast. Exhibitions allow me to get my thoughts out there to more people and with greater intensity.
So what is this show about? We begin with the following statement:
How do we break from the frenzy of oversaturation? With a wealth of information at hand, we find no time to reflect upon it. Connected to everyone at all times, always aware of the latest news, able to share our thoughts at any moment, we find ourselves unable to engage in meaningful political thought and discourse. Have we traded the feeling of alienation for a hyperkinetic frenzy? Does having more information that we could process in a lifetime available at our fingertips result in an utter lack of meaning?
"Detachment" (Atotrūkis in Lithuanian) refers to two processes. The first is the detachment that mobile networked technologies allow us to make from both the enviroment and the individuals around us. For the first time since the Middle Ages (if not before), we dwell in a world in which we divide our attention between the physical world and an entirely different, invisible but equally omnipresent and real realm. Our religion, however, is technology and the Ether that surrouds us.
The second is a detachment that we may make from the noise that technology produces in our environment, a detachment that can be useful, even critical, in social and political matters. Detaching or disengaging from noise allows us to re-engage with something in depth. Taking time outs from technology, for example, allows us to read more thoroughly, to engage with our friends and family more intensely, and even to sleep more deeply. This sort of detachment is especially critical for politics. As Merlyna Lim and Mark Kann uncovered in the Networked Publics book that I edited, new forms of technology make political mobilization easy (how hard is it to sign a petition at change.org, agree with your friends on Facebook, or get conned into voting for Brexit), but they have as yet been unable to promote democratic deliberation. In this model, Trump is the perfect networked candidate, living in his own Twit-bubble, ignoring anyone who doesn't fit his myopic view. This second meaning of detachment encourages us to pause from the relentless circulation of information around the globe at light speed in order to give considered thought to issues that matter to us.
Two photographic components document these conditions and their effects. The first set of photographs is inspired by Manwatching, a 1977 book by Desmond Morris, the curator of the London Zoo and surrealist artist. We were struck by the new gestures that individuals make when they use their mobile technological devices and have documented them in the streets of cities worldwide since 2009. This set of photographs underscores the detachment produced by technological devices.
In contrast, a second set of photographs documents conditions in which detachment from the noise of technologized life brings heightened awareness. These photos look at the National Radio Astronomical Observatory in the United States National Radio Quiet Zone (where cell phones, wifi networks and even digital cameras are banned to allow radio astronomy to take place), the Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve in Ireland (where lights are restricted in order to allow individuals to enjoy the only "gold star" dark sky reserve in the Northern hemisphere), and the Murray Hill Anechoic Chamber, Bell Labs in New Jersey (the first anechoic chamber ever built, which sucks up echoes in order to allow researchers to better understand the characteristics of sound).
The photographic exhibits are complemented by two installations. The first is Perkūnas [the Lithuanian name for the (god of) thunder]. Perkūnas is a large structure built of commonly available sheet-metal ducting used for ventilation. It is both a found object and the product of architectural design. A ventilation fan, installed outside the room in an alcove, passes air through the duct, producing noise. A microprocessor secretly sniffs for active wifi enabled electronic gadgets and controls the amount of air and noise produced by the duct. If there are no gadgets present, the duct makes little or no sound. With a couple of gadgets, it will make a louder sound. The more gadgets, the more sound. Our ability to communicate verbally is directly affected by the amount of gadgets. If we leave our gadgets behind, Perkūnas will stay quiet, although it also reacts to the electromagnetic weather produced by stray signals in other parts of the museum and the street outside. Perkunas is neither art nor architecture. Like Aleksandra Kašuba’s curved surfaces and Valdas Ozarinskas’ installations, it occupies another conceptual space. Like Vladas Urbanavičius’s “Krantinės arka (Arch on the Quay),” it occupies a position between infrastructure and art. No matter that this exhibit is entirely about technology, this is not a work of new media. There are no screens to look at, there is no interface to play with. Invoking the name of the Perkūnas suggests an affinity with magic; in a world of technology, we once again believe things have spirits.
The final component is two instances of Leigha Dennis's Pleasure Box, a project that she previously developed as a fellow at the University of Michigan. These boxes are steel lockers similar to those found outside embassies, government offices, and other secure zones into which individuals can place their networked devices. Pleasure Box is an installation that gives users a choice to disconnect, creating temporary relief from the oversaturation of network culture. By locking smartphones and other gadgets inside, users are detached, left to ponder other pleasures including the exhibition.
Inside each compartment is a video screen displaying surveillance footage taken throughout the CAC, along with a stand to prop phones upright for recording this video footage while locked inside. Today we experience much of the world mediated through our devices. We use them to document our lives, sharing videos and photographs on social media. Yet while we willingly exchange these personal details to the public and social spheres, our gadgets are also transmitting vast amounts of personal information into the atmosphere where surveillance systems can freely detect them.
The instructions read:
1. Choose a lock-box
2. Turn your smartphone camera on and place inside facing the back
3. Close and lock the box—it will automatically lock for 3 minutes
4. Once the lock expires (or wait even longer), retrieve your device and return the key
Over the course of the next few days (or maybe weeks), I expect to add some more thoughts on these projects, expanding on what I have already said here. But at least this is a start.
After eleven years of Drupal as the content management system for this site, it's time to call it a day. The inexplicable loss of the front page just underscores that to me. I've written about the dangers of complexity many times and it's time to take my own medicine. It's madness to try and maintain a system in which everything breaks constantly, whose sole advantage is a wealth of themes and modules that every new major release breaks completely.
I've known this for some time now and have been searching for a replacement. The Networked Publics, AUDC, and Netlab sites all left Drupal a while ago, the former becoming a static HTML site, the latter two becoming Indexhibit sites prior to transitioning, in turn, to static HTML and Kirby, a static CMS.
I'll be making another post or two on this system, but an update is in the works as soon as I'm back from Vilnius. If you can't wait for my next post, which will explain what I'm up to in Vilnius in some more detail, stay tuned to my Instagram feed (kazys_varnelis).
I will be talking about the work of Lithuanian-born artist Aleksandra Kasuba at the University of Limerick School of Architecture on Wednesday, 24 February at 5pm. You can see her work at Kasubaworks.
Lithuanian-born artist Aleksandra Kasuba is known for her large scale works in brick, marble and granite, and most notably for innovative environments of tensile fabrics. She is credited with “creating several families of closed system shapes of unbelievable richness and complexity.” In the field of tensile fabric structures, according to Frei Otto, her work “stands out as a strong personal vision […] The results of her investigation are among the most extraordinary to have emerged in years […] Forms derived from complex geometries display a mature sense of tension dynamics.”
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.