I’ve posted a quick lecture on my father’s paintings, “Structure + Optics: The Development of Kazys Varnelis’ Painting, 1967-1977” here. Next up (in the relatively long term), a book on his work, as well as a book on my work with the Network Architecture Lab.
In today's entry of Philip Johnson's fascist writings, we have his first piece as "foreign correspondent" for Todayʼs Challenge, written in summer of 1939 in London and Paris and published in the August-September issue. This completes my upload of the three pieces Johnson writes for the magazine. Worse is to come.
This piece puts down the French and English as weak and ineffectual, drawing the implicit conclusion that it will be the Americans who will have to bail them out if their foreign policy leads to war. Nothing too bad, you say? Alright, well here is the conclusion, which hints at what we are going to see in his writing for Social Justice.
"Another serious split in French opinion is that caused by the Jewish question, a problem much aggravated just at present by the multitude of émigrés in Paris. Even I, as a stranger in the city, could not help noticing how much German was being spoken, especially in the better restaurants. Such an influx naturally makes the French wonder, not only about these incoming Jews, but also about their co-religionists who live and work here and call themselves French. The facts that [former Prime Minister and Popular Front leader Léon] Blum and the men around him are Jews, that there are two Jews in the present cabinet, Messrs. Zay and Mandel and that the Jewish bankers Mannheimer, de Rothschild and Lazard Freres are known to stand behind the present government all complicate the situation.
The position taken by the Daladier government on this question is an interesting commentary on its policies in general. There are two decree laws which concern the press, one against publishing propaganda paid for by a foreign government. Under these laws, the patriotic weeklies Le Defi and La France Enchainee were just recently uppressed, presumably for getting money from Hitler; but LʼHumanité, which no one doubts gives out Russian propaganda, paid for by Russia, has been left alone. What is freedom of the press and for whom is it done, the French ask."
Read it here.
Today's entry from amongst Philip Johnson's fascist writings is "Inside War-Time Germany," published in the November-December 1939 issue of Today's Challenge. Unlike the previous piece, then, this one is written after the outbreak of war, on which we will hear much more from Johnson later.
The essay begins with a reverse echo of the present day, with Johnson condemning the main stream media: "The American newspapers have done their job of indoctrination well…" The piece is worth reading in its entirety, but I will quote one section to introduce you to the sort of mental gymnastics that Johnson makes:
"none of those opposed to Hitler that I know would prefer the liberalism of the Weimar Republic to National Socialism as a system of government. They remember too well the humiliation of the Versailles treaty, the misery of inflation and the later miseries of mass unemployment. They remember that the Weimar Republic brought civil strife, battles of brother against brother; and such civil war to them was more hateful than the World War. They do not like Hitler, but they feel that if Hitler were not Hitler but some imaginary person that would be nice in their own particular way, then National Socialism or rather national socialism, would be a good idea. Such thoughts are not the stuff of revolutions.
Also, no matter what the objections they have to Hitler, close to 100% of the Germans appear to approve of one particular part of Hitlerʼs work — his foreign policy. … since 1911, Germany has been growing rapidly. Even the bitterest foes of the National Socialist ideology are proud of German greatness. This natural pride in their power and success stultifies foreign criticism of their methods or their morals. Similarly, we Americans would not have brooked any criticism of our doctrine of ʻmanifest destinyʼ in the 19th century when we were busy conquering our empire in the west. So today the Germans are impervious to the moral admonishment that they ought not to conquer their neighbors. Conquest is good or bad, depending on who does it, you yourself or somebody you donʼt like."
Where the Jews are in all this is rather unclear (actually it is perfectly clear… they are suppressed or deemed unfit to testify) although at one point Johnson uses well-known code language, referring to the common "anti-international banker" stance between the Nazis and the Soviets.
Read for yourself here.
Given the current political climate, it seems appropriate to go back to my dissertation and look at Philip Johnson's fascist writings from the 1930s. I will be posting these regularly here, one document at a time as a way of helping us understand the genesis of the contemporary "America First" movement in the fascistic "America First" movement of the 1930s. The order of these articles is a bit random, having more to do with what is on top of the pile than anything else.
Before we start, a word on my use of the term "fascistic." These writings will make abundently clear that neither Johnson nor the America First movement was merely Right wing, but rather that each actively sought to create "fake news," especially regarding the plight of the Jews in Europe and the Nazi Blitzkreig. Moreover, this was done with the active support of the Nazi goverment in hopes of keeping the United States out of the war with Germany.
The first article, "Philip Johnson, “Are We a Dying People?,” was published in Todayʼs Challenge June-July 1939. In this piece Johnson rehearses arguments being made by proponents of the eugenics movement (Johnson invokes eugenics directly in this article). Like Johnson, they saw race suicide in indications that Nordic and Anglo-Saxon Americans bred at a lower rate than African Americans and immigrants from Ireland, as well as Southern and Eastern Europe. Like Johnson, the eugenicists predicted “race suicide,” and “national deterioration” as the consequence of these trends. The final section titled "The Will to Live" makes Johnson's positions on race quite clear.
"I have heard many educated men talk in this way: 'Well if we are not the fittest to survive, nature will wipe us out. The Japanese may be more fit to survive. Remember Darwin.'
The course of nature is not pre-destined. Human will is a part of the biological process. Our will, for example, interferes, constantly in the world of the lower animals. When English sparrows threaten to drive out our songbirds, we shoot the sparrows, rather than letting nature and Darwin take their course. Thus the songbirds, thanks to our will, become the 'fittest' and survive."
Today's Challenge, I should add, is the "official organ" of the American Fellowship Forum, an organization first conceived in Berlin by Lawrence Dennis and Freidrich Auhagen. The former was a former employee of the foreign service who had become the intellectual father of an American fascism, the latter a Nazi agent who would eventually would be convicted of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the same act that Paul Manafort is now accused of violating.
Find the article here.
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.
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.
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…
Some recent links on oversaturation: tourist attractions that we are literally destroying with our love (how did they forget Venice?), how nobody goes to Barcelona anymore because it's too popular, Martin Parr on how too much photography blinds us, and the endgame for collectors of matchbooks. I'll leave behind observations today as to avoid oversaturating the net on oversaturation. After all, the net is oversaturation at its purest, a Slashdot effect for the human race.