I not only think that we will tinker with Mother Nature,
I think Mother wants us to.
(from the prolog to "Gattaca")
1. Performance Design
"Suite Fantastique," an architectural exhibition at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio (January 27 - April 15) gives occasion to this essay, and the musical title that its curator chose for the exploration of contemporary design arts also alludes to a performative dimension in architecture and digital media which I want to subject to a few careful, and at times speculative, reflections.
The promotional writing announcing the exhibition was hardly restrained, promising us "spectacle and drama," an opening night event with film screenings, DJ’s, music, food and all-night dancing, with the scenography of the exhibition staging a "suite" of events mixing the classical postmodern with the popular avant-garde of the "rave." The museum as performance space? An art exhibition disguised as, or rather transformed into, a live techno mix?
When I received the invitation to the show and its opening night with DJ Spooky, I concluded that performance and the new digital media had finally, and perhaps irreversibly, taken hold of the imagination of the contemporary museum. This is something I don’t regret. The Wexner Center, in any case, belongs to the category of contemporary art centers which don’t have permanent collections but focus their curatorial philosophy on the parallel programming of temporary exhibitions of visual art, film/video, performance, and design of the 20th century. It houses no collectibles but installs events, so to speak, and its extraordinary ambience, created by Peter Eisenman’s architecture (completed in 1989), already draws attention to perceptual experiences of a present, and presence, playfully mixed up with traces of an excavated past that has become decorative, fake, or mediated, in other words.
What is astonishing about "Suite Fantastique," however, is that its performance is not presented in the black box or the video theatre, where we regularly see independent or foreign films, emerging projects in media and internet art, as well as experimental dance, theatre and music, but that it has been devised by the curator of architecture and design for the main galleries. The "Suite" is an assemblage of works, both virtual and concrete, inviting the visitor to navigate the spaces and re-construct or project the events that may be implied by its narrative.
Before I begin to question the application of the concept of "performance" to a design exhibition, let me briefly describe the facts, since the museum has not yet entirely replaced the material object with electronic reproductions and simulations, nor forfeited the practice of displaying static, inactive works as cultural treasures or formalist compositions in glass cases. What exactly has shifted from "object" to "experience," as Hilde Hein suggests in her book on "The Museum in Transition," needs to be determined very carefully. In this case, the initial space, threshold to "Suite Fantastique," is refered to as "Overture" by curator Jeffrey Kipnis, and it could easily be mistaken for the most provocative installation of the entire show, featuring a continuous screening of opening movie credits created by the Los Angeles-based motion graphics firm Imaginary Forces. It was not an obvious choice for an architectural exhibit.
In a darkened gallery, we watch a loop of the title sequences of seven contemporary, not necessarily well-known films ("Gattaca," "Sphere," "The Island of Dr Moreau," etc) , projected onto a huge screen and accompanied by thundering soundtracks. An additional five-channel video re-mix of the same sequences, using footage not shown in the final film versions, is projected onto a series of staggered screens suspended in mid-air. Here we can clearly say that the object has been transcended; the display features time art -- animate forms and cinematic movement that are ephemeral and contingent on the "site" (movies) in which they perform their function. The function, in this case, corresponds to the logic of commercial advertising and music television: the visuals are intended to seduce, to captivate and to transport the viewers into an emotional and narrative space.
The transition into the next gallery space could not be more startling. A narrow, triangular room gradually opens out, featuring framed ideas and drawings by Daniel Libeskind hung on the wall behind glass plates. It is a considerable shift in tone, from the hyperdesigned commercial Hollywood spectacle to the silent, meditative and private world of the architect marking the page with condensed, indecipherable diagrams. "Chamber Works: IV Horizontal," drawn in ink on paper, appears to be a largely abstract composition of lines that reminded me of some of Robert Wilson’s black and white sketches for his visual theatre.
The entire middle section of the exhibition, titled "Perfect Acts of Architecture" (1977-1987), takes us into the conceptual world of theoretical architecture and diagram diaries by some very well- known artists, including Libeskind, Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, Thom Mayne, and Bernard Tschumi. On the walls and in glass cases, we can study Tschumi’s collages and graphic experimentations, and Koolhaas’s savagely ironic and fictional montage "Exodus, or The Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture," and as we walk up the gradual incline of the Wexner building, we also increasingly encounter the unusual forms and design constructions of Scott Burton’s sculptural furniture.
The curator refers to the Burton chairs as "Scherzo," and in another small room we also see a video of Burton sitting on his "Perforated Chair" at a cone-shaped granite table and chatting about his early conceptual performance experiments. We see a clip of an action from the early 1970s in which he had performers walk around a room to explore physical relationships, proximity-relationships and body languages in an empty space.
Interestingly, the exhibition pairs the very concrete materials of Burton’s stone, aluminum and steel fabrications with the 80’s conceptual or virtual architecture, here refered to as "paper architecture." But it doesn’t provide any explanatory or interpretive context for the existence or prevalence, in late postmodernism or during periods of sluggish world economy, of "virtual" architecture -- or a drawing process which performs an excess of ideas without representing actual buildings or without harboring the potential or interest in physical manifestation.
Is the architectural drawing a design technology which reads as a score, "between the lines" (Libeskind), not waiting to be executed, or, like John Cage’s "4:33," is it the score for a silent musical performance, not played yet not silent either, full of chances, starting points or possibilities for deformation, superimposition, layering and transformation? A score for the fantasy of potential perfomers/audiences? Is such a score ("4:33") not also a model for what we now call "interactive art?" Even more interesting is the fact that the exhibition displays these hand-drawn sketches and collages from the 80s, thus returning to the pre-history of more recent digital diagrams and 3-D models of electronic architecture, namely the contemporary use that most architects now make of computer-aided design systems.
We have certainly seen in them in Eisenman’s and Greg Lynn’s recent publications or installations: the computer allows the possibility of constructing "objects," spatialities and visual perceptions that one could not do directly from the mind to the hand. Geometry and perspective are no longer needed to create architecture. CAD modeling can provide infinite possibilities of spatial manipulation and modulation, and designing begins to look fantasmatic.
Finally, we have now ascended to the last room of the "Suite," and enter a tropical room full of color and sound (DJ Spooky’s remix), and our eyes have to get used to the unusual shape and texture of the raving thing or blob that seems to have grown here. Entitled "Predator," the fantastic whale-like vacuformed plastic that snakes around the room is a collaborative concoction by Argentinian painter Fabian Marcaccio and architect Greg Lynn, and it is inspired by the setting and the digital special effects sequences of another "Predator," Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sci-fi movie. The whale-house has an opening through which one can step, glancing into the stomach of this enormous object which appears to be a kind of "transgenic species," as Eduardo Kac might call it. It is a hybrid of painting, architecture and digital technology that has come alive as a vigorous and visceral organism. The children who come to the museum will love it.
2. Technologies of Worldmaking
Architecture and design, film and television, undoubtedly, play a major role in today’s world of visual imaging technologies in a competitive marketplace. More crucially, information and communications technologies have begun to profoundly transform the role of design. Compared to the clear and functionalist language of design in the Bauhaus and subsequent schools of industrial design, for example, today’s design is more comprehensively related to environments, event-flows, and the modulations in the on-going stream of form production tied to capital.
Information processing is commodity production, in this sense. It is a medium of capital that now operates on a global level. This is how we learn to understand the spread of electronic communications (internet). The ecology or environment of the internet is a new infrastructure, and designing information for global access can perhaps be compared to the older roles of architecture in the creation of inhabitable and traversable metropolitan space. If Walter Benjamin lived today, he would not study the boulevards and passages of 19th century Paris, but the interminable flows and sitings of the World Wide Web. Information architecture, therefore, could be considered a form of worldmaking.
"Suite Fantastique" approaches these current phenomena from an artistic, not an economic or politicized, viewpoint, proposing that artists, whether they are painters, architects, composers or filmmakers, imagine or reflect upon new worlds, and that the instrument they use, whether it’s a pencil or a computer, intimately shapes the world they imagine. Drawing and digital methods of composition are examined in the exhibition, and the show implies that worldmaking is now defined by digital processes. This, of course, is a rather insular First World perspective that tends to blend out most of the political contests we experience in the post-communist era.
One of the consequences is the role of speed, the acceleration of transmission. "Under a market system whose mode of being proceeds through expansion and increasing mobilization," writes Branden Hookway in "Pandemonium," "the more easily disseminated forms of information will be selected and privileged over those that resist easy translation into the digital realm of compunicational abstraction." Introducing the term "compunicational," Hookway is referring to Daniel Bell’s suggestion that miniaturization (nanotechnology) in computational information processing has led to a new (world) order of technologies. Communications networks have developed to the point where information processing has become indistinguishable from the act of communication itself. Mediation thus tends to become invisible, since our technological vision machines and sound machines have become the collective architecture, shaping, forming and locating all information in the realm of technological reproduction and simultaneous transmission. This, it appears, is a more cumbersome way of describing what actually happens at a rave when the DJ performs the continuous live mixing of hundreds of samples of musical information, with an audience that is participating and thus interacting with the flows and rhythms of energy.
The problem that I have encountered, for example in the field of dance, is that we are now describing movement and expression as "movement information" or data that can be recorded, captured, and re-transmitted via video projection or live transmission across the Net. Performance, in this sense, becomes data that can be processed and modulated, and this has implications to which I will return.
For "Suite Fantastique," the language of worldmaking in architecture is no longer one of geometry, proportion, perspective vision, symmetry or organic wholeness. The link between mathematics of form and transcendent architectural values is considered obsolete, and architects already deconstructed geometric language in the 80s. Typically, younger architects such as Greg Lynn compose with non-architectural softwares on their computers and are more likely to be influenced by film and computer animation than by Palladio’s villas or by Le Corbusier, or by utopian modernist projects and Tafuri’s critical writings, for that matter.
Eisenman now speaks of "folded projects," and Lynn has written about his ideas for blobs and curves, dynamic and emergent systems, a moving architecture that articulates itself within the context of the life sciences, bio-engineering, informatics, chaos theory, and genetics. Lynn also deliberately refers to Leibniz’s "Ars Combinatoria" as an epistemology founded on the dynamic nature of combinatorial changes in identity that take place with increasing degrees of complexity. This overtly depoliticized interest in "complexity" reflects an attitude towards contemporary realities in the global culture marked by a desire to understand, and compose with, the organizational principles of cybernetic and informational technologies. The attitude tells us that our situation is volatile, and our environments unstable and predatory. We need more intelligent machines for crisis management, surveillance, and control.
Perversely, architects today echo the analysis that has been proffered by writers such as Manuel de Landa ("War in the Age of Intelligent Machines"). Bernard Tschumi’s collages, in the exhibition, make specific reference to dis-integrated metropolitan space, the "pleasure of violence" and shock, arguing deliciously that architects must manufacture "shock" in order to communicate. If violence is a key metaphor for spatial relations in Tschumi’s work, for Eisenman and Lynn the challenge now lies in imagining a "fluid architecture" where shapes become data fields, thus enabling architecture to rewrite and manipulate reality as it used to be done in avant-garde performance. Experimentation in architecture, writes Luca Galofaro in his book "Digital Eisenman," stems from "the desire to create a space that breaks through the boundaries between real and virtual," dislocating vision and dislocating the observer.
3. Performance Camouflage
Perhaps we can now address the question of the relationship of performance to architecture. The vocabulary used by the architects implies notions of process, manipulation, disjunction, fragmentation and non-linearity which are familiar to us from the recent evolution of postmodern literature, performance art and film/video. It is also obvious that compositional method in architecture has moved from drawing to digital processing and modeling, and "Suite Fantastique" implies that the theoretical drawings of these architects already include a critique of older conventions of realism and representation. The fictional, critical or theoretical diagrams suggest alternatives to drawing as spatial representation, and to the "notation" and "documentation" of buildings and built space. The new digital processes, like DJ Spooky’s remixes, reflect the contemporary environment of information, digital files, a new digital syntax that can treat a "building" as a file in a way Spooky treats music samples as files that can be instantaneously mixed, layered, and fused. The digital process of "imagining space", in other words, can be seen as a performance. It functions as a kind of online art that can also be transmitted: a design can be sent from Japan to France and be modified and executed, in situ, or it can be recomposited and sent back as a blueprint in progress, for example.
DJ Spooky addressed this issue at the Wexner Center, in a symposium with Imaginary Forces, Lynn and Marcaccio, suggesting that he uses "source files", just as digital artists today use source codes as shareware that gets dispersed, each one mixing and using it in his/her own way (e.g. Napster). DJs are the contemporary troubadours, working with a soundculture and image culture in migration and dispersion. Provocatively, Spooky argues that today’s music is a digital folk culture consisting of fragments, each DJ making his/her own mix out of them, expanding or reinventing what Duchamp once did with the found object. After Duchamp and Rauschenberg, then, we still inhabit an era of collage/montage and combines, but now software and samples are our generative syntax, and we have other models, not "the generative syntax of a Noam Chomsky but of Dr Dre." We perform amongst "discourse networks," and techno culture/rave culture communicates online but also along the lines of word-of-mouth / oral culture dissemination.
Spooky also seemed to suggest that sound functions as "camouflage" in a biomorphic shape, only apparently enveloping us but, rather, constantly changing and adapting. He refered us to Andy Warhol’s interest in mass culture and the "religious" connotations of the "mass," implying that techno contains a quasi-religious or spiritual dimension performed in the trance of the communal event, the mass celebration of music and dance as ecstatic transformation. If the "machine" culture of camouflage mimicked cubism, for example in the military application of camouflage to uniforms, canons and tanks, so do today’s post-cubist digital industries use information camouflage.
This idea of the digital camouflage allows us to speculate on the evolution of "performance," remembering that live art and site-specific installation over the past decades have had an strong impact on our increased understanding of open-ended concept and temporal, experiential process in art. The physical, vulnerable, erotically charged body in performance art thrives on its concrete acting out, in the here and now, with the body itself becoming the "site" of the work.
Installations often create complex environments or negotiate local-historical contexts in ways that heighten our sensory awareness of the relations between physical properties, material site, and the images, sounds, memories and experiences that are evoked when the visitor enters into the "cycle" of the installation. The visitor, by necessity, is the performer in installations that organize the manner in which the elements in the site can be interactively experienced, inferred or processed.
Historically, installation art now appears to be the logical conclusion of a earlier body-centered performance that expounded the "real" body in its most vulnerable, immediate existence, narcissistic obsession with self, and ritualistic subjugation to various external pressures or internal traumata. Already by the mid-70s, the influence of conceptual art and the increasing currency of video (and, subsequently, the computer-based media and imaging technologies) shifted the focus from the immediate body to the constructed body. The performance of the body became the performance of its mediations and (video)projections. We saw the beginnings of the loop form that now dominates all digital video installations.
Simultaneously, we could observe what is now an accepted fact in the artistic and popular cultures, namely the relentless hybridization of all theatrical, visual-arts and media practices, to the point where "performance," today, is not only a general term that applies to innumerable contexts and functional applications of media, but also a theoretical model for site-specificity, spatial practices and media practices that articulate the transactions between the work or event, its materials, context, site, and viewers.
Prefiguring contemporary telematic performances with distributed information, where images and sounds are created not simply to be transmitted by artists from one location to another, but to spark a multidirectional dialogue or feedback loop with participants in remote locations, site-specific performance itself can be said to have become transitory and loopular. Transactions have become transmissions. Miwon Kwon has pointed out that in art practices over the past years the "operative definition of the site has been transformed from a physical location - grounded, fixed, actual -- to a discursive vector -- ungrounded, fluid, virtual."
Ephemeral performance events or activist interventions, as we knew them, no longer take place. If they take a particular place, they are most likely conceived with other channels or platforms of (media) transmission in mind. This shift, and this critical paradox of site-specific performances that mobilize the site as a process of discursive or recorded, reproducible and transformable image-narratives, helps us to rethink the "architectural model" (design, diagram) along the lines of the movie trailer or the "previsualization," as it is called in commercial advertising. When "Suite Fantastique" exhibits movie title sequences as video clips, it performs a cunning commentary on virtual culture. At closer inspection, it turns out that these motion graphics were digitally remastered and then projected along with the original cut, rather than in the form in which they were shown in cinemas. They are virtual trailers, recombinant versions, and alongside the multiplicitous forms of television commercials and MTV clips, they hide the fact that there is no distinct object that matters or remains. Nothing of consequence.
I assume that DJ Spooky awards a positive value to this flow, when he suggests that the culture of the industrial has undergone a final transition into the digital age, and the critique of formalism has been replaced by appropriation, and appropriation by DJ’ing as a critique of conceptualism. Architects as DJ’s? Spooky claims that the DJ generation grew up deeply immersed in digital media: the "ART OBJECT" has long since been dematerialized. This is the age of digital syntax, of club architecture, he suggests, and the music of the rave is like a stream of consciousness narrative, permanent flow, constant fluidity of several simultaneous beats and rhythms.
At the Wexner symposium he showed a collaboration with Tschumi, mixing sound to a quicktime movie of architectures/design fragments of an unknown building. Like the music, the digital film generated a fluid syntax of blurred grids and structures, folding and bending its insubstantial space into a pure design-in-motion.
This, I wish to add here, is also one of the peculiar effects of contemporary experiments in dance composed interactively with computer software or derived from motion capture technology. Computer-animated dance is another model of performance camouflage, extracting and manipulating movement data from the dancer’s body and then superseding the body. The body that matters, the intelligent dancer bearing specific cultural memory and individual gestural expression, is filtered out and animated as abstracted and modified form. We are beginning to see some very strange and fantastic dances, but it is also true that practitioners in the dance technology field strive to make these interfaces between humans and machines transparent, aiming at a model of interactivity in which the compositional process is a kind of symbiotic improvisation within a dynamic field of sensors and capturing systems. Moreover, interactive performances can engage the viewer/participant who, in turn, affects the system's evolution and emergence.
"Suite Fantastique" fails on that level of interactive participation: it is organized as a display exhibition, expecting no physical input from the audience, and thus falls short of investigating the audience’s experience of navigational interfaces within an environment of digital architecture. Paradoxically, the museum still relies on its familiar real-world architecture of spectacular display and its odd filtering devices (visitors were not allowed to sit on Burton’s furniture!). It does not actually know yet how to perform its digital art, not does it bother to engage a political critique of digital worldmaking.
However, the "Suite" raised many interesting questions that will keep us preoccupied. Lynn suggested that "The Predator" is an installation in which painting and architecture look at each other, there are transfers of information, like in a multimedia performance. The work becomes a mutational machine for design, and from Marcaccio’s perspective, materials and ideas are thus merged in a huge image program. Painting becomes digitally edited and bears all the traces of the conjunctions of hybrid media and networks. The sensibility of work, it is obvious, comes from using softwares and from the graffiti-like rhythms of contemporary image scapes.
The performance dimension thus implies that artists are working in a field of constant (dis)integration, and continuous re-constellation. It is a technique, if we call it post-Rauschenbergian, that now implies a continuous admixture of analog and digital materials. For those of us working in temporal artforms such as dance, Marcaccio’s hybrid "time-paintants," as he calls them, elicit an important, lingering question regarding the everchanging digital environment of information. He is interested in duration, the space of the work over time. This raises the question of where the viewer positions himself/herself in relation to such a space-time, the "duration" of the ephemeral, and how these many fleeting perspectives can be integrated into the world we imagine as our digital future.
Links to current "museums in transition":
Suite Fantastique: http://www.wexarts.org
010101: Art in Technological Times: http://www.sfmoma.org
Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace: http://www.sanfranciscoart.edu
Johannes Birringer is an independent choreographer/filmmaker and artistic director of AlienNation Co., an international multimedia ensemble. His most recent productions include the sci-fi dance-opera "MIRAK" (1999) and the dance installation "Ghost Island" (2001). He is the author of several books, including "Theatre,Theory, Postmodernism" (1991), "Media and Performance: along the border " (1998), and "Performance on the Edge: transformations of culture" (2000). He is currently the head of the Dance & Technology Program at Ohio State University and conducts the Environments Laboratory.
Project-Websites: <http://www.aliennationcompany.com> and
"The Island of Dr Moreau" (1996), digital still from title sequence, created by Imaginary Forces. Courtesy of Wexner Center for the Arts.
2. gattaca2 "Gattaca" (1998), digital still from title sequence, created by Imaginary Forces. Courtesy of Wexner Center for the Arts.
3. brasco7.gif "Donnie Brasco" (1997), digital still from title sequence, created by Imaginary Forces. Courtesy of Wexner Center for the Arts.
4. sphere2.gif "Sphere" (1998), digital still from the title sequence, created by Imaginary Forces. Courtesy of Wexner Center for the Arts.
5. overture2 installation view of "Overture," from the exhibition "Suite Fantastique," Wexner Center for the Arts. Digital still by J.Birringer.
6. libeskindwall.gif Daniel Libeskind, "Chamber Works: IVHorizontal (1983)," ink on paper, installation view. Wexner Center for the Arts. Digital still by J.Birringer.
7. tschumi6 Bernard Tschumi, "The Manhattan Transcripts" (1979), ink and transfer on vellum, Wexner Center for the Arts. Digital still by J.Birringer.
8. koolhaas_exodus.gif Rem Koolhaas, "Exodus, or The Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture," 1972, paper collage with watercolor and ink on paper, Wexner Center for the Arts. Digital still by J.Birringer.
9. burton6 Scott Burton, archival video of performance action, Wexner Center for the Arts. Digital still by J.Birringer.
10. predator3 and predator11 Fabian Marcaccio and Gregg Lynn, "The Predator," architectural paintant/sculpture, installation view, Wexner Center for the Arts. Digital still by J.Birringer.
11. Fabian Marcaccio and Gregg Lynn, "The Predator," architectural paintant/sculpture, detail, Wexner Center for the Arts. Digital still by J.Birringer.