Monday, April 8, 2013

5.2. Jonathan Hill - Montage After Shock

In the second part to Hill's book Actions of Architecture, montage and its underlying metaphysical effect of allegory is highlighted as the primary aesthetic operation of the avant-garde, tracing its conceptual history back to Walter Benjamin's analysis of Brecht in  The Origin of German Tragic Drama and further explicated in his seminal The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Montage is a direct response to the purported 'autonomy' of aesthetic production that was reified by the bourgeoise ideology and relegated art to a specific function of society. Montage, be it painting, film, sculpture, architecture, or whatever else have you, creates a radically different social relation between the aesthetic object and the viewing subject. Montage creates a defined whole whose definition is fundamentally incomplete, traditionally accomplished by the juxtaposition of disparate fragments. It is this act of incompletion, non-representationality, that leaves gaps in the experience of the object that, upon perception, are filled and "completed" by the viewer. The technique therefore depends on the inherent creativity of the subject, and in their experience of the montage draws the user out of passivity (as one who received defined representational signs). Not "this means that", but "this is this, and that is that, and that over there is that over there, and they all together mean something".

The intention of montage is to create ambiguity, and through that framed ambiguity, to reveal a greater understanding of the context within which the montage-object is being projected into or acting on. Montage has as a goal to reveal the contingency of meaning and understanding itself by projecting a surreptitious and subversive presence where one does not expect it. Within the regime of montage, "the author should no longer be a purveyor of aesthetic goods but an active force in the transformation of ideological processes" (p94). Benjamin puts faith in the technique of montage as having "emancipatory qualities." This fidelity is clearly evident in the early drive of Peter Eisenman's and Bernard Tschumi's work (previously discussed on this blog here), and is given a more full contemporary grounding by Simone Brott in Architecture for a Free Subjectivity (previously discussed on this blog here), we could say that montage is defined as fragmentation and the framing of those fragments.

The critical question that I have been mulling on this blog since its beginning, and is echoed by the work of Krzysztof Wodiczko in this book, is the relation between "an awareness of existing power relations" and "constructive action against them" (p105). It is not odd that architects and theorists who championed the de-referentialization of the sign, accepting the fact that there is no guaranteed causal relation between signifier and signified, believed that political "awareness" leads to political "action"?

To put it bluntly, we need a new politico-aesthetic temporality. Montage, based on allegory and representation, even though it manipulates and breaks the rules of representation, still remains within the regime of representation. The greatest impediment to this contemporary problematic is that we have no artistic model to base its theory on; even though we have become saturated with mediums, I do not believe that we can base this new temporality on a mediated model.

But let us think what it was that allegory did: despite its contemporary impotence (though this is not to say it doesn't work, just it doesn't do enough), it produced new understandings, new knowledge. Instead of saying "this means that" or "this is this, and that is that, and that over there is that over there, and they all together mean something," we can conceive the new politico-aesthetic device under the category of metaphor (3): "this is that". By confronting the inadequacy of defining an object solely by its relation, it is not the context of the situation that is revealed, but the object itself. The metaphor is not representational of anything else. A metaphoric image does not speak about the situation of the image, nor the contents of the image, but the particular singularity of the image itself.

The metaphor is furthermore advanced than the allegory in that it does not create only new understandings but new objects, those things which are what can be understood. The metaphor implies a framed situation, a forced synthesis. Despite the fact that the synthesis fails by revealing the inadequacy of the objects within the relation, it succeeds by demonstrating the specific characteristics of the objects that do synthesize. Taking further note from Graham Harman, metaphors do not always work. That is, sometimes the two objects are too similar, or too disparate. The metaphor is therefore the delicate revelation between what concurrently doesn't work and what does, yet exists nonetheless. Through such a forced synthesis, we are confronted with what is expected and unexpected, what is known and what is not known.

So we can ask ourselves, what is an architectural metaphor? Is Frank Gehry's Binocular Building (4) a metaphor? Well, no. The form is merely a representation of binoculars, saying that a form that suggests binoculars if they were scaled 50x is still a binoculars. But the binoculars of the Binocular Building are not binoculars: they never were, they cannot and could never perform the function of binoculars. Just by making a building that looks like a pair of binoculars does not mean that one is inhabiting a pair of binoculars.

Maybe, on our way towards outlining a metaphoric architecture, we can declare one principle: if inhabitable space is one of the terms, a pre-existant object must be the other. There are numerous examples of this, from early shipping container dwellings (5) to its more contemporary examples (6), these projects actively redefine architecture as the process of inhabiting form through the immanent definition of inhabitation, form, and their conflicts and synergies, to ultimately produce something that is neither one nor the other, but the serendipitous (forced) synthesis of the two.

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