Wednesday, September 25, 2013

20. Lisbon Architecture Triennale - Close, Closer

An ecology of architectural ideology.

Unless your –ienniale takes place on a small urbanized island in the northwest corner of Italy, it is not unusual for the relation between the event itself and where it takes place to act as a primary catalyst for reflection and production. With its complex topography of both production and reflection distributed throughout its exhibitions and events, the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale is no different in these regards to the phenomena of –ienniales that has taken place in the creative fields over the past decade. Focusing from the outset on the effect over time events of this magnitude have on the city, most of the exhibitions are designed to unfold over the course of the next three months. As such, at this point it is futile to make any sort of value judgments regarding its success or failure (because, really, who would it be a success or failure for?). This approach instead orients the critical gaze towards the individual projects themselves and how they respond to the ambitions, conditions and constraints they have taken upon themselves.

The event is multifaceted, taking shape in four main curated exhibitions and a vast program of affiliated projects that are all in different mediums and locations throughout the spatiotemporal city. As a consequence of this distributed nature, it is perhaps more common for one to come across a single manifestation of the overarching curatorial project rather than entering into a heterotopia of discourse. Under the title Close, Closer, curated by Beatrice Galilee the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale approaches the community of architectural discourse by casting a wide net to reveal what is actually there in the sea and foster its potential rather than investing in specific technologies and locations to harvest a single population of fish that everyone purportedly likes.

The range of interpretations given to the local and discursive constraints of the Triennale is wide, but all find common ground amongst each other in their sincerity and clarity in projecting a highly contingent vision forward. Schematically divisible into two groups, Reality and Other Fictions, curated by Mariana Pestana, and Future Perfect, curated by Liam Young, present radically opposed yet deeply homologous interpretations of the opportunity to exhibit work in a context formerly known as the museum, whereas on the other hand New Publics, curated by José Esparza, and The Institute Effect, curated by Dani Admiss, meditate on the processes of producing this thing we call work itself. While the difference between these two pairs runs deep, it is also a divide that emerges rhetorically to the surface: the former proclaims itself to be based on transcendental nouns such as the ‘future’ or ‘reality,’ the latter concerns itself with transient verbs such as ‘to make public’ and ‘to institute’.

In this sense, the experience of each exhibition is highly particular and responds directly to the context in which it is located. Located in the former electricity power station that has recently been transformed into a museum about its own past, Young’s Future Perfect sets out to materialize at a 1:1 scale what elements of the future city may look like and do.  Taking shape in construction robots, surveillance drones, interactive light installations, wax clothing, and a series of videos all situated within an artificial forest inside a reasonably small room of the museum, the exhibition ultimately demands of the museum-goer that they are not only highly informed, a ‘fan’ in its own sense, but that they submit the momentary potentials of their individual consciousness to this hyper-particular and somewhat over-aestheticized vision of the future.

On the other end of the museum spectrum, Pestana’s Reality and Other Fictions takes place in a grand palace which was once home to the first Marquis de Pombal, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Prime Minister and architect of Lisbon’s urban reconstruction after its infamously sublime earthquake of 1755. Set within a decadently ornamental context, the work within largely reflects on the building’s extravagant beauty, and in a sense the contingent and particular nature of all things beautiful. With exquisitely detailed installations, topics such as the personal and architectural embodiment of power, the declaration of rights and its formalization as law, the inscription of discourse and the perceptions of comfort are rhetorically materialized in such a way that a latent process of self-reflection is effectively induced in the experience of the space.

Esparza’s New Publics is paradoxically both the loudest and quietest of the four primary curatorial lines. Considered more a program than an exhibition, if one was to go and look for it, there would honestly be very little to see. Sitting in Praça da Figueira, one of Lisbon’s central and most prominent squares, Mexican architect Frida Escobedo’s delicately figured and finely detailed Civic Stage acted as the literal platform for a series of speeches, performances and plays that occurred during the inauguration of the Triennale. While the stage will only be intermittently populated by informal classes or whatever other ways the citizens of Lisbon decide to inhabit its open surface, this very gesture of absence and potential is profound. Like John Cage’s interpretation of the significance of a concert in 4’33” or Marcel Duchamp’s approach to the museum in Fountain, New Publics treats the architecture of public space as the arbitrary yet necessary and incessant medium for the performance of society.

As if realizing in a state of melancholy that what was made in the euphoric liberty of public performance only lasts for as long as the performers are on stage performing the performance, a few blocks down the road and back inside is The Institute Effect. Situated within MUDE, a museum of fashion and design that inhabits the contemporary ruin of a former bank that was stopped in the midst of renovation, a series of sequential residencies take as their task a highly reflective process of revealing what it takes to make and what it means to have an institution. Starting from a tabula rasa, ten independent architectural institutions from around the globe iteratively occupy a single space over the course of the next three months while holding workshops and public programs. Including the likes of Fabrica (IT), Storefront for Art and Architecture (US), LIGA (MX), SALT (TR), Z33 (BE), and many more, each institution’s singular identity is subconsciously presented in the very way the space is occupied.

With respect to its original curatorial intention of positing questions as opposed to proposing answers, it could be decided that Close, Closer did in fact achieve the goals it set out for itself, but it should perhaps be reflected upon whether the questions it has, and will continue to raise, are indeed the ones it wants to be asking. The 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale is an event that is saturated with ideology yet haunted by the absence of hegemony. If what has become the norm is in fact problematically unsustainable, it is crucial to interrogate the ways in which discourse evolves away from that tradition. While it appears as if the only possible explanation for the radical lack of Álvaro Siza or Eduardo Souto de Muora in a Portuguese architectural event is the result of decision to not include this certain type of architectural thought, it is perhaps a presence that is so prominent within the contemporary Portuguese architectural discourse, pedagogy and culture that it should not have been ignored altogether. Instead of trying to convince those who attend the event one way or the other about its projected form of architectural ideology, the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale perhaps most strongly makes the case for the need of mutual recognition and an ecology of ideological difference.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

19. Shane Carruth - Upstream Color

Upstream Color is a 2013 film by Shane Carruth, his first since his 2004 premier Primer, infamous for its extremely low budget and impossibly confounding story. Akin to the latter, Upstream Color is a rigorously independent and experimental film directed, written, produced, and starring Carruth himself. It is perhaps what could be called an auter film for the age of technological and epistemological accessibility. Since its release earlier this year, as will be read at the beginning of anything else about it, the film has quickly generated a plethora of discussion and commentary, with a great deal of "explanation" as the impetus, brought on by the beautifully expressive yet intentionally fragmentary, nonlinear, broken temporality of the film. It has a poetic approach that at times leaves information too sparse, unfortunate only because it is this very technique itself that imbues the passage of scenes with such potency. The film is what I would like to term an 'embodied experience', meaning: the medium through which sensory information is transmitted is transmitted in such a way that the experience of the information itself communicates the content of that information. The medium and the message are one.

In the many interviews Carruth has given about the film, he is upfront and surprisingly straightforward about the intentions of making the film, which is, to paraphrase, to reflect on (contemporary) alienation. What is surprising about his admittance of this is not that artistic laborers want to hide the 'meaning' of their work today in the age of precarity, but the fact that this meaning, this intention, is very clearly identified and really quite simple. For this reason, the fragmented montage of spatiotemporality and narratives itself embodies the experience of film with 'the film' (or, 'the project'). In this sense film becomes a medium.

Before going any further, I will take cue from the New Yorker review (The Thoreau Poison) in saying that what follows may contain what is known as "spoilers", but ultimately what is most potent about the film cannot be spoiled through any divulgence of plot information. Furthermore, while the following discussion will largely focus on a single device that Carruth, in interviews, has more or less outright stated was an arbitrary choice for inclusion, I will again take cue from the review previously cited in saying that this object might in fact be the key to unlocking the true philosophical complexity of the film, for while it's choice might be contingent, it is necessary.

What is perhaps most problematic about the film is its central objet, the book Walden by Henry David Thoreau, which functions as the device around which the story weaves it's path. Much of the debate that has arisen about the film has focused on Carruth's particular, yet emphatic if in no other way than rhetorical, use of the book. Enigmatic lines are repeated like religious hymns; the trauma which occupies the first third of the movie is predicated on the book's incessant transcription, whereas the finale directly posits the book as the key to salvation. Beyond the profoundly resonant score, sound, a fundamental element of Thoreau's book, is integral to the development of the story, acting as the means by which Kris (the main character) finds her way out of the trauma, as well as the sublime and foreign way in which Kris and Jeff are able to identify the impulse that guides them towards salvation.

It is deeply unclear in which type of light the book Walden is presented; at the same time it is what leads the characters to salvation, it is what facilitated their alienating trauma in the first place. One gets a very uneasy feeling at the end as to whether Walden is really the solution, or in fact the problem itself. But perhaps this line of questioning is fundamentally ambiguous and ambivalent for its fallacious interpretation of the effect for the cause. What is therefore ultimately most problematic is not Walden itself but it's traumatic instrumentalization. It is here that I must insist, in the face of Carruth's comments, that Walden as a sign is not innocent, but in fact points again towards the project that was (re)initiated with Upstream Color.

Upstream Color, and conjecturally Walden itself, seems to posit the corruption of a human essence by the evolution of society, potently represented as a physical trauma (with visible traces). The trauma itself is composed of two parts: the first in which the subject is imbricated with a foreign force, making the one two, and as such allowing for the manipulation of the one by a foreign operator; the second element of the trauma is in which the subject, passing from an "authentic" one (Kris working) to an "authentic" two (Kris being manipulated) to an "inauthetic" one (Kris alone after manipulation with the force loose inside her body), is split into two in an attempt to restore the subject to its authentic wholeness. Instead, what is produced is a lacking pair, in which Kris returns to her life, finding it completely empty without a job, unable to communicate with others nor control or understand her emotions. What makes this view most enigmatic is its transcendental nature: while it may be undeniably real (with scientifically identifiable physical traces) the trauma is itself posited as contingent. What this means is that the source of the trauma can be identified, and even though it cannot be erased from memory, can be treated, which in the case of Upstream Color, is accomplished through the awareness of said trauma. The awareness of the trauma will produce two effects: it will lead the traumatized to be united with its severed half while stopping the trauma from repeating itself to others.

The emphatic presentation of trauma and its transcendence is questionable not in an artistic, but philosophical sense, and as such puts in question the level on which Upstream Color should be interpreted. For example, is the traumatic act (the imbrication of Kris) really contingent? If trauma is treated as something perhaps fundamental to existence, or at the very least human subjectivity, at what stage in the traumatic process can it be said is the 'default' condition? Can an ontological framework for an ethics be constructed on the conceptual basis of trauma? While the philosophical questions this film raises may be questionable, what ultimately stands out for this film is its lucid representation of alienated connectivity, and the belief, albeit transcendental and debatable bordering on religious, that another way of being is possible.