El ángel exterminador (1962) is a film by Luis Buñuel in which the group of main characters are stuck for weeks in a living room after a urbane dinner. Nothing visually seems to prevent them from actually exiting the living room but for a mysterious reason none of them seems to try to actually get out despite the fact that they are close from dying from hunger.
This narrative is a good subject of investigation for the theory often attempted here (thank you Nick for pointing that out) according to which architecture has a fundamental power on the bodies. Of course, in that case the living room does not appear as a prison as the large double door at its entrance remains open all along the film but we can, once again, interrogate ourselves about the power that the line drawn by the architect carries in itself.
What is a door after all? Isn’t it simply an apparatus that organize architecture’s porosity or, in other words, a device that control the carceral characteristics of a room. After all, a prison always have a door. A locked door is nothing else than a wall for which (most of the time) the human body cannot develop a sufficient effort to modify or destroy it. Each interior space (aka room), traced by the architect as a continuous closed line is a prison en puissance (“in power”, “potentially”). On a side note, I recently learned that the word “prisoner” has the interesting characteristic to be written 囚 in Chinese and Japanese. Whoever has been learning the very basics of Chinese characters will recognize 人 i.e. a person, surrounded by a continuous and closed line. As often, those characters are fascinating by their minimal representation of their meaning.
DMZ is a comic book that I discovered in my research for references for the NY Commune Project. It constitutes a quite literal precedent indeed. Written by Brian Wood and drawn by Riccardo Burchielli between 2005 and 2012, it introduces the United States in a second civil war that opposes the “loyalist” states to the “free states” which declared secession from the rest of the country. The particularity of the plot which gives its title to the series can be found in the status of Manhattan within this story: a demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two camps leaving its 400,000 inhabitants to a state of anarchy in which each has to find strategies of survival. The main character of the comic is Matthew Roth, a young journalist who find himself “lost” in this war zone and discovers the cogs of the city’s organization.
The scenario is close from the one developed in John Carpenter’s film Escape from New York which will probably be the subject of a forthcoming article, but at the difference of the latter, it tries to describe episode after episode how such a society, however violent it is, can actually holds together (one of the episode is even built around an election in Manhattan). It also presents the very interesting conditions of a city under siege whose rhythm of ceasefire and heavy attacks authorizes or not a certain form of daily life. One can think of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995 as a reference for it (Governor Island is called “Sniper Heaven” in a probable reference to “sniper alley”) but also Gaza and its supposedly “surgical” air raids. The checkpoints at each access to the island, tunnels and bridges, help us to think of it that way.
The series is composed of 72 episodes. Such extensive narrative allows its authors to develop a piece of scenario for each district or building with their own each “psychogeography”. See a few excerpts below:
Literature and cinema regularly question the metaphorical -sometimes literal- pact with dark forces that one makes to transcend him(her)self. This scheme is, of course, the one of Faust’s in classic German mythology, famously adapted by Goethe in 1808. Faust is indeed a successful scholar accepting a pact with the devil giving him the access to unlimited knowledge in exchange of his soul. This scheme will be later re-interpreted by Honoré de Balzac in 1831 with his Peau de Chagrin (The Magic Skin in its translation) which grants its owner a certain amount of wishes but deteriorate after each of them at the same time than the health of the owner. More recently, and quite note as literally the cinema of Darren Aronofsky seems to formulate a good affiliation to the Faustian Pact with films like Pi, The Wrestler or Black Swan. The latter introduces (through very unnecessary visual effects unfortunately) a dancer achieving the climax of her art to the detriment of her mental health. One can find a very similar narrative in the life of pianist David Helfgott dramatized in Scott Hieks’ film Shine (1996).
There are probably a multitude of other examples I am forgetting but, for now, I would like to exit Western culture to introduce Hell Screen (Jigokuhen), a short story written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa in 1918, few years after he wrote Rashomon, then magnificently adapted by Akira Kurosawa in cinema in 1950. In Hell Screen, Akutagawa, in his own unique subjective narrative mode, tells a story, originally from the 12th century, in which an old cantankerous renowned painter, Yoshihide in the court of Emperor Horikawa (late 11st century) who is asked by the latter to paint a screen representing hell. Yoshida, whose ambition seems to be only equal to his cruelty, paints what he sees in his nightmares and complement those visions thanks to models forced against themselves in situations he creates. This is how he unchains one of disciples for many hours and makes a bird attack another in order to paint their terrified faces. Such Sadian situations are representative of a man who exercises full power over another to a point that the former considers the later as a mere body (see previous article), in that case for artistic purposes. After a sum of similar event, one only thing is missing to Yoshihide to finish his painting. He thus asks the Emperor to burn a float for him with a woman inside to constitute the main element of this painting.
Pavillon Seroussi by Biothing (2007)
Sébastien Bourbonnais and I met after we realized through a common publication (see previous article) that we had a shared strong interest for French philosopher Gilbert Simondon (see previous articles Part 1 & Part 2). In the following essay, he uses the latter’s theory of form and information to analyze the creative logic of digitally generated architectures. Sébastien evokes the dematerialization of the line as the latter does not constitute a limit anymore but rather a force that literally informs design (one could argue that it desactivates my own interpretations of lines as the carrier of architecture’s inherent violence!) In doing so, he calls for an architecture of blurry thresholds which merges the form with its direct environment. I might object to Sébastien a certain form of optimism towards architects as the latter seem to have quite integrated the process of information that link together a set of data and a form; however the data they use seems too often inappropriate if not frankly arbitrary. Gilbert Simondon himself, in his very precise descriptions of the technical processes and tools never evacuates their raison-d’etre. We can only wish the same to architects.
Membrane Attractors: Tension between form and information in digital architecture
by Sébastien Bourbonnais
«We should say that a good form is one near the paradox, near contradiction, and also it doesn’t be contradictory in its logic terms. »
Gilbert Simondon, «Forme, information, potentiels,»
Le Cri du Peuple by Jacques Tardi (2001)
As I wrote earlier, the 1871 Paris Commune is the historical reference of this series of articles. Despite an institutional soft form of censorship, there has been many historical interpretation of this event that saw a new form of governance created. One of them, nevertheless, remains one of the sharpest analysis of La Commune despite (or thanks to) its quasi-immediacy. Indeed, in the end of May 1871, only several days after that the Communards got exterminated by the Thiers’ administration, Karl Marx addressed a documented narrative of the past few months in Paris to the Worker International Association.
Entitled The Civil War in France this document is a vindictive text against Thiers and the other responsible for the massacre that ended La Commune in order to save the Bourgeois order in France. It is also a precise testimony of the various actions and laws undertook by La Commune. Precision is important here as the revolution triggered by this event did not only consist in rethinking a territorialization of democracy but also in implementing a sum of very pragmatic and specific measures to empower the working class:
The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence. Its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people. Such were the abolition of the nightwork of journeymen bakers; the prohibition, under penalty, of the employers’ practice to reduce wages by levying upon their workpeople fines under manifold pretexts – a process in which the employer combines in his own person the parts of legislator, judge, and executor, and filches the money to boot. Another measure of this class was the surrender to associations of workmen, under reserve of compensation, of all closed workshops and factories, no matter whether the respective capitalists had absconded or preferred to strike work.
Earlier this week, a group of about 250 Palestinians gathered in East Jerusalem in the E1 Area where the Israeli government announced the construction of 3,000 new housing units after the recent UN vote granting Palestine a status of observer member at the General Assembly. This group of people established a small village made out of tents on what is being stated as Palestinian owned private land. The photograph above shows the tents being set-up with the largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank in the background, Ma’ale Adummim (see previous article). Since then, the encampment got evicted by the Israeli army under the reason that it represented “a danger for the security of the area.”
You can read more about this story on +972 Magazine website but beyond this event, I would like to insist on the legal status tackled here. The opposition of the two settlements in one image allows us to question their relationship to the law. In both cases, there is a clear will to go against a legal system. As we know the Israeli settlements are in violation of the article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (see previous article) and therefore constitute a disobedience to the International Law. The Palestinian tent village, on the other hand, affirms a disobedience to another law, the colonial one, which was designed in a clear spirit of domination from one people on another. Of course, international law is not to be unquestionned as it has been, as always, thought and implemented by “the winners of history”, in that case, the winning countries of the Second World War. However, it does not seem irrational to consider that a law established after the horror of the war and designed in the abstraction of future conflict needs to prevail over another one which was designed unilaterally by a state with a clear self-centered agenda. After all, the state of Israel itself was implemented around the same time than the Geneva Convention and its very existence should not be reconsidered in my opinion.
In both cases, the disobedience is territorial and architectural. In that matter, the very ‘language’ of architecture used here is far from innocent. The fragile, precarious and manually built tents are a response to the various fences, walls and watch towers of the Israeli settlements. Such a dichotomy indicates the asymmetric forces involved between a state organized militarized operations of claiming a land and an immanent encampment in which the determination is affirmed through the very presence of their bodies. As I have been writing earlier (in the context of the Occupy movement), we have only one body and it can be only in one place at a time; therefore, the place we choose to be cannot be innocent and this choice can be said to be political in its very essence.
Leos Carax in his own film, Holy Motors (2012)
An intuition I (too) briefly explored in May 2011 though an article entitled The Paradigm of Modern Cinema: The Cinematographic Introspection (Godard, Fellini, Truffaut, Assayas & Hansen-Love) was attributing (again this is just an intuition) the key element of modernity in art to the ability it had to introspect itself thought its very existence. The examples I then gave were quite literal as they were films that were dramatizing the very act of film making. A more recent movie motivates me to attempt to explore this topic a bit more: Holy Motors by Leos Carax (2012). Because this film approaches the introspection in a more indirect way than the previously quoted others, it might give us a clue about what makes this modern method interesting and expressive.
In Holy Motors, the main character embodied by Denis Lavant is followed during one (evidently typical) day of his life in which he goes from “appointment” to “appointment”. The latter constitutes as many roles he incarnates like an actor would in front of the camera. However, there is no other camera here than the one that we find in each film, invisible, and which allow us, the spectator to watch the movie. That is how L.Carax progressively blurs the limits between reality (in the film) and fiction (again, in the film) in a clear manifesto for this ambiguity. In doing so, we are not only wandering/wondering in the realms of representation but, more importantly, we are being questioned about our very human condition. This is not to say, of course, that we all play a role thus perpetually hiding of our “true self”. Rather, it questions the fact that what we really are might be the sum of the point of views that the otherness develops on us.
La Commune (de Paris, 1871)
by Peter Watkins
(see also an old article
about Punishment Park) filmed in 1999 is the absolute reference for the NY Commune project as it addresses the question of the Paris Commune through a cinematographic work being itself a democratic construction. This film is basing its plot on a historical event and its reconstitution in order to question the contemporaneity of the class struggle. In order to do so, it limits its setting to a warehouse in the North of Paris, films the action through an anachronistic documentary crew and construct itself in very long shots during which the (mostly non-professional) actors express themselves in a contemporary language while improvising for most of it. Using this method, the film, in its totality, almost reaches 6 hours long (see the full version on youtube below).
P. Watkins pushed the democratic process of making a film to the point of hiring actors opposed to the Paris Commune to play the Parisians who flew the capital city or remained hidden during the three months of its existence. It does not forget either the important faults of the Commune, the execution of the clerical hostages, the cowardice of some members of the Central Committee (elected group of decision in all districts of Paris and from every professions), the strong lack of organizations in front of the Versailles Army, the crowd syndromes etc. This antagonism of facts reflects the antagonism in the numerous debates showed on the screen with actors who reach a very high level of passion as they have no problem identifying with their character who has a lot of similitude with their own person. In this regard, the pseudo-documentary crew go as far as asking those same actors if they would also risk their lives today if confronted to the same situation while they act the fight on the barricade (see the 31st chapter on the video).
The film was badly received when it was released on TV, even by its own producer, Arte (probably the only channel that is worth watching in France) as P.Watkins himself explains on his website
. The reasons for that are probably numerous and the first one is of course the institutional form of censorship that never gave to the 1871 Commune the place in history that it deserves. However, another interesting reason for it can be seen in the very means of this film. We could think of an alternate film from a liberal filmmaker who would have the favors of the industry to gather an important budget in order to create a glorious aesthetic film that would narrate an individual (love) story within the history of the Commune (a grotesque example of this form an aesthetics can be seen in the videoclip No Church in the Wild as I wrote about
earlier) . The liberal media would applause this work and through it, self-congratulate for their open-mind.
Following the narrative I created around the question of the New York Commune as an interesting scenario to investigate what would be a contemporary equivalent of the 1871 Paris Commune, I am now starting to prepare a medium length film on this very same story. I will therefore regularly publish articles about useful references on that matter.
The two first ones that has been already published here could be found through the metaphorical map I drew during the last siege on Gaza as well as the short reportage done in post-Sandy powerless Brooklyn. Of course, I am definitely interested in any additional reference my readers would find useful in this exploration.
Playground Proposal by Isamu Noguchi (excerpt from The Book of Games)
First of all, I apologize for this absence, I am hoping to engage with interesting series of article soon but, in order to start the year in a good way, here is a short one about a book I have been very happy to prepare a small contribution for recently.
The Book of Games is the third issue of a series of books edited by Cristian Valenzuela Pinto. The first one was the Book of Towers and the second one, the Book of Mazes. Far from academic volumes, those books are compiling texts that are as short as insightful about the chosen theme. The very titles of these books start to give a clue about the author we can see in filigree of this series, both in its format and in its content: Jorge Luis Borges. Indeed, the Argentinean author’s way of writing about philosophical problems through narrative is found everywhere here, even in the ageless graphic design of those books.