Do not let the fancy renderings of the winning entry for the new American Embassy in London mislead you, what you see is nothing else than the contemporaneous version of the Middle Age castle. The project, designed by Kieran Timberlake carries many characteristics of medieval means of defense and thus constitutes the paradigm of the post-2001 American Embassy. As I already pointed out in a previous article about the competition for the US Embassy in Belgrade, this paradigm is defined by the contradiction between the appearance and the essence of the building, the former representing the traditional discourse of openness, “democracy, liberty and America” (quoting the issue of proudly American Metropolis dedicated to US Embassies) while the latter is really about the protection of the building and what it contains.
Just like for the new World Trade Center in New York, the base of the building has to be solid enough to contain a bomb-car attack. In the London case, the building is separated from the city by an earth motte as well as a moat filed with water (see the wired article about those apparatuses). As many people also realize a square-base building ensures to have the least contact surface with the outside. Usually it represents a useful way to control the energy transfers and thus to make the building more ecoLogical, in that case, it ensures to the core of the building to be protected from any exterior attack. The peripheral glass is therefore only a decoy which indicates what truly needs to be protected in an Embassy, not as much people, but documents that are stored in the center of the building. It would be interesting to see the plans but of course, they are kept secret, which brings the attention on the architect’s responsibility once again. The generation of architects currently practicing has been built on the disillusion of the previous one (the moderns), and has therefore accepted the idea that, as simple cogs of the mechanisms, they were not responsible for the political consequences of their products. The very fact that their plans could be kept secret brings attention on the power of the scheme that they participated to conceive.
In the 48th issue (Spring 2012) of the excellent journal Multitudes dedicated to the notion of “political counter-fiction”, Belgium sociologist Frédéric Claisse publishes an article entitled Contr(ôl)efiction: de l’Empire à l’Interzone (Control/Counter Fiction: From the Empire to the Interzone) that I propose to translate some excerpts here. As the title suggests, this article is mostly revolving around William Burroughs. His work is put within a Foucauldian perspective analyzing the society of control (see Deleuze’s text about it in a previous post). The first paragraph of the article introduces perfectly what is as stake within it: the systematic suggestion of desire as an apparatus of control (original French version of the text is at the end of the article, all translations are mine):
« How long does it take a man to learn that he does not, cannot want what he ‘wants’ » (William S. Burroughs, The Western Lands). We have to understand the importance of the suspicion that Burroughs puts in these quotation marks: I am not the author of my desire; this desire is someone else’s fiction. The autonomy that I have been graciously granted, through the means of mass communication systems among others, is nothing else than a “trick” used by a control authority to make me think that my desires are actually mine when, really, they belong to it. Words carried by this authority are words of orders whose action program is simple: contagion and dependency. The experience of addiction gave the author of the Naked Lunch a particular sensitivity to observe those processes that make us accomplice to our own slavery. Drug gives him the general scheme of human relationships in the information era. Language itself is a virus. We are all intoxicated of injunctions that colonize our conscience and use us as vehicle to go from one body to another.
Photograph of the exhibition The Crystal World by Cyprien Gaillard at PS1
The Crystal World is the first-solo exhibition in New York of French artist Cyprien Gaillard. It is currently displayed at MoMA PS1 and gathers a very interesting collection of films, photographs and artifacts, all of which deserve to spend an important amount of time on. I wanted however to focus on one specific film that occupies the largest room of the exhibit. Entitled Artefacts (2011), this short movie was shot on a phone then transferred to a 35mm film. The cinematographic projector and its mythical sound, placed in the middle of the room, already participate to the composition of a landscape of artifacts both inside and outside the screen. The film itself is a document filmed in occupied Iraq on the tracks of the ancient and the new Babylon. The difference of scale between the gigantic ziggurats and the American soldiers discovering the architectural treasures of the old Babylon is striking. Iraq is somehow anthropomorphizes through its heritage and the occupation soldiers cannot help but to be humbled by its grandeur.
In Artefacts, the ancient ziggurats also dialog with the monumental symbols of Saddam Hussein’s reign. Baghdad looks like the new Babylon and again, brings a scale that is unknown to the spectator of the American militarized spectacle of rockets in the city’s night sky. Similarly C.Gaillard develops a visual correspondance between old Babylonian museum artifacts with a multitude of bulldozers and aggregated broken cars. The repetitive score reinforces the quasi-hypnotic characteristics of the film and adds an ambiguous dimension as the sound is part of the song Babylon by David Gray that U.S. soldiers were using on some Abu Ghraib prisoners as a form of torture.
Photograph by André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri (1871)
On May 16th 1871, at the core of the Paris Commune, a ceremony is organized to demolish the Vendôme Column, symbol of the Napoleonian imperialism (refer to Raspouteam’s website for more information). Although an important amount of buildings were burnt down (for various reasons) during La Commune, the destruction of the Vendôme Column is the most expressive symbol of what I would like to call architecture in negative, or to use an oxymoron, destructive construction. On the contrary of what was affirmed by the Versaillais press and officials, this act was very far from being motivated by a thoughtless barbarian will of destruction. Indeed, the ensemble of buildings being representative -we might say symptomatic- of a given scheme of relationships of power, it is necessary for a new form of governance to subvert or demolish the same ensemble in order to avoid to reproduce the same relationships of domination of one group over another.
In their Basic Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism (Programme Elementaire du Bureau d’Urbanisme Unitaire) in the Internationale Situationniste #6 (Paris, August 1961), the Situationists, through the writings of Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem, affirms the following:
All space is already occupied by the enemy, which has even reshaped its basic laws, its geometry, to its own purposes. Authentic urbanism will appear when the absence of this occupation is created in certain zones. What we call construction starts there. It can be clarified by the positive void concept developed by modern physics. Materializing freedom means beginning by appropriating a few patches of the surface of a domesticated planet.
This notion of positive void is precisely what the demolition of the Vendôme Column was about: the suppression of the power of a paradigmatic artifact to allow the construction of something new.
3d reconstitution of Israeli intelligence data from The Gatekeepers (2012)
I recently watched the documentary The Gatekeepers by Dror Moreh (2012), which gathers six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic secret service agency in a sort of reconstitution of Israel’s military operations in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. Remarkably enough, the six of them are extremely critical of the policies they had to implement as they evidently constitute punctual tactics rather than long term strategies. The interesting twisting moment in this regard since to be Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 when it became clear that an important part of Israelis were not open to any form of compromise vis a vis the Zionist colonialist dream.
However satisfactory and probably helpful it is to listen to those six gentlemen who embodied one of the most powerful position in the realms of Israeli military operations from 1980 to 2011 (only one director is missing in the film within this period), it is actually tragic to observe that such opinions from them come after their retirement or worse, that they do not have any impact on the government’s policy when they were in office. From here, what seems to be a hopeful message of mind evolution can be interpreted, in the contrary, as a tragic perpetuation of an unacceptable situation regardless of the protagonists’ opinion on it.
Interpreting the problem based on opinions, polls, compromises, efforts etc. as it is usually considered (especially in Europe where people keeps considering this conflict in a very strict symmetry) might therefore be the wrong way to look at things. Similarly, getting indignation from videos or news of IDF soldiers punching a Western activist or a Palestinian kid being beaten up by some Israeli bullies in East Jerusalem and other various unjust punctual events is simply not enough as this same indignation did not nothing to change the status quo of the last forty-five years. What we need to understand and act upon is the system that makes those events possible if not encouraged.
The prospects for the section cruel designs continues with, once again, a carceral invention from the 19th century: a treadmill for prisoners as a disciplinary apparatus. JF Ptak Science Books’ website gives us an overlook to this device implemented in the prison of Cold Field Baths in London. The principle is as simple as it sounds, a series of wheels that prisoners have to make a physical effort in order to walk on it and thus perpetuate an immobile movement. We can legitimately doubt that the energy thus produced was not used for anything and can be therefore compared to the traditional penitentiary stone breaking punishment, as useless as physically enduring.
With this example, we can interrogate the design status of the treadmill we are more familiar with, the one that populates our gyms whose vision considered coldly has something of industrial farming. What can be said of the voluntarily participation of all those bodies found in the common yet very much individual will of sweating? What is for sure is that such (expensive) systematization of human effort emptied from anything that would possibly characterizes sport, requires a piece of design that has been thought for such use. We might want to use a cinematographic example that many will know to illustrate the smallness of a difference there is between Cold Field Baths’ prisoners and those happy gym addicts who voluntarily run for miles without actually going anywhere: In Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), we can see (if not, see below) the character played by Bill Murray running on a treadmill (something that probably has another name actually) that gradually accelerates to the point that his body is soon being tortured to be able to follow the rhythm imposed by the machine. The cry “help” is then both comical and tragic, expressing the complete powerlessness of the character when subjected to the cruel design.
Basile Doganis is a French philosopher particularly interested in the field of Japanese culture (see his work about the silence in Ozu’s cinema for example). His book, Pensées du corps: La philosophie à l’epreuve des arts gestuels japonais (danse, théâtre, arts martiaux) (Body thinking: Philosophy confronted to Japanese Gestural Arts (dance, theater, martial arts)) (Paris: Les Belles lettres, 2012) is an analysis of the way the body is considered in those arts and how it can be approached through concepts created in Western Philosophy (Deleuze, Bergson, Whitehead etc.). The book is also prefaced by Alain Badiou who used to be B.Doganis’ professor. In his research, jujidsu, kendo, butoh, no have all in common to depersonnalize the body in order to make it a “puppet” subjected to the forces of its environment. Of course, this requires some explanations not to be detrimental to both Japanese gestural arts and B.Doganis’s writing; and that is why he goes back recurrently to this idea along the book in order to provide a clear visualization of this paradoxal status (one would think that the puppet is precisely what one would want to avoid to be in the situation of dance or fighting).
My translation (all originals excerpt at the end of the article):
We therefore come up with a paradoxical situation that we could formulate as the following: if the body, in its most primary manifestation and its mere existence, presents more intensity and depth than a conscious artistic intention, then we would have to seek the minimal degree of intention that is of particularity, of personal will. However, since a part of consciousness and will always remains in action, the regulatory ideal will consist in “being dead” while being alive or, at least, to give to the body some properties based on pure inertia. For Hijikata, as we saw it, the will to dance always goes, in butoh, with a surprising desire of dispossession and handicap. Handicap is like a limit, where the body is silent and refuses any principle of will and control. The dancer chooses to give up progressively all his ordinary capacities to become only an instrument, a tool, a mere support through which an uncontrollable intensity acts. (P62)