picture: The Void by R&Sie(n) 2005
In 2009, the South African film District 9 popularized a type of cinema that is interesting to question and put in relation with architecture: the docu-fiction. In order to please a broader audience, District 9 unfortunately gave up the technique in the middle of the narrative to come back to a more Hollywood-like type of movie, but the effect remains interesting in what it manages to communicate.
The two masters of this practice are French director Chris Marker (see previous article) and English director Peter Watkins (see two previous articles 1 & 2) who, in the 1960-70’s developed several movies entirely built up as docu-fictions. The War Game (1965) and Punishment Park (1971) by Peter Watkins are particularly illustrative of such a process. When the first one depicts the United Kingdom being under nuclear attack in an uprising of antagonism in the Cold War (three years after the Cuban missiles crisis), the second one introduced a police program that allows illegal dissidents to choose to participate to a Police force exercise in the middle of the desert in exchange of a lighter sentence. Once a policeman get killed, the documentary team films the vengeance of his colleagues who transform this exercise into a murderous human hunt. Both of those films are shot to appear as documentaries; in L’Ambassade (1973), Chris Marker pushes this process even further by pretending that his film has been found in an embassy which is understood to be in Santiago (Chile) after Pinochet’s coup d’etat.
More recently this style has been explored in a pretty well built-up pseudo-documentary by Gabriel Range. Entitled, Death of a President (2006), this film uses the same language and means of American TV documentaries to in fact describes in detail the assassination of Georges Bush when he was still President of the USA.
Of course, none of those movies’ goal is to deceive their spectators by making them rationally believed that what they are seeing on the screen is reality. This is the role of the hoax, not of the docu-fiction. In fact, this type of films manages both to trigger viewers’ imagination to understand what is seen as a potential reality and to allow an association between this fictitious reality with the one they are embedded in. In other words, at the end of Punishment Park, nobody really believed that a group of political activists has been murdered by the Police in the Californian desert; nevertheless, many would understand the dangers of the Police State and might react against it.
Docu-fictions elaborate new norms that are mixed with the one already existing in order for the viewer to react both to the new, and the existing ones. Just like many science fiction narratives, by introducing an elsewhere in time (docu-fiction are somehow similar to what is known as uchronia) or in space, the latter are metaphor for the current situation. That is how, District 9 describes (fairly unsubtly) the conditions of the South African Apartheid by replacing Black people by aliens in order for everybody to understand what “otherness” really is, and how Death of a President drives an fictitious historical (nice oxymoron!) event in order to illustrate how the state of emergency is being implemented as permanent law.
What about architecture then ? In this discipline, the practice of fiction seems more complicated as it is often considered as a form of service that needs to provide comfort and functionality. Of course, many fictions are elaborated with architectural implications but only few of them are being made in order to provoke the same reactions than the cinematographic docu-fictions manage to trigger. In this spirit, I recently published an article about what I called “Sadian Architecture” (2011) for an architectural narrative elaborated by Eduardo McIntosh. In fact, by reporting the construction of an architecture in Afghanistan using corpses as bricks, Eduardo managed to trigger a reaction about the relationship that architecture establishes with war and violence in general.
In 2005, Paris based office R&Sie(n), asked to create an installation for a the Contemporary Art Center of Bretigny near Paris. Instead of creating what is normally understood as an architectural intervention, R&Sie used the budget of the installation to set up a billboard at the entrance of the museum that was announcing the construction of a building designed by them. The sign was affirming various official accords and subventions from the City, the Region’s government, the Art Center itself etc. By doing so, the architects managed to develop a debate about the potential building, creating pros and cons that were feeding an interesting architectural conversation.
More recently the French artist collective H5, communicated with the name of Immorose Prestige with a Press Kit about the project to transform Paris’ Ile de la Cite (City Island) into a very luxurious environment of hotels, business center and various spas and marina. The collective thus provokes a strong antagonistic reaction against this fictitious project that would offer the very center of Paris to the richest. For this reason, this architectural fiction is interesting but one could argue that it would gain a certain subtlety by questioning the problems of Paris’ suburb’ condition that concern a very important amount of people belonging to the lowest social class rather than fearing an absolute privatization of Paris that would forbid an upper middle class to enjoy the Paris’ center. Well, to each his (her) fight, and H5 provides at least an interesting use of architecture, different from what it is usually understood to be. One can then hope for a broader use of this practice that extend the field of possibilities architecture can provide to society and a form of political activism.
(Commercial for) District 9 by Neill Blomkamp (2009)
The War Game by Peter Watkins (1965)
Punishment Park by Peter Watkins (1971)
L’Ambassade by Chris Marker (1973)
Death of a President by Gabriel Range (2006)
The Void by R&Sie(n) (2005)
Immorose Prestige by H5 (2011)