Structuralism

“You can examine a poem as a ‘structure’ while still treating each of its items as more or less meaningful in itself. Perhaps the poem contains one image about the sun and another about the moon, and you are interested in how these two images fit together to form a structure. But you become a card-carrying structuralist only when you claim that the meaning of each image is wholly a matter of its relation to the other. The images do not have a ‘substantial’ meaning, only a ‘relational’ one.”

Terry Eagleton

I don’t want to spend too much time trying to define what structuralism is for those that don’t know. I’m certain Wikipedia does a decent job. But it’s worth noting that it is no longer a commonly used or valued theory. As Eagleton suggests, it is primarily concerned with the structure of things. Its founder, Fernand de Saussure (1857-1913), has since come under a lot of fire, along with the structuralism itself. It is claimed it is hermetic, overly scientific, that it doesn’t account for history, that it is overly concerned with form, and so on. A lot of the criticism is fair, except it is characteristic of lazy and poor uses of structuralism, and less accurate with respect to Saussure’s development of the theory. Architects tried to turn structuralism into a design method, when its roots – in linguistics – were to describe and define. That is, it was an analytical device not a creative one. That’s the first point I’d like to make about structuralism. The other is that a good deal of its misuse came from people who never bothered to read Saussure. For example, he doesn’t ignore history; he is quite clear that it an axis of knowledge that is perpendicular to structure. That is, history is concerned with change over time whereas structure is interested in how parts relate at any given moment.

So what is so interesting about this theory? For me it has been the emphasis on relationships – that is, not so much on parts and/or their origin, but on how various parts are relationally structured and to what extend this generates a context for meaning. Put in architectural terms, form and space, if understood as something you experience (move through, use, absorb), can only be appreciated as a set or series of relationships. For example, solid to void, movement versus pause, open versus closed, heavy versus light. Now here we have one of the problems with structuralism in that it often sorts the world into a series of polar opposites. But this is not necessarily a given characteristic of the theory. When Saussure says that ‘dog’ has the potential for meaning because it is different from ‘cat’ it is also simultaneously different from ‘dot’ and ‘cog’ not to mention ‘asparagus’. Similarly, a wall is related simultaneously to the space in front and the space behind and any other elements surrounding it (another wall, opening, column). Yet, the fact that structuralists have tended to analyse the world in terms of binary opposites has been enough for some to dismiss the whole enterprise, lock stock and barrel. Seeing the world ONLY as a series of binary oppositions is problematic, to say the least, but seeing the world as containing binary oppositions is perfectly legitimate.

Although another critique suggests that structuralism separates the object of analysis from the world its emphasis on relational structure means I never look at a work of architecture on its own. No matter how iconic and unique a piece of architecture sits in relation to its surrounding context, and in fact, it is this way of looking at it that exposes the weaknesses of iconic architecture. But we can take the relational analysis further. A particular work can have structural relationships to its predecessors, that is, to a historical context. I need not stop at looking at the work as a physical thing either – I can look at the structural relationships of use or occupation or of the rhythms of practice in space. The important thing to keep in mind is that it is one way of looking at the world – a rather incisive one, but only one.

I said at the outset that structuralism doesn’t have much active currency today, supposedly because things like post-structuralism and deconstruction have superseded it. The idea that theories ‘replace’ one another in chronological succession, however, is suspect. Structuralism has its problems, as does phenomenology, but it doesn’t stop one from learning about your object of inquiry by looking at it from a particular perspective. What is the point of looking at a calendar and deciding that because one came after the previous one is now useless? Yet this is largely the reason for the lack of interest or understanding of structuralism. It is passé, its time has passed, and it has expired, gone sour. I believe that the current lack of understanding of, or interest in, architecture as a spatial discipline and as one which is concerned with dynamic relational issues is due to popularity of theories limited to those which are newest. The emphasis on materiality and technical experimentation of surfaces has largely taken us back to a way of seeing architecture as merely and exclusively symbolic. And overly relativistic interpretations too often end up saying that architecture (and film, art, culture, society, subjects and objects) is fluid, ever-changing, fragmented, and relational. To what effect and for what purpose is of no interest. Note I’ve used the term ‘relational’ just now – but this is in the sense that one says ‘everything is dynamically related to everything else and so there is no point in trying to make sense of it.’

In the hands of Roland Barthes structuralism became something that taught us that detergent advertisements were slippery, yes, but also ideological and one could unpick and describe some of the multiple meanings that images and words were carrying. Barthes never claimed such meanings were the ultimate or absolute ones, but his analysis of the structure of the advertisements were compelling because they revealed underlying structures. They were describable if not permanently fixable. In a lot of ways the way I use and think about structuralism sounds like what others call post-structuralism – but though they are related if also somewhat opposed in the world-views they engender, I never found post-structuralism satisfying. This is probably for the same reasons that structuralism itself fell out of favour; the lazy and sloppy misuse of its best ideas by too many critics, theorists and historians (not to mention architects). But even amongst its most talented advocates there was always a tendency to make things evaporate through post-structural analysis. Architecture becomes the fluid and constantly shifting sum of all its discourses (drawings, words, images, buildings, texts, experiences, memories). Yes, all of these are part of architecture, but they don’t all work in the same way all the time. There are moments when the physicality and thingness of a work of architecture has an impact and in which photographs and words and text have no bearing. Again, it is from Barthes that I learned to be very attentive to the detail, grain and texture of things, not because they contain truth or ultimate meaning but because there is content there. It does something.

For me structuralism simultaneously roots me in the real world while pushing me to see the invisible threads of the many relational vectors that pass through any object. It, in the least, provides me with the possibility of beginning to speak about things even if only to question the very words and ideas I am saying.

Other notes:

There is whole area of architectural semiotics and even a design school called ‘structuralism’. The first suffers a great deal from both a visual bias (what things look like rather than what they do) and a tendency to claim ‘absolutes’ (‘this is how it is’). The second is not without interest – there is much to admire in the work of Hertzberger, Candilis et.al., and others – but it’s easier for me to take it as a design approach that happens to share the same name. It is important to be attentive to the shifts in the theory when it moved from linguistics to anthropology to architecture. My interest and use of structuralism can be seen in my appreciation for Bois (see this) – for example, when he asks what it is that cubism does that no other previous art practice did before or when he does the same for de Stijl. This exemplifies both the relational approach and interest in specificity that I found valuable and illuminating. My understanding of structuralism also underlies my unease with the way subjectivity and unhinged notions of creativity are privileged today (see this) and are linked to my critical attitude towards interdisciplinarity (and this). It’s not a recipe and I don’t use it as a formula – Bois reflecting on Barthes death wrote: “I am indebted to him for what painters call ‘studio techniques.’ No, not a method, but a thousand practical formulations, which may eventually become ideas, but are general enough to address all contexts…”

Thoughts on a critique of interdisciplinarity, subjectivity, & creativity

What could one possibly have to say against interdisciplinarity, subjectivity and creativity? Nothing. On their own, there is nothing wrong with words and their meaning. However, in the context of how they are used in practice, sometimes misunderstood, stretched too far or simply abused there is much that can be critiqued. This is, therefore, no an argument against any of these categories – it is a critique – or as the title suggests, notes towards a possible critique. To be clear, a critique is not a stance against something – students often misunderstand what is meant by critique, but we are, I believe, also losing the habit of critique, a culture of questioning, debating, interrogating and probing the origins and structure of ideas, methods and concepts. It is in the absence of this that problems arise with interdisciplinarity, subjectivity and creativity.

Interdisciplarity

I have nothing against the idea of inter- or multi-disciplinary knowledge or practice. I was trained as an architect but also learned to paint and produce digital music among other creative practices. Architecture is not only well suited to interdisciplinary practice it often demands it. But one problem is the limited scope of fields outside of architecture that are actually engaged with. Painting, sculpture, film and philosophy are commonly referenced but typography, economics and politics are rarely consulted. Interdisciplinary exercises are also often carried out without great knowledge or understanding of any of the fields being worked with. It has become all too easy to apply the latest software technologies to an architectural process to generate novel results. Yet the reason, character, and purpose of the results (and necessity for them) remain obscure and unquestioned. For example, the current fad for parametric design processes often takes place in isolation without any reference to the economic, social, environmental or political ramifications of the method and its results. The results are frequently both formal and ahistorical. This points to one of the misuses of interdisciplinary practices – the foregrounding of process over questions of intent, purpose or the absence of clear questions or problems that are being addressed. Projects and research bids alike are often based solely on the premise that such-and-such field has never been combined with such-and-such field. Of course the results of any new collaborative efforts are bound to be novel, but how does what assess their value? Are value, import and effect even categories that interest anyone today?

Subjectivity:

“The legacy of cultural and architectural relativism over the last three decades has proved devastating. So private are our worlds, critical practice struggles, as it must, to create any shared ground.” Roger Connah

It is easy to dismiss any critique of subjectivity as wanting to emphasis objectivity, but again, the issue is not about subjectivity as a negative category in itself but of its misuse. Postmodernist theories have contributed a valuable and important shift from the objective and progress based modernist practices that preceded it to a greater understanding and emphasis on the role of subjectivity – particularly of how users and consumers contribute to the construction of meaning from things and situations. But this has had the negative effect of allowing designers, makers and producers to relinquish any responsibility for what they construct. One can no longer question processes, methods or results on the basis of an analysis of how it an object was made. To do so would supposedly devalue the role of the consumer in constructing their own meaning while privileging the idea that meanings are produced by the maker or inherent in the object* itself. Yet, what is it that is being interpreted? From what is meaning being made if not the object being consumed? This does not mean that meaning emanates from objects but that they are the basis of interpretations and subjective experiences and that as such they delimit, suggest, frame or steer the possible range of subjective reactions.

In an effort to shift emphasis away from objects the processes of their making has attained greater and greater significance both in educational and practical contexts. We no longer uses design processes to arrive at finite, objective solutions to things but rather use processes to multiply possible and potential meanings. This suggests where the emphasis on interdisciplinary processes may have come from. Process are no longer methods that are meant to arrive at conclusions but acts of constructing which are continued and completed by consumers (e.g. ‘the text is made by the reader’ or ‘the reader completes the process of writing’). It is ironic, however, how a focus on process has turned into an emphasis on the maker and paradoxically relies heavily on the idea of authorship (even if it is no longer a single author producing a coherent and unified product). Consequently, we see a re-emergence of the idea of the ‘aura’ of authorship (re: Walter Benjamin). While such paradoxes and complexities may provide richness to certain art practices, they are anachronistic in architecture. There are few fields more collaborative, less pure from an authorship perspective – yet is there a field of production where the stamp of the designer or author is more privileged? That is, privileged in the sense that the name of the designer on its own ensures certain values, in particular the aura of the singular and individual masterwork? In academic contexts processes focusing on the construction of narratives to inform design concepts often end up being about fully resolved, hermetic or self-contained stories derived from the author’s perspective. So although they may be subjective and interpretative insights into contexts, briefs or histories behind a design project they are also highly individual and authoritative while simultaneously reaffirming the designer’s point of view as having greater importance than any other. In short, it reinforces a hierarchy with the designer’s capabilities and unique (unique in the sense of better not different) insight at the top. Architectural criticism dances around this issue questioning the rise of ‘starchitects’ and iconic architecture, but nowhere does it question or uncover this regressive condition. Architects, it seems, have not accepted the death of the author.

Creativity:

Creativity is at the centre of cultural production, design and making – it is perhaps for this very reason that it is rarely dissected. My basis for a critique of creativity, like the other areas, is based on misinterpretation and misuse. The problems I see with how creativity is constructed and the meaning that it is given is implicit in the two sections above. Firstly, many mistake novelty for creativity – they see creativity as imagining or making things that are as unlike existing solutions as possible. In addition, many believe (because they a taught) that creativity must be visibly present, we must be able to clearly see radical differences that announce the imagination and creativity of the author. Pursuing this line leads many to abuse interdisciplinary approaches, blurring, combining and overlapping various disciplines for the sake of expressive or visual novelty. Secondly, many see the source of creativity as originating from an expression of subjectivity, that is, creativity becomes synonymous with individualism. The originality or inventiveness of an object is then evaluated with reference to the author rather than against a particular challenge, other approaches or a historical context.

The worst misapprehension and abuse of creativity is perhaps found in the teaching of architecture practiced in many institutions. This consists of removing as many parameters and obstacles as possible and putting the student in the position of having to invent briefs, sites, approaches, methods, technologies and all the rest. Delimiting any of these areas is thought to impinge on the creative potential of the student and of the project. Yet how do you measure invention and creative capacity if you are allowed to make up, change and abandon design parameters at will? The situation has reached the point where the success of a design studio is measured by the extent to which each project is utterly unlike the others. Artificial diversity is generated on the premise of individual expression.

I would argue that parameters are a critical component of creativity. They form the basis on which you can measure your development or compare alternative approaches. Although there are no longer agreed criteria for determining value (function, beauty, unity, etc.) we can still, even in a postmodern mindset, establish evaluative criteria. Here it becomes necessary to make clearer distinction between art practices and design practices. Somewhere along the line design must engage with the solving of a problem, brief or aim. Although I believe that art also thrives when it engages with criteria and parameters I must leave this aside for now.

Two anecdotes:

1. When visiting Walter Gropius’s house in Massachusetts the guide told us about how the chair, a gift from Marcel Breuer, were prototypes he was working on at the time. During the restoration of the house it was decided to have them re-plated. The technician, having taken them apart for the process, couldn’t put them back together – at least initially. He had failed to notice that they were not four identical chairs. Each chair incorporated minor changes, tweaks and alterations. Because the chairs looked fairly similar to each other we can assume that the differences were to do with details or proportions, but most likely with how they were put together – with how they were made and assembled.

2. When Frank Gehry launched his bend plywood chair designs they were met with praise and enthusiasm. The Museum of Modern Art in New York put together a small exhibit on their design. What struck me were the drawings of the chair and the finished details. The chairs evolved through a series of squiggly loose sketches which very much fit the idea of the form. However, peering underneath the chairs to see how the bent plywood loops had been resolved structurally it turned out that they simply ended and were glued to the bottom of the seat.

Brueur vs Gehry

What these two chair designs demonstrated were polar opposites in terms of design process, material investigation, notion of creativity and the role of aesthetics. There is no doubt that Breuer valued the look of his chairs and that they were very much driven by a desired image but this creative desire was rooted in their making. Gehry’s chairs appear to be about material and technology but there is no evidence of engaging with the problem of connection or even of the formal challenge posed by designed with a loop. How do you terminate it? How do you create connections? It is not so much that glue was used but that in this particular case it simply sidestepped problems that were quite integral to the whole idea of the chair. Or were they? It would seem that the idea was simply the image and that how one gets there or how it is made no longer means anything (no longer means anything to the designer but also no longer has cultural meaning).

There is some form of creativity in what Gehry does – I can’t deny that – but it is, for me, a severely impoverished and easy creativity. Breuer’s approach accepted and ultimately resolved the aesthetic, pragmatic and technological issues associated with his chair. We don’t have to like the result, but as a way of understanding creativity as being more than ‘what you feel’ it can’t be faulted.

The sum of the combination of the last two categories has resulted in a curious paradox. Having been freed from the objectifying shackles of modernism, the more open and interpretative approach of postmodernism is resulting in ahistorical, formal and hermetic proposals. More and more projects become signature designs, referring more to the author as interpreter and subjective maker than to context. References to context (historical, cultural, or of place) are riddled through projects but only as validated (or cleansed) by the singular and individual creator. Two models emerge from this – I say two, but in reality they are the same, differing only in external appearance. One is the signature style we see coming from Foster, Rogers, Libeskind, Hadid, Calatrava and so on. The other is the chameleon exemplified by OMA, Neutelings and Riedijk, Herzog and de Meuron, Tschumi and Nouvel. It’s a big net to cast of these many diverse practices but the work begs the question of what we have gained by the loss of a collective base or ground for shared discourse for the sake of unleashing a proliferation of individual statements into something as socially constructed as architecture.

*I use object in the widest sense of cultural production so that it refers to things, events and experiences.

Architectural Thought or the Theoretical Object

“What does it mean for a painter to think?” – this is the old question to which Hubert Damisch has returned in connection with the art of this [20th] century, and which he alone in France seems to take seriously. Not only what is the role of speculative thought for the painter at work? but above all what is the mode of thought of which painting is the stake? can one think in painting as one can dream in colour? and is there such a thing as pictorial thought that would differ from what Klee called “visual thought”?

Yve-Alain Bois

 

This is the source of my obsession with the idea of disciplinarity as opposed to inter- and multi-disciplinarity in architecture. While Damisch is not speaking about architecture he sees art, and painting in particular, to have a specificity that allows it to have its own particular mode of thought. That is, not a way of thinking about painting, but that painting itself is a way of thinking. I believe that architecture possesses its own specific mode even though it is so obviously related and connected to many other fields (physics, drawing, representation, economy, culture, writing, etc.). Although architecture as a practice works across a set of distinct fields not architectural in themselves – but merely incorporated in order to make it possible – it has a characteristic that parallels that of pictorial thought in painting. That characteristic is spatiality or what I often call spatial form. This is the spatial or three-dimensional organisation of form through which use is made possible but which also contains its own mode of thought. By ‘own mode of thought’ what I mean is that it is possible for architecture to construct ideas which are not directly translatable into words, texts, drawings, or photographs (to name a few representational systems). Because we can think through architecture (and here I refer to the thing, the building, out there and not its drawings or any other transcription) we are able to ‘say’ or invent ideas which are not possible in other media, just like there are things that can be done in painting that words, texts, and photographs cannot do.  Damisch refers to this as having the capacity to be a theoretical object – it (in this context, painting and architecture) can generate theory rather than be simply an object of theoretical inquiry, that is, something to which theory is applied.

I am helped along in this by Damisch’s own attempt to clarify this with respect to architecture in his essay ‘Against the Slope’ in which he proposes that Le Corbusier’s La Tourette is a theoretical object. It is a building from which theory emanates.

“…La Tourette [is] a theoretical object par excellence, a model of its kind, understood not only as an object that gives pause for thought and opens the way to reflection, but also as an object that, when examined more closely, itself secretes theory, or at least directs it, feeds it, informs it – in other words, secretly programs it.” (p.30)

I can no longer recall where I became aware of the difference between the pictorial or visual aspect of architecture and its spatial conditions – but Damisch refers to this as well:

“…it does not suffice to borrow from Le Corbusier, himself inspired by Choisy, the concept of promenade architectural to exhaust its phenomenology, which his not limited to visual effects along – meaning the optical effects of which the building is host.” (p.31)

Damisch is suggesting that there is something other than what it seen in architecture – literally ‘I see this and that happening in this building’ referring to what is transcribable to a photograph. Here, there is a danger of confusing this other something, this specific architectural thought, as metaphor. This is too easy and has been done exhaustively in architectural writing, history and theory. This other something is the experience of physical space which may include metaphorical allusions but is not constructed visually. Again Damisch:

“Wherever the lumpy raw concrete walls make the strongest demands on our attention, it is their tactile aspect, rather than their optical one, that does so. And from the stairs of the residential floors to the inclined ramps of the conduits, another kind of experience imposes itself that we might describe as kinaesthetic.” (p.47)

“…travelling through the place is not reduced to a promenade across an essentially visual space but occurs through the experience of walking.” (p.48)

This last statement sounds like we are speaking about phenomenology – and that is nothing new. But architectural phenomenology is too often visually biased when not seen as existing entirely in the mind, nearly independent of external effects. This is likely not what philosophical phenomenology is meant to do but nonetheless its architectural counterpart is not as nuanced. Instead, I suggest that the ‘kinaesthetic’ and ‘experience of walking’ is closer to the idea of the everyday. What the high priests of phenomenological architecture too often do is put material expression in your face – they aestheticise, amplify and broadcast the tactile and experiential. This results in a kind of monumentalisation or extraordinariness of experience which lifts it out of the everyday.

Why the everyday? Because it is about ‘that which falls below visibility’ and it makes us think about things beyond the visual. But also because the everyday, particularly in de Certeau’s terms, links rather than separates the subjective (and internal) with the objective (and external). From this point of view spatiality includes the act of walking, its timing, cadence and rhythm along with what is walked on, through and around. I have always thought that space and spatial experience constitutes what Michel Foucault called a discursive formation – but that is probably best left for another paper.* This view of spatiality is difficult to translate – and that is my point – it eludes drawing, photographs, and words. This does not mean we cannot talk about it or try to grapple with it in drawing. It would mean that the idea of drawing, its purpose, changes – for example, it would be drawing whose intention was not graphic, pictorial or compositional.

I have written elsewhere about the work of De Vylder Vinck Tallieu (DVVT)– their work exemplifies an approach that understands architecture as something more than its visual content and for this reason their drawings are unlike those of other published architects. I have, for many years, tried to pin this ‘architectural thought’ on form – that is, argued that it was a property of form. DVVT and Damisch’s essay, however, has brought the idea of construction (of being constructed) to this. It is not just form but how it is made (again, ‘made’ needs to be seen in both sense, conceived and physically assembled).

Finally, to close this short journey, I return to the issue of disciplinarity. I can sympathise with the desire to work with architecture and ________, but each instance of this seems to me to displace the opportunity to think through architecture and its spatiality. Instead, we decode, code, and re-code architecture through film, photography, philosophy, cybernetics, software architecture, scripts, and so on. Meanwhile, the art of architectural thinking, as demonstrated by projects like the Laurentian Library by Michelangelo or Le Corbusier’s La Tourette is slowly atrophying if not dying out altogether.  

 

*In my hypothesis statements consist of acts of walking, the structure of space, the forms that define the space, the rules of use of the space, and so on. Per Foucault, a discursive unity can be understood to include differences as well as similarities among individual statements.

On Form: Under the Shadow of Postmodernism

This year’s Brighton Festival features an installation ‘Under the Shadow of the Drone’ by James Bridle. The installation consists of a full scale outline of a drone, reminiscent of the chalk outlines of murder victims we used to see in crime and detective dramas. Below is an image of a previous installation and text accompanying the work in the Festival catalogue.

 In the Shadow of the Drone

“The unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, has become one of the most potent weapons of contemporary warfare. Remotely controlled by operators thousands of miles away, drones carry out aerial attacks which leave hundreds of people dead. They are one of the most controversial weapons of war, and Under the Shadow of the Drone makes them visible on our streets.”

“The stark marking out in an unexpected public space of a drone’s silhouette forces us to consider the implications of a drone attack on our own community. It raises questions about how military technology can obscure, conceal and distance us from the political and moral responsibility. It also continues the long tradition of artists bearing witness to events that governments and the military would prefer we did not see.”

I have not yet seen the installation in Brighton; however, while I find the issue and timing pertinent, the first thing that struck me was the relationship between the text and the installation. The work relies on being stumbled upon and perhaps being surprised at the scale and form of the drone seen in the context of a familiar urban surroundings. Yet, the idea that it ‘forces us to consider the implications of a drone attach on our own community’ is a stretch. It may lead some observers to do so but I cannot see how it is implicit in the work through its specific form and execution. This work, like much artistic production today, does not take form seriously enough. The ideas that underlie artworks today are perhaps more political and critical than they have ever been yet it seems that too often it is the words describing the art that does most of the work. One could argue that seeing the drone outline could lead one to think about this or that specific idea, but only in the sense that word association games can link any one thing to another. I see the installation and think ‘drone’, then ‘scary’, then ‘could it happen here?’ and so on. But I could also think, ‘drone’, then ‘dome’, then ‘Brighton Dome’, then ‘Brighton Drone’ and enjoy the word play for its own sake. Maybe this makes the work that much more meaningful – each of us starts from the installation and ends up somewhere different. But this is a now an all-too-common postmodern red herring. Anything, constructed or not, is the starting point for a set of subjective associations (think of a cloud). Clouds, however, are not art, but this drone installation is. Note that I am not disputing whether this is or isn’t art, but trying to understand how its form relates to the generation of meaning. If we buy the word association game, then anyone can make anything and it would all be of equal value. But if making something, particularly art, implies the forming of something, a construction, organisation, and putting into specific relationships forms, spaces, materials and viewpoints, then the specific form of a work is decisive. This does not mean that it says one thing and one thing only; it does mean that it sets up specific parameters and suggestions about where you take your imagination. The drone, for me, is as minimal as it can possibly be and therefore as open interpretively as it can possibly be. It constructs the loosest of possible relationships and it leaves the least amount of room for the form of the thing to add other meanings or values. About the only thing that I can think of that makes use of the specific form is the relationship between the outline and the idea of the chalk outline, relating one form of murder to another. It is possible that its precise position and orientation suggest other ideas – but by now I have become too distrustful of art to imagine it does (not at all because of this particular work but because of the general culture of art). I keep imagining what the work would look like if it were actually rendered like a shadow. How would we react stumbling across it then? Would we look upwards to see what cast it? Could the cast shadow relate to the position of the sun at a particular time of day? What would it mean at night? Anything I imagine about this work only reveals how limited it is as conceived and executed. But I could live with that if it weren’t for the text – perhaps it was not written by the artist and not his fault. But we have to accept that artworks live amongst the words they generate though critics, academics, scholars, the press and Sotheby’s.

 

**********

“It raises questions about how military technology can obscure, conceal and distance us from the political and moral responsibility.”

No it doesn’t, it simply doesn’t. There is nothing in the way that the work is designed or executed that logically leads to such questions. If there is a link it is so weak and tenuous that if I stencilled the words ‘Drone Attack’ on the pavement I could lay claim to the same statement in exactly the same way. If such weak links are sufficient then it suggests that there is no real difference between the outline and the pair of words – any starting point can lead to any finishing point.

 

Consider this:

Disabled Parking

“This work compels us to consider the prejudices that disabled people face in everyday life.”

Or

“This work raises questions about soldiers wounded in battle and the poor treatment they receive by their governments once they have returned home.”

Or maybe

“This installation addresses the relationship between man and machine and the emerging bionic world that awaits us with continuing technological infiltrations into the body.”

 We can think these things; there is nothing to stop us. But as a graphic or physical installation there is no inherent motivation that links the design and execution to such statements. When certain of Picasso’s forms suggest the curve of a woman’s body, a violin and a bottle all at the same time, these are not free associations but part of a deliberate context set up by the artist. If we wish to speak about challenges to how we perceive art suggested by the work of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings this supported by the material, structure and composition of the work.

Picasso Reinhardt

This may sound like a return to the idea that meaning is determined by the author or the work itself, but that is not what is meant here. The fact that forms set up interpretative conditions and delimit field of exploration and thought does not mean that it controls what the viewer takes from the work. It also does not mean that unintended interpretations or meanings are not possible. The idea that meaning is either determined by the author/maker or that it resides in the observer is a false choice that simplifies the way meaning is constructed. If we accept that both parts, form and viewer, play a role then we should be able to ask questions about the conditions set up by the form, technique and execution of a work of art.

What I see at play in the Drone installation is a method whereby an idea or concept, rich in allusions and layers, is reduced to an iconographic presentation. The iconic presentation acts as a pointer to content that it does not actually contain – that is, the allusions and layers of meaning are not actually embodied in the work; it does not emanate from the work but from its supporting documents.

Brighton Drone Madeira Drive Geographica Imaginatins WordPress

Image from http://geographicalimaginations.com

All of this is not really meant as a critique of this particular work. There may a rich set of allusions and meanings that are directly suggested by, or emanating from, the drone installation. What is being critiqued here is the implication made by the text – that one can simply ascribe thoughts and meanings and that we are completely free in this regard. This has never been the role or purpose of art. If anything, artists have always strived to say something and to speak about something through their work. But the choice to do so through a visual medium has been because it can speak in a way that is unlike written or spoken language. Thoughts are not reducible to language. A visual medium has the capacity to transmit content that eludes language; it can step outside the linear transmission of thought and act of coding and decoding. Because of this it is sometimes able to be more precise than language or deliberately less precise. But like a language, you must understand the medium, be able to manipulate it, contort it, and use its rules and limits to your advantage. This means taking form-making seriously and makes form serious business.

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Finally, my interest in form and the laziness with which it is treated lies in architecture. I use this particular installation because it is a conveniently clear demonstration of the problem. But imagine that most architecture today, as it is being taught and built is doing much of the same thing as contemporary art. Solutions are produced as iconographical exercises that bear no relation to place, use or inhabitation or form is simply a by-product of a process where meaning is said to reside in narratives, design processes or anywhere that is not the form itself. In both cases, close attention to, and care for, the physical thing as the place where body and building meet, where we meet the world physically and tactilely and in turn realise our own physicality, is avoided…and sometimes, I think, feared.

“…[T]he sort of individualism that scorns and fears connections with other people as threats to the self’s integrity, and the sort of collectivism that seeks to submerge the self in a social role, may be more appealing than the Marxian synthesis, because they are intellectually and emotionally so much easier.” Marshall Berman

Form and Formalism

Adrian Forty has provided the best outline of the history of the word ‘form.’ There is little point in repeating the work he has done. However, the issue of form or formalism as negative terms has come up in my entry on Yve-Alain Bois and a selective history is helpful. Form can be said to be ‘meaningless’ if the term is used in the way that Fernand Saussure developed it within his theory of linguistics (semiology). For Saussure and subsequent theorists (of particular note is Roland Barthes) a sign can be broken down into ‘form’ and ‘content’. That is, there is a shape – a sound, a letter, a word, an image – and then there is the idea or meaning that is pointed to by that shape. So the form ‘dog’ points to the idea or concept of dogs in the real world or perhaps in your imagination. The shape or form is said to be empty because it is ‘arbritrary’ – i.e. chien in French, perro in Spanish, hond in Dutch, and so on. So, from this point of view forms are indeed empty of meaning and have no intrinsic content. However, it is worth noting that this separation between form and content, shape and meaning, is analytical. That is, the separation only exists as a theoretical mechanism for analysing how signs work. In practice, they are inseparable and fused, though subject to change, transformation and evolution. In the world outside the critic, historian or theorist, there is no such thing as empty form.

I was also reminded of another defintion of form, via Anthony Vidler paraphrasing Rudolf Arnheim – ‘Form is shape with meaning’. Here, shape and form are not interchangeable as above. In any case, in both versions, the semoitic and in Arnheim’s, form is neither empty nor meaningless. The use of ‘formal’ in the negative sense has very little merit to it. If form is always meaningful, then when someone says of a project or design that it is just ‘formalism’ perhaps what they really mean is that they don’t like what it has to say.