Thursday, July 4, 2013

Sellotaping demonstration and critique – a scrapbook reflection on Ackbar Abbas’s lecture ‘Junk Space, Dogville and Poor Theory’

In her response to Ackbar Abbas's lecture, Ashleigh Harris brilliantly evokes underlying themes of destruction in Rem Koolhaas's architecture, and attempts to reinsert crticism into demonstration through a play on the etymology of 'sellotape'.
Source: www.chinese-architecture.info/A-HIST2.htm 
Ackbar Abbas begins his illustration of Rem Koolhaas’s notion of Junk Space (see ‘Junkspace’, Obsolescence Vol. 100, Spring, 2002, pp 175-90) via a discussion of the above building, the CCTV (Chinese Central Television) Building in Beijing. The building is designed by Koolhaas, in collaboration with Ola Scheeren. The architectural sketch above captures some of the urban exhilaration that Abbas speaks of, emerging from the ‘man made experience which allows people to live inside fantasy and not be apologetic about it’. He states that ‘cities don’t need character, because the action is taking place in cyberspace’ – and what better building to illustrate this point than the Chinese Central Television building, an architectural monument to the importance of fantasy and the cyber-lives that the building itself is a portal to. 
For participants of the JWTC, the building may have evoked Jane Guyer’s discussion of the Möbius strip,[1] in her elaboration of confusion as a form. After Guyer’s address, Ackbar Abbas made an insightful point: in explaining the logic of the Möbius strip, he reminded us that the confusion evoked by the Möbius form lies in its dimensional shift from the second to the third dimension. It cannot exist in two-dimensional space. It is in that transposition of dimensions in which confusion arises. In the case of the CCTV building, the design cannot itself traverse the materiality of its construction (or the laws of gravity) that would allow it to become truly möbian. Yet, as Abbas points out, the aesthetics of the building is surrealistic; where bricks, glass and mortar fail to produce a true möbius, the building’s grandiose contortion around its vacant core nevertheless evokes a sense, in the eye of the onlooker, of the distortion of those materialities, of the gravitational impossibility of the building’s massive overhang.
It is the television and media work framed by and framing the building that opens another dimensionality in this design, and it is here that the building achieves its true Möbius aesthetic. The surface of the real undergoes a dimensional shift as it segues into the life and work in and of the building. Yet, there is a second möbian dimensionality to the building. We are reminded (and Abbas occasionally prompts us to recall) Walter Benjamin’s notion of ruin: “In the ruins of great buildings, the idea of the plan speaks more impressively than in lesser buildings, however well preserved they are; and for this reason the German Trauerspiel merits interpretation. In the spirit of allegory it is conceived from the outset as a ruin, a fragment. Others may shine resplendently as on the first day; this form preserves the image of beauty to the very last.” (Benjamin, Walter The Origins of German Tragic Drama, Transl. John Osborne, Introduced by George Steiner. Verso 1998: 235. Emphasis mine).
The resplendent shine of the virtual architectural sketch is echoed in the almost Cathedral-like vertical aspiration of the building under construction; the cranes reaching even higher than the construction itself, as though in an attitude of rapture. Note, at this stage the second building under construction in the background: as part of the CCTV’s construction, this origami-like structure (a hotel, as it happens, the ultimate site of life in junk space?) seems to fold awkwardly under the sheer magnitude of its sister building.
Keeping Benjamin’s ruins in mind, (and also Ato Quayson’s observation on Tuesday morning, in his talk ‘Urban Theory and Performative Streetscapes: Oxford Street, Accra’ that city spaces are produced relatively), it is worth noting that in February 2009, CCTV hosted a firework display that set fire to the (as yet unfinished) hotel, turning it into a ruin before it was completed.
The above image is reminiscent not only of the countless destruction scenes we have seen in films such as The Dark Knight Returns, (is Beijing replacing New York as the archetype of Gotham city?), but also of Slavoj Žižek’s analysis in ‘Welcome to the desert of the real’ (see http://lacan.com/reflections.htm). He writes:
It is precisely now, when we are dealing with the raw Real of a catastrophe, that we should bear in mind the ideological and fantasmatic coordinates which determine its perception. If there is any symbolism in the collapse of the WTC towers, it is not so much the old-fashioned notion of the "center of financial capitalism," but, rather, the notion that the two WTC towers stood for the center of the VIRTUAL capitalism, of financial speculations disconnected from the sphere of material production. The shattering impact of the bombings can only be accounted for only against the background of the borderline which today separates the digitalized First World from the Third World "desert of the Real." It is the awareness that we live in an insulated artificial universe which generates the notion that some ominous agent is threatening us all the time with total destruction.
The catastrophe of ruin in the unfinished building: the ruin is always already here: a mobiüs surface twisting together the times and spaces of construction and destruction, forming and deforming, a creation and a ruin. In the above image the structure of the burnt out hotel appears precariously balanced on the fold that runs in an oblique line across the building, suggesting immanent collapse, suggesting the frailty of paper. (I recall Josh Comaroff’s statement about the short life-spans of buildings and wonder if in Junkspace the life-span of the building is over before it is built?)
This relates to what Abbas calls the monstrous life of urban forms; not the monstrosity of the ruin, but the catastrophe already written into the virtually composed image of the architectural sketch, the catastrophe that is the generic city. As Žižek’s reminds us “the question we should have asked ourselves when we stared at the TV screens on September 11 is simply: WHERE DID WE ALREADY SEE THE SAME THING OVER AND OVER AGAIN?” (Original emphasis). It is this return of the ruin before the completion of the building, that evokes the möbian contours of these two building’s awkward dance of construction and destruction.
The möbius strip denies us the comfort of theoretical understandings of the seam or the stitch (see, for example, Leon de Kock’s theorisation of the seam in ‘South Africa in the Global Imaginary: an introduction’ Poetics today 22: 2, 2001: 263-298). Yet, it is here that we hit up against a formal problem: where do we draw the line of distinction between what Abbas calls ‘demonstration’ and ‘critique’? The möbius logic of Koolhaas’s paper ‘Junkspace’ demonstratively insists in its very form and style that theory is awkwardly[2] poised behind the life of the city, unable to get critical purchase on the speed with which it reformulates itself and the lives within it. Thus, critique is engulfed by demonstration. In the Junkspace of modern life, where we have gorged ourselves to capacity on filling every orifice, every space, with the junk and excess offered by the generic city, we end up melancholic and without political and critical purchase.
This is possibly why, for Abbas, “Manifestos are always wrong”. Yet he (melancholically?) returns to them for his own critical purchase: in his lecture he refers to his own Manifesto, written with David Theo Goldberg, on Poor theory;[3] Lars Von Trier’s ‘Dogma 95 manifesto’ and ‘Vow of Chastity’; by implication André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. He raises these manifestos only to dismiss them: Von Trier ‘breaks almost every rule of his own vows of chastity’; Urban change outpaces urban theory, including poor theory; the city, Abbas claims, is invisible to urban theory. As Abbas fell back on Breton’s fascination with Lautréamont’s aesthetic of the incommensurability (what Breton saw as convulsive art) in the poet’s famous quip about the beauty in “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table,” I wondered: are we caught in a return to the paradox of politics within surrealism, where incommensurability inevitably devours the aims and politics of critique? Convulsive beauty, incommensurability, as drawn up in Breton’s manifestos of surrealism must also, surely, have had their ruin, their ‘wrongness’ written into them from the outset.
But, if manifestos are always wrong, we are caught in the inevitable twist (a mobiüs twist, perhaps) of vainly attempting to politicise that which we ruin before it is constructed: theory itself. Koolhaas’s lucid display of how theory is undone in its attempt to capture the complexities of junkspace, turns into ‘demonstration’ rather than ‘critique’. Abbas insists that Von Trier’s films, too, demonstrate rather than offer critique. In the discussion following Abbas’s lecture, Helena Chavez MacGregor reminded us of the ambiguity of the term ‘demonstration’: the word operates as both resistance and illustration. But perhaps the political potential of the term is diffused (confused even) in Koolhas’s written style and in Von Trier’s articulation of space and affect: a confusion perhaps best articulated in Von Trier’s infamous, highly confused, Nazi-sympathy statement (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LayW8aq4GLw).
If we do not actively produce critical purchase on the demonstration of the world (demonstrate against the world, not just demonstrate it), we risk a möbian confusion wherein every form of representation stands only in mimetic relation to the world. When I read Koolhaas’s paper (manifesto?) on Junkspace, the absence of the critics accountability looms large in the contortions of the paper’s style: much like the empty space carved out by the CCTV building, framing the ruins of an unfinished hotel.


Sellotape [ˈsɛləˌteɪp] n. The proprietary name of a cellulose or plastic self-adhesive tape, freq. dispensed from reels for domestic use. Also gen.
sellotape   v. trans. to fasten with Sellotape.
sellotaped adj.
sellotaping   n.

Sellotape is a proprietary noun, a word that evokes a late capitalist production of language, the junkification (if you will) of language itself (the product is made of cellophane, the spelling was changed to create the proprietary noun). The product is a weak connector, taping together only paper (it is too weak for other forms cohesion) and only for a short amount of time (the yellowed, frayed edges of old tape, gone brittle, declares the tapes loss of its adhesive). It has its own ruin built into it. Sellotape is useless material in and of itself, its use emerges in relation to other objects. It is easily made waste, it creates waste. It is leaves no seam, because it does not convincingly join substances together, it merely places them next to or on top of one another. It is an inappropriate material to think of alongside architecture, and the internet (though the structure of blogging reminds us of the notice boards of old, with torn and messy messages taped onto the ever shifting landscape of the board. The notice board must be cleared to make space, the junk is removed, whereas the junk of blogs remain as the virtual space expands to make room for new notes, messages, discarded information). Sellotape is invented post-second world war. It is anachronistic. It nostalgically returns us to the montage, the scrapbook, the collage: it is a substance from postmodernism’s kindergarten. It has no place in the era of 3D printers and drone warfare. Yet it is precisely because of its cheap, trashy, old-fashioned, materiality that I bring it into this blog (a nod to the material trace, perhaps): In a digitised world, materiality is more tenuous than digital cutting and pasting. I open a document from 2007 and cut and paste and print a section of it today, while the sellotape holding a postcard to my notice board in my office, frays and peels away from the board. If we ‘trope’ the word, allowing it to enter a critical frame of reference, it is these properties that I am trying to capture: I wish to tape criticism back onto demonstration. It is a tentative (and somewhat old fashioned) gesture. It will fall apart in some near future. It will be subsumed within much grander swathes of digitised information. But I allow myself this tentative act of connecting, because it refuses the dimensional shift that the möbius turns into confusion. It is hopelessly, and unapologetically, two-dimensional. It asks us to read demonstration and critique in the same dimension.
What better way to illustrate this than to look at what art can do with the poor materiality of Sellotape. I leave the blog with this ‘Tape Installation’, created with over 45km of tape, by the Croatian design collective foruse/numen, at Tempelhof Airport, Berlin 2010. (All images available on http://www.designboom.com/design/dmy-2010-award-winner-forusenumen/).

(Webbed, organic, transparent, smooth)
(Uterine, sensual, alien, frail, membrane)
Source: designboom
(Constructed, alienating, shadowed, light, celluloid)
(Cathedral, sacred, womb, stomach, cave, ocean, air, melancholy)
(Adhesive. Empty. Junk. Space.)
Ashleigh Harris is senior lecturer in English at Uppsala University, Sweden.

[1] Koolhaas’s more overt use of the möbius form can be seen in his design of the ‘Möbius hi shoe’. See http://leibal.com/products/mbius-united-nude/) where he is cited describing the shoe as an attempt to “down[size] architecture to its smallest and most vulnerable scale…of a woman’s foot.”
[2] Again, I’m reminded of Josh Comaroff’s discussion of awkward architecture.

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