Visceral Facades: taking Matta-Clark's crowbar to software.
Matthew Fuller email@example.com
Architecture was the first art of measurement of time and space. Ancient megalithic structures such as Stonehenge are the ancestors of the machine you are reading this text on. Whereas computers build up from the scale of electrons rather than that of giant lumps of stone and the tasks they complete are abstract and changeable, rather than specific and singular, they both remain physical instantiations of abstract logic into which energy is fed in order to produce results to one or more of a range of potential calculations embodied in their structure.
Nowadays, as films such as Die Hard and novels such as Gridlock are so keen to show us, buildings and telecommunications are profoundly interrelated. As architecture is caught up in the mesh of the 'immaterial', of security and communications systems, of gating and processing (think of an airport) its connection to its originary development as geometry realised in synthetic space becomes ever more apparent. The proliferation of special effects that effect consciousness of time and distance and the perception of the environment in a context where maximum stratification combines in the same device with maximum fluidity, is presented as an abrupt break with an older style of architecture wherein power can be deciphered by the maximum possession of space.
In a short story, Tangents, science fiction writer Greg Bear introduces four-dimensional beings into a three dimensional shape: something which he likens to looking at fish through the corner of an aquarium. The shape that these fourth dimensional beings appear in is a normal, two storey house. The house is gradually, neatly, Swiss-cheesed by a series of cones, columns, and spheres as the dimensions intersect.
Possibly, this might be the kind of effect you'd worry about if you'd invited Gordon Matta-Clark around to your home. An artist who trained as an architect, Matta-Clark was born in New York City in March 1943 and died in 1978. His most prolific period, between 1971 and 1976, occurred within a rich context of experimental and anti-commercial dematerialization in both art and architecture, (although certainly within the field of 'authorised' architecture, much of this work remained on a theoretical and propositional basis). Matta-Clark carried out his investigations of architecture and space through performance, drawing, sculpture, photography, video, film and material interventions known as 'cuttings'.
One action carried out in 1974, Splitting, involved taking a simple detached wooden house in Englewood, a New York State dormitory town, and bisecting it. The house, already slated for demolition, is cut exactly in two, from the roof, down the walls and through the floors to the raised foundation of building blocks. In the short film which documents the process a shard of sunlight streams through the split, effacing the wall, energising the new structure. The next stage is to take the rear half of the house and, supporting it on jacks, gradually knock away the upper surface of the foundation at an angle of five degrees. The back of the house is then tilted away from the other half of the structure back onto the now sloping foundation. Throughout the film, Matta-Clark can be seen working away at the building. A scrawny longhair in jeans and boots doing with a simple toolkit the serious structural re-adjustment that only the most deranged of do-it-yourselfers can dream about.
Another short film, Conical Intersect, made in 1975 documents an intervention which is even more reminiscent of the transdimensional interference of Tangents. Made during the Paris Biennial in the area of Les Halles, tellingly close to the construction of the Centre George Pompidou - a politically inspired scheme reminiscent of that other artiste démolisseur, Baron Hausmann - the cut probes into two adjoining seventeenth century 'mansions'. Appearing from the outside as a series of receding circles, the cut punctures the building at the fourth storey and moves upwards towards the sky. When the outer wall goes through, the film shows the trio of people working on the hole perform a brief can-can on a soon-to-be-demolished section of floor.
In a 1976 film, Substrait (Underground Dailies), Matta-Clark explored and documented some of the underground of New York City. Grand Central Station, 13th Street and the Croton Aqueduct are filmed to show the variety and complexity of the hidden spaces and tunnels in the metropolitan area. Somewhat reminiscent of the ultra-dull documentaries made by the Canadian National Film Board in the same period, this film develops an intimate concern with the material qualities of the structures under investigation, and perhaps provides for the New York sewage system a precursor to the geek art of the internet. It is possible to imagine a film of its travels through the nets made by a software worm, being of remarkable similarity.
Some of Matta-Clark's work could have only been produced by someone deeply familiar with the strange reality of realty. In Reality Properties: Fake Estates he bought up fifteen minuscule sections of land that had been left over in property deals, or that teetered just off the edges of architectural plans drawn slightly out-of-whack: a foot strip down somebody's driveway, and a square foot of sidewalk, tiny sections of kerbs and gutters. Buying up this ludicrous empire was again part of Matta-Clark's project of the structural activation of severed surfaces. It is also an example of the idiosyncratic manipulation of rule-based behaviour to achieve different ends.
Along with the dematerialised art that provided a context in which this work can be sensed, the period it was produced in was also the peak of minimal art. Whilst Matta-Clark's work is in part concerned with formalism, the application of procedures and the revelation of structural properties, it is precisely because his work is formally non-reductive and purposely heterogenic that it is profoundly at variance to an art that was only supposed to speak of itself and of the immaculate connoisseurship of its audience. This is an artwork that is exactly the reverse of autonomous. It is openly dependent on a network of coincidences and interconnectedness: on being seen by chance passers-by; on the receipt or avoidance of bureaucratic permissions; on the functioning of recording devices; on good weather; on not being discovered when acting in secret; on the theatre of its enaction being an oxygenation of the still smouldering embers of history. At the same time as it articulates the space in sculptural terms it also complexifies it in terms of its placehood, as an object, and within its social, chronological and economic contexts.
Knowing that there is freedom in suprise, it is along this fault line of rationality and the non-rational that Gordon Matta-Clark runs his fingers. Fingers which he also uses to tease another split - that between art and architecture. Comparable to his relationship to minimal art, rather than partaking in the functionalist urban sublime of the glass and steel skyscraper typified in the architecture of Mies van der Rohe - with its interior opened to make it more governable - Matta-Clark's work operates a dis-enclosure of urban space: its malfunctions, voids, shadows. The tension inherent in such spaces is portrayed well by Gilles Deleuze in describing "any-space-whatever" the half-urban, half-waste lands often used as sets and exteriors in post World War Two films: "Any-space-whatever is a perfectly singular space, which has merely lost its homogeneity, that is, the principle of its metric relations or the connection of its own parts, so that linkages can be made in an infinite number of ways" This tension between particularity and obliteration found in the European bombsite translated well into the conditions in which Matta-Clark worked out of necessity and choice: buildings eviscerated by the progress of urban restructuring.
"There is a kind of complexity that comes from taking an otherwise completely normal, conventional, albeit anonymous situation and redefining it, retranslating it into overlapping and multiple readings of conditions past and present"
As an aside, this too easy lock-down into textuality implied by the use of the word 'reading' is of his time, (and one replicated in perpetuity by artists hungry for the valorising seal of textual authority) but it rather understates the multiple sensory affect of the work. It is this aspect, of working with material that is in the process of being made anonymous, generic - yet turning it into an engine of connotation - that is particularly suggestive for a context that, in its apparent dematerialization seems most likely to resist it: software.
Software lacks the easy evidence of time, of human habitation, of the connotations of familial, industrial or office life embedded in the structure of a building. As a geometry realised in synthetic space, it is an any-space-whatever, but dry-cleaned and prised out of time.
Use of the computer happens at many levels, both hard and soft. A crucial difference with how we traditionally understand architecture, rather than what it is becoming under the impact of information technologies, is that everything necessarily happens at human scale. That the size, and to a certain extent the organisation, of people has a determining effect on the shape of the building. Conversely, the axiomatics that channel and produce the behaviour necessary for use of computers happen at both human and subscopic scale. The hard organs of the computer: mouse, keyboard, modem, microphone, monitor, though all matched to greater or lesser extents to human form, all snake back to the CPU.
Whilst what is of interest here is an investigation of the moment of composition between user and computer, and not a reiteration of text-book schematics, it is worth noting that simply because they occur at the level of electrons the axes of software are impossible to find for the average user. Just as when watching a film we miss out the black lines in between the frames flashing past at 24 per second, the invisible walls of software are designed to remain inscrutable. However, the fact that these subscopic transformation of data inside the computer are simultaneously real and symbolic; where the most abstract of theoretical terms to be found in mathematics becomes a thing, allows the possibility of a kinaesthetic investigation. An investigation that opens up a chance for dialogue between the smooth running of the machine and material that might be thought of as contamination within the terms of its devices.
Much of the 'legitimate' writing and artistic production on information technology is concerned with expanding the application of the theoretical devices used to recognise replication and simulation, (what constitutes 'the real') and of those used to recognise surveillance. These themes, carried over most commonly from debates around photography and architecture, are of course suggestive and in some cases useful, but in the easiness of their translation we should not forget that they are moving into a context that subsumes them and is not marked by their boundaries. In acknowledging the distinct interconnectedness of the symbolic and material, this is also an approach which is opposed to the conception of 'virtuality' being taken as the desired end state of digital technology: taking virtuality as a condition which is contained and made possible by the actuality of digital media.
To provide the skewed access to the machines that such an investigation requires we can siphon some fuel from the goings-on of Gordon Matta-Clark: use faults; disturb conventions; exploit idiosyncrasies.
Faults arise in systems when the full consequences of technical changes are not followed through before the changes are made, or are deliberately covered up. This is an enormous game of hiding and finding being played by a cast of millions and one which has wide ramifications. Perhaps the most crucial faultlines being traced at the moment are those around security: the world of minutiae that compose the integrity of existence in dataspace and the way it maps back onto everyday life.
The profoundest restructuring of existence is taking place at the levels of the electron and the gene. Technical complexity, commercial pressure and the mechanisms of expression management are blocking almost all real public discourse on the former. They are less able to do so to the latter.
Whether radical or reactionary, traditional political structures have, either deliberately or through drastic relevance-decay, abdicated almost all decision making in these areas to commercial interests. From a similar catalogue of stock characters to that of the artist, the pariah/hero figure of the hacker has largely set the pace for any critical understanding of the changes happening in and between information technologies.
Picking up a random copy of the hacker zine 2600 - summer 1996 - the scale and ramifications of issues being dealt with in this area becomes apparent. Subjects covered include: an editorial on the position of hackers in the legal system and media; the code of a LINUX program to block internet sites by flooding them with connection requests; a list of free phone carriers in Australia; acquiring phone services under imaginary names; the telecommunications infrastructure in Prague and Sarajevo; encryption; consumer data security; catching passwords to specific multi-user computer systems; passenger in-flight communications systems; phreaking smart pay-phones; starting a hacker scene; the transcription of part of a court case involving the show trial of hacker, Bernie S; plus pages of small ads and letters. (Perhaps noticeable in comparing the importance of these scenes with that of art is that the second-order commentary on the work comes mainly from the media/legal system rather than just critics).
The faults identified by hackers and others, where ethico-aesthetic situations are compounded under sheer pressure into technical ones, are implicated in wider mechanisms. These technical situations can be investigated from any point or development within these wider mechanisms regardless of the degree of technical proficiency. Cracking open technical situations with the wider social conditions within which they occur is an increasingly necessary task. Doing so in a manner that creates a transversal relationship between different, perhaps walled-off, components, and that intimately works the technical with other kinds of material or symbolic devices is something that remains to be developed. Tracking the faults, the severed surfaces, of technology is one way in which this can begin to be done.
This intimacy, as well as concerning itself with the cracks and disjunctures, the faults in systems, can also become involved in situations where they appear to be most smooth. For the average user, the conventions of personal computers appear secure, rational, almost natural, if a little awkward and tricky at times. Like many social protocols, computer use is a skill which is forgetful of its acquisition. Perhaps that user can remember back to when they first got hold of a machine, when they were waving a mouse in the air to get the cursor to move towards them; afraid to touch the wrong key in case it damaged something; saving files all over the place; trying to draw curves in Pagemaker; putting floppies in upside-down; trying to work a cracked copy of CuBase with something missing; learning how to conform to the machine in order to make the machine conform to them...
In computer interface design the form-function fusion is made on the basis of averages, a focus grouped reality based on peoples' understanding of a context in which it is impossible for them to function unless they develop the understanding already been mapped out for them. Perhaps in this context, the user will always be the ideal user, because if they are not ideal - if, within this context at least, they do not conform to the ideal - they won't be a user.
Interface design is a discipline that aspires to saying nothing. Instead of trying to crack this invisibility, one technique for investigation is to tease it into overproduction. Why use one mouse-click when ten-thousand will do? Why use any visual information when navigation is perfectly possible with sound alone? Why just look at the interface, why not print it out and wear it? Why read text on screen when a far better technology is paper? Why use a cursor when the object you're actually pointing at can function perfectly well to indicate the mouse position?
In any other social context, what because of the arbitrary nature of the abstract machine appear as protocols, would be revealed as mannerisms. (Take a fast taxi through the ruined neighbourhoods of cyberspace by travelling through emulators of old computers: punch a hole in the surface of your shiny new machine by loading up the black hole of a 1k ZX81). When the construction of machines from the fundamental objects of the hardware: bits, bytes, words, addresses, upwards are realised to be synthetic rather than given, or even necessarily rational - though produced through the application of rationalisation, logic - they become subject to wider possibilities for change. Software as an aggregate of very small sensory experiences and devices becomes an engine, not just of connotation, but of transformation.
Some of those transformations in occurrence can be sensed in the sheer idiosyncrasy of much software. In the Atrocity Exhibition and other books, J.G. Ballard mixes flat, technical descriptions of body positions as they come into composition with the synthetic geometry of architecture, automobiles, furnishings, to produce an investigation of machined erotics. He continues and intensifies the Surrealist stratagem of cutting together transgressed functionalities in order to regain entry to the order of the symbolic. To an objective observer, the transitory point at which a thigh comes into convergence with a table also suggests the way in which the original Microsoft Windows interface was bolted on top of the old DOS language. The tectonic impact of two neural landscapes performs an operation called progress. The software is tricked into doing something more than it was intended for. Instead of dramatic breaks, hacks and incrementally adaptive mutations are often the way things are made to move forward. (For instance on Apple computers, the desktop is already being bypassed by the absorption of some of the functions of the finder into various applications. From being a grossly over-metaphoric grand entrance hall, it has become a back alley). When they work well they are elegant usable collages. Often they are botch jobs. In both cases, the points at which the systems mesh, collide, or repel, can, at the points of confused demarcation, produce secret gardens, car parks, lamps that fuck.
Idiosyncrasies can also develop when a software system is applied to a situation in toto. Perhaps most obviously, databases. The production of software dedicated to knowledge organisation and information retrieval, a field largely seen as the domain of linguists and computer scientists, immediately brings with it a range of problematics that are at once both cultural and technical. The technology underlying search engines and databases - set theory - is based on creating classifications of information according to arbitrarily or contingently meaningful schemes. It is in the application and development of those schemes with all their inevitable biases and quirks that the aesthetics of classification lies.
Attuned to quantifying; organising; isolating and drawing into relationships, particular cases of the possible and working them till they bleed some kind of relevance, databases exist firmly on the cusp of the rational and non-rational. When the Subjective Exercise Experiences Scale locks onto the Human Genome Initiative processing library stock-holding data: prepare for something approaching poetry.
Perhaps in some ways sensing into the future this destratification of conventions is the architecture of the internet. This, (almost despite its position within and between various political, commercial and bureaucratic formations) after all, is a network which functions on a basis of being broken, continuously finding the shortest route between nodes: even as a squatter will always see the empty buildings on any street before those that are full. At these shifting, transitory points where sensoriums intermesh, repel, clash and resynthesize are the possibilities for a ludic transdimensionality. Knock through a wall, and beyond the clouds of brick dust clogging up and exciting your eyes, tongue, palate and throat, there's another universe: an empty, unclassifiable complex seething with life.
Matthew Fuller, May 1997
Web references for Gordon Matta-Clark
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