Mark Dery | Reviews

Bunker of Broken Dreams

Detail from Keep Active, Amanda and Jordan Spielman’s parody of public health announcements in "Landscapes of Quarantine"

Some of the most isomorphically correct fictions — myths of the future present, perfectly fitted to the contours of our zeitgeist — don’t look anything like literature as we know it. The most thrillingly up-to-the-second science-fiction subgenre is architecture fiction, exemplified by Bruce Sterling’s short story “White Fungus.” In Sterling’s post-recession vision of paradise regained on the crabgrass frontier, bobos-turned-farmers grow cash crops on what were once suburban lawns; “derelict buildings [are] gutted and transformed into hydroponic racks,” transforming what was once farmland, before sprawl rolled over it, back into farmland. “A tomato vine ready to pick sent someone an SMS. Game-playing gardeners cashed in their points at local market stalls and restaurants. This scheme was an ‘architecture of participation.’

Architecture fiction is rooted in architects’ and urbanists’ longstanding practice of conjuring up the Radiant Cities, New Babylons and Living Pods of tomorrow through “fictional depictions of unexisting, speculative architectures,” as the architect-theorist Pedro Gadanho puts it.

Blogger Geoff Manaugh is the acknowledged auteur of architecture fiction. On BLDGBLOG, Manaugh reads our built — and unbuilt — environments like a cultural radiologist, scanning them for evidence of social pathologies, symptoms of the post-apocalyptic. In “Hotels in the Afterlife,” he prowls “‘the concrete skeletons of five-star hotel complexes’ abandoned on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula...resorts that never quite happened...with names like Sultan’s Palace and the Magic Life Imperial...‘monuments to failed investment.’” To Manaugh, the hotels look like architectural fossils bleaching in the desert, “or derelict abstractions, as if some aging and half-crazed billionaire had constructed an eccentric sculpture park for himself amongst the dunes.” Echoing with the prose poetry of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and Ballard’s Vermilion Sands, Manaugh’s post beckons us through an imaginative door toward a speculative present — a parallax view of our everyday reality, where econopocalypse is a fact of life and ecotastrophe is just around the bend.

(2009) reads like Manaugh’s nonfiction novelization of his website. Or an IMAX version of Guy Debord’s psychogeographic walking tour of Paris, The Naked City. Or a China Miéville novel set in Archigram’s Plug-In City after it has decayed into a Lagos-style megaslum. Or Grand Theft Auto: Invisible Cities. Or all of the above.

BLDGBLOG, the book, isn’t a “tombstone for the blog,” as Manaugh puts it in the opening chapter — a printout of the site, sandwiched between two covers. Conceding the McLuhanesque point that entries that work, without comment, on the web — “photos of exploding volcanoes or brief rhetorical questions about suburban waste management” — may not stand up under the sustained scrutiny or critical distance invited by the print medium, Manaugh shrewdly opted to “use the book as a book ... to develop certain ideas and references more fully, to the point that they’d become coherent chapters.”

The book is no less brain-tinglingly invigorating than the blog, but trades the web’s dizzy reticulations for print’s close readings, uninterrupted by links. Even so, Manaugh’s themes will be familiar to BLDGBLOG readers. Lamenting the “stagnation and self-satisfaction” of the architectural establishment, he serves notice that architectural theory is rotting from the head down, a victim of its hothouse intellectualism and mandarin hauteur.

In its place, he offers the “politics of enthusiasm” — a nomadic, rhizomatic sensibility that tunnels under disciplinary borders, following the scent of its obscure obsessions. Critical theory is over; the Pleasure Principle is in. Forget postmodernism’s ironic delight in depthlessness; follow your intellectual bliss. “BLDGBLOG is fundamentally about following, and not being ashamed by, your own enthusiasms, whether or not they are rigorous and appropriate for the academic mores of the day....” Again: “Forget academic rigor. Never take the appropriate next step. Talk about Chinese urban design, the European space program, and landscape in the films of Alfred Hitchcock in the span of three sentences — because it’s fun, and the juxtapositions might take you somewhere. Most importantly, follow your lines of interest.”

This isn’t the postmodern fondness for high/low juxtaposition and appropriation talking; it’s the intertextual, post-disciplinary spelunking native to these hyperlinked times. Manaugh is an archaeologist of knowledge whose exploration of the subterranean tunnels connecting ideas owes more to the web gestalt — and to geek subcultures like urban exploration, specifically tunnel hacking — than to Foucault. The BLDGBLOG Book is honeycombed with intellectual interconnections, and the meta-theme of connection returns time and again, in tales of nested structures, fractal branchings, looking-glass multiverses; in allusions to Kafka’s Trial, “in which all the buildings are confused, self-connected,” muddled by “courtyards that open onto further courtyards” and “stairways [that] lead to more stairways”; in free-associated fantasies of Underground Oceans and Undiscovered Bedrooms — only-in-New York dreams of stumbling on concealed passageways to “a whole new wing secretly attached to the back of the house,” of “closets inside closets” or “a skyscraper with a whole hidden floor”; of sentences that mash up “London floods, earthquakes, William Blake, and James Bond ... anything that could, in however distant a way, be related back to architecture, in its broadest and most interesting sense,” because “architecture is not limited to buildings!”

Following Manuel DeLanda’s Deleuzean theorization of the “machinic phylum,” in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (listed under “Further Reading” in The BLDGBLOG Book), Manaugh has abstracted the architectural paradigm from the built environment and applied IT to architectonic structures of virtually any sort — built, yes, but also socially constructed, or entirely imaginary, or unutterably alien. For him, architecture encompasses “the everyday spatial world of earthquake safety plans and prison break films — and suburban Home Depot parking lots and bad funhouse rides....” We can think about architecture in planetary terms, and “all the way down to the magnetic structure of atoms,” because it “borders on being everything.”

This is the cosmic consciousness of the Eames’ Powers of 10, as channeled by Lebbeus Woods. (It’s hardly surprising that, to a man who had his Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion to architectural criticism while reading J.G. Ballard, writing a novel about “surveillance, terrorism, independent film, and the London Underground,” and auditing a course about the Swinging Sixties avant-garde architecture group Archigram, everything looks like architecture.) To Manaugh, “being an architectural critic ... means writing about architecture in its every manifestation: whether it’s built or not, designed by an architect or not, featured in a videogame or not, found outside a novel or not, ruined or not — even whether it’s on planet Earth.”

It’s the thrillingly sci-fi sweep of Manaugh’s critical worldview that makes "Landscapes of Quarantine" so disappointing. A group exhibition curated by Manaugh and Nicola Twilley (of the blog Edible Geography, which takes food studies to BLDGBLOG extremes of post-disciplinary free association), "Landscapes" falls short of the radical promise inherent in BLDGBLOG, the blog or the book. On view at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York through April 17, the show — a collective improvisation on the titular theme, with participants riffing on national anxieties about permeable borders, Level 4 biocontainment labs, underground nuclear waste repositories and the stay-calm, carry-on iconography of public health announcements, among other things — is conceptually cacophonous.

Undeniably, this is almost always the case in group shows — which is precisely why they, like that other notoriously hit-or-miss proposition, the academic conference panel, should be consigned to the dustbin of bad ideas. Manaugh would probably argue that too much fealty to his thesis would’ve made for a follow-the-bouncing-ball obviousness. BLDGBLOG, he says in the book, is “Six Degrees of Separation in architectural form: Relate aerial turbulence in the Himalayas to the Woolworth Building in New York City in no more than six steps.”
Fair enough. But the weasel word, here, is relate. Manaugh, for all the virtuosity of his intertextual riffing, never loses sight of his thematic point of departure. By contrast, "Landscapes" asks viewers to forge their own conceptual linkages between the exhibits, and the connections are often strained. What sympathetic vibrations is the writer Scott Geiger’s 40-page short story “Did We Build the Frontier to Keep It Close?” supposed to summon, in our minds, as we move from it to what the Storefront press release calls Richard Mosse’s “filmic exploration,” Quick, of “vampires, the limits of documentary photography, and the devastation wrought by the Nipah and Ebola viruses”? More to the point, how do Mosse’s three lines of inquiry intertwine? How does Geiger’s text address the show’s theme, beyond the gimmicky bait-and-switch that it’s 40 pages in length because “quarantine” derives from the Italian quarantina, for 40 — one of those unconvincing attempts to pay off a show’s theme with a tenuous conceptual connection rather than a holistic one?

I couldn’t tell you, in either instance, because my gnatlike attention span was unsuited to the demands of Mosse’s flickery video (headphones required) and my Inner Contrarian, surly at the best of times, balked at the user-unfriendliness of Geiger’s text.

Printed on tablets and mounted on the wall, Geiger’s story forces the long-suffering reader to wrestle with its earlier pages while trying to read the ones beneath. Then, too, who has the luxury, in our always-on age of texts and tweets and time famine, of trudging through a 40-page narrative — a narrative nailed to the wall, no less, like Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses?

To be sure, some of Landscape’s entries manage to cleave to the show’s theme while playing the semiotic Six Degrees of Separation game that makes us want to follow Manaugh’s thread as he unspools it through BLDGBLOG’s labyrinth. The most effective contributions balance visual eloquence with social commentary. Thomas Pollman’s mock-official poster, Precious Isolation: A Pair of Invasive Species, draws witty parallels between the security bubble that protects the U.S. president and climate-controlled Plant Rescue Centers where exotic orchids, confiscated from smugglers, enjoy a similarly hermetically sealed existence.

The series “Keep Active,” Amanda and Jordan Spielman’s short, sharp parodies of public health announcements, offers a droll commentary on “the logistical insanity of large-scale urban quarantine,” in the words of the curators. Containing Uncertainty, Smudge Studio’s deadpan report on Finland’s quixotic attempt to design a “deep geologic repository” for “safely and securely quarantining nuclear waste for the next 100,000 years,” reads like one of Ballard’s tongue-in-cheek parodies of science-journal articles. Finland’s “infinite quarantine ... must last half as long again as the entire history of humanity,” the curators inform, “in order to protect the future from our present.”

Nonetheless, too much of "Landscapes" succumbs to word blight, a particularly virulent pathogen that often infests high-concept exhibitions of this sort. Lengthy texts, detailed diagrams swarming with blurbs, long-winded voiceovers on earphones: the signs of terminal conceptual-itis are everywhere. Too few retinal pleasures, too much pedagogy. Unconsciously, I found myself reaching for the clickable links that make the curators’ blogs so rich in intellectual serendipity, and so visually rewarding. Ironic, in light of the curators’ deft use of the online medium; doubly so in Manaugh’s case, given the nimbleness with which BLDGBLOG runs circles around the ponderous self-importance of most architecture criticism. And one last irony: "Landscapes" reminds us, in these days of data glut and viral videos and rumors spread at pandemic speed through forwarded e-mails, that galleries and museums are themselves landscapes of quarantine, erecting a curatorial cordon sanitaire around a rarefied body of information, a manageably tiny corner of the epistemological map.

Moi, I prefer le deluge.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Social Good, Theory + Criticism

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