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Sunday, September 01, 2002

Arts & Letters

Architecture and Surveillance

Big Brother: Architecture and Surveillance, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, Greece, curated by Memos Filippidis, June 18-August 25, 2002. Exhibition catalogue edited by Memos Filippidis, with texts by Andreas Angelidakis, Elisabeth Diller, Memos Filippidis, Thomas Y. Levin, Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis, Christos Papoulias, [+RAMTV], Joel Sanders, Ricardo Scofidio, tessera, 95 pages, €20.

Throughout history, surveillance has been a permanent tool for spatial control and visual security in all forms of society. In the Politics, Aristotle related the order of a city to the geometrical patterns of public space, which allowed a visual control that aided defense in the outskirts and the rule of the authorities in the central areas. More recently, Michel Foucault theorized the controlling gazes of schools and prisons as the new social mechanism of self-imposing order in the developing nineteenth century (Jeremy Bentham’s famous Panopticon), while George Orwell’s major contribution to dystopian fiction was to project the year 1984 as the time of an oppressive society whose rule was facilitated by a system of global surveillance under the watchful eye of Big Brother. The Brother is now here, and all of us partially consent to the mutual security provided to our allegedly threatened lives, just as we play along with the television series of the same name because of the pleasure apparently provided to so many of us.

2002 was Greek television’s year of Big Brother, which is the kind of rubbish that is possible only in a society of both visible and invisible security, of both optical and digital control. Watching each other without being seen aims at the osmosis of private and public life somewhere between repression and obsession. “To see without being seen” (Big Brother: Architecture and Surveillance exhibition catalogue [BBAS], p.11) is a notion that overrides any kind of defensive surveillance, as it reinvents the voyeur and the retroactive gaze of an exhibited secrecy. The pleasure of the uncovered, and the transparency of the veiled, are permanently upsetting our life, from sexuality to security and vice-versa.

The exhibition that closed recently at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens – the old, albeit amputated and partial, Fix brewery – marks, according to its director, Anna Kafetsi, “the inauguration of a cycle regarding the tendencies and questions of contemporary architecture to the point where architecture and art meet or, at least, converge, mainly regarding the theoretical or also the constructional dimension” (BBAS, p.8). This statement is true only for those who walk in the penumbra of consecutive rooms to contemplate eight particularly mediatic visual events ranging from art to architecture. The participants were invited to submit their architectural proposals in a free form of video projections, drawings, and models, so as to locate “the strategies with which architects have recently attempted the visual control of their subject” and “the way in which architecture enables surveillance or has begun to become overprotective against the intrusion of the media” (BBAS, p.19).

Andreas Angelidakis’s Invisible Home, a computer-generated animation, proposes an endless evolution of elemental surfaces and spaces. “All these pixels create an endless home, a space where there is no more the distinction of inside and outside, public and private, home and away. It is all home, all away, all visible and all invisible” (BBAS, p.45). These slowly moving fractal planes on a wall create a spectacular and entirely abstract work of art that could be projected in almost any digital-art show regardless of subject. It fits everywhere. “As the internet and wireless connections render geography obsolete and it no longer matters where you are” (BBAS, p.39), Angelidakis’s own contribution to the show renders thinking obsolete, and it no longer matters what you say.

Diller+Scofidio, primarily involved in experimental work that takes the form of temporary and permanent site-specific installations, has contributed two projects, Facsimile and Blur Building. Facsimile – a permanent installation for the new Moscone Convention Center expansion in San Francisco to be completed in 2003 – is a wide-screen video slowly traveling along the surface of the exterior façade, a kind of scanning periscope for actual building occupants broadcasting live images and pre-recorded video programs. The Blur Building is a media pavilion at the base of Lake Neuchatel for Swiss Expo 2002. The pavilion is invisible because of the constant mist of water sprayed over it by a system of nozzles. Prior to entering the cloud, you receive a “smart” coat that not only protects you from the wetness but makes your character profile visible, as it changes colors to indicate the degree to which you attract or repulse others. You might blush as you are identified and involuntarily compared to others, but this is only a playful and appropriately symbolic example of the digitally “transparent” world in which we are living.

The Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Tourbus Hotel is a traveling optical community, a protective cocoon ironically inextricable from contemporary European cities, including Athens. In the bus, the hotel and city are blurred in a new type of urban theater. The organization of the hotel rooms reflects that of the tour bus, with its central corridor and enfiladed postcard views. The visitor moves into an open-air corridor flanked by glass walls in which video images are projected. It is only a new building-type whose interior visual structure replicates the touristic reduction of the city to a series of consumable views.

Christos Papoulias is a real architect in the sense of that very old skill of building a home independently according to individual theoretical and esthetic investigations. His contribution to the show, the Dispersed House, is a critique of daily life in the contemporary metropolis. The client – a single, wealthy businessperson on a terrorist group’s death list – is literally mirrored in his dispersed house. The rooms – bedroom, office, living room, veranda, reception hall – are “stations” related to the functional needs of his body, separated and widely dispersed in the fragmented metropolis. He is the new type of urban nomad. Papoulias’s project “attempts to be a search for the end of the unified house, not only because it is an easy target for surveillance but, also, because it inscribes a general inflexibility and a monolithic manner of life – an entrapment” (BBAS, p.63).

Negotiate my boundary! by [+RAMTV] – a “network based international platform for architectural discussion” by five recent graduates of the Architectural Association School – is an interactive scenario for customizing and buying dwellings via the Internet that implies the negotiation among clients. The real-time process privileges direct participation in the community that is forming and substantial decisionmaking regarding its architecture. Responsive systems are constantly on the move, altering the threshold and the façade configurations of the complex. The urban residential architecture promised here is a product of today’s intricate social situations and interactions. Architecture ends up as a genotype system merging tiles into a spatial organization – a kind of computer-generated polyp.

Joel Sanders’s Access House gets back to the main theme of the show. It is a vacation house on St. Simons Island, Georgia, studded with electronic windows and strategically located surveillance cameras dispersed throughout the domestic space, which enables homeowners to observe and communicate with people in remote locations, both inside and outside the house. Motion detectors automate a wide range of domestic tracks, “smart” mirrors integrate digital displays that register time, weight, and weather, while embedded monitors juxtapose media images with reflections of body parts: “The Access House incorporates state-of-the-art technologies that transform the very nature of domestic vision, making possible safe and secure visual transactions, both actual and virtual” (BBAS, p.82). It is the climax of self-pleasure in the realm of surveillance.

The tessera team’s contribution is Drawing Fix – the Fix brewery hosting the show – as a “ghost” building that stores and reveals accumulated sight, restlessly witnessing all those diurnal and nocturnal events that surround its skin. Bridging the past and future of that amputated carcass, tessera has conceived of the recollection of the missing facades as a mediatic device, an “insomniac eye” recording the activity of the void. Drawing Fix blurs the boundaries between architectural design and real-time creation, superimposing advertisements, ambience, and electronic memories, while the translucent structures of the screens allow views of the surrounding city from within. The completion of the amputated building will coincide with the announcement of an architectural competition definitely integrating the Museum of Contemporary Art – and Drawing Fix will surely be the first entry.

Inviting such a range of architects to participate in a mostly conceptual exhibition organized in a museum of contemporary arts was by all odds an opportunity to rethink the architecture of the contemporary city. Still, this was the only substantial link among the various proposals, which diverged strikingly on the sparkling media wall of computer-generated animation, unevenly degenerating from architecture to the collapse of architecture, laying aside controversy and critique to promote the colorful game of a digitally mastered world. Contrarily, Big Brother was thought to be the dark side of oppression in terms of society, the environment, and architecture. The incredible force of our global society to co-opt everything and anything has succeeded in turning such oppressive mechanisms in architecture as surveillance into strangely seductive elements for every avant-garde and experimental movement in architecture and art. The justification of seeing without being seen and taking pleasure in this fact, and the magnification of the keyhole into the wide-screen of public life, are part of a phenomenon that actually gravitates between obsession and oppression, explicitly aiming at a critical redefinition of privacy. Yet, surveillance is not an architectural concept, as this exhibit’s curator seemingly suggests (BBAS, p.20); it is nothing but an exhibition’s concept. At least on the clear side of our sound dreams. Still, there is a dark side to our dreams also.

Panayotis Tournikiotis is a professor at the school of architecture of the National Technical University of Athens and the author of The Historiography of Modern Architecture.
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