The eleventh issue of intermission, done in collaboration with WAI Architecture Think Tank. The interview serves as a propoganda document pushing the ideas and agenda of Post-Novis, and foregrounds the studio being taught in the Spring of 2020. Visit their website for more information. Download PDF.
In the quest to recruit worldmakers, this issue of inter·mission has been turned into an inter·prop: a propaganda leaflet for Post-Novis. Opening with a discussion between inter·punct and WAI Architecture Think Tank (Cruz Garcia & Nathalie Frankowski) on Utopias Without Qualities, the inter.prop outlines the contents of the installation/ performance/ lecture ‘In Post-Novis All the Students are the Teacher’ presented at Kresge Theatre on October 7, 2019. This inter·prop is part of a series of propagandistic paraphernalia created and distributed with the aim of spreading the mission of Post-Novis reinforcing that the only purpose of education is to make new worlds collectively. This requires the exercise of dignified and purposeful rebelliousness. Other worlds are Possible!
This is not inter·mission
A Utopia Without Qualities
Nathalie Frankowski + Cruz Garcia
inter·punct: One thing we’ve noticed about your practice which we feel makes the work much stronger is the intersection of different media towards the service of one idea. As an example, in some projects there is a progression from text to form to architecture, and we are curious about if the desire is for all pieces to exist on their own or if it is about the commonalities. How do the art and architecture practices coexist?
WAI: It really depends… We studied architecture, and in the conventional sense we were trained as architects, but literature, philosophy, and film played a major role in our studies. While practicing as architects for most of our careers we have always been interested in different media and the potential each media has in addressing certain questions. Following Ludwig Wittgenstein quote ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’, we seek diverse tools that would allow us to ask different questions and communicate different ideas, and therefore expand ‘the limits of our world’. Film and writing have been part of our practice since the beginning, while other media like painting came later on. However, living in China for seven years brought challenges and opportunities that undeniably affected our practice. While living in Beijing we would often produce magazines, or curate alternative architectural exhibitions without having a special audience for it. At the same time we would lecture in Europe, invited by students at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, or TU Munich, or professors interested in Narrative Architecture in Graz, and find there a much broader audience for these positions and strategies. But while Chinese institutions were quite adamant to interact with us (with the exception of some interested students or young practitioners), it was in Beijing where we discovered painting and installation as medium and as research. Even with its lack of infrastructure or spaces for this type of open intellectual exchange, the city allowed us to go beyond the perceived limits of architecture as a “profession”. Its condition as a developing metropolis provided us with a unique historical opportunity to bypass the status quo and exchange with artists working across different fields.
We were researching about the origins of the avant-garde in the early 20th century including Fevralism, Suprematism and groups like UNOVIS not only because we liked what they were doing, which is of course, subjective, but because we could identify with their struggle. They were operating during a crushing shift of modernity, and we felt that the forces they were confronting are the same forces we’re struggling with now, that is, the struggle against the accumulation of wealth and capital in a changing world.
There’s a strong gravitas to Malevich’s Black Square that is not only about the seriousness of its non-objectivity, but also in the humour of making something against the status quo. We could identify with these forces as they were (like us) trying to figure out ways to make things ‘right’ (or left, would be a better word for complete change or overhaul). So, like Malevich we reached that desert of meaning, so one day we started painting responding to an utter sense of disappointment with the state of architecture.
That was a really important transition for us that opened endless possibilities when it comes to media. Before, we had a relatively diverse palate of media we could choose from, but it was all still very ‘architectural.’ We made lots of collages—pieces of research that became part of the contemporary vocabulary; images that often people would look at and even copy. But even if some of these images have been replicated, the content behind them has been overlooked. And that’s the annoying part about copying just the form while overlooking the critique behind it. You see people doing projects or images that look alike but that are totally missing the point. The potential subversion is aesthetized to the point where the critical edge of the project is watered down and lost in translation. You’re not provoking anything. Not challenging the status quo because everything is ‘too beautiful’. It becomes meaningless, just an image.
Returning to the question regarding art practice versus architectural practice, we found out that with an architectural practice we had more responsibility. We had to always address an issue that dealt with architecture and its social, environmental, historical, materialist imperatives. With literature you could write a text that is completely meaningless. You cannot (or should not) do that as an architect. Otherwise, you’re just a pretentious, irresponsible douchebag, right? So switching into painting was just one step towards a potential nothingness. Painting for us was emancipating. All of the sudden you can do whatever you want. If you’re not constrained by the architectural framework and you can even change your name and still have valid arguments about architecture, then what’s stopping you from doing anything? What are the limits of artistic exploration?
i·p: What is that particularity about architecture which creates a more restrictive framework for the discipline?
WAI: We think Architecture has a responsibility. Architecture is responsible for dealing with humans, and ecosystems, and society at the end of the day, whether it directly involves buildings or not. Even if you write a text, there’s that connection to the possibility of living together or altering the world, or dealing with limited space and resources, or responding to power structures while we dream about transforming the world and reflect on the transformations that have already taken place. Architecture has to carry the historical weight of responsibility—or it should, at least that’s how we see it.
Architecture has that extremely important social component. Since art can be anything it also has the possibility of being nothing. Having the possibility of responding to nothing, of being nothing gives you a type of freedom that you may not find anywhere else. The goal is to be happy and free, right? Of course, there are many constraints that prevent us from getting ‘there’, to be happy and free, and we must challenge those restraints. Architecture, critical Architecture should be a tool that allow us to look for that freedom, for that emancipation. Once camp is for Architecture as a tool for emancipation. The other camp allows you to try something else without worrying and in that search for nothingness find a little utopia.
So “art” could potentially liberate you—through that non-responsive nothingness. Architecture is destined to be an instrument to fight what oppresses us, which makes it by default, not free. Art could be irresponsible. Architecture is all about response.
i·p: I think the cross-over of the two mentalities is a crucial cornerstone
of your pedagogy. Could you elaborate on some of your teaching
WAI: We believe in a pedagogy of empowerment. We believe in student engagement in the learning process. Understanding the power of the tools and skills we can acquire is fundamental for us. We try to make clear that the ultimate goal of education should be to control our means of production, and to be able to create platforms that bring diverse voices for the development, production, and diffusion of positions and discourses able to transform the world.
We’re very interested in the role of media in this. We often create curatorial and publishing platforms like this one, and we teach image-making intensely because that’s a tool that has helped us to communicate ideas that otherwise would have pass unnoticed. The history of Architecture is about communication and power. And you’re often either creating critical images or just producing propaganda for the status quo. Learning the power of image making should instill a power to communicate concepts in ways beyond the reach of the professionals of today. Sometimes dealing with this is very simple. Issues like: how can you make an image powerful with basic compositional knowledge and with tools easily available to you? How can the images we produce render the worlds we want to create, not just the worlds we know already exist and have failed us? We feel like, all of our students that learned these skills early on in their studies have transformed their education because they don’t rely on their teachers to show them the old ways anymore. We hope that in the future we will see more and more little revolutions leading to a meaningful change.
Paulo Freire talks about how these traditional models of education are like a banking systems where students are treated like empty vessels where the professors just deposit a specific form of so-called valuable knowledge, replicating in this deposit the same hierarchical system. So, in this framework, education becomes this one-directional process where you go to class, the teacher tells you: this is what is right—and so it is undeniably right. It’s a very simple system. ‘This is how architecture is done.’ This is how images are made. These are the people represented in the images. And so on, and so forth. We end up with the same bland architectural arguments about the frivolous aesthetics of utomation, big DATA and other forms of crapstraction (as Hito Steyerl will put it quoting Jerry Saltz) accelerating the capitalist takeover, this or that cool new aesthetic for Instagram. In this educational model there’s no exchange. There’s no knowledge that is coming from below. At the end it is a model devised to perpetuate the current system. To consolidate the hegemonic powers and solidify the status quo.
We feel it may be comforting, as a student, to have somebody telling you that at least you could try a different method, take a different path. You don’t have to go to work or sell your time for a big corporation, you can strategize your own way to make, think, produce architecture. You can choose the media you’ll use. You can decide the types of questions you’d like to ask. It’s a risky thing, but so is ending up trapped in a nine-to-five so you could just pay back the money you owe to get the degree that put you in that trap initially.
Imagine that everybody can come up with a different way of making architecture? We’re sure that if we bring more diverse voices to the process of making architecture, we’ll end up with something better than what we have. Not just bringing them in the sense of ‘listening to them.’ No. We mean kids of diverse backgrounds, upbringings, and origins, becoming architects and using their unique ways of dreaming new worlds to be part of the collective worldmaking of architecture. Schools don’t operate in this way. What we can do for our students is to show them that there are different ways of worldmaking, and that critical questions have been asked before using different media. The pen is as mighty as Photoshop, as an artist book, as their rhetoric, as a performance. So, in a way, it’s all about teaching history—a critical history of media, of strategies, so that we all can see how to address our anxieties and discomfort. We cannot enter a room and tell people “so, what it is important in life is…” The real pedagogy happens when you can find the tools to tell us what makes you uncomfortable. Tell us how you don’t feel represented. Tell us what things we should change in society. Tell us how to make the world a better, more diverse, more inclusive place for all of us. After being able to ask these questions, then, maybe we would be able to address something meaningful. We’re sure that in high school, or in primary school all of us were already asking “why is the world like this?” You don’t need to go to the university to learn that. You shouldn’t go to the university to learn that. We can’t teach you how to think critically but we can show you, for example, how in 1968-69 a bunch of female college students took their shirts off and threw rose petals at Theodor W. Adorno freaking him out enough so that he never returned to teach. We can render for you that clash between critical theory and ‘critical praxis’. We can show you how Adorno, the critical theorist was after all bringing the police into the lecture rooms and even trying to calm down the displeased students by painting the walls in grey tones (with the hope that the students will stop protesting). We can show you a photograph of Herbert Marcuse meeting Angela Davis and start a conversation about the differences and commonalities between the Frankfurt School and the Black Power movement, the Che-Lumumba Club and the all black faction of the Communist Party in LA. All we can do is hope that the learning experience will show you that it is not enough to have critical theory on one side, and that there’s a history of strategies of emancipation that we all can learn from.
i·p: As a follow-up to the dichotomy of critical theory vs critical practice, what is the distinction between theory and practice in architecture, for you? How does this manifest in your work and as you see it in the profession at large?
WAI: We’re living in an aberration of Architecture. If we look at the history of Architecture, precisely during the period of the avantgarde or during Modernism, there was no distinction between making a book and making a building—thinking about architecture, painting, making sculpture, designing furniture, writing a play, stage design or writing a poem was all one practice. And then, once neoliberalism took over, architecture went through this hyper-specific professionalization, which is where all those gigantic multinational corporations like SOM, KPF, HOK came from. For some reason it’s always three letters that stand for three dead white men. All of the sudden everyone has these suffixes like, “Hello, I’m a L-E-E-D-AP+
A-I-A-F-with-a-specialization-in-hospitals.” What is that? How can meaningful architecture be produced under such circumstances? When did life get compartmentalized in such a form? We’re living in the nightmare of capitalism where you are reduced to a title that describes a vague action that renders the ways in which you exchange your time (and life) for money. In this climate architecture is reduced to a frivolous commodity with a specific criteria and set of values that go in the form of a schedule checklist, excel sheets, and PPT presentations with bullet points. Under these circumstances even publishing a book that is not an act of commercial propaganda will be looked at with suspicious looks from the other side.
In this way, a critical practice bridges the realm of theory and execution. If, according to Horkheimer, a theory is critical inasmuch as it seeks to liberate humans from the forces that oppress them, an architectural practice can only be critical when it serves as a tool in this search for human emancipation. In a climate in which capitalism and its tentacles oppresses us, a critical architectural practice will have to find ways to at least question the ideology behind a discipline with a problematic relationship with power. A critical architectural practice will have to use theory and media to question the institutions, the forces, the infrastructure, and the processes that consolidate power.
In this case, and to paraphrase Wittgenstein again, the limits of our architectural world will expand as far as our critical language allow us. That’s why it is so important to understand the relationship between critical ideas and ideology. We can question everything we do as architects and that includes our relationship to buildings. The more malleable the definition of architecture becomes, the more we need to redefine our critical theories. Power structures permeate everything that surround us, from the ideologies that shape our ways of thinking to the social, political, and economic forces that result in buildings. And because the definition of architecture is so broad, it implies that these forces can affect architecture in endless ways, not just in the act of building. You can deal with architecture (and with all the power structures related to it) without making buildings, in the same way that you can build buildings responding to these structures without making architecture.
And another aspect of having a critical practice is that you will be able to continuously question what an architect is, or what an architect does. If you want to sit in an office cubicle and draw bathroom details, fine, as long as it is an option. But not if it’s because you think it is the only thing you can do. The goal is to find freedom and happiness, and we believe that true liberation can only be achieved through critical practices based on critical theories. We look at the Modernist (true ideal Modernists) in the same way we look at the avant-garde. They all wanted to change the world, and so do we. In order to be truly critical we must understand that we could address pressing questions through buildings, but that there’s also a possibility where we won’t even need to build.
i·p: Malevich writes that art can exist in and of itself, divorced from
the outside world, and still hold onto its relevance. Do you think
there is an architecture that can do that as well?
WAI: This is a really difficult question we always end up discussing—we just can’t quite get it to make total sense. There is a book by Robert Musil titled The Man Without Qualities that explains the transition between the old system and the new, moving from the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Modernity. The subject, a character named Ulrich likes to lose himself in the act of thinking. He doesn’t want to be an engineer or be as useful as the rest of the people. He doesn’t have qualities or characteristics (the true definition from the German is a bit hard to find in English) because the world around him has changed to a world where everyone is an engineer or a doctor or is defined by their profession and by the ways they live their lives in a specific manner. Ulrich’s father, a university professor and legal adviser to the old aristocratic families of his area proved that ‘Even a Man without Qualities has a father with Qualities.’
We’ve brought this question to architecture many times, offering a studio and producing several projects that deal with the idea of architecture without qualities. What happens to architectures that were designed for certain systems once they become obsolete? What are those grain silos in the middle of the landscapes once the economies that supported them have disappeared? What does the silo become? What happens when a building loses its qualities? Is it possible to design such a condition? Do buildings without qualities have a past with qualities?
We’ve come to realize that in a way this may be the ultimate utopian project. If you manage to make an architecture without qualities it means that it doesn’t respond to anything, which means that there’s nothing to respond to, therefore setting architecture free since everything has been ‘solved’. In order to be able to do nothing, in the responsible framework of architecture, there must be no problem to address. We don’t want to refer to post-humanism as a framework because it was a weird connotation aesthetically speaking, but you could imagine designing for a future that doesn’t include us. It’s almost the most radically selfless thing you can do because it implies not thinking about yourself anymore. Under these circumstances architecture won’t have to be critical anymore since there’s nothing oppressing us. It would be the ultimate victory of universalism when we don’t have to respond to specific needs anymore because we won’t have any. Good luck!
That’s why we can ask the question now, but we cannot provide an answer. How does an architecture without qualities look? How does it feel? We cannot deal with it because there’s still so much to be dealt with here and now. In order to be completely free, you have to be nothing. And in order to be nothing, you have to be something that cannot be consumed, or exploited, or used. Architecture without qualities can exist only when capitalism has disappeared. Because nothing can escape the alchemistic grip of capitalism. Everything can be turned into a commodity—under the current capitalist system everything can be exchanged. If you want to think that there’s a possibility of serving no purpose and not being exploited, you really have to be nothing. Kazimir Malevich in his futile search for nothingness wrote about it in Laziness as the truth of mankind, as he affirms that laziness should be “that towards what all humanity should strive”, which later was affirmed by Mladen Stilinovic when he says in reference to Malevich and Marcel Duchamp that “Laziness is the absence of movement and thought, dumb time—total amnesia. It is also indifference, staring at nothing, nonactivity, impotence. It is sheer stupidity, a time of pain, of futile concentration. Those virtues of laziness are important factors in art. Knowing about laziness is not enough, it must be practiced and perfected.” You have to be completely useless and it is very difficult to imagine something (anything!) like that.
We can’t think of anything that cannot be used for profit or gain or exchange. Ideas can, even cosmic particles can, feelings, emotions, everything can be absorbed by the black hole of capitalism. And that’s the trick. How can we imagine an ‘outside’ of it? We imagine an architecture that can embody that anti-value system, we can write about it. Make landscapes. But at the end of the day, they’re more or less symbolic allegories of that possibility or impossibility of nothingness.
We have mentioned this before too, but it’s tough to get past the image. So in order for art to exist in and of itself it would have to suspend any value system and become nothing. That’s the case with our collages too, in the same way as it was with the theory of non-objectivity of Malevich and Suprematist painting, and in a way with its opposite, the hyper-objectifying theory of Object Oriented Ontology or OOO. If you look at OOO you can see how the concept has been co-opted and aesthetized and turned into images devoid or critical meaning. There’s no way that such paraphernalia is looking for any form of human emancipation. You find an aesthetic and you sprinkle some OOO jargon to justify it. So often, all architecture has to offer are nice images. Can we challenge this? If we cannot achieve the freedom we have been looking for, can we at least motivate or provoke somebody to think about it? And that’s the biggest question. How can emancipation become a reality, if not now, in the future? We’re not saying that we have the answers, but we’re hoping that at least by talking to you and sharing these critical questions with all the students, maybe somebody at some point will manage to devise the vehicle that will take humanity there, or design the building from where we all stand together to watch the end of capitalism and stare into the nothingness ·