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ADS12: Sight/Seeing

Tutors: Benjamin Reynolds & Valle Medina

Extending our past explorations, in 2019/20 ADS12 will again be concerned with our ‘sensibilities to discern within massive change’. Following our consideration of ‘Chronocopia’, or the way we characterise time(s) to comprehend complexity, this year the function and conspicuity of the ‘image’ will be on trial.

After the discovery of linear perspective, the eye inevitably began to dominate the nature and scope of our interactions. Science and culture tended to evolve under the influence of an ocularcentric rationale. Alberti even placed the eye ahead of all other traits ‘to be the first, chief, king, like a god of human parts’.

Building the Eye

In the second half of the eighteenth century, a tangible théâtromanie in France led to a nation-wide theatre reform and created a wave of architectural production of ‘ideal theatres’ (T. E. Lawrenson) and hypothetical new playhouses. Around the same time, the theatre became conceptually understood as a giant architectural eye (P. Camp). In Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s project, Coup d’oeil du théâtre de Besançon, we see a view of the auditorium of his theatre reflected in actor’s eye on stage. Completed in 1784, the façade of this theatre still remains.

Left: Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Coup d’oeil du théâtre de Besançon, 1804. Image: Archives Larousse. Right: Reenactment of Descartes’s discovery that we receive images as inverted. Image: Exploratorium.
Left: Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Coup d’oeil du théâtre de Besançon, 1804. Image: Archives Larousse. Right: Reenactment of Descartes’s discovery that we receive images as inverted. Image: Exploratorium.

The image is so striking not because of its masquerading as an anatomical study, but rather because Ledoux bequeaths the architecture an eye – conflating what he calls the ‘first frame’ of the human eye with that of the architectural eye of the theatre.

The Frameless Image

We’re currently witnessing the emergence of a comprehensive spatial record of the world through imagery. The world is being shown to us again and again. Maps of stitched images allow viewers to travel from one image to the next without ever encountering the frame. The map is no longer bound to a finite domain, nor is it exclusive to ‘the outside’ – it is a ‘total image’ (Hoelzl).

With the donation of floor plans to mapping services, the total image now extends to a realm architecture has made – the interior. The floor plan is now the looping seamless map. And today’s architect is one who organises space for remote traversing. This is an architecture of occupation without inhabitation.

Alongside the total world image, we are also seeing the advent of the ‘chronic image’ – the comprehensive temporal record of an individual’s life. The frequency of image-making is not yet continuous enough to be a moving image, but nevertheless spans enough time to become a lifelong portrait project.

Left: Visiting spaces by remote traversing the “total image”. Palace Tomb, Petra, Jordan. Photo: Google Maps. Right: The Chronic Image. Dashboard recording for continuous witnessing. Photo: YouTube.
Left: Visiting spaces by remote traversing the “total image”. Palace Tomb, Petra, Jordan. Photo: Google Maps. Right: The Chronic Image. Dashboard recording for continuous witnessing. Photo: YouTube.

Repulsion Suspicion Moderation

In sixteenth-century Europe, political bodies had jurisdiction over the visual integrity of images that would adorn their cities and institutions. It was thought that miracles and their visual depiction in paintings could be mistaken for trickery. Therefore, visual dilemmas became philosophical problems and institutions became vulnerable to their very core.

One thing that remains is an intolerance for images. For entire civilisations, iconoclasm, or the destruction of images, was considered to be the most terrible religious crime. For others, the most terrible religious crime was idolatry. Today, the visual dilemma has hit new heights – suspect, highly visceral images are managed through an industrialised moderation of what we are able to see. At the same time, there is a looming sense that the truth of any future image will not be legible for humans.

This year in Sight/Seeing, ADS12 will engage with massive sets of images as a means of tackling the problem of prevailing architectural images being indistinguishable from visual ad-copy. We will learn that each prolonged stare, each fixation on something, is a moment in which we are working – as ‘to look is to labour’ (Beller) – and is, ultimately, self–forming. What mechanisms of preservation are necessary so that we develop a personal capacity for repulsion in the face of the image? Why can one person stomach something another cannot? We will speculate on whether our peers and the community is indeed exhausted from imagistic overexposure. What does it means when the same images are reproduced over and over again until their ‘intimacy is inevitably compromised’ (Kotz).

Left: Bildersturm (German for ‘an outbreak of iconoclastic fury’). Altarpiece attacked during the 16th c, Utrecht. Photo: Rijksmusuem, Amsterdam; Right: Clarifai. An interface used by industrial-scale content moderation agencies. Photo: Clarifai.
Left: Bildersturm (German for ‘an outbreak of iconoclastic fury’). Altarpiece attacked during the 16th c, Utrecht. Photo: Rijksmusuem, Amsterdam; Right: Clarifai. An interface used by industrial-scale content moderation agencies. Photo: Clarifai.

The Journey of Ideas

Today, the inescapable contact with imagery induces a kind of blindness to visual content. Knowledge derived solely from sight is limited, therefore images can only carry partial experiences. However, images are inseparable from thinking, imagination and language. In 2019/20, we will concentrate on how, in having an idea, we also need to have an image in mind. (An idea, in Greek, idein, means ‘to see’.) An idea can be a vivid mental image even before it has been transferred to another medium. Indeed, the first preoccupation of painting and sculpture was to transfer what we see in order to immortalise it (nature morte). 

Left: The indecipherable still life. Photo: Reddit. Right: Ephemeral “bullets comments” on Chinese video-sharing website bilibili populate the screen adding to the original plot of TV series. Photo: bilibili.
Left: The indecipherable still life. Photo: Reddit. Right: Ephemeral “bullets comments” on Chinese video-sharing website bilibili populate the screen adding to the original plot of TV series. Photo: bilibili.

Specular Types

By considering the image as the principal host of architectural expression, we will explore the division between the specular (the mirror) and the speculative. This exploration will allow us to delve into the realms of the incommensurable, micro, painterly and other non-normative practices in order to materialise images. (Producing images in various media, for example, such as the digital, physical and chemical.) To verbalise visual content, each student will develop their own ‘eye idiom’ – a personal lexicon and a system of measurement that qualifies what they observe and make. Beginning with a single image, we will explore beyond its two-dimensionality’ in order to trace its poly-directional histories and nuanced relationships. Which is to say, we will not only begin the architectural project with what the image shows, but also what it can evoke. 

High Holdings

In 2019/20, Sight/Seeing will again be hosted within High Holdings – an online environment for the generation and distribution of architectural discourse. High Holdings is situated within the cascade of major revelations in knowledge, which are being forged through the raw power of processing colossal amounts of information. High Holdings addresses the unfolding depictions of the world that may appear unrecognisable, but which are truly products of terrestrial occupation.


Tutors

The work of Valle Medina and Benjamin Reynolds (Pa.LaC.E) can be understood as 'conceits' borrowed from the metaphysical poets, as drawn-out and as turns of images. Their works comprise numerous discrete décors that access ideas – together they create a 'sense', or vector. Their works play out through exhaustive 'idea surveys' that stem from their interest in large acts of human endeavour – encyclopaedic projects, expeditions, taxonomies, etc –  which also 'reinforce the naturalisation' of their work within the ceaselessly shifting contexts in which they operate. 

Benjamin Reynolds received a diploma with honours from the Architectural Association, London.

Valle Medina is a graduate from the Laboratory for Applied Virtuality at ETH Zürich D-ARCH (summa cum laude).