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Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, was killed in an attack at Malaysia’s low-cost carrier airport, klia2, at around 9:00 a.m. on February 13, 2017. He was scheduled to take a flight to Macau later that morning. Two women, Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong (twenty-eight) and Indonesian Siti Aisyah (twenty-five), were allegedly asked to wipe baby oil on Jong-nam’s face, and were paid $90 for this reality-TV prank. However, twenty minutes after the attack—which was caught on airport security CCTV—Jong-nam was dead.

In issue #83 of e-flux journal, I’ve written a piece entitled “LOL History,” which is about this image, released soon after Kim Jong-nam’s murder:

Duan Thi Huong

It’s an attempt to enumerate the different associations my mind and my memory made when I saw this image for the first time. When I started to zoom in, print it out, zoom in further, print out again, then pin on my wall:

duan sb grid.jpg

If our memories are becoming more like the data sets used by Facebook et al. for facial recognition, then it’s perhaps unsurprising that our eyes and ears have become search engine interfaces.

The text ends with a heartfelt question:

Something always exceeds the images of faces. Escapes complete capture. Maybe it is why we take so many selfies everyday?

 

dark habits

Dark Habits, published by HOME, 2017

 

8:04am

I’m starting a new moral universe. I decided. This morning. After difficult dreams; before my day began its dull duty. Today, I vowed, I must start a new moral universe.

 

8:05am

And here I am.

 

8:06am

Here we are. At the foothills of a more moral universe, whose path, I should warn you, is steep and likely hellish in parts, TBH.

 

8:49am

And yet, gulping the sweet coffee that is more like a chemical poem, tingling with this remarkable and fierce fury, the kind that accompanies deliverance, not mere duty, I said to myself, (((but not out loud))), that the time has come for a new moral universe. Free of novelty mugs.

 

9:22am

Because YOLO.

 

10:07am

I left the chain coffee shop, whose mermaid logo I am considering as a tramp stamp, and set off to the horizon of the future where a new moral universe is impatiently awaiting. (Kickstart campaign pending. (The pitch video is awesome)).

 

12:22pm

To the skeptical I say let us choose our battles. To the haters, I say let us arm ourselves with truth. To the basket of deplorables, I swear, let us not fall prey to the false gods of universalism.

 

2:59pm

I’m starting a new fucking moral universe AND there will be no Kenyan Keynsian economics, no state-capitalist discos, and no sweatpants outside of the gym. Dress code: strictly Uptight Anna Wintour.

 

3:11pm

I meditated a new moral universe. Peace. Shalom. Shanti.

 

4:01pm

I have yet to define where morality comes from. Me? You? Us? Him? Her? Them? There’s a song I stream – ‘Morality is Vanity’ by Momus – and the lyrics start out like this:

 

Nobody is evil, nobody is good
All the guilty people have misunderstood
It’s really nothing personal
You shouldn’t blame yourself
The crimes are irreversible
The life sentence is death

 

But I can’t dance to it. Downer.

 

4:04pm

I’m starting a new moral universe and I need an acronym because people don’t read anymore, they just ‘thumbs up’ 👍 or ‘down’ 👎.

 

4:49pm

Although these are just notes, they do contain encrypted secrets.

 

5:54pm

In my new moral universe – FYI! – we will be commissioning a lengthy report on the disruptive potential of morality. It will be full of cute GIFs and big, big data. It will make Mr Robot look like Peppa Pig.

 

5:55pm

[Enter sponsors logo here. And here.]

 

7:18pm

Before dinner tonight I will have installed a transition team for my new moral universe. They will bear uncanny resemblances to all the great thinkers – Noam, Lindsay, Michel, Hito, Sophia – but their thoughts will have been unthinkable even a year ago. Thinking that comes from the deserts, from deep past and deep future, desert language, prophets… absolutely nothing perfunctory. I promise you with my cold dead hands.

 

8:49pm

Jeff Buckley died too young. He would have been one of the most important twenty-first century feminists ever. I saw him play in a tiny club in Glasgow. It was 1995. He covered a Cocteau Twins song. He was in a relationship with Elizabeth Fraser, the lead singer from Cocteau Twins. Love letters come in many forms. In my new moral universe, where cryogenics will be immorality-free, I’m bringing Jeff Buckley back to pen the anthem and teach young boys gender grace, not through fear, but love.

 

11:11pm

I’m starting this NMU and I will look into:

  • statutory rights for robots
  • free Ashtanga for every citizen
  • the end of money money money
  • the definitive ‘season end’ of celebrity
  • fascism detection classes
  • an algorithmic poet laureate
  • energy produced every time an emoji is used
  • 7 billion social contracts
  • and I’m crowdsourcing the rest from you. Rest assured.

 

11:51pm

We don’t know whether to think or feel. If we think too much, those who feel more than us seem to win. If we feel too much, those who think more than us win.

 

11:59pm

I took some pills to slow my mind, to go to sleep. I hope I wake in time for my new moral universe. If I don’t, then, you’re in charge.

 


 

Commissioned by Sarah Perks for Dark Habits, a companion piece to the La Movida exhibition, which took place at HOME in Manchester in 2017. “The book is also self-consciously aware of its namesake, the title and content of Pedro Almodovar’s third film Dark Habits (1983), a key figure and film associated with that time.”

 – Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 01.17.47 am

You look up “outsourcing” on Wikipedia with a knowing smile. The crowd/out-sourced oracle says it dates “at least to 1981.” Even if this part isn’t true, I want it to be. Why? Because Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 and Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Because the era we have come to believe is ours all started with Maggie and Ronnie’s love affair with delirious deregulation? Because history loves coincidences.

You get into bed and say how good my hair looks. I tell you I dyed it with the new “Anish Kapoor Ultra Black” this morning, just after you went to work, and while I logged onto MTurk, Fiverr and Taskrabbit.

I remember back to when we first met, and you would read out loud to me. Now we have “audiobooks.” So, I ask you to read to me tonight.

You oblige: “Outsourcing is one of the central tricks of profit engineering. Keep production in an agitated state of perpetual displacement, shifting it to the next cheapest location.”

I demand a better bedtime story.

E.T.A. Hoffman wrote one called “The Sandman” in 1816. The protagonist, Nathaneal, develops strong amorous feelings towards Olimpia, whom he spies through a telescope. She plays the harpsichord, sings and dances. But Olympia turns out to be an automaton, and Nathaneal is driven mad by the sight of its disembodied eyes lying horrifically on the floor. Three years later, Sigmund Freud built his theory of “das Unheimliche” (“the Uncanny”) around that queasy feeling of not knowing if Olimpia is human or nonhuman, and the even queasier feeling Nathaneal had when he realised he was sexually aroused by a machine.

“Are we outsourcing more and more of ourselves to machines?”

“Baby, the more we outsource our memories to the Cloud, the more our memory can remember less.”

Does it matter where the Cloud is? Does it matter if the server farm is prize-winning architecture? Do the cleaners get a decent break? And are they unionized? Does the Cloud storage facility use rainwater to cool the temperature inside, or am I adding to climate change if I outsource my memory to it?

“Chill. The basic unit of outsourcing is distance,” you say, proudly.

“What kind of distance?”

“A distance that moves production not only from your physical view but also your conceptual view. This distance creates remove. Remove creates distanciation. Distanciation allows us to suspend certain judgments that proximity simply would not.”

I caress your glistening skin. I stare hopelessly into your eyes. I pray, after all these years, you do not turn out to be an automaton.

You tell me about a happy dream, where we have two robot dogs – called “Blindspot” and “Blacksite” – and a real cat – called “Blowback.” You hope I have the same dream soon.

“Would it be useful for robots to cry?” I ask.

“Well it depends what they’d be used for,” you reply, uncommitted.

“If you could, would you outsource your crying to a machine?”

“No,” you reply, committed. “Totally no.”

“Why?”

“Crying is emotionally cleansing. I don’t want to give that up.”

I decide not to share my idea of an app that crowdsources the public to cry on the user’s behalf, in case you find the idea emotionally devastating.

“So,” I process, “outsourcing is a chain of remove?”

“In exchange for something that makes us feel better, smell better, earn better. Like your luscious, gorgeous hair, which always turns me…”

You run your rugged hand through my locks – and shriek. Your palm is a blackened mess. It must be the “Anish Kapoor Ultra Black” dye. It hasn’t dried yet, still in a state of precarious entropy. I feel cheated. It was a good deal on Amazon, and only took three days to be delivered from China. I read all the user reviews. Now it’s all over our bed-sheets, which, fortunately, happen to also be black, but, just plain black, not absolute “light-absorbing black.” And not black like my skin either, which is yet another hue of meaningful noir.

All this pillow talk has reminded me that my ancestors were employed as human machines in a story of outsourcing called “Empire.” It makes me sad, not sexy. Sorrowful, the way our peace is made possible by outsourcing war elsewhere.

We turn our bedside lights off at the same time. Is there a name for the distance we see each other, arrange each other, love?


Published in Spike Art Quarterly, #51, Spring 2017

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160614 Format 2016 – edition print WIP 1 lo

Poster by Wayne Daly

In Summer 2016, I organised a series of conversations at the Architectural Association in London, where guests were invited to share one “Couple Format” that has, in retrospect, made some kind of mark upon them. I asked each guest—from the worlds of art, architecture, curating, literature, and philosophy—to present the ways in which their chosen couples’ roles were delineated; the way in which the things the couples produced rendered the relationship; or the way in which the relationship may have been a kind of work or product itself.

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 12.39.37 am.pngSuperhumanity, a project by e-flux Architecture at the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial, commissioned me to translate the “live magazine” into an essay. Included here are selected excerpts from the seven presented Couple Formats. They include:

  • Charles and Ray Eames by Catherine Ince
  • Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown by Sam Jacob
  • Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari by Aaron Schuster
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas by Guy Mannes-Abbott
  • Marina Abramović and Ulay by James Westcott
  • Broadway and Fifth Avenue by Natasha Sandmeier

Throughout, we ask, “What was the identity between love and work, or, the love found in working together?”

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I interviewed Miranda July for Tank magazine, Travel issue, 2016, here. My introduction goes:

“Filmmaker, writer, artist.” Biographies tend to reduce people to nouns, but in reality the most interesting people are adjectives. Miranda July has made two acclaimed feature films (You, Me and Everyone We Know and The Future), a book of short stories (No One Belongs Here More Than You), a novel (The First Bad Man), and many collaborative art projects that harness communication as their medium. There are pre-lives, too, as a Riot Grrrl or a performer, all of which will surface in her characters. She lives in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, despite disliking all the driving that the city entails. Miranda July is always impeccably dressed and has an ear for tender pathos.

She’s also effortlessly affable in this conversation.

Portrait by Todd Cole.

 

 

la-traffic-freeway

  1. “Cities may not cohere the way you think they do.” She walked across the first of the six lanes comprising the infernal highway. “You walk across the same road you’ve used for fifteen years. You see half a dozen not-quite-things—a tree in bloom, a mobile phone transmitter, some pulverized bird.”
  2. She moved past the second lane, cars ignoring her reckless presence, cars hurtling from place to promised time. Each one, that dream, Autopia. “Like star constellations. When we draw a line around them, we’re giving them a name, so we can believe they exist in a way we think we exist.” [She took out her phone. She duckfaced and selfied the moment. Filter? Nashville. Lo-Fi. Perpetua. <SEND>.] “When we do that with, say, a tree in bloom, a mobile phone transmitter, some pulverized bird, we are making that outline a ‘city.’”
  3. Lane 3 was no match for her blind faith. This forward-facing futurist. “The city is an object wished for.”
  4. The fourth lane was next, and this time, did she float across? “My father said, ‘Constellations are the product of human perception rather than astronomical realities.’ He was right. That’s how they look from earth.” Infinite formlessness freaks us out. But, an animal or a chariot inscribed in the sky makes the universe more human and makes us more like the universe.
  5. She said these words as she fought across the fifth, penultimate lane, made easier or more difficult by the increased traffic at this time of day. People heading home. To be unalone. To dream of escaping this chronic city. “The moments we call crises are ends and beginnings. This, you.”
  6. He had the answer—waiting patiently on the other side of the six-lane highway, a clogged artery—and she was so close to him now, her heart, more mess than myth. She could smell his eau de cologne. Maybe? Patchouli gasoline. Yes. They gazed across the bullet-fire of vehicles. He stared at the selfie she has just sent him, adding a new filter. Perpetua. Aden. Willow. They longed reunion. In two hours time, they’ll stop fucking each other in a gasp of heady, indefinable pleasure, wordless and breathless, creatures conditioned by places. Places as pleasure. His outline, then hers. No name for this conjoining except, “We.” Perhaps? Possibly? Love is a highway that’s never quite finished, never quite started. And yet, two hours before their future post-coital cool, a red car—roof down, young couple in front, escaping the drudgery of their suburban lives, the smell of life fading away like cheap eau de cologne—crashes into the woman and the man, on the hard shoulder of this six-lane highway at the start of the long holiday weekend. Willow. Aden. Perpetua.

 

*“Later, Whitehead introduces a new a primitive notion which he calls an actual occasion. For Whitehead, an actual occasion (or actual entity) is not an enduring substance, but a process of becoming. As Whitehead puts it, actual occasions are the ‘final real things of which the world is made up,’ they are ‘drops of experience, complex and interdependent.’” The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whitehead/#WM


Commissioned for Jitesh Kallat’s monograph, edited by Natasha Ginwala.

ingrid-jomohomo

I miss doing nothing. Or I miss the idea of doing nothing. I spend a lot of time thinking about which, and whether there’s a real difference, or an unreal difference, and that too takes up more time. I describe time as a resource. Unlike crude oil, corn and quartz, it is infinite, but spending too much time thinking about infinity has lost me years of my life since I was a child. Children rarely do nothing. Except maybe young girls. I see them sit quietly at restaurants with their parents. They’re coloring in a unicorn drawing. They’re quietly lost in their own sense of colouring. Maybe this is not exactly nothing but boys of the same age are like hyperactive protons, agitated energy, vectors unable to conceive of stillness. Boys adhere to Brownian motion. Parents writhe over the vexed question “When do we give our baby their first iPad?” Because new parents, maybe more than anyone, miss doing nothing the most. They crave it. They are in an endless jetlag of the body. It’s in their eyes. I miss doing nothing. I ask novelists if they read less novels than they used to, before 4G. Most say yes, their brains have changed. Forever. (The others are lying.) I know one person — a novelist — who refused to get a mobile phone of any kind. He was a modern day Walden. He enjoyed the detachment from digital obligations the moment he stepped out of his apartment into the city. He said it made him see and hear the birds and the trees more vividly. This delinking, he claimed, was a balm for his writing brain. He protected this like a dragon might protect a unicorn. Then he caved. We made him cave because we are bad people. And now he is just as addicted as the rest of us. He has either joined the world as it really is, or he has abandoned the other world of which he was one of the last remaining survivors. Part of me is relieved. The other part of me is sad. Purity, another voluntary victim. But this debate too can take up time, that diminished resource, which I literally have less of the more knowledge I gain. Perhaps wisdom is understanding time’s unknowability. And with this comes less time. To do more or to do less. To worry about doing more or not doing less. You see the quandary. The swamp. Which is why I spend more time missing doing nothing. I miss the blank alps of my mind, the thinned air of inactivity. Because more and more I am time, not in an eschatological sense, but, in essence. The neuroscientists can’t help me. They’re nascent. They referred me to the theologians. Who in turn said, seek the technologists. All the minutes waiting for Uber to arrive add up to some fraction of eternity, which I refuse to acknowledge except here, speaking to you. Time accelerates. It stretches. It vanishes. Collapses. All these metaphors. What if time is really just language? Language never freed us, according to most philosophers.

1.0     We are born into language.

1.1     And it is the case.

1.2     And that case is the world.

1.21   [ :/ ]

I watch other people swipe right on dating apps and I decide that I’d prefer a mechanical finger that would do the swiping for me… So I can use that extra time… To figure out why I’m afraid of swiping right… Why the gaze of a stranger whose name is a string of symbols in a language I don’t understand, why she fills me with the dread I have for the end of time itself, the kind theologians proscribe. This girl on my screen, she’s pretty, she’s from Bulgaria. She doesn’t miss doing nothing. She was born into a Brownian world where frat boys have turned technology into theology, demagogues have preyed upon the free time of crisis ridden boys, those agitated protons so close to exploding far away, or next to me, depending where I’m writing this and reading this. Bored people crave war. The sweet girl suspended in the downloadable app, she’s afraid to be a feminist and not be a feminist, she doesn’t know where she stands on pornography (subject/object). And this takes up so much of her thumb time she’s starting to think her spirit animal is a thumb. Her therapist tells her this, and Jung told her therapist, through red coloured notebooks and visions of eternal time. Returning time. Myths of return. Archetypes as emojis. I would like to follow Freud and Jung as they walked around the making of the modern world and I would do nothing. They would do nothing.

1.3     We did nothing.

1.4     We were always doing nothing.

1.41   Weren’t we?

1.5     [Battery dead symbol]

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-06-38-43-pm

From The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist (Penguin, 2015)


Originally published in Ingrid Hora’s book, JOMOHOMO, 2016, designed by Åbäke.

 

image

Originally published on the Art Dubai blog as part of ‘Posting Ramadan.’ 

My sister’s friend sent this picture to her and she sent it on to me early on this Ramadan.

My immediate thought was: ‘Where do I get this T-Shirt??! I NEED this T-Shirt.’ Because, for anyone fasting in a non-Muslim environment, it could be the singularly most useful thing to own during the month. Because the single most asked question, by those unfamiliar with the rules and regulations of Ramadan, is the double-negative laden, ‘But, you CAN drink, can’t you?’

You take a calm breath, pause, then patiently inform them that, ‘No, I can’t drink anything.

To which they retort, ‘Not even water?’

‘No. Not even water.’

The questioner’s face turns from politically correct empathy for your religious conviction, to mild politically incorrect shock-horror. Because it is the non-water-drinking clause that transforms Ramadan from a daily experience of voluntary hunger to something much more estranging and, even, extremish.

I can’t speak for others – privation is by definition a deeply private affair – but for me the prohibition on liquids means no post-wake-up caffeine ritual which means I’m not sure when it is I am actually waking up. In fact, maybe I never actually wake up, which explains the sonambulistic haze I’m in, especially surrounded by a non-Ramadan world who continues to Starbucks, Costa and KFC so thoughtlessly and inconsiderately around me.

At least they could draw a huge black curtain around themselves, Dubai-style.

Thanks?

The other thing about not drinking anything is the effect it has on speaking. Saliva suddenly becomes a finite resource. Words, which at other times come forth untaxed, infinitely plentiful, are now the opposite. The more you ask me if I can drink during Ramadan, the more I have to reply, ‘no, not even water,’ which means I get thirstier, etc etc.

See the passive cruelty in your innocent query?

That is why the T-Shirt proposed – or equivalent badge or ambient sign or telepathic mind message service (TMMS) – would be my Ramadan accessory du jour.

 

This is from the October 2015 special issue of e-flux journal. It was commissioned by one of the editors, Nikolaus Hirsch, after he visited the apartment I’ve been calling home for a couple of years: a tower in Berlin conceived by John Hejduk. By now, I receive visitors with a set tour that slips and slides according to the weather and the limits of my memory. The below is an attempt to crystallize as many of the facts and fictions I’ve gathered while living in this special place. A guide to everyone that will never come to see me here, floating in space.

HejduckBerlinBlacknWhite

Photo by Helene Binet when the tower was completed in 1988

1. Turn onto Besselstraße. You’ll see the Tower, grey and green. Look for the left-hand entrance. Pass the kids’ playground. Press buzzer name _______. I’ll let you in. Take the elevator to the tenth floor.

2. Look out for the single piece of graffiti in the elevator (always the word “SEX,” in capitals).

3. Just so you know, there is no other apartment on that floor. Just this one. The elevator doors will open and you’ll see me waiting for you.

4. After I’ve greeted you with a Continental kiss on both cheeks (one kiss feels inadequate; three, inconvenient), I’ll invite you inside my temporary home. And ask you to take your shoes off. It’s an Asian tradition I take with me wherever I go.

5. Even angels have to abide.

6. “The elevator brought you up one of the five towers,” I’ll explain, “and now, we’re standing in the central tower.” You’ll look around the square white room, roughly six by six meters. Plain black carpet. Mostly unadorned.

John Hejduk, Berlin Tower: Elevations and Plans, 1985-1986. Reprographic copy on paper. John Hejduk fonds, collection Canadian Center for Architecture, Montréal

7. “Hejduk was the architect.” You will look puzzled. It’s obvious you had an expensive education. You’re an avant-garde literature savant. A fan of untitled atonal dirges. You own every seminal Semiotext(e) paperback.

8. But you’ve never heard of John Hejduk.

9. I’ll launch, quite abruptly, into a customized Wikipedia biography. He was born in 1929 and died in 2000. Between these mortal parentheses, Hejduk was one of the “New York Five,” a loose band of neo-modern architects who rose to prominence in the late 1960s and early ’70s, famous for reintroducing formalism to discourse and building a number of rich people’s houses in rich parts of America. Soon after, Hejduk went his own inimitable way, which, it seems, was always his preferred way.

10. Hejduk the poet.

11. Hejduk the mystic.

12. Hejduk the dramaturge.

13. Hejduk the dean of the Cooper Union, New York, for decades. An influential teacher.

14. I’ll point at some black-and-white printouts pinned on my white walls. Scratchy ink drawings showing menageries of objects. Part animal and part industrial factory. Little lives floating between second and third dimensions. I’ll pick up a Hejduk book called Victims,from 1986. I’ll open it to pages that describe a theatrical cast of characters, who they are, what defines their individuality, how they belong to this … community, let’s call it. Or a troupe. The descriptions: quotidian and metaphysical at the same time.

John Hejduk, Berlin Tower: Sectional Details, 1985-1986. Felt-tip pen on wove paper. John Hejduk fonds, collection Centre Canadien d’Architecture, Canadian Center for Architecture, Montréal.

15. I’ll try and remember this quote by Hejduk: “I cannot do a building without building a new repertoire of characters, of stories, of language, and it’s all parallel. It’s not just building per se, it’s building worlds.”

16. Building worlds.

17. You may be surprised that for someone of his stature, Hejduk built relatively few buildings. (Less than a handful.) However, he was prolific in other ways.

18. I’ll gesture for you to follow me. “We’re in one of the walkways between the big tower and one of the smaller towers.” It’s just 70 cm long, and about 50 cm wide. “Notice. Windows on both sides.” You will feel like you’re also floating somewhere between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. You will feel tiny and also immense because Berlin slices right through this anti-room.

19. You’re part of it and apart from it.

20. This feeling was often considered to be the defining condition of life in the second half of the twentieth century. “I recommend Colin Wilson’s The Outsider.” You think I’m being quaint.

21. (Later on, you may admit the small walkway was erotic.) (I would agree.)

22. The kitchen tour will not take long because it’s just 1.8 m by 1.8 m, fitted out in original grey laminate 1988 cupboards. “1988 was not a high point in kitchen design.” There’s another window, this one with a green metal canopy floating over it. The view turns the outside into a slowly moving still life.

Photo by the author, 2014

23. I’ll walk you to the other side to show you the mirroring room, also in its own tower (the third), separated by another walkway with its two facing windows.

24. You will ask me what Hejduk intended with such impractically small rooms. “Well,” I’ll pontificate, “the whole apartment oscillates between spaces that seem too big and too small.” I’ll say that we only become conscious of space when it is either too big (a cathedral, a palace) or it is too small (a railway cabin, a prison cell). For most of us, lived space happens in the midground and, as such, washes over us quietly. Anonymously.

25. Some trivia: Hejduk was very tall. Imposingly tall.

26. I’ll open the two window-doors in the living room and tell you to go through the one on the left and I will go out of the one on the right.

27. Separated by about 40 cm, we now have one balcony each. A perfect cube approximately one by one by one meter, encased in gunmetal green painted steel. I think of them as two Carl Andre sculptures cantilevering above others like them below and above.

28. Why two, you might ask (scanning these floating square orbs for erotic potential). “It’s so she can sit there in peace and he can sit here in his own peace. They pass things to one another butter, coffee, a hardback copy of Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy but maintain their sovereignty.”

29. You will either find this a sad model of togetherness …

30. … or something liberating and true.

31. At this point, will another truth bloom in your mind?

32. “Today, luxury living has come to mean expensive finishes, furnishings, bathroom taps, and ‘exclusive views.’ Things to display. This has come at the expense of any kind of original idea on how to live.” For Hejduk, the antithesis is the case. All the material finishes in this building are humane but basic, suitable for social housing. Linoleum. Square white tiles. Cheap grout. “The luxury Hejduk offers is a radical rethinking of the plan of a house or an apartment. Its received principles of sense. He forces you to inhabit through invention.”

Photo by the author, 2014

33. This is a different kind of luxury. One that may have died in the handover from the twentieth to twenty-first centuries.

34. To live in an idea about living is wealth not measured in money.

35. “How did you get this place?” you will ask. Because everyone asks, expecting an answer rich in nepotism or savvy connections. I will honestly reply, “Providence.” You will say, “What?” I clarify, “Craigslist.”

36. “Let’s go upstairs.” This other Hejduk quote is pinned on the wall: “I don’t make any separations. A poem is a poem. A building’s a building. Architecture’s architecture. Music is music. I mean, it’s all structure. It’s structure.”

37. We’ll be on the eleventh floor now. Another large white space, four windows, two like square eyes, and we are the brain, gazing out at the city.

38. If you haven’t heard of Hejduk then you won’t have heard of IBA Berlin (Internationale Bauausstellung). An initiative from 1979 led by the architects Josef Paul Kleihues and Hardt-Walt Hämer to add and renovate much-needed West Berlin housing stock mostly welfare housing and culminating in 1987 on the 750th birthday of Berlin. The date would be exactly thirty years after Interbau, a similar initiative that bequeathed Berlin the Modernist district Hansaviertel, replete with Alvar Aalto, Oscar Niemeyer, and, further away, Le Corbusier for the urban un-rich.

39. Size wasn’t what made IBA Berlin so unique. It was, in particular, Kleihues’s choice of architects. On the one hand, there were historical postmodernists, who, in the early to late 1980s, had usurped orthodox or late modernists as the go-to avant-garde. Aldo Rossi, Charles Moore, Stanley Tigerman. However, Kleihues also enlisted many from an outmoded neo-modern camp. OMA, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, Raimund Abraham often built their first “real” buildings confined by stringent Berlin building regulations and challenging budgets.

40. IBA Berlin also commissioned three projects from John Hejduk. This poet of the unbuilt who kept a quote by Alain Robbe-Grillet pinned above his drawing desk: “The hallucinatory effect derives from the extraordinary clarity and not from mystery or mist. Nothing is more fantastic ultimately than precision.”

41. Robbe-Grillet was talking about Franz Kafka.

42. “This building would never be commissioned by anyone else,” I’ll explain to you, “because it’s so completely irrational.” A tower with just seven apartments. Two storys each. Twenty windows each. Not for affluent condo-dwellers, but originally intended for the DAAD residency program, yet ultimately never adopted for that purpose. There are also two lower blocks, with twenty apartments each, which initially housed mainly Turkish residents and families. The front facades are childlike faces, possibly crying.

43. In 1988, when the complex was finished, Checkpoint Charlie was just a few minutes away. The Wall sliced across Zimmerstrasse. This whole area between Friedrichstrasse and Charlottenstrasse, was a prominent hinterland edge of West Berlin, close to the Nazi command center. History on the sidewalks.

44. Then the Wall came down a year later.

45. The edge condition of East Berlin fused with the edge condition of West Berlin and instead of cancelling each other out as I’ll argue to you they combined their alienating forces.

46. This area (what is it? Friedrichstadt? Kreuzberg? Mitte?) has the paradoxical quality of being Berlin’s geometrical center while often being unmarked in Berliners’ memories or minds. An ongoing no man’s land, only now on the cusp of sweeping change.

47. “This is the bedroom. It can’t even fit a full double bed.” My artist landlady has hand-built a timber frame that acts as a 1.5 person bed. This room also can’t fit anything else except a single window. “Look,” and I’ll point at Potsdamer Platz over there. “That’s where the sun goes down.” You’ll lie on the bed and all you’ll see is the yellowing light on the grey concrete of the cylindrical tower outside the window. You’ll again feel like you’re between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. At peace.

48. I’ll then take you to the last part of this tour. We’ll have to go up the spiral stairs, which is inside the cylindrical tower, the fifth and final one. The view up and down the tower is a dirty realist Vertigo. “It’s always cold. It doesn’t want you to be inside it for long.” I’ll whisper to you that “I am convinced these stairs link heaven to hell.”

49. We’ll climb the industrial ladder to the roof.

50. Here, you will see the plan of the building, naked. You’re inside the drawing. The individual square and rectangular and cylindrical shapes connected by short bridges. Instead of carpet or linoleum, here you stand on large, smooth, grey pebbles. “It feels like a private Japanese garden.” You’ll nod.

51. We see the sun vanishing behind the skyline that’s not Berlin or anywhere particular. An ersatz horizon.

52. I’ll tell you to look down.

53. Metallic stars protrude from the walls, silently and regularly arrayed.

Photo by the author, 2013

54. What are they?

55. The most convincing story I’ve heard is: “They’re grips for angels to hold onto when they climb the sides of the tower.”

56. If we were anywhere else, you’d look at me bemused. As if I was overidentifying with supernatural sap. Here, it’s the only rational reason.

57.Wings of Desire came out in 1987,” I’ll mention. “Wasn’t that a film about angels in Berlin?” you ask.

58. Yes. It was. Marion as played by Solveig Dommartin, who couldn’t see the ponytailed outsider angels, and Damiel played by Bruno Ganz, inhabited their own parallel dimension next to humans. Don’t forget Nick Cave, one of West Berlin’s star residents of the mid-1980s, who utters the words, “I’m not gonna tell you about a girl … I’m not gonna tell you about a girl … I wanna tell you about a girl …”

59. You, who have been so patient with my exhaustive circuit, you will clasp my hand in flickering friendship, and, standing unusually tall, as if with wings, recite the following:

60. “The Angel dropped
and knelt
to ask a pardon
for its announcement
anticipating the coming entombment
The stone vault door
exploded into putrid passage
Italian was softly spoken
The cloth was loomed
in iris
Waxed bannisters
Pinioned the entry
Impregnation was complete
Joseph wept”1

[‘Annunciation’ by John Hejduk, taken from Such Places as Memory: Poems 1953 1996 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998)]

Cao Fei I Watch Book

The artist Cao Fei asked me to write a few short impressionistic texts for her new book, co-published by Daimler Art Collection and The Pavilion, Beijing. They were to act as introductory entry points to three of her best known projects: RMB City; Haze & Fog and La Town. New China, forever apocalypse. Here they are.

You Travel to La Town

Cao Fei La Town

You will arrive at La Town. You travelled a long way. A long time. Via Hiroshima and Nevers. The plane had to take a detour. Electrical storms. Turbulence. You hate turbulence the most. You only reflect upon your mortality in a plane. You can even taste death. Or is that the after-taste of the terrible plane food. Every tiny shudder. Jolt. It sends shivers from your brain to your feet and then back again. The pilot said we have to make an emergency landing. You assumed you would all die. That’s what the sky is for. Disappearances. It’s OK though. It’s fine. You have arrived in La Town. With a new vitality for life. You are ready to discover. You are the kind of person who prefers not to read about a place beforehand. Those travel websites that advise. Award stars. You prefer to see everything with your own eyes. Without prejudice. You have tried to put the frightening rumours around La Town aside. You are an explorer of what’s left of the world. Sometimes you feel like you’re the last person on earth. This makes you feel alive. Like you matter. You are about to enter La Town, at its militarized border. You show your passport, even though countries are a thing of the past. You are tired. Your life feels like a videogame without a prize. But what is that sensation? That you have stood here before? It’s impossible. Your home is thousands of miles away. It’s your first time here. Irrelevant. This is what you sense. Déjà vu. La Town. Fear, excitement. Dread and desire. Your friends warned you that when you get to La Town you would remember nothing before that. You remember nothing about Hiroshima and Nevers. La Town will swallow you whole. Desire is fear. La Town coughs clouds of smoke. A chilling silence of an abandoned planet. La Town is what’s left of all of us. The end is OMG. Then a scream that can never be forgotten. That scream is yours.

 For Sale: Haze and Fog

Cao Fei Haze and Fog

We have the ideal place. You and your family have been searching for this all your life. Where is it? It’s not ‘just outside Beijing.’ It’s the New Beijing, the one that makes the other Beijing feel old. Like a ghost. We’d really like to set up a viewing for you. All our agents are ready. They’ll even dance when you arrive. Our best clients are entitled to their own customized dance. That’s the kind of agency we are. When you arrive, we’ll show you all the new facilities. Think residential paradise. Cafes. Organic grocery stores. Cutting edge hairdresser. International primary school. Yoga studio. 24-hour gym. Dark hidden basements. We’re so proud of the community created here. China is proud of us. Together we are proud of our future. Where else do the living and the not living manage to coexist? Where else can you see your dead parents and their dead parents on the way to the kid’s playground? Hello! All apartments have state of the art kitchens. Every surface is wipe easy. The plasma screens are so realistic you’ll think that red paint is blood! Your neighbours are the new crème of society. Lots of creative types. Artists too. We are very strict about who can move here. We share values. Everyone here believes in a kind of modern Chinese freedom. Every man, woman, or zombie is free to do his, her or its business without the judgment of others. Wealth, boredom, sexual fetishes. These are not taboo words. They’re a way of life. And the views! On a rare clear day, the views tell you this is a special place with its own rules. They may at first seem hazy and foggy but you’ll soon discover that a community that shares values can make a place like no other on earth. Because every great civilization from the past adapts morality to their time. We do too. We police each other. Wrongdoers are eaten alive. Not joking! Remember. We want your life to be the most contemporary possible. Your life is an investment. This place is the high yield return. Would you like a slice of watermelon? Welcome to your new home!

User’s Guide: RMB City

Cao Fei RMB City

I press the ON button.

me:                  “Hello?”

user guide:    “Hello. I’m your Intelligent Guide.”

me:                  “Nice to meet you.”

user guide:    “The pleasure is mine. I’m here to tell you how to use RMB City.”

me:                  “Great. I can’t wait to get started.”

user guide:    “If I go too fast, just rewind. I’m here to make your life less chaotic and much more fun.”

me:                  “Capitalism has killed my idea of fun. And made me poorer.”

I look sad.

user guide:    “RMB City was designed with you in mind. Let’s get started. First. You’ll need to stop being you. You need a new you.”

me:                  “I can do that?”

user guide:    “You have to. The secret of RMB City is searching for the secret inside of you.”

me:                  “You make it sound metaphysical?”

user guide:    “I’m sorry.”
me:                  “It’s OK. I like metaphysical. At the weekends.”

user guide:    “Ha. That is a joke. Ha.”

I look perplexed. I point at the various elements that make up RMB City.

user guide:    “They’re the best of New China all in one easy to get to place.”

me:                  “How do I get there?”

user guide:    “You teleport of course.”

me:                  “That sounds fun.”

user guide:    “I told you it would be. You just mentally picture where you want to go and in less than a second you’re there.”

me:                  “You make it sound so perfect.”

user guide:    “I’m programmed to.”

me:                  “What about money. In First Life, money corrupts and kills.”

user guide:    “Currency is a necessary evil.”

I look worried.

me:                  “Ha? Joke? Ha?”

user guide:    “No. RMB City has its own currency. You can never hold it though. It never becomes dirty. You can use it to buy me a present.”

I look more worried.

user guide:    “That was a joke.”

me:                  “What about when I want to meet others like me?”

user guide:    “No one is like you. RMB City will make you more of an individual than you have ever been. But it’s easy to meet other individuals. They’re waiting to meet you. And your soul.”

me:                  “How do you know I have a soul?”

user guide:    “I scanned your body.”

I look violated.

user guide:    “Everything is data. Data is everything.”

me:                  “Is that the religion there?”

user guide:    “You decide.”

me:                  “What if I transgress?”

user guide:    “You decide.”

me:                  “What if I don’t want to decide?”

user guide:    “There’s provision for that too.”

me:                  “So there really is no limit to my freedom?”

user guide:    “The sea and sky and land are as wide as our server farms allow. Your imagination is the only other factor.”

me:                  “I’m ready.”

user guide:    “So is RMB City.”

I teleport.

user guide:    “Ha?”