Archives for the month of: January, 2015

bitter lake

There’s a scene in Adam Curtis’ new history-essay, Bitter Lake, which made me turn away — and cry, and wait until the un-narrated scene was finished. It shows a young Afghani girl, maybe aged 6 or 7, sitting by her father. They’re in a hospital. In Afghanistan. Her right eye seems to have been gouged out, her left hand and both her legs are heavily bandaged, twisted. She’s the victim of a bomb. The camera films them face-on. She’s there, placid, damaged, no doubt confused, shattered. But silent. Her father and the unseen health staff are doing their best to elevate the tragic situation. He offers her a flower, a red flower, with a smile, a loving smile, as if this red flower, its intrinsic beauty, might take her and them and maybe even their broken land somewhere else.

Photo 26-01-2015 1 36 42 pm

After I opened my eyes again, I see a soldier. He’s in a grassy landscape. I’m assuming it’s Afghanistan. That after all is what Bitter Lake is ‘about.’ Close by, a bird. Also just sitting there, minding its avian business. The soldier reaches out to the bird, carefully, delicately — yet the bird doesn’t fly away. In fact, it responds affectionately. They commune. This footage is also un-narrated, a moment of irrational tenderness, perhaps just before another bomb is set off, and other small children will be maimed irrevocably, or that soldier will be killed, and that bird decides to flee Afghanistan.

We listen to the news and we may think we are informed. But footage that makes its way to us is usually there because it can perform shorthanded and spectacularly. But what about everything else? All the time and space between those newsworthy ‘money shots’? For lack of a better phrase, where actual life occurs?

Much has been said about the fact that Curtis has made his new 137 minute film available only on the BBC online iPlayer, so that he can go long-form, free-form. But I’ve always thought of his film-essays as single pieces, 3 or 4 hours long, subsequently sliced into hour long fragments, to fit normal TV schedules.

The difference in Bitter Lake is that the strongest, most affective — and perhaps most informing — sections are these long, uninterrupted sequences where Curtis allows us to see footage from the never-seen BBC Afghanistan archive in a primary, unrhetorical manner. He allows them to ‘speak.’

This is what I’m taking from Bitter Lake.

There seems to be two films encased together. The first is the more familiar Adam Curtis-esque quantum hidden history, how causes (in this case, Saudi Arabia) ricochet to make events and vice versa. But the second film, the one I’m grateful to see and hear, the one that’s made me flinch away and well with tears, is akin to what cameras would tell us if we asked them to tell us everything they saw and heard. Everything. The lilts of nothingness, wordlessness, and the violence that occurs beyond the frame of vision we permit violence to operate in and as. Video game or not. Reality TV or reality free.

At the start of Pierrot le fou, Godard’s 1965 film that makes margins into centres of cities and souls, we hear Ferdinand read from Elie Faure’s History of Art. It’s worth working your way to the end of this longish excerpt, for the very last word:

‘Past the age of fifty Velasquez stopped painting definite things.
He hovered around objects with the air, with twilight,
catching in his shadows and airy backgrounds…
the palpitations of colour…
which formed the invisible core of his silent symphony.
Henceforth, he captured only…
those mysterious interpenetrations of shape and tone that form a constant,
secret progression,
neither betrayed nor interrupted by any jolt or jar.

Space reigns supreme.
It is as if an aerial wave, sliding over the surfaces,
soaked up their visible emanations, defined and modeled them,
then spread them about like a perfume,
an echo of themselves,
a scattering of impalpable dust.
The world he lived in was one of sadness:
A degenerate king, sickly infantes,
idiots, dwarfs, cripples,
a handful of clownish freaks dressed up as princes,

whose function it was to laugh at themselves…
and to amuse a cast that lived outside the law,
in the meshes of etiquette, plots and lies,
bound by the confessional and remorse,
with the inquisition and silence at the door.”
Listen to this, little girl!
“A spirit of nostalgia pervades his work, yet he avoids what is ugly, sad,
or cruelly morbid about those oppressed children.
Velasquez is the painter of evening,
of open spaces and of silence,

even when he painted in broad daylight or in a closed room,
even with the din of battle or of the hunt in his ears.
As they seldom went out during the day,
when everything was drowned in torrid sunshine,
the Spanish painters communed with the evening.”
Beautiful, isn’t it, little girl?’

The following was published in a special issue of ART PAPERS guest edited by Robert Wiesenberger.

  1. HejduckBerlinBlacknWhiteI want you to know that by the end of this sentence, you may have lost interest. Why? Because I am about to write about losing interest.
  2. If you are still here: wow. If you’re not here: not-wow.
  3. People like to ask me what I studied. It’s one of those inescapable questions, like “Where are you from?” My eyeballs roll at both. The past is only interesting once you’ve sussed someone out in the here-and-present. Questions like this performed kinship purposes before. Now, they seem so retrograde.
  4. I answer, “Architecture,” and – before I verbally place a full stop after the last “e” – I’ve launched into a little narrative that was never really asked for. But you’re going to get it. Regardless. It serves you right for asking such a one-dimensional question.
  5. “I wanted to study Fine Art or English Literature,” I exposit, “but when, at the age of 16, I told my loving, caring, Bangladeshi, first generation immigrant parents about these plans – fueled, pretentiously, by reading surrealist poetry and looking at the paintings of Max Ernst – my mother rolled her eyes at me as if I’d asked them where they’re from. They dismissed my artsy ambitions straight away, for in the pantheon of professionalism, neither ‘artist’ nor ‘writer’ were proper careers. Next.”
  6. “After some research, I suggest to them, ‘Architecture?’ unsure what its study would actually entail. It’s met, surprisingly, with instant parental approval. Only years later do I find out that in much of the non-Western world, ‘architecture’ continued to signify ‘engineering.’ Something technical, based on science and maths more than flimsy art. I effectively stow away undetected in this slippage.”
  7. If you are still here: double wow.
  8. In my first week as an architecture under-graduate, I raid various departmental libraries and create a totem of books: The Phenomenology of Perception by Merleau-Ponty; Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference by Derrida; Writing Degree Zero by Barthes; etc. It’s 1993 and post-structuralism is still healthy (just) and I want to know what it’s about, maybe the way kids from New Jersey wanted to know what CBGB’s was like in the 1970s. The avant-garde. Crazy hair. Made-up words.
  9. For the next three years, I read whatever I want to read – philosophy, literary and film theory, Charles Olsen, Mary Douglas, Mircea Eliade, kinship theories – and insist it’s all relevant to whatever I’m doing. And no one rolls an eye. I’m happy. Nothing seems off-limits and I end up writing my dissertation on Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 feature film, Pierrot le Fou. Further studies would involve excursions into phrenology, Zizek, Henri Bergson, Laura Mulvey, Lost Highway, all those Semiotexte paperbacks. You get the point.
  10. Everything is everything is everything.
  11. Many years later, an astute friend will describe the study of architecture as a “psychic dustbin.” He says it’s a place certain kids end up because they come from families that – like my own – would never support the study of art and literature even though that’s really where the kid should be going. The study of architecture (I should add: at certain “elite” schools) turns out, however, to be a fertile holding pattern until the kid is old enough, or lucid enough, to go and do what it is s/he always wanted to do.
  12. Before the Renaissance, it’s arguable whether the term “architect” was really in use the way we use it today (even that is probably contentious). Medieval cathedrals were built through the concentrated circuitry of different crafts and economies. Someone oversaw it all and had enough knowledge about the constituent inputs to orchestrate their synthesis. We still don’t know the names of most of these medieval polymaths, but we start to hear names once the Renaissance “arrives.” Because, there’s a mirroring between the paradigmatic “Renaissance Man” – schooled in poetry, sciences, ethics, etc. – and the “Architect.
  13. This is what I am most grateful for in my long deviation at the tail end of the 20th century.
  14. Architecture’s role in the unfolding of the world (as setting, witness, crime scene, aberrant luxury) is analogically echoed in what happens to your brain when you study architecture. You’re more neurologically wired to see the interconnectedness of things. You’re more predisposed to ignore the sovereignty of disciplines. If you listened carefully during class, and you care, you will know a little about many things and that’s useful in the 21st century because that’s the abiding logic of time and space right now. To invoke Foucault – one of my stalwarts from that first week – we have to be Poets while the world acts as the ultimate Madman.
  15. And then I lost interest in architecture.
  16. I realized that this curiosity-generosity served by architecture’s academia is not only for selfless reasons. It is born from an ontological insecurity that goes back to the man overseeing the building of the medieval cathedral: “What exactly do I know and what exactly do I do that makes me unlike anything or anyone else?”
  17. The answer is at best fuzzy. At worst, it’s existentially a downer.
  18. David Byrne recently posted a piece where he outlines why he’s lost interest – love, even – in contemporary art. I won’t rehearse the entire argument, but it’s the same gist as Dave Hickey’s from 2012, when the irascible dealer-turned-critic declared he was quitting the art world because contemporary art has become one of the prime venues for the gratification of global capital. It makes contemporary art richer – but maybe uglier to some people like Dave and David.
  19. As a comparison, think about the venue of contemporary literature. Do you see Russian or Chinese oligarchs queuing to rub up against the latest feted novelist? It doesn’t happen. There are no Sotheby’s and Christie’s of writing. Books haven’t been 1% commodities since Gutenberg gutted the sacral quality of text. Today, literature may hold a gaze upon the bloated excrescences of 21st- century wealth but it doesn’t work the other way around.
  20. Art on the other hand is the orgy-on-a-yacht everyone wants in on.
  21. In this sense, art is catching up to architecture. Wealth, power, privilege always found their most boastful expression in buildings, which are portraits at a bigger scale. Architects – from Le Corbusier to Albert Speer – were just puny paper dreamers when they were not being backed by a bank or Benito Mussolini.
  22. Architecture without money is poetry and no one got rich from being a poet.
  23. Remember when there was a glaring difference between clothes you could afford on the high street and those you couldn’t in Yohji Yamamoto or Balenciaga? It seems so quaint now. High/low divisions, ha! The same thing’s happened in architecture. Corporate offices churn out their own versions of Zaha Hadid and Zaha Hadid’s office has grown to a corporate size.
  24. The only people who still use the word “avant-garde” are from real estate marketing. They, unlike poets, become very rich indeed.
  25. I’m in danger of providing an all too clear reason for my architecture apostasy. It’s more mercurial than late-blah-capitalism (one of today’s easiest alibis for shallow thinking).
  26. Other probable reasons are the computerization of space (also responsible for the banalization of Hollywood), the endgame of 20th-century aesthetic experimentation (why all painting and sculpture looks déjà vu), the true International Style as Amazoned by Flat Earth globalization, evil Google, Snapchat, the Islamic State, Ebola, the shitty iOS8 update, a history of slavery, bad feminists, Bashar al-Assad, Mark Regev, and kale. Mostly Mark Regev.
  27. Having said all that, it’s probably just me.
  28. Sidenote: I’ve been living in a very special piece of building made of squares, cylinders, rectangles, triangles. Shapes that are child-like or Platonic. Abstract or figurative. For the architect John Hejduk, probably both. Hejduk will be known to the academic architectural cognoscenti but not to anyone else. He built very little in his lifetime, not because he couldn’t, but rather, he chose not to. Instead, he drew scratchy drawings of carnivalesque objects wandering Europe. He wrote many, many poems. He constructed strange animistic installations. He taught. Lots. And yet, I’ve been residing on the 10th and 11th floors of a social housing block in Berlin which he architected, where each room exists in its own independent tower, linked to each other by short walkways. There are only seven apartments in total. It’s utterly irrational – no developer would condone it – and therefore utterly compelling. Finished in 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall, close by, came down, this piece of pure auteurship stands alone, apart, even from itself. Every day I wake up inside it, a spectral pulse runs through me, mediated by this odd, oblique entity I temporarily call home. It is enchanting and unnerving. It is the palpable strength of a strong idea.
  29. Without an abiding curiosity in the world – you die inside.
  30. Boredom is irradiation of the soul.