Lev Manovich on Thu, 13 Jun 2002 04:51:12 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Learning from Prada (PART 4)

Lev Manovich (www.manovich.net)

The Poetics of Augmented Space: Learning from Prada
[May 2002]

PART 4: The Electronic Vernacular
[posted 6/12/02]

When we look at what visual artists are doing with a moving image in a
gallery setting in comparison with these other contemporary fields, we can
see that the white gallery box still functions as a space of
contemplation, quite different from the aggressive, surprising,
overwhelming spaces of a boutique, trade show floor, an airport, or a
retail/entertainment area of a major metropolis.  While a number of video
artists continue the explorations of 1960s ³expanded cinema² movement by
pushing moving image interfaces in many interesting directions, outside of
a gallery space we can find at least as rich field of experiments.

I can single out three areas. First, contemporary urban architecture - in
particular, many proposals of the last decade to incorporate large
projection screens into architecture which would project the activity
inside, such as Rem Koolhaus 1992 unrealized project for the new ZKM
building in Karlsruhe; a number of projects, also mostly unrealized so
far, by Robert Venturi to create what he calls ³architecture as
communication² (buildings covered with electronic displays); realized
archiectural/media installations by Diller + Scofilio such as Jump Cuts
and Facsimile ; the highly concentrated use of video screens and
information displays in certain cities such as Seoul and Tokyo or in Time
Square in NYC. Second is the use of video displays in trade show design
such as in annual SIGGRAPH Conventions. The third is the best of retail
environments (I will discuss this in more detail shortly).

The projects and theories of Robert Venturi deserve a special
consideration since for him an electronic display is not an optional
addition but the very center of architecture in information age. Since the
1960s Venturi continuously argued that architecture should learn from
vernacular and commercial culture (billboards, Las Vegas, strip malls,
architecture of the past). Appropriately, his books Complexity and
Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Las Vegas are often
referred to as the founding documents of post-modern aesthetics. Venturi
argued that we should refuse the modernist desire to impose minimalist
ornament-free spaces, and instead embrace complexity, contradiction,
heterogeneity and iconography in our build environments.  In the 1990s he
articulated the new vision of ³Architecture as communication for
information age (rather than as space for the Industrial Age).² Venturi
wants us to think of ³architecture as iconographic representation emitting
electronic imagery from its surfaces day and night.² Pointing out at some
of the already mentioned examples of the aggressive incorporation of
electronic displays in contemporary environments such as Time Square in
NYC, and also arguing that traditional architecture always included
ornament, iconography and visual narratives (for instance, a Medieval
cathedral with its narrative window mosaics, narrative sculpture covering
the façade, and the narrative paintings), Venturi proposed that
architecture should return to its traditional definition as information
surface. Of course, if the messages communicated by traditional
architecture were static and reflected the dominant ideology, today
electronic dynamic interactive displays make possible for these messages
to change continuously and to be the space of contestation and dialog,
thus functioning as the material manifestation of the often invisible
public sphere.

Although this has not been a part of Venturiıs core vision, it is relevant
to mention here a growing number of projects where the large publicly
mounted screen is open for programming by the public who can send images
via Internet, or choose information being displayed via their cell phones.
Even more radical is Vectorial Elevation, Relational Architecture #4 by
artist Raffael Lozano-Hemmer This project made possible for people from
all over the world to control a mutant electronic architecture (made from
search lights) in a Mexico Cityıs square. To quote from the statement of
the jury of Prix Ars Electronica 2002 which awarded this project Golden
Nica at Ars Electronica 2002 in Interactive Art category:
"Vectorial Elevation was a large scale interactive installation that
transformed Mexico Cityıs historic centre using robotic searchlights
controlled over the Internet. Visitors to the project web site at
<http://www.alzado.net> could design ephemeral light sculptures over the
National Palace, City Hall, the Cathedral and the Templo Mayor Aztec
ruins. The sculptures, made by 18 xenon searchlights located around the
Zócalo Square, could be seen from a 10-mile radius and were sequentially
rendered as they arrived over the Net. The website featured a 3D-java
interface that allowed participants to make a vectorial design over the
city and see it virtually from any point of view. When the project server
in Mexico received a submission, it was numbered and entered into a queue.
Every six seconds the searchlights would orient themselves automatically
and three webcams would take pictures to document a participantıs design."

Venturiıs vision of ³architecture as iconographic representation² is not
without its problems. If we focus completely on the idea of architecture
as information surface, we may forget that traditional architecture
communicated messages and narratives not only through flat narrative
surfaces but also through the particular articulation of space. To use the
same example of a medieval cathedral, it communicated Christian narratives
not only through it's the images covering its surfaces but also through
its whole spatial structure. In the case of modernist architecture, it
similarly communicated its own narratives (the themes of progress,
technology, efficiency, and rationality) through its new spaces
constructed from simple geometric forms ­ and also through its bare,
industrial looking surfaces. (Thus the absence of information from the
surface, articulated in the famous ³ornament is crime² slogan by Adolf
Loos, itself became a powerful communication technique of modern

An important design problem of own time is how to combine the new
functioning of a surface as an electronic display with new kind of spaces
that will symbolize the specificity of our own time.  While Venturi fits
electronic displays on his buildings that closely follow traditional
vernacular architecture, this is obviously not the only possible strategy.
A well-known Freshwater Pavilion by NOX/Lars Spuybroek (1996) follows a
much more radical approach. To emphasize that the interior of the space
constantly mutates, Spuybroek eliminates all strait surface and strait
angle; he makes the shapes defining the space appear to move; and he
introduces computer-controlled lights that change the illumination of an
interior.  As described by Ineke Schwartz, ³There is no distinction
between horizontal and vertical, between floors, walls and ceilings.
Building and exhibition have fused: mist blows around your ears, a geyser
erupts, water gleams and splatters all around you, projections fall
directly onto the building and its visitors, the air is filled with waves
of electronic sound.²

I think that Spuybroekıs building is a successful symbol for information
age. Its surfaces which apear to be constantly changing illustrate the key
effect of a computer revolution: substitution of every constant by a
variable. In other words, the space which symbolizes information age is
not a symmetrical and ornamental space of traditional architecture,
rectangular volumes of modernism, broken and blown up volumes of
deconstruction, or even "blobs" generated by young architects who learned
Alias or similar 3-D software ­ rather, it is space whose shapes are
inherently mutable, and whose soft contours act as a metaphor for the key
quality of computer-driven representations and systems: variability.

[PART 5 will be posted shortly]

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