Sebald on Architecture and The Ruin

“Such complexes of fortifications, said Austerlitz, concluding his remarks that day in the Antwerp Glove Markets as he rose from the table and slung his rucksack over his shoulder, show us how, unlike birds, for instance, who keep building the same nest over thousands of years, we tend to forge ahead with our projects far beyond any reasonable bounds. Someone, he added, ought to draw up a catalogue of types of buildings listed in order of size, and it would be immediately obvious that domestic buildings of less than normal size — the little cottage in the fields, the hermitage, the lockkeeper’s lodge, the pavilion for viewing the landscape, the children’s bothy in the garden — are those that offer us at least a semblance of peace, whereas no one in his right mind could truthfully say that he liked a vast edifice such as the Palace of Justice on the old Gallows Hill in Brussels. At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.”

W.G. Sebald Austerlitz, (2002)

Joseph Gandy, Imagined ruins of John Soane’s Bank of England, 1830

 

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Berardi on 1977 as Premonition

“Since 1977, the collapse of the Western mind has assumed a sneaking, subterranean, episodic trajectory, but at the threshold of the millennium, it takes on the rhythm of a precipice, of a no longer containable catastrophe. What the consciousness of 1977 had signaled as a danger and a possibility implicit in the acceleration of productive and existential rhythms, becomes daily news. Certain events signaled this passage, becoming viruses, carrying information that reproduces, proliferates and infects the entire social organism. The exceptional event of the Twin Towers crashing in a cloud of dust following the deadly suicide of nineteen young Muslims is certainly the most impressive, the image-event that spectacularly inaugurates the new times. But the Columbine school massacre, which took place some years before, might have carried a more uncanny message, because it spoke of daily life, of American normality, of the normality of a humanity that has lost all relation with what used to be human and that stumbles along looking for some impossible reassurance in search of a substitute for emotions which it no longer knows.”

 Franco Bifo Berardi “77 as Premoniiton” in A Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the pathologies of the post-alpha generation (2010)

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Benjamin on Proust

“The eternity which Proust opens to view is convoluted time, not boundless time. His true interest is in the passage of time in its most real—that is, space-bound-form, and this passage nowhere holds sway more openly than in remembrance within and aging without. To observe the interaction of aging and remembering means to penetrate to the heart of Proust’s world, to the universe of convolution. It is the world in a state of resemblances, the domain of the correspondances; the Romanticists were the first to comprehend them and Baudelaire embraced them most fervently, but Proust was the only one who managed to reveal them in our lived life. This is the work of the mémoire involontaire, the rejuvenating force which is a match for the inexorable process of aging. When the past is reflected in the dewy fresh “instant,” a painful shock of rejuvenation pulls it together once more”

— Walter Benjamin “The Image of Proust” in Illuminations [1969]

“Proust’s work A la Recherche du temps perdu may be regarded as an attempt to produce experience, as Bergson imagines it, in a synthetic way under today’s social conditions, for there is less and less hope that it will come into being in a natural way. Proust, incidentally, does not evade the question in his work. He even introduces a new factor, one that involves an immanent critique of Bergson. Bergson emphasized the antagonism between the vita activa and the specific vita contemplativa which arises from memory. But he leads us to believe that turning to the contemplative realization of the stream of life is a matter of free choice. From the start, Proust indicates his divergent view in his choice of terms. In his work the mémoire pure of Bergson’s theory becomes a mémoire involontaire. Proust immediately confronts this involuntary memory with a voluntary memory, one that is in the service of the intellect. The first pages of his great novel are devoted to making this relationship clear. In the reflection which introduces the term, Proust tells us that for many years he had a very indistinct memory of the town of Combray, where he had spent part of his childhood. One afternoon, the taste of a kind of pastry called a madeleine (which he later mentions often) transported him back to the past, whereas before then he had been limited to the promptings of a memory which obeyed the call of conscious attention. This he calls mémoire volontaire. Its signal characteristic is that the information it gives about the past retains no trace of that past. “It is the same with our own past. In vain we try to conjure it up again; the efforts of our intellect are futile.” In sum, Proust says that the past is situated “somewhere beyond the reach of the intellect and its field of operations, in some material object, though we have no idea which one it is. And whether we come upon this object before we die, or whether we never encounter it, depends entirely on chance.”*”

— Walter Benjamin “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” in The Writer of Modern Life [2006]

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Dillon on The Ruin

The history of ruins in art records the gradual diminution of the human figure until it is merely a tiny marker of the enormity of the destruction that has been wrought in the scene. In the seventeenth century, the figures shrink to take part in incidental anecdotes in the foreground, or at the edge, of the central drama of decay. Later, in the paintings of Hubert Robert, human beings clamber like infants among the ruins of ancient Rome, or form a thin frill of activity atop the Bastille, as they begin to raze it to the ground.

Caspar David Friedrich, Klosterruine Eldena bei Greifswald (Ruins of Eldena, near Greifswald) 1825

This dramatic shift in perspective—the insertion of the human as a scarcely visible vanishing point in the composition of disaster—occurs not long before another set of catastrophes is considered and pictured by geologists. In Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33), the earth is revealed to have been “lacerated,” riven by scarcely imaginable forces. In the accompanying illustrations, the scale of the upheaval is conveyed by a series of minute figures, perched on the edges of volcanoes or precipices: intrepid tourists lured by the spectacle of destruction. The drawings are the geological equivalents of the Prisons of Piranesi. In 1822, Thomas De Quincey wrote of their endlessly ruined imaginary interiors: “Again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld: and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labors: and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall.” At last, it seems, the individual quite vanishes into darkness and decay.

— Brian DillonFragments from a History of Ruin” in Cabinet magazine, Winter 2005/6

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In Baltz’s Wake: A Thought on the Landscape in Contemporary Photography

I.

The jagged and memorable sweep of Lewis Baltz’s early photographic work is bound up with the wave of suburbanisation, consumerism and new economic modes of development. These forces rose to prominence after the Second World War, and gained their ascendancy in a Cold War period deeply invested in technology’s capacity to reconfigure the functioning of the world. The scale of those political and economic struggles afoot from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s was in an absolute sense incomprehensibly vast, tectonic and individually overwhelming. In the shifting terrain of that period of conflict — a conflict waged simultaneously through the proxies of the Space Race, nuclear armament, expressionist art and pre-fabricated homes — Baltz photographed the landscape as a site American middle-class escape into a fantastical George Jetson future.

Baltz photographed ‘Hidden Valleys,’ ‘Mustang Bridge Exits,’ ‘Snowflower Condominiums’ and ‘Prospector Parks,’ making bold, stark and striated images, which drew together in bleak contradiction the snake-oil history of the American Frontier with the burnished promises of Great Prosperity. As they are revealed in Baltz’s images, these landscapes are rife with contradiction, already derelict in their new construction, bland, homogeneous, and signally lacking in evidence of the adventurous bounties fit for the modern mid-century pioneer. They amounted in visible fact to a drab, mechanised and programmatic constellation of atomised pockets, in which a burgeoning middle class might voluntarily sequester itself, at a safe distance from the city, in a wilderness barely tamed by its regimented organisation.

Lewis Baltz, Hidden Valley, looking Southwest, from Nevada (1977)

These photographic landscapes were nevertheless vibrant and visceral, animated by a tension between Baltz’s parsimonious framing, and a brittleness that spoke of deeper distempers imprisoned behind the drabness of their many façades. The rectilinear precision of Baltz’s images pointed up the programmatic manufacture of these physical spaces, while the desiccated tracery of weathered stucco walls and grimy windows seemed to presage an incipient delirium. In the rigorous precision and extensiveness of his early photographic series, Baltz proposed a means of treating the landscape that was consonant with the transformative mechanism of technology in post-War American society. His work helped to upturn the conventional grandeur of romantic landscape photography, while underscoring the inherent strangeness of modernity, and locating in it a mass psychology freighted with dangerous delusions.

Lewis Baltz, Construction Detail, East Wall, Xerox, 1821 Dyer Road, Santa Ana, from The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California 1974

In his 1975 essay on Robert Adams’s The New West, Baltz described the wildfire-spread of these homogenous spaces as redeemed by Adams’s reverent embrace of western light, in a “tarnished metaphor of divine grace.” Suburbanisation as both fact and socio-cultural force was clearly a ubiquitous reality of the moment. Nevertheless, our grasp of it could be enhanced by Adams’s direction of “our attention to the most squalid and meretricious instances of commercial development without reveling in their Pop vulgarity.” Baltz recognised in Adams’s contribution a willingness, undeterred by the widespread blight, to contemplate the deep psychic and social effects of a segregated reality, which was now to be valued in the accumulation of disposable goods, and the pristine order of its uniformity.

Robert Adams – New development on a former citrus-growing estate, Highland, California, from Los Angeles Spring 1986

In Baltz, and much of the work of the New Topographic generation, we are drawn into specific and visceral proximity with what Walter Moser describes as “the menacing defamiliarization of peripheries hinting at fantastic dystopias against real political backgrounds.” We are drawn, that is, into the miasma of a heedless faith in technology as an expansionist force, something utterly divorced in its planning from all social, ecological and cultural consequence. We are drawn into a future whose prosperous order is equated with the new techno-commercial sublime, by a political will to rebuild that forsakes the present in its entirety for an imagined future.

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Picon on Obsolescence and the Ruin

“And everything wears itself out, or almost, in the cityscape of today. Metal oxidizes, plastic yellows and cracks. The idea of functionality goes hand in hand, therefore, with that of obsolescence. Obsolescence is not exactly the same thing as death, the progressive and dignified death that came to the objects of yesteryear. In traditional landscapes, the productions of man, his constructions in particular, surrendered themselves progressively to nature in the form of the ruin. The ruin reintegrated, in successive stages, the traces of human activity into the cycles of nature. There is nothing of the sort in the contemporary city, where objects, if they don’t disappear all in one go, as if by magic, are instead relegated to obsolescence, a bit like the living dead who endlessly haunt the landscape, preventing it from ever becoming peaceful again.”

— Antoine Picon “Anxious Landscapes: From Ruin to Rust” in Grey Room No. 1, Fall 2000

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Cadava on Photography & History

Federico Clavarino, “Untitled”, from Italia o Italia [Akina Books, 2014]

“We could even say that the lesson of the photograph for history — what it says about the specialization of light, about the electrical flashes of remote spirits — is that every attempt to bring the other to the light of day, to keep the other alive, silently presumes that it is mortal, that it is always already touched (or re-touched) by death. The survival of the photographed is therefore never only the survival of its life, but also of its death. It forms part of the “history of how a person lives on, and precisely how this afterlife, with its own history, is embedded in life.”*”

— Eduardo Cadava “Mortification” in Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (1997)

* Walter Benjamin Briefe [Suhrkamp Verlag, 1978] ed. Gershom Sholem & Theodor W. Adorno
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Robert Storr on Gerhard Richter’s 18 October 1977

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Bergson on Time and The Instant

“Life does not flow along a slope on an axis of objective time that would serve as its channel. Although it may be a form imposed upon time’s successive instants, life always finds its primary reality in an instant. Hence, if we delve into the heart of psychological evidence, to the point where sensation is no more than the complex reflection or response of a simple act of volition — when intense attention concentrates life’s focus upon a single isolated element — then we will become aware that the instant is the truly specific character of time.”

— Henri Bergson Intuition of The Instant

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Warstat on the Damaged Image

“Pictures seem to bear the accidental scars of damage with a dignified indifference. The image seems to be sealed off in a kind of self-enclosure. Similarly, the tradition of crucifixion painting and sculpture seems to need the presence of the stigmata to bring about a sense of the inviolable perfection of the sacred body.

John Stezaker – Love XI, 2006

Damage demands our sympathy. Apollinaire described something like this in his meditation on a chipped and stained worker’s mug, which he described as ‘soaked with humanity.’ We feel for the commodity at the moment of its obsolescence. It becomes worthy of our protection at the moment it is discarded.

Perhaps the encounter with image damage is like that with facial disfigurement, which demands that we overlook it and participate in the illusion of its absence. In such circumstances we talk about looking beyond the face. It seems to be something like this looking beyond the flaw that creates such an intense sense of the image.”

— Andrew Warsat interviews John Stezaker in Parallax, Volume 16, Issue 2, 2010

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