Friday, December 08, 2006

The Architectonic Mirage: Friedlaender's The Fata Morgana Machine (1920)

For architecture historians, practitioners, and enthusiasts alike, the "history" game is irresistible. A glance at a contemporary building, for example, will no doubt invite comparisons with earlier work. The reverse operation -- taking an early source and analyzing how it may have influenced subsequent work, is also commonplace, and may yield surprising results. Take, for instance, this excerpt from Salomo Freidlaender's 1920 short story Fatamorganamaschine ("Fata Morgana Machine"). Friedlaender composed dark science fictions and fantasies in the vein of E.T.A. Hoffman or even John Collier. Friedlaender, often going by the pen name "Mynona", also has relevance for the architecture historian, as he was a friend of Paul Scheerbart's as well as a frequent contributor to Sturm magazine. When reading this excerpt, it is difficult not to think of current architectural obsessions with surface effect, responsive environments, as well as ideas of pervasiveness ... for indeed, the fata morgana machine is presented as a technology that may be ubiquitous in the not-so-distant future:
For many years Professor Pschorr had been preoccupied with one of the most interesting problems of film: his ideal was to achieve the optical reproduction of nature, art, and fantasy through a stereoscopic projection apparatus that would place its three-dimensional constructs into space without the aid of a projection screen. Up to this point, film and other forms of photography had been pursued only in one-eyed fashion. Pshorr used stereoscopic double lenses everywhere and, eventually, achieved three-dimensional constructs that were detached from the surface of the projection screen. When he had come that close to his ideal, he approached the Minister of War to lecture him about it. “But my dear Professor,” the Minister smiled, “what has your apparatus got to do with our technology of maneuvers and war?” The Professor looked at him with astonishment and imperceptibly shook his inventive head. It was incredible to him that the Minister did not have the foresight to recognize how important that apparatus was destined to become in times of war and peace. “Dear Minister,” he insisted, “would you permit me to take some shots of the maneuver so that you can convince yourself of the advantages of my apparatus?” … A couple of weeks after the maneuver, all the generals gathered in open terrain that was in part rolling, mountainous, and wooded, and that contained several large ponds and ravines, slopes, and a couple of villages. “First, dear Minister and honored generals, allow me to tell you that the whole landscape, including or own bodies, appears as nothing but a single, purely optical phantasmagoria. What is purely optical in it I will make disappear by superimposing projections of other things onto it.” He variously combined beams of floodlights and switched on a film reel, which began to run. Immediately the terrain transformed: forests became houses, villages became deserts, lakes and ravines became charming meadows; and suddenly one could see bustling military personnel engaged in battle. Of course, as they were stepping or riding into a meadow, they disappeared into a pond or a ravine. Indeed, even the troops themselves were frequently only optical illusions, so that real troops could no longer distinguish them from fake ones, and hence engaged in involuntary deceptions. Artillery lines appeared as pure optical illusions. “Since the possibility exists of combining, precisely and simultaneously, optical with acoustic effects, these visible but untouched cannons can boom as well, making the illusion perfect,” said Pschorr. “By the way, this invention is of course also useful for peaceful purposes. From now on, however, it will be very dangerous to distinguish things that are only visible from touchable ones. But life will become all the more interesting for it.” Following this he let a bomber squadron appear on the horizon. Well, the bombs were dropped, but they did their terrible damage only for the eye. Strangely enough, the Minister of War in the end decided against purchasing the apparatus. Full of anger, he claimed that war would become an impossibility that way. When the somewhat overly humanistic Pschorr exalted that effect, the Minister erupted: “You cannot turn to the Minister of War to put a dreadful end to war. That falls under the purview of my colleague, the Minister of Culture.” As the Minister of Culture prepared to buy the apparatus, his plans were vetoed by the Minister of Finance … Now the film corporation (the largest film trust) helped itself. Ever since this moment, film has become all-powerful in the world, but only through optical means. It is, quite simply, nature once again, in all its visibility and audibility. When a storm is brewing, for example, it is unclear whether this storm is only optically real or a real one through and through. Abnossah Pshorr has been exercising arbitrary technological power over the fata morgana, so that even the Orient fell into confusion when a recent fata morgana produced by solely technical means – conjuring Berlin and Potsdam for desert nomads – was taken for real. Pshorr rents out every desired landscape to innkeepers. Surrounding Kulick’s Hotel zur Wehmut these days is the Vierwaldst√§tter Lake. Herr v. Ohnheim enjoys his purely optical spouse. Mullack the proletarian resides in a purely optical palace, and billionaires protect their castles through their optical conversions into shacks.
Not too long ago, a doppelg√§nger factory was established … In the not too distant future, there will be whole cities made of light; entirely different constellations not only in the planetarium, but everywhere in nature as well. Pshorr predicts that we will also be able to have technological control over touch in a similar way: not until then will radio traffic with real bodies set in, which not just film but life, and which will leave far behind all traffic technologies ….
Excerpted in Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999): pp. 134-5.


Bureau of Print Research and Design said...

Der Sturm. Ein Gedenkbuch an Herwarth Walden und die Kunstler des Sturmkreises (I don't know what that says....)

The Sturm magazine and German Expressionist hand-in-hand. Have you seen Die Aktion magazine from the same time?

Daniel Ryan said...

Project by Tom Heneghan called Fata Morgana