Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Housekeeping Note

Just wanted to remind everyone that although I post longer pieces on this website, my tumblr site has other offerings as well.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What's That Sound? It's Centrifugal Space!

Wir fahr'n, fahr'n, fahr'n auf der Autobahn .....

I'm not one to shy away from excursions into music, especially if such junkets have something to do with natural and built environments. A long-overdue search of my music libraries thus turned up some real gems. These songs do not necessarily evoke ideas of space and landscape, but when seen in a music video format, they seem to privilege the importance of landscapes and technology. Perhaps, then, we can imagine an umpteenth edition of Leo Marx's The Machine in The Garden (1964), one that projects into the 20th and 21st centuries. I would imagine that chapters on the 20th century would include additional representations of "middle landscapes" in newer media such as film and phonograph. I would also imagine how towards the end of a chapter on the 20th century, some mention would have to be made about music videos.

During the early days of MTV, critics noticed how the music video became an interesting tangle of art and economics. Not only did it allow other parties (i.e. music video directors and actors) to participate in royalty sharing, but provided another platform for record companies to promote artists. Music and media historian Will Straw has even noted how music videos allowed product to reach audiences with unprecedented speed. He writes:
One of MTV's most significant innovations was the institutionalisation within North America of an equivalent to national network radio. It was not so much the reach of MTV which was important in this respect as the simultaneity of that reach, and subsequent direct measurable impact on sales. While the aggregate audience of the major FM rock stations in the USA was likely greater than that for MTV, playlist adoption of a new record by these stations was likely to be staggered and uneven, while exposure on MTV was immediately nationwide. Both MTV and dance clubs preceded radio in their adoption of new records for playlists; the difference between them, obviously, lay in the fact that dance clubs were for the most part inner urban phenomena, while MTV reached suburban and small-town areas. The impact of MTV should be seen as resulting, not simply from the specific repertory which dominated its playlists at the beginning, but from the extent to which, in conjunction with a resurgent Top Forty radio, it increased the velocity of consumption. [1]
The use of the term "velocity" suggests a way to conceive of the music video as an instrument of conveyance. As Straw suggests, MTV assured the quick delivery of music product to the suburbs: a new collapsing of space and time brought about by the introduction of a new music format.

And what does all this talk of speed and media have to do with built and natural environments? We can begin with a quote from film scholar Edward Dimendberg. In "The Will to Motorization: Cinema, Highways, and Modernity" (1995), Dimendberg considers the depiction of highways in three different films. For him, the highway is the ultimate exemplar of "centrifugal space":
Irreducible to specific urban forms or demographic trends such as suburbanization, centrifugal space initiates novel perceptual and behavioral practices -- new experiences of time, speed, and distance -- no less than new features of the everyday landscape. While the broad transformation in cities that arose after 1929 have been widely noted, corresponding changes in spatial perception have received far less attention, as has the role of cinema in the promulgation of this new geography.
Characteristics of centrifugal space include the decreased significance of metropolitan density and agglomeration and their replacement by dispersed settlements and a shift from urban verticality to the horizontal sprawl of suburbs and larger territorial units. But one might also discern centrifugal space in the redeployment of surveillance mechanisms away from the the body of city dwellers toward the automobile, the proliferation of electronic media, and the collection of traffic statistics as a strategy of control [2].
One of the films that Dimendberg considers as a pivotal moment "in the history of encounters between highways and the cinema" [3] is Hartmut Bitomsky's 1986 film Reichsautobahn. The film, a "juxtaposition of excerpts from Autobahn film footage, photographs and paintings from the 1930s, and the director's voice-over narration" creates "new modes of perception and representation" [4].

If we understand these cinematic images of highways and other forms of conveyance infrastructures as representations of centrifugal space, this begs another question: what does this space sound like? It is an odd question, to be sure -- it not only assumes that centrifugal space is a technologically-mediated space, but also suggests that such a space has created its own record of representations. In fact, we could then consider the music video as a later representation of centrifugal space, a media format that attempts to combine the sounds and images in new and different ways. The music video would then be considered in terms of how it depicts space and velocity ... and the latter is not necessarily related to the idea of tempo. I am talking more about how music and images can represent speed.

Kraftwerk, "Trans-Europe Express" (1977)

Kraftwerk's video output is a good place to examining these new ideas of spatial and sonic velocity. Earlier albums, like 1974's Autobahn, features the band using electronic instruments to duplicate the sounds of cars as well as the doppler shifts of objects heard through an automobile driving in the landscape. Yet a video for the title track of Trans-Europe Express (1977) suggests what Wolfgang Schivelbusch calls "the industrialization and perception of time and space". Here, the band is seen as traveling inside Franz Kruckenberg's Schienenzeppelin (Rail Zeppelin), an experimental railway carriage powered by a massive aircraft engine in the rear.

The Rail Zeppelin (Source)

The video is organized into three general types of footage: shots of the band inside the passenger compartment; shots of the Schienenzeppelin model traveling through various miniature cities and landscapes; and finally "railroad engine point-of-view" shots showing railroad tracks stretching into infinity. Though the footage seems patinaed, it is choreographed to match the engine-like report of Kraftwerk's electronic drums.

Kraftwerk, "Tour De France" (1983)

Although the band's 1983 video for "Tour De France" shows highways instead of railway tracks, the object of focus is the bicycle. Here, the band (deploying a much more digitized and abstracted sound) is shown riding bicycles on a road in a generic European landscape. The fluid, repetitive motions of the cyclists replace the relentless, mechanized motions of engine gears from "Trans Europe Express". And though there seems to be a distinct separation of image of sound, the video of the 2003 remix of this song elides this distinction. Colorful arrows and typographics suggest how both the bicycles' motions as well as the song's actual lyrics are inscribed across the European landscape.

Kraftwerk, "Tour De France" (2003)

The centrifugal spaces in these music videos certainly demonstrate new vistas in time, space, image, and sound. They depict similar ideas of speed as Straw's and Dimendberg's. The music videos, as part of MTV programming, exemplify the notion that the music video travels fast in time and in space, and that it is consumed very quickly. The images in the music videos are also decidedly non-urban, portraying trains and bicycles conquering the isotropic spaces outside the city.

As the videos become much more sophisticated, however, the experience of the centrifugal space seems to fall by the wayside. The viewer is distracted by the images of the band traveling in the landscape, yet one wonders if centrifugal spaces create their own sense of monotony. Is it possible, while traveling through roads and railroads, that everything starts to look the same? What type of distraction does centrifugal space necessitate?

The Style Council, "My Ever Changing Moods" (1984)

A corrective to Kraftwerk's "Tour De France" video would be The Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods" (1984). In the video for this song, bandmembers Paul Weller and Mick Talbot are shown racing bicycles on a tree-flanked road. And unlike in "Tour De France", the cycling here is totally manufactured: there are moments where it becomes obvious that Weller's and Talbot's bikes are being towed behind a car. As such, it parodies the seamless integrations of sight and sound in "Tour De France". Weller and Talbot are not really riding bikes, and they are lip-synching to their own music. And watch their eyes: evidence of many activities other than the business of cycling.

[1] Will Straw, "Music Videos in Its Contexts: Popular Music and Post-Modernism in the 1980s", Popular Music, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Oct., 1988), p. 251.

[2] Edward Dimendberg, "The Will to Motorization: Cinema, Highways, and Modernity", October, Vol. 73 (Summer, 1995), p. 92.

[3] Ibid., p. 93.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Grand Tour

I now have an advance copy of Perspecta 41: Grand Tour. Perspecta, of course, is the oldest student-run architecture journal. It has been the proving ground for many seminal and controversial essays in architecture criticism, such as Robert Venturi's "Complexity and Contradiction", Eisenman's essays on Giuseppe Terragni, and many, many more.

Perspecta 41's theme is travel. And "travel" here is broadly defined. As the MIT press website tells us:
The Grand Tour was once the culmination of an architect's education. As a journey to the cultural sites of Europe, the Tour's agenda was clearly defined: to study ancient monuments in order to reproduce them at home. Architects returned from their Grand Tours with rolls of measured drawings and less tangible spoils: patronage, commissions, and cultural cachet. Although no longer carried out under the same name, the practices inscribed by the Grand Tour have continued relevance for contemporary architects. This edition of Perspecta—the oldest and most distinguished student-edited architectural journal in America—uses the Grand Tour, broadly conceived, as a model for understanding the history, current incarnation, and future of architectural travel.

Perspecta 41 asks: where do we go, how do we record what we see, what do we bring back, and how does it change us.
This current issue of Perspecta (designed by Rachel Berger and Lan Lan Liu) is printed with a high-visibility red cover. Each cover features a a different souvenir postcard, overprinted with the issue name. Contributors include Yuichi Yokoyama, Michael Meredith, Gillian Darley, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Brook Denison, Helen Dorey, Dietrich Neumann ... and be sure to check out contributions by fellow geeks AUDC, Sam Jacob, and Matthew Coolidge. Ljiljana Blagojevic's essay on wartime Belgrade is also quite good.

I also have a piece in Perspecta 41, called "Erich Mendelsohn at War".

So thanks to Gaby, Rustam, and Thom for a great issue.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Of Satelloons and Pavilions

EAT's Pepsi Pavilion (1970) (Source:

Architecture historian and critic Sylvia Lavin gave an impromptu lunchtime lecture today on EAT's Pepsi Pavilion. Built from a retrofitted geodesic dome for the 1970 Osaka Expo, and filled with a spherically-shaped reflective mylar interior, EAT's pavilion is normally understood as a media experiment. Its various interactive devices, displays, atmospheric effects made the pavilion as something to be considered by art and media historians, but not by architecture historians.

This presented a problem for Lavin, who used the case of the Pepsi Pavilion to make a greater case about the objects of architecture history. After all, EAT's project had some formidable art and architectural pedigree: principal Billy Klüver not only worked on Andy Warhol's mylar balloons, but EAT member John Pierce designed the interiors for Paul Rudolph's apartment. Thus the Pepsi Pavilion stands as an example of an object that is not canonical, that orbits in the periphery of architectural discourses, and that must be read against the grain of architecture history. Lavin reformulated the idea of center versus periphery in terms of psychoanalysis versus detective work: whereas the former finds the hidden, the latter looks for the hiding. In other words, the Pepsi Pavilion is hiding.

Testing of EAT's Mylar Sphere (1970) (Source: Media Art Net)

Engineers deployed a full-scale model of EAT's spherical mylar interior in a Marine Corps hangar in 1970 (above). The sphere subsequently tore and deflated. Yet EAT's test mylar sphere nevertheless becomes a provocative object in itself.

Echo Satelloon (Source: National Air and Space Museum)

The sphere recalls NASA's Echo Satelloons, a series of spherical balloons conceived as a part of a passive satellite system. Microwave signals beamed from the ground are aimed at the Satelloon, and bounce back to Earth. The first Echo satelloon perished in a launch second, and the second was eventually launched and tested in 1964 (above).

Thinking about the similarities between EAT's mylar test sphere and the Echo Satelloons complicates Lavin's assertions on slightly. The connection between the two objects is, however, well-known. EAT principal Billy Klüver worked for Bell Labs, which was involved in the testing and design of the Echo satelloons. However, if we are follow Lavin's remarks and think of EAT's Pepsi Pavilion as an object in hiding, how interesting that, technologically-speaking, the Pavilion is a version of a broadcasting device. Think of it as an object in hiding conceived as an object for connecting millions of people. A very public thing becomes a rather private thing.

Well ....

It is if we stick to the idea that it is only architecture historians that consider the Pepsi Pavilion as an object in hiding. But perhaps the psychoanalyst-versus-detective paradigm forsakes the object by focusing too much on the process of interpretation. Perhaps then the role of the historian might be not to distinguish on the act of uncovering and detecting, but rather to test an object's own probative value. This means that an object operating outside the periphery of architectural discourse -- something like EAT's Pepsi Pavilion -- will likely prove a historian's assertion or allegation and lead to evidence that validates the historian's hunch. It probably involves a leap of faith, but as EAT's Pepsi Pavilion demonstrates, the move to include such an object within the normative realm of architecture discourse usually rests on a very, very well-founded assertion. It is too much to assume that such a model may undo the idea of center and periphery .... and perhaps this is restating the obvious, but it is at least a starting point.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Sound and Vision: A (Very Brief) Introduction to Norman McLaren's Films

Norman McLaren, Neighbours (1952)

The films of Canadian director Norman McLaren (1914-1987) are short, brimming with color, and marked by the occasional use of a camera. The Scottish-born, Canadian-raised auteur is typically considered an animator. But like Stan Brakhage, McLaren uses film as a literal medium; that is to say, in lieu of portraying a photographic subject in motion (which he does resort to in some films), he often chooses to use the film emulsions as his own canvas. The result are often thrilling, as in films like Boogie Doodle (1940), where amoebic forms perform a sprightly dance across the screen:

Boogie Doodle (1940) (feat. soundtrack by Albert Ammons)

McLaren's film, for all their playfulness and visual invention, only look easy. They are the product of an exacting methodology. A good example is McLaren's most famous film, Neighbours (1952) (see embed at top of this post). The film's concept seems simple: two men, the titular neighbors, sit on their respective sides of a fence and read newspapers. This image of peace disintegrates into a protracted melée. However, the two actors are filmed as still objects -- McLaren captures their movement as a slow-motion animation. When Neighbours unspools at a frame rate of 24fps, the action depicted on the screen and the action while filming (i.e. that occurring during the process of filming) are elided. This is another confirmation of the idea that, for all of Neighbour's herky-jerkiness, the film's grand conceit is to portray stillness as motion.

Don Peters and Lorne Batchelor, Pen Point Percussion (1951)

McLaren's most interesting innovation, in my opinion, is his use of a motion picture projector as a musical instrument. Like his temporal disruptions in Neighbours, McLaren's manipulation of 32- and 16mm film optical and soundtracks are the product of a careful calculation. In Pen Point Percussion (1951), directors Don Peters and Lorne Batchelor show McLaren at work, using film as a type of music recording device. Using various brushes and black ink, McLaren paints a series of lines and blotches on the film soundtrack. When the film is run through a projector, the trackheads register the lines and blotches as noise. With prescribed film rate, as well as with a measured use of different types of brushstrokes and lines, not only is McLaren able to calculate the pitch and speed of the various tones, but he can also "choreograph" them so that they correspond to the images on the film's optical track. This results of this work is visible in Neighbours as well as in Rhythmetic (1956), a film in which a simple mathematical equation seems to dance before our eyes.

Rhythmetic (1956)

A first glance at McLaren's films suggest an element of synesthesia - sound could very well be mistaken for image and vice versa. But McLaren seemed to be aiming for something else, a type of experience hovering somewhere between image and sound. For a lecture at the 1961 Vancouver Film Festival, McLaren introduced Rhytmetic with a simple diagram depicting the "three main categories of the visual world":

McLaren's Diagram from the 1961 Vancouver Film Festival (Source: Film Quarterly)

Between the realm of "pure forms" and "symbols" is a small sun-like drawing. Labled as a "different kind of association entirely-images", the diagram shows light propagating from a singular source, most likely a camera projector. This diagram thus suggests how the camera projector is the primary mediator of this new "different kind" of experience.

Another of McLaren's Diagrams from the 1961 Vancouver Film Festival (Source: Film Quarterly)

For his lecture, the director also showed a small diagram (above) that, much like Pen Point Percussion, illustrates his soundtracking methodology and confirms his cinematic worldview. Here, a series of lines show how scratches on leader tape can be drawn in order to generate sound. But in this context, they are presented instructionally, as if McLaren was reducing his method to a series of inscriptions and heuristics. The diagram suggests a notational method that compliments (and in some cases, anticipates) the later work of composers like Krzysztof Penderecki, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and Anthony Braxton. The sheer output and educational themes of much of his work also anticipates the films of Charles and Ray Eames. The main difference is that McLaren never considered himself anything but a filmmaker. The creation of sounds was just a necessary part of image-making.

McLaren making sounds on a Moviola (Source: Film Quarterly)