ORNAMENT AND CRIME (Excerpts)
Adolf Loos, 1908
“The human embryo passes through all the evolutionary stages of the animal kingdom. When man is born, his sensory impresions are like those of a new born puppy. His childhood takes him through all the metamorphoses of human history. At 2 he sees with the eye of a papuan, at 4 with those of an ancient Teuton,, at 6 with those of Socrates, at 8 with those of Voltaire.
(...) the man of our day who in response to an inner urge smears the walls with erotic symbols is either a degenerate or a criminal. it goes without saying that this impulse frequently assails people with such symptoms of degeneracy in the lavatory. A country’s culture can be assessed by the extent to which its lavatory walls are smeared.
(...) we possess no joiner’s benches from the Carolingian era, but every trifle that displays the least ornament has been collected and cleaned and palatial buildings have been erected to house it. Then people walked sadly about between the glass cases and felt ashamed of their impotence. every age has its style, is our age alone to be refused a style?? By style they meant ornament. Then I said: weep not! See, therein lies the greatness of our age, that it is incapable of producing a new ornament. See, the time is nigh, fulfillment awaits us. soon the streets of the city will glisten like white walls, like Zion, the holy city, the capital of heaven. The fulfillment will be come.
I tolerate ornaments on my own body when they constitute the joy of my fellow men. Then they are my joy too. I can tolerate the ornaments of the kaffir, the Persian, the Slovak peasant woman, my shoemaker’s ornaments, for they all have no other way of attaining the high points of their existence. We have art, which has taken the place of ornament. After the toils and troubles of the day we may go to Beethoven or to Tristan. This my shoemaker cannot do, I mustn’t deprive him of his joy since I have nothing else to put in its place. But anyone who goes to the Ninth Symphony and then sits and designs a wall paper is either a confidence trickster or a degenerate”.
COMPUTER AND CRIME
Ali Soltani, 2000
Here on the table many things are laid before me: keys, cigarettes, a napkin folded in many facets resembling a sail boat; there are two unfinished glasses of wine from last night responsible for my ruby dream, there is a sheet of paper I am writing on and there are crumbs, everywhere. Oh there’s a book, it is white; above it a little electronic device, one of those handhelds one talks to more than to a friend. It’s black mass against the white is beast-like as if it has spent hours sucking the book out of its contents.
I lower my eyes to the edge of the table. Alas, “ tabula is no longer rasa” . The creature of the 20th century, Loos’s Homo Sapiens, has crossed another threshold of time holding a heavier baggage of souvenirs. In it we are told is an archive of blue prints of various structures that come together to construct life from its origin to the present, and the future. There are histories of every kind: the history of earth, the history of its inhabitants, their genealogy, the history of thoughts, the history of evolution, the history of sex, the history as the record of all that occurred, the history as the record of all that did not occur, the history of history, the history without the element of time, the history of predictions, history of the future.
There are records of every phenomenon and every species that has existed, exists, evolved, expired , and yet to come; the famous Papuan,... the Carolingian and the moderns, Albert Einstein and the Big Bang .
The mysterious thing is that contrary to the chronological evolution of Loos, things find a rather random proximity to each other such as our own disposition closer to the Papuan’s than to the moderns. It seems that history after all isn’t the elegant trajectory it has been described as, but a dense and rugged topos full of puddles and pits; and the chisel of evolution does not discriminate between the beauty and the beast.
And so I submit to my modern father: I am sorry but your predictions do not hold true, it isn’t at all as you said. the colours in the spectrum are no longer turning, the white beam was lost on its way to the future. Today the walls are smeared everywhere, finally its the aesthetics of the lavatory that has prevailed. On our mass migration from Bauhaus to our house, we have learned from Vegas.
But “ weep not “ ! This is the world of spectacle, the beast is more beautiful, more powerful; and crime is no longer the repulsive site of terror it used to be. Terror itself has evolved to terrific, mediatized. Wars are fought on TV, bombs are encoded with zip codes. That stealth-fighter-bomber gliding the Arabian skies might just turn out to be the next Hollywood promise, the teaser trailer starring Tom Cruise, popping up at a flash leaving its protoype, the latest news buried under casino ads .
With the replacement of reality by its image, there is posed a serious deficit of real encounters, in that the knowledge of things, the quality of experience suffers from a state of postpone exiled to mere sessions of simulations. What emerges is a culture of pretense where things have no material presence and only appear to be, manufactured by the latest tools of representation. It isn’t a surprise then that actuality may well be turned to the junkyard of virtuality where real consequences as grave as they may be, appear as passive and inconsequential as an arcade game. There persists a new command in my subconscious, one that I more and more seem to resort to as if by instinct, without immediately realizing that it is useless in real circumstances and yet so readily useful in the other, the famous UNDO that absolves all actions from regret, just under Edit on the menu bar. I am referring to anomalies in the distortion of judgment in confusing the two worlds of natural and artificial , as the latter is gradually replacing the former as our habitat proper.
Monuments are no longer constructed, devoid of memory they are selected and purchased from ad-hoc catalogues featuring every period and place. I recently saw an amazing program on a hotel/casino in Las Vegas that has replicated Venice, the crucial difference being as they proudly proclaimed : “ this is a bigger and improved Venice ” (with filtered water)!
Naturally with the forgeries afforded, what other way is there for the assylee of the postcard life to tell the difference between New York and the Basque country other than looking at the stamp. Make no mistake, I have no doubt that Bilbao’s Guggenheim will enjoy the same success in New York, inasmuch as a bottle of whiskey would induce a similar effect on peoples, be it the Mongolians, Iranians or the Scottish; what is at stake is the price we are paying for a mere effect which might have a relatively short life not to mention what could follow, the not too appealing thought of a collective hang over! Indeed with all this glitter and muscle it is no longer possible to tell apart an architect from a belly-dancer and the belly-dancer from the steroid stricken body builder. Further, the hypnotic effect brought through transmissions and interiorization of practice, subsequently the general lack of external stimuli seems to have relaxed our sensibilities to a threshold of intolerance for whatever lies beyond immediate grasp. So you see, that degenerate pest, the fungi on your ginger bread, the ornament, has infested again spread upon everything, meaning itself, as a hairy mould like substance we call information, it is hardly accidental that the word moulding: the applied ornamental strip, is directly linked to mould: the furry growth of fungi. Reality, with its imposing limitations: gravity, friction, time,distance, is no more feasible than a prolonged vacation at the spa. The new dweller, the tele-urbanite of the internet and hyper reality is merely a tourist visiting downtown on occasion for a few snapshots. With the fetishization of real, nothing is regarded authentic if not encoded with a past, presence itself is contextualized in the re-created form of the present in its past and hence recreational. Some years ago the good mayor of New York had the bright idea of replacing the street lamp posts in favor of stylized 19th century lanterns (they do burn electricity and not gas however). In some heavy motor traffic areas the asphalt was dug out and replaced with cobble stones! Naturally they had to be replaced with asphalt again. Soon the buses and taxis will be replaced with horse carriages, better yet our cars will be designed to look like four legged-creatures burning gasoline. The most elaborate and expensive carnival is reality itself.
Business is done in pyjamas. With all the comfort of the Genie’s bottle and cathode crystal gazing, why settle for just three wishes. With our brand new organ, the remote control and our newly developed infrared sensation, there is no need to touch; we can zap through hundreds of channels, open doors, flush toilets, all without a flex of a muscle. The living spaces are no longer punctuated by windows but by plasma screens. The real estate agent will tell you, why worry about the view and light, the beach is a download away, set the controls to a sunny day and bake yourself bronzé right in your living room sipping cocktails while doing business in Beijing. Who cares about mental hygiene, this is Nirvana.
I am an individual of the 21st century and I live in New York City because I don’t wish to drive when I get hungry. I detest shopping malls; it is a distasteful thought to me that our town planners should have been so impressed by the automobile that everything was splattered in concordance with the mileage a full tank can travel rather than being concerned about making neighborhoods. The shopping mall is the syndrome of dehumanization. And I am suspicious of the “ disappearance of distance “ and the conveniences of on-line shopping, because its impact might very well be the di-suburbanization of the already di-urbanized suburb; I dread to think that one day I shall have to miss the shopping mall.
There is a super market around the block, where I live, they have shopping carts and they all squeak. Once in a blue moon a new one is brought in straight from the factory with lubricated ball bearing castors, in a month or so that too will squeak after piles of stuff from the shelves of isles. The sales manager of the executive branch will argue,” why push a heavy squeaking cart when you can stuff just as much and more scrolling your mouse with a twist of a wrist, just think of the time you save ? ” I say, Please! I much rather flip through the pages of National Enquirer standing in line than to spend time filling forms for Kotex on my PC. Soon my collection of passwords can make up an entire lexicon for a sequel to Ulysses.
The dawn of modernity was marked by the irreversible break and termination of style, that is the degree of transparency or opacity of form with respect to content on ontological grounds and critical reasoning, and thus with it the fondness not of form but the process, the work. The rapport with the viewer is one of engaging and sharing rather than consumption. Useful to remember today is that we are after all thinking animals, without which ( thinking ) we shall be devoured not just by natural forces that would have rendered us extinct long ago but by our own creation , the machine. In War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, Manuel De Landa points to the increasing role of machines in the decision making processes :
“ It is precisely the distinction between the advisory and executive capabilities that is being blurred”, which as a result might compromise the human race. He further argues that in the eyes of a future robot historian, “ the role of humans would be seen as little more than that of industrious insects pollinating an independent species of machine -flowers that simply did not possess its own reproductive organs during a segment of its evolution.”
With the saturation of information followed by a numbing effect as a result of more and more time dedicated to browsing and less and less to thinking, we have slowed the human evolution; instead we have been conditioned to refine and improve the machines. An expert in computer industry once remarked: “At any time, a person buying a computer is always two steps behind, because a newer model is always in production while the research lab is experimenting and debugging the next generation in line “. The nano computers of the future composed of DNA molecules will perform tasks far more complex and much faster than the current super computers of today. The embryonic robot in its silicon womb has already developed the vision of Socrates, the machines are becoming smarter and we more stupid, the machine richer and we poorer, so welcome ... On the other hand, the deluge of images has rinsed our imagination clean turning us into visionless addicts begging for more eye candy in every possible source, be it the past epochs of history, the sexy MRI’s of the medical practice or the 3D animations of molecular biology.
The confusion and camouflage of one thing to another has reduced everything to wall paper. The quality of life has been flattened to a laminated veneer of hallucinations. As Neil Leach points out in The Anesthetics of Architecture , this has been most devastating in spatial mediums such as architecture, amongst others echoing the words of Lefebvre : “a spatial work attains a complexity fundamentally different from that of a text (or image),... what we are concerned with here is not texts but texture“. In other words, with no moment to seize, in the absence of active and conscious participation, what follows is the double crisis of duration and sensation. Nothing contributes more to this retardataire than the gastronomic link of production and consumption that is, ingestion-digestion-defecation performed by economic- academic-mediatization, literally a culture of waste where propaganda substitutes direct authentic experience hence seduction replaces critical judgment, and hype and fashion pass for the safest harbors of good taste. After a generation of cross-eyed architects spawned by the likes of Venturi, we now have to endure the state of the art foambastic episode of perpetual frothing Blobscapes. It is important to note that the purpose here is not to discriminate or privilege one medium in place of the other, rather as the title of this essay suggests, to highlight a parallel between the saturation of image in contemporary culture versus the legitimacy of ornament and its subsidization by the state challenged by Adolf Loos in his 1908 essay, Ornament and Crime. The issue therefore is not to put in opposition the digitization of data versus the printed hard copy, there are phenomenological differences by their way of transmission that inform and enhance various facets of truth in the experience of knowledge, no different perhaps than how the various wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation or electromagnetic spectrum can be used to enhance information that would otherwise be concealed from view. Indeed whereas the printed document is made interpretative by way of words or illustration, the pixelated image of the computer screen drifts away from lexical transaction and closer to a sort of codified navigation not unlike a chameleon made totally transparent by becoming one with its surrounding, it would seem there is a different level of consciousness at work imbued with hues, a kind of Borgesian blindness that instead turns us to intensely charged sensitized beings; on the other hand, with the facility of 3D computer modeling programs to arbitrate forms and one should add, purely on formalistic and reactionary terms, there has emerged the patriotic front of nowhere land, the virtual. It is from this lack of atmosphere that one as if by instinct would want to escape. No-one has remarked on this urge with more gallant and as delicately, as the painter Robert Mangold:
“Artists are always struggling against history and moment, to propel themselves forward, not forward as in progress but forward as a reaching for oxygen or as a plant reaches for light,...”.