Errors as Mutation
The question of authorship surrounding a piece of work has always been a central theme in its analysis and its subsequent interpretation. Those with authority (author) and power (institution) hold the key in unlocking the meaning and significance of the work. The author presents the work with a set of context, though context is only that in which the author declares or assumes it to be, and institutions erect a wall protecting the authenticity, or the ‘aura’ ,of that piece of work. Throughthisdouble-binding move , a piece of work is stripped off its potential of multiple interpretation, all that is left for the spectator to do is read it against an already defined set of rules.
Errors as Mutation reads between the lines, probing along the cracks that exist in order deconstruct the governing agents of authorship and institution. It asks a series of paradoxical questions and makes tremble the structure of power that restricts the spectator the possibility of projecting their own interpretation. However, to make tremble is not to collapse it by subjecting it to some external force, “but to explore it from within, even to consolidate the structure, imitating its every gesture, faithfully repeating its operations but in a way that exposes its limits, opening up its structure or ,rather, finding the openings that are already there, the concealed points ofweakness.”1
JanVan Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434), a painting that is unresolved amongst scholars because of its complex symbolism, is explored through the use of dialectical methods of analysis, that of iconography and iconology2. Opening up the painting through synthesis, inherent errors concealed by the author are revealed. In this way, the painting unfolds itself as a series of lies, told to heighten the truth. This problematic notion is established as a dislocative architectural strategy and Is superimposed onto the site (TrafalgarSquare and The National Gallery) thus subjecting the architecture to mutation. Errors as Mu- tation could then be understood as immanence text, “a text which is authorized by program and site not in architecture but rather in using ideas of text to denote a strategy for the dislocation of traditional ideas of time and place inarchitecture.”3
Further dislocations can be found in the way the project is represented. The intimate phenomenological space(private) is a volumetric isolation, represented as a sequence of monastic sensations. It can be read as the collapsing of distance between the author and the spectator. On the other hand, thedisembodied space (public) is a discontinuous, non-linear axiom that reappropriated the errors of the Arnolfini in order to generate spatial complexity. The spectator had to know the process, the drawings and the entire intellectual operation if they are to understand the building. The architecture could then be read as anti-user,hence anti-authorship. The ideal spectator is positioned outside looking in. They cannot enter the project from the immediacy of the building.
Instead of collapsing one position onto the other, Error as Mutation enfolds dialectics, presenting an archi-tecture that bridges the gap between different modes of thought and thus responding to the questions of authorship in different ways.
1 Mark Wigley, ‘The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida’s Haunt’, MIT Press, 1995
2 Erwin Panofsky, ‘Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait’, Burling Magazine, Burlington Magazine Publication, 1973
3 Peter Eisenman, ‘Architecture as a Second Language’ in Re:working Eisenman, Academy Editions, 1993
What prompted the project?
The third year studio, led by Dr. Constance Lau, investigates the space of translation between a piece of work and its relationship to the spectator. This year, we were interested in the idea of multiple interpretation, that is, the capacity for a user intervention in order to reconstruct the reading of any given piece of work. We read Umberto Eco’s The Open Work, borrowed ideas from John Berger’s Ways of Seeingof and analysed Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, described as ‘the blueprint for an unimaginably massive and Labyrinthine architecture, a dream city in effect.’
Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait was introduced at the beginning of the year as an imaginary site, a codified context that, in the pursuit of openness and multiple interpretation, became a kind of modus operandi. Because of its complex systems of notation and the skepticism behind its meaning, the Arnolfini can be entered and redefined through different lines of flight. Personally, I have always found the architecture of Peter Eisenman and the postmodernist ideologies of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida compelling. So, it only seemed logical and appropriate that the reappropriation of these ideas, particularly ‘The Death of the Author’and ‘binary oppositions’, could be read against Van Eyck’s Arnolfini. Errors as Mutationis both the remains and the result of these operations.
How important is the drawing as tool through which to unravel the Arnolfini Portrait and construct your own project?
The Arnolfini Portrait was seen as a canvas of free-floating signifiers, oscillating between foreground and background, between metaphysical and supplementary, playing a game of hide and seek, its subtext being the hidden and the disguised. Each object (the signifier) can be read as nothing more and nothing less than a vessel to convey an idea (the signified) within a system of notation.
Drawing, then, became a critical tool in the dissection and the expansion of the picture plane. At the time of its creation, perspectival realism in painting was not yet possible (only came about in the 15thcentury when Brunelleschi discovered a method for calculating depth through a single vanishing point), therefore Van Eyck had to distort the picture plane in order to make the painting appear realistic. In this way, by imitating its every gesture and faithfully exposing its limits (achieved through Camera Obscura), the painting unfolds itself as a series of lies, told to heighten the truth. In other words, by reverse engineering the Arnolfini through the act of (re)drawing, possible dimensions of the ‘real’ room and its limits can be located. These intentional errors and the threshold of possibility formed the architecture.
In the era of the super digital where everything is readily shared/downloaded and copied, what is the value of the ‘original’?
In Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the ‘origin’ or the ‘original’ is tied to the idea of aura, a site specific unique aesthetic authority. According to him, even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element – its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. Aura, in Benjamin’s terms, is a transcendental signified, that is, the existence of a governing truth to ideals of purity and origin. However, according to Derrida, origin does not exist, there is no outside text (‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’), meaning is never present, it is infinitely deferred. Aura, then, should be read as free-floating signifiers, where the relation between signifier and signified is constantly shifting.
Errors as Mutation mirrors this paradoxical idea of aura in its presentation. There are three layers to entering the project, they can be read in isolation but also as supplementary to the others. The first layer is to enter the project through the drawings, printed on the front side of an A2 sheet. There is no interpretation, the author is dead, the spectator scripts his own commentary. The second layer is to enter through text, printed on the back of every page. The spectator accesses the work through the commentary of the author. The last layer is to enter through supplements. The author retells the project through a series of references in the form of a black box.
In my opinion, the value of the original in the era of the digital lies in its ability for interaction and the possibility of multiple interpretation. Errors as Mutationcannot be entered the way it is intended through the computer. The spectator have to be in front of the work to understand its operations.
What defined the medium of collage for the views?
The visual representation of Errors as Mutationcan be seen as an extension to its narrative, not to say that it has a certain ‘style’ but that the drawings are what Colin Rowe described as phenomenal transparency. Each drawing is carefully constructed so that it becomes part of the narrative rather than merely being its materialisation. The construction of the architecture is a continuation of the Arnolfini’s analysis, hinging off Rowe’s arguments concerning polemics. Transcendental signified and free-floating signifiers becomes the architecture of the collapsing of distance, vanguard by OFFICE, DOGMA, Fala Atelier and of course the KooZA/rch archive, and the architecture of the death of the author, guarded by Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi.
The medium of the collage – or ‘post-digital’ drawing – is used to described a phenomenological space, designed for a single spectator. It references the theatrical voyeuristic gaze and could be read as the collapsing of the distance between subject/object and author/spectator. They are intelligible and follows the teaching of ‘the drawings should be able to explain your ideas without you being there’ or ‘the drawings should speak for themselves.’
The architecture of the disembodied, represented by axonometrics and superimposed diagrams, is concerned with the distilling and expulsion of individual style, every move is rational and can be traced back to a logic. The architecture could then be read as a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself. It is not stable but a process, a transgressive activity that disperses the author as the guarantor of truth. The spectator has to know the entire intellectual operation, they cannot gain access through the immediacy of the building. The ideal spectator is placed above looking in, god’s view.
How does this directly talk about appropriation?
The question probe was, to what extent can a syntactic structure engender a whole set of responses so that the semantic and syntactic act together as whole. Derrida once said that every text remains in mourning until it is translated. Like text, art and architecture can also be understood as nothing more than a system of notation, its translation is the moment in which the authority of the author vanishes, when the wall erected by institutions to project authenticity collapses and the spectator can read against the lines, thus projecting their own interpretations.
What is your take on the contemporary state and consumption of the image?
There is an argument that Deconstruction was the last movement in the architectural discourse and that we are living in the period of ‘lateness’. Lateness is marked by the attempt to be avant-garde but instead finding themselves in actuality ‘either repeating/reinventing older theories or obfuscating or obstructing intelligibility prior to the cleansing of the old to make way for the truly new.’
My interpretation of that is that lateness is not only the unsuccessful attempts to be avant-garde but also involves a kind of neutrality. Architecture, in the name of equality and of political correctness, adopted a sensibility of the bottom-up, its image easily deciphered. For me, this leads to a lack of authority and perhaps even in a lack of radical change. There is beauty in obfuscation, in architecture as an intellectual pursuit, in the desire to explore methods and techniques over intelligibility, in the frustration of not understanding, in wanting to understand.
How and to what extent has this project challenged how you approach architecture and its image?
The project challenged my views on the role of the architect and the significance of architecture. The project is more of a provocation than a proposal, it looks to explore architecture as an intellectual pursuit, to show that architecture does not have to be a means towards some end and that the contribution to architecture cannot be alone attributed to built work.