Lost in Space
Words by Michael Moynihan Photos by Phil Arnold
This spring Galo Canizares, the 2016-17 Howard E. LeFevre Fellow at Ohio State University, stood proudly in front of a blown up, projected image of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The image was used to supplement the opening of Canizares’ first solo exhibition, “Three Acts of #Architecture,” held at the Banvard Gallery in Columbus, Ohio. By coincidence, or he quipped, “fate,” the opening took place on the same date almost a half century after the spherical Soviet spacecraft, Vostok 1, sent the first human into space.
Canizares did not expand on the effect the image must have had on the life and politics of the 1960s, nor was he interested in the fascinating influence the cultural debates surrounding this image, most famously lead by C.P. Snow, had on the development of computational art exhibitions and media art; a long history to which his exhibition is certainly indebted. Instead, the image was used because the exhibition hinged on the idea of architecture in outer space. An interest likely fueled by the recent push from Silicon Valley’s opt-out culture for privatized space travel.
Canizares is dressed in a white jump suit. On his keychain is a small Lego Astronaut. The contents and imagery of the exhibition, which he refers to as “props, sets, and prototypes,” are from the high-tech aesthetics of 1960s space design (think: light up control panels filled with flickering buttons, the assertive sounds of automatically closing aluminum air sealed walkways, and the sheen reflecting off the crest of a polycarbonate spherical helmet as a weightless tethered body floats past a far away star). The catalog consists primarily of screenshots and video stills documenting the processes of making these sci-fi props. If we take Canizares at his word, which is made difficult by his affection for conspiracy theories, this exhibition is not necessarily about exploring space in search of right wing libertarian escape geographies. In fact, despite what seems immediately obvious, the exhibition is not actually about space at all, but rather about exploring the media networks, systems, and knowledge infrastructures which now administer and disseminate design.
The exhibition looks to address two questions in architecture that seem immediate and relevant. First, the question of social media and accelerated communication platforms which seem to govern the way architectural images are consumed, this is most obviously foreshadowed by the hashtag in the title of the exhibition. We are asked, what unites the images under the hashtag, #Architecture? A grouping of constantly changing diverse images Canizares suggests contains significant keys to understanding how architecture circulates today as a meaningful cultural object. The second and most central to the content in the exhibition, the question of virtual technologies and their ability to challenge previous conceptions of how bodies occupy, observe, and experience space. Frustratingly, there is never any explicit connections in the exhibition drawn between these two explorations. We are forced to look outside of architecture, where this connection has been made explicit by, for example, Facebook’s recent investments in VR, including the purchase of Oculus Rift.
When first entering the exhibition, you encounter four large white panels hanging from the ceiling, which, if reconstituted would form a sphere about the same size as the ship the Soviets shot into space. Outside the gallery (a few months before the show), the same large white sphere sat rudely between the building's columns; alluding to architecture’s previously determined relationship to gravity. Canizares’ interest in the sphere is not about curvilinear surfaces but spherical panoramas; a resulting phenomenon required in designing virtual environments. For him, the spheres although invisible are necessary for any reasonable discussion about the future of virtualization. There is, of course, nothing new about using spheres in architecture, but these spheres attempt to exhibit a transition in architectural thinking from Boullee and Buckminster to the virtualized battlegrounds in the training spheres used by the US military.
By placing his exhibition satirically in the Space Age, Canizares is pointing to a shift in technological development; neatly classified as the shift from the mechanical age to the information age. This shift corresponds to Ernest Mandel’s periodization through the invention of ‘power technologies.’ In this periodization, Mandel points to three long waves of capitalist development driven by technological revolutions: the steam engine, the combustion engine and electricity, and (our current stage) nuclear and electronic technologies. This periodization is used by Frederic Jameson to point to this final technological shift as the inauguration of the postmodern era. Larry McCaffery in his summary of these two paradigms suggests that “[w]hile railroads, steel mills, and assembly lines were fundamentally altering America’s landscapes and mind-sets during the nineteenth century, it was still possible for the average American to grasp the mechanisms and principles responsible for such changes.” Canizares’ excitement for Space Age imagery is evidently based on nostalgia for a time when observable scientific functionalism led aesthetic choices. For example, compare the image of Gagarin taken in 1961 to the 2015 movie poster advertising The Martian starring Matt Damon. In the half century between these two amazingly similar images, technology has evolved exponentially—The Martian was critically acclaimed for its accurate portrayal of contemporary technology—however, that evolution is not aesthetic; the helmets, vehicles, and space ships look much like they did in the 1960s, even if the technology that governs them is ostensibly different. Scott Bukatman has noted, “postmodernism really gets going around the exhaustion of the Space Age.” “Now,” he continues referring to the early 1990s, “the personal computer [has replaced] the thrusting power of the Saturn V as the emblem of technological culture…Outer space superseded by cyberspace.”
The challenge of representing this transition with architectural objects viewable in a museum is significant. As the title of the exhibitions suggests, the content is broken into three acts which separately explore the translation between physical and virtual. The first is about topology and volume, this contains the exploded sphere described above. The second and third look more practically at virtual world making, such as simulating physics in the digital realm and translating far-away data (Mars) to something familiar (a model). Each of these artifacts are incomplete experiments; leftovers from an implied attempt to learn to control the virtual as an architectural tool. Again frustratingly, Canizares, makes no effort to address concerns such as the body, identity, or the new virtual subject, nor does he successfully connect his work to a world of experiments currently proliferating in the video, net art, networked performance, video games, remix, installation, biotech art, artificial life and robotics, all of which have in many cases explored the ways human and the technology have become increasingly coexistent, codependent, and mutually defining. Instead, the show hints at a variety of possible trajectories for all of these lines of inquiry.
What once made Reyner Banham so excited about Archigram—two sources Canizares takes as precedent—was the group’s ability to allow “aesthetics to give technology its marching orders.” For Banham, “Archigram is short on theory, long on draughtsman and craftsmanship. They’re in the image business and they have been blessed with the power to create some of the most completing images of our time.” Canizares has reversed both these propositions. His exhibition, at its best, serves as a warning to architects. Today, in a quick bathroom break from a studio project, a young student can scroll through 200 of the most compelling images of our time. In this new world, which has seen a radical swing from function to communication, from formal inquiry to narrative and performance, architects more than ever find themselves in the image business. But few know how images of architecture actually circulate on social media platforms, what particular elements of a project thrive under this medium, and how these immaterial elements gain critical recognition. Rather than suggesting that these platforms for advanced communication have ended architectures ability to create meaningful discussions, Canizares is looking to appropriate the ubiquity of contemporary architectural image-making to develop a previously untapped disciplinary property.