Some inchoate thoughts in the form of a premature conclusion, drawn from a draft paper (—a paper that might never see the light of day, so therefore, what the heck?)
By overlapping architecture and blockbuster film Avatar, we can draw a dual conclusion. First, Avatar iconically represents for the viewer a very paradoxical American breed of quasi-environmentalism, one in which culture and biological security come about through war and violence while professing to defend life.
James Cameron himself told The New Yorker: “I suppose you could say I believe in peace through superior firepower.” (Cameron, in fact, is Canadian, not that it makes much of a difference). American militarist culture, which itself has become even more militarized since September 11, gets presented for audiences through what Derek Gregory calls the military-industry-media-entertainment (MIME) complex, which Avatar clearly fits into.
Beyond what Fredric Jameson once said about the underbelly of postmodern culture being “blood, torture, death, and terror,” an updated iteration for today could be “blood, torture, death, terror, and environment.” As opposed to merely isolated culture or architectural objects like the Bonaventure Hotel that Jameson beheld, the environment is an extension of endless war. The contemporary info-entertainment environment, a totalizing tele-connected space, is a violent weapon that complements and completes Cameron’s “superior firepower.”
In Avatar, as one commodity of the MIME complex, the story begins with the grandiose and deceptive promise of direct physical violence being replaced with cultural violence woven into the environment. At least that was the idea of sending the avatars, before it all devolves into another typical American incursion.
The avatars, a perfect neuro-tethered “biodrone” of the sort that DARPA now begins to pioneer, eerily evoke, in fact, the actual American cultural soldiers (anthropologists, psychologist, and other social scientists), these culture warriors the Pentagon has sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to supposedly win the war for hearts and minds.
An idea of the biodrone is meant to indicate that the environment and the biodrone itself, as much as they may seem from two opposing worlds, are ultimately parts of one and the same homespun medium. The American idea, so well crystallized in Avatar, of mastering the invaded environment through intelligence and knowledge, is the biodrone fantasy. The ultimate myth of Avatar is that of socio-environmental penetration; of an interiority replaced by absolute exteriority.
At least that’s the desire from the drone-operator’s control room, a reclusive detachment similar to architecture’s “research studios.” And that’s similarly the view in research architecture today: the fantasy to anxiously replace the represented, crisis-prone environment with controlled design itself thanks to research knowledge.
Architecture has to face what amounts to a combined methodological and political crisis that’s been put off for all too long, but how? The question brings me to the second idea.
The other side of my conclusion revolves around the real architecture of Avatar. In order to produce Avatar, the commodity, it was necessary to first produce the movie’s own unique filming environment, a techno-space that Cameron had to wait twelve years for until animation technology caught up with his plans. The environment we see on film is but one apparition that emerges from a complex and discontiguous material environment of computers, digital models, sets, and costumes, not to mention corporate offices.
At the end of it all, no matter the left-appealing message in the film, Rupert Murdoch’s insidious News Corp (Fox News’s parent) beat Wall Street expectations in the quarter of the film’s release. But much like the biodrones in the movie, architecture in the bland, corporate design research environment can’t see—refuses to see—its own material threads from within.
After all, the gaze of the drones that fly over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Palestine, Mexico and more countries every day, have a way of visually disassociating people, even while targeting them, from their complex territories and environmental relations in order to bind them to the frame of vision and kill them. Not only that, but this deceitful vision simultaneously opaques the fact that the humans who fly these drones are not merely the pilots.
Behind each drone there are human operators who occupy myriad spaces: spy headquarters in Virginia, lawyers in the White House, the Commander-in-Chief, on-the-ground “intelligence” in conflict zones, and pilot consoles at American military bases. In the end, it is nearly impossible to identify who the killer is and ascribe guilt for murder, aka “collateral damage.” At least, that’s the idea.
This fragmented vision and dispersed spatiality, spinning out into society-at-large through social, affective, and kinship ties begins to incriminate and penetrate us all. The militarized political environment of the everyday is simultaneously the biological one, demolishing any illusion of autonomy or interiority. And the architecture field, if it can get a grip of its own materialist crises, stands uniquely poised to imagine different political environments from the ones we are beleaguered with today.
To the manifesto and adherents of today’s “Yes Is More!” I say “NO Is More!” Let’s get rid of Le Corbusier’s “architecture, or revolution” once and for all, and instead rally around something both radical and uncertain: Homeostasis, or architecture! Of course, homeostasis can be avoided.
- By Javier Arbona
Demilit scours landscapes for mundane, everyday connections between spaces, objects, individuals, and authority.
An experimental collective, Demilit was founded in 2010 by Bryan Finoki, Nick Sowers, and Javier Arbona. The trio also works with various collaborators on specific projects, performances, and playful improvisations.
Demilit opportunistically draws from architecture, sound art, creative writing, geography and other fields to produce work that encompasses events, texts, web memes, and more.
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