Post #100: “Ways to be Critical”. A conversation with Brendan Cormier and Jimenez Lai for Volume

V36 Cover

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So, slowly (very, very slowly, this last year), this blog arrived at its 100th post at some point during its fourth year of existence. It’s a rather paradoxical celebration, then, since this sort-of private milestone comes at a moment when the blog has been neglected for quite a few months. It’s also rather paradoxical that this lack of activity happens at a moment where I’m rather busy in my Klaus-related production. Adding to my ongoing collaboration with uncube magazine, which started last February, this year I traveled to Naples, where I was invited to participate in the 2013 Comicon, focusing on comics and architecture, along with European comic book legends François Schuiten and Joost Swarte. These upcoming months will also feature a few collaborations with Clog (in Clog: Sci-Fi), Praxis (In their special issue The Return to Narrative), Spanish blog La Viga en El Ojo, edited by architectural critic Fredy Massad, and I also got into some major trouble by accepting MAS Context’s invitation to guest-edit a special issue of the magazine which will be published (fingers crossed) by the end of the year.

This also speaks a lot about internet presence and online activity in professionals’ blogs. Somewhere else I’ve said that the extent of the current economic and professional crisis can be measured by digital activity, and the number of contact requests you have in LinkedIn. In my case, I guess it reflects in my number of twitter followers.

On top of all this, a few months ago I was also pleasantly surprised by an invitation from Brendan Cormier, managing editor of Volume, to join in a three-way conversation with him and Jimenez Lai. The conversation, chritened “Caricature, Hyperbole, and the Politics of the Cartoon” by Jimenez, has been featured in Volume #36: Ways To Be Critical, the 144 page Summer issue of the magazine, with contributions by Javier Arbona, Amelia Borg, Michèle Champagne, Justine Clark, Bernard Colenbrander, Demilit, Rob Dettingmeijer, Sergio Miguel Figueiredo, Bryan Finoki, Nathalie Frankowski,  Françoise Fromonot, Cruz García, Owen Hatherley, Charles Holland, Justin McGuirk, Markus Miessen, Luca Molinari, Timothy Moore, Douglas Murphy, Urtė Rimšaitė, Arjen Oosterman, Steve Parnell, Colin Ripley, Fred Scharmen, Nick Sowers, Naomi Stead, Michael Stanton, Jan Van Grunsven, Fabrizia Vecchione, WAI Think Tank, Paul Walker, Justine Yan, or Mimi Zeiger. A 34-page preview can be read here.

Since I don’t usually speak that much for/about myself, I thought this conversation with Brendan and Jimenez would be a good way to celebrate that ego-trip that hides behind Klaustoon’s blog. I also have to do it now, because in a few months’ time (caused by sheer serendipity) there will be a couple more of those around, so I’ll take the chance now that oversaturation hasn’t come yet. If you’re curious of what Jimenez and I say there, you can read a few excerpts below, or click on the images from the magazine.

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Brendan Cormier:     I’d like to start with a sort of introductory question. You two have come to represent a rather specific area within current ‘fringe’ architectural trends, using cartoons and comics as a tool to generate critical discourses. What draws you to cartooning as method of architectural expression, and to what degree would you consider it a form of criticism?

Jimenez Lai:     If ‘caricature’ is a form of referencing known characters but spoken with hyperbole, I think cartoon can be a very generative form of criticism. I see cartoon as a sophisticated means to conflate representation, criticism, theory, historicism, and even design – while I have a lot of fun embedding cryptic references that close readers may pick up, the more important aspect I want to explore is for cartoons to become projective. So yes, I would agree with Klaus’ reading of ‘Sociopaths’ – for me, that story was a very satisfying moment in my cartooning career as I felt that I layered my references well, while designing three houses in a single effort. ‘Generative’ is also one of my interests in Klaus’ work, whether or not he sees it that way – when he creates the political caricatures, he speaks in hyperbole. Klaus’ work is not so straightforward to me because he relies on the exaggeration of identifiable qualities we generally know – ranging from people’s facial and physical features to architectural targets. For example, in his parody of MOS’s PS1 project, Klaus exaggerated the curvature on the profile of the piece to be more filleted to establish effects of suggestive motion and liveliness. This, to me, is a moment that sends the caricature off to becoming a new architecture of its own. Saturday Night Live’s President Obama vs Mad TV’s are very different, and I would say that we have three President Obamas each performing our idea of him. Can we even consider caricature-making to be cultural contextualism?

KL:     Well, caricature is certainly contextual, and that is particularly vivid in political cartoons (as in any sort of commentary of contemporary issues), whose validity is really ephemeral: As soon as the events and idiosyncrasies that generated them become past, they become totally extraneous to the reader. Even if that same reader actually engaged with them when they first appeared. It’s extremely context-sensitive material.

However, the part I’m most interested in, is the way in which context is dealt with. Cartooning relies, using one of my favorite expressions of Vivian Sobchack’s, on an interplay between familiarity and processes of defamiliarization which deal with hyperbolic distortion but not only. And this distortion becomes a design force itself, which is what you’re pointing at, and something which we both agree on, as we have discussed it before. That is: The interest on copying (the non-spurious interest, let’s say) is that if you copy something badly enough, then it becomes something different, something new. And this is very obviously present in caricature, moreover in architectural caricature: when you take an existing building and twist it, distort it, denaturalize it by contaminating it with other stuff that’s alien to it outside the specific environment, the suspended reality of the cartoon, it mutates. It moves on in a different direction (or directions). So cartooning becomes a tool to unleash architectural imagination. Of course, one could argue that this is true of any form of doodling and sketching, but to me, there’s an openness in sketching that also limits its usefulness. Meanwhile in cartooning, where there’s a certain narrative that one has to adapt to, this very limitation of the possibilities fosters the appearance of specific, productive design strategies. And this addresses the ‘not only’ part of my argument, which we can discuss later. <Monologue mode OFF>

JL:     In my opinion, abstraction is an active form of criticism. The cave paintings we discover today attempted verisimilitude, but they were unable to copy figurations exactly right. But because of the inability to repeat exact copies, only the intended elements are retained. With that, I’d like to maintain a focus on this question “just exactly what is criticism?” Building upon Klaus’s fascination with copies and defamiliarization, I think of abstraction as the retention of critical matters and a thickening of its aboutness. As a process of gradual mutations, abstraction between copies produces language, form, and reflects the zeitgeist of every era. This is doubly why I think representation is critical in the transference between generations, and that criticism simply isn’t just the business of wrist-slapping poorly behaved actions.

BC:     There’s also a distinction to be made here between fast and slow critique. Klaus, you hinted at this already by associating your work with the word ‘editorial’, it’s a quick response to very current happenings. You reference ephemera like Gagnam Style parodies, the buzz around Rem Koolhaas curating the upcoming Venice Architecture Biennale, even a relatively esoteric nod to Ethel Baraona-Pohl’s prolific tweeting. So reading your work is like getting very precise snapshots of a day and a time. This is also reflected in how you broadcast your work through fast platforms like your blog and the online architecture magazine Uncube. On the other hand Jimenez takes a slower introspective approach. You can read the general zeitgeist through some of the architectural questions he confronts, but it is much more implicit and usually involves architectural debates that have been drawn out over decades, such as designing via plan versus section. And in step with this slow critique, Jimenez publishes with slower platforms: books and journals. So two different strategies, with two different intents. Can you tell me what brought you both to these strategies?

KL:     It is true that much of the work I do is linked to a very specific timeframe, which adds to the indecipherability of the gags themselves for anyone not familiar with the referents. This does have to do with the medium they are designed for, which has a blog format, a very particular mixture between the syncopated, sequential – but also timeless – form of the diary, and the sequentially substitutive nature of the newspaper, where each new installment replaces the previous one. This ephemerality of periodical printed media is something that has been erased somehow by the internet, which has brought about an era where everything remains out there forever, establishing a rather interesting flattening of History where every moment – and every content attached – is equally accessible, cohabitating a sort of timeless ether where any former understanding of time as an ever-advancing line, gets diluted in the general matrix of hyperlinked data-events.

So, coming back from the heights: It is true that the blog format brought a change to my work. When I split my personality and created Klaus almost a decade ago, I used it to criticize the discipline in a less latest-news-sort of way, and it was when creating the blog that I started to feel the urge to reference current events as they happened. This is particularly true of my collaborations with Uncube, where the sort of ‘Good Morning America’ format brings the commentary aspect to the front. However, the timelessness of the net I’ve referred to has also prompted me to explore rather obscure corners of the discipline, and indulge into a lot of obscure image-producing which mixes referents at will, such as the ‘Latour in Urbicande’, ‘The Great Gizmo in the Sky’, ‘Eisenmania’, and others. Not surprisingly, those are the ones that make their way to architectural publications. 

JL:        I have a reaction to the word ‘commentary’ – I don’t think anyone should make a ‘commentary’ about anything. When someone makes a commentary, there is a suggestion that that person is above it. If a designer or a student or even a critic says: ‘I’m just making a social commentary on the…’ I am imploding on the inside wondering to myself: ‘Are you above the society?’ This attitude alludes to pointless projects that evade the pressure of practicing in a forward-thinking way. Maybe in a more reductive way, I am interested in projects that clearly exemplify qualities of ‘productive criticism’. 

Now, onto the speed of critics – and sadly all of this is in real time, I am not only some GMT’s behind both of you but actually need time to think things through… it feels like a bloody chess game with clocks to slam on. In another recent conversation I’ve had with my friend Pieterjan Ginckles, speed and irreverence came up as an agreement between us. We live in a society of the nonchalant, and I simply want to embrace that. I love reddit and 4chan. I follow suckerpunch. I’m a friend of the Archive of Affinities. I believe in the idea that work has to be visually striking for anyone and everyone, but with enough depth to be mulled over. I call it ‘calibrated superficiality’. But I think another thing that I admire about Klaus is his immediacy: ‘I think this is important. Therefore, I will make it important by doing something about it right this minute.’[…]

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