Monday, March 29, 2010

Does Facebook Represent a New Architectural Icon in Today’s Landscape?

A human being is a part of the whole called by us “the universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty,”1 – Albert Einstein

I intend to address the primary topics of architecture and landscape in this paper and I would like to ask for an open mind with regard to these two structures, with the intent of perhaps seeing the conceptual nature of each. Throughout the history of landscape painting artists have provided the viewer with a full narrative of the environment of both urban and rural settings and in the process have defined a sense of place. The role the artist has in establishing the relationship between art and its reference to the world is something that interests me and drives my own work. I have been thinking about the relationship between the landscape and the idea of a sense of place and the role that virtual platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Yelp will have in creating or redefining a new understanding and definition of the terms landscape and architecture. In an article called The Artiste by art historian Blake Stimson, who writes about a conversation between Jeff Wall and architect Jacques Herzog published under the title ‘Pictures of Architecture – Architecture of Pictures’, Stimson enables us to see other possibilities for the word architecture particularly in this occasion in reference to the works of Jeff Wall.

“Rather what I mean by architecture (and what I take it to mean in the Wall–Herzog conversation) is something more like the concept of housing or factory or pavilion (or, indeed, garret or laboratory), that is, something more in keeping with a non-metaphorical, everyday use of the term even as we consider it in the context of an architecture of pictures (or an architecture of art more generally) rather than as architecture itself.”2

It is the architectural super structures that have traditionally held power and knowledge - corporate headquarters, churches, universities, banks, museums, publishing houses, and more. As these structures take on a new form via the Internet, a form that does not exist within the confines of walls but in a virtual state, one wonders how this will change our understanding of so many things including our personal relationships, our daily habits, as well our ability to encounter one another eye to eye. The tradition of architecture has defined us in many ways by providing us with a structure that represents a specific place where we exist within our community and has provided us with the platform or environment to construct, engage, and build friendships and personal relationships. Author W. J. T. Mitchell in the book, Landscape and Power suggests:

“One might think then of space, place and landscape as a dialectical triad, a conceptual structure that may be activated from several different angles. If a place is a specific location, a space is a “practiced place,” a site activated by movements, actions, narratives, and signs, and landscape is that sight encountered as image or “sight.” Central Park in New York City is thus located in a specific space on earth; it is the site of innumerable activities and practices; and it is consumed (and was designed to be consumed) as series of picturesque tableaus or “landscapes” derived from European landscape painting.”3

Throughout history artists have served as documentarians when painting the landscape and in the process defined a place and in this process created an environment where one can comprehend themselves and their relationship to others. Artists have provided a visual opportunity to understand our individual sense of place within contemporary society and they have been influenced and directed by culture, media and changes in technology and as a result continue to redefine our individual understanding of art, landscape, nature, structure, form and so on. In Jeff Wall’s essay, Dan Graham's Kammerspiel, he addressed the influence of popular culture on conceptual artists, “The critical language developed within conceptualism is constructed from the discourses of publicity, journalism, academicism, and architecture. Artists like Graham, Buren, Weiner or Kosuth understand architecture as the discourse of siting the effects of power generated by publicity, information and bureaucracy in the city.”4

In the late 19th and early 20th century the work of artist and biologist, Ernst Haeckel offered a new definition of the term landscape. He spent his life consumed with his research, painting many thousands of single cell organisms called Protista. The movie, Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision encapsulated his work by saying, “the outer world became a window into an inner landscape”.5

Contemporary painter Gerhard Richer whose works take him to the tradition of the landscape is defined as one “who’s roots extend as far back as German Romanticism, and his vision encompasses the process of landscape painting since Corot”. “Richter continually exploring, deepening, and varying the techniques we think of as specifically Richterian – the smeared canvas, the photographic canvas, the vaguely expressionistic canvas. In one case here, he transformed a roomful of paintings into a conceptual installation by including a mirror the size of a canvas: this effectively parodied the idea of “art imitating nature by proposing that art imitates art.”6 Richer is a good example of a contemporary landscape painter who opens the door for a reinterpretation of the traditions of the landscape through his exploration of a nontraditional approach.

Paintings of the landscape have provided us with the visual tools needed to place ourselves within a framework so we can experience our community and our environment. Landscape paintings have served as a kind of archaeological touchstone and have created an environment for thought. Time, technology, and invention allow us the opportunity to redefine or reconstruct our understanding of the world. It seems that we have yet again developed or redefined the conventions of architecture as well as the traditions of the landscape and have created a new social framework that does not exist in a tangible place but a virtual space and in the process given new meaning to both terms – landscape and architecture.

The 1950s and 1960s in America within the confines of an architectural building, perhaps a diner or the donut shop - sometimes while sitting at the counter on a stool - one would visit with old friends and make new ones. Today, in the town where I live and work, it is the gourmet coffee café where we can sit, drink our coffee and work on our computers. It is not uncommon while working in the café to hear no one speak, except those who are just ordering their drink of choice. I have spent many an hour working in this way. If I want to get out of my studio, see other people, work on my projects, it is the café that offers a cheerful environment to do just that. Facebook has now become an alternative structure in which I can connect with long lost friends, new friends and fellow artists. The structure of the Facebook site has an architectural reference in that the main page where one sees posts is referred to as the “wall”. It is interesting if one thinks about the “wall” as a gallery and the images as an ever changing collaborative exhibition in this virtual architectural structure.

My work for the past seven years has been about documenting vanishing mid century architectural icons and roadside vernacular. My goal has been to try and understand what it is that creates a sense of place. As the landscape changes both due to development and environmental issues that we face in the near future one can look at Facebook with an open mind and applaud its communal environment. When one thinks about the individuals that we can find and have a relationship with while never turning the car key in the ignition one can say that Facebook offers a very low carbon footprint and simultaneously a reinvention of the idea of an architectural meeting place.

1. Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You, A Gide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, Shambhala Classics, 2002
2. Blake Stimson. The Ariste. Oxford University Press. OXFORD ART JOURNAL 30.1 2007 101–115 doi:10.1093/oxartj/kcl029
3. W. J. T. Mitchell. Landscape and Power. The University of Chicago Press, second edition
4. Jeff Wall, Dan Graham's Kammerspiel (Toronto: Art Metropole, 1991), pp. 7-83.
5. Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision, directed by David Lebrun
6. Alfred Mac Adam, ARTnews, February 2010, page 102
7. Alfred Mac Adam, ARTnews, February 2010, page 103

Monday, March 8, 2010