to find that

dark or opaque


Michelle Fornabai in conversation with IKL, W, and R. Recorded March 30, 2014.

W: You shared an outline of some of the studios that you’ve been holding over the last several years. We looked specifically at the language you used to get a clearer idea of your pedagogy. In the synopsis, the following words appear most frequently: “between” was the most frequent at 19 times; “ material” was 17; “ object” was 15; “ time” was 14; “ condition”, “ sensory”, “difference” and “sleep” were 12; “design” and “left” were 11; then “ idiosyncrasy” and “structure” were 10. So with these words, you can start constructing a narrative of your view on Phenomenology, but we were wondering if you could define it for us and how you see it.

MF: The (latent) objective of my studios [including the Dream Studio] is to problematize presence, place and properties. “Presence” has to do with the subject; it’s subjectivity, sensory perceptions, perceptual experience and their cognitive processing. “Place” has to do with the boundaries between our understanding of ourselves and our environment—perhaps that goes to “between.” I think the interest in looking at emergent technologies is the way in which we can start to think of the sensory limits of the body re-circuited to the objects and spaces that surround it. This is a condition that’s not just inherent in emergent technologies, but intrinsically part of architecture and materials.

And the last, “properties,” invokes materials—whose “essential” properties are not stably defined conceptually or materially. These are the things I look at in studios as a way to think about Phenomenology.

IKL: You seem categorically interested in language—the precise location of words historically and across disciplines – to assert your position on ‘presence,’ ‘materials,’ and ‘properties’. In the past you have used terms like “agnosia” or “hibernal” to frame your studios. How do you begin to choose these words? Is it a way to uncover or recover some of their history, or do you think these words speak to certain qualities that are undetermined as architectural ideas?

MF: It’s funny: I respond to words in terms of their content as meaning, but also in terms of their sensory properties. Often I choose words because of the way they sound and look—the material qualities of the word. I also think the words I’m drawn to are types of curious phenomena. They are words that mark an abnormal moment or something that has been under-thought. Oftentimes, when we’re curious about something there is a large degree of indeterminacy. I think this is a place of productive possibility. I also think these terms tie back to more common words—those common words that often indicate the conventions. My curious word choices lead me back to the conventions I’m hoping to extend or interrogate.

R: It seems that your past sequence of studios are as much a project as they are careful experiments. What prompted you to start formulating all your studios this way?

MF: I’m trying to decide whether or not to begin at the beginning and go through the studios. They are formed in part as a sequence with information from the previous studios informing subsequent studios, but they are thought in whole as a series exploring sensation and architecture. The first studio was on blindness. I thought this was a critical point of departure within architecture. This was at a time when the discipline was looking very closely at form and maybe not so much at performance. I had recently been studying for ARE exams and was noticing all of the material that constitutes the conventions of architecture: mechanical systems, acoustical tables, everything that’s properly part of architectural practice that tends to be marginalized in the studio. I was looking to shift the studios from being about form to being more about performance, specifically focusing on sensation as a means of doing that. The first studio, ‘Blindness,’ took the image away from architecture, which was quite radical as you can imagine.

W: So you didn’t present any images?

MF: We did present images, but blind images not offered primarily to be seen—of the experience of blindness, its traces or technologies.

Blindness tended to force the work away from the production of predominantly visual experience and formal projects. The discussion at the end of that first semester had to do with whether sensation was residing primarily in the program of the studio. The program was a school for the blind, which didn’t necessarily reside in the form of the architecture but in its functional designation. The second studio, then, on ‘Sleep,’ was a way to rethink program. Sleep is underdetermined programmatically but is latent in every architectural program. Afterwards, I considered whether the same type of research could be done within the visual, so the third studio was on ‘Illusion’ and forms of visual hallucination. More broadly—without going through each studio because there are 11 at this point—I became interested in perceptual phenomena at the juncture between the material stimulus, the sensation of this stimulus, and its cognitive and linguistic processing. So I began to take perceptual problems, like ‘Flaws’ for example, as points of departure for the studio. In order to define a material flaw, you first have to define a function, because material is just material. The knot in the wood wouldn’t be a problem if you were using it as a block. If you are using the wood structurally, then the knot is an issue. It involves some conceptual designation of function to determine whether the material has a flaw. Material perceptions also differ from the pure conceptual idea of wood—at the juncture of our conceptual understanding of wood as it materializes. The “Flaws” studio was looking at our conventions surrounding materials: the program was to design the headquarters for the American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM).

It went right to the architectural conventions of material as a problem.

These studios based in perceptual problems would be intermixed with studios dealing with sensation directly, like “Perfume” (olfaction) or “Touch” (somesthesia). The “Autism” studio was an interesting way to deal with sensory perception, because sensory perception in autistic subjects is non-uniform and non-universal. It represents a way of defining sensory excess or sensory dampening as commonly heterogeneous and was considered in relation to and against the kind of ‘universal design’ requirements typical to architecture. That studio was looking at conventions of how we understand sensory experience as common to all. In autism it becomes quite idiosyncratic and unique to the individual. ‘Holes’ are another perceptual problem. These material objects are difficult to define perceptually. They can be filled. They can move. There are multiple ways of defining them mathematically or philosophically. Holes are something between material and conception.

So if we started with sensation, we then moved towards perception. The recent studios have been edging more towards cognitive processing. Last year’s studio, “Why Pretend?”, was on pretense, and this year’s on “Dreams.” In both studios, the same sensory pathways are used for the real and unreal. The material conditions of environments and objects don’t change, but our cognitive understanding and processing of these sensations is different.

The banana is still a banana, but we understand it as a phone when we pretend. In dreams we have sensory experiences, which are understood as being not real even though they use the same sensory pathways as the real. Those last two studios have also made a concerted effort to make the bodily experience of the students an explicit part of the process. If previous studios had a client (even if it was imaginary), this year, we’ve taken the client away to consider the perceptions of our own bodies as direct, even involuntary.

IKL: If we consider the studio as a set of serial experiments, are there certain controls or consistencies between them? How do these controls materialize or get problematized in different ways?

MF: Sure, there are controls, and they are usually in the information that’s contained in the brief (or syllabus). The earlier studios gave explicit programmatic requirements in square footages or room designations. The “Dream” studio is predicated on a set of experimental experiences in the studio. Designation of a program is difficult, if not impossible, without knowing what will emerge from that experience. It’s the chicken or the egg problem. So controls also come up in the types of exercises assigned. Depending on whether something like time is critical in phasing or in sleep, or even in understanding how perfume may move through air space—these critical dependencies (or “differences”) will often cause a set of specific representational requirements (like film, for example). Each studio has problematized representation and architectural convention in a very distinct way.

Some types of drawings, like perspective, may appear in “Illusions,” then reappear in “Dreams,” but in two very different ways.

W: You’ve also touched briefly on abnormality vs. normality, or flaws and mistakes. In each of these threads you’re looking at things outside of convention and outside of the expected. What is it about these situations is useful to you, in seeking them out as a place for production?

MF: Well, there are so many indeterminacies in architectural practice. Many of the anxieties in architecture have to do with things that cannot be controlled—things that happen because of circumstance, contingency or embodiment. For example, in “Flaws”, which was right around the time of the crash, the whole studio took the crash on more explicitly: what happens if you can’t build or you can only build with cheap labor. Buildings and things on construction sites go awry because the landscape is not logical, or the body of the laborer not working as precisely as the machine. This constitutes the anxiety. The architect makes a drawing that is an abstract ideal, one that he expects to be enacted on the site. But if you take that site or that situation as embodied and circumstantial, the possibilities for error become creative potentials if you accept that there is going to be an amount of difference. Flaws are quite a normal part of architecture, but they are not normally taken as the creative potential of architecture.

They are taken as something that architecture is trying to resist. Many seminars and architecture schools are interested in failure: the catastrophic moment. I’m not interested in failure. The flaws are much more fascinating.

IKL: The malfunctioning body becomes a productive site. Suddenly, it becomes an experiment on the body: the subject is the object, which sounds different from a more Cartesian understanding of subject and object as separate orders of being. How are you defining the relationship between subject and object?

W: And the subject as producer. In “Dreams”, the subject produces dreams but is also the object of the studio.

MF: The interest has been to move away from a kind of proper or universal ‘subject’ to an idea about subjectivity—the embodied subject. The danger of moving too far towards subjective experience is that it becomes purely unique. On the one hand you get the capital “I” of pure presence, and on the other hand you get a kind of morass of unique, individual “i’s” of presence purely. So I think the challenge is to find ways of moving subjectivity not so much to a universal “I” or essentialist “i,” but instead to find commonalities outside of the subjective experience that allow it to gain some political agency.

In terms of the subject itself, I’m also interested in things that are irrational and involuntary, things that are not part of the subject’s own understanding or conception of itself--to find that dark or opaque involuntary. ‘Sleep’ was definitely one of those things, and “Dreams” certainly.

IKL: It seems much more about the structure of perception and consciousness. I think that’s a uniquely philosophical interpretation of Phenomenology. It seems like this framework of subjectivity has gotten a bit lost in architecture.

R: In studio, we’re using the Necomimi ears as an introduction into emergent technologies. Can you discuss the relationship of emergent technologies (and their reciprocal relationship to material conditions) to sensation? How does it complicate or help us understand what you call the “logics of bodily intuition”?

MF: The logic of bodily intuition aspires to move towards a theory of the irrational. The irrational has its own set of logics, but those logics are not properly rational. In the case of the Necomimi, the technology foregrounds the involuntary and opaque aspects of our own thought. The Necomimi shows that we ourselves are material and that material is thick and not necessarily fully in our control.

The first experience one generally has with the brainwave controlled cat ears is that they are not actually moving the way you expect them to move. There are all kinds of noise, like the energy used in vision or electrical impulses of the heart for example, the which constitute noise in the EEG. Generative architecture sees the script as something we can control in order to increasingly control the outcome. Often technology has been framed in architecture as something that brings us closer to our ideal, and that brings the world closer to our ideal. I think the interest in using the Necomimi is to foreground an embodied experience. Each of these things are utilized in the studio not as a kind of rational argument, a rationalization nor projection of progress, but really as a tool for taking information that’s otherwise difficult to see. As we sleepwalk through the city wearing the Necomimi it’s interesting how much our situation also inflects “ourselves.” It’s a corporal experience, not only just internal to us but also us embedded in a complex situation. It’s a good way to get a sense of those material conditions—our own body and the city as material.

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