Base Structures

Everyday our body and the city interchange imprint and fingerprint – mediated by the visible and imagined, social and political structures present. Together they build a complex and multi-layered archive of associations, informing the memories city dwellers create. This ongoing conversation between bodies and the city has spun an age-old web, thin threads often remain untraceable in this archive, except when objects and their embedded, situated praxis are examined. Objects in various forms, being aesthetical thoughts in large, are remnants of influences of our societies, patterns, and environments. In turn they also feed into our consciousness as concepts and eventually philosophical thoughts to understand our society1. Collected in Landscape [02] – Life Without Structures, we find these various remnants, re-arranged to entice our memories into deciphering the visual clues of the multi-layered urban archive. This book connects to an ongoing introspection relating to his encounters with and within the urban environment; which is a crucial part of Matt Plezier’s body of work. Matt’s efforts point to the importance of drawing historical and theoretical threads between physical avenues, crumbling walls, and their political motives in order to understand better the underlaying ongoing violence in the craft of our urban realities. The separate parts of Life Without Structures address this process of violence in-becoming.

The way we can move in the streets hint that both body and city are socially entwined, stories unfolding alongside each corner. These stories are enclosed in a bigger narrative, a structure serving as an oppressive context. The body within this structure has always been a mirroring of dominant systems, fitting itself to Cartesian geometries of perceived harmony. This was a false harmony originating from a rupture in communal agricultural living and relative peasant autonomy by violent feudal relationships, as Silvia Federici describes:

“The commutation of labor services with money payments (money rents, money taxes) […] placed the feudal relation on a more contractual basis. With this momentous development, serfdom practically ended, but, like many workers’ “victories” which only in part satisfy the original demands, commutation too co-opted the goals of the struggle, functioning as a means of social division and contributing to the disintegration of the feudal village.” 2

This disintegration of the village territory flowed into the striation of muddy European land for profit and accelerated extraction of commodity. This land turned out to become a test site for claims on foreign, seemingly “continuous land”, to be divided under the guise of a New World promise3. These expatriated geometries have been re-materialized by the built in Colonial Europe —take Haussmann’s Paris—theorized on paper, perpetuated as canon in our collective histories. Coordinates are self-clarifying, self-sustaining, and employed across self-initiated borders. We, the city-dwelling bodies, are archived as the organism folding along the rigid grid of the city, which is made to straighten what is essentially disruptive.

Capturing the bodily form against architecture or urbanity by drawing plans of ideal geometries is to hold accountable the markings we leave around, in the space of time. Legacies for others to interpret on Others. In other words, the emotional and physical affect when the outside is internalized and vice versa. The tension between physical locations and the mental resonance of the places is important to unfold, even after eradication, relocation, or sanitization. Working through these marked layers, in the fierce attempt to understand the powers of association and movement in memory, we encounter the tensions within the agency of archivist, artist, and architect as curator and collector. Through the recognition of individual, local, marked layers, we can connect to a wider array of systemic and systematic violences. We can link this to Matt Plezier’s praxis of locking down visual intuitions or clues within the part X Marks the Spot. Like an archeologist, we allow the city and all its layers to speak to us, to pick at the Bodemarchief – the archive of the ground, the structures we base ourselves on, and uncover its (radioactive) fossils4.

Archived Structures

The archetype of archive itself is the first overarching structure to be unfolded in order to understand the archival thought which we base ourselves on within Life Without Structures. This unfolding happens along the definition the poststructuralists Derrida and Prenowitz give us in Archive Fever. They pose that the Western, or European, archive was “initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded”5. The archive as house, as domicile within a structure, reasons that the archival practice of collecting, and collecting within a home, has always been happening in artificially stable contexts. Artificial, because of the innate uncertainty three-dimensional objects carry within themselves when exposed to factors of time (decay of material and (social) structure). Here, the temporal situations initiating erasure of narrative, place, and history, have informed a praxis of forgetting and affirming.

The archive thus forms itself as an institution with historical weight, making history a curated process, stacking the same images, tools, and spaces over the course of a few thousand years, haunting our sensibilities into an immobile state. An example is the continuous battle to rethink keywords, objects, or collections into a reality parallel to a fragile contemporary awareness of the Other. Archival practices are focused on solidifying a certain context for a long period of time, ignoring in large variabilities of meaning and form. The natural principles of decay that are halted, counter-acted, seen as detriment satisfies both our drive to sanitize, beautify, and “the need to engage with the authentic object”6. Authenticity, clarity, and purity link themselves to the symbolic capacity of the archive as hearth or temple, later the Church, Empire, and State with its exclusionary politics (woven into each other).

This addresses the latter part of the Archive Fever quote, ‘those who commanded’, which touches upon the power structures found within an institution where artifacts of communities are kept, be it a home – keeping a home – or the physical home of an organization. These are places of secrecy, privacy, but the institution differs itself by its disguise as a public sphere. In these temples, where history was kept as key to the state’s power, like in a bank, universal knowledge was also presumed to be kept. The temple presented a self-sustained, clean form of knowledge, behind glass, fetishized, an obsession made into traditional images. The possibility of letting go what is guarded jealously is the absolving of the trauma of safeguarding power to an elite group. This links intimately to the observation of knowledge institutions within a state or city sprouting from an inequal balance in power and accessibility to resources.

Opening archives to other types of knowledge, the movements of Other bodies, presents many challenges in relation to the history of the archive and its place in our city fabric throughout time. One of the most urgent challenges is the need to distinguish between the spectacle of viewing, or the display and that which is displayed, coinciding with the importance to elucidate structures sprouting from the gaze, fossilized in narratives, histories, or archives. The former is an ongoing argument of modern and Modernist tendencies to produce, display and consume its own invention of the ‘private’ in an endless cycle. At the same time, the cycle is hollowing out the private by publicizing it. This open display of a self-made interiority folds itself into narratives of presumably ever-present individuality. Similar to the display of objects in museums behind a looking glass, or archives in closed boxes, these interiorities do not engage with any context, but lead a life of their own. They strengthen the politics they were invented for —take the history of Saartje Baartman’s remains and the appropriation of her life by slave traders and abolitionists for their respective (opposed) politics7. Thus, the sticky, layered histories are allowed to float freely in a white-based context or to be stored under dust at the whim of those wielding the power of the archives and our common history.

Cleaning Structures

We continue to follow the threads lined in our built histories, from the archive to the Modernist displays briefly hinted at in the previous paragraph, paralleling the symbolic uncovering in Life Without Structures. At some point in our near history, post-war architecture became the referee in aspects of “Good Design”8, going hand in hand with the mode of living prescribed and dictating our visual taste. This visual taste was regarded highly hygienic, clean, and see-through; thus, devoid of any remnant of the past in its scarred state. This period is characterized by the restorations or demolishing of buildings and infrastructure all over Europe, erasing the ruined state of the architecture and bringing it back to an unfamiliar past. Here, erasure for modernity is used in the pursuit of a better life, one defined by movement, connection, capitalization, which is seen at odds with continuity, stability, the old. Transformation or acts carried out in the spirit of the time are misused in the adage of ‘keeping with the times’. By filling up the cracks a casual amnesia of the past appears; the past which we need to reflect upon to understand our future.

At the same time modernity introduced a subconscious blur of the postwar line between soldier and civilian technologies. Novel “machines for living”9 were imagineered to steer us towards a brave new world. Domestic compositions were rethought to suit the nuclear family while “legal arrangements [and] power constellations”10 sat side by side with the innovative suburban house, efficient apartment configuration, and modern tower block proposition. In this sprawl to move forward, violent structures were reiterated in “the city landscape and the spaces of everyday life in both the ‘homelands’ and domestic cities of the West as well as the world’s neo-colonial frontiers”11. Territories were mapped and divided, and people were brought in from overseas to construct these ‘brand-safe’ realities.

The self-consciousness of the city in a now more-than-ever global world rose to a maximum; in which London not only had to compete with Amsterdam, but also Singapore and Shanghai. Cities torn apart by recent wars in the Middle-East or former Yugoslavia are as much subject to the current desperate search for identity, ironically making it easier to target the city as one ideological unit. At the same time, the brand-safety of a globalized haven seldom coincides with the visibility of the multiple foreign hands that build our new inner-city realities. Who ends up staying in the bubble is already decided at the border, defying mere security concern for the safety of the State recognized civilian.

Curating the identity of a city, like an archivist curates its collection, to tell a narrative of importance, of prowess, of surveillance disguised as ‘mobility’, is the current challenge for architects and urbanists. Dozens of biennales, triennales, ‘X city of X’ competitions, seek their intellectual root in the colonial World Fairs situated in European metropoles like London and Amsterdam. These urban events make location a metaphor for whichever thing happens to be in fashion. Even further down the dynasty of display, we find circuses and freak shows, in which “the European collecting practices […] underlay the acquisition of many materials that were exhibited in the shows, including humans, animals, and objects”12. To misuse art, invention, and spectacle as ateliers for politics13, nowadays high-profile events, cause a spike in urban policing within the city-colony14. The curator-archivist is inclined to bend at the burden or will to preserve the continuity of the city as collection. In this position, the neutrality of the curator is disputed, as it is limited by the tools and processes, relegating the supposed neutrality of the curator to old flows of understanding.

Temporal Structures

The archive has thus been originally, or basically, a home to safeguard and record, a place for the old to define our common history. Common histories are chosen by the few, the powerful. They are dominant narratives, fossilized in abstractions we see around us. An unconventional connection can thus be drawn between the point when the archive starts to form, the place in which this formation happens, and the point a narrative starts to fixate itself and be reproduced. It is interesting to think about how an unstable urban environment, such as one in financial or political crisis, can sabotage this process. This drawing of threads from urban realities to urban futurities has been performed in Matt Plezier’s Cracks in The Sidewalk and parallels the clean-cut urban propaganda pictured in Process of Elimination.

The stance of an archive is that an unstable context is detrimental for dominant narratives. Yet if, for example in the archive of a city, a certain high-profile office tower known in our sanitized urbanity would crumble in 2 years, then what could we read from its debris? In the archive-city “objects are conceptualized as both autonomous works, and as units within the larger collections on which their value and identity depend”15, giving importance to the placement of each unit and the timelines in which they resided and continue to reside. These timelines are embedded and embodied within the physical environment, transmitting textures which can be read and interpreted. Following the thread of ongoing ingrained reproduction and subsequent acceptance of our cleansed, curated urban environment, we can leap to a sticky unfolding of this curation through denial of its self-evidence. In the thought experiment of missing a defined ‘curation’ of the urban interior consciousness made public reality, how would a collection of objects within the urban form? How would a city dweller be able to act as archivist, architect, or urbanist, outside the defined containers of the professions that are currently practiced (as such)? This new or retrieved self-consciousness is marked by Matt Plezier in Cracks in The Sidewalk by the capturing of “little disruptions”, “nuisances”, or bugs in the system we can hack collectively through collectivity. What importance would be given in relation to zeitgeist and its truths? Would this giving of meaning be an organic process in the hivemind of its contemporary state? Asking these questions destabilizes from an early stage onward the conception of the archive within the context of a city, as it interrogates the making of history, or narrative, and its relationship with the material contained in this archival space and the bodies that encounter it.

When the filter of those curating the built masses or found objects is minimized, by introduction of the thought-experimental ‘missing curation’, the powerful novelty lies in observing the newly formed power dynamics in this instability; an alternative futurity also visually described in Cracks in The Sidewalk. There is a hidden power for the body in the city, when we consider it as emerging and growing within the structures. When we consider it being more than the sum of its parts, questioning the container of human-ness and the traces it can leave behind. Deleuze and Guattari note this ability to deform within the static geometry, or ‘plane of consistency’, as ground for a more fluid, time-based, or ecological, approach16. Reading and retelling the city can be an act of defiance: to give importance to transformation as temporal practice, an instability. An instability in which the words ‘act’ and ‘practice’ are important counterparts to the written or oral, the rules and politics which can uproot communities and turn them against each other. From the threads carried through Us – the city and its population – we can weave imagined futures by extracting Other meanings, abstractions, interpretations, through giving significance to the aspect of time in archives. The fossil could make place for wonder, beyond the initial stagnation, repulsion, and anxiety, if the cracks are uncovered, unfolded, in which new life can nest itself.

The office tower in the gentrified neighborhood, connecting to the broad lane, up to the old railway; these are new ‘natural’ surfaces to navigate with hidden traumas waiting to be rediscovered. In between the rubble of the West, we can find lost pieces of time. The temporal, the ephemeral, has a voice and a force able to turn our attention away from discourse and toward the uncanny of the present. We, the city-dwelling bodies, can harness our right to fantasize about ruptures, fossils in between time, speculate, and imagine, creating spin-off stories for an unbelieving world, where the Other is our protagonist; a site where the graff tag is a heroes signature, not a villains mark.

Setareh Noorani, SEP 17 2019

1 Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technological Objects.
2 Federici, “Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation.”, p.29
3 Massey, For Space, p. 4

4 Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image.
5 Derrida and Prenowitz, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.”, p. 10

6 Hoffmann, Construction and Design Manual: Museums., p. 9

7 Qureshi, “Displaying Sara Baartman: The ‘Hottentot Venus.’”
8 Colomina, Domesticity At War, p. 51
9 Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism., p.8
10 Heynen, “Modernity and Domesticity.”, p. 7
11 Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism., XIV

12 Qureshi, “Displaying Sara Baartman: The ‘Hottentot Venus.’”, p. 236
13 Slyomovics, The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village.
14 Giulianotti, Armstrong, and Hobbs, Policing the 2012 London Olympics: Legacy and Social Exclusion.

15 Darms, “Study in Documents The Archival Object : A Memoir of Disintegration.”, p. 144
16 Lynn, Folds, Bodies & Blobs: Collected Essays., p. 38-39