I departed Alois’s studio after the first meeting with a collection of images taken on my phone and an idea for a potential critical pathway for approaching the salon-style frames. To start, I had noticed a strange alchemy that occurred as the frames shifted their orientation, as they broke from the wall and turned to embrace the sunlight. The colored wool, opaque when viewed against the wall, assumed a luminous quality that made it appear as though the light generated from within the material itself – dense in the middle of the thread, growing brighter and more atmospheric as it radiated outward to the wool’s fuzzy fringe. Certainly this shift from a position parallel to the wall to one that was perpendicular engenders a shift in descriptive terms, as if latent within the work itself is a diverse mixture of different media. That is, when flat against the wall, the frames lend themselves to a particular reading. When removed from the wall and seen against a backdrop of a light, however, they appear as something else entirely. In order to examine how and when this shift occurs I will present something of a step-by-step reading of the frames according to their various positions.
We will start with a formal analysis of the frames set parallel to the wall. Standing at a distance in front of any one of these frames, we notice that the wool, strung throughout the mesh, is devoid of nearly all of its recognizable characteristics that would make it read as wool. Its distinctive softness, the gentle curves and coils that it makes as it unspools is belied by the rigidity with which it is held in the mesh. I was compelled to ask Alois, on account of this counter-intuitive presentation of the material, if the longer straight lines were secured with glue so to keep them in place and taut. He responded that no adhesive was used – the wool was held in tension. All sharp corners and acute angles, Alois’s woolen compositions are a nod to geometric abstraction, or the work of painters like Frank Stella. The threads appear as two-dimensional drawings on a conventional picture plane. It isn’t until we look closer, or perhaps at an angle, that we see the thickness of the wool laced on either side of the mesh ground, and a dim shadow behind. Here is the first shift in terms. What at first read as a drawing or a painting on a traditional support (paper or canvas, evoked by the white wall visible behind the colored threads) has now become something different, something like a window screen, an architectural appendage. Indeed, when we notice the hinges, we are compelled to physically treat the frames as windows by swinging them away from the wall, and in doing so, to “open” them. Just as an open window in a home lets in air, street-sounds, and a more direct exposure to light, so too do Alois’s frames open onto general atmospheric conditions when pulled away from the two-dimensional surface of the wall. They become immersed in the surrounding environment as they catch light from the studio windows, their colors becoming more vibrant as they register the passage of time in the form of shadows cast on the white wall. When the frame/windows open outward, they dip themselves into the flow characteristic of our lived experience of every-day duration. They become the sun-dials I evoked in Part One.
The “open” position of the frames, however, also engenders another shift in terms, allowing the possibility of a third reading. No longer two-dimensional drawing, no longer an open window, the frames articulate the bare conditions of projection-based art forms like cinema, or magic lanterns. The light streaming through the studio windows, or from the work lamp that Alois occasionally flicks on to amplify the effect, is filtered through the wool and mesh – as if they were a filmic negative – projecting a corresponding positive on the wall behind. In a curious reversal, however, this positive image looks a lot like a negative one, composed as it is of shadow on a white wall. We thus encounter two different screens. The first is the mesh which both absorbs the light within the woolen threads while simultaneously functioning as a permeable membrane for the passage of light. This membrane in turn casts projections on the wall and transforms its white surface into a second screen. The wall is on occasion a mount for a picture plane or a window, while other times it is the recipient of a projection. The framed screens, however, are at times drawings while at others filmic negatives or screens in their own right. When considering not just one frame, but the entire wall of frames all hung at various angles from the wall, we see all possibilities – drawing, architecture, and cinema – manifest simultaneously in different degrees.
My reading of Alois’s work is primarily informed by Giuliana Bruno’s recent book Surface (University of Chicago Press, 2014), which does much to lay a foundation for thinking about materiality in the digital age when the mediators of experience and communication often appear precisely “immaterial.” If the book asks the questions – How can we speak of materiality today? And where can we find it? Bruno responds by asking us to look at the surfaces of contemporary art and architecture, insofar as they may be understood sites of encounter and exchange between media that are traditionally thought of as separate.
Given that we live in a world of surfaces, it seemed to me that we needed to rethink how important this connective membrane, this very elusive material of surface is. This is a material that creates contact and that can also connect mediums and art forms together. Surface is the precise site that the body, fashion, architecture, painting, and cinema all share. So, by way of surface encounters, I want to link together all these fields and disciplines that have been traditionally considered separate. Surfaces for me are ways of imagining the visual and the spatial arts not as distinct but as together [my emphasis].[i]
Bruno’s understanding of surface as primarily connective reveals that her topic engages with a profound transformation in what Bernhard Seigert would describe as the “cultural technique” of the “door.” The door has long been associated with the sectioning of space, and they have frequently operated on both on a material and a symbolic level by functioning as a third term that sets interior and exterior, man and animal, law and the absence of law, sacred and profane into dialogue and therefore meaning.[ii] Seigert’s brief allusion to the implications of the “gate” is informative as its introduction not only engendered a shift in human-animal relations (from hunter-hunted, to shepherd-domesticated animal), but also maintained a distinction in the form of binary sets of terms that the author understands as foundational in the development of culture.[iii] Doors, gates, and thresholds are important, therefore, for helping articulate important distinctions between interior/exterior, law/anarchy, man/animal that lie at a culture’s beginnings. Such generative, basic distinctions made operative by the door were problematized in the late 19th century with the introduction of the glass revolving door – a door that was always closed, but I would maintain also became something like a window – and later by the feedback loops of cybernetics.[iv] The solid distinction between interior and exterior that the door-as-partition engendered was lost, its place as a mediator between cultural binaries problematized by a conflation between the door and wall into something like an architectural membrane.
As long as doors fulfill their informative function, they sustain a dis-equilibrium of energy or knowledge that defers overall entropy. In this way doors are crucial actors in the distribution and circulation of knowledge. In modern concrete buildings, however, doors have surrendered that function to walls. Walls have turned into membranes [my emphasis], so that one can only wonder, with [Robert] Musil, “Why has no radio-poet yet taken advantage of the possibilities of the modern concrete structure? It is undoubtedly the predestined stage for the radio play!” If walls, as Musil surmised, have become membranes in modern living-machines, then doors lose the function [Georg] Simmel ascribed to them: to signify the closedness of the wall on the basis of their virtual opening.[v]
What are the implications of this newfound architectural and informational fluidity for the symbolic realm? That is, what does it mean for those above-mentioned cultural binaries? Seigert reads the change in the door in terms of a postmodern paranoia, where such oppositions between interior and exterior, real and imaginary can no longer be discerned with anything resembling certainty.[vi] I direct interested readers to Thomas Pynchon’s simultaneously tedious and terribly prescient 1973 book Gravity’s Rainbow for a literary accompaniment to Seigert’s description, as well as to Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s essay on the early modern conflation of interiority (subjectivity) with interior space, and its passing under the watch of the contemporary surveillance state. “Are we witnessing the end of interiority as we know it or simply a change in how it is conceived – for instance, a shift from the notion of spatial depth to the idea of surface or interface?”[vii]
From the chapters so-far consulted in Surface, Bruno stays away from these grimmer proclamations in order to explore the potential of a new conception of surface and of materiality, one that serves as a locus for different relations. Important in her analysis is the emergent “screen membrane,” which adds new terms to the architectural membrane that Seigert describes as a coming together of door and wall. For Bruno, the screen membrane consolidates aspects of architecture, the canvas surface, and the film screen in the creation of a connective and fluid environment. One might say with confidence that the screen membrane is conceived as the antithesis to the door’s sectioning actions, as a way of coming to understand our connected contemporary environment.
In my view a screen-membrane is emerging, performing as a connective tissue, and turning architecture and art into pliant planes of moving images. Made of translucent fabric, this screen is conceptually closer to a canvas, a sheet, a shade, or a drape. Partition, shelter, and veil, it can be a permeable architectural envelope, and it is a habitable space. On this material level, the current intersection of canvas, wall, and screen treated here is a site in which distinctions between inside and outside temporally dissolve into the depth of surface [my emphasis]. The screen itself is a state of becoming, and the material realm appears to fold back into screen surface – that reflective, fibrous canvas texturally dressed by luminous projections.[viii]
This “intersection” between canvas, architecture, and screen is described as “surface tension,” and we may see exactly how it manifests in Bruno’s analysis of Robert Irwin’s Excursus: Homage to the Square3 (fig. 2).[ix] Composed of scrim (a thin fabric often used in theater, it is opaque when lit from one side, translucent when lit from the other) stretched over frames and arranged in such a way as to create separate rooms, the installation creates an environment where light is captured and materialized in fabric, where the cultural technique of the “door” or “wall” is reimagined as a porous membrane. The scrims are canvas, wall partitions, but also translucent screens that incorporate the moving images of other viewers as they navigate Irwin’s transformed space. The surface here is dense, layered, and connective. Equally so is Luisa Lambri’s photographic series documenting a window in the Mexican architect Luis Barragán’s home (fig. 3). Four thick white shutters hang at various angles in relation to the window, serving as filters for the natural light outside that at times either emphasizes the volume of the shutters, or dematerialize them completely. The shutter in the bottom left corner of the photograph reproduced is completely obliterated in the light. Bruno will write on the mutation of these shutters into screens that emphasize texture and time.[x]
To return to the image of Alois moving in front of his wall, opening and closing his frames, light filtering through the membrane of mesh and taut fiber to dress the neutral white background in one more layer of shadow, we may now begin to conceptualize his recent work as yet another example of the surface tension that Bruno understands as a sign of the times. They are mutable appendages in transformation, from window, to canvas, to screen. And they are precisely all of these functions simultaneously, window and canvas and filmic membrane, all possibilities latent within the work itself and manifest in various states in the salon-style installation scheme. In spite of the planar quality of Alois’s frames, the surface tension that they belie render them dense and layered – precisely Bruno’s point.
[i] Oppenheimer, Sarah. “Giuliana Bruno.” BOMB 128 (Summer 2014).
[ii] Siegert, Bernhard. Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015. (pg. 193-195)
[iii] Ibid. (pg. 193).
[iv] Ibid. (pg. 201-202). “In the past, Musil writes, entry doors had representational duties. The nomological door enacted a symbolic order to which one was subjected by crossing the threshold; the revolving door, on the other hand, is a biopolitical device for managing humans in motion. It imposes uniform speed on flows of people while separating those who enter from those on the outside. “In the old way,” Van Kannel boasted of his invention, “every person passing through first brings a chilling gust of wind with its snow, rain, or dust, including the noise of the street; then comes the unwelcome bang.” The revolving door represents a reinterpretation of architecture as a thermodynamic and hygienic machine with an attendant change from nomological to control functions. Basically it constitutes a paradox: One walks through a door that is permanently closed. “Always Closed” was in fact Van Kannel’s first advertising slogan. Finally, there is one very obvious feature that links the revolving door to the disappearance of the door from human life: the absence of the door handle. Neither revolving nor sliding doors have handles or knobs. Maybe it is possible to define the epoch of bourgeois architecture as the epoch of the door handle? By virtue of the latch the door is a tool that demands to be operated by the hand of a user.”
See also, (pg. 203). “Compared to their replacements, traditional doors truly are things of the past. Modern doors have irretrievably forfeited their nomological for a cybernetic function. The basic distinction of inside and outside has been replaced by the distinction between current/no current, on/off. The cybernetic logic of opening and closure estranges the old nomological logic: The electronic door, the switching element, is a door “where,” to put it in Lacan’s words, “something passes when it is closed, and doesn’t when it is open.” Lacan added that what is important with regard to cybernetic doors “is the relation as such, of access and closure. Once the door is open, it closes. When it is closed, it opens.” The technical name of the logical switching circuits that were made of these doors is gates (Gatter in German), a name that recalls the ancient cultural-technical meaning of doors. But these gates do not open into an outside or the animal domain. They open themselves by being closed only to other gates and/ or to themselves. Reality appears to have become more and more psychotic.”
[v] Ibid. (pg. 201).
[vi] Ibid. (pg. 203-206).
[vii] Lajer-Burcharth, Ewa. “Interiors at Risk: Precarious Spaces in Contemporary Art.” Harvard Design Magazine, no. 29 (Fall/Winter 2008). (pg. 20).
[viii] Bruno, Giuliana. Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. (pg. 5).
[ix] Ibid. (pg. 73, 74).
[x] Ibid. (pg. 87, 88).