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September 16, 2005

An Interview by Ryan Griffis


Tandem Surfing the Third Wave: AUDC and the Disappearance of Architecture

Note: This interview, conducted by email during 2004-5, is a discussion with Kazys Varnelis and Robert Sumrell, of the LA-based AUDC (Architecture Urbanism Design Collaborative). AUDC produces published texts, multimedia installations and a collaboratively-produced wiki, all of which present their efforts at creating 'conceptual architecture.' One of their more extensive projects, 'Ether,' (http://www.audc.org/projects/index.php/Ether) uses photographs, magazine articles, and even a Sims mod to follow a complex narrative involving real estate, telecommunications and cultural mythology as they coalesce at the site of LA's One Wilshire Building. As an extension of my Tandem Surfing series of interviews with media arts collectives, I wanted to speak with AUDC about their experiences navigating the disciplinary boundaries of new media, history, architecture, and art.

Ryan Griffis: How and why did AUDC begin?

Kazys Varnelis: AUDC began at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, in 2001, where I was teaching history-theory and Robert was a graduate student. We found working together immensely productive, a process that allowed us to step into each other's territories. Advising Robert on a design thesis (on the web at http://varnelis.net/projects/muzak/index.html) allowed me to work creatively while, as my teaching assistant, Robert worked with theory and research more directly.

We formed AUDC to keep this going. Initially, we had naive thoughts that we might be a consultancy or design practice like Rem Koolhaas's AMO, but with the implosion of the 90s economic boom and with AMO's now-inevitable degeneracy into making cute proposals about moving the Charles River to accommodate the Harvard Business School, it became clear to us that this was the last thing that anyone needed.

Instead we looked to groups like Archizoom and Superstudio for inspiration. If, in the mid-1990s, architecture had been too caught up in a disciplinary posturing masquerading as resistance, by 2001, it was clear that the interest in Deleuzean smoothness and in working with capital had run its course. More than anything, we thought, we could use the unique ways of thinking inherent in architecture as a form of research while history could be revealed to be a form of design itself.

As a collaboration, AUDC works with both of our strengths. Robert builds drawings and models, and I take photographs and code the web site. Through the use of our wiki software (http://audc.org/projects), we are able to collaborate on our texts. The writing on our website is written neither by Robert nor myself but by the two of us.

Robert Sumrell: Working collaboratively helps us to expand our interests and test ideas from multiple perspectives. Kazys's background lies in the History of Architecture, Urbanism, and Telecommunications, while I spent time in Comparative Religious Studies and Interior Design. When our interests and knowledge bases overlap (B'ro Landschaft or post-1960 Italian design, for instance) we investigate these questions from a variety of schools of thought, and not just from our shared experience in architecture school.

Working collaboratively also helps us to avoid comfort zones and familiar logic. There are few topics of conversation in most architecture schools, and the terms used to investigate them are exhausted. Even the youngest students are already hip to the game, rolling their eyes and playing along as someone spends an hour rambling on about nonsense like "programmatic indeterminancy" or "interstitial space." Most architecture schools are reactionary, dealing with their backwardness by limiting research to ever-more proscribed themes. We want to do the opposite: open up new areas of research.

RG: To give readers a better understanding of AUDC's work, I'm wondering if you could talk about one of your current projects. Maybe the Quartzsite work?

KV: Quartzsite, Arizona is a town of 5,000 residents in the summer, located 180 miles from this site. Situated along I-10, some fifteen miles from the California border, every winter Quartzsite swells with an influx of snowbirds, campers from across North America, generally escaping the cold northern climate in search of sunshine, the solitude of the desert, and the company of like-minded individuals. According to the Bureau of Land Management and the Quartzsite Chamber of Commerce, up to 1.5 million inhabitants settle in town every winter, bringing their lodgings with them, in the form of recreational vehicles or RVs. At any one time in January and February, hundreds of thousands of residents make this remote desert town into a substantial urban center.

Quartzsite fascinates us because it's a kind of living parable for the contemporary city. It is void of any qualities and has no higher aspiration. There are mall-like shopping spaces and residential compounds, but there is no public space. Production is non-existent. Instead, Quartzsite is a city of trade, consumption, and tourism. It's a place in which individuals go to get away from their neighbors and to become individuals, but it's also a place of incredible density where RV is packed cheek-by-jowl with RV.

AUDC's installation for the 2004 High Desert Test Sites (http://www.highdeserttestsites.com/) reproduces Quartzsite in the patch of desert through a series of thirteen signs, each containing a scene from Quartzsite. The number on each sign corresponds to a number on the map on the back-side of this page. You may visit the signs geographically or you may visit them numerically. Visited geographically, the signs allow you to meander through the topography of this site as you come to an understanding of the lay of the land in Quartzsite. Read in numeric order, the signs form a narrative explaining the history of Quartzsite, as well as providing a sociological and anthropological reading of the community as it is today.

The project also exists, as does all our work, on the web (at http://www.audc.org/quartzsite). So even though you should go to the site itself, you can also go to the High Desert Test Sites site, or to the website. Each site (site/nonsite/website) is distinct, however, and brings with it its own experience. So in the HDTS version, you begin to experience not only Quartzsite but also the silence of the desert. On the web, we hope you begin to explore linear and non-linear processes and the interaction of this space with more distant ones.

RG: I'm curious about the decision to utilize the kinds of cultural spaces that exhibit "Art." There is a great contradiction that seems to be gaining some momentum in shows like "the gardenLAb experiment" (http://www.rhizome.org/thread.rhiz?thread=14740&page=1#28146) and "the Interventionists" (at MASS MoCA), where the art is being made by people with large personal investments outside of the artworld and its usual concerns, yet it hardly represents what one could call "outsider art."

RS: Few stable public venues sponsor speculative research projects and installations. Because of this, not many people know that they exist or have any experience approaching them. Our projects don't overtly refer to a product, a sponsor, a design method, or a solution. In the absence of any of these conditions, the art gallery/museum has become an important forum for AUDC because it consistently looks for work which is difficult to categorize and will generally display it in a generic space without insisting on the participants' adherence to a specific format. There's nothing better than the white cube is there? The museum/ art gallery is one of the few remaining places where people gather specifically for the purpose of concentrating on and interacting with projects (many of which they do not anticipate immediately, or perhaps ever, fully understanding). It is the steady influx of these patrons that we are really after, not the "gallery installation" itself. AUDC has also undertaken and tailored projects for books, magazines, and the web. Installations, however, are capable of presenting complex ideas through a combination of media working together. It is the practice of art as a history of forms of presentation that interests me and informs our work. This applies equally well to the designs of trade exhibits, world's fair pavilions, and history museums.

KV: What we're seeing is a final transformation of the institution of art. On the one hand, the art museum and gallery have finally fulfilled Robert Smithson's prophecy to become discotheques. Most of the contemporary work in art venues, today, is some form of kitsch. If it provokes a smile or stimulates a gag reflex, it wins an award. There is no discernible project in contemporary art, today. As Alain Badiou says of contemporary art, when everything is possible, nothing is possible. There are no attempts to push boundaries or to create new possibilities, only to realize and endlessly retread existing ones.

But we shouldn't be surprised about this. Art is a thing of the past. It is exhausted as a form of practice. For us, the interesting thing is not to condemn that condition but to take advantage of it. The academy, with its requirements of tenure, is still a narrow place. Ultimately that's a good thing, discipline instills a certain honesty and a need to focus. So work like ours can't readily appear there. It is neither architecture nor architecture history, nor architecture theory, nor is it art. Being unclassifiable, it doesn't fit in the academy.

Instead, as our friend Julian Bleeker has said of his own project (techkwondo.com), art installations offer us a place to do what we can't do elsewhere. If the gallery provides us a venue, then we take it. If the academy, or for that matter, the shopping mall would provide a venue, we would take that. The same goes for the web. It is a venue. Once you fetishize these places, you're creating striated space and you're in trouble.

RG: Speaking of "speculative research," it seems quite a bit has been written about 'conceptual architecture,' lately--projects with no intention of being materialized beyond models. Peter Lunenfeld, in _Snap to Grid_ commented on Lev Manovich's assertion that computer graphics have "killed" architecture, saying that his dismissal of 3D space was a bit hasty. AUDC's projects seem to offer a different kind of "speculation" in that they seem concerned with analyzing architectural form in order to offer a critique of some kind, rather than generating theoretical possibilities for manipulating space and movement - there's a concern in your projects for pre-existing spaces.

KV: Our concern with pre-existing spaces stems from our belief that radical territorial changes are over, that form is obsolete as an object of research, and that the visual realm is of less and less importance, daily.

Territories are complete. You can add a Frank Gehry concert hall or two, but structurally speaking that's an updated version of Utzon's Sydney Opera House. Architecture makes its flourishes in the city core. This acts as an alibi to sprawl. Disney Hall is funded by Eli Broad, but that's the same Broad of Kaufmann Broad, now KB Homes, the largest builders of sprawl in the country. Disney Hall, Broad says, isn't penance, it's just what you do in the city while you build sprawl outside. What you will see is an environment that looks largely identical to the one we have now. Don't expect the city or the suburb to look radically different in the future. Instead, expect them to be augmented.

Look at it this way, even if you can use the Building Architect Tool or Urban Renewal Kit in SimCity, most people don't. For the vast majority of players, hours of fun can be derived from playing a game that consists of combining predefined structures in endless permutations. And although most SimCity games end with the city destroyed or the mayor thrown out, that doesn't seem to stop anyone.

RS: Architecture is not only too costly to construct, it has become incapable of acting as an agent for change. As a form of media, architecture addresses collective groups, or a society. We no longer live under these conditions and act, instead, as a fully-commodified collection of individuals.

Modernism and the avant-garde have become aesthetic choices. What then, is an interesting or radical position for the present time? It must somehow include an interest in the existing world and apathy toward its products. The old post-modern world of the seventies was a surface application of history as ironic or decorative elements in a flat eclecticism. It was never meant to bring back the past, instead it desperately tried to maintain the idea that all of those goods were behind us and to keep them at bay by making them odd objects in a greater whole still of the time. eBay, as a practice, has made this idea obsolete.

RG: Considering that "territories are complete," I'm wondering what you make of the work of other architecturally invested people, like Marjetica Potrc (http://www.potrc.org/project2.htm), that seem to be exploring a new kind of utopian program combining "green design" concepts with an engagement in globalization discourses.

KV: I appreciate any practice that strives to improve someone's quality of life. Marjectica Potrc tries to achieve this by making direct interventions in the city and producing work that illustrates the variety of conditions in which people live. But we cannot escape our own complicity and accountability within globalization, nor do we have the distance necessary to propose visionary alternatives. Andrea Branzi has stated that environmentalism is opposed to humanity. So is architecture. The building process is the greatest source of solid waste that civilization produces. As we mentioned earlier, AUDC was founded to produce buildings, but we grew past that. Conceptual architecture does not act in the world of goods, but on the assumptions that structure our relationship with the world itself. The production of physical forms is merely a source of fascination and novelty. I am much more interested in the United Nations guidelines for refugee camps and the temporary infrastructure continuously recreated in Quartzsite, AZ, than in the social space of Burning Man or the new Prada store. An investigation of the first two communities will bring about significant knowledge of urbanism while the latter two amount to little more than juvenile escapism.

+ http://www.audc.org/projects/index.php/Ether
+ http://www.audc.org/projects/index.php/AUDC
+ http://varnelis.net/projects/muzak/index.html
+ http://audc.org/projects
+ http://www.highdeserttestsites.com/
+ http://www.audc.org/quartzsite

Posted by jo at September 16, 2005 09:46 AM