Friday, 24 September 2010

Bricklaying for Bergson

As I've noted in previous posts, the architectural uncanny is a metaphor and often the arena for intimate states in literature and film. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000, Pantheon) involves parallel narratives and arguably parallel universes. There are several realities that the book suggests. A young man, Johnny Truant, finds a study of a documentary written by Zampano, who is blind, in his new apartment. This film is the legendary work filmed by Will Navidson. He made the film under abstract and strange circumstances. As we learn about these circumstances we become closer to the psychology of the young man. There are also letters from Johnny's mother and transcripts of interviews by Karen Navidson, Will's wife. These different worlds are visualised by the use of the layout of text on he page. Text may appear in a square shape with footnotes, or a page may just contain a few words. the words and the relationship to the space of the page resonates with the way the people in the films are resonating with the architectural and psychological spaces they inhabit.

The content of the Navidson story documentary interests me most. The Navidsons move into a house, they are a married couple with young children. As they embark on DIY they realise the inside measurements of the house from furthest wall to furthest wall are not equal to the outside measurements, they are bigger. It seems that the house has started to grow. This idea is not new, but this is no tardis. The house has agency and grows at its own pace, the inhabitants, unlike our beloved doctor, have no control over this expansion. Oh how the Islington property developers would swoon! No need now to knock down treasured council estates. But this creeping growth, like a cancer is deeply disturbing and seems to reflect the couple's relationship more than effect it.

A door appears, a corridor starts to grow, a set of stairs leads down into a pitch black labyrinth. Navidson and his brother set out to explore, the tone of the documentary suggests a Scott like headstate, as he heads into the void. In moments of pressure couples writhe around in their own vomit. This surely is the privilege of intimacy, the ability to go there into the abject, to absorb this lack which is too full and suffocating, and to navigate back out together, sometimes with little more than the knowledge that together, neither will get lost or stuck their forever. A mutual acknowledgement of their own mess, and a restoring to order. Lovers are the ultimate horror film directors.

The book throws into question the reliability of any text which professes to be non-fiction. The psychological quandry Danielewski seems to be obsessed with is the idea of the endless mind, the endless perceptual shifting created by a psychotic hermeneutics, freefalling interpretation.

So far, I think the thread which connects all these spaces and the intimate relationships which they house is the idea of the ambiguity which must be at the heart of intimacy. Intimacy brings two people as close as possible, physically and mentally, we say 'I know him inside and out' but the truth is we never can, and even if we could by some feat of telepathy, our own internal voids pervade. The endlessness of interpretation, the never really knowing, the void, the unreliable narrator, paranoia, the space that isn't itself. If a relationship is about the space between two people then the knowledge that that space can never be measured or controlled can result in morbid ambiguity or a revelling in the instability of giving up control. Here the uncanny is the ambiguity of interpretation. More to come. Next up, Fritz Lang.

Sunday, 19 September 2010


Gregor Schneider, German sculptor, inherited his family house in Reydt and this became the site of major reconfigurations and rebuilding. Visitors to the house or Haus u r spoke of rooms built within rooms, evidence of the false wall spilling out like guts for them to see. Or a glazed window that had a brick wall behind it for a view, or crawl spaces through which to get to another room. One room spun when you were inside it, delivering you to a different part of the house on your exit. I visited Totes Haus u r at the at the Venice Bienalle in 2001.For this he transported 150 tons of the Reydt house, 24 of the original rooms, brick, doors, frames, staircase and rebuilt a dwelling of sorts within the German Pavilion. Again in this space Schneider left the evidence of his DIY but this did not undercut the uncanny tension. What he created wasn’t just a mental puzzle, but this home was something more cloying and sinister. Visitors could go in groups of ten, signing in I felt a trepidation that I might not leave. The main trigger for this unease was the smell, old libraries, basement cupboards, garages, a stale inexplicable human odor. Fine touches like air holes bored into the doors of locked cupboards, both suggested old larders but also the site of Poe torture chamber. The decor, mostly white walls, red floors, basic furniture called up images of a soft room in a mental institution.

Schneider could have just finished the work by making these gestures of building and rebuilding. In this way it would be hard to see him as just artist, but more obsessive compulsive eccentric. But many gestures are the result of careful orchestration and the expectation of an audience. It’s a fun house with scares, reference to gothic literature and film and phantasmagoria sideshow. But not in a stylish way, more in a way that goes back to the idea of the obsessive compulsive persona at the heart of the activity. He is more like a teenage boy waiting for Mum and Dad to return from work, who might unknowingly turn there attention to the bucket of stagnant water under the kitchen sink, and be a bit freaked out by the prosthetic disembodied hand floating on the surface. This is picked up on in his work Die Familie Schneider, a work in Whitechapel London 2004 with Artangel.

More to follow

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Location, Location, Location

I'm thinking about the connection between the film Burnt Offerings
Dan Curtis 1976, The Mystery of Winchester House, Gregor Schneider, this blog's namesake House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielowski and one of my all time favourite films The Secret Beyond the Door Fritz Lang 1947. The architectural uncanny is well trodden ground and I am beginning to look for new pathways on this subject. So here goes.

In Burnt Offerings a house seems to feed on the psychological demise and breakdown of its inhabitants. Over time various families move in, go a bit mental and then leave in various states of disrepair. The house however seems to enjoy an entire renovation on their departure, exterior walls become blindingly bright again, roses bloom in the front garden, lawns glow.

Winchester House is the legacy left by Sarah Winchester, San Jose, 1840 - 1922. She married William Wirt Winchester in 1862, manufacturer of the famous Winchester rifle: 'The Gun That Won The West'. After her husband died she began work on her house, and didn't stop until she died. With her fortune, estimated at $20,ooo,ooo she built and rebuilt her small eight roomed Victorian house. 160 rooms remain, including 40 bedrooms and two ballrooms, 47 fireplaces, 10,000 window panes, 17 chimneys. Sarah valued her privacy, and there is no account of why she spent her life in this way. One theory is that she felt an immense sense of guilt for all the deaths caused by the Winchester gun, and that these spirits of the dead led her to build rooms to house them. It's believed she saw a medium after her husband's and her daughters death who said that their deaths were the revenge of the spirits of the American Indians and Civil War soldiers who had been killed with Winchester rifles and Sarah was next. To appease them she had to build them a house, and communicate with them for orders on how to build it. She built a seance room in the house and did practice Spiritualism, so this is not an impossible theory. The constant reconfigurations are thought to be a means to dupe and confuse bad spirits who haunted the house and by extension, Sarah. In the documentary, 'Mrs Winchester's House' (KPIX-TV, USA, 1960), Lilian Gish sums it up: 'Some of it can be explained in simple terms. Any building that is changed or constantly remodelled is bound to be odd; the short steps were to ease her arthritic legs; the passageways and doors that go nowhere are reminders of demolished wings or earthquake ruined doors. But try as one can, there is no explaining the size: the incredible sprawl of the hundreds of rooms, the miles of corridors, the unearthly quality of the the thousands of doors and windows and the rooms behind them. The real answer may be that most of Sarah died back in Newhaven, that day she buried her husband.' I like to think of her behaviour as a kind of OCDIY.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Moral Panics

Lots going on at present. I'm going to give a paper on the child witch panic in Nigeria at the Moral Panics conference at Brunel University in December 2010. this promises to be a great conference. The panel strands are :
• Environment & Risk
• War & Terror
• Lifestyle & Health
• Crime & Deviance
• Immigration & Security
• Economic Crisis & Political Scandal

I'll be presenting a paper entitled Witchcraft Children: Scapegoats and Scepticism I plan to address the moral panic about children accused of being witches in West Africa as well as discussing the difficulty of prosecuting the people who accuse these children.

Friday, 3 September 2010