Lisa Robertson

Spatial Synthetics

We want an intelligence that’s tall and silver, oblique and black, purring and amplifying its décor; a thin thing, a long thing, a hundred videos, a boutique. Because we are both passive and independent, we need to theorize. We are studying the synthesis of sincerity, the synthetics of space, because they are irreducible and contingent. We are shirking the anxiety of origin because we can. We want to really exercise fate with extremely normal things such as our mind.
      A city is a flat massive thing already. We’re out at the end of a lane looking south with normal eyes. Here is what we already know: the flesh is lovely and we abhor the prudery of monuments. But a pavilion is good. We believe a synthetic pavilion is really very good. Access would be no problem since we really enjoy our minds. Everything is something. The popular isn’t pre-existent. It’s not etiquette. We try to remember that we are always becoming popular.
      Spatial synthetics irreparably exceed their own structure. For example: Looking west, looking west, looking east by northeast, looking northwest, looking northeast, looking west, loading wool, looking west, looking north, looking east, looking west, looking north, looking northeast, looking northeast, looking west, looking west, looking west, tracks are oldest, looking south, looking north, looking north, looking east, looking west, looking west by southwest; thus, space. And not by means other than the gestural. Pretty eyes. Winds.
      Now the entire aim of our speculative cognition amplifies the synthetic principle. Everything glimmers, delights, fades, goes. We drift through the cognition with exceptional grace. Attached as we are to the senses, we manifest the sheer porousness of boutiques. The boutiques are categories. We have plenty of time. The problem is not how to stop the flow of items and surfaces in order to stabilize space, but how to articulate the politics of their passage. Every culture is the terrible gush of its splendid outward forms.
      Although some of us love its common and at times accidental beauty, we’re truly exhausted by identity. Then we sink to the ground and demand to be entertained. We want to design new love for you because we are hungry for imprudent, sensational, immodest, revolutionary public gorgeousness. We need dignity and texture and fountains. What is the structure of freedom? It is entirely synthetic.
      The most pleasing civic object would be erotic hope. What could be more beautiful than to compile it with our minds, converting complicity to synthesis? A synthetics of space improvises unthought shape. Suppose we no longer call it identity. Spatial synthetics cease to enumerate how we have failed. Enough dialectical stuttering. We propose a theoretical device that amplifies the cognition of thresholds. It would add to the body the vertiginously unthinkable. That is, a pavilion.

How to Colour

We can’t always tell the difference between sentiment and emotion. They marble. The fungal puce bordering the sweating window pane, the flapping cobalt tarp on the leaking condo, the intense turquoise of low-rent trim in our neighbourhood: the surface of the city indexes conditions of contamination, accident, and subordination. We always dream in colour: This is part of the history of surfaces.
      When Walter Benjamin visited the house of Goethe in a dream, the corridor was whitewashed. We’ll stroll down that pale hallway, and apply to its purity a narrative maquillage.
      Falsity is among the etymological associations of the Latin word color. Colour is defined as “hue, dye; a pretence” in the 1832 miniature edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (which also offers “to clear” as one meaning of the verb “to whitewash”). In his pedagogical text The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1848), John Ruskin advised that whitewash conveyed the meaning of innocence and sincerity, specifying that “it shows itself for what it is, and asserts nothing of what is beneath it.” Whitewash has nothing to hide. Ruskin continues, "Gilding has become equally innocent ... allowable to any extent.” In 1806, as Goethe wrote his Theory of Colours in Weimar, the city was occupied by Napoleon’s troops. In that year Napoleon had changed the colour of his army’s uniform from revolutionary blue to white. Russia had blocked the export of indigo to France. There was not enough blue dye to supply the army. In Weimar they marched in white uniforms with gilded buttons, a moving whitewashed corridor that prefigured Ruskin’s decorative assessment of whiteness and gilding. But white was poor for morale; it was too true and too sincere. At battle each soldier could read death on his fellow’s tunic. Within the year, Napoleon decreed a return to blue uniforms, on which blood and gore and battlefilth were less alarmingly visible. He began to promote the French cultivation of woad for use as a blue dyestuff in place of indigo. Goethe wrote, “We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it,” perhaps a more agreeable persuasive rhetoric for an army to perpetuate. But the soldiers had been required to purchase white coats, and these increasingly besmirched garments could not be eradicated from the ranks, which now appeared motley, impure, random.
      We wonder how white became so innocent. When Goethe claims for the colour white that in organic forms it tends to appear only in the interior, rather than on the surface, we think of the bones of a mammal or the pith of a stem. We think of Goethe’s whitewashed hallway, running through Benjamin’s dream like a spine. But affect can’t be controlled. White proposes a disciplinary unity and it always fails. It already submits to pigment and chance. We think that by dyeing our costumes and carrying our colourful objects and cosmetics we lend mobility to the plants and deny for a while each species’ propriety. The surface of us overlaps with other phyla. Walking and parading we mix the surface of the earth, though we might intend that march’s purpose as ordination. Colour marks exchange. It is border-work. Mixture is our calling.
      We base our assumptions on the similarity of matter but everything is mixed. Even the giant white skeleton of neoclassicism suspended in its museum could not protect us from history. It merely becomes the armature for a drapery of flags, pennants, the exposure of laundry, a Romantic screen of mist and smoke, and a rough filigree of graffiti. Here and there the bones poke through the pigment in ornamental fracture.
      As a boy Sigmund Freud worshipped Heinrich Schliemann, the great archaeologist of Troy. Schliemann was a businessman who financed his excavations of the lost Homeric city by investing in the indigo trade during the Crimean War. Battlefield slaughter expanded the indigo market. The blue skin of imperial Europe supported the structural phantasy of origin. The archaeological metaphor called Troy—which informed Freud’s psychoanalytic fiction of a spatially structured consciousness—was financed by the movement of pigment across contested borders. Metaphor inflates an economy. Colour is structured like a market. Both colour and market are measured combinations of sentiment and emotion. A political economy appears to contain their instability, but at any moment this structure could be flooded by the randomness of affect. Plato and Aristotle thought paint or pigment was a drug or a pharmakon: an occult substance that, like poetry, could stimulate unaccountable change. They wished to excise it from the polis.
      The white wall is a phantasized exoskeleton, not so much a screen memory as a ghostly amnesia. Like the whitewashed mirage of an army, it dissolves as approached and the redundancy of mortal pigment emerges, shot through with sullied fragments. The ad hoc semantics of pigment scumble intention. The dichotomy of colour and pigment is false and therefore instructive. For Newton, of course, all colour joined in the pure concept of whiteness, of light. But we are attracted to the weakness and impurity of the bond of pigment, because we can identify with nothing other than instability. This identification is admittedly a style of taste, but it also improvises a political alignment.
      We are aligned with a surface. We exchange mineral components with an historical territory less like cyborgs than like speaking, ambulatory dirt.
      Repeatedly we have attempted to define colour for ourselves, although it is only with great difficulty that we depart from the sultry glamour of pigment. Between mysticism and glamour, we would rather not choose.
      We could say juice, or pigment, to indicate that aspect of substance that travels across. Such juice is always psychotropic. It translates mentalities. We might say that pigment is that motion spontaneously produced by substance in conjunction with light. Dangerously pigment smears. Artifice is the disrespect of the propriety of borders. Emotion results. The potent surface leans into dissolution and disrupts volition—it’s not a secluding membrane or limit. To experience change, we submit ourselves to the affective potential of the surface. This is the pharmakon: an indiscrete threshold where our bodies exchange information with an environment.
      When we say juice, we mean a tinging juice, a juice which marks the surface through co-operation. Such a juice is to be found in the juice of ink, the red juice, things filled with a red juice, a concentrated juice. Armies run with juice. This juice has a property, this juice appears to be connected to phenomena. Pure red juices are common as are the juices with very rich and powerful hues. Something yields a beautiful yellow juice. Flowers and their juices are bleached by sulfur The glamorous surface is nourished by perfect juices. When we want to produce something exciting, something alluring, we begin with pigment or juice.
      Colour differs from substance. Is colour always lyric? We are not sure. It seems to consist of the detritus from natural history stuck into sentiment. For example, it is said that among humans, women are colourful. Nothing more needs to be said on this theme. We want to expose colour, bring it out of the boudoir, where colour and truth are always bickering. With Goethe, “of the internal structure we do not speak, but confine ourselves briefly to the surface.” We can’t speak of a true colour, but we can indicate mineral excursions with verbal functions. Colour itself speaks, so thankfully can’t be truth, which is silent and must be read. The polis is quite colourful. Each unaccountable surface ripples as if italicized. The external economy never wants to complete itself.
      Colour receives belief in the form of a name. “Blue.” It literally attaches to the architecture, cracking and splitting around it like a shell or dangling from it like capital or savage ornaments or ideals or words. It attaches to consciousness. The name bloats and travels and drifts with arcane logics. It can appear as though colour, like an army, is made from memory and fear and lust. The names are public screens on which sentiment performs. When we walk in the inscription-splattered street we are interested to question the relation of surface to belief. This question defines our stance as citizens. Thinking about colour we open up a space in the surface, the potent space between substance and politics. A tiny freedom drifts there and we adore it. But our gluttony for the ethereal has not to do with fame or glamour or scale. Through gluttony we come to resemble history. Through gluttony we are indexical.
      Aristotle said that colour is a mixture of three things: “the light, the medium through which the light is seen, such as water and air, and thirdly, the colours forming the ground from which the light happens to be reflected.” These remain useful differentiations. The medium is also an economy. Another way of saying this is that the triad of pigment, colour, medium always trembles, and could at any instant dissolve. The idea of unstable mixture remains essential to us. The notions of colour and pigment are mined through as though marbled by their historical medium. Like the myth of the market, they must be observed with ambivalence.
      Between the popularization of archaeology in the early nineteenth century, when Napoleon brought plundered fragments of Egypt home to France, and the encroachment of Haussmanization in Paris, colour and architecture conducted a dalliance. It became the style to notice the remnants of pigment on Egyptian and Greek ruined monuments. Pigment traces were catalogued and exhaustively described by archaeologists and architects, whose practices then included the design of decorative schemes for both interiors and outer façades. From ancient paint found on statuary and architectural façades, researchers invented a range of colourist narratives that linked antiquity to the contemporary. Colour, like consciousness, received an analytic fiction. These theories served as the support for new polychromatic architectural fantasies. A reanimated antiquity, retrieved from the eighteenth century neoclassical dream of purity, asserted its pigmentation in the architectural avant-garde of the early nineteenth century. Painted, striated, gilded, and charm-decked, antiquity received gestural language, became tactile, and in turn served briefly as the authority for an architectural language of social exchange.
      Between 1823 and 1830 Jacques-Ignace Hittorff researched early Greek architectural polychromy. He proposed that ancient temples had been painted using polychromatic orders analogous to the architectural orders of form. His theories of polychromy were related to aesthetic systems, rather than sociological uses. Nevertheless his popularization of the idea of polychromy and its harmonic relation to specific sites inflected the purist values of neo-classicism, so that history and architecture became contested spaces rather than serving as static ideologies. For Hittorrf, polychromatic architecture responded to specific meteorological and geological contexts; colour responded to (and participated in) site. Henri Labrouste was the architect of the Bibliotheque Sainte-Geneviève and the interior of Boullé’s Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (1839-1859). He extended the contextual field of architecture from the physical site to include the social. During his student researches in the 1820s in Rome, he developed the concept of accretive polychromy, making phantastical illustrations of classical temples whose invented decorative vocabularies evolved to reflect new social uses, as the old uses atrophied and disappeared. Signage, graffiti, and ornamental fixations of objects to the walls refleshed the diminished forms of the classical. He clothed architecture with the marks of its inhabitation. At the Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve in Paris, he used both graffiti and structure as ornament, painting the names of 810 writers directly on the library façade, and in the Bibliothèque Nationale he decoratively exposed the lacework of iron supporting columns. German architectural historian and designer Gottfried Semper, based in Paris, absorbed the idea of polychromatic accretion and developed from it an archaeologically derived methodology of design, during studies of polychromy in Sicily, Italy, and Greece in the 1830s. The flesh of the building, its cladding, for Semper referred to the archaic textile and ceramic arts that had provided the materials and techniques that divided and defined space. For Semper, architectural ornamentation should quote the tactile history of these applied decorative arts. Building structure served only as the framework for socially performative enclosure, rather than as an expression of authenticity and permanence. Ornament indexed a history of applied material and manual technique. Owen Jones, author of The Grammar of Ornament and interior architect for Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London (1851), decorated the iron and glass display centre by constructing from pigment a second, interior weather, an eastern bloom of brilliance, where narrow bands of primary colour proportioned with white combined optically to artificially generate a “true” Mediterranean light in London, for the best contemplation and enjoyment of oriental textiles and objects. He had derived his theory of light, colour, and bloom from his early study of painted colour at the Alhambra, in Spain, research that he extensively documented and published using the then new chromolithography technique.
      These architects participated in a broader discourse around polychromy, a discourse radical in its articulation of European history as a spatial accretion of social and material practice. The imagined gestural trace of the archaic painter, the textile worker, the graffitist, and an accumulated history of inhabitation, entered architectural metaphor as ornament. The surface of architecture expressed a historical rhetoric of use. Surface effects were not subordinated to deeper structural ideals; rather structure partially extroverted to itself became a component in the ornamental grammar of the surface. The polychromatic surface communicated rather than suppressed corporal historicity and change.
      The pigment and ornament we apply to a supporting structure stir our gesture into the surface. Application is a persuasive and pleasurable folding; the surface is comprised of bodily traces and fixations—rubbing, flecking, scrubbing, weaving, stroking are tactile instrumentations in time. They address both substance and the future of bodies. Hence the surface poses a rhetorical index even while temporal contingency renders it partly unaccountable. We wish to face the unaccountable. In the tradition of meaning, if the idea of internal structure could be temporally expressed as the past perfect, the idea of the surface would be the future conditional. On the surface, gestural application improves or caricatures time, subjecting the temporal to the influence of contamination, accident, and subordination—sociality or neurosis, in short. It is as if colour hails us. When it does so our entire surface is concentric. We are soothed or refreshed or repelled.
      It is we who have caused this stirring called colour. Nevertheless, we cannot control it. When we stumble against limits we blush. Disproportion and fragility are shameful and funny. This is ornament. Colour, like a hormone, acts across, embarrasses, seduces. It stimulates the juicy interval in which emotion and sentiment twist. We groom in that pharmakon. This is architecture, an applied art.


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Born in Toronto, poet and essayist Lisa Robertson lived and worked for many years in Vancouver, B.C., where she maintained the Office for Soft Architecture as an apparatus for lyrical research, constructing propositions and documents for the advancement of a natural history of civic surface. Additionally, Lisa is the author of The Apothecary (1991, reissued 2001, Tsunami Editions), XEclogue (1993, Tsunami Editions, reissued by New Star, 1999), Debbie: An Epic (1997, New Star [canada], Reality Street [uk]), The Weather (2001, New Star [canada], Reality Street [uk]), and Rousseau's Boat (2004, Nomados). She is currently poet in residence at UC Berkeley and has recently released a new book of poems, The Men (Toronto: BookThug []). She now lives in France.