On the Edge of Your Seat

Are you as excited as I am about the new ‘Don Draper’ bench in midtown New York? It is a recently unveiled piece of public art created to celebrate the acclaimed AMC TV show, Mad Men, about an advertising agency in 1960s New York, and surely an ideal selfie-spot for any fan. As I wait on the edge of my seat for the final episodes to air over the coming weeks, I am wondering how inviting this bench might be? Situated on a public square in front of the Time & Life Building in Manhattan, it does look rather dapper, as well as roomy and comfortable. Promising you the opportunity to become a part of the Mad Men world and its desirable lifestyle, this piece of art expresses the essence of the show: Not only by paying tribute to its iconic character and opening sequence, but also by masterfully promoting itself. After all, advertising is what mad men and women do best. Buying into the glam and glitz, fans indulge in the consumerism that rose to international heights in the postwar boom years.
But what happens if an individual is unable to join the capitalist frenzy? Is social distance equated to spatial distance? Is it fair to assume that this ‘public’ art is for ‘everyone’ or are there perhaps members of the public that are less ‘desirable’ occupants of this space and its bench? In summer of last year, several articles in the press, such as this[1] and this one[2] in The Guardian, discussed the impact of anti-homeless architecture designed to repel such ‘undesirable’ groups from using street furniture and to prevent anti-social behaviour. In his article, Stimulating the Senses in the Public Realm[3], the architectural historian Iain Borden questions this desire to control the character of a public space. He explores issues of ownership of public space, the right to use it, and how it may be used. These articles explore the notion that public spaces are designed to determine people’s actions[4]. Furthermore, even in our mass-communication age, marginalized groups such as homeless people are simply not part of the picture: they are very rarely represented in the media and thus rendered invisible. Since they have no buying powers, their ‘desired actions’ seem to be to stay out of sight and off the public architecture. Given the plight of tens of thousands of homeless people in New York alone, this discrimination is striking in its invisibility.
A recent initiative in 2014 in Vancouver invited homeless people to use specially designed public benches. As I am preparing for my first trip to New York, I am wondering how likely it is that homeless people will be welcomed on this particular bench in Manhattan?

– Sigrid Preissl

 

[1] Omidi, Maryam. “Anti-Homeless Spikes Are Just the Latest in ‘Defensive Urban Architecture.’” The Guardian, June 12, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jun/12/anti-homeless-spikes-latest-defensive-urban-architecture. Accessed April 3, 2015.

[2] Quinn, Ben. “Anti-Homeless Spikes Are Part of a Wider Phenomenon of ‘Hostile Architecture.’” The Guardian, June 13, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/13/anti-homeless-spikes-hostile-architecture. Accessed April 3, 2015.

[3] Borden, Iain. 2005. “Stimulating the Senses in the Public Realm.” In What Are We Scared of?: The Value of Risk in Designing Public Space, by Charles Landry, 20–33 and 44. London: Cabe Space. pp. 22-23, 29.

[4] See Borden and Quinn.

Silentium: Ornaments and Crime Scenes

Silentium (Wolfgang Murnberger, 2004) is an Austrian crime film set in Salzburg. Brenner, a former police detective turned private gumshoe, is hired by a high-society widow to investigate her husband’s alleged suicide. In the course of the film, Brenner unearths a network of crime and corruption involving the most important institutions that have constituted the essence of this city for centuries: the Catholic Church and the Opera.
Salzburg’s baroque buildings take its visitors back to the era of 16th-century Italian architectonic expression of the triumph of the Catholic Church. The city also has a long and internationally renowned history of music, which it celebrates through frequent festivals in grand settings. In Silentium, woven into and hidden beneath the ornamental façades of Salzburg’s built environment, as well as its theater performance, are the most heinous crimes. To expose the city as illusion, I consider Janet Ward’s work on urban visual culture in 1920s Germany. In Weimar Surfaces, she identifies the cult of surface: external appearance (in architecture, advertising, film, fashion) without substance. She contends that in this era transparency was sought through the functionalism of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which rejected the visual codes of ornamentation from the past[1].
The film emphasizes throughout that nothing is as it seems: an alleged suicide is calculated murder to keep the silentium (silence) about sexual child abuse by a bishop; a humble priest helps the homeless by day and organizes murder, sex trade, and corruption by night; a brilliant opera singer enjoys raping virgins. Navigating through this existence of Sein (to be) and Schein (to seem) is Brenner, the reluctant hero undeterred by neither high art nor high society.
The pious architectural past is juxtaposed with the criminal present. The recent sexual assault allegations against the bishop of the Christian boarding school, Marianum, permeate today’s crime scenes. On the surface, the Marianum is a place of benevolence and religious worship. Magnificent surroundings honor the presence of God. Underneath, however, are cold and dark basements devoid of any adornment – spaces ideal for committing as well as hiding crimes.

The film’s most monstrous criminals circulate in and enjoy the most splendid surroundings. Golden ornaments, light, and luxury mislead the characters as well as the spectators. The sumptuous festival hall and a 19th-century mansion become the setting for great deceptions by opera stars and criminals alike. Nevertheless, as Brenner perseveres, the facades start to slowly crumble, if only metaphorically. In the end, the city’s urban fabric remains magnificent with its religious and musical essence intact, while the experience makes transparent the true depths of human nature.

 

[1] Ward, Janet. 2001. Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2014)

From the first frames, Jim Jarmusch’s 2014 film, Only Lovers Left Alive, juxtaposes the cycle of the eternal with the ephemeral. Night-sky stars transition into an endlessly rotating vinyl record. Bird’s-eye views of the eternal lovers Adam and Eve spin into and out of each other. The desolate, decaying Detroit is contrasted with the physically deteriorating yet vibrant Tangier. New and old technology, rock and classical music, vampires and humans: all represent past and present; life and death – two seemingly opposed yet entangled sides of one element. The lovers are exuberant and restrained – Eve displays childlike fascination with everything and Adam gloomy rejection of life itself. In a sequence that takes place before Eve travels to Detroit, she sensually dances to Adam’s music. He is recording in his house studio as his song transitions from diegetic to extra-diegetic music, and image and sound melt into each other to transcend space and time, connecting the lovers. As the paradigmatic elements of Einstein’s entanglement theory, which is a recurrent theme in the film, Adam and Eve are intertwined even when continents apart. Their eternal love defies ephemeral humanity and corrosion, and triumphs in the cycle of life and death.

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Detroit’s architectural decay is a physical expression of Adam’s apathy and his disdain for humanity’s destructive tendencies. Humans, whom he calls zombies, have not only managed to contaminate their water but also their own blood. Lingering in the past, Adam can only admire what has been lost, refusing Eve’s continuous turn of the hourglass and embrace of the present. His passion solely awakens as he talks of forgotten centuries or vanished beauty. When he takes Eve to the now derelict and sadly re-appropriated “famous Michigan Theater”, they marvel at its lost splendor. Low-angle shots of the faded luxurious ceiling are accompanied by Adam’s sorrowful recounting of the theater’s history. Built in the 1920s it stands on the exact same spot where Henry Ford first built automobiles. In its prime, the theater could seat over 4,000 people for concerts and movie showings. Adam states that “mirrors used to reflect the chandeliers” and as the camera perpetually caresses the remains of the theater’s walls the audience is transported to the bright lights, ordained mirrors, elegant guests and splendid entertainment of the past. When the camera slowly pans down to reveal Adam and Eve in the center of the dark and desolate building, it leaves this past to descend into the present: now the former theater is merely a car park. This architectural decline not only illustrates Adam’s longing for bygone elegance but also demonstrates Detroit’s economic bankruptcy.

Only Eve recognizes the city’s ambivalent landscape. Its desolate streets are seemingly devoid of all life. Yet, as she joyfully discovers throughout her stay, it is filled with wild animals and plants that should not be there. Just like Adam and Eve’s lives are intertwined – his apathy and her fascination forever connected – so too are industrial ruin and thriving nature. Eve’s driving force throughout the film finds beauty in destruction and recognizes that one has to adapt to the eternal cycle of life and death. Broken records that will never spin again and contaminated waters are a part of the city. For Eve, a smashed guitar reveals its inner beauty and the Spanish Inquisition was fun – and Detroit will rise again.

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