TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 2011

CLOSE-UP: POTENTIAL ENERGY

View of “Cerith Wyn Evans,” 2011, Bergen Kunsthall, Norway. From left: S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R= U=C=T=U=R=E (“Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill . . .”), 2010; Untitled (Flute Piece Incarnation Bergen Kunsthall), 2011. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

IN ORDER TO ACCOMMODATE the seven light columns of Cerith Wyn Evans’s S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (“Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill . . .”), 2010, Norway’s Bergen Kunsthall had to make special arrangements with its power company. The amount of electricity needed to run these stacks of tube-formed glass lightbulbs containing old-fashioned filament technology (the work requires a staggering 123,050 watts at full capacity) meant that the institution had to drill through two concrete floors to make way for new high-capacity cables, as if preparing for some kind of industrial production. The expense involved was at a level one would normally associate with investment rather than with exhibition. But S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E is anything but economically productive in conventional terms. A miniature Las Vegas hidden inside the austere walls of a modest modernist building in a rainy northern European city, the glowing, pulsating columns seemed to signify the ultimate sins of Sin City: pure, pointless expenditure; hedonistic excess without a thought for tomorrow. In fact, the greatest sin of Las Vegas itself is no longer sex or gambling but electricity consumption so ecologically unsustainable that the future of the city is reportedly at stake. Death by a surfeit of neon—but that would be a morality tale for another age. For Las Vegas is also a signpost for more recent insights into the somewhat surprising economic productivity of the passions, the discovery that it is possible to generate surplus value even from the unaccountable skips and leaps of the soul—if only you can meet it on its own terms.

If anything, S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E reflects a growing awareness that these terms may be environmental or even architectural. Once the basic mechanisms of the information economy were understood—the ways in which capital manages to access people’s mental time—not just products, formats, and programs but entire lifeworlds were reconceived around the emotional and intellectual dimensions of existence. Indeed, beyond Las Vegas and its crude evocations of the clichés of the global heritage industry (the Eiffel Tower, the canals of Venice), architectural practice began to tackle directly the flexible domains of memories, thoughts, perceptions, and emotions. Terms such as media architecture and cognitive architecture open onto an understanding of space, dwelling, and construction that puts pressure on the field’s traditional distinction between “hard” and “soft”—i.e., between the durable physical properties of buildings and infrastructure, and such temporally malleable phenomena as leisure, education, work, and family relations. Environments conceived along such lines are loaded with attributes more often ascribed to human actors than to buildings.¹

But if Wyn Evans’s massive deployment of superfluous light evokes the economic and architectural potential of sensory experience, the ambiguities of the work’s title nevertheless come to the fore. In Marxist terms: Can the domain of cultural and spiritual expression named “superstructure” any longer be meaningfully distinguished from the “base” designating the forces and relations of economic production? And, in architectural terms: Can the “supporting” elements of a structure still be meaningfully distinguished from the various superstructural extensions of a building once the field of architecture itself is also understood in cognitive terms? On what, ultimately, is architecture based?

The seven columns in Bergen Kunsthall integrated such questions into their very construction. Spread across three rooms interconnected by open doorways, and visible from a fourth room containing other works by Wyn Evans, they generated not only light but also a fiery, pulsating heat. Moreover, their effect was never uniformly distributed. Light and heat continually increased and decreased in each column in a temporal pattern too complex to keep track of. In any case, you were too busy following the desires of your light-seeking eyes and heat-seeking body: Once activity decreased in the column closest to you, you instinctually moved to the one that seemed to be on its way up, to catch its full intensity while on the lookout for the next place of action. With the shifts in the columns’ activity, the room underwent an astonishing transformation. A column in full blast was an impressive sight and, despite better knowledge, you wanted to believe that this glass structure actually had the capacity to carry the full weight of the solid concrete floors. By contrast, a column approaching “off” mode was an abject production, a fragile tangle of glass tubes and wires that impressed on you that these constructions obviously supported nothing but their own spectacle. They were, it turned out, not even real columns, but hanging ornaments, ceiling-to-floor lamps that were mere effigies of the Greco-Roman pillars they evoked both in size and in form.

View of “Cerith Wyn Evans,” 2011, Bergen Kunsthall, Norway. From left: S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R= U=C=T=U=R=E (“Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill . . .”), 2010; Untitled (Flute Piece Incarnation Bergen Kunsthall), 2011. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Construction thus comes across as a question of perception, impressions, and faith, as if architectural support and emotional support were somehow compatible. Mental constructs can never compete with steel and concrete for physical stability and durability, but Wyn Evans’s explicit confrontation between the two realms seems to make the point that even the most rock-solid buildings exist in time and are experienced in time: In S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E, this dimension is consciously exaggerated, blown out of proportion. With the constantly changing pattern of sensory experiences, one’s structural understanding of the rooms containing the columns is continually thrown off balance, producing a mode of perpetual mental alertness that reduplicates and condenses the most salient feature of the contemporary media environment—the ubiquitous engagement of attention and memory. What’s more, in Bergen, Wyn Evans included a set of suspended glass flutes that complemented the lumière of the columns with the son emitted by the horizontally angled tubes. At once a piece of spatial design and a media machinery activating perception through an unceasing flow of signals, Wyn Evans’s construction is less a theater of illusions than a temporalizing object, continually measuring out the space from one moment to the next, formatting and molding the temporal material that is at the core of the concept of memory. Rhythmic patterns—including the regular spacing of architectural elements such as columns and pilasters—are in fact among the most common mnemonic devices: In The Art of Memory, Frances Yates describes how Roman students and orators were advised to use the details of buildings in order to memorize texts or speeches.² But the unpredictable rhythm of illumination and constructive “support” in Wyn Evans’s columns does not so much aid the production of specific memories as open up the question of the centrality of memory and its temporalizing functions in relation to so-called cognitive architecture.

A number of more general insights could probably be gained by pursuing such a line of questioning, but S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E also seems to suggest new ways to approach the idiosyncratic—and unashamedly hermetic—body of work that Wyn Evans has produced over the past two decades. The installation makes his entire oeuvre come across as an architectural practice of sorts—one that is based on the activation of a form of live, real-time memory that stands in sharp contrast to the postmodern rehashing of the past through pastiche. On one level, the light columns might be read as the structural consciousness of his earlier installations, an almost manifesto-like recognition of what has been at stake in their typical assembling of design elements, signal-based technologies, and cultural references often referred to as textual or intertextual materials. In fact, Wyn Evans’s much-discussed habit of alluding to figures such as J. G. Ballard, Marcel Broodthaers, Michel de Certeau, Pierre Klossowski, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty can now be seen more squarely as enabling a particular form of spatial construction.

A work exhibited in another room at Bergen Kunsthall provided a clue, for here Wyn Evans restaged the meeting point between two of his intellectual heroes in explicitly architectural terms. In a 1969 artist’s book, Marcel Broodthaers appropriated or repeated the specific spatial markers of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance)the 1914 poem that famously foregrounded the printed page itself as a concrete site for the graphic distribution of words and sentences. In Broodthaers’s version, each of Mallarmé’s printed words or sentences is supplanted by a thick black line that underscores the sheer force of placing and spacing. In his own 2009 piece, Wyn Evans essentially intensifies the impact of this force by repeating Broodthaers’s deletions as rectangular cuts in the paper itself. Framed and mounted between two sheets of glass, the cutouts function as windows that allow you to see the wall of the room, while the pages are transparent enough to let Mallarmé’s original poem—printed on the verso—appear in ghostly, reversed form. Memories of acts of textual and figural spacing thus reverberate against each other in ways that suggest further spatial modulation, extending beyond the printed page to the physical site of display. The fact that the stuff of memory is rendered more rather than less abstract (not too many will recall the Broodthaers-Mallarmé story in the first place) is part of the point. Such references are deployed as indexes of personal passions—the artist’s love of Mallarmé doubled by an obsessive return to Broodthaers—and as a spatial plotting of individual memory that, in Wyn Evans’s case, just happens to be based on intellectual and artistic sources. And—as the second part of the column work’s title (“Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill . . .”) indicates—the effects of this form of memory work are unbounded and excessive, even hypertrophic: This is, after all, an artist who has used literary texts to generate Morse-coded patterns of blinking lamps.

View of “Cerith Wyn Evans,” 2011, Bergen Kunsthall, Norway. Foreground: Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), 2009. Background: S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R= U=C=T=U=R=E (“Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill . . .”), 2010. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

What Wyn Evans’s installations have in common with contemporary media architecture is above all an emphasis on atmosphere, in the sense described by the German philosopher Gernot Böhme: subjective emotions that take on a quasi-objective quality as they are cast into shared space.³ Wyn Evans’s atmospheres are based on a suggestive, shared sense of the powers and fascinations of particular types of knowledge: intellectual passions that extend beyond their specific content or frames of reference so as to also indicate something like feeling in its raw state. Such feeling, or affect, expresses not only the personal transformations that take place under the influence of loving engagement with what we like to call “bodies of knowledge” but also the potential for taking on and being formed by the intellectual passions of others. It is here that Wyn Evans’s columns might inform a critical issue for both art and media architecture: What, today, defines collective memory?

Ina Blom is a professor in the department of philosophy, classics, history of art and ideas at the University of Oslo.

NOTES

1. See, for example, Lisa Blackman and Janet Harbord, “Technologies of Mediation and the Affective: A Case-Study of the Mediated Environment of MediacityUK,” in Cognitive Architecture: From Biopolitics to Noopolitics, ed. Deborah Hauptmann and Warren Neidich (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2010), 303–21.

2. Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 1–26.

3. Gernot Böhme, Atmosphäre. Essays zur neuen Ästhetik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1995), 2148.