Returning home.

8/12/202313 min read

Cinema and the bachelor machine

The origin of this collision between architecture and cinematography might be found in what architectural theorist Arie Graafland calls ‘Cine Grafein’ or ‘writing in motion’. Graafland agrees with Christian Metz, and to a lesser extent with Jean Mitry, when he says: ‘It is not a description of movement, but it is the activity itself, writing as actively dealing with film shots, the activity of the other actors and other moving objects, the lights, the colours, the frame and the lens.’[i] The even more interesting part, however, comes with Graafland’s observation that the production of the aesthetic denominator (which is sometimes an inevitable constituent of the production of the moving image), might in fact resonate with philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s notion of ‘jouissance’.[ii] Jouissance refers to a ‘useless’ form of production. The act or motion itself is the production, yet it does not contribute to the creation of anything new. The concept of jouissance is often misunderstood because of its erotic connotations, yet it has a much wider scope. In relation to phenomena overwhelming consciousness, which means singularities that refuse to be classified as mere sensation, Siegfried Kracauer attributes cinema as being capable of ‘rendering visible what is commonly drowned in inner agitation’.[iii] Kracauer claims that cinema ‘aims at transforming the agitated witness into a conscious observer. […] Thus it keeps us from shutting our eyes to the “blind drive of things”’.[iv]

I claim that these phenomena do not have to be overwhelming in the traditional sense. With or without the aid of cinema, they circumvent or overwhelm consciousness, address the affective registers and act directly. Affective transactions become scale-invariant. They arrive from the notion of affect, a proto-action for affection. According to Deleuze and Guattari, it is the system of affecting and being affected that establishes itself prior to affection in the same way that ‘percept’ exists before perception.[v] Deleuze adds: ‘It is only when movement becomes automatic that the artistic essence of the image is realized: producing a shock to thought, communicating vibrations to the cortex, touching the nervous and cerebral system directly.’[vi]

Jouissance entails the production and use of energy, the involvement of the intellect, the investment of emotion, and so forth, for the sake of enjoying its own existence. This is the type of production that Lyotard called sterile production, since it is not generated to serve any objective beyond its own presence. Although the term ‘sterile’ is rather misleading and burdened with negative connotations, it is precisely this sterile element that is at the core of the transfers of affect. This is a very interesting notion to consider with regard to the creation of the moving image, given that this medium has great difficulty in detaching itself from its capacity to generate a cinematic commodity. Immediately the question arises regarding the extent to which the realm of the moving image can be divided into productive production and sterile production. Sterile production can be seen as the true content of film, regardless of its narrative, genre or even artistic quality. Every film has a specific audience that is truly affected by it. On the other hand, productive production can be seen as the value of the film as a commodity. An audience is willing to pay a certain amount to be able to see a film. An example of sterile production is Marcel Duchamp’s ‘bachelor machine’, also known as the ‘celibate machine’.[vii] This ‘machine’ describes the complex interlinking of the realms of desire and imagination in Duchamp’s work Le Grand Verre, which consists of two distinct parts: the realm of the bride in the upper panel, and the bachelors’ territory or ‘the bachelor machine’ below. Both parties desire and imagine one another without the prospect of reciprocal assuagement. Duchamp imagined the bachelor enacting a tragedy of love, life, sex, marriage and death without ever being able to cross to the bride’s domain. It is an allegory for a raw and sterile desire. Deleuze and Guattari expanded on this notion. For them, the celibate-machine forms ‘a new alliance between the desiring-machines and the body without organs to give birth to a new humanity.’ [viii] From this ‘birth’ a new force arises: the bachelor. ‘The subject, which is produced as a mere residuum alongside the desiring machines confuses himself with the bachelor machine, and thus the autoeroticism of the bachelor machine gives birth to the subject. The bachelor machine produces pure intensive qualities.’[ix]

For me, the bachelor machine and sterile production are essential to understanding cinema, since they work their way through various substrata of interdependencies. It is the difference between the subtraction of the actual and the addition of the virtual. Within this concept, production is also consumption, and it is precisely the surplus that arises from sterile production that is the quintessential quality of cinema, which I referred to earlier as Žižek’s ‘third pill’. The ultimate quality of cinema is to produce a reality through the abstraction we call fiction, just as the bachelor machine does.[x]

The trouble with this type of force is that it tends to express itself only in incorporeal ways. By this point, some participants in the Camera Eye project had reached a point of abstraction in their work that could in no reasonable way be reconnected to the initial departure point, nor did it answer its questions. It had become an autonomous product with a clear sense of style and aesthetic appeal, which would not gain by further reworking. This was by no means a failure. On the contrary, through the sheer process of making, the participants had engaged a whole new area – one in which they had freed themselves of the bunked [xi] notions of the architect, enabling them to engage with the cinematic task of architectural design in a fresh and unprecedented way.

Turning metamedia into architecture

What came next emerged from the elliptical motion of the process. After having reached its outer point in ‘mental space’, it was now time to head back home. This step was particularly hazardous in terms of representation. The major pitfall to avoid was the ‘translation’ of the previous processes into architecture. By no means was this stage to contain a representation of all previous work. Instead it was meant to be a seamless sequel to the process, albeit expressed in a different medium.

The fundamental problem with the concept of architectural modelling is that for the sake of comprehensibility and conceptualisation, the general tendency is to take a model far too literally for it to be useful. Yet the number of sacrifices one has to make and endure in order to actually make the model is devastatingly large and often renders the complete operation a wholly arbitrary exercise. There are two lines of argumentation.

The first is what we could call the path of the engineer, who puts great emphasis on the need for similitude in the model. According to this line of thought, the model and the actual object it is supposed to represent need to follow a number of scale-independent similarities to be able to test a restricted number of variables. These similarities might be geometrical, meaning that the model has the same shape as the original and is most likely in scale. There is the kinematic similarity, which refers to the (liquid) flows that experience the same rates of changed motions when interacting with both the model and the actual object. In other words, the flows are scaled. Often these two similarities are a quintessential condition for creating a dynamic similarity that describes what occurs in the two systems: the ratios of all forces acting on corresponding fluid units and boundary surfaces are continual. In these cases, the similarity between the model and what it represents is expressed in terms of behaviour rather than visual or spatial characteristics. In other words, under certain conditions, the best way to represent something with the aid of a model is to use a model that does not resemble the original design at all, or to invert systems of scale so as to achieve accurate measurements on certain characteristics. For instance, in certain cases the model is smaller than the original, yet has to move faster in a test to accurately simulate the forces that would be working on the original.

To block any representational urges from emerging, the students were asked to produce a physical structure according to the patterns found both in the analyses and the remade three-minute films. This was a very literal and concrete process. The transition of the audio-visual structures into actual models was done fairly directly. With the aid of styrofoam and wire, cast models were constructed without the intermediate drawing stage. No room was left for the mental arch to collapse into its old habits of interpretation, representation, bunking and anthropocentricity. Matter was to be shaped directly from film. This was also a moment of liberation. Finally the rigid structure of the initial assignments could be cast off and its pure formative energy could flow into instruments the participants knew all too well: concrete (the material) and space. There was no room for any type of representation. Time and space were in direct conjunction. These constructions were spoken of as finished products, not as models.

Scale and the problem of conditional representation

Another approach to the problem of scale could be called the ‘model railroad predicament’. Any model-making enthusiast could tell you that a fundamental flaw in constructing scaled representations of anything (trains, cars, houses, and so forth) is the inaccuracy that occurs as a result of the reduction in all fields but the visual representation. If we look at the speed at which a model train runs and relate this to the measurements of the model and its ‘setting’, then even the slowest of regional steam engines from the late ninetieth century would break speed limits the Shinkansen high-speed line could only dream of.[xii] In architectural representation, empty boxes are reduced. Cubic reduction of a model is only valid for the reduction of volume (not of weight, for instance), making it hardly a proper representation at all.[xiii] The mass and strength of an object do not react similarly to enlargement or reduction. Roughly speaking, the weight of an object increases as the cube (X3) of the scale factor (X), whereas the strength increases as the square (X2) of the scale factor. If we double the size of a (solid) object, it becomes four times as strong, yet eight times as heavy. In other words: the increase of weight (X3) is always equal to the increase of size times the increase of strength (X times X2). To continue the model railroad analogy, a regularly used scale is roughly 1:87. This means the difference between an increase or decrease of weight is 87 times more than an increase or decrease in strength. This is why we (luckily) do not find train-sized spiders on earth; they would be crushed under their own weight and suffocate because of the cell structure’s lack of oxygen absorbing capacities (which depends on surface, not weight). This matter of the ‘scale of the scale’ is also the most determining and limiting effect of scaling in terms of representation, engineering and projection.

Another reason the progression of miniaturising older railway systems came to a standstill was because, after a certain point, gas flows (and therefore flames to heat the boiler) do not follow a linear path in scalability. After a given size they cannot be further reduced. The limitations of the range within which elements can be scaled questions the validity of using models in general. Although in kinematic or dynamic terms, a translation of an original into a scale model still provides valid similarities for testing certain aspects, how could such a comparison be applied in aesthetic terms? At some point, most designers will face the problem of disproportionate sizing. For example, a new shoe design may look fabulous in size 8, but preposterous in size 13; a type of door that is congruous in a small façade may be totally incongruous in a larger one, or an architectural typology that works perfectly when used singly may lose its appeal when repeated many times. Architects are reluctant to admit that hardly any components of a model are accurate in terms of size, material, strength and durability. Many models do not have the potential to serve as models, nor will ever serve as such because the structure they represent will never be built. The only fair conclusion regarding model making is to say that the nearest thing to architecture is the model. There will probably never be anything other than that. This does not mean that the process of modelling has no value: various types of modelling can contribute greatly to the development of a design. In the Camera Eye project, the filmmaking served as a form of modelling. However, given that the medium of film is so patently different from that of architecture, there was no chance of mistaking a model for the design, or vice versa. Instead, the films that were made stood autonomously as designs of a different type of architecture: the same message spoken in another language. This is why the participants were encouraged to create abstract machines as the ultimate product. The objects built were an architecture of becoming. The participant’s sphere of understanding had been expanded into the realm of the real-virtual: that part of reality that has not been actualised and perhaps should remain that way. As Oxvig explains:

[N]ot all experiences of size can be captured and explained in terms of measurement. The architect and the artist are often aware of this at a purely intuitive level, just as it is intuition which makes us doubt that concept of space associated with the rationally conditioned idea that measuring provides the only true picture of the world, leading us to see the world and its spaces as a kind of neutral volume in which we place our buildings, sculptures and bodies.[xiv]

In the final stage of the process, the designers took the cast concrete machines into the film studio and used them as the setting for their film about the architecture they had been working on during this process. Because of the absence of any programme, the shapes and surfaces of the casts functioned auto-poetically. They themselves determined the potential usability by the shaping of their own volume; the (potential) use had not determined the shape of the volume. Rather than enlarging the ‘models’ to life-size, the movie theatre was reduced to the scale of a model. The films that were made were not meant to represent anything beyond themselves. They followed what Deleuze called the prime directive of the movement image, ‘the creation of a completely new and sovereign world’. The issue of representation by not representing had been addressed. Shallowness had been avoided by having the media ‘speak’ at the level of sub- and post-narrative rather than through narrative itself. The strength of cinematic media had been deconstructed in order to open up their hidden potential.

The manner in which Camera Eye was conceived, executed and perceived has never been repeated within the same set of parameters. This courageous group of students worked relentlessly to explore new territory and extend their boundaries in order to understand them better. In doing so they gained an exceptional insight into the true nature of architectural research through design. Since the students involved took these experiences back to their respective countries (twenty in all), it is clear that the project has been widely disseminated. In contrast, it is rather disappointing to see that many of the aforementioned misconceptions (representation, scale, medium dominance) are still very much alive and are still being taught today as conventional disciplinary practice. This is indicative of the lessons not learned from projects like Camera Eye. It seems that the conservative perception of what architecture is about draws on the strengths of the medium and does not dare to question its weaknesses. This in turn means that the essential vital collapse described earlier is not welcomed as an essential phase of the design process, but is seen instead as a confusing disruption. One of the students on the course remarked: ‘We did not learn to design, but we learned to think.’ More experiments have been undertaken on various occasions, also outside the TU Delft Faculty of Architecture. As a result of these and other collaboration, there is a growing community of designers within various disciplines who work with affect theory as the basis of their research.[xv] This movement is piloting a journey into even deeper layers of design philosophy and the development of related theories, which is destined to become a different, yet equally avant-garde approach to design and theory.

Photo-credit: Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, no known copyright restrictions.

Title: Train yards, Houston, Texas, 1981.

[i] Arie Graafland, ‘Trafo’, in Indesem ’91 (Delft: Publikatieburo, 1991), p. 93.

[ii] Arie Graafland, ‘Camera Eye: A Machine for Projective Practice in Architecture’, in Deborah Hauptmann, The Body in Architecture (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2006), p. 228.

[iii] Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Chichester, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 57.

[iv] Endnote belonging to the quote: ‘Quoted from Laffay, “Les grands themes de l’écran”, La Revue du Cinema, April 1948 II, no. 12:13. Cf. the reviews of the French film, We Are All Murderers, in New York Times, 9 January 1957; New York Post, 9 January 1957; and Cue, 12 January 1957. The reviewers unanimously praise this film about capital punishment in France for its grim realism and “pitiless candor” (N.Y.Times); and all of them clearly imply that it falls to the cinema to show horrors as they really are.’ From Kracauer, Theory of Film, p. 319.

[v] Andrej Radman, Gibsonism (PhD Dissertation, Delft University of Technology, 2012).

[vi] Deleuze continues: ‘Because the cinematographic image itself ‘makes’ movement […] it makes what the other arts are restricted to demanding [or to saying], it brings together what is essential in the other arts; it inherits it, it is, as it were, the directions for use of the other images, it converts into potential what was only possible.’ Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image (London: Continuum, 2007), p. 151.

[vii] The Bachelor Machine (La Machine Célibataire) is the name of the lower part of Le Grand Verre, an artwork by Marcel Duchamp constructed between 1915 and 1923. The original work is part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art collection.

[viii] Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. 16.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Deleuze and Guattari expand: ‘A genuine consummation is achieved by the new machine, a pleasure that can rightly be called autoerotic, or rather automatic: the nuptial celebration of a new alliance, a new birth, a radiant ecstasy, as though the eroticism of the machine liberated other unlimited forces.’ Ibid., p. 17.

[xi] Bunking is the storage of information, denotations, connotations and values that shape a person’s view on a profession, a situation and ultimately on life itself. Education is to a large extent also ‘bunking’: architecture students do not only learn what an architect should know, but also what an architect is. Bunking often feeds judgmental and prejudicial views.

[xii] Shinkansen is a Japanese system of high-speed trains. The trains can reach speeds of up to 320 km/h, which has led to their nickname, ‘Bullet Trains’.

[xiii] As architectural theorist Henrik Oxvig writes: ‘The purpose of a given measurement is of decisive importance in determining how and what we use for measuring. How to measure a distance and determine its scale depends on whether I am going jogging or investigating the speed of lightning. In other words, scale is a question of relevance, an encounter between different purposes and – perhaps – a specific metric measurement.’Henrik Oxvig, On Shared Sensation (Odense: Kunsthallen Brandts, 2011), p. 2.

[xiv] Oxvig, On Shared Sensation, p. 1.

[xv] For an overview of affect theory, see Gregg and Seigworth, eds. The Affect Theory Reader.