We have decided not to die

Jondi Keane

Gins and Arakawa, Architectural Body

Gins and Arakawa, Architectural Body

Madeline Gins & Arakawa
Architectural Body
University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2002
ISBN: 081731168

In Architectural Body, the latest book from the think tank of Madeline Gins and Arakawa, the authors bring their 35-year collaboration to the subject of sustaining and improving life. Abandoning their initial practices of painting and poetry, they now work on numerous sites of production including gallery and museum installations, site-specific works, houses, small communities and cities.

Architectural Body sets out the stakes of sustainability. For the authors this means coordinating every “scale of action”—from the smallest noticing of things to the co-construction of the body and environment. To accomplish sustainability we must figure out what we are capable of and put all our resources in service of the body. The book contextualises architecture that enables “all that a person can rally to the cause of being a person.” Arakawa and Gins concur our most important puzzle is how we are connected to the reservoir of regenerative possibility; the rest is technique.

Their books often appear in tandem with built environment projects: Reversible Destiny accompanied their 1997 retrospective at the Soho Guggenheim in New York and The Mechanism of Meaning charted the 15-year exhibition trajectory of that living-puzzle. (A series of installation-painting-objects made as cognitive perceptual puzzles, critiquing those puzzles found in psychology departments by highlighting the paradoxes and contradictions in our linguistic, perceptual and physical understanding.) Architectural Body addresses the critical, practical and theoretical aspects of their work and is concurrent with several projects: the Bioscleave house in East Hampton, New York, a Reversible Destiny Eco-housing community and a proposal for the Museum of the Living Body in New York City.

Arakawa and Gins’ assertion is straightforward: we cannot study the organism separate from its surrounds. This approach to “what operates as the world” is the basis of research that will help us to understand “how a re-envisioned architecture will stimulate a re-configured person.” The book’s premise is to make available a notion of daily research by providing procedures, hypotheses and scenarios that lead to observation, learning and potential reconfiguration (transformation).

In the first pages they outline the challenge, describing an “ethics crisis” that tests the logic of our resolve as living beings by suggesting that mortality is not an essential condition of our species. For if we remain open to all possibilities as a condition of our research, then we cannot allow “some categories of events to have special treatment, even mortality.” They argue for an ethic that would consider mortality unethical because it requires our compliance and sets an absolute limit on possibility. This has led them to rewrite Maurice Blanchot’s dictum “writing so as not to die” to read as a practice of personal choice, “we have decided not to die.” They push this line of inquiry along its logic-crushing trajectory, constantly questioning the disembodiment that enforces a separation between person and environment as well as body and mind.

The architectural body is not a specialist project. It focuses on a perceptual approach to attention, decision and action. This is a transdisciplinary approach which does not reduce the terms of one discourse or experience to that of another and always works “on-site where living happens.” As a result, the architectural body as a practice will have resonance with practitioners of all kinds—from writers, artists and architects to live-art performers, collaborative artists and practitioners of community and cultural development. Arakawa and Gins’ “landing sites” and “coordinology” are readily usable by anyone because they are not prescriptions for making, but procedures to enable new connections and relationships.

There are many historical affinities with Arakawa and Gins’ work—most notably William James’ radical empiricism where experience is the direct basis of knowing, Merleau-Ponty’s bodily oriented phenomenology of perception, and James J Gibson’s ecological approach to perception—as well as others who extend the study of person beyond the isolated mechanisms examined in their respective fields. Their extensive applicability is evident in the range of people who write on their work, including Jean-François Lyotard (philosophy), Arthur Danto (art theory), Italo Calvino (writing), Hans-Georg Gadamer (hermeneutics) and George Lakoff (linguistics). Arakawa and Gins’ work represents one of the most important contemporary research practices precisely because it is one of the few that addresses convergence and complexity across the arts and sciences on the “scales of action” relevant to human experience.

Many contemporary projects are focused on disassembling culturally inherited systems and structures. They are as important as they are widespread. What makes Arakawa and Gins’ project different is their goal of reassembly, because a terrible historical problem arises after everything has been dismantled: on what plan, model or concept is reassembly carried out? Architectural Body does not provide the answer—that is, the image of an outcome—but offers a mode of inquiry, a constant questioning from the point of view of the organism-person focused by “tactically posed surrounds.” This constitutes “daily research through architecture” that begins with our inclination to notice, specify and search the use of features in the environment. To put the body back into living history is to form a relationship with the environment that allows us to observe, learn and reconfigure (transform) the persistent and habitual world we have inherited.

Reading this book is a visceral experience, as the procedures discussed are meant to be used by the body. You laugh, you are puzzled, you don’t cry, but as a reader you do feel the roller coaster of thinking and feeling enacted on the pages. As with good novels, you are transported to other situations and places, but unlike most novels you bring your body with you and it all happens where you are—not in some utopian “elsewhere.” Although Architectural Body is published in a “poetics” series, it extends its discussion well beyond “making” in poetry to all domains of activity, inviting everyone to become a researcher and practitioner of the realisation of living.

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 11

© Jondi Keane; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2003