Landing: Diller + Scofidio

Posted by Jordan Crandall | Wed Jan 12th 2005 11:20 p.m.

Landing: Diller + Scofidio
Jordan Crandall

We placed our tray tables, seats, and bodies in an upright and locked
position in preparation for landing. We were silent, all eyes transfixed on
the hypnotic images of parting clouds that filled the cabin's projection
screens, compliments of a camera mounted on the nose cone. Spellbound in the
eye of the projectile. Suddenly, over the roar of the airplane, and in
synchronization with the rumble of the landing gear lowering into place, a
shriek cut through the calm. One woman was emitting this piercing scream.
Her hands clenched the armrest with an iron grip; her head was thrown back,
eyes closed and mouth agape. She seemed to be suspended within a fire of
pleasurable danger, of the orgasmic/roller coaster/horror film variety. Was
it the erotic charge of death that surged through her body? Fellow
passengers shifted nervously. The screech ended. An empty plastic cup rolled
up the aisle.

Head turned sideways: the view out the window. Head aimed straight ahead:
the view on the screen. The plane, located somewhere in between, hurtles
downward through the clouds. One becomes caught in elaborate choreographies
combining body, vehicle, and perception. They involve the overlapping of
image and actuality, pleasure and fear, fixity and mobility. There is the
machinery producing this view, and the more intimate machinery that is
making one adequate to see it. And there are the ways in which one squirms
within these machineries, which may result in the emission of something as
grand as a shriek or as faint as a blush. I wonder what ignited the shriek
and, immediately following, the flash of embarrassment over the
decorum-breaking outburst. Head turned downward: averted eyes.

I am thinking of architectures of landing; I am thinking of parallels to the
screech: the outcry that erupts, that shoots upward, within a tectonics of
descent. The resistance, the counterbalance, the rising against the falling.
I am thinking of that moment when the ordering forces that maintain a body's
coherency are, however briefly, overcome by its urges, as it slips out of
its own bounds. The way the surface is betrayed by that which emits upwards
from the depths. The poised against the staggered. Eye and ass.

The view enstages me

"My home looks like no one lives there," a survivalist says. "That's the
best thing about it. You can walk right by it." But let us screech to a stop
in front of Slow House. This weekend house -- a "home away from home" -- is
built on the sensations of deceleration and escape. In the passage from door
to window, city to country, land to sea, time is loosened as the visitor
advances quietly toward a view of the horizon. The water undulates,
contoured by the weather or parted by ships passing in the distance. The
house itself, perched at the shoreline, resembles an odd vessel floating
atop the sea. It was conceived to be anything but inert: a machine for
living, if you will, whose operator-passengers revolve about the central
paradoxes involved in the enstagement of "the View," transfixed by both the
image seen through the window and one seen on a screen. They are held in
place before it.

"Look," one says, beholding a view. One is expected to stop what one is
doing, to stop and marvel. A glimpse of the sublime. One may let loose with
a subtle moan -- or even an "Ahhh" -- as one's perceptual faculty is
cleansed.

According to Diller + Scofidio, The Slow House is "a probe into the
domesticated eye on vacation." At the same time, it is also "a mechanism of
optical arousal." One slows down (one takes time off), yet one's desire
mounts (one aims to get off). The cry of fear (will I crash? will my body
dissolve, become incoherent?), which operates as a kind of brake, is
overlaid with the orgasmic cry, which functions as grease. Both are subtle
emissions that slip out -- "oops!" -- within social and mechanical
constraints.

The House is closed to any view from the land: its facade is simply a door.
Its rear end, however, is swelled open like an available organ offering
itself entirely to the sea. If one were bobbing out on the water, one would
marvel at an enormous picture window with no house behind it, a window
extending all the way to the edge of the frame. With its interior
illuminated at night, the House would become something like a video screen,
figures and scenes flickering across it. But only the waterborne would be
able to partake of and be aroused by this display. The occupants could
otherwise frolic in front of the View, sure that, in all likelihood, no one
could see them. The View, then, would be a magnified opening through which
one could easily be watched, but, in its inaccessibility, would be unlikely
to contain anyone who could be watching. It evokes a feeling of the
possibility of being observed, even with no particular observer.

In movies, this feeling of someone out there watching is often a prelude to
horror, a prelude to a scream. The Slow House could therefore produce a
feeling of being spooked. At the same time, however, the sense (or
sensation) of exposure could turn one on. In psychoanalytic terms, we can
recognize it as a staging of the deepest fantasmatic scene, of a primordial
moment in the construction of self and other. The sight -- the generalized
gaze for whom I act -- is watching me. If one can see Slow House, as its
architects do, as a warping of the cone of vision -- with an emphasis on
vision's temporality, slowing it down along a decelerating curve -- whose
subject is located at the apex (the door), then one can also see it as a
reversal of such perspectivization. That is, the View locates the occupant.

Let us slip further into character. What is our motivation in this scene?
Are we landing or taking off, watching or being watched, dry-docked or
setting sail? Screaming in fear or in pleasure? For direction, let us move
to the space- and time-challenged characters in Jet Lag, both airborne
actors caught in the acceleration and deceleration of transcontinental
travel, and a seaborne actor who orchestrates a split between actuality and
simulation, drifting in circles upon the sea while filming a successful
voyage.

Actors

Part One. A true story: Donald Crowhurst joins a round-the-world yacht race
sponsored by the Sunday Times of London, but soon realizes he cannot
complete the journey. Unwilling to accept his failure even as his boat
drifts in circles, Crowhurst uses equipment the BBC has loaned him to
document his voyage on film.

On stage, Crowhurst -- his name changed to "Roger Dearborn" and film to
videotape -- spritzes water on himself to simulate ocean spray mixed with
sweat. A projector/screen assembly is mechanically rocked up and down to
simulate the roll of the ocean. Brandishing a remote control device,
Dearborn/Crowhurst shouts heroic testimonies into the camera over the noise
of high winds and crashing waves. His cries are those of nature overcome, of
the human will to acceleration triumphant against the slowing forces of
entropy, of the glories of a life risen above the norm. He is enstaging his
own landing, his own coherency against his fear of dissolution, as his
vessel, relentlessly taking on and resisting the pressures of the elements,
groans under his feet.

Part Two. Another true story: Sarah Krassnoff has kidnapped her grandson
from the boy's father and psychiatrist, who want to commit him. In an effort
to elude capture, she has flown back and forth across the Atlantic with him
167 times, never leaving the airplane or airport lounge.

A large-scale animation that fills the background locates grandmother and
grandson -- their names changed to Doris and Lincoln Schwartz -- in an
airport concourse. They are moving up an escalator when we hear the boy
being paged over the intercom. Schwartz looks around, up, and side to side,
in that general sweeping motion one adopts when hearing a voice coming from
nowhere. (Where is it? Does it see me?) "Did you hear that?" she asks
anxiously. "They've found us. It's just a matter of time." Her worst fear
has been realized: they have been sighted. "He's calling you, don't you
hear?"

The time-lagged grandmother is attempting to escape the gaze of authority by
disappearing, while the waterlogged captain wrests control of the apparatus
of that gaze and attempts to shape a space within that would warrant his
recognition. Schwartz fears being watched; Dearborn fears not being watched.
She wants to shrink; he wants to grow. For him, being observed is part of a
process of mattering, of coming into being, of establishing one's presence
amid the symbolic and technological networks that help construct identity.
He is becoming someone who is counted, someone who counts, someone who is
placed. (First place?) He turns his boat into a production studio, recording
himself on video against the backdrop of the sea and broadcasting false
positions as if he were actually enduring the course. He is performing his
journey for the imagined (and delayed) audience that would watch the
completed tape, and the authoritative body that would determine the race
winner. (And also for the live audience in the theater.) He wants to win in
the public's gaze, even if not in reality.

One is always appearing or disappearing within these networks of observation
and display. One inserts oneself within them in order to generate a mutable
place. One detects, one deceives. One makes transparent, one obstructs. One
acts, one slips out of character. There is a subtle, active shaping of one's
presence. An evasive materiality is intertwined with image, embedded within
maneuvers of visibility and stealth. In every case, these systems of vision
are wholly materializing.

The captain's need to matter drives his form of "being watched," deployed on
stage through a system of projected images, as if these image surfaces,
together with the filmic apparatus, were the sails that powered the boat,
catching and contouring the wind. Or rather, as if they helped to
materialize the vehicle and enstage the phenomena of propulsion. Via the
desire, the form becomes motor. What is important is how this engine is
manifested and the choreographies that accompany it.

The fear of being watched. The pleasure of being watched. The fear of not
being watched. In many ways the site of the personal has become a kind of
vanishing point in and of itself, with "sights" locked onto it. Diller +
Scofidio's work makes me think that the condition of being observed is
becoming a kind of ontological necessity. Taking aim in an act of seeing
also involves assuming a position within the viewfinder of another. The self
is formed as a subject-in-synchronization rather than solely in
subject-object relation. We recognize ourselves in a process of being
identified as well as in identifying. Acts of seeing are not one-way, but
circuitous. The question becomes, then, not only "Who is looking at me?" but
also something like, "Through what acts of seeing am I realized? What
gaze -- real or imagined -- charges me, fills me, constitutes me?" There is
not only a controlling gaze that sees, and helps mold, my actions. There is
a gaze for which I act.

Work in the comfort of knowing that you are always being watched, with the
first post-paranoid, outer glass coating which lets them look in with the
clarity of nighttime visibility 24 hours a day.
Perform with the comfort of knowing that you can always see yourself, with
the first neo-narcissistic inner coating which simulates nighttime
reflection so that you can watch yourselves as others look on.
Watch with the comfort of knowing that you are always in full view, the
first post-voyeuristic outer coating with two-way clarity which lets you
watch them watching you as you watch them under any lighting condition.
-- Diller + Scofidio, from Fourth Window

Flotation device located under seat. Portable parachutes and personal rafts.
A hatch to batten down or to slip out through. Devices geared to catch the
eyes of others; devices geared to slip off the grid. Orientation devices in
which one sits or moves, allowing for the sensation of movement or passage
to stream through. A subtle turn of the head, an oscillation of the eyes, a
step, a route. Interlocking complexes of parts, which may include the
gripping of an armrest or knob, the position of a head, the angle of a
screen, and the real or imagined trajectory of a vessel. Screen and horizon.
Movement and fixity. Circulation and locale. The apparent controlled space
of the airport; the apparent free space of the ocean. A disjuncture; a
quickened breath; a scream. Air and sea sickness. Machinery upstaged by
behavior.

Back home, on stage

Two protuberances extend from the Slow House: a video camera sucking up the
view and a chimney stack emitting smoke from a fireplace. Both feed into or
out of the focal points of the room and, more broadly, of the typical
American living rooms. The fireplace once provided a pre-televisual focal
point. What are the focal points a family or group gathers around today?
They may not be visual, but might simply involve the harnessing of
perspective. In the days of radio, before television commanded every view in
the room, the family gathered to listen, its gazes aimless, its visual
faculty on standby as the ears became the primary organ of input. These
varied perspectives -- often focused on something other than the medium in
question -- were subsequently harnessed solely to the demands of the
televisual economy. This economy demands an illusory wholeness, an illusory
completeness of the image. The action is frequently elsewhere, and in a
multiplicity of formats.

With the rise of the couch potato, our culture was promised to be advancing
toward detachment, inertia, and voyeurism. Today, with the advent of
interactive metaphors, we instead think of ourselves as at the helm or in
the pilot's seat. But is the sense of control our choices bring illusory?
The choice locates the chooser. Jet Lag ends with the actors finding
themselves within an elaborate simulation, a game, controlled through the
grandson's laptop, yet spiraling out of control. The plane plummets
downward, its impending crash heralding the grandmother's death (of jet lag,
of course).

Does the video stream that opened this essay -- images projected in real
time from a camera mounted on the nose cone -- herald a similar tragedy?
Perhaps this is what occasioned the woman's scream: an unrestrained glimpse
into an emerging reality. A perspective that obliterates perspective, like
the video stream from a camera mounted on a smart bomb, though in a more
innocuous form.

What has become of the image? Who is at its helm? What is detected, what
evades?

----

Originally published in _Scanning: The Aberrant Architecture of Diller +
Scofiidio_ (New York: The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2003).
Your Reply