Apophenia: The Ruy Klein Cartographies

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Photo by Joshua White.

Somewhere, in a passage I can no longer locate, the British novelist J.G. Ballard (1930-2009) makes a statement about the arts that has haunted me since I read it a quarter-century ago. The role of the artist has reversed, Ballard tells us. Formerly, the artist’s mission was to produce fictions. But now our collective life is saturated with fictions: films, comic books, advertisements, theme parks, videogames, alternate online identities. As a result, the task of the artist has become the production of a reality able to provide some backbone to what is otherwise an unending stream of fictions. In the era of supposed “fake news,” in which even the President of the United States can hardly open his mouth without emitting a barrage of half-truths and outright lies, the problem of constructing reality in an environment of fabrications feels even more urgent than in the decades J.G. Ballard lived to see.

The theme of how fiction intersects with reality is one that could not be avoided when visiting the Ruy Klein show in the SCI-Arc Gallery under the title “Apophenia,” which ran from November 17-December 17, 2017. The designers David Ruy and Karel Klein are both familiar faces at SCI-Arc, where David serves as Postgraduate Programs Chair (and, moreover, bears the sole responsibility for having dragged the author of this review slowly into the architectural world). Having been a regular visitor to the Ruy Klein website in recent years, I thought I knew what to expect when their show opened at SCI-Arc in mid-November, and thus I accepted David’s invitation of a walk-through without thinking his guidance would really be necessary. But in fact, the exhibition was quite startling, departing as it did from trends I thought I had recognized in Ruy Klein’s previous work.

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Photo by Joshua White.

“Apophenia,” the title of the show, is a psychiatric term apparently coined in the 1950s to refer to one of the chief features of schizophrenia. When we perceive patterns or connections between things that seem unrelated, this is apophenia. Moving beyond the psychiatric realm in the strict sense, conspiracy theories would be one good example of apophenia. How might we account for conspiracy theories within Ballard’s framework for evaluating the contemporary artist? Is the conspiracy theorist just another producer of late-stage, decadent fictions, adding further bits of unreality to a world already drowning in fabrications? Or is she the creator of a structured and semi-credible world, in a manner that Ballard himself could applaud? Ruy Klein manage to dodge this dilemma by giving us something with a more solid grounding in reality than most conspiracy theories. Rather than assorted facts tied together by a crackpot explanation, their show features unsettling fusions of geographical realities that are not normally considered as a pair: such as a well-known world metropolis re-situated in the Himalayas or on a river delta from the other side of the planet. As we learn from the exhibition statement: “The pictures and models in this gallery installation simultaneously incorporate GIS and CG technologies to design a composite world. A seamless collage of documentary evidence, the world depicted in this exhibition de-familiarizes survey data recorded by the USGS and assembles a visual fiction.” Ruy Klein place their techniques in a long historical context: “The first known aerial photograph was produced in France in 1858 by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon. Using a hot air balloon, the first pictures of earth from above were of a modest French village. Though none of these first photographs survived, these pictures inspired an obsessive interest in photographing the world from this new distant perspective.”

Though the reception of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) by architecture might still be said to be in its infancy, there are perhaps two distinct ways OOO has been adapted to the needs of architects. Since OOO is grounded in Martin Heidegger’s emphasis on the withdrawal of being behind any possibility of direct presence, a good deal of OOO experimentation has focused on the inaccessibility and autonomy of architectural forms. SCI-Arc’s own Tom Wiscombe has used the notion of withdrawal to motivate the cryptic profile of semi-recognizable solids revealed only partially behind a vague, sack-like envelope; he has argued further that the autonomy of a building can be stressed by problematizing its relation to the ground, and by creating tension between a building’s integral structure and an excessive tattooing of its surface. But another strand of OOO design is possible, one inspired by this philosophy’s love for impure chains of objects forming ever-larger compound objects. The hilarious neo-Gothic skyscraper and museum designs of Mark Foster Gage at Yale are perhaps the most prominent examples of this strain. But David Ruy himself has for some years been toying with the merits of a “kit-bashing” approach to combining elements from a variety of distinct models, and the recent Ruy Klein show at SCI-Arc points toward a way to do this different from Gage’s own. Rather than stringing together a vast number of entities in order to obtain an effect of profuse clutter, the Apophenia show generally fuses together just two elements at once: a known city, a surprising geographical setting.

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Photo by Joshua White.

In fact, art throughout its history has relied heavily on such credible fusions of two entities that do not seem to form an obvious pair. The technical term for such fusion is known to everyone: “metaphor,” which Aristotle describes in the Poetics as the greatest human gift, one that cannot be taught. There are at least two crucial points to be made in any discussion of metaphor. The first is that it cannot happen if the two terms it compares are either too similar or too dissimilar. “A pen is like a pencil” conveys information about a facility for writing shared by both objects, but leads to no metaphorical effect, barring heroic framing efforts from some Dadaist poet. When the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead tells us in his Adventures of Ideas that the 20th century resembles the 16th, this may or may not convince the reader but Whitehead himself intends it as a literal likeness between these two historical periods, and no aesthetic effect is automatically produced by the comparison. But failure also occurs if the comparison is too distant to be convincing. Imagine someone saying that “a pen is like the fourth cervical vertebra,” or Whitehead claiming that the 20th century is like the middle period of Australopithecus afarensis, or like the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Successful metaphor requires a connection that is convincing without being too convincing: Homer’s famous “wine-dark sea” comes to mind. The Mediterranean is somewhat like wine, without being too much like wine, and thus a metaphorical connection is possible.

The example from Homer brings us to the second point about metaphor that needs to be mentioned: its fundamental asymmetry. We can reverse his metaphor and make it about “sea-dark wine” instead. The result is still a metaphor, but not the same one as before. Whereas in “wine-dark sea” we have a sea with wine-like qualities imputed to it, with “sea-dark wine” the reverse is the case. Notice by contrast that literal comparisons are perfectly symmetrical and thus reversible in a way that metaphors are not: a lame equivalence such as “wine is like beer” says nothing different from the equally lame-but-true statement “beer is like wine.”

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Photo by Joshua White.

The Ruy Klein exhibition statement addresses the problem of reality and fiction as follows: “The very same GIS technologies that are used for surveying the world are also used today in computer graphics (CG) industries for the production of fiction and entertainment. What we have today in the visual culture of world building (both real and imagined) is an uneasy relationship between fact and fiction that mirrors the uneasiness we have today about the real in general.” In order to engage with this statement, it will be helpful to recall that we have already encountered two reversals in this review. The first was Ballard’s statement that, today, the artist is the one who must produce realities, thereby implying that everyone else who operates in social space (actors, publishers, politicians) is now primarily a producer of fictions. The second reversal, not stated explicitly at the time, was that between metaphorical and literal statements. Though literal statements (“a pen is like a pencil”) are true, they are so banal as to compel little conviction about either of the objects they compare, focused as they are on weighing and measuring the qualities shared by both. By contrast, metaphorical statements may seem on the surface to be “lies” (the Mediterranean is not literally wine-dark, nor does the dawn literally have finger-tips of rose), but they produce new realities more compelling than fact, in an already Ballardian fashion.

In one sense, this amounts to nothing more than the familiar truth that many fictions are more compelling than many facts: Achilles is more real to me than my landlord, and there can be no doubt that he is more interesting. Except in the unlikely event that some visitor is tricked by the Ruy Klein exhibit into thinking that Los Angeles is truly located in the Himalayas or Manhattan based along the Ganges, then our designers have not fallen into the pit of so-called “fake news.” As we saw with metaphor the price for a statement’s being convincing is that it not be too close to the banality of literal fact. But what we also saw with metaphor is that one term serves as “subject” and the other as “object,” which is why the terms cannot be reversed without yielding a different metaphor altogether. Yet the Ruy Klein models are visual rather than linguistic metaphors, and one consequence of this difference is that the roles of subject and object seem to be less clear. Is Los Angeles presented as Himalayan, or are the Himalayas translated instead into Angelene? An alternative reading would say that the Ruy Klein models are not metaphors, but are rather morphs: as when the photographs of two people are melded, with neither of them being more the “subject” of the joint photo than the other.

The fact that the Ruy Klein exhibition has been able to take us this far afield into general questions of aesthetics, and even metaphysics, is a testament to the deceptive strangeness of their show. Was this a kind of one-off for them: the result of playing with technologies for a limited season of fun? Or can we expect that their Ballardian fusion of lies as ingredients in a new truth will prove to be decisive in the next stage of their design practice? I look forward to the next show.

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Photo by Joshua White.

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Photo by Joshua White.