The Strategy of the Form

Essay by NOX, related to the SoftSide project and DEAF96 (1996).

You go to a mosquito at midnight and give him a certain number of photons, and that particularly well-timed jolt turns off the mosquito's clock. He's an insomniac after that - he'll doze, buzz for a while, all at random, and he'll continue doing that for as long as you care to watch, or until you come along with another jolt. You've given him perpetual jet lag.

Jet lag and insomnia are problems which remain unsolved in biological terms. It is not simply a question of the body's internal clock, life's daily rhythm, being no longer synchronized with the clock of daylight, the sun. Your natural rhythm has become completely confused. Anxiously you attempt to reimpose some order on the daily schedule of eating, making love, vacuum-cleaning and washing. But it soon becomes all too much. You try to make a conscious effort but nothing seems to get done. It's simply exhausting to have to perform certain actions without those actions being dictated by a greater rhythm. You are jet-lagged and, once cast out of time, you will lag hopelessly behind.

25 June, 1988. Muehren approaches from the left-hand side and kicks the ball diagonally at least thirty metres towards the right-hand side of the field. Van Basten is right at the gap and, as if wielding a baseball bat, he shoots the ball from a nearly impossible position in a curve over Dassajev. This Russian keeper probably still wakes up at night in a pool of sweat.

The coincidence of the ball and the attacker in the Gap is even more miraculous then the goal itself. The feeder and the attacker simultaneously had the same idea; otherwise the attacker would never have been at the back line on time - which all too often happens with off form sides where the ball goes out for the umpteenth time. But what is a side which is 'in form'? A side that 'runs smoothly' is a fluid system where players are never offside the game or isolated, where eleven players perform with a single consciousness, where the movements of each individual are synchronized with those of all the other players. It 'runs' as smoothly as Christian Huygens' clocks. Huygens noticed one day that a set of pendulum clocks placed against a wall happened to be swinging in perfect chorus-line synchronization. He knew that the clocks could not be that accurate. Nothing in the mathematical description then available for a pendulum could explain this mysterious propagation of order from one pendulum to another. In the same way, the players' movements are perfectly synchronized and they perform like a clock that dictates the rhythm of attack and defence. They are transported by that rhythm so that every movement is made simple and obvious. Wim Jonk: 'It all went like clockwork and I felt as if I was floating across the field.'

What is the form of a football team? The players no longer function separately in space, rather they form a fluid system: a field, or even a magnetic field, so that attack and defence are constantly alternated. For that reason, its form is soft but not weak because the stability of the team is rooted in its dynamics, in hair-trigger reactions to the flux of circumstance. The side's shared consciousness gives the game power and direction, and the ball automatically follows this vector. Hence, the players (of both sides) are in fact curves in the turf so that they are transformed into a landscape, into something between surface and space, with a dimension that fluctuates between 2.0 and 3.0.

The mystery of mercury

Everything that is static, is condemned to death. Nothing that lives, can exist without transformation. This is what Sanford Kwinter calls a soft system: a system driven by its very 'softness', its capacity to move, to differentiate internally, to absorb, transform, and exchange information with its surroundings. What is Life?: a living organism has the astonishing gift of concentrating a 'stream of order' on itself and thus escaping the decay into atomic chaos. (Schroedinger) A fluid system's ability to maintain order is due to its ability to alter its structure. This means that order does not exist as form in space but as movement in time: a direction. And if a form is to continue, it must be able to transform itself. This does not concern a form that can move, but rather a movement that passes through the form. By changing form, soft systems or living entities try to remain intact and strong. Anything that goes from the same state to the same state will become extinct, such as the Hawaiian geese which are now genetically so similar that the females have became infertile.

Soft shapes. Soft systems. Soft City.

Imagine an object offering no resistance to other objects, effortlessly changing form as if it were super-conductive. Its material would have to have a fluid structure so that it would be instantly capable of processing the information it receives. A molecular structure built like a computer programe, a form entirely made of software. Imagine an object made of grey matter of which the form is thought. Pure intelligence. The other forms that surround it are not reflected, they are absorbed as information. They fall as if through a fluid mirror so as to be completely and arithmetically processed by the memory metal. This object has no self-image, it has no consciousness and will not pass the mirror phase.

What does it mean if a form can absorb movement or, to put it more strongly, if it is made of movement instead of being a form that moves? In any case, it is no longer possible to discuss form in terms of something that is imposed from outside. It would be just as ridiculous to talk of the form of a flock of birds - a flock has no form but is in a constant process of formation through a wave-like motion. Nothing is so fluid, so intelligent and yet so purposeful. There are moments when you can observe more fixed structures and patterns within the flock, but they will instantly disintegrate. You could describe this formation as a mixture of the fixed and the fluid, the crystalline and the amorphous, as something between object and process. It could also be called mesomorphous but this does not make it simpler to understand. This is the term for a phenomenon, the most shocking aspect of which is the fact that it does not exist; rather each time it is brought about. You cannot create a flock but you can 'breed' it. You can make a large number of black dots move in a certain direction (towards the south) on a computer. You can provide each of these dots with a couple of simple algorithmic rules: don't bump into any other dots, keep up with the dot next to you and don't stray. Then you set the program in motion and suddenly a flock has come about out of nothing - you haven't designed it, you've generated it.

The body's suppleness

We begin with the heart: a flock of muscle cells through which the electric signal passes as a co-ordinated wave across the three-dimensional structure of the heart. Each cell contracts as the signal occurs. Each cell then expands in a critical, insensitive period during which it cannot be prematurely reactivated. So the heart is constantly being formed in the wave-like motion of contraction and expansion. It has no fixed form in the sense that the muscle cells follow a clock; rather they are muscle cells which combine to form a clock. It flocks. But its mysterious perfection is haunted by something that is equally enigmatic: disturbance. Order is as unintelligible as chaos. When order disintegrates - which is known as fibrillation - the individual muscle cells are still working correctly, but the heart as a whole is no longer functioning properly. Hence, this is not a disease and nothing will be revealed by an autopsy.

Let us progress from the heart to locomotion. Imagine that you must consciously place one foot in front of the other, that you are forced to impose the rhythm of walking as if you are operating your body instead of your body operating itself. Its natural cadence would immediately vanish so that you would walk as stiffly as a robot. When the cadence is right, the body has no central motor; rather it has a motor system of voluntary movements. It is the muscle's rhythm that forms the motor and directs each physical movement. Suppleness always exists in the (ebb and) flow of consciousness. Try consciously hammering a nail into a wall and you will keep hitting your thumb. You must not come between the hammer and the nail being knocked into the wall.

The movement of the heart, the limbs and the metabolism combine to form the rhythm of the body. This physical clock, the bio-rhythm, maintains an internal, twenty-five-hour rhythm. We are kept on track by the light of the sun which we experience each day. In fact, our clock is set according to the clock of daylight. Eating, making love, working and washing - all these activities take place in periods of twenty-four hours and maintain their own rhythm. In general everyone is determined to achieve a bizarre number of actions as effectively as possible, to create a single rhythm so that everything occurs at the right time without ever having to consult a watch. Each action, from the extraordinary to the ordinary, just falls into place. We can train ourselves to perform these actions, as in fact happens from earliest childhood. We can endeavour to cultivate good habits but yet this does not mean that we will function effectively as a whole. There are people who do everything according to a time-table, promptly and according to a relentless schedule of activities. Yet they can be completely thrown by even the slightest alteration or disturbance. They may then experience severe insomnia.

Since the individual has been programming his life, he has limited his potential for metamorphosis. (Canetti)

Install Ritual

We have discussed the fluidity of systems, forms and objects. And we have discussed the body's fluidity.

At present, there are two distinct trends in architecture. The first concentrates on the form's softness and turbulence, the second on the program's. The first may sometimes have no program whatsoever while in the second trend the form may be completely neutral. Our aim is this: that the architectural object be considered in such a fluid way, that it is capable of absorbing life (body plus program). We want to connect the suppleness of the object to the suppleness of the body.

The possibilities that present themselves, exist because there are two other trends functioning within our culture as a whole; two trends which are diametrically opposed to the instrumentalist idea that technology mediates between the body and its environment without it essentially influencing or changing either the body or the world. First: the complete fusion of the architectural object with the technological object. And second: the fusion of the body with technology. In the first architectural identity evaporates (which is not a tragedy). In the second the soul of the natural body has effortlessly moved into a bio-technical mutation (which is not a tragedy either). In both trends, technology seeks to calm the body down, to temper it and soothe it, to provide it with conditioned air, to keep it motionless while lifting it up a few floors, to make it fall asleep in the gentlest possible manner...

But imagine the opposite: imagine a technology which is geared towards speeding the body up rather than calming it down. Imagine that architecture is swallowed up by technology so that it becomes completely capable of absorbing and enhancing the body's rhythm. That means that the body's rhythm will affect the form. And conversely it means that the form's rhythmicality will in turn activate the body. This can never be captured in a series of rules. In fact, the program, such as we know it, is purely a mechanistic interpretation of the body and its activities. We must no longer prescribe functions, we must classify activities in such a way that they can become events. Prescribed actions are always linked to prescribed spaces (in the typological sense, and as quantified in floor surface area). We must separate this, so that the action becomes fluid, so that it becomes an event. We must discard the idea that architecture is programmed to divide up activities.

A form of space which can be analyzed in terms of isolated functions and parts of a program, is effectively indifferent to what actively occurs within it because it is not affected or transformed by the body's rhythm. Functions do not stimulate the form's transformation, nor are they stimulating in the sense of prodding the body into action. You have to keep motivating yourself into doing things, so that your actions seem clumsy and link up like the sequences in a badly edited film. You eat, you sleep, you take a shower but there is no rhythm; the body's rhythm has not been synchronized with the form's rhythmicality. We must opt for an architecture which stimulates life's suppleness, that enables, even encourages the subtle flow of events.

Only a form which has mastered the body's motor system, is capable of activating. Only a form which has been transformed and affected by the rhythm of life, is capable of motivating. It can only prompt the body into motion as a motor, as a vector, as a combination of power and direction. This is also the principle of animation: you are only 'prompted' if the object or the form has also been prompted. In fact, you no longer need to perform the complete action because the form has already partly done that for you. You no longer need to initiate an activity, because the form has already given you the clue. And it is this shared consciousness that ensures that these actions are carried out effectively. Or, to put it more strongly: the actions as such are installed so that they become a performance. In this way, the actions are performed: intensified and made spectacular.

This principle of animating and being animated is perfectly embodied in the form of the installation. We are using this in the double sense of the word: both in terms of installing a technical system and of installing an artwork of which the public forms a component part. An installation gives actions power and direction, and the body automatically follows this vector. As an event already activated it prompts further action - an engine in motion which you simply need to connect with. It is never still, it is always on. So, because the program is now vectorial, you can never sit back and consider what to do next. In an installation all the functions, all the sleeping vectors are assigned a destination and are hence transformed into events. Because, as Borges also wondered, what is a knife when it is in a drawer? It is a sleeping knife. It only begins to shine once it has been picked up.

Full Moon

An architecture which does not think in terms of pre-programmed functions but in terms of events, performances, spectacles and rituals. And because these are not pre-programmed, they cannot be fixed into a form. Ergo, it is only by fusing with the technological that architecture can become so soft that it is capable of acting and of reacting to activities. At its most extreme, this installation would consist of a system that could move completely with the activities, as a 'soft system' where events are quite simply mutual animations of surroundings and body. But of course the central question is: how soft can an architecture be? Because an important aspect of architecture is matter and matter always resists transformation.

Can it change from space into field? Sanford Kwinter follows the biologist Waddington's example by calling this an epigenetic landscape. The ball in the epigenetic landscape represents a cell or cluster of cells in an early developing embryo. The embryo's directness, or general tendency to develop in a given environment rather than to die, is topologically represented by the downward slope of the epigenetic plane. The ball that rolls down that slope, can take any number of different pathways which will depend on the way in which the plane and its perturbations react to the ball. An architecture, fused with technology (only then it can read actions as information), fluid as an epigenetic plane, will ensure, by giving life power and direction (the slope), that activity will develop although it remains uncertain about precisely how that activity will take place (the various pathways downwards). And this is precisely the difference between function and event.

In isolation, without a daily resetting stimulus, the sleep-wake cycle will become erratic. People who live in 'time isolation' without daylight, temperature changes, clocks or phones, will stay awake for twenty to thirty hours at a time, followed by ten or twenty hours of sleep. Not only will the subjects remain unaware that their day had lengthened, they will refuse to believe it when told. Winfree approached this systematically and started with an elderly woman who did needlepoint in the evening in front of banks of bright light. Her cycle changed sharply, and she reported feeling great, as if she were driving in a car with the top down...

Full Moon - a night resort that opens at 6 pm and closes at 6 am. The Mellow House, Ambient Floors, Seven Ex, Le Boutique Chirurgique, The Fully Automatic and, right at the top, The Moon - six clubs located around The Ray: a beam of artificial moonlight, generated by twelve, movable robot lamps which shine through the floors. Ultimately they also provide energy for the mechanical camera arms so that these can follow the masses dancing on the revolving floors below. This Cyclo will also allow the dancers to watch the sampled images on the large monitor; a kind of spark plug over which sparks will shoot back and forth. When the monitor edits the images together and connects them with the music, it will stimulate the dancers to follow this rhythm. And, as they dance faster to the '(heart)beats per minute', the cameras will zoom in and the lamps above will shine more brightly.

In short, here is the cold, electronic light that 'gives activities power and direction', that stops people sleeping and attempts to slow down their bio-rhythms as much as possible. Hence everything, every action, every activity is influenced by the Light; everything is based on the idea that, during these activities, you will lose all sense of chronological time. Only this is realized in two different ways. On the dance floor below, the electronic light influences the architecture so that it melts into the locomotory (where the dancing bodies are followed by the robot cameras' mechanical whirls). And above, in the six night clubs, the moonlight affects the architecture in such a way that the actual matter of the floors begins to melt, that the floors themselves begin to dance and the bodies walking around them will become trapped in the swirls of eddying floors.

Right at the top, in The Moon, close to the pulsating mega-watts of the twelve robot lamps, the light has become so white and strong that it can only be endured by otakus and hackers who spend their days in front of monitors. Pale and translucent from their constant bathing in electronic moonlight, they are now standing on the steepest floor of all the clubs in the Full Moon. Each of them is pressing loosely against the wall, completely oblivious to the possibility of sleep.

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