Diller + Scofidio
by Diller + Scofidio
“The new glass environment will raise culture to a higher level.”
Paul Scheerbart, Glass Manifesto, 1914
According to the rhetoric of the visionary new technology of the curtain wall, glass would liberate architecture from the disciplinary enclosure of masonry. The technology of glass guaranteed a world without boundaries in which information would be available to everyone, unimpeded by conventional spatial limitations. The democratization of information was an important theme in the ideology of the modern movement and glass was considered a material of “truth,” an instrument of disclosure. The dematerialization of the wall would lead to a more open and healthy society––a transparent architecture for a society with nothing to hide.
As the curtain wall became the dominant building technology of the twentieth century, albeit for predominantly economic reasons, utopia quickly became dystopia. The transparent building that was to permit unlimited vision to the outside, in fact, exposed itself to observation from that very same outside. Glass was, unexpectedly, a two-way system, an alienating medium of optical transgression, a threat to privacy, and an agent of all that was sinister about modern architecture. In the harsh words of Richard Sennet, “The space created by the architecture of glass, far from being neutral, is highly charged. It is space that in its hostility to livability, in its very hostility to nature, seeks to consecrate itself – to become sacred, inviolable, an architecture which in its very inhospitableness, creates a privileged position for itself. This is the highest most arrogant privilege.”
It became apparent that the technology that initially promised disclosure could also be availed to display false appearances, the technology that once offered democratic visibility to everyone also possessed surveillance capabilities that could look back, the technology that once guaranteed a space with unlimited freedom of movement became subject to the restrictions and regulations of conventional space. Rather than the open society promised by Scheerbart, the technology of glass spawned new paranoias that had yet to evolve new tactics of secrecy. The material of freedom had turned into a material of anxiety and gave rise to the question: whose freedom and on which side of the glass?
The anxieties introduced by transparency led the glass industry to invent defensive technologies. While driven partially by environmental concerns, 1970s and 80s promotional strategies for tinted and reflective glass promised a material of privacy, comfort, and security – the very properties surrendered to achieve unmediated vision. Though full transparency was traded away, the new glass restored the one-way gaze. Currently, “privacy glass” promises both worlds – transparency and control –– alternately, at the flip of a switch. The promotion of liquid crystal glass appropriates Asimov’s prophetic idea of “opacifying glass” as its advertising slogan. Glass is being rethought as an appliance or a building system in which vision can be regulated like central heat.
Glass can no longer be the innocent skin that once hoped to seamlessly connect interior and exterior space. Nor can it be the menacing divider that situated controller on one side and controlled on the other. Yesterday’s pathologies have inverted: the fear of being watched has transformed to the fear that no one is watching. Glass is now understood as a surface to look at, not only through. Transparent glass is no longer invisible. Rather, it is a display surface that modifies human behavior to either side.
Perhaps, a fresh look at glass could start from a by-product of its failure. The incessant visual availability created by glass ultimately produced an overexposure; overexposure led to a complacency and a new kind of blindness; blindness led to a new type of hyper-sightedness –– a hyper-sightedness guided by revised heirarchies and attracted to new stimuli evolving from new strategies of display.
The utopic/dystopic reassessment of glass reflected the flip sides of modernist visuality. Video surveillance went through a similar but opposite reassessment. Once considered invasive, electronic surveillance is now the accepted social contract in public space, a welcome assurance of security, and a performance vehicle. The following sequence of projects thematically take up post-paranoid surveillance.
A 16’ foot high by 27’ wide video monitor is suspended by a vertical armature that rides on a horizontal track at the new Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. A live video camera back-to-back with the screen is pointed into the public lobby. The structure travels slowly along the surface of the exterior facade and broadcasts live and pre-recorded video imagery to the screen as it moves. While the live images naturally correspond with the speed and direction of the scanning motion, the pre-recorded programs (fictional vignettes and virtual transparencies into fictional office buildings) are constructed to simulate the same speed. The scanning device alternately enhances the view in while it is an instrument of deception, substituting impostors for actual building occupants and spaces.
Unlike invasive security cameras, web cams are voluntary and friendly––delivering to your computer screen such diverse sites as tourist attractions, traffic intersections, shopping malls, offices, and even bedrooms. The live cam phenomenon can be thought of as a form of public service, a mode of passive advertisement, a new type of exhibitionism, and a self-disciplinary device. Despite their apparent innocence, webcams are willfully positioned, their field of vision is carefully considered, and behavior within their field of vision cannot help but anticipate the looming presence of the global viewer. Twelve live office cams chosen for their banality are appropriated for twelve short fictions. An uneventful video still captured from each site serves as the base image for a series of altered stills. The viewer can select a site from an index page, advance or move backwards in time at that site, zoom in, and discover information that will add up into or collapse a narrative. The narratives involve self-conscious acts such as hiding in plain view, producing false appearances, and performing for the camera. Accompanying the images is an ongoing link with the original live web cam site. Thus, seeing the live view through the filter of the narrative, knowing too much, and expecting a reciprocity between fact and fiction, forces the viewer into a peculiar form of watching. “Live” and “mediated” information are entangled sufficiently to turn the art viewer into an inadvertent voyeur.