Fiction with Conviction: A Conversation with Mark Foster Gage

MARK FOSTER GAGE (Assistant Dean)

Mark Foster Gage is the principal of Mark Foster Gage Architects and the Assistant Dean at YSoA. On September 21, 2017, the issue editors spoke with Mark on the 7th floor terrace at Rudolph Hall. The following is an abridged transcript of the conversation.

P! We were interested in the binary set up in your Log 40 article, “Speculation vs Indifference,” in response to Michael Meredith’s essay on indifference and the practices of non-design, which is not about authorship but what he calls “play[ing], collect[ing], scroll[ing], reappropriat[ing], …”[1] We think that the idea of post-irony, which is simultaneously sincere and ironic, opens the possibility for architects who practice “indifference” to also align themselves with speculation: imagining transformative futures or architectural utopias.

MFG You’ve identified this term “post-irony,” which it seems can simultaneously mean being sincere and being ironic. That actually is a really good example of what Charles Jencks called “double coding,” the notion that the building would mean one thing to architects and another thing to observers without architectural knowledge. If a building has a Chippendale pediment, on, for example Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building, to architects this says: “I’m a funny reference to this specific furniture thing in the past,” but to non-architects says, “I’m a pitched roof with a hole in it.” So in that sense, you could have a post-irony, where something is both ironic and ambiguous depending on the set of information you bring to your building. I’m, however, in my writings, pretty against that idea of “official meaning” and therefore “double coding” because if I’m impregnating hierarchically determined meanings into buildings, that’s automatically creating two classes of people. If philosopher Jacques Rancière says there is no path from inequality to equality—only from equality to equality—then an architecture which, as its starting point, produces inequality via two classes of viewers is not exactly thinking along the lines of contemporary social engagement. So for instance, in my office, we did this thought experiment through architecture—via our rather outlandish design for our Helsinki Guggenheim a couple years ago, we explored this idea of using these forms, many found objects that we found online, but the collection of so many [objects] have so much meaning that it would be meaningless. The fact that you can read anything you want in the building meant that it was impossible to have a meaning that was correct. No hierarchical establishment of meaning, but also no need to abstract architecture to merely functional boxes.

P! I think that [post-irony] encourages the ambiguity that you identify in the multitude of meanings contained within the Helsinki project. Was ambiguity something you actively sought to cultivate?

MFG Yeah, absolutely. But not as a way to straddle irony. If something is ambiguous, irony is one of many things you can pull from it. So I don’t necessarily think that irony is opposed to ambiguity. I think irony is one of many readings of something that is ambiguous. But because we [as architects] are a discipline, and have a history, and take that history very seriously, any time any forms we use get something close to something from history, we invoke the discourse of irony. Irony is just like a suit of armor against sincerity in architecture, which I think is a disempowerment of the potential of architecture to be speculative.

P! One reading of post-irony allows for the tools of irony with sincere ambitions to reimagine architectural futures. Somehow it’s a bridge between “indifference” and speculative practice.

MFG You’re right in trying to introduce post-irony as the way to bridge those two extremes I’ve written about recently in Log. That’s what needs to be done. But one thing I challenge you both on is that I’m not sure the only bridge would be being ironic or not ironic, I’m more interested in your argument about ambiguity than I am about irony. Because I think ambiguity would include irony and sincerity in adjacency which is super interesting.

P! To speak about your interest in ambiguity, OOO [Object Oriented Ontology] is very much about the ambiguity between fact and fiction. The notion of parafiction produces ambiguity in performing an extreme seriousness about an absurd or satirical fictional narrative, and in that way could be seen as a post-ironic form. What is the power of parafiction within a speculative project?

MFG So there’s a couple of topics there: one is counterfactuals. Which is for our purposes the same as parafictional practice: it’s an idea in philosophy that can be traced back to Hume. A counterfactual essentially is a philosophical argument that includes an “if, then” clause. If the Nazis won WWII, then the United States would look like “this”— which becomes the premise for the Man in the High Castle series on Amazon. It uses a parafictional argument to create an alternate reality. Similarly, the Handmaid’s Tale[2] is essentially a counterfactual proposition. The show happens in our world. You recognize the houses, the Chevy Suburbans, you recognize what they’re drinking and eating, the magazines, that they’re playing Scrabble, etc. But it introduces a counterfactual argument that says if this super conservative wing took over the U.S. government and had these religious ideas about women, then the following might happen. I don’t know a single person that has watched that show and not been mildly terrified that it, in today’s political climate, now seems so unbelievably possible.  It’s terrifying not because it’s sci-fi or horror and lots of monsters and blood, but because it’s so entirely like our recognizable reality, and shows a “speculation” on what it could soon be. The monsters are us. This is a key aspect of the sister philosophies of Speculative Realism and OOO. So the counterfactual argument can do two things: it can produce a new creative avenue, which is itself interesting, but it, more importantly, produced an awareness of your existing reality that wouldn’t have been possible without showing an estranged version of that very same reality. Famed art critic Hal Foster, in a recent issue of Artforum identified basically what Handmaid’s Tale is doing, when describing Damien Hirst’s recent work. [He] asks us how this creative use of counterfactuals can have political agency that might be used to combat its political opposite—fake news, which is the use of counterfactuals not to be creative, but to fully obscure or cancel out the truth.

P! Last year at Yale, the final review for Michael Young’s studio involved a performance that increased the ambiguity of the parafiction.[3] You were there—what do you think the aspect of performance adds to the parafiction, and what does that mean for architectural pedagogy?

MFG There’s kind of two ideas about political engagement right now. One is quick, ad-hoc protests, hand-drawn signs, and one is the exquisite design of objects and architecture to work parafictionally in new context. The Handmaid’s Tale scenario.  Architecture as the practice of building (which isn’t limited to, but that is our history) is a very slow thing, so we’re incapable of working reflexively in an ad-hoc manner, not so great at linking our practice to protest, but we’re really good at taking a long time to do things and working in a certain context—and therefore should be really good at estranging those contexts. Our power lies in a statement by my friend David Ruy who says “Architecture is the first thing that tells us what reality looks like.”  Parafictionality doesn’t work if it’s not believable. It just becomes parody. Michael Young’s studio took this believability of students projects much farther than is typical by having them present as if they had already been built, and from the future.

P! This state of ambiguity between fact and fiction harkens back to the problematic notion of Jencks’s irony. It creates this insider knowledge. I wonder if parafiction sets up a dynamic of deception.

MFG If it’s done well yes, but not nefariously—there aren’t supposed to be two classes: it’s supposed to produce in people the feeling of ambiguity whether it’s real or not, and therefore make them question their own understanding of their social reality. So, in a sense it’s the opposite of double coding: uniformly trying to produce the same feeling of ambiguity in everyone. And in that ambiguity, people can make their own decisions. [The Handmaid’s Tale] wouldn’t be so terrifying if it wasn’t so close to our own reality.

P! There’s that element of plausibility. What happens when a parafiction comes so close to reality that it actually tricks someone into believing it as fact?

MFG Some people will err on recognizing their own version of real, some people recognize the fiction is real. We all do this anyways. We all believe different things, and therefore have our own delightfully different version of reality. In one a Christian God might be running the show, in another, science. One person believes echinacea prevent colds, another doesn’t. Parafictional practices reveal this, but also speculate (thus Speculative Realism) on alternatives to it. Either way it has performed its function of challenging the idea of what’s real or not. As we’ve seen, fake news is the most powerful force in the world at the moment. It just changed our election. Hal Foster is asking if this power can be used in the arts in the service of ‘good’ in the same ways it’s, currently, being used in the service of the nefarious. For instance in Birtherism,” its key figures, such as our President, offered no hint of “isn’t it hilarious we’re doing this?” They had total conviction, which became incredibly politically powerful. Terrifyingly so. So can we use total conviction in architecture to be more socially engaged? I don’t know if the answer is yes, but I’m interested in finding out.

[1] Michael Meredith, “Indifference, Again,” Log 39, Winter (2017): 78.

[2] A Hulu Original TV Show based on the novel by Margaret Atwood set in a totalitarian United States in which women are treated as property of the state.

[3] Michael Young’s Fall 2016 Advanced Design Studio at Yale School of Architecture, The Aesthetics of Accelerationism, involved the production of parafictional artefacts that were presented in character, as fact, under the guise of an international climate conference in Iceland in the year 2056 in a final studio review.  Jurors and student presenters did not break character.