Syntax, Sci-Fi, and Grammars of Form: An Interview with Hans Tursack
Hans Tursack is the Pietro Belluschi Research Fellow at the MIT Department of Architecture and an architectural designer of both projective and built works. The theoretical base for his project is built from 1960s minimalist art theory and notions of syntax and semantics. In that sense, his work builds from both art and architecture discourses, as well as the literary theory of Roland Barthes and nouveau roman authors such as Alain Robbe-Grillet. The interview was performed over email for the last month leading up to its publication.
Andrew Economos Miller (AEM): I’d like to start with your design and research processes and ask how your work arises from your influences, specifically 1960s minimalist formalism and the reading of texts, such as those of Roland Barthes. Your project seems to be the result of readings of objects and readings of texts. Do you have a method for mediating between the two? And, do you attempt to manifest your interpretations of texts in your objects?
Hans Tursack (HT): I study a lot of formalist sculpture and painting from the 1960s and ’70s—my current obsession is Ted Stamm’s work. I’m especially interested in minimalist and postminimalist sculpture and hard-edge geometric painting from that time. As I understand, a lot of that work was interpreted by critics using tools borrowed from structuralist and poststructuralist theory. Texts looking at postwar geometric art are likely to include references to literary figures, literary critics, and philosophers like Barthes, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, etc. For my part—being someone very much on the periphery of theoretical discourse picking up what I can, where I can—I look for moments in those authors where linguistic structures are directly projected onto architectural spaces—Georges Perec is maybe the most literal example. I also like the way that Michel de Certeau maps Saussurian linguistics onto images of the Manhattan grid.
My somewhat literal interpretation of that thinking is that one can imagine geometric structures behaving like linguistic structures; a compositional mode of operating can have elements that are fixed and play an organizational role (grids for example), and other elements (figures and voids) can operate more like words or parts of a sentence. I like the impersonal nature of pared down, disciplined geometric art. Similarly, with structuralist art criticism, there’s this idea that all of the elements that can go into a given piece are preexisting and artists combine those elements in permutation games. A given moment in shaped canvas painting, for example, might be bracketed off and examined as a game with a finite set of geometric figures, transformational operations, color options, and particular relationships between 2-D figures and the perimeter of the canvas. In this way, artists like Stamm, Robert Mangold, and Anne Truitt—in her two-dimensional paintings—can be seen as different utterances in a spatial matrix using the same grammar and underlying structures. That said, art is art and linguistics is its own discipline. It can become dangerous to take these analogies too literally—a colleague once teased me for making plans that look like Klein groups.
AEM: Given the connection you draw between geometric and linguistic structures, do you see your work as having the same goal of writing or speech, that is, the conveyance of specific meaning?
HT: I think there are two sides to formalist work when one is operating through linguistic models. One side is structural (celebrating the rules and elements of language itself) and the other is semantic (referring to other works, cultural symbols, historical figures, mythology, etc.). I’d like to think that my work can be read through either register. As a structural game, I’m interested in the grammars and rules that constitute compositional, noncompositional, or antiformal systems. I’ve always loved work that attempts to “image” the structure of language (Alice Aycock’s “Celestial Alphabet” drawings, de Certeau’s reading of Manhattan, or Jacques Derrida’s description of language as an “uninhabited or deserted city”). The appeal of someone like Mangold for me, is the reduction to primary structures and the stubborn resistance to references and representation. The empty, skeletal frames of works by Mangold, early Sol LeWitt, or the New York Five always seemed to me like diagrams of linguistic structures.
At the same time, it seems absurd to me that the criticism and theory around the work of that period ignores the representational elements in geometric art. How can one not read the influence of science fiction, computation, industrial landscapes, and space travel in those images? In my own practice, I like to think about Truitt’s formula of going after maximum meaning through the most minimal of forms. That is, beginning with simple compositional ideas and primitives, but inviting references to art history, prehistory, and contemporary popular culture. With my M.Arch thesis project for example, I think I was trying to make a theatrical stage set somewhere between an early Mary Miss complex and a Peter Halley painting. The basic geometric lattice for the plans of the project were nested, overlaid squares, diamonds, and circles (like LeWitt’s “Double Combinations”), but they also called to mind Mandala structures; near-universal compositional archetypes (in the Jungian sense) for things like the plans of religious structures.
AEM: I’m glad you brought up the universalizing nature of your work. As opposed to architecture’s linguistic turn which focused on disciplinary means, your work borrows its organizational moves from the precognitive formalism of the art world. You’ve spoken and written in the past lamenting the loss of a perceived baseline of formal meaning and temporal salience. Are the formal moves that you use and the way your work wears its organizational logic on its sleeve a way to reestablish these lost qualities or create new ones?
HT: Speaking in universals is always a little dubious, but yes, I subscribe to much of the postwar phenomenological/perceptual discourse that was built around abstract art. Looking at the history of theory, some critics like to point out that phenomenology arrived at moment when machine vision was becoming a very real part of the way that humans viewed the world. In that sense, the emergence of philosophies of subjecthood can be read as a symptom of anxieties about being displaced. I think that card gets overplayed in contemporary art and architectural theory; I’d still like to believe that one can speak convincingly about how certain formal types can express abstract cultural values, and how that hermeneutics plays out in subject-object encounters. In his recent book, Bad New Days, Hal Foster points out that representations of precarity qualify as a formal common denominator in a lot of contemporary art (especially sculpture/installation). I’m currently designing a course that explores what that might look like in architectural scenarios. Talking about architectural assemblages and structures as visually precarious leads to things like empathy theory, and speaking about a psychological exchange between a viewing subject and an object’s visual structure can be a strange proposition at this point in time.
AEM: At the risk of being too current, I saw your collaborative proposal with Viola Ago for Exhibit Columbus this past weekend and it seems that by introducing notions of precarity you’re already deconstructing your own earlier work. There are signs of the early work, namely the slick “digital” finish and the almost vaporwave plant fixtures, but there is a huge visual shift from the mandala-like structures of your thesis work toward a disjunctive and fragile assemblage. You mentioned a connection to contemporary art, but could you expand on that in the context of this specific project?
HT: Viola and I both subscribe to Arnheim’s idea of form as a diagram of forces. One of things that Viola likes to talk about in her work, however, is this notion of unstable form, or form in the process of becoming. There’s a rich disciplinary history of work that explores representations of geometric operations-in-time. One of the things that complicates her work—and brings that interest into more contemporary architectural and sculptural contexts—is an interest in color and surface; added layers of textures, linework tracings, and graphic mapping. In Viola’s work, you might see a series of superimposed volumetric deformations with linework networks layered on top. At times, the volumes completely disappear and lines imply their presence as an underlying structure; a kind of Cheshire cat effect, or something you see in Fred Sandback’s yarn installations or Anthony McCall’s film projections. Her most recent work is co-opting ideas from printmaking and conceptual artists that work in rigorous series like Mel Bochner. In these projects, she’ll deploy a volume 10–20 times and project a graphic map onto that support using animation software and hydrodipping; the instability is produced by the geometry, but also by the map “missing” or skipping off of the volumes. In a project like Exhibit Columbus, there’s a carefully calculated negotiation between our respective visual sensibilities and research. We feel that the overlaps between Viola’s interest in things like Light and Space art, and my experiments with landscape conditions in plan is what gives projects like our Columbus pavilion a kind of visual energy (we hope).
AEM: I’d like to talk about the “other half” of your work. In your thesis project you split your architecture between Surface and Support. We’ve been talking about the Support, or formal, until now, where the relationship of the elements carries the meaning, but I’d like to ask about the semantic part where the element itself carries meaning. You start your thesis text by quoting Barthes’s “Objective Literature,” could you talk about how that text and others inform your ideas?
HT: Barthes’s essay on the phenomenology of sight in Robbe-Grillet’s work was very important for me when I was trying to conceptualize the way that surfaces appear in the rendering engines that I was using for my thesis work. That said, when I looked at the images that I produced for that project after the fact, it occured to me that I was far more in the realm of the neo-geo art of the 1980s East Village scene than I was in the realm of the kinds of minimalist sculpture that were informed by Barthes—or interpreted through Barthes’s lens. In neo-geo—especially the earliest sculptural work of Ashley Bickerton—I found a model for reconciling interests in the hyper-slick finishes of industrial design, minimalist geometries, Pop (as in the Pop of Haim Steinbach, Peter Halley, and early Jeff Koons), and apocalyptic science fiction futures. It’s well known that figures like Bickerton were read through the lens of Jean Baudrillard, but that still puts us in the realm of linguistics and sign systems. A rough parallel might be drawn between the way that neo-geo was born out of minimalism, and Baudrillard’s poststructuralism relied on the discoveries of first-wave structuralism. I still feel that neo-geo could have an architectural moment; a kind of ecstatic geometric expressionism that marries neo-rationalist geometries with something like Peter Halley, or, closer to the present, Magali Reus.
AEM: The early Halley paintings raise an interesting point about the technical aesthetic of your surfaces, especially in the early house projects. Barthes defines Robbe-Grillet’s descriptions of architectures as those of describing a instrument or function; does this shape how you look at your own architecture? And, if so, what is your architecture an instrument for?
HT: Barthes reads Robbe-Grillet as forensic, clinical; only interested in the visual experience of objects and environments. There is nothing beneath the surface-shell of the object, interior, or landscape in question—hence so many lists and engineer’s notes. Robbe-Grillet is more like a medical illustrator than a painter for example. This rigorous interrogation of sight—without poetry, allusion, or myth—is why he might be considered the minimalist’s literary avatar. I’ve always been seduced by this rigor and celebration of structure, repetition, geometric thinking, and surgical precision in the description of one’s experience. The visual analogues of Robbe-Grillet are undoubtedly figures like Hanne Darboven, Donald Judd, and Mangold. I’ve always wanted that emphasis on pure visuality, the optical moment, the presence of a thing in room without allusion, and the semantic baggage that comes with understanding these works as products of an imaginary couched in heavy industry, space exploration, computation, mysticism, and popular culture. It is because of these conflicts that I go back to the postminimalists and, more recently, the neo-geo crowd. They messily attempt to reconcile those competing desires (hermetic presence, pop consumerism, the corporeal, and the surreal). I don’t think any of my work is an instrument for anything beyond the production of an experience and an imaginative catalyst. I think we try to make contemporary architecture do too many things. I’m really only interested in architecture’s capacity to express abstract ideas in visual and material organizations through a disciplinary-specific grammar of form.