Rendering Fiction

Volume 7, Issue 08
April 18, 2022

In the 1910-20’s experimental film maker Lev Kuleshov developed a cinematic technique for eliciting perceptions and constructing meaning through the juxtaposition of images. The technique works like this: show a persons expressionless face (in this case, a man) and hold the camera on it for a few seconds. Next, make a hard cut to a bowl of soup. The camera again holds for a few seconds, then hard cuts back to the exact same face. Rather than appearing expressionless, the face now appears to reveal the feeling of hunger. This happens in three segments, where again the expressionless face is shown followed by a woman on a couch, then back to the face who now seems lustful, and so on. This technique uses juxtaposition as means for constructing meaning or altering perceptions, demonstrating how the interaction of multiple shots simultaneously fosters fictional and non-fictional impressions more aptly than a singular image. Though experimental at the time, today this is an extremely common cinematic technique. The most recent issue of Paprika! Rendering Fiction, can be similarly be understood through juxtapositions that I argue construct meaning and alter our perceptions more than any one essay individually. This is hinted at by the editors, who note that this issue “explore(s) a productive distance between the architect and the built world, ruminations on how the world can and should be rendered – two queries that are fundamental to architectural practice.”1

Though Paprika! 7.8 addresses the topic(s) of rendering (&) fiction – linking idea to image - I have actually found that belying this combinatory premise to be something of a semiotic square consisting, broadly, of Lived Experience, Artificial Intelligence, Fiction, & Reality.

Many essays reveal engagement with lived experience and ‘the familiar’ as means for engaging disciplinary and extra-disciplinary phenomena, memory, and representation with alternative visions for architecture. There is not only an explicit attitude in these essays that favors slowness—of movement, of method, or process— but also one which favors haptic experiences, diffused attention, and subjective memories as virtues for imbuing the built environment with alternative expressions. Hand drawing, Lidar or flat-bed scanning, and collage offer techniques for reinvigorating things already ambient and accessible in the world. On the other hand, juxtaposed to lived experiences are essays principally concerned with intricate aesthetic expressions underpinned by Artificial Intelligence. Rather than accepting subjective and familiar semiotics as a source for manipulation, some in this issue argue for unhinging the supposed limits of conventional language, signs, and known qualities from cultural production as a means for novel aesthetic expressions. By advocating for moving past the subjective semiotic and emphasizing how un-naming can lead to novel sensations and how introducing a condition of not-knowing in something like an AI StyleGAN can reveal altogether new aesthetic expressions unfettered by semiotics or subjectivities acquired through lived experience. However, more important than content+style hyper-images are the implicit questions this raises, prompting us to acknowledge a socio-political context in which the disembodied pattern-recognition of AI is a tool to surveil citizens rather than create new experiences. That said, it would seem to miss an opportunity to resort to style-play and image fetishization without more critical scrutiny of the socio-political dimension.

This juxtaposition between lived experience and artificial intelligence is not merely a matter of preferred techniques, image qualities, or aesthetic sensibilities; it is an engrained attitude concerning how architecture ought to engage with extra-disciplinary phenomena, such as politics, technology, culture, environment, and sociality. Lived experiences allow things lingering in our peripheral attention to be (re)interpreted and thus envision the existing world as amply filled with subjective and material constructs viable for re-interpretation more than capable of fostering new or revivified expressions, emotions, and experiences. Conversely, AI paradigm disassociates subjectivity and lived experiences, favoring instead the disembodied processes and qualities achieved through computational systems that do not see, feel, or remember in ways that human beings do. In other words, where one looks out to the world, the other looks in to the machine. On one hand is the idea that by transforming the familiar or accepting subjective experiences, one can expand architecture’s lexicon, expressions, experiences, and audiences through shared experiences. Because familiarity implicitly shapes daily experiences while obscuring deeper policies, histories, traditions, and systems, lived experience, haptic engagement and slowness within the built world brings underlying socio-cultural conditions to bear on creative processes, representation, aesthetics, knowledge, and perception. On the other hand, the reduction of semiotic value and seemingly endless iterations of complex digital forms or images arrived at by ‘training’ the machine to ‘see’ and transform embedded patterns is offered as a supposed virtue of disciplinary progress vis-a-vis qualities having the appearance of ‘advanced’, high speed, hyper-focused, non-subjective technological imagery. This juxtaposition reveals two dominant attitudes in contemporary architectural thinking; 1) that to build social, political, or disciplinary critiques we must be critically aware of inherited traditions, broader cultural comforts, obscured systems and conventions. It follows that to project viable aesthetic alternatives, the architect or artist must operate as a somewhat slow yet keen observer by working within the reality of constraints, codes, (dis)comforts, histories, and policies. Or 2) that to alter the status of architectural attention and aesthetic discourse, the architect must act as a techno-cultural figure by appropriating images and offloading authorship to technological processes via internalized techniques at higher and higher speeds with diminished concern for external circumstances whatsoever. One works from within existing realities, the other from outside of it, though both have to do with how we see, interpret, image, and imagine the world around us.

Overlapping, yet distinct from the lived experience / AI juxtaposition, are juxtapositions between fiction and reality. Fiction is often substituted with “world building” in Paprika! 7.8, and while there’s a certain colonial undertone to such a term, the point being made is that fiction offers a means for expanding architecture’s impact into broader cultures and for demonstrating how it can foster better futures “illuminated by many, rather than singular voices.”2 Here the approach to digital culture and software differs from the AI contingent. Instead, the fictional centers on storytelling rather than style + content image-making. This suggests that the power of fiction is not only capable of reaching wider audiences, it also alters behaviors and understandings of the world, thus transforming fictional stories into real meaning and behaviors. At the same time, fiction is notoriously adept at smuggling magical-mythical, ethnocentricity, and fake news into the realm of reality, most often shroud in author-centic biases or political intent, thus adding a troubling layer of meaning to the term Rendering Fiction. One drawing sits alone as an isolated fiction without clarifying text, seemingly demonstrating to the possibility for interpretation without any definitive clarity. Scalar zoom ins and outs (is it a living room, a building, a city…) fosters a quality of story-invention divorced from an author-centric explanation. This world-drawing is both complimented and juxtaposed by on the following page by a hand drawing of a building both above and below a line – perhaps the ground. The accompanying text expands the content of this mirrored drawing of a quotidian building; it is to connect the literal materiality of drawing to architectural fiction. Literally, the paper (its smell, its feel – its materiality) itself is the site of material intervention between fiction and reality. However, this relationship between reality and fiction is perhaps most passionately called to our attention in the final essay of the broadsheet; “If architects have agency in envisioning worlds, then perhaps they should be ones we take up immediately…[by] thinking through the merging of screen-based aesthetics and physical spaces with more care, nuance, and will to democratize.”3 While it’s a bit unclear how such sensory and media condensing or hybridity would achieve these societal goals, this positivist-moralistic plea seems to make attempts at linking fact and fiction as well as lived experience with mediated environments.

This juxtaposition between fiction and reality is largely one of representation. I don’t mean representation as techniques and qualities or representation (ie, is it photorealistic or collage; is it line drawing or illustrated fills), but rather how the structures of representation facilitate and mediate ways of understanding the architect’s agency in addressing crisis, critique, humanity, experience, disciplinarity, and culture. The juxtaposition between fiction and reality in Paprika! 7.8 asks us to more deeply consider who is being represented, who or what is doing the representing, where is it being represented, how does representation make fiction and reality available to our cognitive abilities and to our senses. By extension, the issue of Rendering Fiction even implies questions of representation on broader terms, such as if, for example, the political model of representation (ie, a House of Representatives) is still a viable form of collective representation under the contemporary umbrella of plurality and image inundation? Yet, it also seems clear that what unites fiction and reality in the context of Paprika! 7.8 is the belief that representation in architecture, art, and cinema (among other fields) is a viable means for shifting the arc of social, cultural, political, and environmental attention.

Reading Rendering Fiction as four juxtaposed sub-topics might on one hand be a useful framework for analysis, however it also runs the risk of simplification. After all, some have argued that upon seeing the man’s expressionless face after the bowl of soup that he appears full and content. Thus, perhaps what Rendering Fiction leaves the reader with is the possibility for multiple interpretations rather than a singular, fixed narrative. This can be understood as a disciplinary virtue for inviting new voices, expanding disciplinary content, and welcoming an array of attempts aimed at socializing architecture with an image-saturate world through sensations, mediations, and ruminations on facts and fictions. This is perhaps what Paprika! 7.8 ultimately proposes; that juxtaposition sharpen disciplinary edges while enriching architecture’s broader cultural relations.

  1. Saba Salekfard and Christopher Pin. Introduction. ↩︎
  2. Liam Young, with Saba Salekfard and Christopher Pin. Gold Dust. ↩︎
  3. Adam Fure. Image Environments, Rendering Real. ↩︎

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Volume 7, Issue 08
April 18, 2022

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