EXTREME LAND – Interview with Aristide Antonas

"A long story relates architecture to writing and today buildings more easily circulates in a data flow of the internet than we experience their interiors."
24 Ottobre 2015

This is the third part of EXTREME LAND, a research project developed by Luca Marullo ( Parasite2.0) and devoted to understand the moment of transition architecture is experiencing. It stems from the belief that today’s architect can’t fully explore the complexity of the present through the classic mediums of his practice, i.e. the architectural project or the built object. Through a series of dialogues and interviews Marullo investigates the practice of key figures that cross the boundaries between art, architecture and social sciences.

In this third interview, Marullo talks with Greek architect and writer Aristide Antonas, whose projects are both theoretical writings and speculative projects focusing on current social and economic issues in Greece.

Luca Marullo: Differently from many people interview for this project, your work is extremely tied to the architecture world, favoring the architectural project as a mean to convey meaning. But you use it in a wider way, as a mean to understand, critic and dream, always starting from the concreteness of the reality. Could you tell us how did you build this path?

Aristide Antonas: I did not conceive it as a path. I did not build a path, literally speaking. The design of a path needs a coherent and linear logic. I was not able to program myself linearly. I did not want it neither. The path you see is a result of phases and hesitations. I did not go for the characteristics you mention when I started working. It was not my idea to “understand, critique and dream”. I was always concerned with the possibility of writing by building in an abstact way. Writing was for me always related to building. I always did not make a clear distinction between them. I read Heidegger’s Bauen Wohnen Denken in a perverse way. You say “understand, critic and dream”; these verbs were describing constructions to me; all of them are forms of an architecture. Understanding is a very abstract construction. Understanding is building; we build things as understood. Then we can make a war for what we understood as stable or we can love somebody for a while; before the war, before love there is never enough preexisting truth. We construct things. Maybe this is why I went to this direction; being lost and trying to handle a desert is considered sometimes as idiosyncratic. So it is not exact to say that I favor the project of architecture as a system of meaning; meaning is for me an architectural project. Description and construction form the same phenomenon. I work in this field where the borders between building and writing are blurred. I define architecture as this same field. But this is also my definition for literature.

LM: You have a PhD in Philosophy and you wrote theatre plays. How and when did you feel the need to “trespass” in other fields? It’s interesting to notice that your works can be perceived as one, like in “The room mechanism”, where you you a spatial condition, architectural, the interval that divides a holy place from sin place, to convey meaning. Could you tell us about your theatrical plays?

AA: I trespassed to architecture from literature; not the other way round as many believe. Philosophy provided me with some escape manuals. It is always difficult to speak about what I do. I can describe it technically as if I observe myself from an exterior point of view. I can say what I do not why I do it. I somehow use different agendas in order to be heard differently. I mean that I write a theater script because I think this provides a better format for something to be heard as a theater script sometimes. But what is there in a theater script cannot be examined out of its frame; it is destined to stay attached to this format. I could not speak well about it. If there was something simple to be said I will not use the theater script format, I will not use architecture; I will write down what I want to say, it will be then simpler. All the formats I use do not lead to definitive declarations. They protect me from the explicit declaration; through them I can speak with a controversial voice. A voice where something undecided takes a stable form. In a theater script for example many voices can be heard; this may sound difficult to handle but it is easier for me than forming one voice alone. Necessarily another order rules these voices in a theater play. All voices may pronounce wrong propositions but an order can be shaped silently and something positive and different than any pronounced phrase in the script can be announced. Here my works begin when I can shape this silence not the utterence per se. I like this type of paradoxical format. In a way I am very deeply influenced by the culture of theater, mostly because of the repetition it includes in its performance. Theater scripts are instructions for repetitions. I think that this is also a possible definition for architecture. The spirit of a building is theatrical. In a building there are always hidden scripts; there is no architecture without it. The interaction with a system of walls and openings if we place them in a specific place forms already scripts to be repeated. Again then I am interested in the silent productions of these scripts.

LM: In your work we can read an interpretation of the politic and economic Greek situation as a possibility that can unfold solution for a different future. The artistic and cultural Greek landscape is also experiencing a strong development. In a recent interview you said “Athens is a test field for neoliberalism. This is why Athens became my test field, too. (…) In Athens, what is being tested is a next step after Europe”. Could you discuss further about this and about the connections with your work?

AA: Athens during the last years was a manifesto for the necessity of a different future. A different future became an Athenian certainty. In my opinion this is why Adam Szymczyk chose it as a theme for the documenta of Kassel 2017. It is rare to find such a sober conviction hanging over a concrete urban environment. We did not produce yet much out of the athenian state of mind. But the city is still an open promise or a threat. An ambiguous condition of “controllable despair” is handled systematically. We are pushed to think differently but it is always easier to go back to the same. My work in many cases is a realistic answer to the people who say that we do not possess the means to do things. My work begins with this: let’s imagine what we can do without means. It sounds bizarre to them; they prefer to consider me as a “post apocalyptic” creator who has a literary work on architecture, more a writer than an architect, a visioner of the impossible. Many want so desperately to go back to a period that is over. Many want Athens to change and look more european or transform the center to a green suburb-like area. They cannot accept that after all these years they have to deal with this same city that cannot change so much; it does not have to change so much in terms of built matter. Its chaos is interesting and its shape is beatiful. We begin our work in Athens with a strange success of an unplanned homogeneity. I am not proposing a solution for a different future. This sounds too ambitious. I think this is an environment where we can have the freedom to be playful and inventive. The city center is a scenography on which we can perform differently. I say that Athens shows the next step after Europe because we had here a clear experience of what an end of Europe means.

keg apartments © Aristide Antonas

keg apartments © Aristide Antonas

LM: Is it from here that your website’s section “Bankruptcy”, where we find projects such as “transformable vertical village”, come from? In your Athens, what are your sources of inspiration? I’m thinking about Exarchia, the district where strong reaction to Greek debt crisis came about.

AA: This transformable vertical village is a first answer on a concept of accepting moving populations in an institutionalized way; it could be a building type but it is not a building it is only a vertically disposed infrastructure. We could imagine the format of this village as being a ready-made answer for refugee waves or different migrating people in a globe that becomes hostile. The unit of the village is a container – cell; it uses a turtle logic; one can move slowly to different places and plug it in already existing sharable vertical infrastructure scaffoldings. This project is about deterritorialisation. This scaffold-like construction could be something like a different receiver equiped with infrastructure, a caravanserai of today. It is frightning that it does not need any exterior space, no intermediary  reception or meeting rooms or common halls. I am working in many projects on the issue of this deserted in-between space that forms the “sea” of an archipelago of cells. I live in Exarchia for long. It marks the oposite, a high quality new type of public space, where the street and the occupation rationale meet. Exarchia is an argument about a need of the people to stay together. My transformable village speaks about the anavoidable abstract sphere of a continuous migration. It is not a counter project; I would love to rent a container, live and move between such scaffolding-like structures equipped with an alternative infrastructure. I tried to think about grasping the migrant spirit of a normal “Roma” life. What would be the system of temporary stations in a new phase of the world? I try to reintroduce a different scale in architecture, a number of slubs and a possible construction of scaffolding as “ready to plug-in” infrastructure field.

LM: Could you tell us about the concept of “Oral Architecture”?

AA: I was speaking about Oral Architecture back in 2004, trying to name a built voice. Plato makes a definition of logos through orality; he insists at the same time on the materiality of this oral phenomenon. He writes in his Sophist “the stream of thought which flows through the lips and is audible is called “Logos””. The articulated stream of voice, the wind that sounds coming out of the mouth is called “logos”: speech and also rationality. There is a material aspect in Plato’s description of logos related to the oral element; little to do with the abstract concept of western rationality, little to do with the tradition of logo-centrism where Plato would be the hero par excellence. I try to keep in mind this description of orality: a material machine that produces articulated, ghostly propositions. But when I spoke about Oral Architecture it was the relation between building and speech after the Internet that was mostly in my mind. Extempore structures that were easy to produce as drawings, having a detectable intervention power; they could circulate like visual phrases of a different orality on the web. Architecture would have a different role in this condition. I was working on the transformation of a church into a house; it remains one of the projects that I recall from this series of early works. The bed occupied the place of the sanctuary. It was not well finished; I dont like now the visuals of the early photoshop work but already it was showing the potential of a later elaboration of the bed; it concluded to my systematic research about the bed in the Zizek residence. Oral Architecture was my way to make obvious an existing aspect of architecture that is related to the construction of propositions through buildings; it became differently important after the web. But this side of architecture is one of the most ancient if we examine for instance architecture in its sacred forms or in its funerary examples or in its new programs designs as was the case in russian constructivism. A long story relates architecture to writing and today buildings more easily circulates in a data flow of the internet than we experience their interiors. This is a loss but it also shows different possibilities of articulating phrases with buildings. This is why the tradition of an unbuilt architecture of the past became again so important. We are more and more used to argue about architecture based on drawings and images that travel on the web. A different oral culture is presented as a visual data flow, an easily available image archive. I try to approach architecture in this background. “How can we speak with architecture in this frame?” became one important question. A new immateriality of architecture grew with the web. Our relation to what can be constructed became also different. A ghost building and the shadows of a propositional immateriality became interesting to me. I do not forget that its immaterial constructions follow architecture, literature and theater of the past. They created a world of immaterial constructions before the Internet; they were materializing thought and they form our tradition of tomorrow. Architecture was a bearer of writing in many cases. Writing took place together with architecture for years. The internal wind producing a voice has its history concerning propositions spoken with buildings.

LM: Recently, hyper-realistic rendering is widely used both in architecture and in the art world, especially in Post-internet art, but in your representations you found a personal way to build hyper-realistic images, building a different poetic, atmospheres with almost no colors, highly desaturated. How do this method come about?

AA: I am interested in this Post Internet art scene, I am considered to be part of it sometimes. I do not follow all of its discourse, being too much occupied with other problems. Nevertheless, the Internet forms already our common past while any past is ruined in the internet. It is an interesting starting point for understanding tradition together with the loss of tradition. There is no real “method” in my work. The “method” you mention came out from an impulse to make my life easier, to avoid problems and to be quicker. I was in a rush to shape visual utterances, not to make good images. I use simple 3ds mostly done in Sketchup. I do not render. I use existing images to produce new ones. Collages are a process of complex remembering. I only do or supervise collages. And many of the collages come out from my photographs. I use black and white as a photographer because colors are too difficult for me to control; they make me dizzy. I only shoot in color when there are no many colors in my frame. Also in Greece where the light is so strong it is not easy to capture something in color if it is not all shadowed. You need a homogeneous shadow to shoot color. This problem can be delicately forgotten when I use black and white. I then can shoot to the light with no fear. I can also shoot towards the light. When we started working in the office with the material of my photographic archive and tried to draw with a basis of photos, when we  into possible architectures with collages, our material was already black and white because of my difficulty to shoot in color. But I also found out that even if I wanted to use color, the work of collage would take much more time. I would have then to control a color range sometimes and then it became crucial not to use photos with different lighting. In order to produce a colored drawing we needed more than double time than for the black and white ones. I only decided to go for it when we have no commissions in the office or the luxury of not being pressed to do other works. The vehicle projects are an example of this use of color.

LM: Some of your drawings seem to speculate on new forms of societies, sometimes post-apocaliptic ones. Today the cultural debate is animated by a sort of catastrophism about species extinthion, regarding the Anthropocene Era. Could you tell us about these visions? This new society you imagine in your projects seems to refer to contemporary nomadic forms of nomadism and primitivism, like in “Crane rooms” or in “KEG appartments”. 

AA: Nomadism and primitivism are not envisaged as solutions to problems. They form images of the next phase of the globe. I think we have to necessarily deal with them. I am contributing to a fiction, I know. I am not sure about the meaning of my images but they are telling something. Furthermore, the images have a more clear meaning than any verbal proposition about what they represent. But there is also this attraction of mine to desert and the new urb as a deserted land. I think that these congregations of cranes or keg cars speak also about a fake exoticism that we know already well as inhabitants of this recent phase of city life. We already live in this deserted condition, we do not only imagine it as a future. It is part of our everyday, no need to project it to a strange future. It is clearer than future because it is present and banal already. In terms of architecture: the quality of thresholds is being lost. The intermediary spaces are vanishig. This is hard to be accepted by architects; they were the specialists of intermediary spaces. Our education was a simple description of intermediary conditions and their hierarchies.

LM: In the recently published book “Archipelago of protocols” you elaborate a solution for Athens which mixes web-based practices with spontaneous strategies to reactivate city spaces, typical of political activism. Could you tell us about this book and the show “Protocols of Athens” at SAM in Basel?

AA: The protocols do not propose solutions to problems. I try to describe with them an existing urban condition with them. A city is already conceiced as an archipelago of protocols. The protocols of Athens are the fruit of an investigation concerning what I could name a new civic theater. After describing the city as such I worked on this city concept; I elaborated of the performance of the city as a script of law. Activism is out of my interests. I was never seduced by activist performances because of their so usual relation to easy meaning making. Activism is usually performing similarly to a conventional, mainstream, and advertising culture. I feel offended when a meaning is distributed like this. I am interested in questions not in answers. Activism is about answering with a very convinced way. I am not convinced about anything. I am interested in repetition and in the stability of repetition not in symbolic acts. Repetition is the form of the script. I work to trace repeatable routines and I use a lot of formats that are similar to writing. I consider myself closer to Henri Michaux’s Aileurs than to activist programs of denouncing obvious immorality. The protocols of Athens are strange theater scripts that in a sense can replace law. I imagine programmed city functions over the ruins; I am not against the ruins; the ruins are the necessary background of Athens, ancient and modern ones. Architecture happens on them anyway. In Athens form does not follows function any more. Ruins accept scripts. I am working then on new ruins and new scripts.

bus hotel © Aristide Antonas

bus hotel © Aristide Antonas

vertical village © Aristide Antonas

vertical village © Aristide Antonas

Transformable Vertical Village: an urban congregation of ship containers and quick solution for temporary housing responding to the needs of new residential areas,   © Aristide Antonas

Transformable Vertical Village: an urban congregation of ship containers and quick solution for temporary housing responding to the needs of new residential areas, © Aristide Antonas

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