Everyone’s Monuments are Everyone Else’s Documents

Asli Serbest and Mona Mahall in conversation about the architecture of the exhibition, the curatorial concept developed for the exhibition does permanence matter?, about neighborhoods, and pythagorean numerology. The text is published in the book accompanying the exhibition including contributions by Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennett, Arjun Appadurai, DAAR, Manuel Herz, Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer.

Asli Serbest: If we can call the coexistence of refugee camps, organic markets, military bases, and religious festivals a reality, then there is the exhibition of a reality. There is also a reality of the exhibition. In this reality of the exhibition, we focus on the architecture of the exhibition or, to be more precise, the architecture for the exhibition of architecture, if we can we call the organizational and material complex of refugee camps, organic markets, military bases, and religious festivals “architecture.”

Mona Mahall: In general, there are two opposed types of architecture for the exhibition of architecture. The first is the installation, and the second can be called the collection. With Erwin Panofsky we could also name the first a monument and the second a document. In our work, we try to keep them separate, although we know that “everyone’s ‘monuments’ are everyone else’s ‘documents’ and vice versa.”[1]
The installation can be seen in reference to current art practice that transforms a public space, for instance a museum or square, into an individual (groups are also welcome) work.[2] Thus, the installation can be understood as a symbolic privatization of this public space. It invites the visitor to experience (most often to enter) this enclave space as the integral and integrated space of an architectural work. For an installation, objects, spaces, and environments are most often created anew. As a monument in the sense of holistically including message and medium, the installation is the exhibit and exhibition space at the same time. As a material formation, it has a geographic, contextual, and temporal presence, and it also has a boundary and territory. This territory allows for critiques of its (immediate, site-specific) context, a public place, or the institutional order of a museum.[3]
In contrast, the collection functions without any boundary to the museum that is treated as an empty container; the collection does not strive for its own enclave-like territory but sits within the institution that made it structurally possible in the first place. As a document it is not bound to a specific spatial context but it can travel. The viewer in this setting remains outside of the displayed architecture that is presented through diverse media.[4]
The museum or exhibition hall allows the collection to connect or disconnect materials according to a logic of combination and comparison, sometimes in an architecture that can be called archival: a complex of texts, images, and objects. Collections can document and establish critiques of the representational order of the museum and of disciplinary discourses.

AS: For Does Permanence Matter?, we take the exhibition architecture as a collection, as a comparative apparatus, a technique to describe how one space relates to, questions, and even collapses with the other. We take it as an instrument to document the multiple ways of how we live together temporarily, neighbor and provoke each other, share and fight—across political, geographical, and social, across physical and digital territories.[5]
As such a multilogical instrument, the collection can help us understand the complexities and contradictions of today’s spaces that challenge distance as the shortest length between two points: the distance between the Carnival in Rio and the Corail Cesselesse Refugee Camp in Haiti or the distance between FOB Lightning, a military camp in Afghanistan, and the weekly organic farmers’ market at Türkenstrasse located next to the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.
As a comparative instrument, the collection can help us understand the complexities and contradictions of today’s spaces that challenge time as a linear succession of events: the time that remains until Chuquicamata in Chile is destroyed by the extraction site that produced this small city in the first place, or the time of Talad Rom Hoob Market that is clocked by a train. In this sense, the collection can help us understand what temporary forms the city is assuming around the world, simultaneously but disparately, in relation to ideas about technology, life, material, and collectivity.

Image: Aby M. Warburg, Mnemosyne-Atlas, 1924–1929
Mnemosyne-Atlas, Board 33, 1926. Photo: http://www.mediaartnet.org/werke/mnemosyne/bilder/4/

MM: The architecture of the exhibition brings together—according to the number of inhabitants—temporary forms of the city, to let them acknowledge, inform, support, resist, and contradict each other, as neighbors do. These ephemeral forms often show disturbing parallelisms, for example similar construction techniques, materiality, and aesthetics at a refugee camp and a pop festival: whereas the former functions as a prison, the latter as a gated community; whereas the former locks up, the latter locks out. The exhibition shows these complicated neighborhoods, one possible order of things that might be disturbing but also provide missing links, in reference to art historian Fritz Saxl’s comment on textual research: “The book of which one knew was in most cases not the book which one needed. The unknown neighbor on the shelf contained the vital information, although from its title one might not have guessed this.”[6] The focus of the collection is the unknown neighbor, and the knowledge we might gain through the encounter with them.[7]
Ultimately, the architecture of the exhibition aims at providing the context for discussions on the complex connections and relations that we share as citizens and non-citizens, as “resident aliens and temporary settlers”; between faith and pop culture, between militarization and migration.

AS: Our interest in relations extends to the architectural potential of numbers that used to be more than tools for economic accounting. They have implied speculations on balance, songs, gardens, plays, or moments, when “we realize the deception of the proportions, just as we comprehend that the different elements in the work are woven strangely together, illuminating one another.”[8]
Without any symbolism, we developed the succession of cabins in whole number ratios of 5:8 and 7:8, favoring an arithmetic architecture of simple forms to the advanced architectural geometry that seems to dominate today. The heights change, to emphasize the small scale of the cabins that here and there strive to become a tower.
Generally, each of the rooms has its own four walls, reminding us of ancient cities.[9] They are separated, sometimes, only by centimeters, sometimes to allow for an open view. Is a city a city when it claims to be one? A declaration? A name? And: Are two enough to constitute a city, to become neighbors that share and fight?

Image: Tetractys, a triangular figure, representing the number theory of ancient Pythagoreans.

MM: Is there a specific materiality (including a digital one) to the city? As Walter Benjamin asserts the importance of material presence to understand the city, we might inquire as to the nature of the material (architectural) elements he refers to. In The Arcades Project, he includes direct quotations from Sigfried Giedion’s early work Bauen in Frankreich (Construction in France, 1928) to describe a modern iron and steel architecture, railroad stations, exhibition halls, winter gardens, and department stores. However, by focusing on all kinds of decorative features in and around buildings, Benjamin goes beyond Sigfried Giedion’s purist (placeless and timeless) modernism. He recognizes in these ephemeral (and most often obsolete) elements “material of vital importance for us . . . In any case, material of vital importance politically; this is demonstrated by the attachment of the Surrealists to these things, as much as by their exploitation in contemporary fashion.”[10]

Image: Axonometric drawing of the exhibition stairs on castors. Drawing: m-a-u-s-e-r.

AS: The spatial elements that emerge within ephemeral urbanism: stalls, draperies, and decorations, as well as containers, tents, and fences, collapse “cities of dream,” to use Benjamin’s notion, with cities of painful actuality exhibiting the political, social, economic, and environmental disparity of our world.
Within the exhibition, spatial elements—like the city gate (hollow and on castors) and stairs—address questions of territory and its mapping. There are small globes that are rotated from one to the other cabin. Is the map a flattened globe, or is the globe a spherical map?

Image: Axonometric drawing of the exhibition gate on castors. Drawing: m-a-u-s-e-r.

MM: Together, the elements aim at constituting a context for critique. Within the exhibition, this context takes the concrete form of an archive at the last room, a horizontal space for visitors to attend to and discuss things, books, talks, and workshops. This archive within the collection includes research on material forms, devices, and media that were actually created to document the temporary and to conserve the ephemeral. Part of this archive is the media theory by French philosopher Régis Debray that explores conservation and transportation techniques for the ephemeral. It retells the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt as the invention of the portable God. As a wanderer, Israel could not offer an altar or a statue to their God. Following Debray, they therefore declared these heavy objects as anyway forbidden. Instead, the Israelites developed lightweight objects like the tefillin, mini leather boxes containing scrolls of Torah verses, to be read through magnifying glasses. In a materialist interpretation, Debray asserts that these religious devices not only allowed transportation but also meant transformation: transmission is not a simple transfer from a sender to a receiver, but “a chain of incessant transformations.” In these transformations, “sender and receiver are modified from the inside by the message they exchange, and the message is itself modified by its circulation.” He concludes: in transit, the Judaic God became a-topical, but accessible at any place and time.[11] If we look at social media, digital marketplaces, or online games today, all of them sort of constituting ephemeral cities, we might ask with Debray: In what ways do they transform the city as we know it?

Image: Cars packed on a road leaving Black Rock City, Burning Man Festival, 2016. Photo: Beth Scupham, CC 2. https://www.reddit.com/r/BurningMan/comments/51bl1u/heres_what_exodus_looks_like_right_about_now/

AS: If we give this theoretical reference here, it is because we conceive of an exhibition as a work in which (architectural) history, theory, and practice form one single, difficult complex where theory tries to be closer than meta, and practice tries to be less than building. Within this complex, we explore various pairs: numerology and media theory, magic and reason, image and word. Yet the interest with history is special: it is concerned with the present state of architecture and striving for its critical reevaluation. We explore history (ideology) to reconstruct or deconstruct (defamiliarize) present forms.


[1] By monument, Panofsky does not mean a (stone) structure of a certain size. Conversely, by document, he does not refer to a piece of paper. The relation between monumentality and documentality is dynamic or unstable. They form two ways of looking at a topic, an object, or context. Foucault calls for documents as monuments to disclose the order that underlies their discourse. See Erwin Panofsky, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline” (1940), in Meaning in the Visual Arts (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1974).

[2] “The work of art is revolutionary; the house is conservative. The work of art shows people new directions and thinks of the future. The house thinks of the present. . . . Does it follow that the house has nothing in common with art and is architecture not to be included in the arts? Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfills a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.” Adolf Loos, “Architecture” (1910), in The Architecture of Adolf Loos (London: The Arts Council, 1985).

[3] An early form of the architectural installation can be found within the books of festivals (Ottoman: Sūr-nāme) that were written and drawn to give a detailed account on the Ottoman festivals, famously lasting forty days and forty nights. These illustrated albums recount the celebrations in the Ottoman Empire from the Renaissance time to the nineteenth century. They include the temporal order of processions, the grand entrance of the Sultan, feasts, entertainers, musicians, dancers, gift giving, firework displays, circumcision and wedding ceremonies. They also contain information about the ephemeral elements that were invented by architects to serve the festival and spectacle. In 1582, architect Ibrahim Efendi designed a performative installation on ropes over the Golden Horn, the waterway inlet of the Bosporus, and thus turned the event into an acrobatic show. He also invented a mechanical crocodile that came out from the water every thirty minutes to provide a stage for dancers (Köçek). See Esin Atil and Omer Koc, Levni and the Surname: The Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Festival (Istanbul: Kocbank, 1999).

[4] Bernard Rudofsky’s renowned exhibition Architecture without Architects from 1964 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York constitutes a collection: it introduced spectacular photographs of “the unfamiliar world of non-pedigreed architecture,” showing a generic collection of “vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous, rural” buildings, from all over the world. In contrast to the discriminative approach of the orthodox historian, who represents architectural history as a who-is-who of the most powerful architects, Rudofsky aimed to show architecture as a “communal enterprise.” However, his collection has been referred to as a patronizing Western attitude toward Non-European societies, a view of Oriental culture that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced.

[5] We know that the Greek word politiká refers to the affairs of the city, and we agree on Derrida’s interpretation of the city as the place of collective identity but also of the relation to the other.

[6] Fritz Saxl, “History of Warburg’s Library,” in Ernst Gombrich, Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (1970; repr., London: The Warburg Institute, 1986), p. 327.

[7] In this sense, the exhibition architecture is a proposition to imagine alternative versions and different modes of ordering, classification, and connection. It references Aby Warburg, who was working on unconventional distributions of things in order to produce novel thoughts, and Jorge Luis Borges who, in his piece “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” introduced a Chinese encyclopedia that classifies “animals (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”

[8] Aldo Rossi, A Scientific Autobiography, trans. Lawrence Venuti (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), p. 33.

[9] Çatalhöyük was a large-scale Neolithic settlement in Anatolia from around 7500 BC: its rectangular units were clustered in an aggregate, almost labyrinthine structure. As these houses were accessible through the roofs, both ladders and stairs were important elements within each unit. Interior walls were plastered to a smooth finish, while the exterior was rough. With Çatalhöyük, crucial steps in living together had been taken. As the beginning of the city, it is still disputed by archaeology. In this sense, it relates to the phenomena of ephemeral urbanism.

[10] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap Press, 2002), N1,11, p. 458.

[11] Régis Debray, Media Manifestos. On the Technological Transmission of Cultural Forms, trans. Eric Rauth (London: Verso, 1996), p. 44.

Image: Internal elevations and plan of the 11 cabins with dimensions in whole number ratios referring to Pythagorean harmony.

does permanence matter?
ephemeral urbanism
Architekturmuseum der TU München
September 2017
Editor: Andres Lepik with Marcelo della Giustina and Chiara Ursini