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Tandem Surfing the Third Wave: AUDC & The Disappearance of Architecture

Formed in 2001 and based in Los Angeles, AUDC is the collective Robert Sumrell and Kazys Varnelis. This interview, conducted by email during 2004-5, is a discussion of their work and the larger context surrounding it.

Ryan Griffis: How and why did AUDC begin as a collaboration?

Kazys Varnelis: AUDC began at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in 2001, where I was teaching history-theory and Robert was a graduate student. We found working together immensely productive, a process that allowed us to step into each other's territories. Advising Robert on a design thesis (on the web at http://varnelis.net/projects/muzak/index.html) allowed me to work creatively while as my teaching assistant, Robert worked with theory and research more directly.

We formed AUDC to keep this going. Initially, we had naive thoughts that we might be a consultancy or design practice like Rem Koolhaas's AMO, but with the implosion of the 90s economic boom and with AMO’s now-inevitable degeneracy into making cute proposals about moving the Charles River to accommodate the Harvard Business School, it became clear to us that this was the last thing that anyone needed.

Instead we looked to groups like Archizoom and Superstudio for inspiration. If in the mid-1990s, architecture had been too caught up in a disciplinary posturing masquerading as resistance, by 2001, it was clear that the interest in Deleuzean smoothness and in working with capital had run its course. More than anything, we thought, we could use the unique ways of thinking inherent in architecture as a form of research while history could be revealed to be a form of design itself.

As a collaboration, AUDC works with both of our strengths. Robert builds drawings and models, I take photographs and code the web site. Through the use of our wiki software (http://audc.org/projects), we are able to collaborate on our texts. The writing on our website is written neither by Robert nor myself but by the two of us.

Robert Sumrell: Working collaboratively helps us to expand our interests and test ideas from multiple perspectives. Kazys' background lies in the History of Architecture, Urbanism and Telecommunications, while I spent time in Comparative Religious Studies and Interior Design. When our interests and knowledge bases overlap (Büro Landschaft or post 1960 Italian design, for instance) we investigate these questions from a variety of schools of thought, and not just from our shared experience in architecture school.

Working collaboratively also helps us to avoid comfort zones and familiar logic. There are few topics of conversation in most architecture schools, and the terms used to investigate them are exhausted. Even the youngest students are already hip to the game, rolling their eyes and playing along as someone spends an hour rambling on about nonsense like "programmatic indeterminancy" or "interstitial space." Most architecture schools are reactionary, dealing with their backwardness by limiting research to ever-more proscribed themes. We want to do the opposite: open up new areas of research.

RG: To give readers a better understanding of AUDC’s work, I’m wondering if you could talk about one of your current projects. Maybe the Quartzsite work?

KV: Quartzsite, Arizona is a town of 5,000 residents in the summer, located 180 miles from this site. Situated along I-10 some fifteen miles from the California border, every winter Quartzsite swells with an influx of snowbirds, campers from across North America, generally escaping the cold northern climate in search of sunshine, the solitude of the desert, and the company of like-minded individuals. According to the Bureau of Land Management and the Quartzsite Chamber of Commerce, up to 1.5 million inhabitants settle in town every winter, bringing their lodgings with them in the form of recreational vehicles or RVs. At any one time in January and February, hundreds of thousands of residents make this remote desert town into a substantial urban center.

Quartzsite fascinates us because it’s a kind of living parable for the contemporary city. It is void of any qualities and has no higher aspiration. There are mall-like shopping spaces and residential compounds, but there is no public space. Production is non-existent. Instead, Quartzsite is a city of trade, consumption, and tourism. Class is virtually nonexistent there too. Everyone is the same, a nomad with a vehicle that doesn’t really go anywhere. Even the most expensive campground is only $10 a day or so. It’s a place in which individuals go to get away from their neighbors and to become individuals, but it’s also a place of incredible density where RV is packed cheek-by-jowl with RV.

AUDC’s installation for the 2004 High Desert Test Sites reproduces Quartzsite in the patch of desert through a series of thirteen signs, each containing a scene from Quartzsite. The number on each sign corresponds to a number on the map on the back side of this page. You may visit the signs geographically or you may visit them numerically. Visited geographically, the signs allow you to meander through the topography of this site as you come to an understanding of the lay of the land in Quartzsite. Read in numeric order, the signs forms a narrative explaining the history of Quartzsite as well as providing a sociological and anthropological reading of the community as it is today.

The project also exists, as all our work does, on the web at http://www.audc.org/quartzsite. So even though you should go to the site itself, you can also go to the High Desert Test Sites site, or to the website. Each site (site/nonsite/website) is distinct, however, and brings with it its own experience. So in the HDTS version, you begin to experience not only Quartzsite but also the silence of the desert. On the web, we hope you begin to explore linear and non-linear processes and the interaction of this space with more distant ones.

RG: I'm curious about the decision to utilize the kinds of cultural spaces that exhibit "Art." There is a great contradiction that seems to be gaining some momentum in shows like "the gardenLAb experiment" and "the Interventionists" (at MASSMoCA) where the art is being made by people with large personal investments outside of the artworld and its usual concerns, yet hardly represents what one could call "outsider art." What is the
inspiration for AUDC to participate in these spaces/forums?

RS: Few stable public venues sponsor speculative research projects and installations. Because of this, not many people know that they exist or have any experience approaching them. Our projects don't overtly refer to a product, a sponsor, a design method, or a solution. In the absence of any of these conditions, the art gallery/museum has become an important forum for AUDC because it consistently looks for work which is difficult to categorize and will generally display it in a generic space without insisting on the participants' adherence to a specific format. There's nothing better than the white cube is there? The museum/art gallery is one of the few remaining places where people gather specifically for the purpose of concentrating on and interacting with projects (many of which they do not anticipate immediately, or perhaps ever, fully understanding). It is the steady influx of these patrons that we are really after, not the "gallery installation" itself. AUDC has also undertaken and tailored projects for books, magazines, and the web. Installations, however, are capable of presenting complex ideas through a combination of media working together. It is the practice of art as a history of forms of presentation that interests me and informs our work. This applies equally well to the designs of trade exhibits, world's fair pavilions, and history museums.

This June we opened an exhibit space in our office at 6128 Wilshire Blvd. Although it's largely open by appointment only, the AUDC office allows us to maintain and refine our physical installations under constant surveillance and on an extended basis.

KV: What we're seeing is a final transformation of the institution of art. On the one hand, the art museum and gallery have finally fulfilled Robert Smithson’s prophecy to become discotheques. Most of the contemporary work in art venues today is some form of kitsch. If it provokes a smile or stimulates a gag reflex it wins an award. There is no discernible project in contemporary art today. As Alain Badiou says of contemporary art, when everything is possible, nothing is possible. There are no attempts to push boundaries or to create new possibilities, only to realize and endlessly retread existing ones.

But we shouldn't be surprised about this. Art is a thing of the past. It is exhausted as a form of practice. For us, the interesting thing is not to condemn that condition but to take advantage of it. The academy, with its requirements of tenure, is still a narrow place. Ultimately that's a good thing, discipline instills a certain honesty and a need to focus. So work like ours can't readily appear there. It is neither architecture nor architecture history nor architecture theory nor is it art. Being unclassifiable, it doesn't fit in the academy.

Instead, as our friend Julian Bleeker has said of his own project (techkwondo.com), art installations offer us a place to do what we can’t do elsewhere. If the gallery provides us a venue, then we take it. If the academy, or for that matter, the shopping mall would provide a venue, we would take that. The same goes for the web. It is a venue. Once you fetishize these places, you’re creating striated space and you’re in trouble.

RG: Speaking of "speculative research," it seems quite a bit has been written about 'conceptual architecture' lately—projects with no intention of being materialized beyond models. Peter Lunenfeld, in _Snap to Grid_ commented on Lev Manovich's assertion that computer graphics has "killed" architecture, saying that his dismissal of 3D space was a bit hasty. AUDC's projects seem to offer a different kind of "speculation" in that they seem concerned with analyzing architectural form in order to offer a critique of some kind, rather than generating theoretical possibilities for manipulating space and movement—there's a concern in your projects for pre-existing spaces.

KV: Our concern with pre-existing spaces stems from our belief that radical territorial changes are over, that form is obsolete as an object of research, and that the visual realm is of less and less importance daily.

Already in 1971, our main influence, the Italian radical group Archizoom, suggests that the metropolis existed primarily to assert capital's growing hegemony to a rural, noncapitalist exterior. Instead Archizoom—and this is a year before Mandel and 12 years before Jameson—observes that once capital has thoroughly colonized the world, it has no need to visually affirm itself.

Territories are complete. You can add a Frank Gehry concert hall or two, but structurally speaking that's an updated version of Utzon's Sydney Opera House. Architecture makes its flourishes in the city core. This acts as an alibi to sprawl. Disney Hall is funded by Eli Broad, but that’s the same Broad of Kaufmann Broad, now KB Homes, the largest builders of sprawl in the country. Disney Hall, Broad says isn't penance, it's just what you do in the city while you build sprawl outside. What you will see is an environment that looks largely identical to the one we have now. Don't expect the city or the suburb to look radically different in the future. Instead, expect them to be augmented. If you decide that this is a moral issue, you’ll only dig yourself a deeper hole. Look at it this way, even if you can use the Building Architect Tool or SimCity Urban Renewal Kit in SimCity, most people don’t. For the vast majority of players, hours of fun can be derived from playing a game that consists of combining predefined structures in endless permutations. And although most SimCity games end with the city destroyed or the mayor thrown out, that doesn’t seem to stop anyone.

A while back I mentioned this to our friend Hernan Alonso-Diaz, one of the rising stars in computer driven architecture. I felt bad saying it since I thought it would make him sad or that he'd disagree with me and we'd have a falling-out, but instead he agreed. Fantastic real estate costs and draconian building review boards have pretty much insured that radical work will not be built in the city. So Hernan's project now revolves around working in existing structures to create a radical interiority, incredibly horrible—this is Hernan's term—shapes that recall the set of Alien, such as the current installation in front of P.S. 1.

This is not dissimilar to what Robert is doing with his career outside of AUDC.

RS: Architecture is not only too costly to construct, it has become incapable of acting as an agent for change. As a form of media, architecture addresses collective groups, or a society. We no longer live under these conditions and act instead as a fully commodified collection of individuals. This is why Hernan's project remains interesting. Being a collection of images, models, and interiors, it is geared toward an inner-directed audience of consumers and individuals.

Although manufactured goods are no longer "authentic" and do not maintain an "absolute value" they do carry a semiotic value based on physical, historic, and aesthetic qualities. In different combinations, these objects program environments and convey moral, philosophical, and spiritual instruction to inhabitants. Existing objects are interesting to me because they are fixed and meaningless entities, but still manage to maintain a hold over us. They articulate consumers and make them conform to their form.

Modernism and the avant-garde have become aesthetic choices. Even the "new" itself is already understood as a consumable before it is generated. What then, is an interesting or radical position for the present time? It must somehow include an interest in the existing world and apathy toward its products. The old post-modern world of the seventies was a surface application of history as ironic or decorative elements in a flat eclecticism. It was never meant to bring back the past, instead it desperately tried to maintain the idea that all of those goods were behind us and to keep them at bay by making them odd objects in a greater whole still of the time. eBay, as a practice, has made this idea obsolete. We are now immersed in a proliferation of consumer goods. The lack of scarcity and ease of exchange threatens to make production obsolete.

Object culture is another project that AUDC is currently developing. In this study, specific consumer goods, called "domestic pets" are studied for the way that they have, over time, domesticated us. In a time of collective individuality, we have mute buildings and an attachment to things. Even signature buildings have lost their impact in the city and simply act as atmospherics. Having turned to objects over structures, individuals focus on their own inner transformations over collective action. In this type of world, what deeper effect could physical buildings possibly accomplish?

RG: There seems to be a lot of projects, relatively speaking, that are critical investigations of space happening in California at the moment—at least more than I'm aware of anywhere else. There's Valdes, who were included in the 2004 California Biennial, AUDC, Trevor Paglen, CLUI, just off the top of my head, who fit into what many are labeling a kind of artist-as-researcher (or vice versa) model. What is it about California that's conducive to this?

KV: Not much. Over ten years ago, Jacques Derrida said that the state of theory is now California. I don't think that's changed, although if anything has happened it's the spread of California. California is a deeply stupid place. It's the land of Reagan and Schwarzenegger. People really don't think here, they don't just don’t get critical theory. They'd rather make a polished block of wood and tell you about how sensuous it is. But over the last decade, the Northeast and Europe have adopted this anti-intellectual stance as their own and gone much further with it than California ever could. I think Derrida understood this was happening and I think he may have even been making an oblique reference to Adorno with this statement—remember his most productive years were in exile in Los Angeles.

But I wouldn’t live anywhere else. The backwardness is really important and underrated. If you've ever been to Spiegelgasse in Zurich, you can begin to appreciate how Lenin could only have plotted his takeover of Russia and the Dadists could only have founded the Cabaret Voltaire on this back street of an incredibly provincial city in a country that time forgot. Archizoom was practicing in Florence, the most backward city in the most backward country in Europe. The Beatles came from Liverpool, not London. The Manchester Sound was produced in one of the most depressed cities in England.

Similarly, the anti-intellectualism of California has stimulated new ways of working beyond traditional deployments of theory and I think that's in evidence at places like the Center for Land Use Interpretation or the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Since California is first to the new anti-intellectualism sweeping the academy, it is also the first to produce new ways of countering it.

For researchers in space such as CLUI or ourselves, California is crucial because of its incredible capacity to replicate itself. I was just in Ireland where the countryside is turning into California-style postsuburbia at an incredibly rapid rate. More developed countries like the Netherlands already look indistinguishable from Orange County. So here too there's a desire to go to the scene of the crime.

RG: Thinking about the statement that "territories are complete," I'm wondering what you make of the work of other architecturally invested people, like Marjetica Potrc ( http://www.potrc.org/project2.htm ), that seem to be exploring a new kind of utopian program combining "green design" concepts with an engagement in globalization discourses.

KV: I appreciate any practice that strives to improve someone's quality of life. Marjectica Potrc tries to achieve this by making direct interventions in the city and producing work that illustrates the variety of conditions in which people live. But we cannot escape our own complicity and accountability within globalization, nor do we have the distance necessary to propose visionary alternatives. Marjectica Potrc seems to be primarily concerned with aesthetics—a dry toilet, while certainly valuable, is neither utopian nor revolutionary. Andrea Branzi has stated that environmentalism is opposed to humanity. So is architecture. The building process is the greatest source of solid waste that civilization produces. An environmental architecture, if such a thing could exist, would have to look like No-Stop-City, blanketing the earth with completely banal structures, leaving no room for us. As we mentioned earlier, AUDC was founded to produce buildings, but we grew past that. Conceptual architecture does not act in the world of goods, but on the assumptions that structure our relationship with the world itself. All early modernist work is conceptual, whether built or not, as are the best recent works, such as Peter Eisenman's House series. Now, however, modernism and design have lost their power to create change, a deadly, shiny lure to attract minnows. The production of physical forms is merely a source of fascination and novelty. I am much more interested in the United Nations guidelines for refugee camps and the temporary infrastructure continuously recreated in Quartzsite, AZ than in the social space of Burning Man or the new Prada store. An investigation of the first two communities will bring about significant knowledge of urbanism while the latter two amount to little more than juvenile escapism.