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weblog archives
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Wednesday, October 19, 2005
The relic shown at the right is on display in Palma's cathedral, which contains several reliquaries of varying degrees of elaborateness. The relic was an integral part of Christianity's mid-period - say the last 1900 years or so - before global communications technology and scientific advances conspired to put the divine on the defensive, objects that continued to hold sacred properties down the centuries. Relics were housed in reliquaries, 'a major form of artistic production across Europe and Byzantium throughout the Middle Ages.'

The internet feels like a giant reliquary at times. On bad days, idling around looking for something interesting is bit like being stuck in a newsagents stocked only with men's interest magazines, from lurid bikini specials to railway modelling journals, superficial visual snippets that are served up without any sense of discovery, backstory or depth, as if they existed solely to sate an appetite for soundbites (viral culture has a lot to answer for). Sometimes a trawl through the big sites - boing boing, metafilter, kottke, etc. - is like methodically working your way through a box of good chocolates - good at first, then swiftly becoming something of a chore, and a regretful one at that. Whereas chasing links, making connections and following leads is a little like observing a saint's relic, the reliquary's little window revealing a tiny morsel of bone or scrap of cloth, leaving the imagination to fill in the corporeal blanks.

The web is also like being stuck in a giant uncatalogued library, with every dusty shelf offering up hidden treasures; you just have to hunt for them. Our mental picture is a combination of the Gormenghastian, before the great fire, and the octagonal library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The latter was apparently inspired by the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, a brutalist construction by Mathers and Haldenby, in collaboration with Warner Burns Toan & Lunde. The library does have a medieval aspect , a fortress of knowledge (according to the Wikipedia, one of its nicknames is 'Fort Book'. It's also the subject of the widespread 'sinking library' urban legend).

Eco's fictional medieval library was strongly influenced by Jorge Luis Borges, in particular the Argentinian's Library of Babel, an unfolding, labyrinthine, almost infinite space, that apparently contained all knowledge:

'When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope.'

This multi-layered strata of knowledge, fact and supposition is something dealt with in the work of architect and theoretician Ben Nicholson (contemporary, no relation to the St Ives School Ben Nicholson). Nicholson's installation 'Thinking the Unthinkable House' brought together four projects concerned with four facets of the history of architecture, including a shredded B52 bomber and the 'Kleptoman Cell', a project which took Kurt Schwitters' Merz as its inspiration, incarcerating objects that contain a memory of a Nuclear Holocaust that never came.

Holding all this together is the Sacred Geometry of Michelangelo's Laurentian Library, a complex pattern hidden Under Foot and Between the Boards by false floors and centuries of shelving, accumulated books and knowledge (to lower the tone, this is something perhaps alluded to in Spielberg's third Indiana Jones film, I think - a masterful combination of pop and classical sources). For Nicholson, it's the sheer density of information crammed into the floor pattern that creates the wonder, a pattern that imitates - but also goes beyond - the plan of the actual room above. Perhaps, he speculates, the architect and patron were suggesting the creation of a place of knowledge that synthesised the known systems of the time: 'The Laurentian Library could support a furniture layout which is a hybrid of the two types of library in existence at this time, the monastic basilica and the studiolo'.

Perhaps the internet is also best understood as a dual system (and not just the DOS vs Mac hierarchy that Eco playfully compared to religion back in 1994). We suggest that rather than just a cabinet of curiousities (the traditional wunderkammer remains a popular web metaphor), the internet is in fact a combination of reliquary and labyrinth, both a maze of one's own making and a receptacle for wonder, a place where getting lost is a self-conscious act, portals act as balls of twine, to be unwound or ignored at your peril. What counts as wonder? Traditional esoterica remains a popular theme (you can look for anything, anywhere, if that's what you're determined to do), but the web also supplies us with contemporary esoterica, an emerging strand of visual culture that attempts to reconcile the immense realm of consumption and identity through curating, collecting, presenting, ensuring that objects set up a constant loop of feedback between memory and the present (just to pick an example entirely at random, without the internet, would these Famicom card cases (via) even exist?). From the sublime to the ridiculous, or as Borges once noted, 'There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.'

* * *

Other things. Shortcut, an installation in Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. The duo's 'Powerless Structures' seems to be sinking, rather than emerging - part of an ongoing series. A biography / the 100 oldest dot com domains / Bradley's Almanac offers live mp3s / plenty of collage artwork available in the galleries at Ma Vinci's Reliquary / Always Touch Out looks at upcoming transport projects in London, including the ongoing East London Line Extension / for the very keen and sharp of scalpel: 3D paper models of cars (thanks to scattergun, whose 'things magazine-style' link post contains plenty of gems) / i like sweet wrappers / are printers watching us? / from 'China Builds Its Dreams, and Some Fear a Bubble' (NYT article, will expire soon): 'This year alone, Shanghai will complete towers with more space for living and working than there is in all the office buildings in New York City.'

Portsmouth's Spinnaker Tower opened on the 18th, lording it over the curious mash of outlet stores and upscale boutiques that is Gunwharf Quays. The Spinnaker is classic event architecture, originally dubbed the Millennium Tower, the sail-shaped structure was first mooted (pdf) in late 1995, yet missed its original deadline of 1999 by several years, prompting a quiet re-naming. Naturally, it also went over-budget (curiously it still takes people by surprise when buildings go over budget) and was generally derided by the people of Portsmouth (although snidely comparing the Spinnaker's cast concrete structure to the exposed cast concrete construction of the late-lamented Tricorn Centre - now a great car park - is indicative of the public's shaky grasp of the subject). More opening dates came and went, with lift problems dragging on over the summer. Then, on opening day, the Tower struck back, Stephen King-style, and trapped the city council's project manager in a broken lift. Towers are usually 'troubled', if only because the alliteration sounds good.

Other things. America vs the Congestion Charge. Coates has it right about the charge - the only people who complain are shopkeepers (which always seemed rather spurious to me anyhow - how many people drive to the shops in London?) and wealthy types who are fortunate enough to live very centrally and feel it might encourage them to use public transport (when mostly they'd get a discount anyway). Maybe they're the people who drive to the shops. Anyway, the Americans aren't having it.

We are being overwhelmed: 'There are somewhere around 10 billion insects for every square kilometer of land surface.' / an amazing model train project, as if to confirm our suspicions about web content / when UNICEF bombed the smurfs, they missed one potential target / Fractal Food: Self-Similarity on the Supermarket Shelf / Gullwing Russian Patrol craft / a giant collection of New Wave singles covers. Both via me-fi / the Liste Rouge, threatened buildings identified by the Swiss Heritage Society. Compare with the UK's Risky Buildings and UNESCO's World Heritage in Danger.

Thalasso-Travel: 'Citing an invented burst water pipe or lack of hot water, invite yourself to take a bath at the house of your friends. Take with you all of the equipment that you would use in a spa: soap, shampoo, towel, bath-robe, relaxing music, seaweed scrub, champagne, etc.' From LATOUREX, the 'Laboratory of experimetal tourism [sic]'.