"The work of art is an ostentatiously improbable occurrence."
--Niklas Luhmann, Art as a Social System (153)
- The Blur building designed by the New York architectural team of Ricardo Scofidio
and Elizabeth Diller--a manufactured cloud with an embedded viewing deck, hovering over Lake Neuchatel in
Switzerland--seems to have enjoyed nearly universal acclaim from the moment it opened to the public in October
of 2002 as part of media Expo '02. The reasons for this are not far to seek; they range from what a Swiss
newspaper reviewer characterizes as the liberating effect of the zany cloud on "the crotchety Swiss"--"What a
crazy, idiosyncratic thing! How deliciously without purpose!," he exclaims (Diller+Scofidio 372)--to
Diller+Scofidio's knowing deployment of the relationship between public architecture, the history and function
of the exposition as a social form, and the manufacture and use of spectacle in relation to both (92, 162).
The project went through many different elaborations, enhancements, and embellishments between July of 1998,
when Diller+Scofidio was invited to participate, and the closing of the Expo in October of 2002. Almost all of
these were, for various reasons, unrealized in the final project. At one point, the cloud was to house an "LED
text forest" of vertical LED panels that would scroll text--either from an Internet feed (including live
"chat" produced by visitors to the structure) or, in a later version, produced by an artist such as Jenny
Holzer (163, 324). Another idea early in the project was to build an adjacent "Hole in the Water" restaurant
made of submerged twin glass cylinders with an aquarium layer in between, in which diners would sit at eye
level with the lake and eat sushi (100-111); another, to have an open air "Angel Bar" embedded in the upper
part of the cloud, in which patrons could select from an endless variety of the only beverage served there:
water--artesian waters, sparkling waters, waters from both glacial poles, and municipal tap waters from around
the world ("tastings can be arranged," we are told) (146-55). Yet another elaborate idea, rather late in the
project's evolution, involved the distribution of "smart" raincoats--or "braincoats"--to visitors to the
cloud, which would indicate, through both sound and color, affinity or antipathy to other visitors on the
basis of a preferences questionnaire filled out upon entry to the cloud (209-51).
1: The "Blur Building."
Courtesy of Diller+Scofidio
- As even this brief list suggests, the project went through many permutations. But in the end--not
least for reasons of money--what we are left with in Blur is the manufactured cloud with the
"Angel Deck" (now, not a water bar but a viewing deck) nestled at its crest. For reasons I will try to
explain by way of contemporary systems theory, the fact that these permutations and sideline enhancements
were not realized in the end is not entirely a bad thing, because it rivets our attention not only on what
has captivated most viewers from the beginning, but also on what makes the project a paradigmatic instance
of the way contemporary architecture responds to the complexities of its broader social environment in terms of
its specific medium--and that is, as Diller+Scofidio put it, "the radicality of an absent building"
(15), the remarkable, audacious commitment to a building that was not a building at all but
a manufactured cloud: "the making," as they put it, "of nothing." This core commitment was sounded by
Diller+Scofidio early and often; at the core of the project, as it were, was no core at all, but a
commitment to something "featureless, depthless, scaleless, spaceless, massless, surfaceless, and
contextless" (162). And this overriding concern was reiterated at the end of the design phase, about
a year before the Expo opened, in a very important communiqué from Diller:
And, she adds in bold type: "The media project must be liberated from all immediate and obvious metaphoric
associations such as clouds, god, angels, ascension, dreams, Greek mythology, or any other kitsch
relationships. Rather, BLUR offers a blank interpretive surface" (325).
BLUR is not a building, BLUR is pure atmosphere, water particles suspended in
mid-air. The fog is a dynamic, phantom mass, which changes form constantly . . . . In contradiction to the
tradition of Expo pavilions whose exhibitions entertain and educate, BLUR erases information.
Expos are usually competition grounds for bigger and better technological spectacles. BLUR is
a spectacle with nothing to see. Within BLUR, vision is put out-of-focus so that our
dependence on vision can become the focus of the pavilion. (325)
- But not quite blank, as it turns out. In fact, the architects thought the perceptual experience of the
Blur building would either metaphorize or, conversely, throw into relief a larger set of concerns about electronic media
how we relate to it. Midway through the project, in a presentation to a media sponsor, they characterized it this way:
At a different stage--one in which the LED text forest played a central role--the experience of the cloud
figures "the unimaginable magnitude, speed, and reach of telecommunications." As Diller+Scofidio put
it, "unlike entering a building, the experience of entering this habitable medium in which orientation is
lost and time is suspended is like an immersion in 'ether.' It is a perfect context for the experience of
another all-pervading, yet infinitely elastic, massless medium--one for the transmission and propagation of
information: the Internet. The project aims to produce a 'technological sublime' . . . felt in the scaleless and
unpredictable mass of fog" (qtd. in Dimendberg 79).
To "blur" is to make indistinct, to dim, to shroud, to cloud, to make vague, to obfuscate. Blurred vision
is an impairment. A blurry image is the fault of mechanical malfunction in a display or reproduction
technology. For our visually obsessed, high-resolution/high-definition culture, blur is equated with loss .
. . . Our proposal has little to do with the mechanics of the eye, but rather the immersive potential of blur
on an environmental scale. Broadcast and print media feed our insatiable desire for the visual with an
unending supply of images . . . [but] as an experience, the Blur building offers little to see. It is an
immersive environment in which the world is put out of focus so that our visual dependency can be put into
- There are some interesting differences between these versions of the cloud, of course. In the first version, the
resonance of the project falls on the iconographic and visually based forms of mass media; in the second, it is the
ephemeral yet pervasive presence of electronic, digital forms of telecommunication generally that is in
question. In the first, the point of the cloud is that it deprives us of the unproblematic visual clarity,
immediacy, and transparency that the mass media attempt to produce in its consumers; in the second, the
cloud's water vapor metaphorically envelopes us in the electronic ether that we inhabit like a medium in
contemporary life, but deprives us of the information that usually accompanies it and therefore distracts
us from just how immersed in that medium we are. I am more concerned here, however, with what the two accounts have in
common: that this particular form has been selected by Diller+Scofidio, and selected, moreover, to represent the
unrepresentable--hence the notion of the "technological sublime" upon which both accounts converge.
- We ought not, however, take this notion of the sublime (or the term "representation," for that
matter) at face value. In fact, resorting to the discourse of the sublime here can only obscure the
specificity of the project's formal decisions--why it does what it does how it
does--and how those decisions are directly related to the ethical and political point that the project is
calculated to make. At its worst, it leads down the sorts of blind alleys we find in the July 2002 issue
of Architecture, where one reviewer reads the project in terms of the symbolic significance of
clouds and of Switzerland in Romantic literature (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, among others) and
painting (J.M.W. Turner, among others), all of which is supposedly mobilized in Blur's
rewriting of the sublime as a "cautionary tale about the environment" (Cramer 53). And all of which
recycles exactly the sorts of "immediate and obvious metaphoric associations" and "kitsch relationships"
that, as we have just seen, Diller rightly rails against.
- It might seem more promising, at least at first glance, to pursue more theoretically sophisticated
renderings of the sublime in contemporary theory, most notably in the work of Jean-François Lyotard
(though other recent renditions of the concept, such as we find in Slavoj Zizek's conjugation of Kant and
Lacan, might be invoked here as well). In Lyotard--to stay with the most well-known example--the locus
classicus is a certain reading of Kant. The sublime is rendered as a kind of absolute outside to human
existence--one that is, for that very reason, terrifying. At the same time, paradoxically (and this is true
of Zizek's rendering as well), that radically other outside emerges as a product of the human subject's
conflict with itself, a symptom of the Enlightenment subject running up against its own limits. In
Lyotard's famous rendering of the Kantian sublime in The Postmodern Condition, it emerges from
the conflict between "the faculty to conceive of something and the faculty to `present' something" (77). "We can
conceive the infinitely great, the infinitely powerful," he explains, "but every presentation of an object
destined to 'make visible' this absolute greatness or power appears to us painfully inadequate. Those are
ideas of which no presentation is possible. Therefore they impart no knowledge about reality (experience)"
(78). And the entire ethical stake of modern art for Lyotard is "to present the fact that the
unpresentable exists. To make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither
be seen nor made visible" (78). But how to do this? Here, Lyotard follows Kant's invocation of
"'formlessness, the absence of form,' as a possible index to the unpresentable," as that which "will enable
us to see only by making it impossible to see; it will please only by causing pain" (78). The sublime,
then, is a "feeling" that marks the incommensurability of reason (conception) and the singularity or
particularity of the world and its objects (presentation). And it is an incommensurability that carries
ethical force, for it serves as a reminder that the heterogeneity of the world cannot be reduced to a
unified rule or reason. And this incompleteness in turn necessitates a permanent openness of any discourse
to its other, to what Lyotard calls, in a book by the same title, the "differend."
- Lyotard's rendering of the Kantian sublime would seem to be useful in approaching
Blur, and Kant's invocation of "formlessness" as the sublime's index would seem doubly
promising. But its limitations may be marked by the fact that Kant's sublime remains tethered to "something
on the order of a subject" (to use Foucault's famous phrase)--hence it remains referenced essentially to
the language of phenomenology, to the affective states of a subject-supposed-to-know who, in experiencing
her non-knowledge, experiences pain, and thus changes her relation to herself. What I am suggesting, then,
is that in Lyotard's rendering of the sublime--and it would be far afield to argue the point in any more
detail here--the price we pay for a certain deconstruction of the subject of humanism (one that will be
traced from Kant to Nietzsche in The Postmodern Condition) is that the subject remains
installed at the center of its universe, only now its failure is understood to be a kind of success (77).
Moreover, the fact that this failure is ethical--is the hook on which the ethical rehabilitation
of the subject hangs in its forcible opening to the world of the object, the differend, and so on--is the
surest sign that we have not, for all that, left the universe of Kantian humanism. For we must remember
that the ethical force of the sublime in Lyotard's Kant depends upon the addressee of ethics being a
member of the community of "reasonable beings" who must be equipped with the familiar humanist repertoire
of language, reason, and so on to experience in the ethical imperative not a "determinant synthesis"--not
one-size-fits-all rules for the good and the just act--but "an Idea of human society" (which is why Kant
will argue, for example, that we have no direct duties to non-human animals) (Lyotard and Thébaud
85). And this in turn re-ontologizes the subject/object split that the discourse of the sublime was
meant to call into question in the first place.
- In contrast to this, Diller+Scofidio insist that their work be understood in "post-moral and
post-ethical" terms (qtd. Dimendberg 79). This does not mean I think, that they intend their work to
have no ethical or political resonance--that much is already obvious from their comments on
Blur--but rather that they understand the relationship between art, the subject, and world in
resolutely post-humanist terms. In Diller+Scofidio, the human and the non- or
anti- or a-human do not exist in fundamentally discrete ontological registers but--quite the
contrary--inhabit the same space in mutual relations of co-implication and instability.
This boundary-breakdown tends to be thematized in their work in the interlacing of the human and the
technological (as in, for example, the multimedia theater work Jet Lag, the Virtue/Vice
Glasses series, and the EJM 2 Inertia dance piece); it is also sometimes handled
even more broadly in terms of the interweaving of the organic and the inorganic, the "natural" and the
"artificial" (think here not only of Blur, but also of projects like Slow House
and The American Lawn). Sometimes those unstable relations are funny, sometimes they are
frightening, but almost always the signature affect in Diller+Scofidio is radical ambivalence--an
ambivalence that, in contrast to the sublime, isn't about a clear-cut pain that becomes, in a second,
pedagogical moment, pleasure, but rather an ambivalence from the first moment of our experience of the
work. This ambivalence is often tied to the difficulty of knowing exactly what is being experienced (as in
works that intermesh real video surveillance with staged scenes, such as the Facsimile
installation at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco), or, if we do know, how we should feel
about it (think here of Jump Cuts or, again, Blur). All of which leads, in turn,
to the ultimate question: namely, who is doing the experiencing? Who--in phenomenological,
ethical, and political terms--are "we," exactly? In this light, Diller+Scofidio (like Lyotard's Kant) show
us how questions of ethics are just that: questions; but they do so (unlike Lyotard's Kant)
without recontaining the force of that radical undecidability in terms of a humanist subject, an all too
familiar "we"--a "reasonable being" directed toward an "idea of society"--for whom, and only for whom,
those questions are.
- What this suggests, I think, is that a move beyond an essentially humanist ontological theoretical
framework is in order if we are to understand the Blur project or, indeed, Diller+Scofidio's
work as a whole. We need, in other words, to replace "what" questions with "how" questions (to use Niklas
Luhmann's shorthand) (Art 89). Here, recent work in systems theory--and particularly
Luhmann's later work--can be of immense help, not least because it gives us a theoretical vocabulary for
understanding the sorts of things that Diller+Scofidio have in mind when they suggest that in
Blur "our objective is to weave together architecture and electronic technologies, yet
exchange the properties of each for the other" (44). For the fundamental postulate of
systems theory--its replacement of the familiar ontological dichotomies of humanism
(culture/nature and its cognates: mind/body, spirit/matter, reason/feeling, and so on) with the
functional distinction system/environment--is indispensable in allowing us to better understand
the sorts of transcodings that Diller+Scofidio have in mind, because it gives us a common theoretical
vocabulary that can range across what were, in the humanist tradition, ontologically discrete categories.
Moreover, systems theory will allow us to explain not only how those transcodings are specific to
particular systems--how art and architecture, for example, integrate electronic technologies as
Art--but also how, in being system-specific, they are paradoxically paradigmatic
of, and productive of, the very situation to which those systems respond. That situation is "hypercomplexity," created by what Luhmann calls the
"functional differentiation" of modern society (what other critical vocabularies would call its
specialization or, more moralistically, its fragmentation), which only gets accentuated and accelerated
- For Luhmann, the social system of art--like any other autopoietic system, by definition--finds
itself in an environment that is always already more complex than itself, and all systems attempt to adapt
to this complexity by filtering it in terms of their own, self-referential codes which are based on a
fundamental distinction by means of which they carry out their operations. The point of the system is to
reproduce itself, but no system can deal with everything, or even many things, all at once. The legal
system, for example, responds to changes in its environment in terms of--and only in terms of--the
distinction legal/illegal. In litigation, decisions are not based--and it is a good thing too--on whether
it is raining or not, whether you went to Duke or to Rice, if you are wearing a blue shirt or a white shirt,
whether or not you're a vegetarian, and so on. One might well object that this ignores, say, the obvious
influence of the economic system on the legal system, but for Luhmann this is simply evidence of the need
for the legal system to further assert its own differentiation and autopoietic insularity. The
determination of the legal by the economic system would be a symptom, to use Raymond Williams's well-worn
distinction, of the undue influence of a residual, premodern mode of social organization (center/periphery
or top/bottom), in which one system dominates and determines the functions of the others, on the dominant,
yet incompletely realized, mode of functional differentiation that characterizes modernity.
- Two subsidiary points need to be accented here. First, it is by responding to environmental complexity in
terms of their own self-referential codes that subsystems build up their own internal complexity (one
might think here of the various sub-specialties of the legal system, say, or for that matter the
specialization of disciplines in the education system, particularly in the sciences); in doing so, systems
become more finely grained in their selectivity, and thus--by increasing the density of the webwork of
their filters, as it were--they buy time in relation to overwhelming environmental complexity. As Luhmann
puts it in Social Systems, "Systems lack the `requisite variety' (Ashby's term) that
would enable them to react to every state of the environment . . . . There is, in other words, no
point-for-point correspondence between system and environment . . . . The system's inferiority in complexity
[compared to that of the environment] must be counter-balanced by strategies of selection" (25). But if
the self-reference of the system's code reduces the flow of environmental complexity into the system, it
also increases its "irritability" and, in a very real sense, its dependence on the environment.
- As for this latter point, it is worth noting that systems theory in general and the theory of
autopoiesis in particular are often criticized for asserting a kind of solipsism separating the
system from its environment, but what this rather ham-fisted understanding misses is that systems theory
attempts to account for the complex and seemingly paradoxical fact that the autopoietic closure of a
system--whether social or biological--is precisely what connects it to its environment. As Luhmann
explains, "the concept of a self-referentially closed system does not contradict the system's openness
to the environment. Instead, in the self-referential mode of operation, closure is a form of
broadening possible environmental contacts; closure increases, by constituting elements more capable of
being determined, the complexity of the environment that is possible for the system" (Social
Systems 37). And this is why, as Luhmann puts it in Art as a Social System,
Or as Luhmann puts it in one of his more Zen-like moments, "Only complexity can reduce complexity"
(Social Systems 26).
autopoiesis and complexity are conceptual correlates . . . . Assuming that the system's autopoiesis
work, evolutionary thresholds can catapult the system to a level of higher complexity--in the evolution of
living organisms, toward sexual reproduction, independent mobility, a central nervous system. To an
external observer, this may resemble an increase in system differentiation or look like a higher degree of
independence from environmental conditions. Typically, such evolutionary jumps simultaneously increase a
system's sensitivity and irritability; it is more easily disturbed by environmental conditions that, for
their part, result from an increase in the system's own complexity. Dependency and independence, in a
simple causal sense, are therefore not invariant magnitudes in that more of one would imply less of the
other. Rather, they vary according to a system's given level of complexity. In systems that are successful
in evolutionary terms, more independence typically amounts to a greater dependency on the environment . . . .
But all of this can happen only on the basis of the system's operative closure. (157-58)
- The information/filter metaphor already invoked is misleading, however, on the basis of the second
subsidiary point I mentioned above: because systems interface with their environment in terms of, and only
in terms of, their own constitutive distinctions and the self-referential codes based upon them, the
"environment" is not an ontological category but a functional one; it is not an "outside" to the system
that is given as such, from which the system then differentiates itself-- it is not, in other
words, either "nature" or "society" in the traditional sense--but is rather always the "outside"
of a specific inside. Or as Luhmann explains it, the environment is different for every system,
because any system excludes only itself from its environment (Social Systems 17). All of this
leads to a paradoxical situation that is central to Luhmann's work, and central to understanding Luhmann's
reworking of problems inherited from both Hegel and Husserl: What links the system to the world--what
literally makes the world available to the system--is also what hides the world from the system, what makes
it unavailable. Given our discussion of the sublime and the problem of "representing the unrepresentable"
this should ring a bell--but a different bell, as it turns out. To understand just how
different, we need to remember that all systems carry out their operations and maintain their autopoiesis
by deploying a constitutive distinction, and a code based upon it, that in principle could be otherwise; it
is contingent, self-instantiated, and rests, strictly speaking, on nothing. But this means that there is a
paradoxical identity between the two sides that define the system, because the
distinction between both sides is a product of only one side. In the legal system, for example, the
distinction between the two sides legal/illegal is instantiated (or "re-entered," in Luhmann's
terminology) on only one side of the distinction, namely the legal. But no system can acknowledge this paradoxical
identity of difference--which is also in another sense simply
the contingency--of its own constitutive distinction and at the same time use that distinction to
carry out its operations. It must remain "blind" to the very paradox of the distinction that links it to
- That does not mean that this "blind spot" cannot be observed from the vantage of another
system--it can, and that is what we are doing right now--but that second-order observation will
itself be based on its own blind spot, the paradoxical identity of both sides of its
constitutive distinction, and so on and so forth. First-order observations that deploy distinctions as
difference simply "do what they do." Second-order observations can observe the unity of those differences
and the contingency of the code of the first-order observer--but only by "doing what they do," and thus
formally reproducing a "blindness" that is (formally) the same but (contingently) not the same as the
first-order system's. And here, as I have suggested elsewhere, we find Luhmann's fruitful reworking of the
Hegelian problematic: Hegel's "identity of identity and non-identity" is reworked as the
"non-identity of identity and non-identity"--and a productive non-identity at that. As Luhmann explains:
Or as he puts it in somewhat different terms, the world is now conceived, "along the lines of a Husserlian
metaphor, as an unreachable horizon that retreats further with each operation, without ever holding out the
prospect of an outside" (Art 92).
The source of a distinction's guaranteeing reality lies in its own operative unity. It is, however,
precisely as this unity that the distinction cannot be observed--except by means of another distinction
which then assumes the function of a guarantor of reality. Another way of expressing this is to say the
operation emerges simultaneously with the world which as a result remains cognitively unapproachable to the
The conclusion to be drawn from this is that the connection with the reality of the external world is
established by the blind spot of the cognitive operation. Reality is what one does not perceive when one
perceives it. ("Cognitive Program" 76)
- The question, then--and this is directly related to the problems raised by the topos of
the sublime--is "how to observe how the world observes itself, how a marked space emerges [via a
constitutive distinction] from the unmarked space, how something becomes invisible when something else
becomes visible." Here, we might seem far afield from addressing the Blur project, but as Luhmann
argues, "the generality of these questions allows one to determine more precisely what art can contribute
to solving this paradox of the invisibilization that accompanies making something visible"
(Art 91). In this way, the problems that the discourse of the sublime attempts to address can
be assimilated to the more formally rigorous scheme of the difference between first- and second-order
observation. Any observation "renders the world invisible" in relation to its constitutive distinction,
and that invisibility must itself remain invisible to the observation that employs that distinction, and can
only be disclosed by another observation that will also necessarily be doubly blind in
the same way (91). "In this twofold sense," Luhmann writes, "the notion of a final unity--of an 'ultimate
reality' that cannot assume a form because it has no other side--is displaced into the unobservable . . . . If the
concept of the world is retained to indicate reality in its entirety, then it is that which--to a
second-order observer--remains invisible in the movements of observation (his own and those of others)"
(91). This means not only that "art can no longer be understood as an imitation of something that
presumably exists along with and outside of art," but more importantly for our purposes, "to the extent
that imitation is still possible, it now imitates the world's invisibility, a nature that can no longer be
apprehended as a whole" (92). "The paradox unique to art, which art creates and resolves," Luhmann writes,
"resides in the observability of the unobservable" (149). And this is a question of form.
- It is in these terms--to return to Diller+Scofidio--that we might best understand the uncanny
effect of Blur's manufactured cloud hovering over a lake, with the point being, we might say,
not that the cloud is not a cloud but rather that the lake is not a lake, precisely in the sense that art
can be said to imitate nature only because nature isn't nature (an insight that is surely at work as well
in Diller+Scofidio's Slow House project)--which is another way of saying that all
observations, including those of nature, are contingent, and of necessity blind to their own
contingency. To put it in a Deleuzean rather than Luhmannian register, we might say that Blur
virtualizes the very nature it "imitates," but only, paradoxically, by concretizing that virtualization in
its formal decisions--an "imitation of nature" that formally renders the impossibility of an "imitation of
nature." As Luhmann puts it, in an analysis that is thematized, as it were, in the blurriness of
Diller+Scofidio's project (and in the critical intent they attach to it), "Art makes visible possibilities
of order that would otherwise remain invisible. It alters conditions of visibility/invisibility in the
world by keeping invisibility constant and making visibility subject to variation" (Art 96).
And here I think we can bring into the sharpest possible focus (if the metaphor can be allowed in this
context!) the brilliance of the project's "refusal" of architecture and its strategy of focusing on "the
radicality of an absent building." In this context, the strength of Blur's formal
intervention via à vis the medium of architecture is precisely its formlessness, because
it is calculated to show how "the realm officially known as architecture" (to borrow Rem
Koolhaas's and Bruce Mau's phrase) can no longer "keep invisibility
constant and make visibility subject to variation." "Official architecture"
renders the invisibility of the world invisible precisely by being too visible, too legible. And in so
doing, as art, it might as well be invisible.
- Here, we might recall Luhmann's suggestive comments about Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's wrapping of
structures. In an earlier moment of the "postmodern" in architecture, "quotation" of historical styles and
elements attempts, as Luhmann puts it, "to copy a differentiated and diverse environment into the artwork,"
but this in turn only raises the formal problem of "whether, and in what way, the work can claim
unity, and whether it can assert itself against its own (!) 'requisite variety'" (Art 298-89).
"How," as Luhmann puts it, "can the art system reflect upon its own differentiation, not only in the form
of theory, but also in individual works of art?" (299). Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's response to this
problem, he suggests, is
"particularly striking: if objects can no longer legitimize their boundaries and distinctions, they must be
wrapped" (400 n.220). From this perspective, we might think of Blur as a wrapped building
with no building inside. Or better yet, as a wrapped building in which even the wrapping has
too much form and begins to obsolesce the minute form is concretized.
2: Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin 1971-95. |
Christo and Jeanne-Claude
- But what can it mean to say that an architectural project is concerned primarily with having
little enough form? Here--and once again the otherwise daunting abstraction of systems theory is
indispensable--we need to understand that when we use the term "form," in no sense are we talking about
objects, substances, materials, or things. Nor are we even, for that matter, talking about "shape." As
In this way, form stages the question of "whether an observer can observe at all except with reference to
an order" (148), and it stages the production of the unobservable (the "blind spot" of
observation, the "outside" of any distinction's "inside") that inevitably accompanies such observations
(149). As Luhmann will put it (rather unexpectedly), "the world displays all the qualities that Nicholas
of Cusa ascribed to God: it is neither small nor large, neither unity nor diversity, it neither has a
beginning nor is it without beginning--and this is why the world needs forms" (150). "From this vantage,"
The word formal here does not refer to the distinction, which at first guided modern art, between
form and matter or form and content, but to the characteristics of an indicating operation that observes,
as if from the corner of its eye, what happens on the other side of form. In this way, the work of art
points the observer toward an observation of form . . . . It consists in demonstrating the compelling
forces of order in the realm of the possible. Arbitrariness is displaced beyond the boundaries of art
into the unmarked space. If . . . one transgresses this boundary and steps from the unmarked into the
marked space, things no longer happen randomly. (Art 147-48)
the function of art, one could argue, is to make the world appear within the world--with an eye toward
the ambivalent situation that every time something is made available for observation something else
withdraws, that, in other words, the activity of distinguishing and indicating that goes on in the world
conceals the world . . . . Yet a work of Art is capable of symbolizing the reentry of the world into the
world because it appears--just like the world--incapable of emendation. (149, emphasis added)
- With regard to this "reentry," two related points should be highlighted here to fully
appreciate the specificity of Blur's formal innovations. First, form is in a profound sense a
temporal problem (if for no other reason than because of the contingency of any constitutive
distinction); and second, formal decisions operate on two levels, what we might call the "internal" and
"external"; they operate, that is, in relating the formal decisions of the artwork itself to the larger
system of art, but also in relating the artwork as a whole to its larger environment, of which the
subsystem of art is only a part. As Luhmann explains,
Even more forcefully, one can say that here we are not dealing with objects at all but rather
with what systems theory sometimes calls "eigenvalues" or "eigenbehaviors," recursive
distinctions that unfold--and can only unfold--over time, even as they can only be experienced in the
nano-moment of the present. From this vantage, "objects appear as
repeated indications, which, rather than having a specific opposite, are demarcated against
`everything else'" (46). In fact, Luhmann suggests that we might follow Mead and Whitehead, who "assigned a
function to identifiable and recognizable objects, whose primary purpose is to bind time. This function is
needed because the reality of experience and actions consists in mere event sequences, that is, in an
ongoing self-dissolution" (46).
What is at stake, operatively speaking, in the production and observation of a work of art is always a
temporal unity that is either no longer or not yet observed. In this sense, the artwork is the
result of intrinsic formal decisions and, at the same time, the metaform determined by
these decisions, which, by virtue of its inner forms, can be distinguished from the unmarked space of
everything else--the work as fully elaborated "object." (Art 72)
- These terms, it seems to me, are remarkably apt for understanding how Blur's
significance as a work of art under conditions of postmodernity goes far beyond the mere thematizations we
can readily articulate. Indeed, in its unstable shape, shifting constantly in both density of
light and moisture, this building that is not a building could well be described as epitomizing "a temporal
unity that is either no longer or not yet observed": a something that is also, to use Diller+Scofidio's
words, a nothing--in short, a blur. At the same time, paradoxically, as a "metaform," one
could hardly imagine a more daring and original formal decision that dramatically distinguishes itself from
"the unmarked space of everything else."
When we combine this understanding of the artwork as what Luhmann (following Michel Serres) calls a
"quasi-object" with attention to the double aspect of its formal decisions outlined above, we
can zero in on the fact that, paradoxically, the "shapelessness" of the Blur building is
precisely what constitutes its most decisive and binding formal quality--and not least, of course, with
regard to adjacent formal decisions in architecture. Its "refusal" of architecture and its
dematerialization of the architectural medium paradoxically epitomize the question of architectural form
from a Luhmannian perspective; the shape-shifting, loosely-defined space of Blur only
dramatizes what is true of all architectural forms. As the shifting winds over Lake Neuchatel blow
the cloud this way and that, the joke is not on Blur, but rather on any architectural forms
that think they are "solid," real "objects"--that have, one might say, a compositional rather than systematic
understanding of the medium. In this light, one is tempted to view those moments when the winds at Lake
Neuchatel swept nearly all the cloud away to reveal the underlying tensegrity structure of
Blur--leaving, as one reviewer put it, the view of "an unfinished building awaiting its skin"
(Schafer 93)--as the most instructive all, insofar as THE BUILDING (as object), "official architecture," is
revealed to be precisely not "the building" (as form).
3: The "Blur Building."
Courtesy of Diller+Scofidio
- And as we have already noted, the effectiveness of these formal decisions is only enhanced by the
fact that they are smuggled inside the Trojan Horse of the work's savvy play with the "art imitates nature"
theme. From a systems theory point of view, the joke is not on those who think that
art imitates nature, but rather on those who think it doesn't--not in the sense of "an imitation
of something that presumably exists along with and outside of art," but rather in the sense that "it now
imitates the world's invisibility, a nature that can no longer be apprehended as a whole" (Art
92). Another name for this fact, as we have already noted, is contingency--namely, the
contingency of the distinctions and indications that make the world available and that, because
contingent, simultaneously make the world unavailable. And it is against that contingency that
the artwork and its formal decisions assert themselves. To put it succinctly, the work of art begins with
a radically contingent distinction--a formal decision that could be otherwise--and then gradually builds
up, through recursive self-reference, its own unique, non-paraphrasable character--its internal necessity,
if you like. As Luhmann characterizes it,
But here (and this is a crucial point), the recursive self-reference of form--and not the materiality of
the medium per se--is key; as Luhmann puts it, "in working together, form and medium generate what
characterizes successful artworks, namely, improbable evidence" (119). The genius of
Blur from this vantage is that submits itself to this contingency in the vagaries and
malleability of its shape, its "loose" binding of time (to recall Whitehead and Mead's definition of
objects), while simultaneously taking it into account, but as it were preemptively, within its own frame,
as "an indicating operation that observes, as if from the corner of its eye, what happens on the other side
of form" (147-48). And in doing so, "it employs constraints for the sake of increasing the work's freedom
in disposing over other constraints" (148), and this includes, of course, those contingencies that, rather
than threatening the work with obsolescence, now increase the resonance of the work with its environment.
The artwork closes itself off by reusing what is already determined in the work as the other side of
further distinctions. The result is a unique, circular accumulation of meaning, which often escapes one's
first view (or is grasped only "intuitively") . . . . This creates an overall impression of
necessity--the work is what it is, even though it is made, individual, and contingent, rather than
necessary in an ontological sense. The work of art, one might say, manages to overcome its own contingency. (120)
- Of course, this raises the question of what, exactly, art is, if the
formlessness of the object is equated with the strength of its formal statement--if the
strongest form of "something" turns out to be "nothing." Here, however, we need only remind ourselves of
the point we made a moment ago: that questions of form are not questions of objects (and indeed,
if we follow Whitehead, Mead, and systems theory, even objects are not questions of objects). Or
to put it another way, it is a question not of the being of the artwork but rather of its meaning.
And if that's the case, then we would do well, Luhmann rightly suggests, to remember the lessons of
Duchamp, Cage, and conceptual art in general. "One can ask how an art
object distinguishes itself from other natural or artificial objects, for example, from a urinal or a snow
shovel," Luhmann writes (Art 34). "Marcel Duchamp used the form of a work of art to
impress this question
on his audience and, in a laudable effort, eliminated all sensuously recognizable differences between the
two. But can a work of art at once pose and answer this question? " (34). The
answer, as it turns out, is no, because the meaning of Duchamp's snow shovel--the significance of its
first-order formal decisions--depends upon (and indeed ingeniously anticipates and manipulates) a
second-order discourse of "art" criticism and theory in terms of which those first-order decisions are
received. The first-order observer need only "identify a work of art as an object in contradistinction to
all other objects or processes" (71). But for those who experience the work and want to understand its
significance, the situation is quite different. Here, the project of Cage and Duchamp is "to confront the
observer with the question of how he goes about identifying a work of art as a work of art. The only
possible answer is: by observing observations" (71):
The observer uses a distinction to indicate what he observes. This happens when it happens. But if one
wants to observe whether and how this happens, employing a distinction is not enough--one must also
indicate the distinction. The concept of form serves this purpose . . . . Whoever observes forms observes
other observers in the rigorous sense that he is not interested in the materiality, expectations, or
utterances of these observers, but strictly and exclusively in their use of distinctions. (66-7)
- Luhmann argues, in fact, that this is the issue that art and art criticism have been struggling
with at least since the early modern period. The convention of the still life, for example, which
assumes great importance in Italian and Dutch painting, presents us with "unworthy" objects that
"could acquire meaning only by presenting the art of presentation itself," focusing our attention on "the
blatant discrepancy between the banality of the subject matter and its artful presentation"
(Art 69)--a process that is only further distilled (more abstractly and formally, as it were)
in Duchamp's snow shovel. Indeed, part of the genius of Duchamp's work is that it reveals how the formula
of "disinterested pleasure" fails to clarify what can be meant by artful presentation as "an end in
itself," which only begs the question of whether "there is perhaps a special interest in being disinterested,
and can we assume that such an interest also motivates the artist who produces the work, and who can
neither preclude nor deny an interest in the interests of others?" (69). For Luhmann, such questions index
the situation of art as a social system under functionally differentiated modernity, of art struggling to
come to terms with its raison d'être--in systems theory terms, to achieve and justify its
operational closure, its newly-won "autonomy." "To create a work of art under these sociohistorical
conditions," then, "amounts to creating specific forms for an observation of observations. This is the sole
purpose for which the work is 'produced.' From this perspective, the artwork accomplishes the structural
coupling between first- and second-order observations in the realm of art . . . . The artist accomplishes
this by clarifying--via his own observations of the emerging work--how he and others will observe the work"
- Now such an understanding is well and good, but it would seem to leave wholly to the side the
question of the experience of art as a perceptual and phenomenological event--something that would
appear to be rather spectacularly foregrounded in Blur, as Mark Hansen has recently argued,
and foregrounded, moreover, quite self-consciously in terms of the function of spectacle in the
tradition of the international Expo as a genre (a matter emphasized in Diller's lectures about the project
at Princeton and elsewhere) (Hansen 325-30; Diller+Scofidio 92-4). Indeed, one might well argue that this,
and not the coupling of first- and second-order observations by means of form, is what motivates contemporary
art, its experimentation with different media, and so on--a rule that is only proved, so the argument would
unfold, by the exception of conceptual art. Yet here, it seems to me, we find one of the more original and
innovative aspects of Luhmann's theory of art as a social system. Luhmann's point is not to deny the
phenomenological aspect of the artwork, but rather to point out the fact--which seems rather obvious, upon
reflection--that the meaning of the artwork cannot be referenced to, much less reduced to, this
material and perceptual aspect. Rather, the work of art co-presents perception and communication--and does
so in a way that turns out to be decisive for what another theoretical vocabulary might call art's
"critical" function in relation to society.
- To understand how this happens, we need to remember that for Luhmann, perception and communication
operate in mutually exclusive, operationally closed, autopoietic systems, though they are structurally
coupled through media such as language. As Luhmann puts it in a formulation surely calculated to provoke:
"Humans cannot communicate; not even their brains can communicate; not even their conscious minds can
communicate. Only communication can communicate" ("How Can the Mind" 371). "Communication operates with an
unspecific reference to the participating state of mind," he continues; "it is especially unspecific as to
perception. It cannot copy states of mind, cannot imitate them, cannot represent them" (381). At first,
this contention seems almost ridiculously counter-intuitive, but upon reflection it is rather
commonsensical. As Luhmann explains--and there is ample evidence for this in contemporary neurobiology and
cognitive science--"what we perceive as our own mind operates as an isolated autopoietic system. There is
no conscious link between one mind and another. There is no operational unity of more than one mind as a
system, and whatever appears as a consensus is the construct of an observer, that is, his own
achievement" (372). At the same time, however, consciousness and perception are a medium for communication.
On the one hand, unperceived communications do not exist (if they did, how would we know?); communication
"can hardly come into being without the participation of the mind," Luhmann points out, and in this sense
"the relationship is asymmetrical" (374). On the other hand, "communication uses the mind as a medium
precisely because communication does not thematize the mind in question. Metaphorically speaking, the mind
in question remains invisible to communication" (378). The mind is its own operationally closed
(biological) system, but because it is also a necessary medium for communication, "we can then say that the mind
has the privileged position of being able to disturb, stimulate, and irritate communication" (379). It
cannot instruct or direct communications--"reports of perceptions are not perceptions themselves"--but it
can "stimulate communication without ever becoming communication" (379-80).
- This "irreducibility" of perception to communication (and vice versa) and their asymmetrical
relationship are important to art for several reasons. First, as Dietrich Schwanitz notes, perception and
communication operate at different speeds--and this is something art puts to use. "Compared to
communication," he writes,
To put it another way, although both perception and communication are autopoietic systems that operate on the
basis of difference and distinction, their very different processing speeds make it
appear that perception confirms, stabilizes, and makes immediate, while communication (to put it in
Derridean terms) differs, defers, and temporalizes. In the work of art, the difference between perception
and communication is "re-entered" on the side of communication, but (because of this asymmetry in speeds) in a way
that calls attention to the contingency of communication--not of the first-order communication of
the artwork, which appears incapable of emendation (it is what it is), but of the second-order observation
of the work's meaning vis à vis the system of art. This can be accomplished, as in
Blur, by making perception "outrun" communication, as it were (a process well described by
Hansen), the better to provoke a question that the work itself is made to answer; or, conversely, in a work
like On Kawara's Date Paintings, by using the calculated deficit of perceptual cues and
information in the "paintings" themselves to call attention to the difference between the work's immediate
perceptual surface and its meaning.
the dimension of perception displays a considerably higher rate of information processing. The impression
of immediacy in perception produces the notion that the things we perceive are directly present. Naturally,
this is an illusion, for recent brain research has proven that sensory input is minimal compared with the
complexity of neuronal self-perception . . . . Together, cultural and neuronal construction thus constitute a
form of mediation that belies the impression of immediacy in perception. That does not, however, alter the
fact that perception takes place immediately as compared to communication, the selective process of which
is a sequential one. (494)
Thus, the artwork co-presents the difference between
perception and communication and it uses perception to "irritate" and stimulate communication to
respond to the question, "what does this perceptual event mean? " And it is this difference--and
how art uses it--that allows art to have something like a privileged relationship to what is commonly
invoked as the "ineffable" or the "incommunicable." As Luhmann puts it,
4: Date Painting
And, Luhmann adds--in an observation directly relevant to Blur's audacious formal solution to
the "problem" of architecture--"Extravagant forms play an increasingly important role in this process"
The function of art would then consist in integrating what is in principle incommunicable--namely,
perception--into the communication network of society . . . . The art system concedes to the perceiving
consciousness its own unique adventure in observing artworks--and yet makes available as communication the
formal selection that triggered the adventure. Unlike verbal communication, which all too quickly moves
toward a yes/no bifurcation, communication guided by perception relaxes the structural coupling of
consciousness and communication (without destroying it, of course) . . . . In a manner that is matched
neither by thought nor by communication, perception presents astonishment and recognition in a
single instant. Art uses, enhances, and in a sense exploits the possibilities of perception in such a
way that it can present the unity of this distinction . . . . [T]he pleasure of astonishment,
already described in antiquity, refers to the unity of the difference between astonishment and recognition,
to the paradox that both intensify one another (Art 141).
- This is not, however, simply a matter of "pleasure." In fact, it is what gives art something like a
privileged critical relationship to society, because art "establishes a reality of its own that differs
from ordinary reality"; "despite the work's perceptibility, despite its undeniable reality," Luhmann
writes, "it simultaneously constitutes another reality . . . . Art splits the world into a real world and an
imaginary world," and "the function of art concerns the meaning of this split" (Art 142). By
virtue of its unique relationship to the difference between perception and communication, art can raise
this question in an especially powerful way not available to other social systems. If we think of objects
as "eigen-behaviors" (to seize once again on Heinz von Foerster's term), as stabilizations made possible by
the repeated, recursive application of particular distinctions, then we might observe that "the objects
that emerge from the recursive self-application of communication"--versus, say, rocks or trees--"contribute
more than any other kinds of norms and sanctions to supplying the social system with necessary
redundancies." They literally fix social space. This is probably even more true, Luhmann observes, of such
"quasi-objects" (to use Michel Serres's phrase) "that have been invented for the sake of this specific
function, such as kings or soccer balls. Such 'quasi-objects' can be comprehended only in relation to this
function"--indeed it is their sole reason for being. "Works of art," Luhmann continues,
are quasi-objects in this sense. They individualize themselves by excluding the sum total of everything
else; not because they are construed as given but because their significance as objects implies a realm of
social regulation. One must scrutinize works of art as intensely and with as close attention to the object
as one does when watching kings and soccer balls; in this way--and in the more complex case where one
observes other observers by focusing on the same object--the socially regulative reveals itself.
(47, emphasis added)
- And when we remember that for Luhmann this "more complex" case is represented nowhere more clearly
than in our experience of the mass media, the relationship between Blur's formal decisions as
a work of art and its critical agenda of shedding light on "the socially regulative"--on the
terrain of an international media Expo, no less--comes even more forcefully into view. In these terms,
works of art, in calling our attention to the realm of "the socially regulative," cast light on precisely
those contingencies, constructions, and norms that the mass media, in its own specific mode of
communication, occludes. In the first instance (the artwork), we seem to be dealing with completely ad
hoc, constructed objects whose realm of reference is not "the real world" but rather that of the
imagination; in the latter, we appear to be dealing with the opposite, in which the representations of the
mass media are supposedly motivated by the objects and facts of "the real world." In fact, however, this
thematization in terms of "imaginative" and "real" only obscures the need to be rearticulate the
relationship in terms of the dynamics of first- and second-order observation of different social systems.
As Luhmann points out, "the mass media create the illusion that we are first-order observers whereas in
fact this is already second-order observing" ("Deconstruction as Second-Order Observing" 775); or, more
baldly still, "put in Kantian terms: the mass media generate a transcendental illusion" (The Reality
of the Mass Media 4). The mass media's rendering of reality, however--and this is a point that the
"post-ethical" character of Diller+Scofidio's work insists on as well--is not to be taken as, "as most
people would be inclined to think, a distortion of reality. It is a construction of
reality. For from the point of view of a postontological theory of observing systems, there is no distinct
reality out there (who, then, would make these distinctions?) . . . [T]here is no transcendental subject,"
Luhmann continues. "We have to rely on the system of the mass media that construct our reality . . . If
there is no choice in accepting these observations, because there is no equally powerful alternative
available, we have at least the possibility to deconstruct the presentations of the mass media, their
presentations of the present" ("Deconstruction as Second-Order Observing" 776).
- That deconstruction of the mass media in Blur proceeds by means of the artwork's
second-order observation of the first-order system of the mass media, but it can carry out that observation
only as art, only by "doing what it does" within the codes of the social system of art. The formal symmetry
between those two observing systems, however--the fact that the dynamics of communication in autopoietic
social systems operate in the same ways in each system (on the basis of the "blind spot" of paradoxical
self-reference, and so on)--only throws into critical relief the important difference in the
relationship of communication and perception (and in the case at hand, specifically visual
perception) that is quite specific to each system: a difference that Blur will put to critical
use under the thematics, as Diller suggests, of "spectacle." We can gain a sharper sense of just how this
is the case when we remember that for Luhmann, electronic mass media is just the latest in a series of
powerful developments in the history of what he calls "media of dissemination," beginning with language and
then, crucially, the invention of writing and printing, whose power lies in their ability to make
communication independent from a specific perceptual substrate or set of coordinates. "Alphabetized writing
made it possible to carry communication beyond the temporally and spatially limited circle of those who
were present at any particular time," he writes, and language per se --and even more so writing
and printing--"increases the understandability of communication beyond the sphere of perception"
(Social Systems 160). Unlike oral speech, which "can compensate for lack of information with
persuasion, and can synchronize speaking, hearing, and accepting in a rhythmic and rhapsodic way, leaving
literally no time for doubt" (162), writing and printing "enforce an experience of the difference that
constitutes communication," and "they are, in this precise sense,
more communicative forms of communication" (162-63).
- For Luhmann, the electronic mass media represent the culmination of this general line of historical
development. Indeed, "for the differentiation of a system of the mass media, the decisive achievement can
be said to have been the invention of technologies of dissemination which not only circumvent interaction
among those co-present, but effectively render such interaction impossible for the mass media's own
communications" (The Reality 15-16)--a process begun with the advent of the
printing press, when "the volume of written material multiplied to the extent that oral interaction among
all participants in communication is effectively and visibly rendered impossible" (16).
And so it is, Luhmann argues, that
in the wake of the so-called democratization of politics and its dependence on the media of public opinion
. . . those participating in politics--politicians and voters alike--observe one another in the mirror of
public opinion . . . . The level of first-order observation is guaranteed by the continuous reports of the
mass media . . . . Second-order observation occurs via the inferences one can draw about oneself or others,
if one assumes that those who wish to participate politically encounter one another in the mirror of public
opinion, and that this is sufficient (Art 64-65).
- It is just this situation that Blur attempts to address, if we believe
Diller+Scofidio--namely, by subjecting communication in its mass mediated mode (as immediately legible and
consumable) to a perceptual Blur, so that spectacle here operates not in the services
of an immediately meaningful, pre-fab content (as in the electronic mass media) but rather as the quite
unavoidable "irritation" or "perturbation" for another communication--one whose meaning is far
from immediately clear and, in being so, operates directly in the services of art's own communication and
autopoiesis about itself (i.e. "what does this mean?; is this art?"), and its second-order
observation of the all-too-tight coupling of perception and communication in the mass media. In this way,
Diller+Scofidio's Blur might be understood as bringing into focus 1)how the contingency of
communication is managed and manipulated (quite improbably, as Luhmann reminds us) by the "socially
regulative" in the electronic mass media and 2)how that dynamic, in turn, is coupled to a certain
"consumerist" schematization of visuality, in which the difference between perception and communication is
always already "re-entered" in mass-mediated communication to produce a "pre-digested," iconographic visual
space readily incorporated by a subject whose (un)ethical relation to the visual might best be summed up
as: "CLICK HERE."
- We could say, then, that Blur uses the difference between perception and
communication in a way diametrically opposed to what we find it in the electronic mass media, and then
routes that difference between art and the mass media through the work's formal choices to render
them specifically meaningful as art, and not just as well-meaning critical platitude. What is
remarkable here, of course, is not that Blur makes this (somewhat unremarkable) observation
about the relationship of perception and communication in electronic mass media, a relationship
particularly evident in the realm of visuality; what is remarkable is that Blur does so
without saying so, by insisting only on itself. This is simply to say that Blur communicates
this difference as Art. And if it didn't, we wouldn't pay any attention to it.
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1. It should be noted here--and it is abundantly clear in the
catalog, Scanning, that accompanied the retrospective of Diller+Scofidio's work at the Whitney
in New York--that the distinction between "art" and "architecture" is of relatively little moment for
Diller+Scofidio, and indeed their body of work is calculated to blur it (if the expression can be allowed in
this context) beyond recognition. The same is true for Luhmann, who treats architecture as a subspecies of
art, even while addressing here and there its differences from, say, painting or literary art.
2. It should be noted that the term "postmodern" is one for which
Luhmann has no use. For him, the postmodern is merely an intensification of features already fully present in
modernity. On this point, see his essay "Why Does Society Describe Itself as Postmodern?"
3. See on this point Wolfe, 67-68.
4. This phrase was used by Koolhaas and Mau in their presentations
of their Tree City project for the Parc Downsview Park competition in Toronto in 1999-2000. For
an overview, see Polo.
5. As Luhmann puts it, "Objects are therefore nothing but the
eigenbehaviors of observing systems that result from using and reusing their previous distinctions"
6. In this connection, we should remember, as Roselee Goldberg
reminds us, just how influential conceptual art was for the early, formative stages of Diller+Scofidio's
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Dimendberg, Edward. "Blurring Genres." Anderson et al. 67-80.
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---.The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian
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Polo, Marco. "Environment as Process." Canadian Architect 45.10 (Oct. 2000): 14-19.
Schafer, Ashley. "Designing Inefficiencies." Anderson et al. 93-102.
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