Slender Intrusion, Persuasive Corrosion
Everything designed has a purpose; though this may only be disclosed by its engineer. So how do you make a structure more apparent? By dismantling it, by assimilating the very logic of the engineer. It is as a deconstructive engineer that Dora Budor, the Croatian-born and New-York based artist, can be seen to solicit two methods in her practice: to dismantle and to decant.
If dismantling reveals inner workings – cantankerous mechanisms and material underbellies – then decanting such a reveal is to, in Budor’s case, let the exposure contaminate – itself a kind of life. It is not to let objects or machineries languish, but to consider their grotesquery as alien bloom. It is to consider contagions as supple transmissions, to think of derelict conduits as anatomical vessels, detritus and bacterium as colonies of graceless brilliance. For Budor, it is to examine through sculpture, video, photography, and installation, the film industry’s prolapse: its defunct viscera and recalcitrant pasts.
A retrogressive act can bring new potentials to the thing exhumed, and this can be said of Budor’s reanimation of the cinematic prop. The prop was an original made as simulacrum, to soon exist as castoffs of fiction. They withhold themselves as quasi-objects, becoming things. Like a projection or zoom, Budor’s attention sharpens to the minute thing, the prop, and dilates across the subtexts of cinema. As such, intersections proliferate across concepts of the body, the biosphere, the viral, and architecture – with the affect of symbiogenesis, violence, and chaos. In the following conversation, we consider these infiltrations, the slippages of the real and fictional, with all their infectious liberations that insinuate their way through Budor’s work.
Just to start a conversation about your approach to architecture, an event crossed my mind. The flaming apex of skyscrapers in the opening scene in Blade Runner reminded me of another, actually enflamed tower: The Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It erupts in flames two hours before the 2016 New Year’s firework display. The actual burning tower dislocates its original representation to re-instate the very real violence and exploitation these towers have been built upon.
Dubai’s skyscrapers are kept cool by pumping (nearly depleted) groundwater resources up through the buildings and under floors. Complete hydration. It reminds me of how you approach architecture as an organism, but also how the city is the site for the social constitution of the body. How do you consider science fiction’s use of the city, is the building-as-organism latent in the films that interest you?
Maybe it would be good to start this conversation with a quote I found in Anthony Vidler’s book The Architectural Uncanny, which goes like this: “My body is everywhere: the bomb which destroys my house also damaged my body insofar as the house was already an indication of my body” (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness). In few recent projects, I have been engaging with architecture doubling as an organism and its anthropomorphized infrastructures. When I approach an exhibition space, I always try to think in which ways I can engage with its substructure, environment, circulation – of history, of energy, of dynamics of the viewers’ body. What is the inner life of the building I am intruding into? Do I parasitize it, expose it, invert it or completely transform it? That ends up sometimes as turning invisible structures visible, like exposing the electrical structures of The Architect… (2015) series, or reimagining the space of the Swiss Institute basement for the exhibition Spring (2015) as a reanimation-cum-boiler-room, or filling the interior of the exhibition Ephemerol (2016) with a mechanism that could reproduce the destroyed sculpture, but also resembles a fallen monument that could exist in the exterior.
Any intrusion into the space is that of violence, if we think of violence both conceptually and corporeally; intrusion of one order into another, a sensual perforation of one system with another, one imaginary mind-space juxtaposing another. These spaces are not just physically present, they act on you and you act back on them. They influence the way you feel, desire, submiss, dominate, control and reimagine. I definitely owe these reflections on embodied architecture to a circle of writers and architects such as Bernard Tschumi, Frederick Kiesler, Archigram, Reyner Banham, Lebbeus Woods, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Francois Roche and his studio R&Sie(n), to mention just a few.
Remember Corbusier’s “a house is a machine to live in” manifesto? Those houses were beautiful and pragmatic, non-porous, completely contained in themselves. They were able to hide their revolting subconscious interior under tidy shells performing and functioning par excellence. They were like bodies, but not really alive… However, the renewed tradition of embodied architecture after modernism refuses one-to-one ascription, being radically different than the model of unity of the humanist tradition. This new embodiment is a fragmented one, dismembered and morcellated, and its form no longer exists as stable. It leaks over its limits, extends over interior or exterior, and beyond human; it embraces all biological existence from the embryonic to the monstrous. The utopian idea of an incontinent building has been taken on largely by the sci-fi films from 70s onwards, in which megalopolises such as New York and Washington DC are fantasized about as “the body in pieces”, with monuments and buildings now fragments strewn on an abandoned landscape, or leaking pipes and machinery climbing on their walls. It is a mess, this cityscape we are in, and in it one can barely breathe from everything ‘extra’ that has been produced. Vivian Sobchack reflects on this in Alien Zone II (1999); “the omnipresence of waste serves as a sign that the digestive tract of advanced capital's body politic must still be working, indeed working 'overtime' and at full capacity.”
You have spoken before about the act of reanimation in your process, and this appears to be taken to a new scale in your contribution to the recent Whitney exhibition, Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art (1905-2016). Bodies influence this work more than your previous sculptures; perhaps Kata Doksa (2014) is a precursor to this. Can you tell me about this new piece, Adaptation of an Instrument (2016)?
Adaptation of an Instrument is a dynamic environment that reacts to the frequency and excitation of the moving bodies inside of it, weaving together film ecologies with dynamic physiological responses. The Instrument simultaneously acts as a scientific device utilized to measure and diagnose, but also as a system created to produce sensory phenomena occurring between the architectural structure, program and event - your body being the “event”. It can also be considered an organism of sorts, in which the intruding body resuscitates the biosphere of cinema, continuously adjusting itself to the new impulses. It does what a living body does; it gets excited, it reacts back, it flickers and breaks down when its excitation levels reach the maximum, or dies out when the movement inside of it stops.
The Instrument’s program models itself after neurological pathways of a body, transforming the impulses into evolving light systems pulsing through the walls and ceiling of the space. I had a really compelling exchange with three neuroscientists and an architect about the translation of a biological system into architectural one. When the light ascends into the ceiling, it reanimates the scene of thousand of screen-used frog props originally used in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia (1999), as though triggering a flickering memory. Reanimation of the cinematic image evolves in constant symbiogenesis, realizing the structure of feedback and emergence rather than control. I imagined The Instrument to function as an ecosystem, composite of biological and technological forces in which microscopic and macroscopic views of the world are entangled. Conceived as associations of actors, in this system both human and non-human actants affect change on each other via hybrid encounters, alliances or confrontations.
I think it’s always interesting at the end of something to try to remember where it came from, or, what was the initial impulse that you might have dissociated from in the process. Two years ago, when I made Kata Doksa, I already thought of it as a part of a bigger puzzle. I saw the film Magnolia numerous times, and the amphibian rain scene really stuck with me because it seemed to have absolutely no rational reasoning for it to happen, but also made complete sense in all of its absurdity. Actually, it made as much sense as life does, sometimes… Like a sudden upsurge of violent occurrences in the world; a solitary attacker that explodes an IED and nobody knows why, a tsunami that sweeps a town’s houses all of a sudden, or going to see the doctor and finding out that a cancer has emerged in a healthy body. An event that injects disorder and chaos into the world we thought we had total control over.
According to French polymath Poincaré, all systems, from the largest one (like Milky Way) to the smallest ones like gaseous molecules operate like probabilistic systems of chance. That means, that in this probabilistic world of unstable equilibriums small differences in initial conditions create indeterminate or chance results. Poincaré often quotes roulette and the weather as examples of these systems: in a game, small muscular differences that occur while spinning will greatly effect, in a way that we cannot measure, the final outcome. Similarly, the smallest item falling in one geographical location can effect the cyclone happening on the other side of the world six months later. There is a beautiful definition that Edward Lorenz gives of Chaos, describing it as “When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”
In the film Magnolia, the climactic rain scene accelerates and resolves all the narrative plots, even if the resolution is reached through an accelerated disaster and improvisational chaos. I read the interview with PT Anderson, who mentions he was reading Charles Fort’s 1919 Book of the Damned while writing the script, the book that was one of the first written documents dealing with the “damned data” – data which has been excluded by modern science because of it’s not conforming to accepted guidelines. One of the chapters is dedicated to anomalous weather phenomena – and Anderson took this chapter as inspiration for the scene. He talks about amphibians as indicator species from Roman society till today. In Rome, there was a popular saying that you can judge the society by the health of its frogs, which later was used in science – amphibians, as the most permeable, all-body-membrane organisms are the first ones to react to pollutants, environmental disturbances, disease outbreaks, toxic leaks, species competition, radiation, therefore speaking for the health of the whole ecosystem.
Charles Fort was also the first science fiction writer to speculate that the Earth can be viewed as a biosphere. The biosphere is all about one system affecting and translating into another; there is no real outside, everything is connected.
Your work seems to have a material extrapolation of the cyborgian confluence of the human, animal, machine, and matter. I would like to draw attention to the use of wounds, they become almost internalised in the work as a mode of being as opposed to an abject, distant fascination. Innards are not simply exposed in your sculpture. The wound expresses trauma, duration, the impulse and aftermath of different kinds of forces, psychological or physical. To fix it is to refuse further infection, or its capacity to heal. What draws your attention to the wound, is it a commentary on the politics of the healthy, immunised body?
I think the fascination comes with fact that wounds, and later on scars, become signifiers of existence, which is marked and shaped by experience, instead of nature. They hold a certain history, and there is something that has happened in the past that they have survived, or lived through. It is almost like an object that holds a key to decipher a story; an amber stone preserving a mosquito, a relic holding a secret. Or, a film prop holding a memory of a fictional narrative collectively experienced. From a personal perspective, I have always found scars very intimate and bonding, in a way where when you see someone’s scar you can almost touch that specific moment in the past where the thing has happened… It’s the junction point between the past and now.
Can you tell me about the production of When the Sick Rule the World (2015), Conference of Psychotic Women (2015) and Allergic to the 20th Century (2015)? These images were executed in public, how was the reaction?
Since you mentioned the titles, I’ll explain where they come from. When the Sick Rule the World (2015) is a book of stories by Dodie Bellamy, in which the namesake story imagines the inverse of health and disease, and therefore what is considered normality versus abnormality. It is a society in which the sick are dominant, and health is regarded as a flaw, a disability. It says for example, that “Families will be created based not on blood but the affinity of symptoms”, or “the perfume will be outlawed”, and “The sick will refer to people who do not wear gasmasks as ‘breathers’”. Relating to the previous question with scars, Bellamy also remembers reading that the trauma is always in the present tense, in which the body marries the then with the now.
The story also quotes Todd Haynes movie Safe (1995) about suburban California housewife Carol White (played by Julianne Moore), whose life deteriorates under the stress of environmental illnesses or MCS (also known as "Twentieth-Century Disease"). So, the narrative titles of works come from these sources, which are then played in photographic series by a character loosely inspired by doubling and instability of anti-heroines of Robert Altman's Three Women (1977) and David Lynch's Mullholland Drive (2011). Two films possess narratives voicing a subjectivity that reflects a troubling of language, health, and economics. In these three major forms of exchange, through which society clambers to reproduce itself, fragmented identities are fabricated but also even more entangled.
As the movies develop, characters’ identities become more collapsible - they exist in constant flux between each other, and they continue to switch and double with and into each other. The character in all five “appearances” of my photo series is played by the same model, who was aged each day of our shooting by a different special effects makeup artist, with a different level of realism and intensity. My only instruction was to make whatever they would consider the oldest woman in the world. Julie, who was the actress, noticed that she felt a strange disconnection from herself during the shoot – as her face would change and age continuously, it seemed like she was controlled by something outside herself. We shot the whole series outside, using a different location every day; a balcony in Midtown, Subaru Uber, free Ikea ferry or the French restaurant in Greenwich Village. Reactions from the public were ranging from interested to perplexed, and very often they would stare at her and then try to make eye contact with someone else nearby to confirm what they see is true. I think the works ended up being very open-ended, as stills from a non-existing feature that leave it up to the viewer to play out the variable cinematic scenarios, of the potential for these unfixed or unhinged positions, within their own subjectivity.
I’m interested in the viral and seductive in your work. Both are interesting in the sense that to be seduced is to be led astray, and the virus in some way territorialises a diversion or biological loophole. In The Architect’s Plan, His Contagion And Sensitive Corridors (2015) the sculptural frames infect the space, or the black goo at Spring (2015), at the Swiss Institute, that prolongs the opacity of its materiality. There is an interrelation between the body and machine in what is viscous. There is impulsivity and radicality too, in terms of identity politics in the use of testosterone gel – I’m thinking of Paul B. Preciado who does so to, as she writes, “add a molecular prostheses to my low-tech transgendered identity.” Interestingly, when describing the process of spreading the gel over her shoulders, she writes: “It’s simply the feeling of being in perfect harmony with the rhythm of the city.”
Cinema also presents alien emissions with unknown mutability, a kind of life of their own. Viscosity brings to mind transmission, the infectivity of molecular bases in the reproduction of sexual difference. Now, however, gelatinous substances can also be incorporated as new bio-political technologies. The neoliberal disciplining of sex, gender and pleasure have become objects for political management, extending to the machine and advanced surveillance of the body. Perhaps it is an extension of urban architecture.
You have a structural attention to the subtext of cinema in your work, its material constitution and soft, persuasive discourses, and I wonder if this extends to the consideration of contagions? You have mentioned how genetic engineering parallels the changes brought to postproduction - can we discuss this?
Interesting you’re mentioning Preciado’s writing. Actually, I was reading the book right before I made the show Ephemerol (2016), and it really influenced the way I was thinking about the trajectory and interconnectedness of different historic and fictional events. I love how the first hundred pages of the book give a really detailed historical overview of the period before the 1960s where architecture and orthopaedics served as models for understanding the relation of body to power, to the “Pharmacopornographic society” after 60s, in which models for body control have become microprosthetic, and the power starts to act on a microscopic level, through molecules that incorporate themselves into biomolecular and organic structures of the body.
I wanted to think about these ideas through a structure that would enable me to consider different events in a non-linear system, through a simultaneity of situations. The show used the collapse of the real and fictional time onto a same plane, in between creating something that produced a transitive state - a quasi-object, that exists in a relationship to events. I think in the show the most important things were the ones that were not physically present in their real form but just pointing towards them, or the ones that are invisible to the eye. When you enter the gallery, you first encounter a mold that holds ‘genetic code’ for replication of the giant head sculpture from Cronenberg’s film Scanners (1981), which was destroyed in a riot in the film. The sculpture in the film is created by one of the characters suffering from telepathic powers, caused by a fictional drug named Ephemerol, which was given to mothers for treating nausea during pregnancy, suffering physically from extreme permeability of their brains to the ideas and affects of others and making them unable to function normally in society. The script is a translation of a real tragedy that began 24 years prior in Germany, when the drug Thalidomide was prescribed to pregnant women, and subsequently caused thousands of birth defects. It was distributed worldwide, and was eventually banned, lastly in Canada in 1962.
Fast-forward again, this time to 1970s - pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG, that has been involved in similar scandalous activities throughout their history, had asked Danish designer Verner Panton to create a total environment for their exhibition on a pleasure cruiser during the Cologne furniture fair in 1970. It was titled Visiona II, with the main aim to promote their products, but in a very abstract way. The goal of this gesamtkunstwerk was to promote upcoming synthetic lifestyles assisted by all of Bayer’s products: pharmaceuticals, plastics and other artificial materials. The iteration of this exhibition fills the hollow inside of the sculpture, disintegrating the organic “furniture” into its constitutive parts. The outside mold, sutured by the skeleton based on Llizarov apparatus, is made out of special resin used for boats that chemically contains xenohormone BPA (Bisphenol A), which has proven to have an estrogenic effect on humans. Bayer remains one of the largest US producers of this compound today, which on some level makes a full circle to the piece.
This is a fascinating example; aesthetically, that showroom is incredibly psychedelic. Such a strange integration between pharmaceuticals, design, and architecture that could be seen to predate the way our technologies, bodies, and interiors now communicate and interact. Interiors are an interesting feature in your work too, something cavernous, like a bunker or womb – both networked and secluded … I’m reminded of the “biotechnique” that became a feature of Kiesler’s Endless House … This awareness of an experiential, structural continuum …
I was interested how in the process of rematerialisation objects can introduce time, but also collapse different events together. Actants start to create more complex organizations of time and space that permeate through the layers of reality and fiction, in the place where things start to affect, infect and contaminate each other.
In terms of thinking about how have film ecologies changed with introduction of digital postproduction (and preproduction, blurring the actual time of production), there is an interesting correlation to genetic engineering. DNA splicing is done from the inside of the code, from the smallest constitutive parts. What happens when you no longer construct the image from the outside, from reality, but can modify it from the core substance, start messing with the code that makes it? It produces the ahistorical perfect image, a thing without a past, without a relationship to anything physical, a pure idea… But is it a monstrous one?
While the dissecting in analogue cinema was previously executed only between the time units, it has now started to set apart bodies and the spaces surrounding them in architecturally exploded view, or surgically extrapolate pieces of bodies themselves. For example, extracting green key background and replacing it with rendered landscapes behind characters in the front, inserting multiple layers of dirt, rust, dust and digital SFX prosthetics in between, cutting the heads of A-list actors off and transplanting them on shoulders of professional sex performers like the ones in Trier’s in Nymphomaniac (2013), or rigging the digital creatures with human gestures and expressions of MoCap actors’ faces in Avatar (2009). Bodies, which are chopped and composited, falsified and modified, don’t relate to any live referent anymore. They are the undead, endlessly performing and re-enacting digital labour.
Cinematic props are never the principle subject, but serve as ornament. Perhaps their nature is self-obliteration. I am reminded of your interest in partialized objects and liminal resistance in the thing that is not fully alive: belonging to neither. Props serve this in some way, activating speculation that is never fully realised. Zombies also align with this. The zombie symbolises mass, productivity, and an ambiguous relationship to its own subjectivity; it is envisioned as a half-full thing, but still an entity. It is death as well as the state of being undead. How do you figure the idea of liminality, ghost limbs, or phantom-like presences in your work? Are you interested in activating the undead?
I would argue cinematic props are not the principle subjects when they appear on screen, but the ornament. They might seem that they perform a function that is not as relevant as the human actor, but if you think in terms of not what they are, but what they do on the screen, I think there is a strange equivalency with the human actor.
Cinematographic objects are there to express something that transcends them. In disclosing the presence of the object on screen, they often get charged with new meanings, taking away from their functionality and becoming symbols. Also, they never exist as inanimate – wind blows into a red plastic bag, trees wilt down, and you can relate their emotional state with the actress crying in the next scene. Props become characters in a way, but they can also become more things than objects by the process of conservation. They eternally exist as they were captured at that past moment, frozen in time. Then, they can be represented by mirroring the world in the process of becoming, where they can be regarded as events. In these three states: of an instrument, a thing, and an event, they function as highly relational, hieroglyphic and preservational objects.
However, I consider objects mostly in their afterlife, and use specifically fabricated props that contrast the idea of nature. I think you also were primarily asking about this state, which is definitely one of incompleteness, a limbo where they are detached from their perfect image, where they are more dead than alive. Probably, that is one of the reasons why I got attracted to them in the first place; because of their inner desire to be that real object and having a memory of becoming that thing on screen, and then being stuck in the oblivion where they are no longer able to perform, but disclose all of their imperfections. You hold them in your hands, and you see that the rust is not real, that their back side, the camera unfriendly one, is not even finished, that they are ten times smaller than the building as which they appeared to be on screen, and that the snow that is melting on them is just fake, white fluff. You have to ask yourself: what is it about these objects that no other object has? They are ghosts of some kind, reminding you of the fictional event you projected yourself into. I reroute these objects into their ‘third existence’, this time as art objects, and I tend to pick the ones that are partial, flawed. I very often employ the same type of labour that created them; I work with scenic painters, life-casters, animatronic programmers and prop fabricators to integrate them into new situations.
I wonder to what extent there is a non-anthropocentric view in your work. Though science fiction seeks to speculate in a way that refers back to the present reality, bringing with it social narratives we then adopt, when you reanimate these props, substances also generate something anew. The black goo, for example, is like an image that in order to be seen negates itself. Eugene Thacker calls “black illumination” a realization that leads from the human to the unhuman, it does not affirm the human within the unhuman but instead opens onto the indifference of the unhuman. I think this comes back to a more symbolic sense of viscosity too, but I wondered if you consider, as with your use of props, a reanimation of substances too? A dark technics?
I’m pretty much “staying with the trouble” like Harraway would say, when it comes to anthropocentrism. Thacker is very depressive, or at least I do not want to believe that the world doesn’t give a shit about us. Harraway’s idea is against Darwinism, survival of the fittest, and emphasizing competition between species. Basically, it is an inter-species universe, where the microbiome, your gut ecology, can manipulate your behaviour or affect moods, and viruses can insert changes into DNA. It emphasizes the importance of microorganisms, of bacteria and infections, reimagining the evolution against each other as co-evolution. I’m interested in these zones of infection, which in my work are often located in-between different variables of existing, but also in the contagion zones between spaces of fiction and reality, such as the environment Chinchorro People in the show Spring at the Swiss Institute. The source for the primordial moist darkness, environment as the black goo which is spread across floors and walls, stems from two different events, creating a field in which the sculptures either sink or emerge from, and visitors body also becomes part of the system of contagion.
The first source was a recent news report documenting how after 7000 years bodies of the oldest mummies in the world (from the desert-like location Chinchorro in Chile) started to decompose into black slime, due to reawakening of bacteria that was preserved in their skin. The bacteria reacted to the increase of humidity and temperature that was caused by global warming. The fictionalized version of the same story reappears with the use of wet blackness in films as something that regenerates, mutates or reconfigures, the most beautiful example being recent slow-fi Under the Skin (2014). I remember when I was 16 and read Michael Faber’s novel from 2000, after which the film is made, and being really affected by it for weeks after. The narrative, which is more detailed in the book than in the film, but still quite metaphysical and opaque, does something outside of itself – the way the story of Isserley unravels relies on the untold, of the feeling generated not inside of it but around the story, like an expanding cloud, or the atmosphere that spreads, and leaks. And through this, it introduces an undecipherable feeling of estrangement of your own self - that stayed with me for weeks…
A strange feeling, that your body might be the alienated body from the story. I was really doubtful how the film would be able to relay that emotion, and how the projected subjectivity could be translated into something more literal and visual. And then, after watching it, this soundtrack keeps playing in your head over and over. Not the memory of the images, but the bodily memory of the sound. It starts haunting you; the music becomes almost a conditioning state, which stays inside of you when the film ends.