Architectural Psychoscapes: Francois Roche
Interview with Francois Roche on behalf of s/he, by Dora Budor
Dora Budor talked to Francois Roche, a cofounder of the Bangkok-based, French-originated collective New-Territories, a polymorphous architectural organization that was established in 1993 and is fronted by the transgender avatar s/he, on whose behalf Roche speaks here. Since its genesis, New-Territories has existed in the multiplicities of the architectural practice R&Sie(n), the movie-focused robotic lab in Bangkok M4 / MindMachineMakingMyths, and the Institute for Contingent Scenarios [eIf/bʌt/c], among many others. As fluid and protean as all the entities through which it speaks, the synesthetic programs extend from manifestos to fiction, from chitchat to theoretical texts, from ephemeral installations to an architecture that invokes ecosophy, information technology, biology, and human and robotic pathologies. Discussing the political program of architecture through strategies of disobedience, de-identification, biopolitics, and psycho-pathologies of the human animal, Roche also speaks about how built structures need to embody the suppressed, polluting, and unstable moods of surrounding environments and their inhabitants.
DORA BUDOR: Francois, you have been migrating your studio over the last several years between Paris, New York, and Asia. Where are you located now?
FRANCOIS ROCHE: I’m in Bangkok, where we’ve had our lab for the last four years. Our studio is floating on the Chao Praya river. On the top there is a seven-axis robot and below it is like a zoo, with a whole family of Asian water monitors. Those are large crocodile-like iguanas, around three meters in length. Sometimes there is a connection between the lab and the zoo, the robot and the beast, through a kind of incestuous techno-animism. As we are about to start the interview, I have to tell you that I will be speaking on behalf of my avatar, s/he, who needs to approve the content.
DB: Are the roles between you and s/he, the avatar that you constructed in 1993, constantly evolving? What are the dynamics of the relationship? How does the transgression of gender binaries through your avatar help in making architecture that is not heteronormative, that does not conform to already-established rules?
FR: S/he is a kind of doppelgänger, a Siamese twin, the mask of Mishima, an avatar of Vishnu. Androgynous in appearance and with a queer attitude, s/he has enabled me for twenty-five years to maintain a singular voice, coming from nowhere, emerging from territories that abandoned the posture of authority, of discourse, and of academia.
In order to disqualify and corrupt the pretended value and skill of the architect, between the hoax of social service and propaganda, or childish fascination for up-to-date technologies, s/he has enabled me to talk about the unreachable “thousand and one plateaus” where schizophrenic voices are able to consider operaismo as a strategy of infiltration, in the form of multiple whispers that are speaking through Parrhesian trajectories. There is a potential to fork personality disorders in order to escape from the linear discourse of knowledge and power, where cynicism and indignation are symmetric, two faces of the same coin. S/he refused to be or to act as cultural merchandise. It situates me sometimes in an uncomfortable position.
The avatar was born in the middle of the 1990s, coming from the need to de-identify the author, to question the branding strategy of the architect, but mainly to create a conflict between “who is talking, who has the right to talk, who has been delegated by an authority, an institution to justify his own rights to talk.” Waiting for Godot and Jacques Lacan’s Seminars are not so far afield. Criticizing architecture, or making critically critical architecture, is not a deconstruction in terms of shape or semiology, but it means requisitioning the territory of power from where the architects are developing authority. On the opposite end, s/he allowed us to blur the chat, to reverb it back in mise en abyme, as a permanent echo for dissonances and malentendus (meaning somewhere between “misunderstanding” and “mishearing”).
It started in the 1990s as a strategy of denunciation, and ironically around Y2K became a coquetry, producing the exact opposite of what it was supposed to. Yet now s/he is more a kind of Don Quixote, where her/his madness reveals the hypocrisy of the situation. That could be why this May, her/his lecture at e-flux was censored. A few hours before the event, e-flux enacted Trump’s queer/homophobia syndrome. Do you think that they consider a virtual trans-character less sensitive than an LGBT person from Texas?
We are facing, historically, what Noam Chomsky put forward in his latest book Who Rules the World? (2016), a return to the Dreyfusard/anti-Dreyfusard polarization. Not only in terms of anti-Semitic (or in our case homophobic) propaganda, but also in the positioning of two types of intellectuals, on the one side those based in academia or situations of power arguing to preserve the system of means, meaning, and authority, and using politics to create a diversion, as entertainment; and on the other as s/he proposed, in a strategy to desacralize the system of representation and its logic of domination. The homophobia around these characters (real or not) functions as a lure, a diversion, to in one case revive white activism, and in the other case to assume the phobic fear of self-criticism as the virtue of intelligence, and the eviction of the fictional s/he who incarnates an apparatus of biopolitical strategies, in order to maintain the fiction in a storytelling frame, inoffensive and innocent.
So we have to take care that we as LGBTQPIA are not so easily manipulated. When in Testo Junkie (2008) Paul B Preciado reintroduced the idea that the collateral effect of testosterone given to women in America was to produce more efficiency in the age of weakness, that was similar to the problem we are facing now, in that our free will is crossed by a strategy of discourse, meaning, pollution, and physiology. It is important to recover the notion of disobedience. And it is necessary to apply a strategy of risk, of disqualification.
DB: Can you talk about the particular interests in biopolitics that you share with Preciado, and how they have been incorporated into your work in the form of non-stagnant systems that evolve (or degrade)? In both Architecture des humeurs (2010–ongoing) and I’ve heard about (2004) you make palpable the internalized mechanisms that control the body, as well as micro-prosthetic and molecular transactions that constitute “the emission of desires.” The structures you present are dynamic and reactive modules that attempt to adapt through technology according to their inhabitants’ chemical imbalances and physiology.
FR: That would be Jean-Didier Vincent’s “biology of emotions.” Vincent was the first neurobiologist who tried to analyze the correlation between something called the reptilian part of the brain—creating an atavism, an instinct of surviving—and the psyche, while attempting to analyze the relation between the intrinsic chemistry of being and the interpretation-dependencies-reactions to an environment, to a situation. Neurobiology and suppression, part of the brain secreting dopamine, adrenaline, cortisol, serotonin, facing the id, self, and superego, Freudian psychoanalysis systemic.
The research that was produced for two main exhibitions was an attempt to reevaluate architecture as a bottom-up process, using more specific information than only language to define our willingness, desires, and free will. The human machine is crossed of a beast and an acephalic dimension, fluidity and chemistry as pre-psychic reaction.
“Hippocrates” temperaments are back; we cannot talk anymore of being in a purely organicist vision. It means that we are crossed of sensation and emotional cortex activities, which form the axioms of the Architecture des humeurs and “I’ve heard about.” By rereading through technologies, this part secrete (in French it means both “secretion” and “secret”) comes through as a proposal of negotiation, of malentendu, of individual alchemistry and social relations. Architecture is not only done by a modernistic kind of programming, which associates spaces to shape or function, but is a “linking” that articulates our libido, nostalgia, phantasms, fears, and protections in a fictional relation with sex, space, power in the age of post-digital, that is able to de-alienate and re-assemble the puzzle. As a condition we accept to lose control, to un-determine the procedures, and to include the human, with his/her faults, failures, weaknesses, and misunderstandings. When developing an anthropo-technic approach, his/our pathologies are con-substantial, in co-dependencies, in co-relations, far away from the post-human farce of perfection and religious scientistic positivism.
Architecture doesn’t mean only to create buildings in the public space, but also to create debate in public space, through building and/or attitudes able to make a building. I’m fed up with LVHM overdesign for world gentrification, where technology is used in terms of accuracy, expertise, performance—new hygienism and amnesia as a business model.
DB: You quoted Jean-Luc Godard in one of your previous interviews, saying, “To make political architecture is to do politically political architecture.”
FR: Godard is very sharp in declaring that, but I wonder if Jacques Rivette, Jean Rouch, and Jean Eustache are more efficient in the way they perform it. Mainly it is talking about the notion of style, similar to Gustave Flaubert’s or Parnassian R&D. The format of something means something, not only in the inclination of discourse, but in how to vectorize it in the public space. “Attitude with form and reciprocity,” to over-quote Harald Szeemann.
DB: That relates to what you mentioned before about the uprising of 1968, where some of the radical leftists tried to change the system by infiltrating French car manufacturers. You say that the failure might stem from them trying to change the means of production, but they never evaluated the possibility of changing the design of the car. Let’s talk now about the idea of infecting the design of the car, and how you contaminate a system from within. Your structures reveal their inner workings—they get sick, swell, get polluted, disconnect from the grid.
FR: In Unplug (2001), which is a never-realized building on La Defense (commissioned by the research department of the French electricity utility), its reactive facade questions the benefits of the deficit of radiation from the sun. The monolithic representation of the generic office building becomes a monster through the sun, making visible the benefits of sustainable energy while at the same time revealing the pathologies of exposure to UV rays, triggering a melanoma of the glass skin of the building. Architecture can’t reduce the tension between the benefit and the deficit, but works as a permanent debate, as an ambivalence in society. Technology is a critical operative tool for action and production of a situation of transformation, but without trying to deny complexity—to serve as a precipice to render the conflict more visible.
Regarding North Korea we did a ballistic project (he shot me down [2006–7]), for which in an underground level of the office in Paris we did tests with a rifle and perforated clay to understand how the ballistics produce simultaneously the flower of destruction and the horror of perpetuation of the Cold War. We are always caressing the monstrosity as well as the beauty of monstrosity, like Hieronymus Bosch did.
The idea of Antonio Negri’s “workerism” or Italian operaismo relates to that, as the opposite of the Marxist system of demonstration. It was infiltrating the fiat, understanding the weakest point in the situation to destabilize the organization of transmission of tools, knowledge, goods, everything.
DB: The first project of yours I ever read about was DustyRelief (2002), a project for a museum in Bangkok that would absorb the gray city around it, pollinate it with carbon monoxide, and grow an electrified shell that would continuously accumulate dust and particles from the polluted air. There is a description on newterritories.com talking about more than fifty words that describe the absence of color, and a reference to Man Ray’s famous 1920 photograph Dust Breeding, which depicts Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass (1915–23) in the studio having accumulated a year’s worth of environmental dirt. What happened with the plans for the building of the museum?
FR: A military coup in Thailand in 2003/4 stopped the production. We then worked for the same client on another project, which was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2014 and was also stopped by a new military coup, in 2013. The irony of history. That one was called Timidity Symptom, where we were making a contemporary art museum that exists in a relation of dynamic antagonism toward the forest. We tried to define pheromonal allelopathy, what you could find in certain trees of Thailand called “crown shy.” In that humid location, both architecture and the forest are facing their existence as two sumo fighters, too tired to keep fighting. We scanned the forest over three months, in X, Y, and Z dimensions, to define architecture as a negative space, the void in the foliage.
DB: Another project you did for the Venice Biennale was presented at the French Pavilion in 2011, called Building Which Never Dies. It contained radioactive uranium?
FR: It was for the biennale curated by Kazuyo Sejima, the pope of whiteness, the architectural bleach for the amnesic client, immaterial and atemporal. We worked with the Austrian company Zumtobel to research a project involving the most paranoiac material created by the twentieth century, a radioactive isotope, which represents at the same time the ideology of progress and its drama. We found a way to buy ten kilograms of uranium powder and jail it in glass beakers, and it had an extremely ominous greenish afterglow in the dark. This afterglow could be used as a sensor for the intensity and specificity of the UV radiation in the atmosphere, stemming from ozone depletion. At the same time, this matter became the detector of our past and future paranoia. This is a collective debate as to whether the next step after fossil energy would be either sustainable or nuclear—or both.
As architects we cannot abolish the risk of being in the world. We are involved in “making visible” even what we suppressed. Nothing under the carpet, for a footprint without reductionism, and design as a scenario of both being the apparatus of knowledge and questioning knowledge (that scares you and caresses you), which reveals the ambiguities of each situation as critical and operative tools.
DB: Your 2015 book MythomaniaS serves as a catalogue of environmental-architectural psycho-scapes that are represented through films, props, texts, programs for machines, and bio-architectural constructs, all case studies made by MindMachineMakingMyths, which is part of your New-Territories studio. In these cases you use speculative fictions, myths, and storytelling to create a narrative architecture. How do fiction and speculation work as an architectural practice, and how do they contrast with the expectation of exactitude and linearity?
FR: MythomaniaS came from the impetus to reduce scale and confront a smaller program, including human psycho-pathologies. We started working on it five years ago in Bangkok with a seven-axis robot, in collaboration with Camille Lacadee, to develop a relation between trajectories of machines and physio-psycho relations that would be capturing sweat, Tourette Syndrome, screams, tumbles, cruelties, railleries, moods, solitude. It became a catalogue of case studies, of architectural fragments and stage props used to construct environmental and architectural psycho-scapes that function as laboratory shelters for exploring and disturbing the supposed rift between realism and speculative fiction, psyche and environment, body and mind, and “mania,” which refers, etymologically, to an insane drive of perception-projection.
DB: So it acts like a virus corrupting and infecting the code with its own.
FR: There is an analogy with the cut-up of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. Two algorithms are protocol-ized to be in conflict, where the result became an unpredictable artifact, a kind of battle between the sensor feedbacks in real time, and the intrinsic logic of the machine code, meaning that all positions are conditional, from where it should have been to where it should be—as the antidote for determinism, as a process of discovering instead of announcing certainties—to bring back the golem, the phantasm of the bachelor machine.
I remember the case of the “Air Loom” machine during the French Revolution. There was a rumor in England that every boat coming from France needed to be checked, because it might carry in its belly a machine able to influence the minds of the people and import the iconoclastic “declaration of human rights.” Fiction is, as Michel Foucault reminds us, a “tool to knot and unknot realities.” S/he and New-Territories are mainly focusing on this paradox, abusively.
DB: Speaking of intertwining fictions, Bruce Sterling wrote a narrative that functions almost as a film scenario extending from one of your projects. It was a report from 2030.
FR: Cyberpunk writers are no longer storytellers, but sociologists. Sterling described a world in which a house is not reachable, just because it has been developed as a phantom, a stealth emergence. An art collector once asked me to make a house for him, as a representation of his collection and taste. I agreed on one condition, to frustrate him by doing a design without any facade. There would be no way for him to take pictures of the house, which is in Nimes, called “Spidernethewood,” wrapped all around with netting and growing trees. There can be no representation of its value, or of the ego of the owner.
DB: Another letter from the future was your retrospective at FRAC Centre in Orléans, France, last year, which was titled s/he would rather do FICTION MAKER. Simultaneously projective, it was subtitled 1993–2050 Flashback, presenting fifty-seven years of work, scenarios, projects, controversies, and foresights.
FR: That was also s/he, assuming the contradiction of the arrow of time and troubling postures of now. S/he was talking from 2050, old and bitter, against herself and society, not so far away from Ayn Rand’s 1943 book The Fountainhead. The text was written from the position of an architect dreaming of the freedom that nobody actually wants. After the drape of the avatar and multiple videos, the exhibition was a cavern of Ali Baba, architectural models all on the ground, which could have been effectively fragilized by the visitors, with all the texts, letters of ad hominem fights, images, projections made in the last twenty years, including political statements, neighborhood protocols, bottom-up design, machines and psycho-attitudes, human pathologies. FRAC went mad. Everything was desacralized, schizophrenic.
New-Territories has participated in the Venice Architecture Biennale eight times, and its work has been exhibited at the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Tate, London; the Barbican, London; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany, among others. Roche has held guest professor positions at Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Bartlett School of Architecture, the University of Southern California, and the University of Applied Arts Vienna.