Garage: Luis Ortega Govela and Olivia Erlanger
Luis Ortega Govela and Olivia Erlanger in conversation with Attilia Fattori Franchini
Attilia Fattori Franchini: In October 2018, MIT Press will publish Garage, an extended version of the book Hate Suburbia you self-published in 2016. How did the book first start?
Luis Ortega Govela: It was in 2012, and I wanted to get away from the London Olympics, so I did a road trip through the California desert up to Silicon Valley. When I got to San Francisco, I stayed with a friend in the Mission District who was then working at the Googleplex. She commuted in one of those Google buses that had not yet been protested. I took the trip with her one day listening to Lana del Rey’s Born To die, there was this palpable tension between the city, the pastoral corporate tech campus, and the suburban homes surrounding the office park. These three zones were eerily connected, and illustrated uncomfortable truths about American life, just like Lana Del Rey in our soundtrack, you could feel the decline of a middle class and its culture. At the same time it was wild to think that the “tech revolution” had been planned and invented inside one of these prototypical patriarchal homes.
It was then that I became fascinated with the myth-fact that most technological advancements that were appearing on the market—also changing the ways we inhabit space and communicate—had emerged from a garage in a more sub-than-urban Bay Area. That tension simmered in my head for a while. When I went back to do my final year of diploma at the Architectural Association there was a big wave of encouragement to sort of deal with your hometown. Faculty always pushed students to concentrate on sites that had a connection to their past, so the obvious choice for me was Mexico. But my approach has always been sort of contrarian, reacting against my fathers, so to speak, so I sat down for my interview with Pier Vittorio Aureli and explained how I wanted to fuck with Americana, to challenge it by taking the garage and the foreclosure crisis and explode it as a cultural artifact with imperial colonial power. Expressing something about these structures could help get to the roots of the internet era. So I wrote a queer-Marxist thesis on the garage, a history of it, uncovering that Frank Lloyd Wright was the first architect to attach a garage to a home.
Around the same time, Olivia was doing a booth at Frieze London and needed a place to stay for a couple of nights. She arrived with a huge crate and stayed for two weeks. After that, we were talking on the phone every other day. Mostly about our teen angst, which turned into a collaborative editing project and our first book, Hate Suburbia, and now four years later the conversation has expanded into a film and a second book with MIT. The idea, coming as it does from two different vectors, really is about our friendship and this world we have constructed together, through years of hanging out.
When we were working on Garage, we both moved to Los Angeles and lived in the same city for the first time (we almost killed each other in those first few months, filming and trying to finish the book). If before, my writing was done from a critical distance sort of fed through the image presented in pop culture, this was written from within. I wrote most of the book in my husband’s garage in Highland Park, which incidentally became the cover of the book. My husband sent the photo as a joke to my editor, and a focus group liked it so much that we were bound to that decision! It’s sort of embarrassing to be on the cover of the book like a Kardashian, but ultimately it reinforces the main thing the book talks about, which is the distortion of the American value system of individuality. Maybe it’s even meta.
Olivia Erlanger: My work investigates how the different kinds of collapse in economics and ecologies influence the recent fracturing of identity. In many ways I am exploring American folklore and symbols of the middle class. The garage as a subject came up through my personal history with the space. The garage is emblematic of my teen angst. At thirteen I stole my parents’ car and drove through their garage door. There was a tin can in the back corner where I used to hide weed. I remember distinctly the feeling of anticipation and thrill of sneaking outside through the side door of the garage to smoke my first cigarette. It was the space in our home that I retreated to, to get away from my family, to disappear. I found refuge in the garage.
The garage is also a site of aspiration and consumption. In the bedroom community I was raised in, how many garage doors you had indicated your status. One-, two-, or three-car garages all had very different implications, and even as children we knew how to read this secret language. And in terms of a mythology, I think all American kids come preprogrammed with the Apple narrative, of Jobs and Woz tinkering away in their garage working toward a future no one but them could envision. These two self-made kid geniuses—and potentially cold-blooded narcissists—created the Ouroboros of devices that perpetuates a radical individuality, one that is without responsibility to a greater whole. If the garage gave birth to Apple, then its founders and the space of these technologies’ gestation are in part responsible for our hyper-capitalist, consumerist culture.
In 2015 I opened the show Dog beneath the Skin at Balice Hertling’s midtown Manhattan space. The show included a sculpture titled Palimpsest, which was a garage door with holes drilled through it. The show opened the same week as Luis’s thesis presentation, and we realized the strength of our shared interests in class, identity, and architecture. Afterward we decided to write an essay, which turned into the first book we self-published, Hate Suburbia. From there I felt confident enough to cold call Roger Conover at MIT. I got his number off their website and left a voicemail: “Hi Mr. Conover, my name is Olivia Erlanger. I wrote a book with my friend on garages and I think it’s pretty good.” The rest is herstory!
AFF: Luis, you are an architect, artist, and critical writer, and Olivia, you are a visual artist and writer. How have your different backgrounds impacted the final outcome of Garage?
LOG: Actually I have a love-hate relationship to architecture. It’s conservative, boring, straight, elitist, and for me things and my thinking really started with dance, choreography, social behaviors, design, film, music. Architecture is the last thing that came into the picture, but it was very clear that this was the framework that I could use to construct my practice. I always think about writing as the glue that ties all of these things together, and also allows for my frustrations with architecture to be expressed. To a certain degree it also allows for these ideas to exist outside the hands of private collectors. But maybe this is coming from spending time in China and romanticizing mass production.
OE: Art making and writing requires thinking about the production of images, space, and objects in relation to narrative or larger historical context. I write from a critical framework that is rooted in this ability to create, consume, or dissect objects and images, while Luis’s background in architecture and art, predominantly installation, lends itself to a spatial history and typological reading of space that was integral to the construction of the argument. This is represented in the book through the images of work I made over the course of working on this project, and Luis’s mood boards, which he uses in his personal practice.
Architecture has always been of interest to me and percolates throughout my work. I’ve built structures to house smaller objects, thinking of them as systems or scaffoldings for storytelling. I think this is in part because I was grew up with Randian narratives of the romantic idealism of the architect. My father studied at Ayn Rand’s school of Objectivism, and The Fountainhead (1943) was one of the first books I remember connecting to.
That said, I think it is a strength of the project and of our friendship that we inevitably find a bridge between the vision of both artist and architect. The book is written from two perspectives: one inside the space, and one outside of it. This fluidity and permeability of perspective also allows us to tackle more difficult issues around identity and its construction, as our voice becomes a kind of melding of the two. Personally, my favorite kind of work moves between the rational and the subjective. I think the Garage project achieves this. Its strength is that it traverses many worlds and dialogues. If the garage is the most democratic space in the home, then the first book on it should be, too.
LOG: Working with Olivia is great. Sometimes with other architects I don’t feel like sharing my ideas in such a way, but with Olivia it’s different. It’s also interesting in that she grew up in a Connecticut suburb, and I grew up in northern Mexico with a very clear image of America coming from a huge parabolic antenna attached to the pitched roof of my house. This satellite was feeding my home in Mexico the symbolic language of propaganda as reality—shortening the cultural distance between one country and the other but also functioning as a colonial tool of supremacy. I remember how glorified the United States seemed when I was a child—the economic stability, the cultural exports, the way of life. All of these were obviously facades and screens, veils of a national identity that were being consumed in the States but also in my home and many other homes in Mexico.
There was a distance imposed by language, but these images exported under the guise of entertainment made the border feel like a permeable thing. So I grew up with these two faces, one of America and one of Mexico, that are not cleanly separate but wrap around each other, poke through each other, dissolve into one another, as though the official body of the state were slowly revolving to face me. In a sense that’s how I think about my collaboration with Olivia. It allows me to physicalize these two faces. The schizophrenia exists but I can disentangle mine onto hers. Hers is an experience of being inside this construct, while mine has always had the position of outside and against. This perspective shifted when I moved to Los Angeles last year to write this version of the book and make a film, and came to the realization that America has always been a culture of aliens.
AFF: Garage takes the architectural innovation of the garage as a symbol of the distortion of the deluded American dream, analyzing its genesis in Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and its evolution through the American imaginary. Can you tell me more about this?
OE: As with everything, it begins with the attached garage. If Wright attached the garage to his Robie House, then it’s impossible to separate progeny from progenitor. Wright was notorious for revising his personal history as well. The attached garage is imbued with this legacy of self-alteration and adaptation. The space naturally comes with a kind of transfiguration programmed within for others’ use.
LOG: It’s been a decade and a century since Frank Lloyd Wright erased the dates on his drawings for the Robie House and replaced them with a lie, obscuring the invention of the attached garage. The Emersonian ideals that Wright implemented in his designs reflected a transformation in American identity—one that was increasingly reliant on corporations and hyper-individuals. Since then, what one finds in the architecture of the deprogrammed garage is the ability to self-mythologize an obsession that has generated fictions more powerful than facts.
Within this short history one can trace a trajectory of capitalism as a force of expansion, and the garage functions as an apparatus for the spread of this ideology. These structures were produced as an extension of heavy lobbying from car manufacturers. To create a clientele, they had to make America into a motor-centric culture, and proposals for public transport were thwarted in favor of the car. This “neutral” container, created by Fordism, shifted the production of capital from industry toward a new frontier.
OE: I was indoctrinated with propaganda. America is the best country in the world, land of the free, home of the brave. Manifest destiny. With hard work and determination, you can achieve your dreams. And yet the reality of living here is that that dream has been deferred and perverted. Social mobility is increasingly difficult, and in the age of Twitter tyranny and alt facts, this legacy of transformation found within the garage has perpetuated the ability to distort reality toward that of self-indulgence rather than mutual reliance. The garage, as a temple to the self, is totemic in a society that thinks constantly of individual success over collective success. To access the dream, that of aspirational transformation, with the knowledge and experience of America’s reality—this is the delusion we are referring to.
What I’ve found fascinating is the parasitic way that the architectural innovation of the garage evolved, first attaching itself to the Robie House, and then entering into the first tract housing developments through Joseph Eichler, to becoming a kind of appendix. It’s so ubiquitous that people don’t question the need for it; rather, it is as elemental to home design as a pitched roof. With models of car ownership shifting and the weatherization of the vehicle itself, the garage stands free, unoccupied. While usually empty, it is now occupied more by mythologies of self-realization and potential transcendence. It is a space waiting to be appropriated, and as with the little surviving civic space in most American cities and suburbs, it becomes occupied by escapists, idealists, and freaks.
LOG: The suburbs were impenetrable zones that talked a lot about freedom and democracy, but their reality was a trap for emotional and intellectual impoverishment. In both their physical and their figurative construction, they embodied the American dream and its wreckage. These were the lands of the individual, in which the outdated yet ever-present dream of owning a home came to exist. These homes proliferated as identical objects with unmitigated ordinariness, distinct from each other through a picket fence, presenting an ownership model that disbanded the collective into single families. Their banality is a rather disguised form of urbanism that creates a powerless and strange geopolitical location to inhabit and be active from, further dividing families into individuals. In those areas, identity is created through the consumption of goods. This is the American Delusion, a chronic disorder based on the distortion of a logic that was made for an expanded economic space and applied to life itself. This seemingly autonomous project has transformed into a state of serial narcissism and over-identification with one’s occupation, obliterating any inclination toward the collective. The American mythos created by this delusion already burst a housing bubble; it’s only a matter of time before the start-up economy, in which valuation is not based on real revenue, will go through its drought.
AFF: The book analyzes in particular the centrality of this annex space in the perpetuation of neoliberal narratives within the domestic. Two chapters in the book are titled “Domestication of the Garage” and “Garageification of Space.”
LOG: The phrase “domestication of the garage” comes from a J. B. Jackson essay with the same title. His piece talks about the importance of looking at the everyday, the critique of which is the only way to understand a society. He describes the garage as an American vernacular. Jackson expressed an innate confidence in the ability of people of small means to make significant changes in their surroundings. But I have problem with this self-reinforcing narrative of the ordinary turned extra. In a way, choosing that title was a way of rewriting that history that Jackson lays out, or his position even, so in our version what is exposed is the dark history of how the garage came to be, rather than its status as cultural marker. We talk about how corporations and covenants created the racially secluded zone of the suburb.
The invention of the architectural technology of the garage and its spread as a suburban necessity just points at how shallow American history actually is. It also roots the white heterosexual male in the neoliberal narrative of the ordinary American that falls through the automatic garage doors with hopes and dreams to come out as a capitalist hero thirsty for liquidity. This is a poisonous myth that constantly gets mistaken for reality. The swindle is always in the ordinary; the self-made entrepreneur is never particularly self-made. The notion of an ordinary American as a white man is not the reality now, and it was not the case in the 1970s, either. But this pervasive narrative has turned the space into the id of America, in which the real personality of the home lives.
Garageification is a term I came up with in my thesis to talk about a suburban postindustrial society in which the language and aesthetic of home and work borrow from one another. It described the process of appropriating leftover industrial spaces as a means to define a new way of life, one that defied the system from which it originated. But it also points toward a larger symbiotic condition in which home and work entangle, blurring the lines between industrial and residential space.
OE: Domestication, the process by which you take a wild animal and tame it, is the same process that the garage underwent as it moved from a stable for a horse and carriage to a bedroom for the car. As we shifted away from agrarian lives with farms that would be tended to by many hands, to homes that did not necessarily need to be productive outside of sheltering the nuclear family, the needs of the individual superseded those of the collective. This perpetuates or potentially aids in the development of neoliberal ideologies of radical individualism. When you only have to tend to yourself, the narrowness of survival becomes tantamount. The garage itself is a blank canvas of sorts, a kind of haptic architecture waiting to amplify its users’ projections. The ability to garageify space is best highlighted by Steve Jobs, who was known for his ability to distort reality. In this way the garage also teaches its users how to garageify other spaces, and the devices created within, mythologically born from the space, perpetuate this reality distortion.
AFF: Steve Jobs and Apple, HP, Gwen Stefani, Kurt Cobain, and the development of rock music are used as cases to investigate the strong correlation between counterculture and post-capitalism via the garage.
LOG: I like to think that this idea of being punk and its relationship with the mass became a vortex in a very exciting way. I mean, I can sit here and tell you about how counterculture is always transforming into the predominant mainstream production of capital and depress the shit out of you, but honestly everyone wants to dip their toes in the currents of the mainstream. What is important is how far away from yourself you will let them take you. I think it’s incredible—I’m addicted to these moments by which things shift. Yes, maybe they make the system stronger or whatever, but these stories sketch out tactics, ways of being outside, carving out a new way of being even if for a short moment. The garage scratches the underbelly of the outside.
OE: We both started with the question: What is counterculture anymore? Identity has become so inextricably linked to commodity that people are their brand, and their lives function only as their brand narrative. Where can subversion, or an existence outside a constant stream to a public of intimate moments and “shared locations,” live? With garage bands and surf and skate culture you can see how these small dialogues among kids, who band together to create new sounds or modes of transportation, become co-opted by the mainstream. The garage is the space to incubate and grow together. But what starts as fringe always moves toward the center. I see this accelerated through our interconnectivity, as we are increasingly more aware of and knowledgeable about each micro shift in culture. It feels as if culture is ever differentiating, becoming increasingly more nuanced just to become commodified again through our participation in the production of these miniscule boundaries.
AFF: Garage is also a documentary film, premiering in October at the ICA London. What is its relationship with the book?
LOG: Adaptation—a change in environment and context. We began filming while we were writing the book, so the processes influenced each other. The garage is such a cultural construction, with cameos in film and TV, and presenting itself as a central space for deviation in American mythology. This multiplication of an icon, far from diluting its cultic power, rather increases its fame. So it’s interesting to then document and record how that image has influenced the contemporary American psyche. What’s blown me away is how most of the people we’ve talked to have connections to the historical characters we sketched out in the book: a power to distort reality. But honestly being able to spend time with people who are actually still using their garages for other purposes—starting businesses or feminist permaculture movements, finding ways of surviving—was inspirational to see and be surrounded by while writing. It cast a positive light on what in my mind was a defunct space that was perpetuating a culture of despair. Amid the cheesiness, there seems to be hope.
OE: What the book achieves so perfectly is a nonlinear history of the garage. As we discussed turning the book into a documentary film, it was clear that the most important contribution a documentary could make would be to make visible contemporary users of the space. I realize the strength of this narrative is as much within the people who use the space as in the architecture itself, and suggested the film be character driven. We set out to outline seven archetypes of garage users. In the end we found subjects whose identities and lives are more complex and thrilling than either of us could have ever imagined.
The people we interviewed, our garage-subjects, contest the idea of the suburbs as a predominantly white, heteronormative space. Neither of us is charmed by the current nostalgia for a 1950s Leave It to Beaver suburbia, and in fact it never existed. We are representing complex men and women who, rather than be seduced by the American dream, have to engage with the delusion for their own survival. They are struggling with pressures we all face, financial and familial, that are extremely relatable and sometimes disturbing. The documentary dives into the multiplicity of identity and touches on pertinent themes around religion, family, feminism—all by just asking, what is in your garage?
AFF: What’s been your favorite part of the entire project?
LOG: Focusing on the things that I believe in.
OE: This project hijacked my life, and thank god! I moved across the country to finish both the book and the documentary, and started working in an entirely new medium, film. My favorite part of the book when we explicate the Conspiracy of the Garage.