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Fragment of the imagination: assembling new narratives from old

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Montage principles can be extended beyond the image, to lend critical tools to the construction of text

Walter Benjamin describes his method of assembling fragments in Das Passagen-Werk, or The Arcades Project, as literary montage, carrying over the principle of montage into history: ‘That is, to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components.’ The unfinished project, which focused on the Parisian arcade as a ruin, was composed of fragments, including quotes he had collected, as well as his own writings produced between 1927 and 1939, organised in themes that included ideas, figures, material things and architectural forms, such as catacombs, dust, fashion, the flâneur, iron constructions, lighting, mirrors, mannequins and panorama.

According to Benjamin, by the early 20th century, the arcade was an architecture that no longer represented the desires of the population, and so stood for the transitory and destructive nature of capitalism. The allegorical figure of the arcade as a ruin was important for Benjamin as it showed ‘an appreciation of the transience of things’ and exemplified the ability of the ‘amorphous fragment’ to produce a multiplicity of meanings, rather than the singularity of an ‘organic totality’. It provided a site for melancholic reflection on the transience of human and material existence. 

In Deutsche Naturgeschichte (below) from 1934, John Heartfield places images of the heads of men who rose progressively to power in Germany in the 1920 and 1930s – Ebert, Hindenburg and Hitler – onto images of
the stages of development of the death’s-head hawkmoth, as caterpillar, chrysalis and moth


In his Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984), art theorist Peter Bürger defines Benjamin’s understanding of allegory as a four-part schema that involves: first, the isolation and removal of a fragment from its context; second, the combination of fragments to create new meanings; third, the interpretation of the allegorist’s gaze as melancholic – as one that draws ‘life’ out of the objects assembled; and finally, an understanding of allegory as a representation of history in decline rather than progress. Yet in his essay ‘The Allegorical Impulse’ (1980), art historian Craig Owens had suggested that Benjamin’s notion of the allegory could be used to discuss the radical social potential of the fragment and the ruin in a number of contemporary postmodern artworks. It was this that prompted me, in Art and Architecture: A Place Between (2006), to consider allegory as a critical spatial practice, one in which the insertion of a ruined fragment from the past into a contemporary setting could be used to critique the version of the future it offered. For example, The Pits (2005), an artwork by Janet Hodgson, reinscribed fragments of drawings – depicting waste pits located underground and discovered through an archaeological dig – into the new stone paving of a shopping centre in Canterbury, offering a critical reassessment of the value of short-lived consumer commodities.

In The Arcades Project, Benjamin was interested in the politicised potential of the ruined fragment and its operation as a ‘dialectical image’, which, as a visual image or object, attempts to capture dialectical contradiction in an instant rather than as an unfolding of an argument over time. In The Dialectics of Seeing (1991), Susan Buck-Morss has argued that Benjamin hoped that the shock of recognition produced through the dialectical image would ‘jolt the dreaming collective into a political “awakening”’. In his famous 1940 essay, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, he describes how the dialectical image’s key quality is its ability to produce shock: ‘Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock.’ Buck-Morss writes that Benjamin was familiar with the work of John Heartfield, in whose montages two sets of signifier-signified relationships were switched in order to question dominant ideologies. In Deutsche Naturgeschichte (German natural history) for example, Heartfield suggests a causal link between the Weimar Republic and fascism through the placement of Ebert, Hindenburg and Hitler with the stages of development of the death’s-head hawkmoth. But these fragments are located on a dying branch, indicating that progression can be rethought in terms of disintegration or decay. In the tradition of an allegorical emblem, the work has a title and a caption: Metamorphosis, suggesting that to understand political history as natural evolution is a myth.  

In book works and sketchbook pages, Ana Frois takes on found words, using techniques of occlusion through painting, elimination through ripping, and juxtaposition to assemble new constructions

Credit:Ana Frois

Distinct from collage, a term that can be used to describe any aesthetic process of fragment arrangement, for Benjamin, montage was a politicised and progressive form in which a fragment ‘interrupts the context into which it is inserted’. And according to Bürger, although montage is, like allegory, an assemblage of fragments, what makes montage a distinct aesthetic procedure is its lack of ‘unity of meaning’, which produces shock in the viewer. In ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1935), to argue for shock as a progressive way of experiencing artworks, Benjamin differentiated between concentration as the optical mode of viewing a painting and distraction as the tactile experience of architecture. He suggested that it was through film, where the public occupied the position of critic, that montage, used as an aesthetic process, could create an experience where the ‘absent-minded’ viewer was able to critically examine the work. For Benjamin, this kind of politicised art operated in support of social change and revolution – to politicise aesthetics – reversing the fascist mode, which worked the other way, to aestheticise politics.

Bernard Tschumi’s discussion of dis-, cross- and trans-programming was an attempt to bring the politicised montage techniques of juxtaposition and the allegorical techniques of recombination into architectural practice, and was specifically applied through the urban design of Parc de la Villette (1983). Tschumi argued that the layering of one ‘function’ on top of another could produce the potential for multiple programmes to critique and destabilise each other, with cross-programming providing an existing building with a new, unintended function or programme; trans-programming placing two programmes not normally associated with each other next to one another; and dis-programming positioning two functions together so that one could potentially undo the other. 

The Casa dei Crescenzi in Rome is a medieval building composed of fragments of former buildings, the strata of reused materials appearing as tears in the building fabric

Credit:Album / Alamy

In The Pits, an artwork by Janet Hodgson from 2005, fragments of drawings depicting waste pits discovered through an archaeological dig were reinscribed into the new stone paving of a shopping centre in Canterbury, tracing the territorial remains of human refuse over a contemporary site of human consumption

Credit:Janet Hodgson

In literary theorist Sigrid Weigel’s study of Benjamin’s writing practice – Body- and Image-Space: Re-Reading Walter Benjamin (1996) – she focuses on the ‘thought-image’ or Denkbild, a term that Benjamin used to describe his shorter text-pieces, writing that these are ‘dialectical images in written form, literally constellations-become-writing’. Philosopher Howard Caygill reinforces Weigel’s position in The Colour of Experience (1997), suggesting that Benjamin’s mode of critique changed over time, to become ‘part of the speculative effort to discover and invent new forms’. In Caygill’s view, Benjamin’s writing was ‘sensitive to the incompleteness of a work’ and ‘dedicated to revealing the unrealised futures inherent in the work’. This understanding of how interpretations can be open starts to suggest a quality of fragment juxtaposition that focuses less on the particular qualities of the materials inserted into given contexts, and more on the ability of montage to produce an active involvement with a reader or viewer, by inviting them to engage
with the gaps in meaning. 

The textual compositions I configured in Site-Writing (2010) as a mode of art criticism consist of fragments of different styles of prose, both found and authored, in which the gaps between them provide pauses in interpretation. I developed this practice of configuring textual fragments, in both allegorical and montage modes, as a way of constructing architectural criticism in The Architecture of Psychoanalysis (2017). This has involved adjusting the relation of titles to prose, and making arrangements out of images and texts, so that the process of interpreting architecture could emerge from the writing and from the situation that the writer found herself in with regard to her objects of study. May Mo(u)rn, for example, is a series of text-works I produced in response to the destruction of social housing in London, in which the act of relating titles to texts and captions to images in response to specific sites allowed me to perform, rather than explain, an argument. I juxtaposed images of Modernist housing projects, such as Hallfield Estate and the Alton West Estate, with phrases describing the decaying structure of the photographs and the house in which I had found them, so setting new buildings next to ruined matter and mourning as an ending. Later, I reconfigured this text-work into a different arrangement while I was looking for a new flat in London, recaptioned with texts taken from primelocation.com, the estate agent website, describing them as ideal financial investments. 

‘A text, as a transitional space, could provide a place where differently experienced and imagined worlds come together’

In ‘Art, Common Sense and Photography’, artist Victor Burgin, citing critic Roland Barthes, suggests that text can act either as an ‘anchor’ to selectively emphasise meaning in an image, or as a ‘relay’ to import new or external meanings into it. In his photomontages, collated in collections such as Between from 1986, Burgin inserted political texts as ‘relays’ into advertisements to disrupt the fetishising power of the image. His earlier work operated explicitly through montage, using one form of representation to switch or displace the meaning of another; he drew on psychoanalysis to make associative connections through effects of condensation and displacement that Freud describes as typical of the dream-work. In these works, details and gestures are recontextualised through dream and memory – the way the female figure of Dawn, by the German sculptor Georg Kolbe, in the Barcelona Pavilion, holding up her hand to protect her head, reminds Burgin of a woman shielding her face in an archive photograph from the Spanish Civil War. 

In her 1993 book, Architecture and the Text: The (S)crypts of Joyce and Piranesi, feminist architectural theorist Jennifer Bloomer employed techniques of allegorical montage derived from Benjamin to escape binary systems and produce connective meanings between the verbal and the visual. Inspired by the écriture féminine of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, Bloomer’s ‘dirty drawings’ and her ‘hatchery’ create architectural texts out of references to the feminine – breasts, milk, fluids, blood, udders. Written between Spanish and English, and referring to the physical and linguistic borderland between the US and Mexico, Gloria Anzaldúa’s auto-biographical Borderlands: La Frontera – The New Mestiza (1987) is another text written in fragments that critiques not only gendered and sexed binaries, but also the racialised binary of Black and white, celebrating hybrid identities instead. Both texts could be described as ‘feminist figurations’ by Donna Haraway or Rosi Braidotti.

Nancy Spero’s Notes in Time from 1979 brings the contemporary to the historical, drawing upon Grecian scrolls and introducing fragments of text to offer a feminist critique of how historical records position women

Credit:DACS / Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co

In selecting fragments of text and arranging them to create structures of argumentation, I realised I was perhaps becoming more of a curator than an author, a curator-author even, for whom the critical argument resides in the way a text is configured. With no structure designed in advance, in ‘Fuggles Writes’ (2010), a piece focused on the practice of Kentish hop-growing, my aim was to produce a more rhizomatic pattern – a decentred network – to my configurations. This could perhaps be considered an assemblage,and this is the term Anna Tsing uses in The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) to describe her own writing method in which ‘the chapters build an open-ended assemblage, not a logical machine’. The making of assemblages of found objects in two and three dimensions has a long history in art, dating from Tatlin’s early-20th-century counter-reliefs, through the work of the Dadaists, the Surrealists and the Situationists, to Allen Kaprow’s ‘happenings’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s and feminist performance practice. In A Thousand Plateaus (1980), a book structured as a rhizome, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari developed a theory of assemblage influenced by dynamic systems theory to explore the limits to material self-organisation through processes they called coding, stratification and territorialisation. 

In ‘Selvedges’, a recent experiment in co-writing, I used the first draft of an essay as a framework into which I invited others to insert textual fragments from their own architectural criticism. In not quite setting the terms for the production of self-organising writing assemblage, I chided myself for holding on to the vestiges of authorial power in offering a structure. But I realised that by positioning their writing wherever they wished, the writers had opened unexpected meanings from my initial arboreal argument, making new connections at the juncture of fragments. I began to understand that a text, as a transitional space, could provide a place where differently experienced and imagined worlds could come together, and how such fragments could be co-figured (as distinct from configured) as a polyvocal work of architectural criticism. 

Lead image: The constellation-like drawings of Corpo Atelier, such as House with Dyslexic Ornaments (opposite), use handwritten notes and scribbles alongside photographic elements and technical drawings to compose new possible figurations with which to construct architecture. Credit: Corpo Atelier

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