Cultural Agents Orange
Vietnam Image Machines
For America—and for the rest of the planet that has viewed Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, or the endless eruption of photographs and newsreels of student protests of the 1960s and 1970s—the Vietnam war has been not only a site of painful and costly defeat, or a generation-defining struggle, but also a relentless image machine. For Vietnam, staging a perpetual return to battle is also a national preoccupation. The Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City—the site from which the southern forces conducted the war— is perfectly preserved in luxurious detail. An array of pastel colored telephones, some connecting directly to the White House, sit among the palace’s war maps, lounge chairs, and games rooms. The entire building—and the careful maintenance of the bizarre and jarring proximity of war communications and details of decadent daily life—serves as an orchestrated image that we are led to read as a pristine indictment of South Vietnam and of America’s role in the war and the fight for independence.
A meditation pavilion on the roof of the palace is protected by blast-proof glass. War raging outside, calm meditation inside—the pavilion suggests a vain hope for the possibility of simultaneous protection, containment, and visual control. It is the architectural crystallization of what Peter Sloterdijk has called “atmoterrorist” strategy, and of the related attempts to separate livable air from non-livable air. It is also a primary reference point for this studio that seeks to find, analyze, and reconfigure the relationship between cultural and environmental agents.
This studio builds on and extends the research initiative Collecting Architecture Territories. The initiative follows the hypothesis that the growth of private collecting allows us to glimpse something of the emerging cultural logic of the early 21st century. The project studies the mutation of contemporary art museums into private collecting institutions to ask what new conditions of collection and organization beyond its walls the transformation of the contemporary museum signals. It suggests that collecting processes draw together disparate objects and economies—cultural artifacts, investment finance, energy resources, bodies, military controls, and new technologies—within active spaces of accumulation and exchange.
With the Vietnam war and its legacies as inescapable reference, in light of new antagonisms with China and other neighbors, and with the intertwining of culture and environment at stake, this studio replaces collection with concentration. Through the idea of concentration we will study, reconceive, and redesign cultural institutions—such as the Independence Palace—and other organizations, archives, or cultural processes that bring together artifacts, objects, and bodies. We will also study the current traces and impact of ecocide and contamination from Agent Orange, carpet bombing, and other elements of the chemical war that so drastically altered the Vietnamese environment and that continue to communicate their histories and effects. Hence, concentration will serve as a marker of environmentally altered sites, political histories, cultural institutions, and contemporary markets and circuits.
To link these different modes and types of concentration we will rely on a strategy suggested by a recent intelligence think tank. Their paper, “Collecting Cultural Intelligence: The Tactical Value of Cultural Property,” argues that because cultural institutions and art markets are impenetrable by outsiders, training agents in a branch of “cultural intelligence” would make inroads into black markets and related networks. This form of intelligence would bridge the “licit–illicit boundary in the art market” to connect to other major illicit markets, such as “…narcotics, weapons, and humans—which share trade routes with smuggled antiquities”
The paper speculates that reading cultural clues and tracking cultural circuits reveals a secret and obscure economy. It suggests that cultural agents will be trained to penetrate the art world in order to decipher its ambiguities and its mystification of value and exchange. In this studio cultural agency will be tied less directly to questions of value. Rather, it will be linked to “concentration” as a critical, conceptual, and spatial device that will allow a complex and perhaps unobserved relation between architecture, environment, chemicals, and artifacts to appear.
Hence, the studio will consider architecture both as an agent that organizes, supports, and informs a range of concentrations, and as a type of concentration in its own right. With this double role in mind, the studio will probe various forms of concentration to speculate on architecture’s relationship to cultural representation, cultures of contamination and purification, historical frictions, and the contemporary forces that impact bodies, atmospheres, and artifacts. Within the general framework of the studio, students will identify and research their own topics and sites in Vietnam, develop their own forms of description and analysis, and design new models, sites, spaces, institutions, or environments of concentration, or their distribution.
Students will have the option of working alone or in pairs. Mark and Jarrett will be in studio every day. The studio will travel to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi In Vietnam during Kinne week. Review dates, studio structure, and primary references, will be posted on Canvas following the lottery.
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