Severed, Reversed: Notes Towards Soda Brücke

In 1735 Leonard Euler translated the Seven Bridges of Königsberg into an abstracted series of lines. The land masses they connected were contracted down to small black points, and so the physical matter of the city was transformed into a pliable matrix that looked like a drawn bow. It now referred only to its lack of ability to connect to itself, to traverse itself completely, in an even unbroken line, and so graph theory, an early version of topology, came into being.

When a landscape or a piece of architecture is travelled through and documented with a lens, the topographies of the surface are lifted and flattened into the condition of the image. The physical space is discarded as a material husk, and the collected images form their own topological model of the site from which they are extracted. This rudimentary model of a topological model is of course a metaphor — the matter involved is now held wobbling in the field of language, a placeless abstraction as much as a graph is, or does. To reverse the pole again metaphor itself is a form of topology, as language mimics and deforms objects to model and affect perceptions of real space.

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On September 20th 1967 Robert Smithson traced a soft line of footfalls through the topography of Passaic, documenting the now familiar landscape-in-waiting which fizzed with forms for him to fetishise into monuments. The landscape is cast as a written narration that eschews transcendental objectivity, collecting instead a series of perceptual moments as eccentric traces of temporal, cultural and geological time frames writhing in the terrain.

Prefaced by the chance encounters between traditional landscapes, contemporary cultural landscapes, and pulp fiction, the first structure invoked as he steps from the bus ride is an active bridge that spans the river, proposed uncertainly as The Monument of Dislocated Directions. Heidegger writes of spaces emerging, or coming into new purpose as two sides, only with the construction of a bridge. Each span splits the ground. Banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream. The location is not already there before the bridge is. As a starting point for an encounter with a landscape, how does this bridge begin to gather this landscape about itself?

Noon-day sunshine cinema-ized the site, turning the bridge and the river into an over-exposed picture. Photographing it with my Instamatic 400 was like photographing a photograph. The sun became a monstrous light-bulb that projected a detached series of "stills" through my Instamatic into my eye.

The bridge, baptised immediately as a monument, is by the same gesture elevated from its material function into the symbolic order. It becomes an image-architecture. Not only is Smithson's first monument an image-architecture, but it is immediately encountered in the text as immaterial: made doubly an image by the fact that it is viewed through the frame of a viewfinder, it is framed as an image of an image.

The monument is customarily the marker that both stands and stands in for something else. It holds a place with the perlocutionary desire to imprint a stilling of time: a lugubrious gape in the present that recalls a located historical event, and a desire that this stilling should be iterative. This monument doesn't do this. It is a severed dead thing, for all the shutter clicks.

If the image is the state of the mortal remains of architectural elements in a landscape, then here we encounter the production of images of remains. Sontag writes: To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. Smithson's works often depict or enact signs of the relentless melt, but his desire to stamp down a foot on the uncoiling rope produces a conscious stilling of entropy which monumentalises it, and produces it as a narrative function. The effects of time on surfaces are ossified in the form of language-as-surface, in that he does not grind down the matter to nothing, but freezes it, shatters it, and rolls it around the tongue. In the mean time, during the life span of a photograph it will collect surface data, gradually change colour, and noise will be amplified in generational degradation, so entropy also switches medium.

Monuments unearthed from Smithson's route to appear in his text are printed as small square ink-dotted photographs that span the tops of the pages, all flat snapshots. The text is more libidinously photographic than the images are – they do not concern themselves with the landscape outside the immediate and indifferent framing of each monument, like blank-bodied diagnostic photographs of the blooms of surface-borne diseases. They are documentary, and they are the least of the document, floating in a sea of text that overwrites and outstrips them.

This is the photograph as gesture, as place-holder, as tenuous proof of the objecthood of source materials, as fall guy. Part of the gesture is the unfurling of a landscape veined with hyperbolic fictions, and its compression back into strung points in space through modes of contemporary image capture.

But if time can be symbolically compressed in a shutter click, in the words shutter click, it is unravelled again through the transfer of the medium back into the mode of text.

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How does the image act, and what is its origin? If we listen to Blanchot, the form of the image borrows the image of the cadaver, inasmuch as the cadaver's strangeness is perhaps also that of the image. He writes of fresh death as the state in which the mourned deceased begins to resemble himself when the deceased is no longer situated in his own being, the image takes over. Similarly, Heidegger describes a damaged tool, which no longer disappearing into its use, appears... Only that which is abandoned to the image appears, and everything that appears is, in this sense, imaginary.

We can move from death to the imagined or imaginary image, and from the image back to death. Tschumi observes a fathomless schism between the dematerialized architectural image, and architecture as the sensual experience of space and as a spatial praxis, nevertheless placing written text and images within the field of architectural representation. He likens their state to the mythological world of Death: that is, it benefits from the privilege of extraterritoriality; it is outside architecture; it is outside the reality of spaces.

For both Blanchot and Tschumi the metaphor of death appears as a noun, but not a verb – as if the image and the thing are always already held apart. The noun is atemporal. But a cadaver is not a static entity, it is not sealed in the freshness of the newly birthed image, unless it is somehow preserved. When left to its own devices it is an object that re-writes its own materiality in a rapid exchange as it cools, stiffens, cycles through an array of colours, swells, bursts, blackens and collapses. This is a rigorously documented chain of events, both orderly in sequence and highly variable in time frame.

A forensic pathologist will meticulously excavate and examine the surfaces, fluids, and organs in a cadaver to discover the cause of death, but is also intimately concerned with the time of death. When people die unseen, away from hospital monitors, on the floors of locked rooms, or in remote accidents, the corporeal remains must be picked through to discover both cause and moment. The body forms an uneasy chronometer, wavering against temperature, air currents, bacterial action, and carrion-eating insect life. The degree to which the body has replaced itself materially marks the time elapsed, and can be traced backwards more or less to the moment of death – the blind spot, the split.

Blanchot's detemporalisation of the cadaver as trace, his arrest of decay in service of the image, resonates with Smithson's production of the extraterratorial entropic image. Blanchot writes: The corpse is not in its place. Where is it? It is not here, and yet it is not anywhere else. Nowhere? But then nowhere is here. The cadaverous presence establishes a relation between here and nowhere. Fixed in the condition of the image, as Smithson's monuments are, its fixity, like that of the corpse, is the position of what stays with us because it has no place.

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Krauss writes: entropy was less a condition of boundaries surmounted within a visualist space mastered by a transcendental subject than a function of a structural blindness brought on by a kind of simulacral riddle that perplexingly has no place in space at all.

For Smithson a ground plan or a topographic map, a logical picture, differs from a natural or realistic picture in that it rarely looks like the thing it stands in for, but functions analogically or metaphorically. In his works Non-Sites he presents geological fragments of landscapes within the frame of crisp-edged abstract sculptures, creating, as he explains, a dimensional metaphor... To understand this language of sites is to appreciate the metaphor between the syntactical construct and the complex of ideas.

Because metaphor never exists by itself but always works by establishing linkages, Knoespel draws several parallels between the metaphor and the diagram. Much like in the metaphor, the meanings in diagrams are not transferred from one agent to another but are constituted in the interaction between the agents […] meanings are formed and transformed interactively.

These works are diagrammatic, demanding a reciprocity with the original Site. They carefully perform the expansion and collapse of the geographical spaces, and processes of engagement with the spaces, within the rarefied spacelessness of the text and the gallery. The works are not, and cannot be, designed to lead an audience back to direct experience, but Knoespel identifies a linguistic orientation within diagrams in which the visual field is shaped from the vantage point of grammatical or lexical structures… where something that is embodied reaches language. Diagrams may mark a way to follow the body into language and even more a way to follow language into the spatial experience of the body.

However, Smithson is often more interested in shifting and expanding the temporal information attached to a site than the spatial. For him the intellectual challenge of thinking about entropy was temporal rather than spatial, which is why he liked the geological metaphor, the idea of a spatial site ravaged by billions of years of upheaval that results in the stratifications of the geological "clock" appearing to have been submitted to the mercy of a gigantic cocktail shaker. By stratifying his observations and abstracted extractions with anecdote, historical and scientific data, he produces the temporal turn of the encountered environment as journey, in a discontinuous fragmentary movement. This leads not towards rewriting specific moments of the past, present, or future, but towards a sense of duration implicit in all things, that can only be spoken of indirectly.

In fact, time is a semantic lacuna that cannot be spoken of directly, but can only be modelled through metaphors and the observation of changes to things. Merleau-Ponty writes: Time is […] not a real process, not an actual succession that I am content to record. It arises from my relation to things. Within things themselves, the future and the past are in a kind of eternal of pre-existence and survival… It is often said that, within things themselves, the future is not yet, the past is no longer, while the present, strictly speaking, is infinitesimal, so that time collapses.

Ricoeur cites temporary bridges created between material associations within metaphors, and then subsequently dissolved as the stream of words advances, between here and elsewhere, in the pair of terms or relationships between which the transposition operates. Objects in landscapes can become a series of discrete manifestations of substituted words. Pointing elsewhere, towards an absence, and an extension of meaning, the metaphorical word takes the place of a non-metaphorical word that one could have used… so it is doubly alien, as a present but borrowed word and as substitute for an absent word. These sites of transfer, of the convergence of modes of the material and immaterial, are also fundamentally reliant on a linguistic interpretation for their uncoding.

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Soda Brücke, or 'just-there' bridges, appear dotted throughout in the landscape in Germany. Unconnected to any of their intended infrastructures, they stand as points pushed into the cadastre, abandoned by the roads or rail lines which failed to connect to them. Like Smithson's monuments, the Soda Brücke are Ruins in reverse, and so they stand spanning roads, pathways, or sometimes nothing, with severed sides sliced out and testifying to time's relentless melt. Their arrested function begins to attack the forms, slowly at first, to erode them by gently weathering their skin, to erode the possibility of completing their connection, and to erode the language with which they may be thought. They are no longer capable of freely occupying a specific place, or time, and, unable to disappear into their function they have entered the same visibility as Heidegger's broken tool. If a bridge summons a place into being, as he insists, then the land that surrounds these incomplete and functionless bodies is returned to placelessness. Flusser writes: Like all mediations, images suffer from an inner dialectic. They are intended to mediate between human beings and the objective world (to bridge the abyss of alienation), but thus they also block the path between the world and human beings. But where does the abyss or the bridge lie if the image is the world?

The bridge-as-image, like The Monument of Dislocated Directions, provides us with a topological model of the metaphor, which is not a single unit undergoing substitution, but takes place between here and elsewhere – in the pair of terms or relationships between which the transposition operates. These are not real spaces, but exist as a model of time – and time itself must borrow from, and create links with space if it is to appear.

Time turns metaphors into things, and stacks them up in cold rooms, or places them in the celestial playgrounds of the suburbs.

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Maurice Blanchot, Two Versions of the Imaginary
Yve-Alain Bois & Rosalind Krauss, A User's Guide to Entropy
Martin Heidegger, Building Dwelling Thinking
Kenneth Knoespel Diagrammatic Transformation of Architectural Space
Rosalind Krauss, Sculpture in the Expanded Field
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception
Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor
Robert Smithson, A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey
Robert Smithson, Strata, A Geophotographic Fiction
Susan Sontag, On Photography
Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Transgression

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