Walter Pichler: Prototyping Escape

This was originally written for a seminar taught by Lisa Hsieh at the Ohio State University (it’s been heavily edited since then), but it seems appropriate for this format as well. It’s a bit longer than usual, but I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while and want to just get it out there. I’ve been a bit afraid to publish it because at the moment it feels a bit like Walter Pichler is my own personal hero that no one else is talking about. I’m sure I’ll get over that. Here goes…

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[Architecture] is born of the most powerful thoughts. For men it will be a compulsion, they will stifle in it or they will live – live, as I mean the word. […] [Architecture] has no consideration for stupidity and weakness. It never serves. It crushes those who cannot bear it. […] Machines have taken possession of [architecture] and human beings are now merely tolerated in its domain […] [1]

A statement of singular nihilism, unabashed iconoclasm; a statement Ulrich Conrads once called “the most absolute thesis” in all twentieth century architecture.[2] Austrian sculptor and architect Walter Pichler wrote these words in 1962, on the eve of an exhibition on which he collaborated with fellow Viennese architect Hans Hollein. Titled “Absolute Architecture,” the exhibition added two new voices to the growing chorus of dissent aimed at derailing architectural functionalism. For Pichler and Hollein, architecture was not what it enables, nor what in encloses, but what it is. Architecture is a thing, and it can take whatever form an architect wishes. Given this seemingly impossible assignment, Pichler and Hollein developed a series of underground buildings, modeled by Pichler in bronze and concrete. These underground environments were to have extensive environmental controls so that their position underground would not matter. The two were at this time fascinated by such simulation and the media by which it is accomplished. Though the weight of these first models ended with “Absolute Architecture,” both Pichler and Hollein recycled their conceptual bases in subsequent investigations.

For Hollein, this took the form of literal environmental simulators like his Non-Physical Environment Pill (1967) and later Svobodair Spray (1971), both of which were hypothetical propositions about the power of environmental simulation. Pichler also experimented with such hypotheses in the late sixties, most transparently in the works of his “Prototypes” exhibition of 1967. These strange objects critique new media’s ability to induce laziness and atrophy. Three of these works in particular—TV Helmet/Portable Living Room, Small Room, and Intensivbox—form a kind of suite, all taking roughly the form of an isolation chamber and including media inputs. For Pichler, it seems, media isn’t architecture, hence he makes it architecture by creating armatures to embody its physical presence.

Pichler_Farnsenhelm 1967

Walter Pichler, "TV Helmet/Portable Living Room," 1967

These works are also a critique of his one-time collaborator Hans Hollein’s ironic assertion that “everything is architecture.” TV Helmet/Portable Living Room (1967) and Small Room (1967) are to be worn, while the unrealized Intensivbox is a spherical chamber into which a subject is slid on a track. These isolating simulators remove one from a given reality and can be seen as the ultimate conclusion of technology’s encroachment on the body. Constructed of plastic and embedded with television sets and speakers, these helmets enhance the television experience to the detriment of all else. Pichler hoped to isolate and insulate himself (and his viewers) from the pitfalls of consumerism and media obsession, but in his helmets this took the form of a literal representation of such pitfalls. The “consumer” is isolated from her environment, but within the helmet only media are permitted as input.

Pichler_Kleiner Raum 1967

Walter Pichler, "Small Room," 1967

For Pichler, media are far from participatory but instead somnambulating and hypnotizing, pulling humanity’s attention away from its greatest attributes. Instead of making human abilities more numerous, like prosthetics, the Portable Living Room and Small Room disable a subject from moving with their usual acuity. Unlike the other helmets designed by his Viennese contemporaries, Pichler’s don’t provide more experience or more engagement, but instead subtract. It’s terribly ironic, therefore, that Pichler subtitles his piece “Portable Living Room,” because it is certainly not portable, and at best a shoddy simulation of a living room. The Portable Living Room enables a person to remain motionless, separating them from their obligations and necessities to simply be entertained. Pichler sees media not as enabling but disabling, entrapping, enabling of nothing more than laziness.

Pichler_Intensivbox 1967

Walter Pichler, Drawing for "Intensivbox," 1967

Pichler’s critique mirrors German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology.” Like Heidegger, Pichler rentains a rigorous skepticism towards technology. Speaking of techne, Heidegger writes, “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral […].”[3] Pichler’s provocation is that if one let’s media (or technology more generally) isolate and insulate, it will be to the detriment of other abilities. If a helmet is a Portable Living Room, it means the only important part of the room is the television. Perhaps Pichler foresaw the perpetuation of television’s war on education, its wholesale adoption of entertainment and its denigration of objectivity, choosing to critique these regressions with ironic constructs enabling television’s conquest of attention at the expense of all other sensory function. As television becomes an ever-more self-referential and solipsistic media, early critiques like Pichler’s have only gained poignancy.

Many today sit idle at their terminals or on their sofas for extended periods, limiting the need for handicraft and patience. In Pichler’s world, these traits are paramount, and any device or medium that disables them is worthy of demonization. Pichler doesn’t see technology as an enabler of the strenuous life so much as a preventer. Like the simulation machines in the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix series, Pichler’s helmets and immersive environments provide an armature within which movement is unnecessary.

matrix-pod

Simulation Pod, from "The Matrix," Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999

Instead of a destruction of the technology he demonizes, Pichler constructs ridiculous analogs to their abilities. If television provides a subtle escape from the ordinary, Pichler’s helmets enhance this ability to the point of absurdity. Pichler’s environmental simulators aren’t portable, and in fact limit one’s range of motion quite significantly. Portable Living Room is the best illustration of this fact, it’s elaborate counterweighted system protruding from both sides of the subject’s head obtrusively. It doesn’t fold, doesn’t retract, and doesn’t provide anything but sensory input. One puts it on because of a desire to be isolated. With his “Prototypes,” Pichler definitively states an interest in isolation, a concern that would come to dominate his career thereafter. It is almost as if he is rehearsing a retreat, one that would come to fruition in the mid-seventies, when Pichler indeed retreated from public life to his property at St. Martin’s in the Tyrol region of western Austria, a place dominated by its geography, removed physically and psychologically from the bustle of modern Vienna where Pichler received his artistic training. Returning only to exhibit and to sell his drawings, Pichler remains free to explore and create at his own pace and in his own idiom. These drawing sales have funded an increasingly isolated practice, concerned with sculpting and with constructing ever-more-complex armatures and environments for said sculptures.

Perhaps calling his buildings environments sells short his activity. His constructs are worlds, worlds in which his work is isolated from both critique and the media-obsessed culture it critiques. They are in fact alternate—but not virtual—realities in which his work can remain indefinitely. The “Prototypes” can also be thought of as such. More than mere simulators or enhancers, they offer the subject another world to inhabit, portable or otherwise. Pichler must have imagined himself within them, isolated from the laborious requirements of contemporary life. But ultimately this subtle escape wasn’t enough, leading Pichler back to the Tyrolean Alps, free from his obligations in Vienna and free to investigate the kind of craft- and skill-based sculptural techniques he felt technology would eventually preclude.


[1] Excerpted from Pichler, Walter. “Absolute Architecture,” in Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture edited by Ulrich Conrads (London: Lund Humphries, 1970): 181. In this manifesto, Pichler develops the thesis that architecture cannot act as anything but an impediment to humanity.

 

[2] Conrads wrote this in his introduction to “Absolute Architecture,” written in 1970. Programs and Manifestoes, 181.

[3] Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays translated by William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977): 4.

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Facing the Hole: Overthinking Fox Network’s “Hole in the Wall”

Sunday evening I had the “distinct pleasure” of witnessing two back-to-back episodes of Fox Network’s Hole in the Wall, a game show of sorts where teams of awkwardly-clad contestants contort their bodies in order to slip through punched shapes in a moving wall. Successful contestants score points. Those who fail are pushed into a dunk tank. Something so mindless isn’t necessarily deserving of attention, but there’s just something strangely compelling about Hole in the Wall.

Image: Yahoo TV

Image: Yahoo TV

The basic ingredients of conventional television are all missing: there’s no formulaic comedy, no formulaic drama, just formula. Every episode contains such a high quotient of the same explanatory dialogue that one can only assume they plan on almost no repeat viewership. An elaborate framework is repeated in every episode, but said framework includes surprisingly little game show get-to-know-you dialogue, leaving room instead for improvised dance moves and silhouette graphics. Little room is left for episodes to be different from one another. The structure is so rigorously composed that no contingency is permitted. Contestants are given no more than a few seconds to introduce themselves, and are instead objectified through a graphic listing their physical stats and a mugshot-like video. 

Image: Yahoo TV

Image: Yahoo TV

This may not be much different from other game shows, but what sets it apart is the oddly philosophical game they are playing. Hole in the Wall is a very unconventional show about convention: it dresses contestants up in the least flattering catsuits this side of Adam West in Batman and forces them through a series of strangely-proportioned shapes, all with a vague promise of money and prestige to encourage them. In the end, nobody fits the unrealistic expectations of the wall, but enough play is permitted that an odd contestant or group clears the obstacle. It’s an odd commentary on beauty and body image: a series of anthropomorphic-yet-abstract shapes through which imperfect and real bodies are forced to contort in order to achieve fame and fortune. 

Unfortunate, then, that the show’s hosts are such bores. Brooke Burns, a model-turned-actress in the most derogatory sense, eternally clad in a little black dress, interacts with contestants so unnaturally that she seems a stiletto-heeled robot, and “TV Personality” Mark Thompson seems to annunciate no words but the show’s moment-of-truth catch phrase, “It’s time to face the hole.”

The show started to make a lot more sense once I learned that it was in fact a reworking of a Japanese program for the American market. Remarkably, after watching a few clips of the Japanese version of the show, it seems to me that Fox has over-rationalized the thing in translation. Often, in the Japanese version, the shapes are not only funny, but impossible to clear. There seems to be more interest — and more entertainment — in making fools of the contestants than in fulfilling their dreams of easy money. In America’s version, there’s no room to be goofy anymore, it’s all business. The producers have left no time for the type of wonky, human playfulness that makes the rare reality show (and, presumably, Japan’s original version) palatable. 

Fox has taken a strangely funny concept and sucked all the life out of it, but they’ve ended up with something unintentionally meaningful, an essay on the absurdity of the human and especially American desire to fit in. Hole in the Wall airs Sundays at 7:00 PM/6:00 PM Central. Don’t watch it. In fact, avoid it like the plague.