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Dust revolutions. Dust, informe, architecture (notes for a reading of Dust in Bataille)

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Dry, light, impalpable, volatile, dust is somewhat less dirty than dirt. And yet it remains - physically and hygienically but also metaphorically - an ambiguous antagonist and an always present element of architecture. Dust physically attacks and
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   t stoppani 20070711 Dust revolutions. Dust, informe , architecture (Notes for a reading of Dust in Bataille) Teresa Stoppani University of Greenwich  Abstract Dry, light, impalpable, volatile, dust is somewhat less dirty than dirt. And yet it remains - physically and hygienically but also metaphorically - an ambiguous antagonist and an always present element of architecture. Dust physically attacks and alters the materials of architecture, while it is, in fact, partly made of architecture’s materials, through their wearing, weathering and ruination, from fragments, to debris, to powder. Always at work with and on the materials of architecture, dust alters their properties and produces visual and tactile modifications. Dust thus measures and occupies the distance between architecture’s image – its idea and representation - and its physical realization - construction and inhabitation. The workings of dust reveal the precarious and dynamic nature of architecture. And yet, dust is usually “invisible” to architecture. Only a material approach that reconsiders architecture beyond its established ideals and the fixity of its forms can “see” dust and read it as a dynamic agent of change. In George Bataille’s work the active presence of dust allows to “see” an architecture of becoming that questions issues of form definition and signification. A “dusty” approach to architecture’s materiality allows a breaking away from the established ‘architectural straitjacket’ (Bataille), towards a redefinition of form making in architecture as a negotiated and dynamic process.   t stoppani 20070711 Teresa Stoppani Dust revolutions. Dust, informe , architecture. (Notes for a reading of Dust in Bataille) Introduction  How arid it is - how fertile it is how joyous it is - how sad it is Marcel Duchamp i  Dust is less dirty than dirt. Dry, deprived of wetness and greasiness, dust is light, volatile, mobile. It settles and accumulates, but it is then easily airborne again. Dust travels. It is, for this reason, heterogeneous. It collects and incorporates particles of different srcin, bearing traces of its movements and whereabouts in  – rather than on - itself, by exchanging parts of itself with its environment(s). It gathers and it leaves itself behind, constantly engaged in a mutual exchange with its place. Even in apparent total stillness, dust moves with gravity, and grows. Dust is form-less, it does not possess its own form, and it takes on that of its host, the nook in which it sits, the surface on which it is deposited. It is, in this sense, apparently passive. And yet, in this, it activates. In setting and settling, dust relieves. It relieves in the sense that it measures, increments and enhances set forms and surfaces while coating them; in covering and obliterating them it makes them more visible. It relieves in the sense that it sets free, it opens forms, increases them, opens them up to redefinition, growth or reduction (some dusts corrode). Dust is also multi-form, in that its form changes and exchanges constantly. It changes its shape according to the form and the dynamics (air movements) of its environment. It changes its composition and texture by constantly exchanging particles with its environment. It is open. It has no traceable beginning and no end. Dust is open and it opens. Pervasive and omnipresent, it penetrates everywhere. It knows no interior and no exterior. It has no boundaries. It does not transgress; it invades and pervades. For all these properties, for its per-formative openness and because it is incessantly at work, dust can be analyzed as a spatial index for a revised, and unsettling, reading of space in dynamic terms. In this sense, more than in relation to physical and hygienic concerns, dust is relevant in architecture, as it unsettles regimes of order, propriety, permanence, control, that have otherwise and so far characterized and defined the discipline. ii  An unwanted and yet inevitable component of architecture, dust is left unaccounted for and therefore made invisible by official histories, erased from the space of representation, ignored or removed from the space of inhabitation. Removed, hidden everywhere in invisible crannies, polished away from the surfaces of architectural interiors, edited out from architectural representations, dust is made to disappear. To bring it back, to decide to see it, to look at it, means to expose uncomfortable and unresolved issues in architecture and in the urban that remain, like dust itself, silently but incessantly at work in the making (and undoing) of space: form and the undoing of it, boundaries both physical and intangible, their permeability and porosity, their faults. To consider dust in relation to architecture then opens up the larger question of what architecture is, once the systems of reference that characterize and define architecture are broken – pulverized.   t stoppani 20070711 This paper explores this question by focusing on the insights offered by Georges Bataille’s brief and provocative texts on architecture. Bataille’s position on architecture can be fully understood only through an examination of his works that includes not only his more directly and explicitly architectural texts - such as those in which he addresses the discipline itself (‘Architecture’), specific buildings (‘Notre Dame de Rheims’), architectural metaphors (‘The Labyrinth’) or building types (‘Museum’, ‘Slaughterhouse’) iii  – but also those which complement his view on architecture by considering the making of space and the definition or challenging of form – ‘Dust’ and ‘Formless’ (   Informe  ). iv  ‘Dust’ and the ‘Formless’ as proposed by Bataille indirectly expand the definition of architecture because they do not address the image of architecture or its edifice as building, but explore the space that architecture defines in open and dynamic terms. And while the ‘  Informe ’ has been examined in relation to art by Yves-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss,  v  and to architecture by Andrew Benjamin,  vi  a reading of ‘Dust’ in conjunction with the ‘  Informe ’ allows a further development of Bataille’s position on architecture in the sense of the dynamic. Writer, critic, philosopher, independent intellectual who operated outside academia and across disciplines to cultivate his multiple interests, Georges Bataille (1897-1962) had a difficult but productive relationship with the Surrealist movement and with the political left of his time. Challenging the society and culture in which he operated, Bataille’s texts offer a counter-reading whose subversive character does not consist in a demolition from the outside of established sets of  values, but in a systematic and pungent exposé of their contradictions and intrinsic ambiguities. It is almost as if Bataille could see the invisible – what others could not or would not want to see - and endeavoured throughout his life to show it and narrate it. In Dominique Lecoq’s words, Bataille dedicated his life to ‘the experience of the impossible [and] relied on literature to transmit its sense’ (Dominique Lecoq).  vii  Bataille ‘sees’ dust and activates it as an agent of change, while modernity endeavours to remove it from the bourgeois interior and from the streets of the city and while the architectural Modernism proposes dreams of cleanliness, hygiene and total transparency. Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno, Genoa. Detail of a funerary sculpture (photo by T. Stoppani).   t stoppani 20070711 Dust revolutions In her book  Dust   (2001), Carolyn Steedman writes on dust, history, memory, the archive. She writes mostly on dust and the historian, but she also tells stories of dust.  viii  It is here that, in passing (and closing), she muses on the bifurcation of meanings of the verb ‘to dust’, into ‘remove something, or […] put something there’ and ‘cleanse a place – usually a room in a house – of   dust’ or ‘sprinkle something with a small portion of powdery matter, as in “to make dusty”’. ix  Steedman offers of these opposite definitions a reading that holds them together in a tension in which dust ‘performs an act of perfect circularity’. x  There is no dichotomy here, no ambiguity, no stasis. There is not even a conflict, but a continuous circular motion. What is most interesting here is that Steedman links the ‘act of perfect circularity’ performed by dust to the semantic circularities analyzed by Sigmund Freud in ‘The Uncanny’. ‘What is there to say about strange semantic circularities like these? – except perhaps, that they were most strikingly discussed by Sigmund Freud in his essay on ‘The Uncanny’ (1919), in a kind of psycho-philology […] in which the word for the utterly strange ‘leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’, where the unheimlich  finally coincides with its opposite, the heimlich , the most familiar of things: a woman’s body … ‘the place where each one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning.’ 8  (All of this must   be about narrative, and here with Freud – in the translation of Freud – the distinct possibility of a fairy-tale.) […] the  Heimlich  and the unheimlich  do coincide; but not without a little labour on the part of the philologist-cum-psychoanalist. Whilst ‘dust’ on the other hand, verb transitive, just does it for you, all at once: to remove dust; to sprinkle with dust.’ xi  For Steedman, dust bears in itself the semantic circularity that in Freud’s excellent example is constructed by the oscillation between the Heimlich and the Unheimlich, the word and its apparent opposite. In dust instead, oscillation of meaning that produces circularity is already contained within the word itself, that is, when dust is dusting, when it is activated as a verb. Far from a static debris to be removed or ignored, and intrinsically dynamic, dust can then be reconsidere in architecture as an agent of movement that questions form. Dust and Architecture Dust both shelters (coats) and infiltrates (corrodes) the materials of architecture; it alters its forms both  visually and physically. Dust is, in fact, partly made of architecture’s materials, through their wearing, weathering and ruination, from fragments, to debris, to powder. Always at work with and on the materials of architecture, dust alters their properties, but the modifications it produces are not only  visual and tactile. As it sediments layers in time, dust ‘relieves’. It takes measurements that are also construction (relief). It also sets the form free (relieves it) from itself and its given definition, adding and subtracting to and from it. Dust occupies and measures the distance between architecture’s image and its physical realization, the non-coincidence of its idea and representation, and construction and inhabitation. Dust brings to architecture that which is difficult to measure, control and represent: its constant change, decay and corruption [Fig. 1], or, in other words, time - what conventional architectural representations do not see. The workings of dust, placed between the representation of   t stoppani 20070711 architecture and its edifice, reveal its precarious and dynamic nature. This becomes relevant in contemporary design practices where the drawing is animated in digital simulations and the form of architecture is constantly renegotiated in relation to the requirements of inhabitation and the performance of materials over time. If dust is traditionally ‘invisible’ to architecture, a material approach to architecture, beyond its established ideals and the fixity of its form, can ‘see’ dust and its agency of change. Activated as a verb and an action, dust (dusting) becomes in Bataille’s work an agent of change, of a revolution. Revolution here is to be intended both as movement – as a reading of architecture in material and dynamic terms - and as subversion of the established orders which architecture hosts and represents. It is here that George Bataille’s texts on ‘Dust’, on ‘Architecture’ and on the ‘  Informe’   converge. In ‘Dust’ (   Poussiere  ) in particular, dust actively challenges given economies of order and exposes an architecture of becoming that questions the definition and signification of its form. Beyond the mathematical and the biological, beyond logic and disgust, a ‘dusty’ approach to architecture’s materiality allows a dynamic breaking away from the established ‘architectural straitjacket’ xii  that Bataille dismantles in his work. Sleeping beauty doll 2003 (photo by T. Stoppani).  Poussiere The storytellers have not realised that the Sleeping Beauty would have awoken covered in a thick layer of dust […]. Dismal sheets of dust constantly invade earthly habitations and uniformly defile them: as if it were a matter of making ready attics and old rooms for the imminent occupation of the obsessions, phantoms, spectres that the decayed odour of old dust nourishes and intoxicates. When plump young girls, "maids of all works", arm themselves each morning with a large feather-duster or even a vacuum cleaner, they are perhaps not completely unaware that they are contributing every bit as much as the most positivists of scientists to dispelling the injurious phantoms that cleanliness and logic abhor. […] xiii  

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Apr 16, 2018
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