Decline With City

I’d been thinking, in the wake of being forbidden to partake of cinnamon and its chemical components, about the elliptical world of REM’s video and how—with all-over roving visibility fishing for & panning past all miniaturized existential horrors—it resembles the flash-forum of affective noise in which we “live” a.k.a. broadcast, & which is typified by Facebook:

Then got to thinking how in formal terms, one desires to make writing that reads like this: a spreading, multidirectional, obsessive field, in which zooming regress and encroachment are possible upon each divisive element: in twenty seconds of shooting, an infinity:

And then landed in the city of ravaged, souped-up eternality. Here are 16 outtakes from its Fall of 2010.

1.

1curiosity

CURIOSITY

Unakin to the dogged determination of research leading in obedient step to professionalization, the navigation of cities and the production of poetry will always repay the errant seekings of curiosity off the Corso: look further, a second and a third time, for patterns, stances.

Especially in Rome….

2.

2tuning

TUNING

 

“Understanding is a literal idea based on a geometrical notion of congruence, and tuning is a notion of a negotiated concord or agreement based on vernacular physical actions with visible outcomes like walking together….” —David Antin, A Conversation with David Antin, a dialogue conducted through electronic mail with Charles Bernstein

Rome, governance fabric punctured by synesthesia of historical stoppages, Bulb after Bulb. Disorientation of the day’s ratio that resists being placed definitively within or without the person.

In talk it is shared—tamed? The source text of translation is a magnet to which one must draw near enough to be pulled.

The city will be that magnet for each of us. Perhaps between each of us as well.

Wonders—after Chicago—how a city of rises and downslopes, pitches and edges pulls, also halts thought differently. Pulls hours otherwise. In the body, for starters.

To walk in a culture where a request for coordinates of a decent slice is a topic not for discussion but accompaniment, digression, & the inevitable co-losing of ways, as it was always only an experiment in sociability as opposed to expertise, never restricted either to an isolated age. Rubbing off: an outing to the fountain for private arias eking from its mouth whenever the buses and cars, between lights, abate; & taking the road, instead, of shapely wall that from bird’s eye perspective baroquely inclines otherwise.

Passion’s all in the curving away. In tandem, tuned to not imposed.

To transfer this process to allotments of language—& feel, of a sudden, compassion for the would-be geometers of the twentieth century, with their grids, their cubes and their squares!

3.

3softarchitecture

SOFTER ARCHITECTURE

Or why I had to make amends with the baroque: stone carved several & a half centuries ago for colloquy with this very cloud, vagula, blandula.

4.

4overseasofenlightenment

OVERSEAS OF ENLIGHTENMENT

Thinking tremolio: premodern conception of the mind as a substance, a vapor, which can take direct effect on the world.

That was philosophy as cognized in the 15th century, not a sheaf of writings but a way of being in the world. Fanciful following up:  love of—love in?—knowledge. Tiny notebooks force one to redact:

I thank, therefore I swum.

I thunk, therefore I swam.

5.

5trust

TRUST

As a cognitive construct, a field of play, distinction coming down to white on white on white in its more or less vulnerable shades, pinkening, even in the unforeseeable eyes that have arrived to you by paths most angularly destined, magnetic. As an architecture, carefully quartered crown of bloodlike sweet garden food, roof low enough to touch above the aerosol histories and communiques, as after battle our needing above all to swim together in resources, in the grey quarter’s neighborly love for Pierpa’, free ices in peripheral alleys, basements resalvaged, post-cancerous courage, pulled. Fenestration open again like even the thin Roman bricks signifying human skin entrusted to a countervailing vita passeggera—and mirroring once again for revision the uncrowded self, the narrative loosed because longing to be tendered, pooling.

6.

6argumentagainstspecialization

AN ARGUMENT AGAINST SPECIALIZATION

7.

7FLUCTUANT

FLUCTUANT

Al rovescio, as in a beginning. Afloat in a fresh lexicon the pale impulse to trace an anniversary (“turning”) for the initial tendering between of each term, coadamic & brave, pale rose as the fall that blooms against this wall, enamorous.

“Such a vertiginous multiplicity of historical lines of sight, through which entire worlds of concepts are constructed on the basis of few and scanty expressions, is further multiplied and rendered ambiguous by the exact uncertainty of philological inquiry, which seeks in vain scientifically to dominate material that is floating, open to question—a field, that is, where the evanescence of dead stuff sucks vigor from every proof.”

[“Tale molteplicità vertiginosa di visuali storiche, per cui interi mondi di concetti si costruiscono sull’appoggio di poche e scarne espressioni, è ancora moltiplicata e resa ambigua dall’incertezza propria dell’indagine filologica, che tenta invano di dominare scientificamente un materiale fluttuante, opinabile, un campo cioè dove l’evanescenza di cose morte toglie vigore ad ogni dimostrazione.”]

Giorgio Colli, Physis kryptesthai philei / La natura ama nascondersi / Nature Loves to Hide (1948)

Spectacular tissue of sky shift from one garden brink to the next, cypressed. Plate after plate of variegating, archivebreaking deliciousness. Mental polaroids of a zillion preciousnesses of mutual unearthing scattered and released. So as to taste, to breathe. This near year; these heated, climatized, material pixels, vaporizable.

“Peripatetic historicism,” the philosopher/philologist/historian called it in his learned book. A route, not reliquary, to remembrance. The Italians being light years ahead of North America on memory, liminal and enfleshed.

8.

8tuningmoon

TUNING/MOON

Rome’s baroque colloquy with the void well highlit by current luna plus lumière (with the Tower of the City of Lights, notes J, echoed proleptically in the splayed legs of Bernini’s Navona fountain base [or at least that’s how my rococo makes retrospective prose of it: echoey prolepsis]) furnishes a delectable turning of corners, a delectable all-over score, still going forward, of increasing corner negotiations and curls toward the blank before, tuning.

9.

9archaeologicalsite&parking

“ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE & PARKING”

Contradictions or inevitabilities of development? In a city where the disparatest basements meet ancora & ancora.

Sidling through throngs of the flea market behind the 17th-century Janiculum walls in search of socks, mesh of all languages, of the salvaged objects of distances barely imaginable, obliging imagining, hearkening back to ingenuities of the moment before conspicuous consumption, and soundtrack of home for a rummager: idiom of street sales—

MANICOMIO 3 EURO

MADHOUSE 3 EUROS

IO MI RIFIUTO: PORTA PORTESE: ROBBA ORIGINALE

I REFUSE [I RENDER MYSELF REFUSE]: PORTESE PORTAL: ORIGINAL STUFFF

—accompanied by ninnanannalike calls in all possible accents, pulse of the day’s sales piercing, ecstatic in solicitation, satisfaction, memory of intermittent dependence on this, unflagging.

The death of the street, the silence of street song—gregarious lyric—reconjures wistful documentaries of the last century: a Sicilian sulfur miners’ song accompanied by thoughtscatterer, reperformed with a difference after the 1954 Lomax/Carpitella recording 50 years later:

And thanks to a commenter, the lyrics, which arrive at my understanding filtered by fifty percent through a dialect of Caltanissetta, dancing in this intermittence around forgetting—or literally, “disrecording.”

(Of one’s life itself, & family, fatherland, friends, the saints. Of everything but you.)

Mi scuordu, mi scurdà, scurdatu sugnu,

mi scuordu di la stessa vita mia.

Mi scurdavu lu bbeni di ma mamma,

era cchiù dduci, cchiù mègliu di tia.

Mi scurdavu lu bbeni di ma patri,

passa lu mari tri bboti pi mmia.

Mi scurdavu l’amici poi a me frati,

di li santi mi scuordu e no di tia.

& in English:

I forget, I forgot, I’ve forgotten (I’m forgotten),
I forget my very life.
Forgotten the goodnesses of my mother,
she was sweeter, better than you.
Forgotten the goodnesses of my father,
he crossed the sea three times for me.
Forgotten were my friends then kin;
The saints I forget and not you.

But the lines should not be broken thus; listening you will hear them otherwise. The act of forgetting as an act of language broken otherwise.

“Scacciapensieri”=”Jawharp,” or “Jew’s harp,” “Ozark harp”: literally, “thoughtdispeller.”

10.

10anachronism

ANACHRONISM

“Mi porti qualcosa di antico.”

Unconsciously and not through appearance, but through the voice? Lidia, in conversation to the soundtrack of noxious tremors in an out-of-order Vespa on the tram avenue, following discussions of “anxious futurism,” in reverse.

Encounter with the tall, unmarked and unXrayable cadaver next door from the 4th or 5th century AD wrapped in 800 pounds of lead burrito-style (probably for economic reasons—having no money for marble, nor for a lid, Gianni explains) providing the perfect sunkenness toward the end of daylight savings and the raising of hell by compound kids: 800 pounds of toil toward a future of total anonymity and stupefaction by one’s heirs: the hopeful holding on to dawn despite the weight of impending winter yet another lesson in presence, while the craving for extensions of summer & an apprehendable future continues to lace the days.

Is it possible to be bearer of what one’s balked at, studied inassimilably, in the absence of all design?

11.

11migrant

MIGRANT

En route to hear actors vocalize traduced Homers and Bibles (progeny of Vico) in a painted theater off the Via del Paradiso (“c’è solo la via; non c’è il paradiso,” reports a waiter whom we’ve asked for help from a nearby stoop), strapieno: spectacular flock ruckus, uploaded in its archive of silence.

12.

12glossolalia

12glossolalia2

GLOSSOLALIA

To define xenoglossia: the 12th-century Cupola of the Pentecost in St. Mark’s Basilica, abbagliante, dazzling, in the visual correlative of linguistic stupor, hemmed with coupled men and boys emanating from the holy spirit as silent murmurers of every language of earth at once as the Venetians knew it: Parthi, Medi, Elamitae, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontum, Asiatici, Phrygiam, Pamphiliam, Aegiptum, Libiam, Romani, Judei, Cretes, Arabes. A geography more nuanced in dissolution and union than that of Barbarians, Saracens, Moors, the vocabulary of totalitarian center and other, of seized “diritto”—“right.”

Che cosa sono le nuvole?/What are clouds?, a short from Capriccio all’italiana: Pasolini restages Othello as a puppet-world inside of a puppet-world which begins a riot among audience members, after which the murdered protagonist-puppets, Totò as Iago and Ninetto Davoli as the Moor in blackface, end up in a garbage dump where they discover the clouds.

What’s the truth? asks the Moor before the denouement; Iago bids him to listen to what’s in his head. “Sì sì, c’è qualcosa!” (“Yes, yes, there’s something there!”), Othello exclaims with that naïvete one finds only in Pasolini’s cherubic man-boys before Iago tells him shhh, not to name it, lest it dissolve.

Obsessive retellings of Babel & Pentecost in the sixteenth century: soundtrack of confusion to awakenings of the public sphere.

13.

13bookofvertigo

THE BOOK OF VERTIGO

According to Trajan: sublimity of illegible legibility or legible illegibility as imperial totem, beyond mortal or plebeian sights, craning their little necks against the blaze Rome makes, and the manic craftsmanship and centuries of unsung scholarship that have been vacuumed into its glintful spiral.

Parallel to the high Gothic devotional, to the internet as military strategy?

14.

14incommon

IN COMMON

In which Roman light-in-hiding is repackaged and redistributed along the brinks of the objectively discernible as in some liminally representational yet general—yowl the dogs far off—allegory of opening.

15.

15wallfloral

WALL, FLORAL (FOR W.B.Y.)

Slapdashery in duration:

From inside the Aurelian walls, at the intersection where the Portal S. Sebastian gives onto the Antique Appian Way,

site of the private pied-à-terre, designed by the brilliant & tenaciously Fascist architect Luigi Moretti, 1940-43, of to-be-murdered Ardito Ettore Muti, Gim dagli occhi verdi, “the expression of Superhuman values, an impetus without weight, an offer without measure, a fistful of incense over ember, the scent of a pure soul” (sed Gabriele D’Annunzio), lined with watercolour lionskins, mosaics, decked out with she-wolf cage, et al.

From inside the purely psychological massive Aurelian walls that encroach upon the site of writing, 5 years’ slapdashery in the making, 271-275, a sixth built of prestanding monuments that were far better wrought—Juthungi and Vandals and pissed-off mint workers having made the Empire tender: the state of vulnerability taking monumental form.

From inside the fifth-century restorations and the sentry passages, museal, a cool eye castable on Smart cars flowing below through the arrow slits less encroached, out toward Mastroianni’s villa, or these duration capsules, indifferent, of floral Erlebnis.

Qualiaphobe, dawdle!

16.

16bubbles

BUBBLES

Winter even here, where the clarity of drier skies brings with it the general foreshortening and scratching at form so we can locate stricter historical trajectories in the panorama, Hadrianic, Jesuit here, 19th-century bureaucratic there, as restorers sprinkle the march of mustached Garibaldini busts with bleach at dusk, without digression from each once-illustrious story vis-à-vis the swoon of soft light.

Bubbles in the panorama park: and the anxiety of perched consciousness that here we are living in yet another, of an order of months: watching again the admittedly decent adaptation of The Wings of the Dove, with its commercial filling in, opaque, of the contours of James’s every last floating it “swaying a little aloft as one of the objects in her poised basket”—as from Milly Theale’s perch in the Alps—while the days honeyed in costlessness at the end of gilding melt, prone in programming to pop mortally as the years of splendid daigomi, giant appliance trash lacking only remote control in some central Japan of the ‘90s Englished in optimism by government fund:

and the optimism of reassurance that only what is priceless can be cobbled, collective, of the immolated bubble which errs from every marble guarantee of the eternal.

12/29/2010

Trajan’s Hollow

 

POCKET LANDSCAPES – Trajan’s Monument to Poché

1_Piranesi_Colonna Traiana
Figure 1: Piranesi, Giovanni Battista. Colonna Traiana, 1758

Standing amidst the cacophony of Rome’s Piazza Venezia, Trajan’s Column slips easily into the lively frenzy of tourist and city buses, excavation sites (both archaeological and infrastructural), and traffic (pedestrian, auto, and motorino). As anywhere in Rome, these networks of transit, commerce, and artifacts are layered as thickly above the streets as they are buried beneath them. Through this earth rich with aggregate imperial desires, Mussolini carved an axis connecting his Palazzo Venezia office (and underground bunker) with the Roman colosseum, revealing and dividing two sets of ancient cellular plazas, the Imperial Fora and the Republican Fora. Along this axis, anchored by the column, sits Trajan’s Market, an imperial complex carved into the side of one of Rome’s celebrated hills.

In the voids left by both Trajan and Mussolini, the bombast of imperial power feels equal in scale and determination. But while Mussolini’s cut through the strata of this city intentionally obliterates certain histories (the medieval) in favor of a singular view of history (imperial conquest), a reading of Trajan’s Column as material artifact offers an alternate condition where a simultaneity of locational reference and experience are contained and anchored by a single edifice (and its artifice). Trajan (emperor from 98 CE to 117 CE) remains notable for extending the frontier of the Empire to its farthest limits, orienting formerly “barbarian” lands towards Rome. The celebrated column was erected to commemorate Trajan’s conquest of Dacia (modern-day Romania), a calculated act of rational, if viscous, expansion, completely in keeping with the centralizing tendencies of Rome. However, the column also unwittingly acts as a monument to the simultaneity and opacity of place—a contrasting alternative to the hierarchical ethos of the dictum “All roads lead to Rome.”

The column embodies, epitomizes, and ultimately monumentalizes the contradiction between Rome’s desire to locate through centering and the persistence of the unknowable (but not placeless) space of the city. This material sense of the known vs. the unknown can be easily related to the multiple understandings of the architectural term poché. From an architectural perspective, poché includes not only the “pockets” of thickness contained within massive masonry walls, but also the types of functions that are sometimes buried within, such as staircases, servants’ quarters, secret corridors, etc. Because it is hidden, literally or experientially, poché denies an understanding of dimension, geometry, orientation, and ultimately of location itself. The drawing techniques found in Giambattista Nolli’s 1738 map of Rome clearly demonstrate several different understandings of this term. At the level of representation techniques, poché is the intense repetition of hand-engraved lines used as infill within an outlined form to produce a field of gray. In his famous plan of Rome, Nolli’s rendering of the Pantheon reveals a differentiation between two different tones of poché, the darker used to represent true mass or thickness such as the stone masonry of the Pantheon’s at moments 20-foot-thick walls. The lighter tone of poché is used almost everywhere else and ambiguously refers to a condition of opacity, which may be one of solid material thickness, or may indicate a conceptual thickness—spaces either unknown or off-limits to the public.

2_nolli_rome_detail_
Figure 2:  Nolli, Giambattista. Map of Rome (detail), 1748

The experience of Trajan’s Column shifts between these different conditions of poché. The chiseling techniques used to excavate the stairs and apertures within the shaft create a chiaroscuro microlandscape of texture: at each moment where outside light pierces through the windows, an intense field of pattern much like Nolli’s engraving techniques is created. This association with landscape connects the thick marble drum to the quarries of its origin in Carrara. More significantly, within this extensively documented city, the interiority of the column is not only literally hidden from view, but exists as a material lacuna in the consciousness of Romans and tourists alike. Conceptually, the nomenclature of the “column” seems to register only as an architectural element, denying the possibility of internal habitable space. More mass than void, Trajan’s Column oscillates between architecture and architectural marker—between fissure and monolith.

While the slender column operates as a spatial marker like the myriad other obelisks, fountains, and statues that mark the center of so many of Rome’s piazzas, it could also be seen as a compression of all the material contained within its purview, as if it replicated the centripetal tendencies of the Empire, gathering and compressing so much mass from afar. Trajan’s Column shares a similar diagram as Hadrian’s Mausoleum (now the Castel Sant’ Angelo): a massive cylinder with internal helical ramp. But while Trajan constructed what would become the resting place of his ashes in 113 CE, 17 years before his second cousin’s mausoleum broke ground, it could be imagined as a dwarf-star version of the latter, condensing all the material of the grand earthen drum while maintaining the central void excavated to house the body of the Emperor. The variable densities implied here would offer a radically different take on Nolli’s map of Rome.

window matrix_alignedWith this conceptual density locked within its marble walls, more than any other monument in Rome (and perhaps the world), Trajan’s Column operates as a monument to and tower of excavation. With the exception of the significant and much discussed act of stacking 20 drums of marble, each weighing 2 tons, the power and nuance of this monument is due to the successive removal and reduction of material—from the quarrying of the marble, to the voiding of the internal spiral stair, the carving of the 43 window apertures, and the chiseling of the bas-relief frieze. While assembly seems to connect to location through desire or will, excavation is more rooted in material acceptance and exigency—embodying the readiness to work with that which is found rather than imposing that which is desired (through the literal importation and assembly of disparate elements). In Bachelard’s subterranean space of the cellar, the act of excavation connects each individual location through the common medium of soil; here, the abstractions of geometry, geography, and distance are swallowed by the maw of the earth. What better way to connect the aspirations of the tower to the actuality of the earth (albeit an earth originally 250 miles away in Carrara), while its narrative describes the conquest of a landscape (and people) over a thousand miles away?

Figure 3: Every window of Trajan’s Column. Images: Andrew Riggsby

Like so many other archaeological spaces, the column offers a thick buffer against the harsh light and sound of the contemporary city, although here, rather than descending into the damp must of the historical dig, we instead spiral upward, simultaneously leaving the earth while becoming more aware of its cool, massive solidity. This projection of excavation out of the earth allows for a simultaneity of vision afforded by elevation (the ostensible raison d’etre of the column) and by perforation: it is a tunnel with a view. But the set of windows offers an experience quite different from the aerial one, as the column drum could be understood to operate as a thickened zoetrope, filtering out the gestalt of its context while assembling an animated coral-like aggregation of fragments, vignettes, and details. The overexposed cityscape of contemporary Rome is glimpsed through a radial mineral sponge—the baroque domes of Santa Maria di Loreto and Santissimo Nome di Maria, the turn-of-the-century classicism of the Altare della Patria (Il “Vittoriano”)—as jump cuts framed through the deep marble proscenia.

4_MJW_Zoetrope_animated
Figure 4: Zoetrope views from within the column. Click to open GIF in separate window. Images: Michael J. Waters


Figure 5: Exterior view of window in the column. Image: Joshua G. Stein

As the embrasure expands each window aperture from exterior graphic rectangle to capacious wedge of interior space, the pattern of chisel marks highlighted by the oblique light raking across the stone surfaces creates a set of miniature mineral landscapes. As these interior pocket grottos encounter the exterior bas-relief, itself an illustrated narrative of territory and its acquisition, they maneuver themselves into the gaps between soldiers’ bodies, stretching to stand in for a cavalryman’s shield, or morphing into the background of the relief’s vernacular architecture. At other moments, the specific location of a window aperture in relationship to the assembly of the columns’ giant stacked drums creates an intersection of window and seam, one slowly eroding into the next over the millennia. These local “aberrations” produce a set of similarly sized rectangular apertures, each uniquely modified according to its context within the unfolding story of conquest and within the tectonic assembly of the monument—so that an expert scholar of the column could locate his or her exact location within this speculative zoetrope based solely on the signature profile of each window aperture.

6_JGS_Embrasure7_JGS_Chiseling
Figures 6 & 7: Embrasure and texture within the column windows. Images: Joshua G. Stein

Rome itself operates both as a center of fait accompli rational planning celebrated by historians and as a subterranean labyrinth of fluid potentiality. The liquid association here is apt, as the massive earthen heterogeneity of this deeply layered city is in fact due to the walls of Rome operating as a mold into which the Tiber would deposit successive layers of material history, trapping and burying millennia of artifacts of all scales within this urban-scaled “cast.” The hidden spaces of the city—ancient aqueducts and sewers, the thickened double-shelled domes of the baroque, and the secretive spaces of sects and curiae, off-limits to the public—conspire to create an extensive complex of irrational, unknowable spaces equal to those more clearly hierarchically ordered. Trajan’s Column constitutes an appropriate, albeit unintentional, monument to the dual nature of this city—studied, interpreted, and idealized and yet persistently thick, opaque, and massy. While the column’s observation platform surveys and surveils through a rational understanding of territory, its material presence connects us to the less rational underworld extending just below the surface of that very terrain.

Epilogue – Trajan’s Hollow

8_JK_Trajans Hollow
Figure 8: Trajan’s Hollow, a revision of one drum of the original column. Image: Jason Kwong

This alternate reading of Trajan’s Column was extrapolated from the artifact left to us, existing quite independently of the possible desires of its architect, Appolodorus of Damascus. Trajan’s Hollow, an ongoing project initiated at the American Academy in Rome, attempts to extend this trajectory through a series of intensely material “reproductions” of the column, each exploring an aspect of the above agenda in a way the original could not. If the material of history could be used as a filter through which to reinterpret the current surrounding context, would our understanding of empire and territory shift? Although the “place” of the kingdom of Dacia was obliterated, or at least buried, by the gerrymandering of military and political conquest, misreading Trajan’s Column could introduce a porosity to the Roman notion of imperial space so that it might be infiltrated by the subjective space of the topos. This intense interiority, focused more toward experience than governable dichotomies of inside or outside, might offer a simultaneity of idealized abstractions and specific material events.