4.4 / Miami

Videodrome Miami

By Gene Moreno November 14, 2012

Art Practical is pleased to present this article in conjunction with the Miami Rail. It originally appeared in its Summer 2012 issue and can be read here.

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Since objectivity so embarrassingly often gives the slip to those who speak in its name, I'm happy to propose the following as fantasy: there was a moment in which Miami visual artists had an opportunity to participate in giving form to that subterranean, amorphous, slippery Thing that makes a city distinct. Some would call this Thing a city's identity. But that's just a way to tame its volatility and unhinged mutations into something palatable, something that stacks neatly in the boring slots that sociology and urbanism rely on. The Thing is an unstable entanglement of historical processes, social and ethnic dynamics, economic imperatives, collective habits, multiple and shifting desires, entrenched ideological positions and local political cultures. To call this "identity" is to be afraid to wrangle with its monstrous geometries, to refuse to see the feeder lines that bind it to the global economic shifts and convulsions.

The moment in which visual artists faced the Thing took place between 2000 and, let's say, mid-decade. It was simply an unintended consequence of the fact that what mass media — assigned with giving form to the Thing — had to offer wasn't sticking. TV was trying with CSI Miami; Hollywood with Bad Boys and 2 Fast 2 Furious. Music failed with a phony dance party thing (e.g., Will Smith) and Latin crossovers. Sports delivered Shaq and almost got the job done. Splashing in a pool of failures, artists had a shot—probably the longest shot imaginable, but a shot.

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Institutions sensed it. With exhibitions like Publikulture, at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale in 2000, and The House, at MoCA the following year, Miami artists became the rage. A few locals even got exported before a giant fair-mothership landed, absolving us from further action and risk. Institutions retreated to their timid ways. Collectors learned to adroitly negotiate whatever cultural capital (or potential) the city had for personal ends. Or maybe—dagger to the heart—artists just couldn't deliver.

In the end, architecture stepped up. It started with the massive quasi-generic condo boom, punctuated by a few landmark pieces: Herzog & de Meuron's Lincoln Road parking garage and Frank Gehry's New World Center are examples. But this was merely a warm up. A preview of the Thing's imminent mutation, the coming Big One, is indexed by the volumes and embodied ideologies found in videos promoting Miami developments. From the Port of Miami's master plan to Miapolis and Resorts World Miami, it's this ludicrous architecture of kitsch marvels–as–simulated New Urbanist enclaves that will give shape to our historical moment.

These promotional videos are invaluable. They have more to say about the city than anything in local galleries and museums, in movie theaters or on cable do. They map the genome of what's coming. They're also the material of a future archeology — the hieroglyphs of some twenty-third-century academic tasked with understanding the underwater ruins of an ancient coastal city. Immediate action should be taken to establish criteria with which to evaluate these videos. Film studies classes and humanities seminars should be restructured ASAP. The Wolfsonian can't begin to archive them soon enough. Take the Resorts World Miami video. Someone should be thinking of the way in which the hideous conventionality of the production complements the insipid buildings it promotes. Rising from a sinuous pool-lagoon, these swollen behemoths have the aesthetic charge of orthopedic shoes.

But it's less the building promoted than the inherent qualities of the videos that are interesting. It's the way, for instance, that the surrounding city, as soon as the video switches from live shots to animation, is rendered into a series of anonymous volumes. It's absolutely generic, even when windows and facades are sketched in—the nondescript backdrop against which this exceptional resort will rise. This is typical in architectural animations, but here it is a red herring. Differentiation plays an unexpected role: it doesn't separate this Loch Ness Monster of a building from the city around it. On the contrary, it "integrates" it. It creates an opening to introduce a pseudodiscourse of axial coherence ("[it's] on axis with the cruise ships entering Government Cut...") and harmony. The resort, with its "striking and iconic design," is going to magically complement so many existing buildings and other spaces that one starts to wonder where its iconicity will reside. Leveling everything around it is as much a way to highlight the project as it is an opportunity to wrap it in a phony language of urban integration, coherence, and enhancement that nowhere faces the resistance of variegated visual and morphological texture.

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Since the innocence required by straightforward hoodwinking belongs to another age, the video pivots on deft reversal. Everything presented is clear and commonsensical—obvious conclusions deduced from obvious facts. That in the process the convoluted machinations of both a globalized economy and local political cultures are diluted into kindergarten-basic empirical data (three billion dollars investment, forty-five thousand new jobs, etc.) perturbs nothing. The very complexity that we all know is involved, from the greasing of politicians to the idiosyncratic definition of "jobs" often employed, is smoothed over. Everything in the video is so blatantly on the level that we've no qualms about disavowing the understanding that we're being offered puffed up, not-quite-on-the-level "facts." Just as we have no qualms about disavowing any awareness—since Arquitectonica, the city's most famous architectural firm, is involved—of the lack of architectural vision in all this. This lack is ratified by the explanations offered in the video by Bernardo Fort-Brescia, one of Arquitectonica's principals. He claims that these buildings "introduce a new vocabulary of architecture to the city that is inspired in nature." It's inspired, a voiceover elaborates, by coral reefs. This is obviously an effort to mooch on architecture's recent interest in natural formations, but in such a way as to drain what is radical in this interest. In truly complex engagements with natural forms, architects are not inspired by nature. They are, instead, interested in the generative systems that produce certain forms. So, it's not the look of the coral reef that matters, but the processes that materialize its shapes. It is not mimesis that is important as much as computational remapping, an extrapolating of algorithms and other codes that can be reapplied in tectonic experimentation. There is no guarantee that architects who set out to understand the generative systems that produce coral reefs will end up with buildings that look like coral reefs. To not understand this is to risk inadvertently participating in the logic of kitsch marvels. Hence the graceless reefs as resort.

We can go on for pages picking apart these videos. The conclusion in every case is the same, however. They're as much promotional tools as already independent forms giving expression to the intensified forces of transnational capital that impinge on the city, mutating the Thing. Here, architecture is hardly a field of building and blueprints. It is dispersed into an open format that welcomes any medium and any logic in order to become another vector through which to reproduce capital. It becomes this at the expense of being the space of coherent tectonic production and experimentation. These videos are as much auxiliary tools for architects and developers as part of the new territory in which they function. These videos are architecture.

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