Instructions to keep “The Red Violin” in a virtual prop-house

“We cannot escape our property; we are tied to it forever, as part of its history of circulation. We have become little more than the context for the things that own us, remaining connected to them as incidental players in the stories they tell while circulating”
-Robert Sumrell

The film “The Red Violin” [1998] showed the story of a perfect violin named after its rich red colour. At the film’s beginning, the violin is being auctioned in Canada, but as the film goes on the violin’s history is revealed, and we can see that the violin is more than 300 years old, having been made in 1681.

Its history is told in five stories set in different locations around the world—Cremona, Vienna, Oxford, Shanghai, and Montreal. These stories are told in chronological order except for the Cremona and Montréal stories, which are intersected into the others with each change of location and as the tarot reading and the auction develop. To its supposed “owners”, the violin causes different moods as anger, betrayal, love, and sacrifice. In the film, the original language is changed according to the place where the story occurs.


The Red Violin movie still

In the last chapter of The infrastructural City, Robert Sumrell, drives us to a journey and evolution of the Prop Houses that have grown around the cinema industry in the Thirty Mile zone of Los Angeles. In its origin a pawnshop, the first prop house began its activities in 1908. Ellis Prop grew and specialized as the film industry became more complex. As time passed by an increasing number of prop houses appeared in response to the media needs, arriving to high level of specialization throughout the seventies when the era of major science fiction epics appeared.

Next to the clear description that Sumrell does about this particular fragment of infrastructure in Los Angeles, we noticed the way prop houses reflected and facilitated the growing consumption behavior of people during the second half of last century. From this time, the influence of mass media became evident in most of the purchase decisions made by people, from the breakfast cereals to the transport media or the house to live in.

“If Hollywood specializes in the production of immaterial culture, prop houses and locations are its largest material substrate in the city, grounding it in a prosaic, if extreme, reality”


A piece of the Deathstar model used in the 1977 sci-fi Star Wars film A New Hope. Source: Prop Store


Photo showing 26 helmets and armor outside Shepperton Design Studios in 1976. Source: Original Props Blog

About this issue, we can add Rumsell‘s comments about Peter and Alison Smithson’s “But Today We Collect Ads”:

[The text] was conceived in the wake of their involvement with Theo Crosby’s 1956 exhibit This is Tomorrow. It continues an earlier conference held in Paris that contemplated the drawing together of the fine and applied arts. In this essay, the Smithsons advocate learning from how mass advertising was creating a common language among consumers that contextualized new innovations in home goods and technologies before the products themselves reached the British marketplace. The Smithsons believed that this new language was more successfully penetrating and shaping the desires of popular culture than either high art or architecture.

When Alison and Peter Smithson wrote “To understand the advertisements which appear in the New Yorker or Gentry one must have taken a course in Dublin literature, read a Time popularizing article on cybernetics, and have majored in Higher Chinese Philosophy and Cosmetics. Such ads are packed with information – data of a way of life and a standard of living which they are simultaneously inventing and documenting.“, we can see a clear correspondence with our current consumption behavior, based on a supply chain that brings goods from all over the world to the port of L.A., then drives it to the distribution center just to finish it days saved inside a storage facility. As Deborah Richmond pointed, “consumers gone wild.”


The port of Los Angeles. Google Earth caption


Inside a self-storage facility. Source: wikipedia

As fictions in movies and TV keep showing us the kind of this to buy we were filling our standard houses with an increasing amount of goods which provide “context and significance to individuals as they sought out meaningful lives”, and when the space became insufficient we had to rent extra space and that’s when self-storage facilities “appeared in scene”, providing extra space for the things we weren’t able to keep in house, but neither to take out of our lives. Alison and Peter Smithson wrote:

“Gropius wrote a book on grain silos,
Le Corbusier one on aeroplanes,
And Charlotte Periand brought a new
object to the office every morning,
But today we collect ads.”

Julio Cortázar described this point in a perfect way on his text Preamble To The Instructions On How To Wind a Watch, when he conclude “They aren’t giving you a watch, you are the gift, they are giving you yourself for the watch’s birthday.” And all this reading and research drives us to question ourselves, do you own things… or do they own you?

Things are changing so fast, that is not strange to see our libraries transformed from this:


dpr-barcelona’s unpacking my library. Following the project Unpacking my Library

to this:


dpr-barcelona‘s pearltree for #mammothbook

Consumption has evolved and even it is still outrageous; we are moving to a scenario where services not products are more and more demanded. And in our hybrid cities some kind of immaterial prop houses have emerged to keep our virtual belongings safe. Although Kazys Varnelis pointed that today we collect nothing, we think that today we collect links and information through a del.icio.us or Pearltrees account and also exchange information and services via facebook or twitter. In this sense we are keeping outside our homes a important part of our life. These data are kept safe in servers far away from our physical location and those servers as prop houses provide them a physicality. While having physicality they are exposed to the same kind of “dangers” of our material possessions, they can be lost, damaged by fire, or even stolen.

The best of all is that they don’t only belong to us. Now our collections are shared and used by people located in remote places, that can also access to the specific prop house where our digital goods are kept. Is like playing relativity with “the red violin” lifespan. Maybe if this story had been written in 2050, this marvelous instrument would be played simultaneously with it’s 300 years compressed in 300 seconds and its five cities expanded in 50 cities…or even more, it would probably not be an instrument but an smart-phone application developed in the research laboratory of an advanced media institution.

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This post is part of The Infrastructural City blogiscussion, now reading Robert Sumrell‘s “Story of the Eye, Prop Houses”.

Related and recommended readings:
Properties and Prop-House Geography: one aspect of the film industrial complex in Los Angeles. [2005] Master thesis by Stefano Bloch. PDF
Virtual tour inside Omega Cinema Props
Stigmergic Architecture | How we turned into ants by changing publishing platforms
Reyner Banham’s The Great Gizmo and Alison and Peter Smithson’s But Today we Collect Ads

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