Postcards from the Necrospace

For Ester

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‘they are in some place / a cloud or a tomb
they are in some place / I’m sure’
Mario Benedetti

Death occurs, everywhere and everyday around us. Have you wondered how death influence the spaces we inhabit? It transforms the way we interact with spaces formerly used by our loved ones and also unveil hidden urban layers and infrastructure. In October 2014, a group of 43 students disappeared in Mexico in one obscure episode that the government has attributed to drug gang struggles. This episode has trigger a series of protests claiming for justice, and safer and democratic cities. Even there is no certainty about the destiny of those students [neither of thousands of women disappeared and murdered in the region], it called our attention how this relationship with death somehow determines choreographies of agents building up the cities and ultimately affects the negotiation of urban space. When speaking about death and architecture the discussion often centers in typologies of Funerary and Religious architecture and the design of Cemeteries, Crematoriums, Memorials, Mausoleums and Sanitary institutions [1]. But death have more than mere formal implications in our life.

Trying to unveil how death helps shaping our cities, the project “Death in Venice” intended to “make visible the invisible mechanics of death and dying”. By tracing the footprints of death in modern architecture, this project shows that dead in architecture has been studied basically from a memorial point of view. The narrative of architectural history of the 20th Century is focused in health and progress, leaving scarce mentions to death and how its cultural experience helps to define the urban fabric. Developments in medicine led to the appearance of modern hospital and health centers often defined by strict bureaucratic processes and requirements, thus leaving an institutionalized and medicalized experience of death. After presenting the exhibition “Death in Venice” as an independent event during the opening week of the 2014 Venice Biennale, the “Death in the City” project has evolved to keep researching on the end-of-life threshold in an attempt to reconceive architecture associated to the human dimension of that process.

When talking about dead and the city, the work of Aristide Antonas inevitably comes to the discussion. In Weak Monuments, Antonas explores the function of the city as a murder place. He dives into the city with the passion of an archivist, exploring significant rooms and halls of the city: lawyers offices, the court house, police stations, the city’s morgue, funeral offices, the criminology department of the city. The project resulting is a register of the infrastructure of murder in the city of Thessaloniki presented as another archive including drawings, documents and texts. Even not clearly stated, we can trace the atmosphere of death in other of his works like the Singer and the Armchair or the retrieve proposed in the Zizek’s House.

The International Necronautical Society’ [INS] goes a step further, perceiving the death as a type of space, which can be mapped and inhabited. Formed in London by a group of artists, writers and thinkers, this fiction-like organisation was founded by the writer Tom McCarthy and the the philosopher Simon Critchley. Following the steps of Futurists and Surrealists they make an intensive use of manifestos, proclamations and denunciations which are broadcasted using printed mass media, publications, exhibitions and radio live events. In their founding manifesto we can read:

1.That death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit.

2. That there is no beauty without death, its immanence. We shall sing death’s beauty – that is, beauty.

3. That we shall take it upon us, as our task, to bring death out into the world. We will chart all its forms and media: in literature and art, where it is most apparent; also in science and culture, where it lurks submerged but no less potent for the obfuscation… Our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death. We are all necronauts, always, already.

4. Our ultimate aim shall be the construction of a craft that will convey us into death in such a way that we may, if not live, then at least persist… Let us deliver ourselves over utterly to death, not in desperation but rigorously, creatively, eyes and mouths wide open so that they may be filled from the deep wells of the Unknown.

Lewis_Carroll_-_Henry_Holiday_-_Hunting_of_the_Snark_-_Plate_4Henry Holiday’s map for “The Hunting of the Snark” by Lewis Carroll [2]

The activities and outcomes of the INS are displayed as the work of a kafkian and cryptic Institution. They often carry a series of examinations in the city dealing with circulation, transmission of cultural issues related with death and cryptography. Mostly perceived as an arty project we find intriguing and inspiring the elements they borrow from literature and cinema. Like the map appeared in ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ by Lewis Carroll which metaphorically can represent multiple after-life exploration possibilities or the capture of hidden transmission in the film Orphée by Jean Cocteau were the waves of the voice of a dead poet is captured in the car radio in the white-noise dead zone between stations.

When our loved ones pass away we built a composite of memories with the material traces they leave behind, mixed up with our experiences. This is the way we intend to preserve their presence among us. The idea of capturing human traces and materialize them, leading us to a sort of immortality, is now enhanced by the use of technology. Services like eterni.me offer the possibility to develop an avatar following a person digital activity and by means of Artificial Intelligence collect all the information, traces, and interactions to emulate digital behaviour and allow communication with other users… even after dead. This possibility is also explored in the ‘Black Mirror’ episode Be Right Back where the possibility of immortality materializes by cloning the beloved ones.

mask3Data Masks by Stirling Crisping.

The ability to use digital traces to build human avatars is explored in the work Data Masks by Stirling Crisping which illustrates this post. In this project, Crispin shows how facebook uses reverse-engineering from surveillance face recognition algorithms to fed their face-detection software. The result when he stops the process, before the algorithm creates a clear face, is a ghost-like portrait. That portrait contains elements of several people interacting, but the introspective sense is “that you are looking at yourself”.

A more figurate attempt is explored by the Greek artist Erica Scourti in her work Body Scan, creating an autobiographical portrait using pictures shared through various search engines attempting to link them to relevant online information. In her words, this work constitutes “a documented gesture of mediated intimacy told through iPhone screenshots”.

Using a custom software, the work of the Seoul based artists Shinseungback Kimyonghun creates the identity face of a movie. The software detects faces from every 24 frames of a selected movie, merging them in an average portrait of the film. While defining the portrait of a life we use the static view of photographies, the ubiquity of digital devices allow people to share portraits in almost real time printing dynamism to an intrinsically static action. It is intriguing to speculate that a composite of all the images from dead people would work as their portraits when inhabiting the necrospace, or could be used as models to generate their clone appearance.

ssbkyh_avatarAvatar, Portrait, 2013, Pigment Inkjet Print, Variable dimensions.

ssbkyh_amelieAmélie, Portrait, 2013, Pigment Inkjet Print, Variable dimensions.

If at some point we will be able to recreate the experience of keep living with people who have died, the next step would give them a space to dwell with us. Will be able to intervene in the design of the necrospace as claimed by the INS? Once again Charlie Broker gives us a clue on what shape this space could have. In the ‘Black Mirror’ episode White Christmas, a tiny egg-shaped device [called “cookie”] contains a digital copy of the consciousness of one of the series protagonist with the aim to manage her daily agenda and control her smart house. The emerging field of Connectomics study the synaptic connections between neurons inside a brain and mine data to improve the knowledge of neural connectivity. This could be a first step towards the complete brain copy envisioned by Broker.

It seems that the most risky proposals dealing with space after dead come from science fiction, as the Netherspace proposed by the iconic Dr. Who series, described as a “round thing’ motif to the décor: round window, round noticeboard, the hallway curving upwards as it disappears into the distance” [3]. Another good example would be the Borgesian Library of Babel shown in Interstellar film, a multiverse combination of aisles and bookshelves allowing multiple choices of time and position of books and events.

InterstellarInterstellar 5th dimension. A Multiverse similar to Infinite Library of Babel.

This combination of multiverses and bookshelves made us think on the question posed by Nanos Valaoritis when he asks, “Can I go writing after death?… Then I’ll dictate to some living poet I’ll inhabit after my death”. The notion of an afterlife, being it through a digital device or by inhabiting a poet is part of human nature. When Borges —again—, wrote in The Aleph:

“I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon —the unimaginable universe.”

We can’t avoid thinking that The Aleph, that incomprehensible and indescribable space where Borges believes that death can be modified, perhaps can be the necrospace described by the INS and that all the previous projects try to explain in different formats and diverse ways of interpreting what is death and its transcendence.

So what would be the skills for designers [if any] taking the adventure to manage the space after life? More than mere formal, structural and symbolic ritual proficiency, they would certainly be immersed in the language of neuroscience, the metrics of poetry or the equations of quantum mechanics. To open gates and find connections using algorithms or poem lines, to finally realise that we all [the live and the dead ones] can still find each other in the same space. And realise that, following Paul Éluard, “there is another world and it is this one.”

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[1] Death and Architecture: Introduction to Funerary and Commemorative Buildings by James Stevens Curl.

[2] The Hunting of the Snark. An Agony in Eight Fits by Lewis Carroll. With nine illustrations by Henry Holiday

[3] Thanks @disquietingoose for the hint about Netherspace.


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