TEXT: Sumrell and Varnelis’s Blue Monday. Book Review by Molly Hankwitz, co-editor

Blue Monday: Stories of Absurd Realities and Natural Philosophies
AUDC – Robert Sumrell and Kazys Varnelis
Barcelona: Actar, 2007
175 pages
http://www.audc.org/blue-monday

AUDC’s book, Blue Monday is a provocative preliminary probe into the fall out culture of Empire from the perspective of architecture and urbanism. American cities are suspended in a peculiar moment of variability and hybridization, and the book looks precisely at these aspects. How is architecture impacted by networked technologies and what is, where is, where are we with respect to “modernity?”

Geographer Ronald F. Abler, writing for Bell Telephone Magazine in a 1970 essay entitled “What Makes Cities Important”, argues that “the production, exchange and distribution of information is critical to [how cities’] function […] cities are communications systems.” (1, Abler in Varelis, 2006) and this very notion, the notion of “cities as communications systems” seems to be the overriding thesis of the book. Bracketed thus, Blue Monday offers us not one city, but urban space as a set of glimpses of differing political economies.

Several vantage points are thus undertaken from which to observe and review the spectacle of the present. Varelis lays claim to cogent and important observations can be made, exuding a faith born in the genuine social power of communication, and perhaps validating human potential to judge, individually or collectively, about what is “good” for us as a species and society and what will have permanence in these slippery times.

The chapter, “Swarm Intelligence: Quartzite, Arizona” best expresses the peculiarities of the critical problem. It is written through the lens of an ad hoc city, literally a gathering of retirees in RVs known as “Quartzite’ and includes a curious, brief history of the development of the RV in relation to the US Camel Corps. Characteristically urban categories such as “the multitude” and “density” are borrowed from Michel Hardt and Antonio Negri’s “Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire” (NY: Penguin Press, 2004) to help define larger constructs of sociality and power. The author writes:

Multitude is the product of a transformation in industrial production from the fixed structures and hierarchies of Fordism to the flexible structures and distributed networks of late capitalism. (2, Varelis, 2006)

He continues:

…the multitude is composed of individuals who can use technologies to communicate. To be sure, Hardt and Negri, point out, the multitude is made possible by contemporary technologies of communications. (Ibid)

Bookending the central argument about Quartzite, a place Varelis refers to as “the capital of the multitude” (Ibid), the idea of the “multitude” is pitched optimistically in the sense that this human formation desires to be free, while at the same time organizing itself around places of trade, community, and cooperation. It is an especially seductive laboratory for the study of strange or “absurd” economies (some based on the love of rocks; surely based on the fact that its population is largely retirees) because it lies at the intersection of the American love affair with mobility and consumption. One could suppose that Varelis has taken Venturi and Scott Brown’s seminal 1972 text, Learning from Las Vegas one step further. Finally, he links Quartzite to the social interaction imagined in the Situationist’s Hacienda as architecture. There, “the concept of productive work is obsolete…In place of labor; meaningless exchange is maintained as a form of social interaction”. (Ibid)

Blue Monday, as a brief, provocative text, evokes Hal Foster’s The Anti-aesthetic: Essays in Post modern Culture (Bay Press, 2003) in which the attempt was made to lay bare the genuinely best critical frameworks from which to view postmodernity. We are focused in Blue Monday on the “post urban” and the “exurban”, the dregs of post modern architecture, which have morphed into a somewhat intangible new era. This urban space is apparently what the authors are trying to grapple with and articulate.

Hardt and Negri suggest that we are so inside of Empire as to have lost our critical outside. Are we forever trapped in the belly of the beast — in Deleuze’s “societies of control”?

In its pursuit of architectural meaning, Blue Monday’s journey brings us closer to an understanding of how it is that the “absence of productive capacity” at Quartzite can be found in superpower America.(Ibid) The authors suggest that the absurd and implausible must become a critical component of our perspective on urban space and this is what makes their book interesting.

Molly Hankwitz is co-editor of newmediaFIX. She is a writer and media artist finishing her PhD at the University of Queensland, Australia. She currently resides in the Bay Area, California.

For further information:

Actar

www.actar.com

AUDC

www.audc.org

Robert Sumrell and Kazys Varnelis

www.robertsumrell.com

www.varnelis.net

Footnotes:

Ronald Alber, “What Makes Cities Important.” Bell Telephone Magazine, March-April 1970, 15

Robert Sumrell and Kazys Vernelis. “Blue Monday: Stories of Absurd Realities and Natural Philosophies” (Barcelona: Actar, 2006)

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Multitude, War and Democracy in the Age of Empire(New York: Penguin Press, 2004)

Hal Foster, “The Anti-aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture” (Port Townsend WA, Bay Press, 1983)