On the Ultra-Cheap

ON THE ULTRA-CHEAP

vinyl_handbag

The material environment of the suburbs around the Mangere Inlet is saturated with ultra-cheap imported goods: Stainless steel kitchen equipment from Delhi, fabric from Malaysia, toys, mp3 players, plastic mats from China—all arrive by the container-load. This class of artefact is beyond the merely cheap—it is easily manufactured, using the cheapest possible materials, in factories that spend no extra money on controlling pollution or accessing cleaner energy sources, by workers pais as little as the global labour market will allow, shipped at minimum cost on huge ships, piggybacking on solid existing shipping routes. A child’s vinyl schoolbag, branded with copyright-infringing logos and images from a Nickelodeon cartoon, hangs outside a shop for ten dollars; a similar bag, slightly more durable perhaps, with official branding, might sell for three times as much, even at the Warehouse (a well-known cut-price retailer in the mass-market. There’s no way local manufacture can equal these prices—the additional costs of labour, regulation of environmental effects, taxes, and the need to import materials far outweighing the cheaper costs of transport.

What is the role and effect of this material on human environments? The economy having been deliberately balanced to serve consumers by keeping the exchange-rate high, import has been privileged over export. This has the effect of driving consumption, not simply serving it (demand can be induced; it isn’t simply an abstract force that needs to be served). It would be accurate to talk about an addiction to cheap imports. But they’re not an unmitigated evil: they’re also valuable and worthwhile business, particularly for immigrants who may already have connections to overseas manufacturers and insight into the needs of local immigrant communities. In addition, they serve the needs of the poorest end of the market.

This material deserves attention as one of the substances of contemporary urban life. How does it circulate, condense and disperse? What linkages does it cement? What is it’s agency in the urban, human, and environment assemblages that constitute the city?

Archaeology 1

crater2

Found during an archaeological examination of my architecture school archives from 1999. It was an AVI made in 3DS Max, stored on the CD-ROM where I backed up my Zip disks.

WIP: Mud Piers, 2012

 

Work in progress. Mud piers for Onehunga foreshore, Oct, 2012. I’m trying to work out if a mangrove-fringed tidal inlet can operate as a viable social space.

Bryant on the Surface of the World

Levi Bryant, asking what the world must be like in order for our practices to be intelligible:

“it is difficult to see how language could ever have the power to divide or parcel in the way suggested by the linguistic idealists were it not for the fact that the world itself is structured and differentiated. Absent a world that is structured and differentiated, the surface of the world, as a sort of formless flux, would be too slippery, too smooth, for the signifier to structure at all.”

Preston Scott Cohen, Rectilinear Spiriculate (1998)

Preston Scott Cohen’s ‘Recilinear Spiriculate’ (1998; in Cohen 2001: 99) is a pencil drawing showing a sequence of perspectival transformations of a blocky object. It comes from a series of formal experiments Cohen entitles ‘Sterotomic Permutations’, in which a hybrid projective / perspectival drawing technique is used to generate a group of house concepts. The drawing is an open-ended trace of a process. It doesn’t simply represent a three-dimensional object in two dimensions: there is no original object, nor a final one (although, of course, one was drawn first and one last). The drawing produces rather than represents. We witness the operation of a drawing machine. In this sense, the drawing is a calculation rather than a representation. Cohen sees architecture as the resolution of predicaments, to the extent that he argues predicaments should be actively sought out by the designer, and even introduced if necessary:

An architecture that is compelled to distort, and that ultimately highlights and questions norms, requires the invention of surrogate problems… Architecture could create problems, vigorously attempt to solve them, and never be able to. Architecture would thus keep itself alive by remaining an unfulfilled promise. (Cohen, 2001: 13)

Architecture should be a form of calculation, writes Cohen—but this doesn’t mean simply optimising, discovering a minimum or maximum condition. Rather, he intends that problems engender an open-ended instability, an oscillation or circulation.

‘Rectilinear Spiriculate’ oscillates between perspectival and stereotomic projection. There are two operations going on here. The Taylorian perspective apparatus employed includes a potential ambiguity about whether any anamorphosis is an effect of perspective or a property of the object itself; and Cohen exploits this further by using a procedure derived from Desargues for calculating the three-dimensional angles common in stone-cutting given only the standard figures of plan and elevation. The result of combining these two operations is that each projected figure is simultaneously the three-dimensional result of a calculation and a plane figure that can be re-inflated into three dimensions.

Symmetry is invariance under a transformation. The degree of symmetery is measured by the degree of invariance, or more precisely, the number of different transformations under which the object remains invariant. A cube, for example, remains unchanged by X, Y, and Z rotations of 90º, 180º, 270º, 360º, but is changed by other rotations; while a sphere can be rotated any number of degrees without varying. The sphere has a greater degree of symmetry. The transformations of ‘Rectilinear Spiriculate’ are symmetry-breaking. Lengths, angles, parallels, and ratios between lines are not preserved, although co-linearity is. In mathematical terms, this drawing is something between a projective and a differential space. De Landa writes:

Classifying geometrical objects by their degrees of symmetry represents a sharp departure from the traditional classification of geometrical figures by their essences… even though in this new approach we are still classifying entities by a property (their degree of symmetry), this property is never an intrinsic property of the entity being classified but always a property relative to a specific transformation (or group of transformations) (De Landa, 2002:17).

The object made present in ‘Rectilinear Spiriculate’ is tumbled, stretched and spun. It doesn’t rest or settle into any stable configuration. It oscillates between two and three dimensions, cast back and forth across the picture plane. But through this circulation a degree of invariance is preserved, albeit a small one. This minimal definition describes not a single object, but a multiplicitous one that is always being recalculated.