The Completist

This paper investigates incompleteness by focusing on the properties and causes of voids in complete systems or works which cause these increments of the system to be incomplete for us, and importantly how that void is a germ or a seed which could be called inspiration, in the growth of our own making of the world.

The vehicle for the paper is a character or personality type, The Completist. The completist is a collector. The completist is tormented by intrasystemic incompleteness: those points in a potential collection, a complete system, which, through one’s inability to claim them, remain impenetrable and exclusionary. They desire the sense of completeness underpinned by the belief that their potential to claim the landscape is complete. As collectors they perceive the total system as complete. Their claim in the landscape of things is not consumption, but the desire to pass through, to project lines through objects and ideas.

A narrative investigation, following the completist through the landscape of disappointing terminal objects, can be structured upon the relationship of ‘K.,’ the ‘land surveyor’ of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, to both the bureaucracy and physicality of the titular construct. The Castle stands as an intrasystemic solid within the text which is impenetrable to the reader and to K., both of whom consequently fail at their respective tasks of assimilating the castle objectively and accessing its spatial core, both perceived as a claiming of power, or completing. Although thematically prominent in the text, “there is not textual evidence for the existence of the Castle as a building separate from the village… (the Castle) only exists on its own terms.”

As we are along for the ride with K., the rhetorical position of the castle in the text necessarily reflects a dimension of K.’s relationship to it.

In a textual landscape which is based almost completely on archetypal settings such as inns, hovels, schoolhouses, and taverns, the Castle is characterized by ambiguity and muteness. Consequently it is resistant to association and interpretation against the formal castle archetype.

But it is not only from without that we see the exclusion, K. meets it physically and socially as well.

Therefore, through K., the Castle, as a key increment in the body of the text, through its physical impenetrability, its social inaccessibility, and its interpretational and associational elusiveness, is incomplete within a landscape, a totality, that is, as a realm, complete. The narrative follows, K.’s failures to assimilate the castle into its geographic and social context, his emboldened independence from the incomplete solid, and his recognition of and entrance into the complete, or accessible system: the village and its social system. This is also the narrative structure of this study.

The urban completist seeks to roam and assimilate the continuous built surface into their spatial repertoire, their spatial memory, their sense of control over the internalized whole. As the unchecked reproduction of modern media and collectible objects renders untenable the notion of the complete collection, so the repetitious growth of urban centers creates a complex and frustrating system over which to lay claim.

Collecting urban experience is like collecting compact discs. You do not posses them all, and even if you could, they are reproducible. You strive for a representative selection, all CDs by a single artist for instance, or more spatially perhaps in the scheme of the record store, all CDs in a single alphabetical grouping. In the redundant and generic morass, the field of inquiry must be reduced by developing a perception of completeness that is described by the collector himself. For that collector, this selection ‘represents’ the whole.

Similarly, certain urban settings, due to the systematic quality of their geometry, allow the illusion of openness to perceptually extend beyond the actual area of inquiry. The pedestrian relies on the urban synecdoche, as described by Michel De Certeau (it amplifies detail and miniaturizes the whole), to actualize larger territories in the city by claiming smaller representative groupings.

Although incompleteness, as the status of an object, is the transferral of duty toward completion, this paper focuses on conditions in which the status of incompleteness is terminal. Any movement toward the perception of completion must occur extratextually, leaving no trace, through mental processes, such as a riddle, or through interpretive assimilation, as with art objects.

More specifically, one is presented with a thing whose condition, in relation to its type, is complete, but it is incomplete due to the impossibility of its fulfilling these typological expectations, like a jewelry box that is welded shut, the inability to actualize its potential makes it rhetorically solid.

A more salient and fruitful example of this terminal incompleteness born of tantalizing potential, is Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, a permutative sonnet which, in its terminal physical state, consists of just 10 poems, is both terminally incomplete as a physical artifact, as it is completed through performance or reading, and extratextually incomplete, because the prescribed method of reading the text requires 200,000,000 years of continuous attention. Completeness, or the act of externally completing the text by reading it is impossible. The forfeiture of completeness to futility becomes a structural void, that is, the pervasive futility, the emptiness of the absent future, shadows all interactions with the text like a nagging phantom. This futility has its roots in the typological system where the poem is a body of text that is meant to be read through. Its wholeness depends on a complete reading. The impossibility of this renders the object of desire as an impenetrable solid.

Based on De Certeau’s inclinations for the perception of urban compositions, I have trained my lens down to an urban system that tends to create a typology within itself in order to explore the role of deviations for that type and their subsequent intrasystemic incompleteness in relation to that urban zone.

A large portion of downtown Atlanta can be characterized by pervasive porosity of private space and intrablock aggregation (the latter being typical of most cities). The area of inquiry here is an identifiable segment of the city parceled out in repeating blocks measuring 125mx125m. Each block houses an aggregation of structures of varying use. Philip Johnson’s 191 Peachtree Street shares its block with The Four Seasons hotel and a Hooter’s. The Georgia Pacific Center by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill shares its block with a subway station and a parking lot. John Portman’s Marriott Marquis shares its block with two office towers also designed by Portman. In fact, Portman is often credited with the uninviting character of downtown Atlanta’s streetscape. His Peachtree Center Mall, occupying a block with a number of office buildings, retracts much of the city center’s retail functions into the interior of a block with securable entrance points and a continuous flow of the public way through an interior space.

Although he has been condemned for turning the architectural back of the city on the streetscape, Portman’s prototypes have played out and progenerated into a fabric that is porous both on the grid of the street and in the continuous threads of public space that wind through the aggregated solid blocks of downtown. The keystone examples listed above, in addition to Mr. Portman’s Hyatt Regency, and Westin hotel, possess this continuity of surface, albeit convoluted and elusive, through which one can penetrate the constructed volume of the block. For those who seek it, this porosity perpetuates the desire to experientially collect the continuous urban surface of the city, including all of its interior hollows and passages.

Having helped to establish this somewhat specious, yet legible system of porosity, Mr. Portman is also responsible for the most dramatic intrasystemic disruptions, a series of private, full block megastructures: The Apparel Mart, The Merchandise Mart, and The Inforum. These structures house wholesale clothing showrooms, wholesale decorating showrooms, and conference facilities respectively. Each structure is extruded from the property line and stands anywhere from 9 to 22 stories, with controlled access points on the ground level, and the highly introverted aesthetic Mr. Portman’s more public ventures have drawn criticism for: continuous expanses of mirrored glass or virtually windowless concrete megaliths.

The manner in which the physical characteristics of solidity and lack of articulation situate the Marts as intrasystemically incomplete objects in the pedestrian’s city can be tracked through an examination of K.’s exclusion from the Castle as a rhetorical locus of power.

The tenets of alienation and impenetrability are translated from the social and geographical exclusion of K., he can neither figure out how to get to the castle or garner support from the villagers, who have accepted their exclusion for a lifetime, to clue him into how to access it, in the marts is a more simple urban concept of physical exclusion, in service of social exclusion, in the Marts. The literal impenetrability of the Marts is enforced through the long undetailed facades, long doorless streetscapes, and sentries visible in rare glazed voids.

Although the ‘closed’ role of the Marts in the function of the commerce-based downtown as viewed by the pedestrian is no less ambiguous than any other structure, the architectural solidity and impenetrability makes actual the social and topographic impenetrability rather than making concessions to the general public, and formalizes its own irritating absence in the city’s formal system.

However, the civic benefit is as hermetic as the structures themselves. The commerce that they support and the capital they invite are self-serving, with hotels and foodcourts doing little to invigorate a real livable community downtown. As if seeking to verify these qualities of beneficence, one looks for depth and invitation. In its place one finds only patronizing illusions: the reflected sky in expanses of mirrored glass, open concrete grillage at street level before what appears to be a shadowy hollow, but is in reality a black painted concrete-block wall. In these details one sees mounting correspondence to the questionable physicality of the Castle and the ambiguous relationship of that physicality to the image of power constructed by the villagers. The glass in the castle’s windows, which could have stood for openness or an allowance of depth, only reflects the sun, replacing what might have been the glimmer of content with a mute adoption of absence.

In a porous fabric that depends on aggregation, the Marts exert a repulsive force on the viewer not through isolation, but the intrasystemic aberration of their scale and solidity. In the density of the downtown environment, it is impossible to take in their totality; one is pushed first to the opposite sidewalk to glimpse the parapet, and even further still to see two corners at once. As with sculpture in the round, the viewer is kept roving about the object, stalking it in an attempt to establish a frame of reference by surveying it against the spaces and bounding elements in the distance, by remaining tenuously distant from it. This spatial reading of the object foregrounds its primary architectural correlation as an obstacle and cements its physical impenetrability.

More subtly and lastingly than their solidity and scale, it is the ambiguity of their use in the face of conflicting echoes that renders the Marts impenetrable. A haze of civic propaganda beclouds the presence and effect of the structures. Urban growth advocates trumpet the beneficial presence of the Marts and their role in concentrating powerful capital into downtown.

Reiterate: So, like Queneau’s poem and like the castle, the marts are found to be incomplete because for both their resistance to their reading according to typological standards and the occlusion of some presumed meaningful heart. For the pedestrian, as completist, this leaves solids with no way to contextualize them, which would require a situation, either social, which is housed presumably just beneath the surface, or a physiognomy, which cannot be pinned down. It is an acknowledgment of this that begins to change the role of the solid, to begin the break away from the system which has empowered it through its difference.

So how do we begin to approach and include these things, or do we?

Anthropologist, Michael Ames, showcasing this issue via the lack of penetrating or innate cultural knowledge when approaching anthropological artifacts, recounts a situation in which the reverent care for a ceremonial dish of an indigenous people was belittled by a cultural native, who recalled that, “they used to be stored under our house, and when the river flooded we would paddle around in them as if they were canoes.” There is a perception of some sort of inner power gathering its strength from the mystery of the solid, but it is our insistence of the primacy of this mystery that keeps us from being able to engage the thing at any level. In the case of the artifact, a counter-argument suggested by the evacuation of both institutional and native power, is to foreground the fascinating experience of the surface, in which its impenetrability is recognized, not veneered with false entries. It is allowed to just be.

“Rather than grasping objects only as cultural signs and artistic icons, we can return to them, as James Fenton does, their lost status as fetishes. Our fetishes. This tactic, necessarily personal, would accord to things in collections the power to fixate, rather than simply the capacity to edify them.” Clifford p.244

Reduced to a primal registration of form, an archetypal solidity that you have constructed by withdrawing your engagement to its impenetrable contours, the building or object follows an analogous trajectory to the figure of the Castle in Kafka’s novel, into an open representational or communicative status.

The Castle is a representation of power, not its seat. Like the final doll in the matryoshka, the body is all surface and no space.

Compress Italicized:

For K., that terminal body in the Castle’s unfolding is Klamm, a high ranking official from the castle. Klamm’s physicality is suspect. As a man, he is voided, an evacuated body, not present for himself but for his representational status as a proxy for the Castle’s power. The only time K. sees Klamm is through a peephole in the tavern. Seen only with one eye, the image of Klamm is photographically flattened, where he is only as powerful as the strength perceived in the media through which he appears: the shared history of the villagers, the reception of which he (Klamm) has no control over. Thus, the connection to memory that the representation relies on gives a more immediate form of control than the experiential space of an object, where immediate power is shared.

Here, these notions about the photograph can give us a roadmap for constructing our own surface across the emerging emptiness of the building object. The building you cannot experience, the subjective exclusion you suffer, presents you with a subjective viewpoint that is not your own, you are receiving the building, not constructing it around you through experience.

As with the vision of Klamm, the architectural photograph decommissions the physical building by physically distancing it, as Agrest says “A photograph is always perceived as in the past; its very presence bespeaks of absence. It is the document of a fugitive moment or a far away place, or lost being or object…” and also locating the authority for its reception outside of its physical body by means of a subjective voice. This voice gives primacy to a particular view or message that is instrumentalized in the photograph through compositional syntax, didactic framing, omniscient or impossible perspectives, the artificial tone of lighting and filtering, or the construction of the mise en scène, all of which are only latent in the source.

All of these are devices to reinstate the building’s power, but in a new voice that is not of the building, though it speaks upon and through its surfaces.

It loses its power because it is no longer the thing, it is someone saying something with the thing. The building as an open set of possibilities is decommissioned. The surface, a space of emptiness, is attempted to be filled with surrogates for experience, surrogates of power like Klamm.

Although someone claims the secrets of the photograph and its source, one on the outside must write their way around it, in order to write it into oneself. Here the viewer realizes that they must reconstruct their own physical condition, eroded over time by investment in the scenarios predicated on the experiences others, or they must simply look away from the photographic surface and observe their current physical surroundings for the space, experience, and empowerment that the image has lost. It is in this space that K. evacuated the social power from the image of Klamm by seducing his mistress and cuckolding him. This about-face in K.’s aggressive pursuit to engage Klamm was the forerunner to a series of actions that removed K. from the shadow of the castle. For K. this was an action of individuation. It is here that the narrative of K. trails away.

However, the production of works that avoid the illusory, those that just let their content ‘be,’ and exploit and acknowledge this inherent incompleteness provide stronger inroads for the viewer to control the power of the representational surface. To foreground the absence of the subjective voice as a photographic technique would effectively close the false invitation to discourse, the ‘do you see what I see?’ that the aforementioned rhetorical devices extend to initiate creation by the viewer of their own space outside of the photograph.

The photography of Daniel Mirer identifies the quality of emptiness that characterizes so much architectural photography and makes a presence out of it. No longer does one see a structure attempting to individuate itself outside of the physical world, in which it relies on the undefinable edges between bodies and surfaces, and structures and landscapes, to make it real, struggling with its status as a representation. One sees the photographic surface. The subject of Mirer’s photographs is the flatness of the print. With draughtsmanlike delineation, Mirer is able to manifest the spatial emptiness of a building physically by applying it projectively to all surfaces of a volume at once, by exploiting the flatness of the medium. These are not architectural photographs. They eschew the rhetorical devices noted above. Some carry the haphazardness of the snapshot; most employ Kubrickian static compositions or one-point perspectives that would never appear in professional architectural photographs.

Mirer’s description of his subjects could also apply to the reception of the photographic objects themselves. “They are spaces in which the flattening of shadows on surfaces creates an architecture without depth for the subject, who is buried, disappeared, dissolved into its structure. A subject who would otherwise occupy space is engulfed into the void of here-could-be-anywhere, into the monumental dissolution of space. I introduce the sense of an uncanny presence into these spaces by photographing them when they are empty.” Mirer

Due to the mediocrity of the buildings which are the subject matter, the perceived artlessness, the images seem less representational, they do not bear the artistic ‘reclaiming’ of the buildings power, because it had no culturally inherited power. The spaces are objectified and flattened like the Bechers’ water towers. The photo uses the building to take the pressure off of the voice. The photo ‘is.’ Not as a ratification of the ‘being’ or existence of its source, but as an object, and in the space outside of it, evacuated of that rhetoric, one is set free to relate to it on one’s own terms.

By removing the instrumental subjectivity, Mirer’s photographs move away from what McLuhan called the “outer matching,” which in photography hinges on the re-presentation of a subjective view, where the meaning of the image is then received with that view. The object quality of the Mirer’s photographs gives us now the “means of becoming involved in the making process,” that being the making of the object’s personal meaning, whether in memories, or more importantly, as the germ of inspiration.

I snuck into the Giftmart downtown today on my lunchbreak, through a parking garage and a service entrance left open, I had seen, on the escalator down out of the lobby of the Westin hotel, another escalator going up above me, the landing where this mystery escalator would have started was hidden behind a serpentine glass block wall, when I found my way through the service entrance and back up through the fire stair to this level, I was on the opposite side of the glass block wall, it was completely silent and well-lit, and empty, knowing both sides of the wall now, I did not know which was the mystery, which side was privileged, yet I felt haunted, now with 25 stories of inactive, dim escalators rising above me into the darkness, an entire city block extruded vertically, empty at 1 PM on a Wednesday, I ascended the becalmed escalator, each landing bringing a darkened glass-line hallway branching off which I could not see the end of, I thought about being caught without a badge, asked how I got there, into these bowels, I am an architect I would submit, looking for urban experience in each block the city permits, I am looking at the building, but I was not, the building was nothing, it was a city block become rhetorical solid, the spaces, hallways lined with glass, behind which, through dim transient displays of goods, I could see other hallways branching off in different directions or running parallel to the one I was in, each slab of space stacked in the building was dissolved, through lack of orientation and use, into a relentless void, ultimately powerless.

It is precisely that emptiness, the fact that your space of engagement with the thing contains nothing, that allows you to construct a role or experience of the thing or place which is on your terms, an atypical working relationship, because it begins anew and has no value but the one that you project onto it, it is a construct that is only contextualized by your presence and your action.

Through this protracted personal process that involves the relinquishing of received notions and experiences, the impenetrable object, is rendered a void and transformed into a surface for projection; it becomes useful. The recognition of intrasystemic incompleteness relies on a clear cultural framework, a tradition, within which one can detect departure and exclusion. In this alienation is born inspiration, empowerment. John Cage’s musical piece 4’33” collapses this entire process into less than five minutes. A solo piano player emerges onto a stage, pulls back the keyboard cover of the piano, and sits still on the bench for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The transferral of power to the viewer is effected both through the departure from the context of traditional live performances and the binary spatial condition which typically enables the hierarchy between performer and audience. 4’33” allows the reemergence of control over the action of one’s own behavior, thoughts, and senses through the incompleteness of the performance. By voiding the traditional locus of power, the cognizance of one’s own power to act is ignited. 4’33” has been described as an invitation to act in contribution to the performance. But in the traditional spatial context of the theater, the invitation is to be again oneself, to occupy a space external to the performance and to act personally and to register the individuality of one’s actions vis-a-vis the impenetrable and empty space of the performance.

Susan Stewart asserts that “the collector constructs a narrative of luck which replaces the narrative of production.” However, luck is dubious and shaky; the result is the incomplete. The voracious collector of experiences and interpretations, the completist, learns to subdue the incomplete, to move beyond the abstract consumption of mysterious means and methods. All of these solids, turned empty through lack of potential for intimate knowledge, are beacons that you may leap from into your own personal productions. In these is the seed of inspiration, where things closed to you through their virtuosity or mystery awaken in you the desire to create, to claim that internal heart that was the personal or cultural impulse of another. It is the aspects of things that we cannot claim or understand that cause us to retreat, to look into ourselves and our abilities, and to produce what is then our own, outside the shadow of the impenetrable solid of the world’s work.

Although the argument constructed here relies on what have been billed as more ‘objective’ works, whether it is the Bechers’ photos or the novels of Robbe Grillet, I believe this narrative of empowerment and the germs of the inspirational impulse are similarly rooted in the mysteries of virtuosic artistic expression, whether it is Beethoven’s 9th or Prousts Recherche, the mystery of the labor at their hearts is the drive we feel to respond in kind.

Critical Response:

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