THE NEWS COVERAGE surrounding the turn of the century is only now slowly halting. The seven bulletins issued by the United States Government warning Americans of their vulnerability to terrorist attack both at home and abroad seem like distant words spoken too quickly, even as Spain, India and Pakistan deal with bomb attacks. U.S. citizens peek sheepishly out from their Costco hoards of bottled water and Spaghetti-O’s, relieved and somewhat disappointed that very little went wrong.
What about those souls who were plotting the end of the world - the Pat Bells and Chicken Littles, the ones who were gleefully predicting Judgement Day in all its brimstone glory? The FBI is wrapping up the indictments: cataloging the hate literature, the carpet fibers and sending the ammonium nitrate to a secure location. The 11 o’clock headlines, which documented the fin-de-sicle, are just fleeting snippets of video; but the footage was uncanny in its ability to capture both a national paranoia and a paranoid architecture.
In the case of Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian man that was charged with trying to smuggle explosives and timing devices across the U.S./Canadian border, the forensic greediness of the media exposed his abandoned Montreal apartment to millions of viewers like you. The camera caressed the details of this paranoid space - paranoid not solely because of Ressam’s supposed political affiliations, but because of the nation’s paranoid fight against the hastily approaching doom of Y2K. The small rooms, the unremarkable beige carpet, the standard-issue sliding closet doors ajar and, oddly, a bit skewed off their runners and the discolored paint are all mute, but each is apparently guilt-ridden - charged by massive media coverage and the exposure of place.
The tension of private space displayed, or more often, forcefully laid bare to the public, causes uneasiness. A New York Times article from December 31, 1999 chronicles a police raid on a quite Pakistani enclave in Brooklyn. The police were looking for associates of Ressam, looking to stamp out terrorism on their beat. The tale of the dominant intrusion read in the Times as follows: "[the police] made their way down side streets toward their target, a three-story building at the corner of Newkirk and Coney Island Avenues, and then raced inside - some though the main entry and others up a fire escape - until they were crowed into a narrow second-floor hallway outside apartment No. 1. Smashing the door open, they burst inside screaming."
The transformation of cheap and flimsy apartments, spaces of impermanence and shiftiness, into media buzz is a semblance of another domicile worthy of hours of analysis on CNBC - the Unabomber Cabin. The cabin, iconic with its peaked roof, single door and clapboard siding absorbed prime-time attention and spectacle. The simple shape pulsed the nightly rhythm of Theodore Kaczynski’s paranoid attacks with the same force as the manual typewriter keys that spelled out his manifesto. FBI teams uncovered bomb-making materiel, assorted incriminating papers, the typewriter and the manifesto. Yet the largest piece of evidence against the man who would be Unabomber was the cabin, container for all his assorted ravings.
Richard Barnes photographed the Unabomber cabin for an edition of the New York Times Magazine. The ominous photographs ran on a breezy Sunday in May 1998. The collection of images, subsequently expanded, was the inaugural exhibition at Henry Urbach architecture in New York City, January 1999.
Barnes’ large-format images are forensic. They are as much about detail - the obsessive order of the roof nails as they are about the cabin as an object. Several of the photographs document the building façades. Each side is shot against a black background. Barnes plays with the ambiguity of scale. Stripped of context, the cabin, at once a dark and sinister chalice, transforms into a toy and, ironically, resembles the shape of a child’s drawing of a house. One half-expects a crayon loop of smoke to escape from a clumsily drawn chimney.
It is a haunted house. "Drawn in brown ink and wash, this small, two-story stone cottage seemed to have little out of the ordinary about it. With its four windows, walled up on the ground floor, its single door, pitched roof and chimney, it seems no more than the archetypical "child’s house," a commonplace compilation of the fundamental elements of dwelling.... Nevertheless, it has the reputation of being haunted, and despite its simplicity, ’its aspect was strange.’" writes Anthony Vidler in his chapter entitled "Unhomely Houses," in the Architecture of the Uncanny. He describes a "dead house" drawn by Victor Hugo redolent of the same qualities as Kaczynski’s abode.
When I spoke to Mr. Barnes, asking after what drew him to the Unabomber cabin, he replied, "I am interested in the cabin as evidence - evidence is transportable. The Unabomber cabin is a personal home transported across the country." It is a home haunted by media and governmental examination of personal space. Although Barnes was not authorized to photograph the interior of the cabin, he was escorted to the Sacramento warehouse where FBI personnel stored the cabin, the exterior vibrates with the knowledge of what lays inside. The sheaves of incriminating papers containing the victim’s addresses, bomb-making diagrams and mock-ups, were so expertly reported by the nightly news that they are projected by the viewing public back onto the structure and they flicker across the façade. Barnes believes that the cabin is "a contemporary artifact." He says, "the way the cabin is photographed is representative of the paranoia - representative of our time."
Vidler, towards the end of The Architecture of the Uncanny, following both Jacques Laçan and Victor Burgin, investigates what Burgin calls "Paranoiac Space." Without going through the psychological and philosophical machinations required by these authors, let’s say that such a space is a condition of surface, "...that which is staged though anxiety instigated at its surface." (Vidler) It is where the exterior surface simultaneously represents the interior and the exterior. Like the façades of the Unabomber cabin, it is a space that is blurred (Vidler’s word) but is also taut with the tension of what is inside and what is represented on the outside. It is a tension between enclosed space and object.
While the foreboding relationship between the exterior and interior of Kaczynski’s cabin becomes paranoiac in the obsessively functionalist details so expertly captured by Barnes, there is another artwork which revels in surface tension - Rachael Whiteread’s 1993 piece, House. The sculpture which caused considerable controversy at the time it won the Turner Prize and was subsequently destroyed, is a casting of the interior walls of a London row house. The blown-in concrete, which was used for the casting, shows dusty corners, filigree traces of velvet wallpaper and mantelpiece cornices on its skin. It created evidence of private lives.
The dense form, 193, the last house in a series of pre-war homes on Grove Road stirred lust in the hearts of art critics and ire in those of local residents and right wing newspaper editors. Politics of place swirled around the artwork. The East End, where the project was located, is a catalytic zone. As Doreen Massey writes in her essay "Space-time and the Politics of Location" which is part of the Artangle collection House, by Rachel Whiteread, "A reference to ’tradition’ in the East End can bring to mind radicalism and ethnic diversity or racism and community closure." The artwork created outrage. The paranoid events that surrounded House aggravated both by the elite snobbery of art critics and political context of the East End were played out on the surface of the piece.
Written charges illustrated the concrete surface once faced with painted plaster, not spray paint. Much like the paranoiac whose deepest fears and secrets are revealed by the hint of perspiration on his face. One façade read "HOUSES FOR ALL BLACK + WHITE." The scrawled letters clashed with the negative space of where stairs and windows used to be. Journals and newspapers added piece after piece to the controversy. With resounding force the words of both sides hit the sculpture, until ultimately the surface tension was too great and House was destroyed in 1994.
House is both an object and is a paranoiac space. The Victorian detail cast in its surface traces in death mask certitude the evidence of an interior existence publicly exposed. Strangely representing the domesticity of another fin-de-sicile, House, by both surface and spectacle, resembles both the media scrutinized interiors of suspected terrorist apartments or the charged exterior of the Unabomber cabin.
It is the element of public or media examination that creates a twist on Vidler’s discussion of paranoiac space. While his definition is concerned with the relationship of individual psyche to surface, what is shown in these three structures is a social paranoia communicated by national news outlets. A paranoiac consensus projects its beliefs onto the buildings that come into its view, animating the exterior surfaces, fetishizing the architecture of close interior detail. It is architecture evidenced in video, film and ink.