To the internet, your body

June, 2017. Article by Common Accounts for Pidgin Magazine, Princeton University.

Sigfried Giedion’s chapter on “Death,” in Mechanization Takes Command (1948) is the first architectural account of the techno-social implications of the development of industries around death. Giedion is among the first architectural historians to acknowledge the role of death gizmos1 and industries as a source of architectural invention, and as critical contributors to the construction of the American landscape and the modern city.2 Most importantly, his account placed death and its spin-off technologies (canned meat, climate control, nutrition) in the realm of the quotidian. From the oven to the sink, the mechanization that once only induced a neutrality of transurban publics toward the processing of bodies—with death made faster, more hygienic, optimized—has today fostered an uneasiness closer to repulsion.

Cemeteries and mausoleums proliferated amidst the discipline’s historicist stance in the mid 1960s. Architects like Aldo Rossi, Enric Miralles or John Hejduk, to name a few, explored the sites of death with special attention to the poetics and aesthetics (analogizing the corpse of high modernism), obviating its material and technological realities. Today, the complexity of the urban system makes the sites of death more ubiquitous yet less evident. The technological networks that govern transurban protocols dedicated to the treatment of bodies—both dead and living, physical and virtual—exhibit an intensification in the realm of the domestic and the everyday.

Death produces spin-off techno-cultures that make it possible to multiply our modes of memorialization. The heat of the crematorium can be used to heat a swimming pool, which suggests a new kind of programmatic hybridity. New technologies make it possible to dissolve bodies and use them as a potent fertilizer, opening up possibilities for new rituals. Environmental impacts can be mitigated by altering body disposal methods, suggesting a new arena for environmental activism. The sale of your skin could pay the mortgage on your house, pointing to a new frontier for bio-capital.3

Since processes of improvement, conservation, and destruction all lie on a fluid scale between death and healing, we could form an understanding of each of these as instances of body processing. Tracing the origin of the bathtub and the sarcophagus in Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts, Gottfried Semper (1803-1879) points to the reciprocity of origins between the tub for regeneration and the vessel for the dead body.4

Take the case of John Berlin, a middle-aged, overweight, married father of three living in a trailer home in Arnold, Missouri. On January 28, 2012, his twenty-one year old son Jesse died unexpectedly, in his sleep.

That year, John Berlin started a YouTube channel and began posting videos from day-to-day activities, many featuring his kids. Experiments with Traffic Control (“Just another day at work,” 300 views, Feb. 15, 2012), Trippy Cat (“She’s cool man, she just kinda trippy,” 1,087 views, July 23, 2012), and Rubber Face (“Just me and a leaf blower,” 6,334 views, Oct. 22, 2012) documented the months following Jesse’s death and the subtle ways in which it started to mobilize changes around the Berlins.

Shortly after Jesse’s death, John discovered the Insanity physical fitness program, developed by Santa Monica-based Beach Body LLC. Confronted with death, Berlin turned to fitness to reverse the effects that a sedentary lifestyle had had on his 44-year-old body. On September 15, 2013, John posted his first fitness-oriented video. It shows him, in nine separate clips, competing in the 2013 St. Louis edition of the Toughmudder teambased obstacle course race. A slimmed-down, athletic looking John,runs, crawls, and climbs through the Mud Mile, Kiss of Mud, and Funky Monkey. One month later he began posting videos of Insanity workouts in his trailer home living room (5,315 views). By December, he announced he was taking on clients as a trainer in that same living room (21,766 views), now outfitted with a memorial to his son, Jesse, on the wall.

Two years after his son’s death, John posted his first viral video. In it, he makes a plea to Facebook to allow him the right to a “Look Back” video for his dead son’s account. The Look Back video format was a product of Facebook’s 10th anniversary celebrations and created a slideshow of greatest hits from a user’s virtual material. An emotional Berlin wanted to produce such a video from the material on his son’s account that he did not have access to, and after logging 2 million YouTube views in a couple of days, he received a call from Mark Zuckerberg, granting his request and announcing an immediate change in Facebook’s policy toward memorialization.

In the background of the plea video (now at 3,043,544 views) Berlin’s living room has been further transformed. His son’s memorial wall had been replaced by floor-to-ceiling mirrors and sports equipment appears here and there. All this to confirm and legitimize the space as a gym— and Berlin as a trainer—for the viewer. The viewer, in turn, became a participant in Berlin’s mourning. Through messages, requests, and attention to John’s feed, the anonymous commentator produced, accelerated, and in many ways determined the activity and architectural behaviors in the trailer home. Furthermore, Berlin’s Facebook page and his YouTube videos now operated as a social platform for other families to mourn their own children’s death.

Berlin’s body—in transformation—mirrors the programmatic promiscuity of his living room, itself belonging to an architectural vehicle (the trailer home). This programmatic substitution—living room for gym— and the physical improvement it promoted is, effectively, a means of memorialization. This case indicates a collapse in family structure brought on by death; once destabilized, these social politics are up for redetermination. In this case, John Berlin appropriated a shared space as his alone and expelled the remaining members of the family in each of his recordings, apparently prioritizing his relationship with his webcam over that with his family.

Death produces new bodies, political transformations, social platforms, micro-economies, and home decor production, among other things. Most importantly, death’s inclusion in society reveals a potential site for architectural intervention. We could, for instance, identify a programmatic analog in the development of the bathroom: an essentially infrastructural technology that was once outside of the domestic realm, which has since been developed into a sophisticated architectural type. Equally, death’s atomization presents opportunities for its re-integration into everyday life.

1.Banham will identify Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command (MTC) as the first historical account (1948) of these profane anonymous technologies in his article, “The Great Gizmo,” published in 1965. It could be argued that Banham’s “gizmos” have much in common with Giedion’s portrayed history of daily-life machines: both were constitutive of the North-American context, crucial in the construction of its landscape, reproducible (and intrinsically portable), and both had the potential to “reformulate” modern architecture.

2.The conveyor belt and the production line originated in the slaughterhouse. Giedion also points at the importance of the slaughterhouse as an infrastructural device that articulated nineteenth-century Paris as well as the Chicago Stockyard. Sigfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A contribution to Anonymous History, 1948 (University of Minessota Press, London, 2013), 209-213.

3.These cases refer to real-world examples. In order of appearance, they belong to the Reddich Community Centre in England, the chemical process called alkaline hydrolysis, the air pollution brought by cremating mercury-based dental fillings and the value of human epidermis at up to 80 000 USD.

4.Gottfried Semper traces the origin of the sarcophagi in the bathtub. In his Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts, he writes:“The oldest examples of these vessels are the Egyptian labra that were used as sarcophagi- or rather, that survived in the form of sarcophagi modeled after them.” Gottfried Semper, Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts, or, Practical Aesthetics, 1860 (Getty Research Institute Publications, Los Angeles, 2004) 486.

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