Notes from the Velodrome

Exhibition Speed Limits, 2009. View of the installation at the CCA.
© CCA, Montréal

 

Essay by Jeffrey T. Schnapp, Professor of Romance Langiages & Literatures at Harvard and faculty at the GSD

 

We open the issue with Jeffrey T. Schnapp, curator of the exhibition Speed Limits produced on the occasion of the centenary of the publication of the Founding Manifesto of Futurism and presented at the Canadian Center of Architecture and the Wolfsonian-FIU. Discussing the role of speed in history, he establishes that “whereas somatic movement provided the driving force in the era of Marinetti, it is data flows that propel the chariot of contemporary civilization.”

 

8:42:36 :: 24/8/2011
Generally speaking, I’m a fast writer.

(But not always.)

For thirteen years now I have been grinding away on a book in progress entitled Quickening — An Anthropology of Speed.
To qualify an endeavor that has been underway for over a decade as a book in progress may do undue violence to the notion of a “book” – the tome long ago assumed bloated proportions – and “progress.” All the more so in the case of a volume dedicated to the theme of speed. Yet the project’s scope and tentacular ambitions have dictated a pace better suited to Rousseau’s solitary promeneur than to the speedsters, human or mechanical, that drive 20th century tales of conquest and adventure.

8:59:08 :: 24/8/2011
4 email messages in; 3 out

9:04:29 :: 24/8/2011
Slow or fast, Quickening dubs itself an “anthropology” in order to stake out a slightly different claim from that of now-classic accounts of modernity as the era of speed, like Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space and Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Train Journey (both of which I admire), as well as from the present-centered teleologies of theorists like Paul Virilio (which I admire less). Unlike these and other authors, I find it more compelling to argue against the reduction of the history of speed to that of the modern era. My heuristic assumption, on the contrary, is that the enduring dromological imagination that is the object of analysis of Quickening becomes intelligible only when one applies critical pressure to modernity’s own self-understanding as a rupture event.

9:35:42 :: 24/8/2011
The embrace of a capacious “anthropological” framework in no way implies a flattening out of historical differences. For, in my view, the post-industrial era presents distinctive attributes as an era of speed with respect to the era of industry. Never, as in the present, has speed invaded more nooks and crannies of our everyday existences: from the tick of the human psyche to the tocks of culture, economy and language. Never before has this once-exclusive attribute of gods and god-like men, become the common patrimony of so many men and women on a worldwide stage. And never in prior epochs have so many voices risen up to sound the clarion call of a salvific slowness, however fatally enmeshed that slowness might be in the very logic of acceleration as progress (like “smart” control systems that increase the pace of urban traffic flows; or safety devices that make taking on ever greater physical risks a reasonable behavior; or investment vehicles that provide “insurance” against speculative risks while creating new speculative opportunities of their own). All are tell-tale symptoms of an epoch in which speed is king but in which the monarch’s clothes are no longer those worn at the turn of the 20th century.

10:13:11 :: 24/8/2011
phone call from Switzerland; 9 email messages in, 4 out, 2 forwards; 1 text message received, one reply

10:47:02 :: 24/8/2011
The paradoxical consequences of this democratization of speed and of its reshaping of the life world of ordinary individuals provided the initial impetus for Speed Limits, the exhibition that, I curated for the Canadian Center of Architecture (May-October 2009) and the Wolfsonian-FIU (September 2010–March 2011) on the occasion of the centenary of the publication of the Founding Manifesto of Futurism. The show was flanked by a companion volume bearing the same title, published in Milan by Skira, divided into Speed Writings (ten commissioned essays), Rush City (a visual essay), and Speed Readings (a historical anthology of writings from Gérard de Nerval to Shin’ichi Tsuji).

Speed Limits was a stop on the road to completion of Quickening. Both exhibition and book sought to explore the legacies of a heroic narrative of acceleration that predates the foundation of Futurism, but that Futurism amplified. The narrative in question famously equates speed with modernity. It is a myth both of transformation (of human possibilities, of nature, of man through machine) and emancipation (from the past, from a fixed relation to place, from the law, from community bonds, even from death). It insists not only that speed infuse all modern forms of rationality, social organization, and aesthetic experience, but also that it serve as the basis for measuring individuality, priority, property, productivity, progress, profit, intelligence, accomplishment, value, and pleasure (even as speed engenders distinctly modern forms of exhaustion, distraction, delay, jams is the system, crashes and collisions).

11:24:58 :: 24/8/2011
coffee; brief flurry of messaging activity (2 out, 4 in, 2 blind copies forwarded)

11:31:00 :: 24/8/2011
In significant respects, this heroic narrative now belongs to the past. A split occurred some decades back, with many (if not most) forms of advanced or experimental culture contesting or casting an ironic light on the modern cult of pace, even as the rhythm of social and economic life – in particular mental life – continued to accelerate. And this process of acceleration has continued to such a degree that a secondary bifurcation has now accompanied the first, this time between somatic and mental mobility, between flows of bodies and data and media streams.

It is well-known that the democratization of physical mobility, capped by the global reach of mass tourism and the regional dissemination of low-cost airlines, has produced plateaus in the rates of travel along most transportation routes. Today’s pace is generally equal to or inferior to that of two decades ago, whether on land, in the air or on the seas. This impasse has arisen precisely as the speed of communications networks undergoes explosive growth. The result is a mutation within the heroic narrative. Bodily and mental expressions of velocity have always been the flip sides of a single coin; but whereas somatic movement provided the driving force in the era of Marinetti, it is data flows that propel the chariot of contemporary civilization.

12:46:44 :: 24/8/2011
lunch break, 3 local phone calls followed by renewed messaging flurry (5 emails out, 12 in)

14:07:28 :: 24/8/2011
How to translate this paradoxical logic into the language of an installation design? The task was confronted with the inspired help of Michael Maltzan (in Montreal) and René Gonzalez (in Miami). The first goal was to move away from an artifact-centered approach and, instead, to lay out an argument through the spatial syntax of the installation itself and through the staging of objects as arrays. The objects in question were distinctly heterogeneous. Some were reproductions. Some were drawings by the masters of 20th century architecture. Others were pharmaceutical products and beverages available at the corner store. There were also books, pamphlets, photographs, household appliances, and a multitude of media materials from television advertisements (a 1982 FedEx commercial with the world’s fastest talking actor, John Moschitta Jr.) to video game captures (from Microsoft’s Project Gotham Racing). Yet each of these objects had to tell a story bigger than their own.

Exhibition Speed Limits, 2009. View of the installation at the CCA.
© CCA, Montréal

Exhibition Speed Limits, 2009. View of the installation at the CCA.
© CCA, Montréal

Exhibition Speed Limits, 2009. View of the installation at the CCA.
© CCA, Montréal

The second aim was to create a fluid, unstable sense of space. In Montreal, the object arrays were framed in cases that veered off the walls at oblique angles, bending this way and that. Dummy walls, screens, and angular benches intruded diagonally into the rectangular plan of the galleries, giving rise to narrowed passages, sites of accelerated or impeded passage, possible sources of a human Venturi effect. A suspended spiral housing eight large-format monitors filled the Circulation room, with breakneck speed runs through eight major capitals on the inside and histories of accident and the scientific analysis of traffic systems on the outside. In Miami, rhythmic striping and reflective surfaces were used to create a sense of spatial syncopation and shifting boundaries between display structures and their reflected images, between volumes and voids. Vertical plexi sandwiches were suspended between the ceiling and floor to shape film-like sequences, so that traversing the galleries would feel like the spooling or unspooling of a film reel and a time-based performance.

The third aim was to embed different, even contradictory paces of viewing into the very design of Speed Limits. Quotations from the Speed Reader banded the cornice of the galleries of the CCA, legible only as or if the visitor circled the room. Object labels were telegraphic and sometimes little more than a number referencing a small panel that was dislocated with respect to the objects. A printed gallery guide with in-depth object-by-object descriptions was placed at key junctures, allowing for a cognitively slow and attentive experience of individual objects otherwise staged for rapid visual processing.

17:30:55 :: 24/8/2011
3 text messages; quick phone call; 8 emails in, one urgent; 5 out; 2 forwards

17:47:01 :: 24/8/2011
For Speed Limits, the question of humanity’s ability to adapt to and sustain multiple paces of cognitive processing was at once a design challenge and a historical question that the show and book sought to historicize and re-pose. The matter has given rise to recurrent panics over the course of the modern era: panics about too much memory (Nietzsche), too little memory (Santayana), neural exhaustion (fin de siècle psychology), the “epidemic” of ADHD, and the like. It continues to inform contemporary debates over the powers and limits of mental multitasking versus contemplative models of reasoning, of thinking as blinking versus thinking as distraction-free rumination. Such debates come with the very turf of modernity and contemporaneity, have a venerable tradition, and are sure to go on unresolved. In the meantime, the clock is ticking and I have a book to write (but perhaps that’s what I have been doing by composing these notes).

19:02:00 :: 24/8/2011

 

Jeffrey T. Schnapp is Professor of Romance Languages & Literatures at Harvard and also on the faculty at the Graduate School of Design. Before moving to Harvard in 2011, he occupied the Pierotti Chair of Italian Studies at Stanford, where he founded the Stanford Humanities Lab in 2000.
http://jeffreyschnapp.com | @jaytiesse

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