Conversation with Vincent Gallo, Benjamin Bratton and Jeffrey Inaba
JI: Vincent, you know the first time we met was around 2001, at Benedikt Taschen’s Lautner house. I showed you a book of the addition that OMA was going to do to the house.
VG: That was you?
JI: You knew all of Rem’s work well and really liked the book I showed you. And then suddenly three very pretty women came over and were like, ‘Oh! What a great book. Vincent did you do this? Vincent, Vincent, Vincent, Vincent, Vincent.’ They were all over you. I’ve never seen anything like it.
VG: It was a fluke. One of them must have thought I had a lot of money or something and spread it to the other ones.
JI: Everywhere you stood that night there was a crowd of women around you.
VG: Then the ‘Vincent Gallo is rich’ rumor must have spread like wildfire.
JI: I don’t know, most of the women there were rich themselves. Anyway, I remember you liked a lot the idea Rem had for the addition. It was like a 90-foot cantilevered I beam out of the side of the mountain that had a swimming pool on top. And Benedikt’s only thing was, ‘Yeah you know we have daughters, so can you put a handrail on it?’ That was his only sort of criticism. Like you know they might fall off.
VG: I forgot Rem was going to work for those people. Are you still friendly with Rem?
JI: Yeah, yeah. I remember a couple years ago he said that the two of you were working together.
VG: We were working together. Hopefully one day we can really work together.
JI: You guys were working on an apartment that had a secret floor or something like that. It seemed really interesting.
VG: I asked him to work on a space that was a two level condominium. It was once owned by the TV actor Jack Ward and later by the great David Geffen. It’s now owned by Cher. In between Geffen and Cher I owned the place.
BB: So you’re halfway between David Geffen and Cher.
JI: What a great description.
VG: That place was incredible. The view was so beautiful. While I owned it, I was open to collaborating or commissioning or working with someone in some way to help me develop the space architecturally. I wanted to do something extremely progressive, conceptual, and very thought out. Modernism is not things that look like sleek designs from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Something truly modern and progressive is far away from the thinking and lifestyle of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Amateurs like Marmol Radziner are considered by the weak to be modern architects simply because they create = things that look like what we got used to as contemporary architecture. But their retro work and the work of the real architects from the ‘50s and ‘60s does not relate to contemporary life or the real state of things. My understanding of a home of today, the way that I would interact with that home, sleep, entertain, have sex and perform my work functions in that home, are all quite contrary to what even the most modern architects were thinking in the past. Even an eccentric architect like Albert Frey whose Palm Springs work looks space aged – really, though, his work is a dressed
JI: What a great, great fascination.
VG: We should not see a toothbrush, a garbage can, a bed, a refrigerator. Nothing should be out in the open. No brand names or advertisements. No schmutz or products. No appliances or TV’s. No furniture. And free of debris. Especially debris from humans. Like a loose hair. I’m not repulsed by humans. I’ll put my tongue up the asshole of a strange girl within
BB: It’s a factory. I mean, it’s industrial architecture.
JI: It’s like a high-end factory.
VG: Yes, which is what a contemporary residential home should be, instead of pretending everywhere to be something else.
BB: Especially when it’s wrapped in the veneer of a faux 50’s Modern aesthetic where in fact function is overwhelmed.
JI: Have you gone to old factories? Do you visit factories? You say you go around the world and see architecture. What do you mean by architecture?
VG: In the middle of the desert, heading homeward towards LA, I’ll often sacrifice the experience of a National Park to instead pass by a nuclear power plant or a factory. Anonymous architecture.
BB: It’s all anonymous architecture for the most part. It’s nameless and collaborative and egoless.
VG: Egoless, yes, which is most important. Ego leads to self-glorification, which leads to compromised function. It prevents the work from being better than the people who make it. The Shakers of the Northeast because of their religion and the philosophical ideas surrounding their religion moved towards a more egoless life to find peace and harmony. They were high level builders and craftsmen, but they frowned upon ornamentation or self-glorification in everything that they built.
BB: Or self-expression.
VG: Well, when you look at the work, it is the most pristine and beautiful of its time, maybe of any time. When I first looked in books and noticed this work, I was blown away. More than blown away. For the first time in my life designs made absolutely perfect sense to me. I felt this work was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. When I think about collaborating with architects or designers the biggest hurdle for me is to keep them away from their own self-glorification and egos. For example, if the problem is to light a room, rather than study the luminance and reflection patterns and research technologies, they would usually begin with a gesture of self-glorification and self-expression. A design based on nothing but design itself. And then hope to find a way to make it work, of course with
JI: I think what’s interesting – and this is what we are trying to address in this issue of Volume – is that for young architects now who are going to school there is an implied understanding that becoming a celebrity is just part of what you do and that’s not always been the case. But I think now it’s to the point where they understand it as a thing that they have to do in addition to being talented. And so our goal is: can we propose alternative ambitions for architects? Can it be a thing where their ambitions will be different? And it’s not to say that somehow there’s a model where you just tinker away at what you do and people will recognize it. We’re not trying to propose that. But rather to use the interest in architecture now – the cultural interest - to be, for example, a new kind of public intellectual or to be a person who uses the spotlight of interest on architecture in some other way. So that’s sort of the goal of it, of saying what are alternatives, what are possibilities?
VG: Cinema and art schools suffer the same dilemma. The movie industry was a very straight profession, though technical and creative. Self-glorification was not dominant. However in the 60’s and 70’s some filmmakers within this large establishment were set free in their creativity if they would do so with extremely modest budgets. Those filmmakers were still connected to that past tradition in which self-glorification was not dominant. So these early experimenters were going down roads and taking paths that were new to everyone. Many of them were pushed out of the profession and only a few became glorified. Young
JI: That’s really interesting about this moment because a lot of architects who are in their 30’s perceive it as a thing where it’s an essential part of career development but they also realize that having a degree of notoriety is a huge liability because what if there’s a misstep in terms of what one says or the media interprets it incorrectly then it could be as much a fatal blow as anything else. The question is what are the alternatives? Do you avoid it, which seems impossible, or do you take advantage of it in some way where you leverage it for other causes or other
VG: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg through competing and collaborating and sharing vocabulary and dialog were able to reach their highest level. They were two men with 160 IQ and together it equaled 320. They enhanced one another. As they moved away from one another in their sharing, the level of the work was clearly cut in half.
BB: Rem is one model of architect and he’s very much a model that a lot of young architects look up to.
VG: They look up to the part of him that they misunderstand. Yes, he has an ego and is often caught up in self-glorification, but there’s a much bigger force that drives him and allows him to transcend those things. The students may only wish for his celebrity and glory and they may not understand the complex dilemma of his thoughts and intellect. Recently Rem designed a large building for the Rothschilds to be built in the center of London. It’s a beautiful building. Rem has good taste. But what’s interesting is how the building will impact the architecture surrounding it. Conceptually the project is not about itself only but also about its impact on everything else around it. It’s a high level piece of work. Still, if I were in architecture school, Rem would be the enemy.
BB: Yeah, yeah. Which I think shifts the discussion a bit. There’s an ambition for the architect as a person, as a profession, as a public figure circumscribed to site, and then there’s the ambition for architecture in and of itself.
JI: Yeah, what architecture can do.
BB: What architecture can do. It is done every day by people who are not architects and is completely different from architecture. The ways in which that becomes frozen and ossified into a particular kind of aesthetic register is entirely connected to the fact that the script for the architect becomes frozen in this register, so we cannot separate the program for the profession and the program for what the professional
VG: If you allow people who are coming from ego to put something in an empty space, they can’t help themselves to do so without self-glorification. If you ask the same group of egomaniacs to pull things out of a cluttered space, it’s much more difficult for that gesture to be part of self-glorification.
BB: So in a sense we’ve arrived at the idea that the most interesting architectural practice is one that doesn’t build anything but takes things away - and does nothing but this, right? Is that what you mean?
VG: Yes, I believe the most radical thinking of architecture would be operations of subtraction. Taking things away without compromise. Even better, removing things and making things as a whole work better.
JI: That would speak to no humans allowed.
VG: No human compromise or ego allowed. Maybe a pretty robot girl would be welcome.
BB: In a sense when you describe the program for the ‘no humans allowed house’ you describe it in terms of what you take away, which then suggests what you put in.
JI: What you’re saying about rescripting what an architect does is a really interesting thing. I know this is a really dumb example: New York City is going to have to spend billions and billions of dollars upgrading its infrastructure – trains, subways and water infrastructure – and I think the Bloomberg thing of charging to come into New York is smart in the sense that you say, ‘OK, are we going to spend billions of dollars on new roads or can we minimize the traffic on the roads as a way to not have to spend the money and have more space?’ So in that sense it’s a form of reduction. It’s a way of eliminating something rather than trying to build new things.
VG: You’re so romantic. But it’s really just an idea for a new tax. Not very conceptual at all. What New York does not need is another tax. There’s no profound vision in that. In a perfect world, a leader would be someone who takes you where you don’t want to go because they have real vision. Real vision is outside of most people’s understanding so for them real vision is scary and unknown. To ease their fear, compromise must flood in. Which drastically reduces the integrity of this profound vision. Without full integrity the vision is diminished. Regulation and taxation are the founding blocks of litigation and regression. The industry of litigation has stolen most of our great young minds. If half the attorneys in the world had become scientists and engineers, things would be much more exciting. The energy, resources and expense used to collect and redistribute toll money overwhelms the money collected. In my vision of taking things away as an architectural gesture, the removal of tollbooths would be high on the list. The Nazis developed very sophisticated infrastructure utilizing highly thought through concepts, and created forums for debate between the most skilled and intelligent men in Germany. The problem was self-glorification and regulation overwhelmed the process. These were Nazis after all. Wouldn’t it be great if we could utilize mankind’s best potential and resources to solve problems and do so without ego, regulation, self-interest, or petty grievances? Instead we would be motivated only by vision.
JI: Do you think it’s possible to separate self-glorification from a desire for the greater good?
VG: Yes. But I don’t include in desire for the greater good an act of protest. Protesters are coming from ego. They are the white shadow. Protesters buy into a very small-minded story. It’s not a celebration,
BB: What are the signs of the breakthrough?
VG: Us having this conversation. I’m not a very sophisticated person so if I can feel this change it must be out there in a big way. It’s a very dynamic period in mankind’s history. Science is moving 10 times faster than it did 100 years ago. Change happens when you’re able to explain it, picture it, and discuss it with other people. I notice the dialog of big change. It is here. And I can visualize the change more globally.
BB: The singularity, the kind of pragmatic globalism you’re talking about sounds a lot like a kind of a mid-century Marxist definition of history.
VG: Then I feel you may be missing my point. Or you’re deaf.
BB: You’re such a Marxist! And the next line is, ‘In the revelation of the historical agency of the proletariat...’ Do you know Bruno Latour, the French philosopher of science? One of the things his work is about is the history of science from the perspective of the non-human material world. It’s essentially a history of France from the perspective of microbes as mediated through Louis Pasteur. That’s his first book. The work he’s done with a guy named John Law and other people is Actor-Network Theory and it’s basically a kind of very close analysis, but really it’s a philosophy of science that’s revolutionary in the sense that it proposes no privilege for the agency of humans within the organization of networks in which humans are participating.
JI: Over animals or over anything?
BB: Over microbes or hammers or lead or anything, fascinating body of work and in the next ten years it will be a key reference point within architectural theory because he has this whole thing called Dingpolitik or politics of the thing. The real sort of logic of a democracy or politics for the next few years is not about a politics of people, it’s about a better politics of things and defining the terms of agency and co-participation with inanimate objects and nonhuman objects but mostly the inanimate things in a particular sort of way. So he debates with people like Donna Haraway and stuff like this, but it’s a super-fascinating kind of thing. So I’m thinking about this in two ways. The first is your own relationship to things which is as complex and probably as deep as your relationship to people...
VG: I’ve never been too attached to a person. I have been very attached to things. And spent a great deal of my time collecting them, fixing them, protecting them. I’ve just come back from a 6000-mile roundtrip across the country because I knew if I showed up at his door, this guy would let me have a screw that I needed for one of my older guitars. It was missing that
BB: So the question is, this issue of design we’re talking about. Designers are traditionally humans in charge of making non-human things. That’s their job. They make them. They don’t find them, they don’t discover them...
VG: But they haven’t controlled all the inanimate objects.
BB: No, they never can.
VG: Just days ago I was driving across the country returning from my trip for the screw. At a certain moment during the trip home, I’m suddenly in anguish, which can happen on a long road trip – feelings come up. This time anguish came up, sadness, and anguish. Usually driving is a more beautiful experience for me. But I got hit with sadness and anguish. At the time I was driving through the Utah, Colorado Desert.
BB: Four corners.
VG: Around Four Corners, yes. Through this anguish I started noticing shapes and forms that I’d seen a hundred times. I’ve done the trip a hundred times. The energy and the lifespan of those objects, of those forms, of those things are so much bigger and broader than my understanding of them. Bigger than my interpretation, judgment, response, and emotions. So much more. And I suddenly remembered my insignificance. And that’s what brought me out of anguish and sadness and back into peace. I felt better.
BB: It sounds new agey.
VG: That vocabulary is small-minded and old. It doesn’t apply.
JI: Part of it all is just the things that people are realizing. Something that really blows me away is that even though the USA has 100 million more people than it had in the 70’s we consume less water than we did then. And in LA apparently, we consume, compared to the ‘70s, we consume much less water. And that to me is very surprising. As an architect, as a person who thinks about urbanism, who thinks about resources, I think that suggests that our understanding of things like our consumption of energy, of resources, whatever, can change.
VG: The perception of the same thing can change. So in fact, perception is what’s changing most. For example, 100 years ago if we saw a painting and there was a hunter who had just captured a deer what would we have said 100 years ago looking at the painting? ‘My, what a beautiful painting. That painting is about hope and light. Look, the hunter got a deer; his family can eat for the whole year.’
BB: He can trade it for a wife.
VG: A hundred years later you put that painting up and it becomes an offensive statement in a house. Like taxidermy or something. It’s looked at like that. ‘Look at the poor deer. Why did he have to kill that animal?’ Just a hundred years. A hundred years ago the richest person in America, John Paul Getty didn’t have half the quality of life that a person on public assistance has today yet the perception of a person on public
BB: If in the ‘60s it was ‘Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,’ now it’s, ‘In 15 minutes everyone will be famous.’ Where everybody basically is like the star of the movie in their head. And these become the terms by which we actually deal with each other. Right? I deal with you as the character you’re displaying to me and you deal with me in this same sort of way. And we co-organize our script and here’s the list of commodities I organize myself with and you do tag searches, and you’re basically this network of brands and this organization of self within this kind of brand structure itself. Here’s what I was thinking, you know Lacan’s theory of
JI: When you see yourself in playback.
BB: When you realize that you are essentially another media object amongst other media objects and that your purpose in life is to so fashion yourself as a media object amongst them. My argument in the piece I’m writing is that this is basically why MySpace and Facebook happened because this operation that was self-fashioning as a mediated brand was so intrinsically understood by this generation in this way as well. Which means to say that this idea of celebrity we’re talking about is now, it’s a global social force. It’s a medium of communication as much as it is of aspiration right? And the issue is about ambition and aspiration. It’s what’s holding things together for better or worse in a certain sort of way so what I’m suggesting is that it’s possible is that this total globalization, if you want to think this pervasiveness of a kind of a celebrity psychosis where everybody’s a movie star kind of thing, may need to actually reach its terminal point. Go completely to the end before the whole thing just disappears and explodes because it has no center anymore.
VG: I disagree wholeheartedly.
BB: With which part?
VG: In your concept. If you deregulate pornography, take away the rules, you’ll have anal, double anal, triple anal, bukake, American bukkake, bukkake with 10 year olds, bukkake with newborns. Eventually porn would be two people hugging.
VG: I feel we are reaching eventually now.
BB: I agree. We’ve reached our bottom.
VG: You describe it as a bottom. I describe it as an evolution or part of the process.
BB: I do too.
VG: It’s a little late for that.
BB: Paul Virilio has this great line about philosophy. The ultimate philosophy is inertia. If you’re driving in the desert and you’re going 100 miles an hour, then 200 miles an hour, 500 miles an hour, 1000 miles
VG: But the process keeps going. First of all, I don’t believe in the end of the process. I believe it’s ever changing, ever growing, ever moving forward.
BB: All I meant by this is not ultimately that these things have a universal life or universal power, but simply that it is opposed to a kind of strategy of resistance or protest against them. There is an old Nietzschean maxim that the best way to kill something is to let it grow to a sort of maximum level.
VG: You mean feed it to death?
BB: Yes, feed it to death. And I think that’s what Facebook and MySpace are doing to our culture of celebrity. They are feeding it to death.
JI: Do you think any good comes out of that? Like in that example or in the example of porn before it gets to the hug. Do you think there are good, useful things that come out of it? Like in the crazy stage right before the end.
BB: Yes, there’s good.
JI: Do you think there will be thought leaders in the future? Are there thought leaders?
VG: I believe that our leaders are a reflection of us. Us as a whole. In spite of the bickering amongst us where we pretend to be so different from one another, they are a reflection of us as a whole. You can always look to our leaders to see what we as a whole are reflecting. Again, in spite of the bickering and protesting, they reflect our consciousness as a whole. They are exactly what the protestors need to protest. I was watching a documentary on the Manson family the other day.
BB: Tex Watson is the interesting character there.
VG: They were all interesting. But the most interesting thing that I got from them collectively was that they were beginning to understand the concept of reflection and that the destructive things that were happening and the things they were involved in were a reflection of society at that time.
JI: You would have made a good Manson.
BB: I’m seeing a swastika right there. [Points to Gallo’s forehead.] I’m going to see that swastika forever.
VG: I’m sorry you see me in that way. Others do as well, unfortunately. The truth is my mind is filled with plots. I’m constantly plotting. But what I’m plotting is how to make things more beautiful, how to fix them, how to build them, how to preserve them, make them better. I may be an irritable, unstable, and unlikable person. And I may say some mean things. But my plotting is not dark or destructive or greedy or intentionally hurtful. So I don’t relate to your perception of me. My dream was not to play Charles Manson. Instead I would have preferred a chance to motivate those beautiful girls towards another path, which may have included some fucking, but certainly not murder. In any case, what I was talking about was their touching on the concept of reflecting. After Charlie was arrested the girls were going on the news and they were saying, ‘We’re just a reflection of you, man. We’re just reflecting you back to you and you don’t like it. What we did is just a reflection of all the killing out there.’ For 1969 it’s a really profound point of view. And hearing that today makes some sense. It’s almost 40 years later and it finally makes sense. It doesn’t justify, glorify or make attractive what they did because violence and darkness are violent and dark. But they touched on a brilliant conceptual point and when I saw those news clips at the time I had no idea what they meant and when I saw them at 20 I had no idea what they meant and for the first time in my life I understand conceptually what they mean.
BB: But see that’s it. They also killed the hippie movement. They killed it, the Manson Family.
VG: They were a clear reflection of a big change, that’s all.
BB: But see, this is a sort of fatal strategy. They become this sort of an exemplary, so exemplary, so maximal version of all these things...
VG: They’re the 9/11 of their day. A giant reflection of the collective conscious. Unfortunately, in both cases we chose to move further towards fear. I feel the next big change will be a giant move away from fear.
BB: Mohammed Atta, the guy who flew the plane into the North Tower and was sort of the logistical ringleader of this event, had a Master’s degree in urban planning from Hamburg Technological University. His thesis was on the Syrian city of Aleppo. And his thesis was about how it is that the conflict between Islam and the West works itself out in the competition over the coding of urban space and how it is that his plan for Aleppo was to sort of divide the city up into a section that would abide by Sharia and then a sort of secular, Western section of the city. Two years later he’s flying a plane into the World Trade Center. Which in the most sort of tortured way is this giant act of urban planning.
VG: His dark martyrdom doesn’t come close to the fire bombings the USA did to the country of Japan during WWII, destroying a majority of industry and infrastructure. The single biggest devastation to a nation ever. And all this before dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the point they were dropped, the atomic bombs came long after the real destruction of the fire bombings so in a sense these gigantic explosions were more threatening than simply destructive. It was a game of chess.
BB: It’s an interesting thing if you look at where Hiroshima and Nagasaki were at their rebuilding phase 7 years after the bombs were dropped compared to where Ground Zero in New York is 7 years after 9/11 happened.