The form of Tree of Code

tree of code 3

This year’s Research & Theory seminar to our MArch postgraduate students explores the nature of complex, collaborative forms in particular reference to transdisciplinary projects.

Producers (of culture, products, projects, inventions) establish networks to distribute tasks, knowledge and powers to a number of different entities. In Me ++, William J. Mitchel suggests “connectivity as the single defining character of our 20th Century urban condition”. It is arguable that it will become the condition more appropriate to the 21st Century, but as Co.LAB, we attempt to exploit this condition to allow us to collaborate and therefore carry out the high volume of projects we work on.

Even though we undertake a diverse range of design projects, its selection, process and evaluation are carried out with an underlying philosophy to explore the creative networks that generate collaborations in order to develop new forms and enhance existing forms of architectural practice. The format of collaboration fundamental changes the way one practices design.

Cross-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary methods are those most commonly used in creative projects of all scales (read a breakdown here) However, very few artists or designers truly achieve a transdisciplinary approach – seen as the definitive process where disciplinary perspectives are unified to create a new intellectual framework to work within.

I used two references in the Research and Theory Seminar to illustrate the breakdown of this process; Caroline Levine’s literary critique on Forms applied to McGregor/Jamie XX/Eliasson’s Tree of Code.

Levine sees the form of something, of the everyday and the particular, as “not just for aesthetics, we need to broaden our definition of form to include social arrangements and patterns of socio-political and cultural experiences”.

Forms are broken down into four prominent characteristics: wholes, hierarchies, rhythms and networks. To be specific each one can be defined as:

  • Whole – the total, the unity or the containment of a political or social construct which can embody the intangible such as time and other theoretical concepts. Inclusions and exclusions of different wholes overlap to produce an unstable state for new situations and inventions to occur.
  • Rhythm – rhythm creates temporal form. Coordination of temporal rhythms is a powerful technique for social cohesion (eg. using GMT to unify world time for trade and travel). Superimposition of different rhythms occurs in our everyday life (the agricultural harvest competing against the change in industrial revolution influencing the academic calendar). Rhythms stabilise and preserve certain forms for other incidental rhythms to innovate through repetition, difference, originality and precedence.
  • Hierarchy – we order according to experience, strength and power relations. Groups divide the social world. Forms can be classified to varying degrees of relevance that generate different structural tiers of hierarchies. Hierarchy divides socio-cultural spaces into separate containers – illustrating the overlap between hierarchies and wholes. When two entities of differing hierarchical structures occur, an unpredictability effect occurs (eg. when a freelance artist works on a project for a established corporation).
  • Networks – network flows allow forms to transcend the debilitating effect of disciplinary and community boundaries, rupturing enclosed totalities (for example national boundaries to achieve globalisation).

To visualise these forms, they were analysed in context to Tree of Code – a choreographed piece of work by Wayne McGregor based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name. Here the book reworks Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles – cited as Foer’s favourite book – into a new composition of words by altering the original pages by cutting them out. McGregor describes it as an architectural object – “it’s very tactile, it almost has a body. It challenges the very way you experience reading”. It is the physicality of the work that McGregor is able to latch onto into a range of visual and sonic images whilst filtering the original narrative through to a new audience.

He then moves on to explain Olafur Eliasson’s contribution as an “enigmatic environment, brilliantly disorientating challenge for both the dancers’ bodies in space and the audience”. The stage set features a number of opalescent screen filters with rotating circles that, along with dramatic lightwork, creates three-dimensional illusions and depth the to theatre’s proscenium.

tree of code 2

So how does this collaborative work demonstrate Levine’s makeup of forms?

There are a number of wholes (entities) that collide. Some are more obvious than others. One ‘whole’ is the concept of translation – a process of transforming the text into movement. There are several inclusions and exclusions that have occurred during the edit and translation of work during their early discussion. In the event programme, the introduction informs us they each took their own starting point, defining their own wholes until they met again to begin creating an unstable state where their interpretations had to overlap or exclude initial ideas and thoughts. Within these wholes, there are still a number of external connections that go beyond the containment. So whilst it has a definite timing, place and structure, it is able to speak volumes of other ideas that didn’t necessarily become a feature in the final piece.

Rhythms. There are numerous rhythms. Not only of the music and pace of the choreography but also in the process of creating the work. To create the work several temporal rhythms were negotiated; the biennial format of the festival, the programming schedule of the theatre, the development of the three producers and all their own schedules. “I love process, being in the studio, solving physical problems. They keep experimenting, keep experimenting” McGregor states. Their practice sessions involve a defined spatial rhythm across a number of locations – each producing different components of the work. And when on performance night, the Opera House in Manchester had a daily sequence of intense street activity as spectators congregated outside around 7pm and again 10pm when it finished.

The work was developed over a three-year period. There was a very clear schedule where everyone met to discuss progress. This stabilises people’s ideas and activities towards a formal conclusion. “Producing reality is always about a relationship between you and a space, and you and a thought, a proposition, an object” Eliasson says in the event programme. Setting out the rhythm encourages collaborations to align differences and opposing perspectives. Success comes through the organisation and structure of the rhythm throughout the entire process – and the ability of those conducting the rhythm.

The complexity in coordinating all the sonic and visual components in apparent. But is there a hierarchy – an ordering of the disciplines? If we were to look at the event programme, its content indicates one; firstly the festival director introduces the work before a generic overview of the work by Sarah Crompton, a freelance writer, before we read the statements of the director/choreographer (McGregor), the composer (Jamie xx) and visual concept (Eliasson).

Should the ordering signify the relative importance of one’s work over another? It is certainly easier to categorise everyone’s role in that way, but it doesn’t necessarily mean there weren’t overlaps in conversations, surely McGregor and Eliasson would have had some say in terms of the musical composition. The differing hierarchies produce an ‘unpredictable effect’ which is where transdisciplinary strategies occur. Eliasson himself states conversations feed his artistic practice with inspiration. However, this does not come across in the event programme. The refinement of work comes from the challenging of each producer’s disciplinary realm into a communal dynamic result. However, it is the introductory text by Alex Poots, CEO and Artistic Director, that contains the tangled hierarchies into an overall form – the one being for the festival. Having it appear first in the programme reminds all readers the context in which this work appears in. It is not an individual piece of work but to be considered part of a wider body that happened across the city of Manchester. Who is the leader here, clearly the city and the festival.

Finally, the network required to achieve this work is staggering. Whilst networks rupture boundaries it is worth highlighting the strength of connections between the disciplines. Levine refers to Mark Granovetter’s Weak Ties concept in her book where nodes of informal, weak relations, are stronger than several similar nodes together in order to spread knowledge, effect and impact. In the production of Tree of Code, weak ties are those linking the three main producers – with strong ties being the background staff (with experience and knowledge) of each individual. Both Wayne McGregor and Olafur Eliasson have their own studios with their own rhythmic and hierarchical forms. Jamie xx is perhaps more of an anomaly as much of his work is created on his own. But the autonomy of the individual leads towards a structure of interdependency and formal integration of each creative element. These weak ties attempt to generate a ‘unity of an intellectual framework that encompasses visual art, music and choreography’ – in other words a transdisciplinary process.

tree of code

image source:

There is a sense of inevitability however in the final work. The music is characteristic of Jamie xx’s sound. The choreographic narrative of the dancers continues McGregors approach to ‘female agency’ and the stage set has noticeable references from Eliasson’s other visual art.

Whilst the rhetoric in the build up and reviews of the work attempt to emphasis a genuine link between the three separate elements, there are moments when they are incongruous and conflict with the reading of the work. Luke Jenning’s review describes the final result as lacking in intimacy and eroticism even though all the visual and audial cues indicate that it should befull of it. Giving his verdict, Jennings says “The contributory elements and the process appear radical, but the gender politics and the tightly bound choreography are highly conservative”.

The issue it seems is with the translation of one media form to another. The foundation of the work in itself, Foer’s writing, does not respond directly to Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles but instead simply uses the words and a device to generate a new story from it. There are several disruptions to the original’s forms – its rhythm and hierarchy of text becomes unstable from the confusion of whether it is a book or a work of art. To produce the publication, Foer worked alongside a boutique publisher and a die cutter in Netherlands to produce the book. These weak ties are held together for a key node – their ability to create one aspect of the book. So in this respect, their different experiences were utilized effectively.

In contrast however, McGregor’s Tree of Codes does not demonstrate a rigorously integrated production process. McGregor and Jamie XX both created algorithms to translate words in music and movement but these were differed from each other. Eliasson took a conceptual but literal approach to working with perforated screens. Whilst technically dazzling, the story is not aligned between the different disciplines and so it remain as a multi-disciplinary process rather than trans-disciplinary. The process was not able to develop an intellectual framework for all the producers to follow so their disciplinary forms remained contained.


Further Reading

%d bloggers like this: