Mimi Zeiger opinion on design and film

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Mimi Zeiger opinion on SXSW

"Biennials and design fairs function much like film festivals"

Opinion: the architecture and film industries have quite a few things in common – including expensive projects and the lionising of a certain kind of success. But architects can still learn a lot from the approach of independent film makers, says Mimi Zeiger.


"The cavalry isn't coming," said indie movie director Mark Duplass, kicking off his keynote address at last month's SXSW Film Festival.

I was in Austin, Texas, for a panel on architecture and civic participation with Mexico City architect Michel Rojkind and local technologist Leslie Wolke as part of SXSW Interactive. At SXSW, film and interactive run simultaneously the week before the famous music festival gets loud. And although design was somewhat of a running theme on the tech side, with talks by design world thought leaders Paola Antonelli and John Maeda as well as dozens of sessions with design in the title, I found myself drawn to the conversations happening in film.

Actor-director-producer Duplass epitomises the indie ethos, creating projects and roles that needle subjective experiences into a kind of absurdist comedy of everyday life. The Puffy Chair, written 10 years ago by Duplass and his brother Jay, was a hit of the independent film scene, and in the years since, the pair have steadily earned success. Most recently, he and Jay wrote the HBO series Togetherness (pictured top), a tale of slightly broken people in their late 30s trying to hold it together in contemporary Los Angeles.

For the SXSW keynote, Duplass deftly distilled lessons from his career. With his slogan-like caution "the cavalry isn't coming" he dispelled the belief of overnight fame and instant success.

No cavalry will pluck your first or even third film from the festival circuit and make you a rich star. So instead of toiling away in the hopes of a mythical deal, he suggests that filmmakers begin modestly and steadily build their individual voice and networks of collaborators. Success, when it does come, is decidedly less flashy that it might look from the outside.

Sure, the structural mechanisms of the film world and the design worlds operate differently, but both are dictated by hefty price tags for projects, and share cross-disciplined teams and a belief that stardom is possible — that the cavalry indeed is coming.

If film success is a four-picture deal and a house in Bel Air, then what constitutes design success? When the doyens of recognition mount their steeds, what does the architectural cavalry look like? A Guggenheim or Whitney museum commission? A MoMA exhibition? A magazine cover? The Pritzker Prize? A Golden Lion? Starchitect status? Ivy-league tenure?

Recently, the ever-vociferous Patrik Schumacher mounted a defence of the cavalry while bayonetting design critics. In a sentence that gives more credit to the critic than most critics would claim, he writes: "Iconic architecture and the star system are both creatures of the architectural critic (rather than creatures of architecture itself), who plays the role of a mediator between the expert architectural discourse on the one hand and the mass media on the other hand."

Or rather, the stars are stars, stop taking cheap shots. On the longevity of said stars, he notes: "[T]hey might stay in the game perhaps a little longer than is merited, while younger talent remains obscure for longer than they should."

For ambitious practitioners, and especially for a generation of young designers whose education and early professional lives were marked by the economic crash and precarity of the late 2000s, the promise offered by the cavalry is both the carrot and the stick. In a post-internet condition, #winning perhaps inspires more than we'd like to admit. Beyond client commissions are a whole circuit of grants, institutional recognitions, and fellowships.

What, then, does it mean if the cavalry doesn't come? For the Duplass brothers, it meant many failed attempts and making a lot of cheap, personal work early in their career, like the 2002 seven-minute short film of a man trying to record his outgoing message on an answering machine.

The New York Times reported that the film, entitled This is John, cost $3 – the cost of the videotape – but it was screened at Sundance. At SXSW, Duplass preached the gospel of the $3 movie, substituting the videotape for an iPhone shooting uncompressed footage.

The $3 iPhone movie is an exercise in iteration. Made with friends over the weekend, it's collective and low risk. If it's crap, delete. It's a distinct, if perhaps a tad self-indulgent means of testing ideas and developing an authorial voice. For filmmakers in the audience, this blessing to go forth and experiment must have come as a welcome relief.

For me, it stirred another question: what is the architectural analogue of the $3 iPhone movie?

The answer could be a series of iterations we've seen over the past couple of decades — micro-movements of cultural production that have built into trends above and beyond what we once called "paper architecture": pavilions and pop-up exhibitions; little magazines, comic books and print-on-demand; rapid prototyping afforded by fabrication technologies such as laser cutters, CNC mills, and 3D printing; and tactical or DIY urbanisms. Architecture performed at scale is expensive and complex.

The proliferation of these smaller architectural acts illustrates a kind of searcher's compulsion to find outlets for production, even as these practices come under critical scrutiny.

Historian and theorist Sylvia Lavin compared formalist follies to party décor, editor and writer Allison Arieff cautioned against the rise of tchotchkes within the maker and 3D-printing movement, and Neil Brenner wondered aloud if tactical urbanism isn't just camouflage for neoliberal urbanism. But the continual pursuit of the $3 iPhone movie equivalent seems vital for the health of the discourse, even if attempts run aground, and especially if these acts are only performed as an end in themselves.

In remarks in Architectural Record announcing the participants of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, architect-curator-editor Joseph Grima took a more optimistic stance.

"We're looking to the younger generation," said Grima. "Our ambition is to reaffirm the role of architecture as a form of cultural production. The way we practice today is based on mobility and shared ideas, as opposed to the proprietorship of the heroic architecture of the 20th century."

Biennials and fairs function much like film festivals. They are the places for the introduction of vetted new works and a chance for advanced lessons in networking in our totally globalised field.

For Duplass, the film festival (or biennial) is not a place to find fame, but rather a place to find the collaborators, partners, and investors needed not to make a multi-million dollar blockbuster, but a $1,000 movie and then another $1,000 movie and then maybe even another one that might, just might, lead to something bigger.

The robust list of Chicago participants on deck for October represents a spectrum of modalities, from well-established offices like BIG or Tatiana Bilbao to research or art-oriented practices like Andrés Jaque and the Office for Political Innovation or SO-IL.

The Graham Foundation's Sarah Herda is co-director of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. For decades, the Graham Foundation has generously supported a wealth of architectural cultural production. I'm indebted to their largess for the funding of my very first architecture publication as well as other projects.

As other revenue streams run dry, the Graham Foundation's holds course. With the biennial, however, it is establishing itself as a more visible arbiter of the discipline, not simply a much-needed support system.

The question of funding leads directly to Duplass' penultimate point, which seemed the most poignant: as you do gain some success, produce your friends' work. In a competitive field like ours I would hasten to add that this is different than peerage or nepotism.

Being a producer in design is also different from being a curator or editor. The role is not very familiar in architecture and design where funding sources are in service of clients, developers, academic institutions, and grant foundations. Yet, the potential for peer-to-peer producing, even with the smallest of funds, presents a somewhat thrilling and certainly idea-rich alternative for stirring up discourse. Because, as Duplass closed his talk, let's just forget about the cavalry.


Mimi Zeiger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and critic. She covers art, architecture, urbanism and design for a number of publications including The New York TimesDomusDwell, and Architect, where she is a contributing editor. Zeiger is author of New Museums, Tiny Houses and Micro Green: Tiny Houses in Nature. She is currently adjunct faculty in the Media Design Practices MFA program at Art Center. Zeiger also is editor and publisher of loud paper, a zine and blog dedicated to increasing the volume of architectural discourse.