Curtis Roth Publishes Some Dark Products: An Interview

Ensconced in Schloss Solitude, a late-Baroque structure built by Duke Carl Eugen in 1763-64, Associate Professor of Architecture Curtis Roth completed his manuscript, Some Dark Products: A Travelogue of Nine Instruments For Architecture. Roth’s nine-month sojourn in the former hunting lodge located in Stuttgart, Germany, was made possible through an Akademie Schloss Solitude Residency Fellowship.

Every two years the fellowship program selects scholars, practitioners, and artists in the fields of architecture, visual arts, literature, music, performing arts, science, and business to engage a specific theme through their work. The theme during Roth’s stay was Biography and the Production of Space.

In the opening lines of Some Dark Products, Roth introduces the premise of his work: “This book begins by arguing that the work of architecture is a work of architecture. That is: that today, our instruments manufacture ad hoc spatial constructions through the electric distribution of design’s labor.”

The Knowlton School sat down with Professor Roth on the occasion of the book’s publication.

You call this book a travelogue – a travelogue of an online journey of nine architecture instruments. In the traditional sense, a travelogue implies a place of origin, a methodology (of movement), a destination. How does a communication of architectural data through various wired networks replicate these historical characteristics?

The majority of my own work in producing this book (a destination of sorts) was spent developing online platforms capable of critically re-organizing labor relations between myself (a place of origin) and a host of distant creative labor economies (a methodology of movement). But particularly interesting for me is a fourth component of the travelogue’s traditional form, which often centers upon some sort of metaphysical modification whereby the thing that is left isn’t entirely the thing that returns. As architects, we’re quite comfortable with a model of architectural causation in which an architect’s intellection is presumed to cause things, such as buildings, to appear in the world. In my estimation, this is both an insufficient, and ultimately, an ethically problematic model. So in producing work that resists an easy distinction between my own intellection and the physical labors of others necessary to make the work appear in the world, my hope is to move closer towards a more generous understanding of how architects cause (and don’t cause) various things to appear in the world.

You map out a digital geography in your book in which the world is endlessly coordinated. In one example, you connect “lines between an anonymous drafting house in North Korea and your desk today via the elasticated underwear straps of Yellow Sea fishermen.” In what sense is a dark product – as a mapping of coordinates – native? Can authorship be seen as native? 

To talk about authorship as either native or not requires a certain clarification regarding what exactly is being authored. In a completely naïve sense, the authorship of an architectural work is a matter of law, defined by legal precedent and stipulated by conventional contractual arrangements between architects and their clients. But in order for any work of architecture to appear, the work of architecture must be organized across globally networked economies through software protocols, specifications and the like. These networks are fabricated by the architectural act, but not necessarily authored in the ways in which we’re comfortable using that term. This means that responsibility for their production becomes a much more complicated question that this project attempts to explore.

The production of the book itself suggests a sense of erasure or anonymity at specific points. How does absence figure into your book’s proposals?

I wanted the production of the catalog itself to also make visible the economies of labor and ownership that underwrite any creative content. In truth, every image in the book was stolen. Each one has been meticulously scanned with a hacked Epson Perfection V19 scanner. This hacking distorts the correct position of pixels within each image such that their reproduction in my own book skirts beneath the common legal precedents of what constitutes an image’s reproduction. Some images are more distorted than others, owing to regional differences in what constitutes fair reproduction in the specific states in which the individual image’s copyrights are held. But these quasi-legal images also retain the act of scanning itself, transforming my fingers as I scan the image into a kind of glitched graphic element that constantly appears throughout the book.

You are willing to spatialize energies: electrified distributions, airborne algorithms, etc. In what sense do these dark products or spaces ‘appear’ – as we normally expect ‘things’ to appear in the world?

In fact, I would argue that they don’t appear at all, at least in a conventional sense. For example, Revit, a popular networked drawing platform, makes incredibly complex “things” appear on a screen through the real-time coordination of geographically distributed sites of production, i.e.: a senior designer in Manhattan is working in the same screen-space as an architectural draftsperson in Ahmadabad. In this sense, in order for these “things” to appear, the geographic discontinuities have to be massaged into invisibility through the operating protocols of the software itself. This work simply asks how we might consider making these spatialized transactions visible, and thus also political.

Does  or should – the production and distribution of architectural data replicate the structural inherencies of a traditionally constructed world?

The book concludes with an epilogue in the form of an open-source syllabus for a future seminar arguing for the existence of something I’m quite casually calling Yung Distance. This course would attempt to argue that the ways in which architects are equipped to talk about the politics of space rely on a logic of space itself as a kind of Cartesian ooze traditionally delimited by form. But often today, we find a more complex repertoire of devices through which power exerts itself across distance, these tactics rely as much on conventional limits like political borders or walls as they do on the modulation of signals or the protocols of proprietary algorithms. Yung Distance is a way to begin thinking about how architecture might expand the ways in which we think about space after the internet.

Related People