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The Onanists Escape From Architectural Captivity

Dr Hlne Frichot
Program of Architecture, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia

One of the most infamous onanists known to literature is the writer Jean Genet. Driven by his repetitive, auto-affective practice, Genet succeeded in composing, from the confines of his prison cell, a marvellous work that allowed him to escape the close and damp walls of his captivity. Jean-Paul Sartre insists that Genets Our Lady of the Flowers is an epic of masturbation. With one hand Genet pleasures himself, with the other he digs a tunnel, a line of escape along the passage of literature transforming the space of his captivity into an activated and creative queer space. This paper will attempt to make of this onanistic activity a provocative thesis with respect to architecture. By drawing on two contemporary architectural events, I will explore how the subterranean rhythm of violence as a positive force might rise to the surface of sense and contribute productively to the organization of an architecture driven by life processes.

Imagine the close, damp confines of a prison cell, Fresnes Prison, France, 1942. Inside there resides a man who would eventually become known as a literary enfant terrible, the writer, Jean Genet. On misappropriated scraps of brown paper bag, he fervently inscribes his forbidden words to get off. With one hand he pleasures himself, with the other he digs a tunnel, a line of escape along the passage of French literature. The petty thief reinvents himself, amorously, as writer. Genet manages to meet Andr Gide in 1933, who is both a respected writer and a spokesperson for homosexual rights in France.2 He reads the celebrated works of Marcel Proust while in prison. When outside prison walls, he is forever an itinerant, and his epistolary habit hooks him up with one French writer after another. It is Jean Cocteau who helps Genet secure his first book contract for Our Lady of the Flowers. Eventually Genet befriends Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir describes Genets voice as inimitable, and it is the novelty of this voice that will draw so many interwar French intellectuals to Genets aid.3 When he is threatened with life imprisonment for the serial petty crimes he has committed, the respect he has earned from his fellow French writers helps secure his reprieve. As far as Sartre is concerned, Genet, through an existential act of selfinvention has wilfully chosen his homosexuality and composed

his self accordingly. Whats more, through this act of autogenesis Genet names himself as monstrous and assigns himself under the aegis of perversity. All this the writer achieves through the creative processes of writing he explores in direct contact with the sensations he arouses across the surface of his own body. We could make of this onanistic activity a powerful thesis with respect to architecture. The erection of a built form is not the only event that can be named architectural, neither is it a perpetual state of erethism that interests me here, though an organ constantly aroused suffers a violence of sorts where pleasure turns to discomfort, even pain. In Cinema One: The Movement Image, the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze describes what he calls a static violence, a compressed and infolded violence that has nothing to do with spectacle. This violence is exemplified in the paintings of Francis Bacon and the literature of Jean Genet as a force that seethes across the surface of their work, derived not from action and movement, but from immobility. 4 Referring to Genets A Thiefs Journal, Deleuze describes a hand at rest that has the power to stir wild emotions or affects, sufficient to make the spectator tremble.



One can speculate on the violence inherent to architectural space, that it can contain us against our will, that it accommodates violent events both private and public. This variety of banal and insidious violence should never be taken lightly, but here I am in pursuit of something far less brutal. The architectural theorist, Mark Wigley, suggests, what binds violence and space together is not the discrete events which appear to disturb the spaces we occupy but the more subterranean rhythms that already organize those very spaces.5 If we accept that violence is a force that inextricably accompanies the insistence of a life, then the subterranean rhythm of violence might occasionally emerge as a positive force that rises to the surface of sense and contributes productively to the organization of an architectural event animated by life processes. Forces, according to Deleuze, always arrive from an outside that is farther away than any form of exteriority. The outside is the unthought, or the yet to be thought that grounds the very possibility of thought and creativity and however terrible this line [of the outside] may be, it is a line of life that can no longer be gauged by relations between forces, one that carries man [sic] beyond terror.6 Genet has folded a hollow out of this line of life in order to reinvent himself, his life, through his literature. The immobile violence he activates generates sensations that travel in a ciruit between Genet the onanist and Genet the writer. These sensations eventually sustain themselves to provoke and stimulate an audience outside the containment of the petty thiefs cell. Genet can be called onto the stage of architectural theory as an aesthetic figure who speaks for the production of the affects and percepts, or blocs of sensation, that are stirred in the midst of an architectural assemblage. Genet offers guidance here with respect to understanding a set of contemporary spatio-aesthetic issues to do with an architecture seemingly composed of skin, and the perversion of this surface that troubles the threshold between living body and architectural space, or various combinations of inside and outside conditions, including the inside and outside of the domain of the discipline of architecture itself. Most importantly, Genet illustrates the potential opened up in a work on the self, or an ethics of autogenesis that accompanies his auto-affection. This work occurs at the surface by constructing an inside-space that is co-present with an outside-space. 7 The process of the construction of the subject, let us say, Genet, as well as the architectural subjects I will treat below, emerge at the animated threshold between inside and outside, along that line of life Deleuze has described above. With this paper I will address two architectural case studies, both of which explore complex geometries stretched out as skin-like membranes that trouble the distinguishing boundary between inside and outside, body and architecture, animal and human, nature and culture. Anish Kapoors Marsyas installation in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern Museum, London (October 2002 April 2003)8, which can be categorised more readily in the field of sculpture, and Minifie Nixons Healesville Sanctuary Australian Wildlife Health Centre (2006) are the projects I will place under investigation. As both compositions use tensile structures and PVC membranes, and as Paul Minifie has admitted an interest in the work of Kapoor, there are immediate, if superficial, relationships to be drawn. The theoretical connection that will be constructed here with respect to queer space will be concerned with the zone of indiscernibility between architectural space and lived body, the permeable threshold between animal and human life, and the question of

monstrosity, or forms that fall outside the so-called norm. In the context of this paper I will argue that the perversion of the norm, after Genet, forwards emancipatory possibilities, though there are attendant risks. The misuse or deformation of a place, the misappropriation of space for perverse purposes also contributes to Aaron Betskys definition of queer space.9 The combination at play is that between the embodied, live body and what we assume to be the immobile and inorganic silence of material space.

Source: (Hlne, 2002)

Figure 1. Anish Kapoor, Marsyas, Tate Modern Museum, London, 2002-2003 Kapoors sculptural installation, Marsyas is named after a figure from Greek mythology. A satyr, half man, half beast, Marsyas is punished for an act of hubris by having his skin flayed, this, in turn, becomes the membranous canvas upon which Kapoor works. A reviewer of Marsyas has suggested that its progenitor, Kapoor, is interested in the metaphysics of it all. At the same time Kapoor is cited describing the creation of Marsyas as a descent into limbo, a sort of going below, going beneath, going underground10. Two positions are stipulated, the former, metaphysical orientation has to do with the airy flights of thought, and the latter addresses the corporeal discomforts of the body in limbo. Between these two orientations the most supple of surface membranes persists, pitted with communicating holes, a line of life. What it is Deleuze insists is an interior border that echoes the exterior borders. Together they make up the difference of intensity between which everything happens and communicates.11 What inhabits this surface? Surfacemonsters,12 that is, all manner of misshapen beings seeking a way out, a line of escape. A pamphlet available in situ at the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London informs the visitor that the sculptor, Kapoor describes how Marsyas literally slows the viewer down, both in terms of the time it takes to navigate a passage through the work, and in the power of form and colour to induce a state of reverie.13 We are also told that one of the artists intentions was to unnerve the viewer, especially on their approach to the underbelly of the beast, which yawns above our heads threatening to draw us into its intestinal region.14 The stretched skin of the satyr, Marsyas is manifested in the pulsating, deep blood red PVC that is stretched over 150 metres from one end of the Turbine hall to the other, and arching above us over 30 metres high. One has the impression that Marsyas, in conjunction with the Turbine hall, emits a reverberatory hum. Marsyass skin develQUEER SPACE: CENTRES AND PERIPHERIES, UTS 2007

ops vocal chords and begins to sing. The body of the satyr escapes, discovering a way out along the passage of the stretched surface of his skin becoming sculptural. Genets work too is relevant here. The writers blocs of sensations are redistributed across his cast of characters from the transvestite, Divine, her lover Darling, to all the minor queens, pimps and hussies that people Our Lady of the Flowers. These creations, taking on a life of their own, turn back round to face Genet as he rereads his own words, affecting him all over again in a serial display of auto-affection. Genet is a self-proclaimed monster. Sartre suggests that from the midst of the 'sweet confusion' of childhood, "[Genet] has learned that he is and, by the same token, that this person is a monster."15 Genet's discovery is elided with an ongoing act of construction, for he continues to actively generate and multiply the monstrous. Throughout his text, Our Lady of the Flowers, Genet deploys his subjectivity, not only through the character of Divine, but through the misadventures of the young boy Culafroy. Genet writes: "I close my eyes. Divine: a thousand shapes, charming in their grace, emerge from my eyes, mouth, elbows and knees, from all parts of me. They say to me: 'Jean, how glad I am to be Divine and to be living with Darling.'"16 Genet also manifests various gestures to augment his self in construction across any number of the minor queens, pimps and convicts that compose his story; his subjectivity in process is folded and unfolded across innumerable bodies. By way of this deployment, Genet can anoint himself, through the voice of Divine's mother Ernestine, as monstrous. Genet imagines Divine's mother, who stands in for his own, realising that she has "brought forth a monstrous creature, neither male nor female."17 The sexualised body is made up like a harlequins coat of partial zones one collaged next to the other, like the magazine images, scraps and pilfered baubles Genet pins to the interior of his cell in order to invent the litany of characters that people his liberatory fiction.18 The writer reconstructs himself as relegated to the obscene, "which is the offscene of the world."19 Imagining himself on the outside and as abject, the contours of his subjectivity, inclusive of the corporeal elude definition. Genet constructs himself as both abject and grotesque. Paradoxically, both of these characteristics are sufficient to engender wonder. Where the grotesque finds its place in the sacred grotto, in this instance represented by the confines of Genet's cell, the abject is that which is always on the outside. Though he is imprisoned, the writer Genet locates himself beyond the constraints of polite society, conducting "a really dead man's existence ... on the margin of the living."20 Here the monstrous is seen to be violently aroused from the outside, the unthought, as it animates the line of life by creating new and unrecognizable forms. Genets perpetual activity of masturbation, which becomes materially intermingled with the very inscription of his words in a circuit of reading and ejaculation that feed one another is by definition perverse. Perverse is that which falls outside the norm of sexual reproduction. As Michel Foucault explains in The History of Sexuality, such activity is accordingly neither economically useful nor politically conservative. For the perverse subject, something like a nature gone awry transports him far from all nature.21 Such are what Foucault names peripheral sexualities; they are effectively queer. Homosexuality, Foucault expands, was constituted at the same moment it was characterised, and pertained to those who inverted masculine and femiQUEER SPACE: CENTRES AND PERIPHERIES, UTS 2007

nine gender identities. With our age, and Foucault speaks of the late 20th Century, there is a proliferation of diverse sexualities, each attended with a micro-power of relations. By means of perversion Genet makes his sexuality productive so as to produce another world than that of his cell, he transforms his perversion into a creative act. This eventually allows him a means of very real escape as his writing provokes critical, if notorious acclaim. Deleuze has another characterisation of perversion that will help me here, and that extends his conceptual construction of surface monsters. Perversion is the name Deleuze gives to a close attention to the surface. Perversity is specifically to do with the traversal of a physical surface that is doubled by a metaphysical surface.22 Between the physical and the metaphysical Deleuze insists the mystery lies in this leap, in this passage from one surface to another, and in what the first surface becomes, skirted over by the second.23 As one surface skirts over the other one might imagine the friction of frottage, or what Michel Foucault aptly names the epidermic play of perversity.24 Foucault suggests that Deleuzes metaphysics is a metaphysics freed from its original profundity as well as from supreme being,25 that is to say, it resides at the surface. Perversity, Deleuze insists is the traversal of surfaces whereupon something new and changed is revealed.26 I would like to speculate upon the doubled up surface of architecture. As for architecture, it matters, it is material and it holds us to the confines of this materiality, then, with enough effort, we can make of its concrete insistence something permeable, even immaterial. Violence distends the habitual forms of opinion and clich. A violence of subterranean depths pertains to the material relations and speechless interpenetrations of bodies, which, in turn, counter the rational, immaterial and lofty flights of thought. Two tendencies, the former sensory, the later conceptual, are laminated onto a single surface. This is Deleuzes surface of sense, or sensation, depending on your point of view. It is a mbius loop confounding inside and outside to infinity. The solution to the problem of the surface of sense is made manifest in architecture, which is always already in contact with an exterior as well as an interior condition, with inorganic as well as organic materials. Deleuze quotes Gilbert Simondon on membranes, the entire content of internal space is topologically in contact with the content of external space on the limits of the living.27 What is the limit of the living if not that intimate contact maintained between the living body and architectural space, both of which turn inside-out?



construct an imaginary world. It is the body, whether by that term we refer to a body of work, a corporeal body, and so forth, undergoing the creative process of deformation. Kapoors Marsyas in the meantime is a temporary and transitory organ, that is, a form undergoing serial deformations through its generation as a set of process models, montage views, and computer generated tests. As well as the fact that it sits in a series of similar formal experiments, for example, Taratantara, installed at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (1999), which also redistributes a stretched PVC surface into a contorted organ at a massive scale. Marsyas is also the exemplary form that stands before the architectural professions burgeoning fascination in the concept of emergence. It is cited by Helen Castles AAFiles article that anticipates the AD journal edition, Emergence: Morphogenetic Design Strategies, guest edited by the Emergence and Design Group, Michael Hensel, Achim Menges and Michael Weinstock.30 The engineering of Marsyas by Cecil Balmond and Arups Advanced Geometry Unit such that the five kilometres worth of two metre wide PVC polyester was cut to size and coated so as to perform according to consistent strain properties divulged an appropriateness of technique that also piqued the interest of Paul Minifie.31 Both Marsyas and the Healseville Wildlife Health Centre are projects that produce surface effects that go deep in terms of complex techniques and processes that borrow from biological science mixed up with computer science. Both projects distribute thick skins that explore the geometrical depths of the surface. The deepest interior is composed of the forces of the outside, and the results are monstrous in their perversion of conventional architectural expectations. Marsyas is the flayed skin of a half-man, half beast; the Healesville Wildlife Health Centre brings man and animal into intimate proximity (a raft of concerns continue here that move beyond the scope of this paper). In both cases the distinction between man and beast, as well as natural and artificial systems are combined, or laminated one onto the other, much like Deleuzes surface of sense and sensation. As Catherine Ingraham muses the animal is the mean between building and human, and/or the human is the mean between animal and building, and/or the building is the mean between human.32 Ingraham suggests that we can imagine all these ratios, and that each contributes to the architectural milieu as well as the complicated question of what architecture contributes to or how architecture impedes upon human and other life. In the Healesville Wildlife Health Centre sick animals are turned inside out and exposed, anatomised for the curious view of visiting humans so that they might better understand. Marsyass skin is flayed for his hubris; he too is turned inside out and placed on display. Genet generates a hundred dazzling versions of himself, exfoliating his inner fantasies onto the walls of his cell, as well as onto his stolen prison pages, such that the space between is troubled sufficiently that he finds a way out, a line of escape, which he travels into literary notoriety. Each project in the open process of inventing and reinventing itself across more expansive bodies of work pursues a semblance of aliveness by privileging life related processes of autogenesis. That which animates the folds of these multifarious relations is life, a life, any life whatever. From one point of view, the monstrous or perverse is merely life in the midst of its continuous

Source: (Rochus Urban Hinkel, 2006)

Figure 2. Minifie Nixon Architects, Healesville Sanctuary Wildlife Health Centre, 2006 There is something very much like an internal organ about the form of Marsyas, though it is important to remain wary of making such metaphorical ascriptions. There is a danger here, for Marsyas presents itself explicitly as a large surface that twists, turns and folds. Is it all surface or skin? Is it all oversized organ? Likewise, Minifie Nixons golden Costa Surface is lodged like a pulsating interior organ inside a brick enclosure, exposing the interior of the Wildlife Health Centre to the outside again.28 Like Marsyas, the Costa Curve is composed of stretched architectural skin. Inside the Healesville Sanctuary Wildlife Health Centre the visitor wanders in a circuit of amazement about an inside that is the deepest outside where the golden Costa surface has installed itself. Inside the Health Cenre, the interiors of animals are surgically revealed as they are treated for ailments, or else dissected post mortum. The Costa curve, a geometrical idea made manifest as architectural form intrudes upon the industry within, As Naomi Stead has suggested in her review of this project, the internal folly, the Costa surface, has no apparent use. It stands as a geometrical curiosity proving some obscure point that has nothing to do with the problem at hand.29 That is to say, it is excessive, and as such can be conceptualised (if somewhat wilfully) as perverse. Yet it inaugurates a new identity for architecture, composing itself from techniques appropriated from biology, mathematics and geometry. Further to such appropriations from the sciences, the outer wall of the Animal Health Centre is arrayed in what at first appears to be an animal print composed of different coloured brick units, or cells. This composition was appropriated from the behaviour of cellular automata, generated from a series of cells arranged on a predetermined grid. Animated by a simple set of rules each cell behaves in response to the behaviour of neighbouring cells such that a series of simple brick parts, when considered as a whole, begins to display complex behaviour: a sufficient definition in its own right of the term emergence. Architecture comes to approximate or mimic biological, or life-like processes through its compositional moves. From the confines of his cell, Genet culls newspaper clippings, appropriates narrative fragments from novels, steals ornamental beads intended for funeral wreaths, and binds all these parts together with the hypersensitive surface of his body so as to

variation. In pursuit of a life, there remains the risk that life all the while passes, and what remains is a necessary reification.

Robert Maggiori (Libration, 7 fvrier 2002) cited in =2026. Also Desert islands, p. 312, fn 1.
1 13

Jean Paul Sartre, Introduction, Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers, trans. Bernard Frechtman, London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1964, p. 10.

From pamphlet available at Tate Modern Museum. Sophie Clark, Anish Kapoor, Marsyas, London: Tate Modern Publishing, 2002.

Edmund White, Genet: A Biography, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, p. 96.

Laura Cumming, You Cant Miss It, The Observer, Oct. 13, 2002.

Simone de Beauvoir cited by Edmund White. White, Genet: A Biography, p. 267.


Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, trans. Bernard Frechtman, London: Heineman, 1988, p. 23.

Deleuze, Cinema One: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, London: The Athlone Press, 1986, pp. 135 136. See also Tom Conley who draws specific attention to Deleuzes passing reference to Genet in the cinema books, in order to discuss the static violence that links an image to an event. Tom Conley, From Image to Event: Reading Genet through Deleuze, in Scott Durham, ed., Genet: In the Language of the Enemy, Yale French Studies, no. 91, Connecticut: Yale University, 1997, pp. 49 63.

Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers, trans. Bernard Frechtman (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), p. 88.
17 18 19 20 21

Genet, Our Lady, p. 203. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 197. Genet, Our Lady, p. 232. Genet, Our Lady, p. 232.

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley, London: Penguin, 1990, pp. 37, 39.

Mark Wigley, Editorial, Assemblage 20, April, 1993, p. 7.


On perversion and the surface of sense see: Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, pp. 197 199, 206 207.

Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, trans. Sean Hand, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, p. 122.

Reading Foucault, Deleuze constructs an argument whereby he suggests that thought or the process of thinking affects itself, and that this auto-affection, this conversion of far and near, will assume more and more importance by constructing an inside-space that will be completely co-present with the outside-space on the line of the fold. Deleuze, Foucault, p. 118.

Deleuze continues, From the physical chessboard to the logical diagram, or rather from the sensitive surface to the ultra-sensitive plate it is in the leap that Carroll, a renowned photographer, experiences a pleasure that we might assume to be perverse. Deleuze, The Loigic of Sense, p. 238.

Foucault, Theatrum Philosophicum, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, trans. Donald F. Bouchard, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1980, p. 171.
25 26 27 28

Marsyas was commissioned by the Tate Modern Museum, London, as the third work in the Unilever series, an annual art commission. The five planned submissions were each asked to contend with the very specific context of the Turbine Hall. This hall, which has been compared to the nave of a cathedral, is named for its original function in its former incarnation as the turbine hall of the Bankside Power Plant, London. Aaron Betsky, Queer Space: Architecture and Same Sex Desire, New York: William Morrow and Co., 1997, p. 5. 10 Heidi Reitmaier, Big is Beautiful for Anish Kapoor at Londons Tate Modern, in Heidi Reitmaier, ed., Collective, no. 230, October, 2002.
11 9

Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 171. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 206. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 197.

The Costa surface, first given mathematical form in 1984, is like a thrice punctured torus or donut. It is a minimal form in that its membrane cannot be contracted into a smaller surface area. It owns a finite topology as it has no boundaries and does not intersect with itself. It is an embedded surface.

Naomi Stead, Australian Wildlife Health Centre in Architecture Australia, March/April 2006.

Deleuze, Faces and Surfaces in Desert Islands, trans. David Lapoujade, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004, p. 283.

Helen Castle, Emergence in Architecture, in AA Files 50, Spring, 2004, pp. 50-61. Michael Hensel, Achim Menges and Michael Weinstock, eds, Emergence: Morphogenetic Design Strategies, AD, vol. 74, no. 3, May/June, 2004.
31 32

Surface-monsters is the term Deleuze uses for a series of drawings he shows to the artist, Stefan Czerkinsky, while in conversation. Deleuze, Faces and Surfaces in Desert Islands, p. 281. Czerkinsky, a relatively unknown artist, commited suicide some months after the exhibition Deleuze discusses with him. See

Castle, Emergence in Architecture, in AA Files 50, p. 53.

Catherine Ingraham, Architecture, Animal, Human: The Asymmetrical Condition, London: Routledge, 2006, p. 229.