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The Filmic Emergence of New Behaviors out of the Supersurface

Laura Chiesa

23:02 min

With "Fundamental Acts: Life, Education, Ceremony, Love, and Death" Superstudio moves on to liberate the potential of primary human acts. These counterprojects were intended as short films, but only two were realized, the first under a grant from the Museum of Modern Art for the exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape (1972) and the third. The others remained as detailed storyboards and photo-collages until, in 2010, when the production of these films has been commissioned by the Architecture Biennale of San Paulo and developed, based on original documents, by Piero Frassinelli, member of Superstudio. These short films allegorically echo and respond to the influential films made by the American designers Charles and Ray Eames, who began experimenting with the medium of film in the 1950s and produced more than seventy-five films, showing their designs, collaborating in multimedia projects for World Fairs, and engaging with more broad aesthetic and educational themes.

The short film "Supersurface: An Alternative Model of Life on Earth" was presented at the exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape. The curator Emilio Ambasz, who had invited Italian designers with a wide spectrum of attitudes towards design, commented: "Italy has become a micro-model in which a wide range of the possibilities, limitations, and critical issues of contemporary design are brought into sharp focus. Many of the concerns of contemporary designers throughout the world are fairly represented by the diverse and frequently opposite approaches being developed in Italy." Supersurface can be defined as a mocking of the condition of possibility, or better of impossibility, of the design, alluding in an impossible way to the convoluted relation that is at the core of the exhibition title: 'domestic' and 'landscape'. In previous Superstudio projects the human was hardly mentioned, but this film starts from the human factor.

The voice-over begins by addressing a generic 'you' in a scientific tone. 'You' are reminded that you use only a part of your sensorial channels: and the eye, the ear, and the hand are targeted visually, while the voice-over explains that, as senses, they have become in a McLuhanian way potentiated by technical tools. A new symbiosis between the human and tools creates new uses, complex mechanisms that may sometimes bring to schematic rigidity the models of behavior. (This symbiosis is eventually represented visually in the grafting of eyes to grotesque tools.) The potential speed of understanding furnished by the montage of the filmic medium enables a series of contemporary jump cuts: the interior of an airplane, Solzhenitsyn, Gandhi, a racing-car driver.

The image of Fuller's ambitious geodesic dome city (1968) over New York City appears as the voice-over speaks about the design's mediation between the human and the environment. Taking on the false evidence of images showing multitudes of the masses and the phenomenon of nomadism, the voice-over suggests, in a science-documentary tone, that society has come to a point where there is a need of an urban life without three-dimensional structures. From the Monumento Continuo surfacing Manhattan, the video moves to a surface in the air and on the ground over which cows and horses graze.

Manhattan, with its grids, is just an example of the homogeneous usage of landscape. Instead of cities as knots of a three dimensional material grid, the alternative model proposes a network of energy, that can assume different configurations, so as to render all the earth homogeneously habitable. But as a temporary arrest, the voice-over reminds us that what we see is not a three-dimensional model of reality but a 'visual-verbal metaphor for an ordered and rational distribution of resources.' Among the nodal points of the invisible grid are universal plugs for primary needs.

This new humanity, without induced needs, is visualized by several persons on a white gridded surface. The video takes on a psychedelic tone, as scrolling images show people picnicking on the 'supersurface,' who can finally and integrally use the psychic potential as the only support for a life freed from futile needs: there is no more need for castles and cities, no reasons for streets and squares, and a highly sophisticated technics can substitute any three-dimensional structures of service and shelter. It is, the voice-over says, the very sense of locality that loses its meaning: 'So, having chosen a random point on the map, we'll be able to say my house will be here for three days two months or ten years.' A series of photo-collages allegorically brings together the happy life of a family in an Arcadian landscape and a new poverty; there will be some space left for consumer society.

Supersurface is reminiscent but at the same time very different from the Eameses' Power of Ten, which moves, as Colomina writes, 'from a domestic space of a picnic spread with a man sleeping beside a woman in a park in Chicago out into the atmosphere, and then back down inside the body through the skin of the man's wrist to microscopic cells and to the atomic level' (Beatriz Colomina, "Enclosed by Images: The Eameses' Multimedia Architecture"). As Colomina suggests, in Power of Ten 'intimate domesticity is suspended within an entirely new spatial system'. Certainly, the way to 'integrate architecture and information flow,' is played by the Eameses and Superstudio in opposite ways. Vita, as an allegory of the network, at the same time alludes to some of the possibilities that are opened up for architecture by the 'supersurface' – an allusion that is also given by an adult Alice:

Look at that distant mountain ... what can you see? Is that the place to go? Or it is only the limit to the inhabitable? It's the one and the other since contradiction no longer exists. It's only a case of being complementary. Thus thought a fairly adult Alice skipping over her rope, very slowly, though without feeling either heat or effort.

Filiberto Menna, one of the critics who wrote on Superstudio, has been able to discuss the group activity, balancing the formal aspect of Superstudio projects with the general atmosphere in the design arena of contestation against the powerful relation between technology and politics. Referring to the Shklovsky's 'Knight's Move,' Menna defines Superstudio practice as lateral thinking. Thus, in radical practice Menna does not see only 'design nihilism' per se but rather a new philosophy of design, 'a design for new behaviours' that 'seeks to achieve eminently communitarian ends by constructing environments that stimulate the active participation of every individual through the creation of spaces endowed with strong mental, psychological, and sensory appeal.'

In "Cerimonia" (1973) made by the 'Supersensualists,' as Jencks has called Superstudio, several people emerge from their 'underground architecture' into a country landscape with slow and candid gestures that they perform throughout the film. The story focuses on the sense of that single day in which the inhabitants decided to remain forever outside:

The inhabitants of the underground house say: we are not going to show you the house which lies in the shadow. We will only show you how we live or would live in the invisible house.

The inhabitants do not propose a 'mode d'emploi' of architecture, or a lifestyle to endorse. Instead, moving gently in a rarefied architecture, they propose an invisible house for unknown ceremonies. The narrative voice-over explains:

The point is: if I succeed in designing a mysterious building which could stir your emotions, would you not think that your emotions on seeing those buildings which you believe to be well known arises from the same degree of mysteriousness? In fact, I would like to take you to unknown regions only in order to make you realize that your journey is an equally unknown region, and from here, the next step will be the abandoning of all illusions of acting only according to reason, following scales and hierarchies, using formal models, which I can show you are only magic formulas that your witch doctors have insidiously murmured in your ears while you slept.

With this maieutic tone, Superstudio returns to the Voyage in the regions of reason that have now become unknown regions. In Atlas of Emotion Giuliana Bruno emphasizes the close connection of the words 'movement' and 'emotion' – both of which come from the same Latin root: emovere – weaving multiple relations through journey, cinema, and architecture. Here, when finally Superstudio makes films, there is no architecture, at least only an invisible one, that could facilitate the journey and the emotion.

(*) This article is an excerpt from the essay "Superstudio Double-Take: Rescue Operations in the Realms of Architecture", originally published by University of Toronto Press in: 'Neoavanguardia': Italian Experimental Literature and Arts in the 1960s, edited by Paolo Chirumbolo, Mario Moroni, and Luca Somigli.

Supersurface - An alternative model for life on the Earth


Towards alternative architecture narrations.

"Supersuperficie" (Supersurface), made by Superstudio in 1972, is one of the most original expressions of a design activity elaborated by architects in the form of a film. It was produced by Marchi Produzioni with a sponsorship of Anic, on the occasion of the "Italy: the New Domestic Landscape" exhibition curated by Emilio Ambasz at MoMA in 1972 in New York. It is the very first episode in the "Atti Fondamentali" (Fundamental Acts) series that collected, according to Superstudio, five primary acts in human life: Vita (Life), Educazione (Education), Cerimonia (Ceremony), Amore (Love), Morte (Death). Supersuperficie corresponds to Vita, the first act.

The story is shaped around the theme of human life. Initial scenes, accompanied by sounds of ancestral drums or fetal heart beats, perhaps muffled by an amniotic fluid, are somehow connected to the end of the film where a kind of hymn to life takes place as a crescendo introducing the final statements: "our life will be the only art."

Multiple narrative layers are offered in this film: the verbal record gives room to a profound story: evocative, never literal. The visual record, rooted in the pictorial identity expressed in the film's storyboard (published in the same year on "Casabella" magazine), tends to freeze images in stable forms. The overlapping of these layers and the contamination with other inner narrations offers the spectator an original palimpsest, rich in inventions, irony, and weighty in meanings.

Images related to the "Monumento Continuo" (Continuous Monument) project's iconography, elaborated by Superstudio between 1969 and 1970, serve to baste a powerful visual narration. These images, however, are integrated by a wider iconography that reflects diverse areas of interest for Superstudio's members. Consequently, iconic architectural images as Reyner Banham's Environmental Bubble or the gigantic geodetic structure covering Manhattan designed by Buckminster Fuller are shown together with pictures abstracted from popular and scientific magazines and re-connoted in a new context, manipulated, sometimes edited in chroma key. The subsequent visual narration, stabilized in the form of film, has an origin in the educational activity of Superstudio, based on audio-visual stories offered to students at the School of architecture of the University of Florence.

Words and images work together in this and in other films by Superstudio by generating effects of vision and disorientation. Their narration capitalizes on irony, provocation, paradox. It is through this approach that a rigorous discourse upon the architecture and design discipline and their final extents is offered. An attempt to refound the role of architecture takes place in this film, based on the idea that human beings are the only creators of their own choices: finally nomadic, they can free themselves from induced needs and behaviors, and pick their own place, everywhere on the Earth's "supersurface". The design activity doesn't lead towards objects and goods predefined in their formal and aesthetic aspects anymore. It manifests itself as a potential device instead, for "a life anymore based upon labor, but on not alienated human relations" for "an alternative model of life on Earth."


Architect: Superstudio
Mentioned project: Fundamental Acts (1972-73)
Producer: Marchi

Italy 1972
Duration: 9'28''