Uncertain principle

Uncertainty is not a principle – it is a strategy.*

ORTLOS : about architecture of the networks, a desire for production and connected intelligence.


First, I would like to thank MAT for the invitation. I feel very welcomed; it is a kind of familiar place, as if I would have already been here before. As a matter of fact my connection to California, especially to Los Angeles, is rather a strong one. First of all your present governor is an Austrian and he was born in Graz, second I have worked for Thom Mayne and Morphosis in Santa Monica, having literally been your neighbor for about a year, and thirdly my master thesis was a project about a huge area close to LAX called “Playa Vista”.

I have to explain that when I have started my architectural education, I already had majors in Mathematics and Computer Science. But at that time in school we had only a couple of first IBM PCs XT and only two with 286 Intel processors and 4MB of RAM. So we learned lot of theory, producing endless numbers of algorithms, and we had to program blindly in Pascal, Cobol and Fortran, barely having a chance to try that code on heavily guarded school computers. That was the time when I made two major mistakes in my life trying to foresee the future. First I thought PC will never make it, and Amiga will prevail because of its graphic capabilities, and second I decided not to spend my entire life doing algorithms and debugging software. So I have started architecture, because of the lack of possibilities to study film directing in Graz. I definitively wanted to do something with some kind of overall view.

However, I was able to deal with architecture and art later on with logical and rational thinking previously implanted into my brain. That become one of my most challenging tasks: to find the right balance between avant-garde art and high-end computer technology, which I am both interested in.

In year 2000 I founded ORTLOS, which is conceptualized rather as a trans-disciplinary network of “connected intelligence”, than a classical architectural studio. The idea was to do something like the Ramones (the punk band from New York), where everybody adopted the same surname for the causes of a common goal and identity. So one day in 1999 I got a fax saying something like this: “Dear Mr. Ortlos, we kindly invite you to the next years’ Biennale in Venice, within the main exhibition at Arsenalle. Yours. Director Massimiliano Fuksas.”  So we emerged out of nothing and were the youngest participants at La Biennale of all time, with basically no background, probably invited because of our impressive Internet presentation. You have to know that La Biennale is actually the top exhibition and show of the international star elite in architecture. Mr. Fuksas told me later that he could not recognize our age or origin from our web page, but what he liked about it was that we had no architectural drawings presented at all, only renderings and 3D models. Our mixed-realities installation got much attention and was awarded one of the most interesting contributions by the Italian press. That year Jean Nouvel won the Golden Lion, but in my opinion the best installation was at the Greek pavilion done by Marcos Novak, for whom I had the highest admiration since my time as a student, and who is fortunately member of this faculty.

ORTLOS is a German word and it means: “place less” or “without space” or “space off”. It is a term used in media theory and very often by Peter Weibel to describe spaces beyond real geography. As my formal teacher Daniel Libeskind would put it: “No space is on its place”.  My vision was to establish ORTLOS as a platform of “connected intelligence”. It is a kind of matrix, an infinite, constantly changeable field of creative entries of those who shape it. ORTLOS is an instrument of nomadic working methods. I can show here only a few projects, with strong focus on research, since what we have done so far varies so much and it is not easy to make a quick overview of our activity within the last eight years.

I strongly believe in power of the adventure – within work, research and education. The adventure is a moment in life, when the experience is not enough. It is a moment between two secure points, when we don’t know, what will happen next. But, the adventure opens up a new view or perspective on things and phenomena.  I am showing here the image of Piero della Francesca “Resurrection”, an Italian painter, who with his “invention” of the perspective radically changed the way how we looked at the world before that. The adventure has also to do with pattern recognition. And the motivation for all of this is according to the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze “desire for production” (la production desirante). Desire as a driving force puts everything aside, like function or beauty, so it is not important anymore how something is working or what   it looks like, but what it performs. With other words my main question will always be: “what the doing does?” So, desire for the adventure does not include goal or application oriented acting or thinking, but open ups the field of infinite possibilities. This was described by Nikola Tesla in one interview he gave to the New York Times, one of the scientists I admire the most: “The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of a planter – for the future. His duty is to lay foundation of those who are to come and point the way.”

After the Biennale we have been commissioned to do an artistic intervention at the southern entrance to Graz on the freeway as a kind of gateway attracting drivers to Graz with the following message: “Welcome to Graz – A cultural capital of Europe 2003”. The curator Peter Lorenz discovered us on the Internet, intrigued by our Biennale installation, just to find out that our studio was a couple of houses away from his office. Since the installation had to be situated on the junction where the freeway made a split – left to Graz center and right to Vienna, he had some kind of graphic billboard in mind, with a secret message: “Come to Graz, don’t drive away to Vienna” – a kind of artistic product placement. What we did was the project called “The Thing and The Wing”. After first calculation it was clear that the project’s costs will explode and we will need the double the sum, as it was available in the project budget. They suggested: if it is a double let us realize only The Thing and forget about The Wing. Our answer to that was: It will be The Thing and The Wing or it will be nothing. Therefore we took the 50% of the financial risk on us and started the fund rising on our own. Fortunately we have been able to find two art lovers who paid for both parts in advance before the project had even started. Because of that after one year spending on the freeway The Thing and The Wing have now separated homes, and can not be experienced as a unity anymore. Our main interest was dealing with the viewer’s perception through its movement. Though, it is a different type of movement as in an art gallery where the visitor has time and possibility to look at the object in a more static way from various perspectives. Here, virtual view-lines are distorted and atmospheric effects are used as parameters or behaviors for endless simulations we made (based on wind, noise, fluid, gas).  The Thing 100 feet high and The Wing 200 feet long are one output from those simulations. These two sculptures, horizontal and vertical, are linked together conceptually, forming a unit only by the perception of the drivers. The motion is not to be understood merely as a function, one realizes it as an inner experience. The charm of this infrastructural thinking lies in its premise that subjectivity discards the final explanation and takes the object as departure point. “The Thing and The Wing can be everything. The Thing and The Wing can mean anything”, was the soundtrack title to the project and as well the music CD title we have produced. Since this was a scale-free project short after that there was also lighThing on the market.

Our interest in issue of interaction of body and space started after we have been invited to teach a choreographers and performers master class within the framework of Impuls Tanz in Vienna. Our task was more of the technological nature, which was not an easy one, considering very analog performers we were dealing with. We explored the Vicon motion capturing system, trying to capture the single solos of each performer in a length of 30 seconds most accurately, and to somehow bring this data into the world of Second Life. The objective then was to make a collaborative choreography of all class participants in Second Life. After they saw the possibilities of that they couldn’t stop playing around with their avatars.

Although a technological success, so I thought what would happen if the bodies just stand still and the space around them is moving, which is normally the opposite – we are penetrating the frozen structure. This was an interesting question for me, since it would challenge one of the limitations in real world, namely treating the architecture as inherent mass. It also has opened two new issues: “spaces on demand” and “user-generated environment”. The project inSPACEin was collaboration between us and the Ars Electronica’s Future Lab in Linz. The whole structure had to be in sync, since it did not move randomly, but based on information and content provided by users. There were a couple of problems to solve: design of pneumatic elements, inverse kinematics, and getting the projections sharp all the time, since the projection surfaces constantly moved. The project was developed as the Austrian contribution for the Expo in Japan. We won the first price ex-equo with another team. But we couldn’t realize this one because of political reasons, getting only a short official explanation: “this is a project characterized by high invention potential, but also of a high risk”.

Being somehow disappointed about this result, we decided that we should stop the usual practice of waiting for the client to call up, and start developing our own projects from the very first conceptional phase, to the fund rising, and the final production. We have visualized this within our installation “Golem’s trap” in medien.kunst.labor (I hope everybody is familiar with the legend about Golem). Again we tried to do some kind of a moveable on-demand environment. Because of financial problem instead of being that, it became a folded structure out of cardboard, which probably had more connection to Golem being made out of clay. The visitor gets trapped into it, and the only way to get out of the trap is to take course of action, to be pro-active, to interact. But, I have to admit that this project was more nostalgic about inSPACEin then really meant a new beginning.

At that time we also got interested in open source architecture, in ideas claiming that knowledge wants to be free and we put even more weight on trans-disciplinary collaboration. So, we have started to build up a community of partners including: philosophers, media artists, city planners, photographers, writers, musicians, computer scientists and politicians, to work collaboratively on the project “City Upgrade” – High Spirited Networked City. The aim is to make middle-sized European cities better adaptable to the challenges of the 21st century – the century characterized by difference, ambivalence and extreme openness – and, in doing so, secure their future in the future. The result should be a prototype of a networked city that works as an open, self-regulative, continuously renewable system offering its citizens a high-performance infrastructure.

Main tasks are:

  • Design and development of innovative solution proposals for novel forms of life-and-work in so-called “mixed reality environments” in the 21st century.
  • Definition and example of a “strategic image” for the city of the future.

The results emerged out of collaborative work of our now still growing community. When the politicians think about how to “rescue” the existing urban environments and make them more attractive, they would normally suggest, at least in Austria, to paint the facades, layout a new street pavement, plant a tree and motivate shop-owners to fill the empty shops, since many “shrinking cities” in Europe are struggling with huge shopping malls in suburbia – which is of course a global problem (perforation). But that is of course decoration, or let say an update. We had the idea of an upgrade (similar to the way of how you can either update your packages in a Debian system or you upgrade the whole distribution). So it should be a structural upgrade, but within existing hardware. Another question is to be asked: how much more consume do we need. So we wanted to turn city users from consumers into prosumers. And that is an infrastructural problem, because in order for user to engage they firstly need an enabling platform. The idea was to establish a boulevard of production – a production as a desire to produce something new and by doing so to make a progress (btw that was a reason why the cities developed in the first place). So we are using the same mechanisms of human co-existence in dense environments, but with changed means.

The environment to enable that we have called “City Lab”. City Lab is a mixed reality based space module. This modular environment is flexible due to an implemented innovative technology and novel workflow. Enriched by mobile and virtual elements a broad spectrum of spatial settings is possible. That can be done based on plug-in-play principle. The same way when you exchange a graphic card in your computer with a new one, and then you add little bit more of RAM or a new hard disk, and so on, until the old processor and the motherboard are also gone. The only fuzzy question about this is: when the old computer becomes the new one. From the users point of view nothing much changed, except they have now more possibilities.

The aim of the City Lab project is the development and realization of a radical vision of the new space within a city and for knowledge workers – “creative class”.  The raw material predominantly processed and re-processed in this lab is information. This flexibility will make possible: a) the dislocated user can quickly and seamlessly continue work at a new location and b) “on-demand” working environments to be created according to any given requirement.

One of City Lab’s specific application fields is the knowledge-based economy. We assume that in the near future this economy will require new socio-spatial environments being able to offer optimal working conditions to a work style characterized by increased mobility, especially for small enterprises. The preferred locations for City Lab implementation are empty shops at the street level within existing buildings in urban inner-city areas. The so-called “dying streets” with decreased economic power and loss of function on behalf of a capital shift to outskirts, which can be found in every middle-sized European city. “City Lab” is an immersive environment similar to your “Alo Sphere”, but on a different scale and on the street level, which implemented can be used by anyone with a desire for production.

In the year 2005 we have brought out our first book “The Architecture of the networks”. It brought also some controversy and confusion with it. Not only because of the graphic design done by graphic design legend David Carson, but also it is hard to actually find out who the author has been. If you google it, it may appear the author is David Carson, sometimes the author is Thom Mayne (who kindly wrote the introduction), sometimes it is ORTLOS mentioned as a author, and occasionally my name pops up. A similar confusion happened than at our first public book presentation in Graz, when the audience expected to hear a lecture about the architecture, but then saw something like this. A lot of graphs, interface examples and issues like: Formation of random views in one Information network, Semantic structuring and clustering, Manipulation of Information structures, Problem analysis of trans-disciplinary data structures and mapping of multi-disciplinary data, Infospace cloud, ontology based integration, creative distributed collaboration and swarm logic, and so on. Later on some bought the book and after consuming the refreshments went home, probably thinking they just have entered the wrong room in the first place.  I have noticed that one person actually bought two books. He was introduced to me as Mr. Hubert Schnedl, a project manager of one of the biggest research institutions in Austria – so called K-Zentrum, which represented a cluster of the powerful players from the automobile industry, such as Audi, Magna Steyer, Siemens and AVL. He briefly told me that he found our ideas based on the A.N.D.I. project, we have showed that night, very interesting and he will contact me very soon. Then he was gone.

Two years before people like Albert Barabasi, Duncan Watts, and many others started to propagate a new emerging science – the science of networks, we have started developing and programming a platform, those people probably were then talking about. We approached it in a totally non-scientific way, only driven by the desire to develop new tools, which could be useful in the realization of ideas we had about trans-disciplinary work. In 2004 we had the first functional prototype, which then was used within the “City Upgrade” project as a Use Case. After first functional prototype was made, further development has been stopped.

A.N.D.I. is a shortcut for A New Digital Instrument for the creative network collaboration in architecture and net.art (not a great title I know, but Andi is also a nickname of my wife). It is an open source software development project dedicated to providing a robust, full-featured, commercial-quality, industry platform for the development and implementation of highly integrated software and tools. The objective was to develop a run-time environment with the focus on the development of applications for networked production in the creative sphere of architecture, urban planning, design and net.art. It is an environment, which opens the possibilities for the production of software to generate advanced projects in a networked society. This new working tools will increase the creativity, productivity and competitiveness of the involved actors by drawing upon and developing technologies for virtual, augmented and mixed realities.

Two years after our book presentation Mr. Schendl finally called me and asked for a meeting in his research institution. So, here I am in the middle of business people in expensive suits listening to me, and being rather confused about how an educated architect can help them to solve their rather complex problems in car manufacturing, especially when it comes to development of new products. What would be the strategy, which successfully deals with a huge amount of distributed information and goes beyond already proposed PDM and DMU scenarios. However, after my talk they have been rather happy as if I would feed them with a chocolate, and they had shown a desire to invest in the further development of A.N.D.I. as a PLM platform.

I had also chocolate in mind, since I was also happy not only because with that investment I could pay the rent for my studio for the next year, but because this great and challenging adventure could be continued. Now, I would like to thank you for your kind attention and please eat more chocolate.


*This Lecture was given at MAT (Media, Art and Technology program) USCB Santa Barbara, in March 2009.

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