metropad 1 : make strange
“the concept of estrangement (german: verfremdung) was introduced in the late 1920s by german dramatist bertolt brecht in his "theory of epic theatre" as a means to counter the traditional concept of "empathy" (german: einfühlung) that formed the dramatic goal of theatre since aristotle. "to estrange a character or action means first and foremost to strip it of anything that appears evident, familiar and understandable about it and to arouse curiosity and astonishment about it instead." this estrangement was to cause a critical reflectivity in the viewer towards what he or she sees on stage, rather than passively empathizing with the fate of the play's heroes. ultimately, brecht understood estrangement as an artistic technique to symbolically counter the effects of alienation ("entfremdung") that according to karl marx characterized the default mode of relationships of the late-capitalist individual to its physical and social environment. much of contemporary architecture seems to inscribe itself in this lineage in that it uses various atmospheric, narrative or formal scenarios to estrange the familiar appearance of a program.” (andreas ruby)
as usual, i was not that optimistic about this seminar, particularly after reading that last line about “much of contemporary architecture” being “inscribed” in brechtian (theatrical) revolutionary canons. ¿where?
in fact, the brecht himself borrowed the concept from the earlier russian formalism notion of остранение (ostranenie), which means defamiliarization, or “making strange.” viktor shklovsky developed this idea with respect to literature and art (poetry, to be exact) in his 1917 essay on “art as device” :
“habit devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife and the fear of war. if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been. the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. the technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception... art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.”
brecht adapted this concept in his own plays. he didn’t want a pleasantly intoxicated audience seduced by fake narratives, lost at a comfortable distance and with faint and regulated emotion. brecht expected to disrupt consciences and challenge viewers into thinking, to pull them away from convention and conformism, slap them out of soporific and passive spectatorship. the estrangement effect, or v-effect, goes beyond pantomime or scandal, seeking to activate a reflexive response in the audience. it all sounds great up to here, right?
the problem is we eventually got to the contemporary architecture part…
*olafur eliasson, green river, moss, norway, 1999