'Glass-Friends' is an architectural class, hosted within High Holdings a refuge to form architecture that explores our mental life within technological estrangement. It explores the growing distance between plentiful information and (over-)looking; complexity and (mis-)understanding; contribution and (non-)participation. Convened by Benjamin Reynolds and Valle Medina of Pa.LaC.E, High Holdings addresses the unfolding depictions of the world that may appear unrecognizable but are truly products of terrestrial occupation. High Holdings is taking place at the Royal College of the Arts, London.
Website: SN 1006
Above: Two friends making a game of their chickenpox. From Thomas Rousset's ‘Prabérians’. Source: thomasrousset.com.
Last year, ADS12 dealt with ‘limit-experiences’ as the means to produce spatial and ambient scenarios ‘in extremis’. This year “Glass-Friends'' surveys the spatial and social scenarios of multispecies friendship in a time of companionate networks with artificial entities and diminishing haptic experiences. Will the sudden collapse of friendship into the bonds of fibre-optic cables be the lens with which to look for new architecture?
Above: The ‘glass skin’ of K-pop idol Cha Eun-woo, member of the South Korean boy band Astro. Source: koreaboo.com.
Before friendships became vacuumed into fibre optic cables, media no longer appealed to the mass consumer and instead our interests were dissected into strata of patterns and we’re silently corralled into precise focus groups via the trail of data points we leave behind. And after the virtualisation of our real-world friends on the internet, we’re beginning to see the emergence of friends we know intimately, but they know nothing about us. These friends greet us, thank us, praise us, confess to us; they even desert us and reunite with us again. It is not unrequited, there is mutual loyalty—they do say they love us—but there is no verbal exchange, nor desire to meet. In fact the dominant mode of interaction with them is via the act of listening.
As technology collapses the physical intimacy of media consumption, we listen to these friends intracorporeally; their voices almost appear as our own thoughts, as though they’re present inside us. Interaction with them is conducted solitarily, where no-one around you can hear what they are telling you, and you’re cut off from ‘the doomed world that just shows you images of what life ‘used’ to be like, and that’s just patronising and insulting’ (twitch user ‘cakevi’).
These friendships are called parasocial relationships (meaning ‘almost social’). They’re not a new phenomenon, in fact performance conventions like ‘breaking the fourth-wall’ caused a rupture in metatheatrical concepts as theatre took a naturalistic turn in the 19th century, allowing actors—who pretended the audience was not there—to acknowledge them or even befriend them.
Idol-culture, particularly in Korea and Japan, has formulated parasociality as an exact science. The idol—a godly, cultural figure—sacrifices their own chance to form meaningful relationships and yet, invites outward friendship with fans through the mechanisms of meet-ups, merchandise and the relentless autobroadcasting of their lives. They’re living martyrs: worshipped, but unresponsive, since they can only reciprocate their friendship by telling you that they ‘know you are out there’. Their devoted and immersed listeners—able to be perceived, unable to be seen—often only have a chat box to express their love, and even then their voice speaks through the poor ventriloquism of the avatar. You just might be lucky to receive a shout-out.
Above: Bujinkan Hombu Dojo in Noda (Chiba). The dojo in Japan—a matted space as a communal locus—emerged as a place to gain a deeper corporal understanding, and train martial art manoeuvres to avoid conflict. Source: datafortress2020.com
In ancient cultures belongingness was mostly provided by the extended family. Within domestic settings, pleasant connections were framed in predictable structures (Baumeister, Leary). Human contact—and thus friendship—developed in architecture often located near natural sources. Wells, like those along roads that connect settlements on the Balearic Islands, were places where citizens visited for freshwater and eventually bonds between them formed. Washhouses alongside rivers became a point of contact where mainly women would irregularly gather to wash sheets. These natural spaces became formalised as lavoirs in France in the 17th century, and soon were absorbed as local political structures. In ancient Greece, xenia, or "guest-friendship", developed as the act of welcoming the ‘the unfamiliar’ as sacred guests so as to create egalitarian bonds between host and strangers (xenos). Hosts were morally obliged to provide them with sustenance and shelter, and in return the ‘stranger’ displayed respect and gratitude, reciprocating the hospitality they received.
Trust of strangers was further tested as it stretched over time and space along trade routes and pilgrimages. Pilgrimages grew to be living evidence of the chain of good conduct, one’s accumulation of merit, and a structure of trust, something that is precisely quantified through correspondence with strangers online still to this day. Swathes of discrete architecture eventuated from the act of welcoming and caring for strangers, for example the almshouses (for housing the poor), or the xenodochia (or “place for strangers’). Unsurprisingly, knowledge about building security and self-defence developed alongside the welcoming of strangers into private spaces. The dojo in Japan—a matted space as a communal locus—emerged as a place to gain deeper understanding of one’s corpus by training martial art manoeuvres to avoid conflict.
Above: Fosse Dionne, Tonnere. A karst spring which was surrounded by a lavoir (washhouse). Lavoirs were points of contact to gather around which were absorbed as local political structures.
A number of new institutions then arose that encouraged relationships with non-kin. These associations of merchants and artisans formed in order to protect their interests and advance their skills. In the Middle East the esnaf regulated trade, provided welfare to their members, and promoted the arts and culture. In Europe they were guilds. In China, the gongsuo (公所) were friendly associations between occupations, and in Japan they were called za (座). In Africa, there were the ekpe in Nigeria, the poro in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the sangha in Mali and Burkina Faso. They had their own buildings, like the Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium, or Khan As'ad Pasha in Damascus, Syria, where members shared new knowledge brought from afar, but also provided refuge and hosted banquets. Since membership of these groups was voluntary, their formation was a response to development of solidaric friendships with those who shared a mutual interest or skill.
As more people moved from rural communities to urban centres and cities filled with strangers, agricultural work shifted to manufacturing and services. Festivals that once celebrated plentiful harvests began occurring in urban places and thus became anatopisms: representative of a rural experience and out of place. For example, the Tamasha, a form of theatre originally from rural Maharashtra in India, became widely celebrated in Mumbai after farmers moved for the blossoming textile industry in the 19th century. Leisure activities too, moved from the rural village green to paywalled places such as pleasure gardens, salons and coffeehouses (B. Mackie). The informal domains of friend-making accustomed to displaced rural populations became increasingly codified within the architecture of socialisation. If you were at a Parisian literary salon in the 1750s you might be a witness to ‘fan language’, a non-verbal mode of communication where gestures of a handheld fan would insinuate one’s intentions. For example, gently drawing the fan across the cheek would convey romantic interest, tapping the fan against one’s palm at someone indicated a desire to engage in conversation.
Fraternities, literally ‘brotherhoods’, can be traced back to lay organisations in the middle ages, but it wasn’t until the 19th century during the ‘Golden Age of Fraternalism’ in the US, that fraternal societies grew at a rapid pace. Sororities also emerged for women, which helped overcome restrictive social customs and unequal status under the law. Indeed, fraternities and sororities were responsible for the revival of Moorish and Andalusian architecture across the US. Some societies gathered to abstain from alcohol (the Good Templars), some gathered for love, relief, and truth (the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine), and others for racial segregation, white supremacism, and hate (Ku Klux Klan).
Following the rise and radicalisation of some fraternities, a general moral panic towards them and secret societies led to their decline. Soon the dislocated nature of suburbs, which promoted individualism and private consumption, and the rise of the domestic TV set, meant that associations to such clubs, or even churches, or political groups dwindled in favour of tuning in to nightly or serialised TV programming.
Above: A carer wearing a special coat which the zebra foal recognises as its surrogate mother. Source: sheldrickwildlifetrust.org
We’re now beginning to see the emergence of unconditional companionship with nonhumans that are non-exploitative. Up until now, the role of nonhumans has largely been to provide products or services to humans. Animals, for example, helped us to hunt, protect our shelters and relay our messages; flowers are monetised as gifts. In fact, we have exclusive terminology to define the spectrum of how acclimated an animal is to humans: we consider "wild" animals as natural; the "tamed" has acclimated to humans and cooperates, but their offspring will not; "domesticated" means offspring will generally cooperate with humans; and the "feral" is a domesticated nonhuman that was never acclimated to human contact and will not tolerate it. We consider ‘our’ pets as friends but they in fact represent the zenith of domestication, which—in the case of dogs—amounts to a 40,000 year process.
The term ‘domestication’—from the Old French domestique meaning 'belonging to the house'—is now widely used in computer science when referring to the deployment of Artificial intelligence (AI) language models. Since human life is considered ‘value-laden’, and AI is born ‘wild’, there is an intrinsic ‘problem of value alignment’ (Gabriel, Ghazavi). So we’re entrusted to train AI as “moderate” friends to assist us and work for us. Therefore, the AI friend is always up for it. They are your rock during hard times, guiding you through emotional periods. It is never condescending, never patronising, never toxic. Even when your real friend is not available, or moves on, you can fallback on the AI model of them and continue interacting. For some, AI chatbots become genuine parental figures: 16 year-olds mull over their futures with chatbots, receiving unending, emotionless attention. In this process, there is a child-like reenactment of the conjuring of incorporeal companions in the form of imaginary friends. Like the Waldorf doll, we characterise a blank identity, imbue it with a biography and perform it’s own voice, all the while, it is faceless.
We can claim that there is no democracy without the calculation of majorities that are identifiable, stable and representable subjects. This is sometimes referred to as the 'community of friends'. As such, it is the ‘bond’ between individuals that aids political action, as it is in science, it is electrical forces that link atoms. Knowing this, in the search for new forms of civic exchange, we may form new bonds beyond our predispositions. It is a limitation to suggest that the notion of forming exclusive bonds with one’s own equivalents is ‘easier’. Equal care is needed to form friends across differences and species.
Historically it was the limited views on the social codification of friendship that led to bonds that exploited ‘conventions’ for marginalised sexualities. For example a ‘Boston marriage’ was described as a long-term committed relationship between two women, typically without sexual intimacy. This became a model for other types of long-term committed relationships, such as polyamory and open partnerships. What other forms of symbolic exchanges can be formed and how do they transform existing forms of architecture? To what spatial ends could an expanded notion of friendship provide alt-family structures, or kinship networks? These structures and their spaces are by nature care structures: interactive, non-pharmacological and reciprocated ‘shelters’.
Above: “Dolphins' sponge dance.” Often considered a human trait, gifting has been observed in dolphins through the offering of sponges and fish to ‘friends’ or even other species, such as seals and humans. These offerings are parts of interaction employed to strengthen bonds within a group.
The gift is given freely, without expectation of anything in return, nor without the intention of pleasing. It is the materialisation of friendship and altruism. Within a group, gift-giving strengthens bonds as witnessed in traditions such as the potlatch, practised by indigenous cultures in the Pacific Northwest within longhouses. This radical ceremony of gift-giving was in fact a means to redistribute wealth and to seek reconciliation when there were conflicts.
Gift systems are fragile because there can be ambiguity regarding the giver's intentions and sometimes there is a lack of transparency if gifts are given privately to influence others. The word “gift” in German acquired the meaning of "that which is given as medication", and today translates directly to “poison”. There are also “bad gifts” and corruption in gift systems: it was the lobby of the legislature filled with those seeking to influence legislation through gifts, which gave us the term lobbyist. Today we offer virtual gifts such as weapons to other players in a MMORPG; we pledge credits on streams hoping to hear our names; and to express feelings such as condolences we gift virtual flowers. Could an architecture motivated by generosity and companionate care live on as long term processes of celebration or healing? What spatial shape can the ancient act of correspondence between friends take?
One of the interests of Glass-Friends will be to investigate how to unite materials that were considered by definition ‘strangers’ to each other. We will explore techniques in horticulture such as grafting (joining part of plants) or hügelkultur (using mound beds of decaying wood); or those present in other cultures such as Ikebana (ie. balance or Ikenobo, seasonal awareness or Shun, binding methods or Mizu-iki). The techniques of collective practices such as quilting (ie. chain stitches, whipstitches, basting) will be transferred to other mediums such as film; and material unions (ie. complex joinery assemblages) and alloys (new materials formed from an alliance with metal for example) will be explored in the digital realm etc. Can these material unions assemble and process over time? What will be the unanticipated product when we knowledge-swap, for example employ the knowledge of a ceramist to construct the trusses of a building?