I awoke this morning, far too early, in sweat, my stomach churning, my body sending my brain signals that something was wrong. I sat upright, moaned to darkness, and went to the bathroom. Finding ill success, I poured a glass of water, walked around a little bit, returned to bed. It was hot for a San Francisco morning. My window was open, but it was still early enough that there wasn’t any noise piping in from the street.
Eventually my senses stilled enough that I could resume the unconscious state that my body, this week, has been so desperately craving. I was out quickly: didn’t have to endlessly turn and twist to find a position my body could call comfortable.
And then I entered the space of the dream.
In the dream I found myself entering a used bookstore with my boyfriend. The locale was similar to many of the used bookstores that (thankfully) still populate San Francisco, but its walls were huge, and the space was remarkably wide open—the floor plan let you see from one wall to another, and the distance seemed so expansive. I found titles that I knew I desperately needed, wanted, was amazed to find; titles that would fetch hundreds of dollars from online sellers, titles that don’t exist in waking life, but that I knew I would enjoy. I turned to people next to me and expressed my excitement—poetry titles that were English translations of French works I hadn’t read, series of books on rare films (horror, experimental, pornography), monographs on artists that were so attuned to my tastes I couldn’t believe they were unfamiliar. My stack of books to purchase grew and grew.
My boyfriend wandered over to find me. We started walking toward the checkout line when I noticed a sign. Now, awake, I can’t remember what exactly it was that the sign said, but whatever it said piqued my interest. I set my stack of books down and wandered over.
At first I could find nothing but the children’s section of the bookstore, replete with tiny tables and chairs, toys, crayons and markers. An employee walked by and I said, “Excuse me, but is this the extent of the maze?” The employee laughed, but not insidiously.
“No, it’s far more expansive than this. Head down that hallway.” He pointed.
With the bookstore behind me, and any idea of the stack of books that had so intensely held my attention before gone from my mind, I found myself alone and wandering a long hallway that reminded me of one to be found in a hotel. I sighted a door behind a heavy dark curtain: inside seemed to be little more than an employee breakroom. I was disappointed until I opened another door after turning a crook in the hallway. The first of many portals, lined up next to each other, opened to reveal what seemed like a bathroom, except the porcelain liner of the urinal did not meet a wall behind it, but rather sloped down like a slide, opening toward more space to another hallway below, dimly lit with a single exposed bulb. I fought an urge to piss in the fountain, the reality of my tiny bladder haunting my headspace, but soon decided that I would instead descend. I slid down the drop, discretely worried that I was dipping my body in piss-tainted water. But below I could see the earth: the fountain watering plants. I walked down the new hallway and a voice from above called my name.
I climbed back up (an impossible feat that was cut out of the narrative diegesis of the dream itself, a slippage like one to be found in the fiction of both Anna Kavan & Alain Robbe-Grillet) to discover a new group of people, unknown to me now, that I (of course) recognized. Together we explored the folly of the maze, which seemed to also function a sort of haunted house, a spectacle of space, an expanse of sensory disablement. I was thrilled.
Despite my enjoyment, because through the years I’ve still not mastered the art of lucid dreaming, the dream shifted elsewhere—a far more banalized space, and within what seemed like moments, I was awake. The sun shining through my window, the pain in my stomach lingering on so as to remind my body that I was still not in control.
Often, in architectural theory, the design of a perfect house is considered a benchmark in an architect’s career. The use-value of the house is massive: shelter, comfort, the possibility of a space offering dynamic communication, storage—the idea of living somewhere day in, day out. In contrast to utility, I find reverie deeper in impossible houses: the paper architecture of Raimund Abraham and Lebbeus Woods, John Hejduk and Douglas Darden. Houses that refuse an easy sense of living. Follies. Houses that cannot be built because reality rejects their existence, whether from an idea of utility or capital.
This ‘paper architecture’ presents an extension of theory, a sense of praxis that still cannot mete with the reality of a built building. The page opens up a space to enter. While not specifically physical space, the projection of architecture offered by drawings, axonometric diagrams, description, evocations—the page allows one to enter the impossible space.
The idea of a haunted house straddles the line between the possible and the impossible. Any house can be haunted—a real, physical house abandoned to excess or decrepitude; a paper house, impossible to be built but insistently haunted by the ideas one brings to it. The haunted house is a signifier without a necessary signified. To be haunted, this idea, is not inherently defined. The world of the supernatural, the world of loss, the world of memory, the world of an other—the world that haunts.
The real world application of the term ‘haunted house’ presents one of two options in most common use: the first, a space that was once inhabited by the living that now seems inhabited by the dead. Ghosts, a presence, something outside the realm of the corporeal that physically lets its presence be known. The second, an experiential playground, a fun house: a guided tour through an artificial environs built up around Halloween, the folly of terror. Either way, the haunted house provides an experience for its visitor: an intensity, a space of excitement, terror, sadness—a space of affect.
There is a beauty present in art that refuses utility. James Lee Byars’ sculptures, often huge chunks of rare material, carrying a mystical bent but devoid of both function or fashion. The garden as the perfect architectural folly, the perfect Gesamtkunstwerk: holding sight, sound, scent, touch & taste. The meditative narrative film that refuses everything but rhythm and beauty.
In the 21st century, to refuse utility is to refuse the hyper-presence of capital: plastic art that cannot sit quietly inside of a million dollar condo, or on the wall of an real estate agent’s office. A novel that no one wants to be seen reading during their morning commute, a narrative that refuses to give a posited sense of recognition, a way to tell ourselves that our lives have meaning (or a defined, narrative arc). Film or video that denies the catharsis of emotive manipulation, acting that refuses the 21st century half-assed definition of ‘acting’—a film that will not find itself nominated for any award that features celebrities dressed up and mugging to the television cameras.
To refuse capital is to insist upon a larger meaning in life, a meaning that sits outside a negentropic route toward our own destruction. The question of the 21st century seems to be something along the following: Will my engagement with / interest in / purchase of this cultural artifact lead to me making more money in the future? If the answer is yes, then said artifact can, most likely, be safely ignored. One does not need to engage in popular culture to critique it: the juggernaut of Late-Capital gets a signal boost (and a heightened visibility) every time an article about Lady Gaga is written, outrage at a television show is voiced, or disbelief is expressed that another shitty book has become a best-seller. We cannot escape the machinations of an oppressive & tyrannical mediascape if we continue to engage it.
Masao Adachi, in his 2007 film Prisoner / Terrorist, has one of his characters speak the line, “It may be that beauty has strengthened our resolve.” So, when confronted with a useless & haunted object, what can we do but find it beautiful? And in this beauty, all we can recognize is a moment of sovereign behavior, a step toward the impossible, a resolve to carry on. In the space of the haunted house, so often marked by terror and confusion—this resolve is all we need.