Refresh, Renew, funerary catafalque for the digital age

Project

(Rome, June 23, 2019) – Common Accounts opens Refresh, Renew as part of its co-director Igor Bragado’s fellowship at the Royal Spanish Academy in Rome.

Installed in San Pietro in Montorio square, Refresh, Renew proposes alternatives to the current funerary protocols for the channelling of ceremony both online and IRL. It manages the digital remains of a life lived online, matching the current multiplication of bodily images as they navigate online and persist after biological expiration.

Common Accounts’ Refresh, Renew continues their line of research on the subject of architecture’s role in the intersection of death and daily-life. If the cemetery and the mausoleum are no longer the exclusive spaces for the funeral ever since the arrival of social media a little over a decade ago, this alteration the funerary social spheres has multiplied the spaces through which ceremony is channelled. By rearticulating gym traditions and technologies, Refresh, Renew focuses on the increasing production and circulation of bodies and bodily images in contemporary cultures and capitalizes on their capacity to construct vast personal archives as a project of eternalization. Recent cases of online funeral memorialization through the practice of fitness have brought to the surface a long historical lineage of the relationship between body-culture and death that span from the practice of athletics on Etruscan funerals to the development of contemporary mass fitness by the North American military apparatus. In this context, Facebook’s first significant encounters with death –prompted by a fitness coach claiming access to the digital file of his dead son– shows the displacement of spaces of mourning to areas like the comments section of a YouTube channel, a home-gym, or muscle itself.

Interview

What prompted the project?

Many of the topics that we currently work on at Common Accounts such as funeral infrastructures, plastic surgery and cosmetics, fitness, social media, and the military and weapon complex began in architecture school, very specifically with professors Beatriz Colomina, Andrés Jaque, Spyros Papapetros, Eyal Weizman and Sylvia Lavin. That exact moment was when our practice started to take form.

Refresh, Renew is one of a number of designs we’ve developed over the last few years around the intersection of death with daily life. Built at the Spanish Academy of Rome, the pavilion evolved from the interest in contemporary cases of online funeral memorialization through practices of fitness and self-design generally.

What informed the title of this?

“Refresh, Renew” is an existing slogan from the fitness industry. What is interesting about it is that it also references the file management commands of a computer or internet culture. These two worlds collapse in this project, which re-articulates traditions and technologies serving the gym, and focuses on the increasing production and circulation of bodies and representations of them in contemporary culture. The pavilion was designed to capitalize on the capacity of these technologies and traditions to construct personal archives as a project of eternalization.

The use of slogans has been very central for the office. In fitness culture slogans are just one more amongst the myriad of technological devices used to mobilize bodies for their transformation or construction. In that regard, slogans are a bodily design apparatus as much as the bench press or the treadmill.

How did elements as research, apparel and performance all merge together into one unique installation? To what extent did one help develop the other?

We always launch into a nearly journalistic period of inquiry in parallel to developing a project’s “design.” These processes are essentially indistinguishable from one another for us. Information-gathering enters the 3D model, gets worked over, and instrumentalized as design. And inversely, design strategies get analyzed in their historical or technological context and feed the knowledge that a project generates. If a single reality that we are analyzing is fundamentally articulated through design efforts in mediums like fashion design, self-design, interior design or computer design (as is the case of the realities behind fitness and the funeral industry) then our projects should symmetrically correspond and inject change in those same mediums.

To what extent were images pivotal in developing and then articulating the design and its intentions?

The images produced prior to the construction —as well as the models—have their own life, so to speak. They are independent articulations from the built thing. In that sense, rather than a means to an end, images explore the hypothesis parallel to the pavilion and they perform differently too.

As a temporary structure, how significant are the photographs as mediums through which the pavilion will continue to exist?

Part of the research at the Spanish Academy was on XVI century Roman Funerary catafalques developed by the Spanish community in Rome. The ceremony was of course important in that case but it was the representations of those ephemeral catafalques that remain now. Those representations would often be fictionalized, or elaborated, adding a complexity and sophistication to the catafalques that was not really there in the built structure. The fictional drawings were circulated in “funeral books” all around the Spanish kingdom and used as a diplomatic tool. This is interesting to us because it means that the funeral already navigated multiple media channels well before that condition was reproduced with the internet in the current age. Similarly, photographs of the Refresh, Renew pavilion and of the performance are meant to circulate to produce that sense of archival eternity that the project is promoting.

How are you aiming to investigate architecture’s role in the intersection of death and daily-life further?

What is interesting about a project this long and with this many instantiations (it has had different constructions/instantiations at the Istanbul Design Biennale, Seoul Architecture Biennale, Spanish Architecture Biennale, and now the Spanish Academy in Rome) is that it naturally evolves according to our parallel interests. A large number of our latest academic and professional works that span from issues of climate change, to fitness, to the cosmetic industry, are all topics that in one way or another have mutated from our initial inquiry in the demise and reconstitution of the human body.

How do you envision the typology of the cemetery evolving?

The truth is that the funerary industry in Europe and North America is extremely conservative and rarely takes risks in terms of technological innovations. The cemetery will probably not change in the coming decades in our geographies. South Korea has been an obsession of ours precisely because of its cultural flexibility and rapid embrace of new funeral protocols: the construction of new traditions comes hand in hand with the introduction of innovative technologies. For instance, in the early 2000s, due to a shortage of land for burial, the South Korean government introduced cremation —a previously rare practice in the country— with a campaign that included its normalization in soap operas, and successfully changed how the majority of Koreans practice funerals today.

What is for you the architects most important tool?

For us, undoubtedly, the disciplinary history and Dropbox.

About

Founded by Igor Bragado and Miles Gertler at Princeton University in 2015, Common Accounts is an itinerant art and design research practice that operates principally between Madrid, Seoul, Toronto, and New York. Their work examines the intersections of the body with spaces both online and IRL, and considers extra-architectural material that often passes below the radar of the discipline. They are recognized for their work in the design of death and the virtual afterlife, including “Three Ordinary Funerals: A Funeral Home for the Virtual Afterlife,” produced for the 2017 Seoul Biennial on Architecture and Urbanism and now a part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Korea (MMCA). Recent work includes development of in-store broadcast platforms for Sephora’s Shanghai flagship, and their 2nd place proposal, “After Life,” for the Canadian Pavilion at the 2020 Venice Biennale of Architecture. Their practice today is informed by a series of experimental architectural installations including the “Refresh, Renew Pavilion,” at the Spanish Academy in Rome (2019), and “Going Fluid: The Cosmetic Protocols of Gangnam,” first exhibited at the Third Istanbul Design Biennial (2016).  Recent lectures by Common Accounts include Wishful Tropics at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai, Max Out at the Harvard GSD, and Gangnam, Muscle, and Death at the MMCA. Common Accounts have contributed to publications such as e-flux, Room One Thousand, The Avery Review, and FRAME Magazine, and their essays have been included in books Imminent Commons: The Expanded City (Alejandro Zaera-Polo), and Superhumanity: Post-Labor, Psychopathology, Plasticity (Nick Axel, Beatriz Colomina, Nikolaus Hirsch, Jihoi Lee). Gertler and Bragado have variously taught at Cornell University, the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo and The Cooper Union. Gertler is represented in Toronto by Corkin Gallery, was commissioned to produce a series of images on speculative future of the Port of Rotterdam in the Dutch Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture. He was awarded the Henry Adams AIA Certificate at Princeton University. Bragado co-organized the 2018 “Thesis Now” symposium at the Cooper Union and was awarded the 2019 Spanish Rome Prize and the 2017 writing prize by the Design History Society. Bragado and Gertler are both recipients of Princeton University’s Suzanne K. Underwood Prize and graduated from the Princeton University School of Architecture in 2016.

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