Architects in the Hands of an Angry God

Posted July 30, 2017

“The lesson of the extraordinary Eames Anthology… is the Eames’ genius for imagining degrees of design interference and degrees of responsibility that had never been conceived either before or after. One is struck, while reading the Anthology, at the sheer depth of their moral commitments.”

Architects in the Hands of an Angry God: Charles and Ray Eames on Things

The Christo Experience, or a good birthday cake. There is a great value in how the thing disappears and can’t be reproduced; it can’t deteriorate and grow passé.

– Charles Eames

CHARLES AND RAY EAMES’S breakthrough film of 1953, A Communications Primer, explains the process of information transmission in the “age of communication.” The film begins with a diagram that visualizes “almost any communication process” based on a threefold schematic of source — transmitter — destination. As the narrator explains, the clear relay of message to receiver is threatened at almost every turn by noise. “Noise,” says the narrator “is the term used in the communications field to designate any outside force which acts on the transmitted signal to vary it from the original.” Depending on the message, almost anything can act as noise: sound, motion, the “unpredictable quality” of light sources, and static on a TV monitor.

It’s more a film about noise, about what gets in the way of communication, than transmission. Maintaining the strength of an original idea through extreme levels of interference was, for the Eameses, the key to the problem of mass production. As Ray said of mass-produced furniture, the aim all along — she is writing in 1975 — was to “figure out a way that the hundredth, and the five hundredth, and the thousandth [product] would have the original character.” In the Primer as in their furniture, maintaining the purity of the work’s “original character” — especially as it arrives in the hands of its users — was a guiding concern. Ray recorded the following note by Charles to this effect: “When the concept is formed it represents about 5 percent of the design effort — the remaining 95 percent of the effort being used to keep the concept from falling apart.” If the signal, the idea, could remain at full strength as it passed through a sea of noise, it was either a really crude idea or a beautiful one.

primer

The narrator of the Primer elaborates how even the simplest technologies are swamped by noise:

In a typewritten message, the noise source could be in the quality of the ribbon or the keys, and we are all familiar with the carbon copies that keep getting progressively worse. If anything acts on the signal so as to bury it in an unpredictable and undesirable way in the communications system, it is noise.

The film shows layers of carbon-copied text as it quickly devolves into a blurry smudge. From the typewriter we move to the telegraph on the New York Stock Exchange, as a stockbroker sends a message to an agent in Los Angeles. Here, there are only two possible messages to be conveyed: BUY or SELL. The clarity of terms suggests a kind of ideal situation. And yet, even here electromagnetism “could distort the signal in such a way as to change SELL into SELF.” How does the stock market neutralize this threat? Given that there are only “two possible messages, BUY and SELL, there is sufficient redundancy in the spelling of the words that even if it did read SELF, the information would still be clear.” That much noise could not disrupt the clarity of the primitive message.

In a sense nothing could be closer to the heart of the Eames’ project than this vision of noise abatement through redundancy. Then again, what makes the exchange of stocks anything but a work of art is its capacity to nullify noise, to make noise fully redundant. For the Eameses, it is essential that their message become intimate with noise. The difference between art and commerce is that answers to an artwork are “not given in terms of a ‘sure thing.’”

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