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The Death of Montage 

March 2022

Montage is thought of as the “scopic regime” of modernity. It is the medium through which the speed, the anxiety or the fascination of this cultural paradigm is not only comprehended but also questioned. Indeed, multiple visions of reality, multiple foci can coexist at the same time in the montage to produce a happy accident, a new interpretation, a new understanding of the metropolis whose destiny is linked to that of the montage. This quality of the montage is perhaps also a quality of the metropolis itself, which is why montage has been so effective in establishing itself from an underground avant-garde practice to a quasi-hegemonic mode of representation. As modernity and the metropolis have widely been criticized in the post-modern era as a result of dehumanizing capitalist urban spaces, this short piece questions the relevance of montage today, as modernity’s scopic regime. I argue that photomontage in the advent of hyper-reality and social media no longer represents the metropolis. However, artists and architects still look up to montage’s dialectical power in other modes of expression and representation.

Today’s sheer volume of images, and live uncut videos circulating at instant speed all around the world suggests that any attempt at curating, and assembling images to make sense of the world, is futile. Following this same reasoning in architectural representation, a digital model allowing for a virtual visit of a project, renders the use of photomontage obsolete. In other words, images no longer need to be “montaged” together to get a picture of the whole, because there are enough of them in a raw state to understand the complexity of the project. The same can be said about the metropolis: there is enough raw footage of the city that is available, for the viewer to try to make sense of it through their own “mental photomontage”. It is no longer a montage by design but a possible interpretation of the viewer. Hence, the dialectic that emerges from the confrontation of contradictory or unrelated images is no longer intentional. Does this mean we have a higher freedom to understand the world, or on the contrary that we have no understanding of it at all? Ryoji Ikeda’s blinding light at the 2019 Venice Biennale, raises the same question by overstimulating our eyesight, only at a physiological rather than a mental level.

Another reason perhaps to montage’s misfortune in architecture is that the profession seems to have lost interest in reimagining the world all together. Neo-liberal constraints or pursuits have derailed architects from designing and representing utopias. The architect now focuses on the immediate context or the object rather than conveying the vision of the world it is meant to stand for. The photo-realistic image has thus superseded the photomontage. Indeed, the latter with its imperfect seams, and joints is “irritating”, not in the dadaist sense of conveying the city’s unnerving potential, but rather because looking less than real and therefore challenging our contemporary idea of vraisemblance. Even the smooth integrative photomontage is just an image amongst a plethora of other images. It has become too banal to be subversive and therefore does not live up to the basis on which it was founded. In their first Berlin fair in 1920, Dada artists proclaimed that Art was dead. A century later, should the same be said about montage?

As a questioning of modernity and the metropolis, we are witnessing a return to previous modes of representation. One polyfocal, enlarging the scope of the architectural project, showing its interdependencies with the outside world, and the complexity of its own parts. The other perspectival, abstracting the project to a single intention, a single narrative, attempting to grasp the world’s complexity through simplicity. For instance, the drawing has resurfaced as a tool to express multiple realities through parallel views such as the oblique or the axonometric. As Massimo Scolari explains in Oblique Drawing, Eastern civilizations used parallel drawings instead of perspectival ones because “the measure of all things cannot be man” (figure 2.). The oblique drawing therefore resonates with the refusal of anthropocentrism in the anthropocene but also embodies the complexity of the world in its hierarchies and relationships. The parallel drawing and the montage hence both aspire for a form of totality.  The single point perspective on the other hand is revisited by artists and architects the likes of David Hockney, Office KGDVS or Dogma, as a form of neo-humanism. In fact, by bringing the viewer into the center of the image, the representation focuses on the spatial experience of the user, both visual and haptic. The representations, although painterly in composition and reminiscent of Renaissance paintings (figure 3.), are still constructed on the principles of photomontage, by assembling elements from various sources, each carrying its own indexical potential. The totality is greater than the sum of parts as elements of the composition are dialectically juxtaposed to form a distinct and eloquent vision of the world (figure 4. and 5.). A genealogy can thus be established between architects acquainted with Dada, such as Mies Van Der Rohe, and more contemporary practices such as OMA or Office, not (just) on the basis of formal sympathies, but above all on a continuity of representation through the photomontage. This brief survey of montage in the present day speculates that it may not endure as a structural principle of contemporary architecture but recognizes that its rhetorical and dialectical eloquence may not be surpassed.