Maya Alam

The State of Ishness or how to embrace Gray

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X-Ray Audio record, “In a Team of Firemen”. Ed. Stephen Coates, “X-Ray Audio” London, Strange Attractor Press, 2015, pp.94

Our time is asking for definite answers, and thus, somewhat paradoxically, certainty becomes more of an improbability than ever.1 Similarly to art (and other aspects of humanity), architecture has not been a stranger to persistent questions for absolutes. Questions of authorship, source, imitation or creation, blending-in or standing-out are prevailing.

However, the world we live in cannot be understood as a singular entity - the gray area in between happens to be our current reality. We experience a new paradigm shift where public and private blend into one another; with the ever-growing, multi-layered digital presence of our real-time, social networking reality, we are, more than ever, confronted with a multiplicity of media platforms that challenge both our perception of the environment we live in as well as our actual presence in it. The development of ways we observe and operate in our surroundings results in multivalent conditions and readings. This optical evolution affects our visual approach to the world as well as our conception of space. The plethora of images that flood our brains every day demands that we reorganize our visual habits in order to avoid seeing a singular truth, and to renegotiate interrelationships of events and entities in space and time.

In order to consider alternative connections between object, observer and context, while maintaining agency in a territory that rejects inimitability, we need to challenge tropes of linguistic identity and iconicity. Instead of mourning the loss of authenticity as we know it, embracing uncertainty might become a new way of seeing. This requires a closer observation and more rigorous formalization of things without attempting to produce a holistic representation of the real. In order to allow the possibility for a multivalent condition of indeterminacy, forms of ish-ness become a useful tool to imagine a novel approach to seeing and perceiving: while linking our remaining instinct to make whole, ish-ness embraces the multiplications of realities we operate within.

The suffix-ish, despite its determined use to form adjectives that signify belonging (English, Swedish, Spanish etc.), is more informally used to blurrily circumscribe a characteristic and/or tendency that is associated with something without identifying it completely. Popular media has long incorporated this fact into their strategy, maybe most famously with Kenya Barris’ ABC family sitcom “Black-ish.”2 While “some viewers, especially black ones, have been put off by the show’s title, with its cheeky implication that some people are less black than others. (..) Barris likes to put it, whereas “The Cosby Show” was about a family that happened to be black, “black-ish” is about a black family.”3 The New Yorker called it a “rethinking of the family sitcom4 genre, when in the episode “Hope” current political scenes and a seemingly harmless living room scene overlap.

It is obviously not a new idea that Zeitgeist and architectural movements overlap, but it is certainly one that is worth revisiting from time to time. Quoting Beatriz Colomina: “To respect modern architecture, to appreciate it in detail, one must move positions and keep seeing it through new eyes”.5 In her writing on X-Ray Architecture6, the dissemination of medical imaging technology, and its impact on modern culture, becomes fundamental to re-examine the movement of Modern Architecture itself. If in this context the x-ray image has been understood as a metaphor for transparency and hygiene, in pursuit of an absolute, that same artifact, appropriated by the realities of post-war sub-cultures, can help us to speculate on the contemporary relationship between culture, objects, images and architecture.

During the cold war, the Soviet Union controlled all access to music and culture in order to promote their own propagandistic ideals. A hidden sub-culture of bootleggers developed a technique to blend banned gramophone recordings with used X-ray images and started to illegally distribute music (mostly rock ’n’ roll), thus x-ray audio was born. The inherent need for self-expression of a subculture became the driver for re-purposing something that reinvented the subject itself. In this artifact, neither the image of the broken bone nor the piece of music or the material intelligence of the surface cease to exist completely, but its layering allows for more than one translation: x-ray-ish / record-ish.

With the multiplication of sub-cultural phenomena, weaving technology and culture promises new classifications of form as well as new architectural possibilities in engagements outside of the disciplinary conversation. This will allow for bottom-up methods that replace outdated concepts of iconicity with more intrinsic socio-political realities. Consequently, architecture has the potential to become an agent for the roguish, insidious and disobedient.

The work shown below is an excerpt of studies, that begin to speculate on machine-seeing by embracing a lack of focus. The Google-Images algorithm was used to simulate the dilution of what we see through multiplication. Every time an image was searched for, the second from the left image became the new search object and so on. Depending on the contrast of the first image this process would happen fast or slow, but inevitably it would end in a gray, cloudy matter.

While questioning Ludwig Wittgenstein’s stand on the implausible existence of “etwas grauglühendes, a grey-hot7, the work tries to align more with Enoch Brater’s observations of Samuel Beckett’s affinity to the color. “Gray supports spatial, visual, and narrative ambiguity, and its effects highlight the conditional states that characterize subject, object, and image. (…) 'Gray, grayness, graying' - gray as a verb, as a noun, as an adjective, as a process - evoke an enigmatic world that is neutral and unstable, an intermediate zone fading from darkness to light, then suddenly back again. An endpoint that is always on the verge of becoming something else again, gray is both a beginning and an end, diminution as well as potential (…) An imperfect lessness at best (depending on how you look at it), gray, when it stands stoutly and proudly on its own, can also be more than enough to sustain an entire fictional world.”8

The result is a series of digital montages that produce an ever-changing, unstable content. Where our eyes interpolate between 2D and 3D, challenging the physicality of screen as space, resonates the ambient framework of ish-ness.

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Figure 2: Gray-ish gif, by Maya Alam in collaboration with Google Images

Gray-ish from MYA on Vimeo.


  1. Due to current events, I feel inclined to emphasize that this statement is not aimed towards recent political proceedings, where my position, while acknowledging the complexity of things, is very much in line with human rights organizations. 

  2. Black-ish (stylized as blackish) is an American sitcom starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross that debuted on ABC. The single-camera comedy centers on an upper-middle-class African-American family. The series premiered on September 24, 2014. On March 3, 2016, the show was renewed for a third season, which premiered on September 21, 2016. Since the second season premiere the show has received positive reviews, receiving many awards and nominations including an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series and a TCA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy. The sixteenth episode “Hope” aired in February 2016 as part of the second season. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black-ish

  3. Emily Nussbaum, “In Living Color - With “black-ish,” Kenya Barris rethinks the family sitcom”, The New Yorker, April 25, 2016 Issue, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/04/25/black-ish-transforms-the-family-sitcom 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Beatriz Colomina, “X-ray Architecture: Illness as Metaphor”, Positions, No. 0, Positioning Positions (Fall 2008), pp. 31 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Remarks on Colour”, ed. G.E.M. Anscombe, trans. L.L. Mc Alister & M. Schattle (Oxford, 1977), pp. 37 

  8. Enoch Brater, “Beckett’s Shades of the Color Gray”, Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui, Vol. 21, Where Never Before: Beckett's Poetics of Elsewhere / La poétique de l'ailleurs. In Honor of Marius Buning (2009), pp. 103 

Maya Alam is a German born architect and designer. She holds the title of Dipl. Ing. of Interior Architecture from the Peter Behrens School of Architecture in Düsseldorf and a Master of Architecture with distinction from the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles. She has worked in Germany, India, Switzerland, China, Italy and the United States. Amongst others with P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, NMDA, UNStudio and Studio Fuksas. She is currently Assistant Professor at the Syracuse University School of Architecture. Maya was awarded the AIA Henry Adams Certificate and a Selected Best Thesis Award at SciArc. She is the recipient of the 2016 Boghosian Fellowship in Syracuse. Her work deals with issues of the incoherent figure and defamiliarization through principles of Gestalt.