Del Camino al Circuito: Semióticas de la Carretera

Tesla autopilot video
Tesla autopilot video

An architectural, technical and cultural analysis of the road as architectural entity. From the link between road, landscape and orientation until its transformation into a circuit where ecologies of asignifying signs nudge the vehicle and its passive passengers, we consider the role and perception of landscape, as well as its effects on the architectural agency of bodies.

(…) This process anticipates some of the effects experienced through the techno-sensorial assemblage of car and driver during the 20th century. From the initial stages, where this prosthetic shell required an active environmental sensing from the driver, the evolution of this assemblage would “liberate” the body, delegating tasks on the machine and leading to greater encapsulation, nurturing an isolated corporeal experience. The body was master of a newly created inner space defined by a decreasing affective continuity with the external environment. The effects caused by speed in flattening out perceptions that we saw in the railway journey, are increased by the entanglement of speeding car and individual agency: “the plane trees at the side of the road seem to lie flat.” Just as the foreground is something that has been seen beforehand, in the distance, and has already been taken into account in the driver’s performance, the side view almost disappears and a frontal vision dominates. The result is a flattened frontal vision as Jean Baudrillard would write in 1967: “speed’s effect, by integrating space and time, is one of levelling the world to two dimensions, to an image; it loses its depth and its becoming; in some ways it brings about a sublime immobility and a contemplative state.” Architectural critic Rayner Banham would stress that feeling in his description of “Autopia”, or the fourth ecology of Los Angeles, as he described it in 1971: “coming off the freeway is coming in from outdoors”. As he muses about this special way of “feeling alive”, he considers the “unthinking reflexes” sustaining it, and how important it is to keep the “residual illusions of free decision”, although to survive in it “there is no alternative to complete surrender of will to the instructions on the signs, (…) the sign must be believed”

Thus, we see an evolution on the notion of landscape, from a hybrid of cultural representation and technoecological articulation of the city, landscape became (once more) a static scene, at most a panoramic, fragmentary perception of visual stimuli. Although we could conceive this transformation as a return to the picturesque, it is not the case. As we’ve seen the scenes of the landscape garden tradition were based on rhetoric topoi, a cultural repertoire that instilled them with meaning. The flattened images of the automobile techno-perceptual assemblage operate more and more as asignifying signs: a succession of discontinued stimuli orienting an automated perception by hitting it, nudges applied to the encapsulated body, modulating the driver’s behaviour but unable to engage her in a meaningful construction of landscape.

Talk at the Summer Course «Más allá de la Road Movie: Viajes, Cuerpo, Intimidad» organized by David Sánchez Usanos and Paz Olivares at the Círculo de Bellas Artes de Madrid.