This article examines the approach to space within Franz Kafka’s short story ‘The Burrow’ and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and discusses how their depictions of space anticipated the significance of the virtual in the current age. It observes the subsequent effects that each author has had upon artists and theorists who have embraced the virtual as a means of exploring social and global issues, and acknowledges the role of art in creating new ways of navigating spaces both virtual and physical. It concludes that Kafka and Calvino have provided frameworks that have been made manifest with the passing of time, and affirms the future of conceptual spaces as instigating change and creating meaning.
Literature and art, with its capacity for introspection on the mental and emotional, has provided space that incorporates aspects of being that would otherwise be displaced in the physical world. As thinkers who sought to portray the questions of subjectivity and the external world in their works, Franz Kafka and Italo Calvino have also offered means of exploring space in its multiplicities; their conceptions of space resonate with emergent spaces in contemporary settings. ‘The Burrow,’ (1936) an unfinished piece published posthumously, identifies the ways in which the world is apt to transform. Kafka’s burrow challenges fragmentation, giving rise to a unified structure of connections. The Czech writer identified the directions the world would take in its transformation—the burrow exemplifies the consolidation of the virtual and physical, how these worlds respond to one another in the realm of art, wherein the possibilities they offer have been embraced by contemporary art projects.
The use of the space itself and emphasis on haptic experience are a demonstration of the way conceptual places are changing as they move into different approaches to space. Museums in contemporary settings are utilising technologies that experiment with the virtual-physical divide. Kafka’s Museum, based in Prague, uses multifaceted installations and montage to transmute the writers works into artifacts of the virtual, insofar as they are manifestations of virtual worlds. Yet the cycle can be reversed, too, as is demonstrated by the Google Art Project. Galleries across the world, such as The Met, MoMA, and Rijksmuseum, have moved their halls onto servers, wherein the visitor can interact with paintings in detail that is unavailable in the physical world. With new ways of approaching these spaces, so too do new opportunities emerge for visitors wishing to immerse themselves entirely within the places they visit.
It is an idea that Italo Calvino also explored; the author to conceives of a philosophical interplay of perception and space that encapsulates the endlessness of possibilities created by approaching one place in ceaseless variation. Invisible Cities (1976) pierces into the changing courses of the contemporary world, how they are visualised, and what boundaries they overcome. In his novel, Calvino depicts a preliminary model of how cities across the world are reinventing themselves with the passing of time. The city of Detroit, in Michigan USA, demonstrates how the representation of a city through multiple forms of art has also served as a catalyst for change. Cities across the world have envisioned their various forms through virtual representations, thereby leading to wider social dialogue and change. Kafka and Calvino, in representing the multifariousness of space, act as precursors to contemporary approaches and conceptions of space in the present world; they demonstrate how the question of space may be examined by those who have inherited the questions these minds have put forward.
Ours is a world that defines success by the magnitude of its physical spaces; nonetheless, as Margaret Wertheim has noted, the concept of the virtual has proved vital for the shift in how the physical world is perceived. Visual art, in offering a point of view removed from the body of the individual, illustrates the capacities of the virtual for offering perspectives outside of individual experience. As Wertheim observes of Renaissance artists:
By creating a virtual eye that was, in effect, free to roam about in space on its ‘own,’ this later phase of perspective provided people with a powerful psychological experience of extended physical space as a thing in itself. In effect…Renaissance images set the mind free in a physical void…without any conscious intention, perspective artists…rendered the idea of extended void space real and palpable. (1999: 116)
Literature and art, in offering means to explore psychological, emotional, and spiritual facets of being, demonstrate the profound impacts that virtual spaces may have for introspection and individual change. Virtual spaces are not disparate from the physical world, rather, they are best understood as tangible potentialities: images or worlds that will be further actualized and expanded with the passing of time. Colebrook articulates how Deleuze conceived of the virtual in relation to the temporal when she notes:
Think of time as the power of difference or becoming whereby we move from the virtual to the actual, from all the possible creations and tendencies to actualised events. For Deleuze this means that the time we experience is split in two. There is the past or impersonal memory which is virtual and the actual lines of lived time. (2002: 33)
In his work The Architecture of Virtual Space, Or Ettlinger argues that virtual space can be understood as ‘that which is possible,’ or, visible spaces not relegated to the mind, but rather, located in images of any medium (2008: 27). In explicating his theory, Ettlinger asserts that the physical is the antonym of virtual spaces, noting, ‘Such a conception of the idea of virtual space is made possible by the simple fact that the space of a virtual place is not a concrete object’ (2008: 9). Yet the definitiveness of these boundaries can be challenged through the process of becoming, wherein each world responds to the other in the passing of time. Deleuze argues:
We must understand that the virtual is not something actual but is for that no less a mode of being, and is, moreover, in a way, being itself; neither duration, nor life, nor movement is actual, but that in which all actuality, all reality is distinguished and comprehended and takes root…it is the essence of the virtual to be actualized. (2004: 28-29)
By mapping the course of how virtual spaces have come to characterize a significant part of existence, and the roles they play within the social world, one finds that authors who anticipated how the individual would relate to spaces have offered ways of navigating the virtual, and served as catalysts for consequent depictions of other worlds. Furthermore, as Wertheim notes, ‘Because we humans are intrinsically embedded in space…[it] becomes an inquiry into our changing conceptions of humanity’ (1999, p. 37). The world has embraced the rise of fluidity and interconnection that has come to characterize the present, and the demarcation between virtual and actual has eroded with the development of technologies, and thought patterns, that make use of the latent possibilities offered by the virtual—yet Franz Kafka and Italo Calvino have offered preliminary maps as to how the virtual and physical may work in conjunction, and how this might answer some of the questions faced by the contemporary world.
The unnamed architect of Kafka’s burrow begins: ‘I have completed the construction of my burrow and it seems to be successful’ (1971: 206). But their preoccupation with the expansion and modification of the burrow emphasizes that the space is transient. The architect, ceaselessly carving out the rooms of their labyrinth, provides a methodological approach to prefiguring spaces, for their inhuman eye is able to question how space reflects human interests. It is an unending stream of passages and rooms, all subject to continuous modification and revision—an embodiment of potentiality that Ettlinger could identify as a ‘possible visual world,’ as it is a conceivable space with implications in the tangible world (2008: 27). That Kafka demonstrates how the virtual exists through enacting possibilities of a particular place also offers a way of tracing how the virtual has evolved away from solely conceptual frameworks, into tangible aspects of the world. Both the Kafka museum, in Prague, and also in the Google Arts Project, are spaces that contain thematic elements not dissimilar to the Burrow; Kafka’s sense of the virtual is an unfinished space that expands infinitely and in multiple directions. His piece was left unfinished, yet it creates questions due to the way the text unfolds. The reader is confronted with a narrative that is built through the tension of the space it explores, and the being that created it: the architect and the burrow are inextricably bound.
The architect asserts that they are not retreating from the world, nor has the burrow been built ‘simply out of fear’ (Kafka, 1971: 186). Rather, it acts as a space wherein the architect is able to work outside of the constraints of world above. They view the space as, ‘a new world, endowing me with new powers, and what I felt as fatigue up there is no longer that here’ (1971: 215). Equipped with the freedom to construct their world as they see fit, the architect ceaselessly expands both the fundamental and ancillary segments of the burrow, armed with their claws, and forehead. They state:
When I stand in the Castle Keep…surveying the ten passages which begin there, raised and sunken passages, vertical and rounded passages, wide and narrow passages, as the general plan dictates, and all alike still and empty, ready by their various routes to conduct me to all the other rooms…then I know that here is my castle, which I have wrested from the refractory soil with tooth and claw, with pounding and hammering blows. (Kafka, 1971: 214)
The burrow is a rhizomic structure in that it ceaselessly expands in all directions and is subject to constant modification. Deleuze and Guattari note its functions of ‘shelter, supply, movement, evasion, and breakout’ (2003: 5). Only through the architect can the burrow continue to spread roots beneath the earth; their installation of false entrances and illusory passages emphasizes the cunning with which the space has been formed, all whilst, as the architect states, ‘counting my own life as nothing in the balance’ (Kafka, 1971: 216). This pursuit of that which is outside of its own being illustrates how the architect might be understood as a becoming-animal. As Deleuze and Guattari state:
To become animal is to participate in movement, to stake out the path of escape in all its positivity, to cross a threshold, to reach a continuum of intensities that are valuable only in themselves, to find a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone. (2013: 13)
Kafka’s text, whilst offering signs that the narrator is a type of mole, never indicates what kind of being the architect is—rather, it remains ambiguous throughout the narrative. Thus, the architect acts as the inhuman eye that casts itself over human questions: they address how the pursuit of new structures enables forms that are able to reveal aspects of being in new ways. Deleuze notes the role of montage as ‘the indirect image of time,’ (1986, p.29). By engaging with Deleuze’s approach to the time-image, and particularly ideas of montage, the significance of the architect’s eye emerges: the possibilities afforded by the continual revision of tunnels open up imminent virtual worlds. Removed from the limitations of human perception, the architect demonstrates how transformations may take place. Deleuze observes the inhuman eye as:
an eye in matter, a perception such as it is in matter, as it extends from a point where an action begins to the limit of the reaction, as it fills the interval between the two, crossing the universe and beating in time to its intervals. The correlation between a non-human matter and a superhuman eye is…the identity of a community of matter and a communism of man. And montage itself constantly adapts the transformations of movements in the material universe to the interval of movement in the eye of the camera: rhythm. (1986: 40)
Kafka’s Burrow, with its threading of various rooms and passageways together, coupled with the interludes of the narrator, illuminates the position of the inhuman eye and use of montage as the tools for creating virtual spaces. In contrasting disparate elements against one another, Kafka creates a narrative space that embodies an ongoing tension: both in the being that creates, and the rhizome in which it subsides. The cohesive whole that emerges is a precursory form of the kinds of spaces that have come into existence in contemporary approaches to the formation of place.
It is a question addressed by Bruno Latour in his ‘Sociological Web Opera,’ titled Paris: Invisible City, launched in 2004, and featured in the Airs De Paris Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. Through mixed media, Latour addresses the city in an interactive montage, accompanied by a critical observation of the work. He notes, ‘Society hasn’t seen itself entirely in a single glance,’ and encapsulates how virtual manifestations of the city open up new ways of seeing (2004: 8). He states:
[We could create] a single narrative, in a montage and some story, using images and text…By following the method – the path – that has served us until now, by identifying the traceable links that connect [different] scenes and include the one in the other, in some or other form. (46 – 47)
By providing a basis through which a model of space can expand and adapt, Kafka’s architect exists as a key figure that demonstrates the capacities of the labyrinth as offering possibilities for change. It is precisely this malleability that illustrates how it may work as an influence in contemporary settings. Sussman observes that ‘The Burrow’ ‘opened a virtual space for recursive composition, one with irreducible architectural features, that was in the fullest sense transferrable’ (2012: 1156). The Kafka museum in Prague, and the Google Art Project online, use aspects of the virtual that resonate with montage as a means of exploring space.
The Kafka Museum reconceptualises Kafka’s work in such a way as to enable the visitor to engage with the visual and haptic aspects of his writing. It was established first as a temporary art installation in both Barcelona and New York City, before being expanded and relocated to the city of Prague (Kafka Museum, 2005). The museum works as an example of how contemporary conceptualisations of works such as ‘The Burrow’ created a virtual world. Deleuze notes, ‘the reality of time is finally the affirmation of a virtuality that is actualized, for which to be actualized is to invent’ (2004: 30). The museum uses art to forge connections across different thematic ideas to converge into a singular, coherent narrative about Kafka’s life and writings. The visitor is met with a prelude to engage with the sensory elements of the museum, rather than to rely solely on sight—the result is entry into an ‘‘Existential Space,’ wherein the museum can be explored in all of its intricacies (Franz Kafka Museum, 2005). Combined with this haptic approach to Kafka’s work are a series of installations that resonate with alienation in different ways. Upon entering the burrow, the visitor is made aware of the ‘torturous link which the mole forges with its burrow,’ highlighting the tension in Kafka’s own conflicts with his work, and status in the world (Franz Kafka Museum, 2005).
Within the museum, the burrow acts as the point of entry into the ‘Imaginary Topography’ of Kafka’s writings—visitors follow sounds of whistling, creaking and scratching, all described by the narrator in their own labyrinth, and emerge in a hall that is reminiscent of the bureaucracy prevalent throughout Kafka’s works. The museum employs thematic contrasts such as this when addressing ideas of alienation, guilt, and justice as they appear in The Castle and ‘The Trial’—all beneath the surface of the burrow.
This deliberate use of the possibility that the burrow engenders relies upon montage in its exposition, and intends to show the way in which Kafka’s work ‘reflects the intricate process of transformation of the physical reality of Prague and Kafka’s life into a metaphoric image’ (Kafka Museum, 2005). By utilising different intensities within Kafka’s burrow, the Museum illustrates how a virtual structure may come to be actualised through conceptual frameworks, and offers a means of experiencing museums in ways that demonstrate what possible directions they may take.
In 2011, the Google Cultural Institute unveiled their Art Project: an interactive archive of museums across the world and the paintings therein, located online. Visitors are able to traverse the halls of galleries such as MoMA, The Met, and Rijksmuseum, and subsequently compile a selection of artworks available, thereby creating a museum for themselves. The Art Project does not aim to replicate museums, or to diminish their cultural significance, but rather, to supplement the art already in existence by accentuating parts of images ways that are unavailable in a physical setting. By capturing the works through the use of gigapixel technology, visitors to the project can zoom in enough to view details that may be missed by the naked eye, such as cracks and brushstrokes on the canvas of Starry Night. Fred Ritchin in After Photography, calls such a process ‘image-mapping,’ wherein a cluster of pixels in a photograph can serve as ‘an ambiguous, visual, uncaptioned, tantalising segment of a developing conversation leading, if the reader is willing, to other photographs, other media, other ideas’ (2009: 71). Within the Art Project, a plethora of passageways and journeys through not only museums, but paintings themselves, emphasises the way that the inhuman eye can offer ways of viewing images that evoke new approaches to how art is received by the viewer.
It may be argued that viewing Van Gough’s Starry Night in high-resolution images that would be otherwise impossible to see cannot be equalled by the physical experience of standing in front of it. However, this disregards the economic and social barriers that mar countless individuals from ever having the opportunity to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is for these individuals that projects such as this are unfathomably beneficial: the ability to surpass circumstantial limitations in order to experience what would otherwise be available to a smaller demographic only expands the opportunities afforded to society. As Wertheim notes, ‘The value of cyberspace is not that it enables us to become multiple selves…but rather it encourages a more fluid and expansive vision of the one self (1999: 251). The spaces created by Google in this vein are unarguably collective, as they promote collaboration among individuals and organisations across physical boundaries. Kafka, in ‘The Burrow,’ envisaged a space that was able to subvert traditional limitations through its emphasis on adaptability, and in so doing, presaged the dissolution between physical and virtual. Both the Kafka Museum, and the Google Art Project, illustrate how virtual worlds may be actualized in ways that challenge visitors, and invite them to engage with the works in greater depth—one need only evaluate what possible connections may be made among the ideas and images already in existence.
In his lecture, ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts,’ Italo Calvino conceives of the mind as a chessboard:
(given the fact that our minds are chessboards with hundreds of billions of pieces)…not even in a lifetime lasting as long as the universe would one ever manage to make all possible plays. (1986: 6-7)
Within Invisible Cities, Calvino explores the philosophical aspects of space and perception by depicting the city of Venice in its multitudinous variations, which are bridged by interludes of dialogue between two minds: Marco Polo, and Kublai Kahn. The novel responds to developments of contemporary cities, which reflect the wider effects of globalisation and economic change. Detroit is one among hundreds of emerging cities that, whilst embodying the historical and cultural origins of their countries, also reflect expanding fluidity, and global influence.
As Marco Polo smiles at Kublai Kahn, he bows his head and utters, ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’ (1974: 86). He reveals to the Kahn that the visions he speaks of are all images within a whole. Polo and Kahn are not opposed to each other—rather, what occurs through their dialogue are a series of images that can be transposed into contemporary approaches to space. Ettlinger states that virtual architects ‘use architecture to create a world unto itself, a virtual place that mentally draws us into its experience,’ and this is what Invisible Cities does (2008: 179). Calvino circumnavigates the boundaries of the past by presenting locations that exist outside of a temporal order. This distortion of spatial and chronological form enables one to use Invisible Cities as a framework for the virtual spaces presented in contemporary art. Latour observes:
the visible is never in an isolated image or in something outside of images, but in the montage of images…it becomes visible in that which is transformed, transported, deformed from one image to the next, one point of view or perspective to the next. (29)
It is in the process of making the world visible that different perspectives emerge; with eyes that see the world in another light, so too can the questions of the social, the global, be approached with minds that can conceive of the multiplicities on the shifting chessboard. Calvino is intent on navigating, within these cities, ‘passages or combinations: how the forces at work within space continually striate it, and how in the course of its striation it develops other forces and emits new smooth spaces’ (Deleuze, 2013: 500).
One such place is Detroit. Cultural fascination with the city has arisen from the reams of artists and photographers who have sought it as bastion for the idea of urban ruins in the midst of the developed world. The dilapidated houses and empty streets that shape conceptions of Detroit evoke the invisible city of Ersillia, wherein, ‘you come upon the ruins of the abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spider-webs of intricate relationships seeking a form’ (1974: 76). John Gallager, a sociologist whose research focuses on the transformation of Detroit notes, while other places in America have lost similar amounts of their local population, they don’t convey ‘[the] same emptiness and ‘feeling of abandonment’ as the wide, barren streets of the shrinking city (2010: 20). One exhibition, a result of the collaborative effort of French photographers Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre, entitled Ruins of Detroit, has become particularly renowned for the way it depicts the deterioration of the city. The reminder of eventual decay and downfall reiterates the transience of the contemporary world, and limits of human capabilities.
While the city has faced severe economic and social decline in recent decades, the vacant and abandoned spaces also illustrate what possibilities can arise from an apparent ‘death’, and encapsulates part of a wider phenomenon occurring with the transformation of places throughout the world. Marchand and Meffre’s images of Detroit went viral, and were subsequently transmitted across the globe. With this observation, one might ask how photographers, in presenting virtual cities, influence how they are perceived and understood. Ritchin notes:
Rather than a singular, inarguable reference point that is thought to be truer than human recollection, [the digital photograph] can serve as an element in a web of other supporting and contradictory imagery…the photographic frame would then move beyond an excerpt from a visible reality, radiating outward, connecting to ideas, events and images that were previously thought of as external (2009: 59).
Marchand and Meffre’s images depict a virtual ruin, and penetrate into an anxiety of impermanence in a world of fluidity and change.
However, a significant characteristic of vacancy, one which Calvino observes, and which Detroit expresses, is the idea that abandoned places can be put to new uses. Marco Polo speaks of a city called Clarice, presenting the following image:
In its centuries of decadence, emptied by plagues, its height reduced by collapsing beams and cornices and by shifts of the terrain…the city slowly became populated again as the survivors…grabbed everything that could be taken from where it was and put it in another place to serve a different use. (106)
The Heidelberg Project, which emerged from one of the poorest neighbourhoods of the city, illustrates how art may serve as a means of finding new uses for abandoned spaces. Tyree Guyton, the creator of the project, witnessed the poverty and disarray, embraced the capabilities of art as a means of surpassing boundaries and fostering a connection among members of the neighbourhood. By functioning in a way that echoes the notion of the smooth, in that it is an ‘amorphous, nonformal space’, the ‘Heidelberg Detroit’ illustrates how art is able to bring about social change (Deleuze and Guattari, 2013: 554). By fostering a sense of community among residents, who are encouraged to volunteer, marginalised individuals are able to find a means of expression through art. As the transformation of houses among the neighbourhood took place, so too was the wider community altered by the recognition of possibilities and sense of belonging the project offers. As Gallagher notes, ‘[people] feel the shock of urgency in what would otherwise be just an empty, colourless urban space’ (2013: 151).
The Heidelberg Project reflects the thinking of artists who have embraced the abandoned spaces in Detroit: online and social projects take place within vacant buildings, which serve as areas of communication, and encourage collaboration among artists to create new visions for the future of the city. By influencing the way in which the city is perceived through images, inhabitants demonstrate how cities come to reinvent themselves through the perspectives of those who are creating versions of it outside of the physical world. It is these kinds of spaces that can traverse existent boundaries, such as those of race, class and gender, and open up dialogue in ways that can further promote a more cohesive vision of the city itself.
Perhaps, given the proven capacity of art to instigate change by traversing boundaries that have otherwise reinforced divisiveness among citizens and neighbourhoods, the voyage into the future necessitates a reimagining of the ideas offered by thinkers that have foreseen, witnessed, and shaped the events that have taken place in the world as it has become. What these galleries, museums, and artworks demonstrate is the reflexivity and force offered by utilising the virtual in astounding ways—as well as the effects it can have upon the individuals who come into contact with these spaces. With more resources and platforms through which to explore other ideas, cities across the world have given rise to art scenes that promote transience whilst critically addressing social and global issues.
Berlin, like its American counterpart, has proved how using art as a means of exploration can ultimately transform a place by promoting change. As a global city and emergent space renowned for its vibrancy, Berlin conveys the directions of contemporary art as incorporating fluidity, intangible objects, and transience, into its aesthetic. The strength of Berlin’s street-art scene has been etherealised by its place on the remnants of the Wall, yet it flourishes across the city as a politicized answer to the changes taking place within the city (Ferrante, 2011). With ever expanding and changing spaces to posit critical dialogue on urban development and gentrification, cities such as Detroit and Berlin, can provide a meaningful answer to questions ranging from urban gentrification, to growing cultural tension and extremism sweeping across the continent.
Furthermore, the removal of the constraints posed by the physical world has enabled individuals from a wider array of backgrounds to engage with works of art in ways that were otherwise unavailable. The vast possibilities at the disposal of the individual seeking to navigate artistic spaces further invites the creation of ideas that may contrast and challenge one another across platforms and continents.
As Kafka and Calvino both demonstrate within their works, there are vast multiplicities to be found by exploring the significance of space, and how it can be put to new uses. Each author conceived of virtual spaces that have subsequently been actualised in enthralling ways; the commonality among these places is the openness to transformation, and embrace of art in order to further the possibilities they offer. By traversing boundaries through the reconfiguration of space, Kafka and Calvino convey how the social world may benefit from thinking outside of the frameworks in existence—be it from wider dialogue, or the ability to access ideas and images in new ways. ‘Seek to learn…make them endure, and give them space,’ says Marco Polo. Expansion is not enough—the maps of what has been must be reworked to adapt to the spaces that will arise from them: they have been forged by those who have scratched away at the surface of the world only to see what they might find there.
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