Still from Amie Siegel’s The Architects. 2014. HD video (color, sound), 33 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Elise Jaffe + Jeffrey Brown in memory of Terry Riley. © 2022 Amy Siegel

Amie Siegel’s The Architects screened here December 21, 2022–January 4, 2023. The video is no longer available for streaming. Join us for the next Hyundai Card Video Views screening, beginning January 25, 2023.

Amie Siegel’s film installations explore architecture and design to reveal the hidden mechanics behind the circulation of capital and the production of power and value. Following the gradual arc of a workday from morning to dusk, The Architects traverses the offices of 10 architectural firms across New York City. As the film unfolds seamlessly through a series of slow, parallel tracking shots, the camera’s unrelenting gaze peers into the working environments of intimate studios and major multinational firms. It reveals a complex network of invisible labor, uncovering patterns of behavior organized around the screens over which the office workers huddle. These employees are framed by the spaces we encounter onscreen; in turn, their labor is shaping the global built environment.

This edition of Hyundai Card Video Views coincides with the closing weeks of MoMA’s presentation of The Architects; the film is installed in a gallery facing a large glass window, creating a complex interplay between Siegel’s work and the Manhattan skyline beyond. Siegel is joined in conversation with Giuliana Bruno, the Emmet Blakeney Gleason Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University.

Join us in January for the next edition of Hyundai Card Video Views, as the series continues its consideration of how artists engage with the technologies that have become central to our daily lives.
—Stuart Comer, Chief Curator of Media and Performance

Giuliana Bruno: Your interest in architecture goes back a long way. In your piece Provenance, from 2013, you followed the furniture and objects that Le Corbusier had designed for the Indian city of Chandigarh. Earlier, you explored Berlin in various works, and modern architecture in your film Empathy. How do you see the relationship between film and architecture in your work?

Amie Siegel: It’s funny, I’m not sure I am that interested in architecture, per se. I am more preoccupied by what spaces and objects reveal about us. I’m interested in juxtapositions, resulting from shifts in context, like what is revealed as the objects of furniture in Provenance circulate, going from their collector’s houses, backwards to their auction and restoration, and ultimately further back to their “origins” in Chandigarh, thus disclosing their shifts in value. I am also interested in the cognitive act of comparison, for example bringing all those office spaces together in The Architects. In a way, I’m a bad lover of architecture, but a good evaluator.

A still from Amie Siegel’s The Architects. 2014

A still from Amie Siegel’s The Architects. 2014

GB: No, I think you’re a good lover of architecture, because that’s exactly what architecture does. It’s not that you’re documenting architecture. Instead, you’re making architecture speak to what it does, which is not simply design objects but create spaces of inhabitation. In The Architects you focus on the architecture office—the space where architecture itself is being created. In the 18th century, you had all these representations of the accouterments of the architectural studio: implements for drawing and drafting, measuring instruments, folded paper, books, tables. In the film you show that it’s no longer that artist space. It’s an office.

AS: Absolutely. As you move from the 18th century to the 21st, the drafting table has migrated to the computer. Today it’s fully digital. It’s creation, but it’s also manufacture. There are still models, but mostly made with 3D printing. There is very little being made by hand.

GB: The film is a montage of different architectural workplaces. You use the tracking shot, a signature style of yours, to give a feel of slow and deliberate observation. The camera surveys the life of the architectural studios it traverses. It almost gives the sense of how many hours these people are spending in front of their computers. In that space the labor looks collective, but there is a kind of isolation because everyone is looking into their screen.

A still from The Architects

A still from The Architects

AS: During the location visits, as I looked at those endless rows of screens and desks, I realized that I could create a visual section plan with tracking shots, using them as both a disjunctive and a connecting tissue, slicing through the offices. It is almost like a vitrine you are looking into, always staying parallel yet maintaining distance.

GB: This lateral tracking shot, it is being used almost as if you were an architect. You are analyzing a work environment by slicing through it, sectioning spaces while at the same time joining them together. So, this filmic process gives the viewer the exact sense of what a section or an architectural plan is—a cut through space. What did you discover through these horizontal views?

AS: The sheer amount of screens and desks in the architecture offices was surprising. I associated that more with the financial world, with Wall Street, or at least how Wall Street is represented in cinema. And what is being designed in those New York architecture offices is for very faraway places. So, what would have been a fantasy, or folly, years ago becomes a very real world of science fiction, where different time zones can exist simultaneously, collapsed into one supersphere of global production.

GB: In that respect, the architectural office has become closer to a financial office. They are now almost indistinguishable.

Installation view of The Architects at MoMA

Installation view of The Architects at MoMA

AS: Yes, they are markets. There are not, for the most part, individual patrons commissioning a building here or there. These are global markets. And the film functions in a serial mode, rather in the way that, art historically, seriality moves against the idea of the singular, authoritative masterpiece. The Architects, in deploying these almost interchangeable units that the offices have become, resists the idea of the singular, authoritative voice of the architect.

GB: That’s an important part of the film. There is this sameness of spatial and screen-like configurations of today’s market economy in the film. And you see how this affects models of working. One of the effects of globalization is indeed standardization, but also the rise of individuality. And yet, although in this economy the star architect has replaced the master architect, you didn’t call the film The Architect. It’s The Architects, plural. You focus on how the people that populate these seamless spaces work.

AS: All the workers in the offices, they’re absorbed by the screens, they’re absorbed by their models, or by their conference room moments. And you become absorbed in their own strange absorption. It’s an open floor plan. There’s a bullpen, it seems, for those that are more junior, and others work in side offices and conference rooms. It’s not to say that there aren’t moments when people come together. There are a few of those in The Architects. But for the most part, the day is done alone together.

On that note, we should acknowledge the difference between 2014, when the piece was made, and 2022. I can imagine that today, half of that workforce is doing this work remotely. That’s not exclusive to architecture.

GB: In watching the film today, you’re almost tempted to say, “Why are they there? All they need is a computer.”

AS: Right. The imagined future of architects comes out of the past. The Architects has become a document of a moment on the precipice of transition.

GB: Your film is a critical diagnosis of this moment. It’s almost a kind of contemporary Playtime, a film that critiqued the sameness produced by the International Style of architecture. The Architects explores today’s homogeneity, with this tracking from one space full of screens to another, which you make look similar, but there are differences. They’re not all the same. Some offices are huge, and some are small—and yet they look interchangeable. This subtle critique of uniformity…you make it happen by treating them with the same gaze, traveling seamlessly through all their spaces.

AS: Yes, the tracking shot here is a kind of brutally unifying phenomenon. But there’s montage in it. It’s a kind of illusion of seamlessness that’s put forth, so it feels like it could just be one thing that you’re moving through, one office almost. But there’s definite differences between them. It’s also, of course, the rhythm of the camera movement. The camera placement. That even glide through space. In this sense, the piece develops a syntax. It deviates from it only a few times.

GB: This makes me think about the origin, and even the linguistic etymology, of the tracking shot, which comes from train tracks. They both transformed the landscape and the way we look at space. The physical body of a person cannot move at a steady pace. But trains and tracking shots do. You put a dolly on tracks, and it’s as if you’re on a train, and you look laterally, in a railway car as in your film, out of a frame of a window. And you see this landscape that’s not continuous, but it becomes continuous because you cannot stop the movement, both as a film viewer and a train passenger. So, to me, that’s why your film feels like almost traveling on a train. It offers an experience that is both about being engaged and being distant. The distance, the sense of removal, is crucial in your work.

AS: One of the pivotal things I experienced as a child was a ride at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where you got into a large pod-like chair fitting two or three people—I called it “the egg ride”—and your seat moved parallel on a track along a display of different scenes. Various tableaux were shown, almost like dioramas in a natural history museum, which were about energy: how the energy of the sun becomes electricity, which turns into power for kitchen lights. And you were moving on a kind of conveyor belt parallel to the displays, which were behind glass. It made a huge impression on me, that train-like lateral movement, and looking at things that were kept at a remove.

Installation view of The Architects at MoMA

Installation view of The Architects at MoMA

GB: It’s interesting how your vivid memory of this childhood experience of traveling with images transformed into an artistic form of creation. In The Architects, the distance and the removal we are discussing are a way to feel close. Your camera doesn’t move into the subject, but by not moving into it, it allows us to actually stay closer because the camera is always close to the work, as it is kept steady at the level of the desks. And we, as spectators, are forced to take the same position by your determined way of telling us, “This is the point of view from which you are watching this,” which is both close and removed at the same time.

AS: You have a lot of time to look, but you don’t have a lot of time to get involved in a narrative. That is denied by the continual movement. And you’re not moving with a character either, which is the usual Steadicam trope, following characters in a space.

GB: There is one significant time when you change the direction of the camera movement, which is when you show the 3D printer. It’s almost as if you fall in love with this object and the way it moves at a certain speed. And so you follow its motion, tracking how it goes back and forth. There is almost an empathy in that. This sense of empathy—it’s not with the people in the office because you don’t identify them, and you do not follow them around. It’s more with the objects, and the spaces they create, including this 3D printer.

AS: Other tracking shots switch directions too. But the moment you’re talking about switches directions multiple times in one shot, echoing the movement of the 3D printer, which isn’t moving on an X and Y axis, but simply back and forth. The way the camera mimics this movement is emblematic of how I think of my work in general—performing the behaviors of a system they describe. This 3D printer, for example, is an object in motion that is creating another object. It is making a screen. In a sense it’s creating the screen upon which The Architects is projected, a free-floating screen, to be suspended in space. In a kind of three-dimensional mise en abyme, it is a model of the artwork inside the artwork.

GB: All the objects in The Architects, including the screens, are performing some function. You’re so interested in how objects perform in the systems they’re a part of! And this goes beyond an attraction for the materiality of the object. It’s asking what this object does, as part of a network, as a cultural network, as an aesthetic system. You’re making us think about this because the subjects are not characters, the objects are.

AS: I think that’s connected to empathy. Because empathy in its most basic terms is putting yourself in someone’s shoes—or something’s shoes. Even if an object is displayed in a cold or forensic way, the portrayal is still enacting the system of empathy, the circulation of transference and countertransference.

GB: Empathy is mistakenly thought to be something that only happens between people. But one actually empathizes with space itself, with colors and sounds, with screens, with forms. In your film, you perform this cool form of empathy by showing the functioning of all objects in space. Here the viewer is not a voyeur, but somebody who has to be critically and aesthetically engaged in what makes an environment.

AS: We’re looking without being told how to feel, without commentary, but there is so much that is implicit in the film. You’re left in a kind of question mark. The space of the question mark.

GB: Speaking of space, let’s talk about the display of The Architects at MoMA. Rather than being exhibited in a conventional black box or white cube, your film was inventively installed on a large screen in a museum gallery that faces a huge glass window overlooking the urban landscape. This pulls out crucial elements of the film. There are all these windows in the architectural offices, and the people in the film are looking through the frame of another kind of window, a virtual window—the screen. And in this installation, we see the windows in the museum, in MoMA, in a mise en abyme that engages the very function of the window-screen, in a double effect. Moreover, these architects in the film that are looking at screens are making space for the outside world, for the city that is out there. And the frame of the museum itself is engaged here, in an architectural, cultural, aesthetic, and financial way.

AS: I think of The Architects at MoMA as a moment of possibility for exchange between the two spaces—the space of the museum and the space of the film. The gallery has windows onto the courtyard, and over the course of museum hours, as we go further into winter, you get the brightest time of the day as well as the changes of light into dusk, sunset, and darkness. At 5:00 p.m. in the museum, before it closes, it’s dark. So you’re really following the course of the piece itself because The Architects takes place over the course of a day.

GB: This also makes you feel that your tracking shot has a temporal quality. It moves, not just through space, but through time. You enhance how cinema and the film screen are all about light, the projection of light, and the atmosphere created by temporal shifts of luminosity.

AS: And our days, every day, are completely dictated by this meteorological structure of going from darkness to light to darkness again. Even in this sense, the installation performs the behaviors of the system in which it lives and circulates.

Installation view of The Architects at MoMA

Installation view of The Architects at MoMA

Media and Performance at MoMA is made possible by Hyundai Card.

Major support is provided by MoMA’s Wallis Annenberg Director’s Fund for Innovation in Contemporary Art.

Generous funding is provided by the Lonti Ebers Endowment for Performance and the Sarah Arison Endowment Fund for Performance.