Stay Alive

••• Gins and Arakawa vs. The Grim Reaper

ANGELA: That's hilarious. Your house is shorter than its shrubbery.

ARAKAWA: [Laughs] I myself find that surprising. Shall we take a walk around it?

This exchange comes from one of Architectural Body's most charming episodes, an extended dialogue in which Gins and Arakawa guide two prospective residents, Angela and Robert, around a house. The building is low because it's turned to the "snail setting," at which its surfaces adhere closely to the bodies of its inhabitants, but it later develops that the house can be modified, by means of projecting spines, into a "close-to-snail setting" and a more conventional "roomy setting." At first, Angela and Robert see nothing that looks like a house; then, when they understand what it is that they are supposed to be looking at, which they take to be a "low pile of junk," they're incredulous; when they finally enter the house, they are able to do so only in a playful spirit, guided by Arakawa's laugh. (Gins and Arakawa do have a sense of humor. One of their privileged antecedents is Don Quixote: "[W]hy not build to your own specifications the windmills at which you wish to tilt?" Another is Marcel Duchamp, whom they associate with Frankenstein, "doctor and monster in one.")

World enough and time: Arakawa and Gins ponder the transhuman condition.
photo: Robin Holland
World enough and time: Arakawa and Gins ponder the transhuman condition.

The tone gradually shifts, as Angela and Robert explore the house and start to ask more practical questions ("Where do people sleep? Or take showers? What about cooking?"). By the end of the chapter, they have been completely converted, revising not only their notions of what a house is and how a person should inhabit one, but also their sense of comfort. In this unfamiliar environment, Angela finds herself acting in a way that's inappropriately comfortable: "What a cozy spot. If you don't mind, I think I will curl up right here and take a nap."

Although their conception of writing books may not be as unfamiliar as their conception of building—Architectural Body offers itself up for inspection as an object that appears to be a book—Gins and Arakawa are nonetheless using the book format to perform a related series of explorations. Everything seems to be up for grabs: the cover design, the dedication ("To transhumans"), even the conventions for handling the book. The chapter "Critical Holder" proposes a set of reading exercises in which the volume and shape of the page alter with each sentence: "Now expand [the] page to fit on an 8 x 11 sheet of paper. . . . Scale the image you are holding up to the height of the tallest tree you can imagine. . . . Instead, scale the page up to the height of the room you are in. That's it then. The top line rests on the ceiling and the bottom rests on the floor."

Gins and Arakawa never lose sight of their goal. Estranging the act of reading is not conceived as a substitute for reversible destiny, as though a state of critical awareness could stand in for not dying, but registers a more fundamental disruption. Once you give up on the idea that death is inevitable, it's difficult to take anything for granted.

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