Gins, Arakawa and the Undying Community – Jake Kennedy

But man is, starting from his death. (Maurice Blanchot)

The defeatists are everywhere. (Arakawa & Gins)

For Maurice Blanchot, the notion of community is necessarily tied to the fact of mortality. His conception of community as ‘living for others’ is dependent on the truth of human finitude’otherwise, he suggests, community would be lost to an undefined ‘infinity of universes’ (1988: 6). Blanchot’s conception of ‘living for others’ is thoroughly influenced, of course, by Levinas’s ethics’particularly his paradoxical sense of one’s ‘responsibility’ to (and even ‘substitution’ for) the suffering other (Levinas, 1996: 6). Building upon Levinas’s tropics of radical sharing, Blanchot argues that ‘[t]here could not be a community without the sharing of that first and last event which in everyone ceases to be able to be just that (birth, death)’ (1988: 9). What is most importantly constitutive in this kind of community is the taking upon oneself of another’s death: ‘To remain present in the proximity of another who by dying removes himself definitively, to take upon myself another’s death as the only death that concerns me, this is what puts me beside myself, this is the only separation that can open me, in its very impossibility, to the Openness of a community’ (Blanchot, 1988: 9).

The foundations of this ethical thanatopsis mean that, for Blanchot’as for Jean-Luc Nancy, whose words Blanchot quotes”there can be no community of immortal beings’ (11). But what would happen to the trope or hope of ‘community,’ if we were able to live forever? If human subjects could ensure their own infinitude, would the notion of community (like mortality itself) also dissolve into meaninglessness?

New York conceptual artists Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa, like Blanchot, are also preoccupied with the connections between community and mortality. But in the spirit of a brash neo-avant-gardism, their answer is that community can only ever be located in eternal, collective life’in all of that which can be said to be utterly against death. In taking such a stance they are opposing an admittedly vast and daunting history of negative philosophy. But as Gins has stated, ‘no point exists such that it is non-living’ (Gins, 1994: 18). With this discovery, she and Arakawa are now building radical buildings (textual, architectural, ethical) that boast dangerous planes, bifurcated bath-tubs, infra-thin passageways, labyrinthine cityscapes’all this in order to ensure that we remain breathing together forever.

Gins and Arakawa are avowedly in the process of creating a world they term ‘reversible destiny’, in which subjects are invited to reconsider their passive subscription to biological hopelessness. As Trish Glazebrook argues, ‘If the telos of human being is rationality (not just “mind” in the traditional philosophical sense, but embodied reasoning), then Gins and Arakawa breathe new life into this end. They push the thinker to full realization of the human telos by refusing to accept death as a done deal’ (2004: 56). ‘Reversible destiny’ is founded on ‘an ethics that permits no category of event, not even mortality, to be set apart for special treatment, and that considers there to be nothing more unethical than that we are required to be mortal [and so] shall be called a crisis ethics’ (Arakawa & Gins, 2002: xviii). The betrothing of crisis to ethics is the avant-garde emblem of moral urgency. Thus, as provisional entities, Gins and Arakawa take all forms (bureaucratic; aesthetic; paranormal; affective; sentient; mineral) as temporary declarations of their intention to keep on moving. Gins and Arakawa’s life work’that is, their cultural labour performed for purposes of helping an ‘us’ or an ‘all’ remain alive’is to create potentialities of consciousness, bodily presences, and roaming perceptions that would finally admit to the ubiquity of ‘I’ as a shifting-about patchwork quilt. In placing bright pylons around this never-the-same body, she and he are zoning us, it, them and all for the building of co-operative, communal futurity.

I remain fascinated by the diverse, undying commons’the cities without graveyards’of Gins and Arakawa. And in this paper I read these immortal (textual, architectural, ethical) sites through, with, and finally as an elaboration upon the philosophical tradition of unknowable or impossible or aporetic communities. My principle argument/demonstration is that where Blanchot, for example, locates the notion of community in the loss of the self and thus the ongoing life of the other, Gins and Arakawa extend our sense of ‘body limits’ and thereby dare us to live in ‘ongoingness”as communal, dynamic I’s/others that are always in process.

Both Blanchot and Nancy are implicitly concerned, in their investigation of community and mortality, with the impossible. They fasten the descriptor ‘impossible’ to the effect of a community that cannot ever be purely a community (i.e. the community exists as a proof to its members of their mortal truth). While Gins and Arakawa share indubitably with Blanchot and Nancy a wariness of succumbing to the terror of the universal (some totalizing community called Family, Fatherland, or Humanity), they are conversely impatient with these life-death paradoxes and race impetuously, naively towards a community of ultimate affirmation. Thus, Gins and Arakawa’s reversible destiny project’while informed by the strategic ontologies and important ethical reservations of Blanchot, Nancy, and even of Georges Bataille’confronts head-on eternal life’s so-called impossibility.

To throw the gauntlet down (as early as 1963 when they began collaborating on what they termed ‘the mechanism of meaning’) they first needed a new body’or a sense of body that did not immediately decay as a product of mortal thinking. Gins and Arakawa’s Architectural Body is’to some extent’constituted of the most hale organs of the historical avant-garde. As their book title indicates, the duo cannot or will not entertain any separation between buildings/objects and bodies/subjects. This architectural body may be, or at least most bodily begins within, a resolute refusal to be anything other than the coupling of architecture and body. What is effected in this shift is an alternative instancing of self as selves. Gins and Arakawa’s architectural body does not distinguish itself from its surrounds’on the contrary, the body is architectural not just because it is a ‘building’ itself but because it is made and changed by–and so too makes and changes–its multifaceted environment. This wedding of ‘architectural’ and ‘body’ signals their commitment to a richly communal (i.e. interconnected with both others and ‘stuff’) and ever-living ontology.

Gins and Arakawa, even before the bulk of the reversible destiny terminology was coined, have always been fascinated by inseparabilities as they relate to the human. Gins’s 1994 fiction-art-theory-philosophy text, for example, Helen Keller or Arakawa, begins with a complicated chronology in which her own biography becomes entangled with Keller’s and Arakawa’s life narratives. What becomes clear throughout the rest of the text, and most vividly in their recent collaborative work, is that not only do bodies get confused wonderfully with other bodies but also with objects. If this subject-object mix-up is the perpetual case, suggest Gins and Arakawa, then we evidently know nothing about the so-called ‘body’ and therefore should begin analyses, tests and experiments in earnest. In this, they are extreme researchers interested in the life-giving possibilities of bodies that will not cohere, either as biographical persona or literary entity or subject of flesh or thing. The duo have collaborated on five books’The Mechanism of Meaning (1971), Architecture: Sites of Reversible Destiny (1994), Reversible Destiny (1997), Architectural Body (2002) and Making Dying Illegal (Forthcoming). Gins has also written four solo books: Word Rain (1969), Intend (1973), What the President Will Say and Do!! (1984), and Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994).1 Recently I met an art theorist who told me dismissively that Gins was crazy (‘clinically insane’), confirming Gins’ and Arakawa’s strange status as irredeemable Don Quixotes of the present. Yet, why is it crazy’even clinically insane’to want to help the species live forever? Why do Gins and Arakawa provoke such visceral responses? Perhaps, in part, because their mad project is an epic tilting-at-windmills and therein they are interpreted as performing bad philosophy, bad art, bad postmodernism, bad life. And surely it is the latent spirituality of the project (whether one is inclined to sense the sunyata-like Buddhist principles of the body as ever-elsewhere or credulous Christian notions of resurrection, for example) that also jostles uneasily against the presiding contemporary cultural mode of irony, hyper-irony, and super-duper-hyper irony. What such dismissive criticism reveals is that Gins and Arakawa’s optimistic initiative inspires some real ontological/epistemological fear. Could it be that the very ‘fact’ of death has caused otherwise prospective communards to opt out for fear of being called a chump, a dummy, clinically insane?

Gins and Arakawa are necessarily struggling to re-warp or un-warp the mind with and against the habit of death. ‘Habit’ is, yes, rather hackneyed avant-garde fodder but Gins and Arakawa have found (in habit, then performance of routine, then the shattering of that performance, and so on) that therein lies that which is often so very (held in) common. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri observe in Multitude, ‘Habits are not really obstacles to creation but, on the contrary, are the common basis on which all creation takes place. Habits form a nature that is both produced and productive, created and creative’an ontology of social practice in common’ (2004: 198). What is the death habit? To what, with respect to loss in its diabolical protean forms, have we become habituated? And why have we accepted death so passively, often so eagerly? Gins and Arakawa, calling death out like this, are wrestling not only with the grimmest, monolithic subject but also with the banal history of habit’perhaps habit is always the terrifying but simultaneously ho-hum story of death? If Marcel Duchamp’s pioneering work with chance and routine exposed the variability of the quotidian, Gins and Arakawa have harnessed these discoveries to a frank project of total social replenishment.2

My grandmother always used to say walking up the driveway to our house and throwing her arms out, ‘Greetings, salutations!’. Without the welcome’s full-bodied openness, well, then, perhaps no world could exist. The Arakawa/Gins project is that kind of exclamatory, body-widening hello, it is (the project, that is) very much like a child. Therefore, because nothing has to die in the mind of the infant’from words to worms to worlds’then (again) ‘no point exists such that it is non-living’ (1994: 18). Anywhere we perceive an organism (be it a body or a stillness) this is an instance of interconnectedness. The spirit of Gins and Arakawa’s avant-garde is irreverently mindful of the intimacies of heretofore being and heretofore non-being (Hello, grandmother! Hello, couch!).3 Theirs is an avant-garde that permits, one that trades the shock of the new for the shock of the you and the you and the you’as such, it might just prove that truth only exists in the identity’s multitude. For them, the architectural body is a communal matrix’in tackling death (yes!) they are tackling the spurious, mythic notion of singularity’for we are always more than one person at any given moment.

And they link this tentative organism (this coalescing of exhilarating what ifs) to the notion of a maternal ‘holding in’. They write:

She holds the architecture that holds her. Mother held me in her before she held me to her. She held me into (growing me into) my coordinating skills. The way the body holds itself, the many ways it holds itself, on many different scales of action, and the way it holds the world is cumulative. All the holding you have experienced, all the holding of you and by you, moves within and through your holding of yourself and has a part in your holding onto something. (Arakawa & Gins, 2002: 82-3)

Life’s ‘impossibilities’ here are gathered elegantly into a vision of self as cumulative, graceful amassing. In this sense ‘impossibility’ is only our (as yet) refusal to acknowledge that we always did grow’and can continue to’as a tentatively held-in community. The only courage, as I understand it through Gins and Arakawa, is to live and work and play as if you are growing’better yet, as if you are growing a billion years from now.

Imagine the City Without Graveyards!

On September 30th to October 1st, 2005, an international conference was held at Université Paris X-Nanterre to discuss the work of Gins and Arakawa. Jean-Jacques Lecercle opened the conference and discussed a spectre haunting the reversible destiny project. I thought immediately of a conversation I had just had earlier in the morning with artist Jondi Keane, who told me that, while touring Gins and Arakawa’s Gallmann Residence in Long Island (a 2,700 square foot structure not yet finished), he had the experience of being shadowed by himself.

One of the key concepts that Arakawa and Gins have coined is called tentativeness. They describe architecture as a ‘tentative constructing towards a holding in place’ (2002: 23). But they also employ ‘tentativeness’ as a mark of a would-be immortal condition-they are not turned on by stabilities and so champion temporaries, provisionalities, would-bes, might-bes, and yes-yes-yes’s. Perhaps, in this blithe openness, they are the new and unrepentant Utopians?

Arakawa and Gins, in many ways, have decided (it’s obvious!) not to be unhappy. They have decided not to be sad. Does the phrase ‘the near and far scales’ explain the difference between the two previous sentences, methodologies, philosophies, Weltanschauungen? At the closing plenary session, Jean-Michel Rabaté, too, wondered about the identity-implications of Gins and Arakawa’s work and stated that the ‘abolition of all death is the correlation of the anti-mythic.’ (Incidentally, Gins told me that part of the problem [there is no problem] of beginning to live forever is to convince those that love dying that their romantic eternality need not be lost; many of us appear to be more afraid of generating a new metanarrative than of dying itself-try not to hold on to too much!) This anti-mythological thinking of the architectural body is a wry consciousness of ‘besides’: D’ailleurs, it is always the others who die (Duchamp’s epitaph). Do we need death to stand beside ourselves, as Nancy and Blanchot and Bataille suggest? And what is one’s relationship to the Other if nobody ever dies?

Gins and Arakawa have discovered that the body is entirely dependent on what it has been told to be-and it appears that it wants to remain (for now, for most) singularly faithful to dying. Blanchot’s insistence that what founds community is ‘the sharing of that first and last event’ is utterly opposed (on one level, at least) to an Arawakian/Ginsian community of non-mortals. Indeed, death for him is the only true communion. But Gins and Arakawa advise (way before death) that, ‘When attempting to note the degree to which you are communal, register any scale of action that you are at all cognizant of as a constituting member of the community which is you. (Further explanation: Formed in good measure of disparate groups of elements and features encountered, an organism that persons lives as a community.) (2002: 97-8)’ Does this Gins and Arakawa ‘community which is you’ perhaps not aspire towards, and even reach, Nancy’s sublime notion of plural-singular voices that ‘call to one another, that provoke one another?’ (Nancy, 2003: 88). Here the dimension of the world is all-dimensional in its singularity beyond singleness. Not a tense of ‘this is this,’ stress Gins and Arakawa, but rather one of ‘What’s going on?’ (Arakawa and Gins, 2002: 49). I can imagine a community of ‘what’s going on’ being much closer to the possibility of impossible community if only because a community of this-is-this continues to separate subjects and subjects, objects and subjects, etc.

The urgency of the reversible destiny project is founded upon grief. Gins and Arakawa lament the tragic passing of the opportunity to truly live. The architectural body, in this sense, is keenly ambulatory’a vehicle of hope that refuses to play dead. The body that believes in immortality yearns to move beyond lament and learn how life can be guaranteed forever. This body, according to Gins and Arakawa, will have to learn to accept the dilation of the concept of persons (personing); will have to say no to logic and yes to intermixing; will have to take on the job of architect-ing itself (true democracy); will have to begin training to walk into life as a purposeful guess and to keep on guessing; will have to try (to admit) to be (to being) intentionally provisional; will have to consider all actions as fingernails (attached to itself); will have to greet and welcome and expand plural oneness; will have to learn to supersede itself in the environmental communal; will have to jettison agency and stock up on procedures; will have to translate this procedurality as a community-wide collaborative initiative; will have to take courses in poetics or yoga or stress management or swimming, if necessary, in order to make ‘body’ akin to ‘body of water’; and, finally, will have to think of itself as living breath, going all over hell’s half-acreÂ…

Ubiquitous Site * Nagi’s Ryoanji * Architectural Body Nagi, Okayama Prefecture, Japan Nagi Museum of Contemporary Art Size: 30′ x 70′ cylinder ‘Symmetry should be able to supplant identity, and, sure enough, it can and does do this.’ (Arakawa and Gins)

In entering the 30 foot high by 70 foot long cylinder there can only be a sense of cylindering. Even simply viewing this wild surround on the computer screen one gets a sense of cylindering being more powerful than death’as a sense option, at least. Yes, a sense of a sensing-cylindering as if that sense was multiply rifled: eyes as long tubes, fingers as long tubes, knees as long as tubes, and every strand of hair. Each of these extensive tubes (which come from intensive places) attach to other extensive tubes which are themselves attached to other living human beings. As ‘identity’ tumbles through this one big portal (and these small body portals) other identities fall through them too’as the body comes out the other side (perhaps) no one knows who’s who. This is a great destination for the kids’they and it will never get old.

Site of Reversible Destiny — Yoro Yoro, Gifu Prefecture, Japan 1993-95

As theorist Brian Massumi asks, ‘Could architecture build on the ability of digital technologies to connect and interfuse different spheres of activity on the same operational plane, to new effect?’ (2002: 192). Yes. Because here, for example, you may meet your own person-ness as it becomes a wider site of sites in the Person as World Suffusion Zone. A world steeped in persons is a living world that will not stomach death’it is too excited about breathing. But first, from the Yoro Park literature, you may wish to know what you’re entering:

Opened in October 1995, the Site of Reversible Destiny-Yoro Park is an ‘experience park’ conceived on the theme of encountering the unexpected. By guiding visitors through various unexpected experiences as they walk through its component areas, the Site offers them opportunities to rethink their physical and spiritual orientation to the world. The Site comprises a main pavilion called the Critical Resemblance House and a large, bowl-shaped basin called the Elliptical Field. (online text)

The Elliptical Field resembles a massive bomb crater;4 and yet the site is ‘softened’ with the maps of Tokyo and New York, for example. The Management of Yoro request politely that park-goers wear rubber-soled shoes, perhaps in order to stick a little bit better to what is now called the future. There are new thoroughfares, too. One can walk, crawl, amble, and drift along Active Palpability Street, Alert Distance Street, Annoying Street, Error Street, Extended Hesitation Street, Mire in Whatnot Street. The Critical Resemblance House plays like crazy off the words critical, resemblance and house. Its roof reproduces Gifu Prefecture and you may begin to appreciate these fold-within-fold cartographies as active evidence of the body (identity) as multi-dimensional. There are also many mounds. Gins and Arakawa encourage all visitors to take up residence or just do whatever. As you holiday and fall, slide, slip, bonk and so on, the word on the street is: ‘call out your name, or, if you prefer, someone else’s’ (from Directions for Use, online). Day-campers are encouraged!

Reversible Destiny Lofts In Memory of Helen Keller Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan

Self-Guinea Pig Now!

Not abutting but intersecting walls:5 therefore what are endpoints??

Porosity forever!

Guests must learn to prepare their own meals, in several kitchens, all at the same time. The one sink that appears in many lofts, throughout the building, is teaching the body not to hold on to too much of here-ness or this-ness or I-ness. After even a short stay here you and your family will feel without border, without fear’a little piece of you will (finally) be everywhere.

In this salut and now sayonara, I propose to exchange multiple explorations of the poetics of community as a socio-historical, politico-ethical and cultural construct that is all about a ‘sharing of nameless’ (Gins, 1994: 304). Beyond Blanchot’s ‘to share the solitude of the event’, which is the other’s death, Gins and Arakawa fix community in the sharing of an anti-mythic immortality. My own unlimited offer is that if you teach me hard-won, private procedures with respect to how to be more multiple I will (I promise) try to fling myself in many directions for the sake of your plurality, too. Are these the sounds, the special coupons (could they be) of community? With the demise of the traditional community as related to the nation-state, well, do we need Arakawa and Gins to throw us all into urgencies of you-call-this-country? you-call-this-geography? Ecstatic (but here and now) renewal is finally very tough to argue against. That is to say, the new collectivities just might reside in the old skin that keeps on living as it sheds.6 As if we are saying, ‘Architecture Now!’ and our brain-bodies shudder with the truth of that currency. These are anarchic sites in as much as no one knows who ends where. We will belong together then only where ‘together’ means a cheeky, ongoing gathering of each other. And, besides, since Arakawa and Gins are going to live forever or die trying, why not go global? The totality of this ‘global will’ will not fantasize, desublimate, colonize, or otherwise octopus the earth but only ever be a universal life-and-more: to delay death definitively in honour of the right to be alive for as long as one wants (for all time). What is determinate here? Merely many brains, many bodies, many buildings, many snails’a patchwork quilt community, I hope, of limpid, extra-long life.


A quick comment on this not-quite-novel, not-quite-theory, not-quite thing called Helen Keller or Arakawa. Gins tells us that it is the ‘nature of this book to be a “sharing of nameless”, one that passes through the words and images of Helen Keller and Arakawa and others’ (1994: 304). The secret operative in the title is the clandestine agency of the ‘or’ which politely folds the historical body-seeing Keller into the artist-husband Arakawa in order to gain a disconcerting, thrilling vantage point (i.e. from the eyes and bodies of that modest, sharing conjunction). Or inside the ‘or’ is also Gins herself, and eventually us, like a thread, until this Helen Keller or Arakawa (in the e’s, o’s, and a’s especially) is looped with her and our stringiness.

1 Gins and Arakawa trace their own influences back to at least the 14th century Japanese philosopher Dogen, particularly because he emphasizes the coupling of thought and body (the body-in-action). The informing, Dogen-esque spirit here is that life is described as a ‘what’s going on?’

2 To be deadly responsible and yet to be guided by the immortal precepts of irreverence. Gins and Arakawa say, ‘We hope future generations find our humour useful for the models of thought and other escape routes that they shall construct!’ (Arakawa and Gins, 1978: 2).

3 Arakawa and Gins love snails and poetry. They explain that:

All that a humansnail disperses: (its) ubiquitous site. Call all that a humansnail disperses: (its) architectural body. An interpenetration in the best possible taste because, as it were, of complementary tones: passive and active elements. The one simultaneously bathes and feeds the other, which covers the distance it breathes in and out and forms. (Arakawa & Gins, 2002: 31).

4 These are, according to Gins and Arakawa’s subtitle, architectural experiments ‘After Auschwitz and Hiroshima.’

5 Canadian avant-garde poet Adeena Karasick fuses concrete habit with new aphorism and so reveals to us that: ‘where there’s a wall there’s a way’ (2000: 39).

6 On the theme of radical communal skin, Hardt and Negri contend that, ‘[t]here are no queer bodies, only queer flesh that resides in the communication and collaboration of social conduct’ (2004: 199).


Arakawa & Gins, M. (2002) The Architectural Body. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Arakawa & Gins, M. (1978) The Mechanism of Meaning. New York: Abbeville Press (orig. 1971).

Blanchot, M. (1982) ‘Death as Possibility.’ The Space of Literature. Trans. A. Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 87-107.

Blanchot, M. (1988) The Unavowable Community. Trans. P. Joris. Barrytown: Station Hill Press.

Gins, M. (1994) Helen Keller or Arakawa. New Mexico: Burning Books.

Glazebrook, T. (2004) ‘Architecture Against Mortality: Building Origins.’ Interfaces: Architecture Against Death 21/22, Vol. 1: 51-8.

Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2004) Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin.

Karasick, A. (2000) Dyssemia Sleaze. Vancouver: Talonbooks.

Levinas, E. (1996) Proper Names. Trans. M. B. Smith. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Massumi, B. (2002) Parables for the Virtual. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Nancy, J.-L. (2003) ‘The Indestructible.’ A Finite Thinking. (ed.), Simon Sparks. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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