Conversation with Curt Dilger: Shifting Lines of Art/Architecture

Hey Curt,

Would you like to contribute something to Speculative Non-Buddhism related to your “shifting the lines of art/architecture” project? –Glenn

ok I’ll try to cook up something –Curt

Curt Dilger:

Sketch Ethics

Without thinking too much about it at first, I developed a kind of ethics for my sketching activity. I’ve tried to become aware of the different options available to me as a creative thinking person through the years and have come to certain ways of approaching the issue that I have become accustomed to. It’s not an ideological consideration, except in that I try to work as if a code of honor as regards creative thought is at stake for me, and a categorical imperative of creative action is a sort of rhetorical deployment of visual thought with an implicit and vital morality.

First of all it’s a sketch. It’s a visual notation. There’s something very appealing about a form of communication that can easily cross language barriers, and in a very intimate and personal way. No matter how far the distance the sketch traverses to its viewer, every tremor of your hand as you drew is right there, in their hand.

A sketch is just a mental note; it’s not a grand artistic gesture full of pomp and promotion. It’s more of a mental note-taking process than work on which to build a career.

Sketching is a relaxed, improvisatory, playful and idle form of thought. Each of these particular qualities contains a kind of deeper ethic. Relaxed means free, improvisatory means spontaneous and inventive, playful means fun and inviting, and idle means unattached and humble. Craft and precision are important for accurate and transparent communication, and it’s been my particular trajectory to opt for an over explaining style of draftsmanship typical of an architectural mode of thinking, which is my training. Architectural drawing is a beautiful tradition of thought, and its legacy to us is through its conventions of plan, section, elevation, perspective, isometric, and axonometric projection systems. These are not just documentation devices but precise manners of thought, ways of seeing that invite ways of being. When understood in the context of art and the way different traditions played with these systems, whether naively, as in medieval spatial constructions or the beautiful Persian miniatures, or the great discoveries of perspective by Brunelleschi or Picasso’s cubism, it becomes an even richer way to look at the world. Drawing itself is a prism of thought that can shift from one way of seeing the world to an entirely different mode with different rules.

But architectural drawing also has the implicit ethic of always being schematic and suggestive of a future realized reality, and never as a thing in itself, a work of art with a capital A. Drawings are held accountable to numerous hard realities of structure, gravity, material, and numerous rules for circulation, ventilation, heat gain, insulation, and etc. ad nauseum for the layman. So craftsmanship, precision, and a thorough knowledge of the rules and how to maneuver within them are part of its art and the ethics are deep and implicit here.

Implicit also is an unironic relationship to the affirmative dimension of architectural activity. Unlike other arts, architecture is a helplessly affirmative activity and can’t effectively mock itself. It literally stands for something, and concretizes human values.

As a friend summarized it to me once, “Ok Curt, you’ve made your case.”

That sits well with me. Sketching is a modest effort to state my case, with minimum means and maximum precision, thought, and passion.

For all this, it’s still just fun and playful and not so important to get all hot and bothered about.

Glenn Wallis:

Hi Curt,
My raw response.

If I were to write an intro to you, I would say something like, “Curt Dilger is a rare and fucking strange bird.” I’d mention your apartment with its bizarre collection of books and zerstreute drawings and your weird affinity to Kafka, Nabokov, and Kubrick. Okay, you say:

It’s not an ideological consideration, except in that I try to work as if a code of honor as regards creative thought is at stake for me, and a categorical imperative of creative action is a sort of rhetorical deployment of visual thought with an implicit and vital morality.

I think your work is deeply ideological. (I believe that everything is ideological.) It’s an ideology that is infused with rejection,with struggle, with not fitting in. It seems to be an act born of a kind of nomadic imposition. Can you say something, however obliquely you feel you must, about that–what is it? a fact? just my impression? a real possibility? your actual position? I see you, in other words, as making indeed

a grand artistic/architectural gesture

I agree that this is not a gesture full of ” pomp and promotion.” I agree because I know you to a certain extent, and am convinced that you are on to something wholly different than the bullshit of pomp and promotion. I’d like to hear about that something else. You are a man full of fury and rage, and let’s thank God for that.

What is this business “to build a career.” What kind of career? What about the profoundly conformist ethos that determines, dictates, who gets the career? Say more!

The paragraph that begins “Sketching is a relaxed” reads very affirmationist. You are speaking about this joy or whatever of the act of sketching. But I believe, presuming to know some things about you, that this is also a radical, transgressive practice.

Can you say more about “transparent communication” (does it avoid the ideological signals of representation?); “precise manners of thought” (does it sidestep conceptualization?); “ways of seeing that invite ways of being” (which ways of being, for example? in the real world? would, say, a committed social activist think your invitation were robust enough to be consequential)?

architecture is a helplessly affirmative activity and can’t effectively mock itself.

It literally stands for something, and concretizes human values

Affirmative because it is always and unavoidably political? Or in another sense, affirmative? What human values can you name here?

Maybe we can present your original piece, and than add some version of these questions along with your response. Just an idea. Thoughts?

peace and thanks,

Curt Dilger:

Ok so it seems I’m getting busted on several levels. Sketching is about nursing dreams, and these dreams can cover the range of the playful and fun “wouldn’t it be great if…?” types of dreams to the scary…”If I were in power, I would get people to live like this!,” or “I’ll show them!”

Sketching is nomadic although I’m not really, except as the fool that goes up the hill. Sketching is a quietly nursed ideology forming over the years.

As far as not fitting in, there are some short and long answers.

The short answer is that I refuse to allow the limits of my “career” as such to determine the limits of my creative life. Sketching is a way out of that.

The more discursive ideas about power also point to sketching as a deliberately unattached activity.

Architecture is an art that depends heavily on wealthy patronage to realize its dreams. This often involves an unseemly alliance with corruption.

Many architects are maniacal about realizing their vision into a built reality, almost to the point of a moral imperative, which I find strange. They look down on dreamers like me, who care little about implementation and political imbrication.

I am satisfied with registering the alternate reality of my imagination, and marking the results along the way. Taken together, it is an implicit manifesto about what might be a better way to live, but it’s a gentle helpful suggestion, nothing more. Innocent dreams can then be put to a diabolical purpose later, of course, and many social engineering projects started with a sketch.

But I decided early on that I wasn’t going to try to bend the world to my will, and get my dreams built. I am ok with most of them being dreams. It’s the realm of the artist.

And architectural production is so SLOW and constrained. My imagination runs much much faster, and I have always had to honor that.

The personal pomp and career is also nursed in the dreams of the sketchbook. But when you draw for many years and lose the need to impress, it becomes something of its own and yields truths about yourself that a career could never supply. I still like the notion of an amateur– that is, ‘one who loves’ and have always shied away from professional status and certifications. Maybe a folie de grandeur is more tolerable in a sketchbook. Keeps your megalomania to yourself.

I was thinking about the artist as a servant to a patron or a rebel leading the way to a new world order, and how they both end up in the same nasty powerful place. An astute architect observed that there is a huge divide between any architect’s dreams and the very limited resources he has in the world to realize them. They all feel the imbalance of personal power and cultural weakness, no matter how successful…

So I guess I prefer to be the fool on the hill type, the somewhat happily misunderstood. Robert Walser is great for this kind of thing. He’s the archetypal fool up in the high Swiss mountains. What I find very interesting is the idea of another perspective, a dissociated and misfit perspective as you say for sure, but the view! wow! And how architectural the view. More like a plain view on the world.

Philosophy requires a kind of totalizing dissociation from personal experiences and emotions and tries to get up on the hill for a more expansive picture of the situation. I’ve been chided before about how much of my work takes on this view from above, and I love isometric and axonometric projection for this very reason. So the fool climbs up the hill to get a more architectural and philosophical view on the thing. And you incorporate people’s disdain a little more gracefully if you don’t want what they want.

I often think of Nick Drake’s lyric here.

And when you’ve seen where they have been

to win the earth just won’t seem worth your night or your day

Is that rage? Yes, well maybe it is…..The fool can walk up the hill because he’s disgusted with the village below, or just because he’s more beguiled by what he’s seeing as he goes up.

The danger in going up too high for a view is the loss of human emotion and tenderness. It’s too easy to think about allotting a population with resources and stop thinking about their resonant humanity in the process. Architecture has the danger of losing itself in its own accounting and there’s a disengagement with what matters… Sketching keeps the human hand in the mix.

Transgressive, yes. The imagination is inherently erotic, fertile, and transgressive. There’s something uncontrollable about it. So this a kind of personal anarchy implied in the effort itself. In 1984, it starts with Winston Smith doing a revolutionary thing; purchasing a sketchbook.

Transparency here means something kind of specific. In art, it’s perfectly fine to suggest instead of delineate, to render effects rather than to specify connections, to ambiguate and create impressions rather than describe the details and particulars. Architecture is somewhat hostile to all of these notions, and requires an exactitude in thought and expression that is different from the goals of art as such. This gives it a different outlook and discipline that amount to a different way of looking at the world.

Such a rule bound method doesn’t seem fun, but the joy in discovering freedoms within constraints is to discover the boundaries of a medium and the terms of its expressive effects. I draw in a precise way because of the need for precision and transparency in architecture, and the joy of discovering ways of thinking embedded in drawing systems is the source of creative opportunities.

You say: “architecture is a helplessly affirmative activity and can’t effectively mock itself. It literally stands for something, and concretizes human values.” Affirmative because it is always and unavoidably political? Or in another sense, affirmative? What human values can you name here?

You’re enabling a political will when you build. You’re on the side of the powers that are making it a living reality. It is also a recognition of the harsh conditions that exist in the natural world, and the need to make an accommodation to that is an effort of human will and expression of the most fundamental sort. It is an adaptation and an accommodation with the natural that is affirmative just as it attempts to adjust nature to a more comfortable and endurable prospect.

Glenn Wallis:

Curt, That’s the master’s voice. I really appreciate your participation. –Glenn

Curt Dilger:

I find my involvement very amusing and somewhat embarrassing

it’s one long untrue disclaimer on my part

I do think about it a lot i do take it seriously i do want to reshape the world and am angry i don’t do so and I am very passionate and it means everything to me and I am a horrible megalomaniac….

But then I say all of it doesn’t matter and I don’t care etc.  You saw through my disclaimers immediately. Yes I am very angry and frustrated the world is turning the way it’s turning

Thank god I was never given any power or success….I shudder at the results, truly…the sketchbook is here to soothe me keep me calm….what would I do without an empty white rectangle to muse over?



What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: