Dietmar Rübel

The Blob: Sign of the Formless

Poster for 'The Blob', 1958.

Poster for ‘The Blob’, 1958.

Very few people now hold views similar to those involved in the ‘space brother’ phenomenon of the Nineteen-Fifties. This group of UFO devotees drew a comparison between advanced technology and morals. The assumption was, if aliens have superior machinery they must, likewise, be more socially advanced. This empathic notion of the alien was stressed by the fact that they also looked like us. The film ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951), which depicts a noble alien who comes to Earth to save us from our own destructive proclivities, exemplifies this view of the morally advanced alien and its technology. More often, however, Hollywood alien invasion films of that period depict the alien being as evil and totally other, like the one-eyed blob monster that inhabits the flying saucer in the film ‘Atomic Submarine’ (1959). The contrast between the primordial appearance of such a being and the ultra-sophisticated device it pilots appeals to me. It prompts the question of just why there should be such overt design inconsistency between the form of the being and its craft? The two are so unlike that they are impossible to reconcile. It’s as if I were asked to believe that the pea soup, or refried beans, that inhabit a tin can designed that housing for itself, and that this shell somehow represents its ‘psychology.’ On the symbolic level, the two forms simply can not have similar meaning.

Mike Kelley, ‘On the Aesthetics of Ufology’ (1997) [1]

As the architect Greg Lynn had phrased it: ‘Perhaps the most direct route into any discussion of blobs is to invoke a few canonical Hollywood B-film blobs. These films present a paradigm for an aqueous, alien structure that moves through the city absorbing materials.'[2] In the science fiction film The Blob from 1958, one of these absorbing substances fell to earth with a meteorite. When people touched the amorphous, sticky stuff they were possessed by it, sucked in, and ultimately dissolved in the jelly-like mass. In the cinemas, the formless blob crept through a small town until the young hero played by Steve McQueen discovered that the alien formlessness could not withstand the cold. When he successfully froze the blob with the help of carbon dioxide and immobilized it, that is, brought it into some sort of solid form, the horror was averted – at least until 1972 when the sequel, Beware! The Blob appeared. In the 1990s, designers developed an elusive repertoire of forms for diverse everyday objects from toothbrushes to motorcycles: as contemporary design, these objects found immediate resonance and were collectively called ‘blobjects,’ a word creation from blob – that is, a shapeless lump –, and object. Blobjects have pushed to the front in all areas of everyday life and for Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov, authors of Blobjects & Beyond (2005), as ‘this generation’s master metaphor,’ they represent a constantly changing and further developing culture in flux:[3]

Contemporary blobjects now describe a rich and fully present phenomenon. As might be expected, certain words are now considered associative with blobjects: goopy, drippy, flowing, blurry, sleek, swoopy, seamless, gobular, merging, converging, bending, bulging, morphing, overlapping, attenuated, wind-blown, and liquid. [4]

The title song for The Blob by Burt Bacharach already lays down such an onomatopoetic flowing track: ‘Beware of the Blob! It creeps, and leaps, and glides and slides, across the floor, right through the door and all around the wall. A splotch, a blotch, be careful of the Blob!’ [5] Accordingly, visual fluidity is certainly one of the main characteristics of blobjects, which owe their specification to the qualities of fluids – ‘either being inspired by oozing goo, swelling gel, bubbling liquid, or rippling water, or by actually containing one of the above.’ [6] In their typical characteristics, blobjects initially appear to be a consistent continuation of traditions that reach back to the 1920s or 1930s – elegant, flowing, and aerodynamically stylish streamline forms, as well as organic designs with their asymmetrically curved and biomorphic vaulted kidney, boomerang, and elliptical shapes. Sculptures by Constantin Brâncuși, Hans Arp, and Henry Moore could just as well be claimed as forerunners as designs by Jean Royère, Vladimir Kagan, Isamu Noguchi, Charles and Ray Eames, Friedrich Kiesler, Carlo Mollino, and Arne Jacobsen – through to the furniture designs of the late 1960s by Pierre Paulin, Wendell Castle, and Luigi Colani. [7] Since the millennium large-scale architectures appeared that were modelled on the blobjects of design, biomorphic or formless sculptures, or 1950s B-movies. These structures, positioned like fallen meteors, often function as branding for department store chains or gentrified quarters. But why are anti-functionalistic designers and architects such as Greg Lynn, Jan Kaplický & Amanda Levete in Birmingham (1999), Peter Cook and Colin Fournier in Graz (2003) or even Norman Foster in Newcastle Upon Tyne (2004) referencing this film while their ravenous architectures are wandering towards historically grown old town centres, threatening to absorb them? Where does this fascination with the catastrophic, the monstrous, and the formless come from?

Future Systems proposal for the Czech National Library in Prague, 2007.

Future Systems proposal for the Czech National Library in Prague, 2007.

One answer is that blobjects proved extremely commercially viable: through their logical further development of biomorphic objects they had proven themselves in the wind tunnel of the progress-driven consumer society of the post-war era. Whereas the science fiction aliens and blobs of the 1950s still referred to the subliminal fear of a communist threat during the Cold war era, [8] the success of today’s blobs – which have annexed everyday life and almost all of its consumer goods – can be explained through the new spirit of capitalism, as Skov and Holt write:

The blobject is an engaging form designed equally well for commerce, consumption, manufacture, and collection. The fluidity inherent in the blobject implies change, dynamism, communication, and progress, and thus gives us cause for hope.[9]

However, in contrast to this contemporary play with blobjects and the resulting endless varieties of shapes beyond form, one can describe a second reaction in relation to the monstrous materiality of the blob: Becoming-Formless is triggering irritations and anxieties. In this context it is significant that this process dissolves boarders while subject and object are dealt with on the same level. And from this angle, it is possible to investigate the experiences of objects. The monstrous Blobs of the B-Movies showed that it was no longer self-evident that changeability lay in subjectivities and the formation of subjectivities, but could be part of a willfulness of objects and substances. In the formlessnes of blobjects lay something that is not subsumed in representation since objects and materials were increasingly perceived as the decisive and sometimes willful actors.

As indicated, after the millennium these objects have been returning as cheerful event spaces of capitalism. But their history is quite a different one, therefore one could equally define them as models pointing to crises and traumata of the twentieth century. Considering blobjects it also becomes apparent that fluidity – as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has coined it – is the leading metaphor for the present stage of the modern era. [10] The flow behaviour of substances points to the function of consumerist societies, which are dependent on a maximum of flexibility. What – except for money or the electronic contracts of the stock exchanges – would be more flexible and changeable than formless, aqueous stuff? However, Bauman also points out that the enthusiasm for the phenomenon of liquefied materials that are continuously morphing are closely related to societal processes. The flexible social systems and structures of our times, which had once superseded solid and rigid conditions, have now themselves entered a process of dissolution. Therefore, the plasticity of formless compositions such as the blob is giving us the chance to encounter the ideology of this liquidation. [11] This means apart from affirming these politics or remaining in opposition to them we could also act in in-between-spaces – thus insisting on an excessive enunciation of subjects and objects alike.

Dietmar‘s talk was followed by a presentation from Emma Richardson, of the blob in action.

Notes

1 Mike Kelley: ‘On the Aesthetics of Ufology’ (1997), in: Blastitude, no. 13 (August 2002), p. 6.

2 Greg Lynn, Folds, Bodies & Blobs. Collected Essays, Brüssel 2004, p. 170.

3 Steven Skov Holt & Mara Holt Skov, Blobjects & Beyond. The New Fluidity in Design, San Francisco 2005, p. 19.

4 Skov Holt / Holt Skov, p. 13.

5 Dietmar Rübel, ‘Blobjects. Über die seltsame Schönheit von B-Movies’, in: Beate Engl (ed.), The Blob – Nothing can stop it!, München 2009, pp. 30–42.

6 Skov Holt / Holt Skov, p. 87.

7 See Dietmar Rübel & Sebastian Hackenschmidt, Formless Furniture, Ostfildern-Ruit 2008.

8 See Susan Sontag, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ (1965), in: Ibid., Against Interpretation, New York 1966, pp. 209–225.

9 Skov Holt / Holt Skov, p. 18.

10 Zygmunt Bauman: Liquid Modernity, Cambridge 2000, p. 2.

11 See Dietmar Rübel, Plastizität. Eine Kunstgeschichte des Veränderlichen, München 2012.

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