The Spinning Index

Adam Brown, ‘The Spinning Index: architectural images and the reversal of causality’, pp.237-258, in:

Rubenstein, D., Golding, J., Fisher, A., 2013. On the verge of photography: imaging beyond representation. Article Press, Birmingham, UK.


It can be claimed that the digital revolution represents the final cutting loose of the mechanisms of production and distribution from local and social circumstances.

Virgilio’s argument, in Speed and Politics, is that it is precisely this speed which separates producer from consumer: digital practices accelerate the movement of capital and commodity beyond the speed of critique.

Speed, of course, is a vector function which can be defined as movement through space over time. For Virilio, ‘the speed of light does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world’. Extrapolating Virilio’s thesis, it is possible to claim that, in certain key circumstances, time can be said to move backwards, as if it is the pixel, not the quantum particle which possesses the ability to move faster than the speed of light.


This hypothesis – in relation to architectural as well as other forms of photographic imagery – is only viable if the digital image is considered to be an assemblage of material and discursive elements.


If the image arrives at its intended destination ahead of the circumstances which the receiver, in consensus with others, considers to constitute its genesis, then time travel is achieved.

A critical perspective on such projects makes it theoretically possible to reverse the direction of the causal sequence that gives rise to the indexical sign. Such a paradoxical formulation of indexicality arises in relation to the generation of certainties – in the form of social consensus, market conditions or the constructions of identity – in advance of their reification in the form of physical entities – images, buildings, states.

Rosalind Krauss provides a succinct summary: ‘indexes establish the meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their cause. They are the marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is a thing to which they refer’. The function of the trace, or the existence of things that appeared to be traces, in the digital production of space, serves to indicate a point of agreement, a constructive truth.

The journey of building from desire, to model, to construction, and finally to occupancy, can finally be said to mechanise not only the processes of modelling and building, but also the positioning of the architectural structure as object of desire. In the process of spatial construction, taken as a whole, desire and reception are arguably the most important stages in a cyclical movement, as the following examples are intended to demonstrate.


The Highbury development mobilises issues of multiple histories, the city as playspace and curious rotation of the architectural gaze.


Significantly, the development in question was originally conceived as a site of spectacle. Looking of visualisations of the interior private garden which will take the place of the pitch, and to which the public will only be admitted by the retention of a right of way along one side, one can map a complex relationship of views. From each of the flats surrounding the pitch, owner-occupiers will be able to gaze over this view in a perverse reconfiguration of the panopticon.

Such a spectacle subsumes desire, self protection, and identity in a complex mesh the psychology of which could be the subject of another paper.

The communal experience of the stands has been replaced by the individual, sound-insulated living unit, and the crowd now watches itself with a peculiar narcissistic gaze.

p. 242

Exploring the techniques exploited by the producer of the renderings to create this impression of a possible reality, one key feature is the introduction of elements which are introduced after the form is finalised. Trees, people, commodities and other details are added which generate an impression of completion.


In this way, the image could indeed be regarded as a text, deploying as it does a specifically literary device. The viewer is acknowledged in the generation of fake chance events, features which have no structural function. In alignment with Barthes’ idea, such elements are deliberately introduced into their “text” so that the viewer receives the sign of indexicality, able to conceive either (a) that they are really looking at a possible real photographic image – an image “stencilled off the future real”, or (b)  that the developer has such confidence – and such competence – to have already preconceived of the elements necessary to produce a habitable space.


Digital imaging – and this category covers a range of technologies – is positioned somewhere between a depicted past and a projected future, but the rupture is not nearly so clear-cut.


The causal chain of visual production dictates the one can never depict the future, only generate projections.


The “reality” of the future has not yet come into being from which an image can be stencilled according to the accepted trajectory of indexicality. However, in the production of renderings of  future architectural projects, digital technologies do depict the future as if it existed already.

The purpose of such images is wholly to mobilise investment and assent the construction of the properties depicted, by the deployment of both form and content. They are designed to appeal to specific identifiable audiences: investors, purchasers, local authorities and media, for whom the issue of credibility–a truth function–is central, if differently inflected in each case.

It is possible to claim that in constructing an appearance of an existing lived reality, which previously arose from the camera’s representation of the trace of past circumstances, it has now become possible to speak of the trace of future events.

With regard to property as commodity, the more believable such projected forums, the more capital may be invested, and the more likely is that the depicters building will be constructive.

Notwithstanding questions of transparent or deceptive intentions on the part of developer, architect or image-maker, and excess of signification becomes directly linked to the event existence of the building in that the more realistic it appears, the more likely it is to become reality.

One key aspect of these new technologies is their ability to manage on a single platform formerly distinct processes of architectural construction – imaging, costing, analysis and construction.

The functions of recording, representing an projecting, once specific technical domains (perspective drawing, writing, engineering drawing), are now subsumed in one operation.


For the Vilém Flusser, this was already implicit in the development of photographic technology […]


Via Flusser, it is possible to observe that it is digital photography which ultimately reifies the core program of photographic practices, as if the supercession of analogue technology by Digital was the mere stripping away of superfluous and restrictive elements, allowing mechanisms of exchange, mediation, and bureaucratisation to realise themselves.

The ability to record multiple registers and fields of activity on paper or other portable media confers agency on those with the ability to interpret them. Latour considers two functions of the document: recording and projection. Beginning in the apparently closed world of the laboratory, in which recording media function as a means of describing the outcomes of causal processes–evidence which is temporally anterior–he moves on to means of visualisation: engineering drawing, projective geometry and economic forecasting.


The true function of the photographic has its germination at this point. The camera itself could be described as a little laboratory, in which an experiment is anything repeated and viability confirmed.

Barthes himself is well aware of how, for photography to generate its specific force, one has to possess knowledge of the technical processes which give rise to photograph.

For Latour, ‘a present-day laboratory may still be defined as a unique place for a text is made to comment on things which are all present in’. By extension, such at text could indeed take the form of positive review in an architectural journal, a contract or an entry on and accountant’s spreadsheet, which in its turn could lead to future construction. This gives a contrary spin to Flusser’s notion of the camera is a direct product, and the photographic image and indirect product, of scientific texts.

For photography theory after Latour, (or indeed Deleuze) anything definable as a product is simply an assemblage located within the circulating network of voices, some able to be described as “material”, some as “social”. In such a circulating system, the accepted order of causality is scrambled, and the continuous restless redrawing of the network is a function of the forces that animate it from inside and outside.

The accretion of previously distinct processes of building design and construction on a single prototyping platform merely represents the coming to maturity of such an assemblage. The “product” which is a contemporary software package capable of completing these functions – Autodesk, Rhinoceros 3-D amongst others – represents a new “thing”, similar to a “camera”, or a “stunning loft apartment”: it gains the ability to signify in and of itself, and it acquires agency.


If the deployment of signs of the photographic in the marketing of residential developments generate capital in the form of pre-sales, thus making the project more likely to become concrete, the renderings of Kamengrad before a similar operation by keying into notions of statehood, the self identification of a nation Alliance to geographical location, and the importance of traces of past habitation in a territory subject to the violin displacement of people over a long period. In Kamengrad, technology is deployed to territorialize and reify “state”, a reverse operation to the radical deterritorialization described by Virilio.


The building exists as an idea in order to generate assent and confer a sense of identity.


There are no visible minarets in any of the published renderings of Kamengrad.

With regard to the context of reception – looking – the photograph, the rendering, are as political as the photojournalistic image. In full awareness of the contact of their production, the renderings of Cameron Glad I was genuinely chilling as anything was that could produce no longer matters whether the representation of human suffering features and identify those human subjects—human history read hopefully from the architectural image.

Photographic representation can be claim to both represent and anticipate form, whether photographic (the trace) or digital (the trace in reverse). The development of new digital assemblages challenges critical practice to reconsider the long-standing alignment of photography with representation of an existing reality, in relation to the status of the photographic message as a projection of desire.


Photography of place, for Barthes, brings about both past and future certainties. The rendering appropriates this function of the photographic message, and renders it a function of will.

If indexicality is the key property of the photographic image that enables it to embody a true function – its role as proof, as trace – then the photography-like images produced by digital prototyping technologies manifest the semblance of certainty as the root of a similar form of truth function. If one can say ‘in this projected building, all algorithms support its structurally integrity, its construction appears to be cost-effective, and audience/market responses to the visualisations are positive’, then, by virtue of uncritical acceptance of its machinic origins, it comes to embody a form of truth. Consensus thereby proves the most important outcome of the three functions of the digital modelling process – structural integrity, cost, and market/social reception.

[Ref Margaret Olin on Barthes’ indexicality]


The absolute centre of the contemporary photographic assemblage underlines the significance of the discourse of absence that runs through the whole history of photography. In the projects under discussion here, that absence takes specific form–the absence of a guarantee of stable economic value with regard to the speculative building industry, and the forced absence of a section of the population of Višegrad against the background of the absence of recognised statehood. Each absence is legible from the rendering under examination, Against the operations of an indexical link that reifies a contrary presence by the deployment of the machine and it is apparent truth function.

Here, Olin’s critique supports Latour’s reconfiguration of the operations of the laboratory: it could be argued that scientific method, and by extension technological processes, have as their primary function the generation of assent, through processes of identification.

Their intended outcome is not the experimental results, or in the case of the camera and the image, but the effects of such as an assemblage: the uncritical perpetuation and acceleration of cycles of production and reception.