FICTION: Algorithmic Prayers

I’m not a confrontational person at all, I know enough about myself however to understand that I have other ways to satisfactorily settle the accounts. That priest. He may have liked me and I was perfectly civilised of course, but, unbeknown to him, there were certain issues we most definitely disagreed on. There is not the time to go into these nuances now, and my pen may run out in the process. And anyway, they were the kind of differences that appear petty if not rendered in enough detail.

During the summer break after my second year of university (around 2007) I held a job as a tour guide for a small church in Munich. I began as a recondite student of the building and read all the recommended texts and gradually built up what I thought was an academically rigorous script, which I rigidly adhered to. After a number of weeks I had already developed a good reputation and the priest consistently ensured I handled the most prestigious clients. Yet, as my confidence developed, and those series of incidents occurred, I would let lies filter into my performance, a subtle virus in a previously perfect body of work. My audience would be considerably moved as I revealed, with a smile suggesting that it was a secret I shouldn’t be sharing, that Sherlock Holmes once solved a mystery because of an idea a particular stucco motif presented to him. Some days I would tell the eager crowd that the small toilet fitted recently in an alcove behind the altar, was in fact the first public toilet in the world. And in response to a question about the crypt excavations: I described that the detritus left over from the dig was discarded by digging another hole to put it in (Ad infinitum). Nobody seemed to notice; I knew they weren’t my real audience anyway.

As the months went dimly and dustily by, unexpectedly, these falsehoods began to congeal into something I would define as quasi-factual. They started off being quite fragmented and discursive, yet over lunch breaks and quiet moments — circling the font, taking a nap under a pew — I could discard certain notions in order to intensify and clarify the remaining bunch. Those left, when examined objectively, through a smog of thick incense, all pertained to how the church, despite its age, still seemed to embody not the experience of religion as you might expect, but the experiences we have in the digital world. All of which emanated from my observation that people are often just remaking the past when creating something they believe to be new. The digital realm of emails, social media, and fibre optic cables is just another church, some kind of vast cybernetic cathedral, which we are unable to see.

I am aware, as an architectural autodidact, that I am prone to misconceptions. This, however, didn’t stop these thoughts settling into their more definitive place in my guided tours and by the end of the summer I was ready to write down my amateurish thesis. The opportunity finally came when the priest asked me if I would like to write the English guide to the church because, as he often said, I was the best tour guide he had encountered. I have lost my copy of the final results, and I can’t track down another or the charlatan who commissioned it. What follows is only what I remember of it, that I’m sure is accurate. I believe I did my best — certainly better than my predecessor — with the material I was given and it fairs well against information leaflets I have collected since on my travels around the provincial parishes of England, which all were lacking the particularly modern twist I decided to bestow on the church in my own interpretation.

Within me has always been something of the stamp collector, the train spotter and the car number plate collector. Although I have never done any of these activities — I frown on their participants’ collective delights, preferring my own highly individual ones — I too see something sublime in the banal. Authenticity in repetitive numbers, colourful coral reefs in the pebbles on suburban driveways, Aztec reliefs in drain covers signalling portals to other subterranean worlds. The same way of seeing the world I brought to bear upon my church.

This whole tract may come across as a cheap prank, but its content is still the product of serious scholarly work, under a lamp that was perhaps too bright; it embodies fact laced with alternate facts, historical certainty added to rather than manipulated. Tourist sites are always reconstructed fictions of the past anyway; so a few little white lies won’t hurt — perhaps, in the end, only damaging someone’s professional pride. Can a person commit slander against an inanimate building? It will surely never know, although sometimes I wish it did. Let’s see.


The Asam Church of St. John Nepomucene

Chapel-of-ease in the city parish of St. Peter, Munich

Two brothers, the sculptor Egid Quirin Asam, and painter Cosmas Damian Asam built St. Johann Nepomuk, better known as the Asam Church, from 1733 to 1746. The church is dedicated to Saint John of Nepomuk, a saint of Bohemia who was drowned in the Vltava River at the behest of Wenceslaus, King of the Romans and King of Bohemia. It’s been suggested that St. John was the confessor of the queen of Bohemia and refused to divulge the secrets of her confessional to the king. Years after his death, Nepomuk’s body was exhumed and his silent tongue had been miraculously preserved, a relic which is now contained within the church at the base of the altar. He is considered the patron saint of whistleblowers, constantly twittering tongues, and, because of the manner of his death, a protector from floods of data and drowning in its invisible undercurrents and beguiling whirlpools.

The mere fact of its basic shape — gently billowing forth in the centre, swinging out in a concave form to right and left — radically distinguishes the Asam Church from the buildings that surround it. The church is rare as it contains two radically different architectural styles: a Gothic exterior and Rococo interior. Classical architecture, such as St Pauls in London, represents the measured and ordered geometry of a single person and mind. The Asam Church’s Gothic language on the other hand, captures the omnipresence of many human makers — shown through varied and irrational craftsmanship. Just as in the Internet, the eccentricity of its shapes, the collision of bizarre forms, multiplying and bulging off the main enclosure like popping boils and pustules, captures the incompatible imprints of the collective of users that have made it. Tyrants and autocrats have never espoused this architectural style because it doesn’t signify order; it’s more a weather front of changing gradients, a vast, perennially reordering system that morphs the closer you look.

The Gothic forms are fluid and improvisation has evidently been encouraged. They are stolen from everywhere, copy and paste, screenshots, without acknowledging the source material. Classicism is based on the measurements and proportions of the human body; conversely, the Gothic is an expression of the warped immeasurability of the human mind, in the same way as the illusive nature of the digital realm means it can be whatever we imagine it to be. The resulting composition is sublime and vulgar, monstrous and tender, it is deeply original, a snowflake.

Three superimposed arches with large openings structure the entrance, and the bell tower that is somewhat to the rear can be seen from a distance. The loud bell rings out many times a day vibrating and oscillating the large, heavy structure into subtle movement. The building’s sand foundations enabled such dynamism, modelled on the earthquake proof structural system of Almaty Cathedral.

Churches usually have a clear threshold between the inside and outside, sacred and profane, darkness to light, demarcated by heavy doors and intimidating steep steps. In this instance the Asam Church has no such separation. The floor of the antechamber (the first space you enter) is flush with the busy road outside and shares the same materiality, the simple wooden doors are concealed, and large, unobstructed windows mean there is no change in lighting conditions as you pass uninhibited from the outside. The arch of the doorway is lined with angled mirrors to further undermine the transition. This entire entrance sequence dematerialises the separation from private worship and public life, just as the borderless technology the church represents.

Once inside the circular antechamber, which gives access to the nave and is positioned below the organ gallery, it’s hard to miss the more obvious illusion to connectivity and signal strengths in the flooring. The flagstones have been cut into a concentric pattern, with tightly spaced rings in the centre of the space that become attenuated as they reach the outer walls — depicting a strong signal gradually becoming weaker as it radiates outwards. This representation of a connection, rather than a connection itself, is intensified by the thick walls that erode any chance of signal, meaning visitors are required to concentrate on a simulation of the Internet portrayed in the spaces of the Asam Church rather than actually being online. Two unused confessional booths, carved into the walls (‘poche’ spaces to be factual), flank this area, referencing the time before the advent of twitter and other social networks, when people would confess in quiet whispers to a ordained priest rather than to the whole world.

In the dome above this configuration is a constellation of tiny jewelled points, that shape shift according to the position of the observer and the direction of light entering the church. Previously thought to represent heavens, it is now known to depict The Cloud and the data points collected by the gaze of a 3D scanner. Skirting the dome, surmounting the confessional boxes, is a huge anamorphic stucco image of St. Jerome, by Cosmas Damian Asam, with an open book and a skull at his feet reminding us that all personal histories will be revealed at the last judgement. Anamorphic paintings require the observer to stand in a certain place in order for the image to read as complete and undistorted, though here, there doesn’t seem to be an ideal location — unless, as scholars of the building speculate, it is an inaccessible point within one of the walls.

To the right hand side of the infinitely complex mesh network of iron trellising, hinting at the transition to the next zone, sits an ominous gilded sculpture showing a skeletal image of death with scissors about to cut through the umbilical cord — the life-thread of connection — of a distressed millennial cherub. Some have naively hypothesised, the imaginative priest of this church in fact, that it portrays the existential uncertainty of a person who has 1% battery life remaining.

It is only now that we should look towards the central area of the church, and let it speak to us. First, we must accept that here architectural form dissolves, the building ‘takes off’ so to speak, and the eye finds nowhere to rest in the this symphony of ornament, statuary and colour. The main hub of the Asam church, the nave, is coated in different desaturated marbles taken from countries connected with the church all over the world. The differing types were chosen for their unique veining, the long and fluid meandering lines of colour that traverse natural stone. In these patterns we see the modulating wavelengths — echoed larger in the shape of the walls — inherent in the unseen landscape of signals, data transferred between microwave dishes and the distorted contours of radiation emanating from handheld devices.

Tumults and smears of shimmering gold Rococo ornament hover over and cast shadows on marble, a proliferation of forms and corrupt silhouettes approaching the spatial equivalent of white noise. A resident hermit once said, after years of solitary study, that there is a narrative to be read from the byzantine morass of motifs, fragmented profiles, overlapping feeds and interweaving afterimages made solid. But due to the bloated gluts of content the interior contains, tracing out any linear narrative is impossible in a limited space of time. Resultantly the nave of the Asam church is an exercise in confusion and distortion of depth, continually fluctuating from a shallow surface, detaching and disembodying the observer, to being a completely immersive, concretely virtual experience. Reach out to touch these mysterious patterns, and, instead of your hand meeting material, you might miss and touch a ghostly, reflecting offset version of the motif. The geometry is prone to catalysing fleeting mirages, grotesque faces and intimating phantom voids and volumes.

These accretions of malformed data assemblages may appear to have been formed by a craftsperson, though really they have never seen a human hand. Their shapes were created from submerging sandstone in a variety of chemicals — replicating the process of how the stone is usually eaten away by acid rain. The resulting gnarled and astringent forms were taken out just before dissolving completely and were then attached to the walls and coated in gold and silver leaf. Patterns created then, by microscopic processes propagated by highly articulate and sophisticatedly engineered chemicals. They represent the forms and narratives that micro technology and chemicals dream of when they sleep. The Rococo is usually interpreted as expressing nature’s grand design, yet really it reveals nature’s transitory and perishable qualities.

The whole nave is an alchemical cauldron that seems to expand and contract beyond its actual dimensions in unison with covert information pulses. You will see that many years of pious shuffling feet have buffed the floor to a fine sheen; it’s full of iridescent spectral shifting colours like a whole row of neon shop signage washing into each other in the reflective surface of a rain streaked pavement — rainbow oil slicks, coruscating data seeping into sinews of marbling wavelengths.

A code space is a location, such as an airport, that requires technology to experientially function. When the technology breaks, such as when the passport gates stop working, a person’s experiential progress through the building stops. The nave of the Asam church encapsulates a similar buffering sensation. The surfaces may be overdosed with media, but because a logical story can’t be carved from the whole, the experience of the building breaks down. Worshippers start to buffer, the content is there, inertial and waiting to be played out.

Despite the church creating a constant sense of contrapposto, it is off-axis and gravitationally dysfunctional, as if it’s preparing to change position or direction, rather surprisingly, it doesn’t require any structural support. There are still, however, twisting marble columns routed from floor to ceiling (to the throne of grace) — a ‘quotation’ from the celebrated baldachin of Bernini in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Incised with concave and convex ridges, they symbolise the humble fibre optic or subsea cable, multiple strands of stone symbolising the different coloured threads and layers they contain.

Directly opposite from where you enter, between the columns, is the altar area, which has a duel function as an architectural tabernacle. At its base is the glass sarcophagus of St. John Nepomucene with his miraculously preserved tongue. The thematic conclusion and highpoint of the architectural sequences described so far, comes in the form of an equilateral cross, backlit with a sickly yellow light emanating from an invisible source — a symbol of accuracy amidst the turbulence of conflicting codes and data all around it. Algorithms subtly infiltrate and control a person’s experience of the digital realm, just as prayers do in a believer’s life. Yet even today, you might still see someone kneeling before the equilateral cross, quietly intoning his or her algorithmic prayers.


I will end this quaint confession with another admission of guilt. Before I left Munich to start my final year at university, I chipped off a piece of ornament from the church and concealed it in my luggage. It is sitting in front of me, functioning as paperweight, while I write this note. The fragment depicts the shattered screen of a tablet, with a circular incision in the lower portion of the border, and delicate plaster tendrils representing Ethernet (sometimes known as ‘station wires’). A Bas-relief lozenge captures the form of projecting and incoming sound. The whole episode is then mirrored over an oblique axis, doubled in the same way as a butterfly wing.

Although, as part of my little trick, I have superimposed modern phenomena on something completed in 1746, it’s clear that regardless of technology progresses the iconography, metaphors and illusions that we devote our lives to, are much same.

I toyed with the idea of a series of anonymous letters — my usual method of retaliation. The priest wasn’t the first employer I’d had to settle a score with. In the end, however, I found that too immediate. I preferred the ticking time bomb of words momentarily lost in translation, of a guidebook gone wrong. How long was it in circulation before the priest found out? How many people went back to Milton Keynes, Moseley or Barking talking of a cybernetic church in Munich? Because, of course, as the priest didn’t speak or read English, I was free to write whatever I wanted.

Matthew Turner (@MjTurner_) is a writer living in London. He studied at University College London and is now working as assistant editor for LOBBY magazine, while also teaching at Chelsea College of Arts and writing on art and literature for various publications. In 2019 his first novel, Other Rooms, was published by Hesterglock and he is currently writing his next for Gordian Projects.

Image: Kovno. Gothic façade, Nicholas Roerich, 1903 (digitally altered)

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