Architecture on Film: Chain / Death By Chocolate

Mon 24 May 2010 8.30pm

  • Chain
  • Death by Chocolate


A mosaic of global urban sprawl, shot in seven years across seven countries and eleven US states, is navigated in parallel by a Japanese businesswoman and an American drifter, in Jem Cohen’s document of a contemporary ‘superlandscape’ of anonymity.

A reworking of the themes developed by Cohen in an earlier triptych installation Chain X Three (2002), shown at the Walker Art Centre and MoMa, Chain uses the grey zones of privately-owned public realms — anonymous shopping malls, chain stores, mega-hotels and empty parking lots — to weave a narrative around the homogenization brought about by globalism, and the lives of two women immersed in this cultural shift. Japanese Businesswoman Tamiko studies amusement parks for a corporation diversifying from the steel industry until a merger brings her project to a halt, whilst Amanda uses the new economy’s abandoned houses, Mc Jobs and consumer detritus as a means to live in the world. Hotel rooms, broken mobiles, found video cameras, and automatic translators become tools for these displaced characters as they wander in the starkness of the present’s non-places.

“No matter where I went in the world I could always be shooting this film… it’s perverse.”
Jem Cohen

During travels around the globe, and following acclaimed music videos for REM and Elliot Smith, Cohen began to collect footage of the ubiquitous malls and chain stores which are so monolithic in scale that they are fast becoming invisible to us. Inspired in part by Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the film cuts from Atlanta to Berlin to Orlando to Warsaw, without ever giving the sense that location has changed, in a seamless and melancholy flow of collaged footage and a tone described by Cinema Scope as present-shock.

A lyrical vision of an increasingly homogenous global built environment, with nods to JG Ballard, Chris Marker, and Walter Benjamin.

USA 2004, Dir Jem Cohen, 99 min

Death by Chocolate: West Edmonton Shopping Mall (1986-05) - UK Premiere

Artist Dan Graham’s celebration of shopping mall culture and social space, extends his earlier 1988 Artforum photo-essay on ‘suburbanized corporate arcadias’. New Urbanism meets the theme park in this dizzying tour, filmed over nearly 20 years, through a mall that proclaims itself ‘the greatest indoor show on earth.’

Canada 2005, Dir Dan Graham, 8 min

Dan Graham, "Death by Chocolate: West Edmonton Shopping Mall (1986-05)," 2005. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.
With thanks to Zipporah Films



Programme Notes by Anna Minton

Author, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First Century City

The flat, colourless landscape of American late modernity - malls, motels, motorways and airports – forms the backdrop to Chain, Jem Cohen’s film on the anonymous Americanised mall landscape. Although the film was shot across seven countries and eleven US states the locations are interchangeable, all eerily similar wherever they may be.
More than 40 years ago the French sociologist, Henri Lefebvre wrote in The Production of Space’ that the consequence of treating places simply as a product would be to create units of near identical places, produced according to the same tick box recipe. 
But while everywhere may look the same, the dominant feel is of a particularly American form, because whether in the US or in Eastern or Central Europe, it is an American model which is being rolled out.

The model is of privately owned and privately controlled space, with the same transnational chain stores policed by uniformed private security guards who enforce strict rules and regulations throughout the mall. A range of activities are banned, from skateboarding and busking to wearing certain kinds of clothing. Filming and taking photographs, handing out political leaflets or holding a demonstration are also banned. These places are not only sterile and uniform, they are undemocratic. The private guards are a constant reference point for Amanda, one of the protagonists who talks on a broken mobile to blend in and evade security. Amanda, is penniless, a young American drifter who is clearly not a consumer and therefore not meant to be there.

This model has spread out from the mall to encompass the rest of the city, where streets and public places are privately owned and closely monitored, geared to maximum shopping and spending. These are the “malls without walls” of the property fuelled economy, where place is above all an opportunity for investment, driven by property prices and the ‘bottom line’. The defensible architecture and constant presence of security and CCTV creates a far more fearful environment, while the monitoring of activities drives out diversity and spontaneity in favour of sterility and sameness. Chain’s other narrator is Tamiko, a Japanese employee of a theme park company, sent on a fact finding mission around the world. She makes the shocking observation that there are too many races in the mall, making it difficult to have a pure goal for business. Yet while America may be multi-racial it is clear, not least through their complete acceptance of the thankless environment, that both Tamiko and Amanda are moulded by the authoritarian and controlled spaces of corporately owned societies.

The protagonists and the spaces they inhabit are bland and rootless, floating ghostlike through the characterless landscape. Fittingly, Tamiko hopes to set up a theme park in Japan called ‘Floating World’. These places are not only all the same wherever they might be, they are entirely disconnected from the culture and identity of the surrounding environment.

Malls and the ‘malls without walls’ of the open city are no different from carefully controlled theme parks like DisneyWorld where Tamiko finds beauty and perfection. Interchangeably, theme parks are very often found inside malls. Dan Graham’s short film, Death by Chocolate: West Edmonton Shopping Mall, blends exuberance and the whoops of children exhilarated by rides and attractions with a mall shot in high contrast and saturated colour. His mall, a space for enjoyment and the leisure economy is in sharp contrast to the flat, colourless environment of Chain. But the intermittent absence of sound adds the same dreamlike quality, while its sudden return brings into sharp relief the artificiality of waterfalls in a mall.

Whether in West Edmonton, Atlanta or Eastern Europe there is little to choose between these highly controlled, privately owned environments which may resemble each other but have little relationship to the world outside their doors. These two films represent a certain stage in this model of development. What we are seeing today is the spread of this approach, as ‘malls without walls’ with their guards and security, take over the streets and public places of the city.