Gods, monsters, hybrids

An encounter with automotive in-betweens at the Salon d’Automobile in Paris 2006

"In the past, designers were servants in car companies; today, they are kings," says one of these designers: Patrick Le Quement is head of design at Renault, which was the first car company to create the post of design director. As cars have become better and more similar in quality, aesthetic criteria have become much more important over the last 15 years. Not the functional, but the symbolic-social utility value of a car is the primary incentive to buy today.

In design, however, it is not the unique imaginative power of a designer that manifests itself, but a certain cultural habitus. With Bourdieu, car design can also be seen as a "Social order turned into a body" today. It is a mirror of man’s body dreams. What the cultural scientist Hartmut Bohme writes about the human relationship to animals also applies to the relationship to automobiles in an astonishing way: they are not only useful objects, the human relationship to them also makes them objects of desire "objects of desire, of projection, of exchange and of feelings." The closeness and intensity of the human-animal relationship thus finds its modern counterpart in the human relationship with the car.

Renault Nepta ©Renault

Car design has always borrowed from people, animals or other means of transport such as airplanes or ships. A tour of the Salon d’Automobile in Paris, which opened last weekend, reveals that today the car, in its form, is pushing ever harder to transcend its species boundaries, it tends to mutate, to hybridize, to become an animated hybrid, obeying a Damonic optic. This is most evident at this year’s Salon d’Automobile in the numerous concept cars, whose design often embodies the pure form of automotive fantasies. The hybridization of heterogeneous animal and human elements in automobile design leads to a similar embodiment of divine and demonic potencies as in the case of the mythical creatures of antiquity.

Renault’s seductive flying godfish

In order to underline the deliberately mythical character of their products, the automobile companies like to dock on the old myths of the Greek and Roman goddess world: Volkswagen, for example, recently presented the convertible Eos, named after the winged Greek goddess of the morning red. She is the sister of the sun god Helios, after whose son, who fell from heaven, the brand strategists had already named their luxury sedan Phaeton a few years earlier.

With the Nepta concept car, inspired by Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, Renault now also wants to generate atmospheric and real added value: After all, the automobile "a mythical object to be cherished. There is a danger that the car will become an arbitrary product", worries Patrick Le Quement from Renault. In order to counteract this threatening profanation, Renault designers already in 2003 called for the phase of "Verfuhrung" one (cf. Interview with Le Quement in the magazine form 1/2003). This is very clear from the Nepta’s Aubenspiegeln, the "like ripe fruit on two dark branches" hanging out of the car next to the windshield" Whether this allusion to the Sundenfall also arrives with the potential customer is another question: Thus the users of a car forum, in the idiosyncratic form only profane "Street lamps" to recognize.

A techno-zoomorphic cross between a boat and a butterfly

With its boat-shaped body, Renault recalls the first means of transport ever invented. The front of the concept car describes a bow shape, the undulating curved side line falls gently to the rear and ends in a long overhanging, tapering stern reminiscent of noble motorboats such as the legendary Riva. This flying waveform embodies a design shift that began in 2004 with the Fluence concept car and will be seen for the first time on a production vehicle next year in the Laguna model. This is intended to replace the usual stubby rear aesthetics – which have been "Duck’s ass" of the Renault Megane 2003 the jump into the German feuilleton gave.

Renault Nepta ©Renault

A car shaped like a boat is a way of saying: my origins lie in the water, I have sprung from a different form. From the metamorphosis of a butterfly paired with a flying fish, the designers thus also seem to have derived the electrically controlled wing shapes of the cabriolet. It is not actually a tower, but half of the body that folds up toward the center like a butterfly, exposing the seat and engine. A small scratch in the side was thus allowed to make the replacement of half the car necessary. Even deep underground garages could require a courageous leap over the edge – perhaps the first sports car that also required a sporty driver. To dispel such mundane doubts, the doors are equipped with an electronic system for detecting obstacles and anti-trap protection.

Failed luxury experiments

With the Nepta luxury-class convertible, Renault once again underscores its claim to return to the ara of luxury sedans. In 1912 the fleet of the entire Russian court consisted only of Renaults. Before the Second World War, Renault built limousines such as the Reinastella, in which the President of the Republic drove up. With the nationalization after the war the brand was assigned the small car division, Peugeot took over the middle class and Citroen the upper class.

In the middle of the 90’s Renault took up the luxury car tradition again and presented at the IAA 1996 for the first time the coarse study Initiale (http://www.allsportauto.com/english/renault_initiale.php) before. Already two years later at the Paris Motor Show was shown the prototype of today’s VelSatis, which is built since 2002. Renault had originally planned to sell 20 of these chunky luxury sedans in the first two years of production.000 copies to sell – however only one third of this target could be realized. The model remains largely unknown outside France. A much coarser disaster occurred in parallel with the production of the coarse-space Avantime coupe started in 2001. Production of the Nepta was already halted in May 2003 after only 8.545 Avantime could be sold, of it about 800 in Germany. The experiment to return to the luxury class thus failed. Studies such as the Nepta therefore initially have little chance of going into series production and are primarily used for marketing purposes.

The birth of design from the spirit of ritual

The design also includes the question of man-machine interfaces in the car. The cockpit of the Nepta consists of a spartan arrangement of digital and analog instruments integrated into each other. With the return to clear instruments, the engineers want to overcome the attention delirium in the cockpit of modern cars (see Risky multitasking). "touch design" Renault states the goal of making the meaning of all the controls "intuitive" to make it comprehensible. "We want to demystify technology. We want technology to serve people, not the other way around", says Le Quement.

Gods, monsters, hybrids

Citroen Metisse ©Citroen

In the words of the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, Renault is merely rounding off a new level of mystification: The "Principle of design" only conceal the humiliation or embarrassment we feel when dealing with technical devices. Designers provide us with genieberic competence in the face of obvious incompetence in dealing with devices whose intricate inner workings we can’t begin to understand. In this sense, the user is a charlatan, to whom the designer, like a charlatan’s outfitter, supplies the accessories for his "Sovereignty simulations" gives.

Even prehistoric man was constantly confronted with the fact that he could not influence certain (natural) events. However, since he was subject to the protection of certain cultural techniques – the rituals – in such situations, he did not experience this as powerlessness against his environment. To survive a storm, the weather god was invoked. "The gap through which powerlessness, panic and death enter life is closed by rituals from archaic times onward." Sloterdijk therefore speaks of the "Birth of the design from the spirit of the ritual", for him in the design is suspended a gesture of order creation, it is a kind of vademecum against the powerlessness in the face of a non-controllable, permanently disintegrating and dissolving world. Covered in the moment of ritual is the disappearance and disintegration that we are at the mercy of: Design, then, is when, after a plane crash, in addition to rescuing the injured, the airline’s logo is quickly painted over – as happened in the 1970s with a Swiss Air plane in Athens.

Citroen’s pregnant half-breed is reflected in the Totem Mobile

Since design rituals already have to dry us over our Promethean shame, totem and taboo are not too far away: Not far from the huge Renault site, Citroen has erected its diabolic black-red compound. The visitor is greeted by the shimmering silver body of a Citroen DS, which even in the literal sense of the word is a goddess "Deesse", claims to be a goddess.

Citroen Metisse ©Citroen

This "Totem mobile" The installation by the New York artist Chico MacMurtrie and the art group Amorphic Robot Works, founded in 1992, is truly self-moving, i.e. auto-mobile: at the push of a button, the body unfolds towards the sky and points like a divine finger in the direction of the longing inscribed in all studies of the future with their winged figures and butterfly gates: Deus ex machina. In the form of the totem, the DS refers to the mythical origin of the brand and embodies the basic taboo of the automobile industry, which must be respected: the essence of the automotive longing always remains the desire for divine all-movement, detachment from earthen constraints, transcendence.

The neighboring design study Metisse also pays homage to the aura of this totem. The name means "Half-breed" and alludes to the diesel hybrid technology of the sports coupe, which Citroen plans to have ready for series production by 2010. Perhaps hybrid cars are more likely to be accepted than purely electric vehicles because they do not completely lose the aspect of taking something in and leaving something out, which is so important for bringing the automobile to life. Since alternative drive concepts are not particularly sexy, spectacular design is also needed to attract the desired attention.

The five-meter-long, two-meter-wide and only 1.24-meter-high flugeltur looks like something out of a science fiction movie. Everything about this study, huddled against the ground like this, points towards the sky: the front winged figures, with their vertical transfer movement, point to the desire to push open the heavenly gate from the earth. In this way, they perfectly fulfill the theological mandate sent out by the DS totem. By describing a spiral trajectory, the rear tures refer to the divine spiral of DNA, also the object of human improvement efforts. These symbolic allusions are complemented by tangible reminiscences of fighter-bombers: in the front section there are greedy air vents, the starter button inside is located in the overhead console like in airplanes.

Peugeot study 908 RC ©Peugeot

The interior, with its soft bucket seats, borrows from Chris Cunningham’s hypnotic music video for the Bjork song All Is Full Of Love, which in 1999 showed the human-machine in the form of animated anthropomorphic robots cloning themselves in their image. The round rear part refers to the still pending birth of a new centaur – the driver fused with the machine – of which the futurist Marinetti was the first to enthuse. In this way, the formal language of the Metisse reminds us of the fact that the automobile has long since extended the physical functions of the human being in a prosthetic way and now also wants to participate in elementary events such as birth. The study thus completes the arc spanned between man and machine, earth and sky.

Man is reflected in the evil eye of the predatory cat

In the third mixed creature to be reviewed here, the cat-like Peugeot study 908 RC, one seems to recognize the monsters, mythical creatures and damons called gargouilles on the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Just as the sacred church of Notre Dame was to be protected from the intrusion of the evil one by holding up its own ugly face to Lucifer, the "Bare look" of today’s automotive front sections to ensure the driver’s undisturbed progress. "Like a megalomaniac stag dreaming of being nothing but antlers at some point, the car design of the present day declines all the impositional gestures of zoology through", Ulrich Raulff wrote in the Suddeutsche Zeitung two years ago.

Peugeot study 908 RC ©Peugeot

Here, in keeping with the brand emblem, it is the coarse deer that was the inspiration for the design of the front end of the 908 RC. According to Peugeot, the extremely short overhanging front is "directly to the head shape of a big cat" but could have come from a small car and therefore clashes with the enormous length of the vehicle. The cockpit, borrowed from an airplane cockpit, is positioned extremely far forward and is covered by a huge windshield that extends beyond the driver and merges into a glass roof. A kink in the A pillar destroys the smooth roofline that approaches from behind and seems to be borrowed from a chopped VW Phaeton sedan. This ride through the type classes is in the slapped-on rear end of a sports car, flanked on the sides by puffy cheeks in which huge 21-inch alloy wheels are stuck. Overall, the study seems like an unbalanced clownish cross between three completely different types of vehicles without any indication of the transitions that have taken place.

More interesting are the claw-like chrome drops in the jerk lights, which echo the feline predator motif at the rear. The rubbing claw at the rear of the Peugeot dispels any last doubts: here, man has taken possession of the dragon, domesticated it in order to harness it for his own purposes. In psychoanalytical terms, the dragon is a container in which the auben of civilization is imagined, writes cultural scientist Hartmut Bohme. The aggression and destruction losses of our own culture are externalized in this fantastic hybrid creature, in order to be able to distance oneself from this violence. Bohme provides the key to the understanding of the concept cars: He writes that decisive in the monsters is a drive dynamic, which comes to the fore in their physiognomic expression: In the raging grimaces of the Damons, the threatening savagery of man himself – sexual and oral greed and aggression – is represented.

Overall, then, it becomes clear that the Paris Motor Show is an intermediate realm populated by beings that owe their existence to the metamorphic exchange between humans, gods, and animals. This realm, to which animals and monsters as well as people had to give their physiognomy, was created to hide the fact that from all figurations and grimaces of damonic front parts always only man himself looks at us: An extreme form of human self-encounter is embodied in the monstrous automotive hybrid.

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