Anthony Kiendl, Director Visual Arts and Walter Phillips Gallery, The Banff Centre, Canada will speak about his recent interest in informal architecture: a topic on which he will be addressing the symposium ‘Conceptions of Space: Architecture and Curating’ at Tate Modern on 11 September 2004.
Selected quote: “This program of research also assumes that curatorial practice can be considered a cultural form in itself, distinct from a traditional practice of art history; curating in this sense is both akin to creative and critical writing, as well as being an artistic practice.”
Curatorial practice, space and failure
These are Antony Kiendl’s NOTES from his presentation.
My present research and curatorial practice revolves around ideas of space, largely as they relate to modernism, failure and weakness. Rather than a dystopian or negative dialectic however, my research seeks alternatives to dominant (modernist) paradigms of strength, power and control.
In my curatorial work thus I have theorized weakness, empathy, pathos, and associated sentiments such as nostalgia as responses to modernism. This metanarrative can be traced through the diverse forms of various curatorial projects. They include Little Worlds (1998), an exploration of diminutive environments; Fluffy (1999), a laboratory of cuteness; Beautiful Losers (1999), a meditation on loss and failure; and Space Camp 2000: Uncertainty, Speculative Fictions, and Art, a cocktail of space-related thought that proposed science-fiction narratives as agents of alterity and disruptions of rationalism, that is, as emotional, contingent, suspect.
When considering the problematics of curating and space, I find the following passage summarizes with great simplicity and charm, some of the issues – often unspoken – around the curating of space, art and exhibition practice…
“I put a picture on a wall. Then I forget there is a wall. I no longer know what there is behind this wall, I no longer know there is a wall, I no longer know this wall is a wall, I no longer know what a wall is. I no longer know that in my apartment there are walls, and that if there weren’t any walls, there would be no apartment. The wall is no longer what delimits and defines the place where I live, that which separates it from the other places where other people live, it is nothing more than a support for the picture. But I also forget the picture, I no longer look at it. I have put the picture on the wall so as to forget there was a wall, but in forgetting the wall, I forget the picture too. There are pictures because there are walls. We have to be able to forget there are walls, and have found no better way to do that than pictures. Pictures efface walls. But walls kill pictures. So we need to be changing, either the wall or the picture, to be forever putting other pictures up on the walls, or else constantly moving the picture from one wall to another.
We could write on our walls (as we sometimes write on the fronts of houses, on fences round building sites and on the walls of prisons), but we do it only very rarely.”
In this spirit, I am heading sections of my talk with lines from Perec.
But walls kill pictures
[Discuss Little Worlds floorplan, introduce images]
While monumentality continues to haunt contemporary art and architectural practices in westernized societies, alternative strategies in spatial culture have proliferated since the 1960s. By taking into consideration the work of artists, including those from diverse cultural and alternative perspectives, those works that form the canon of modern art and architecture may be re-contextualized. Informal architecture: the representation of space in visual culture proposes to put forward alternative strategies and criteria for the creation, representation and interpretation of space and its cultural implications.
The project examines theories of and relations to space from the descriptive, analytic and creative perspectives of a number of different disciplines in order to evince its situation within cultural and metaphysical boundaries. Hence it endeavours to show and/or examine how the characterization of space is that which is to be defined in some way as variously social, philosophical, political, and indeed, poetic. This program of research incorporates the creation of new works as a primary activity. As an inter-disciplinary research project, space will be considered not exclusively in formal terms, in fact a strict formal analysis would be virtually meaningless without considerations of social, technological, and cultural structures. This program of research also assumes that curatorial practice can be considered a cultural form in itself, distinct from a traditional practice of art history; curating in this sense is both akin to creative and critical writing, as well as being an artistic practice. Informal architecture mobilizes related streams of research that collectively advance knowledge disembarking from a range of curatorial and contemporary art practices that include sculpture, installation, architecture, performance, design (industrial, environmental, exhibition) and virtual environments.
The program of research will investigate those representations or structures that embody a relationship to l’informe (the formless) as conceived by Georges Bataille and recently theorized by art historians Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois and others [see bibliography]. By studying the ephemeral, weak, unbuilt, and contingent, it is possible to question the modern binary opposition of form versus content. Informal architecture will explore the dissolution of boundaries, as well as works or ideas that are temporary, contingent, nomadic, hypothetical, historical, and fictional conceptions of space. The Informal architecture team will explore the implications of these conceptual approaches to spatial culture in re-imagining contemporary society’s relationship to the built environment and its manifestations in the popular imagination and everyday life.
[Explain the context of research as follows….]
Since the late 1960s, conceptions of architecture have incorporated social factors, informed by space, the body, movement, history – culture and its manifestations, including performance, spectacle and relationships. Theorists such as Jurgen Habermas, after the Frankfurt School, created a means by which to interpret the social dimensions of space and its construction, representation and interpretation. The conceptual art projects of the 1960s and 70s paralleled the work of “paper architects,” whose projects were never meant to be realized as built structures, but rather as hypothetical ideas which leant themselves to critiquing traditional means and assumptions associated with architecture. It was in the 1960s, according to art historian Rosalind Krauss’s formulation, that sculpture began to play in an “expanded field” (with the development of installation and earth works, etc). The last decade of contemporary art and architectural practice has intensified the relationship between art and architecture.
Inter-disciplinarity within both visual art and architectural practices makes the distinction between these fields permeable and shifting. Architectural theorist Anthony Vidler states, “Artists, rather than simply extending their terms of reference to the three-dimensional, take on questions of architecture as an integral and critical part of their work in installations that seek to criticize the traditional terms of art. Architects, in a parallel way, are exploring the processes and forms of art, often on the terms set out by artists, in order to escape the rigid codes of functionalism and formalism. This intersection has engendered a kind of “intermediary art,” comprised of objects that, while situated ostensibly in one practice, require the interpretive terms of another for their explication.”
In philosopher Gianni Vattimo’s depiction of the postmodern age of nihilism, we are left with weak thinking aimed at a weak and vanishing being. To Vattimo, a world in which there is no ultimate reality, and only multiple interpretations, domination might be less likely to occur. Rather than basing all our hopes on a single utopia, he suggests that we accept a being that repeatedly dissolves. Accordingly, being can no longer be seen as an eternal structure. Rather than those destructive nihilists who believe that being ultimately dissolves into nothingness, Vattimo holds out the possibility of a weak subject. The modern experiment has come to an end, and with it, a faith in progress and emancipation. However, if we accept a reality that is continually dissolving –– while less reassuring than the age of myth or the age of reason –– we may still hold out hope for an emancipation of a limited kind. In the aftermath of the erosion of faith in a fixed reality, a plurality of world pictures that emerges could lead to the liberation of difference.
[Discussion of Little Worlds, show slides]
I forget there is a wall
[Discussion of Godzilla vs Skateboarders and slides].
The exhibition title Godzilla vs Skateboarders implies a site – like those depicted in the Godzilla films – where forces collide, usually in a specific location that carries meaning (i.e. an identifiable landmark). However, in this exhibition, the “vs” is intended to connote a comparison rather than opposing forces. Godzilla is generally perceived as a figure that does little more than stomp around, roar, and smash things. It (he?) is then dispatched at or near some famous urban landmark. So too are skateboarders perceived to be doing little more than hanging around, “disturbing the peace,” and damaging things – until dispatched at or near some famous urban landmark. Such statuary, architecture, or plazas are notorious skater hangouts.
If we imagine that there is more going on than the above commonplace narratives imply – not only in Godzilla movies but in skateboarding and other performative acts in visual culture – the visual language of these acts reveal otherwise quiescent narratives that can bring new connotations to our social spaces.
In contemporary terms, Iain Borden describes how the physicality of skateboarding is at the centre of its representational meaning: “[Skateboarding’s] representational mode is not that of writing, drawing, or theorizing, but of performing – of speaking their meanings and critiques of the city through their urban actions. Here in the movement of the body across urban space, and in its direct interaction with the modern architecture of the city, lies the central critique of skateboarding – a rejection of both the values and of the spatio-temporal modes of living in the contemporary capitalist city.”
In skateboarding circles, there is a saying that has been quoted in different ways and often enough that it approaches myth: “Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of immense potential. But it was the minds of 11 year olds that could see the potential.” Given the context of a massive playground, it is the role of play as a cultural practice that I want to consider here, in this interpretation of social spaces and visual culture. Skateboarding is a vehicle that follows this path. That all the concrete, steel, and detritus of the North American continent is a vast playground is the vision of this exhibition.
Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott stated that “cultural experience is located in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object). The same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in play.” These ideas are critical. Play – as a cultural activity – suggests a number of potential activities and artistic strategies. In this exhibition, play is the operative metaphor for exploring a potential space and its meaning. Play better approximates cultural experience than “experimentation” does. Experimentation is intrinsically based on science and rationality; it does not serve art, or what artists do, as well as play.
The wall is no longer what delimits and defines the place where I live
[Contextualize background of new project I am working on…that looks at construction of Canadian north as a fictional space, and how that has played out historically, politically and socially]. Note: Superman is a Canadian writer’s creation.
Of course, the most spectacular example of modernism and failure is that of 9/11 and the World Trade Center collapse. The WTC collapse is so pregnant with iconic associations that it’s almost too much to take, and even now three years later, these images manage to defy meaningful articulation, they defy language, exceeding language at every turn in an abstract yet totalizing horror.
Scenes from the original Superman film: In the first stills we see the apocalyptic collapse of the planet Krypton, (which necessitated the departure of Superman to planet Earth as an infant, sent in an escape pod by his father Jor-El played by Marlon Brando); then we see the erection of Superman’s fortress of solitude presumably in the Canadian arctic, emerging from the ice as a crystalline structure containing essentially a library encoded in crystals and played back to Superman by the holographic image of his father. The scenes from Krypton depict exactly those scenes that were censored in the popular media, those of bodies falling spectacularly from the towers. In film they are safely at a distance as fiction, but as the similarity of these images to the WTC attack suggest, there is no longer a meaningful distinction between fiction and reality.
Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the twin towers, created a light structure by standards of earlier buildings, relying on flexibility rather than monumentality to withstand shocks. The steel members of its skin held up the building without need for heavy internal piers, allowing for less structural materials. The collapsing towers seemingly in the popular imaginary have resuscitated interest in a reversion to heavier structural forms. Indeed, many of the proposals for redevelopment of the WTC site depicted not only a vulgar giganticism, but even as with Richard Meier and Partners proposed five linked towers, a defensive perimeter around the disaster site.
[explain WTC as contemporary experience in popular imaginary, importance of doing that to research]
Superman made this journey to the Canadian north presumably at the moment of his transition from youth to adulthood, connecting the end of his innocence with the acquisition of knowledge. Interestingly the binary of phallic collapsing towers, and subsequent regeneration or recuperation by means of a crystalline mass is being repeated at the sight of the World Trade Center itself with the successful (and chosen) proposal of Daniel Liebskind’s 541 metre sliver, that by means of transitional structures, will rearticulate the condition of the WTC site in a less static, phallic monument of glass.
There are two streams here that beg for further consideration: one is the more generalized terms of modernity and strength, knowledge, universality, minimalism and power. The second is a particulary local and Canadian experience of the arctic as a space of contested meaning, one heightened by the perception of its vast emptiness. As a massive tabula rasa, the Canadian arctic is a space seemingly open for attachment of meaning – an experience that has in fact been enacted in Canadian art, politics and social policy. These twin streams of research form the basis for an exhibition in development.
[Explain relocation of Cree from north Quebec to resolute as human flags.]
This exhibition is likely to feature a pivotal work by artist Mike Kelley entitled “Superman Recites Selections from The Bell Jar and Other Works by Sylvia Plath” (1999). Mike Kelley writes: “In ‘Superman Recites Selections from The Bell Jar and Other Works by Sylvia Plath,’ an actor portrays Superman and does exactly what the title describes. In a dark no-place [note association to arctic] evocative of Superman’s own psychic ‘Fortress of Solitude’ the alienated Man of Steel recites those selections of Plath’s writings that utilize the image of the bell jar. Superman directs these lines to Kandor, the bell jar city that represents his own traumatic past, for he is the only surviving member of a planet that has been destroyed. Kandor now sits, frozen in time, a perpetual reminder of the inability to escape the past, and his alienated relationship to his present world. For us, Kandor is an image of a time that never was – the utopian city of the future that never came to be.”
Kandor is reminiscent of Minoru Yamasaki’s attempt at the utopian city of the future. “Before 1970 American architect’s best known design was the Pruitt-Igoe estate in St. Louis, Missouri. Constructed as public housing in 1953, Pruitt-Igoe’s thirty-three identical, eleven-storey apartment blocks were so shoddy, crowded and alienating as to be deemed uninhabitable. When three central blocks were demolished in 1972, it registered a sea change in public attitudes toward Modernist architecture. The purity of form that had emerged from the utopian socialism of the early 1900s has come, with the passage of a half-century, to be associated with monolithic corporate and state power and to be experienced as inhuman and corrosive to the civilized scale and texture of urban life. By 1980, the entire estate has been razed.” And so With the WTC collapse, Yamasaki will be chiefly remembered for buildings that have failed and been destroyed.
Mike Kelley’s video was a component of a larger installation in which a computer animation of the city of Kandor was projected in the gallery; and a collection of architectural models of various buildings from the city were presented. Architecture students continued to create these models during the run of the exhibition. Kelley states that, “ one of the things that interested me most about Kandor is that there is no continuity in its depiction in Superman comics. Its skyline changes from story to story, making it impossible to truly reconstruct. An interactive computer program that would allow the city to be changed continuously, based on fan’s input, would be a perfect reflection of the ambiguous nature of the city, and appropriate model of memory’s illusive nature. The animation which presents multiple overlays of various version of the city, is a compromise solution for this idea…The project as a whole then became a mirror of the failure of Modernism’s vision of a technological utopia.”
I no longer know what a wall is
The future demands a re-imagining of boundaries, proximity, relationships and difference.
Hieronymous Bosch’s The Ship of Fools, a painting from sometime between 1480 and 1516, illustrates the means by which the mad, psychotic, brain-damaged, pathetic, weak, sick, handicapped, or undesirable of Europe were packed off to distant shores. It released a community of its commitments to the troubled, yet the mad were not all inevitably expelled. Foucault points out that there was a symbolic or ritual aspect to this practice. There were symbolic associations with water and insanity, and the “Ship of Fools” provided an image of the individual search for the soul, health, and meaning to those who witnessed its arrival or departure. Despite this practice many in the early Renaissance treated the ill with kindness and felt that they belonged with their families. There even emerged a perception of wisdom and profundity associated with the mad or the fool. Value was sometimes assigned to the ravings of a lunatic.
Other treatments for the mentally ill in Europe are with us today. These include various forms of incarceration, whether in hospitals, asylums or prisons. While varied and changing over time, our disposition towards the different are based at a fundamental and historical level upon a degree of distance between us and the other. Today’s fashion, to have the mentally different in homes among a “normal” community sometimes benefits the individual, but when prescribed as the only placement for all, may cause hardship for those who need more rigourous attention and care.
Whether a ship of fools, an insane asylum, hospital, community living, or even walking the streets, the central principle of our relationships seems to be based on the proximity of mental illness to us. It assumes a kind of self-centred position in the treatment of mental difference that is based on the position of normalcy.
[Discussion of Beautiful Losers relating to above].
Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces,
edited and translated by John Sturrock, London: Penguin Books, 1997, 39.
Georges Bataille Visions of Excess,
Selected Writings, 1927—39. Trans. Allan Stoekl et al. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, eds. Formless: A User’s Guide.
New York: Zone Books, 1997.
Jurgen Habermas The Theory of Communicative Action.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.
Anthony Vidler, Warped Space.
Cambridge, MIT Press, 1985, ix.
Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity
, trans. by Jon R. Snyder (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
Borden, Iain. “Another Pavement, Another Beach: Skateboarding and the Performative critique of Architecture,” in The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space: A Strangely Familiar Project.
Edited by Iain Borden, Joe Kerr, and Jane Rendell, with Alicia Pivaro. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001, 195.
Hunn, David. Skateboarding.
London: Duckworth, 1977, 6.
Winnicott, D.W. Playing and Reality.
London: Routledge, 1971, 100.
Robin Metcalfe, “Specular Towers: Architecture and the Aerial View. Toronto: Public
Robin Metcalfe, “Specular Towers: Architecture and the Aerial View,”…