Privatised friction and coercive architecture

Christopher Williams-Wynn

The relationship between art and architecture has recently been revived as a key field of interest for many contemporary  artists. Contemporary art theorist and philosopher Peter Osborne notes this theme, remarking that one of the primary spatial concerns for contemporary art is its link to urban, and therefore, built form.[i] Accompanying this ‘spatial turn’ is a greater emphasis on the action of the viewer within the exhibition space. Rather than a disembodied observer of art, the viewer moves through and around the space in order to gain multiple perspectives on the work and, in some way, inhabit the space. This shift towards movement and emphasis on space resonates with philosopher and sociologist Michel de Certeau’s claim that ‘space is a practised place’.[ii] Whereas place refers to the rigid ordering of physical surrounds, space encompasses the vitality of bodily movement through a given place. Importantly for de Certeau, space permits multiple uses that may allow individuals to negate or resist the use intended by architects or city planners. This inherent dynamism of space thus seems to involve a degree of autonomy or resistance. In this sense, de Certeau foreshadows more recent studies that emphasise the contested use of public areas and the idea of a multifaceted, rather than monolithic public.[iii]

Given these connections between art and public space, analysing the work of art with a specific focus on the site of exhibition may yield a more fulsome analysis of both. To explore different approaches to the signification of public space within a gallery setting, this essay focuses on two recent exhibitions that demonstrate such concerns. While Rose Nolan’s Big Words (Not Mine) — Read the words “public space”… (2013) was displayed in a prominent  commercial gallery,[iv] Madeleine Rose Chapman’s and Scarlett Rowe’s Dancing about Architecture (2013) was shown in an independent space.[v] Despite these seemingly polarized exhibition settings, mediations of public space appear in both, suggesting that site and work may be productively interrogated in order to move beyond binaries of private and public, commercial and collective. Fundamentally this essay contends that the interpretation of art may be enriched by considering it in relation to its context of display.

Adopting the form of festive fliers, Nolan’s Big Words presents the iconography of public celebration. The exhibition features a series of triangular hessian pieces, each covered with a near impasto layer of white and red paint on one side, as her work hangs like bunting in the gallery space. Viewers are invited to pass beneath the pennants, suspended across the length of the gallery’s lateral walls. Zigzagging across the exhibition space, the flags’ form and installation mirrors the signs of a communal event. It would not be uncommon to see similar shapes, also painted white and red, displayed as part of the festivities for a national holiday or a similar celebration. Referencing Nolan’s previous banner works, curator Max Delany provides a similar analogy, noting that ‘the banners make implicit reference to the vernacular antics and subjective expression of cheer squads, crowds and fans.’[vi] At a formal level the work refers to a celebration in which people may come together, even if only temporarily, for a common purpose.

The textual content of Big Words also encourages a reading slanted towards communal spirit. Painted across the hessian pieces, a series of letters form part of a text by artist and architect Vito Acconci. Best known for provocative performance works, such as Claim (1971), in which he sat blindfolded in a basement for three hours defending it against any ‘intruders’,[vii] Acconci’s writing offers a sustained engagement with the interaction between the viewer/ participant, the physical setting for the art work and the experience of it. The excerpt that appears in Nolan’s work derives from Acconci’s lecture entitled Public Space in a Private Time (2004),[viii] in which he argues for the oppositional character of public space. According to Acconci, a public space may function ‘as a public prison’ through  the deployment of conventional signs, images and objects, while it may also act ‘as a public forum’[ix] by a collision and destabilisation of conventional arrangements  of images. This kind of friction has the potential to stir discussion that could ‘become a revolution.’[x] Within this formulation, public space may function alternately as a site of consensus or conflict, agreement or antinomy.

Nolan’s palette—predominantly red and white—stages a similar friction. As Delany observes, these colours feature prominently within the modernist art of the twentieth century.[xi] The Russian Constructivists, for example, used red and white to engender revolutionary connotations, seeking to enmesh art with life, thus overturning the idea of an autonomous art. In Nolan’s work, however, red and white stand as clashing signifiers of silence and noise, purity and radicality.[xii] These binary oppositions juxtapose the aspirations of a revolutionary art with the current potential for such artistic, social and political upheaval. Through Big Words, the signifiers of a revolutionary art remain, while the associated sentiments are softened by the calm exhibition space—an inclination towards equanimity tempers modernist goals of transformation.

This use of white within Nolan’s work may also relate it to its exhibition context, the white cube. In his canonical text, artist and critic Brian O’Doherty outlines ‘the ideology of the white cube’— the immaculate white walls of the modernist galleryspace—that represent an attempt to elide the power and influence that supports the gallery structure. The viewer may engage with the art object supposedly free of the incursion of non-aesthetic experience. That is, life beyond the gallery is to be passed over (preferably in silence and in deference to the work). As O’Doherty writes, the ‘ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is “art”’.[xiii] Imbued with the capacity to designate an object as art through the act of containment, the white cube assumes prime importance with respect to the status of the object. It becomes ‘a participant in, rather than a passive support for, the art’.[xiv] Claims that the object is free of its exhibition context are thus untenable.

Given these considerations, Nolan’s work seems to revel in disjunction and engender ambivalence. Viewed in this white cube par excellence there seems an invitation to partake in the mythology elucidated by O’Doherty, to distance oneself from the kind of communal experience signified by the bunting. Indeed, the installation of the banners almost seems to menace the viewer. Hung such that the lowest edge of the hessian segments sit approximately 185 centimetres from the floor, the point of each triangle looms closely, almost threateningly, over the gallery visitor. While this kind of oppositional installation might signify the sort of disquiet highlighted by Acconci, it simultaneously seems to ingratiate the gallery space with that public space, as though it could operate as an alternative.

Nevertheless, this recuperation of the signifiers of public space may indicate its absence within contemporary society. As Acconci remarks, the ‘establishment of certain space in the city as “public” is a reminder, a warning, that the rest of the city isn’t public.’[xv] Developments in the demarcation of public space and its erosion of ownership, implied by Acconci’s statement, reflect an increasing trend related to the widespread adoption of a market-based paradigm.[xvi] Within this model, the value of space becomes the output of an economic equation of benefits and costs, as the multiple elements constituting a public space are compacted into a dollar figure. Consequently, public and private spaces, those respectively more or less accessible, are increasingly intertwined.[xvii]

It is this kind of ambivalent attitude and transformative potential that emerges from Nolan’s juxtaposition of work and site. Acconci suggests that the mere existence of the private space ‘provoked desire, its privacy functioned as a taunt to the public that felt left out.’[xviii] As the gallery is open to a public viewing experience, there seems a dare to react. Nolan’s work intimates that if desire were translated into action, the public could claim the space. Set against this proposition, Nolan’s pennants hang almost motionless against the white walls of the private space. The combination of work and site seemingly, perhaps even inadvertently, highlights the very issue that Acconci’s text raises: the friction between order and disorder. If friction appears, it is not between participants vociferously debating issues within the public sphere, but between the relative sterility of the space and the incendiary undertones of Nolan’s work. Friction becomes domesticated and its potential subdued.

According to urban design theorist Ali Madanipour, if the connection between public and private space appears inextricable, it is because these spaces are mutually constitutive.[xix] Viewed in this light, Nolan’s flags literally and metaphorically stage the condition of contemporary public space, a position that represents a pessimistic capitulation to the status quo. The disjuncture between the drive to establish convention versus the destabilisation of convention surfaces as a commercial space supports the signifiers of public space. The potential for public action seems, however, hollowed out: the signs are borrowed, but the type of event seems divorced and transformed into an aesthetic object within a private space. Indicators of festivity and communal activity become marketable objects in a situation that opposes a concept of the public realm as space where communication is free of commercial interests. In this sense, Big Words and its site of display thematise the predicament of public space: its delimitation by commercial interests.[xx]

Although it also investigates and references public space, Chapman and Rowe’s Dancing about Architecture takes a different approach. The exhibition features an eponymous video work that depicts various Melbourne street scenes. People are seen boarding and alighting from trams, destinations unknown to the viewer, while others are observed standing; possibly waiting for someone, or pausing for respite. Others are engaged in conversation, their voices unheard but their bodies captured in high-definition film as they gesture to one another. One woman in particular, evidently deeply engaged in dialogue, performs a series of circular gestures with her right arm, as if cycling through a series of points, or perhaps indicating the repetition of her day. In any case, this video shows a series of individuals, both together and alone, passing through the cityscape and undertaking a range of quotidian activities.

In this respect, Dancing shares similarities with Big Words, insofar as image, object and action seem integral to these artists. Just as Nolan’s work situates the signs of public events and space into the gallery, Chapman and Rowe depict actions performed across public sites, with a particular focus on the conventions of public space. Though a number of different individuals interact onscreen, they appear subject to the same spatial organisation. All walk along the same footpaths, gather around tram stops and cross with the lights; a mass of individuals who are conditioned to use the space in specific ways at particular times. Their title also seems to underline this aspect of the city. While dancing may connote free movement, it also involves adherence to expected comportment. Chapman and Rowe’s work shows the use of public space as con- strained, even orderly.

Their treatment of city life clashes with common notions of urban terrain as the site of rapid actions and varied experiences. A similar conception is also proposed by sociologist Georg Simmel. Writing in the late nineteenth-century, a time of rapid industrialisation and shifts in the structure of social life, Simmel conceives of urban experience as a constant and uncertain flow of interactions and images, as provoking an ‘intensification of nervous stimulation’ due to the accelerated pace of city living.[xxi] Perhaps the dynamism of Simmel’s city has faded, or maybe it never existed, for the slow-motion video of Dancing accentuates the dull drone of movement in the metropolis. As a study of the city and those populating it, Dancing emphasises the sense that habits are being enacted within the urban environment. If the promise of the city’s vibrancy seems conveyed by the high-definition colour video, the repetitive actions of those depicted thwarts the potential for sensorial excitement. In contrast to Simmel’s conception of the anxiogenic city, Chapman and Rowe reveal the monotony of the metropolis and the manner in which behaviour can become routine. If habits comprise sets of predominantly unconscious actions, any onlookers in public space may find them incomprehensible. This resistance to an explanation of drives, desires or other internal forces is further emphasised through the installation of the work. Chapman and Rowe projected their film onto either side of a Perspex screen, hung from wires in the centre of the intimate gallery space. With adequate room either side of the screen, their display technique allowed the viewer to circulate through the space. This movement, however, bore a certain futility. Mirrored across the horizontal axis, this double projection forestalled attempts to get ‘behind’ the image, to examine its constituent parts or view its depths; there was no machinery of production on display. Dancing seems to leave the surface of public action impenetrable, a series of portrayed gestures inscrutable. Viewers may interpret the work subjectively, but knowledge or certainty seems forestalled. Instead of obtaining any clues as to the motivations of the depicted individuals, or intimations of an inner life, the viewer instead confronts a recalcitrant duo of mirror images.

In addition to this congruence between the video and installation, the physical presence of the work may also reinforce the notion that architecture influences action. As viewers pass through the gallery, it becomes evident that the screen is itself imposing on the viewer. Its presence within the space incites a reaction to it: it must be navigated around, partially blocking passage through the gallery. Just as Dancing depicts little variation in the use of space, the viewer of the work behaves similarly to others by accommodating the presence of the object and moving around it. For this reason, the title of the work becomes ironic, as the viewer does not so much dance around as succumb to the architectural imposition. That ‘other side’ of the Perspex may not be solely of the video, but also of the viewer. There appears, then, a confluence between the corporeal viewer and the mediated individual.

This mediation creates a relay between the viewer and the depicted individuals. Within the video, a high-angled shot, almost rendering the street planar to the surface of the screen, presents a man waiting. He stands nervously in the street, shifting his weight left and right before departing for reasons and a destination unknown. This aerial view, in which the observer gazes down on the inhabitants of public spaces, was noted by de Certeau to create a ‘representation, an optical artefact’.[xxii] With this comment he regards this view as abstracting from lived experience gained at street level. If that elevated perspective is the domain of the city planner or car- tographer, and thus a ‘“theoretical (that is, visual) simulacrum)’”,[xxiii] the experience on the ground in public space is one aligned with the ‘ordinary practitioners of the city’.[xxiv]

Both these kinds of perspectives feature within Chapman and Rowe’s work. While the viewer watches the video, so too is that viewer watched by other viewers. Panopticism and its universalised gaze seem to extend from exterior public space into the gallery interior. From production to exhibition, the work also reflects this switch in perspective. After wandering the city streets, Chapman and Rowe transferred that experience into the final image, a process that operates in reverse when the observer of the video begins to circulate through the gallery space. When watching the video while moving through the exhibition, the viewer may realise that the use of space seems constrained or ‘designed’, that public space engenders habitual or expected actions within that space. Subject to this visual and corporeal engagement, the viewer may recognise such coercive effects and realise that ‘spatial practices in fact secretly structure the determining conditions of social life’.[xxv] Using both abstract and lived perspectives, the installation links the white cube to spaces outside the gallery, a connection that exposes the ordering of both gallery and public space.

These works offer different effects related to the mediation of public space within the gallery. As Nolan’s work moves the signs of public events, with the concomitant suggestions of friction, into the white cube, the difference between the relative sterility of the gallery and the space just beyond the door becomes apparent. This combination of work and site appears as an aesthetic metaphor for the antagonism between private interests and public space, thereby providing a means for recognising this trend within contemporary society. More concerned with the urban environment, Chapman and Rowe’s work and exhibition concentrate the coercive forces of architecture into an aesthetic experience that nonetheless resonates with quotidian practice. Through the realisation of these architectural effects, the potential for an alternative organisation of space, one in which architecture serves and reflects the mobility of individuals, remains latent, although not guaranteed. After noting these differences between Big Words and Dancing, it would seem that any generalised dismissal of the white cube misses the point. Instead, the nature of its relationship to the world must be recognised as contingent upon the work it contains. That is, considering the work and gallery in relation to one another, rather than either in isolation, may enrich the understanding of both. Such an encompassing, although not exhaustive, examination resists synthesis and encourages contestation— a combination that reflects the ambivalence in portrayals of public space, perhaps even the contested status of public space itself.

[i] Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (London and New York: Verso, 2013), 134.

[ii] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1984), 117. Emphasis in original.

[iii] Setha M Low, On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 128–129. See also Ali Madanipour, ‘Introduction,’ in Whose Public Space? International Case Studies in Urban Design and Development, ed. Ali Madanipour (Abingdon: Rout l edge, 2010), 1–16.

[iv] Rose Nolan, Big Words (Not Mine) – Read the words ‘public space…, 2013. Dimensions variable, hessian, acrylic paint and haberdashery thread. Exhibition held at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, 16 May to 6 Jul y 2013.

[v] Madeleine Rose Chapman and Scarlett Rowe, Dancing about Architecture, 2013. Dimensions variable, 3:19 minute HD two-channel video, Perspex and wire. Exhibition held at BUS Projects, Melbourne, 3 July to 20 July 2013.

[vi] Max Delany, ‘Rose Nolan: Dressing Up and Sizing Down,’ in Rose Nolan (Melbourne: Arts Victoria,

2001), 9.

[vii] Frazer Ward, ‘Acconci: ‘Public space is wishful thinking.’,’ in No Innocent Bystanders: Performance Art and Audience (New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press, 2012), 71–75.

[viii] Vito Acconci, ‘Public Space in a Private Time,’ in Vito Hannibal Acconci Studio (Barcelona : Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona y Actar, 2004), 416–431.

[ix] Ibid., 421.

[x] Ibid., 421.

[xi] Max Delany, ‘Rose Nolan: Dressing Up and Sizing Down,’ in Rose Nolan (Melbourne: Arts Victoria, 2001), 8.

[xii] Ibid., 8.

[xiii] Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1986), 14.

[xiv] Ibid., 22.

[xv] Vito Acconci, ‘Public Space in a Private Time,’ Critical Inquiry 16, no. 4, (1990): 901.

[xvi] Jeremy Néme th,‘Defining a Public: The Management of Privately Owned Public Space,’ Urban Studies 46, no. 11 (2009): 1–28.

[xvii] Margaret Kohn, Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 10–11.

[xviii] Vito Acconci, ‘Public Space in a Private Time,’ Critical Inquiry 16, no. 4, (1990): 904.

[xix] Ali Madanipour, Public and Private Spaces of the City (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 149–151.

[xx] Margaret Kohn, Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 54.

[xxi] Georg Simmel, ‘The Metropol is and Mental Life,’ in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed. Kurt H. Wolf f (Gl encoe: The  Fre e Press), 410.

[xxii] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1984), 92.

[xxiii] Ibid., 93.

[xxiv] Ibid., 93.

[xxv] Ibid., 96. Similarly, Ali Madanipur writes that ‘human subjectivity is located at the intersection of biological and social forces and is constantly changing them and being shaped by them’ (Ali Madanipour, Public and Private Spaces of the City (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 201.

Download as PDF Read other articles