Monthly Archives: October 2013

Call of the Mall

This review appeared in frieze:

imageMatthew Darbyshire IP, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable

You wouldn’t normally expect to find ambitious contemporary art, least of all the kind that critically engages with consumer culture, in a shopping centre. But then, Hoog Catharijne is no ordinary mall. Built around a train station, the Netherlands’ busiest shopping centre (in terms of footfall) includes its own residential complex and office buildings. A late Modernist urban development animated by Utopian ideals, it was once an opulent place fitted with marble floors, chandeliers, exotic plants, aviaries, a bronze fountain and, yes, art works. This shopper’s paradise harked back to the glory days of department stores, whose mechanisms of seduction Émile Zola subjected to scrutiny in his 1883 novel Au Bonheur des dames (The Ladies’ Pleasure).

None of this finery remains. These days Hoog Catharijne, hard-hit by the recession, is more drab and depressing than most shopping centres. Unsurprisingly, the history of the mall, its current predicament and future prospects were among the themes the 28 invited artists and collectives addressed in the exhibition ‘Call of the Mall’ – part swan song part siren song – timed to coincide with Hoog Catharijne’s 40th birthday as well as the tercentenary of the Treaty of Utrecht.

In her post-apocalyptic installation Everything Must Go (all works 2013), Amsterdam-based Sanja Medic´ hung an enlarged black and white photograph of an iconic escalator collaged within an overgrown forest as hoarding on the outside of the mall, emulating the trompe l’oeil effect of ‘shopjackets’, increasingly used to mask vacant stores. For Uncertain Future, Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto availed himself of one such disused shop inside the centre, stripped it of all furnishings and left it completely bare save for a large glass ball, like a fortune-teller might use, lying on the ground. A paean to the vanishing art of handwriting, Agnieszka Kurant’s The End of Signature – one of the more arresting light sculptures included in the show – transformed signatures culled from residents of Hoog Catharijne, by means of a specially designed software programme, into a collective or ‘mean signature’ neon sign (that barely resembled a signature at all), which would light up progressively on the façade of a residential tower block, as if its inhabitants were continually signing it.

The projection into the mall’s (bleak) future had its counterpart in works that looked at its past. The line-up of vintage 1970s cars in Maze de Boer’s 1973, hand-painted a pale shade of lilac-grey that blended with the colour scheme of the newly revamped car park (in stark contrast to the dated feel of the rest of the mall), referenced the year of the mall’s unveiling. A fountain with a twist, spouting coloured rope in lieu of water (Persistent Illusions, by the London-based Troika collective) likewise alluded to a bronze fountain that featured in the original opening ceremony. Some much-needed relief came in the shape of Sylvie Fleury’s purposefully slight (one hopes) performance C’est la Vie!, which saw models clad in Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic 1965 Mondrian dresses parading around the mall with pedigree dogs.

Calling for a playful approach from visitors, Rotterdam-based sound artist Melle Smets installed a wooden shed on one of the plazas that acted as a recording studio (Radio Homo Ludens), which broadcast an orchestra playing live Muzak over the PA system on the evening of the show’s well-attended opening. Smets was not alone in engaging with the 1960s ideal of the homo ludens (or ‘Playing Man’, after the title of a 1938 book by the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga). Pilvi Takala’s Vergunningvolle Zone (Permit-full Zone) created a space in which certain rules and regulations were temporarily suspended to allow the homo ludens in us to freely frolic; yet, judging by some reports, few visitors put the bare and uninviting-looking area to very imaginative use.

One of the most critical works on view – so much so, in fact, that it made the others look somewhat naïve in comparison – Matthew Darbyshire’s IP, referring to the corporate jargon for ‘intellectual property’, mocks the idea of the shopping centre as an expanded play zone, embodied by the giant magenta flower pots that are dotted around the mall. The artist co-opted one of these to form the centrepiece in a grid of nine objects, ranging from an ice-cream cone to a terracotta warrior to a McDonalds’ Egg Chair, straddled by droid-like yoga mannequins, which for him epitomize the past, the present and the future of the mall.


Mark Leckey: The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things

This review of ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ appeared in Dutch translation in Metropolis M

With an eclectic mix of handpicked objects spread across most available gallery spaces at Nottingham Contemporary, in the latest round of artist-curated Hayward touring exhibitions, Mark Leckey has created a Wunderkammer fit for the digital age, one in which the physical and virtual realms converge. A cabinet of wonders that by and large steers clear of the academic pretensions and preciosity of some modern-day curiosi. The artist insists that he did not wish to make a show that would put his own taste on display in selecting the artworks and artists that he did. (Not all of the objects included in the exhibition are artworks, in fact, just as not all are the work of artists.) And yet he is the first to admit that some of the objects on view are in poor taste or at least not to everyone’s taste.

There is something rather boysy, playfully so, to a lot of the selected works, from the car-themed room at the start of the exhibition, the predilection for toys and gadgets of one kind or another (the inflated effigy of Felix the Cat that dominates one gallery space or the computer-generated, virtual image of Jeff Koons’ bunny sculpture featured in Leckey’s 2004 video Made in ‘Eaven) to the way that sexual attributes are emphasized, notably in Herman Makkink’s Rocking Machine (1969-70) – a giant white laquered fibreglass penis that the artist dubs ‘A Perpetual Motion Machine’ in the lavishly illustrated catalogue – and in Louise Bourgeois’ flesh-coloured rubber NATURE STUDY (1984), which combines male and female sexual parts. During an artist-led tour on the day of the opening, Leckey jokingly designated Bourgeois as ‘the grandmother of this collection’.

Susan Hiller is yet another contemporary female artist who shaped Leckey’s collection, if only to the extent that she contributed one of the items on view in the final, dark gallery room (also housing Bourgeois’ monstrous sculpture) that Leckey wanted to instill with a rave-like atmosphere. Bedecked with colourful birds and phallic kalla lily flowers, the bearded glazed earthenware figure from Mexico, its torso entirely made up of small androgynous heads, is an analogy for the show which Leckey likens to a colossal, aggregate body or, drawing on cybernetics-inspired jargon, system fashioned from discrete component parts – whether man, animal, machine, monster, or a mixture thereof. Encased in a vitrine, the sculpture recalls Hiller’s seminal 1994-96 From the Freud Museum, a cabinet of curiosities in its own right but one whose intuitive pairings are altogether more subtle, less immediately apparent than the ones offered up to the viewer, all chewed up, as it were, by Leckey.

Take, for instance, the medieval hand reliquary on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum placed besides a Touch Bionics prosthetic hand respresenting the latest technological advances, or the cyberman helmet in close proximity to a gaping-mouthed gargoyle head carved in sandstone. These are displayed on plinths in one of the striking twin booths designed to showcase sundry fetishes against a chrome-key green and blue backdrop, corresponding to the ‘Bodies’ and ‘Machine’ sections respectively. Between them, these matching items illustrate the full spectrum of a show that glaringly juxtaposes different periods and places, flattening or ironing out these differences as it goes, as well as Leckey’s cherished notion of ‘techno-atavism’: the paradoxical notion that as technology becomes more pervasive it brings us back to a state of pan-animism, idolatry and magical thinking that the artist-curator somewhat crudely associates with the Middle Ages, in which objects of all ilk communicate with or address each other across temporal and geographical divides. Hence the memorable title of the show (‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’) borrowed, according to Leckey’s catalogue preface, from ‘a concept in computing that refers to a network of everyday objects, an Internet of Things, all communicating’.


Ursula Mayer

This review was published in frieze d/e:

Ursula Mayer, Gonda, 2012, Film still

Located in an old mill on the edge of Kraichtal, the Ursula Blickle Foundation has turned the sleepy German town into something of an art destination since the private art space opened in 1991. The London-based Austrian artist Ursula Mayer – who previously took part in the 2003 group show at the Foundation, Love/Hate, alongside Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Isaac Julien, Runa Islam and Tadeusz Kantor, among others ­– returns with a solo exhibition a decade later. A partnership between the 21er Haus at Belvedere, Vienna – Blickle recently gifted a cinema named after her to the museum – the show is curated by Bettina Steinbrügge from 21er Haus, where the show will travel in October 2013.

Built around two formally and thematically connected films – Gonda (2012) and Pheres (2013) – the show includes photographs, collages, wall-printed quotations, sundry objects and mixed-media installations that grew out of the films. Immaculately displayed like archaeological or geological finds, not all the objects (from books and original film posters to perfume bottles and agate stones) hold the same interest; the rationale for displaying film props in particular is not entirely clear. The cumulative effect of this filmic debris, materially anchoring an art form that’s essentially immaterial, is to turn cinematic viewing into a museum-going experience.

Rather than presenting a continual narrative, the films deploy a range of montage techniques, collating stylized and mundane imagery, sounds and textual fragments read out in voice-over. Written by author and critic Maria Fusco, who worked with materials that came out of workshops which focused on Ayn Rand’s 1934 play Ideal, Gonda ’s script is particularly evocative. Considerably longer and the more formally complex of the two films, Gonda builds up a visual grammar of five ravishing colour fields matched by as many marble surfaces and symbolic objects – an Egyptian cat, a die, a skipping robe, a USB stick and a saddle – which correspond to different punctuation marks within Fusco’s text and to the five characters in the film. In Pheres, these visual interludes have their counterpart in DayGlo-coloured vignettes, alternating abstract geometric motifs with images of a downward-pointing hand, a ram’s head and the protagonist’s face viewed in profile, fringed by a wave-like pattern commonly found on ancient Greek vases. References to art history, architecture, dance and film inform Mayer’s practice – from the surrealist blend of dream and reality in Lunch in Fur/Le Déjeuner en fourrure (2008) to The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight (2010) which takes as its starting point a Roman frieze depicting the Medea story – endowing the work with a mythical kernel of sorts that complicates its reading.

The first two parts in a trilogy, the films shown here feature androgynous leads: the Dutch transgender fashion model Valentijn de Hingh in Gonda, and the New York-based queer icon, musician, DJ and activist JD Samson in Pheres. (The two are paired in the third installment due to be unveiled at the 21er Haus show.) The choice of the actresses was intended as a critical comment on gender stereotypes perpetrated by the film industry. Gonda is named after the 1930s Hollywood star, Kay Gonda, who embodies the ‘virtues’ of self-interest in Rand’s play Ideal. De Hingh’s tall, gaunt body is as stark as the volcanic landscape in which she poses, wearing either a gleaming golden outfit or nothing at all, whereas JD Samson with her short, curly dark hair and hint of a moustache resembles the toga-clad youths from fresco paintings in the ancient cave churches of Cappadoccia. Straddling documentary and fiction, Gonda and Pheres were shot on Mount Etna, Sicily, and Cappadoccia, Turkey, respectively – where Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 Porcile and Medea, starring Maria Callas in her only filmic role, were filmed. Though their unusual physiques – combining masculine and feminine traits – make the two actresses fascinating to watch, by the end of a show that features ubiquitous representations of each, on collaged posters and rather redundant photographs as well as in the films, you may be left feeling that you’ve overdosed on both.

The Making of Helen Marten

This piece appeared, translated into Dutch, in Metropolis M:

‘Success in public life seems sometimes to be not unrelated to the possession of thick skin – thick enough to be proof against penetration by any caricature not drawn with an electric drill.’ (Helen Marten, Evian Disease, 2012)

Getting an interview with the highly sought-after London-based artist Helen Marten is no mean feat. It seems that everyone wants a piece of her these days. With a spate of international art galleries representing her (Greene Naftali, New York; Johann König, Berlin; Sadie Coles HQ, London; T293, Naples), a couple of prestigious art prizes to her name (LUMA Award, 2012 and Prix Lafayette, 2011), well-received recent solo shows at Kunsthalle Zürich (‘Almost the Exact Shape of Florida’, 2012), the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (‘Evian Disease’, 2012) and Chisenhale Gallery, London (‘Plank Salad’, 2012), upcoming shows at CCS Bard, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, Sadie Coles HQ and the Lyon Biennale, as well as work included in the main show of the Venice Biennale, the 27-year-old artist has been getting no shortage of attention. In the last two to three years, frieze, Artforum, Kaleidoscope, Mousse, the Guardian, you name it, have featured interviews, close-ups, essays and cover stories dedicated to her by some of the most influential critics and curators out there, hailing the birth of a star.

Even when she does graciously lend herself to the exercise, Marten dodges any questions that might shed light on the meteoric rise of her career with a Bartleby-like ‘I would prefer not to’. Trying to work out how she came to be where she is today (all over the place) in less then five years – roughly since she completed her degree at the Ruskin in 2008 – consequently feels like detective work. Connecting the dots between the different entries on Marten’s CV makes for instructive reading when it comes to the power dynamics at play in the art world since the artist appears to have been blessed with some powerful backers, the kind who can make or break a career. How did her career take off? Who discovered her and first gave her a break? Why is she having a moment and what gives her a competitive advantage over her peers?

As with any success story, Marten had more than just talent going for her; she was extremely lucky. According to ArtReview, Beatrix Ruf, the curator and director of Kunsthalle Zürich, who came seventh in the magazine’s most-recent Power100 poll (listing the movers and shakers in contemporary art) and nominated Marten as a ‘future great’ in March 2011, is to be credited with discovering the artist. Ruf came across an installation of Marten’s Live – a three-part silk print banner that recalled Daniel Buren’s use of fabric and colour, displayed together with one of her Corian mobile phone ‘paintings’ – in a fashion shop in Miami (something the artist’s gallery T293 had arranged) in 2010, and was instantly impressed not only by the work itself but also by Marten’s ‘professional use of the situation’. Two hours later, she went back to the shop to meet Helen and they started discussing the possibility of working together on a project for Kunsthalle Zürich.

Paired with a show by Wolfgang Tillmans, likely to attract visitors, Marten’s first institutional exhibition, ‘Almost the Exact Shape of Florida’ (restaged, under different guises, at the Chisenhale Gallery last autumn and at CCS Bard in June 2013), was planned for the reopening of Kusthalle Zürich in the former Löwenbräu brewery in August 2012. For ArtReview, Marten’s good fortunes and ubiquity amply demonstrate Ruf’s leverage power. Before Ruf took the artist under her wing, the biggest show Marten could boast was a solo exhibition at her Berlin gallery, Johann König, ‘Take a stick and make it sharp’ (2011). Incidentally, it’s a show with Johann König that won her the FIAC’s Prix Lafayette for the best exhibition project presented by an emerging gallery in 2011. That very year, she was one of 15 artists nominated (by a selection committee made up of Tom Eccles, Liam Gillick, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Philippe Parreno and Beatrix Ruf) for the LUMA award, which she won the following year.

But others had spotted Marten’s talent before Ruf came across her work. In a Kaleidoscope interview that came out not long before Marten’s Dust and Pirhanas (2011) – a video piece made in response to Peter Zumthor’s 2011 Serpentine Gallery pavilion – was shown at the Serpentine in the popular Park Nights series, Hans Ulrich Obrist, another star curator to champion the young artist, noted that the first show he had seen her work in was ‘Boule to Braid’, Lisson Gallery’s 2009 summer exhibition curated by British sculptor Richard Wentworth. Wentworth, who went on to win the Turner Prize that year, had invited Marten to take part in the exhibition alongside such artists as Tony Cragg, Tony Ousler and Ryan Gander in her first year out of school. In 2010, he selected Marten as a young artist to watch for a Guardian piece on the best new artists in Britain. ‘She is making codes,’ he told the Guardian. ‘Her work is like a contemporary Rosetta stone. It is part of a broad conversation.’

Marten wavered between an artistic and a literary career, eventually opting to do a foundation year at Byam Shaw School of Art, part of Central Saint Martins, in 2004-5, followed by a degree course at the Ruskin School of Fine Art in Oxford. But she continues to spend a lot of time writing, mostly undisclosed content that she sees as a means to clarify or else muddle her own ideas. Marten’s fondness for talking in riddles, using opaque, dense and poetic language, comes across in the scripted texts that accompany most of her video works – the outcome of months of scribbling, re-writing and editorial fine-tuning. ‘Language and image are addressed as partnerships, and then rearranged into stylized outings of error, misalignment or perversion,’ as she eloquently puts it.

The artist’s literary aptitude and avowed interest in ‘the boundaries where humour, self-deprecation, sexiness, absurdity and violence all someone fold into one another’ invite comparisons with Ed Atkins especially, among her peers. Back in May, Atkins programmed her video Evian Disease (2012), made for the Palais de Tokyo solo exhibition, alongside his own work and James Richards’ Rose Bud (2013), in one of the more successful strands of ‘Flatness: Cinema After the Internet’, the chosen theme for this edition of the Oberhausen Film Festival. For Atkins, Marten’s Evian Disease embodies ‘flatness’ in all its weightlessness, emotional deficit and hollowness of representation. The fact that it’s completely unapologetic about it is what makes it a dangerous piece to his mind. Atkins, Richards and Marten were among the youngest artists to have their work shown in Massimiliano Gioni’s ‘Encyclopedic Palace’ at the Venice Biennale. (All three also happened to have had recent solo shows at the fashionable independent Chisenhale Gallery in East London, directed by Polly Staple.)

Marten’s work has lately been lumped together under the convenient label of ‘post-internet art’ with that of other British artists of her generation working in moving image – Ed Atkins and James Richards among them – who grew up with the Internet and speak its language. In his prescient use of the Internet, maverick video artist Mark Leckey is something of a godfather figure for what has been hailed as a new generation of young British artists. Part video, part sculpture, Helen Marten’s whimsical contribution to the ‘Encyclopedic Palace’ (‘Orchids, or a hemispherical bottom’, 2013), sat across the alley from Leckey’s own installation at the Arsenale.

Understandably, Marten finds this lumping together critically lazy, and goes as far as to claim, paradoxically, that she has no interest in the digital and the Internet or, for that matter, in any sense of commonality or context that it gives artists working today. She tends to look at books and use hand tools far more than she does anything digitally or in an online space; the analogue and the hand-wrought experience provide the density, whereas CGI to her ‘reeks of dishonesty’. And yet Marten does have a lot in common with her peers, not least a certain nostalgic quality to her work that harks back to the 1980s in its choice of colours, for one, and a fascination with skeumorphs, which, on the face of it at least, is somewhat at odds with being, as she undeniably is, ‘of the moment’.

Unsound London

This report from Unsound London festival appeared on

“IS IT JUST ME? Lightning Bolt’s been doing it for, like, ten years,” a stranger sidles up, sensing a fellow-skeptic. I nod. “The shirtless thing, the masks,” he adds. My response is drowned out by waves of sonic interference. Out there in the spotlight, a balaclava-clad man stripped down to his waist is pounding away at some homemade drumlike instrument, while his bare-chested companion, a shaggy black wig covering up his face, is strumming on something resembling an elongated rocket. We’re being treated to sonic warfare by Poland’s noise rock band BNNT. Derivative or not, the act has got raw energy going for it, but on the fourth consecutive evening of Unsound London—designed to showcase new musical talent from Poland ahead of Unsound Festival Kraków (October 13–20)—I can be forgiven for feeling somewhat shell-shocked.

After New York and Adelaide, it’s London’s turn to host Unsound, a mobile new music festival based in Kraków, Poland, where it began ten years ago as a small, underground event. As with Unsound New York, which is taking a break this year following three editions, the festival organizers are working with bigger, high profile venues and institutions. There’s the BFI Southbank and the Barbican Center, for instance, as well as smaller and, for want of a better word, underground spaces in London, Corsica Studios and Café OTO, where I saw BNNT and its antics on the final night. With its concrete floors and haphazard vintage furniture, Café OTO is a bit of Berlin tucked away in a Dalston back alley. (Oto in Japanese fittingly means both “sound” and “noise.”) Since it opened its doors in 2008, the venue has become a mecca for experimental musicians of every ilk. This is where I learned from Terry Day, playing at one of the regular London Improvisers Orchestra sessions, that a balloon can yield up to four notes.

Unlike in Kraków, where the festival’s yearly editions have a catchy theme, from “Horror, the pleasure and fear of unease” in 2010 to this year’s “INTERFERENCE,” further afield the festival focuses on introducing new audiences to “advanced music” from Poland and the countries around it, anywhere east of Berlin. (Unsound London, however, jointly-organized with the Polish Cultural Institute, had a specifically Polish focus.) By pairing up emerging musicians such as Warsaw-based improviser Anna Zaradny with the British ambient dub duo and Unsound habitués Demdike Stare (who were accompanied by Sinfonietta Cracovia string players on the opening night at the BFI), artistic director Mat Schulz is hoping to foster collaborations between artists from those countries as well as create unexpected connections between different types and genres of music—a point of pride for Unsound.

Stara Rzeka’s Kuba Ziołek.

For Schulz, who moved to Kraków from Wagga Wagga in Australia, home to Unsound festival in a prior incarnation, Poland’s alternative music and festival scene has really taken off in the past decade. Instead of trying to emulate and copy their UK and US counterparts, Polish artists are increasingly developing their own sounds and turning to native traditions for inspiration. A case in point is the opening act at Cafe OTO that evening, the one-man-band Stara Rzeka (Old River), brainchild of acoustic guitarist Kuba Ziołek, whose debut album Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem got rave reviews from London-based magazine The Quietus. The artist himself prefers to call “magical brutalism” what critics single out as Slavic folk in the distinctive blend of influences, ranging from drone to black metal to krautrock. Polish musicians have their own, peculiar sense of humor, according to Schulz at least, when it comes to music. “How does humor express itself in music?” I ask him. Schulz is at pains to find an illustration. It seems you either get it or you don’t.

Open House

This piece on the birth of ‘performance architecture’ appeared in frieze:


Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 27–29 rue Beaubourg, Paris Biennale, 1975. Courtesy: David Zwirner, New York, and MACBA, Barcelona © Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / DACS

The annals of every discipline are full of unsuspecting twins somehow hitting upon an idea concurrently and yet independently. One such concept is ‘performance architecture’ – a phrase that started being used at roughly the same time by two different people, both of them practising architects who happened to have a foot in the art world and a particular interest in performance art. Back in 2007, when Pedro Gadanho and Alex Schweder each Googled the term, their searches yielded meagre pickings: allied with architecture, performance had everything to do with efficiency, sustainability, cost-effectiveness and the like, and nothing to do with performance art. Six years on, owing to their joint proselytizing efforts, performance architecture is a rapidly emerging field.

Unlike Gadanho, for whom this has become essentially a research activity since he joined the Department of Architecture and Design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in a full-time curatorial capacity, Schweder is a practitioner and even calls himself a ‘performance architect’. After ten years of practising a more traditional brand of architecture in New York and Seattle, Schweder became fascinated with performance art around eight years ago. This was during a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, where he got to know several performance artists, including Laurie Anderson and Ward Shelley, the latter of whom he went on to collaborate with on a number of projects, starting with Flatland in 2007. Based on drawings by Shelley, this habitable structure was four-storeys high but only 60cm wide, yielding a total of 19.2m² living space shared between six occupants that dwindled to three over the course of a three-week performance staged at SculptureCenter in New York. Physically and emotionally challenging for the performers, who were free to leave at any point but couldn’t then re-enter the building, this piece made a deep impression on the audience who watched them go about their daily routine as best they could within the punishingly narrow confines of Flatland.

It was while working on this piece that Schweder came up with the term ‘performance architecture’ to describe what they were doing. The first in a trilogy of ‘Architect Performed Buildings’ on which Schweder and Shelley worked in tandem, Flatland was followed by Stability (2009) in Seattle and Counterweight Roommate (2011) in Basel. Reminiscent of works by Erwin Wurm such as Fat House (2003), which unlike Flatland could be entered and experienced by visitors (though not in any sustained way), these ‘extreme caricatures of buildings’, as Schweder puts it, were intended to ‘take things that are more subtle and make them large enough for people to see’ – namely how architecture draws implicit boundaries and constructs relationships between us.

By the time Gadanho and Schweder met in 2010, both had been working on this subject and referring to it as ‘performance architecture’ for some time. Gadanho, who had written extensively about it from 2007 onwards in essays posted on his blog, Shrapnel Contemporary, started noticing architects such as the French-Portuguese Didier Fiuza Faustino or the Italian collective Stalker using the body to activate urban space in their walking practice and making connections to performance art at the turn of the millennium. If the late 1990s and the 2000s were marked by a return of Minimalism in architecture, Gadanho surmised, then maybe the next artistic movement to have an impact would be performance art which reacted against it by questioning the status of the self-contained art object. As Gadanho said: ‘There was this term “performance art”, so I thought let’s talk about “performance architecture”.’

Haus-Rucker Co, Mind Expander, 1968, photographic print. Courtesy: Ortner & Ortner Baukunst

The genealogy of performance architecture might be traced back to the Utopian proposals of Russian Constructivists, such as Georgy Krutikov’s Flying City, in the 1920s. It flourished in the 1960s and the early ’70s, exemplified by projects including the British architecture group Archigram’s temporary ‘living’ architectures (Living City, 1963; Plug-in City and Walking City, both 1964), the ‘underground architecture’ of the San Francisco practice Ant Farm, the playfully radical experiments of Superstudio in Florence, and the inflatable living units of the Austrian collectives Coop Himmelb(l)au and Haus-Rucker-Co.1 After something of a lull, during which avant-garde architectural firms such as Diller + Scofidio or Vito Acconci’s Acconci Studio were the vital connection to New York’s performance art scene, it picked up again in the 2000s with what has become known as the ‘performative turn’.

For Lamis Bayer, who – together with Schweder – devised a series of playful instructions inscribed on the walls of Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries at a ‘Performing Architecture’ event in February 2013, two ‘linchpin moments’ in the pre-history of performance architecture were Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void (1960), which inaugurated a new era of immaterial architecture, and Gordon Matta-Clark’s iconic work of ‘anarchitecture’, Conical Intersect (1975), an unsolicited cut piece in two abandoned buildings on the future site of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Matta-Clark could be considered – to use architectural historian Jonathan Hill’s expression – an ‘illegal architect’ avant la lettre.

‘Performance architecture’, like all new terms, has met with a certain amount of resistance, especially from performance or live artists, who see it as an arrogant move on the part of architects co-opting the discipline to their own ends. Others take issue with the use of the noun (as opposed to ‘performing architecture’, say, which is deemed to be more neutral), arguing that it reifies something that essentially amounts to acting out or performing a space, and thus reverts to an outdated notion of architecture as an object or a building rather than a process or an event.

Call it what you will, the practice of ‘performance architecture’ is gaining ground. Since his appointment at MoMA last year, Gadanho has raised the institutional profile of this field, not least through the acquisition of recent works illustrating the trend by Faustino (Double Happiness, 2009; Stairway to Heaven, 2002) and Andrés Jaque Architectos (IKEA Disobedients, 2011). The latter, which was the first ‘architectural situation’ to be acquired by moma, was premiered in November 2011 at Madrid’s La Tabacalera building (a former cigarette factory turned squat), before a new version was included in Gadanho’s MoMA exhibition ‘9+1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design’.

Andrés Jacque Architectos, IKEA Disobedients, 2011, performance at La Tabacalera, Madrid. Courtesy: Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation

Though the two iterations both featured a makeshift installation kitted out with hacked IKEA pieces, each came with its own local crew of ‘disobedients’: people whose unconventional domestic approaches challenged the apolitical ideal of ‘the independent republic of your home’, as well as demonstrating the richness of social interactions that straddle the public–private divide. In the Madrid iteration, a Spanish woman called Candela cooked for elderly men, mainly widowers whose wives used to prepare their meals. In New York, Maddy from Queens turned her front room into a hairdressing salon, which was replicated at MoMA PS1, where visitors could avail themselves of her services. In Techno-Geisha (2003), another one of Andrés Jaque Architectos’ performative projects doubling as an architectural manifesto, the firm created a host ‘hyper-equipped’ to act as a mediator between people. The Techno-Geisha character dons a variety of portable, bubble-like environments, as if they were outfits, designed to make people feel at home in the metropolis.

For Andrés Jaque Architectos, fostering associations between people is exactly what architecture is about. To them, architecture is less to do with buildings and spaces than with the actions and gestures that take place within them, which may be why architecture and performance strike them as a natural alliance. Operating out of their Madrid-based ‘Office for Political Innovation’, the firm perceive human relations – and, by extension, architecture – as political in the broadest understanding of the term. Performance lends architecture the critical edge it lacks or cannot afford precisely because it often remains tied to corporate interests. Performance architecture invites a playful and, at times, subversive behaviour that questions the ideological motivations behind architectural ‘programmes’. Architecture is by nature prescriptive: a building comes with a set of cues or implicit rules that ‘programme’ the occupants to behave in a certain way. Performance architects such as Jaque or Schweder aim to offer a more permissive space as an alternative. ‘We invest walls and spaces with rules,’ says Schweder. ‘Since we made the rules we can also break them and perform differently in that space.’

The economic crisis has created a receptive ground for temporary, reversible and affordable projects that make do with little and avail themselves of vacated sites as Matta-Clark did. For Nicolas Henninger, one of the members of the French collective EXYZT, founded in 2003, making ephemeral projects opens up doors. The collective became known after transforming the French Pavilion into their home and allowing the public to enter at the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale. Henninger sees the construction process itself – in which the architect fully takes part, living on site so as to get to grips with the local social and economic realities – as a performance. Programmed in consultation with local user groups, gathering places such as the fleeting Southwark Lido (2008) or the Dalston Mill (2009) in London, though not built to last, create a precedent for the communal occupation of a space and invite future (re)uses. (Both spaces have, in fact, been re-occupied and turned into other like-minded community-based projects.)

Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Blur Building, 2002, Lake Neuchatel, Swiss EXPO. Courtesy: Massimo Vitali

Temporary, moveable and open rather than permanent, fixed and enclosed, performance architecture often utilizes substances like air and water, in lieu of the more solid building materials – such as concrete, glass and metal – with which architects generally work. The most spectacular instance of this is the Blur Building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, an exhibition pavilion erected at huge expense for Swiss EXPO 2002 at the base of Lake Neuchatel. ‘We wanted to make an architecture of atmosphere,’ Liz Diller explained in a lecture: ‘No walls, no roof, no purpose, just a mass of atomized water, a big cloud.’2 Described in these terms, the Blur Building nods most obviously to Yves Klein’s visionary idea of ‘Air Architecture’, the walls of which would have been constructed of high-pressured air, but also perhaps to the Austrian collective Coop Himmelb(l)au, one of whose mobile structures, The Cloud (1968–72), was fashioned of nothing but air and dynamics. Designed to challenge the primacy of the sense of vision, the Blur Building enveloped the visitor in a disorientating cloud of fine mist, channelled from the lake by computer-regulated fog nozzles. The sense of apprehension generated by the optical whiteout was aggravated by the surrounding white noise. One could hear, breathe and even drink the building in a specially designed water bar.

‘The static architecture of the Egyptian pyramids has been superseded,’ El Lissitzky proclaimed in the 1920s: ‘Our architecture revolves, swims, flies. We are approaching the state of floating in air and swinging like a pendulum.’3 Lissitzky’s vision appears to have been realized in any number of contemporary architecture projects that have an element of performance built into them. But this has come at the expense of architecture itself in its common understanding, since the practitioners of performance architecture tend to be so focused on the body – whether their own, the performer’s or the user’s – as to sometimes dispense with the built structure altogether. The most radical experiments in this respect are works by Faustino and his Paris- and Lisbon-based firm Mésarchitecture, articulating an architecture of gesture that effectively amounts to a degree zero of architecture.

1 For the historical antecedents see Chris Salter and Peter Sellars, ‘Performative Architectures’, in Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2010, and Pedro Gadanho, ‘Some Notes on Performance Architecture’, in Performance Architecture, Pedro Gadanho (ed.), Guimarães, 2013
2 Los Angeles, 2007.
3 El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts, Thames & Hudson, London, 1967, p. 330

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness

This interview with Ben Rivers and Ben Russell about their new film appeared on

Agnieszka Gratza: How did the two of you meet?

Ben Rivers: We met in Brighton. I used to run a cinemateque there with some friends for about ten years. One of the last things we did was host Ben and Jonathan Schwarz. They were travelling round with a programme called…
Ben Russell: ‘The Psychoacoustic Geographers’.
Rivers: That was in 2006.

AG: When did you start thinking about working together?
Rivers: We stayed in touch after that meeting and then we went on tour together in New Zealand and Australia, with a programme of films called ‘We Can Not Exist in This World Alone’, showing five of our films in conversation with each other.

AG: Was it your idea or did someone else suggest it?
Rivers: It was our idea and we put together the programme, thinking that there were ideas chiming in our work.
Russell: We may have different structural and aesthetic concerns but the human subject is ultimately what we’re interested in and excited about. Neither of us makes nature studies or films where the trace of humans is not somehow evident.

AG: And yet landscape is such an important feature of your films, and A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2013) in particular. It almost seems a character in its own right.
Rivers: It could be considered a character. I thought about that in connection to some of the other films I’ve made: Two Years at Sea, for example, portrays a relationship between a person and the landscape. But, as Ben said, we wouldn’t be interested in landscape in and of itself.
Russell: Even the word ‘landscape’ carries the suggestion that there’s a subject who’s viewing the landscape. When you look at representations of the sublime in 19th-century paintings, it’s always a tiny figure in a huge landscape.
Rivers: At the start of this project we were talking about the idea of the sublime, which is very much about landscape, the feeling of awe and fear that humans feel in the presence of beauty or of something that’s too big for us to comprehend.

AG: In the directors’ note, you say something to the effect that A Spell… is about the experience of ‘the transcendent’. How can you give a sense of the transcendent in a film? Are there any cinematic precedents of that you had in mind?
Russell: Line Describing a Cone by Anthony McCall.
Rivers: That’s good. We never talked about it but…

AG: You mentioned before, Ben, that the stunning opening shot of a forest reflected in a lake at dawn somehow described the infinity shape. Is that right? How was it made?
Rivers: Someone is sitting at the front of a small motorized boat on the lake.

AG: Was it the two of you?
Rivers: It was always the two of us.

AG: You’re very insistent about that.
Rivers: Because it’s true but also because it’s a bit of a bore how people try to pick apart how I did this and Ben did this, how that’s my part and that’s his part. You don’t collaborate to do things on your own.

AG: This is the first time you’ve collaborated with another filmmaker. Why haven’t you done so before and what’s the appeal of collaboration for you?
Rivers: I’ve always been very autonomous and maybe there was a fear of losing that autonomy. I think it was about finding the right person at the right time. Ben and I had been friends for a long time so it’s something that happened naturally. It grew out of discussion and shared interests as well as a mutual respect. He was in America and I was living here. Doing something creative seemed like a good way to hang out more together. I probably had more concerns about collaboration prior to it happening.
Russell: I’ve collaborated a lot and the reason that I continue to do it and enjoy doing it is that it makes me better as a filmmaker. I find it really easy to stick with the same strategies, framings or editing structures once they work, and I don’t want to get stuck in a particular form or approach. Having to collaborate with somebody is a way of introducing new ideas, new ways of thinking about one’s practice. Even when it doesn’t work or works less well you still learn from it. With this particular one, it’s more the experience of constructing spaces and relations with other people that has been generative; it’s set up a different model for how I want to work in the future. Rivers: It wasn’t just a collaboration between me and Ben, it was also a collaboration with other folk, like sound people, but also the people who feature in it, like the commune participants. They’re really important collaborators.

AG: Let’s talk about the way the film is constructed. It comes in three distinct parts. What would you say is its shape and was it always going to be a trilogy?
Russell: Its shape is a triangle.
Rivers: It was always going to be in three parts. We don’t think of it as a trilogy though, but rather as a triptych.

AG: Where would you say the difference lies?
Rivers: In a trilogy, the different parts are progressive, one follows the other; we thought about the film as one whole thing with three parts that exist simultaneously. (Of course that’s problematic when you put something in a cinema where it has to run in sequence.) That’s why there’s the recurrent triangle image.

AG: Which could be interpreted as some sort of a mystical symbol as well. There is a certain movement and progression to the film, though. The first part, which portrays a collective of people, a commune, is followed by a solitary section, and then the black metal section again features a group of people. So there is something of a dialectical progression to it.
Rivers: Of course, you could even call it a narrative progression. These things could happen in any kind of order but, as I said, when you show things in a cinema they have a natural progression; we had to figure out what would be the best order for them to work in. We actually had it in a different order for quite a long time.

AG: The film was three years in the making, and it went through various versions.
Rivers: It went through some unexpected shifts but essentially the core idea didn’t change. There were always going to be these three parts with COMMUNE, SOLITUDE and BLACK METAL. Originally it was going to be in one country, in Norway.


AG: Have you got any connection to the place? Why Norway?

Russell: Ben had made a film there a while back called Sørdal (2008).
Rivers: Viking re-enactors were our starting point, what got us thinking about Norway in the first place, but what they do didn’t strike us as a successful way of finding a spiritual relationship to the landscape in the present day. It seemed too retrospective, stuck in the past. We found what we were looking for in black metal, a genre of metal that comes from Norway and is connected with the idea of the North, a pre-Christian, pagan relationship to landscape and nature.
Russell: It’s not necessarily a positive relationship to it. There’s a gloomy energy to Scandinavian nature. The relationship of black-metal musicians to this place has to do with living somewhere where you feel at one with the elements. Nature is above you, around you, something you’re part of and not something that you can conquer or control.

AG: One obvious, or perhaps less than obvious, connecting element between the three parts is the protagonist himself, portrayed by Rob A.A. Lowe, who is not a black metal player as far as I know. He’s an African-American Brooklyn-based composer and musician. How did he fit into that role?
Russell: We were after somebody who didn’t fit into that role, into that place.
AG: Why is that? Why did you want this discrepancy?
Rivers: At the beginning we were talking about somebody who was from that place, somebody who could play in a black metal band but also live in solitude. We were thinking about a Norwegian or a Scandinavian. It was too straightforward, too easy to imagine an Aryan Caucasian in that world and in those roles.
Russell: We’d decided Norway was the place we were going to make the film. I went out there to check out a place in the Lofoten Islands and to meet an artist who had built a cabin over a mountain in a fjord. It was easy to understand why somebody would choose to do that. But when I was out there, taking the bus around because travelling was so expensive, the only people on the bus were Afghani and Somali refugees who’d been granted refugee status and given a place to live in the Lofoten islands, north of the Arctic Circle. It was so strange to see people clearly not from this place adapting to it. That discordance felt a lot more significant to us than having somebody who was at home and at ease in that landscape. We thought that the main character could function like a cipher or a stand-in for the audience.

AG: The first part especially, the one dealing with the commune, comes across as a tad didactic – possibly because it’s the one section that has dialogues in it. What’s your fascination with communal living in the first place?
Rivers: During the process of editing, we worked hard to reduce any aspect of dogma, which is always hard. As soon as someone is talking, people think that that’s your voice. We wanted to reach a point where those conversations were the same as all the other things Rob is experiencing: they’re part of something bigger that he’s passing through, picking up on.
Russell: The conversations are all a bit muddy in relation to one another, there’s no central through-line and this resists the idea of dogma or didacticism.

AG: Were these conversations something that would naturally occur or did you spur them on?
Russell: Definitely. We were looking at Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961) as well as Milestones (1975) by Robert Kramer and John Douglas for models of how to deal with this particular situation. In both cases, there’s a great deal of spurring on, as you said. In Chronicle of a Summer, Morin casts himself as an on-screen catalyst for the discussions on the subject of happiness. I almost did the same thing, went as far as to grow a beard so that I would visually fit into our collective space. It wasn’t the route we took, preferring instead to use another strategy that is less visible but equally present in Chronicle… – the use of non-actors as agents or provocateurs for the conversations that transpire.
Rivers: We were setting the scene, asking people to have discussions around the idea of what it means to live together. These conversations were happening off-camera and, when we felt like something interesting was being said, we’d start filming. It’s not really staging as such, that seems too contrived, but orchestrating rather.
Russell: You’d asked what our interest in communal living is. One of the things that make the film difficult for a lot of viewers may be that the ideological proposition of collective living is something that disintegrated in the ’70s. Today, we use the word ‘commune’ and immediately hippies and free love and really vague and uninteresting images pop up. The relationship that most people have to collectivity or the commune is one of distrust and distance because it implies a certain kind of liberal politics that it’s easy to sneer at. But there are still collectives in the world, there is still an impulse to live as a group, and for Ben and me it was an important point of enquiry.

AG: To what extent would you say that the film can be described as optimistic or Utopian?
Russell: It’s a dark optimism. For us, the question of how to exist in the world significantly, construct meaning, and have important relationships with other people as well as with ourselves, is a hopeful question.
Rivers: I guess thinking about utopia actually came later in the progression of the film.

AG: So it wasn’t the core of the project?
Rivers: No, it might have been the core but without us knowing it or speaking of it.

AG: Utopia is such a loaded term. Etymologically it’s a no-place.
Rivers: Which is kind of right for our film. This idea that Utopia may be transient. It’s probably too brightly optimistic to think that it can exist in any kind of permanent way. A more realistic way would be to think about it as something transient that can be experienced, passed through, and that inevitably changes. And if you incorporate this idea of change into it, then you’re more likely to reach at least some kind of temporary Utopia, which goes back to this idea of cinema as something temporary.

AG: What do you want the audience to experience?
Rivers: The spell of cinema.
Russell: There are lots of ways of understanding the title – A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness – one of them is fire, one of them is cinema, as an incantation or a Utopian proposition.

AG: ‘A spell to ward off the darkness’ might then be a poetic definition of cinema itself?
Rivers: Yes. And fire is the first cinema.
Russell: As with the rest of our work, cinema is the subject and the vehicle. Here cinema is the utopia, this thing that happens as we’re happening with it, this thing that we get to engage with and this thing that leaves as soon as the lights come up and we walk out of the cinema. That Utopian moment is no longer there, it’s gone into the past.