Tag Archives: Alex Schweder

Performa 17: Afroglossia and Circulations

This interview with Performa curators Adrienne Edwards and Charles Aubin appeared online in Mousse magazine:

Agnieszka Gratza: As well as being Performa’s chief curator and director, RoseLee Goldberg is overseeing the South African pavilion this year, and you’re looking after Afroglossia while Charles Aubin is curating Circulations, Performa17’s performance and architecture program. Perhaps you could start by explaining how you divide tasks.

Adrienne Edwards: Typically what happens is that RoseLee has some instinct or inclination about what she might like to focus on in the next biennial. And so, in 2015, she said to me, “I think we should do a geographical focus on Africa,” and I thought, great, since my areas of expertise have always been the African diaspora and the Global South. There’s a profound openness at Performa; you might get a prompt, but the curators themselves actually develop programs. Each curator owns their platform in the context of the biennial, and then that platform gets assigned a set of producers who work closely with the curators and the artists to make whatever we’ve dreamed up over a two-year period happen.

AG: Besides Afroglossia and Circulations, there’s a third research theme which is Dada. Who looks after that? Or is it subsumed into the other themes?

AE: With each biennial there’s a historical research anchor that operates a little differently than the curatorial platforms. That historical anchor doesn’t always end up as a program in the biennial. In 2013 we did Surrealism, and then Russian Constructivism and Futurism. Dada came up early on as a result of the centenary of Dada. It is something we were thinking about over a two-year period leading up to the biennial. For example I did a program called “100 Degrees above Dada.” I invited Yvonne Rainer and Adam Pendleton to collaborate. I saw in both Adam’s “Black Dada” project and the way Yvonne works with language some Dada sensibilities. They developed a beautiful film together called JUST BACK FROM LOS ANGELES, which features the two of them.

AG: Let’s focus on Afroglossia, which is a term you coined, I gather. Could you explain what you mean by it?

AE: “Polyglossia” is the word I’m drawing from. The afro is replacing the poly. The “many” of this term has been used to point to the multiplicity and complexity that is Africa. Glossia is referencing the voice, the fact that there are many voices from one geographical area. All the artists in Afroglossia are born in the 1970s, except the guys in the Nest Collective. So they came of age around independence, and there’s a historical fashioning of the individual in that context and its relationship to the collective. There were some shared sensibilities, a desire to point to something opaque but working with it in a fairly abstract way, whether that be in language, the way they use imagery, or how they draw upon sound and music.

AG: Africa is vast, and yet it’s often treated as if it were a country—the United States of Africa. But it isn’t. Why should Morocco and South Africa have any more in common than, say, two countries at opposite ends of Europe?

AE: You’re right, Africa is not a country, and I remember having extensive discussions about the fact that there’s a kind of impossibility to even trying to approach Africa in such a way. And yet there’s also a historical, utopian project around pan-Africanism that’s even bigger than just the continent of Africa. It encompasses the entire diaspora. Even if pan-Africanism is a complicated, historically failed project, it’s been useful in imagining the possibility of a kind of African commons. That said, that’s not really what Afroglossia is about. These are different voices out of various countries, and I don’t think I’m trying to connect them any more closely than that.

AG: I noticed that there’s a particular focus—despite the diversity of the places where the artists come from (many of them also live in New York and other Western places)—on Nairobi and East Africa. The Kwani Trust, Wangechi Mutu, and the Nest Collective all have ties with this region.

AE: The amount of things happening in Kenya is mind-boggling. It is just so rich in terms of real experimentation that is interdisciplinary. The Nest is primarily known for their video and film work but they’re also in fashion, and they make art animations and drawings. Performance itself as a notion gets stretched a bit in the context of the biennial. With Kwani, the journalists, writers, and people who collect oral histories are looking at lived experience in a way that is politically engaged and also cultural. They have poetry and music nights, all kinds of ways in which they animate the cultural scene of Nairobi.

AG: Would you say that there’s an emphasis on literature and the spoken word in your program, as the “glossia” in the title suggests?

AE: It’s certainly evident in the work Yto Barrada is doing, something that is all about voice: her mother’s voice, correspondence, records and interviews of figures her mother was with on a tour of the United States in 1966. Teju Cole is known not only as a critic but also as a novelist and an essayist. And Tracey Rose is working with two writers: one in the United States, one in Cameroon. They’re developing a script as part of a poetic performance that, like Yto’s, is about sieving archives, narratives, and oral histories.

AG: You said that the notion of performance is stretched in the Performa biennial, which seems right to me; as a result the performative element is somewhat elusive.

AE: Each project is like a container for the various ways and artist works. So with Yto, for example, you’ll see her textile works, her photo prints, her film, you’ll hear her sing; they’re all these things that people could experience in one way or another in relation to Yto’s work, but this time it’s all sitting in one space.

AG: But that one space doesn’t appear to be very distinctly about performance.

AE: It depends on what your expectations of performance are. For me, performance is interdisciplinarity. There’s a live component, but it’s not the only one. These kinds of commissions have always had various visual art elements in the experience.

AG: Would you say that there are any overlaps between Afroglossia and the South African pavilion?

AE: All the other pavilions, since we started the Pavilions Without Walls in 2013, have been with European countries. There’s an infrastructure and an apparatus in place to support the presentation of European artists around the world. Such a thing does not exist for a country like South Africa, so it was very important for us and RoseLee in particular, who is from South Africa, to do a deep dive into that country. There are some overlaps with Afroglossia and shared sensibilities, certainly an interest in the ethical, social, political dimensions of art making.

AG (to Charles Aubin): The Glass House, where you are working today, is one of the iconic architectural venues your program will occupy. How did this particular project within your program come about?

Charles Aubin: A year and a half ago, I mentioned in passing to Jimmy Robert that the Glass House is a strange extension of the New York architectural landscape, with all the different pavilions that Philip Johnson built here on the site. Jimmy told me about Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel, a book he’d read by Jeff Wall on Graham’s work. In Jeff Wall’s text there’s a whole section discussing how at dusk the artificial light inside and the darkness outside create a choreography of reflections of the self in which the transparent walls become mirrors. And this is where Jimmy started bringing in questions of identity and representation.

AG: And in particular black representation, I gather.

CA: Exactly. And the more research we did, the more interesting this site became because of either repressed histories or some elements of Philip Johnson’s biography, in particular his romantic relationship with the Harlem Renaissance cabaret figure Jimmie Daniels.

AG: Which seems fitting given the overall emphasis on Africa and its diaspora in Afroglossia especially.

CA: Adrienne and I have conceived of the two programs Afroglossia and Circulations on their own, but we have sometimes posed similar questions that can be addressed through performance. With the Glass House but also Marching On—a project with Mabel Wilson and Bryony Roberts commissioned by Storefront for Art and Architecture—political questions of identity were very much our concern. Bryony has been researching the political role of marching bands in African American communities and parades coming from military US tradition at a time when African Americans had participated in world wars, but were not granted the same civil rights.

AG: You’re also editing a publication with Carlos Mínguez Carrasco from Storefront for Art and Architecture.

CA: The way that I conceived of Circulations was as a curatorial platform with a discursive aspect in the shape of a symposium on November 11 and a book that Carlos and I are coediting. One of the impulses for the book and the program is the renewal of interest in ephemeral, event-based actions from architects since the 2008 financial crisis. That’s something you can see in The Other Architect show that Giovanna Borasi, who will be speaking at the symposium, curated at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

AG: I was struck by the variety of “performative” disciplines in Circulations, from poetry to singing to choreography and marching bands. Did you opt to give as wide a spread of possible fields that architecture can have an impact on, and vice versa?

CA: For me, performance is not so much a discipline as a tool. It allows visual artists to expand on their work in space, and it’s this kind of nexus where an artist can actually borrow from different disciplines. It’s more of a strategy, if that makes sense.

AG: Could you comment on the title Circulations?

CA: I was interested in this idea that architecture is a space where bodies are allowed or not allowed to circulate in different ways, and that there’s a kind of implicit choreography that is somehow directed. Politically, it’s a complicated moment and I wanted to open up this notion of circulation toward more political concerns: Who gets to circulate and how does that happen? This question is embedded in François Dallegret’s Bubble circulating in different parts of the city, trying to create this kind of movement.

AG: Dallegret’s Bubble, which embodies the degree zero of architecture, has never been realized until now. Was it easy to construct?

CA: The Los Angeles–based architect François Perrin, who had curated a show of Dallegret’s work, came up with this idea that we should build the Bubble for the first time. To be honest, the most simple and minimal forms are somehow the most complicated ones to make. The Bubble, as Dallegret conceives of it, is a place for reprogramming interactions between inhabitants. That’s why the choreographer Dimitri Chamblas was brought in as a dance workshop leader. For us, dance was going to be a tool to activate the Bubble.

AG: This kind of reprogramming is also at the heart of Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley’s practice. Their biennial offering, The Newcomers, was originally going to be a nomadic architectural installation. What came of that?

CA: The very initial idea, which proved impossible to realize for security reasons, was a suspended structure that would be assembled and disassembled and moved every day over a period of ten days. We were looking at various sights. Among the different options we had 28 Liberty downtown, an iconic International-style skyscraper, which contrasted with what Ward and Alex were planning in terms of a more nimble, ephemeral mode of thinking about architecture. An architecture that mutates or produces its own constant reshaping.


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. tinyurl.com/yj2rnez
3 El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts, Thames & Hudson, London, 1967, p. 330