Dienstag, 20. Mai 2014

On emptiness and social space. An essay.

by Diego Castro (sorry for the poor translation)

An empty space can be thought of in two different manners. Try to think of an empty space and yet another one. The first space is an empty room, maybe a living room, in a new building, maybe social housing. Traces of use everywhere, marks of furniture and pictures on a mouldy, yellowed wallpaper. Stains on the carpet. Past life is still noticeable. We don't know why nobody lives here anymore, but what we perceive is absence, that, contrary to the supposed former life, seems negative. We might perceive this emptyness as a consecution to loss.

The second room might be an art gallery, in which emptyness is an element of planning, of what in architecture is called room allocation plan or scheme, that encloses the object within it like a monstrance (ostensorium). The austerity and the dazzling lighting directs all attention towards the exhibits. With this it also draws the attention towards the role of the visitor as a beholder, a contemplator or admirer. The function of the room as a dispositive, it's room scheme seems engraved in it. If you remember Tanizaki Jun'Ichiro's description of a western lavatory; he pointed out that the cleanliness and white porcellain would stress the room scheme of a toilet, by aggravating the user's function as a mucky pup, as producer of dirt.

Rem Koolhaas, former situationist, now working on the enhancement of consmuerist aesthetics

Try to think of Rem Koolhaas' Prada flagship-store in downtown New York. Emptyness here is an expression of a squandering spirit, of pure luxury. In an environment, where space is luxury, you don't often meet this particular use of space. It serves to stress the cannonisation of a small selection of merchandise, representative of an exclusive collection. This aims at a logic of representation of commodities, where aspects of quality or value-for-money become irrelevant. The criteria of appraisal are rooted in merely aesthetic percetion and the narrative room scheme. The symbolic value of the brand is to be brought into being by a culturalisation of consumerism.

The room-schemes of the Prada-Shop and the one of an art-institution are in this sense comparable. The spacial expression of appraisal commensurate with the auratisating dispositives of art-presentations. At Prada's you will find a flamboyant use of space, where a minimalistic set of spacial intervention lounges voluptuously. At large, the use of space becomes a brutal, yet subtle element of arrangement. With the aesthetic of reduced and flexible representation, two central figures of neo-liberal management are already set into place in this alignment: lean production and flexibility. Not only does it point out an aesthetic of symbolic capital, because empty space, if it is under control, it is also a figuration of entrepreneurial ethos.

With the increasing importance of museums for the self-manifestation of corporations and brands, coming forward as sponsors, but also with the new role of cultural institutions in urban planning, for city-marketing, tourism and estate-agencies, the use of space has become an important factor. Yet its representative physical planning is intertwined with destruction of the urban continuum and social segregation, the last one being a key aspect of the spatial structure they are intended to impose. Koolhaas, by the way, who has build a number of museums, has excelled at taking the rather problematic aspects of urban planning into the use of space in commercial contexts.

Richard Meier's MACBA

The first thing that comes into perspective, when you approach Richard Meier's Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona (MACBA) is its influence on the urban continuum. Not only the demolition of vast parts of the socially mixed neighbourhood of “Raval” with its secondary effects of the new spatial order, rise of rents and social segregation, also known as gentrification, are remarkable. The most conspicious part is the use of space itself. It is the central element of the room scheme. Empty space has replaced the dirt, the drugs, the hardship cases, the students, the old people, the jobless, the prostitutes, the loafers, the small time criminals.
An imminent quality of this empty space is the representation of order in its interior, the emptyness is the method of order. Inside and outside the art-museum, we have a room scheme procuring orderliness, change and innovation.

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"Barrio Xino", prositution in the Raval dstrict

Inside the museum there is this emptiness, wich has a structuring and narrative quality to it. Showing art almost becomes an ostensably secondary aspect within the dramaturgy of space. Mind you, the staircase in Richard Meier's design takes up about one third of the building. While smaller institutions would struggle for more space to be used, the emptiness present here brings the representative qualities of the building into the front line and installs a certain hierarchy between the visibilities of both institution and the city council, incorporated into a good choice of trademark architecture, and artworks and visitors. Visitors who have ultimatly come to enjoy submission to this hierarchy, not for its abstract political structure, but for its aesthetics sake. The submission already starts by merely crossing the forecourt of the museum until finally reaching the vestibule and entering the atrium like entrance hall/ staircase. But let's try to not be unfair: There actually are many good reasons to enjoy empty space. Just think of the pleasant, solitary dialogue with the art-works, one can sometimes get lucky to experience in a half-empty museum. Besides this illusion of a Zen-Garden, there is another, very specific reason for the enjoyment of limewashed museum-arrangements: The planned emptiness of representative architecture opposes structural order to a chaotic exterior, be it inside and outside of a building or inside or outside of an urban zone or sector. The key to the understanding of this juxtaposition is that we have a space of protection against over-complexity and overstraining in the exterior. The affirmative presence of stipulation and order inside the white cube is on the same behalf an absence of openness and alternative possibilities for interpretation.

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inside MACBA

This unambiguousness is a key note in museum-architecture. It has also been made use of in political architecture. Minimalistic and rationalistic style has helped subtle stagings of political and economic power. In this connection, totality and exclusivity fraternize in an ill-omened way. With decoration washed away by minimalism and a decorum of false modesty and two faced asceticism, with filigran ornamentalism countered by a gross ornament of the masses and rationalistic brutalism, the enshrining presentation of central objects and symbols calls the visitor to devotion. In other words, the architectural dipositive humiliates the beholder, but also offers sublimation. The fact that participative processes in form of artworks or museums' educational services are booming in these displays almost seems coercive. They are a direct result of the spatial schemes and its anomies in terms of the spatial experience. They seem to be a corrective for a developed deficit within the desire for an overtly positive experience of space.

Another question, you might want to ask when looking at art institutions as a dispositive for activation, is if the architecture can ever be considered as completed without the actual participation. To give a rather harsh example, and please don't judge me on this one!, if you take the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, you'll have a good example of the solid architecture being merely a display, for what is about to come later, which is the human architecture, that is, architecture carried out through actual physical deployment. The Nazis were probably the first ones to carry out architecture by masses of bodies in this particular, political design.

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Luitpoldsarena, Nuremberg

Although, for many reasons you cannot compare the physical deployment used in the national-socialist party's state aesthetics, still the society of control has brought about new forms of representative architectural strategies, using activation as a means to fulfil a highly performative architectural concept.

Sir Norman Foster's redesign of the Reichstag Building's copola is a good example for the idea of a performative architecture, illustrating administrative key figures of a western european, yet neoliberal democracy: transparency, citizen-orientedness and public participation. In today's representations and room schemes we find a fashion for open structures and seemingly undefined room/ space concepts. In the example of Sir Norman Foster's intervention, we have the leitmotif of transparent parliamentarianism, the permeability of power, as well as participation. While symbolising diaphanousness (while power structures are become fuzzy and obscure) the copola also is a showcase, in which activation becomes visible. Without this, the architecture would stay incomplete. The deployment of human beings and their animation inside the architecture becomes its central element. The aim is to symbolize a dilution of the seperation between citizens and decision-makers. At the core, it is crucial, that this takes place on a symbolic level and not structurally. For as much as we can state performative qualities, the ends to it are a subscription to a pictorial regime.

Coming to the architecture of art institutions, participation is usually being staged against a dispositive of protestant white and the minimalist form language of the white cube. But these formal expressions are not only connotations, they are the manifestation of the room scheme. Their aim is on the one hand the canonisation of the artwork, the first contradiciton to an alleged neutrality of the space. But, on the other hand, more and more often, the bigger and more spectacular museum buildings are getting, what we find in it is a dispositive of an obscurantistic power structure and hidden agendas, masked by dehierarchisation.

We are dealing with a space that is highly ideological. The activations that we encounter here in form of participation, educational schemes or interactivity, more than often meet with neoliberal work ethos and affirmative acts for the educated bourgeoisie. Taste and distinction on the one hand, key notes of achievment-orientation on the other. The experience of art as a performative act, implies the staging of an image-production as a cultural achievement and in terms of what Max Weber called “social action” it becomes an act of distinction (Bourdieu, Veblen).

Here, assivity, refusal of performance and hence efficiency, and denial of adventure, just like structural critique are out of place. Formulations of critique are in accordance with the room scheme. They are inscribed into the concept of space, the way the performance goes, has been planned. The boundaries of the playing field cannot be transgressed. The room program has to be approved. But where the gratifications of passivity fail, the antagonism of artwork and the beholder, the dichotomy of institution and citizen vanish.

As we have just learned, the nature of the exhibition situation conditions the visitor in a certain way, so his reaction will be tinged in benevolence. This scheme is presupposed by the social art work. Which is also the case with any kind of artefact to be presented under this room scheme. But there is one difference. Relational perfomativity emphasizes the physical act of submission to the room scheme. But only from a safe distance the organisational aspects, mind its ideologies become apparent. Imagine a documentary on the Nazi-Party rally in Nuremberg: Black and white scratched film, a long shot over the blocks of soldiers forming corridors, marching in cohorts, saluting the Führer and responding to the discourses of the minister of propaganda from the rostrum, filmed from a distance of 500 metres. Now imagine a documentary of the same kind about people at a Rirkrit Tiravanija show... What would you find? If you participate, you are compromised. What you need is this 500 metre long shot.

There is, though, a big difference (of course!) between fascist and democratic room programming, especially after the transgression from the society of discipline to the society of control. Where traditionally disciplinatory forces come into place, like police, military, school and penal system, in the society of control we have the aspect of voluntariness. It has created an ever increasing zone in our society and has opened up for many possibilities for supervision and guidance. But just how is this voluntariness produced?

The fact that socially determined room images ("Raumbild", space as iconographic entity) are not a result of contingency, but of planning, development and process, is something that has been referred to many times in room theory.

“Iconographic space grants people with the possibility to symbolically partake in a development model (Detlev Ipsen).” 

Rirkrit Tiravanija, exhibition display at Dakar Biennial, 2004

In this, developments can be invested in the dispositives in two ways: first: the room image follows the development of space. Second: the development is anticipated by the image, the last option being the more interesting one, as it hints at the inherent, affective force of undefined, open, transitorian, transparent and seemingly democratic dispositives with their processual and at the same time minimalistic attributes. Occasionally it is the work-in-progress, the unaccomplished social sculpture, that offers lesser possibilities for intervention or interaction as it might seem. On the contrary, it is the accomplished and highly defined form, that allows us to draw conclusions on the disciplining, controlling and ideologically infiltrating room scheme. So again, in the transitorian, the constraint of critique is manifested by the inherent difficulty to delegate critique. This is one core aspect of critique in the neoliberal age: The power is disseminated in a way, that its source becomes invisible. Participation, outsourcing and transparency are its strategies. As the dispositives give way to critique, and de-hierarchize discourse, they might give expression to co-determination. But with the steadily undefined and unfinished room scheme and a multiplied and hence blurred authorship within relational manifestation, it becomes hard to find the addressee for critique, which is one of the reasons why today in participatory democratic processes, the space of critique becomes a space of emotional performance and very often stays behind expectations and without any consequences. It becomes a sort of space for group therapy, which aligns with the idea formulated by Alain Ehrenberg or Eva Illouz, that therapeutic endeavours more and more seem to meet with the anomies of capitalism. However, with an increased visibility of discontent, here lies a reason why corporations and institutions today do not seek any longer for a definition of space by branding it with their corporate designs or aesthetics. Rather we have a post-democratic quality to the creation of room schemes, which uses democratic semiography, expressed through performative action, to create acceptance in a, if I may say so, perfidious manner. 

Christian Jankowsi's group therapy for artists and administrators of the Berlin senate: