BY Juliet Jacques in Opinion | 05 JUN 20

How Architects Have Used Performance to Reclaim Private Space

Performa’s online exhibition ‘Bodybuilding’ is an intriguing attempt to bring live and spatial work to the screen

BY Juliet Jacques in Opinion | 05 JUN 20

One of the most intriguing exhibitions to have moved into virtual space during the COVID-19 pandemic is ‘Bodybuilding’ by the New York-based non-profit performing-arts organization Performa. During their 2019 biennial, Performa launched a book with the same title, edited by curators Charles Aubin and Carlos Mínguez Carrasco, which looked at how architects have used performance in their work. The accompanying show – now viewable on Performa’s Radical Broadcast digital channel until 15 July – is dedicated to the Italian art historian, critic and curator Germano Celant, who coined the term arte povera, and who sadly died of COVID-19 on 29 April. I describe the show as ‘intriguing’ for two reasons: firstly, because the video works here, especially the shorter ones – which, in an institutional setting, would ordinarily have been watched by spectators wearing headphones – lose less than most other types of work by being viewed at home; and, secondly, because it adds another layer to the issue of how interactive art forms are changed by their mediation into film.

Hans Hollein, Mobiles Büro (Mobile Office), 1969, video still. Courtesy: ORF and Performa, New York

This feels especially pertinent in an exhibition about how architects have used performance – in particular, filmed performance – to reclaim private space, or at least raise questions about its ownership. All the architectural works here were realized, the curators having decided to exclude the unrealizable projects of certain utopian modernists. The earliest films date from the late 1960s, although there are a clutch of works from the early 1970s, and then there is practically nothing from the next two decades, skipping the postmodern period entirely, with most of the exhibition drawn, refreshingly, from the 21st century.

Many films date from the last ten years; the most captivating highlight the role of architecture in maintaining border regimes. Political Equator III (2011) opens by explaining how many of the world’s most contested borders lie along the same corridor, before showing how the directors, Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman, with the Mexican NGO Alter-Terra, created an entry point in the wall on the San Diego/Tijuana border for 24 hours, allowing the wider public to see how migrants experience this crossing, inviting them to consider ‘citizenship based on common interests and aspirations’ rather than ‘national identarian politics’. Another film profiles Al Madafeh (The Living Room) – a residency project by the Beirut-based Decolonising Architecture Art Residency – which held a series of events in 2018 at ArkDes, a former barracks in northern Sweden, that documented Syrian refugees inviting people into their homes to share food and reclaiming their right to host people.

Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation, Superpowers of Ten. Chicago, 2015, video still. Courtesy: Office for Political Innovation and Performa, New York 

The earliest featured works date from the 1960s, and feel rooted in the avant-gardes of the time: most notably Hans Hollein’s Mobiles Büro (Mobile Office, 1969), in which he tells a client his portable house ‘is all drawn up and will be delivered immediately’, in a way that combines fluxus humour with land art techniques. Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s Sensory Walk (1971) shows the artists engaging with the natural landscape in a style reminiscent of Scottish filmmaker Margaret Tait. There’s a more explicitly performative construct behind Ugo La Pietra’s Per oggi Basta! (Enough for Today, 1974), in which he straps himself to a wheel-mounted sandwich board and is pulled along a road, allowing him to film the cables and rooftops overhead. The work feels rooted in 1970s body art and engages with the dizzying effect of 20th-century technology on the individual in an inventive and amusing manner.

Ugo La Pietra, Per oggi basta! (Enough for Today!), 1974, video still. Courtesy: Achivio Ugo La Pietra and Performa, New York 

The ‘performance’ element of these films isn’t always obvious, though the exhibition works best when it is. Superpowers of Ten (2015), by Andrés Jaque and the Office for Political Innovation, straddles two era – the 1970s and 2010s. It re-creates Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero (1977) as live theatre, expanding upon the themes of the original film by reflecting on the age of the nuclear arms race and the growing popularity of veganism amidst the climate crisis. The joy comes in seeing the inventive costumes and sets the group use to re-create the Eames’ film, on the cheap, bringing levity to its subject matter. A similar balance of lightness and seriousness characterizes Cooking Sections’ 2018 lecture ‘Devaluing Property Real Estate Agency’, which draws parallels between the language used to describe Japanese knotweed after its introduction to the UK in 1850 and the terminology employed to define people who arrived in the country after the 1905 Aliens Act signalled institutional and social hostility to immigrants.

Moore Grover Harper, Design-A-Thon: Roanoke, 1979, video still. Courtesy: Centrebrook Architects & Planners and Performa, New York. 

The political and performative, and the theme of reclaiming public space, combine to greatest effect in Roanoke Design-A-Thon, a public access telethon from 1979, in which architects, town planners, the mayor and a citizens’ committee held discussions on how to redesign the centre of Roanoke, Virginia, with residents calling in to offer their opinions. Watching this series 40 years later – without the internet, it’s unimaginable this could have happened outside a university library, rarefied archive or local gallery – it raises fascinating questions about the wisdom of the reaction against modernism and design by committee. Several of the more recent films here ask questions about who controls space, rather than who designs buildings or what they look like, and perhaps that was the question that should have been put to the public all along.

‘Bodybuilding’ runs on Performa’s Radical Broadcast digital channel until 15 July

Main image: Alex Schwerer and Ward Shelley, ReActor, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artists, Carlton Bright, Art Omi and Performa, New York 

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. She lives in London, UK.