BY Lars Bang Larsen in Frieze | 04 APR 02
Featured in
Issue 66

Neighbourhood threat

Jakob Kolding

BY Lars Bang Larsen in Frieze | 04 APR 02

In 1963 manufacturing in Denmark overtook agriculture as Denmark's highest turnover industry. This change in the country's economic identity was a sign that social democracy had arrived as a way of life; the result was a boom in Functionalist architecture. The effect of this on people's lives - or rather, how people perceive their relationship with their surroundings and how the urban environment has changed since the 1960s - is one of the recurrent themes of Jakob Kolding's work.

In April 1969 the inhabitants of a housing scheme in Høje Gladsaxe, one of Copenhagen's new satellite towns, got together with a group of artist-activists to discuss how they could improve their immediate environment. One of the first things the activists did was to rally the town's inhabitants early one Saturday morning to build a children's playground, which was completed by sunset the same day. At one level the playground represented a way of throwing off the constraints imposed by the existing urban space; at another it was a simple piece of extra-parliamentary protest enacted upon a patch of sand between the serried ranks of fir trees planted by the municipal authorities and overlooked by the housing blocks. Of course, the authorities ordered the playground to be dismantled but eventually, after civic protests, they relented. What followed was an odd drama with libidinal undertones, a discussion of space and all its various meanings, affects and effects. Something like this happens in Kolding's work, in which people's emotional lives and the environment in which they live them are seen as bound up with fundamental issues about the way people see and interact.

According to the activists, their intervention had tapped a vein of repressed frustration at the rigid, unimaginative environmental thinking embodied by the town's tower blocks. What followed was a generalized rejection of social conformity, as housewives left their husbands and marital infidelity led to the break-up of a number of families, while others simply moved away. It was like a real-life version of High-Rise (1975), the sci-fi novel in which J. G. Ballard depicts a civil war in the microcosm of London's suburban tower blocks. Except that in Ballard's novel the tower blocks embody the city's class divide, with the rich on top and the proles at the bottom, leading to spectacular civic infighting and unrest.

Different as they are in many ways, Ballard's novel and the events that took place outside Copenhagen both represent modular architecture as something negative and repressive. The inevitable consequence will be either an unleashing of humanity's predatory instincts and the collapse of civilization (Ballard) or the paralysis and alienation of those with a need for a sense of social belonging (Høje Gladsaxe). But for Kolding the scenario described in High-Rise and the real-life events at Høje Gladsaxe represent two typical responses to Modernist urban planning, and it is the responses themselves that interest him as much as any directly architectural issues. For such questions relate to a larger interest in how social exclusion works and how authority can be challenged. One of Kolding's collages shows the Høje Gladsaxe tower blocks at the bottom contrasted with the children's playground above. Simple as the image is, its history and meaning are ambiguous: perhaps the playground is a thought bubble, the tower blocks' dream of their own history.

For Kolding the problem with suburban developments of the 1960s and 1970s was partly a matter of how they were conceived and represented. He says 'social problems are often considered, almost exclusively, as a result of the area's architecture, design or types of residents. The problem with such an approach is that many decisive factors, which have a direct effect upon the local community but are not so easily observable, are thus ignored.' The way architecture is carved up and emphasized in his collages and posters resists any such facile criticism. Should we think of buildings simply in terms of their sheer physicality rather than, for example, in terms of larger economic or demographic

In order for human space, for the built environment, to have an authentic, enabling social role, Kolding argues that we need a broader, more universal, vision of people's relationship to that space. The urban fabric is not something that exists independently of behaviour and its historical context, whether at the level of urban planning (from high Modernism through to today), youth culture (DJs, graffiti and skateboarders), group identities (music and football) or art (vintage 1960s Minimalism). It is this interconnection that Kolding's work so clearly articulates, not simply describing social behaviour in the context of a given human space but actually questioning the relation between the two.

Kolding's favoured piece of technology is the photocopier, an inherently lo-fi tool and a democratic means of manipulating and reproducing the images that, with the addition of drawings and the odd colour element, form the basis of his collages. His approach to the collage form varies: some are posters, made up of just four or five elements - pictures or text; others take the form of free gallery hand-outs or are flyposted on walls in the city; a third approach uses huge expanses of white paper, on which he creates delicate, arrow-like compositions. The latter style in particular is reminiscent of Constructivism and the 20th century avant-garde's interest in mechanical reproduction and the tension between man and machine.

Style itself, of course, has an intimate relation to the question of how people relate to their environment, and the history of style can be read like so many growth rings in a tree trunk. In Kolding's case it is impossible not to see his work within the context of Minimalism, whose essentially progressivist ethos he both uses and turns on itself, as he challenges aspects of democratic engineering over the last four decades.

Snippets of sociological theory - some ringing true, others as dated as orthodox Marxism - appear in a number of Kolding's collages. In one work from 1999 the Joker from Batman has 'Class Structure' and '3 Class and Institutional Form of a Culture / Class Form / Institutional Form' placed over his eyes. Kolding probably sympathizes with what he quotes, but here the Joker seems simultaneously to reinforce and undermine such slogans. Perhaps middle-class ideology is always ambiguous: enterprising but hostile to change, conscious of tradition and heritage but unaware of history as a process of material and cultural change.

Kolding's engagement with such questions at times takes the form of what the Situationists referred to as 'psychogeography'. In one untitled poster, for example, a footballer is seen heading the ball towards a terrace of detached yellow-brick houses; the text above the image reads, 'Have there been any attempts, through planning, to either discourage or promote certain patterns of behaviour in your neighbourhood? (which/how?)'. The footballer is both a discreetly gendered fantasy in a real environment and a metaphor for human aspiration in relation to the space we inhabit. In some of his other collages Kolding uses Star Wars figures as a kind of psychogeographic feedback. After all, such films are largely the work of a suburban generation of American directors portraying their own childhood fascination with the Hollywood they absorbed through TV.

Producing black and white collages is a serious business. Historically collage has been a defiant, subversive medium, making connections the authorities would rather the public didn't see. But it also shows the artist's individuality under pressure, producing combinations and permutations of recycled imagery. Kolding's cannibalized representations introduce new ways for us, as individual and collective social bodies, to navigate and construct public space.