Saturday 19 January 2013

essay | untitled

By Rachelle Su
We are witness to a number of exhibitions and art works that involve commentary or reactions to socio-political issues. Art as activism has always been a highly contested arena, with many varied perspectives on the multiple issues involved. Think about an area in which art and politics had often come into contact, and state the various positions and reasonings for such positions. (6 Modules)  
To speak of a “cultural object” today is too limited, and that is partly because culture has become part of the market economy. Perhaps, the only domain that is not entirely absorbed by the market is the political domain…and a positive outcome of globalization is that we live in such an incredibly radical moment that the best way to participate is through politics, rather than culture.[1]
In “Curating Architecture” project, architectural research studio AMO develops an installation that rethinks the relation between image, data, ideological rhetoric and built forms. This work essentially conveys Rem Koolhaas’ firm assertion that “architecture develops out of shifting global economic and cultural infrastructures”[2], and should be rightly understood as “sites of politics…and that politics admits architecture both as a spatial and social process.”[3] Architecture and urbanism have always been considered as complex and creative acts that are uniquely sensitive as they work on a scale that requires keen calibration between various extremes of function, attitudes, objectives and thoughts. The contemporary city can therefore be read as a hybrid system that is constantly “becoming,” and through different intentions, interventions, narratives and analyses.  Beyond the structuring of cities by static objects such as houses, its urban flux – the ephemeral relationships formed between the users, objects and events – also makes up critical mass of a city’s experience. What is mapped in the mental life of a regular urban dweller will then require (re)-evaluations. Be it having breakfast in the park, wandering along the streets, or rubbing shoulders with complete strangers on crowded transportation, it is meaningful to note that the city arises out of these provisional and negotiated relationships as well.
The temporal expanse within which these dramas unfold, the ongoing writing and rewriting of the city, have rendered it akin to a palimpsest – a favorite term in urban studies of late, from André Corboz to Giuliana Bruno. What this amounts to is a reading of the city as a layered parchment, with countless fragments of possible stories emerging through constant overwriting, none of which can be read in isolation or completeness.[4]
And by doing so, urban dwellers are offered an opportunity to discover something new, and through their own agendas and perspectives find a new mapping and way of thinking about cities. These ambiguous and hidden layers in our urban-scape remain indispensable in recognizing cities’ latent energies and what seems to make up future interventions. This is a significant trial of contemporary urbanism, as it identifies the need to develop unorthodox ways of reading and intervening in the urban framework. The empirical apparatus for conventional urbanism deals only with limited aspects of the city while an elusive void still remains un-approached. The overload of information and stimuli that frames our recent culture is testimony for the need to widen the intellectual horizon and to be equipped with new tools for engaging with modern urban phenomenon. In this case, the contemporary city is one that,
… requires increasingly informed and critical navigation, if any sense – both as meaning and direction – is to be got from it. It seems that the work of interpreters has never been more topical. Approaching the city as a collection to be curated, whether through representations or in situ, opens up new possibilities for exploring and enriching the urban fabric and urban condition as a whole.[5]
Curation in its original meaning refers to the responsibility and care for something. In the past, a curator would traditionally be a person who looks after a collection of artifacts or things in a museum, and is a custodian of all that encompasses the collection – from ensuring that they are maintained in the best conditions, managing new acquisitions for expansion of works, to administrating its capabilities in display. Presently, curation has caught on additional meaning with a considerable shift towards the way things are displayed and less concerned with the specificity of the collection.
It (curation) has become a more loosely defined creative activity, increasingly  employed in a wide range of cultural fields. No longer implying an exclusive link to a collection, the contemporary curator is more like an artist-at-large, representing the world through the widest variety of media, locations and intentions. At its most  extreme, this reinvention of the idea of curation could be criticized as yet another fad of consumerist post-modernity, requiring ever-changing ways of selling  everything. Indeed, there is affinity between the arts of packaging, branding and curating, deployed in equal measures across the department store, the gallery and the museum. And although styling itself can no longer be dismissed as an inconsequential activity, it is the potential of contemporary curatorial practice beyond appearances that renders it most interesting and relevant.[6]
With such a shift from the traditional role of a curator, one naturally asks what is the stance that architectural exhibition-making can take in this expanded definition? Can an exhibition of architecture create a more complex inquiry into the link between architecture and other cultural participants? In her book entitled Art and Architecture: A Place Between, Jane Rendell proposed that public art could be thought of as social space. This proposition was interested in how the various forms of ‘spatial practice’ carried out by public artists engaged with issues developed through ‘spatial theory’. In addition, art and architecture collaborative, muf, also discussed their work as “a place between people”, much like how curation is the place of mediation between the work and the audience. Such an association inevitably provokes revisions in our thinking about the implicit relationships between curatorship and architecture. By taking a broader philosophical look at curation – by re-positioning it both as and within spatial practice – one may articulate ‘care’ as both a responsible act and a conceptual expression where idea and space interact. Ultimately, this links the curator, the architect-urban planner and the city dweller in a shared act of participation. The architectural exhibition, the national gallery, the urban redevelopment project, the heritage precinct, and art biennales, can unravel non-traditional forms of the city and route out fresh navigations between them. In essence, the architect-urban planner characterizes a type of über-curator, whose sculpting of cities provides grounds for their own involvement in the over-arching curatorial function:
Has architecture, properly thought and experienced, ever been otherwise? Is the city, considered as a site of curation, a place of care, anything other than such a irreducible life? Is the responsibility of the city curator, the urban planner, the architect, anything other or less than the fostering of such care? Or can their concern simply be regarded instead as the derived realm of res extensa, its forms and the materiality in which they are represented?[7]
Rather, just as the creative designer curates the city and at the same timecreates their work in a to-and-fro activity between what exists and what will exist, what they have an eye to in this resonating movement is its continuation by others within the space of the city of the room… when the task of the designer becomes not primarily the consideration of built form but the wider task of the consideration of the interplay of people and space, peoples and place… (this) gives responsibility and thus the possibility of curation to the others who will come to inhabit and come to view… this means that there is a responsibility – a political one – to allow for care, to allow for curation.[8]
In 1968, SPUR (Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group) exhibited on Elizabeth Walk a showcase entitled, Singapore: Our Environment Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Clearly, the ideological and educational values of public architectural exhibitions were never lost on civil society groups since post-independent. This exhibition premiered to jolt the public’s awareness of the condition of the city and to ‘bring out the inherent quality of the environment and attempt to recast old familiar scenes in a new light’. Rather than highlighting the state of architecture then, the curatorial technique used in the exhibition was to show deliberately how vital the architectural environment was to the existence of good architecture and practice. Curatorship in this case involves a different conception of space altogether, one that bridges the expanse between production and interpretation, author and reader – the city curator is therefore the ultimate mediator of things in space. Such category of urban curatorial acts translate to what Sarah Chaplin and Alexandra Stara has referred to as ‘poetic interpretations – creative interventions through interpreting and, conversely, invitations to critical engagement through making.’ This school of thought distinguishes curating from other types of public thinking, teaching and research in that it is both affirmative and critical at the same time. In other words, curation is not short of being a spatial practice with the act of exhibition-making an essential device for architectural production.

Traditionally, the role of architectural exhibitions is to display representations of architecture – it is usually linked to the idea of a space with miniature structural models and architectural plans depicting scenes of a building’s development and construction. Although exhibitions are discursive environments, they are also communicative: 
The exhibitor can use them (exhibitions) to gauge public opinions on his or her cause, rally public support or fortify his or her position. For these reasons, the nature and the transformations of (architectural) exhibitions directly highlight the public’s awareness and interest in architecture as a medium for imagining the future and taking stock of the moment.[9]
Beyond these values, architectural exhibitions can also ‘show architecture without recourse to representation (since) exhibitions are produced in spaces and the experience of space is the primary way in which we perceive architecture.’[10] In Martina Eberspächer and Gottfried Korff’s exhibition entitled 13 things, they confronted the subject with the object. The idea of the exhibition was to examine the fields of significance of the objectworld using individual things. What structural effect do things have on the architecture of our reality? Is there a grammar of things in the same way that there is a grammar of language? Eberspächer and Korff described their exhibition as architectural, although architecture as a cultural-political object was never fetishized:
The exhibition room, the stage production: every thing corresponds to an angled wall panel. The panels are arranged in such a way that the observer always has a view from underneath and from on top. The things look as if they have been cut out from some larger framework, they turn away from each other, and also look at each other again around the corners. These are inclinations and aversions. The angled wall panels seem to like frozen moments in the whirling chaos, in the possible network of interrelations. The world of meanings is presented here as an open system in which constellations arise and break away from each other again.[11]
Here is something of a challenge to curators of architecture. How does one focus on the nature of architectural exhibits and the limitations of interactivity in exhibition design without merely just staging an event and controlling the terms of display and object engagement? With the pressing questions that face us about the future of the built environment, the business of curating architecture and the city should perhaps embrace a more messy manifestation – akin to a de-sign(ifier) of things of sorts. A thorough curatorial exercise would be to fully embrace endless questions and contradictions. What, we might ask, is that why not let what happens in art happen with architecture? Being the mythical mother of the arts, how should the treatment of architectural exhibitions differ from that of displaying of artworks? When asked by PRAXIS: Journal of Writing + Building what would be the defining aspect of contemporary moment in architectural production and thinking, Aaron Betsky the director of Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) replied, “If I knew that, I could retire.”[12] As a response to that question, the curator will have to seize architecture’s wider social and political context, and engage directly with spaces, places, people and their ideas. The objective is to discover as many relationships as possible between the city we live in, and the built and un-built objects within it, and how they all eventually coincide together as one curatorial gesture in which we make sense of life.

[1] A dialogue between Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist as recorded in the essay published by Andrea Phillips on “Curating Architecture”, an exhibition at The Showroom, London, 2008. 
[2] Andrea Phillips, ‘Curating and Architecture: Notes from the Research’,, (accessed: 1 December 2012).
[3] Phillips, ‘Curating and Architecture: Notes from the Research’.
[4] Sarah Chaplin and Alexandra Stara (eds), Curating Architecture and The City (London: Routledge, 2009), p.2.
[5] Chaplin and Stara (eds), Curating Architecture and The City, p. 1-2.
[6] Chaplin and Stara (eds), Curating Architecture and The City, p. 1.
[7] Tim Gough, ‘Cura’, in Sarah Chaplin and Alexandra Stara (eds), Curating Architecture and The City (London: Routledge, 2009), p.101.
[8] Gough, ‘Cura’, in Chaplin and Stara (eds), Curating Architecture and The City, p. 101.
[9] Wong Yun Chii, ‘Missions and Visions: A Stock-take of Architectural Exhibitions in Singapore’, Singapore Architect Journal no. 228, August 2005, p.29.
[10] Carson Chan, ‘Showing and Experimenting Architecture’,, (accessed: 2
December 2012).
[11] Martina Eberspächer and Gottfried Korff, 13 Things, Württembergisches Landesmuseum,
Stuttgart, Museum für Volkskunde, Waldenbuch, 1993.

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