Architecture (re)presented

Throughout spring 2015, a series of conversations took place between artists Penelope Vlassopoulou, Leticia Lampert, Jaimini Patel and Bruno Lavos Marques and curator Ya'el Santopinto on the (re)presentation of architecture's volatile edges.

The representation of our spaces and cities is no neutral project. It is, at its most productive, the project of making visible the conditions which underlie the spaces we inhabit. If we accept that spaces are never inert--historically, economically, socially, materially--then there is much work to be done in exposing these spaces' allegiances, their contradictions, their social implications and their aesthetic conceits.

Here, in the work of four international artists, architecture is not simply presented, but rather translated anew, productively mediated. If, as Walter Benjamin insists, architecture is always experienced in a state of distraction, then this collection of artists is working to awaken us from our easy slumber. Architecture matters--and not only because of its ability to shelter. It matters because of its fierce delineations of interior and exterior, of memory and forgetting, of inclusion and exclusion.

Click or scroll down the get to the artists interviews

YS: Your practice is centered around a careful and empirical record of the city. But rather than using -- for example photography to create a copy, you use a technique of rubbing in order to read the city as a physical landscape of textures. You write that this method has allowed you, at times, to be surprised by your findings. What have you learned by documenting the city through touch and texture that might have been missed through more traditional, visual methods?

PV: Collecting documentation by putting crayon to paper instead of using the standard method of photography was a choice I made early on in the project mostly guided by instinct. I felt it allowed for a more immediate connection with the object documented, the urban elements I was interested in interpreting. Later on I realized that the document's materiality was also something essential. The link between the city and the work had to be real, it had to have a physicality and in this way provide a real, physical connection of the surface of the work to the urban element originally documented.

Developing and exploring this method of documenting the city, I discovered how it affected and defined the document produced. Far from providing what is typically considered to be a faithful, “photographic,” image of the object, it conveyed a different, often surprising kind of image. This image didn't come from the usual path of the object's interaction with light but resulted from another kind of interaction and therefore led to an unexpected and revealing outcome. This made the process of documentation feel very much like a creative process, something explored more fully in the project Metamorphosis/USA where the documentation itself is at the center of the creative process.

YS: Your Metamorphosis works begin as the documentation of a specific local condition, and are gradually put through a deliberate process of decontextualization. Eventually, they are abstracted both from the means of their production--one-off rubbings are transformed into repeatable stencils--and from their content--a form is pulled, for example, from the cover of a manhole and reproduced in new and unexpected formations. What is the role of the original, localized trace within the final works?

PV: The trace is the link between the documented object, which is the origin of the work's vocabulary, and the final work. This link carries the object's documentation performed on location and is the actual surface from which the form composing the work is drawn. In this sense the trace exists within the final work. Even more so because the method of documentation itself offers an interpretation of the original element that is traced, one defined by the method's particularities and limitations, rather than an “accurate” equivalent, as we would consider a photographic document to be. Moreover, there are practices within Metamorphosis, as in the case of the Blueprint drawings, where the document and final work are one, and the documentation functions as a medium for the creation of the work.

YS: Because of the complex series of transformations that make up many of your works, how has documentation of the process become part of your practice? Would you consider this documentation to be a work in itself? Do you typically exhibit the works alongside a record of this process?

PV: So far documentation has primarily served the needs of the process itself, allowing me to identify the methods that will lead to the desirable outcome in the final work. Nevertheless, in the video documenting the Metamorphosis/Kurfürstendamm project I deliberately meant for part of the creative process leading to the final work to be shown and would imagine a record such as this as playing a part in a future exhibition. And then there is this part of Metamorphosis where documentation of the process is essentially what remains of the work. This is the case for the intervention/performance no water. In an exhibition presenting the project, the photographic documentation of the work, the film created, and perhaps also the few material artifacts that remain, like the flour pen used in the intervention, would probably be the sole material representing the work.

YS: While collecting a trace at the Chicago Board of Trade, you were stopped by private security guards and the work was temporarily confiscated. In general, how does your work tend to hit up against the edges of the public realm? Have your experiences changed your notion of 'publicness'?

PV: Even though my original intentions are not confrontational, it does often feel like I hit up against what is considered acceptable within the public realm. Testing of boundaries does sometimes come into play as the work progresses, becoming part of its exploration, but I would say that so far this has been more an effect of the work's process than part of the original objectives for the work. Increasingly though, when performing within the public space, my notion of what is acceptable runs up against “the rules.” At the same time, I have also been pleasantly surprised by the extent of tolerance, good-natured curiosity and openness of the people around me.

YS: No water makes visible the desperate intimacies scratched onto the walls by those imprisoned in an underground Nazi detention facility. With this work, you have moved memory out of the museum and onto what you describe as the 'body of the city.'If you have a moment, I wonder if you can speak briefly about the process of transferring subterranean carvings from a basement to the streets. Did this re-presentation change the nature of memory from commemoration to something more lively, bewildering and dynamic? Were you surprised by peoples' reactions upon being confronted with the memory of this trauma?

PV: My intention with this work was indeed something more than the commemoration of past events, even if in this case this would be something meaningful and worthwhile on its own. When I first visited the Nazi detention facilities, not so long ago, the carvings on the walls had somewhat of an electrifying effect on me. It felt as though they were “alive,” their content still current, the agony they encompassed still in the air, in the present context -- their message unfulfilled. By bringing these messages up onto the surface, onto the above-ground level of the city and in dialogue with the present day, I attempted to make visible a condition already present, albeit for a fleeting moment. Even though the recollection of the period these messages come from is often emotionally charged, I was surprised by how often I was met with pensive and even philosophical reactions. I would say that most people confronted with the prisoners' messages immediately made the leap to today and their current predicament.

Hier wohnte, 2014
Installation, detail, paper, powdered pigment, 108 cm x 136 cm (42.5 x 53.5 in)

No water, 2014
Performance, 420min

YS: In your series "Known from View," you examine the way that looking out the window has, in the dense cities of the 21st century, become an increasingly intimate practice. Buildings are often so closely spaced that views of the urban landscape are replaced by a view into your neighbour's domestic life. What did you learn from stepping into these living rooms? Is this a series about intimacy, or alienation, or something else entirely?

LL: When I started doing the series, I was interested in the architecture itself: the forms of the buildings, the cityscape, the view (or the lack of it). I was not thinking about dwellers' relationships or the domestic life in the beginning. But when I started visiting the apartments, this soon proved to be far more interesting than just the buildings themselves. That's the reason why I started recording the dwellers’ voices. I thought those "closed" views would have a sense of oppression or something cold and distant, but people actually got involved somehow. They don't experience intimacy, generally, nor alienation, but there is a different kind of relationship: a social contract that seems to be important to city life.
I read the book of Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities, and in it I could recognize some of the situations she talks about. In the book, she writes about the importance of a particular character in a big city: the "public acquaintance," someone who you know from sight, but you don't know formally. This person brings you a sense of security, someone who will perceive if suddenly you are not there, or if you scream, or run into difficulty. They don't want to be friends, because then they would care about each other lives, but it is good to know familiar faces, voices, movements. She writes more about the life in the sidewalks, but I reckon there is the same feeling with neighbours whose windows are too close.

To watch the videorecording of this piece:

YS: Your work often uses techniques of collage and juxtaposition to construct imaginary urban fields. It seems as if the imaginary in your work is as true to reality as the real. What led you to see the city this way? What is your process for gathering the parts of these hybrid places?

LL: I think our view is, somehow, contaminated by our memory. And memory is never very precise. When we try to remember a place, is common to mix things from different times, from different places. In the other hand, when we are looking at a place, sometimes we remember another one, We compare it with things we have already seen. So I wanted to give this feeling to the image. I do try to be plausible in my images, so I care about the proportions of the elements. I try to connect architectural elements from one image to another to create this feeling of a unique thing. And I think this kind of process fits the subject of because there is a lot of collage in cities: you can see collage in architecture (a detail from one era mixed together with another from a different style), or a building that is being constructed just beside an old house...a city is a great collage. And in places with no urban planning, as it is common in Brazil, this is even more apparent.

YS: In the Practical Handbook of Architecture, you have adopted the medium of the book. But rather than a collection of printed serial images, you have played with the spatial quality of the book to produce new relationships between the pages. Can you talk about the choice of the book as a space for your work -- is a book like a city?

LL: That's a hard question. I never thought of it this way, but it is a interesting thought. I like to work with artist's books because I think they are a great medium for art. The work can circulate and be seen much longer than in a exhibition. So I like to think of every series that I make as a book as well, if it is not already made to be one. I have two projects in which I played with collages through the pages, cutting images, completing one image by another image below. I thought this would be a good way to explore the process of making a collaged image, but I didn't think about the book as a city itself. But it is a interesting thought...and, why not, an idea to explore in a future project.

(de)construction #5, 2008
Digital Photograph, collage, 85 x 105 cm

City view of Porto Alegre, 2012
Digital Photograph, 45 x 100 cm, tryptic

Practical Handbook of Architecture, 2012
Laser print on Paper, Artist's book, 15 x 20 cm
Artist's book - 2012 - 2nd Edition - 30 handmade copies

YS: Material resistance plays a significant role in your work. I am thinking specifically of your description of materials subverting your expectations -- as you apply a layer of egg tempera to the windows of a tram in Sightline, or while you work meticulously to install Marking or Laid Bare. How does the unpredictability of materials shape both your process and your outcomes?

JP: I am interested in how far I can push materials and what happens when they resist control. The process of observing and testing their behaviour often reveals unexpected outcomes. It can be a slow and painstaking process, but one that develops a nuanced and intimate understanding. Sometimes a material that initially refuses to submit to my will, with perseverance gives something more than I had anticipated. Resistance opens up new avenues of inquiry.

With Sightline I had been thinking about whitewashed windows for which egg tempera may not be the obvious choice. It does not adhere to glass easily, but after much experimentation, I found that I could drag it with a paper towel in an alternate vertical and horizontal direction to achieve a fine covering. Its application could not be duplicated exactly and therefore each panel of glass had a subtle variation in colour and opacity. The particular quality of the surface and diffusion of light could not have been achieved with a more stable or pliant material. Marking involved sharpening to a point one end of chalk sticks to enable them to fit in the gaps in a wooden floor. The inversion offered up the flat end to the light, however this rendered the sharpened point weak. Eventually I found that coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature, can be warmed between the fingers and applied to the porous tip. The chalk is fortified and as the coconut oil returns to a solid state, it is no longer visible. The tips could then be twisted into the gaps with exceptional care. The chalk would fit a gap with particular features. In addition to the two edges, it required a third edge (in the form of an irregularity in the wood or filled gap along its length) to lean against. Many conditions such as the temperature of the room, angle of the floorboard, type of filling in the gap and its depth, determined the probability of a good fit. The chalk had to be twisted with just the right amount of force and rotation to find a point exactly between too much and too little each time.

Similarly working with egg tempera, I had to decipher the point just before it dried, after which it would not become finer, but be scraped away. I am often interested in locating this point in whatever form it may take. Like tuning or focusing, I negotiate a smaller and smaller territory to find the moment before something might snap, collapse under its own weight or disappear. Many of my works invite the possibility of failure, whilst trying to avoid it. There is a compulsion to try to gain control with the knowledge that ultimately it eludes us.

YS: You have described your work as a response to the wealth of information contained within a material or site. You make often-overlooked surfaces (floors, walls) visible by revealing this latent layer of information. Like many of your works, Marking is situated firmly within an existing canvas: a room with a particular history, worn by years of use. Can you speak about the role of memory (both of humans and of objects) within your work?

JP: The particulars of a space: the walls, floors, or the way the light moves across them are all materials I work with. Like those I introduce to a site, they contain latent information that may or may not be visible or knowable. Walls may be given some attention, but floors are more likely to be neglected, thus retaining more visible clues about their history. Both Marking and Floor Rising are created in sites with interesting pasts. Whilst these histories are alluded to, they cannot be accessed, merely imagined. The chequered floor in a grand hallway does not tell us about the rooms leading from it or the lives that passed through it. The space between two floorboards may be the result of many factors, intentional or arbitrary. The viewer is invited to speculate how these points with shared dimensions came to be. The material introduced to the space also has a history and associations attached. The folded cardboard gives the illusion of a more substantial, solid form. The precariously balanced chalk contains within it the act of twisting imparted by the body. I am interested in how much about the previous use or process undergone by materials is made available to the viewer. Information may be present, but only accessible to those with knowledge about a material or process. Or, like the folded card, a transformation of the material, or its placement might urge you to forget what it is. I am concerned with the nature of memory and the process of retrieval, rather than unearthing a particular history.

YS: In Sightline, you constrain the visual relationship between your studio space, located in a decommissioned tram, and the adjacent neighbourhood. Only a single, razor-thin line of sight, positioned at eye level, remains. You speak of the unexpected resistances of materials. But the absence of material is equally active as an agent in this piece; light and the human gaze are focussed through the clear datum line, moving both into and out of the tram. In this sense, Sightline is a tram-sized pinhole camera. Can you speak about the role of absence, inversion and constraint in this work?

JP: The strategy of constraint plays an important role in my process, not only in terms of the contracting parameters that I negotiate, but also in terms of using the simplest means possible. Maybe this is a reaction to the saturation of things and information and the apparent abundance of possibility that this evokes. I often work with a single material, reduced to a bare minimum. In Sightline, a majority of the egg tempera painted onto the glass was removed as it was repeatedly dragged across it. The masking tape on the window had been cut to size freehand along a ruled line to ensure an absence of paint along a horizontal line. During the application of the egg tempera, the edges of the tape collected paint as it was moved across the glass. Upon its removal, a dense line of paint outlined the line of clear glass where the egg tempera had accumulated. The unpainted line is the sight of activity. The audience brings his or her eye to it, in order to see the world beyond, however it does not allow the inside of the tram to be viewed from outside. The smell of the egg tempera is heightened and the lines that make up its surface come in and out of focus. One is made aware of the decisions regarding the placement of attention.

In addition to locating the point on the verge of something happening, I am interested in physical points of focus: the contact of the chalk with the wood, the slight rise of the black card as it appears to float above the tiles or the absence of paint that enables the possibility of seeing, without being seen. Absence and presence can exist simultaneously: the performative act of making can be evident in the work or a space that contains very little can be activated and made more present.

Marking, 2013
Chalk, Oxford, UK

Floor Rising, 2010
Cardboard, Oxford, UK

YS: Your works Push and Pull and Atomic Magnolia both use thick black elastic to construct drawings in three dimensions. The installations trace new spatial relationships, while simultaneously producing obstacles for the people moving through and around them. How do these works change the way that people interact with once-familiar spaces?

BLM: The human being is a body in constant movement. My work begins with the act of drawing in order to activate the ability to feel the sensation of movement and to stimulate a new view of a physical space or environment. The elastic band installations are about the relation between human scale and the landscape (or architecture). The space absorbs the gesture in the same way that a piece of paper absorbs the scratch of a pen. Somehow, the gesture calls on us to imagine ourselves as creative beings, looking for re-invention and searching for the new. Do people really interact with once-familiar spaces? This is the reason why these works seek to make space a living place, open to bodily inter-action and the co-relation of time-space.

YS: Your work has a strong sense of movement: it is almost as if works like Atomic Magnolia are gathering in the latent energy of their environments. And the use of elastic (rather than, for example, string or rope) reinforces this idea of embodied movement. How does the notion of movement (potential or actual) factor into the design of these works? And does your use of video help you to convey this dynamism?

BLM: The movement represents the intensity and energy or our daily life. Nothing is to be taken for granted in this world. Everything is a gift from a precise group of factors which make life possible. All the elements of a place are in constant conversation with each other. They send information through an invisible network. In a way the design of these works is the result of walks within the space, and the physical translation of that movement. What is the movement? What is the body? What is the action? These are the questions my work addresses. The line is the medium and the way my body speaks with the elements of a place. On the other hand, the video translates this dynamism in a more direct language. It helps to clarify how a line creates the drawing as a result of a gestural action.

YS: The Global Villages series might be read as a study of our landscapes of consumption. The tone of these pieces is playful and energetic, but there is a sinister undercurrent, which you hint at when you ask: "how we can still be human in these landscapes?" Can you elaborate on this question? How have your experiences of various cities inspired this series?

BLM: I was born in a small country town in Portugal. After my degree, I moved to London and my perception of the world change entirely. I asked myself: how can we change our behaviour when a big city is consuming the main resources of our planet? This was the starting point of Global Villages. Everything comes in a plastic packet that we throw away everyday. We cannot stop being human and is impossible to stop consumption, but is possible to reduce our footprint. The transfer of values is very important in our era of information. Identity, patrimony, and human life are the real cornerstones that we should preserve. The cityscapes in Global Villages put together photo documentation of the buildings I see in my travels, recycled products, found objects and reused materials reflecting our global atmospheres. These sculptures also speak about the contamination of public space with consumerism. I overturn that reality using a child’s vision. A worldwide multicultural society is possible while preserving a self-sustainable way of life. These pieces are historical documents not only for contemplation, but for learning and evolution.

Atomic Magnolia II, 2012
black elastic bands

AL Algarve I, 2014
Aluminum, Found Objects, Collage/assemblage, 53 x 38 x 38 cm

Global Village IV, 2012
Found labels, drawing and digital print on cut-out aluminium plates, 40 x 38 x 25 cm