Patina as symbolic form: notes from the British Pavilion

Street of Venice

A Times op-ed had me smiling earlier this summer: its author, Mark Bittman, was making an analogical comparison between Detroit and Venice. I have used the names of various cities in order to metonymically illustrate Detroit: Havana, Hollywood, Marfa, … but Venice?!? Comparing the romantic pedestrian-packed Renaissance-frozen archipelago with the skeleton of an urban lab devised to fuel the auto industry through the advertising of a futuristic lifestyle, well, it seemed like a stretch…

I recently took a trip to Venice, to scope out this year’s institutionally proclaimed elites of the international art world. I take it back: the comparison is there, albeit less through an abstract analogy between two (questionably) autonomous insulated zones than through the representation of their very material reality, as mediated by the international image markets.

I couldn’t help but warn my travel companion on his first visit to the Serenìsima, as we were landing on the Marco Polo runway: “Watch out for the ghost of Baudrillard…” Yet, as I walked through the labyrinthine streets, thrilled by the opportunity to experience the city anew through his fresh gaze, I couldn’t escape the words of Marc Augé articulating de Certeau’s notion of non-place (already hearing the predictable ‘this is me in Venice’)—thoughts immediately overshadowed by some reflection pertaining to the aura of the place, lost to the innumerable reproductions of the very stage I was walking into…

Mike Nelson, I, Impostor (2011)

It was in the residue of such frame of mind that I entered the Biennale’s British Pavilion, site of the much-publicized installation by Mike Nelson, I, Impostor. Having stepped into the Pavilion numerous times prior, and as recently as during last year’s most amazing MUF-curated exhibit, I had a pretty clear sense of the raw shape of the space its neoclassical shell accommodated. Yet, all expectations were annihilated at the front door: a dark, low-ceiling corridor led the visitor from the entrance door around to an immediate first corner, leaving all vestiges of the giardini’s light and sights behind. And here I was, lured into the depths of this painstakingly re-re-created Turkish caravanserai (Nelson had already re-created it once, for the 2003 Istanbul Biennale), as if I was trespassing both time and space onto grounds I wasn’t meant to stand on, probably not in this lifetime, definitely not on that day. Despite what I wrote in the post below, I turned into an explorer! Seduced right into it, with no will to resist. A fully immersive experience to say the least, the multisensory dimension of the piece was overwhelming: beyond the recreated surfaces, dim passages, dusty air and other nailing of the visual details, the sounds created by the ground onto which I was stepping, the loud squeak of a heavy door hinge, the moldy smells, all amounted to the defeat of all intellectual resistance: I lost myself in the reality of the image—‘image’ being used here in a meaning closer to its Latin root imago: apparition, ghost…

Mike Nelson, I, Impostor (2011)

Once being spat back out into the heat of the Venetian July, I could not just let the experience sit undigested, despite the artist’s obvious effort to produce something that resisted interpretation. After all, the piece was not framed by any textual explanation—no introduction or conclusion—, but more significantly, it lacked any visible spatial frame, the boundary indicating the edge of the work, aside from the very unassuming threshold of the front door, which served as both entrance and exit. From the interior, one cannot perceive or sense the architecture of the pavilion, and on the exterior, one could never possibly imagine the world these walls contained. The lack of apparent edge, or break between the host and guest pictorial spaces, is what enabled the totality of the immersion. If Giotto enabled the visitor to occupy the space of his paintings by extending them to the edges of the architecture that framed them, as Lev Manovitch explains to illustrate the principles of virtual reality, Nelson allowed his sculpture a full-bleed to the edges of the building that contained it. (The artist himself insists on calling it a ‘sculpture’, rather than an installation, a distinction I find quite logical.) The mural takes over the space of the wall, the sculpture takes over the space of the building. By contrast, the 1961 Ed Kienholz tableau Roxy, which was on exhibit just across the Grand Canal at the Pinault Foundation, highlighted the seamlessness of Nelson’s environment by not allowing the viewer to stand simultaneously in the space of the installation and in that of Tadao Ando’s museum. While similar to I, Impostor in using ‘a scale that competes with the world’, Roxy, part of an exhibit appropriately titled “In Praise of Doubt,” exists a representational layer away from the viewer. Its pictorial space wavers between that of the architecture, and that of the objects displayed, whose spatial logic ends with their respective frame, pedestal, or security rope. The scale of the tableau may equate that of the architecture; it is still a full-scale model of a 40’s Nevada whorehouse, configured for frontal viewing, like a classical theater stage before the dissolution of the boundaries between actors and spectators. I, Impostor, on the other hand, is not a copy of a 17th century Turkish caravanserai on exhibit; it wants to be it. It exists there in the same representational layer as the foreign tourists that occupy the city, on a legally granted visitor status. It contributes, no matter how temporarily, to the make-up and identity of the city the way a loaned item from a traveling international collection doesn’t.

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice (14th c). Frescoed brick pattern on brick.

Now I’m no expert on art but I’ve read a thing or two about representation, especially in relation to architecture, and whether Nelson wants to deny wearing an architect’s hat or not, he’s offered us architectural space. “All architecture engages issues of representation in the creation of architectural experience.” writes my colleague Keith Mitnick, “Because buildings stand up, occupy space and exist in light and shadow, they are experienced in relation to culturally constructed notions of sensory experience that condition the affects they produce. Buildings are like billboards that display images of perceptual effects, such as light and shadow, in actual light and shadow, even when the billboard is blank, or its surfaces are peeled back to show how it holds itself up.” Yet Nelson’s rejects the concept of hyperreality, a term oft mentioned in relation to his work. “Ultimately all the objects are the things they’re made out of. They’re like readymades, to some degree…” (BP, 114) he states, shunning notions of simulation. Nelson believes that the authenticity of the copy should produce the authenticity of the experience, through the immediate reality of the material artifacts: a totality built of accumulated informal (or de-formalized) details, an architecture constructed of subnatures, dust, dirt, trash: reality affect, made possible by a microscopic vision that suppress what stands outside of its frame. After all, the very real Italian gondoliers steering the authentic gondolas imported to Las Vegas’ Venetian would produce a similarly intentioned experience, if one could abstract out of the panoramic vision the fake sky and building facades from a scene framing the swirl of water stirred by an oar in expert hands. Reality affect.

Mike Nelson, I, Impostor (2011)

But despite the material reality of the ‘stuff’ constituting the space, which may be authentic and all, Nelson’s intentions are more interesting than I may have just implied: he wants the work’s relation to the real world to be ambiguous, “a two-headed building: an architectural kind of amphisbaena…” (BP, 99). A work that goes both ways, it is both here (in Venice) and there (in Istanbul); immersive and representational; sculptural and photographic. While admittedly a sculpture, the amalgam of spaces that fill up the pavilion includes not one but two abandoned darkrooms, “the apparent workplace of an absent, obsessive photographer” (BP, 103). In an exciting self-referential move, the darkrooms reveal hundreds of drying photographs, images both of the 2003 Istanbul Büyük Valide Han and of the darkrooms installed there, then. As the only vestiges of the 2003 piece, these photographs were used to produce the work that now contains them. While referencing its own historical lineage, the temporary I, Impostor is also implying its own extermination: all that will remain, will be photographs. While seeking to be experienced, I, Impostor is also more than ready to be photographically consumed: it begs for it.

Paolo Ventura, The Automaton (2011)

Rather than deny the piece an honest intention to resist functioning as a cinema set (a prop to maximize the realistic effect of a representation), one can make a comparison between what Nelson is trying to achieve, sculpturally, and the nature of recent trends in photography (representations serving as witnesses to the seeming authenticity of captured kairos). These commonly frame the meticulous staging of the shot as its primary subject, in order to produce highly affective and immersive images (Todd Hido), implied narratives (Jeff Wall), or both (Gregory Crewdson). I, Impostor offers the immediacy of the physical experience these photographs only tease: it enables us to step inside the image, if only to occasion an attempt to capture it, for later. It also implicates the viewers by turning them into witnesses, entrusting them with the responsibility to ponder an unresolved storyline. To the often-elaborate scenes constructed by Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson in the service of an implied action involving cast actors, photographers such as James Casabere and Thomas Demand prefer the focus of the photograph to be the stage itself, conspicuously devoid of life. This absence allows Casabere to build the scene-to-be-photographed at a perceivably smaller scale than its insinuated referent, focusing on the realistic reproduction of material effects. On the other hand, the equivocal character of Demand’s photographs lies in the obvious use of model-building materials (paper, cardboard) to recreate life-size spaces. (Demand, it seems relevant to note, was trained as a sculptor and considers himself a conceptual artist rather than a photographer.) Seen through the dual lens of Casabere and Demand’s temporary sculptures, Nelson appears generous to his public: we get to experience the space “unmediated”. Or at least as unmediated as our experience of the streets of Venice themselves, framed from a greater global reality by its waterfront, an overnight train ride or a flight: spatial and temporal buffers that privilege the immersiveness of the Venetian experience, its ‘TAZness’ of sorts.

Mike Nelson, I, Impostor (2011)Street of Venice

More than giving us a taste of the Turkish caravanserai environment, Nelson transforms our sense of Venice, a town that works full time at being simultaneously experienced and conceived. As we exited the giardini, our gaze still set on a high focal length, the materiality of the built environment took on a different light. What is the relationship between the authenticity of the aesthetic experience Venice inexorably provides and the density of mystery layered into the patina of its facades—narratives to be unwrapped or imagined?

Meffre & Marchand, Ballroom, American Hotel (2009)

It was in the residue of such frame of mind that I returned home to Paris, where the gallery down the street was exhibiting and selling the photographs of Detroit recently published in an exorbitantly priced book by a high-end German art press. The oversized prints occupied the full frame of the storefront windowpanes. The current European popularity of the book, which can be found on the display shelves of the photography section in most Parisian bookstores and museum stores, contrasts with Detroit booksellers’ reluctance to carry it. The photographs display the same techniques of affect used by those who are presenting us with imaginary worlds. To borrow, or rather ‘sample’, the shot spaces to similar ends (anonymity of the location in the service of narrative effects) would have seamlessly inserted these prints into an existing discourse of contemporary photography, but by rejecting their fictionalization-by-framing and passing them for documentary artifacts, their authors are selling the promise of an accessible experience, one similar to that produced by Mike Nelson’s I, impostor, or to a similar extent, by a visit to Venice—experiences mediated by an image-based knowledge. So while every urban explorer in Europe is saving towards the ultimate trip to Detroit, the mecca of all that guaranteed sensation produced by the reality affect of an encroachment onto the decaying ruins of the American dream (a European’s wet dream), it would be judicious for Detroiters to think beyond rejection or denial of ruin porn as already passé, which it may be locally but is just getting started internationally. Only its image will produce the accessible reality of the city.

* Mike Nelson, British Pavilion (British Council, 2011)

Dear BBC: geographical research or porn addiction?

Dear Beautiful B.B. Club Members,

I am a geographer (human geographer that is), and I am concerned about a particular non-beautiful development in my field. For the last decades, my beautiful colleagues have spent debunking and critically engaging with narratives of exploration. You know, the kind of ‘man penetrating the virgin wilderness’ kind of stuff or the hair-raising meta-narratives that are going on when particular landscapes are vocally over-aestheticised. Recently, there has been an influx of work that strikes me as uncomfortably celebratory of such naive and self-indulgent engagements with natural, but especially urban environments. I first thought that this approach could be interesting in the sense that it could alert to the human desire for this kind of aestheticisation and indulgence. Instead, however, it seems to revert to a rather infantile emulating of iconic narratives of exploration. The most disconcerting is that such ‘research’ is being more and more supported – both intellectually and through funding. As an anonymous beautiful colleague phrased it, these people are getting funding to ‘play hide and seek on an arts council grant’.

I am turning to you as beautiful architects, because I am aware that you have been suffering from this kind of non-beautiful ‘discourse’ with a comparable intensity. Especially having to deal with the overkill of fascination with what has been termed ‘ruin porn’, I imagine, must have caused considerable nausea to your Detroit-based selves. I am aware that there have been arguments that this kind of ‘urban exploration’ may be an expression of higher appreciation and care, which will eventually attract beautiful people who will truly love a decaying city and affect its regeneration. In this case, I have no objection to such practices. However, I often feel that much of this hyping of sensory experience is more about the self (or about preserving a particular aesthetic of decay?) than the beautiful city/environment/community, and I am concerned that these ‘explorers’ are lacking an awareness of this aspect and what effects it could have.

My first question to you is how to deal with this development.

Would it be helpful to stage alternative forms of urban exploration? Or disrupt particular urban exploration events with critical interventions? Or would such beautiful interventions enforce insensitive practices of urban exploration by creating an ‘enemy’ that drives the ‘urban explorers’ further underground, adding an extra-level of thrill from the ‘forbidden’?

My second question to you is: is there a potential to tap into the narratives of care and sensation that a lot of ‘urban explorers’ rehearse and create something beautiful from it? 

I am looking forward to your beautiful thoughts…

Beautifully Yours,

Urban Exploration Party Pooper


Dear Beautiful Party Pooper,

Let me start off by stating that I empathize with your frustration. It is always disappointing to realize that those we trust to hold a critical perspective and superior common sense (for example those in charge of distributing funds that would, through specific research, benefit the greater good) are as subject to the lure of vapid trends as the average sinner. The critical question however isn’t “why are trendy proposals funded?” but rather “what are the forces that make a specific proposal trendy?” [And grant donors, it must be noted, are rarely guilty of rewarding projects that challenge dominant ideologies at their core.]

But that’s not a very beautiful topic to engage, and there is too much beauty in the world to focus on institutional shortcomings. Let me answer your questions.

The narratives of ‘care and sensation’ upheld by the ‘urban explorers’ you’re describing are intriguing: is there anything emotionally at stake when caring for material artifacts that are not currently being cared for by anyone else? Not really, and one can all too easily claim the undisputed role of carer, caring about inert matter—but not just any inert matter: highly symbolic inert matter, one that provides a high return on care investment. Only through the stories we tell ourselves are the spaces that this matter makes up associated with the semblance of human occupation, populations made generic through familiar accounts of economic crises, social or natural seisms, the vagaries of history. The way to both tap into these narratives of care and sensation AND to stage alternative forms of urban exploration, to answer both of your questions at once, is to play them out not towards unclaimed spaces, but towards spaces already claimed with love, albeit insufficient love, and more specifically towards the beautiful users of such spaces… For example in the case of Detroit, rather than showing interest in the urban ruins that are popping up on a daily basis, can we demonstrate care not only for the buildings destined to become the next frontline of fresh ruins, but also for those individuals who, through a scarcity of means, are still trying to resist capitulation to abandonment? Can we, as consumers of images, resist the perverse fascination with the spectacular sights of ruins, and yet, as urban explorers, invest energy in the less photogenic and thrill producing exploration of “ruins-to-be”, houses about to be foreclosed, schools struggling to stay open, theaters creatively battling lack of subsidies? In short, can we find interest in buildings that are still being cared for, and by extension in the non-fictionalized individuals most affected by the imminence of more ruins?

The suggestion here is that urban exploration might be reserved to human geographers. An ethical exploration should be measured by the end-sum of its effects: the gains should be on the side of the explored, rather than on that of the explorer. Ignoring the myth of a win-win scenario, an observer should at best contribute to the place observed, rather than benefit from it. This might necessitates abstaining from certain irresistible impulses, such as disseminating the recordings and representations of observed impressions through a certain constructed aesthetics proven popular. Be it through film, photographs, or any form of so-called ‘immersive visualizations’, the experience of such immediacy is often highly constructed to meet a well-known and existing demand. One can only hope that the temptation to meet such demand can be resisted, before the soul of the city is entirely stolen and sold.

But urban exploration hasn’t always been equated with the exploration of urban territories that are entirely devoid of human occupation. I’ll leave to Detroit’s own self-proclaimed ‘urban explorer’ William Bunge the last words on this question, directly transcribed from his report on the first years of the Detroit Geographical Expedition (The Society for Human Exploration, July 1969):

“The first prerequisite of any expedition is the high degree of group dedication to the cause, the purpose of the expedition. An expedition is no place for the career oriented. Those expeditions that have been motivated by glory seekers or national chauvinism, or any of the less noble aspects of the human nervous system have produced comparable results, such as “Which nation planted the flag first at the South Pole?” Who Cares? The expeditions with the broadest human commitment have been the most productive, or in cost accounting terms, have given back to the species the most return on the effort. […]

The purpose of the Expedition is to help the human species most directly. It is not a “nice” geography, or a status quo geography. It is a geography that tends to shock because it includes the full range of human experience on the earth’s surface; not just the recreation land, but the blighted land; not just the affluent, but the poor; not just the beautiful, but the ugly. In America, since most of the humans live in cities, it implies the exploration of these cities […]. 

Granted that unlike earlier expeditions, so many of which were exploitative, (indeed the word root of “expedition” is the same as that of “exploitation,”) human explorations are “contributive,” (resource contributing instead of resource taking) how does this affect the character of the exploration? Totally. Priorities are totally reversed. The world of geography is stood on its head. […] “What can I do to help?” This is a rough question. In a society where everyone, including geographers, has been conditioned to look out or they will be used, most people have succeeded in becoming quite useless in campus life. […]

The career route in geography has nothing whatsoever to do with being oriented toward productive geography and everything toward “playing the game” of personal career. […] Having conditioned himself into seeing his research as the symbol of his lack of integrity, to say nothing of his manhood, that is, having sold his thesis for his degree, [the geographer] simply continues this pattern the rest of his life. He publishes to keep from perishing. He sees tenure as the next “union card.” And eventually he sees retirement as the goal of his existence. Along the way, he seeks out and finds a society of similar time servers, who rather than discussing what is wrong with themselves, the nature of geographers, they lash out endlessly, during marathon coffee hours, about the dismal nature of geography. Every academic geographer reading this feels the sting of the truth of these words. Armchair geographers of the world arise, you have nothing to lose but your middle-aged flab. It is not too late.”

The Beautiful Building Club is…

The Beautiful Building Club is a group that meets regularly to discuss the work of emerging architects, artists, writers and others concerned with the built environment. The Beautiful Building Club is an opportunity for speculative, incipient, potential or impossible practices to impregnate professionally- or academically-grounded discourse on architecture; it is a casual alternative to institutionalized forms of architectural production and reproduction; it is a device for the re-arrangement of architectural desires; and it is a playground for consideration of all things architectural. Meetings of the Beautiful Building Club are open to all and are intended to sponsor useful, pleasurable and/or sublime conversation for the illumination and delight of all in attendance. The Beautiful Building Club plays both home and away games; at home it meets in a shifting series of venues in and around Detroit and at the Detroit Unreal Estate Agency School of Architecture’s satellite campus in Ann Arbor, while away it organizes meetings at the invitation of new or distant friends.