Tag Archives: architecture

Artivistic Fragments

keg and luca at artivistic
[keg and I present at the final round-table discussion]

Keg and have been attending Artivistic here in Montreal. It’s a DIY kinda conference about the junctions between art and activism, and this particular edition seems to be about occupation and space and nature. Big topics and sometimes the delegates struggle with large theoretical issues – the best sessions are grounded and case-study based. See a few pictures from the conference here.

Some of my favourites from the conference:
Continue reading

Teddy Cruz at the CCA

Down at the Canadian Centre for Architecture last night, I  attended a lecture by Architect Teddy Cruz, who works between San Diego (USA) and Tijuana (Mexico). He showed these powerful slides of the long long fence that runs between California and Mexico, "holding back the tide" of human movement to the richer northern state. The fence, constructed from the recycled steel landing mats that were used in the first "Gulf War" a decade ago, stretches right into the ocean. I find these images, fencing off the beach itself, to be quite violent, and certainly the graphic nature of the fence itself has been an inspiration and focus for many of the art projects initiated by the Border Art Workshop and others.

Cruz made some fascinating observations about the economies of exchange going on between the two border cities. For instance, humans are "traded" north, whereas discarded construction materials (like old tyres, wooden shipping pallets, and even entire demountable houses, are "traded" south). You can see quite clearly from aerial photos of the border territory, that the settlement of Tijuana is crowding to the border, pushing right up against the limit of the wall…whereas the settlements of San Diego seem to be retreating from the wall. One of the things Cruz seems to be constantly tackling is the issue of zoning. In an interview, he says:

"So many metaphors about this wall.  This city [Tijuana] crashes against this wall.  Its almost like the wall becomes a dam that keeps the intensity of this chaos, supposedly, this density from contaminating the picturesque suburban order of San Diego.  I call it a zero-setback at the border, because it’s a whole country leaning against the other in a zero-setback condition, again speaking of urbanism.  A zero-setback condition that is very much out of the idea of space in the United States."

[I understand the term "setback" to refer to the minimum legal distance between a property's boundary and the building on it. Setback is obviously something of more concern in the "sterile" suburbs of San Diego than in the more ad-hoc construction of Tijuana.]

When working in the United States, often with non-profit housing organisations to provide shelter for immigrants, Cruz often seeks to incorporate the seemingly chaotic land-use patterns from south of the border. For instance, recognising that small "unofficial" economies (like micro veggie markets) are a part of the lifestyle of the residents, he finds ways to make the housing spaces adapt to "mixed use" – such as having fences between properties fold down horizontally to become ad-hoc market-stall benches, or going beyond the density laws by building illegal small apartments which share kitchen and bathrooms (and hence doubling the population density). All these things are an attempt to adapt the land to the way of life of the residents, instead of the other way around.

Surprisingly, Cruz has found that the local councils are responding positively to his agitation – apparently they get hardly any input from architects about the need to change zoning regulations. And this is one of the most sobering points of his lecture – that architects need to push to be able to design not only the boxes that fit into the existing "invisible borders" within a city itself (property boundaries, zoning restrictions) but to also shape and move the borders themselves.

[postscript August 2006: more on teddy cruz here (thanks to Ian Milliss for the link) :

http://resilience.geog.mcgill.ca/blog/index.php/2006/03/15/teddy-cruz-what-adaptive-architecture-can-learn-from-shantytowns/  ]


In early February 2004 Jane and I attended the excellent Media City film and video festival in Windsor, (Ontario, Canada). Windsor is the city that Mike Moore features (briefly) in Bowling for Columbine, as a contrast to Detroit (which is just across the river in the USA). Canadians, he claims, leave their doors unlocked, and don't kill each other with guns, even though they still own a lot of them. Well, we don't know about the guns, but have yet to meet any Canadians who admit to leaving their front doors unlocked. So, Moore might have been taking a little cinematic licence on that one. In Detroit, however, there are plenty of open doors, windows, and rooftops just asking to be walked into. In a one hour walk from downtown up Woodward Street towards the Detroit Institute of Arts, (where we saw the amazing Diego Rivera Industry mural) we shot almost 60 empty buildings, including some stunning old skyscrapers – and, a short walk away, the sombre ex-Railway Station, apparently empty for more than 20 years. I have posted the pics up here.

Scooting around the web, it's obvious that I am by no means the first to document some of the abandoned sites of Detroit. The excellent Infiltration gang has a whole page o' links, and this local infiltrator at detroitblog has strong and sometimes convincing views about the city's empty spaces as a rich architectual heritage (not needing fixing), evidently a view not shared by the blightbusters group, who want to buy 'em up, fix 'em up (or knock 'em down). There is also an article about trees growing on the rooftops of long-forgotten downtown blocks, and a very thorough photographic tour, and spirited discussion forum about Abandoned Detroit. A very funny (though in the end quite sobering) weekly "un-real estate" listing is posted in the Detroit Metro Times newspaper. There's heaps more if you have time and are handy on google. It's obviously a big issue for many many locals.

Gordon Matta-Clark’s Films and Videos

While I was at the CCA for the Teddy Cruz lecture, I also checked out the Gordon Matta-Clark exhibition. He's on show with 3 architects – Cedric Price, Aldo Rossi, and James Stirling, in a show called Out of the Box / Sortis du Cadre.

Matta-Clark was the New York artist most famous for Splitting, a project in which he cut a house in two. He died in the late 1970s from cancer, which is a shame, as his work seems to have become very influential only recently. He co-founded a restaurant called FOOD, in SoHo, in the early 1970s – a project very much about creating a social space (…rather than an economic enterprise – the restaurant went broke after a few years.) He made architectural cuts into houses, office spaces, and vast steel warehouses, both with an eye to formal concerns (transfer of light, underlying construction, shapes etc), and to social concerns (such as real estate markets and anarchist-squatted buildings).

None of his significant projects exists today in any form other than documentary photographs, texts, stories, object fragments, super8/16mm films, and video tapes. I find his activities inspiring precisely because they exist in an imaginary state – and have not been fetishised into "mere" art objects.

Out of the Box presents video and film documents from Matta-Clark's work. In some cases, the video seems to be rough documentary evidence, say of various urban explorations (as in Paris Underground, or Substrait (from New York )), whereas other pieces are constructed as films in themselves. Indeed, some of the films were shown in the CCA's theatre, including Food, Fresh Kill, and Chinatown Voyeur. Jane and I went to some of these screenings late last year.

As interesting as Matta-Clark is, I found some of his "stand alone" films to be less-than satisfying. Perhaps this was because I was hungry for any information I could get my hands on about the artist and his activities – yet films like Food and Chinatown Voyeur were too piecemeal when presented within a cinema context.

Perhaps this is only to be expected. FOOD (the restaurant), unlike Splitting, is a complex and unwieldy project – it can't be summed up with a sequence of well-framed shots. What Food, the film, presents, is a day in the life of the restaurant: disorganised (bounced cheques); grisly (gutting and cutting a fish); chaotic (a dozen raucus friends gathered for lunch, and dishes piling up on the table); and also beautifully poetic (the final sequence showing the kneading and baking of bread). It left me wanting more, and made me feel like I, too, could open up a restaurant – and wouldn't it be fantastic! One thing it didn't do, though, was leave me feeling intimidated about the process of making a documentary film…

Fresh Kill, on the other hand, was specifically made for cinema viewing, using a professional film-crew. It's a kind of film-poem about the trashing of Matta-Clark's old red pick-up truck, as it is left at the garbage dump, and crushed, repeatedly, by bulldozers, until no longer recognisable. The analogy implied in the title is fairly obvious – the red truck is a sacrificial cow gored by predators, and picked over by vultures (there are many shots of circling gulls). I think Jane felt it was a bit too un-reconstructedly macho, but I wasn't so sure, I felt it was simultaneously beautiful and ironic.

The screening of Fresh Kill was juxtaposed with a bizarre early Spielberg number, which certainly deserved Jane's irritation. Entitled Duel, the film was a "made-for-TV feature starring Dennis Weaver as a motorist plagued by a crazed truck driver." The truck repeatedly tries to run the car off the road, but is eventually fooled by the fed-up motorist, and ends up flying off the edge of a cliff in a ball of flames. It's ghastly, but arguably simpler and better than a lot of Spielberg's later work.

Chinatown Voyeur, I would argue, shouldn't have been screened in a theatre context at all. Matta-Clark filmed the cracks in windows, looking into peoples apartments, one hot hot New York summer night. What you get on screen is a totally black field with these white punctuated window spaces, and some very minor activity within. like an old fella washing his jocks and hanging them to dry. It is long and boring. Shortly after seeing the film, I wrote:

"Chinatown Voyeur was originally intended to be projected ON THE SIDE OF BUILDINGS out in the street. Can you imagine? It would punch a window into a solid wall! And you wouldn't be forced to sit there like a zombie in the cinema watching the thing, it would be as fascinating as being a real voyeur looking up at windows, wondering what would happen next."

Matta-Clark's film and video work presented on monitors within the exhibition itself is all fairly watchable. I particularly liked Tree Dance, a series of super8 moments documenting dancers cavorting in custom-made hammocks and coccoons strung up in a huge old tree. And Splitting, of course, is captivating from start to finish, not only for the wonderful taboo-breaking house-sliced in two, but also for the film's home-made construction – the inter-title sequences look like they were pieced together manually on the kind of text board used for school class photos.
[ Post-script #1: This "problem" about how to go about presenting or re-staging work (specifically in relation to Matta-Clark) is taken up by Lisa Lefeuvre in an article called The W-hole Story. Originally published in Art Monthly Magazine (UK) April 2002 / No 255, pp12-15. I recommend it. She asks, and then makes a good attempt to answer:
"what does it mean to place an artist working some three decades ago within these contemporary discourses? How can an artist of the 70s who made ephemerality a part of his practice be allied to the present?" ]
[ Post-script #2: some Gordon Matta-Clark links:
Matta Clarking, a thesis generously posted online by architect Robert Holloway. I haven't read it yet. Also at this site there is a page of links to other GM-C sites. Some of these links don't work, but a few definitely seem worth perusing, especially Visceral Facades: taking Matta-Clark's crowbar to software by Matthew Fuller. ]
[ Post-script #3: an email from Jake:
"You're a bit tough on Duel, which I think is pretty good myself, but maybe it was the wrong context for it."
Jake, you're right, I was a bit harsh there. Sometimes I can be sloppy and cavalier in my judgement – but thinking back to the screening itself, I think I actually enjoyed watching Duel. It was such a simple concept, without all the pretension of plot and moral-of-the-story etc. It's just this bizarre situation where an ordinary fellow is targeted for no reason by an insane truckie, and begins, in a way, to go mildly insane himself. I think it quite successfully captured that "I can't believe this is happening to me!" sensation that you get when involved in a car accident or near-death experience. So, in that its ambitions were fairly low, I think it was a sturdy piece. I also liked how the maniacal driving of the truckie was superimposed on an otherwise banal and extremely ordinary situation…a salesman returning home, listening to the radio in his car…which sets it apart from The Dukes of Hazzard, for instance. ]