The Installation as a Territorial | Machine Toward a Post-Planned Condition of the Objects

by Yorghos Tzirtzilakis

The "Post-designed" Space as an Expenditure Machine.
Could there be a predominant characteristic in all art presentations, not only in the typical, protected exhibition spaces of contemporary art but also in its non-conventional public showings? (1) In order to answer this question we must go back to the current meaning of the term 'installation'.
Indeed, the world of art has been inundated by installations which re-articulate the architecture and the ways of reading the contemporary city "in the age of Post-Medium condition" (2). The first examples of installations appeared in the first half of the 20th century and they achieved a dominant position in the 1960s, but in recent years they have gone into a trajectory of frenetic diffusion. The subject, discussions on which flourish and multiply, is already covered by a voluminous bibliography. Even more than their proliferation suggests, the installations have changed our ideas on all forms of art, incorporating in model ways, cultural practices, local forms of expression, networks and immaterial technologies, the corporeality of the body, the notions of mobility and community, the different versions of habitation, the disturbed boundaries between private and public space and many other things. The very locus of the installation emerges as the major element of differentiation. Such a priority is not unrelated with the re-evaluation of space in contemporary critical thinking, the development of topographical hermeneutics and, largely, the emphasis on topography. The current transtion from history to geography and fro,, time to space signifies -as Frederic Jameson claims- the transtition from imperialism to globalisation. This is certainly a set of stimulating, ambivalent and sometimes arbitrary terms for whose hosting and debate the installations tend to serve as the ideal artistic field. All the thematic fragments which circulate in political thought, techno-science, urban theory, geography, anthropology or ethnology, as well as a series from the cutting edge of the critique on the contemporary world, march through the artistic language and become part of its ingredients, pointing to a more general change. The inexplicable attraction of installations is based on the very fact that they function as an ideal metaphor of our truly contradictory condition and our relationship with the scattered universe of objects. Of course, this does not exhaust the range of subjects from which the installations are inspired; it is above all the issues of spatial experience, aesthetic confusion and the event of exhibiting in itself which become principal quests of the artistic practice. The demand for "participation" turns into an inextricable, almost ontological element of the works themselves, which serve in turn as a kind of lab on the condition of public space and the objects that surround us. It is only thus that the social functions of public space are activated; a space which constitutes, in its uncontrolled 'post-design' forms, a weird landscape of accumulations, holed and fragmented, a 'traffic' of conditions and above all a kind of non-productive "expenditure", in the sense that Georges Bataille (3) has given to the word.
Paradoxical though it may seem, many of the works in the exhibition set as their objective what we already have: the city itself and certain concepts of dwelling. Today the city is everywhere except in pure architecture and urban planning. The various artistic practices seem to embody in a convincing way the principle of uncertainty, the supremacy of the indefinite, examples of social inventiveness, factors of subjectivity and abjection, all kinds of mappings and an exploratory mood inspired not by harmony but by contrasts, tensions, discontinuities and assemblages.
This assumption enables us to trace the formation of an overall environmental expressiveness, within which contemporary art neither simply depicts the city nor reproduces something imaginary or unreal, exactly because it is involved in forming and organising reality. Contemporary art exhibitions mingle with the vague "post-planned" topography of the metropolitan environment and thus activate our gaze and trigger a series of experiences. Now this is a stimulating correlation between art exhibitions and the urban environment. Having for decades subjected our gaze to a kind of collective surgical operation, today's exhibitions lead us to assume that there is nothing more artistic than the cities themselves. The reversal is striking: it is the cities that now look like diffused exhibitions of contemporary art, not the other way round.

Dwelling as the Last Artistic Genre
This proposition requires some explanations about the keyconcept of "installation". This peculiar agglomeration and arrangement of videos, utility objects, notes, photocopied images, passages, painted surfaces, texts, dwelling units, bricollage and all kinds of constructions, relics, layered materials and metropolitan sequences constitutes a new artistic species, or is perhaps the ideal definition of contemporary artistic expressions, as all prior artistic varieties are deterritorialized. Today we know that the entire new art unfolds on either side of the autonomous forms of expression which used to make up art and determine its different genres. Everyday objects and assemblages are turned into sculpture, painting becomes environment, video and television turns into a kind of "extended cinema", photography into painting, installations into architecture, urban actions into "psycho-geographic" derive and the Internet into all of the above.
In 1978 Rosalind Krauss talked about the "expanded field", (4) i.e. the violation of boundaries and the expansion of individual disciplines beyond their established limits. Today, whether we like it or not, architecture, painting, sculpture, photography, what we call performing arts and the arts of moving images are brought into a state of risky mixture and mutuality. This hypothesis I could also express in a different way: dwelling - which seems to be the only connecting element among all these- emerges as the last artistic genre: all the rest are changed and differentiated. Now we are all into what Henri Lefebvre (5), one of the most important theorists of the social construction of space, has called the domain of culturally-produced representational spaces and at the same time, into representations of space. Of course, I am not saying that immaculate purity is not desirable, yet we have to admit that in our time it is not necessarily an advantage. For instance, the practice of DJs can be seen as a more convincing example of the new artistic rule which recycles and mixes that peculiar artistic hypertext we recognise in exhibitions, in public places and in the cities. Music composer Hanns Eisler once coined a poignant aphorism which remains valid in this context: "one who only understands music, understands nothing". Strangely enough, the mild practising of Zen leads to the same conclusion: when we see part of the moon through a cloud, a tree or a weed, we perceive its spherical shape. But when we see the whole moon, we do not perceive this spherical shape in the same way. I hope that these postulations are not pointless but give some idea of the changes which the issue we are discussing here is undergoing. In fact, the installation has managed to incorporate a series of changes which had been lying around in isolation for decades. One might well ask: is it that pure painting, pure sculpture or architecture, pure urban planning no longer exist but diffuse into one another? Of course not. Yet I fear that the pure condition of the arts-when and where it exists-often proves to be inert and introverted. That's why we need to observe without prejudice the reading framework proposed by these new forms of creativity, using it as a prism. It is the only way in which one can penetrate all artistic expressions of our time, or, to put it straight, all major works without exception.

The Readymade as Strategy
Today, both art and architecture appear as a kind of generic readymade which defines itself and gains acceptance predominantly through the weight of its presence. This is a cultural phenomenon which is much broader than the mythicised "theatricality" or the "aestheticalisation" within which we used to discuss it.
Speaking in historical terms, the critical change brought about by the readymade lies in the shift of interest from the representation to the presentation of reality through specific objects. In this sense the installations represent a high point in the nerrative tradition of the readymade, exactly because they treat objects as units of signification.
As we know, the power of ready-mades lies in their capacity for signification and reversibility, in what Marcel Duchamp described as the "new vision" and the "new idea" about some object which seemed familiar. The deterritorialisation into the realm of the imaginary and exhibition is obvious: the readymade as strategy opposes the non-reversibility of the form as destiny. The ascendancy of the hierarchised form gives way to the dominance of action and selection, and all systems of the form change course in favour of the "new vision" and the "new idea". But what was it that Duchamp taught us above all? That personality and artistic intent do not precede experience; they are arrived at through experience. The exhibition as a fact in itself and the re-evaluation of experience emerge as decisive elements.
The multifarious relationships of space, artwork and viewer recurred often at the core of Duchamp's thought. In 1938, at the Exposition Internationele du Surrealisme in Paris, Duchamp staged a "central grotto" with coal sacks on the ceiling and revolving doors as partitions -a confining space, in which the law of gravity appeared dangerously abrogated. At the exhibition First Papers of Surrealism (1942) in New York the access to the artworks was impeded by an immense number of threads stretched-a kind of spiderweb or neuron-like arrangement-across the room. This event can be described as an early installation: a surreal space which was moored tightly to the work of art. Duchamp was, however, involved in another project that gives us a wider perspective: the Peggy Guggenheim's Museum Art for this Century, designed by architect Fredrick Kiesler. Kiesler was the one who extended the scope of this reversal, putting the matter in a clearer way: the goal of the project was to "dissolve the barrier and artificial duality of "vision" and "reality", "image" and "environment"… where the frame, the spectator recognises his act of seeing, or receiving, as a participation in the creative process no less essential and direct than the artists own" (6).

The Art of Social Space as Boxer's Training
Today the artistic act itself is increasingly associated-if not equated-with the event of the show. The implications of this manifold, the most important being the indisputable supremacy of installations. If I had to define this phenomenon, I would say that an installation is a spatial arrangement of the visual material that lies between what we see as art and architecture. The invention itself and the subsequent proliferation of installations stemmed from the oversupply of exhibitions and the ascendancy of the media-imposed principle of visibility. We should trace the origins of the phenomenon between the second and the third decade of the 20th century. Specifically, we could cite at least three artists who played a key role in the invention of installations, dissolving the boundaries between the exhibition space and the autonomy of the exhibited work: Giacomo Balla with his "Progetto di arredamento futurista" (1918), the show of Ivan Puni at the Sturm Art Gallery in Berlin (1921) and the "Proun" that El Lissitzky exhibited in the same city (1923). In all three cases the walls were no longer a background or inert, neutral surfaces for hanging artworks; they became part of a broader work of environmental art. Lissitzky extended the active field to all 6 surfaces (floor, ceiling and 4 walls), to which Puni added the doors and windows along with a series of printing type. Declamatory signs, graphic symbols and texts are also prominent in the folding or mobile pavilions of public activities and propaganda (Agitprop) developed by artists of the Russian avant-garde, as well as in the studios of Bauhaus. The last director of that school, Hannes Meyer, presented in 1926 -the same year that Lissitzky unveiled the first version of his Demonstration Room- the Co-op Zimmer, an extreme example of architectural installation. It was a room with walls made of white fabric, equipped with two folding chairs, a cot standing on conical legs (so that air could circulate underneath), a shelf with uniformly packaged food products and a phonograph placed on a folding metallic table.
This is the ascetic, mobile space for the "semi-nomads" of the "new world", which radically transforms the traditional forms of dwelling. What is of most importance here is these particular mobile objects, which bring back the correlation between project and object, utopia and representation, vision and reality. It was the object that made place for the idea, which the architect calls a "diagram of the present". Meyer's Co-op Zimmer reflects a desire to remove the conflict between representation and object, between project and object, which has become dominant today. Such a proximity between these concepts is not accidental; it is deliberate and assumes the character of a destination. It is not difficult for one to realise that all these environments of the modernist diffusion differ from both interior architecture and traditional painting and sculpture. In fact, installations began as an almost infinite weaving of images, forms and sensory stimuli in pursuit of the elusive. In other words, they came to remedy what was already obvious: the fragmentary character, the contradictions and the escapist tendencies of all the individual fields and disciplines. Whether we admit this or not, it was in that period that the "expanded field" first appeared, together with the stress of our separation from what we used to regard as art and architecture. The viewer now assumes a different role: firstly, he perceives the disparate elements of the installation as a uniform environment; secondly, he realises that any shift of his position changes the way the work behaves and is perceived.
It is worth pointing out this crucial historical coincidence of modernity which reflects the subsequent changes in the artistic and architectural signifier: the advent of installations coincided with the institution of most major exhibitions of modern art and the transformation of the concept of the museum and of public space. After that, these elements converged and penetrated one another, forcing us to embark on some radical rearrangements and reappraisals. It came naturally after so many years that the proliferation of exhibitions entrenched the supremacy of the artistic event's ephemeral characteristics and thus undermined one of the cornerstones of architecture and art: their duration. All subsequent technological innovations intensified this frenetic convergence and admixture of species, practically abolishing the distinctions between individual forms and the environment. The very logic of installations seems somehow similar to the way reality is organised. Cities may have preceded installations and images, but today they are formed in conjunction with them.
As we know, installations (7) reached their first peak in the1960s. Certain artists of Post-Minimalism, the Fluxus, the Happening and the International Situationists activated in an almost instinctive way a series of social functions in public space, focusing on materiality, the behaviour of the body and the new conditions of experience. What is disputed above all is architecture's monopolising of the experience of space, the degeneration of the typical exhibition spaces, the one-sided supremacy of visibility as imposed by the mass media and the hegemony of the spectacle.
On the other hand, around the same time Marshall McLuhan claimed that the multimedia environments can teach us very effectively a more active symbiosis with the all-powerful mass media. Just like with boxers in training, they can help us learn how to "dissipate the blow by stepping back" instead of "taking it straight on the chin". And that was indeed a crucial but neglected field, which was eventually taken up by a considerable section of contemporary art which is interested in social space. For all these reasons we must treat installations as a delirious network of forces, a literally "extended field" beyond architecture, art and its sacrosanct spaces, in the relationships of objects with other objects and assemblages. The installations urge us to read anew the world with its ingredients and blages. Hence they established in an optimum way the extension of subjective and social space.
Karl Lowith, György Lukács and Guy Debord insisted on the Marxist alienation, which they interpreted as the point at which the accumulation of the means of production cannot control the "revolt of the objects"; Manfredo Tafuri described, in one of his best and most insightful texts (Progetto e Utopia), the impasses of this "revolt of the objects" in the quests of the historical avant-garde movements; and Jean Baudrillard wrote one of his best-known early books on The System of Objects, focusing on the cultural critique of commodity in consumer society and on its functional, non-functional, metafunctional, or "schizo-functional" aspects.
The current ascendancy of installations is an acknowledgement of the fact that architecture and art, as well as our society, need new paradigms for the rearrangement and re-assemblage of the changeable universe of objects of the "integrated world capitalism". It shows that society, art and architecture must recognise and espouse different ways of life, models of dwelling, conditions of objects, changing environmental conditions, "molecular fields of sensibility, intelligence and desire".(8) This is why installations are not a complementary phenomenon to the "system of objects" but an organic part of it: a system of personalisation, differentialisation and appropriation. The installation is the cultural object par excellence, which reveals a view of the world and a condition of man. This is the moment at which art and architecture can truly become "extensions of man".

1 Apart from the differentiation of exhibition types, I do not agree with the distinction of 'public art' from art in general, since the latter is associated with the "traffic" of discourse among the public (demos). In this sense art, even in its metaphysical versions, constitutes "sharing the secret with the public" and the community. As correctly pointed out by writer Evgenios Aranitsis (Vivliothiki/ Eleftherotypia Newspaper, 13-2- 2004) the Greek word for 'create', demiourgo, connects "the mystery of demiourgias (creation) with the work's presentation to the public, to demos". By using the English word 'create' -derived from the Sanskrit root -cer, which also gives our own words 'couros' [son], 'core' [daughter], etc. - "the cycle of creation comes back to the individual".
2 R. Krauss, "A Voyage on the North Sea." Art in the Age of Post-Medium Condition, London 1999
3 Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share. An Essay on General Economy. New York 1993.
4 R. Krauss, "Sculpture in the Expanded Field", The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Myths, Cambridge/ Massachusetts, London 1986, pp. 277-290.
5 H. Lefebvre, La production de l'espace, Paris 1974.
6 B. Altshuler, The Avant-Garde in Exhibition. New Art in the 20th Century, California 1994, p. 151. Kiesler introduced also the extraordinary concept of psycho-function: "Function and efficiency alone cannot create art works. "Psycho-function is that "surplus" above efficiency which may turn a functional solution into art" (F. Kiesler, Contemporary Art Applied to the Store and Its Display, New York 1930, p. 87)
7 See Benjamin Buchloh's rich and informative genealogy in "Cargo and Cult: The Displays of Thomas Hirschhorn", Artforum, November 2001.
8 F. Guattari, Les trois écologies, Paris 1989.