Spectacle as an architectural tactic

On May 3, A/D/O hosted an exploration of how two distinct tactics of architectural intervention can use spectacle in the service of subtle social commentary. Moderated by Karen Wong of NEW INC and Ideas City, the talk contrasted the approach of the architectural collective Assemble with that of artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe. The large-scale but palpably DIY projects included Assemble’s transformation of a gas station into a cinema and Freeman and Lowe’s environmental sculpture, in which a sprawling fictional world was created from whole cloth, hidden in a desolate building in Marfa, Texas.

Assemble’s projects often explore how freeform architectural collaborations can reanimate otherwise deserted public spaces. Wong asked Hall how she characterized their practice: do they think of themselves as community organizers, or social therapists? Hall considered. “We call ourselves builders,” she said. The ad hoc approach to their gas station as cinema was designed to entangle its construction with the public: “We spent one month building the whole thing on-site with a number of volunteers.” The project emerged out of the intersection between material necessity and public feasibility. “This was the only drawing we did,” Hall said, “a description of how to cut scaffolding board in the most efficient way.”

Made entirely of materials reclaimed in Central London, the Cineroleum as it was constructed presented an urban paradox. The cinema — normally an insulated, air-conditioned envelope — could be woven into the fabric of the city. “You are part of the cinema,” Hall explained. “Whilst you’re watching the film, the world around you is going by. It’s on one of the busiest streets in London, and throughout the film you hear the cars go by, the surrounding noises.”

“At the end of the film, the curtain rises — and the audience becomes the spectacle,” Hall said. Made of reflective Tyvek, the Cineroleum’s curtain became a porous membrane between theater and street life, symbolic in a sense of the way such contingent structures could perforate the interior and exterior, and play them against each other. “We think of spectacle as a tactic.”

The Cineroleum was as much a product of the transformation from petrol station to theater as it was the transformation of an artifact of urban banality to one of social invigoration. “A lot of the process is throwing something out there and seeing how people react to it as a space,” Hall said. The motions of film-going becoming a theater of the commons public in real time. “It’s creating that moment.”

In contrasting Assemble’s architectural experiment with Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s more sculptural installation, Karen Wong posed the question: “Are they artists? Are they architects? Do we even care?”

Freeman and Lowe’s Hello Meth Lab In The Sun (2008) employs the tools of both professions, confounding the geometry of an existing volume by obscuring its size and filling it with a dense accumulation of aesthetically freighted material. “The gallery space at was an old ballroom,” Jonah Freeman recalled. “Converted into one gallery. We went in and built twenty-six rooms in it.” From weary-looking entry hall to ominous meth lab to surveillance closet, the serial transformations were staged like a series of dramatic scenes. “The sequence is everything. The size of the volumes — a tight room that opens into a larger room is a kind of jump-cut. Your sense of time begins to be manipulated.”

Sun tubes piped in outside light, but otherwise the rooms were designed to baffle any connection to the outside world — entering Hello Meth Lab was a portal to a densely-imagined world increasingly distant from the outside world. To prepare, Freeman and Lowe produced photoshoots and shooting scripts to direct the physical execution of the project, providing it with enough imaginative material, in fact, to fill twenty-six more rooms. “We were asked to do another iteration of it,” Freeman said. “That became the ‘extended dance remix’ — Black Acid Co-Op at Jeffrey Deitch.”

Whereas Assemble’s Cineroleum invited visitors to reconsider their relationship to their public commons, Hello Meth Lab was posed as a hermetic descent into a parallel reality. But both challenge the complacency of expectation.

The patterning of obscure symbolism that played out through the space and the recurring cult-like fascinations would reappear in different forms in later works. Freeman and Lowe share a running joke that their graduate student seminar, if they had one, would be called “Community, Ritual, and Group Psychosis.”

Assemble’s first studio was called Yard House. Built cheaply as a light industrial building, its residents included metalworkers, textile designers, illustrators, artists. Hall reflected that Assemble’s projects always seem to develop half-way between the designers and their neighbors: “It’s a fluid boundary between a work in progress and something that’s finished.”

Hall remarked on the contrast between the presentations: Assemble’s experiments were shown filled with social activity while the artists’ were packed with the detritus of habitation but no actual people. Wong wondered if, for Assemble, visitors were stakeholders, whereas for Freeman and Lowe, they were more like actors. Lowe weighed the comparison. “The public is a crucial part,” he said. “But we don’t think of these projects as being interactive. They’re sculptures — the visitor enters into a physical environment not to be utilized, but to be explored.”

In both projects, the sense of an “abandoned building” as an inert tract of urban decay was turned on its head. The spectacle of that transformation demonstrated that disused spaces could present, as Hall put it, “an experience that people construct together.”