Leading up to the inauguration of the Fondation Louis Vuitton art center in Paris in 2014, a remarkable poster was put up around the city. The poster showed Frank Gehry’s spectacular building hovering above the ground in an empty, desert-like landscape. The image emphasized the extra-terrestial character of the building. With its outer shell of billowing glass sails and its unlikely geometries and volumes, Gehry’s structure resembles nothing so much as a spaceship. The message was clear: the fashion conglomerate’s new art center was a grand, advanced, and expensive spectacle, which had now landed as something radically alien and new in its scenic surroundings in the Bois de Boulogne. As architecture, Gehry’s building shamelessly asserts its own iconicity. By extension it is an argument for the function of art and architecture as prestige and value enhancers within the symbolic economy of global luxury brands.
The inside of FLV is something else. Certainly, the interiors too offer spectacle. On the open ground floor there is a sort of poolside promenade, where a suite of oblique walls along a shallow, day-lit pool create a shimmering play of reflections and shadows – as if made for fashion show défilés. The entrance atrium is a vast volume, where the ondulations of the facade sails and the diagonals and levels of the circulation system set up a dizzying choreography of sightlines, vistas, and vectors. But inside of this complex structure, a traditional, even conservative exhibition architecture is housed. The exhibition spaces are inserted as closed, rectilinear containers within the building’s mathematics of organic curves and drastic angles. The interiors of these boxes appear to be designed specifically to confirm all fears of the “ideology of the white cube”: generic spaces with clean walls and even lighting, isolated from their architectural, urban, and social environment.
The contrast between Gehry’s building and Rem Koolhas/OMA’s architecture for the new art center Lafayette Anticipations – inaugurated in Paris’ Marais neighborhood this spring – is sharp. Where Gehry and his commissioners have wanted to underline the iconic unicity of their structure, and its alien character with respect to its physical and social surroundings, Koolhas’s at once subtle and drastic transformation of a Haussmanian storehouse building is instead carefully integrated with its urban and historical environment, a narrow street in the dense blocks just east of the Centre Pompidou. In accordance with regulations, the street-facing facade of the building is entirely preserved, as are its floor levels and its load-bearing structure. The spacious, airy entrance and a large sign with the art center’s name clearly signal the presence of a cultural institution, but other than that nothing directly marks the specificity of the building, as concerns neither its function nor its symbolical status.
Furthermore: where Gehry’s FLV consists of a conservatice exhibition structure inserted into a visually and technically spectacular casing, Lafayette Anticipations instead consists of a discrete outer shell combined with an architecturally and functionally advanced interior. The work with transparency and light in the refashioned building is impressive. The light intake and vistas from glass ceilings and windows create a sense of openness and permeability, rendering surrounding neighborhood life and the area’s archetypal architectural features present in the art center’s interior. At the FLV the exact opposite takes place: from the sightseeing decks in Gehry’s building you do not mainly see the Bois de Boulogne park or the imperious embassy blocks nearby, but the inside of Gehry’s ostentatious facade shields.
THE EXHIBITION MACHINE
But Koolhas/OMA’s most radical intervention in the historical building is the central exhibition structure which has been installed where the inner yard used to be, considerably extending the building’s volume without affecting its outer shell. In this large, four-storey space or shaft, what the institution’s press material refers to as an “exhibition machine” has been placed. It is an enormous elevator, whose four platforms can be freely raised and lowered, producing a large number of possible spatial configurations: open spaces with level differences in both floor and ceiling; voluminous halls or claustrophobic planes; one single vast, gaping hole. The flexible structure should be entirely adaptable to the specific characters of exhibited artworks or events, or even remain mobile throughout the duration of an exhibition.
For The Center Cannot Hold, the art center’s ongoing, first group exhibition – curated by director François Quintin together with associate curators Charles Aubin, Anna Colin, and Hicham Khalidi – the platforms of the exhibition machine are arranged into three exhibition spaces with different elevations, efficiently playing with the floor levels of the historical building. The flexibility of the structure is functional rather than spectacular, but facilitates unexpected angles and dramatic perspectives. The structure forms itself after the exhibited works: installed at the top of the flexible exhibition tower, Jumana Manna’s clay sculptures Cache (Insurance Policy) (2018), resembling some sort of primitive stoves or chimneys, echo visually in the brick chimney pipes on the rooftops outside of the room’s glass facade; Julien Creuzet’s sculptural drapery In My Hands (…) (2018) is mounted on the bottom of one of the mobile platforms, hanging down into a space adapted to its dimensions, etc.
FUN PALACE 2018
About FLV’s politics Pierre Alferi has written convincingly: the logic of branding which informs Gehry’s iconic spaceship corresponds to the speculative logic which governs the fashion corporation’s massive investment in all points of the art market, from artworks and artist careers to curatorial prestige and means of distribution. The interplay sets up a cycle of speculation, designed to conquer market shares and symbolic power: the brand’s prestige pushes up the value of the art investments; this in turn reinforces the continued prestige of the brand; this in turn reflects back on the value of the art investments, etc. Lafayette Anticipations is comparable to FLV: it is financed by a company in the luxury trade (Lafayette is a group of French department stores), and the institution’s production model is based on commissions, where artists, within the framework of the art center’s studio program, create new works, which are shown in the art center’s exhibitions, and then – if I have not misunderstood something – become part of its collection. There may be a simple economic reason, then, that the people behind the art center insist that they want Lafayette Anticipations to be a “place for contemporary production”. To anticipate: the basic operation of all economic speculation.
But at the same time, the politics of this art center are less obvious. A recurring, inevitable architectural and institutional reference for Lafayette Anticipations is Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price’s legendary, unrealized Fun Palace project, planned for an old industrial lot in London’s East End at the beginning of the 1960s. Fun Palace should become a totally flexible, high-tech construction, a gigantic, cybernetic mechano set adapting completely to the needs and desires of its visitors/users. All walls and floor planes should be movable, staircases and ramps should slide here and there, there should be computers and jukebox-stations for input and user response, all programmation should be formed by continuous visitor feedback. The whole thing was planned in collaboration with an army of sociologists, cyberneticists, and behavioral scientists, and the project was surprisingly near realization before it collapsed. At its basis was the idea of a radically democratic institution, in the literal sense of the word: an institution run completely by the people to which it belonged.
Fun Palace was also one of many models for Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers when they designed the first sketches for the Centre Pompidou in 1971. In the early plans for the new, multifunctional culture center, the elevation of the building’s first floor level should be adjustable, so that exhibition spaces could be adapted to the needs of events and visitors, and so that the dimensions of the already enormous entrance level could be further extended, adjusting the size of the overbuilt square to the scale of the popular events and manifestations there. The vast scale and the different institutional mission of the Centre Pompidou limits the relevance of any comparison with Lafayette Anticipations, but there is no doubt that Koolhas and OMA have conceived of their flexible structure as a sort of subtle response to their famous neighbor, in the age of capitalist realism.
The decisive difference between Lafayette Anticipations and both Fun Palace and the early plans for the Centre Pompidou, is the character of the new institution’s implied audience, how the institution imagines the public to which it directs its output. We may laugh at the naivety of Fun Palace’s democratic vision. Its underlying assumption of an inherent connection between high-tech interactivity and social emancipation has proven to be categorically, catastrophically false – and Koolhas’s pragmatic exhibition machine, we may establish, remains at a safe distance from any technological eschatology. But techno-utopian credulity is one thing, to relate to a universal public as receiver and guiding idea is another. There is a shift between how the radically democratic experimental institutions of the 60s and 70s imagined an abstract, potentially universal people as their visitors, spectators, and participants, and how an art center such as Lafayette Anticipations reserves the flexibility of its architecture for the artworks rather than for its users, and directs itself to a specialized audience rather than an abstract public.
THE CONDITION OF TOTAL CREATIVITY
This shift is apparent also at the level of the artworks on display in The Center Cannot Hold. It is difficult not to read this first group exhibition at the institution as something of a programmatic statement. The art center has wanted to associate itself with a young (“emerging”) generation: out of eleven participating artists, all except one are born in the 80s. Materials, techniques, and forms of composition are, we could say, very contemporary: post-digital, post-human sculpture and research-based installation are preferred genres. The curatorial presentations oppose the non-binary and the heterogeneous to the “current reinforcement of cultural, social, and political categorizations”, suggesting the possibility of a ”rebalance of power” where ”intimate link[s]” replace the contradictions of separation. Only a solid actor-network can save us now, in other words. Between the works in the show there are family resemblances rather than thematic cohesion.
We could put it like this: if we live in a post-digital, post-anthropocentric state of total globalization, biotechnical nature-culture-dissolution, and interdisciplinary border transgression, then what does that mean for the conditions of artistic creation? One answer: that everything is available for manipulation, that everything can be fabricated, that everything can be interconnected. That the domain of the artist’s productive, poietic activity has been extended so as to include the world as a whole. Is the ”anthropocene” era not an era when the human being is the planet’s driving geological force? The other side of the coin of climate apocalypse is creative euphoria. Several of the artists in The Center Cannot Hold seem to share an excitement regarding the contemporary condition’s limitless openness to new forms and materialities.
Such as Isabelle Andriessen, whose Tidal Spill (2018) extracts a whole stilistic morphology from contamination as a metaphorical and technical principle. In large, shallow vats placed across the floor, a sort of chemical experiments are conducted, where solutions react chromatically to one another, forming slowly mutating compositions, in ocher, cobolt blue, and slime green. Tubes run between the vats and to organic, sometimes anthropomorphic, sometimes nearly alien, xenomorphic sculptures mounted on low stands, they too exposed to chemical reaction and entropy: oxidation, fungus, crystallization. The installation gives a somewhat sickly impression, but is mostly quite beautiful. The title suggests that the work wants to address the problems of spills and environmental destruction. But it does not locate any counterpart for critique or struggle, nor any dimension for agency and change. It confronts us with contamination as a chemical process and a technical, stylistic principle, unmediated by history or politics.
Or such as Kenny Dunkan, whose Dual Conditioning System: Lotta Body Set and Twist (2018) consists of a reclining, human-like sculpture composed from small, semi-transparent, milky acrylic plates, lit from below by fluorescent light tubes. Next to it lies Mas-A-Pwoteksyon (2018), a similar sculpture made from a black plastic material with large holes in it and long, aggressive spikes protruding from it. On the wall hangs a textile work in three parts, Transfert 1, 2 et 3 (2018), three beige towels – or perhaps veils – with smudgy imprints of the artist’s body. The somewhat churchly atmosphere makes it possible to read the works, with a bit of fantasy, as a historical-cultural assemblage, which “revisits […] the iconography of Christian religious sculpture”, as the presentation text explains. But that they would ”challenge stereotypes associated to the black body: from its vulnerability within the public space to its hypersexualisation” – this I do not think anyone would guess without consulting the exhibition folder, however laudable the intentions.
NOT SEEING DIFFERENCES
The absence of relation between the euphoria of interconnection and a gnostic presentation discourse becomes critical in a work such as Rana Hamadeh’s The Ten Murders of Josephine (2018). In a dark space an array of media devices is arranged into an atmospheric scenography. A large loudspeaker emits a rumbling, low-frequency, ominous sound. An unwieldy, round, dramatically lit machine reads some kind of obsolete punch card system, possibly performing it, like a self-playing piano. On an office table there is a telephone with which you are encouraged to call a number: an automatic messaging machine gives an obscure reply. A fax machine prints a neverending strip of random signs. On LED signs disjointed words blink: «[Chorus]», «[Singer]», «[Spectacle]».
As an audiovisual installation it is striking, evocative. But in spite of the abundance of text fragments and sounds, the work suffers from a sort of semantic deficiency. The signs that circulate in the space only give very vague suggestions as to any kind of topic or theme. It is an opera, the presentation material states boldly, “configured as a networked system of interplaying parts”. «Inherited from the genre of legal spectacle», the text continues, «The Ten Murders of Josephine explores the constitutive conditions of ’validity’ within legal discourse. One of the artist’s cues within the composition is the Gregson vs. Gilbert legal case of 1783 – the only surviving record of the massacre in which the captain of the Zong slave ship ordered the drowning of 133 African slaves in order to claim insurance over their deaths».
The constitutive conditions of ”validity” within legal discourse? Gregson vs. Gilbert? The slave ship Zong? None of this is registered in an even remotely legible way in the elements of the installation. That the work is difficult to read therefore has little to do with complexity. It defies comprehension, instead, because the relations it postulates are unmediated, arbitrary. The composition, meanwhile, denies their arbitrariness, or diverts attention from it. The technically refined installation’s scenographic efficiency is in itself empty: theatrical interior design. What it serves to do is to camouflage the work’s lack of relation to the ”serious” subject it, with a strained ”scientific” rhetorics, claims to address. If critique is about seeing differences, then this is the opposite: everything becomes unclear, everything drifts over into its own negation. Reading the presentation texts I find myself thinking that the work may perhaps be a ruse, a challenge posed to our faculty of judgment. Must we accept the anything goes of ”post-critique” as a historical necessity?
THE ARTIST NOT AS PRODUCER
Lafayette Anticipations clearly signals that it wants to attach itself to the paradigm of artistic research. Several of the artworks in The Center Cannot Hold are described as the preliminary results of long-term research projects, and the majority of the artists in the show are alumni from prestige institutions in different ways connected to the economy of artistic research: Goldsmiths, Rijksakademie, Le Fresnoy, the Whitney Program, etc. The combination of convoluted shop talk and wild arbitrariness this may sometimes result in is of course nothing new in the artworld. But it can be argued that the increased academization of art gives it a new institutional legitimacy. When scientific discourse becomes a model for the public presentation of art there is a risk that the arbitrariness is systematized – since the concept of art, at least as we know it, remains incompatible with scientific criteria of validity.
But the shift toward artistic research should not be demonized. For artists it creates new problems, but also new possibilities – possibilities that are put to good use by several of the participants in The Center Cannot Hold. The artist duo Cooking Sessions’ installation/lecture Losing Cultures (2018), about the colonial history of the Algerian wine industry, is an impressive piece of cognitive mapping (to borrow Jameson’s term), which renders elusive, complex social and economic processes materially and aesthetically tangible – although the work’s spatial setup feels redundant. Perhaps the funniest work in the exhibition is Danielle Dean’s Bazar (2018), a film based on images from the Lafayette department store’s archive of commercial imagery. Not only is this work the only one in the exhibition which comments upon the art center’s parent corporation, and the strictly gendered, racialized, and class-coded sign economy it operates within – it is also a true joy to see Dean and her companions trashing around among the old ads and their iconography of bright dresses and shiny toasters, as if Jean Baudrillard had directed an anarcho-feminist version of the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store (1941).
But what does it mean on a more fundamental level that art no longer addresses an abstract, universal public, but a community of peers, on the model of scientific discourse? That the artist no longer speaks to anyone, but to a defined community of researchers? Modern art constantly struggled with the opposed ideal: that art should reach the people, that its connection to an exclusive audience defined by education and class should be severed once and for all, that the contradiction between art’s separation as an autonomous sphere of experience, and its utopian promise of a transformation of society’s relations of domination, should be resolved.
This ideal lay at the basis of a number of the artistic experiments and cultural policy initiatives that define our understanding of modern art and can still be traced in our institutional landscape: the attempts to integrate the work of the artist in industrial production; the will to abolish the artwork’s status as fetisch object and commodity in favor of reproducibility and mass distribution; the search to democratize art’s institutions through feedback and co-determination. Fun Palace and the Centre Pompidou belong to this tradition, to which Lafayette Anticipation has a highly tenuous relation.
So: why does a luxury department store finance an art center for research-based artistic activities, a type of practice you would perhaps normally associate with public institutions such as universities or art schools? Would it not have been simpler to do like LVMH, and place an iconic building in a park and fill it with masterpieces? One possible answer: because there is a structural correspondence between the consolidation of the paradigm of artistic research, and the increasing influence of financial practices in the art market. In spite of the long and rich tradition of modern experiments, no popular model for mass distribution of modern or contemporary art has been established durably. The economy of the artworld remains to a large extent founded on the attachment of enormous values to unique artworks as objects of prestige and speculation, not on popular impact and mass audiences.
When artistic research breaks with the abstract, universal public as its implied audience – anyone, in principle – in favor of a specialized public, it confirms this logic. It is a break with modern art’s ideal of radical democratization. This is a shift with both positive and negative effects, which the exhibition at Lafayette Anticipations also demonstrates. The good side is that the research-based practices, since they do not need to relate to a mass audience (not even as an ideal), can remain relatively spared from the homogenizing effects of the contemporary culture industry, and may therefore more freely develop their formal and intellectual potentials. Lafayette Anticipations, judging by this first group show, wants to be a place for such experiments. But at the same time these practices are now separated from the dimension where their potentials could be politically realized.