July 09, 2012

A Meditation on Space (in Four Parts)

In early 2011 Wide White Space: The Way Beyond Art was on view at the Wattis Gallery in San Francisco. Curated by local designer Jon Sueda, the exhibition investigated “graphic design’s evolving relationship with the practice of exhibition-making as it intersects with the visual arts and the work of both artists and curators.” A design lecture series accompanied the show, and select talks are included in the Wide White Space exhibition catalog, just published and available now. This is a talk I delivered as part of this series.

The following is a history, told through the intersection and intermingling of my own work with that of others. I hope it will be a provocation for discussion and, ultimately, something to either use or disprove in your own work going forward. I’m going to talk about activating spaces. Hell, about messing them up — “to fuck them up a little,” as written in a recent Design Observer post — and why it’s a good thing.


I have two educations: architecture and graphic design. There are many parallels, obviously, but (in the halcyon days of the late 1980s and the mid-’90s when I was a student anyway) there was a significant difference:

Graphic Design = Surface articulation in the service of visual communication.
Architecture = Shaping space in the service of a program, while also creating a sensory experience.

In architecture school, the Roman Pantheon was held up as the romantic ideal upon which to model our design aspirations. The space beneath the coffered dome is a perfect sphere, and can only be truly understood when lying on one’s back, gazing upward into the central oculus (which I did almost every morning as a student in Rome more than 20 years ago). Its interior space still dazzles almost two millennia after its construction, channeling the power and the glory of the Olympian gods to seduce every visitor. The messiness of life is all forgotten in spaces like this. Alas, there are very few buildings that work like this one.

Consider San Francisco’s Federal Building on Mission and 7th streets. I was a big Morphosis fan in architecture school, and I love this building as a sculptural object. It fulfills a very complex program in novel ways and has been certified LEED Silver. What’s not to love? On a research visit some time ago for a previous post, I viewed the courtyard from the observation deck high above and imagined the Morphosis designers composing the site plan, intersecting the angles of the building and the surrounding urban fabric to create a unique composition in the deconstructivist manner.

On the ground, however, this outdoor area is depressing as hell, even downright alienating. Unfortunate “Death Star” analogies spring to mind. Once inside the main lobby, one feels more secure — Darth Vader would feel welcome, at least — but it’s not a space that encourages joyous activity. My point is that architecture school didn’t teach my classmates and me much about behavior, and how that behavior can activate and transform the spaces we design. Natalia Ilyin makes the following comment in her wonderful meditation on Modernism, Chasing the Perfect:

As designers, we have been taught to love the object, love the completedness of the finished masterpiece. But because we have paid so much attention to the outsides of things, we have forgotten the insides.

If we use the Morphosis building as our litmus test, there is much truth to this notion when transferred to the design of spaces. My friend Hunter recently had his renovated Eichler home featured on a lifestyle blog. When I see photographs of it, the design side of me goes green with envy. My everyday human side, though, gets the willies. I’m afraid to occupy this space out of fear of spilling my drink, tracking in dust mites, or otherwise upsetting the feng shui equilibrium. Design becomes so much about control that there is no acknowledgment of its uses and the activities that take place within. The true essence of any space is this use — “the insides” Ilyin speaks of. When we acknowledge it, the user becomes integral. When we don’t, I think of Jacques Tati as Mr. Hulot in Mon Oncle, when he visits relatives who live in a house so streamlined modern, he can’t even figure out how to pour himself a glass of water in the kitchen.

Luckily, I also had a “shadow education” of sorts. At Carnegie Mellon there were a lot of amazing people, including the artists Fritz Haeg, Ryan McGinness, and the partners of AvroKO. Most influential, though, was my good friend Jason Brenner (or Treebeard, as he likes to be called now). He currently has a modest architecture practice in Ukiah, California. He’s a kung fu master and an amazing parent. He has always been a good-natured contrarian, and when I once asked him to encapsulate our experience in architecture school, he said:

We worked hard and did some decent studio work, but what really mattered is that we knew when to blow it all off. To fuck around and experience life, because life is where all the good ideas come from anyway.

During our final year’s Spring Carnival, when all the college organizations build thematic booths, Jason cajoled some of us into blowing off a class or two to construct our own. A series of bad storms had taken down tree branches around campus, which we collected and reattached to a tree near the Carnival midway. We then salvaged some steel pots and scrap metal and affixed them to the branches, creating an ad-hoc percussion instrument that the public could play. This is not beautiful design in the traditional sense — it’s ugly, really — but loads of people made music on it day and night. Someone from the NEA even left a note, exclaiming, “This is what [our] grants are for!” And this is what I mean by activating space.

The yang to Jason’s yin was another friend, Rudy Berk. Rudy is a graphic designer who still dresses like a punk-rock twentysomething, yet holds the highest government security clearance available to civilians. (He designs user experiences for the military. That’s about as punk-rock as you can get these days, methinks.) Rudy taught me how to be an effective DJ.

DJing is a space design problem that you solve through storytelling. How do you make people comfortable on the dance floor and then keep them there? Anticipation and improvisation. Acknowledging that you have an audience, feeling them out, and — by begrudgingly taking requests — letting those participating influence the design as much as you influence them. I constantly thought about the pacing of my playlists, asking myself: What transitions are best? When can I toss in something new without clearing the floor? Done well, the physical space really didn’t matter. Nor did it matter if the space was occupied by shy, Caucasian geeks who thought they were too embarrassed to dance. They all danced if my “design” was effective. (The cheap beer helped, too.)


How, then, does this relate to the design of art spaces? Such spaces are usually most kinetic during an opening. Fun, yes, but not a good opportunity to see the art. Out of necessity these spaces are neutral and sterile so the art can shine uninterrupted. They can also come off a little aloof, like the Eichler. What do these art spaces tell us? That we are in the presence of high culture, don’t ruffle any feathers, keep out the philistine riffraff. The art you see here is Art. Ironically, this rarefied environment makes us less interrogative of the work. I initially studied design because I was intrigued by the intersections of culture with everyday life. Cultural artifacts have to demand your attention to be noticed outside the safe confines of the white cube. I’ve always been most interested in art and design in the public sphere, where it engages more people, more directly, and has to work harder than when sequestered in a museum. As much as I love art, the work in aloof gallery spaces too often feels insular and disconnected from life.

The hostility to association of fine art with normal processes of living is a pathetic, even tragic, commentary on life as it is ordinarily lived.
— John Dewey, Art and Experience, 1934

Often there is a hostile reaction to a conception of art that connects it with the activities of a live creature in the environment. (For those of you unfamiliar with John Dewey, he was not an art critic, theorist, or historian, but rather a philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer.) So, in my essay about Wide White Space, an exhibition celebrating the gallery space, am I basically saying, “Screw the gallery space”? Yes. (For now, anyway.)

Rigo 96, One Tree, 1996

Mine, Everything Is OK, 2007

For instance, there is work that plays on existing public structures and codes, such as Rigo’s One Tree installation by the 10th Street on-ramp to the 101 freeway in San Francisco, the artist TRUE’s alterations of the Walk/Don’t Walk lights in New York City, Mine™’s urban installations of their Everything Is OK yellow warning tape, and Jenny Holzer’s classic Truisms project that has appeared printed on T-shirts, displayed on giant LEDs, and projected onto buildings.

Shimon Attie, The Writing on the Wall, installation, Berlin 1993


Tibor Kalman, Everybody, 1993, commissioned by Creative Time; photo: Maggie Hopp

Or work that calls attention to history and human interactions in the city, such as Shimon Attie’s 1993 installation in Berlin that projected photo elevations of Jewish storefronts and community buildings destroyed in the Holocaust at their original sites in the city. Tibor Kalman’s Everybody installation in New York City (also from 1993) inched toward more direct participation by inviting people to sit on the piece, continuously changing it. And in Diller + Scofidio’s design for Brasserie restaurant, a video snapshot is taken of those entering the establishment and then added to the continuously changing video display above the bar.

Eric Heiman + Steve Jones , Art? (sticker set), 2000

Esther and Jochen Gerz, Monument Against Fascism, Hamburg, 1986–93; photo: E. Shalev-Gerz

Lastly, there is work where the public’s participation is vital to its purpose, such as Steve Jones and my Art? sticker project from 2000, in which we printed “Art” with Yes and No checkboxes on fluorescent orange adhesive paper, and placed them throughout the Bay Area and other cities on anything that could be construed as art. Similarly, Ji Lee, in 2002, covered New York City’s many billboard and subway platform advertisements with empty speech bubbles that the public could fill in with their own thoughts. Most provocative and political is Esther and Jochen Gerz’s Monument Against Fascism in Hamburg (1986), in which a steel obelisk was gradually lowered into the ground as the public added written pledges against oppression on the monument itself until after seven years it finally disappeared from view, interred completely underground — a symbolic “burying” of fascism.


Much of this work influenced my own design projects, in which I have attempted to merge familiar graphic design forms with the physical and experiential. The Way We Work was a 2004 exhibition at Southern Exposure in San Francisco, and the design was a collaboration between my firm, Volume Inc., and MendeDesign. Our goal was to have the promotional materials truly embody the show’s theme through experience, rather than through graphic interpretation. The featured works were primarily about facilitating art experiences and art making, as opposed to artifacts.

MendeDesign & Volume Inc., promotion for Southern Exposure’s The Way We Work exhibition, 2004

We created invitations that doubled as stencils that were used to make art on banks of poster “canvases” that we scattered across San Francisco. We needed one finished poster in each of these banks to tip off bystanders that these were fields for the creation of art. Prior to the installs and mailings, we held a public priming party in Southern Exposure’s courtyard that brought together 60 or 70 people to create art. On the back of each poster we printed the pages for a mini exhibition catalogue in printer signature format. Extra posters were made available (with scissors and staplers) for the easy assembly of an exhibit catalogue at the gallery.

In 2005 I assembled an ad-hoc group of various local design practitioners — myself, Lee Friedman, Jeremy Mende, Jean Orlebeke, Christopher Simmons, Cinthia Wen, and Roger Wong — to develop a project that might provoke some necessary soul-searching in the design community. The resulting “Pub Project” was 26 questions, presented both on a website and in a book of detachable cards. This was partially a rogue project for AIGA San Francisco, and ultimately we staged an event for AIGA SF’s annual fund-raiser in which we presented the results. Each attendee, upon entry, received a pamphlet that documented and analyzed the thousands of responses we had received. We projected the questions and best answers all around the perimeter of the space, and we even had a poet, backed by an acoustic jazz band, recite selected answers in beatnik style during the event. In the center of the space we installed a single iMac station where attendees could enter their thoughts in 50-character bursts that would be projected a half-minute later on a large scrim. (If only one of us realized we’d invented Twitter!) This show, alas, was possibly the only money-losing AIGA San Francisco fund-raiser ever. Self-reflection and cocktails don’t mix, apparently.

At Volume Inc. we are always looking for ways to inject participation, tactility, and the experiential into even the most basic project. For the 2008 exhibition The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, we hoped to embed the ethos of the show into the catalogue design, rather than just visually interpreting it. The book’s front cover has a die-cut depressed inset for a second, print-on-demand book that was to be a document of the public’s participation with the exhibition during its run and would be mailed to those who bought the catalogue after the show closed. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints associated with the 2008 financial crisis, the second book was never realized. But even the unfilled void on the cover can still be understood as a symbolic nod to the real human participation that did, in fact, take place.


Since 2008 a new space has appeared in all our lives. Social media and smartphones have changed everything and are now ubiquitous. Can you even remember life before the iPhone? Its design intent was truly about fostering interaction and community, and just in a few years we’ve come to take it for granted. Who can really argue that it’s not a good thing? This new technology has even helped foster revolutions. The “In Real Time” / Mylinh Trieu Nguyen piece in Wide White Space, where each item in the show was available for download for a duration of five minutes, or the LUST poster wall (in the same exhibition) that changes constantly by continuously gathering content from various online sources, would not have been possible five years ago. The notions of communication and experience, which I treated as somewhat separate in my discussion of architecture and design, have totally converged. “Communication=Experience” is the buzzphrase being parroted by every edgy digital agency. It’s not about the message, it’s about the activity. Ad-speak hyperbole aside, design is suddenly a different kind of animal, exhilarating and scary all at once. Anything seems possible right now.

Isn’t it amazing that I can send my name to John Baldessari via a website— and then it crawls across a giant LED screen in Sydney a few days later?

John Baldessari, Your Name In Lights (website page), for the Sydney Festival 2011, 2010-2011

Or that I can go to a music festival, text my memories about my favorite concert to an anonymous phone number, and everyone will see it on the venue’s walls moments later? Or that the artists Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, in the lobby of the New York Times building, can continuously stream content from the newspaper’s vast archive—even the crossword puzzles—on a grid of low-tech LED displays in the building’s lobby? Digital technology has reinvigorated installation art, and social media has served to popularize performance-based art, bringing artists such as Tino Seghal and Marina Ambramović to far broader audiences than they’d otherwise have access to. Isn’t it great that technology is doing all this? Well, yes and no.

Ben Rubin & Mark Hansen, Moveable Type, The New York Times building lobby, 2010

If you were lucky enough to see the band Arcade Fire in their early years, they usually started the show by playing in the crowd. The lead singer, Win Butler, said they stopped doing this because they felt too many people were snapping photos, taking videos, or calling their friends instead of relishing the amazing moment happening right in front of them.

We create devices that distract people from thinking, from working through the fear that accompanies real thinking, from coming out the other side. We help to make people believe they can’t live without movement, communication, distraction. We teach them the exact opposite of truth. —Natalia Ilyin, Chasing the Perfect

Currently, digital technology is too often the tail that wags the design (and often art) dog, and I worry that it’s distracting us from, rather than connecting us to, what is meaningful. Ilyin is talking about design more generally, but her words are absolutely applicable to today’s digitally saturated context. Not everything needs to be mediated by technology or be “social” (in the contemporary sense of the word). Instead of the iPad, why can’t the new paradigm for a magazine be a live show that is specifically intended not to be documented (like the popular Pop Up Magazine events)? Instead of a Kindle, why can’t the new paradigm for reading a book be a live performance by actors on a stage (as in the play, Gatz!)? Instead of Facebook, why not create a restaurant to connect, engage, and educate a struggling rural community (as the Pie Lab project in Greensboro, Alabama did)?

Instead of listening to a museum audio tour, why not discover art unencumbered by commentary? Instead of viewing art online, why not live with it in your own house? Or within the—gasp—four white walls of a gallery? Sounds downright radical, no? If it seems as if I am reneging on my earlier anti-white wall gallery stance, I am. New technology has dramatically changed the context of the white cube, and as designers we need to be aware of the increasingly distraction-filled environments people are coming from when they enter the art spaces we help articulate.

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry. We need not fear these silences. We may love them. —John Cage, Silence, 1961

John Cage’s infamous “4 minutes, 33 seconds” is one of my favorite works of art. In my younger years, I liked it solely for its subversive nature, but I now see it as a potential antidote to the contemporary condition. Imagine sitting for four minutes and 33 seconds with no other stimuli than a pianist, frozen at the keys. There might be a riot, or at least a compulsive smartphone check for most of the audience. These contained, single-task art experiences—whether in a gallery or a theater or a cinema—are still necessary and now more than ever. Where else can the secular among us find the physical and mental space to reflect deeply on our lives?

Indeed, sometimes “silence”—in other words, simply leaving well enough alone—is also the best design solution of all. It’s knowing when to just lay on our backs under the Pantheon’s glorious dome, and feel awed by nothing more than the work itself.

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