Walking through invisible architectures
Commentary on Here whilst we walk by Gustavo Ciríaco and Andrea Sonnberger
Victoria Pérez Royo
Europa-Universitat Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder)
The sophistication of conscience in the arts is such at this time (1969) that it could be affirmed that the almost trance-like random movements of buyers in supermarkets possess greater dynamism than any modern dance choreography (Kaprow 2007:13,14).
The most interesting dance is not to be found on stage but in supermarkets; superior art is to be found not so much in a gallery exhibition but in the diverse objects, actions and situations that shape our daily lives and which, according to the author of the quotation, can range from the dust under the bed as a convincing exhibition to the Vietnam war as the best possible form of theatre.
Moving beyond the proposal to shock his readers, aimed at reviving and awakening their awareness, what we read in these introductory pages of Allan Kaprow’s The education of the un-artist is the firm belief in a creative perception. This is a trained sensitivity resulting from century after century of art (and anti-art) that is finally capable of perceiving its environment with aesthetic criteria. Awareness is understood as the primary founding instance of not only phenomenological but also aesthetic feeling. In this way, Kaprow defends the idea of art not being found in the object but rather in the eye of the beholder. For the above-mentioned phenomena (the Vietnam War, movements of supermarket buyers) to become art all that is required is the gaze that captures them and, by submerging them into an aesthetic experience, awards them this status. According to Kaprow, the subject who perceives the objects in the environment in an aesthetic manner is not an artist (the one who creates them), nor an anti-artist (who creates objects against art) but an un-artist (who perceives them as art and transforms them with his gaze).
A fundamental figure in this trend in twentieth century art is that of the flâneur. This is one of the key figures of modernism, essentially characterized by his predisposition towards the environment and a marked degree of attention to his surroundings.: “stroller, philosopher and observer” Baudelaire, 2005:22), archivist of fleeting moments, of mundane situations, understood from the outset as the figure par excellence in terms of his attention to his natural surroundings, the city, alert to its transformations great and small, completely immersed in the racket of the multiple distractions that the metropolis offers the onlooker.
For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, it is an immense joy to find oneself in numbers, in undulation, in movement, in the fleeting and the infinite. To be outside oneself, and nevertheless to feel oneself everywhere inside oneself (Baudelaire, 2005:28)
To achieve this the flâneur’s preferred observation methodology is that of strolling; especially within the movement of the walking masses of the city the flâneur can intensify his availability to his surroundings, to the unexpected, the accessory and the accidental contained therein. A walk constitutes the preferred formula for capturing certain details which can be woven together like a speech (conceived in the manner of a scientific reflection) as he advances along his route. (Benjamin, 1983:567).
Throughout the twentieth century one has seen the development of an artistic trend that employs walking as primary material for the creation of a piece; most of the works of this new genre have an implicit or explicit reference to the figure of the flâneur combined with the desire to develop a creative perception of the environment, fundamental for its later transformation.
The piece, Here whilst we walk by Gustavo Ciríaco and Andrea Sonnberger (presented for the first time in 2006), is intimately related to this thesis. Between 15 and 20 participants meet at a chosen place in the city together with Ciríaco and Sonnberger to go on a walk along a route previously unknown to the participants. The peculiarity of the walk lies in the fact that the walkers throughout the entire event are contained within a reduced space by an elastic band which groups all the participants together and thus clearly delimits a frontier between internal and external space. Here whilst we walk was conceived during Close Encounters, a project which, as Ciríaco explains, has the peculiarity of motivating the creation of spatially specific works that paradoxically had to travel to various cities (Ciríaco 2006). To do this, as its creators commented, it was not so much a matter of choosing a place that would provide a location for a performance, but rather to focus on a type of space: one that is defined not so much by its buildings or urban distribution, but by the people that inhabit it. And from the beginning this piece thus localises the architectonic not so much in terms of stable structures (buildings, squares) but an ephemeral architecture, a state of constant formation and destruction which is the essential urban fabric weaving and unravelling itself in the street; the architectonic aspect is to be found less in the physical and visible physical structure of the street, than in the different forms of inhabiting it.
Thus in this piece we have a primary level of creation of space, a creation of ephemeral architectures, operated by means of a symbolic transformation of the existing space directly associated with the premises contained in Kaprow’s words: perception does not consist in mere passive capacity, but also possesses the power to create and transform the reality it perceives. So it not surprising that the only explicit indication given to the participants in Here whilst we walk before starting out is that they are not permitted to talk, take photographs or use video-cameras. This underlines the authors’ interest in preserving a heightened sense of perception, freeing their gaze from other concerns, which constitutes an essential requirement for the discovery of art outside its traditional contexts of galleries and theatres and to transform the environment in which they are moving.
Of considerable assistance in this context is the alternative concept of architecture (nomad architecture) proposed by Francesco Careri in his definitive work Walkscapes. In it the Italian writer sets out two distinct forms of inhabiting the earth:” that of the cavern and the plough that digs its own space in the entrails of the earth, and that of the tent placed on the earth’s surface without leaving any lasting imprint on it”(Careri, 2002:36). The first form of inhabiting the earth, sedentary, as indicated by Careri, is related to the traditional accepted concept of architecture; the construction of spaces comprising the erection of durable buildings. By contrast the Italian author presents a nomadic form of inhabiting the earth’s landscape, which would correspond to an architecture understood as “a perception and symbolic construction of space”. Walking, from this viewpoint, constitutes not only a physical construction of space (in the style of the pedestrian enunciation proposed by Michel de Certeau) but also, as Careri points out, a cultural and symbolic transformation of already defined spaces. And this point could be what epitomizes the difference between occupying a space and inhabiting it, between situating oneself at a geographical point and living within it.
Perhaps the best exponent of untangling the subjective strategies of symbolic and cultural appropriation deployed by the individual in relation to his architectonic and spatial environment is Gaston Bachelard in his Poetics of Space. In this essay he develops a methodology for the analysis of space, the so-called topoanalysis, a systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate life. In it Bachelard develops a particular phenomenology of poetic imagination centered on the study of the specific environment of the space of the inner self. He starts from a topological analysis which designates certain places such as the home or the nest and certain coordinates such as outside and inside that function as triggers to the reader’s daydreams. By combing through the various uses in literature of each of these places, Bachelard presents the images, anxieties and sensations associated with each of these concrete topoi .In spite of being confined to the field of poetry and literature, topoanalysis becomes a valuable tool for understanding the workings of the imagination inhabiting and transforming a space symbolically or culturally, whether real and material or merely written on a page. The procedure can be studied with the example of a corner, as Bachelard proposes: “every corner of a house, every corner of a room, every reduced space where we like to snuggle, to curl up in, is solitude for the imagination, that is, the germ of a room, the germ of a house” (Bachelard, 1994: 171). Any place in which one can think of curling up contains in the imagination of the observer the germ of a corner, the potential to become a cosy corner within which one could relive moments of solitude and silence. The mechanism of the poetic imagination of space functions by means of a projection of daydreams, fantasy, desire and the memory of places previous to the current geometry. The projections of the imagination are assimilated into this geometric and objective architecture, dispassionate, transforming its contents, its potential, its connotations and its suggestions. The strict geometry of a building resists in principle, as Bachelard explains: “to certain metaphors that explain the human soul”; however when this building is recognised, appropriated, is lived in as in a house, for example, it is immediately associated with a series of images that make up the sensation of the home place “a space that must condense and defend intimacy. Then, in a totally irrational way, oneirism follows.” (Bachelard 1994:80). The idea is one of appropriating spaces, inhabiting them through imagination and memory, developing imaginative tactics to transform the existing space, to construct a second architecture that superimposes itself on the first; it consists in creating an invisible geography on top of what is already there, objective and undeniable, to project sensibility and subjectivity onto an architecture that is in principle unknown; it involves inhabiting the objective geometry adapting it to the peculiarities of a radical individuality and subjectivity, which are constructed by something as intimate and personal as one’s own memories, anxieties and the fantasies that inhabit one’s consciousness.
In this sense the previous architectures are transformed symbolically and culturally; an ephemeral architecture such as that described by Careri is created and constructed, based on the projection of subjectivity over what exists. This would constitute a first architectural construction plan in Here whilst we walk. Through the heightened attention developed along their walk in silence through the city, the participants have the opportunity to see their surroundings as if for the first time, dissociated from its functionality, of its routine character, to now perceive it as an object capable of arousing daydreams, upon which they can project their sensitivity. In facilitating this state of openness in the participants towards their surroundings, the notion of labyrinth that dominated the creation process of the work has been fundamental. As Sonnberger and Ciríaco point out, this spatial figure has the clear function of permitting a renewed vision of the day to day environment. Curiously the labyrinth was reflected in the work in the form of an absence: the absence of a previous plan known to the participants.
In a labyrinth one is not conscious of everything, the future, the plan, of something previously experienced. In it one has the experience, the immediacy of one’s experience. [...] We didn’t want to provide a plan to our spectator-participants. Instead of the experience of the street, we prefer the experience of the walk, the aimless strolling of the flâneur (Ciríaco, 2006).
This labyrinthine roaming facilitates a state of spiritual openness in the participant, in the walker: he does not know the end of the route, so he cannot foresee its trajectory or its direction; he cannot anticipate events or take for granted what he learns along the walk , as each new element that appears before him can be significant. On the website that accompanies the work (www.herewhilstwe.de) which is available to participants to share their experiences, we find that one of the recurring commentaries from participants refers to the acquisition along the walk of a vision that has been renewed and prepared for surprise in a space that is both familiar and generally taken for granted.
The notion of a labyrinth is fundamental too in the architectural conception of Hélio Oiticica, as it leads to the discovery of another architectural dimension of Here whilst we walk. Certain concepts coined and developed by this Brazilian artist such as Parangolé and delirium ambulatorium have constituted an explicit reference in the creation of this piece. Parangolé is the term employed to designate a series of works that Oiticica began at the end of 1964 as a result of his involvement with the passistas community and his friends from Manguiera Shanty Town, with whom he discovered dance and movement as the ideal medium in which to continue with his investigation of space¹. The parangolés were flags, banners, capes and tents made out of plastic bags, with a potential chromatic architecture, which were revealed or activated by the participation of the public in their movement or displacement or dance. Parangolé represents the end of a progressive development of the dematerialisation of the object, the implication of the subjectivity of the spectator in the work and a growing attention towards the dynamic and active relationship between public, work and surroundings. The work only takes on life when this is bestowed by the participant, when it becomes part of the total parangolé experience (Oiticica) in a happening that corresponds to the environmental kingdom (in the world of attention to the environment). With this type of work Oiticica left the object to one side to concern himself directly with the creation of a creative perceptive behaviour in the spectator. The link to the transformation of the above-mentioned creative reception is evident. Nevertheless, the parangolé permits the concept of a second level of architectural creation in Here whilst we walk. Oiticica finds a direct relationship between the chromatic architecture of the body in movement when dressed with the parangolé and the organic construction of the shanty towns and other improvised architectures such as the street markets or the open-roofed cardboard cubicles: all these are essentially precarious, they are constructed without any prior rationality directing their development and deployment in space; they are organised following the logic of mere addition, of continuity in space and time, in a relationship of adaptation to their environment. This latter is not only conceived of as the classical architectonic context, composed of existing buildings, but is also determined by the invisible architecture composed by the trajectories of the walkers and the customs of the inhabitants of the shanty towns. This ephemeral and improvised spatiality thus acquires the organic quality that characterises both the shanty town and the parangolé; this is an architecture that develops links with its surroundings, described by Oiticica as imaginative-structural links. These are “ultra-elastic” architectures “capable of establishing multidimensional relations that emerge from them between perception and imagination, productive, inseparable and mutually feeding off one another” (Oiticica 2007:297). This is an architecture based not upon the construction of durable buildings, nor the symbolic transformation of what is already there, but on the construction of ephemeral forms, the creation of spaces that are not based on a preconceived plan or faithful to a certain logic based on a rational distribution of space. It is based on the immanent and emerging creation of spaces, without prior design and formed through the medium of human movement, customs and the desires of those who inhabit them. Naturally this space is produced within a dialectic relationship with the environment, adapting to it in an improvised way and transforming it as the emerging space imposes itself.
A similar type of construction of space is at work in Here whilst we walk. Through walking a construction of space takes place which, in accordance with an immanent dialectic relationship between subject and milieu, functions like a reflection of the milieu in which it is inspired and within which it is located. The participants are within the confines of the elastic band without any orientation plan or instructions, without a preconceived plan of a possible route. Ciríaco and Sonnberger begin to walk and with this movement the elastic band is stretched and obliges the participants to move in the direction they have chosen; however, once this has been established, a participant can put up resistance and head towards an object or in a chosen direction along the way, thus in a sense obliging his companions to alter the route. Accordingly within the elastic band positions change continually, depending on the attention given to the surroundings or the faster or slower pace of each the participants. The formation of the group also changes according to the obstacles and characteristics of the route travelled, constantly modifying itself in adaptation to the surroundings, constructing its route depending on the accidents and mishaps along the way. In this process of continuous change within the confines of the elastic band, the trajectories of the walkers produce in an emerging form a spontaneous choreography composed of movements such as giving way, brief stops, interchanging positions and various stumbles.
This allows for an emerging state of choreographic creation of space arising out of the sum of the distinct trajectories, the ephemeral complicities between the participants. The group in its movement within the elastic band manages its trajectories, finding itself like a collective group in movement in a continual self-structuring process and which is constructed by the mere logic of addition. Movement within the band is governed by the same generative laws that cause the chaotic and labyrinthine dynamics of the urban space: constant circulation, transience, self-regulation, lack of determination, continuous interchange, instability and precariousness of relations, locating difficulties, ambivalence with one’s individual route and the provisional nature of one’s own position, among others. These organisational principles constitute a reflection or metaphor of the space (exterior) they travel through, governed by accident and the unforeseen, by ephemeral collective groupings, continual micro contacts generated by such a simple structure as walking. In this way the walking group of Here whilst we walk functions as a reflection of the urban concept in the dialectic relationship between subject and setting: structurally it reproduces the same behavioural patterns, the same principles of chaotic, labyrinthine, unforeseeable, and unpredictable composition: it serves as a reflection on a small scale, while at the same time physically adapts to it, to spatiality which serves as its constitutional model. The walking group adapts to the context, while creating its own spatiality, generated by means of a dialectic balance between interior and exterior, between the creation of a form of its own and that of adapting to the route travelled.
This spatiality generated within the elastic band thus signals a second level of creation of space, of an ephemeral architecture that determines the city as much as or more than its traditional architecture, comprised fundamentally from the view point of urban design and the construction of buildings. On the other hand it is interesting to note that this dialectic relationship with the environment does not take place within the context of strict individuality, but within the framework of a community project. In this sense Here whilst we walk assumes a social dimension, concerning itself not only with mere aesthetic values , but oriented by the deployment of a series of strategies and resources, towards the setting in which it unfolds. In this way the band assumes a function beyond that of containing the group together on their walk: on the one hand it permits the emergence of a spatiality based on the same principles as those which govern movement in the town; on the other hand it unites the walkers and the individual discourses; the pedestrian enunciations (Certeau) are assumed under the same identity, thus creating a community. The elastic band around the participants
provides for an inside and outside, thus producing the feeling of a group, maybe even an identity [...] in which the participants are at the same time actors and spectators and who, like the men and women on the outside, each group, if we can consider them as such, enjoys a particular sense of identity and belonging (Ciríaco 2006).
The “being together” of the participants and the creation of a community for the duration of an hour and a half is also one of the central themes of the work. In this sense, Here whilst we walk is linked to relational aesthetics and therefore to the desire for the collective production of feeling and in this particular case to the collective production of an architecture that is paradoxically related to individuality, the projection of the intimate world on the exterior geometry, as well as the creation of a spatiality that is determined in the group. The central theme of the walk is to together walk through the city: the movement is decided on communally, the perception of the environment is created from “us”. This operation assumes an undeniable social dimension, in that it is carried out collectively.²
After the parangolés the next stage in Oiticica’s work is that of the appropriations that began in 1966 as a direct result of this gradual and irreversible move towards context, thus linking up with the first type of architecture mentioned, nomadic architecture. In this stage he develops a new activity, walking through the urban landscape, defined as Delirium Ambulatorium.
In delirium ambulatorium, meditation is guided by the body-foot: it is a passion-meditation-walking that generates model labyrinths of topographies created in the heat of the workshop: the same passion that directed me to move the pictorial field out of painting towards space and to destroy the impoverished pictorialism of centuries of walls [leading me] to the proposal of a new place-space, totally open to creative exploration (Oiticica 2007:122)
By means of an intervention as ephemeral as a walk he discovers the ready-made artistic passable world, and with it (as Allan Kaprow also proposed in his Education of the un-artist) the capacity of the imagination to transform the world as well as the urban environment as a space open to creative exploration and symbolic and cultural transformation. These principles are to be found in the collective assimilation and interpretation experience of space through the movement of walking proposed by Ciríaco and Sonnberger with Here whilst we walk: there is no object or piece (choreography) providing a watershed giving access to that other sphere of aesthetic experience, it is the spectator who finds himself relaunched into his own world that normally surrounds him to perceive it in a renewed manner. In this way he assumes an ambivalent position, as participant and at the same time as an object of the attention of the second level spectator: the city dweller. For its part, the object or the work as an entity disappears and installs itself in the conscience of the spectator, altering his routine perception, which turns again to his environment projecting his sensibility and transforming it. Through this movement one discovers in the spectator that very same potential to develop an active and aesthetic relationship with his environment, of simultaneous assimilation and interpretation of space, all of which achieved through the medium of movement: walking.
¹ Parangolé constitutes a key question in the development of his work; as he himself indicates, it represents a culminating point in his lifelong investigation, which began with painting and concludes in a total liberation of the performance. It represents the end of a progressive development displayed from the anti-object, through the transobject to the parangolés, these structural-imaginative works as describes by their author.
² This tendency towards greater concern for the social and collective dimension in his projects can be clearly seen in the piece in which Ciríaco and Sonnberger are currently working, Neighbours, based on the idea of the neighbourhood as a localised geographical community.