Cornford and Cross
How Buildings Learn 2001/2004

Doorway blocked by archive material
For Values: 11th International Biennial of Visual Arts, curated by Svetlana Mladenov and Igor Antic
Pancevo, Serbia and Montenegro

In 2004, we re-made this work with different material for the 11th Biennial of Visual Arts in Pancevo, Serbia and Montenegro.

In the public archive of Pancevo we shifted and rearranged documents and files, to completely block a doorway. The archive material spanned a hundred years and more— wax-sealed and worm-eaten ledgers; legal texts in German; long-forgotten fiscal and financial transactions; medical records of injuries and illnesses; Communist Party membership cards in faded files detailing the minutiae of people’s lives. Yet what was missing from the mass of material was any record of the decade-long ethnic war in former Yugoslavia.

To make the installation we used the documents and files as building blocks, arranging them in layers according to their size and shape. This made their contents inaccessible, and rendered them unusable as a historical resource. Their physical mass created a literal blockage within the building that deliberately confounded the ordering principle of the archive through an act of controlled nihilism.

As stores of information, archives can either threaten or entrench dogmatic systems of thought. How Buildings Learn was an art project that relied less on the ‘suppression of visuality’ than the suppression of textuality. The Chancery director Milan Jaksic showed great generosity and public spirit in allowing us to disrupt the archive to build the installation. And through their willing participation in causing a blockage in their own institution, the Chancery staff became complicit in our action.

The tight-packed surface of the books and documents belied its dense mass of material, and the labour that produced it. But this concealment was nothing compared to the social encounters that making the work allowed us. Perhaps in Pancevo, How Buildings Learn could act as a sign: either for the futility of all effort, or for the difficult, painful work yet to be done in relating history to memory.

How Buildings Learn is the title of a book by Stewart Brand, which proposes that the form of buildings should continually develop through the social processes that take place in them.