Cornford & Cross
Chapter for book edited by Iain Borden, Joe Kerr, Alicia Pivaro and Jane Rendell
The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space
MIT Press, USA, 2000, pp. 328—339
The Unknown City - Contesting Architecture as social space MIT Press 1999
“The power of a work of art derives from its economy. Whether simple or complex, the work of art must be efficient.”
Carl Andre (1)
Urban art projects can embody a critique of the physical and institutional spaces in which they were located. But they also involve urban forms of practice, and this too is part of the critique. The three projects discussed here are marked for us by an increased inclusion of the processes surrounding artistic production into the art work itself; the involvement of people from a range of organisations in realising the work, together with the role of viewers as participants, has meant that beyond their physical presence, these works constitute live interventions into systems or situations.
In terms of our own practice, we began operating without a studio for economic and logistical reasons, but over time this has come to inform our operations in more profound ways. Because our work can take place anywhere, we are more able to respond to the very particular qualities of a site. Realising our work brings us into contact with bureaucratic systems, so administration is an essential part of our practice. We move around the city — usually on foot, tracing more or less purposeful connections between sandwich bars, public libraries and park benches, stock photo agencies, tool shops and light industrial units. Walking in the city brings a direct physical aspect to the understanding of distance, topography and scale which has formed an important element of our installations.
In its finished form our work is often sculptural, yet the way in which it is conceived relates in part to the juxtapositions of collage stemming from our background in photography and graphic media. We use images principally in two ways: practically to plan and visualise projects in advance and to document them on completion; and theoretically, as ready-made elements incorporated into the substance of the work. In our finished work we present rather than represent.
By relocating ready-made industrial and consumer goods, often through single gestures, our projects have created and become entangled in complex situations. The titles we choose are also ready-made, taken from a diverse range of sources within the public domain, and often in current use. We do not use titles to describe, but to add another element which can gradually bring meaning.
While our work is partly identifiable by its techniques and formal devices, we see its key feature as a critical engagement with prevailing ideas and attitudes which underlie our consumer culture — our work engages with the relationships between popular culture under late capitalism, conflict and the “city edge”. And familiar yet evolving urban forms such as shopping centres, business parks and road networks continually offer us new manifestations of those relationships as subject matter.
This choice of subject matter and our mode of dealing with it has been a response to living and working in the city; in particular, we are interested in how patterns of social, political and economic organisation manifest themselves in the spaces and boundaries of the urban environment. Thus, rather than attempting to produce our observations from a traditionally “oppositional” viewpoint, our work aims to connect different values and ideas so as to encourage a certain “reflective scepticism” towards individual actions and their collective results. Our work combines these social concerns with certain formal and conceptual art historical references in order to aestheticise a “twisted critique” of the contexts we engage with. While our formal concerns fuse with an ideological engagement, we hope our work retains an element of good humour.
Camelot was a site-specific installation produced for City Limits, a group show curated by Godfrey Burke and organised by Terry Shave, Head of Fine Art at Staffordshire University in September 1996. The show consisted of an exhibition in the university galleries and several new commissions around the city of Stoke-on-Trent. When we visited, we intuitively decided to work on one of the most neglected and public sites.
The site in Albion Square is distinct yet typical of many other cities: a poorly planned intersection of heavy flows of pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Although the site marks the entrance to Hanley town centre, it is defined only by three irregularly shaped patches of trampled grass, flanked with anti-pedestrian brickwork and cut off by traffic on either side. Rather than using a public art commission to superficially enhance the site, we decided to produce a work which would engage with the very conception of “public”. In one sense, our piece – Camelot – was a literal interpretation of the “City Limits” theme, as it aimed to provoke reflection and debate on the physical and social boundaries which often determine the patterns of city life. Camelot used 120 metres of 3 metre high steel palisade security fencing to deny people access to these small, neglected fragments of public urban land.
By reinforcing the boundaries of these grass verges with an excessive display of authority, we raised the status of the land through its enclosure. In the context of the contemporary debate around security and access within town centres, Camelot explored the political notion of the “Tragedy of the Commons”, in which resources not under private ownership fall into neglect. While construction work was taking place we encountered a great deal of very real — at times threatening — anger from local people passing by or visiting the piece. Through many resulting discussions, it became clear that the neglect of this site was held to be symptomatic of a lack of communication between the electorate and their representatives on the town council.
A related photographic work exhibited in the University gallery referred to the more subtle ways of channelling movement around the privileged lawns of the “ivory towers” of Oxbridge colleges. No security fences are required here. Instead time-honoured codes of conduct dictate who is entitled to walk on the grass. Few members of the public would risk the embarrassment of rejection from the quadrangle: spaces such as these have, since antiquity, challenged visitors to rank themselves according to the hierarchy of English social class and academic status.
The project title, Camelot, referred to the phenomenally successful United Kingdom National Lottery, an institution on which many artistic and cultural projects are increasingly financially dependent. The Lottery organisers’ choice of “Camelot” evokes a mythical “golden age” of English history, when the court of King Arthur established fair play in a feudal society through the code of chivalrous behaviour. Perhaps the old idea that only an accident of birth separates the prince from the pauper underlies today’s popular interest in the journey from rags to riches through the luck of the draw.
A particularly positive aspect of our Camelot was that it raised the status of the site and triggered debate; the resulting publicity focussed attention onto the Local Authority council. We will be interested to see how the site will be permanently improved when funds are made available.
Park in the Park
Across Two Cultures: Digital Dreams 4 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, November 1996, was a conference and exhibition programmed by Lisa Haskel and curated by Helen Sloan which explored the links between scientific and artistic practice. We worked with London-based architects and town planners West and Partners, the Ordnance Survey, The National Remote Sensing Centre and aerial photographers to produce ‘Park in the Park’ which was exhibited in a new and as yet unoccupied office development on Newcastle’s Quayside.
This project questioned whether the ‘purity’ of scientific knowledge becomes compromised through its translation into public policy or goods and services for the market. City planners, policy makers and corporate strategists now have access to precise and detailed scientific data as a result of combining satellite remote sensing and aerial photography with geographical information systems. However, the technologies’ potential for radical planning could be better used for long term solutions to the problems posed by unlimited demand for finite resources. Park in the Park foregrounded the relationship between consumer demand, land use and urban planning.
Official projections up to the year 2025 forecast that car traffic in the UK will continue to grow steeply 2; yet according to conventional wisdom at the time, increased demand must be accommodated. Park in the Park critiqued this short-term technocratic approach by proposing the conversion of Newcastle’s Leazes Park into a vast pay and display car park. This strategic plan to increase private car parking at the expense of public green space aimed to provoke questions on where the limits are for private car use.
The installation explored these ideas through cartography because through interpreting and communicating complex information, map drawing combines editorial skill, artistic judgement and scientific rationale. Maps make visible, and even reproduce certain aspects of the social relations of power, such as how property and mobility are manifested in land use and transport. Maps and plans are central to the whole process of land development, from identifying a new business opportunity, through gaining planning permission, to construction and end use.
West & Partners were briefed on the project and spent several weeks designing a fully functional car park, complete with coach and disabled parking provision, landscaping and modifications to the local road network. The design was realised with a combination of recently launched Ordnance Survey Superplan data and in-house CAD software.
The core of the project combined these urban designs with digital maps, aerial photographs and satellite images, and was produced to ’lock in’ to the context in which it was exhibited: the expansive empty spaces of the new Quayside office development.
To engage with the site, which offered far more floor than wall space, maps were produced to a very large scale, resulting in 5, 3, and 1 metre squares. These were positioned on the floor forming interesting echoes between various grid systems – relating the tiles of the aerial photographs and Ordnance Survey maps to the contract carpet tiles in the floor and to the tiled suspended ceiling. Rather than forcing the digital maps to ‘snap to grid’ of the building, we aligned them due North. This combination of formal decisions put viewers in a privileged position looking down on the ground plane, easily able to identify and orient themselves in relation to features in the cityscape, and encouraged them to make links between the bland, detached exhibition space and their own mental map of the city.
While Park in the Park challenged viewers with a scenario in which consumer demand could push the urban landscape to a new extreme, the final project discussed here used ideas about the urbanisation of the countryside as one point of entry. This came through East 1997, an international group show curated by Lynda Morris at Norwich School of Art in association with the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia. We were invited by Nicola Johnson and William Jeffett to produce a site specific installation at The Centre, which was designed by architects Foster Associates to house the Sainsbury’s art collection. Foster had insisted that the building should relate to the scientists of the University of East Anglia. ‘The site chosen terminates the major linear sequence of university buildings — being adjacent to the School of Biological Sciences at the end of the cranked teaching block and related to what is seen as the ‘domestic’ scale of Norfolk Terrace.’ 3 Another aspect of the site is that the Sainsbury Centre is set in an artificial landscape: a former golf course complete with lake created from a flooded gravel pit. The lawn immediately in front of the Centre is in fact a Dutch built ‘green roof’ covering the Crescent Wing galleries underground — also designed by Foster — creating an apparent fusion of architecture and landscape.
New Holland grew out of a consideration of the relationships between architecture, economic activity and cultural responses to the landscape in a consumer society. The installation consisted of a new steel structure based on an industrial/agricultural building, positioned outside the main entrance to the Sainsbury Centre. In size and proportion — 10 x 20 x 3 metres, the structure referred to a ‘Bernard Matthews’ turkey breeder unit, though it had neither doors nor windows. The heavy mechanical beat of a blend of hard black rap and ‘house and garage’ music from CD compilations could be heard pumping out from the darkness inside.
On one level, New Holland exploited tensions between English romantic representations of landscape exemplified by Henry Moore’s sculpture nearby, and the realities of modern industrial agriculture as experienced in Norfolk’s intensive turkey farms. The structure was at once entirely appropriate yet uncomfortably out of place in its physical and institutional context.
Spatially, the work divided and linked the Sainsbury Centre and the Henry Moore “reclining figure” sculpture. Foster’s building which proposes a technocratic patriarchy, and Moore’s vision of nature as ‘Mother’ signify two sides of Modernist ideology in architecture and agriculture. Positioning our work outdoors questioned the Centre architecturally and institutionally, yet the piece was not created in terms of a simple opposition: instead, New Holland occupied a space of controlled rebellion.
Architecturally, the barn’s system built construction methods and materials related to Norman Foster’s award-winning structure, with its rationale of “the well-serviced shed”. (Coincidentally, the Bernard Matthews turkey farm we visited links with Foster’s references to aviation in the Centre, as this ‘farm’ is located on a former US air base, with the barns built directly on the old runways). Visitors approaching the Centre were confronted with a bland but imposing structure clad entirely in non-reflective, polyester-coated pressed steel (as preferred by planning committees). The structure referred primarily to a modern farm building, but would be equally acceptable in a retail park or industrial estate. In the beautiful grounds of the Sainsbury Centre it could be seen as the ‘country cousin’ at a smart garden party, or yet another infill development in an unspoilt rural idyll.
The house and garage music further played on the notions of rebellion in the piece, with the mechanistic ‘succession of repetitive beats’ evoking the now traditional invasion of the countryside for weekender raves, while considering the absorption of youthful dissent into the blind hedonism of mainstream consumer culture. Parallels emerged between the barn’s containment of music related to black culture, and the Sainsbury Centre’s containment of ethnic (African, Oceanic, Pre-Colombian and Oriental) objects: in each structure, the cultural product could be grasped as representative of some ‘primitive other’.
As well as being the name of a leading manufacturer of farm machinery, the title ‘New Holland’ called to mind historic links between the Netherlands and East Anglia, including patterns of trade and the engineering methods used to reclaim land from the sea.
As is evident from these three projects, it is important that all our finished installations have a material presence and can be experienced in a particular context. Each piece was manifested as physical objects positioned in real space, but was the result of a process of interaction with a wide range of systems and organisations, from local turkey barn builders to the National Remote Sensing Centre. This way of working has not only given us a continually changing insight into some of the forces shaping the built, natural and social environment, but it also exposed our emerging ideas to indifference, criticism and the test of relevance to ‘everyday life’. Alongside this, we have been continually surprised and reassured at the amount of time given to us by people who have no direct connection to the art world.
Our works are of course realised within a capitalist economy: the material objects we use and the spaces into which we place them are inevitably part of the commodity system. Yet although producing these works has involved commercial transactions, and they each address issues at the intersection of economics and culture, they have resisted commodification because of their specificity to a particular site. Because each was a temporary intervention into a social system and physical space, we have been allowed a degree of ‘freedom’ from official and institutional restraint that is highly uncommon for works on permanent public display.
Ultimately, these projects have articulated elements from the commodity system, before dispersing them back into it; the works’ unrehearsed and live realisation in public spaces involved a degree of social interaction which connected the sites to wider ideological forces.
(1) Carl Andre — the Turner of matter? interview with Paul Sutinen, first published in Williamette Week’s Fresh Weekly, August 12, 1980, p. 9.
(2) Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 18th Report: Transport and the Environment, London HMSO 1994, p.19
(3) Andrew Peckham A Critique of the Sainsbury Centre Architectural Design, Vol. 49, no. 2 1979, p.6