An interview between Adam Nathaniel Furman (AADipl(Hons) 2008/ AAGradDip 2009) & Amy Croft, curator at Sto.Werkstatt
28 July 2014
Sto Werkstatt, Clerkenwell, London
Re.presence: How to See Architecture was an exhibition co-curated by Adam Nathaniel Furman (AADipl)Hons2008, AAGradDip 2009) and Amy Croft in the Werkstatt space of German building products manufacturer Sto. The multimedia exhibition commissioned three artists as well as Furman himself to respond to a common brief: to experiment with new and old technologies while exploring architectural ideas. The four projects were developed over a two month period and their inspirations, ideas and processes were documented online by a fifth participant, Studio BAAKO who created a web-based mind map that allows visitors to delve into the brains of the participants while creating links between projects.
The work on display included Outside by Furman that looks at how we construct cities in our imagination by embedding high resolution 3d prints of cityscapes into milky resin cases. This sits alongside the film by Ilona Sagar, Haptic Skins of a Glass Eye (Proxy) that looks at the glass materials made by Sto and uses them to explore a 15th-century psychiatric condition, "the glass delusion", in which people began to feel as though they could shatter. The fleshiness of Sagar’s film is in direct contrast to another piece on display, Lawrence Lek’s (AADipl2008) video game Shiva’s Dreaming which was inspired by how Sto tests their materials for destruction. The simulated reality takes us through the burning halls of the Crystal Palace as its contents combust and shatter around us. The final simulation in the exhibition is by architect C. Fredrik V. Hellberg (AADipl(Hons)2011) who uses projection mapping to animate a simple model of stairs and screens. Taking Hermann Hesse’s 1943 book The Glass Bead Game as its inspiration, Hellberg uses characters from the book to populate and alter his physical construct in a project he titles, The Visceral Intricacy of Magister Ludi’s Archetypes.
In the following conversation, Furman (ANF) and Croft (AC) discuss the exhibition in relationship to Fundamentals, the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale curated by Rem Koolhaas, and the work of American designer George Nelson, in addition to reflecting on the exhibition itself and its future impact on each of their careers.
AC: In Re.presence a concern for us both was how to exhibit what is happening in the gap between the virtual and physical realities of contemporary architecture. I know you have visited Rem Koolhaas’ Venice Biennale recently, and has his bold gesture to revive the fundamentals of architecture – like windows, doors, toilets, and ramps - refocused for you, our discussions about the digital and immaterial in architecture?
ANF: Yes it has. We both always wanted everything in the exhibition to function on multiple levels, even without reading any of the blurb. But if a visitor wanted to know more about the pieces, then there would be plenty of depth for them to get lost in, and then to go even deeper there were murkier depths to explore through the online “archive brain-map”.But if you don’t provide a way in, a hook, then the discovery of all that embedded work is forestalled.
Something that Rem’s “Elements” made abundantly clear to me was that the essential units of architecture do not really change, and it is through them that people relate to architecture. The elements are something people find familiar and recognise, people know to walk through doors and step down staircases, and it is through these elements that architectural representations truly function to draw people into their scaled or mediated worlds, via their imaginations. It is through them that they can conceive of their bodies in a given space, no matter how strange, small, digital, filmic or collaged. It is why I think a lot of digitally fetishised architectural explorations leave non-architects (and many architects) not only cold, but utterly indifferent, since the absence of any recognisable architectural elements leave the observer with absolutely no way to enter the representation as a real, inhabitable space.
The elements Rem explored so brilliantly in Fundamentals are important to us, in the context of the complex mediated representations we commissioned and exhibited, as a way in to the imagination. I think the show is successful because of its accessibility. All the pieces, no matter how strange - whether projection mapped narrative, computer-game burning world, imaginary non-place or filmic exploration of flesh and form- have an abundance of architectural elements.
ANF: There was a fine line throughout the development and realisation of Re.presence, between our theoretical interests and the commercial exigencies of the manufacturer Sto, in addition to the need to engage a very design oriented audience during our launch over Clerkenwell Design Week. Looking back on this what compromises do you think we made?
Accepting the challenge of curating a programme of exhibitions at Sto’s new showroom in Clerkenwell in September 2013, already set me on a different path than my previous approaches to creative production –working as an independent artist, setting my own briefs and pursuing outcomes whose form and content were contingent on the commissioning body’s gallery space and/or(meagre)budget.
Yet, I wouldn’t say that the various positions you identified have brought about compromises in ‘Re.presence’. From the outset at Sto, I was interested in how these factors could inform one another. The career of American designer George Nelson (1908-1986), was an important influence in this respect. His cross disciplinary, networked thinking often successfully merged adversely political topics with advertising affiliations: U.S vs. Us (1961) a multimedia presentation that was heavily critical of obsolescence in transport design and the monotony of the urban American landscape still functioned as a great advertising success for Herman Miller and later in 1964, as inspiration for Nelson’s designs of the Chrysler presentation at the Worlds Fair in New York. These exchanges –between social/cultural discourse and manufacturer’s- brings a tangible reality to conceptual thoughts around the environments we live in; there is no argument that manufacturers, alongside architects and designers have a strong hand in the look, feel and costs of our built landscape, so why not engage in that dialogue and say something which is relevant today?
I would not have done anything differently, yet I should mention the contextual constraints we faced in exhibiting the works within a showroom setting, rather than a white cube scenario. While this makes for another challenge to exhibition design at the Werkstatt, I am also excited to see how the exhibition histories of each piece develops and perhaps alters the works’ readings, with Ilona Sagar’s Sto commission ‘Haptic Skins of a Glass Eye (Proxy)’ being shown at Embassy Gallery, Edinburgh this summer.
AC: In the lead up to the exhibition you were prolific in offering your references and interests to the online project www.re-presence.org. This project is in essence the online representation of the exhibition and will also be its legacy, with studio BAAKO continuing to develop it in parallel with the next exhibitions at the Werkstatt. As a contributor to this project, do you see the collected and growing content informing your practice in the coming months?
ANF: It already has in a couple of ways. It offered me an unusual way of reflecting on the project I had just produced for the show. Normally I follow a completed piece with the retroactive analysis of writing in which I give myself the opportunity to think about what succeeded, what failed, and how I may want to proceed with the ideas embedded in the work, if at all. This time the retroactive analysis was more an act of archaeology, it involved thinking about what directly influenced “Outside” (my project for Re.presence), and then thinking very hard about how I had come to those given influences, which led me further back to older references, and so on, in a kind of chain that I kept pulling and which kept leading me further and further back, towards the origins of my passion for architectural form.
A lot of it is not present on the site as I didn’t want to flood it with my references, but I continued the process on my own, out of a kind of hypnotised curiosity. As individuals, as creative agents, we have an immutable and inextinguishable core of inspiration, the kind that stimulates through the gut not the mind, which can be tapped at any time and whose energy lies not in logic or discourse, but in the very structure of our personalities that were formed as we grew up. A strange abandoned building on the road we grew up in can resonate throughout our careers and production as much as Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture of the City, in the fact the one could have been precisely why we were drawn to the other, and the reason why we connected with it on such a visceral level. I am currently looking back to the period before the books, before the films, before the drawings, to the events and experiences which formed the proclivities and passions that drew me to those things in the first place. The re-research into primary forms that I embarked on for the website has also helped me to write an article on circular building forms throughout history!
ANF: I am always interested in what questions an endeavour brings into focus and what routes of investigation which you might wish to follow are suddenly opened up following the conclusion of a project. Has Re.presence posed any one such question, and if so how do you intend to pursue it?
AC: I can completely identify with your description of a hypnotised curiosity and a desire to follow a trail of thought or influences, yet the problem I wish to pursue after Re.presence is in fact the opposite. I want to think about how to make a break from the subjects, threads and approach of Re.presence and introduce something completely different into the space at the Werkstatt.
I am very interested in what can be learnt from a series of exhibitions at the Werkstatt, whose linking factor is an investigation of exhibition making and branding. There is a rich history of exhibition design which since the separation of commercial exhibitions from artistic exhibitions, seems to have been largely ignored (I was made aware of it during my studies at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna, with the artist Martin Beck whose practice draws on these histories.)In Re.presence we explored the model of commissioning artists and designers to respond to a brief; the next project I am developing may be drawn from archival materials, investigating the topic of sleep in relation to architecture.
This topic is partly inspired by a rather obvious yet largely uncommented observation of Clerkenwell as a design district of London: everyone is perpetually busy with some form of doing. Being active is so omnipresent that sleeping feels unnecessary. In Jonathan Crary’s new book ‘24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep’ the topic also gains a political gravitas which I am keen to explore in relation to the architect’s trans-national working ethos with the design of a project occurring on the other side of the world, in another time-zone - a practice Sto as a manufacturer has restructured itself to support.
For more information:
Re.presence (a website by Studio BAAKO)
Adam Nathaniel Furman
C. Fredrik V. Hellberg
Review of Re.Presence on DisegnoDaily.com