I Walk the Line: On the Art and Politics of Walking in the City

I walk a lot. I walk to get from one destination to another. I walk to clear a space in my head. I walk to connect to my neighborhood, to my city, and to those places less familiar. I have never been good at reading a map (or folding one), thus I often let my impressions and senses guide me, or when lost, ask others to point the way.

There is a romance to walking, linked to our need to connect to nature and the physical environment, as well as our will to be alone. However, walking in the city is a profoundly public experience, one that we continually negotiate, and it is through this negotiation that we can better understand the political complexities of public space. Who owns public space? What are the commonly understood rights to its use and access? How does walking both engage and circumvent the spatial order of a city? How does it map new territories of freedom?

For writer Rebecca Solnit, walking is central to urban citizenship and to our participation in public life.

“Walking is only the beginning of citizenship, but through it the citizen knows his or her city and fellow citizens and truly inhabits the city rather than a small privatized part thereof. Walking the streets is what links up reading the map with living one’s life, the personal microcosm with the public macrocosm; it makes sense of the maze all around.” (Note 1)

Walking is also central to several new urban projects that link the pleasure of walking with city revitalization. These include converted rail lines, riverwalks, public promenades and other design projects that advocate for a city’s walkability through creative reuse. Part of the New Urbanism movement, such spaces have become beacons for addressing a whole host of socio-economic issues – diversity and connectivity, alternative transportation routes, sustainable green spaces – with walking as the human action that steers these hybrid landscapes.

Elevated greenways like The High Line in New York and The Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago provide a respite from the daily march on the sidewalk below along with transitory views of the city or a neighborhood where one is suspended between the street and the skyline. This spatial suspension places the walker in both a physical and psychological state of in-between, not just between the sky and the ground or between one entry or endpoint and another, but between nature and urban, past and present, public and private.

The High Line

Reclaiming the industrial ruin as a new infrastructure for nature and leisure has also created new ecologies for art, sites that host and commission a broad range of public projects, from sculptures in situ to temporary installations to billboards to outdoor performances. While not necessarily reinventing public art, these pedestrian parks are catalyzing a new interest in public and spatial art practices, and in the case of The High Line, which courses through Chelsea and delivers one moving south to the steps of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, art is one economic engine driving their development.

I walked The High Line a couple of times during various trips to New York. Once in 2014 when the extension at 34th street or the Rail Yards was just completed, and more recently this past fall. Each time I am taken by the enormity of Manhattan’s cityscape and the sweeping views of the Hudson River, whose watery expanse follows as you wander. I found myself disheartened upon my last visit, however, at the rampant development and new construction that is happening both along the trail and as a byproduct of it; cranes and scaffolding obstruct the magnificent views and hinder easy passage, while jack hammers interrupt the reverie.

The popularity of such parks, along with their narrow paths, large crowds, and cacophony of offerings, including art, and the gentrifying development they generate, has prompted some critics to declare them theme parks. (Note 2)

The High Line as damned by Jerry Saltz:

“The trend I mean is this: toward ersatz, privatized public spaces built by developers; sterile, user-friendly, cleansed adult playgrounds with generic environments that produce the innocuous stupor of elevator music; inane urban utopias with promenades, perches, pleasant embellishments, rest stops, refreshments, and compliance codes.” (Note 3)

Elsewhere in his article, Saltz nonetheless credits the High Line and other similar park developments with ushering in “a new golden age of public art.” I agree for the most part, although my response to the work I have seen on the High Line is rather mixed. Part of this is subjective, of course, and I am limited to what is on view while I am there, but some of the work seems like a new version of plop art, the kind of public sculptures that populated corporate and city plazas in the 1970s, with the High Line as an outdoor showroom for the Chelsea galleries below. Works and exhibitions are curated or commissioned under the auspices of High Line Art, and it is the commissioned works that I have been most drawn to, particularly Barbara Kruger’s recent billboard whose message BLIND IDEALISM IS REACTIONARY, SCARY, DEADLY, installed previous to the November election, became a haunting harbinger to Trump’s dangerous conservatism.


Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (Blind Idealism Is…)” 2016. A High Line Commission, on view March 2016 – March 2017. Photo by Timothy Schenck. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

One of the most memorable works I experienced on the High Line remains Spencer Finch’s The River That Flows Both Ways, an homage to the Hudson, which the artist photographed during a 700-minute journey along the river over the course of a single day. Finch then translated the varied palette of the river’s surface captured in his photographs into 700 panes of colored glass installed in a series of grids at the park’s Chelsea Market Passage. For me, this work, on view temporarily and commissioned in partnership with Creative Time, succeeded in its poetic sensitivity to the physical and historical conditions of its site, and should serve as one model for the kind of site responsiveness that public art should aspire to.


Spencer Finch, “The River that Flows Both Ways,” 2009. A High Line Commission. Photo courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

The Bloomingdale Trail

The Bloomingdale Trail, the centerpiece of what is commonly known as The 606, in Chicago is a decidedly more residential adaptive reuse project, an abandoned train line converted to a path for walking and biking that runs straight through 2.7 miles of the city’s west side neighborhoods. Like the High Line, it is the result of a coalition of public and private partners, among them the City of Chicago, the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit, and Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, a volunteer group of community residents. However, its genesis is quite different, as it originated under the city’s Department of Planning and Development to bring more public green space to the neighborhood of Logan Square, including in addition to the converted train line six access parks. The 606 opened in June 2015 and remains a work in progress: plants and trees will fill in as they grow and change with the cycles of the season; additional spaces for public events and gatherings, such as a skate plaza, are planned.

The 606’s art program also differs considerably from High Line Art, with the trail itself conceived and designed as a work of art, one that merges creative engineering, landscape design and expanded definitions of community and public art. Thus less an exhibition space than a cultural space that integrates art and artists throughout the evolution of the site, it accommodates both performance and material art practices, traditional art forms and new, temporary artworks and those that are ongoing. The art program was conceived and guided by Frances Whitehead, a Chicago-based artist whose transdisciplinary work combines environmental advocacy, creative placemaking and collaboration across a broad range of stakeholders to create experiential models of public art. The program’s mission as stated by Whitehead on The 606 website:

“Fully ’embedded’ into the engineering and landscape design team, we have worked collaboratively to synthesize local site conditions with a broad range of contemporary art ideas to form a place-based, experiential approach. The concept that culture and sustainability are deeply linked underpins the arts strategies and creates the ethos of the Arts program, which manifests ‘place’ at multiple scales: local, bioregional, global and virtual. This ‘arts thinking’ has generated plans for several hybrid sites and landscape features across the length of The 606. These ’embedded artworks’ double as park amenities, performance venues or sites for public learning.” (Note 4)


Aerial View of Ridgeway Observatory and trailhead on The Bloomingdale Trail, Chicago. Photo by Colin Hinkl. Courtesy of The Trust for Public Land.

One of these embedded artworks, for example, in an earthwork-observatory at the park’s western trailhead, a mound that offers a raised vantage point to view the sun set then spirals into an OZ-like road that gently leads strollers to the trail. Many of the temporary artworks unveiled upon the park’s opening follow more established models of public art – a billboard by Kay Rosen and a mural series by Louis de Marco – and are no longer on view, while Chakaia Booker’s Brick House, a large serpentine sculpture constructed from the artist’s signature used tires, remains at the trail’s Damen Arts Plaza. Two additional murals have since been installed, and various community processions, such as the now annual Walk with Light and The 606 Soundscape, a weekend soundwalk and listening workshop led by artists, have taken place on the trail.


Above: Chakaia Booker, “Brick House.” Below:  Walk with Light public procession. Both photos by Adam Alexander. Courtesy of The Trust for Public Land.

A Walk with Light on the 606 trail December 20, 2015.

Unlike High Line Art, directed by Friends of the High Line (who also raise private funds to support 98% of the High Line’s operating budget), (Note 5) The 606’s cultural arm is administered by three entities: the Trust for Public Land, The Chicago Park District, and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. The arts program is still rather nascent and an online campaign is currently underway to raise funds to support future works, including Turning Sky, by the collaborative Luftwerk that will translate weather data into a system of LED lights to illuminate the Milwaukee Avenue bridge.

Walking the Bloomingdale Trail is a study in economic contrasts, in which I often feel like both a trespasser and a voyeur. Depending on which direction one travels or which trailhead one enters, one witnesses a sloping landscape of wealth: less affluent communities, many Latinx, reside near the trail’s west end, while luxury homes and condominiums inhabit the east end. But this uneven development is giving way to increasing property taxes and rising rents at the expense of longtime residents, who last May organized a protest (a militant form of walking) on the trail over concerns that the accelerated gentrification that has followed in The 606’s wake will displace them.

The Desire Path

Such concerns are very real and at the center of the complex labyrinth of issues that these trail parks illicit: the privatization or semi-privatization of public space; gentrification and displacement; city planning overriding community needs and interests. And yet to my mind these elevated greenways are some of the more progressive, certainly largest, public works projects to have emerged over the last decade. With similar projects elsewhere and others underway, now is the time to assess their failures and successes to determine how cities can invest in infrastructure reuse to create healthy public-private-community partnerships that share common goals. Part of this success is to attach public subsidies to these parks that reinvest in the neighborhoods they traverse and that support fair and affordable housing. Art and culture are integral components of such public spaces, with best practices being those that value artists as community members and creative placemakers rather than pawns for real-estate investment. Likewise, Percent for Art ordinances should be broadened to include these trail parks under the rubric of public spaces to ensure that cities support innovative public art and that communities are part of the process. Most importantly, it is imperative that the focus remains on their original mission – to encourage and support walking in the city.

For theorist Michel de Certeau, there is a “rhetoric” to walking in the city, written by ordinary citizens or walkers, “whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.” (Note 6) “The walking of passers-by offers a series of turns (tours) and detours that can be compared to ‘turns of phrase’ or ‘stylistic figures,’” he continues. “The art of ‘turning’ phrases finds an equivalent in an art of composing a path.” (Note 7)

When walking these pedestrian parks, such narratives are often linear and rather scripted, versus those that wind, bend, twist, backtrack or steer off course. These “tours” and “detours” are essential for the return to walking as a form of self-agency, and for creating a kind of “desire path” that is personal and orthogonal. Their straight lines, however, are a given. Instead, delete the political drama, conceive as an exquisite corpse, and above all feed our desire for wanderlust.


  1. Rebecca Solnit, “The Solitary Stroller and the City,” Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Viking, 2000), p. 176.
  2. Nikil Saval, “Uncommon Ground,” New York Times Magazine, November 13, 2016, p. 74.
  3. See Jerry Saltz http://www.vulture.com/2015/12/how-new-york-solved-the-problem-of-public-art.html. Last accessed December 19, 2016.
  4. See Frances Whitehead, http://www.the606.org/explore/arts/statement-from-the-leader-artist/.
  5. See http://art.thehighline.org/about/.
  6. Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City,” The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (University of California Press, 2011), p. 158.
  7. Ibid. p. 161.

Art. Criticism. Now.

As I am confronted with this blank page after the disastrous results of the election, I must admit I feel lost as to what I am supposed to do next. I can tell you how I feel; like others, I feel angry, betrayed, confused, afraid, but thankfully not alone. But now even those sentiments feel overused. There is a familiarity to this, not unlike the early aftermath of 9/11, when many of us in the art world questioned the importance of what we do and asked ourselves what is art’s role in times of uncertainty and struggle. What we soon discovered, and will again if we haven’t already, is that art is central to who we are as humans and as a culture. Artists are creative thinkers who challenge, expand, educate, disrupt, and revision the world in ways that others cannot.

The task of the critic is not dissimilar to that of the artist. Our charge is to use the power of words to elicit, extend and mediate the dialogue, to inform and educate, to re/frame the view, to challenge the status quo.

The resolve of art and artists will be tested once again with the imminent return of the culture wars, started by Ronald Reagan, reignited by Trump. Now is the time for critics to take back the discursive function of public space and re-energize the critical apparatus of alternative media and the art press. Above all, our primary mandate is to uphold the rights to free expression and free speech, including our own.

On November 9, 2016, art criticism found its renewed purpose; as a critic I did too.


The Chicago Architecture Biennial 2.0: Axes and Praxes

The recent announcement of the new artistic team to lead the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) has prompted me to consider some of the political dynamics at play and to share a few ideas about what I think the next installment of CAB could be. Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee of the Los Angeles-based firm Johnston Marklee are its Artistic Directors, following 2015’s Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima, with Todd Palmer, of Chicago’s National Public Housing Museum, as Executive Director.

Johnston Marklee brings an insider’s perspective to the project both as a participant in the inaugural biennial and as practicing architects. Their clean, minimalist designs favor bold geometry (polyhedrons, stacked or interlocking rectangular planes, dramatic curved volumes) and the integration of public and private spaces, an aesthetic they have brought to several high-profile residential houses and to various art-related commissions, among them a new campus for the UCLA Graduate Art Studios in Culver City, California, the Grand Traiano Art Complex in Grottaferrata, Italy, and the Menil Drawing Institute, Houston, Texas, opening next year.  The architects often collaborate with designers and artists (for example, Luisa Lambri, Marianne Mueller, Jack Pierson, James Welling) in their initial research, an interdisciplinary process revealed in a series of photo collages that render their housing projects as abstract forms and on view at the Chicago Cultural Center during the first edition of CAB.


Johnston Marklee, Installation view of “House is a House is a House is a House is a House,” photo collage series, at the Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2016. Photo by Steve Hall. Courtesy Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Johnston and Lee’s connection to Chicago extends beyond their new roles as the biennial’s Artistic Directors. Their firm is leading the redesign of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) interior spaces, which includes the creation of an “engagement zone” for public events and education programs, and the relocation of the restaurant to street level. Their intervention in the current MCA café A Grid is a Grid is a Grid is a Grid is a Grid, an aluminum gridded ceiling structure and wall graphic, references the “poetic rationalism” of architect Josef Paul Kleihues’ original building, and also hints at their proposed design.


Johnston Marklee, Installation view of “Grid is a Grid is a Grid is a Grid is a Grid,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (Oct 1, 2015–November 18, 2016). Photo by Nathan Keay. © MCA Chicago.

Johnston Marklee was also chosen as the architecture firm for the proposed Green Line Arts Center, part of The Arts Block development, a 100,000-square foot stretch of East Garfield Boulevard to be converted into an arts corridor. The Arts Block is a project of the University of Chicago and will be led by artist Theaster Gates, whose Stony Island Arts Bank opened under the auspices of last year’s biennial and whose close relationship with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the driving force behind CAB, is well known. While building on existing relationships isn’t necessarily a bad thing, one might ask, under what process and criteria is CAB leadership chosen?


Johnston Marklee, Proposed design for Green Line Arts Center, Entry view. Photo Courtesy Arts + Public Life, University of Chicago.

Johnston Marklee’s vision for CAB offers, perhaps, some insights, and is based on the following themes: the axis between history and modernity, and the axis between architecture and art. To this first axis, their vision calls for a “rediscovering of [architecture’s] own roots and traditions,” in response to the field’s fascination with the new and the “latest micro-trends.” As declared in their press statement: “The insistence on being unprecedented and unrelated to architectures of the past reached new heights at the beginning of the millennium, as more and more architects became reluctant to consider what they do as being part of a larger collective project or part of a longer architectural history.” (Note 1) However, definitions of modernity are never clearly articulated nor are the architectural histories to be reconsidered. My hope is that the well-known platitudes of Western modernism and its architectural icons, such as the many that occupy the Chicago skyline, are not the only histories to be examined. Likewise, their claim for an architecture that “celebrates shared values” seem at odds with what we now know of the modernist project. Post-modernism and global art and architectural histories have argued the importance of local political conditions on local production and given us a more horizontal view of cultural history, one that stresses plurality and difference rather than commonalities.

Svetlayna Boym’s idea of the “off-modern” might be a useful, alternative frame to consider architectural history:

“‘Off-modern’ is a detour into the unexplored potentials of the modern project. It recovers unforeseen pasts and ventures into the side-alleys of modern history at the margins of error of major philosophical, economic and technological narratives of modernization and progress.” (Note 2)

The second axis to be explored – the juncture between architecture and art – seems to take a more multidisciplinary view, with Johnston Marklee noting the evolution of both practices in relation to public space, site-specificity, and changing national and civic identities. As I have written elsewhere in this blog, such collaborations have the potential for re-inventing the urban landscape, both as a physical and social space, for creating new points of public access and opportunities for community engagement, and for offering creative problem-solving to the many social challenges cities face.

With this in mind, I was somewhat skeptical when it was publicized that the opening of CAB 2017 (September 16- December 31, 2017) would coincide with next year’s EXPO Chicago (September 13-17, 2017), the annual fair of contemporary and modern art. EXPO Chicago then announced its partnership with the Palais de Tokyo in Paris for an artist residency program at Mana Contemporary Chicago and an off-site public exhibition of international artists to run during CAB, with the Graham Foundation to select emerging local architects to work with curator Katell Jaffres on the exhibition design. Such alignments have their advantages, however, EXPO Chicago is first and foremost about commerce, and while one might argue that architecture is too, I worry that profit and “festivalism” will supersede the productive experimentation that the axis of architecture and art can foster, and will favor exhibition over experience, spectatorship over participation.

Granted, this is just one component of a larger program, much of which is still to be determined. What is known publicly is that The Cultural Center will once again serve as the main hub; the design competition for students of local architecture schools will also be a component of the 2017 edition. For the inaugural biennial, students worked in collaboration with international architectural firms on a series of proposed lakefront kiosks as part of what CAB identified as its “legacy projects,” although to date none have been realized, with the exception of Chicago Horizon by Ultramoderne, winner of the BP prize and not part of the student competition.

Re-envisioning the legacy projects as a series of think tanks, where students work in tandem with established architects to realize solutions to real-life problems (e.g., temporary shelters for refugees and flood victims, rebuilding communities after war and natural disaster, environmental development, gun violence) would have more impact. As mentioned in my earlier post reviewing the first CAB, Jeanne Gang’s Polis Station, a re-mapping of the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago to curb police violence and build community relations, is one such example. In fact, establishing the whole of CAB as an incubator for architectural experimentation, research and advocacy, one that deftly balances a local/global vision, would define itself and the biennial model as something more than a showcase. Keep the locus at the Chicago Culture Center, but extend the biennial’s reach and presence into the city’s neighborhoods; involve communities throughout the planning process and often. Use the critical stance of the “off-modern” to, as Boym suggests, embrace the peripheral, make visible lesser-known traditions, create new affinities. Explore site-specificity in all its forms and permutations.

The Chicago art world is known for its spirit of collaboration, grass-roots politics and for defining art as a social practice; Chicago architecture for its invention and trans-disciplinary approach to architecture and design, as evinced by the New Bauhaus whose importance and legacy remain foundational and can be witnessed in the current exhibition “Moholy-Nagy: Future Present” at the Art Institute of Chicago (to January 3, 2017). It is within the realm of public space that art and architecture, as essential components of urban design, uphold and, sometimes, contest the political imaginary. CAB has the potential to do the same.


  1. See http://chicagoarchitecturebiennial.org/2017/.
  2. Svetlana Boym, “The Off-Modern Condition,” http://www.svetlanaboym.com/offmodern.html. Accessed October 17, 2016.

Towards An Architectural Journalism

Towards an Architectural Journalism, or Criticism as a Spatial Practice

Alfredo Cramerotti’s book Aesthetic Journalism: How to Inform without Informing (2007) explores the relationship between contemporary art and documentary journalism, challenging established definitions of each. This blurring of the margins between art and journalism Cramerotti terms Aesthetic Journalism, a strain of contemporary art in which artists using the tools and methodologies of investigative journalism — archival and field research, interviewing, documentary and narrative storytelling, surveys, infographics and other display formats — offer alternative views of reality, political and otherwise, than those presented by mainstream media. The result of the artist’s research operates within an artistic context not the channels of the news media, although it is used as a critical instrument of investigation for a whole host of social, cultural and political situations that challenge notions of journalistic truth and objectivity.

As a critic originally trained in the Woodward-Bernstein school of investigative journalism and who came to the field of art criticism in the mid-1980s via my aborted aspirations to become a political reporter, Cramerotti’s text has been deeply influential to my search for new critical models. If the field of art has become the new laboratory for journalistic experimentation, what can we as journalists take from the world of art? What constitutes a creative critical practice? What forms might an “artistic turn” in criticism take?

In an attempt to answer these questions, it is helpful to look at some of these artistic models. Cramerotti traces some of the roots of Aesthetic Journalism to certain conceptual art practices of the 1960s, citing works by Martha Rosler and Hans Haacke, while noting the importance of Documenta X (1997), one of the first large-scale representations of this hybrid practice. Some of the contemporary artists and projects he notes include Alfredo Jaar, the Atlas Group, the collaborative Multiplicity, Renee Green, Lucas Einsele and several others who employ information systems to explore political subjects. To this sample I would add the artists: Hito Steyrel, whose videos combine new documentary forms and highly subjective narratives to critique the ways in which images are controlled and disseminated; Yael Bartana, whose films and videos pastiche traditional documentary techniques and socialist-realist propaganda to speak to issues of nationalism; Irina Botea, whose videos employ role-playing and re-enactment techniques to remediate moments of historical trauma; Trevor Paglen, whose photographic practice unmasks covert government information systems and makes visible the politics of surveillance.

This shared trajectory of art and journalism has operated within a number of gallery and museum exhibitions as well. One such key example is the exhibition “The Last Newspaper” (on view at the New Museum, New York, in 2010), a group show surveying how various artists approach the news. Included, for instance, were a recreation of William Pope.L’s performance Eating the Wall Street Journal; a redo of Hans Haacke’s The News, a live feed of the daily news via a TELEX machine; Alexandra Mir’s oversized drawings of the front pages of The New York Post; and Angel Naverez and Valerie Tevene’s video interview of The New York Times obit editor, entitled A Dutiful Scrivener.

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Hans Haacke, The News, in “The Last Newspaper,” Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

New Museum_Beniot Pailley_Aleksandra_Mir_6494

Alexandra Mir, Mail Bomb Alert and Let’s Go Get ‘Em, 2007, in “The Last Newspaper,” Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

In addition to individual artworks were a number of partner organizations (ex. StoryCorps) and artist collectives, who facilitated public dialogues and interactive information sharing sessions, and staged on-site micro-newsrooms that reported on and responded to the artworks and ideas within the exhibition. The Barcelona-based Latitudes produced a weekly newspaper that documented the show during its ten-month run in lieu of an exhibition catalog, soliciting viewers to pitch editorial content. Issues of The New City Reader, a large format tabloid produced by Joseph Grima and Kazys Varnelis, were postered in public places throughout the city.

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Third Floor Gallery View of “The Last Newspaper,” Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

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The Last Newspaper Catalogue, edited by Latitudes. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: New Museum.

I am interested in these kinds of embedded or “pop-up” media environments as potential models for reimagining the 21st-century newsroom and for offering architectural structures/infrastructures that are site responsive, adaptable, permeable. An “Architectural Journalism,” if you will, then, offers a physical space for various forms of on-site publishing, as well as a discursive space that activates the production of critical dialogue with multiple participants that is immediate and in direct conversation with the works on view.

One sees connections between these spaces and various alternative media practices of the 1970s, some of which are explored in the current traveling exhibition “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia,” an examination of global architectural and design practices of the 1960s and ‘70s organized by the Walker Art Center. Here, DIY architecture, experiential media environments and independent publishing projects (ex. The Whole Earth Catalog) capture the utopic spirit of the hippie movement and the emergent technologies that shaped today’s online world, while offering an alternative vision of modernism.

Projects by the San-Francisco collaborative Ant Farm and architect Ken Isaacs are important to my argument here. Ant Farm’s Truckstop Network (1971), a multi-tiered project in which this collective of architects working alongside media artists proposed a series of information exchanges using trucks and vans outfitted with media equipment. Part road trip, part roadside pedagogy, the goal, as envisioned through drawings, texts, videos and other documentary materials, was to create a mobile architecture that would traverse the United States to document encounters with the American public and to create an alternative network for the exchange of ideas.


Drawing of Truckstop Network by Doug Michels. Ant Farm Archive at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Courtesy Chip Lord.


Above and below: View of  exhibition “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia,” 2015; Ant Farm, Media Van v.08, 2008. Photo: Greg Beckel, Copyright Walker Art Center.


Isaacs’ Knowledge Box (1962/2009), an experimental learning chamber for which I served as a curatorial advisor, eschews the traditional classroom for “environmental concepts of education.” Upon entering the darkened chamber, the viewer is suddenly immersed in a rapid montage of sounds and images via a slide program or “magazine” of vintage black-and-white photographs culled from Life magazine. This experimental environment brings about a social awareness that allows the viewer to bring his or her own experience to the learning process. The ultimate goal: a transformation of consciousness.


Ken Isaacs, Knowledge Box, 2009, Exterior View, Exhibition “Learning Modern,” Sullivan Galleries, School  of the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Danny Hsu.

Writing about his “alpha chambers” in 1967:

“It was necessary to develop a situational, experiential tool which could break the culture grip and provide purchase to the new data assemblies which were being ignored and excluded from the current worldview. The communications environment had to be shocking, evocative and total. Culture itself is such a pervasive ubiquity that nothing less than a total tool could deal with it. The only communication situation would be one which offered the probability of deep and total involvement for the participant.” (Note 1).


View of  exhibition “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia,” 2015; Ken Isaacs, Knowledge Box, Interior view, 1962/2009. Photo: Greg Beckel. Copyright Walker Art Center.

The Knowledge Box was originally created in 1962 in collaboration with students at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, where Isaacs taught, and recast in 2009. Its design is based on Isaacs’s idea of the matrix, a three-dimensional grid that forms the central concept and building component of all his work, including his popular Living Structures. These total living units were often referred to as information structures, given the architect’s integration of what he termed “pholages,” scrims or panels of photographs collaged from popular magazines in which the viewer creates meaning through the juxtaposition of images.

More contemporary examples of participatory critical practices, or what I am now terming Architectural Journalism — again a journalism that is both dialogical and spatial – are found in several experimental, independent publishing projects, mainly spearheaded by artists. Self-publishing is central to the practice of the Chicago-based collaborative Temporary Services (Marc Fisher and Brett Bloom), whose public projects often include books, posters, newspapers, and other forms of printed matter, published under the auspices of their publishing imprint Half-Letter Press. For Publishing Clearing House, a temporary print shop created for and sited within the group exhibition “A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action” (on view at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in fall 2014), Temporary Services invited collaborators (artists, writers, youth groups) to develop and produce new publications “in-situ” during the exhibition.

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Temporary Services, Publishing Clearing House, 2014. Installation view, “A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action, Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: James Prinz.

Elsewhere, this artist collaborative has created installations within exhibitions where self-published books are suspended eye level from the ceiling in clusters or “book clouds” to offer an open and shared space for collective reading. For Temporary Services, books and publications are inherently social, from their material inception to the economies of labor involved in production to the experience of the reader. “Printed materials actively inhabit our spaces and exist as social entities,” the artists have stated. “[T]hey are a social-spatial currency.” (Note 2)

Other publishing projects such as Green Lantern Press in Chicago and Publication Studio in Portland, Oregon, share similar interests in the social and, in particular, community function of publishing artists books through their multi-disciplinary programs that combine publications with exhibitions, residencies and public events that foster conversation. Publication Studio co-founder Matthew Stadler describes publications as “the creation of a public.” “The public is created through deliberate, willful acts: the circulation of texts, discussions and gatherings in physical space, and the maintenance of a related digital commons,” says Stadler. “These construct a common space of conversation, a public space, which beckons a public into being. This is publication in its fullest sense.” (Note 3)

A more interventional model of art publishing that directly engages broad publics in public spaces is the artist-run newsstand, in which artists install newspaper kiosks on city streets and in subways for the distribution of independently produced artists books, periodicals and zines. Recent projects in New York (ALLDAYEVERYDAY and Petrella’s Imports), Toronto (The Artists Newsstand), and San Francisco (The Grand Newsstand) suggest a growing trend, although many appear to be rather temporal. I see affinities here between the artist newsstand and the information kiosks envisioned by Rodchenko and other Russian Constructivist artists, as well as Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer’s 1924 design for a newspaper stand. The function of Rodchenko’s kiosk, while highly influential but never realized, was the dissemination of publicity and information for the Soviet state. This was to be achieved through the integration of multiple information systems into one architectural structure: “a large clock, a huge billboard positioned above the building, a speaker’s rostrum, a screen for advertisements, a place for posters, and a space for the sale of books and newspapers.” (Note 4)

The community function of a Newspaper Kiosk (1999) designed by the Rotterdam-based architectural studio of Dré Wapenaar resides in its ability to adapt to various public sites and in the creation of an intimate space for social rather than economic exchange. Known for his tentlike structures, Wapenaaar’s Newspaper Kiosk is similarly constructed from a tensile canvas stretched over a steel armature, the interior of which houses wood seats and shelving.


According to Fieke Konijn:

“The Newspaper Kiosk has been deployed in the Rotterdam public library and in the atrium of The Hague’s city hall. It is precisely in such surroundings in which the piece comes into its own, standing like a communications satellite returned to earth from space, an airy defence against the surrounding hustle and bustle. Readers sit with their backs to each other on a circular wooden platform in the middle of the tent. This attitude allows them to immerse themselves in the newspapers placed on the counter in the outer circle. Passers-by only see their legs, which they can rest on a circular bar. In this tent, Wapenaar has opted for movement from the centre outwards, which strikes me as a good metaphor for communication. The reading does take place in temporary isolation, but the shared seat can nonetheless make it an occasion for contact between readers.”(Note 5)


While these examples might be viewed as more critical artistic practices versus artistic critical practices, the participatory and social dynamics of these publication projects is what interests me and what I am hoping to recuperate for art criticism. Combined with the experiential encounters offered by the various media environments discussed here, criticism might also be a physical and spatial practice. This might manifest in more micro- and pop-up newsrooms sited within exhibition spaces, community centers, libraries, schools, or public parks; or publication residencies. More roaming mobile media units that allow easy public access and idea sharing across social media and other wide-ranging technologies. The reinvention of the newspaper kiosk as a social hub for the distribution of art publication and critical exchange. In the end, Architectural Journalism is criticism in its most public sense.


  1. Ken Isaacs, “Alpha Chambers,” in Dot Zero, no. 4, 1967, p. 40.See also, my interview with Isaacs: http://www.walkerart.org/magazine/2015/enter-matrix-interview-ken-isaacs.
  2. Temporary Services, Publishing in the Realm of Plant Fibers and Electrons, 2014, pp. 8-9.
  3. See http://www.liquisearch.com/matthew_stadler/publishing_and_public_space. Accessesed May 18, 2016.
  4. Victor Margolin, “Visions of the Future: Rodchenko and Lissitzky, 1917-1921,” The Struggle for Utopia (University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 17.
  5. See http://www.drewapenaar.nl/project.php?id=85&text=.

Some Reflections on the Chicago Architecture Biennial

The Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB), the city’s first international survey of contemporary architecture, has come to a close. Writing this as a postscript, I am uncertain about what the impact of CAB is or what it really means; thus what follows are some reflections on those projects and issues that, in retrospect, still resonant with me.

No doubt it was a coup for the city’s tourism and institutional players. According to press materials just released by CAB organizers, over a half-million visitors attended the biennial across its various sites, the main hub being the Chicago Cultural Center. Entitled The State of the Art of Architecture, the biennial showcased more than 120 projects representing some 30 countries, including various partner and collateral events, among them the mid-career survey of David Adjaye at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the few opportunities to explore an architectural practice deep versus wide.

However, for the average Chicagoan (if there is one), most likely its impact was minimal. Sprawling and, at times, unwieldy, CAB offered less of a statement on contemporary architecture or a particular vision of the field (it had no overriding curatorial theme), rather than a broad view that left viewers to speculate on their own. Grounded in the assertions that “architecture matters” and that “the future of architecture lies where theory and practice converge,” as stated by artistic directors Joseph Grima and Sarah Herda during the opening press events, CAB located the projects on view between the poles of aesthetic and social practice without, ultimately, staking a position of its own.

Exterior View

Norman Kelley (Chicago, US), Chicago: How Do You See?, 2015 Photo Spencer McNeil, Copyright Norman Kelley Courtesy Chicago Architecture Biennial

The Chicago Cultural Center was the ideal site for the core of the biennale, with its central location and free access, and the organizers did well in staging the exhibition as a kind of takeover — projects seemingly occupied every available space of the building and many works responded directly to the venue’s physical site. The most successful projects, for me, pushed the poles of either art (theory) or politics (practice) to their furthest ends. Aesthetics first. The futuristic photomontages of Beijing’s Wai Architecture Think Tank, combining iconic images of known buildings and structures with imaginary ones taken from film, popular culture and art (for example, The Suprematists), illustrate what the group terms Narrative Architecture. Self-critical and self-referential, Narrative Architecture is, according to the group’s manifesto, a purely theoretical, discursive practice whose aim is not to build but to lay bare the field’s failures and utopic ambitions in the search for new architectural forms and potentialities.


Wai Architecture Think Tank (Beijing, China), Blindess: Monumento, Memento, Monstrum. Courtesy  Chicago Architecture Biennial

Piranesi Circus by Tokyo’s Atelier Bow-Wow, known for their pop-up environments created for public spaces, critiqued architecture’s utility. Based on the fantastical, labyrinthian landscapes created by the 18th-century Italian artist G. B. Piranesi in his print series Imaginary Prisons, the architects transformed the Cultural Center’s interior courtyard into world of both play and entrapment. Here, a series of suspended bridges, a ramped pathway, a ladder and swing intimated opportunities for movement and passage; however, these objects defied their own use and logic as the courtyard is physically inaccessible. One encountered the work only by viewing it from various vantage points through the building’s central bay of windows, heightening the work’s sense of theatricality and our roles as spectators versus users.

Atileir Bow-Wow

Atelier Bow-­Wow (Tokyo, Japan), Piranesi Circus, 2015 Photo by Steve Hall, Copyright Hedrich Blessing Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Biennial

Counter to these more conceptual practices were those that offered original solutions to very real problems — housing inequality, the effects of climate change, the protection of rural communities and green spaces, rampant urbanization. In fact, social housing emerged as CAB’s most visible theme with projects ranging from resident-built settlements in Mumbai to emergency shelters for low-income families in Pakistan. Notable of these were projects fostering sustainable design strategies to create affordable housing, as in the true-to-scale prototypes by Vo Trong Nghia Architects of Ho Chi Minh City and Tatiana Bilbao of Mexico City that allowed viewers to directly experience their designs first hand.

Vo Trong Nghia

Vo Trong Nghia Architects (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), S House, 2014 Photo by Steve Hall Copyright Hedrich Blessing Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Biennial

As these projects suggest, architecture does, indeed, matter; so, too, do the spatial politics that bind the built environment and its public. Hence the real-life politics, spatial and otherwise, that were one backdrop to the biennale (public protests against police violence and calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s resignation, the reverberations of a potential teachers strike, the lack of an Illinois budget) pressed this assertion into sharp relief. The biennale also served as a distraction from current debates over such high-profile projects as the Obama Presidential Library and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, contested private developments slotted for public Chicago Park District lands. Thus Chicago, as both host and, sometimes, subject, was the perfect stage to consider the social conditions with which contemporary architecture must contend.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the work of Jeanne Gang, whose Polis Station directly addresses police violence in Chicago. Presented in two large info-graphic murals flanking both sides of the Cultural Center’s grand stairway on the first floor, Gang reimagines the police station as a community center rather than a jail or prison, and as a catalyst for building community. Using the 10th district police station in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, with one of the highest crime rates in the city, Gang’s proposal strengthens police-citizen relations through a series of new and existing facilities that serve as meeting spaces, information hubs, education and training centers, with the polis (Greek for city-state) station as its central node. If there could be one lasting impact of CAB it would be to turn projects such as these into reality.

Spatial politics also defines the well-known practice of Theaster Gates, whose Stony Island Arts Bank, an abandoned bank renovated under the auspices of the artist’s Rebuild Foundation as a community center, archive and exhibition space, opened on the city’s South Side during CAB. Shunning the specter of modernism and challenging histories of “racism, segregation and red lining” that have plagued black communities, Gates calls for a “redemptive architecture” that allows for positive economic redevelopment and self-agency. For its inaugural exhibition, Portuguese-born, Barcelona-based artist Carlos Bunga created a grand colonnade with his signature materials of cardboard and adhesive tape; the exterior of the columns were painted a faded white to emulate the building’s worn interior and the inner shafts left untouched to reveal the work’s humble construction. Emphasizing progression and verticality, Bunga’s intervention transformed the central hall of the former bank into a basilica-like space, at once secular and sacred. This temporary gesture, entitled Under the Skin, wonderfully tethered past and present, ruin and reclamation; a reinforcement of Gates’ own artistic agenda, it was the biennale’s most visible example (along with Amanda Williams’s Color(ed) Theory project, see my last post) of the nexus between art, architecture and community.

Carlos Bunga

Carlos Bunga, Under the Skin, at Stony Island Arts Bank, 2015. Photograph by Tom Harris Copyright Hedrich Blessing Courtesy of the Rebuild Foundation

Intersections between architecture and public space were underexplored within the biennial — as was the political potential of site-specificity — the exception being the series of four kiosks commissioned, in partnership with the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago, for the city’s lakefront. Chicago Horizon by Ultramoderne, the winner of an international competition, was unveiled at Museum Campus during CAB’s opening events. This open-plan structure, somewhat reminiscent of Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion, emulates the horizontality of Lake Michigan with its flat, low canopy: a 56-foot-square single flat-pressed sheet of laminated black spruce. A small set of stairs offers a short vertical rise that functions as a viewing platform, although on my subsequent visits access to the stairs has been blocked by a wire fence. The three remaining kiosks, pairing local architecture schools (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, IIT, the University of Illinois at Chicago) with internationally recognized architecture teams, will be built at some later date. First incarnations of two projects, Summer Vault and Rock, are currently on view in Millennium Park, as a sort of dress rehearsal, although they read more as sculptural objects than architectural prototypes, particularly amidst the high-production values of Millennium Park. In fact, Rock, eight large limestone boulders each atop a wooden pallet, evokes Suzanne Lacy’s Full Circle, limestone monuments honoring Chicago women created under the auspices of Sculpture Chicago in 1992-1993. Intended as shelters, meeting places, and future spaces for commercial vendors, it is unclear how long the kiosks will remain despite being part of what organizers identified as “legacy” projects.


BP Prize Winning Kiosk: Chicago Horizon by Yasmin Vobis, Aaron Forrest and Brett Schneider of Ultramoderne. Photo by Tom Harris, Copyright Hedrich Blessing Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Biennial


Sarah FitzSimons’s House, temporarily installed at Ohio Street beach, offered a deeper engagement with its environment. This life-sized replica of a typical two-story house, constructed as an exposed armature of aluminum poles, disrupted our experience of inside and outside, materiality and erasure. Subtle in its aim and presence, House explored the idea of home as a conceptual scaffold whose meaning is rendered by the viewer, while reframing our view of the lake and the skyline. House was organized by the nonprofit 6018North in Edgewater (one of CAB’s partner programs), along with Chapel and Its Elemental, the latter a series of artist installations that riffed on Rem Koolhaas’s 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale The Elements of Architecture.


6018North’s presentation of Sara FitzSimons’s House in collaboration with the Chicago Park District for the Chicago Architecture Biennale. Photo credit: Sara FitzSimons Courtesy 6018North

In the end, CAB was large and ambitious, even if not especially coherently so, with several projects elsewhere in the city, too many to mention here. And while there was a lot that engaged me, I hope that future installments of CAB move beyond this one’s fairly conventional models of presentation — emphasizing exhibitions supplemented by lectures, panels, and symposia — by taking more curatorial stands or risks that would enable the participants and viewers to distill, discern, and (dis)agree with what the organizers thought was truly important. CAB can reinvent the biennale model as something more on the street, in the neighborhoods, and interventional, something that would reframe both the social issues at stake and the environment that they inhabit.

Painting as Urban Archeology

Painting as Urban Archeology

Although my critical practice has not been as deeply engaged with painting as other disciplines (albeit with some exceptions), I’ve been thinking a lot lately about its political potential outside of such lineages as History Painting (whether Delacroix or Kerry James Marshall) or the modern mural movement. Thus, I’ve been looking at painting projects that directly intervene into the contemporary social landscape – rather than represent it – performing an urban archeology that acts as a catalyst for change, while reinvesting the medium with political meaning.

My interest came from the convergence of various projects I’ve recently discovered, rediscovered or seen, most notably the work of artist/architect Amanda Williams, whose ongoing Color(ed) Theory project was the subject of a solo show at the Chicago Art Department (CAD) (June 12-July 2, 2015) and recast in the group exhibition “After Today” at Gallery 400 (May 8-August 8, 2015). Begun in 2014 in response to the glut of foreclosed and abandoned houses that occupy the economically disadvantaged Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, Williams painted the exterior of these houses in vibrant, monochrome hues, using a socially coded palette invented by the artist yet reflective of colors found on the streets, signs and commercial spaces of the city’s South Side (for example, Harold’s Chicken Shack red, Currency Exchange yellow, Ultrasheen blue, Crown Royal purple).

Amanda Willliams, Harold's Chicken Shack, from Color(ed) Theory series, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

Amanda Willliams, Harold’s Chicken Shack, from Color(ed) Theory series, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

Amanda Williams, Pink Oil Moisturizer, from Color(ed) Theory series, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

Amanda Williams, Pink Oil Moisturizer, from Color(ed) Theory series, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

Amanda Williams, Newport 100/Loose Squares, from Color(ed) Theory series, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

Amanda Williams, Newport 100/Loose Squares, from Color(ed) Theory series, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

Not unlike Conceptual Art or Land Art, the primary experience of Williams’s project is through its reinterpretation and documentation rather than direct engagement, except for the local community who lives there or those who traverse Englewood. At CAD, Color(ed) Theory was represented, for instance, by a large-scale photo collage, a timeline made from copies of Cook County legal documents (foreclosure notices, demolition permits, deeds, citations, records of ownership), a wall drawing that maps Englewood, and text-based stencil cuts about color and race that read as both poems and declarations. Central to the work’s efficacy is the artist’s research and intervention, as is her commitment to remapping the visuality – or color – of race and poverty through alternative channels of circulation.

One sees parallels to the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, a comparison Williams would welcome – as she has declared in her artist statement: “Think female Gordon Matta-Clark. Think Black Josef Albers.” In fact, some 40 years earlier in 1974, Matta-Clark deconstructed an abandoned suburban house in Englewood, NJ, splitting it vertically in two, in what would become one of his most well-known “building cuts” Splitting.

According to Imogen Racz, Splitting was not only a performative gesture but also a political one, furthering various social themes related to ideas of home: “[T]he gap was not made to cut across a symbolic area, but served to make the abandonment more obvious. The house was no longer a home, and no longer had the debris of habitation – these had been removed . . . [T]he emotional bond between owner and dwelling place had been severed, and the house was no longer invested with the American suburban dream.” (Note 1)

Matta-Clark’s overall practice expanded the parameters of both architecture and sculpture, versus painting of course. His cuts and splices destabilized the physical, structural foundations of the buildings that were his chosen medium and, through unexpected, metaphoric plays of light, exposed or revealed the hidden social and economic systems that govern property ownership, particularly in cities.

Exposing the inequities of spatial politics in the contemporary de-industrialized city is the project of several other artists, including Object Orange, a collective of four anonymous artists, who in 2006 began painting the facades of dilapidated and abandoned buildings in Detroit a bright orange. Titled Detroit, Demolition, Disney (the latter referring to the color Tiggerific Orange taken from a series of house paints issued by Disney), the project’s goal was to bring awareness to the city’s urban blight and to the some 7,000 neglected buildings that reportedly then occupied this economically depressed city. Painted guerrilla style at night and to protect the artists’ anonymity, the project did, indeed, receive attention, particularly on behalf of city authorities, who would then have the buildings demolished upon discovering their explicit transformation.

In a statement by Object Orange, published in Urban Ghosts (June 2013): “Our goal is to make everyone look at not only these houses, but all the buildings rooted in decay and corrosion. If we can get people to look for our orange while driving through the city, then they will, at the same time, be looking at all the decaying buildings they come across. This brings awareness. And as we have already seen, awareness brings action.” (Note 2)

With a similar but less subversive intent in bringing awareness to the divergent economies that operate within housing in urban centers, several projects have been realized through more official channels of city and cultural support. One early example is the collaborative practice of the late Kate Ericson and her husband Mel Ziegler, whose architectural interventions questioned definitions of home and often employed color using fabricated taxonomies based on the histories of their sites. Eminent Domain, a public art project created under the auspices of Sculpture Chicago’s Culture in Action (1992-93), looked at government subsidized housing in Chicago. Here, the artists worked with residents of the Ogden Courts housing project to create a paint chart, in which the colors – for example, Authority White, Equivalent Elimination (black), Hope (a sunny yellow) – reflected the social realities and inequities of their lives. For their contribution to “Places with a Past,” a series of public art projects commissioned for the 1991 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC, Ericson and Ziegler painted the exterior of an old house just outside the city’s historic district in a bright camouflage pattern. Despite the fact that the palette was derived from a registry of colors approved by the city’s Board of Architectural Review, the resultant pattern – bold and militant – made evident Charleston’s complex history as a site of slavery and war.

For the more recent psychylustro (2014), German artist Katharina Grosse used house paint and a spray gun to transform a five-mile stretch of Amtrak’s Northeast corridor into a “real-time landscape painting,” as noted on the website of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, organizers of the project. Seven sites along this rail line, the environs of which are some of the most impoverished in the region, were painted in large swaths of orange, green, pink and white, converting the walls of abandoned buildings, broken fences, piles of rubble and patches of overgrown grass, into sites of momentary beauty and reflection. Psychylustro reframes definitions of landscape painting as well as commuters’ experience of this blighted landscape and their view of the decayed remnants that inhabit it. Thus what is often overlooked or ignored becomes visual and present, although temporary and fleeting, even more so as psychylustro will end with its own entropy.

psychylustro © 2014 Katharina Grosse. Northeast Rail Corridor between 30th Street Station Philadelphia Station. Photo by Steve Weinik.

psychylustro © 2014 Katharina Grosse. Northeast Rail Corridor between 30th Street Station Philadelphia Station. Photo by Steve Weinik.

psychylustro © 2014 Katharina Grosse. Northeast Rail Corridor between 30th Street Station Philadelphia Station. Photo by Steve Weinik.

psychylustro © 2014 Katharina Grosse. Northeast Rail Corridor between 30th Street Station Philadelphia Station. Photo by Steve Weinik.

psychylustro © 2014 Katharina Grosse. Northeast Rail Corridor between 30th Street Station Philadelphia Station. Photo by Steve Weinik.

psychylustro © 2014 Katharina Grosse. Northeast Rail Corridor between 30th Street Station Philadelphia Station. Photo by Steve Weinik.

At the core of psychylustro and the others works I have been discussing, is a reconsideration of the architectural ruin within the urban landscape. And while the ruin has occupied a number of artists throughout art history, contemporary art’s recent “archeological turn” is re-examining the role of objecthood and materiality within our current digital, post-9/11 world. Within the context of architecture, theorist Svetlana Boym discusses our contemporary fascination with ruins in terms of “ruin gaze” or “ruinophilia” that sees “ruins . . . as endangered species, as physical embodiments of modern paradoxes reminding us of the blunders of modern teleologies and technologies alike, and of the riddles of human freedom.” (Note 3) Some such theories, like Boym’s, go beyond mere critique of modernism and its promise of utopia. Boym looks to what she calls “off-moderns,” or alternative modernisms, whether ideological or geographic, that openly acknowledge modernism’s inherent contradictions, “allow[ing] us to frame utopian projects as dialectical ruins – not to discard or demolish them, but rather to confront them and to incorporate them into our own fleeting present.” (Note 4)

This narrative of utopia/dystopia, or Boym’s “dialectical ruins,” informs architectural painting strategies elsewhere, in particular the geo-political region of post-communist Europe, where the physical and lived environment stands as a symbol of both remembrance and forgetting. The post-war, single-family homes documented by German-Hungarian photographer Katharina Roters occupy an ambiguous space between past and present. Collected in a recent book entitled Hungarian Cubes: Subversive Ornaments in Socialism, published by Park Books (2014), Roters’s images reveal a unique architectural phenomenon in Hungary’s political history: standardized cube-shaped dwellings known for their bright ornamental patterning. Also referred to as Kadar Cubes, after Hungarian socialist leader Janos Kadar, these suburban and rural houses were first built in the 1920s then revived in the mid-1950s during socialist expansion and modernization. In reaction to these houses’ bland uniformity and the collective values they embodied, owners would paint their facades in bold designs, using ornamental elements borrowed from folk culture while echoing the geometric forms of Constructivist painting. Roters’s photographs capture “the almost absurd beauty” of this architectural form of subtle protest and self-expression, emphasizing their formal semblance to abstract painting. At the same time, her project preserves their existence, as today many of these houses are being renovated or destroyed.

Újpetre, from Hungarian Cubes. Subversive Ornaments in Socialism Copyright © Katharina Roters. Courtesy Park Books.

Újpetre, from Hungarian Cubes. Subversive Ornaments in Socialism
Copyright © Katharina Roters. Courtesy Park Books.

Marócsa, from Hungarian Cubes. Subversive Ornaments in Socialism. Copyright © Katharina Roters. Courtesy Park Books.

Marócsa, from Hungarian Cubes. Subversive Ornaments in Socialism. Copyright © Katharina Roters. Courtesy Park Books.

Ácsteszér, from Hungarian Cubes. Subversive Ornaments in Socialism. Copyright © Katharina Roters. Courtesy Park Books.

Ácsteszér, from Hungarian Cubes. Subversive Ornaments in Socialism. Copyright © Katharina Roters. Courtesy Park Books.

Anri Sala’s video Dammi I Colori (2003), originally shown at the 2003 Venice Biennale as part of Utopia Station, profiles urban redevelopment in his native Tirana, Albania, implemented under then mayor Edi Rama, a friend of Sala’s and an artist himself. Shot mainly at night when the streets are masked in a quiet blue-black glow, the work tours Tirana’s transformation through the repainting of the facades of its worn Soviet-style apartment blocks into large, geometric planes of vibrant colors. A voice over and English subtitles reveal Rama’s aspirations: “[It is a] question of finding out how a city can become habitable and how to transform it from a city doomed by fate to a city where one wants to live.” In the end, Tirana becomes a living canvas, a symbol of hope, and a model for progressive artistic ideals.

Anri Sala, Dammi i colori, 2003. Digital video projection, color, sound: 15 minutes, 25 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.

Anri Sala, Dammi i colori, 2003. Digital video projection, color, sound: 15 minutes, 25 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.

So, too, do the other projects I’ve discussed here. And while my exploration is by no means exhaustive, it does attempt to connect important artistic practices that merge painting, architecture and urbanism in profound ways.


  1. See Imogen Racz, “Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting and the Unmade House”: http://theibtaurisblog.com/2015/01/26/gordon-matta-clark-splitting-and-the-unmade-house/.
  2. See http://www.urbanghostsmedia.com/2013/07/urban-art-detroit-abandoned-houses-tiggerific-orange/
  3. See Svetlana Boym, “Ruinophilia: An Appreciation of Ruins”: http://monumenttotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/html/r/ruinophilia/ruinophilia-appreciation-of-ruins-svetlana-boym.html
  4. Ibid.

The City Lost and Found

The City Lost and Found


Art Sinsabaugh, Chicago Landscape #117, 1966. Art Sinsabaugh Archive, Indiana University Art Museum. Copyright 2004. Katherine Anne Sinsabaugh and Elizabeth Sinsabaugh de la Cova.

At a time when my own thoughts about what role art and artists play in meeting the challenges of contemporary urban life have been reawakened, the exhibition “City Lost & Found: Capturing New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, 1960-1980,” recently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago and now at the Princeton University Art Museum, seemed rather fortunate. This seminal piece of scholarship (curated by Katherine A. Bussard, Alison Fisher and Greg Foster-Rice) gathered images and documentary materials by artists, journalists, filmmakers, architects, and urban planners that together showed the convergence of creative ideas and urban practices that sought to transform these American cities during the political years of the sixties and seventies.

Throughout, I was struck by the way in which these seemingly disparate, and at times conflicting, perspectives fluidly informed each other, as well as one’s understanding of the economic, political and environmental forces that defined these urban centers. This understanding was enhanced both during the decades represented and within the exhibition itself by a revitalization of the documentary and activist functions of photography and film that offered personalized views of the people and issues at hand. Alongside these more artistic contributions were images of race riots and political protests culled from newspapers, magazines and broadcast news that revealed how both the mainstream media and the alternative press educated the American public and shaped its collective consciousness.

Organized in three sections, each one devoted to one of the three cities under view and in a chronology that followed the exhibition’s title, viewers encountered themes of urban preservation, demolition and renewal, in tandem with community initiatives and protests that confronted the corruption of city politicians and the commercial aspirations of developers and real-estate moguls. My focus here is mainly on artists, as image makers, cultural producers, citizens, and provocateurs, who offered creative visions of these issues via photographs, films, conceptual projects, performances and public works that intervened in the social spaces of their respective cities.

Projected at the show’s entrance and introducing the New York section, James Nares’ black-and-white film Pendulum (1976) offered a poignant frame for thinking about cities as shifting, unstable entities. Here, a large concrete sphere attached to a wire swings back and forth along a desolate, trash-strewn street in downtown Manhattan, creating an anxious scene in which the forces of gravity and time suggest impending destruction rather than equilibrium. Early photographs by Thomas Struth and well-known works by Hans Haacke (Real-Time Social Systems, 1971), Martha Rosler (photographs from her Downtown series, c. 1964), and Mierle Laderman Ukeles (documentation of her Touch Sanitation performance, 1977-84) are re-activated here within their more political versus art historical contexts, offering new sight lines into the complex web of real-estate cartels, urban poverty, and labor tensions that plagued New York City during these years, particularly under John Lindsay’s tenure as mayor (1966-1973).

Thomas Struth, Crosby Street, New York, Soho, 1978

Thomas Struth, Crosby Street, New York, Soho, 1978. Copyright Thomas Struth.


Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1977-80. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

In contrast, Gordon Matta Clark’s silent film City Slivers (1971), fragmentary vertical images of the city (its architecture, its citizens, its streets), creates a portrait of Manhattan as a dynamic, rhythmic organism, in which the public and built environment intersect and, sometimes, cohere. In addition to extending his own deconstructivist practices (examples of which appear in the Chicago section) into time-based media, the work seems to align with the ideas of urban activist Jane Jacobs, whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) posits cities as organic spaces defined by neighborhoods rather than centralized planning, a theme fundamental to the exhibition’s overarching premise.

Jacob’s ideas are furthered by photographer Arthur Tress, whose series Open Spaces in the Inner City (1971) documents citizens reclaiming unused open spaces, and by several archival images of neighborhood festivals, castle-building contests and collective chalk drawings in New York city parks (circa 1966) that underscore the importance of public and green spaces in building community. Such images affirm Jacob’s often critical stance towards large urban renewal projects spearheaded by big-name architects and by what she deemed as modernist architecture’s overly aesthetic vision.

These issues come into sharper focus, and tension, in the Chicago section, where images by photographers such as Kenneth Josephson and Richard Nickel, working in the name of historic preservation, document the demolition of neighborhood landmarks and architectural icons. Others such as Art Sinsabaugh and Bob Thall created sweeping vistas of the Chicago skyline and various expansion projects that celebrated the modernist reconstruction of the city’s inner core.

Ken Josephson, Chicago, 1969. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of the School of the Art Institute.

Central to the Chicago segment of the show is the police violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC), captured here in newspaper reports (ranging from the mainstream New York Times and Chicago Tribune to the radical Ramparts), eye-witness photographs and various artists’ projects. Such images reveal an authoritative administration (Richard J. Daley) at odds with the realities of the times and disconnected from the city’s deep history of political activism. Rebecca Zorach’s catalog essay “Seizing the Camera,” argues that Daley’s targets were not just peaceful demonstrators but journalists as well, who were also beaten and arrested. Daley knew the power of the media and created his own, ultimately propagandistic account of the events in What Trees Do They Plant?, a film, included here, produced by the City of Chicago that aired on broadcast television two weeks after the riots.

Among the various artists’ responses to the DNC violence was Barnett Newman’s sculpture Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley (1968). A window dressing constructed of Cor-ten steel and barbed wire, it emulates the barbed-wire barricades outfitted on military jeeps that patrolled the city’s streets, at the same time infusing the reductive vocabulary of minimalism with a menacing threat. This work was originally created for the group exhibition “Richard J. Daley,” co-organized by Feigen Gallery, Chicago, and artist Claes Oldenburg, which also included works by Donald Judd, Robert Morris and others, many of whom were part of a national boycott of artists who refused to show their work in Chicago. Soon, other exhibitions were organized, among them “Violence in American Art” at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago (MCA), represented here by various broadsheets, posters and announcements.

Also at the MCA but outside the DNC theme was Allan Kaprow’s Moving (1967), a happening that enlisted ordinary Chicagoans who, in tandem with the artist, furnished and occupied three empty apartments in different parts of the city over the course of four days. Through several black-and-white photographs by Peter Moore, one witnesses discarded chairs and rugs being hauled down the street, a candlelight dinner served on paper plates, and a solitary figure sitting in a light-filled window bay. An interventionist gesture about the complacency of bourgeois life, the work is also a commentary on class, property and ownership rights, issues also addressed in black-and-white photographs by Jonas Dovydenas and Yasuhiro Ishimoto, who capture the city’s ethnic and black neighborhoods, and in various films that document the foils of gentrification and gang life.

Race, central to many of the social and economic issues explored throughout the exhibition – from Gordon Parks’ 1968 film Portrait of a Harlem Family to DeWitt Beall’s 1970 documentary on the Chicago Vice Lords – also framed the Los Angeles section. The 1965 Watts Riots was recorded here in newspaper and magazine images that reveal the police brutality, violence and devastation that ensued over seven days in mid-August. Similar to the Chicago installation, various art-world responses were also on view, including Mel Stuart’s 1973 film Wattstax, documenting the music festival of the same name organized to commemorate this historic event and to celebrate black pride. Noah Purifoy’s Watts Uprising Remains (c. 1965-66), a mass of charred debris found near the riot site and embedded with a tattered bible, functions as both archeology and memorial.


Still from Lord Thing, directed by DeWitt Beall, 1970. Courtesy Chicago Film Archives.

Works by Ed Ruscha, studies for his 1968 painting The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire and artist publication Every Building on the Sunset Strip, while overly familiar to this viewer are important in this context, connecting to both Watts and to themes of development and displacement surveyed elsewhere in this section. Photographs by Julius Shulman and William Reagh, for example, document the redevelopment of Bunker Hill, one of the city’s largest (and most controversial) urban renewal projects begun in the mid-1950s that, from my understanding, still continues today. Similarly, Anthony Hernandez’s black-and-white photographs of public transit zones, in which Californians wait in silence and isolation at bus stops, counter the promises of urban planners, whose solutions to the city’s transportation, noise and air pollution problems (as well as a whole host of other issues) are offered in several Department of City Planning publications on view.


Julius Shulman, The Castle, 325 S. Bunker Hill Avenue, Los Angeles, California (Demolished 1969) ca. 1968. Julius Shulman Photography Archives, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10) Copyright J. Paul Getty Trust.

To me, the exhibition’s portrait of Los Angeles seemed decidedly different from the other two sections – mainly more diffuse – although my own lack of knowledge about this city may have shaped this vision. Nonetheless, “The City Lost & Found” affirmed my belief in the power of art as a social force in shaping the views of any given place and time, including my own.


All Images Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.