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Off the Page: A Reading of “Bodybuilding. Architecture and Performance”

Off the Page: A Reading of “Bodybuilding. Architecture and Performance”

Bodybuilding cover: film still from Esquizo (1970) by Taller de Arquitectura/Ricardo Bofill, graphic design by Riley Hooker (2019).

Edited by Charles Aubin, Curator at Performa New York, and Carlos Mínguez Carrasco, architect and Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture and Design at ArkDes in Stockholm, “Bodybuilding. Architecture and Performance” is a groundbreaking publication that examines the use of performance as a critical tool to rethink architecture, its agency, goals, and aesthetics. It traces an alternative lineage of architects and architecture collectives which opted for staging actions and ephemeral situations rather than erecting buildings. It goes beyond the dialectic between ephemerality and stability and explores the interplay between bodies and space. The extensive volume is divided into three sections Performance at Your Service, looking at performance as a design method, Out of Character, exploring connections between architecture and the body, and Semiotics and the Building, investigating site-specificity, biennales, and audience communication. While each section provides a unique perspective on architecture and performance, the book seems to go beyond categories: in the context of digital cultures and precarious living, it weaves throughout its pages pertinent issues for building (and not building) today. The editors’ aim is to put theory into practice, however, when all is said and done, when the theories are turned to practice in the book, we are left with perhaps an important question: where does the performance begin and the printed page end? The boundary is subtle. We highlight below a few ideas that stood out.

The Context Counts.

The introduction mentions that the words “performativity” and “performative” are rarely used in the volume as they have become slippery terms. Instead, the editors focus on the art-historical context of “performance” as defined by historian, critic, and founder and director of Performa RoseLee Goldberg while acknowledging that this can never be pure either. [1] What counts are not the categories and the definitions, but the contexts in which they are performed.

“The central question of Bodybuilding is: What happens when performance enters the world of architecture? Understood as a tool, a method, or a heuristic device, performance is a blade that cuts into the matter of architecture. It slashes it open, but it may also help shape it.”

– Charles Aubin and Carlos Mínguez Carrasco, “Making Room for Action,” p. 20

From the micro to the macro, the book highlights these situated contexts throughout the selected projects. For example, “Karaoke” (2001, Vilnius) by Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas explores the financial crisis through a group singing performance in the national bank just before it was privatized, and “Vestirsi di Sedie”  (1971, Minneapolis) by Gianni Pettena raises questions around the need to reclaim public space as a place of protest that emerged after 1968 by strapping portable folding chairs to bodies and marching through the city.

The book takes these contexts as they are, but also comes back to see them through our current cultural lens of the experience economy. The use of performance for marketing opportunities cannot be avoided, and the tension between marketing and architecture and performance seems to float precariously in a thin contextual frame. This is highlighted through the way that the real-estate fever both acts as a catalyst for performance, a method within a climate of not-building, as well as its possibility for capitalization. Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s “Mile-Long Opera” (2018) is highlighted as an example that treads this line.

Architect, curator, and scholar Lluís Alexandre Casanovas Blanco, in his essay “Trauma in a Real-Estate Office,” highlights the project “City in the Space” (1968-69) by Taller de Arquitectura, a year-long series of performances that proposed a radical collective housing. Perhaps, here is where the balance between marketing and architecture and performance triumphs: it brings a newness to the taken for granted. Blanco says: “The Taller’s use of performance in their architecture endeavor is unique: its intimate imbrication within the studio’s design methods appealed to novel forms of direct engagement, rather than solely relying on performance as a tool of research or representation. The performance at Marqués de Riscal aimed a psychological transformation of future dwellers seeking to match the groundbreaking architecture of their new home. The viewers’ baffling experience managed to converge radical practices and discourses with marketing strategies.” It is a fine line indeed and what it comes down to is experience.

Courtesy of Performa.

The introduction also notes that while these cases can be read within their cultural contexts, to be considered performance, they need to be taken as such. A question of intentionality emerges constantly. It is perhaps this purposive nature where the book shines, both within its narrative and personal tone, but also because it’s not afraid to show its own point of view. Whether you agree or disagree with this view, it gives a clear jumping-off point to think off the page as well.

Technicalities and Failing.

“We’ve seen so many complaints, not all invalid, that social media has reduced architecture to little more than façades. Perhaps this is one further task of performance today: to turn those façades back into realms of human experience, both onsite and online.”

– Charles Aubin and Carlos Mínguez Carrasco, “Making Room for Action,” p. 22

Not only does the book highlight the idea of “doing it for the ‘gram,” it also tackles the notion of liveness. In a critical stance, what the texts throughout the book draw attention to is not the para-metric design or the systems behind them, but rather the evanescent natures that emerge as practical solutions and thoughts in themselves. New-York based architect and critic Victoria Bugge Øye explores the project Soul-Flipper (1969) by Coop Himmelb(l)au. The project reads facial expressions and translates them into an audiovisual architecture through the use of medical techniques and biofeedback. Øye notes that while the resulting data was important, the liveness of the project made it so that it could resist the realm of medicine or science. Instead, as it fails in its imprecision, the project promises so much more than functionality. Perhaps it this that we need in our ‘gram-based, black-boxed, solution-focused cultures, and what architecture and performance can bring is a notion of space in a 2D digital world, not its representation but its experience, even if it—and perhaps because it’s bound to—fails.

Artist Corsin Fontana demonstrating Coop Himmelblau’s “Soul Flipper II” at Galerie Stampa in Basel, Switzerland, in 1971. Photograph by Peter Schnetz.

The book also acknowledges its own failure: it cannot be exhaustive. However, as the introduction mentions, architecture and performance is not about scale it is about a spectrum of possibilities. The book itself can be seen as a laboratory for this. As Elizabeth Diller mentions in a conversation with RoseLee Goldberg: “We never made the distinction between architecture, art, or performance. The only question we asked ourselves was: what’s the right tool for any particular research? […] We see these multiple disciplines as a kit of tools to help us navigate changing agendas and step from one medium into another.”

Publishing is only one such tool, and it seems there is still a lot to explore that is so right about architecture and performance. If we slash “Bodybuilding” open even more, without a guarantee of what is inside, or if we extend these ideas beyond its pages to the chaotic outside, whatever we may find, it is clearly not over just yet.

[1] RoseLee Goldberg, “Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present” (London, New York: Thames & Hudson, first published in 1979, third edition, 2011).

Bodybuilding is published by Perfoma. It is an extension and deepening of the pioneering research undertaken by Performa over the last decade on the intersection of architecture and performance. The founding of the Performa biennial was itself driven by the desire to activate the city of New York through commissioned works by some of today’s most innovative minds. Architectural commissions and performances exploring both literal and philosophical aspects of space and the built environment have been a central curatorial focus at each of the past seven biennials.

It features a foreword by RoseLee Goldberg, essays by Victoria Bugge Øye, Lluís Alexandre Casanovas Blanco, Mabel O. Wilson and Bryony Roberts, and interviews with Liz Diller and Andrés Jaque. Architects and architecture collectives discussed in the publication include, among others, Kunlé Adeyemi, Lina Bo Bardi, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Flávio de Carvalho, Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency, Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman, Didier Fiuza Faustino, Yona Friedman, Forensic Architecture, Madeline Gins and Arakawa, Anna and Lawrence Halprin, Hans Hollein, Toyo Ito, Raumlabor, and Aldo Rossi. Graphic design by Riley Hooker. You can purchase the book here.

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