The trio of visual artists Matthew Al-Ali, Petr Dub and Tomáš Moravec introduced two exhibition projects this summer focused on architectural and urban development of cities – the exhibition Handle with Care and Criticism in Bohnice laundry and the installation the Panic Room in Prague’s Karlin Studios.
At the beginning of their cooperation touching on the themes of architecture and urbanism there was an artistic intervention called Path of Courage that took place in 2012 in the village of Psáry – Dolní Jirčany near Prague. It arose as a response to the invitation given out by the Prague’s Centre for Central European Architecture. The aim of the CULBURB project was to activate by one shot interventions the environments in neighborhoods or suburban housing estates in six Central European metropolises, which in recent years had for various reasons been transformed into non-functional settlement organisms. The trio of artists had been inspired by the statement of the architect Le Corbusier, who described “an architectonic stroll” as a means of experiencing architecture, and they created a permanent installation, similar to nature trails in character, in the Psáry-Dolní Jirčany village – a typical central Bohemian suburban housing development. By selecting individual texts from scientific papers focused on contemporary construction and urban planning, as well as excerpts from legislation and their confrontation with the environment, the authors tried to highlight the salient aspects of this specific environment. Each visitor of the path can assess, on the basis of his/her own experience, whether the construction development in the form in which it can be seen here, but also in many other locations in the immediate vicinity of Prague, is heading in the right direction.
While the Path of Courage was created as a project responding to the specific problem of unregulated construction and land destruction in suburban areas, in the exhibition Handle with Care and Criticism, prepared for exhibition space Bohnice Laundry in June this year, the artists turned their attention to the architecture and space of the inner city. They focused on uncovering and naming the factors that shape our immediate surroundings which we have ceased noticing due to our daily routine movement through the city. In the generously spaced Bohnice laundry facility they had presented one object and seven video installations. However, most of the videos are not narrative. Only the small details or passing characters hint at a chronology. The images can be understood more as visual probes into the urban environment. The authors have focused on tracing and uncovering the now rather conjectural meanings, which in themselves are carried by certain types of buildings, but also as monuments such as an obelisk or a pillar, transformed, in the course of history, into a symbol of power, whether religious or political. They are interested in the transformation of function and degradation of architectural elements as certain characters or symbols through transmission in space and time, but also their use in contemporary architecture. They ask whether today they are, following the tradition, used to ensure and declare the function of the building, or whether they are applied only as a result of certain inertia, merely as decorative elements without any reflection of their former symbolic and utility functions. They are interested in the significance of architecture carrying similar features. They wonder whether the construction industry does not, instead of creating monuments, which is what is expected of it, produce only rather lame instruments. The single spatial object, warped ephemeral obelisk, so stands there as materialization of a wrecked vision. The current construction industry operations and its products are here understood by the artists as a field shaped by many factors – production of building materials, legislation, as well as different socio-economic interests. Outlines of non-existing homes in one of the videos, however, show that there is still enough space for adequate search for new ways of treating not only the architecture, but also its surrounding area.
The exhibition Handle with Care and Criticism was tailored for the impressive space of the Bohnice Laundry. For that matter, the character of the place itself corresponds with the reflections of the authorial trio on architecture as a living organism transforming in time. Although the laundry has lost its former function, it provides unexpected potential. This could also be applied not only to architecture in general, but to urban areas, too. It is not, however, the sole reason why we should approach them not only with care, but also from critical perspective.
Reflections on the possibilities and limits of architecture have also become the basis for the installation of Panic Room, introduced in July in Prague’s Karlin Studios. Artists decided for essentially minimalist, yet very radical, intervention in the gallery space when the hall of the Karlin studios was filled with 24 pallets full of concrete bricks. The choice of material and the amount was not accidental. Concrete brick of the Kaskáda II type is made by the largest manufacturer of concrete building elements for outdoor and landscape architecture, the BEST company, and is commonly used for the construction of fences and walls reinforcement. In addition to other company products, especially various types of tiles, it is a material that fundamentally shapes the form of buildings, public spaces and landscapes. The authors leave the material in storage mode before its distribution to the construction site. In this volume it would be sufficient for the construction of a monumental model of Panopticon – a structure which had become a projection of reflections of the enlightened philosopher Jeremy Bentham on the organization and control of society through architecture. The artists familiarize viewers with the potential form even before entering the gallery by visualization of the building on a banner hung on the facade. The authors spent lot of time on the idea of building a panopticon during the preparation of the installation. Presentation of the building as a model of the initial idea, or of a certain makeshift, has eventually become the intention both in Bohnice and Karlín, where artists, through visualization, point to the possibility arising from simple inversion of building blocks – concrete bricks, and by its multiplication into a larger whole. By choosing the type of units and structures the trio refers to forms of dictates, stipulated by the production of construction material and construction companies. The problem is not only the material itself, but also its simple and robust applications. The authors of the installation confront the material and the ways to treat it. Again, the tension between the ideal, virtual appearance of the construction and its final realization arises. At the same time, they refer to the processes through which the construction operation usually passes and which influence the final shape of contemporary architecture and its subsequent life. They use precisely the mimicry typical of the construction sites. The installation of bricks evokes in a viewer a feeling as if he were in the middle of a construction site. This is enhanced by demarcation of the exhibition space by rashel knit fabric – an industrial fabric used to cover scaffolding or simply to demarcate a construction site – printed at regular intervals with the sign PANOPTICON SINCE 1791. By mirroring of the inscription the trio defines itself against the situation outside, i.e. against the situation of the building operation, which often creates products bearing the features of something makeshift. They also see in it a parallel to the events in the current gallery operation. Through the installation Panic Room there again echoes an urgent critical tone, but also a reference to the possibilities on offer by reassessment of the situation.
The major virtue of the joint projects of the authorial trio Al-Ali, Dub and Moravec is the chosen approach. The authors do not conceal the fact that in an effort to trace the factors and mechanisms involved in shaping the environment in which we move, they are in the position of interested laymen. These projects are based on inquiring. The artists subject the situation to a careful analysis. Through a variety of information sources they try to understand it and to find the mechanisms that define it, an objective description. They submit their findings to a viewer in the form of visually compelling communication. The implementations are not approached with predetermined opinions, their aim is not to declare them through a clear position on the issue or to offer short-sighted solution, but, as they themselves proclaim, an open discussion. They do not, however, only want to poke a stick into a hornet’s nest and ask questions which will only confuse the visitors boggle their minds on their way home from the exhibition opening. They consider creating a real space for open discussion an integral part of their projects. Even in the case of the first one of them – the Path of courage, they took on the role of initiators and they used the opening of the trail as an opportunity to meet with representatives of the public sphere of whom they believed that they had something to say on the raised issue. They invited not only architects, community leaders and residents of the suburbia, all having major share in shaping the specific physical environment, but also theorists, whose declared opinions often exist in parallel with the lived experience and do not significantly effect it. They invited them all to come along with them, to become godfathers of each stop on the trail and thus, at least symbolically, to take co-responsibility for the situation.
The authors decided to initiate similar meetings at the occasion of the exhibition Panic Room by organizing panel discussion on the theme “modularity and the use of modular units in contemporary architectural practice”. The authors invited architects, art historians and architecture experts on the public space, manufacturers of building materials and, of course, also the public, in the potential role of a builder. They hence attempted to invite parties who would have probably never met at one table. Although the announced topic of the discussion seems to be very specific and narrowly profiled, the question of the use of the building materials and its multiplication goes much further back in history and is more tied up with our present than it might seem at the first glance. The authors discussed not only the modularity, but also the possibilities and limits that come with multiplication, as well as more general, closely related problems, too, such as prefabrication, industrialization of the production of building materials, mass production of standardized building materials and their share in shaping landscape, all of which ultimately affect us all. During the discussion, there were also questions concerning the role of an architect in the society, the current setting of regulations in the current construction industry and their responsibility for its current state. Although these phenomena seem to be difficult to influence when seen from the position of an individual, it had clearly emerged from the discussion that we can all fundamentally shape them by taking a certain responsibility and an active approach to things.
The discussion record is available at: https://soundcloud.com/tom-moravec-3/diskuse-na-tema-modularita-a-vyuziti-modularnich-jednotek-v-soucasne-architektonicke-praxi
In their projects, the authorial trio of Al-Ali, Dub and Moravec highlights the problematic phenomena which, although they had been present in the society for a long time, have slowly been finding their way into a more general awareness in the past two or three years. Their actions can undoubtedly be considered as engaged. The commitment does not follow from clearly proclaimed radical stance, but it lies in the call for a more active form of thinking about our immediate surroundings. They are also a proof of the fact that even within the Czech independent art scene there can from time to time be seen really generously approached projects which moreover also reach outside the art community. But it must be said that similar shows are usually implemented through personal commitment of the creators. The so-called independent gallery operation is, thanks to the participation in the grant system, able to provide financial backing for the actual physical implementation, but it often goes no further than the person responsible for the gallery operations handing out the keys of the gallery along with the cash and walks away with the simple wish that this time again all will go well, relying on the artists to ensure that it will not be otherwise. I would not like to generalize. Yet based on the experience gained in recent times through simple observation, but also by participating in preparing exhibitions at independent galleries, I cannot shake off the feeling that some galleries work simply on the principle of “providing space” and the rest just happens. The questions of personal interest and responsibility thus come back like a boomerang. This time, however, they target gallery operations and endless discussions complaining on the state of our culture.
(Nina Michlovská, 2014)