Putting Space Into Action: Symposium

To launch Huw Wahl’s documentary about Action Space, the radical art group founded by Ken and Mary Turner in 1968, a recent one-day symposium at the University of Huddersfield, hosted by the Centre for Sculptural Thinking, featured papers and presentations that addressed the question of what sculptural techniques might put space into action.

Critic, Rosalind Krauss, argued some time ago that with the collapse of modernism from the 1960s onwards, sculpture re-sited itself after a time of homelessness. Without returning to its pre-modern, monumental role, ‘expanded’ postmodern sculpture reengaged with site, place, and environment, exploring the various expressions and symbolic characteristics of space.

Sculpture today continues to explore and expand this field. What might be added to Krauss’ formalism, however, is a more sophisticated account of sculpture’s social characteristics and consequences. Such was the ambition, broadly speaking, of this symposium.

In more detail, consider the distinction between being present at a site and being party to a mediated event. Taking up the former, Dawna Schuld’s paper on happenstance and presence in the work of Maria Nordman began with the artist’s conversion of 12389 Washington Boulevard in Venice, California, in 1979, into a darkened room, concealed from the street but accessible through an unmarked, open door. This set-up encouraged happenstance, a contingent and, importantly, sited encounter. Nordman’s converted rooms exist in a ‘semi-public limbo’, Schuld argued, where the curiosity of a passer-by might lead her to transform momentarily the any-space-whatsoever of a vacant shop into a place. Making sense of such a place was less important than inhabiting it. And inhabiting it, although a private, undocumented experience, had a social dimension, as it disturbed the prosaic encounter with urban retail space.

By contrast, interventions in mediated public space were the focus of Anna-Maria Kanta’s paper on the televisual work of Ferdinand Kriwet. The German mixed-media artist broadcast his installation TV_LIVE on the ARD channel from Cologne on 14th May 1971. A series of questions were posed to artists on live TV, prompting an impromptu set of spoken and performed responses. Building upon the idea of art as an intermedial practice of information exchange, as with his earlier PUBLIT, or public literature, Kriwet attempted to open the otherwise largely consensual space of public broadcasting to disagreement and anti-spectacular tactics. A key precursor was the Düsseldorf bar Creamcheese, co-run by Kriwet, which set up multimedia experiments and used its customers as a medium for social sculpture. With TV_LIVE, the media-scape itself was transformed into such a medium.

Postmodern sculpture also expanded the category of site to engage with complex environments and ecologies. Elisabetta Rattalino’s account of Maria Lai’s Legarsi alla Montagna (Connecting to the Mountain), from 1981, assesses how this was done in the remote village of Ulassai in Sardinia. Lai carried over her previous, pictorial use of thread to wind a blue ribbon through each house of the village to then end bound to the crag above. The artist developed personal relations with the villagers, eventually gaining their trust, rather than using more formal methods of debate and representation. As a marker of this trust, the blue ribbon, a material having a quasi-mythical status in the village because of its association with a miraculous intervention by the Virgin Mary, wove from house interior to street to interior, binding public, private, and symbolic spaces. Lai’s project followed a decade in which the environmental and ecological aspects of sculpture, along with its collaborative potential, had been explored extensively in Italy and elsewhere in Europe and the US. Parallel to this were propositions for alternative, adaptable architectures and artist-run institutions, of which Action Space forms an important example (more below).

Another example of the latter is PS1, the abandoned school in Queens, New York, converted into studios and galleries by the Institute for Art and Urban Resources in 1976. Ana Torok took the inaugural PS1 exhibition, Rooms, as a case study for how an institution attempted to foster and represent the expanded or ‘scattered’ sculpture of this moment. The reconstruction of the exhibition of Rooms in 2016 then provided the opportunity to discuss the familiar process of gentrification that often follows on from grass-roots organisation.

Two artists’ projects were presented, bringing the irresolute messiness of contemporary practice into contact with art-historical enquiry. Artists, Rose Butler and Becky Shaw, showed sections of an unfinished film of PhD students from the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery, playing hide and seek in a mock ward, normally used for training purposes. Playing with the possibility of invisibility in a clinical, highly regulated space, the participants evidently greatly enjoyed the small transgressions allowed by the game. It will be interesting to see how Butler and Shaw develop the project.

Artist, Boris Oichermann, and composer, Laura Steenberge, began their collaboration with the question, ‘How does one learn in public?’ For several hours every day over seven weeks, Steenberge taught Oichermann how to play the guitar in an exterior passageway at Stanford University. A glass window running the length of the passage served as a speaker, to amplify Oichermann’s exercises into ambient, public soundscapes. Given this public exposure, Steenberge had to compose exercises in such a way to satisfy the private, educational needs of Oichermann and, unusually, the tastes of a largely unknown and transitional public. In sum, the project offered a model of cross-disciplinary collaboration in an academic environment.

The final session of the symposium featured the aforementioned film screening, followed by Q&A. The documentary, well-crafted, intimate, and visually generous, interspersed contemporary interviews with the Turners and other key members of the group with vivid archival film and audio footage and live performances in a recent inflatable at Chelsea College of Arts in October 2015.

Action Space was founded in the spring of 1968 by artists and lecturers at Barnet College’s Environmental Design Course and the Central School of Art and Design responding to a call from Joan Littlewood, the avant-garde theatre director, to establish a ‘total public theatre of the arts’. The makeshift collective of artists, musicians, theatre performers, and students that emerged were brought together by a dissatisfaction with established cultural institutions and the ambition to provide alternative cultural events and spaces. The principal features of these events were inflatable structures, ‘bubble cities’, serious play, and improvised, participatory theatre, often staged in council estates, local parks, and other public lands. In 1974, Trafalgar Square was converted into an arena for jousting inflatables.

The late 1960s saw the emergence of a variety of pneumatic and inflatable structures, which offered adaptive, organic architectures in opposition to modernist machines for living in. With only slight hyperbole, the June 1968 edition of the journal Architectural Design described a ‘Pneu World’. Their low-cost, simple construction, and workability made inflatables an ideal material to the do-it-yourself ethos of this world. 

What is more, inflatables seemed alive. Writing in 1968, critic Reyner Banham compared inflatables with conventional architecture, indicating the peculiarly organic qualities of the former:

‘Unlike conventional architecture which stands rigidly and deteriorates (like a guardsman with moths in the busby) inflatables (and tents, to a lesser extent) move and are so nearly living and breathing that it is no surprise that they have to be fed (with amps, it not oats).’

The inflatable is an ‘adjustable and largely self-regulating membrane’ more akin to living skin than the modernist curtain wall. 

From the opening scene where jazz vocalist, Phil Minton, breathes, howls, caws, and whistles in the recent inflatable at Chelsea, Wahl offers numerous motifs and statements on the peculiarly organic qualities of these structures. The utopian ambitions of the likes of Action Spacemight now appear dated, but Wahl’s documentary succeeds in reconstructing some of the enthusiasm and political will that fuelled them, as well as outlining the difficulties of negotiating the group’s relation to funding bodies, local councils, and the art establishment. Although the techniques and materials might have changed, the need for organic, adaptable architectures that respond to users’ demands remains. The concluding Q&A could only begin to touch upon this.

Main imageBlow Up ’71, outside the Serpentine Gallery, London, 1971, (photo: archive still © courtesy of Ken Turner)

Putting Space Into Action, Centre for Sculptural Thinking, University of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, 30 September, 2016.

Further details: Centre for Sculptural Thinking
Further reading

Aurora Corio