20 April 2009

1979-2009: From Group Material to Material Connexion (sic)

Since 1979 at the founding of Group Material - the artist collaborative based in New York - we have seen the practice of art installations as a medium of the artist slowly dissipate as a valid practice. At times chaotic, exhilarating or alternatively subversive, the "activist installations" as they were known have been forfeited for a deliberate gentrification of the gallery and museum space. As a consequence the art we see more and more of, at arms length from Felix Gonzales Torres early political art and what now fills this installation void today, is a combination of art as "personal disclosure"1 and art as "full disclosure" (as in narrative-based exhibits and retrospectives). History has shown us that the material of art can't be legislated into such limited boundaries. And yet the practice we see today seems to say otherwise. Fortunately there are refreshingly new(dis)courses being taken - and gallery formats - that fall outside this common dichotomy of private and public practice (from Magasin 3 in Stocklom to e-flux on the Lower East Side).

Material Connexion (sic)2 is a noted resource library for designers of all fields that display thousands of physical samples of innovative materials. The PhD-trained staff serve to jury a selective review of new materials to enter the library (few make it) and provide those interested with the background on a material's performance and sustainable attributes. The downside to this is that access to the resource library is highly controlled and on invitation only for a rather expensive individual or corporate membership. This format of grouping new and technologically advanced materials for the perusal of a very narrow segment of the community is a far cry from Group Materials' mandate for collective education and open social exchanges in their practice. This should come as no surprise: the late 70's utopia having since been sidelined for more practical agendas.

As designers, it is a slippery slope to raise issues of societal ethics with a client (how accessible their resources might be), so we used the design to address these as best we could. The offices opened earlier this spring in conjunction with ICFF. The working staff are more then contented with their new spaces, a wholly different organizational layout then they had anticipated. One example is the conference room at center of their 12,000sq.ft office, resolutely unplayful, which acts both as a closed space and a circulation link between the public and fee paying sectors. This was not asked for in the Material Connexion brief, but with our creative - and oppositional streak - we provided them with a less then neutral space where they least expected it.

Gonzales Torres art, once he left the confines of Group Material, forged an aesthetic that uniquely merged the personal discourse with social content. It is as if the apparent neutrality in his later art were an attempt to re-create the political commentary that was never able to effectively transcend the early installation work themselves. This was Gonzales Torres' predominant mode of artistic practice - and his best work - where the environment of the gallery embodied a a wide political statement veiled in the neutrality of the white-walled gallery.
The design for Material Connexion, and not the least importantly the client's final choices in the build-out, never met that ambition. We will have to try better next time.

1 On Felix Gonzales Torres, see Nancy Spector's fine piece in the Guggenheim Museum Catalog, 2007 and Lewis Kochur on Displaying the Marvelous, MIT Press, 2000. 2 Material Connexion, founded by George Belaryian, has branches in Seoul, Milan, Cologne and Bangkok.