Feb 26, 2010

Crass Promotions: Editorial Perp Walk

I cannot resist posting this screenshot from the J Crew page, head slightly bowed, having worked with half of them and having regarded the magazine as a possible future model for print after the Internet. I like J Crew, a couple of them are decent fellows. I'm not against cross-promotions. The magazine industry has to majorly rethink the way it does business in the context of media dollars being sucked up by broadband, cable, satellite TV, and cellphone subscriptions. But ever since Monocle laughably named Zurich the most livable city and neglected to even put New York in the top 25, I've had serious doubts about its taste and good sense, which has gradually resolved itself into basic questions of editorial integrity. That's not even mentioning its total disregard for journalistic standards and practices. -STEPHEN ZACKS

Feb 25, 2010

After the Bauhaus Exhibition: Dutiful Critics, Forgotten History


The 90th anniversary exhibition of the Bauhaus has come and gone. The MoMA has paid homage to one of the great stories, an essential moment, the ur-historical moment really in the emergence of modern design. Barry Bergdoll, elegant writer, thoughtful historian, until this exhibition capable of being a popular curator, able to capture the public imagination through shows like the critically unloved but totally enjoyable and well-attended Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, has dutifully done his job of cobbling together the mishmash of ornaments, objects, media and art that constituted the direct products of the Bauhaus School during its existence as a school. It was all so much less than expected. I was not surprised by how dutifully critics praised it. It was a show only a design critic could love.


The core vision of the Bauhaus was to reconcile craft--the handmade--with an industrial capacity that had outmoded entire artisan trades and steadily transformed workmen into servants of machines; it therefore had assembled every sort of artist, artisan and craftman to tame this machine by designing objects in accordance with the demands of modern life. Sometimes this relied on perversely mechanistic notions, such as a basic dwelling unit of measurement that would determine the planning of every aspect of domesticity, the 4 x 8 gypsum drywall of humanity. It invented the language of modern design by harmonizing machine-made products with the most forward-looking ideas then in circulation in art and architecture. But if the Bauhaus was responding to what German philosopher Jurgen Habermas called the uncoupling of the system and the lifeworld--the alienation of workers from the products of their activity--this exhibition gives us an already colonized lifeworld in which the fragmentation of work into narrower and narrower categories and specializations was accomplished long ago and we're left to emptily wonder at its relics.


In the 90 years since the founding of the Bauhaus School, enormous, monumental, world-historical changes have come to pass that should have influenced the way we received these objects. Small things like the extermination of a people from central and eastern Europe, the virtual enslavement of the region for the next half-century under totalitarian dictatorship, the exile of the group's teachers into a booming capitalist world where they produced enormous office parks that had almost nothing to do with the school original egalitarian ideals, the radical fragmentation of architecture in relation to other arts and crafts.

This, among other things, is a story worth telling, and the failure to appreciate the presence of monumental figures like Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky as teachers at this very early stage in the formation of modern design speaks volumes about the MoMA's general failure to fluidly reconcile its narratives about modern art, beginning with the experience of Americans in Paris, with other modern forms, despite the resurfacing of an anecdote about Alfred Barr's visit to Germany in 1928. You need the Bauhaus, and a painter like Lyonel Feininger, a teacher at the school, to make any sense of it. This exhibition left that chasm still unexplored except through the vague inclusion of representative knicknacks.


As if that were not enough history to ignore there was also, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the revolutionary reopening of that closed-off and half-abandoned history, the reconstruction of the institutions, experimental housing developments, and demonstration projects--the Haus am Horn in Weimar, the creation of the Bauhaus Museum in Weimar (much better than the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin), the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau (now under the capable leadership of Philipp Oswalt), the Weissenhoff Museum in Stuttgart--all completed in the past decade, in a way that suddenly made available this rich historical archive. A forceful narrative of the recovery of that past could have spoken in a wildly meaningful way to today's designers interested in craft and social consciousness--and even, possibly, to the non-design-caring-about public. And how about just a little nod to Black Mountain College, where Josef Albers essentially brought the school to the United States in its purest form and spawned generations of avant-garde practice?


Perhaps it was the dimly lit spaces somewhere in the ass-end of MoMA that made it all seem small, insignificant, and forgettable. Perhaps it was the extraordinarily narrow and academic way in which this incredibly rich trove was condensed into the decade and a half of the school's actual existence that made it seem somehow historical without history, historical-ish. The school and history deserved better. But that was a month ago. Go ahead and forget about it. -STEPHEN ZACKS

Feb 15, 2010

Discussions on Networked Publics: Thoughts on the Archipocalypse

A panel of youngish architects and writers were invited to Columbia's "Studio X" space in the architecture ghetto at 180 Varick on Tuesday to discuss the current archipocalypse and how new forms of media and communication are changing the landscape of contemporary practice. The premise of "Networked Publics" recapitulates the theory about the Internet and democracy popular in the late 90s. The explosion of independent voices through online media would liberate new forms of democratic participation. In architecture, small inventive practices could gain access to clients aided by free forms of networking, publicity and expression. Newly responsive architecture would be produced through 3D design and automated production. In keeping with Columbia's sometimes effete theoretical tradition, there was a call for new critical theories and models of practice to be developed in response to the past decade's purported shortfalls and current recessionary conditions. One of the panelists noted that the real stakes of their practices was less the production of buildings than of a thought-leading discourse that would have a pervasive intellectual influence, and no one could disagree. It would be good for the panelists, therefore, to get out of the architecture-speak bubble and recognize what's actually happened in the profession in the past decade, as opposed to the way it is being misrepresented by professional critics and would-be thought-leaders.

It is true that large firms continue to dominate the landscape and small inventive practices have benefited from small clients looking for new approaches and economical solutions. There's nothing new in this. The decade-old tools that young architects have access to allow them an incredible capacity for self-initiated activity, original work, high design produced at a reasonable cost. These tools have also been used for the past decade by the much-maligned "starchitects." Corporate firms are using these same tools, and producing work of a much higher quality as a result. This is very important, and seems to have been entirely missed by the thought-leaders and professional critics. The architecture produced in the past decade is light-years ahead of anything produced in the several decades before, both in terms of sustainability and aesthetic quality. The housing bubble, the banking crisis, and the current recession have almost nothing to do with architecture.

This is a pervasive and profound misunderstanding of the past decade and necessarily also of the present moment. It has been swallowed uncritically by the profession. The past decade was not a "boom" era or a period of "excess" in architecture. It was a period of abysmal government, faulty regulation, low interest rates and absurd lending practices that led to a price bubble in real estate. It is perhaps the architects' exaggerated self-importance that is causing them to let architecture to be made the fall guy for corrupt bankers and real estate corporations, ridiculous tract housing developments, and inflated land values that were not produced by architects or architecture. Ask any real estate developer what has been driving the cost of buildings, construction, and housing, in any part of the country. They will certainly not say architecture. They will tell you that in New York it's first of all the cost of the land itself. In much of the country, it's materials and labor. And apart from that it's the market itself. Architects who build lots of buildings know this. If they're good architects they probably spend a lot of their time fighting with developers for that extra five or ten percent of the budget that will allow them to produce the aesthetic and sustainable features of their designs. If they're great architects - Jeanne Gang, Peter Gluck, Stefan Behnisch - they have probably figured out how to make aesthetic, social, and sustainable features so integral to their designs and building processes that they won't even be noticed as such by their clients or by critics. These are the "excesses" that the critics are apparently decrying, and they're precisely what architecture produces that is in the public interest.

The profession is suffering badly now from the economic downturn, and it's wearying to continue to hear  "thought-leaders" blame architecture for things it is not responsible for. Especially when there are so many other things architects can be justly blamed for - vanity, self-importance, sanctimoniousness, duplicity, pomposity, buffoonery - but not housing prices. -STEPHEN ZACKS

Feb 8, 2010

The Education Meme in Artistic Practice

It started for me with last summer's less-than-anticipated University of Trash exhibition at the Sculpture Center and blossomed into a 2010 mini-trend. Fake educational institutions are springing up in New York City, probably as a cash-poor free content-producing strategy. There's a theory that it's related to the fact that about half the city's artists and designers subsist on paltry stipends from schools like Parsons, Pratt, SVA and Columbia. No matter, I'm a greedy consumer of art and architecture events and these ones are not bad at all.

There are about a half-dozen of these crypto-schools happening at the moment, among them the Public School for Architecture, organized in New York at the Van Alen Institute by the nice guys and a girl at Common Room. (Their recent project for the NY Foundation for the Arts got no press despite its potential recession-friendly cost-slashing story line. Are editors tired of this angle after only 16 months or are a few things happening in the world for other reasons?) I'm hoping to make it to their sliding-scale benefit at 177 Livingston next Saturday (Feb. 20) and would love to teach the proposed course on how to write a predictable Nicolai Ouroussoff architecture review (but preparing a decent class takes so much time and pays nothing, kind of like reporting). A lot of what's happening in "courses" is that they are being used to publicize work already underway or air justified professional grievances. This used to just be called a lecture or a talk, but fine, call it a school if you want.

My favorite crypto-school at the moment is the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, sponsored by Creative Time and organized by the semi-anonymous art collective that seems to be absolutely everywhere right now. They have a series of attractive but forgettable art-historical-ish installations in the 1969 show at PS1, and I went to their pretty funny douchebag art history lecture at the X-Initiative during last fall's Performa festival. I used to harbor a slight resentment against them for being immediately puffed up by professional art critics - they take the fun out of everything - but anyway I went to the "registration" event at their West Broadway meeting space. Conversations with artists in front of boards displaying their proposed courses devolved into a hilarious YouTube karaoke party. I signed up for Philosophy of Motion Pictures on Wednesdays, and so far the discussions of continental philosophy and film screenings have been a better-than-expected chance to revisit ideas I used to think were important (but now mostly don't) after the seduction of those great book covers has faded, in a group way more motivated than your average college class.

The latest one I heard about recently is Trade School, based on the idea of bartering goods and services in exchange for acquiring skills, which I guess gives you a good chance to consider the actual value of the course compared to your time in relative terms. Adam Kleinman, who organizes the great Access Restricted lecture series for LMCC, this time on the theme of Law and Representation at extraordinary courtroom sites in lower Manhattan, even proposed a good "course" on the subject. -STEPHEN ZACKS

Feb 5, 2010

Forthcoming: David Wojnarowicz biography

The struggle of C. Carr, David Wojnarowicz's forthcoming biographer, to present a full-screen image of the artist's work in her slide presentation last night at Fales Library, home to the astonishing downtown New York archive - including the new Riot Grrrl Collection - was unfortunately paralleled by a failure to present any kind of narrative that would allow the audience to engage with the artist and his work. This is hopefully just a reflection of the early stage of this project. For now do check out a copy of the somewhat overstimulating David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side, a collection of interviews with friends and collaborators, among them Carlo McCormick, Kiki Smith, and Nan Goldin. Take a life-size glimpse at the Downtown Collection's goldmine at the Grey Art Gallery's Downtown Pix: Mining the Fales Archives, 1961-1991, curated by former New York Times photo editor Philip Gefter, whose Michael Bell-designed Hudson Valley glass house I wrote about a few years ago. -STEPHEN ZACKS