Support Structure: Phase 1
Celine Condorelli & Gavin Wade
'Support Structure' is an architectural interface, an evolving collaborative project between an architect (Celine Condorelli) and an artist-curator (Gavin Wade). Our aim is to design and create a universally adaptable support structure that approaches the specific rather than the generic. To achieve this we are putting 'Support Structure' through a learning process. Phase 1 was in support of 'I Am A Curator', providing a variable exhibition system enabling and challenging curators, artworks and visitors. 'Support Structure' continues its evolution through further phases in response to:
Phase 2: The Economist Plaza, London;
Phase 3: Portsmouth & South East Hampshire Multicultural Group, Portsmouth;
Phase 4: West Berkshire Council, Greenham Common;
Phase 5: Undesignated site, Birmingham.
For Phase 1 the original brief set by Per Hüttner was for us to produce a shelf-like structure to be positioned on the end wall of Chisenhale Gallery. The structure should provide storage for the artworks in the exhibition; categorise the works; accommodate documentation of artists and works; store electronic equipment and tools; and should be complemented with a set of plinths, tables and chairs.
We intend 'Support Structure' to be a questioning structure that in turn produces more questions and also, of course, answers. In Phase 1 these typically took the form of exhibitions and curatorial enquiry. Certain curators of the day would turn the questions back on us by using 'Support Structure' as an objet d'art and we enjoyed and took heed of these tests. If anything the testing and questioning of 'Support Structure' and the Curator of the Day pointed towards a set of innate properties of exhibition making. These of course are programmable rules that each curator should avoid and relish as self consciously as possible without, hopefully, denaturing the pure elation of organising and discovering objects and ideas in space and context. This question of the architectural interface forming behaviour towards success of innate properties is part of the space of art and architecture within our project; an evolution towards defining and transforming essential human tools.
We decided to expand the brief into a more comprehensive support system that would manifest the processes of curating taking place within the site and beyond. Our objective was to create a set of forms, clearly independent from the gallery, that would offer maximum flexibility and choice while containing the very processes of how the show could operate. We proposed a physical structure that would both be a container of 'sleeping' artworks (not in use) and a potential receptacle of active artworks (selected by the Curator of the Day). This form would correspond with the 6 selections of artworks whilst also directly responding to the scale and dimensions of Chisenhale. Each selection was therefore housed within its own storage unit, itself attached to a portable partition. Rather than hiding the cupboards behind this potential display surface they were only accessible through it, therefore presenting their function as a front, a useable alternative directly confronting the gallery walls. We allowed the size and quantity of art selected to dictate the dimension of each unit, and different surface materials were selected, so that all 6 units became unique in relation to each unique selection. The units were joined by one-way hinges and the whole structure was on wheels allowing movement and a wide range of possible shapes, from a very two-dimensional surface the width of Chisenhale up to the point of forming a completely enclosed and independent gallery within the larger space. This potential interior and 'back wall' was treated as a tending-towards-neutral continuous façade and painted in “skylight” colour from Farrow & Ball's historical range of paints. Whilst being robustly physical and irregular the interior offered a sequence of horizontal plinth surfaces that created an unusual, intimate and generous micro-gallery situation used by numerous Curators of the Day. The 6 units of differing heights, widths and surfaces were designed to embody an awareness of curatorial choice and even responsibility in regard to the nature of the environment in which artworks would be developed or placed.
The 6 individual surfaces (A-F) had been chosen to reference differing types of support and roles. The slatted MDF surface of unit D was intended to directly reference El Lissitzky's 'Abstract Cabinet' (1927) as a seminal precedent of exhibition design/architecture as art. Unit A was the only selected coloured surface, a bright red Formica, designating a potential door to the internal gallery when folded up into its irregular hexagon form. Unit B and F were materials being 'misused' as display by redirecting their usual function of (B, stirlingboard) temporarily covering broken windows and doors, and (F, grey insulation board) offering insulation to an internal wall or room.
Support Structure therefore questioned the nature of Chisenhale's white walled gallery space by offering a large and complex set of possibilities, simultaneously didactic and responsive, as with the architects Alison and Peter Smithson’s agenda for the Economist Plaza:
“... We have to raise the individual items or elements above themselves, shifting sideways the emphasis of their bare selves, to the level that they recess together and subtly serve as signs to help us know how to behave in our buildings, guide how we want to live as a society in our cities.”
On constructing and connecting all of the physical elements we again considered how 'Support Structure' was acting as an interface between user and system and decided that an element of humour and a less physical structure should be added to complete the system of interfacing. Scott Rigby's 'I-Deal Opportunities' card system was developed in relation to the decisions we were making with 'Support Structure' and became a vital part of the process of curating the daily exhibitions. We proposed to add a set of Jokers to his 'pack of cards' that would extend beyond representing the artists or artworks available. Our Jokers were very simple additions to the options of how you would be likely to spend your time as a curator and to speed up problem solving and lateral thinking. Each unit had one Joker inserted.
A* joker made available 3 sets of Oblique Strategies for idea development and alternative logic routes for curatorial conceits. They were a set of 'Fluffers' by Robert Johnston and Flatpack001, Bill Drummond's 'Silent Protest' pack of cards and a set called '100 things to do when you’re stuck' which had been given to Celine as a gift.
B* joker was a list of local ingredients available to the daily curator from the set of shops along Roman Road, parallel to the Chisenhale, including Plastic bead door curtains from Pound Plus, Tatoo’s and Piercings from Pride and Taxi's from Roman cars.
C*joker was the vital ingredient of telephone numbers of other international artists and curators just in case you needed some advice or a shoulder to cry on.
D* joker was a Library of 40 books in aid of curating from our personal libraries including 'I, Robot' by Isaac Asimov, Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War', Alexander Dorner's 'The Way Beyond “Art”', Frederick Kiesler's book of 'Selected Writings' and 'The Diderot Encyclopedia'.
E* Joker offered an alternative way to spend your day as well as another system for making decisions. This was a set of games including Jenga, Ker-Plunk, Connect 4 and Downfall.
F*joker was an alternative historical portable exhibition design in the guise of Charles and Ray Eames' 'House of Cards'.
These Jokers, cards and hinged wall segments were combined with a very simply designed list of contents and introductory foldout and two heights of irregular shaped collapsible tables, two low platforms and six triangular stool/plinths of three different heights. All of these structures then became a system in relation to the daily routines and advice of the support team within the gallery and the possibilities of lighting, installing and documenting. We initially aimed for an aesthetic positioned between ad-hoc and permanent as an appropriate approach to the temporary set of choices available within the concept of 'I Am A Curator'. By the end of the process we were (are) trying to reflect on how our programming actually adjusted what occurred. Once 'Support Structure' was handed over to the Gallery Crew, we visited the gallery as often as possible, and saw it being transformed on an almost daily basis. 'Support Structure' was being heavily used, pushed and pulled, constantly moving up and down, opening-up and closing its doors, offering its contents for all to be seen or containing them like a secret. It was a great satisfaction to observe the building up of a layer of fingerprints, holes, chips, bumps and scratches, and even to have to replace some of its many wheels having seen just how much it was being dragged around.
'Support Structure' was devised according to function, and was the outcome of a real collaborative working process. Each section was combined to create an unpredictable whole that whilst appearing to be a very aesthetic object had been designed without conscious aesthetic decisions. This lack of preciousness towards a final result was essential in creating an element of tolerance towards its eventual (mis)use once the gallery was open to the public, and ensured that we could be surprised by what people would do with it.
Reading through the Curators of the Day comments and observations we were surprised by how few of them mentioned 'Support Structure', especially after having witnessed how much of their day was spent dealing with it. How could anyone ignore it?
As a system 'Support Structure' conditioned, created, manifested and articulated the process as well as the results, on a functional but also an aesthetic level. It was such a big, bold, eccentric monster object- yet its very success could be judged by the fact that it was taken so matter-of-factly, as if it was the only way that such a show could be done! Our initial surprise that hardly any of the curators mentioned it in their report was replaced by the realisation that yes, they could take it for granted, and that this could be the measure of its success.
Support Structure was a tool provided and programmed by us but used exclusively by others. The space and events that 'Support Structure' enabled were not directly dictated by us but by the limitations and possibilities of the architectural interface. Everything that happened during 'I Am A Curator' was therefore affected by us in some manner, and this seems to fulfil our initial premise, to provide support and to provoke transformation. The curators of the day appeared to be collaborators of Per Huttner, and they were the primary activists each day using artworks as props in their small or large fictions, while Per was overseeing and renegotiating that process. Our role therefore seemed to be defined as distanced but physically adjusting curators, an idea always seen in relation to the fact that we were also responding to a brief and serving a purpose in someone else's plan. Nonetheless, we were curating, designing and programming a situation with discursive properties beyond our control; much like art and architecture. If the users of this situation willingly generated new possibilities and events without feeling like our authorship or desires were hindering or controlling them in anyway (and therefore ignoring us), we would say this is a success.
If an interface serves content and form then perhaps it should partially disappear in front of the meaning it is trying to create. In this case 'Support Structure' was visually loud and physically bulky. Per wondered if colour would be hindering the smoothness of the exhibition process, and it came out bright red, blue, grey, brown, white soft and hard. Being an 11 meter long partition with storage units up to the size of phone boxes hardly seems the obvious way to provide a potentially transparent interface and yet it was still possible through its flexibility, disappearing against a wall or around a corner. It was important for us that our mobile and adaptable interface had the permanence, scale and weight of a liveable architecture. The combining of ad-hoc temporary surfaces and structures together to form a more permanent system generated a strange composite utilitarian form that offers future pathways for developing the exhibition design elements into a multitude of temporary and permanent support structures. It is not our intention to design something that is strange but one of our objectives is to stimulate and aid reconsideration of existing spaces as an impulse for future change. The unfamiliar, which could be termed as strange, is one of our tools in providing that impulse. 'Support Structure' is a prompt to act and transform and it enables through containing both familiar and unfamiliar elements, or recognisable elements in unfamiliar arrangement, size, or form, which is what creates an unknown aspect, its slight ‘monstrosity’. We know in the future we will be responding to and prompting in very different situations ranging from a corporate foyer of a modernist plaza to a multicultural festival on a field by the ocean. We don’t know what the outcomes will be. This is an evolving project, an evolving structure fluctuating between art and architecture. For 'I Am A Curator', no matter how strange looking,'Support Structure' became the physical manifestation of the show and how it worked, the unavoidable interface. Whether we always need to be unavoidable is still up for grabs!
Support Structure Phase 1 was funded by RSA Art for Architecture.