Dora Budor

Dora Budor on the libidinal language of architecture

View of “Benedick, or Else,” 2019, 80WSE, New York.

Dora Budor’s current exhibition at 80WSE in New York blends historical fact with fable to tell the building’s story of transformation, reflecting a fascination with the ways in which subjectivity is inflected by reactive, evolving environments. Originally built in 1879 as a residence exclusively for single men, primarily artists, the so-called Benedick Building—nicknamed after the bachelor character in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing—was bought in 1925 by New York University, and turned into offices and dormitories as part of its accelerated expansion. Here, Budor speaks about starting with this idea to develop her show in collaboration with scenographer Andromache Chalfant, “Benedick, or Else,” which is on view through February 16, 2019. Budor will also open a solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel on May 23, 2019.

FOR THIS EXHIBITION, I wanted the space itself to become the main character, as if it could narrate its nonlinear transformation—from the city’s first building for bachelors in the 1880s to a student gallery in the 1970s to a contemporary art gallery in the late 1980s. In the show, there’s nothing to focus on as a singular artwork and the rooms look almost empty. The temporal experience of the exhibition becomes the work, which unfolds in chapters, with each of the rooms becoming both stage and actor. A script, which doubles as a list of works and provides an architectural layout, is meant to lead you through the show, in which personified structures and remnants from the building’s various past lives—nicotine-stained walls, soft blue tiles, glossy linoleum—replace actors and narrators.

The language in the script borrows from PR texts and dialogues about the future of cultural spaces, often deployed by the most progressive architectural studios both in the US and Europe. For example: “This building is welcoming and fulfills all desires, a [libidinous] body that can be pressured, gripped and slowly rotated into any position wanted.” It's an interesting typology of language—it takes on a lot of corporeal qualities, imposing them onto inanimate objects. Parts of it are even erotic. With architecture, there’s a tendency to create desire for its use, a desire for people to come in and inhabit it.

The exhibition is a microcosm of modernism—it charts the history of twentieth-century urban development, and the relationship between social idealism and bureaucratic materialism. While working on the idea for the exhibition, I was reading Reinhold Martin’s historical analysis of systems-based corporate architecture, The Organizational Complex, and Michelle Murphy’s Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty, which is about the history of work spaces becoming contaminated with all the newly developed, modern synthetic and chemical materials—like adhesives, plastics, particleboards—that were being introduced for the first time. These brought new kinds of illnesses, which made them impossible or at least difficult to measure.

I wanted to use a mode of slightly antiquated theater to make an exhibition about contemporary conditions, which is how the idea to work with scenographer Andromache Chalfant came about. We began by rebuilding the space—shifting and reconfiguring rooms by inserting prosthetic walls; surgically opening up, aging, or modifying earlier infrastructural elements; inserting new lighting systems; bringing in the elements from past interiors.

The cloak of working with the scenographer also gave me freedom to blur between reality and fiction, where the visitor is not sure what is the artwork, or cannot separate the artwork from the building’s existing condition. I’ve always been more interested in using what’s already there, instead of inventing something new. That’s why I am attracted to things that have memory, to using site-specific materials, historical objects, or objects and ephemera from films. I’ve always wanted to work with less. Like in Nelson Goodman’s book Ways of Worldmaking, the idea is that nothing is new, that things are always recycled from each other. This also applies to fiction—there are no absolutely new narratives, but the way you create worlds successfully is by taking something already in existence and making it into a new version, while respecting the referent form’s already existing constraints and structures.

For this exhibition, I was also interested in taking into account the wider ecosystem of the art world, specifically in New York, and in making a show that I’m maybe not allowed to make, or that just seems really weird for me to make. With every show, I don’t know what it’s going to be at the beginning. If it’s not a complete challenge—that is, if I don’t put myself in a difficult situation—then I don’t consider it a show worth doing. It’s a kind of world-making and -breaking each time.