New York

Sarah Oppenheimer

Sarah Oppenheimer’s installation Hallway, 2002 came across as the hybrid work of an artist, architect, and social scientist. Sixteen floor-to-ceiling cardboard panels like oversize components of build-it-yourself flattened boxes were conjoined seamlessly flush with the walls of the gallery. The white cardboard on white walls made distinguishing between setting and packaging impossible. Parts of the panels were unfolded into the room in various configurations, creating partitions and revealing the beige plywood substratum of the wall. At the end of the room was a white metal office table with a plywood top. Three stacks of paper with different diagrams of mapped movement were arranged on it.

As the diagrams hinted, the spatial composition of the unfolded cardboard wall panels was the formal consequence of research. Oppenheimer, in the role of scientist, used the gallery as a laboratory. She recruited test subjects through flyers and local newspapers, explaining that they would participate in a social-science experiment. She then screened them to make sure they had no knowledge of the gallery. Oppenheimer imported a racially, sexually, economically, and professionally diverse group of non-gallerygoers into the insulated space of the art world. Each subject (separate from the others) entered the gallery, walked to the table, filled out a demographic survey with generic questions about gender, race, age, and address (the questionnaire also informed the participants that their movements were being recorded), and left the gallery. Their paths into and out of the space were then notated, computed, averaged, and compiled into a map. Oppenheimer used this information to alter the walls accordingly, basically framing the space of the subjects’ movements. Through the questionnaire, the participants were made aware of their position in both social space and the space of the gallery, whose changing walls marked it as a socially determined construction. This process was repeated every week of the exhibition, creating an environment that was perpetually recast in response to new data. As a space socially determined by a selected set of diverse individuals, the installation could be what Fredric Jameson asks for in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism when he proposes the need for “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping,” defined as the mapping the totality of systems that enmesh the individual, giving the individual a heightened sense of place within the structure of a global society.

On the other hand, as Henri Lefebvre elucidates in The Production of Space, a room as abstracted spatial packaging, consumable, mutable, to be installed anywhere and arranged in any configuration, is the logical outcome of capitalism. Lefebvre claims that the abstraction of space as a commodity has developed alongside capitalism’s striving for homogenization, reducing aspects of space to interchangeable parts to facilitate consumption. The installation rendered the gallery space as minimalist packaging, both serial and malleable within a system of folding.

In any case, this project falls short of its potential. The partitions were too flat to really manipulate the space and too few to create the allover effect necessary for real transformation. Rather than a totalizing, shifting, negotiating social environment, Hallway was simply a wall relief ready to be folded together and shipped out. As Lefebvre wrote, “We have passed from the production of things in space to the production of space itself.” But it is precisely the produced space that was missing from the exhibition.

Michael Meredith