New York

“Out of Site: Fictional Architectural Spaces”

New Museum

Recent exhibitions like “Out of Place” at MCA Chicago, “Artists Imagine Architecture” at ICA Boston, “BitStreams” at New York’s Whitney Museum, and “010101” at San Francisco MoMA have confirmed two preoccupations among a new generation of artists: with architecture as well as with digital technology.
In “Out of Site,” associate curator Anne Ellegood gathers works by fifteen artists, most of them emerging, who bring the themes together. Evaluated individually, the works of this motley crew are uneven. But in narrowing her focus to include solely those that depict “fictional sites.” the curator has mounted a cohesive show that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Ellegood offers a fresh take on a generally accepted thesis: Digital technologies are transforming our experience of space, blurring boundaries between interior and exterior, local and global. Resisting the temptation to concentrate exclusively on computer-generated images of otherworldly places, she instead assembles artists who work with traditional and digital media to fabricate sites both ordinary and extraordinary. Consequently, the exhibition demonstrates convincingly something that much theorization about “cyberspace” neglects: the reciprocal relationship between actual and virtual space.

Reversing expectations, some of the most sophisticated digital works in the show—animations of three-dimensional architectural models—describe not unreal landscapes but rather altered renditions of quotidian sites spawned by a globalized information economy. Videos by Haluk Akakce and Craig Kalpakjian portray cold corporate office interiors, while Sven Pahlsson’s presents aerial vantages of shopping-mall parking lots intercut with eye-level views of suburbia. Like so many of the works in this show, these moving images, many shot as if from the perspective of some disembodied mobile surveillance system, are simultaneously alienating and hauntingly seductive. While the uncanny dimension of banal environments is hardly unmined territory (think of Ed Ruscha and Gregory Crewdson), these pieces are novel for their medium. Using state-of-the-art software to fabricate animated pictures of unsettling everyday environments,the artists reconsider the familiar through a new lens.

Complementing the work with computer-generated imagery are the efforts of another group of young artists who, while engaging the age-old medium of painting, nevertheless create landscapes with a distinctly technophilic feel. Directly inspired by science fiction, they refer without irony to the legacy of modernist art and architecture—in particular to visionary architects of the ’50s and ’60s. Adam Ross’s pictures, painted on a luminescent blue ground that suggests a glowing computer screen, feature a white rectangle hovering above a cityscape composed of attenuated tendril-like forms: Malevich meets Ray Bradbury. Likewise. Dannielle Tegeder renders cross sections of postapocalyptic scenes of subterranean safe havens, employing a maze of fine lines and diminutive shapes that bring to mind Peter Halley, Paolo Soleri, and Buckminster Fuller. Alluding to the lexicons of signs and icons through which computer programmers and architects access and convey information, each artist traffics in both abstraction and representation, decoration and diagram, flatness and depth. Are we looking at nonreferential abstractions, microcosmic maps, or illusionistic pictures of vast topographies?

This same disquieting sense of shifting modes also informs the exhibition’s selection of sculpture and site-specific installation, works by artists who while creating tangible artifacts nonetheless capture the immaterial boundlessness of cyberspace within the physical space of the gallery. Although inflected by cutting-edge technologies, these works are insistently handmade. Stephen Hendee enveloped the museum stairwell in an expansive matrix of backlit translucent Cor-X precariously held together by uneven strips of black tape. This cross between Cubist light fixture run amok and three-dimensional drawing felt closer to Kurt Schwitters than to Steven Spielberg. Similarly, in New City, 1998-2002, Matthew Northridge evokes a sense of infinite expandability and seamless integration of architecture and information, qualities that are characteristic of our sprawling “edge cities,” where signage is superimposed on building surfaces, as well as virtual “cybercities” constructed of computer code. This giddy piece is also engaging for its obsessive craft; it’s made of more than three thousand stacked Masonite rectangles in various sizes, each one laminated meticulously with brightly colored images culled from magazines, books, and packaging. In another merging of low-tech craft and high-tech content, Shirley Tse hand-carved blue polystyrene packing material, creating futuristic topographies that blend landscape and cityscape.

As a practicing architect, I was of course struck by how this exhibition signals the increasing convergence of art and architecture. Aziz & Cucher’s photographs of interiors digitally fabricated in human skin recall the embrace of technology by architects—from Greg Lynn and Asymptote to Preston Scott Cohen—whose projects blend the natural and the artificial, body and environment. And lest we forget that networks of communication take the form not only of disembodied webs of information but also of analog urban infrastructures linking remote locations, artists in this show share architects’ preoccupation with systems, from plumbing to highways. Yet despite these overlaps, sensibilities differ among disciplines. For the most part, architects have pursued the brave new world of digital technology with unreserved (some would say uncritical) enthusiasm. Yet the artists at the New Museum seem ambivalent at best. For most of them the impact of new technologies on the built environment seems to promise not utopia but dystopia. The mood of the show fluctuates between optimism and an uneasy skepticism that verges on paranoia, capturing the unstable temper of our wired times.

“Out of Site: Fictional Architectural Spaces” is on view at the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, Nov. 8 Feb. 2, 2003.

Joel Sanders is associate professor of architecture at Yale University.