Sunday, March 30, 2014

Towards a General Theory of Cultural Containers

If you're a person who writes, you probably have that one friend who's always saying brilliant things, but they're not in the habit of writing regularly themselves, so it's difficult to get access to the ideas they come up with in a way that fits within the traditional means of constructing an argument or a position. Does an idea exist if it can't be cited or linked?

Anyway, my friend and sometime collaborator Eric Leshinsky is one of these people: unciteably brilliant. One of my favorite ideas that he's come up with is the notion of the 'cultural container', which I'd define as any venue, bounded in space or time, that allows cultural production to occur. He had the occasion to use this idea as part of one of D Center Baltimore's Design Conversations, back in 2008, more info on that is here. I've used it before as a foundational concept for some thoughts on isomorphisms between the social space of the web and social spaces in the built world, that became an article here.

I'm thinking of it again, because of the important role that boundaries play in the construction of the concept. A certain event starts at a certain time, and stops at another time. Production occurs within a room or a site. Thinking about boundaries and containers in general can be a way to recognize similarities between ideas about spatial and temporal structures, but the idea can also be applied to organizational, institutional, or disciplinary structures as well. Painting has traditionally concerned itself with certain questions, and not with others. Architects have practiced in ways that leave them professionally and legally separated from the financial decisions of their clients, or the moral decisions of contractors who build their work.

I am continually fascinated by cases like: 1) The Cooper Union, where a school that teaches art, engineering, and architecture, seems to have been financially compromised by its decision to commission a signature piece of architecture by Morphosis at the height of the real estate bubble. 2) Zaha Hadid's comments in the The Guardian, that "it's not my duty as an architect to look at it"; "it" here being the deaths of migrant workers at World Cup construction projects in Qatar, where her office has designed a stadium. 3) Similar concerns about the Guggenheim's presence as an anchor institution in Abu Dhabi, another place where working conditions have been sharply criticized. 4) The Folk Art Museum and #folkmoma, 5) Patrik Schumacher's missive on facebook ("stop confusing art and architecture"). 6) etc, etc, ...

So we have boundaries and containers; disciplinary specificity and outside context problems. Talking about this is partly a way to provide space for a diagram I made last year to attempt to explain a specific type of work that's produced under the banner of The Working Group on Adaptive Systems:

This diagram attempts to sort out the production of a set of projects in 2010 and 2011. The assumption behind it is that venues, institutions, events, or even projects themselves, when seen as cultural containers, can all be looked at in terms of their relative scale and qualities, and in terms of their relationship to each other. The lines represent different types of boundaries, and different types of connections between actors who are sequentially working to define those boundaries, and to produce other work inside them, especially where that 'other work' is the production of other, nested containers.

For example: at the top center, Evergreen Commons is a project from 2010, in which Eric, Ryan Patterson, and myself, were commissioned by the Evergreen House to create a piece of sculpture for their Biennial. We decided to experiment with the production of a cultural container instead, designing infrastructure, and reserving much of the project's budget to commission other artists to make work within the boundaries of the place we had made. One set of commissioned artists, Jaimes Mayhew and Marian April Glebes, were also themselves working under the banner of their own micro-institution, Services United. Jaimes, Marian, Eric, Ryan and others involved with this project showed up in some of the other projects as well (psNone Sodscape, and campcamp), in different capacities: sometimes working as themselves, sometimes working as a part of other groups and venues.

This is partly an attempt to instrumentalize the call from Bruno Latour, in especially 'Reassembling the Social', to keep everything flat, and follow the actors themselves as they construct frameworks, and then work within them (again, sequentially, not simultaneously). What this diagram suggests is that boundaries, instead of existing as barriers that silo work and keep it apart, are exactly what enables collaboration and interdisciplinary work to take place. These containers aren't givens, they are constructed by the participants themselves. And as long as one is aware of their provisional character, they can stepped into and and out of at different times, depending on their usefulness to the task at hand.

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