Instructions for assembly

1. According to the phrase book I was given, “The verb ‘to be’ can take two forms in Portuguese: ser or estar. Ser is used when speaking about permanent characteristics… The verb estar is used for characteristics or states that are temporary.” It lead me to wonder what effect such a choice operating in the language had on the Brazilian people – are they forced into venturing opinions about whether or not they think something is cast in stone or in a state of flux? Did this mean that people went for the ‘to be’ that pertains to the temporary more than that pertaining to the permanent? Did the more practice they had about making the calls mean they had more or less certainty? Was this something that was discussed? Were particular named or unnamed virtues, or disparagements (etiquette, even) attached to such verb usage?

2. A tent was erected on a 10m wall that is the exterior surface of a two-storeyed building housing the A Gentil Carioca gallery in Rio de Janeiro’s Centro district – an area of fairly low-rent specialty shops in 19th century edifices of the same height on narrow lumpy streets that are more like footpaths than roads. (Set up by four prominent artists, the name roughly translates to “a kind person from Rio de Janeiro”, Carioca being the word used to denote someone who is from Rio and embraces it as an operating system. The gallery project seems to be quite irreverent to its architectural space, relishing, with some sort of “will to break”, the opportunity to bash walls, cut into floors, introduce objects that seem too big or impossible to introduce.) More correctly, the tent is a Portaledge, a device developed for climbers to sleep in when they are part-way through a climb, or just don’t want to come down yet. An essential for the (comically) well-equipped nomad, its colours are synthetic, poisonous even.

3. In nature, such a colour-way might warn birds “don’t eat me, I will make you sick or even kill you.” Or they might, conversely, attract insects to pollinate its flower and allow multiplication and thus species adaptation and continuation, to take place. The way that this tent clings to the sheer face of the wall, quite remarkably, in my mind makes it slightly more akin to a plant than an insect (unless it was still a cocoon). It has the air of an epiphyte – a plant that grows on another plant, but is not a parasite – or one of those plants that grows seemingly unfeasibly out of a brick wall or motorway structure, only time telling how long it will be able to sustain itself as it taxes its available nutrient resources. The tent is to remain on the wall for six months and given how attractive it looks, who knows if it will last the distance? Maybe it will be ‘plucked’…

4. It is orchid-like in colouration and in its opportunism, this portaledge, and its cords attach it to the surface like aerial roots; only in this case they are tied to karabiners, the clip rock-climbers use to secure themselves to the pins they have wedged, drilled and sometimes glued into the face. So much architecture and so many plants seem overblown in their foundations compared to these entities. Somehow the way they have a lighter existence lends them the impression of being untroubled by such assertions as Marx’s “Everything that is solid turns into air”, whereby the effect of capital is perhaps suggested to take the ground from our feet, our feet, and everything else too.

5. Marx was remarked on a lot during our stay, but not Karl, a different fellow – Burle Marx was a Brazilian landscape architect who worked closely with Oscar Niemeyer, the man most popularly known for designing Brasilia’s major buildings. Marx designed, not only Brasilia’s urban landscape 1 , but what might very well be the longest drawing-as-public-sculpture in the world, namely the beachfront promenade footpaths at Ipanema and Copacabana. The paths are made up of almost cubic stones of dark granite and another equally hard and fine whitish stone of about paper-weight size. These materials and this same process are used a lot in other older parts of the city, and the pattern variation is impressive, and tends to be more organic than rectilinear. Marx’s path figures a long, regular, sinuous wave, as if describing a sweet sustained note that one cannot see the end of, or the beginning either. Which reminds me, didn’t Goethe call architecture frozen music?

6. As the sun goes down at Ipanema, the crowd on the beach applauds.

7. When a stone is dislodged from the footpath, others work their way out and holes develop. Sometimes people pile the loose bits up near a tree or something else providing a place to pile them close by. These loose stones seem to know their power as potential missiles in street confrontations, and as reminders of the rubble that is history. As broken architecture, they also seem to speak of destroyed walls; walls of thought especially that, when broken down to their semantic units (bricks?), can be re-employed or drafted into other generative utterances.

8. Mitchell had considered casting these cobblestones as part of an on-going interest in the materials employed by civilians during unrest, revolution and riot; particularly the matter that is drawn in to the erection of barricades. He has been collecting documentary images of such “spontaneous architecture” as he has come to call it, into a sort of archive. He has been engaged in a process of redrawing these, some of which are photographs of obstructions set up during the military dictatorship in Brazil in the 1960s. Of this process he has said that “it is also interesting, on a more formal note, that when I am laboriously drawing these constructions / objects / assemblages that I am distilling them (I have it in mind that they will float in space, on the page in the ‘no-context’ of white paper) when they were constructed in a moment of urgency and exigency where formal concerns were arbitrary.”

9. Mitchell also relates the barricades to a kind of theatre, quoting Virilio to illustrate: “Barricades are a kind of theatre prepared in advance of confrontation/war: ‘if the ancients seem first and foremost to be builders of ramparts and fortifications, it is because the ambition of conducting a war begins with the planning of its theatre, or the creation of artificial environmental conditions which will form the infrastructure, the stage on which the scenario should be played out.’ Barricades represent political activity making its way into reality (becoming concrete). Popular defense, and transgression of ordinary ‘productive’ use of objects – containers, tyres, road cobblestones, gates.” 2 

10. The tent is illuminated at night, giving it the air of an incubator, or grow room. This atmosphere of assisted growing suggests that either a plant is being forced to go to places it has never been before by an inspired breeder, or that the organism is fragile and needs all the help it can get. All orchids are endangered species now it is rumoured. They are apparently unable to survive any longer without help from the species that has changed the world so much: a veritable plague, humans are, in ecological terms.

11. There is a vast botanical gardens in Rio, established by the son of the King of Portugal in 1808 who was a lover of exotic plants. He had specimens collected from all corners of the world and establishes in a huge private arboretum. There are also greenhouses for things like cacti, carnivorous plants and, of course, orchids. When plants become a part of a collecting garden, they seem to enter the realm of human meaning in the sense of being subject to taxonomies whereby order imposed on their natural freedom from content and specificity. They are dragged from formlessness into language and into our attempts to map out something of their scope and range. But despite these efforts to make plants participate, they seem to draw back into their own mysterious realm.

12. Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), the Portuguese writer of many pseudonyms, or heteronyms as he called them, wrote in his posthumously published The Book of Disquiet that “If I contemplate, I don’t think. On these days, I am particularly fond of gardens”.

13. Rio is in the tropics, and, if the heat would ever let you forget, the plants that spring out of every available crevice would remind you that the dirt has memory of being jungle.

14. But this tent is not in nature, it is in a public square of sorts; or rather the wall it is on is. Centro is full of small shops, specialist shops to be exact where one can go to see a full range of prosthetics, tubes, craft materials, musical instruments, stationery, tiles etc. It seems that whatever you need is there, like a sort of trading bazaar when really it is just a shitty part of town where there are shops for everything and it just seems exotic because I am visiting. They still have the same $2 shop craopla that you can get here in Auckland, naturally. The crossroads that the gallery is on is actually quite a wide space, an almost but not quite square, or largo. (Isn’t that Latin for slowly, a musical instruction?) On one corner an unassuming bar spills out, its plastic beer company-sponsored furniture providing a place in the evenings to hang out for people who must live or work thereabouts. Every now and again a vendor passes through with big potted ferns hanging from a pole resting on his shoulder.

15. It is one thing to plan to put a tent up a wall, but it is quite another to actually achieve this – who would have thought there would step forward a perfectly personable artist who is also an accomplished rock climber? It is also another thing to find out what such an audience, as provided by the bar, makes of the work. According to one of the gallerists, the tent has been quite the primer for jokes, mainly about it being a place to sleep away from home – a dog-box for those in trouble with “her indoors”, or something that can be hired by the hour. Another unexpected element was that this site gag is suspended on a wall that is perpendicular to the window of the local dealer-pimp. Its height was adjusted accordingly so to not be alarmingly on a level with the two orange-lit openings in his dwelling.

16. At night this work takes on a special quality, a sweetness, night being a time of greater vulnerability to mysterious forces, of greater fears, and more un-knowns. It also falls after the end of the worker’s day and is a time to stop, repair, and let sleep knit the ravelled sleeve of care. In this light the portaledge hangs like an object’s public dream about the emancipatory power of absenting oneself from such earthly demands as gravity, participation, meaning or touch. 3 

17. It was suggested by a critic speaking on a video resource in a Lygia Clark retrospective, on in Sao Paulo at the time as Mitchell’s project in Rio, that in Brazilian art there seems to be a unity between the cerebral and the sensual. Similarly, looking at Mitchell’s project, there is no way of escaping vertiginous sensations of a considerable nature. (Perhaps here it is our disconnection with our bodies that is being scaled or assailed?) Further parallels could be seen to lie in the way Clark’s work was lauded for asking why can’t the body free itself from pain, and also for representing a return to an era in which art was anonymous. Mitchell’s tent, in its up-ness looks like it desires or is aping transcendence, and it too has all the non-specific anonymity of the found object. 4 

18. The artist is not interested in any biographical interpretations of the tent – as in he is not in it, nor going to get in it and that is not the point – and he is not even really interested in it as the tent of a climber. The potential slapstick quality of presenting something to be beheld that usually denotes a desire for privacy is emptied out by the way the object is re-inscribed, if by nothing else than the fact that no-one is going to believe that this was a legitimate climb. At only a few metres in height – even though it is high enough to injure, to look determined about getting away from people – it is hardly “where eagles dare”. 5 

19. Lessons from my errant grandmother on the redeployment of objects: lean a long dining table down a flight of stairs and it becomes a slide for you and your siblings. Shove a croquet hoop through a canoe and it becomes a cruel joke against an unwelcome tea-guest.

20. The tent seems more of a figure, for the artist, of a reclamation of space which is “schizophrenic in some ways – a reclamation of space; latching onto public space; taking space that is unused; but a retreat, a hiding space.” To me it sits as a strange anomaly – it seems to offer sleep, but how could anyone sleep hanging out over who knows what height and potential fall (the very stuff of nightmares)? It also seems to figure an explorer character (as “tent” connotes to me “away from home”, or “wilderness”) one who determinedly goes where one isn’t normally able to go – perhaps even somewhere inadvisable. An invocation to a bored god? 6 

21. Ursula le Guin, the great SF/fantasy writer, once wanted to provoke a response from a colleague’s university class that she had been invited to speak to. The paper was called “Wilderness” and she raised the idea that wilderness is that place outside of what is accessible to or structured by language; and that wilderness is a female space, a silent hinterland – no call of the wild draws men into this imperceptible landscape. This, to me, places extreme sports in an interesting light – are they perhaps enacted by men who are subconsciously trying to “reach” their other in their “Nature” (men’s discoverable wilderness)? It is, after all, a two-person tent?

22. The supposed collapse of distance afforded by jet travel is particularly satisfying when traveling to South America given that NZ was originally joined with this continent. (Our kowhai is the national plant of Chile, Mitchell has pointed out; but it is, of course, called something else there.) There was a model of Gondwanaland, in the Canterbury Museum that, when you pushed a button, showed an ancient continent floating apart into the modern land-masses we are familiar with. Then the light would go out and it would float back together.

23. Last night an old man asked me, as I was complaining of jet-lag, “have you seen the way that an Aborigine on walk-about stops and leans on his long stick with one leg bent up?” I said that I had, I thought, and he asked if I knew why. I said I didn’t. He said “an aboriginal man told me once that after they walk for a while, they stop and wait for their soul to catch up.”

24. The distinction between cartography and archeology made by Deleuze (the former pertaining to psychoanalysis and the latter to schizoanalysis 7 ) seems to have been run rough-shod over by Mitchell who gleefully tilts to both in his practice with no particular preference for either, or respect for polarities even, when he makes up his maps, diagrams, cross-sections, models, evidence presentations and plaster-cast dig enactments; even the frame of the tent seems a diagram of sorts. He appears to prefer to exist in the exquisite both-ness enjoyed by poets and deplored by empiricists. This is not surprising, for as an artist, he knows that his tent maps out its own absence. 8 

25. Both map-making and archeology seem to be plagued by the problems Fredric Jameson talked about in his recent Auckland lecture that are involved with any kind of “cognitive mapping” and “the dynamic difficulties of the representational process” in general. For example, he cited Godard’s question: “can labour or work ever be represented?”. What about “a nervous flock of birds”, “the global flight of trade, foreign exchange”, “the simultaneity of space/time?” he asked. Of representation, he said, “fiction is its function, not its mal-function”. “Maps, like documentaries, often have their paranoid dimensions” (paranoia being the breakdown of representational systems).

26. It is worth noting that the title of this work of spontaneous architecture is taken from the first line of Elias Canetti’s book Crowds and Power: “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the un-known. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Men always tend to avoid contact with anything strange. In the dark the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic. Even clothes give insufficient security: it is easy to tear them and pierce through to the naked, smooth, defenceless skin of the victim.”

27. In this light, the tent might figure the human body, which, as Thomas Carl Wall pointed out in his book Radical Passivity, has a skin, where the self does not. It could figure, more numerously, “the flight crowd” – that, according to Canetti, which is “created by a threat”. This is the crowd that relates to strikes; it explodes in all directions, including up, each individual losing themselves into the mass in an exquisite act of surrender. All reserve, all hierarchies and boundaries are destroyed by such a crowd, including the perceived limits of one’s own person. Furthermore, the original fear and need for protection from touch is paradoxically reversed where the crowd is at its most dense.

28. They seem to take to crowds remarkably well in Brazil. Quite apart from the obvious, I was very taken with a crowd that came past the building we were staying in every weekday morning at half-past eight. Between them and I was the canopy of trees that filled the head-space of the avenue below, so I could not see who was pouring past. But I could clearly hear a pack of a hundred or so primary-school children coming down from the hill one street back, heading towards the beach, one block away. They were not just chattering, but chanting, egged on by their teachers, I have no idea what, and for the life of me it sounded like a child protest march, but too happy a riot to be against anything except maybe reserve.

29. Surely there is nothing more inviting than a sheer face, metaphorically or otherwise, to those who dislike ruling things out, at least before a solid attempt. Mitchell’s tent seems to quietly, methodically, comically, as if it were alone, move on from its success in getting purchase on the “impossible” by setting up to sleep on it; as protected from the crowd as a child in its hut made of sheets and a clotheshorse or any other dwelling sub-component material can be drawn over to suspend relations.

  1. The construction of Brasilia was ordered in the early 1950s to make good 1891 constitutional imperative to establish a capital that was in the centre of the country – historically the power-base of Brazil had been centred in the south-east. The choice of site was influenced, however, by more than merely geo-political concerns: in 1883, an Italian priest, known as Don Bosco, had a vision of a futuristic city situated roughly in the area that Brasilia now occupies.

    Inaugurated in 1960, it was an intensely planned city – its main planner was Lúcio Costa, and it was based on the ideas of Le Corbusier. Costa had insisted that the city be shaped like a butterfly, but it is popularly thought to resemble a schematic aeroplane. This shift from natural to technological resemblance was repeated in the case of Niemeyer’s “spaceship” art museum at Niteroi, across the bay from Rio. The architect had conceived of it as a flower growing out of the water.

    Don Bosco’s prophecy of a promised land was not the only supernatural event that has affected the inhabitation of the Brasilia area. For example, Eclectic City, a 1500-strong non-financial commune 62kms to the west of Brasilia, was founded as a world religious centre based on an alien visitation experienced by Mestre Yokaanam (b.1911), then a pilot in the Brazilian airforce. This is one of more than 150 mystical and religious groups that have sprung up in the area in a vast case of spiritualist syncretism. Many new age devotees also apparently believe the region lies on a bedrock of crystal that gives it unusual spiritual power and that it attracts UFOs.

    Brazil certainly seems to have deserved its reputation as a place where mysteries are tolerated.

  2. From Guattari we have further support for the idea that destruction can be positive – and it is indeed important to provide counter-balance to the emphasis modern (neo-liberal) therapeutic culture places on staying “calm” and “together” (read stable, individual, capitalist subjects): “The individual cannot avoid a certain existential plunge into chaos. This is already what we do every night when we abandon ourselves to the world of dreams. The main question is what we gain from this plunge: a sense of disaster, or the revelation of new outlines for the possible.” (Felix Guattari, “pour une refondation des practiques socials” in Le Monde Diplomatique, October 1992, p1.) This was quoted seductively in a publication that went with an exhibition called Collective Creativity (Kunsthalle Fridericanum Kassel, 2005).

  3. Palace (a dwelling of a different order?) Brothers had a song that went like this:

    Night-time is the right time to pull all the dimes from your pocket
    Night-time is the right time to climb on your rocket
    Night-time is the right time to pull your arm from its socket
    Night-time is the right time to learn a new language
    (Palace Brothers, Viva Last Blues, 1995)

    Night may be reprieve from the ravages of work, and potentially the only time in which biopolitical production, both subjective and social, can take place, but there is also the idea that it ought to be a time in which we protect each other from shock. It is said that if one has difficult news to break to someone, such as a desire to break off a relationship, that it is kindest to do so during the hours of daylight; and of course, in person. Perhaps a tent is as much about insulating the self from the night as it is from the elements? The night robbing our senses of visual input and attuning us, like the blind, to other “information”. This awareness of interstitial spaces is also heightened in the climber, human and vegetable. Some also believe that the little gaps between or in the most obvious surfaces are the basis for knowledge.

    This leads me to wonder, what would a rock-climber dream in one of those tents? How could they dream of anything else but the climb? Surely the anxiety – fear even – or focus would dominate making sleep next to impossible at all, and even if it was achieved, wouldn’t the task at hand set the channel, displace whatever else? Isn’t that sort of the point of climbing? Or perhaps some climbers dream freely or even in more enlightened ways – maybe they are the pure people who can transcend the “state” dreams Foucault talked about in The Care of the Self?

    (I also wondered, can you fuck in those things?)

    Foucault distinguished the »> as distinct from the allegorical dream »> achieved by those who are pure of heart who have conquered fear. What, I wonder, would a labour-conscious interpretation of this oneirocritic’s assertions raise? After all, who can transcend daily »> / work? Why is it evidence of low character to notice your life and find it deeply disquieting? Why is that evidence of a lack of resolution on the psyche? Why such a premium on transcendence? Surely an awareness of one’s daily life is necessary to resist the suck of biopower to those subject to it.

    I suppose I should be mindful that this theory was developed in a culture that embraced slavery and the denegration of women. Today, perhaps it is only those who are privileged by bio-power’s organs – patriarchy, professions, institutions, trust funds – that can afford to bug out like that. For the rest of us it isn’t really a matter of leaning how to let go after work – more and more noticeably it is a trend in immaterial labour for the employees life to be more and more taken over by their jobs which have a way of eating into what used to be recreational time. Surely it isn’t a sign of low character that one’s dream space be penetrated by work, rather that “state” dreams are an expression of the spread of Empire.

    Alternatively, perhaps dreams could just be the body’s sensations translated into images. A busy dream could just be the transposition of busy molecules. A dream that seemed more “prophetic” could just be an interpretation of an interesting meeting on one or other physiological plane…

    Ultimately, though, I am attracted to the ghostly image of the climber as he, she or it seems to be engaged in some sort of “technology of the self”, to stay with Foucault a little longer. These “permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform I themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.” (Martin, L.H. et al, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. London: Tavistock, 1988.)

    To “climb” one must leave, take flight, withdraw from ground-level and make difficult progress towards a goal not visible at the outset. So what might seem, in orthodox terms, a foolish strategy, might really be an expression of a pressing need to transform one’s conditions or to explode the conditioned self.

    Matthew Hyland and I had an email exchange on the subject of vitalist suicides in an effort to articulate the difference between suicide and what might be most economically termed ego-cide. On 28 October 2004, he said the following:

    “Life-affirming, ego-calming therapeutic morality posits an absolute separation between the “self” and “the world”, in its prescription that, when present-tense existence is intolerably foul, NOTHING must change except your psychological emotional resoinse to it. Vitalist suicide sounds like the furthest possible remove from this position: because ‘self’ is nothing but the history of the conditions that have composed it, self-abolition (plus, hopefully, physical survival, becomes the only possible way of absolutely refusing the given ‘external’ or ‘objective’ conditions. Or, put another way, the process of ‘objectively’ refusing and changing your relation to ‘external’ conditions automatically entails destruction / abolition / deformation beyond recognition of the ‘self’ as you’d been given it.”

  4. A recent writer on Clark’s practice, Carlos Basualdo, talked about her work in relation to her empassioned desire to heal “a malaise that affects the institution of art”. To her, object-based practice, found or otherwise, involved a particular biopolitical/linguistic tension in that “the knot that binds the object of art – pure absence – to the market and transforms it into the mere representation of certain content (…) The implication here is that the healing of art requires liberating the object from particularization based in language at the service of capital. One must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath-water, however. There are or course many sorts of language operations, some (to use Badiou’s terms of reference) are more “evil” than others.

    Other sorts of particularizations were, in Clark’s thinking, far more liberating. He wrote that she “did not tire of saying that the relational objects only acquired their specificity once they came into contact with the fantasies of her ‘patients’. They were, therefore, nothing but the tentative and changing corporealizations of the patient’s projections. When the object loses its specificity as a good and acquires it in relation to the psychological structure of the subject, then there is art, that is, the possibility of healing.” Healing seems to equate here with escaping the limits of art by a radical critique of stultifying forms of presence. (See Carlos Basualdo, “Critical Trance” in Sleeping Cure: Trans, vol.1, no.2, 1996.


  5. 10m is hardly where eagles dare, but maybe not in the Marcel Broodthaers sense – the eagle being a floating / soaring signifier for conceptual art, an abiding fascination for Mitchell who approaches it as quasi-archeologically as he does the institution, grime, spontaneous architecture…

    I raise this great Belgian artist as Mitchell and I were fortunate enough to attend a seminar on the work of Broodthaers in Sao Paulo shortly before “A dwelling” opened to the public. One of the speakers, Ricardo Birnbaum, spoke very interestingly on »>. What follows is a rough paraphrase of the live translation of sections of his paper from its original Portuguese, chosen for the light they seem to shed on Mitchell’s tent work and its relation to language:

    Broodthaers work seems to pose questions such as how can you explain what you can no longer show, and how can you show what you cannot explain? It is interesting to view certain forms of art as examples of working at the extreme limits of showing and thinking; as allegories of the abyss that separates object from meaning.

    When Barthes wrote that “the writing is in the air” there is the implication that in objects there are undercurrents of meaning that penetrate each other. Similarly, Foucault wrote, on Manet, that all works are tied to the indistinct rumbling of the written word. Clearly there is a mutual insufficiency of written and visual communication – yet one needs the other.

    This “difficulty” relates to conceptual art’s underlining of the important role of text / language in art (perhaps initially as a replacement of the formal, which goes too far in one direction – an over-throw, an over-simplification). Broodthaer’s work can be seen as a consideration of the limits of conceptual art – where the insincere artist meets the real public; where the poet meets the fictional public; where this-is-not art work meets the blind public…

    Clearly there has been a necessary re-consideration too of the role of the artist. Kaprow set about discarding art as a profession, and to point out how the category ‘art’ becomes outdated based on its practically complete commodification. There is a shift of intention – the self as instrument acting on a terrain; a redefinition of the authority of the artist – a passive artist is one seeking to lead.

    There are three aspects to this reconsideration of the role or the artist:

    Denaturalisation (of the neo-liberal circuit of art)
    Politicization (weaving different connections)
    Art and life bond recognition (resistance to forces on art)

    Related back to Mitchell’s work, the tent here seems to figure this anti-professional conception of the artist being a recreational, even delinquent structure; nomadic certainly, pertaining to moving across new terrain and thought that is pure practice, mobile. Also, when he spoke of the importance of recognising friendship as a political form, and the transforming potential of such processes, I was again mindful that this is a two-person tent. Surely friendship is a potent weapn against the neoliberal destruction of community?

    Birnbaum also spoke of these shifts setting curation in a different light, in terms of the “dynamic productive of association; a “we” operation; as building an event – plastically, multi-sensorally, using plastic and conceptual language; poetry infecting the ambience of the institution. Here I am mindful of Mitchell’s abiding fascination with this institution of art probably most succinctly addressed in his dust archive works. These seem to ask, absurdly, if modern art and the museum were born in tandem, can studying the institution forensically give clues to how art might extract itself?

  6. There seems to be a cake-having and -eating desire at play in this public sculpture in that privacy is being attempted in a public space. Vito Acconci, in his 1987 “Coming out (notes on public art)”, wrote of public space that in it “the mix of privacies has to take place later, elsewhere, in ‘your place or mine’.” (Maure, Gloria (ed), Vito Acconci: Writings, Works, Projects, Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, 2001, p396)

    There are several aspects to Acconci’s characterization of public art that bear close relations to the character of Mitchell’s tent. This makes me wonder if this work might not be usefully viewed as a meta-public art statement, i.e. “a piece is public in that it is usable, inhabitable…” (p383)

    Firstly, Acconci framed up public art as a form of escapism in a way that is echoed by the tent as an escapist device:

    “The escape from art: The person who chooses to do public art might be considered a refugee, in flight from the gallery/museum which has been established as the proper occasion for art in our culture at this time. Escape from the confines of that space means losing the privileges of laboratory condition: the privilege, for example, of specialization either in the form of art (art considered as a system of universals) or in the context of art (art considered as a system of commodities).” (ibid, p383)

    Here we see a pile-up between Mitchell’s interest both in the museum and in quasi-scientific methodologies, e.g. paranormal investigations and antigen analyses. The white cube has been the subject of several bodies of his work, but what is it that necessitates this flight?

    When Louise Garrett was writing about Mitchell’s recent “Empires” project – specifically on the model of a white-cube space inside a packing crate – she wrote of the myth of the white cube as a tent itself. An idyllic space “for that army of nomads made up of artists, dealers, curators, critics, collectors, browsers, tourists who can pitch up in Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney, Auckland, washed up by the tides of capital that flow through the institutions or art.” She points out that it is this ambiguous relation with capital and the supposed autonomy of art that is essayed in this show. (“On Empires: Small White Cubes, Auckland: Starkwhite, 2005, p1) This illusion of tent-as-safe-haven is also supposed to remain unspoken in order for it to remain unpunctured and fully inflated.

    Secondly, Acconci seems to be echoing the Maoist sentiment that “without destruction there is no construction”, and the figures of the footpaths disintegrating and becoming fodder for the rioter in the following:

    “A space is public, on the other hand, when it functions as public forum: its conventions, images, signs, objects are turned upside-down, or collided with one with the other, or broken into bits, so that those conventions are de-stabilized (they’re not solid facts anymore) and the power that grounds each is exposed (the space becomes an occasion for discussion, which might become and argument, which might become a revolution).” (ibid, p395)

    Thirdly, Acconci talks of public art as speaking of a human inside/outside conundrum. When Jim and Mary Barr wrote on Mitchell’s tent project they also raised the tent as sign for such a problem, that is the confusion between inner and outer experiences. Acconci wrote:

    “Being in the world means being encased in the world. Our habit of thinking is: in order to analyze the world you have to step outside the world, jump out of the world. This habit of thinking, and of talking, allows the construction of a self to exist (you “go out of yourself”, you take yourself out of it”). The implication is that, as long as you’re inside the world, you’re too close to the world to think about it; you can’t experience and analyze at the same time. But, no matter how far you go, mentally, out of the world, you’re still physically inside it. Taking yourself out of the world, mentally, means only a retreat from material conditions, on the one hand, and from others, on the other. The implication is that you can only think when you’re alone, only when you withdraw into a meditation chamber. One function of public art is to re-imbed a person inside material conditions and within the company of other people; one function of public art is to learn, and teach, a simultaneity of experience and analysis; one function of public art is to undo the construction of the self.” (ibid, p385)

    Fourthly, lastly, Acconci writes of the tragedy or dream of public art. The way he writes of a disintegration/shattering operation of the public subject seems to echo strongly the loss of the limits self, of its definitions, into the crowd that Mitchell’s tent’s membrane so comically, deludedly, resists:

    Allan on subjective dissolution»>

    [a palliative breaking onto pieces?]

    clinging to the crannies»>

    “A public space now, in the world of flesh and blood, is only a dream: the dream of its own dissolution. The goal of public space is to dissolve into the nerves of the public (…) Their function of public art is to make or break a public space, it finds them where none existed before, in the nooks and crannies of privacy (in between buildings, under buildings, at the edge of buildings); the act of public art annexes territories into the public realm. On the other hand, it loses public spaces; it takes a space that’s ordained to be public – and institutionalized public space – and comes up from under it: the act of public art disintegrates the public space, so that the public can take it with them, on their backs or in their nerves.” (ibid, p398)

  7. “The unconscious changes form from archaeology to a cartography of motion as it passes from psychoanalysis to schizoanalysis.” »>

  8. Is this absence, or invisibility, the “white ink” Cixous spoke of in relation to l’ecriture feminine? A counter to the western male philosophical tradition of visibility? I will say no more… (See Susan Rubin Suleiman, Risking who one is: encounters with contemporary art and literature, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994, pp29-31 and p77.)

    In any case, art’s absence is discussed at length in Thomas Carl Wall’s Radical Passivity. He begins by describing the nature of the image as something that is passive, that perpetually precedes thought; is pure potential; the absence of that which comes later: “The image is fundamentally or essentially passive. It eludes all attempts to seize it because it occupies empty space. An image, quite simply, is nothing.” (Thomas Carl Wall, Radical Passivity: Levinas, Blanchot and Agamben, New York: State University of New York Press, 1999, p14)

    His writing urges us to see the difference between the artwork and our attempts to conceptualise them. He sees the work, the image, as a sort of hinterland that forever resists any sort of concrete articulation – despite the basic human-community need to make such attempts: “Beneath or beside one’s conceptual commerce with the world there remains a rhythmic participation whose immediacy drives out all thought. Aesthetic existence, in short, is perpetually suggestive, affirmative, influential, impersonal and immemorial.” (ibid, p16)

    This links to the gorgeous flows and becomings that Deleuze and Guattari rhapsodise about in 1,000 Plateaus; and, too, to the liberated work dreamed of by Clark: “The work of art will forever be arrested in the task of accomplishing the work of being.” And as an image is “rigorously uncertain”. (p22)

    Perhaps the public art work in its escape from the institution, manages an even greater passivity, freed from the customary drive-to-interpretaion of the commmodified gallery space. As Acconci pointed out “when a person enters a gallery/museum, that person announces himself/herself as an art-viewer; the art-viewer submits to the terms of the art arena, the art viewer agrees to be victim. Outside the gallery/museum, in a public place, there is no art-viewer; there are only passers-by, with different histories and varying biases. These people have not asked for art, when they come across a public art-work, they see it not as “art” but simply as something else in their world, something that hadn’t been there before.” (Acconci, op cit. p383)