Informal Architecture Thematic Residency

Media & Visual Arts

Program dates: September 13, 2004 - October 31, 2004

Application deadline: April 30, 2004

(The Banff Centre hosts a symposium on Informal Architectures from October 28 to 31, 2004.)

Program Details


"As practice and as theory, architecture must import and export."
-- Bernard Tschumi 1

Informal Architecture is a thematic residency in Media and Visual Arts at The Banff Centre. For seven weeks, artists, architects, curators, writers, designers and theorists will gather to think about, discuss, and create works related to the representation, construction and interpretation of space. Whether architectural, sculptural, virtual, image-based or conceptual—of special interest will be looking at those representations or structures that exemplify a relationship to formlessness, the unbuilt or contingent. Other analogies include weakness, inconsistency, contingency, or failure. "Weakness" implies projects that have not—or could not—be realized. Informal Architecture will explore material concerns, theory, and fiction in visual and spatial culture and architecture. Revisiting the binary opposition of form versus content, Informal Architecture will explore new relationships to architectural history and modernism; the dissolution of boundaries and works or ideas that are temporary, nomadic, hypothetical, historical, and fictional conceptions of space.

Applications are welcome from artists, architects, curators, theorists, writers, and other cultural producers to participate in the residency in Media and Visual Arts at The Banff Centre, located in The Banff National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. The residency is seven weeks. The thematic residency program is intended to create opportunities for artists, designers, architects (whether registered or not), writers, curators and theorists with shared interests to gather in a peer-to-peer professional environment. It is not intended to prescribe a specific kind of practice. While relevance of the artist’s work to the theme is a criterion for acceptance, the theme should be interpreted as broadly and imaginatively as desired.

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This residency will provide opportunities to research new, conceptions of architecture and space from multiple perspectives. For 2000 years western architecture was founded upon tenets of beauty, solidity and utility. The Tower of Babel is an archetypal icon in literature and art (think of Breughel’s painting) that relates the story of an architectural failure underpinned by social experience. It is an iconographic representation of the intersection between architecture, failure and social thought.

Since the late 1960s, conceptions of architecture have incorporated social factors, informed by what exists—space, the body, movement, history—and their manifestations including performance, spectacle and relationships. Theorists such as Jurgen Habermas, after the Frankfurt School, created a means by which to interpret the social dimensions of space and its construction, representation and interpretation. The conceptual art projects of the 1960s and 70s paralleled the work of "paper architects," whose projects were never meant to be realized as built structures, but rather as hypothetical ideas which leant themselves to critiquing traditional means and assumptions associated with architecture. It was in the sixties, according to art historian Rosalind Krauss’s formulation that sculpture began to play in an "expanded field" (with the development of installation and earth works, etc). The last decade of contemporary art and architectural practice has intensified the relationship between art and architecture.

The inter-disciplinary within both visual art and architectural practices makes the distinction between these fields permeable and shifting. Theorist Anthony Vidler states, "Artists, rather than simply extending their terms of reference to the three-dimensional, take on questions of architecture as an integral and critical part of their work in installations that seek to criticize the traditional terms of art. Architects, in a parallel way, are exploring the processes and forms of art, often on the terms set out by artists, in order to escape the rigid codes of functionalism and formalism. This intersection has engendered a kind of "intermediary art," comprised of objects that, while situated ostensibly in one practice, require the interpretive terms of another for their explication." 2

If we take structures—physical or imagined spaces—as containers of memory and cultural or social meanings, the study of space as culture opens up multiple discourses. Informed by art, architecture, fiction, poetry, landscape, geography, history and philosophy, this residency will look at informal architecture as an analogical and metaphorical umbrella for understanding space. Furthermore, with a resuscitated interest in conceptual art through the late 1990s, and widespread preoccupation with questions around space—its construction, representation, and use in the visual arts, it is timely to consider l’informe as a connecting theme in ideas around spatial culture.

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Informal Architecture

"…l’informe is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each things have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit."
-- Georges Bataille 3

"…Taste it, suck on it for a while, spit it out."
-- Rita McKeough 4

Informal Architecture will encompass multiple methodologies of studying that which is, either intentionally or not, formless or lacking, contingent, imperfect, temporary, unbuilt, weak. The unbuilt has associations with recent theory of l’informe (formless). First proposed by Georges Bataille, l’informe breaks down the binary thinking of form versus content which dominated modern art.

This research was explored in the Centre Pompidou exhibition L’informe: Mode d-emploi (1996), curated by Rosalind Kraus and Yves-Alain Bois. Bataille’s conception of spatial destruction, and anti-architectural matter such as spittle, finds an echo within the clear gestures of Gordon Matta-Clark’s "splitting." There are direct links between popular culture and public space as sites of social communication. Both popular culture and public spaces structure and also conceal the processes of cultural representation. Matta-Clark saw his cuts as opening up social information. "’By undoing a building,’ Matta-Clark said, ‘[I] open a state of enclosure which had been preconditioned not only by physical necessity but by the industry that [proliferates] suburban and urban boxes as a context for insuring a passive isolated consumer.’ Matta-Clark noted that in his work Splitting, "What the cutting’s done is to make the space more articulated, but the identity of the building as a place, as an object, is strongly preserved, enhanced." 5

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Through the 1980s the feminist deconstruction of space proposed a re-examination of assumptions around space as a gendered construction. The work of Canadian artist Rita McKeough is particularly relevant. In a series of performances and gallery installations that saw the artist tear apart walls—at times eating these structures—we are reminded particularly of Bataille’s connection between spittle and destruction of spaces. Working from a feminist perspective, McKeough’s work resonates with the l’informe.

Architectural theorist Anthony Vidler states, "Folds, blobs, nets, skins, diagrams: all words that have been employed to describe theoretical and design procedures over the last decade, and that have rapidly replaced the cuts, rifts, faults and negations of deconstruction, which had previously displaced the types, signs, structures and morphologies of rationalism. The new vocabulary has something to do with contemporary interest in the l'informe…" 6

The work of architects Herzog & de Meuron, who count art gallery exhibitions as integral to their work, reflects an association with the transient and contingent. Herzog & de Meuron are attracted to "structures that appear as if they may be disassembled at any time." 7 The Blur Building (2002), "an inhabitable cloud," created by a mist of tiny water particles, created by architects Diller + Scofidio, echoes the Bubble Machines (1964—95) of artist David Medalla. Medalla’s sculptures, sometimes created on the facades of buildings, oozed foam from minimalist sculpture. "…The emerging foam disturbingly exceeded these orderly and static forms and introduced a completely new, kinetic and organic understanding of the cellular and repetitive. In fact the structure of the Bubble Machine was dialectical at both formal and philosophical levels. Creation proceeded inseparably from destruction, the fullness and monumentality of form was accompanied by its complete evaporation, it was simultaneously a material ‘something’ and an immaterial ‘nothing.’" 8

L’informe has a relationship with other recent theory around abjection, lack and weakness that proliferated in the 1990s contemporary art world, under such labels as "the pathetic aesthetic." Little of this theme was expressed in terms of failure specifically related architecture. In broad terms postmodernism itself proposed a questioning of modernism’s inherent "universal" themes of transcendence and mastery. As unfashionable as it may now be to mention deconstruction, does the word itself not summarize the idea of "unbuilding"?

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In 1969, Dick Higgins and Wolf Vostell published Fantastic Architecture with the groundbreaking Something Else Press. In this delicious volume, contemporary artists were asked to create proposals for architecture that exceeded the possibilities of orthodox designs for spaces.

In the book Unbuilt America, George R. Collins wrote, "The major categories of unbuiltness would appear to be (1) not carried out as planned; (2) not really intended by its instigator to be "done"; and (3) begun but never completed. The first would be considered to be a negative situation (although the intention would appear quite positive), the second to be a positive situation (although the intention would appear to be quite negative), and the third to be half-and-half." 9

Similarly, in 1997 curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Guy Tortosa published Unbuilt Roads: 107 Unrealized Projects in which artists presented projects in the visual arts that, for a variety of reasons, were not realized. The curators wrote, "Unlike unrealized architectural models and projects submitted for competitions, which are frequently published, endeavours in the visual arts that are planned but not carried out ordinarily remain unnoticed or little known." 10

The idea of imagining the impossible in architecture lends itself to the practice of fiction. To propose the impossible, or even the unlikely, implies a pre-determined failure of sorts, but fiction provides an avenue for creative expression freed from applied design or built realities.

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Virtual reality’s popularity through the 1990s opened up new discourses in architecture, from building and imagining virtual environments, to quasi-applied "bubble architecture," where the plans for structures that could only be made with the assistance of computers and complex algorithms spawned an entire culture of bubble architects. "Both the new vocabulary and its materializations intersect with and take their techniques from digital technology; indeed many of the projected and built designs would be unrealizable, if not unimaginable, without it. They are words and forms conceived and manipulated in a virtual space, with, nevertheless, an intimate relationship to production techniques and the technology of materials." 11

But the impracticalities of virtual reality led to a burst bubble, as implied by the French filmmaker Chris Marker: "Virtual reality is extremely fashionable these days. Now to be frank, to obtain something manageable in that field you need a lot of hardware and know-how. It occurred to me that, for the average user, there is an acceptable approximation to Virtuality, namely Reality, otherwise know as Outside World." 12

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Social and identity politics of the 1980s and 90s also questioned the moral assumptions implied by the work of artists and architects. Questions of inherent rights and land claims in Canada by Aboriginal peoples made the politics of space present in the consciousness of society at large, questions that remain largely unresolved. Furthermore, ideas of nomadism and psychogeography made popular by French theorists, (Deleuze and Guttari and the Situationists_, seldom discuss the traditional knowledge and contemporary experiences of Indigenous cultures who are nomads by choice or political realities, and have centuries of experience with nomadism.

All of these critiques of space—whether physical, social, feminist, psychoanalytical, or technological—imply a desire or necessity for unbuilding. Failure, as it implies a desire to not realize, an inadequacy, contingency, or desire to destroy, is a port manteau for the unbuilt. Through this research one can discover how weakness can be enabling, and dismantle binary structures.

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While this residency will explore a series of questions of vital interest to artists, these questions are ultimately relateable and relevant to broader publics. The unbuilt in this context extends beyond the literal sense of weak structures—although the resonances of architectural catastrophes are notable here following September 11, 2001. In the popular imagination, this might be represented in collective memory by media images of the World Trade Center collapsing, resonating the Tower of Babel. Such icons of loss and disaster are emblematic of how the subjects of this residency touch on knowledge that extends beyond the proceedings of a specialist community, to a study of space in the popular imagination. In this way Informal Architecture elicits our nightmares, dreams and desires.

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1 Bernard Tschumi. Architecture and Disjunction. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996, 17.

2 Anthony Vidler, Warped Space. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1985, ix.

3 Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927—1939, ed. and trans. Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985, 31.

4 Rita McKeough, in The Feminist Reconstruction of Space. Louise May, ed. Winnipeg: St. Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre, 2000, 51.

5 Dan Graham. Rock My Religion, edited by Brian Wallis. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993, 198.

6 Anthony Vidler, Warped Space. Cambridge, MIT Press, vii.

7 Philip Ursprung, ed. Herzog & de Meuron: Natural History. Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture with Lars Muller Publishers, 2002, 16.

8 Guy Brett. Exploding Galaxies: The Art of David Medalla. London, Kala Press, 1995, 53.

9 Alison Sky and Michelle Stone, intro. by George R. Collins. Unbuilt America: Forgotten Architecture in the United States from Thomas Jefferson to the Space Age. New York, Abeville Press, 1976.

10 Hans Ulrich Obrist and Guy Tortosa, eds. Unbuilt Roads. Berlin: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1997, n.p.

11 Anthony Vidler, , Warped Space. Cambridge, MIT Press, vii.

12 Chris Marker in do it. Hans Ulrich Obrist, ed. New York: Independent Curators Incorporated, 1997, 56.

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All programs, faculty, dates, fees, and offers of financial assistance are subject to change. Program fee subject to applicable taxes. Non-refundable fees and deposits will be retained upon cancellation. Any other fees are refunded at the discretion of The Banff Centre.