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In October 2011, I organized an exhibition in Marfa, Texas.
I invited a handful of colleagues to make proposals, including artists, curators, an art historian, a philosopher, an architectural photographer, a writer, a critic, and an architect. The architect, of course, was Nina Safainia. The work she proposed, and that was eventually realized, established the outer limit—materially, conceptually, geographically—of all the projects in the exhibition. In a moment I’ll try to characterize those limits.
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To begin, however, I want to offer a few propositions, even though I’ll be courting the dangers of overgenerality. First, architecture is a public practice that it is directed towards people’s physicality before their subjectivity. Buildings address us bodily. There are paths we can and cannot take. The placement of a wall to mark a room is the same for you as it is for me, even if we differ in our interpretation about the consequences of that wall. Somehow this feels different than disagreeing about a painting or a sculpture. Sometimes, when sculpture gets ambitious it tries to assume the functions of architecture. That should signal to us the hierarchy of control at work here.
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If we draw a line between architecture and the plastic arts, we can formulate a certain kind of aesthetic narrative. But architecture’s bodily control can occupy a narrative outside the discourse of art and aesthetics. My second proposition is that architecture is primarily practiced outside of aesthetics, and is developed according to the requirements of real bodies performing real tasks in real space. Architecture both facilitates and delimits those bodies, tasks, and spaces.
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The next proposition is that most architecture is judged on its ability to facilitate its assigned tasks. When it can do so and at the same time send symbolic signals about those tasks, and the values they embody, all the better.
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Some architecture is explicitly tasked with emphasizing physical control as a top priority, especially as it relates to bodies. I’m thinking here of a prison. The wall of a prison cell is the endpoint of architecture’s mandate to limit the movement of bodies through space. The obdurate physicality of the prison wall generates its symbolic power, which in turn generates a rather dramatic proposition: this literal function releases into the world the metaphor that every wall, every act of architecture in general, holds within it a degree of imprisonment. And because architecture in this sense is strangely democratic (no one can walk through walls!), the metaphor primarily has force when considered in the context of the full body politic.
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One more thought, to unpack this idea of the «body politic». My analysis here persistently divides the individual into subject and object. The idea of physical control is directed towards a person’s objecthood, towards his body as a thing. Our collective objecthood is still the fountainhead of our political power: our political agency is rightly described, then, by this phrase body politic, rather than through a phrase that would privilege our subjectivity, like mind politic. It is by asserting our physical ability to be and to move, through space, that our political reality has the most force. My previous propositions about architecture are addressing this aspect of bodily control. Yet the question that remains to be addressed is how our subjectivity informs the needs of our selves as objects, far in excess of the brute material requirements of survival. Our selves as subjects require symbols; our selves as subjects expose the linguistic contradiction built into the phrase embodying values.
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Now, with these speculations in hand, I turn to the Safainia project in Marfa.
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Nina began with the mental image of the dusty jail cell, spread widely by popular American westerns. She wove this together with the seminal act in Jean Genet’s 1950 film Un Chant d’Amour, in which two prisoners create a small hole in the wall between their cells, through which they are able to pass the smoke from a cigarette. The smoke visibly materializes their breath, and as one inhales the other’s exhalations, a powerfully intimate exchange subverts the function of the architecture to divide them from each other.
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So Nina’s proposition to me was simple: punch a small hole in the wall of the gallery, and invite people to share a cigarette through this hole.
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I immediately appreciated both the subtlety and subversiveness of this proposal. I also knew right away that her proposal would not be possible, due to a long list of practical restrictions. Not least among these was the fact that the gallery walls were adobe, two feet thick, over 125 years old, and had a fresh plaster exterior. We would have to find another way to realize her idea.
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The eventual solution ultimately improved the proposal, because it drew out the power of the metaphor more nakedly. Nina suggested that we find a ruined building, which are abundant in that section of the southwestern United States, and perform the piece there. And to make the passage of breath through the hole more visually evident, a drinking straw should be used as the actual instrument of exchange.
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So we drove down from Marfa to the Mexican border, to a ghost town known as Terlingua. An old rampart, barren and sunbleached on the side of the road, was the perfect site. With drinking straws from the local Dollar General store, we positioned a person on either side of the wall, inserted the straws, made the exchange, and captured it in a photo.
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The specific conditions of this performance have been resonating with me in the months between its realization and my present composition of this commentary. I’ll try now to articulate the nakedness, the metaphor, the context, and their connection to my opening propositions.Although I was not fully aware of it at the time, my invitations to participate in this show became a way to challenge the «container» of art. The proposals I received, taken collectively, were a catalog of attempts to penetrate and destabilize the conventional relationships that allow a gallery context to present discrete artworks to autonomous viewers. Work after work invented a new subversion to this over-determined posture.
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At the far limit of this challenge to containment was Nina’s piece. First of all, it had no presence in the gallery itself, other than its checklist description: «Untitled, 2011, drinking straw and architectural intervention». Only five people made the drive to the border to perform the piece, which lasted barely ten minutes on the side of an empty desert highway.
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Jean Genet’s cinematic premise was recast at that moment in two important ways. One was the materiality of it: the celluloid support of film, carrying its image through the projector, was transformed into the dimensional column of the plastic drinking straw, literally delivering the breath from one subject to the other. The other transformation was that the rampart did not enclose and contain the two subjects, like a jail cell would. They simply stood on either side of it, which had the happy consequence of allowing us to take a good picture of both of them at the same time. This obviously differs significantly from the architectural conditions of prison.
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But for the sake of argument, wouldn’t it be possible to say that the exposure of both bodies, in the heat and light, available to the camera, introduces a nakedness to the metaphor of imprisonment? To willingly place oneself in that situation of being divided, and to enact this gesture of resistance...it becomes another act of will that calls forth the prison simply to defy it.
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And what is the nature of this defiance? Is it bound to the hole passing through the wall? I’m inclined to say that the public, democratic condition of architectural control is made intimate and individual by an act of dis-architecture. The place for personal meaning is found—or let’s say, excavated—from within the function of that wall, and explicitly against it. Architecture, as public practice, insists on objecthood; the articulation of the self, within those pathways of control, is an insistence on subjecthood. Nina Safainia’s project, with elegance and economy, draws this predicament out of its boxed-in container, out of the darkened theater, and into the desert sun.
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Nicholas Knight, New York 2012

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