Symposium summary report
2.1 Beatriz Colomina
Day two is opened by US-based architectural historian Beatriz Colomina, who presents her research in-progress into the relationship between modern architecture and medicine. The parallels between these two disciplines extend as far back as the Renaissance, particularly through the shared use of the sectional drawing, but, as Colomina argues, it is not until the 20th century with the development of new imaging techniques that architecture and medicine become truly intertwined.
“The widespread use of x-rays made new thinking about architecture possible.” Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium is likened to a ribcage; Le Corbusier creates roof terraces lifted above the “damp ground, breeding disease”; and most literally, Mies van der Rohe’s stripped back architecture of glass and steel is reduced to “just the skeleton.”
Beyond aesthetic metaphors, these same architects saw their buildings as medical equipment, offering measurable health benefits. Le Corbusier’s Radiant City plan is diagnosed as the cure for what he describes as “Tubercular Paris”, and Sigfried Giedion’s publication Liberated Dwellings: Light, Air and Opening chronicles examples of houses as sanatoria.
There are fewer contemporary examples to illustrate Colomina’s contention that this relationship between architecture and medicine continues, with the exception of CAT scan imagery used in the monographs of J.L Mateo and UN Studio. More convincingly, is the transfer of medical technology into the field of architectural production, notably Frank Gehry’s use of a laser guidance arm originally designed for brain surgery.
Questions from the audience try to relate this generally optimistic trip through history to more concerning trends today including the proliferation of CCTV and full-body scanners used in airport security. Colomina’s response — that just as we allowed the x-ray into our lives with little resistance, these more advanced forms of bodily examination would similarly be assimilated — left little faith in our ability to challenge the relentless march of technology and security.
2.2 Discussion: Hedy d’Acona, Matthijs Bouw and Beatriz Colomina, moderated by Arjen Oosterman
Of the two-day symposium, this session most explicitly examined the conditions and requirements of healthcare design. Dutch sociologist and politician Hedy d’Ancona began with a presentation on the value of design excellence in healthcare buildings, a passion of hers that has led to a new prize named in her honour recognising outstanding architecture in the health sector. The principle is simple — our environments have an important effect on our wellbeing and recovery — but nonetheless one that d’Ancona believes we have lost sight of today.
Matthijs Bouw of the firm One Architecture followed with a detailed tour through the complex maze of stakeholders, market demands, architectural heritage, and even religious ideologies of their St Jozef health centre in Deventer, awarded an honourable mention in d’Ancona’s award. Despite these manifold competing demands, Bouw managed to retain some criticality at the end of the process, offering an important counterpoint to the discussion of art’s instrumentality of day one. Even as a commissioned architect working within the market, it is possible to surreptitiously insert activism and a political agenda into a project.
The complexity and intelligence of Bouw’s design for St Jozef’s led Oosterman to speculate on why architects have retreated from politics in the past decades. Is it a complicity with the market? Or have we neglected our obligations to society? Colomina detects a renewed interest in criticality and responsibility at the exact moment we face the twin crises of economy and energy. This is ultimately positive, but suggests that architects’ interest in social causes is simply because corporate spending has dried up.
2.3 AA Bronson
Standing on the top step of nOffice’s bleachers, AA Bronson began his presentation with his ‘letter to Amsterdam’. Addressing all those gathered; the students; the queers; descendants of slaves; the immigrants of Surinam and Turkey; the marginalised; the abused; the persecuted; the Jews massacred in WW2; to those who died of HIV aids; Bronson invited them “to join us here to witness this discussion of art, curating and the pairing of this community of the living and the dead.”
This equally sensitive and confronting introduction prepared us for a chronological trip through Bronson’s work with the collective General Idea in the 80s and 90s. Mazes of glory holes; self-portraits as babies; Robert Indiana’s ‘LOVE’ image repurposed as ‘AIDS’; AZT pill sculptures; and finally the tragic documentation of Bronson’s partner’s frailty in the final stages of HIV illness, compared to the wasting away of holocaust victims.
After five years of “no longer knowing how to be an artist”, Bronson’s art practice and his role as healer converged. Healing sessions held in galleries, all night conversations, and even a range of elixirs, complete what Bronson describes as — quoting Beuys — “social sculpture.” As in the earlier presentation of Chto Delat, the distinction between Bronson’s art and life is blurred. “My healing practice is my art practice * my position as a healer restores me to life. By creating a social context I create a life for myself.”
2.4 Discussion: Nils van Beek, Mari Linnman and Sally Tallant, moderated by Mika Hannula
The final session of the symposium brought together three curators who each presented their own unique models of commissioning artworks and engaging the public in the context of healthcare.
Nils van Beek of SKOR offered examples where artists “wanted to make a real difference, not just make a symbolic gesture.” A robotic ape plays tic tac toe with patients in a mental health hospital, representing some resistance to the strict order of the institution. A train carriage is built in a nursing home to give the residents orientation, and an opportunity to withdraw from the relentlessly scheduled program. Van Beek saw these projects and others as contributing to “an ecology of care … a grassroots way of working that can be a real solution to these times.”
Mari Linnman, curator of the program New Patrons, described her role as a “mediator” hosting conversations over a number of years with a client group; a process that eventually leads to the commissioning of an artwork. Importantly, these projects are “not always politically correct or socially smooth; when it is correct, it often fails.”
“I don’t want art for a few any more than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few.” With this quote from William Morris, Sally Tallant of the Serpentine Gallery established her interest in reaching beyond the artistic community using tools not limited to the exhibition format. This ambition is not merely about involving people, as Tallant made clear, “it’s easy to make a populated practice, but not a participatory practice. Artists plus people does not necessarily lead to sustained engagement.” And sustained it is, like Linnman’s Les Nouveaux Commanditaires (New Patrons), a number of projects under Sally’s guidance have required years of investment in time and community interaction, far beyond the usual level of engagement for an arts institution. Projects relating to ‘care’ included the simple act of introducing Skype into a nursing home, overcoming a draconian ban on internet usage; and the swapping of the artwork in a nursing home with that of the gallery and inviting children to engage with the reality of ageing.
The simplicity and power of all the projects presented led to what felt like a moment of realisation regarding the entire symposium. As Andrea Phillips summarised: “art has been getting in the way of the real issue, isn’t the real focus on the quality of the relationships of all the people involved? … To get to that space, I think we have to put art to one side.” While this may sound like a dismissal of the power of art to initiate change, in fact these types of engagements between people could offer seeds for an alternative model for society. “We need to identify ways in which public acting can be exemplary. The forms we are being offered — such as ‘big society’ — are not good enough and we need to publicise the alternatives we are producing.”
Actors, Agents and Attendants is a series of symposia initiated by SKOR | Foundation for Art and Public Domain
Concept and Format Fulya Erdemci (SKOR), Andrea Phillips (Goldsmiths, University of London) and Markus Miessen (nOffice)
SKOR Editorial Team Nils van Beek, Mariska van den Berg, Christina Li, Theo Tegelaers
Curator Expert Meetings Mariska van den Berg
Curator Artist Positions and Film Programme Christina Li
Project Coordinator and Co-curator Artist Positions Fleur van Muiswinkel
Project Assistants Hanneke Janssens and Simone Kleinhout
Curatorial Assistant Film Programme and Symposium Benoit Loiseau
Communication and PR Nienke van Beers
Logistics Merel Driessen
Spatial Design nOffice
SKOR | Foundation for Art and Public Domain is an internationally operating art institution based in Amsterdam, which advises, develops and creates art projects in relation to public spaces. SKOR forms alliances and partnerships with art institutions, central and provincial governments, healthcare and educational institutions, project developers and architectural offices, in order to create a collective platform for art in public domain. The projects organized by SKOR react to socio-political changes in society and new developments in contemporary art, urban design and landscape architecture. Through addressing such current topics, SKOR contributes to the debate about the politics of the public domain.