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Comment> Expanded Field Expanded
Ila Berman and Douglas Burnham explore architectural experimentation through installations.
Architecture in the Expanded Field exhibit at the Wattis Institute of Contemporary Art, California College of the Arts in Oakland.
Cesar Rubio

At the end of the 1970s, art theorist and critic Rosalind Krauss wrote a seminal text entitled “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” It was an attempt to both locate and analyze vanguard sculptural practices of the time, such as the work of Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Mary Miss, and Donald Judd whose artistic output had moved beyond the limits of traditional sculpture and entered the realms of architecture and landscape. She classified these works as site constructions, marked sites, and axiomatic structures. Krauss developed a new classification strategy that recognized the expansive terrain that sculpture was beginning to occupy and its malleability as a medium, while also appreciating the difficulty of defining contemporary artistic practices whose most innovative moments seemingly demanded the transgression of traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Over the past three decades, the boundaries between art and architecture have continued to blur, giving rise to a series of works known as installations whose conceptual, spatial, and material trajectories have generated a new and expanding network of relations between the domains of architecture, interiors, sculpture, and landscape. At the same time, the range of institutional venues advancing architectural installation practices, such as the PS1 program spawned by MoMA in New York and the Serpentine Gallery’s annual architectural pavilion in London, for example, have provided platforms to intensify the production and reach of contemporary installations. By contextually bracketing out architecture’s typical economic, functional, and scalar constraints, they have also enabled installation practices to occur within an experimental laboratory that has provided fertile ground in support of architecture’s own evolution. Operating at the margins of normative practice, installations have contributed to the redefinition and progressive development of architecture’s disciplinary territory allowing architects to explore spatial and tectonic ideas, experiment with emerging technological strategies, and distill perceptual and experiential conditions without the limitations traditionally imposed by the permanence and utility of building.

The show that we designed and co-curated, Architecture in the Expanded Field, the third installment in The Way Beyond Art series put on by the Wattis Institute of Contemporary Art at the California College of the Arts, is simultaneously an immersive installation and a didactic exhibition. It is a response to the question of how to exhibit architecture within the space of contemporary art, while also revealing a territory within architectural practice that, despite its exuberance and proliferation, has been historically defined as a negativity: the progeny of which is both not-architecture and not-art. Following the legacy of Krauss, we therefore set out to explore the realm of art and architecture across a broad terrain of installation practices while mapping these as constellations within a newly expanded field suspended between Architecture, Interiors, Sculpture, and Landscape. Within the exhibition, these terms become the initial reference points that are used to elaborate a more extensive taxonomical framework defining twelve distinct zones where the analytical drawings and photographic indexes of seventy-five installation projects are situated.

As one moves within the exhibition along the trajectory from interiors to sculpture, for example, one finds the immersive chromatic environments of Carlos Cruz-Diez and Olafur Eliasson, the thermal and radiant atmospheres of Philippe Rahm, the intensely graphic patterned surfaces of Jürgen Mayer and Yayoi Kusama, and the interactive mediated light landscapes of Ryoji Ikeda and Julio Le Parc. These installations foreground immersive atmospheric spaces rather than sculptural objects, collectively they define Chromatic/ Graphic Immersion, one of the twelve installation typologies organizing this exhibition. In a slight shift of direction, located along the trajectory from interiors toward landscape, are a different series of installation projects including the undulating orange strata of Bamscape and the pink spongy terrain of Mute Room, two works by Thom Faulders both of which redefine ground as a programmed surface and occupiable topography. Here, the concept of landscape enables new continuities to exist between architecture and the body eliminating the need for furniture while imbuing space with thickened geological attributes that reassess the conditions of inhabitation.

The expanded field diagram is a conceptual framework that operates on many levels. It acts as a lens through which to theorize and classify the trajectories of current installation practices. It serves as an infrastructure to organize the didactic surface content of the exhibition. And, it forms the invisible structural matrix that is physically realized in the configuration of the installation itself. The four vertices marking the peripheral points of the expanded field are therefore mapped directly onto four of the eight corners of the gallery, literally inscribing the new expanded field diagram within the space. These points define the virtual surface of a tetrahedral envelope within which the actual frame of the architectural installation is embedded. The curatorial diagram is thus projected into space and stretched like a suspended landscape across the gallery. Physically inscribing the expanded field within the space ensures that the visitor concurrently experiences the architecture of the installation and navigates the exhibition content by literally occupying the space of the three-dimensional diagram, whereby the map of the expanded field and the plan of the construct within the gallery are conflated into one thickened projective surface.

Operating simultaneously as an architectural frame, interior space, sculptural object, and topological surface, this floating translucent installation negotiates between these four distinct disciplinary domains while enfolding them within a singular spatial and material manifestation. It is a full-scale immersive environment constituted by 96 unique yet continuous interlocking acrylic bands that snake through the space of the gallery, guiding bodies to haptically follow their undulating surfaces. Within this highly interiorized and suspended architectural labyrinth, made up of aggregated cells each no larger than the dimensions of a single body, space is compressed and filled to establish an equivalence between body, space, and object so that the serpentine movements of acrylic strands and visitors, and the pixelated fields of occupants and data, might generate a new thickened atmosphere within the space of viewing.

The surface of the panels themselves, a series of drawings generated for this exhibition which expose the techniques through which architects describe and analyze spatial production, are indices of the architectural that oscillate between material texture, graphic description, and diagrammatic information, their translucency highlighting the challenge that matter and its immersion pose to legibility and vice versa. Perhaps we have now come full circle, where the proliferation of data, image, and text and the impermanence of cultural construction, is no longer the threat to architecture that Victor Hugo had once claimed in his famous proclamation: “ceci tuera cela,” or “this will kill that”. Rather, as in this installation and those that it attempts to collect and categorically re-situate, we might imagine that this work not only constitutes the new expanded field of contemporary architectural practice, but is also the matter out of which our architectural future will be built.

Ila Berman and Douglas Burnham

Ila Berman and Douglas Burnham curated and designed the installation, Architecture in the Expanded Field which ran at CCA’s Wattis Institute from March 5 through April 7. Ila Berman is the director of architecture at CCA. Architect Douglas Burnham is on the faculty and principal of envelope a+d.