Flux = Rad

Since a major premise of Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio is based on questioning the canonical function of the museum exhibition, I like to think that Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio would enjoy the reasons I get excited about the Whitney Museum of American Art. The first reason being the fact that indie rockers Stephen Malkmus and David Berman worked there as security guards after graduating from college. The second is the chance to follow around high school students and talk to them about the paintings. If you’re worried about the state of American contemporary art you should know that our nation’s high school students are all WAY better than de Kooning, Rothko, and Hopper.

Such sentiments are similar to criticism I occasionally hear deriding Diller + Scofidio as “non-architects.” (The best part is that many of these people aren’t architects either. But neither am I.) For some Levi-Strauss types, architecture needs to be free from the messiness of other disciplines. However, the engagement between architecture, media and other topics that pervade Diller + Scofidio’s work results in built projects that question and expand the ways in which we consider architecture and its relationship with culture. The challenge of the museum setting is how to integrate the dynamic aspects of architecture in a static space with, usually, static observers.

If you decide to walk up to the fourth floor to Scanning the echo of a female voice asking, “Hey you, you wanna buy a full set of encyclopedias with a four-color atlas?” greets you in the stairwell. Unless you’re particularly observant you probably won’t notice the tiny screen showing the video portion of Soft Sell (1993). In its interrogation Soft Sell engages the viewer, starting the process of making visitors active participants in the exhibit. The museum has already changed the experience of the piece. Imagine Times Square just starting to clean up in 1993, with Soft Sell peddling hot tips in the windows of a former house-o-porn—the original installation is so specific to a time and place that I can only consider the work in its current Whitney-fied context.

Compared to the other floors the fourth floor is noisy. The drill that makes holes in the walls every two minutes is actually pretty quiet, but the audio from the installations flows through the rooms and people are chatty. I think the garrulousness is a good sign—people are interacting and thinking about the questions that Diller + Scofidio ask.

In questioning the conventions of everyday life it’s a thin line between pedagogical insight and dogmatism. Diller + Scofidio usually traipse comfortably along on the side of the former with just a few lapses. The most glaring example of the latter is Pageant (1997). The animation projected on the ground of corporate logos morphing into one another over an ominous buzz is not a trenchant commentary on the consolidation of corporations. It’s hackneyed and succeeds at being overdone and warmed over at the same time. The most interesting thing about Pageant is the white streaks on the black wall caused by the drill from Mural. But it does get better.

Diller + Scofidio’s long-standing work regarding the relationship between museums and architecture is executed through Mural (2003). As with Para-site (1989) at MoMA and Tourisms: suitCase Studies (1991) at Walker Art Center (recreated in Scanning), Mural upends museum conventions by gradually destroying the boundaries between exhibit rooms. Every two minutes the computer-controlled drill puts a hole in a random spot in the wall. By the time Scanning ends the divisions between the rooms will be practically non-existent. In a museum setting it is often difficult to maintain the power of architecture and avoid presenting architecture solely as “art.” As one possible solution to this quandary, Mural is nearly perfect—the architecture of the exhibit becomes dominant. What is on or separated by the walls is less important than what is happening to the spaces. The architecture is not a passive entity, but something of constant notice.

Given my enjoyment of watching people interacting in museums, I spend a few minutes observing how people cross into the room with The American Lawn: Surfaces of Everyday Life (1998). Taking over the width and length of the foyer is The American Lawn: Welcome Mat, a camera pan of a suburban lawn, following the movement of a sprinkler, projected onto the floor. Just about every visitor hesitates for a few seconds while staring at the ground before tip-toeing across the projected image. Some look around furtively as if they’re waiting for someone else to cross first to make sure they’re doing it correctly or to avoid the security guard who might admonish them. A couple people cling to the wall as they make their way across the image and into the room. The joke’s on them, as The American Lawn features View-Master-type slides of suburban neighbors’ abutted lawns and the radical differences between the two sides of the property line. The American Lawn portrays our obsessive conventions of lawn and garden care with deftness and humor. Diller + Scofidio aren’t telling you that you suck because you’re anal about your lawn and secretly hate your next door neighbor for putting that windmill right next to the property line; they’re just pointing out that a few things about quotidian life are a bit strange.

The largest piece in the exhibition, Master/Slave (1999), features small robots running systematically along a track, but no one’s actually looking at it. Everyone is staring instead at the screens with surveillance camera footage of the robots moving. The first time I noticed this, the obnoxious grad student in me almost wet her pants over the number of references to Baudrillard and Foucault just waiting to be cited about this scene. But then I realized it would make me that girl, so I’ll just say that if you’re like me and easily amused, then it’s pretty funny to watch. Besides the homage to Duchamp evidenced in the Tourism: suitCase Studies installation, Uncovered (2003) hangs as part of the wall in the room. Previously the home of a famous urinal at pre-QNS MoMA, Uncovered is supposedly the only piece of wall immune from the drill, but the twenty-seven holes drilled in a 9 x 3 in. rectangle in the upper-right corner prove otherwise.

From Mural to the projections on the floors, Scanning constantly calls attention to the architectural spaces of the exhibit. Those who examine Diller + Scofidio’s oeuvre and dismiss them as “non-architects” miss the point. Through their multidisciplinary approach Diller + Scofidio honor and challenge architecture in a way that would not be possible if they limited their practice to redoing lofts. Architecture is too important and difficult for relegation into just one field of inquiry. In much of their work in performance art, theater, and multimedia, Diller + Scofidio call attention to the setting, blurring the lines between the space and the action, making sure that we know that the built environment matters. The paucity of examples of more traditional architectural projects is initially disappointing, but there’s just enough (Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Eyebeam in Manhattan, Slow House, Blur Building) to serve as evidence of Diller + Scofidio’s inventiveness and thought translated through architecture.

I found one other encouraging pedagogical function of Scanning that’s less amorphous. You don’t need to know a lot about art or architecture to understand Diller + Scofidio’s concerns. Scanning works against the idea of museum as mausoleum; instead it interrogates and provokes the visitor. All around are questions—Why are we so fastidious about our lawns and property? What does it mean to be a tourist? Why are we looking? What is the relation between our actions and our environment? And are our responses affected because these questions and ideas are presented in these forms and spaces? Diller + Scofidio have created works that make art and architecture vehicles for learning and thinking, not just things to be stared at vacuously. It would be no bad thing if Scanning encouraged some to look closer, read and learn about art and architecture, so the next time they see de Kooning’s Woman and Bicycle their first thought won’t be “My kid could do that.”