Dossier | Circulation and Contradiction in Adrian Blackwell’s Furnishing Positions | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Circulation and Contradiction in Adrian Blackwell’s Furnishing Positions

  • Adrian Blackwell, Furnishing Positions (Configuration 2), 2014, vue d’installation | installation view, Blackwood Gallery, Mississauga. Photo : Adrian Blackwell, permission de | courtesy of the artist & Blackwood Gallery
  • Adrian Blackwell, Model for a Public Space [speaker], 2008, vue d’installation | installation view, The Art Gallery of Mississauga. Photo : Adrian Blackwell, permission de l’artiste | courtesy of the artist

Circulation and Contradiction in Adrian Blackwell’s Furnishing Positions
By Michael DiRisio

Circulation implies a movement, an action. Rarely is this action direct, however, as circulation simultaneously acts within and across networks, as when we speak of a “newspaper’s circulation.” Recent works by Adrian Blackwell emphasize and problematize this form of circulation, while reconstructing the exhibition as a form of exchange and dialogue, however asymmetrical this exchange may be. But that is the nature of circulation; it is not symmetrical, not balanced, but twisted into knots and contradictions. An exhibition is similarly never open equally to all, with levels of engagement influenced by everything from education to leisure time, much of which is further impacted by a growing class divide. As print and digital distribution methods increasingly challenge limits imposed by spatial constraints the exhibition is opened further, though even this requires technological means, literacy, and access which is not always present.

It is this asymmetry, these contradictions, that make Blackwell’s project Furnishing Positions (2014) appropriate for a consideration of circulation. Furnishing Positions exists in three parts, each of which involves a different level of engagement for the viewer or participant. The project includes the construction of a large, modular amphitheatre-like structure, the printing of a series of broadsheets addressing various dimensions of public space, and a series of conversations that take place in the gallery space. Operating on these three levels turns the work itself into a contradiction, as it is at once both a closed body of writing and an inclusive, embodied conversation. The amphitheatre structure acts as a platform for both of these forms, and was open for use by classes and public groups during the exhibition’s run, which allowed for an even greater range of activation.

The work itself seemed to circulate throughout the gallery, with the circular seating structure spanning much of the floor space and the broadsheets gradually covering more of one wall as each new issue was printed. The seating structure continues a use of form and material that has been present in Blackwell’s past works, including Model for Public Space (2000, 2006) and Circles Describing Spheres (2014), where he encourages dialogue as visitors are invited to sit together facing one another. This contrasts with the functioning of many modern public spaces, where exchanges are often unavoidable but nevertheless diminished, as many public areas are constructed in a way that allows for as minimal an exchange as possible. In his works Blackwell moves this exchange to the centre, however, making it nearly impossible to sit alone.

Blackwell’s motivation in developing Furnishing Positions was to explore the social and political dimensions of public space, focusing on a consideration of space as a paradox. He writes that “it is not that public space today appears contradictory, rather that spaces of public authority and private economy are themselves contradictory, and public space is the construction of a spatial and material argument that brings their contradictions to light.”(1) He points to the significance of both public authority, as a development of nation-states, and private economy, or the space of the market, as two central factors in the production of any public space. While these two realms are on the one hand contradictory, he argues that they are simultaneously engaged in the same project within the expansion of capitalism. “These two forms of enclosure — one by the market, the other by the state — appear as opposites, but they function as complementary dimensions of neoliberalism, which pursues a relentless opening of markets while intensifying society’s social and economic disparities.” (2) The work has a similar tension with the exhibition existing not as a static form but a platform, at once open to engagement and interaction yet enclosed in a gallery space that is not equally engaged by all.

Dialogue and Digital Media
This intensive opening can, however, be useful even for those whom it seeks to exploit, as the advances in communications technology allow for an unprecedented level of information to be circulated. Political theorist Silvia Federici addresses the irony of this opening, stating that while the new enclosures continually ensnare more property and relations, these enclosures simultaneously produce “new forms of social cooperation” through new technologies. (3) This theme is taken up in Issue 03 of the Furnishing Positions broadsheet, in which Greig de Peuter explores the relation between the physical and digital dimensions of contemporary public space. He argues that the rise of digital networks allows for a greater degree of organization and mobilization than previously, given digital media’s lack of spatial contraints.

De Peuter is quick to add a caveat, however, claiming that while organizing is made easier, these new media also open up public spaces to new forms of work. He states that “laptops, tablets, smartphones, SMS, ubiquitous connectivity, and the now mobile Internet are among the digital resources furnishing public space as a setting for the diffuse performance of mediated labour.” (4) Public parks and cafés are increasingly used as ‘worksites’ rather than sites of leisure or casual conversation. While the labour movement may find these media particularly useful given the lack of labour consolidation and declining union membership across North America, workers are simultaneously put at a disadvantage. This is especially pronounced in the realm of creative labour, where those working in the arts have experienced most noticeably the dissolution of a divide between labour and leisure. Federici similarly qualifies her optimism, writing that many overlook the socially and ecologically destructive processes, such as mining and rare earth production, that are involved in producing these technologies. She remains positive overall, however, calling alongside de Peuter for a greater employment of these new media for anti-capitalist ends, even if the means for this resistance remains embedded in the system.

Federici and de Peuter also agree that neither physical nor digital media should be placed above the other. It is increasingly clear that digital media will not replace other forms of communication and exchange, but rather become interwoven with them. The combination of media present in Furnishing Positions is emblematic of this interweaving. The broadsheets were fairly complex constructions in themselves, with Blackwell commissioning six writers and six artists to respond to a series of issues relating to public space. Each broadsheet had writing on one side and a related artist project on the other, and the series was gradually pinned on the wall of the gallery, with other copies available for viewers to take away. When I first visited the exhibition I sat on the structure next to my partner, where we spoke briefly, reflected on the work, then both turned to our respective broadsheets and read for a while. Another young man entered the gallery, walked around for a short time, and then left. At one point I checked my phone to read more about the exhibition, and found that I could access PDF files of the broadsheets through the Blackwood Gallery’s website. It became clear that the various levels of engagement that the project operated on were not exclusive, and that a typical viewer would likely interact in various ways, possibly at the same time.

While dialogue was a central theme of the work, the gallery was surprisingly quiet. But that is true of many forms of media, both old and new. Following the advent of the printing press, reading was criticized for promoting isolation and harming people’s sense of community, much as mobile phones have been more recently. This does not mean that dialogue did not exist in the exhibition, as the broadsheets represented an interesting display of dialogue between the collaborating artists and writers, and the circulation of these publications encourages future conversation. The writing was meant to respond to the artist’s project displayed on the reverse side, while each subsequent issue responded to themes taken up in previous issues. This collective dialogue was then available for the viewer to reflect upon, and the provocations and paradoxes presented were certainly intended to promote conversation among viewers. While this dialogue represents an opening, it remains in many ways quite closed; this is not a criticism of the exhibition but a reality of socially engaged exhibitions in general. This is further complicated by the subsequent circulation of documentation, catalogues, or periodicals addressing socially engaged work, wherein the work is muted and rendered static. When the exhibition is itself a medium — for dialogue, participation, etc. — it cannot help but have the same shortcomings of other media, where the asymmetry of their circulation is often unavoidable.

Power and Production
This asymmetry typically contributes to a power imbalance between those who are permitted to act and those who are not. While some of Blackwell’s past works sought to invert this power relation — as with Public Water Closet (1998), where public toilets intended for use by the homeless were outfitted with a one-way mirror that allowed those inside to watch the public, rather than be watched — Furnishing Positions instead problematized these relations. Though some elements of Furnishing Positions might have appeared to maintain a clear divide between production and reception, such as the sculptural installation, those that involved circulation and conversation saw this divide begin to dissolve. To the extent that the sculpture was itself a vehicle or platform for these exchanges, it was similarly not fully complete as a work until an exchange took place.

Will Straw, in his essay “The Circulatory Turn,” writes that this dissolution is true of circulation more broadly. He states that “[c]irculation is not just a third level of analysis (like ‘distribution’ in the study of the cultural industries), but names the point at which production and reception have collapsed as meaningful moments.” (5) This expanded definition of circulation is useful when considering participatory or socially engaged exhibitions, as a discussion of the producer and that which they have produced often misses the point. Straw states that while circulation is gaining greater attention as a concept in art theory and cultural studies, we remain entrenched in a form of analysis that typically hinges on the relation between producer and receiver. He argues that we should instead consider “matrices of interconnection,” (6) or the networks that develop between and across works.

Blackwell’s emphasis on dialogue and conversation is certainly in line with this conception. So too is his interest in contradiction, though this may not be immediately apparent. The word “contradict” is derived from contra, or oppose, and dicere, meaning to speak. While contradictions are commonly thought to nullify one claim or another, it can at times be more productive to allow both claims to exist in their opposition. This is true of the construction of a paradox, which is not right or wrong, but necessarily conflicted. An interest in paradox does not involve the discovery of fact or fiction, but rather allows for a more nuanced exploration of complex systems and constructs. This is why the paradox is appropriate for a consideration of public space, whether we are referring to an exhibition space, street, or public park. These are inherently social spaces, and as such are complex, messy, varied, and conflicted; an apt reflection of the diverse individuals and communities that have constructed them.

(1) Adrian Blackwell, “Six Paradoxes of Public Space,” Furnishing Positions, Issue 00 (September 1, 2014).
(2) Ibid.
(3) Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 139.
(4) Greig de Peuter, “Public Space as Workspace,” Furnishing Positions, Issue 03 (October 13, 2014).
(5) Will Straw, “The Circulatory Turn,” in The Wireless Spectrum: The Politics, Practices and Poetics of Mobile Media (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 25.
(6) Ibid, 23.

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