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We perceive architecture, Walter Benjamin thought, in two ways: by look and by touch. Optical and tactile. Our optical perception of something develops over time: looking at something for a long time leads us into contemplating it. Black scratches become letters become an idea. But Benjamin didn’t think there was a tactile analog to this process. There is no ‘contemplation’ when it comes to perceiving something through touch. Tactile perception begins and ends at the fingertip. It’s surface-based, superficial. We come to know buildings, he continues, and, by extension, architecture not just by looking but also “by a way of habit.” A way of habit that develop as we sleep, work in, or repeatedly walk through the spaces created by architecture, day after day. It’s through the repetition of this tactile, getting-to-know-you-by-touch that we learn how rough the concrete is, how soft the hammock is, how sticky the inflatables are on humid days. Our perceptions of architecture based on touch unfold over time and through memory as a kind of spontaneous “casual noticing,” which seems to me like the ideal way to get to know the strange collection of shapes and materials spliced together by Brooklyn-based design firm Solid Objectives – Idenburg Liu (SO – IL) for their PS1 courtyard installation: “Pole Dance” (2010).
The setting is the walled-in concrete and gravel courtyard of PS1. Here, alongside those attending the PS1’s Warm Up summer concert series, an equally spaced matrix of PVC poles does a lot of the dancing.
White mesh netting stitches the poles together, forming a dynamic, stretched and stretchy geometric grid that caps the space at ceiling height. Inflatable rubber balls, rest like clouds suspended on top of the netting in shapely pale clumps of purple, orange, and green. (Possible cloud formation: cumulus inflatabilis?). Throughout the installation are different ‘activators’ — a rope, a hammock, holes in the mesh — that taunt visitors to tug on a string, nap in the sun, or try to pull one of those orange inflatable clouds back to the gray gravel earth from the white mesh sky.
SO – IL was one of three firms asked to submit proposals for the final round of MoMA/PS1 Young Architects Program (YAP), now in its eleventh year. Each year some 20 YAP contenders must travel a long way before a design question even gets asked. After nomination by a panel of architecture school deans and glossy architecture magazine editors, and after a portfolio review that whittles twenty down to three and is in part overseen by art world arbiters like MoMA Director Glenn Lowry, the challenge is to take $85,000 worth of mostly repurposeable (read: not so sexy) material, and spin it all with a bit of spit, insight, and sweat into a maximum of fun and chic that fills the triangular PS1 courtyard.
Responding to PS.1’s call for “a much-needed refuge in an urban environment” as well as Pole Dance does is great for a firm like SO – IL since it adds another big, fat institutional stamp of approval from MoMA/PS1 to the firm’s list of accomplishments. What’s more, their concept for “a participatory environment that reframes the conceptual relationship between humankind and structure” actually gets built, too.
In their concept write up, SO – IL talks about a “choreography of situations rather than object making.” And this explicit focus on “choreography” over “objects” lends Pole Dance the appearance of a gumball machine, smashed to pieces and scaled up to the size of a fever dream, rather than the more straightforward appearance of a conventional structure or building.
The choreographed objects are mostly cheap, pre-made stuff — rubber balls and PVC, stretchy string, some fasteners and joints – but their arrangement makes them elegantly shift and sway in sequence. Pole dancers and museum goers alike will quickly recognize that even resting in a hammock affects the dynamics of the structure as a whole (an apt lesson for any audience). Instead of becoming detached from the action because of a nap, a person in search of refuge who climbs into a hammock creates system-wide sag that ripples out through the white mesh sky, broadcasting to all that someone has hopped into the hammock while simultaneously causing all the other pieces of Pole Dance to bristle in a series of actions and reactions that plays out like — well, it might be a stretch to call it a dance — but in this case, purpose bolsters the metaphor since the commission is based on a concert series.
The restriction of sound-play to those present creates both an incentive and a focus on people actually in the courtyard. Aside from this there-or-not distinction, though, Pole Dance lacks partitions, rooms and internal barriers (beyond the big green pool where the white mesh sky touches the ground – but that’s different). There’s no clear or segregating focus beyond PS1’s concrete walls. So the free flow from space to space is consistent with the design’s emphasis on participation and Pole Dance makes offers instead: here are some balls, pull on this cord if you’re bored, lie down over there if you’re tired. It bundles sticks and string and cheap tech gadgets to create an environment where something is always happening.
The always on feeling evokes an arcade, full of suggestions blinking in neglect, waiting for their spontaneous “casual noticing” with a token and another, higher score. Simple geometry and the bright monochromatic elements further reinforce Pole Dance’s video game feel since they call to mind the digital primitivism of early arcade landscapes circa Asteroids or Tron or Tetris or Pac Man. Pole Dance is appealing the way one of these games is appealing; as Steven Johnson has observed of the most successful video games, Pole Dance lacks a “fixed narrative path” or one proper solution to its suggested uses so it rewards “repeat play with an ever-changing complexity.”
We play the game because there is no story; there is no surprise ending because there is no ending. Push or be pushed. Play or be played. The premise of Pole Dance is simple: the whole pole-and-mesh structure is a giant game where the only rule is interaction. Tug the string, redistribute the clouds, dance for a while, rest in the hammock, get up, do it again. We play the game as long as there’s music.
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