Interview: Céline Condorelli


28 Mart 2012

13670644603 2b98c3a3a2 O 2 <i>Surrounded by the Uninhabitable</i>, SALT Beyoğlu, 2012
Surrounded by the Uninhabitable, SALT Beyoğlu, 2012
İstanbul, late October 2011, during the first installation of “Surrounded by the Uninhabitable” at SALT Galata.

Céline Condorelli: I was invited to do a residency at Platform Garanti in 2008-9, primarily towards the production of this book called Support Structures1. With respect to the “One day, everything will be free…” project, the idea of a free economy, but mostly the idea of the “gift,” is something I can speak about in relationship to what I call “support.” The investigation into support structures was about trying to inhabit a territory for practice in relation to those things that are generally overlooked: display devices such as frames or plinths—those things that are usually behind, underneath, or next to what is considered art production. There is, of course, a political dimension to forms of display that effectively is erased and disappears from predominant discourses.

Joseph Redwood-Martinez: What discourse does this term, “support structure,” then belong to?

CC: A large part of the project was to instigate and form a discourse of support structures. In architectural terms, the idea of a support structure might indicate something like a scaffolding. In art terms, it might be a framing device. In cultural terms, it might be funding mechanisms. Support structures are the things that are supporting in the background, in the shadow of objects, and yet fundamentally condition what is being produced. And, more importantly, how it is being produced.

JRM: How is this related to the idea of the gift?

CC: These things are very related to Derrida’s notion of the supplement from the “Parergon” in The Truth in Painting, which, by extension, relates to the idea of the “gift.” The supplement is that which comes with —which is somehow exterior to the work but conditions the work itself. There is for instance one essay on support of democracy in Support Structures that was written by Andrea Philips2. She talks about ideas of generosity and gifts, and how they condition the politics of something. Mark Cousins3, in another essay in the same book, talks about potlatch societies, in which the gift is used as a strategy for power, for domination—it creates a condition of indebtedness which therefore has to be repaid, but it also creates confusion. It is not an innocent gesture at all.

JRM: Perhaps not.

CC: So, I’m interested in this indebtedness in relation to forms of support. And this is very relevant to SALT as an organization, as it is currently supporting the formation of culture, or a cultural formation of sorts, as well as being supported by a bank, Garanti, and dealing with a complex system of private and public funding4. And we know that there is a transaction there. We just don’t know what the transaction is exactly; there are different political agendas.

JRM: What does this interest mean, in terms of your artistic practice?

CC: At a micro scale, I’m interested in investigating the literal, physical objects that this type of relationship takes shape through, and how it has to do with the politics of place. The Support Structures book was really laying out the discourse for what kind of a practice that is, and Surrounded by the Uninhabitable (2011), the project I’m doing in Scramble for the Past, is totally inscribed into this. By creating the display devices, or support structures, for the exhibition, whatever happens in the exhibition is happening within the conditions that I create. And I’m trying to reclaim these conditions of exhibition design, of display, but also, simultaneously of sculptural object making, as a site for an artistic practice. On one level, the project simply asks: As an artist, can you make a series of display devices that host an exhibition but are artworks in their own right? What type of relationships between objects and context does this create?

JRM: And what does this claiming of space produce?

CC: It is a tricky thing to do because you possibly fall into what is considered the architecture, and therefore the assumed context, or you become too present. There is definitely a complex level of negotiations with, for example, the Archeological Museum, about why these objects are not just placed into a ‘neutral vitrine’. What I am saying, of course, is that there is no such thing as a neutral vitrine. Objects on display are always sited within a context that is spatial, but also political, conceptual, and cultural—this is why museums are constantly changing. The way we displayed objects two hundred years ago is very different from how we display objects now.

We may sometimes think that the white cube is neutral but, of course, it is not. If you go to the archeological museum here in İstanbul, you can see a history of museology. From the first galleries made in the 18th century to the galleries made now. Surrounded by the Uninhabitable is a display structure for Scramble for the Past, it is a support structure, and it is trying to address some of these issues. In this particular example and in a very formal way. I’m using historical studies and historical display devices to bring them to the foreground. So that is, perhaps, quite relevant to your question.

JRM: As you’ve designed them, these support structures appear to be quotations from historical moments—even if we don’t recognize the specific reference—but they are constructed out of MDF board and, as such, operate in a register that is uniformly out of time to their respective, even if elusive, reference. As a support structure, Surrounded by the Uninhabitable in some ways operates as a parallax. As the viewer shifts his or her position, those things that are closer appear to move faster than the things that are further away.

CC: There is something of that, also in terms of things not appearing as what they are. You think you know what it is, but then you lose it, because it is also something else. Or, it is not doing what it says in the box.

JRM: Right. And I think it has something to do with the apparent speed of the object, in relation to the viewer shifting his or her position.

CC: Yes, also in terms of the objects being very expedient. But, you know, I think that is an interesting question: What do you do within the site of, for example, a biennial, where everything is contemporary art, and there is obvious value invested in the objects being presented. How does the operation change once the object is put next to something that is so obviously much older and much more precious than anything you could ever make? It is a tricky thing, because it is not a question of competition. I think you have to somehow state the differences clearly and then address what those differences are made of—the difference in value, age, and form. And this idea of speed is perhaps one way of dealing with that.

With respect to the support structures in Scramble for the Past, I was actually very specific that those things should be built in an expedient way. They are built a little too well for my taste to be honest. Making a really precious plinth for a really precious object would be completely uninteresting. But, on the other hand, asking carpenters to make something not as they would do it “properly” actually turns out to be a complete conundrum. They just can’t get their head around it. They don’t think it is possible that you are asking this. You must be asking something else.

JRM: You are speaking through a translator as well, right?

CC: Yes. So we are constantly lost in translation in terms of Turkish-English, and we’re lost in translation in terms of what I want things to be and what they think things should look like. Sometimes having these things in total conflict actually works, sometimes it really doesn’t, and usually it is a combination of both. It is quite interesting, but also exhausting as a process. But, like most process-based work, you always end up with something you didn’t anticipate. And that’s great. But there is an added dimension to this: after the Scramble for the Past exhibition at SALT Galata, the support structures are actually going to be relocated to the Forum at SALT Beyoğlu. And through this displacement, during which the support structures are invested with an added value and gradually become objects of sorts, they perhaps stop being displays. This recycling is actually quite interesting for me. I’m interested in investing the objects with a new function, recycling the material, but quite bluntly: cutting them apart, turning them around, and getting them to be useful for the Forum space at SALT Beyoğlu.

JRM: I’m curious to know more about what you think of the Forum space. I was talking to someone outside of SALT the other day who said, “I don’t think SALT knows what it is. I mean, just look at the Forum.” I said, “But SALT knows that it doesn’t know what it is. And the somewhat undetermined nature of the Forum space is actually quite important in that respect.” So, as you are displacing these objects into that space, I’m curious to see how you think they might specifically operate within this somewhat complicated and very public context.

CC: As far as I can tell, they have tried to integrate the Forum into the public space of the street, to get the street to come in; which is why they decided not to use it as a gallery until now. And as far as a test goes, it didn’t work. Nobody actually walks in. But what is funny is that when Platform was there, the Forum was the main gallery space, and it was crowded, there were people from İstiklal constantly wandering in and out. So, weirdly enough, they had it, and then in order to have more of it, they lost it.

JRM: It doesn’t work.

CC: But SALT knows it doesn’t work. And I think it is interesting to have an institution like that with a big open question, and to say: Okay, we open, and maybe it takes us a year to figure it out. But that’s fine. Maybe it takes us two years, we try something else, and that is fine too. It is like this idea of constant evolution, but it only works if SALT doesn’t know what it is. Because if SALT knows what it is by the time it opens, then in a way, the process is not so interesting, because it is just execution.

So, working on something like the Forum, for me, is pure potential. The galleries are galleries. The Forum, for me, is the real moment of potential, in spatial terms. It is an interesting challenge to think about whether we can use something like the support structures to encourage the Forum to operate as a public, or at least permeable, space. I would think that the structures could probably not do this on their own. But I would use the support structures and reconfigure them toward new functions. Then the installation can be a hosting device. At the moment the Forum is completely empty, whereas I would be interested in saturating it, hosting too many things.

JRM: I lived in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, for a while, and there are these large banquet halls in neighboring South Williamsburg that are really remarkable. Complete architectural oddities, but the spaces are always incredibly activated. I started to dream about opening up an event hall in the middle of nowhere that would be completely free to use. There would be no charge to hold an event at the space. The only catch is that the banquet hall could only be used if at least two or three events were going on at the same time. So you could have a quinceañera, a wedding anniversary celebration, and a retirement party going on all at once in the same space.

CC: I really think space needs to be activated. And maybe over-activated. It’s cumulative, then. I have one open question at the moment. One strategy that I use is that of cumulative space. I find that we are so preconditioned by what we already know that if I ask you to imagine a space, and to put something in it, you can only come up with what you already know. And one way of exceeding our own knowledge and expectation of what space can do is by adding work on top of work. So, I know what I do, and you know what you do, but if your work is on top of mine, and then we ask someone else to put their work on top of that, it becomes something else, that none of us understands exactly, and does things beyond what we already know.

JRM: How would you situate that spatially?

CC: One of the support structure phases is a gallery space in Birmingham, UK, called Eastside Projects5, which was co-founded with a collective who are now the directors. This strategy of accumulation means that we invite people to make exhibitions, but we also offer them to make work that can stay. The work stays and it becomes the gallery for the next person to work in. We call this “existing conditions.” Sometimes it becomes uncomfortable, but it means that the level of complexity you reach is much greater than anyone could imagine. So, work on top of work on top of work—this is simply a strategy. But it opens another big question for me: I wonder if there is some kind of exhaustion in this endless reinvention and transformation. Exhaustion both on a conceptual level and on a pragmatic one—I don’t know if it is a sustainable practice. This is a really big question for me, in relation to complex and cumulative approaches; which you could also call forms of cumulative knowledge, or knowledge formation.

JRM: To go back to your previously stated interest in those things that are hidden but operate so as to fundamentally condition the given object or situation—I’m curious to know more about what led you into this line of inquiry. You mentioned Derrida’s book The Truth in Painting, but is that where you started?

CC: No, I started from a fascination in the processes of making space, and only found Derrida because of that. It ignited an interest in building sites and scaffolding. When I started looking at building sites and scaffolding, something emerged almost immediately: they are everywhere, and have no history. What I mean is that building sites dominate our cities, and yet they are not documented through the history of architecture. Buildings are, architects are, but the workers of architecture don’t have a history that includes them. Neither do the structures used throughout the process of construction, like scaffoldings. This is the only way to explain how people are still trying to figure out how, for instance, the pyramids were built—nobody actually knows, and never did know how things were built before their own time, because these things were just thought of as being unimportant and disposable. As such, they were not documented. It is paradoxical, because building sites are extremely visible. You see construction happening all about the city, yet the sites themselves are made invisible through their lack of value, or their perceived lack of value; this is because the building site is always the process toward something else, and never an end in its own right. Since it is meant to be a passage to, it ends up being entirely overlooked.

So, in architecture, this analogy is rather straightforward but it reappears for example in the field of art with the fact that there is no history of modes of display, such as gallery colors, framing devices, plinths, framers, and so on. And I’ve been interested in precisely those things, those are exactly the kind of things I wanted to work on and with. In a way, it was an open question: What happens if you dedicate your practice to those things that are normally not meant to hold value? What kind of things are created out of this? What kind of practice does it produce?

JRM: What you are interested in is not so much the materiality of the scaffolding but the way in which the implication of process becomes constitutive of the very thing itself—the context of cultural production being a case in point.

CC: Exactly. In this way, you can only understand the city if you understand how the city is built. And you only understand how a city is built if you know the construction techniques, but also the cultural, social, political and economic context of that particular time. But this is true of every field. For example, the funding system in Scandinavia really sheds light on the type of art production occurring there, and its relationship to social ideologies. If you understand that artists have a particular position in society then you can understand how their work operates within that society. Like in revolutionary Russia: knowing that artists were actually paid by the state—because they were deemed to be important workers of the state—makes one understand constructivism and what it was trying to do. So, grasping those conditions of production is absolutely essential if we want to understand what is being produced. But this is often the one missing information.

JRM: Right, and this happens when we think about the production process as preceding the assignation of meaning—which, of course, it doesn’t. Driving from Quito to Baños, in Equador, you pass through a series of towns where the ground floors of all the buildings are well-maintained and brightly painted—blue, green, red, orange—auto mechanic shops, bakeries, private homes, schools, and so on. But almost none of the structures appear to be finished, per se. The level above the ground floor typically consists of plain grey cinderblocks arranged into half-built rooms and walls. Rusted rebar protrudes from these partially built forms. So, the first thing you notice when you go through these towns is the visual friction between the landscape, the brightly painted ground floors of the buildings, and the mute grayness of the first floor hanging just above the horizon. But I’m drawn to the paradoxical way these architectural elements simultaneously suggest optimism, abandonment, relentlessness, assurance, and a complex relationship to the temporal aspects of occupation and experimentation.

My friends who were with me then were already familiar with this—they told me it is somewhat ubiquitous in parts of Greece and Italy. But I had not seen it discussed much within architectural discourse. In fact, very little attention has been given to the cultural, social, and aesthetic significance behind residential building techniques that favor long-term construction projects realized over the course of many years, such that inhabited structures appear to be always under construction. Lately, however, I’ve become really interested in this indeterminacy and incompleteness in the built landscape.

I’ve heard conflicting accounts for why this approach to building exists. I’ve heard that it is a way of avoiding taxation because, without proper roofs, the structures are technically incomplete; other people have told me that this perpetual building happens because the occupants do not have the money to complete the structure and building a proper roof can be prohibitively expensive; other people tell me that the occupants are just waiting for the money so that they can add another floor to their home or business; and then other people have told me it has to do with the family structure, that people build extra floors as their families and businesses expand. But as much as all of these accounts seem to easily add up, they also start to contradict themselves.

CC: There was someone who called this “the poles of hope.” Which is an interesting way to think about it. So, it appears as a violent gesture and yet is part of the slow process of living, but also, by implication always promises the possibility for more to come.

JRM: Yes. You have all of these seemingly related but contradictory elements that can’t be disassociated from one another. And in a way, it seems very much related to what you’ve said about cumulative space and_Surrounded by the Uninhabitable_. And in some respect, it would appear that this perpetual building practice, characterized by exposed rebar and unpainted cinderblocks, actually becomes constitutive of a worldview that is contradictory and very complex, completely indeterminate.

CC: Such appearances –the actual way that things in process look like– do not fulfill our aesthetic expectations of what something ‘proper’ should look like. And they also display an enormous fragility. You think there is something wrong with a building in scaffolding or with protruding bars. It’s not finished; it is not meant to be like this.

JRM: And, of course, it both is and it isn’t.
  • 1.
    Support Structures, Céline Condorelli (Berlin and New York: Sternberg Press, 2009).
  • 2.
    Andrea Phillips, "Doing Democracy." See:
  • 3.
    Mark Cousins, "On Support," in Support Structures, Celine Condorelli, (Berlin and New York: Sternberg Press, 2009).
  • 4.
  • 5.
    Eastside Projects is an artist-run space, a public gallery for the City of Birmingham and the World. It is organized by a founding collective comprising Simon Tom Bloor, Céline Condorelli, Ruth Claxton, James Langdon, and Gavin Wade, who first conceived and now runs the space.