Communing in the Air
'Lounge!' transforms Arthouse into a space that swings
When we look at art or talk about art or even listen to other people talk about art, we come at it from the ground up. We're standing on our legs or sitting on something that does the job of our legs, supporting us from underneath, pushing up from the floor or ground, to which we're rooted. It's really no different from so much of the rest of our lives, in our classrooms, in our offices, in our homes. Bend down to knee level and look across the space you're in; it's the same in almost every room: all legs. In fact, it's so common that we don't even think about it, about being so earthbound. But it colors and influences the way we move and work and act and interact, how we receive information and even how we observe and appreciate beauty.
Now, what if you were able to erase all those legs? You still have the seats, still have the tables and desks to work from, but they're all hovering above the floor. You'd be liberated from the ground, free to listen to, look at, work on, play with, consider the world around you, from the openness of the air. Think about how you feel suspended in space: lighter, less encumbered, more relaxed, and yet also more energized, playful. It's the feeling of a swing, that of the front porch and that of the school yard.
That's what awaits you at Arthouse right now. The 3,000-square-foot exhibition area of the Jones Center for Contemporary Art has been transformed into a large open room in which tables, desks, and seating for 60 people all hang from the ceiling by cables. All of the pieces are made of birch plywood and are so spare of design as to give even a Scandinavian architect pause the tables are essentially flat boards and the seats little more than two planks bolted together at right angles but they're attached to the metal lighting grid on the ceiling in a way that allows them to swing back and forth and, in the case of the seats for individuals, to swivel a full 360 degrees.
That may not sound like much, and when you first see it, it may not even look like much hell, it's a roomful of swings, and what's so remarkable about that? But when you're in it, actually sitting in one of the swings yourself, with other people who are also in the swings, then it becomes this surprisingly enjoyable, invigorating experience. It feels different than a classroom or office or library. There's a sense of the world being oriented differently, from the sky down instead of the ground up. It's a looser, less formal, and more flexible world. None of that imposed order and immobility, the lines of chairs and columns of desks locked rigidly in place. The seats are arranged but not in stiff geometric patterns. They're all over the space, some in small groups, some apart, almost private. The arrangement shows uncommon sensitivity to space, with lots of breathing room around the seats, so that in a cluster of swings or even at a table, you can feel solitude, room for reflection. But the distance is manageable enough that you can swing over it for an intimate chat with someone in an adjacent swing.
At least that's what I found myself doing during the talk by Matthew Geller, the New York artist who designed this installation for Arthouse (which he has whimsically titled sixty weak knees). As he showed slides of some of his other work projected, by the way, on one of the tables, which was turned on its side and hung so it could serve as a screen I gently rocked back and forth, in a constant, almost meditative motion that would have been disturbing in a traditional environment but, as I noticed in looking around me, was the norm here. It was as if we were all on our personal little porch swings, with all the sense of serenity and neighborliness and perhaps nostalgia that association brings with it, but by virtue of being in this common space, we were all swinging together. Which is what made it feel perfectly okay to lean over in the direction of Arthouse Director Sue Graze to offer a comment on the program. Because of the physical setup, I was able to and inclined to interact with others in the space in ways I might not have otherwise.
That was precisely what Regine Basha and Kevin Alter had in mind when they conceived "Lounge!," the Arthouse exhibition of which sixty weak knees is the centerpiece. Basha, an adjunct curator at Arthouse, and Alter, associate dean of the UT School of Architecture, shared an interest in how communities interact with art and architecture, and they wanted to find a way to carry the topic to a larger audience, to set up a forum for discussion in which talks would be given and films shown and dialogues entered into but in which the space itself would generate that discussion. To that end, they concocted a proposal for artists to design the space for this Arthouse forum, a "lounge," they called it, trusting the artists to interpret that word in any way they chose. The only stipulations they made were that the designs had to accommodate the screening of films and a fairly large number of people.
Of course, Basha and Alter had no idea that their lounge would take the form of a roomful of swings. They didn't know what to expect from the responses. All they hoped was that they would be inventive and different. On that score, they were not disappointed. One proposed using dozens of soft sculpture columns that could be repositioned to create temporary walls or benches or bleachers. Another suggested turning the interior of Arthouse into an old-fashioned drive-in, with a movie screen on one wall and real cars jammed into the space pointing at it. Proposals were based on sound, on the original topography of the site, on the idea of an "anti-lounge." In all, 25 proposals came in, each one coming at the concept of "Lounge!" from a very different and imaginative angle. Fortunately for us, Basha and Alter have displayed them in the office exhibition space of the Jones Center. They offer some tantalizing alternatives to sixty weak knees.
But once the curators saw Geller's proposal, the other submissions were doomed to be just alternatives. sixty weak knees connected with their vision in a way that was immediately captivating. Its design combined simplicity and elegance and subtlety, and the roughness of it was very much in keeping with the raw character of the space. Those swings seemed to belong among the exposed brick and metal beams. And Geller took care to address where they belonged in the space, putting deliberate thought in their placement but leaving enough flexibility so they could be moved for different events. The artist had put considerable effort into his design he told the Arthouse audience that he determined the height for the swings after measuring every chair in his own house to see what height they were and it showed. The curators consulted with a local engineer, Jerry Garcia, to evaluate the feasibility of the proposal, and once he gave it the green light, sixty weak knees moved toward reality. With the phenomenal contributions of artists Jason Singleton and James Brandon, the swings were built and installed over a week in mid-November, and the exhibition opened on the 20th of the month.
Since then, the installation has been gathering curious stares from folks peering through the wall-sized window that fronts the space, wondering if the museum there has given way to a furniture showroom. Geller acknowledged the installation's utilitarian appearance, joking that it "looks like some perverse IKEA thing." People wander in, slowly maneuvering about the swings, wondering if it's really okay to sit in them, then tentatively testing them out. But when they settle in and push off and those feet leave the floor, a change takes place in them, a softening of their demeanor, an easing. They've let gravity slip from their shoulders and found a new place to be, and to be with others, communing in the air.
"Lounge!" continues through Jan. 16 at Arthouse, 700 Congress. For more information, call 453-5312 or visit www.arthousetexas.org.
architecture, Arthouse, Jones Center for Contemporary Art, Lounge!, Regine Basha, Kevin S. Alter, Matthew Geller, sixty weak knees, Jerry Garcia, Jason Singleton, James Brandon, Tara Carlisle, UT School of Architecture, Materials Lab, AMODA, Austin Museum of Digital Art, Olivia Block, Austin New Music Coop, Gordon Matta Clark, Splitting