Sites of Desire was initially written for A Union of Voices, an exhibition of artist books at Horatio Junior, which ran from the 13th December 2014 to the 18th January 2015. The text was segmented by a series of shorter pieces taken from previously published art reviews and essays, brought together within a A5 printed booklet. Set within the half-size cover encasing the booklet was a ‘business card’-like accordion book containing a text entitled “Work”. Much of the text was inspired by some wonderful conversations with the artist Lucy Joyce about her practice.
Sites of Desire
The temporary façade of the scaffold draws our attention to a spatial boundary, to the fabric of physical containment and the relationship between an individual building and its surrounds. Criss-crossing that boundary, splintering it open, the ramshackle structure of the scaffold fragments the space around it, letting inside and outside fray at the edges. Fractured, the boundary comes into physical being, is the site of a threshold across which communication takes place. Without a definable surface, only broken, segmented layers, the temporary scaffold is built to facilitate a process of material exchange. It is a functioning membrane: a skin to be shed, spreading dust. A collection of ramshackle ramparts, this flexible, constructive site of work serves as a reminder of the scattered, drifting stuff of lived space; of its ordering and reordering. Physical space becomes more malleable, more accessible, more temporary via the scalable structure of the scaffold.
Look up. A scaffold encased building has unfolded, an enticing ruin in the making, hung in-between states. Brick and glass shells have splintered open, propped up by a metal lattice swathed in a gauze-green netting, so that the building extends, both inwardly and outwardly, protected, hurt, in construction. Hitherto contained, glassy-eyed, the architecture’s skin is breaking out in tempting handholds and eye-hooks that catch on overlapping fissures, allowing the imagination to tunnel through the building’s now papery layers. Wooden rafters pave impossible passageways between inside and out, while dreamy attic rooms have grown hodgepodge balconies that scramble around upper eaves, finding hideouts in the undomesticated nooks and crannies from which to trace those shy details seldom noticed or touched. Scaffolds let the imagination live in parts of architecture you didn’t know existed; as the body of a building projects into space so can the human body project itself to inhabit hitherto impossible view points. The scaffold reaches out, delves within.
And is scalable. The scaffold is a scalable body to the the eye, a new vantage from which to examine the space around us, even from the ground; to know how we relate to it. Punctuated by the scaffold, the fragile edges of things become more apparent and more vulnerable, tarpaulin swaddling a cleaved body from the elements. Wrapped, (as in Christo and Jeanne-Claude) everyday structures, everyday spatial orders become more visible by their emphatic veiling. Buildings become tent-like, supported by a semi-transparent, semi-porous skin, taking on the shroud of their impermanence. The temporary structure makes built space bend, softens it so that it is made of stuff that moves, punctures it and weaves it together again while adding new folds and creases. Unwrapped and re-wrapped in a broken skin, the eye and the body take in the curious object, stretch the space and articulate boundaries that have become strange, blurred and suddenly, passable. Accessing the ephemeral, materially in-between site that is articulated by the scaffold redresses spatial relations as negotiations and we begin to imagine methods of misuse.
Living within a still half-built neighbourhood was like living in a giant adventure playground, much like how the children of the Blitz reminisce about their ruinous urban jungle gyms. Our new house was in a newly constructed complex built on land once owned by a dying steelworks. Floating on a concrete raft between the channels of a florid green river and a flat canal path, the rest of the site was only partially finished when we began to live there. In the evening, after the construction workers had departed and on the long weekends of a summer that bled slowly into autumn, we explored every crack of the empty houses and littered building site. We got bites from insects living in the piles of sand and dust we played in. We climbed the ladders woven into the scaffolds and stole from piles of scrap to furnish our den in an nearby copse by the railway line. You could chase each other the length of a street or more through the open bowels of faux Victorian terraces. Neighbours alerted our parents to our escapades when we were spotted climbing across open rooftops, daring each other to lean as far as we could over the fissures that ran between floors, layers of insulation, concrete, pipes and wires still exposed. Made secure, the site of our danger-fuelled play was lost and soon succumbed to completion and the boundary lines of ownership, retracting from the street with flattened faces, the contained sites of private domesticity they were designed to be.
The scaffold, my memory and dream of the scaffold, might be what artist Lucy Joyce would call a “site of desire”. A temporary exoskeleton, the scaffold’s bare-bones climbing framework can’t help but be suggestive of illicit access, skirting the lips of window sills and vaulting up to the rooftops. This site of desire is perhaps the possibility of inhabiting space, of existing as a body in space, differently, defiantly vulnerable; of negotiating the “horrible inside-outside” of being, as the phenomenological poet Gaston Bachelard described it; a way to articulate, perhaps to construct, a site for ‘working’, operating at the limits of self, the possibility of building a platform at the very edge, or perhaps at the fold, the threshold of being. A way out that is also a way in.
Her gait wide, her stance spread open, a woman wearing boxy black is stalking the perimeter of an urban building’s squared concrete crown. She beams triumphantly back at the sky, her upper torso opening out to project a flashing sliver rectangle of slanted light that obliterates her face and shoulders. The mirror is held outwards and tilted upwards.
In the midst of research for a writing project and grappling with a under defined and sprawling topic, I got in touch with Joyce on the recommendation of a mutual friend we had both been to college with. I wanted to talk to her about her 2014 piece Bermondsey Gold. Shot from the window of her studio, the film shows two construction workers battling against the wind that sweeps across the unfinished tip of a nearby building. They struggle with a flimsy gold canvas, which, buffeted by the weather, rips. The glittering art object at peril amongst the shooting stems of urban redevelopment was succinctly mirrored by the actual loss of the studio buildings from which Joyce’s film was shot. In 2014, the massive F Block Work Space was lost by London studio providers V22 to residential development in up and coming Bermondsey. Pride, hope, worth, wealth, ambition, loss, transition and property: all these things seemed to be at work in the piece. And it was a timely intervention during a period of increasing social exclusion from central urban areas experiencing rising property values that approached the personal experience of artistic precarity in regards to retaining, and crucially negotiating for, the essential space and time to make work. (When we meet to talk it is in Joyce’s kitchen; the table functioning as the studio, books stacked on the bay windowsills). Bermondsey Gold underscored not only an ongoing and controversial relationship between art and regeneration, but also struck up a more specific relationship between Joyce and the men working on the construction site who agreed to help her make the work. As a practice, her work is often reliant upon such collaboration and aid.
To encourage this support, and as part of a long process of negotiation, Joyce makes motivational, two dimensional works as proposals: screen prints of buildings that radiate; captured neon circles opening above flat building blocks, spied as if from the end of a telescope; rooftops populated by geometric figures holding up shining paintings or slabs of colour; speakers, arrows, hot air-balloons and long legged house-like structures that shoot coloured beams of light in wide, rainbow gestures. Sometimes we need help projecting where we want to go or to see other possibilities, to access The Space Above Your Head. Joyce’s interventions balloon from the sides of towers, strung out from a crane hook: a glinting gold and silver sail. She describes the glitz as about being noticed. About noticing. About the brief period of time that work exists, that the wind catches it. About hope. Hope that it will happen; that it will have happened to someone. That there will be a work, an audience, recognition. Please Believe Me, the billboard above the RCA Battersea building read at Lucy’s graduating show. Atop a squat bungalow, she is looking up at the flat grey sky. Something else was here, could be here. Look up.
This element of Joyce’s practice suggests to me that not only does her work take place on the scaffold (sometimes literally) as a physical and bodily extension into space reaching out to the site of desire, but that it also reaches out to the other, both within the working process and its actualisation. An extension of support that is reciprocated by giving access to a concept of space as malleable and actionable. This element of Joyce’s practice, that the realisation of her work underscored the potential looseness of space, teased free by a collaborative will, [insert from “Getting their hands dirty: The malleable materiality of Glorious Estate”] I find suggestive of the potential of that looseness itself: the potential of unpicking the space authored by architecture, by certain narratives of how we live in space, as an active extension of the self. Perhaps another way of inhabiting space—and through that interaction, another way of inhabiting ourselves—and an alternative approach to how we negotiate our own boundaries. (This concept of a spatial and personal fraying at the edges as being the site of creative potential ran through ongoing conversations about our respective work concerns, conversations which began to seem like a reflection of that idea itself.) I place the concept of the scaffold, a structure that supports and even enables mutual vulnerability between the internal and external, as a site of transference; the site of work at the boundary that connects the articulation of self to the articulation of space. The extension of self that reaches towards the site of desire. In reaching out to her own sites of desire, walking around the city, looking up and then constructing eye-scaffolds for us to reach them, Lucy’s works provide a mutual sense of access, of becoming.
Space, however, is rarely openly pliable or accessible to use, but contained by ownership, by the delineations of private property, and many of Lucy’s interventions into space have crossed the threshold from proposal to actuality specifically via the transitory plasticity of the construction site. Use of this broken space can be temporarily open to a negotiated rewriting. In effect, Lucy’s work draws attention to the ghost of an opportunity to intervene and re-imagine the possibilities of spaces that are authored. The site of her works traces the increasingly compromised spaces in which we tend to think of art as ‘working’ or taking place within the city, and shows how the nature of this site has changed over the past few decades. Urban spaces in transition have long been popularly recognised as the breeding ground for artistic communities—an idea retold, re-staged, re-orchestrated, re-inforced—taking advantage of cheap, adaptable spaces where, somewhere between decay and regeneration, a deregulated urban fabric is more easily reinterpreted through use. We inhabit these spaces of unfinished and half-ruined buildings differently, their permeability invoking malleability and a much dirtier, material play in space. Now that the cultivation of the urban fringe by artists is widely employed as a tool in the selectively profitable regeneration of cities—London being a prime example—the turn-over of gentrification is far more efficiently managed, moneyed, increasingly rapid and large scale. There is no time for play, no more negotiation, little room for misuse. The space is bought, boxed and wrapped, drawn into a very particular narrative of contained consumption. Operating within the time limited opportunity of the construction site reflects the present situation of artists in relation to the property market, a presence as fleeting and flimsy as Bermondsey Gold.
The space of property is defined by boundaries, walls that are closed, fixed and permanent, with controlled thresholds.
One London January it seemed as if the entire street was going upmarket without us. Every house was being scrubbed up and knocked through. Shrouded in misty plastic, low morning sunlight appeared to inflate each tent with a cold white light, refracting through the layers of its outer wrapping. Moisture clung to their flapping skins and then evaporated as the sun rose, so that they appeared to steam and pant, like the morning joggers making their way to and from the common. Inside our unimproved, rented house, we were forever moving all the furniture to the centre of the rooms, allowing air to circulate around its porous inner skin. Winter mould was blossoming, black and mossy, drinking in our warm, wet breath.
Residential property is a potent site of desire; desire for the security and the pleasure of ownership; the dream of contented containment; of finding, making and defending our place, our stable, accepted identity—an impossible reality for creatures of incessant desire. Consumption of space in the form of architecture creates and dictates our articulation of our environment, allowing only certain stories to be told and re-told. However, “desiring creatures” also “transgress….They undo architecture as architecture undoes them.”
In her essay “Undoing Architecture”, architect and writer Jane Rendell explores the very notion that the articulation of space is confluent with the articulation of self; that the possibilities of one plays upon the other. While the architect is posed as the author of space, she writes that “users do architecture, they do-it-themselves”. Rendell presents this “use” of space, the reading and re-writing of its narrative, to be limited. In negation of this internalising of owned space, reading and repeating a prescribed “vocabulary of goods” and “rhetoric of use”, Rendell relates the experience of inhabiting a house in which the living space was hulled out “through an unusual mode of DIY, much of which included the removal, rather than the addition, of building elements, as well as the use of objects for non-designed purposes”.
“Houses are by far the most expensive of commodities. The house we buy and the way we choose to live in them allow us to distinguish ourselves from others. Our choices are limited by factors of all kinds, not least our desires. Nowhere do these desires resonate more spatially than in the place we call ‘home’.”
The house, our own personal architectural envelope, exemplifies how our interaction with the design of architectural space mirrors how we construct the limits of the self. A potent poetical construction, the form of the house joins a sense of physical being with the psychological. Architectural theorist Joseph Rykwert describes it as “an image of the occupants bodies… a map… a model of the worlds meaning”. Similarly locating the house as the abode of our unconscious, hewn from memory to be the living space of our dreams, phenomenological poet Gaston Bachelard internalises the topology of the house as the home of the psyche. A glistening exoskeleton on which we rely, the house is far more than simply a functional Le Corbusian “machine to live in”. Architect Eileen Grey wrote that the house is our “shell” and as such is not only our container, our interior exterior, but our “extension” and release”, and potentially even our “spiritual emancipation”.
The house that Rendell writes, that she remembers, is her idea of such self-expansion. A house that allowed her to embrace a “need for transience”. It is the house that constantly recurs in her dreams, as I am forever returning to her essay in search of a way to construct and inhabit a personal architecture that can maintain its integrity, breathe through its fractured self and move with flexibility. Reading her words I am looking for the plans to build such a structure, [insert from “Infra-ordinary Alchemy”] a home that can support a scaffold from which to work, that I can extend from without becoming too precarious, yet avoid the trap of safety, the dreaded domesticity of the contained female body that consumes itself; an embodiment of the struggle between the seemingly star-crossed desires for independence and dependence. Another fattening Russian doll in a never ending chain of women’s bodies. The Femme Maison.
“The economy of the capitalist market is based on pricing mechanisms—specialization, efficiency, scarcity, the maximisation of profit—and on the principles of homogeneity, rationalism and calculation… requires the strict delineation of property, from the ownership of ones body to the fruits of one’s labour.”
Rather than desiring a contained structure for the self, for a respectable façade to meet the world with, this fragmented home offered “ a way of living that had nothing to do with comfort, security, safety and permanence”. Imagining Rendell’s starry-eyed house, the night raining in through gaping eaves, I see it is a scaffold in and of itself. Her dream of a house hangs off this scaffold, rather than the scaffold extending from the support of its bounds. Adaptable, it stretches to the point of collapse, a never ending unfolding.
Described as “fragile”, “soft like a body”, “undone” this is a vulnerable, living structure and it makes the even more tender bodies that inhabit it equally susceptible to breakages: a woman falls from Rendell’s attic room, her head narrowly missing the corner of a metal stove; glass shatters from the open roof into an occupied bathtub. Such a house cannot be secure, cannot imagine permanency and thereby is never at ease. And one imagines that neither was Rendell, for her internal space was always in flux. Walls becoming doors becoming furniture becoming firewood; material sifts through the being of the house, scattering it in patters of use. Laddered layers mean that bodies and structures hang precariously above one another and different readings of the space constantly clash. As a reality, the house was insupportable. Yet Rendell nominates this house as her ‘home’ above all others; the house she writes for herself.
Split into three, Rendell’s essay is as fragmented as the architecture she relates. Just as the house is a sequence of spaces that bleed into one another, delineated by material that shifts, that hands and eyes can reach through, Rendell’s three voices overlap and run into one another, undoing architecture. The first voice is that of the trained architect who authors space according to modernist principles, rules that are shattered by the third voice, a borrowed chorus of feminist writers who left breadcrumbs in ink that lead towards another form inhabitation, of producing space. In-between is the voice of memory, of lived experience, who does architecture through use and dreams of the interminable possibilities of an endlessly re-readable,write-overable space. Just as Bachelard describes the dream house, an expansive internal space, as based upon the tracings of remembered homes, or how Rykwert frames the house as a map or model from which to chart our relation to the world, Rendell’s “undone” house allows her the flexibility to create space, in this case via a boundless écriture feminine “which unceasingly passes through the envelope(s) or containers(s), goes from one side to the other, reworking every deadline, changing every decision, thwarting all repetition”.
The internalisation of pliable extents in space, of blurred bodily boundaries and the dispersal of place by overlaid misuse allows her to begin to “write a language to get inside of”; a“shell”, a self-made shedable skin from which to extend rather than being artificially contained. “Writing about myself is a making of myself”, she states.
“Confession is a physic architecture that uses the interior to create a new exterior.”
A return to the UK, to home, coincided with its physical reconstruction. Living in a building site is an ongoing invasion of private space, breaking it down from the inside out. There was no way of settling. People simply appeared in upper story rooms; they emerged from the roof, tunnelling through the structure of the house and removing doors, building walls so that rooms disappeared and re-formed. Space was no longer contained by the house, as much breathed in and pushed out by it, blowing the material of the space into new shapes, patterns shifting in a kaleidoscopic structure. The house as a container broke. It leaked time and space; a quantification that became difficult to measure or hold on to: cold and dust and dirt milled everywhere; years were exhumed from the walls and floors; objects become both sparse and scattered, jumbled; had to be revisited, kept or thrown out, re-used. Material and space bled into each other as a mess of forgotten cells. Domestic animals had neurotic break downs. For a return that was inherently about moving on, this remodelling served as a spatial re-evaluation of pas and future. But while others where trying wholeheartedly to make a space for me to inhabit, I was beginning to join in with the houses deconstruction, carving chunks out of it to take away with me and built a platform to somewhere else.
As Rendell reflects, “Confessionals are not revelations but constructions”. These self-constructs re-write our approach to the boundary, where the articulation of space meets the fluid surface of the self, but cannot reach beyond it, to the making of space or to meet with the other. In a later introduction to her “Undoing Architecture” essay published in her book Site Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism Jane Rendell discloses that the personal element she uses to frame her writing risks a critical failure to recognise the other. (She worries about drawing others in, moulding them to her intention and making them her building materials. I also worry about my writing of and through others, using them and their work as a platform to self-extend). [insert from “FRINGE: Love Songs/Steve/Terminal/Moments Before”] The shared DIY home Rendell describes is unrecognisable to her co-inhabitants. Additionally, her passion for this ‘home’ above all others, particularly her childhood ‘home/s’ is deeply hurtful to her parents. A series of my own works, I realise now, were similarly unthinking. Having found a set of my mother’s sketches for household improvements, I imposed my own narrative over the top in the form of printed text. This sketch of our family relationships as penciled bricks and mortar became a script for me to theorise over and I took on the audacious authority of an editor. My work became an act of destruction, as much as liberation, taking apart one house to build, perhaps re-write, another. Loosened by the fragility of the actual building which was being gutted and remade around us, our shared memories of the space began to diverge disconcertingly from one another. Subjective experience has a tendency to annotate things with significance, joining the dots and writing in references that others simply don’t recognise.
“You grant me space, you grant me my space, but in doing so you have always taken me away from my expanding place. What you intend for me is the place which is appropriate for the need you have of me. What you reveal to me is the place where you have positioned me, so that I may remain available for your needs.”
Sometime later Lucy Joyce and I met up again, not to talk about the loss of space this time, but of gaining admittance to it. Joyce related the experience of working across a differentiated spectrum of access to space, of being somewhat “in-between”: in-between support and permission, institution and independence, intervention and direction, success and loss. Almost all at once she was showing at the Tate, performing at the independent arts festival Art Licks Weekend, and was in official negotiations with the ICA over her selected proposal for the 2015 New Contempories exhibition. The contrasting context, expectation and experience of working in these different environments had made the space between them increasingly transparent. Emails back and forth dragging compromises with the ICA was set against the on-hand, door-knocking, boots-on-the-ground aid of the Art Lickers. Stalking the building of the institution on paper, in paint and in print had not yet charmed a license to darken its windows or climb its perimeter. That “site of desire” was still out of bounds and the proposal itself, the request, was exhibited instead. Not so during Art Licks when Joyce performed on the roof of Copeland Park Industrial Estate in Peckham. A film of the performance was later screened at the ICA.
Talking, we muddled through problems of access and support, being supportive and supported, of publicness, of negotiating space, the sense of physical privatisation in a city, separation, the seeming rigidity of the spaces we inhabit. We talk about flexibility as a vulnerability and a potentiality. While expressing gratitude to those who enabled her own projects, Joyce passed on the favour by encouraging me to write, making connections, collaborating in conversation. The encouragement was critical, in every sense. These kinds of exchanges, extensions of the interview and review structure of writer to artist to writer, feel like scaffolds. Supports hanging onto the edge of what you know, the scaffold extending from your own personal domain of work to a temporary place where things are in flux, where the vantage point is different. The scaffold exists at the boundary of the internal and external and allows those two poles to be constantly redefined, reworked in accordance to one another; it is the site of desire, the need to project beyond the limits of oneself and become; it is the site between the known and the unknown, the meeting place of the individual and the other. This is the site where I imagine an ideal way of working, writing, to take place, on my outskirts, halfway-up a temporary construct that is both outward looking and inescapably introspective.
“Writing is working; being worked: questioning (in) between (letting oneself be questioned) of same and of other without which nothing lives; undoing death’s work by willing the togetherness of one with another—not knowing one another and beginning again only for what is most distant, from self, from other, from the other within. A course that multiplies transformation by the thousands.”
Earlier, sat at Joyce’s kitchen table, contemplating the required looseness of space on which to project the site of work, its rarity and its personal precarity, she had directed me towards The Artists House by Kirsty Bell. Within its pages live a myriad of artists who work in, from and out of their homes, bringing the personal site of domesticity into the gallery space as a place to meet with their work. [insert from “News from London”] Among them is the artist Louise Bourgeois, included in the book as a “kitchen table” artist, but who worked in and through many rooms of her different houses as much as those spaces worked through her. In one house she made work on the roof, in another in the cellar. Her work, her children, her relationships are all a part of the fabric of her work space and her home; a place that is contained yet open. It is a house full of people and thereby must shift to accommodate their multiple uses of it. It is a private studio, a open salon, a gallery, a work shop, a conversation and a functioning living house. A living desire to become.
The scaffold is a temporary structure in between. It extends and recedes to perform as the temporary site of communication that allows thresholds to be crossed, long spindly legs balancing upon negotiated points of support.