Art Papers  

more from the
May/June 2014 issue:

Àsìkò in Dakar
by Amanda H. Hellman

The Common Network:
Amar Kanwar and Stephen Willats

by Stephanie Bailey

Give Us CPR
by Gerald FitzGerald

First Person Leaky

by Rosa Aiello


To: Constant Dullaart
From: Carson Chan
Re: Balconism
Date: May 20, 2014

Carson Chan is an art and architecture curator and writer. He wrote the following letter in response to Constant Dullaart's Balconism, a manifesto that appeared in ART PAPERS' March/April 2014 issue. Dullaart's piece has since been reprinted in the "balcony" chapter of Elements of Architecture, the 15-volume catalogue accompanying the 14th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, Italy, curated by Rem Koolhaas and dedicated to the "fundamentals" of the discipline [June 7—November 26, 2014]. Chan's letter, meanwhile, also appears in this form in Balconization (2014), a book published on the occasion of Dullaart's exhibition Stringendo, Vanishing Mediators [June 13—July 19, 2014], currently on view at London's Carroll/Fletcher gallery. This is the letter's sole appearance online.

"Hi Constant,

I remember the evening at your home when you first told me about balconism only faintly, and blearily from much drink. We stayed in, but it was also a nice evening out. Thanks for sending me your text! (I've seen it pop up here and there online since). That social conditions brought about by the web should inspire architectural analogs is not what interested me about your new theory. We all know the spatial metaphors endemic to the Web since its inception: Netscape, firewall, chatroom, cyberspace, etc. But as with the site, the room, and the myriad spaces that have unfurled in the last two decades, the most potent part of balconism is the way it elides the physical world, the logic of the Internet, and political will into a defense of the online independence that many have valued for so long, and find unavailable in the physical realm.

If the cyberspace most of us experience is the Internet, and the Internet is now corporatized, as you observed, then finding a balcony from "the right VPN"—a private place from which to broadcast—is one way to maintain a semblance of independence online. The metaphor of the balcony seems to work well, too. Balconies are private spaces that protrude out into the public; they allow us to occupy both conditions at once, and with immediate possibility to retreat as needed. In the Western imagination, balconism draws from a profound well. The Pope addresses the devout every Easter from his private balcony; Eva Perón spoke from the balcony of her Pink House; Madonna as Eva Perón spoke from a balcony in the film version; there's Juliet; there's Mussolini (his fit one person); Buckingham Palace has a balcony (where the entire Royal Family can stand side-by-side); the White House has a balcony, and so on. [...] In fact, it seems that the balcony's key role in culture is to conspicuously exhibit those who possess or represent power. The image of brokers swilling champagne on their Wall Street vanity ledges also come to mind. The few occupy above, the masses, below. In fact, I'd argue that balconism is a tactic (strategy?) pilfered from the ruling class. Brands are balconies that reach deep into our homes. For many in the so-called art world—the global economic complex operating under the guise of aesthetic/intellectual discourse—the word "Basel" doesn't necessarily conjure images of the picture book Swiss township straddling the Rhine. Basel is a brand that evokes the freedom to traffic, an escape from pervading mores, the right to be privileged, the right to exclude (I could have plagiarized this from your balconism, no? hehe); Basel now evokes Miami, and Hong Kong. Drive balconism in reverse and you arrive at an art fair.

As an aside, we should heed caution every time we neatly model man and his condition. An architecture element we've adopted to describe the relative openness one is about their homosexuality is the closet. Not open, you're in it; open, you've come out. It's a handy image. We keep our secrets—skeletons— in the closet. Closets are cramped and small. To come out is to be emancipated, and transparent about the things that were once private. Some, like queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, would say that this handy metaphor has served also to create categories and divisions between the fluid boundaries of gender and sexual orientation. In Epistemology of the Closet (1990), Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that the facile distinctions made in the homo/hetero divide has not only become problematic for individual identity, but that any analysis of modern Western culture that does not critically take into account of this binary is not only incomplete, but "damaged." Where once everyone existed along a spectrum of possible positions, now we're either-or. Perhaps closets with glass doors? Hmmm.

I suspect it must have been both a visual and rhetorical moment for you to see Julian Assange, our mouthpiece from the dark side of the net, addressing the public and the press from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, in the fall of 2012. It was quite a moment, no? He hacked everything. Wanted in Sweden, fearing extradition to the States, he was granted asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, on the condition that he didn't make any political statements from the premises. The balcony, as tiny as it is hovering a few meters above the Knightsbridge pavement, was off premise enough for his hosts to not renounce him, but on premise enough to dissuade the police waiting by his feet to trespass. From there, he condemned the world. (How far do you think a balcony could extend out from a building before it stops being a balcony? Five meters? Ten meters? A kilometer? Imagine: a neighborhood, a city of crisscrossing balconies, a city of private activity in full view of the public.)

Do you know Jean Genet's play, The Balcony? He wrote three completely different versions of it (1956, 1960, 1962), but I only saw the movie. It started out as a one-act play about the Pope, but was inspired by Franco's Spain, and written around the time Genet became politically active in many causes that Assange also champions—American civil liberties, Palestinian occupation, etc. (Incidentally, I would also recommend Buero Vallejo's play, The Skylight [El tragaluz, 1967], which is also a play about the Spanish Civil War period named after an architectural element.) The Balcony (1963), as adapted for screen by Joseph Strick, takes place in an unnamed city during a revolution. As rebels open fire and bomb the streets, we're inside a brothel where men hire prostitutes to play out their erotic fantasies, hardly aware of the death and destruction outside. One likes to role-play as a bishop, another a general, and a third as a supreme court judge. Architecturally, the brothel is laid out like a film studio—backdrops are hung to create different settings, extras are brought in to play the jury in the courthouse, army uniforms and clergy vestments (complete with a bejeweled miter) await their make-belief wearers. The rebels decimate the city and its authorities, and the police chief (hammed up with an unplaceable accent by Peter Falk), injured, goes to the brothel to seek help from his friend, the madam of the house. The Queen is unable to land at the airport because it is burning, he tells the madam, and he would like her to play the Queen, to go to the town center with him, and quell the violence. The madam, convinced that her powers of illusion are bound by the internal laws of the brothel, declined her friend's plea. Instead, she volunteers her patrons—the pretend bishop, general, and judge—to take their roles to the outside world, and address the public in place of their real-life counterparts, killed in gun fire. The three, ordinarily blue-collar workers, proceed to address the public from a city center balcony, and, of course, the mob, seeing their leaders once again ensconced on high, is pacified and repatriated.

I retell Genet's story because it seems to suggest that politically, socially, and narratively, a lot more goes on behind the scenes than what we see on the balcony. The balcony is indeed a soapbox and a point of connection as you say, but it is also a terminus for all the cultural forces at play inside, in private, prior to the moment of broadcast. Whatever truth and effect there is on the balcony was propelled from within the fantasy world of the brothel. The story also confirms that power feigned is not necessarily powerless. Fake authority can occasion real change. In fact, authority in the real—corporate, civic, legal, or otherwise—is always just the semblance of authority.

The really interesting parts of the movie are when the role-play bishop, general, and judge break character, both inside and out. In one of his sessions, the judge drops his role momentarily to instruct the prostitute on how to act more like a guilty thief; the fake bishop, waving to the crowd on the way to the city center, sees his wife and flinches. I'm kind of fascinated by these moments of exception, like the dots in the yin-yang symbol. Maybe bridging the two realms constitutes a moment of horror, of uncertain fate, and internal shifts.

On a late spring morning in 1996, Hélène Cixous—the French feminist philosopher and literary theorist—saw a dead bird stuck in the latticework of her balcony. Normally, birds could be expected to twitter about on the railing. Sometimes, they might even fly into the house, fluid as air. As if watching a film, Cixous found herself staring at the bird (which she first mistook for a leaf), making herself anxious about how to proceed. She didn't want to touch it, which would make getting rid of it difficult, but she also didn't want her cat Thea to play with it, filthy as it was. But she had to get rid of it before her daughter woke up. "It's the mother who is suppose to struggle with death." The balcony, not so much the extension of the interior, but the threshold between safety and danger, life and death, triggered a series of yin-yang dots in the philosopher's mind. There is an unsettling, neither this-nor-that feeling to things stuck on the balcony:

"Oh no, I wished I hadn't seen it. And now what should I do? Now I was trapped in the vision of that immobile thing in my lattice-work. Horrified. A dark, maddening dialogue started between me looking at the thing and its threatening strangeness. For it had thrown me instantaneously into a state of irresolution. What unimaginable accident might have precipitated this presence which, as it was dying, wouldn't let go of the lattice-work, as if, dying, it had refused with its last movement to fall into the void? And it had gotten its body stuck, with a kind of buoyancy, in between heaven and earth and death and demolition."
(Hélène Cixous, Shared at Dawn, from "Stigmata: Escaping Texts." Translated by Keith Cohen. 1998)

On the verge of a void, the dead bird (it comes back to life, actually, but I'll leave that for another time) has plunged Cixous into an abyss of anxiety. Unable to confront the bird on the balcony, Cixous wrote about the shame, apprehension, burden, paralysis, and finally, resignation. Stuck on the balcony, neither flying up, nor falling down, the bird came to signify the purgatorial state that comes with the ability to straddle positions. Assange's balcony doesn't stretch out for a kilometer, and it will forever be a footstep either way from some form of incarceration.

With all my thoughts,

Balconism, Art Basel, Jean Genet, Julian Assange, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Hélène Cixous, queer theory, architecture, cyberspace, Carson Chan, Constant Dullaart

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