Delivery mechanisms. Interview with Paul Sullivan
Paul Sullivan is an architect, artist, curator and director of Static Gallery based in Liverpool. Over a couple of weeks we bounced some emails back and forth discussing some of the concerns of his practice and its relationship to a number of ongoing concerns on architecture, autonomy and the art fair.
Benjamin Fallon: Maybe we could start with you introducing your practice and its relationship with Static, the organisation which you are director of? I am specifically interested in your background as an architect and how this comes into play in your activities?
Paul Sullivan: My practice as an artist/architect is interwoven with my role as Director of Static Gallery.
The Static Gallery building at 9-23 Roscoe Lane, Liverpool is essentially a large-scale 6000 square foot prototype to experiment with. Together with Becky Shaw (co-director of Static 1999-2005) and John Byrne (co-director of Static 2005 – present), we have used the building to examine issues such as public/private space, trade, colonization, conflict resolution, surveillance and financial autonomy.
The fact that Static Gallery is also seen as an institution externally has also allowed Static to embed itself within and therefore to scrutinize at close quarters the structures and mechanisms of contemporary cultural production and dissemination.
Static has always developed and tested projects out in Liverpool but has also increasingly developed projects internationally or been approached and commissioned to carry out projects outside of Liverpool. Therefore Static acts as both commissioner and commissioned.
BF: How do you see Static in relationship with some of the more canonical examples of experimental architecture/ architecture as art? I am thinking of groups like Archigram who seemed to posit a utopian vision for architectural practice oriented to a different future. Static seems more invested in producing a more humble but maybe more interesting space for architecture using it as a mirror on specific local conditions to map the invisible or hidden contours of the lived present.
PS: Yes, I think the real power of groups such as Archigram is both the seduction and the possibilities left open to us by their proposals – which have had a much wider impact beyond the world of architecture – rather than any sense that utopia is possible through architecture, which is of course a fantasy. The power of Archigram resides in the incomplete, the possible rather than the complete, therefore the question arises where is the architecture? Is it in the drawing/proposal or in the building? This is a question that led the late architecture theorist Robin Evan’s to try to un-package this conundrum in particular with regard to the processes of translation – to move a thing from one place to another without changing it.
This process of translation has also been a recurring strand of thought throughout Static projects which has ultimately led to projects such as Noodle Bar (2008), which inserted a temporary building into an urban settings using a small team of operatives and bypassing many of the standard modes of architectural production and state regulation in order to close the translation gap. For me translation is also linked to the concept of autonomy/self-determination. Therefore the projects as you say may be more humble in scale. This is because rather than attempting to make any global/utopian statements through proposals, the projects are essentially what I call ‘delivery mechanisms’ to allow us to test ideas and un-package and make visible the systems of control that affect not only the processes of architectural production but also the processes at work in that thing we call the art world.
BF: I am interested in this idea of autonomy you bring up. We originally met at the Autonomy Project Symposium at the Van Abbemuseum and because of that it is a word I always associate you/Static with. I find it an appealing and troubling idea at the same time, I can see links in it to an idea of ‘freedom’, which is often used to either deny or militate against ideas of the social or questions of responsibility. Could you maybe expand on what you mean when you use it and how you relate it to society?
PS: Autonomy for me is about developing a structure that allows you to be in control of the project as far as possible and this also means being in control of the finances. Although the projects may be referred to as exploring the relationships between art and architecture, the underlying need for autonomy is really responding to the difficulties in the structures governing architecture and urbanism and therefore the use of autonomy is political as well as structural. It is intended as a system of opposition to the normal procedures of architectural production.
So it would be important to state that the process of autonomy described, is not a universal structure for all Static projects.
In terms of freedom, I think that’s a complex issue in terms of how artists/projects ‘either deny or militate against ideas of the social or questions of responsibility’ Maybe you could give some examples of what projects you refer to?
BF: I wasn’t necessarily thinking about artistic practices that militate against the social I was more meaning the idea of freedom as a political concept. I can see certain practices more from the ‘fine’ as opposed to ‘contemporary’ art world operating in this way fetishizing certain figures as free individuals (This obviously happens in a contemporary art context but tends to be done at an ‘ironic’ distance). There is something interesting in that you operate as an institution this to some degree undercuts the idea an individual production. One of the reasons I was interested in talking to you in this context was that you have historically worked with the context of the art fair. You have both participated in them and initiated them but never really in a straight manner (correct me if I am wrong) could you outline some of your engagements with this form and how you relate it to your institutional practice?
PS: Yes, carrying out projects or being invited to do undertake projects as an organization/institution immediately sets up different relationships and expectations from both the commissioners and the public alike as opposed to operating as an individual, as a name. Described externally as the ‘Liverpool art group Static’ or ‘The arts organization Static’, the framing of the project as being devised by an organization rather than an artist ensures a certain kind of institutional dialogue in the formulation of the project. However if/when the proposition is tabled that Static projects may in fact be an individual art practice wrapped up in the aesthetic, structural and legal framework of an organization/a group/a gallery, then a series of tensions can and normally do ensue.
One area of investigation where being an organization/a gallery is actually required in order to get over the threshold is the Art Fair. Although increasingly the Art Fair structure has invited artist projects and discursive events and publications as part of the overall edifice of the event, access to the Art Fair is still via gallery application or invitation to apply.
Due to ongoing projects in Korea, Static were invited to the Korean International Art Fair 2010 as part of a special UK invitation. Static were invited via the British Embassy UK Trade and Industry office in Seoul rather than the curators in Seoul and London. Static agreed to participate in order to carry out a project called The Official Sales Centre of KIAF 2010, a project that examined the architecture of the sale at an international art fair. In order to do this, Static set up it’s booth as The Official Sales Centre of KIAF 2010. The night before the art fair started, Static distributed an official sales centre package to each participating booth asking them to fill in daily log sheets highlighting the days sales, to whom and how much and to return daily to the official sales centre. The booth itself had a 12ft x 10ft Art Fair Floor Plan pinned to the wall that charted the amount of daily sales by putting a red dot per sale in the relevant booth. The project examined the structures/techniques of sale employed by the galleries and organisers and also the relationship between the design of the art fair and other urban typologies.
Static used the KIAF information to further investigate the issues when it set up its own Art Fair as part of the Terminal Convention (Exhibition, Symposium, Music Festival, Art Fair, Farmers Market) project that took place in a disused airport in Cork 2011.
In 2013, Static again used the organizational cloak in order to participate in VOLTA NY. The project presented was Laundry Men – a depiction of a 1972 IRA ambush of British Army undercover operation on the Twinbrook Estate, Belfast – an ongoing project that investigates the relationship between military and civic planning. The real use of the booth at VOLTA NY – a temporary and very expensive piece of real estate – was to set up a neutral space that invited a number of political, military and paramilitary individuals to assess the work on view and to – if possible – add information on top of the presented proposal.
BF: I am interested in how you work with the art fair as an existing structure to explore and to map out how it operates. I like the use of the art fair as somewhere to conduct investigations that would be difficult if not impossible to carry out in other situations. I think there is something interesting in a productive use of the ‘autonomy’ of the art world in the use of Volta similar to that applied in Noodle Bar. One thing that always interests me in your projects is the reaction that they engender. There is always at least a latent antagonism in your works and I am wondering how in a situation like KIAF the organising and funding bodies respond.
PS: For KIAF, the OFFICIAL SALES CENTRE and associated information packs were installed/distributed very quickly the night before the art fair started. The chief organizer arrived and asked “What is this?” The answer was it was art. Shortly afterwards a senior management team descended on the booth. Although the main discussion was in Korean, it was soon conveyed that they were thinking of pulling the Static Gallery booth. Whatever happens next – and for all the projects – is what it is and how that is mediated and controlled is the continuation of the project discourse.
For KIAF it transpired that the green light was still on and although the project may have initially instigated an institutional debate and dilemma for the organisers – as the content of the booth didn’t conform to the information supplied in the application form – they soon realized that it could be used as a form of cultural capital as they brought VIP delegations each day to see the SALES CENTRE. Likewise, the booth became a daily port of call for the participating gallerist’s who would return their daily data sheets in return for red dots on their booth plan.
Although the immediate architecture of the art fair formula provides a rich series of conditions and relationships for examination, the position of the fair and the way the attendant galleries position themselves in the wider cultural and economic landscape is crucial to the understanding of how the fair as a temporary business event operates.
For Static, KIAF also provided a terrain to make a film work that focused on the techniques used by galleries to make sales. The 40 minute film called ‘The Kill’ records how a gallery used the VIP area to initiate a sales process with a potential client through to the subsequent sale.
BF: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions and give us an insight into your practice with Static. One final question, could you tell us what the future holds for Static? Do you have any projects that you are working on that you could share with us?
PS: Benjamin, was a pleasure.
I am currently working on a number of projects including the ongoing Laundry Men and Noodle Bar projects.
A new project is a re-working of the ‘Today I settled all family business scene’ from The Godfather between Gianni Russo (Carlo Rizzi) and Al Pacino (Michael Corleone). I am re-shooting the scene with Gianni Russo in NY.
The scene is the first time Francis Ford Coppola used the shriek of a crow as a precursor to death, or the harbinger of death and was subsequently used in Godfather II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now.
The re-make of the scene on one level examines the use of the crow/raven in art and mythology from ancient times to contemporary art, and on another level, it examines the relationship between fame, infamy and organized crime as the project seeks to replace the original fictional character of Michael Corleone with a contemporary real life New York ‘family boss’.