Personnel 4, 2004
Wyspa Art Institute, Gdansk, Poland
Commissioned for the exhibition Health & Safety
Once the site of the most important industry in the region, the Gdansk Shipyard is now in a transitional period, in which its economic as well as its political history and legacy (the Solidarity Movement) will coexist with its new identity as a gentrified, upscale urban development. When the Wyspa Institute, was offered the use of a building in the shipyard one concern they had was to find ways to resist the gentrification process without undermining their efforts to create an audience.
As I began this project the three person staff had no plan for their offices and only the most provisional of furniture, a situation that made this installation unique. Rather than analyzing the design and function of an existing workspace in relation to its social dynamics I had the opportunity to develop an original plan. In addition, the working relationship of this three member staff had only existed for several months so the context in which their interactions would evolve was also left to me.
Just as the “white cube” still functions as the degree zero of art exhibition space there is also a largely unexamined set of codes for the design of a curator’s or museum director’s office. My focus was to offer an alternative to the stereotypical “well designed” spaces (e.g. MoMA via Knoll and Herman Miller), that pretend to offer comfort and efficiency but actually reinforce hierarchy and status. Some aspects of such codes have a particularly charged (and even sinister) meaning to Eastern Europeans: shoddy copies of furniture by the above mentioned designers were so ubiquitous as to become permanently linked to a different kind of hierarchy-- that of Soviet bureaucracy. This installation sets out to rupture these corporate, bureaucratic and museological codes (and some of the behavior that goes with them) that have defined the art institution’s workplace by combining found objects with elements of modernist design while making reference to the shipyard’s history.
My approach was to represent the past by printing curtains with a large photographic image of a window taken during its former identity as a factory and shipbuilding school. The same size and shape as most of the others in the building, the large window in the photo had a view that framed the hoist towers and loading equipment characteristic of the shipyard. Basic rather banal, the original photograph’s most interesting feature can be found primarily in the dead potted plants on its shelves, which seem to represent traces of a rushed and perhaps reluctant abandonment. On the resulting curtain, the image of a window, very similar to the one it shades but from an earlier moment, will continue to symbolize the history of the shipyard even as the view outside changes with time.
I also designed mobile furniture and office storage that could be adapted to present and future needs as well as making seats using multiple casts of a toilet- a Soviet issue porcelain model-- scavenged from another abandoned building in the shipyard. Although the toilet has been somewhat transformed it is still quite recognizable as such, and with respect to any remaining Duchamp references, I hope it raises questions about how seriously the director, the curator, their assistants and their visitors can take themselves, each other, and their activities when they are all sitting on the toilet together.