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Site/Work/S: Interview with Cameron Armstrong and Alexandra Irvine by Chas Bowie CANVAS, Summer 2000

 

This past May, Houston Sculpture 2000 hosted the 18th International Sculpture Conference. In conjunction with the conference, Houston architect Cameron Armstrong organized Site/Work/S -- a trifold exploration of "urban-scale art installations." Site/Work/S examined the union of art installation, architecture and urban planning as evidenced by Houston monuments such as Project Row Houses, TemplO, No Tsu Oh, and the Orange Show. As part of Site/Work/S, Armstrong also worked with Alexandra Irvine to create an exhibition at the El Dorado Ballroom documenting the history of Houston's own urban-scale installations. I met with Armstrong and Irvine to discuss Site/Work/S and the nature of Site itself ...

Chas Bowie: Site/Work/S was a pretty elaborate undertaking. How did it come about?

Cameron Armstrong: I started out thinking about the boundaries between architecture and sculpture. And I looked at these different artist habitations around Houston, like TemplO and No Tsu Oh, and it occurred to me that they weren't "homes" so much as installation pieces. But they were so atypical of installation art that people would often ask [the artists], "Why aren't you guys making art anymore?" That question somehow began to bind them all together for me, and I eventually realized that there was indeed a common idea behind them, and that ... [this idea was] continuous not only with installation practice in galleries, but also with concepts that many architects are now pursuing. It became obvious that we were looking at the spontaneous evolution of a new kind of monumental landscape, in the form of a certain type of intervention [in] the urban landscape that performs many of the social and symbolic functions of traditional urban monuments -- statuary, urban squares and so forth. Because we were also interested in the continuity between installation practice and architecture, the project just got bigger and bigger. And that's when Alex began to put together the historical background to all this in Houston.

CB: You refer to these sites as "interventions," which is a term that has been floating around a lot lately. Could you talk about that and how it applies in this context?

CA: Well, 'intervention' implies that you're making an inroad into an already existing context. In Houston, the context is quite difficult, because the architectural landscape here is so relentlessly retail in spirit. It's so much about grabbing your attention that everything fades into a mushy sort of "middle ground." It's neither background nor foreground. Yet there are areas which are not really retail areas. They are often overlooked, and different people like Rick Lowe with Project Row Houses and Nestor Topche at TemplO, Mark Larson at The Artery and Jim Pirtle with No Tsu Oh, have all nested into them and essentially claimed them in different ways. So yeah, as "claimed backgrounds" they're interventions, but I think of them more as nesting in. Once the artists have nested in, the foreground that they create -- or permit, or sponsor -- is almost entirely performative. It's made up of activites where different people interact in special ways. Such as, [for example], at Project Row Houses where there are young mothers living in some of the houses and artists doing installations in others, all at the same time. You could say that the experience of taking part in these activities, or even just of seeing them posed in relation to eachother, is a form of intervention in the life of anybody who goes there. And everybody is engaged in constructing or reconstructing some form of social awareness -- just as, ideally, with a traditional monument.

CB: Well, when you go through these sites historically, almost each space has a performance aspect to it - The Artery, the Alchemy House, Pirtle's performances at No Tsu Oh.

CA: For me the performance thing is most interesting when it crystalizes that need for a community to have some kind of self knowledge. I had a great moment recently photographing Project Row Houses. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I was photographing some children in between the houses. Dean Ruck was installing his piece at the time, and I walked out to the street and a neighborhood trail riding group with no official connection with Project Row Houses had decided they had to ride by this place. They rode by and waved and it was quite moving, actually. It was a moment in which different parts of the community were just touching base with eachother. And that to me is exactly what a monument is about. [That] may be the only way you can make a monument in Houston. At No Tsu Oh, a chess game becomes a performance of community. A game of chess where you see a guy in a suit and a homeless guy playing each other is a big moment. Over at Project Row Houses, when the artists doing installations are talking with the kids who live there about eachothers' art work and projects and homework, etc., that's another kind of community engagement. And The Artery and TemplO have the same thing. It's fascinating.

CB: In a recent article about the Houston art scene, Carlo McCormick commented repeatedly on the circus-like or carnival atmosphere of the city. I was trying to figure out what it is about Houston that lends itself to or necessitates these grand attractions and distractions.

Alex Irvine: Certainly a lot of these artists are related to an era which started with James Surls at Lawndale, when it was still part of U of H. They were kind of these mavericks and Surls' message was, "don't wait for the galleries to come to you, just get out there and do it." So that's where the Art Guys came in, and Nestor and Dean Ruck came out of that. There is a generation of artists who were inspired by Surls initially and watched how he would say "Well I want to have a show" and he would go find some storefront, print off invitations and say, "Here's a show of my work." Lawndale grew out of that. Lawndale doesn't necessarily serve that purpose in Houston today, and I don't know that I would consider Lawndale or DiverseWorks to be site works as they exist now. But I think the Lawndale Annex in the very early years certainly was, because it was the place where anything goes.

CB: It seems that in galleries and museums you see much less overtly political artwork than in recent decades. These sites, though, seem like outlets for artists with political ideals or activist leanings.

AI: I also think that there's still this invisible line where museums or galleries look at some stuff and say no, we're not ever going to show that because it's not pretty, it's not sellable. It's too big. How can we get it in here? So once again, going back to Surls, if it's something you need to do, you just do it, whether you can sell it or not. You do it and figure out how the money is going to come up or how the visitors are going to visit it or whatever. You worry about that after you've done it.

CB: There's a lot to be done. We've talked about installation, architecture, city planning, performances, monuments....

CA: Now we've got these artists who are like real estate developers, in a way. They deal with the city at that level of complexity and completion. Making any of these sites involves securing the land, getting permission for construction, the design of the space, getting a constituency and the money, in combination with all of the other art goals that they have. So these things participate in the community at every level, and the fact that they even exist proves their viability far beyond anything that an art institution or curator could do. These things are going concerns, it's a movementů and [with Site/Work/S] the most that we could do is just say, Hey, there it is. And then get out of the way...