When Kate Newby scrawled ‘we must build in the open’ in her idiosyncratic script onto the floorboards of Gambia Castle as part of her 2007 exhibition On the benefits of building, I always assumed she was privileging the ‘open’ as that improvisational, and yet urgent domain of self-actualisation. In a culture premeditated on the associative rites of identity formation accentuated to no end by a contemporary capitalism predicated on what Nigel Thrift has called an ‘ethology of the senses’,1 this embedded agency, so characteristic of the mobile tactics of what Michel de Certeau calls everyday practitioners ought to be familiar enough.2 Moreover, having become enthralled by Newby’s constant promulgation of a fleet-footed subjectivity capable of ‘accepting the chance of the moment’, I merely assumed Newby’s deployment of ‘the open’ was yet another attempt to signal her readiness to engage with a field already in play.3 So it was with some surprise, then, that I recently came across the original source of the phrase ‘we must build in the open’ in Le Corbusier’s manifesto, The City of To-Morrow and Its Planning, where it acts as the purifying proclamation through which the city needed to be abdicated, destroyed and rebuilt from ‘the open’, as that carte blanche terrain in which the truly rational subject of modernity would finally flourish.4
Of course, like every good modernist should, Le Corbusier’s ‘open’ primarily operates as a convenient disavowal that organises a purified site for regeneration. Achieved by lambasting the convoluted and intertwined layouts of ‘every continental city’, Le Corbusier’s ‘open’ deliberately squares-off against the meandering trade routes of the pack donkey, whom man (and I mean to use that term with all its historical and exclusionary specificity) has depended upon to cart his wares.5 Posing an antithetical animality, which ‘meanders along’ in a ‘scatter-brained and distracted fashion’,6 the pack donkey is said to be responsible for not only the ‘confusion’ it ‘sows’ into ‘the very texture of modern cities’,7 but also a -corrupting ethos that restricts the evolutionary potential of man. Variously either a ‘menacing disaster’, an ‘evil state’, or a ‘mortal sickness’,8this condition provides the ballast in which Le Corbusier calls upon the ‘open’ to concoct a -purifying crucible in which the properly -rational subject of modernity would finally emerge. As he insists:
When man begins to draw straight lines he bears witness that he has gained control of himself and that he has reached a condition of order. Culture is an orthogonal state of mind. Straight lines are not deliberately created. They are arrived at when man is strong enough.9
Epitomised by Le Corbusier’s 1925 Voison Plan, a proposal to rebuild the central city of Paris as an urbanism of ‘pure geometry’,10 Le Corbusier’s ‘open’ stages a purifying rite that would sweep away the ‘junk, which till now has lain spread out over the soil like a dry crust’,11 enabling the evolutionary succession of a modern subject capable of subjugating his origins in nature.
The evolutionary heroics Le Corbusier expects the ‘open’ to stage are, then, a million miles away from the types of provisional ease Newby’s practice has long assuaged. In calling attention to a rhetoric that Leonie Sandercock calls a ‘masculine fantasy’ of control,12 however, Newby does provide a useful foil for thinking through her practice: especially in its recent oscillation between the formal aesthetic of the gallery environment and her attention to, and use of, an incidental mark that signals an embedded engagement with the texture of the ‘everyday’. This is particularly obvious in relation to Newby’s 2007 publication, Architecture for Specific People, which documented her brief, even vigilant, occupation of an abandoned house in an inner-city Auckland suburb. Detailing her nailing up of aphorisms like ‘very available all of the time’ and the peppering of the yard with small brick, wall-like propositions, this book shows just how much Newby’s practice is prepared to stage an ‘open’ that refutes the abdications Le Corbusier relies upon. In this sense, what the book also documents is just how much Newby’s practice overlaps with the idiosyncratic empowerment of what de Certeau has called the ‘ordinary practices’ of an everyday life, whose way of being is so often erased or forgotten in universalising attempts to totalise or proscribe the dalliances of life itself.13
If Newby’s ‘open’ can be seen as an engagement with a terrain that already exists, then its contrast with Le Corbusier’s need to purify this terrain as a condition of becoming also bears upon her crafting of subjectivity embedded within a situational matrix. Clearly seen in the poetic aphorisms that Newby has inscribed on all manner of surfaces (wall murals, flags, carpets, stickers, pamphlets), Newby’s practice has sought to accentuate a provisional and adaptive mobility that, like one of her most memorable slogans proclaims, is available ‘in any situation, and in all the circumstances, and in all probability’. More recently, this attitude or responsiveness can be seen in her engagement with the types of phenomenologically inspired strategies commonly seen in the work of the Californian artist Robert Irwin, whose alterations to the gallery’s lighting (both natural and artificial) and his adaptations to its physical structures,14 seek to draw out a sensory grasp of what Merleau-Ponty would call ‘the flesh of the world’.15 This is perhaps best seen in Newby’s 2009 show, Get Off My Garden, held at Auckland’s Sue Crockford Gallery, where, through the addition of two walls and the provision of a carpeted area, Newby turned the gallery’s interior into — as Jonathan Bywater has suggested — a type of ‘garden’.16 Similar concerns are apparent in the work Newby produced as part of her contribution to the 2009 group show The Future is Unwritten held at Wellington’s Adam Gallery. Here, Newby hung a large curtain parallel to the main entrance’s wall, positioning it so that its billowing folds would take advantage of the air ducts — not only accentuating the permeable nature of this improvisational intervention, but also drawing attention to the highly mediated and conditioned environment of the gallery itself. Likewise, Newby’s contribution to the 2008 group show Let It Be Now at the Christchurch Art Gallery co-opted the foyer garden’s architecture, playing off its anaemic neutrality as that unobtrusive modular unit in order to create a mural whose interruptive and weather-beaten aesthetic set the stage for a series of aphorisms, that begged the viewers’ attention to the ‘abundance’, even ‘song’, of an ordinary inhabitation.
It is through strategies that accentuate the mark of the everyday that Newby’s practice develops a relational notion of dwelling that has a far longer continuum than the interruptive agency of modernity’s rational subject would assume. Working less against the grain than with it, and consistently foregrounding an improvisational mobility, Newby’s practice formalises a readiness to engage with the world as it is. This is more than evident in Newby’s tendency to include external ‘public’ works as part of her recent gallery shows — allowing her to extend the formal devices of an aesthetic into the world and culture from which they are drawn. Recently however, this dialogue has become even more emphatic, especially in light of Newby’s most recent show, Crawl Out Your Window at Bremen’s Gesellschaft Für Aktuelle Kunst (GAK, 2010). Here, Newby has used a curtain to not only cordon-off the interior of the gallery but also to create a passageway which, having been painted bright yellow, foregrounds just how much of a primary rift occurs in the oscillation between a deliberately mediated experience and the mundane, or ordinary vitality of a life lived just outside. Moreover, to haunt this point more fully, the very permeable object dividing this passageway also carries with it a host of incidental and arbitrary marks carried over from the repeated staining of its previous use as a communal picnic blanket.
Consistently deploying a host of incidental and arbitrary marks that privilege an aesthetic steeped in an adaptive provisionality, Newby’s practice frames our attention to the ways in which the world is actually inhabited. This is at least how I read her diaristic inscription on a stone with the words ‘Saturday Morning’, that she has placed on the banks of the neighbouring tidal river that flows past the gallery windows of her exhibition at GAK. Literally an embedded object and prey to the whims of a tidal flow whose opacities variously expose and conceal it according to a multitude of potential vicissitudes, this small sculpture enacts a proposition that calls-up the social and contractual characteristics of our encounter with the wider world. That is, like so much else of Newby’s practice, this object reflects the way in which we form a part of a matrix that entangles us with what Alphonso Lingis has called the ‘exorbitant materiality’ of a web that envelopes us as beings in the world.17 For ease of words, we often call this entanglement ‘culture’ — but to do so we run the risk of creating excisions that accentuate difference (nature being the most obvious) as something that needs to be accounted for in the hermetic salvation of an idiom that prioritises the individual as an autonomous subject. Running counter to such aggressive and ultimately solipsistic assertions, Newby’s practice, especially in its consistent modelling of an adaptive provisionality, can be said to craft an understanding of the situational and everyday encounter of a relational dwelling.18 Thus, what I’d like to suggest, and it is a point Newby’s scrawling of the phrase ‘I’m so ready’ onto a carpet makes plain,19 is that while such sentiment may seem satiric at first (and there is the jostle of comedy in its urgency of adoption as a type of readymade costume), it is precisely because we do wake into ‘a world in commotion’,20 a commotion that entangles and ensnares us, just as much as we ensnare and entangle it.
Harold Grieves is an art writer and cultural critic from Christchurch, New Zealand.