On the Art of Openness

Aug 12, 2015

Slought is committed to thinking about questions of openness and access, and reflecting on its performance as an institution. In this post, Executive Director Aaron Levy and interns Adrienne D'Elia and Olivia Horn consider how the organization engages - both physically and psychologically - the city and the street.

Aaron Levy, PhD, MPhil was the Executive Director and Chief Curator of Slought (2002-2022), a...

Horn studies Art History and Consumer Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she...

William Pope.L, from the exhibition <i>Itinerant Belongings</i>, Slought, 2015

Storefront projection by William Pope.L, from the exhibition Itinerant Belongings, 2014

Over the last few weeks, we have engaged in a series of conversations at Slought about our storefront space and the complexities inherent in communicating institutional openness, both physically and psychologically. Our storefront performs in various ways as the entrance to our organization, a communication system, and a space of exhibition and is thus guided by a variety of institutional, visual and curatorial considerations. Moreover, it is a space where the institution interfaces with the street, and can thus be conceptualized as a literal and metaphorical field. It mediates inner and outer publics and spaces, and potentially enables engagement between the two.

In the arts, "the public" is often invoked as a monolithic entity, one that is external to both the artist and institution. One exception is the essay The Inner Public (2015), recently published in Field: A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism, where artist Krzysztof Wodiczko distinguishes between an internal public that is formed by a project's development, and an outer public that becomes witness and audience to the final work. Although Wodiczko is attentive to the ways in which each project constitutes these two publics, success is for him measured exclusively by the "formation of the Inner Public [...] and its capacity to inspire, assist, and protect the development and transmission of the public voice and expression of those who choose to take part in it."

Wodizcko's insightful distinction between an inner and outer public leads to questioning about the space in-between, and the potential for these two publics to interact in non-spectatorial ways. Slought's intention is to further complicate this spatial logic, and to enable the construction of a liminal space of interaction that is open to multiple conceptions of engagement. However, our location as an institution on a "linear mile" that runs from 40th and Westminster to 40th and Walnut streets – a ten-block distance which is characterized by shifts in economy, community, opportunity and social trust – serves as a continual reminder of America's many divisions, and the myriad societal fissures that complicate this intention to maintain a space in-between.

Further considerations of the spatial logic of our storefront led us to consider Peter Sloterdijk's Bubbles (1998), which opens with a quote from Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space concerning the difficulty of overcoming preconceived notions of geometric space. Sloterdijk introduces a variety of terms in his book such as bubbles, spheres, atmosphere and air, all of which are intended to complicate linear conceptions of space and encourage alternative geometries of roundedness. In the following passage, for instance, Sloterdijk reflects on spheres as metaphors for social relation, connection and coexistence:

"The relationship between human subjects sharing a field of proximity can be described as one between restless containers that contain and exclude one another. How can one conceive of this bizarre relationship? In the physical space, it is impossible for something within a container simultaneously to contain its container. It is equally inconceivable to imagine a body in a container as something that is excluded from that very container...This notion, an insurmountable paradox in geometric and physical terms, is the point of departure for the doctrine of psychological or human locators: individuals are subjects only to the extent that they are partners in a divided and assigned subjectivity" (Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles, 85).

Here, Sloterdijk uses the concept of the bubble, or sphere, to reflect on how we have imagined and organized life in modernity. He seeks to complicate conventional ideas of subjectivity by acknowledging our proximity to and partnership with the subjectivity of others. As individuals, we are at once intimate with and divided from each other, containing and excluding one another.

If we apply these perspectives to Slought, our storefront can be understood not as a border but as a permeable membrane and space of proximity. It has the potential to both invite and discourage various forms of engagement, and thus inevitably appeals to particular individuals and communities while also excluding others. Slought seeks to actively negotiate this paradox of a simultaneously open and closed institution, both physically and psychologically, by constructing a space that consciously functions as both, and provokes reflection about these questions more generally. But what, in practice, does this mean?

For many, our storefront is experienced as empty and devoid of objects, displaying little more than reflections in the glass of those passing by. In resisting more spectacular, retail-oriented approaches, we hope to subvert traditional approaches to storefront display and complicate the consumer codes that typically structure the relationship between publics and commercial space. Moreover, we seek to build upon Modernist histories of visual experimentation that dynamically resist fixed and habitual forms of experience.

With these considerations in mind, we have constructed our storefront as a projection screen, which in turn functions as a metaphor for the organization. Though a mere piece of cloth, one that complicates spectatorship by occluding visibility within by day, by night the screen has the potential to function as a fluid system of display and communication between the institution and its many publics. Through the art of projection, the screen is activated and transformed by the illusion of three-dimensional space and invites publics to consider other physical or temporal realities. Each of these projections raise various questions concerning coexistence, and complicate linear distinctions between inside and outside, gallery and street. In this way, the storefront makes visible a conception of spatial relations that is integral to Slought's identity.

Importantly, the projection screen is not just oriented to those outside of the institution, but also is experienced by those within. Moreover, those entering Slought encounter a space structured by the experience of additional screens, and walls that also function as such. Together, all of these screens and surfaces call attention to the institution itself as a mediating agent, one that is continually experimenting with display and potentially shaping new relationships between the space, the institution, and various publics. Moreover, the malleability of these screens mimics the malleability of the organization, in the sense of its willingness to perform in relationship to the ideas and images that others project onto it. Slought thus reveals itself as a series of projected images raising further questions, such as where these projections are coming from, who curates the interface, and how they are being received by and affecting individuals, communities and the institution itself.

At Slought, we seek to further complicate the spatial logic of institutional openness through additional curatorial measures. These include various representations of Philadelphia and other localities, both large and small, all of which evoke the outside world while simultaneously occupying space within the institution (for example, the urban table featured in Mixplace Studio). In so doing, we resist conceiving of a cultural institution as an isolated space, that one enters only by removing oneself from the street, the city, the society or the world. Slought is thus rendered spherical, encompassing the city and the world, while simultaneously being encompassed by it.