Working Hard to Be Useless, currently on display at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, is framed as a revisiting of the ideas of the Situationist International. Though art and artists were integral to its earliest phases, Situationism (1957-1972) was, at its heart, a revolutionary movement that, among other things, felt art should be liberated from its commodity status and integrated into the way people lived. Their early visual artworks were heavily influenced by the Surrealists and by Dada. However the works that have come to be most closely associated with the movement are graffitied political slogans and posters that were plastered around Paris during a monthlong series of protests and widespread strikes in May of 1968 that culminated in French President Charles de Gaulle calling a special election.
While the Situationists are often overlooked in discussions of art in the later half of the 20th century, their ideas have persisted in our cultural consciousness and are manifest in current conversations about urban development and class stratification. More than any kind of aesthetic strategy, it is these ideas that Working Hard to Be Useless is referencing. Specifically, the artists share an interest with their Situationist predecessors in how architecture and landscape within cities enforce certain patterns of behavior and entrench their populations into monotonous routine focused on consumption. The Situationists advocated detournement, derive and psychogeography — modes of moving through a city that were curious, playful and rebellious —as antidotes to retreading the routes prescribed by commercial or political interests and subtly directed by civil engineering and marketing.
The artworks in Working Hard to Be Useless, curated by Salt Lake City artist and skateboarder Jared Steffensen, enact Situationist ideas using contemporary artistic language. Through a variety of media they reveal the isolating and discriminatory features of the current urban landscape and suggest alternative modes of engagement within cities. Viewed from a distance, Working Hard to Be Useless gives the impression of a playground, due largely to the presence of several large sculptural installations, but this belies the deep social malaise that these artists share with the Situationists. Both individual artworks and the exhibit as a whole often vacillate between playfulness and angst as lighthearted forms reveal disquieting realities about the prohibitiveness of urban architecture. This duality is embodied well in the contrasts between two frequent reference points: skateboarders and the homeless.
Skateboarders and the homeless share a foe in defensive architecture, a concept which is helpfully introduced in a digital video by Nils Norman near the front of the exhibit. In “The Urbanomics Archive Trailer,” Norman provides a visual catalog of design features intended to inhibit certain kinds of interactions with public amenities like benches and trash cans, organizing the images by intended purpose. This organization highlights the variety of forms used to prohibit unwanted behaviors like skateboarding or loitering. Most of the architectural adaptations will be immediately familiar, but the function of the video is to make viewers aware of what these familiar fixtures are actually designed to do. Shown in sequence, without bodies occupying the spaces in proscribed ways, the obstructive modifications become much more apparent than they are in their typical context, and the visual introduction to these forms is helpful as several other artworks in the show make reference to defensive architecture.
A less-than-subtle indictment of defensive architecture is Sara Ross’ “Archisuits,” which are at once outlandish in their presentation and serious in their critique. The pale blue tracksuits with foam padding sewn into the lining, each in a unique shape, take dressing for comfort to an extreme. The suits themselves hang in the gallery, and seeing them on the hangers, it is difficult to imagine why anyone would wear such awkwardly shaped articles of clothing. Their function is clarified through the inclusion of several photographs of women wearing the suits, which are revealed to fit like puzzle pieces into the urban landscape, allowing the models to rest comfortably on surfaces that are not intended to allow easy repose. This is, of course, a reminder of the discomforts faced by the homeless who lack other places to rest during the day, but it also calls to mind the potential difficulty in navigating city spaces for the elderly, handicapped or those with young children who might need opportunities to pause and recuperate from the hurried city pace.
A number of artworks in the exhibit address defensive architecture by going to great lengths to defy its effectiveness. Ross’ work is certainly an example of this strategy, as is Alex Villar’s “Temporary Occupations,” a video of Villar running through New York City streets and dutifully entering all the small spaces that have been walled or fenced off. The gesture initially feels like a lighthearted rebellion, but the repetition of the action eventually makes it feel much more methodical. Each enclosed space is traversed in the same thorough, programatic way with little regard for varying degrees of difficulty, discomfort or danger and with no concrete objective. Villar does it simply to show it can be done; with sufficient will and effort, the patterns can be broken, the defenses overcome.
Aaron Hegert’s “Transition” approaches defensive architecture not by making an unusual effort to thwart it, but instead by highlighting how skateboarders manage to find spaces for themselves within the urban landscape in spite of it, and with minimal effort. Skateboarding culture has adopted Situationist strategies less by conscious design than a shared spirit of rebellion. Hegert documents and explores a makeshift “skatepark” in an abandoned parking lot through a series of edited photographs. The photographs deconstruct the low-tech modifications that the skaters used to make the space their own, underscoring the ingenuity and simplicity with which they were able to change the function of the lot to suit their purposes.
Mowry Baden’s “Toy Amenity” is at least partially a reflection on how art itself has been used by cities to prevent the co-option of public spaces by skaters and how skaters have responded. Public sculpture often has been employed as a way to moderate behavior in open public spaces, but Baden designs his sculptures to be interacted with. In this case, the sculpture was created with skate-friendly design as an objective. “Toy Amenity” is included in the show through documentation. There is a photograph of a skateboarder in front of the work and a short video of another young man skating past and drumming out a beat on the sculpture. Incidentally, it is due to this video that the prevailing sound in the gallery is the sound of a solitary skateboard, which feels like the appropriate soundtrack for viewing most of the exhibit.
Skateboarders take on the role of rebel heroes at certain points in the exhibit because of their capacity to reimagine rigid urban spaces for play. The idea that finding opportunities to play and to misbehave within the constructs of the city is part of the solution to the alienation created by modern city life runs throughout the exhibit. The value placed on free, non-prescriptive play is nowhere more explicit than in Nils Norman’s “Play Structure,” a large wooden complex of ramps, ladders and platforms intended to be a more free-form playground that permits inventive play. Signs around the structure make clear that it is meant to be interacted with and explored. However, during my time in the gallery, I noticed several adult visitors dutifully walk up the ramp, look around the space for an appropriate amount of time, then walk down the other side. One audacious individual climbed a ladder to a higher platform for a better view. Perhaps the level of restraint was simply a product of the museum environment or a fluke of when I visited. All the same, the work felt like an unintentional reminder of just how difficult it is to let go of the patterns of behavior we have learned for public space. Simple adaptations to architecture are unlikely to undo centuries of conditioning.
The political ideas that the Situationists and the artists in Working Hard are interested in can lend themselves to straightforward, direct actions and objects like those described above. However, there are also works in the show that are pensive, specific and visually arresting. Thuy-Van Vu’s untitled watercolors are gorgeous, intricate imaginings of playground equipment that are too elaborate for play. They offer an obvious contrast to Norman’s structure, but a better counterpoint might be Lynn Richardson’s “Inside the Fence.”
Richardson took an interest in the way construction barriers and barricades can be used to take away access from spaces that are familiar and generally usable, impacting traffic, cutting off routes and generally creating obstacles between people and their destinations. “Inside the Fence” represents a kind of wish fulfillment. The shapes and colors of barricade walls are translated into soft, fabric versions of themselves that float away from the floor of the museum like giant, boxy kites. Occupying a full corner of the gallery, they are both visually striking and surprisingly affecting. Where the watercolor playgrounds look like an inviting form but present obstacles, these mimic obstacles are but wonderfully inviting.
Amy Yoes’ “Modification and Collapse,” Mark Schatz’s deconstructed dome with model cities and Krista Svalbonas’ “Migrator” series are similarly contemplative and all deal with the more nebulous issue of urbanization in general. Svalbonas engineers disorienting hybrid buildings with faces that alternate between more rustic or suburban domestic dwellings and minimalist high-rises. Schatz references architectural forms as well. The overall shape of the installation is an unfolded geodesic dome, the form Buckminster Fuller hoped would revolutionize both architecture and life. The domes held the promise of lower-cost, more efficient housing, but they failed to take off due to to both social and bureaucratic resistance, as well as some unexpected practical quirks. Here, the shape stands in for all well-intentioned designs that fail in implementation. The minute details in Schatz’s model communities are captivating and warrant a bit of time for more careful examination.
Yoes’ stop-motion video, “Modification and Collapse,” is similarly entrancing. Through simple geometric shapes she demonstrates how urban crowding limits free movement and increases stress. The presentation gives her argument the persuasive power of both poetic meditation and mathematical fact. It is also one of the most aesthetically compelling works in the show.
Nathaniel Russell’s “Fake Fliers” are the works that hew the closest to the aesthetics and humor of the Situationists, recalling the posters and graffiti of the events of May ‘68 but with an update of references and ideas that make them specific to 2018. Russell’s photocopied fliers offer, among other things, an advertisement for group counseling for those who have realized that they will never escape planet Earth and an invitation to participate in a flash-mob at a Wendy’s (with a promise of 50 cent frosty coupons). Interspersed between the other artworks in the show, these fliers help keep the rest of the works anchored to a theme and a sensibility. They also capture some of the sentiment that joins the Situationists to our moment in history: frustration tempered by small gestures of resistance and hope.
The Situationists fully disbanded only a few years after May ’68, having helped mobilize their country toward major change, but falling short of the revolution they wanted. Special elections were held, but the victory went to de Gaulle and his party and the same leaders stayed in power with a new popular mandate. Still, the Situationists helped change the thinking of a generation of French people and popularized the critical examination of consumer culture. They were a flawed, human group of individuals whose passion for change led to dramatic action, but also to intense disagreements, even among those with shared ideals. The artistic and ideological factions within the group often disagreed on whether and by what means their goals could be accomplished. Many of the most prominent artists who had joined early on broke away from the group and by the end, one slogan declared: “Art is dead. Let us liberate our everyday life.”
The artists represented in Working Hard to Be Useless at the UMoCA share in the desire to liberate everyday life, or at least our experiences in urban spaces, but their works suggest that they still place some trust in the vitality of art. Taken as a whole, the exhibit, which runs through December 29, draws attention to issues that are deeply relevant to Salt Lake City and through its variety of approaches demonstrates why fixing these issues is such hard work, but also why it is worthwhile.
Working Hard to Be Useless, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through December 29.
Aubrey Hawks earned her MA in Art History at the University of Utah. She currently teaches at Westminster College.