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Workshop for Potential Design: Could you start by telling me a little bit about the show you will talk about today?

Brendan Cormier: The show that I’m going to talk about happened in the summer of last year, between July and September and it was in London.

WFPD: Can you describe what you see when you walk into the show, the physical space and the objects?

BC: When you walk into the show, it’s a little bit surprising because the show at first glance doesn’t really look like anything. In fact, what you really see is just a bunch of guys lying around on an empty floor. There are lots of beer bottles strewn around, there might be a mattress in one corner, a kind of antique old disheveled chair in another corner and so that’s what you first see. And you see a projection on the screen of an old Icelandic film. But what’s more interesting is that you hear this really kind of soft hushed strumming. In fact all these people who are lying around have a guitar and they’re strumming along and they’re humming. They’re kind of singing but like a sotto voce, so really under their breath.

WFPD: Was this something you expected to see going in?

BC: I had a vague idea that the show that I was going to be looking at dealt a lot with performance and video so when I walked into the room and saw a projection and a bunch of people performing, was more or less what one would expect from a show about performance and video.

WFPD: Let’s talk about the piece you especially liked.

BC: Well, there were two pieces in the show that I thought were really interesting and really came together. They were very inspiring for me as a curator and gave me a lot of ideas. One was this piece that I just started to describe — it is these troubadours lying around and almost singing in a kind of mantra-like tone, a kind of refrain over and over again. As I said there was a projection on the wall. It was an old Icelandic film and as it turns out it was a film in which the artist’s parents featured a long time ago and that’s how they presumably got to know each other and that’s how the artist eventually came into existence. Do you want me to talk about why I found this interesting or do you want me to go more in stages?

WFPD: Well, whatever you like really!

BC: I think in brief, what I found really interesting with that piece and the setup is how little you need to actually transform a space into something completely different. And I’ve been to this particular space to see a lot of exhibitions before. So here was an absolute bare minimum; some chairs, some beer bottles and some kind of bedraggled troubadours and all of a sudden one was immediately transported into an environment that one could understand even though you know all the ideas or the pieces weren’t there but you could imagine a kind of shitty apartment flat where a bunch of people are hanging out. It was really interesting that you only need a few actual items or signifiers to completely transform a space.

Then I moved into the second piece which was the piece that really stuck out for me. It was in a darkened room, and again it was a film piece so everything was blackened out. Then you walk into the space and there were nine screens all lined up in the square room. There’s a column in the middle, so there are two screens on either side on the column.

At any given point you can’t see all the screens at one time but the whole place is filled with sound because the piece is actually an hour long performance. So you walk in and you’re listening to this musical performance.

WFPD:  So there is a kind of relationship or connection between the two pieces. Is that something that made them specifically interesting to you?

BC:  Let me describe it a little bit more and I’ll tell you why I thought it was really interesting. What you’re actually looking at is different musicians on each of these massive screens and each of them is just filmed with a static tripod-mounted camera for the entire duration. What the camera is doing, or what the viewer is doing, is framing a room until you discover, after a few minutes, what you are actually looking at on all these screens is different rooms of one old 19th century upstate New York mansion that’s kind of disheveled, kind of falling apart and it looks a bit like Miss Havisham’s mansion in Great Expectations, and it has all these amazing details. These screens are just essentially really interesting tableaus of architectural space focused on one performer. What I found really interesting is that over the course of this song, and it’s a very simple song like the first work that I mentioned in which one refrain is repeated over and over again, you see these different musicians. One musician might have a solo so you might be attracted and you walk around the space to find out where the solo is and look at that tableau. So in this entire one hour performance you are actually experiencing space by walking around this room because you can’t see all the different screens. You’re experiencing the architecture of the house in a way that you would never really understand it if you were just looking at one screen.

Near the end of the piece, what starts to happen is that performers will leave the room and they’ll go into another room. After about 45 minutes of looking at individual sets, you start to understand the architecture of the whole house because of the movement of these people from one room to another. I found this really interesting because in architecture curation we’re always dealing with the problem of how to display architecture. It’s always through representations of architecture and those are relatively conservative in nature. You would get a plan, a drawing or a static photograph but because this was a time-based piece and because of the layout of the room and you were forced to walk around this space, you were engaging in the architecture of this house in a way I’d never experienced an architecture exhibition. I don’t even know if that was the artist’s intention but that’s what ended up happening in that space.

WFPD: What’s interesting to me about the two pieces you describe is that they both share an idea of different people coming together and sharing a space. It seems to illustrate a form of relationship. Is this something that was intriguing to you as well as the architectural aspect of them?

BC: I think what’s really interesting with that comment that you made about the pieces is, about them being a way of showing collaboration between different individuals. I think the similarity between the two pieces is that in the first piece, you do have all these singers collaborating and playing the same song but also, because of the way they’re situated in the room, they are contained in their own individual world. They have their backs turned to each other, one might be staring at the ceiling and one might be staring at the floor. In the second piece you see these people contained in their individual rooms and the only way they can collaborate is through listening to headphones to hear each other. You also get that powerful dichotomy between working in a group to create a performance but also being completely absorbed in your own space and in your own performance. I thought that was really really effective. 

WFPD: There are other artists who work in film but obviously this piece is very different in a sense that the narrative flow seems to appear organically, maybe because of the setup. I mean the second piece you are talking about is filmed in one shot with no editing.

BC: Yeah, I think one of the more impressive things when you’re watching the entire performance is exactly that. The entire thing was shot in one go, there is no editing that you can do. If you start to really think about how the piece was produced and the complexities of organising all of those different elements it reminds you of little bit of Fischli and Weiss piece, Der Lauf der Dinge, the epic kinetic piece in which they start one movement of an object and it will go around the room and experience all these different transformations.

WFPD: Was there a feeling of participation as well, because you would be walking around the room without being explicitly prompted?

BC: Yeah, what was so interesting about the piece was that without any kind of list of instructions or rules for the game, one intuitively starts to participate with a piece just because of what’s happening on the screen and how the performance plays out over time. I think I’m also interested in this idea that when you try to curate a design exhibition there’s always that constant problem with having to explain everything. If you have 100 objects in an exhibition, you have 100 labels and the question is, how do you create a design exhibition that one can enter where the experience is more intuitive? So it’s definitely one of the ideas that I found really inspiring about that work.

WFPD: It sounds like it’s also about difference in attitudes between art and design exhibitions on how much to tell the audience.

BC:         Typically in art curation I’m always amazed by how little there is in terms of labels. There might be a date and a name of the work and that’s all you get and the rest is up to you to figure out. It works against itself sometimes when you want to talk about something very specific but can also be really helpful. Basically saying you’re on your own here and it’s up to you find what’s interesting in the work.

WFPD:  That’s the big discussion always.

BC: Yes.

WFPD: I think that defines what is art and what isn’t for a lot of people. This show is clearly considered art rather than anything else. Do you think you learn more by seeing so-called art exhibitions than design exhibitions?

BC: I think in general I would be more challenged by what I see in art exhibitions because there’s more variety in the way one can encounter an art exhibition, whereas for the majority of design exhibitions there seems to be a fairly standard method of presentation in which a narrative is laid out. You see a work, you read a label, you move on and might watch a video and it’s very tack, tack, tack. It’s very prescribed even though when we talked about how visitors go through an exhibition, everybody knows that you can never prescribe the route a visitor will take. You can work as hard as possible to work out this beautifully crafted narrative and order the objects in such a way that the visitor will receive a kind of story and then the visitor will go exactly in the opposite route or only read three labels here or there. I think in that sense there is a lot to learn from art exhibitions and the kind of laissez-faire attitude towards labels and interpretation. I think the big challenge for design exhibitions is how to render them more in that kind of way.

WFPD: Going back to the show you are talking about, is there anything else you would like to add?

BC: For me that exhibition suggests a way of talking about design in which you can talk about a process and in which something can unfold over time. It seems strange that we don’t do it in design because with design objects, the making of them is a process, so that unfolds over time. And the objects themselves are meant to perform. One of the greatest problems of the designed objects in museums is that you are looking at it in the worst case scenario underneath the case on a plinth, and there is no interaction with them at all but also the object is lifeless and dead. I think it’s really interesting to think about how to imbue performance in the display of design. Another thing is the ability to create an intimate environment that transports the viewer to a place because, obviously, designed objects are everywhere and they are reliant on their context for us to really engage and understand them. Sometimes the museum works against that by transporting it to an exalted environment where everything needs to be looked at in a very prescribed way. So that would be my takeaway from the show. 

WFPD: Maybe not exactly a problem, but do you think that is an issue displaying design? I mean, we are interested in design because, like you said, designed objects are everywhere and everyone has opinions about them. But putting them in a museum disrupts a kind of intimacy we have with them already because it’s in a museum.

BC: I think that the attitude that is evoked from a museum display is itself already an interesting effect that you can have and that works generally well when you take a really everyday overlooked object and you put it on a plinth. And you give it a great lighting and it’s in the museum context. That is already a transformative thing that’s interesting but that’s simply one tool in a larger tool set that we can be using to talk about lots of different ideas in design.

WFPD: That’s very true. 

BC: I can tell you what my dream design exhibition would be. My dream design exhibition would be a live, massive potter’s wheel with participatory pottery throwing with really big guys making massive, really weird pottery over the course of the day and getting dirty.

WFPD: Like a demonstration?

BC: Yeah, you say demonstration but I say “Can you render the making process into a performance?” And I think it would be really interesting.

WFPD: Yes, which brings us back to the film and the performance.

BC: Yeah, exactly. So these troubadours are lying around and playing the song, they’re not on a stage doing a kind of a typical set. What the artist is doing is that he’s transforming the idea of collaborating through music but changing it slightly into the setting which is more ambient. It allows a different kind of observation than one would expect from just being on the stage and singing a typical song. I think we can do that with design too. We can take the traditional tools of the making process but then bring them to the museum and rework them to allow for different kinds of observation. If you want to do an exhibition that talks about participation, you can take these traditional making techniques and bring them into a gallery but then screw with the rules a little bit which essentially would make a performance.

WFPD: That sounds great. One last thing. How long did you spend in the room with video projections?

BC: I think the most amazing thing is that I am really bad at going to exhibitions and I am the opposite of the person who reads every label. I jump around a lot and I rarely ever see an entire film. This film installation was about an hour long and I walked in probably 15 minutes after it had started. I stayed for their whole 45 minutes and then I waited for it start again to watch the 15 minutes as it began again, so I watched the entire hour duration.

WFPD: Which doesn’t happen so often?

BC: Which never happens, which I never do.

Brendan Cormier is the Lead Curator of 20 and 21st Century Design at the Victor and Albert Museum, London.