Simon Sheikh on Alex Villar’s work

Danger Museum Newsletter #18: A conversation between Simon Sheikh and Alex Villar on the occasion of the showing of 'Upward Mobility' in the exhibition 'Walking In The City' at Apexart Walking In The City Was CU Rated By Melissa Brookhartand Jill Dawsey and will be on view at Apexart from January 4 to February 1, 2003.

Alex Villar: Let me start by restating a recurring criticism leveled against artistic practices that deal with the question of site. The rationale, which is not a recent one, goes like this: once you move the piece to a different context, you change the meaning of the piece. It is said that the work is decontextualized; that is, it ceases to address the specific conditions of the site and audience it had initially engaged. The implicit assumption is that the piece's representation in another context would necessarily neutralize its meaning; it is destined to become a purely formal exercise. Undoubtedly, this idea is not irrelevant. It certainly addresses the current understanding that audiences are not universally constituted. Gender, race and a variety of other formative experiences particularize audiences in their respective contexts. So, to think that a piece could be received in the same way everywhere would be to ignore these differences. But the fear of neutralization can prevent the possibility of re-contextualization of a piece in a new critical context. Perhaps you could explore this alternative while discussing your use of a project I did in the Czech Republic. it initially dealt with a particular spatial situation found in Plasy for an exhibition that you curated for Overgaden in Denmark.

Between Places, video projection. Czech Republic, 1999

Simon Sheikh: I think that the notion of work as site-specific that a work could not be removed from its context has to be viewed in an historical context, as pertaining to a particular moment in art history, which was post-minimalist, when all of a sudden work was, arguably, more about the space than the object itself. The space was the context, 'the context devours the work' as Brian Doherty formulated it in "Inside the White Cube". And so, of course, it related to the idea of the art space as neutral, or rather neutralizing of the content of the work, and site-specificity was engaged as a critical tool towards this 'cultural confinement' of the art space, to use Robert Smithson's words. However, returning to your idea of context as something that involves the actuality, agencies or specificities, if you will, of the spectator, the interesting thing about minimalism is how it didn't really work with anything else than a very generalized and even idealized spectator in a strange confluence of phenomenology and Kantianism. The spectator in minimalism never really had gender, never was of a particular class, never had history, or agency. And so it's interesting that now, when we obviously think in more expanded terms of what subjectivity is, and that you cannot have one generalized viewer, that grounding of the work contextually as belonging to a specific space, specific site becomes both less and more important somehow. In a strange double-bind, on the one hand less so, because in a way what historical post-minimalist work was saying is that identity was only in the space and not in the spectator, and of course we would say today that it would be as much in the spectator as in the space. And then, on the other hand the specificity and siting of the spectator, culturally and geographically (keeping in mind Harvey's notion of uneven geographical developments in global capitalism and Documenta 11) becomes more urgent. How subjects are formed through space, and how we must work not only with pointing out spaces, but also partake in articulations within and around them. And I find it interesting that your work in a way thematizes this particular double-bind. I find that on the one hand your videos are clearly connected to one particular space you are physically interacting with one space, pushing your body up against the very physicality of urban space and so on but then again on the other hand it doesn't really matter which specific urban space is being depicted. Those urban spaces are really not important, they're much more a kind of a signpost for a certain urban condition; it doesn't really matter if it's New York or London. I mean you could do it anywhere, in any city. Maybe you can find a local accent to the pieces of external, parasitic architectural devices that you employ (or perhaps even sense your work is as much about performativity as it is about space, meaning space as actual historical sites. Your work can be seen as being both with and against those spaces and how you relate to them.

Between Places, still from 11 min. video, 1999

And in that sense of course, in our exhibition, the exhibition that we did, called Models of Resistance, we were actually trying to define that very moment of how you, in everyday usages, have a kind of process of resistance to these particular structures, be them physical or social and so on. So there was a whole range of methods that we tried to produce and we had a sort of a soft focus, if you will, on architecture and urbanism, and there was a de Certeau inspired argument in there somewhere, and the whole exhibition was structured like a city perform). In that space that you had to move around in and relate to in very different ways with different flows and intensities: there was not one way you could move in that exhibition, there was not one direction, there were many directions, so that you basically had to move around.

Upward Mobility, still from 7 min. video, 2002

So, in purely formal ways Plasy Windows fitted seamlessly into this idea, and because of the reading we were making, the focus we were suggesting, your piece became part of that, it became complicit with our proposition, really. It was total coloring of your work, so it was now seen as an act of resistance whether you could actually get in through this window, whether it could happen, so the image took on another significance, which principally could have been vastly different from the original contextual setting of Plasy Window. But this tension between presumably illegal and legal use of space seems to be a concurrent theme in a lot of your work, also evident in Upward Mobility, I think maybe the newest one from the World Financial Center is a slight departure from that suggestion and use of suspense, as well as departing in the sense that all the others are engaged in irrational behavior and functionality of space. Plasy Window, Other Ways and Upward Mobility certainly don't show the proper usages and functions of their respective spaces, and, additionally, points to a lot of the so-called interval spaces that don't really have a function, but are rather a sort of residues of other functions, they are kind of the negative or the unconscious of these spaces, if you will. The leftover space of another use, of the production of a functional space, and they are non-functional spaces that happen because of functions around them a lot of the spaces that you seem to map. But your performances in these spaces often also don't really have a function; I mean you can't really say this person's climbing is commiting a burglary. You can't really say that this person's running is doing exercise. The performative aspect is too obvious, it's too clear that it is parodic or reflective in some other manner. And, actually, the only one that somehow seems to have made a departure from there is of course the recent one with the smoking because it really pertains to what you can actually do and what you cannot do in public spaces much more clearly, especially these days, when obviously you cannot smoke in most offices and you have to find spaces where you can smoke. And if you look out, for instance in Midtown Manhattan, you will see people outside in something that isn't really a balcony but simply a space outside the window where people are standing and smoking. And now of course they are constructing spaces for people to smoke in parking lots and so on. So I don't know if you would agree but I think that maybe that video actually indicates a major departure.

Irrational Intervals, still from 8 min. video, 2002

Alex Villar: I understand the distinction that you are trying to establish in the following way: While in other pieces that I did, there was no justification for my actions, in 'Irrational Intervals' I am simply smoking. In other words, what was previously a kind of behavior one couldn't pin down to a single activity has, in the case of the smoking piece, been narrowed down to a single possibility. Seen through this framework, one could say that the insertion of the smoking body in the type the leftover spaces I have isolated would have instrumentalized their articulation. I think this is an interesting reading insofar as it identifies two distinct procedures used in the work. While I agree that the procedure is diverse, I would contend that smoking in this case is nothing but a trope. Instead of fulfilling with a single meaning a gesture otherwise unfixed, what it provides is a disguise for a variety of mental activities. For me,

Other Ways, still from 10 min. video, 2000

the location of the smoking body in those spaces proposes a double suspension of everyday codes of behavior. If only for a brief duration, the smoker is suspended in a non-place between both the formal regulating codes of the workplace and the informal code that informs pedestrian flows on the street. I believe this piece would appear to be less of a departure if seen as the articulation of a tendency already present in the development of the work; that is, the tendency to ground the actions performed in the pieces in everyday behavior. In a way, I have been moving away from a gesture that is completely absurd to a gesture that arises from regular daily activity. The subway piece, for example, shows a person in their regular use of the subway system. It is only when this person takes a wrong turn that a deviation from regular behavior can be observed. Still, the action itself remains the same, what ascribes to it a different meaning is the fact that the exact same behavior is performed in the wrong place. From the beginning, I have been weary of the possible reading of absurdity as a simple gesture of transgression and have tried not to render a heroic subject or exemplary model. What I wanted to do was to move in the opposite direction, to be much less of a model, much more mundane, much more everyday, much more anybody who, suddenly, almost by chance, would flip into another mode. This point is perhaps clearest if illustrated gradually as I did in 'Temporary Occupations: In that piece, the performer acts as a jogger who pursues a straight path on the sidewalk, ignoring all kinds of fences and other boundaries that appear in the way. The obstacles are themselves privatized portions of public space. The performer, who starts behaving exactly like any other jogger, gradually changes the character of the actions and begins to move into forbidden territory. What starts as mere resistance to arbitrary demarcation of public space, turns into an active act of dissent that disregards the inviolability of private property. Be it in the automatic use of a transitional space in the case of the subway piece, or in the obstinate pursuit of a path as in the sidewalk piece, or even by making use of a pretense as is the case in the smoking piece; what is at stake is the potentiality for dissent that exists in the most mundane aspects of everyday life.

Temporary Occupations, still from 6 min. video, 2001

Simon Sheikh: Now, this raises very particular questions, actually, about the use of public space and the kind of delimitations that are being set out, especially somewhere like New York or even Los Angeles with its very strict limitations on smoking. Obviously, and this refers to the question of context, in a lot of other countries where you have very different cultures around smoking, it would have very different meaning, because it would not be something that is not allowed in the workplace or in restaurants, in most of, say, East European countries and African countries, where you can smoke anywhere, so the video would actually be more absurd, I mean, why would you do it in this weird space. In the US, on the other hand, I think it's interesting because it somehow politicizes smoking, makes it an act of resistance in accordance to acts in your other videos: it connects smoking to ideas of dissent and the uses of public space. I see strains that are connected to spatial practices, but where a spatial practice is one of the instruments that are involved in a process of social discipline. And I see, really going back to earlier works like 'Der Jasager' that it has a lot to do with social discipline, but also how that social discipline never becomes complete; there's always residues in the body of resistance or inadequacy. There are flows through the body that resist, and sometimes these resistances are irreverent or absurd, sometimes they become dissent, and at other instances even manifested in political actions, but always there is an investigation into social discipline and indiscipline in your work.

Der Jasager, Digital C-Prints, 30 x 40 in., 1997-2002

Alex Villar: The question of social discipline raises a question that is rather important: How can agency be formulated from a non-binary understanding of the socio-political realm? Obviously, we cannot return to the problematic idea of pure essence that has in the past underlined so many theoretical formulations on matters of cultural and political resistance. A contemporary view on agency needs to account for the subject's implication in their very subjection. The question of countering social discipline then becomes not one of finding a way outside of it but of engaging with it in an attempt to reformulate it from within.

Simon Sheikh: don't know if you see your videos as a process of formulation, if it's a process of formulation of subjectivity. It's getting hard to generalize about them, obviously, but sometimes they seem to be very schizoid in their relationship, or rather mediation between subject-position and spatial practice: the very moment they transgress the structure, they are also all the more dependent on it. It's very difficult to make an accurate reading saying that it's the space that defines the movement or the movement that brakes the space, or re-defines, de-defines or de-stabilizes the space there is a very contingent relationship at stake here, they are caught in this kind of double-bind a lot. Although stylistically vastly different from your videos, I think you can find the same kind of dynamics in the films of Stanley Kubrick where you always have the space as imposing a huge subjectivity on the subjects and they are trying to resist, are trying to work with it most obviously in the 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, where the space is telling the protagonists what to do and they're trying to resist it but then in the end they're doing it and not doing it, and the whole dynamic of the film is not so much about the relationship between the people, but rather between people and space, and the space becomes a superstructure that totally defines the ability of formulation and action for the subject.

Alex Villar: I think the schizoid character of the actions, as you described them, is originated in the understanding that I outlined before. In other words, my formulation of agency also acknowledges the agent's participation in the process of its own subjectification. I am also, without a doubt, concerned with the disciplinary mechanisms at work in social spaces. In attempting to understand my own work, not simply in its development, but in terms of the relationship that one piece maintains with one another, I have made use of two abstract notions: containers and thresholds. While the 'container' pieces concentrate more clearly on the articulation of the shaping mechanism present in space, the 'threshold' pieces pay more attention to the moment when the subject crosses a containing boundary. I perceive the piece 'Upward Mobility' as a formulation of the moment, or the various instances, when we cross intangible thresholds, those obstacles for which no visible barrier is present. The subway piece, on the other hand, is more occupied with the field of containment. I remember that, when I first showed that piece, someone complained that it represented a subject without agency. The exemplary question was: Why wouldn't the person trapped at the end of the fence jump over it? While I understand this desire and have articulated it in other pieces, I feel that the quest in that piece was not to demonstrate a transgression of containment. What is articulated in the piece is the possibility of resistance by finding what Deleuze described as an adjacency to power, rather than a way out. In other words, resistance is outright misuse of the given structure. to structural containment conceived in this case as outright misuse of the given structure.

Other Ways, video installation at art container, New York City, 2001

Simon Sheikh: Indeed! And obviously a metaphor for your work is of the notion of the walker from de Certeau, where simply not treading the well trodden path, simply not following the designated flows and routes of the city is refusing to be totally subjugated by the structure that is supposed to subjugate you. And of course if that's happening on a massive scale subjects taking one of the side streets rather than the main street you would have complete and utter chaos, chaos in the sense that you want the traffic to be flowing, you want the city to be flowing and moving in one direction that will not happen if its inhabitants use it differently, which is a form of resistance that I see in a lot of these videos as well. They are trying to represent that moment and pictorialize the moment when you are using structures not for what they were designed, but for something else, in a different way. And you can argue that misuse or reuse will always have effects both on the space and on the subjectivity of the person. I can see the critique of the lack of agency as well. You say that you don't want it to be instructive, and when viewing the videos you are always unsure of any productive outcome, which I think has to do with the employment of circulation and repetition. That's why I also see that the smoking is indicating a new kind of plateau not only because it's engaged with a clear function, and because there is less sense of loop in it, there's a sense of finality about the smoking of each cigarette, and the possible, plausible returning to other spaces after that act.

Alex Villar: When I began the smoking project, the main thing in my mind, prior to thinking about the spaces themselves, was the relationship between the smoke break and the workflow. Especially intriguing to me was the fact that the law pushes the working body outside the workflow. An unwritten rule certainly establishes a limit on how far the smoker can go and for how long. So, one could say that this 'being outside' is still regulated by a code originated inside the workplace. Nevertheless, a small space of interruption is created that can be articulated in another direction. The other aspect that I observed was that smokers also push themselves outside the flow of the street. They don't do much more than smoking with this bit of free time; there is no much time for interaction either, except with other smokers. They are really in a state of suspension. But, 'what is the nature of this state of suspension' is not so much the question I have dwelt upon in this work. Instead, I have tried to suggest that the pertinent question is 'how this state of suspension' can be conceived as a state of reflection. Now, between the piece, what it attempts to articulate, and the audience that is presented with it, there remains an open question about how this cognitive moment unfolds.

Simon Sheikh: Well, I was actually wondering what your take would be on the fact that, on the one hand, I would say you follow de Certeau's model of resistance, that you're walking through the city and utilizing it for your own means, you're reusing the city and then finding certain kinds of freedom or expression of resistance to structures in the way you change them; and on the other hand, you are taking inspiration from Foucault's politics of space, seeing resistance located in very specific spaces there are outside of hegemonic space, if you will, that is, most famously, the notion of Heterotopia and Foucault's mapping out of certain spaces as spaces where another kind of subjectivity is possible and another kind of existence is plausible. I was wondering where you would situate your work, because on the one hand you can say that it's employing the city in a different way, but on the other hand you can say it's trying to seek out the Heterotopic spaces on a miniscule scale, and your work seems suspended in this contradiction, perhaps purposefully and productively so.

Alex Villar: I am not so sure that the two alternatives you sketch out are mutually exclusive. There is certainly more of a stress on resistance as usage in De Certeau, while Foucault focuses his attention in diagramming the mechanisms of subjectification already present in space. But if you look at Foucault's whole body of work, it becomes clear that he understood the relationship between subject and context as mutually reflexive. Foucault's later work, as Deleuze points out, tries to find a way to counter the maps that he, himself, help formulate. In other words, the later work does something correlative to what you described as 'utilizing a given structure for your own means: it proposes a way in which the subject could undo the process of subjectivization by directly engaging in the crafting self. Such articulation already points in the direction of a resistance that operates through a shift in everyday life. And that is not conceptually different from De Certeau's notion of walking as a tactical reading of the city. Nevertheless, the way in which you contrasted the positions of these two thinkers is very useful for me because it isolates the two things that I have been doing in my work: on the one hand, I have tried to find spaces that are 'Heterotopic: and, on the other hand, I have stressed the potentiality of dissent through shifts in usage of space. But the Heterotopia can describe more than actual historical examples like the ones Foucault mentioned. In his own theorization of the term, Foucault stressed its diametrical opposition to Utopia. In other words, the Heterotopia is not an imaginary possibility; it is a state of potentiality in the actual field of lived experience. And that is what I have tried to describe in some of my pieces, for example by isolating a corner which comes out of a building, a place where people might come to urinate, light up a cigarette, etc. It is only in that instant, the moment in which the usage of that space was shifted from its original intention, that a Heterotopic space was formed. I am clearly attempting to do both things at the same time. My sense is that it is necessary to seek both possibilities; that is, to locate temporary spaces of resistance and to propose deviations in usage. Since subject and context are in constant flux it might be indeed necessary to be suspended between two seemingly contradictory strategies.

Irrational Intervals, still from 8 min. video, 2002

Simon Sheikh: Also, as I suggested before, it may be seen as rendering the unconscious of the architecture, or as developing the negative space, because often these spaces that you actually employ are, if you look at the plans of the building, the so-called negative or impossible spaces.

Alex Villar: Yes, absolutely. Brian McGrath, an architect and a fellow in the residency at the World Financial Center, invited me to do a talk at his class at Columbia University. It was a class for postgraduate architects and they were dealing precisely with the design of the kind of spaces we have been talking about, particularly the ones located on the facade of a building. I learned from Brian that the main function of those spaces is aesthetic; the objective is to add three-dimensionality to the facade. They are, in principle, empty of any other function. Nothing is more 'natural' then, for those spaces, to come to be used in a different way.

Irrational Intervals, still from 8 min. video, 2002

Simon Sheikh: That brings me back to thinking about the World Financial Center, because that place in itself is a contradiction, or perhaps even contraction! I was wondering about the World Financial Center as a place of multiple uses in comparison to the project you did in High Bridge Park, because you could say that, obviously the World Financial Center is this kind of space, that you just described before, where you can no longer delimit the distinction between work space and leisure space. It is a completely internal space, yet employs elements of park life. And it's just a transitory space for people to move through, and a combination of work place and a shopping mall, etc., which makes it a weird kind of place indeed. Your piece there seems to employ a sort of ‘exile on mainstreet’ strategy, because you seem like a kind of exiled person in the middle of the city, as opposed to Heterotopias which would always be put, physically, on the margins of the city, or maybe you can see that mall as a heterotopic space in the middle of the city. And I was wondering what made you decide not to actually work with that WFC site specifically, because you could see parallels and contrasts in the site itself that relates to parallels and contrasts that you talked about before between the space and utilization, you could see that as well between the High Bridge Park and the World Financial Center. I was wondering what your thoughts were on actually not working specifically with that space.

Alternative Access, Park Sign, Inkjet Print, 1999

Alex Villar: High Bridge Park is a very good example against which we can contrast the World Financial Center because both spaces claim to be part of the public sphere. But while the park is a space for everyone, the corporate atrium is reserved for a portion of the population. The disciplinary question is very different in these two instances. At High Bridge Park the question is not ‘who' gets in but ‘how' people enter the park, at what time and though each way. That was the specificity of that site that I tried to counter by mapping alternative ways of accessing the park. At the World Financial Center, the question of ‘who’ has access to the site is determined by the type of activity one performs there-one goes to work, one goes shopping or one goes sightseeing. Once there, one takes part in the productive economy of the site. I chose the busiest transient space at the World Financial Center to present a piece that depicts a series of unproductive situations, a pause that is often the result of the interruption of work. If you see smoking as loitering in disguise, you can see the specificity of the critical position in this piece.

Simon Sheikh: It's a private space in disguise of a public space, and my reading would be that, quite cynically, what it does is that it provides, let's say, the comforts of public space, but only for a certain public, only for a wanted public and gets rid of unwanted public, because it has its own rules and they canjust say ‘get out of here, you bum'. What really scares me is the fact that the place is so popular (and mentioned by architecture critics as a human use of corporate space) and that people are ever so willing to let public spaces become privatized and corporatized.

Alex Villar: Exactly. The World Financial Center functions like a city within a city. One can sense very well the almost ritualized passage from the city at large to this other, smaller, city. One goes through a bridge, through several doors that close behind you. One feels as if entering a palace. There, behind the walls of this other city, the rules are tighter. Outside, on the streets that is still a certain amount of ‘freedom' to improvise on your actions. In the corporate atrium, that possibility has diminished substantially. In this
specific context, my attempt, not unlike what I have been doing in the street, was to articulate a situation of potential dissent. But in order to do so within the confines of this doubly regulated space, one needs a disguise. Smoking provides the pretext, an excuse to actually do nothing when what is expected from you is that you should be doing something. That is how I see this piece operating in that site, in dealing with the very specific restrictions of a particular type of public sphere.

Irrational Intervals, Video Installation at WFC, 2002

Produced by Simon Sheikh, Alex Villar, Melissa Brookhart, Jill Dawsey and Danger Museum, 2002/2003. Distributed by Online Printhouse.

Cover image: Alex Villar in London by Diego Ferrari, September 2002. All other images by Alex Villar or Danger Museum. For more info visit:,,,, Or email:

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