THE RITUAL OF LIVING
N55 interviewed by Craig Martin
Craig Martin is a writer and lecturer based in London.
First published in the magazine UNTITLED # 26, London 2001
Amongst the catalogue of avant-garde controversy which is all too often
called upon by those reactionary echelons of the press as a means to lambaste
advanced cultural practices, one that still tends to go somewhat unreported
is the ritual killing of fish as the culmination of Newton Harrison´s
1971 Hayward Gallery installation Portable Fish Farm. Just as this act
simply demonstrated the function of the human food chain within the ecological
micro-system, so the work of N55 is concerned with decoding the social
conventions of our habitualized everyday lives. At its most perfunctory
level this work could possibly be likened to those practices that ďsimply
collapse the aesthetic into design strategies", as Benjamin Buchloh
recently suggested of Jorge Pardo´s exuberances. However, N55´s
"products" apply the radical design strategies of figures such
as R. Buckminster Fuller as a means of refuting the coded pattern of our
The earlier work of N55 developed new methods for a variety of ingrained
social conventions: growing food without access to land or soil with the
HOME and MODULAR HYDROPONIC UNITS; reconfiguring our washing regime in
the HYGIENE SYSTEM; and collectivizing the act of cooking in the KITCHEN.
Recent output has undergone an extension into developing new systems of
collectivity, cooperation and self-governance in the form of ROOMS, LAND,
WORK and YTEICOS. All of which assert the role of open-access and the
denial of ownership.
Opting out of the consumerist ideology of current arts practice, the group
produces and circulates, for free, a set of manuals that provide complete
technical specifications and instructions for the construction of their
work. Not only does this show-up those recent online aims to broaden the
field of art "ownership" for what they really are, an ever expanding
game of one-upmanship for the dwellers of post-industrial buildings, it
also sets in place a parallel economy of communality and shared goals.
Below, N55 respond in their trademark analytical language to a number
of questions I posed to them.
One of my original points of interest about the overall schema of your
work concerned the way in which you didnít seem conditioned by the zones
of activity which art production may be categorized by, rather it would
seem that you utilize multiple economies of action to generate results.
Was this a conscious effort in order to make things actually happen?
In the text ART AND REALITY we formulated a fundamental way of talking
about art as free of ideological implications, social conventions and
habitual conceptions as possible.
By saying that when we talk about art we must talk about persons and their
meaningful behaviour with other persons and things in concrete situations,
we are also saying that we donít know what kinds of activity art may imply.
The effect of this was, among other things, to open up a space that was,
in principle, unlimited, apart from the inextricable relation between
persons and their rights. That means you cannot claim any more "freedom"
for art than you can for politics or medicine when it comes to respecting
the rights of persons (Leni Riefenstahl is our favourite example of an
artist claiming no such ethical responsibility but it goes for a lot of
contemporary artists as well). Because it is clear that concentrations
of power do not always respect the rights of persons, it is also clear
that artists, as well as other persons, have to be aware of the role different
concentrations of power take and attempt to minimize their influence.
The actual production of things is one way to approach a more generalist
view and way of living, as well as a way of approaching artistic practice.
At the time we started much art was suffering from over-specialization,
irony, theory-overload etc. We wanted to make situations that people had
the possibility of relating to, either through their bodily functions,
language or other things. This was realized by making use of any kind
of technique or expertise and led to us learning many things we otherwise
would not have done had we stuck to more traditional artistic methods.
One part of this would be non-specialization. If you look at a person
situated in this array of things, you get a picture of someone wanting
to take care of all levels of daily life and being able to do so. This
also has to do with our emphasis on low-cost production, which reduces
dependency on high incomes, which is another facet of the repressive apparatus
imposed by concentrations of power.
We try to focus on what we have in common instead of what divides us as
Apropos the above, does the condition of "art" allow a certain
level of flexibility / dilettantism in terms of function? That is, does
it mean that the objects / systems have a "get-out clause" built
into their discourse, that ultimately it would not matter if they failed
to perform their designated function?
All our things work.
Are the products such as the kitchen, toilet, shower and hygiene system,
for example, intended to actually improve upon the existing methods we
have, or is it perhaps a case that suggesting new modes of daily ritual
is a starting point upon which to change all means of social intercourse?
I believe this is particularly interesting in terms of a bottom-up attitude
toward change (a seeping through), rather than the top-down ideological
imposition of "first of all we think the world must be changed."
Iím thinking here about how Soviet architects tried to remodel the Oedipal
structure by redesigning the family living unit.
Suggesting changes in behavior is most important. Of course, habitual
actions in daily life affect the way we think, and our actions are decided
by our physical surroundings. They also demonstrate our position in society
and its economic capacity, norms of behavior, social conventions and arrangements.
Our most frequent living formations: the single person (young/old), the
couple, and the family all have their architecture. There is a lot of
implicit ideological control in our societies regarding this.
Simply saying that things can be different is not the same as saying how
they should be different. This is a totally different approach to change
than the ideological one.
Could you maybe suggest some other examples of groups/individuals/societies
who seek a similar attitude towards art/culture and its relationship to
things and persons in concrete situations? I was thinking along the lines
of those such as Helen & Newton Harrisonís Portable Fish Farm, their
Portable Orchard, and Avital Gevaís Greenhouse project, all of which seem
to suggest that we must consider the role of culture within the wider
sphere of social/ecological urgency. Perhaps one could suggest Superflexís
Biogas project as well?
Comparisons are not important, but to look at the significance of each
This is possibly my own misreading, but is there a move in the recent
work away from the notion of the objects instituting a change in material
circumstances, toward distributing the "conceptual possibilities"
for self-produced change? Where LAND and ROOMS and PUBLIC THINGS (to a
lesser extent) allow the user to set up their own system?
It is an extension. Since we started working together we have tried to
keep open multiple ways of working.
I wonder, in relation to the last question, whether this charts your own
move into the N55 SPACEFRAME in the Copenhagen harbor, so that this formation
of a small power concentration can become part of a network of other small
power concentrations. This is where I see a radical difference between
this and other supposed "communistic" projects of "shutting-out"
(Atelier van Lieshoutís AVL-ville for example?). You appear to aspire
to these "multiple-concentrations".
MOVEMENT is a political movement aimed at organizing in as small concentrations
of power as possible. One can not become a member but one can expand MOVEMENT
by initiating attempts at living with smaller concentrations of power.
This is similar to the Autonomous Astronauts, where you cannot become
a member but you can make your own branch of the organization.
Could you possibly tell me a little more about the new systems WORK and
YTEICOS - a society that is different from other societies in that it
is inclusive, not exclusive. It is started on the internet as a simple
structure where anybody can "move in", establish their own spaces
and shared functions. Some of these spaces and functions might stretch
out and become actual physical spaces. The homepage is currently being
constructed and it is located at its own server. Being part of YTEICOS
is of course free. WORK - is simply about sharing work, which means if
you are an engineer or a cook you can offer your work for free to someone
who needs or wants it. It is basically an exchange of work.
Is there an ultimate goal or aim in the work? Or as I would suggest, does
it have to remain flexible in order to change according to lived solutions?
The only ultimate goal is to find ways to live with as small concentrations
of power as possible, and that is more of an infinite goal.
Where does the intensity of lived desire come into the equation, the means
to enjoy through excess and irrationality? For example could certain figures
such as Antonin Artaud or George Bataille use your toilet system?
They would have been welcome, had they been alive.
How much would it cost me to hire/purchase certain items of equipment
from you - the SUSPENDED PLATFORM for example? Would it cost me - as an
individual - the same as an institution wishing to purchase it? Is all
form of symbolic value ejected from the work? Are they still prone to
We have issued the manuals as a way to make it possible for other persons
to make similar systems. In the case of the DYNAMIC CHAIR, which contains
a technical invention, it would have been possible to take out a patent.
Instead we issued the manual and publicized the chair, so that no one
can patent it, because it is now common knowledge. If someone wants to
make one for themselves, that is fine. If they want to make them in order
to make profit that is not fine. We donít sell the chair to private collectors
or as an artwork that can be used for speculation, but we make them for
persons who want to use them. They pay the price of materials, the time
invested, and have to guarantee that they will not resell it or use it
for any kind of speculation. This is an experiment to see how possible
it is to circulate things while maintaining the meaning intended in them.
So far it is going well. As for our other work, we donít want to sell
them but we make permanent installations that are going to be publicly
accessible. If a museum wants the SUSPENDED PLATFORM, we will demand a
compensation for the time, materials and development invested, as well
as compensation for us not being able to circulate the work any more.
We did this in Japan for example, where one city has PUBLIC THINGS as
a permanent installation. If you want the SUSPENDED PLATFORM, weíre afraid
that you have to make it yourself. This also has to do with the fact that
we donít want to make products. This would turn our whole practice into
something else. And regarding the above talk about ideologically imposed
change, it would be more like showing how things should be different.
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