“Vagueing the city.” Een zoektocht naar scenografische strategieën om onze bebouwde omgeving te destabiliseren
How can we prevent ourselves from becoming too comfortable with adapting to human-constructed environments which seem to preclude open-ended exploration? Philip Lüschen researches his ambiguous relationship with public space and develops methods of ‘vagueing’ to explore possibilities for alternative experiences within rigidly scripted and rationalized urban environments.
Hoe kunnen we voorkomen dat we ons te gemakkelijk aanpassen aan kunstmatig aangelegde omgevingen die een vrije verkenning lijken tegen te spreken? Philip Lüschen onderzoekt zijn ambigue relatie met de openbare ruimte en ontwikkelt methoden van vagueing om alternatieve ervaringen te verkennen binnen vastomlijnde en gerationaliseerde stedelijke omgevingen.
Approaching the set
As the world’s population continues to grow, the urban fabric expands its borders, absorbing uncultivated land in all its unruly nature. The ever-improved stage of the built environment is rolled out for us citizens to perform our lives on. But how can we prevent becoming too comfortable with adapting ourselves to such pre-scripted realities? To what extent is our urban landscape malleable enough to fulfil our bodily desires, and how can we resist becoming petrified creatures? ‘Vagueing the City’ considers what it means to enter the stage of the built environment as an embodied being. Through scenographic strategies it explores the potentiality of our urban building blocks, reclaims the malleability of the urban landscape, and investigates the crucial nature of imaginative layers in sensorily deprived environments.
This article charts, via a first-person narrative, my journeys through online and offline environments. Additionally, reflections of this fieldwork are interwoven with documentations of my own multidisciplinary interventions in artistic environments and public space. Through this article, and within my own practice as a scenographer and visual artist, I am introducing the verb ‘to vague’. Finally, I will unpack existing modes of ‘vagueing’ and develop new artistic variations of this verb, aiming to cultivate more intensely visual, sensorial, and imaginative confrontations with the built environment. Each of the following sections takes its cue from an artwork by Luigi Serafini, which I will read as a scene. As a source of inspiration, I will interpret the rich imaginary scenario on urban infrastructure embodied in the work as an index for this article.
The Italian artist Luigi Serafini (1949) is known for creating the Codex Seraphinianus (1981).1 The book, categorized in imitation of the structure of an encyclopaedia, is mainly read through otherworldly imagery. Serafini complements his illustrations with a self-invented, unreadable, asemic writing. This wordless, open, and semantic form of writing challenges the reader to hook onto something other than the meaning of words and therefore allows for a way to ‘read’ or explore the shape of the letters, their rhythm, the initial choreography of Serafini’s pencil. The encyclopaedia depicts imaginary takes on reality, which destabilizes what we have taken for granted.
Taken from a chapter that seems to reflect on the built environment, Serafini’s triptych illustration (Fig. 2) depicts a landscape undergoing transformation. Compared to the performers in the images, we are granted an aerial perspective from which we see the bigger picture. We may notice a group of citizens arriving at a structure which resembles some sort of décor. Trapped in a loop, the group performs a similar act at a structure in the far distance of the final image. In the first section of this article, ‘Revealing the Set’, we take an elevated perspective so as to familiarize ourselves with the idea of our lives playing out on a scripted set – an important step to make palpable how our own lives are constructed within the built environment.
One element of the constructed décor in the first image is a rough-skinned, reddish cloud. An antenna, placed at its centre, points to infinity. Perhaps it connects to an unseen higher force beyond the borders of the image. In ‘Consuming the Set’, the second section, I explore the edges of urban landscapes, on the hunt for sensorial and metaphysical confrontations with its fundamental building blocks.
In the central image, various white ceremonial-like objects have been left on stage to activate a process of defamiliarization. The third section of this article, entitled ‘Sensitizing the Set’, introduces and unpacks the coined verb ‘to vague’, which allows us to destabilize the rigid rules and certain significations characteristic of the city.
Were we to further dissect the architectural structure in Serafini’s first image, we could recognize a floor, a wall with a mirror nailed to it, a second engraved wall, and a raised platform. All these elements facilitate the examination and exposure of the main subject: an upside-down figure. Through methods of recontextualization brought forth in the fourth section, ‘Exposing the Set’, our surroundings are explored in order to establish new relations with them.
Finally, ‘Customizing the Set’ researches the benefits of fictional layers within the urban landscape and the challenges of reclaiming ownership in the process of rebuilding the world, following my personal longings. While, in Serafini’s final image, the cloudy sky breaks open, the group of citizens disappear. Three humans arrive at the transformed stage liberated from clear significations. To what extent are they able to cope with the open-ended situation?
Section 1: Revealing the set
In my practice I consider the built environment as a stage or carefully maintained set that is designed for us citizens to perform our lives on. I deliberately use ‘to perform’, ‘stage’, and ‘set’, terms used in reference to plays put on in theatres. To me, the temporality of a play, including its transformable set design and changeable script, makes the idea of a malleable urban landscape more plausible. However, to experience the scripts of our lives and the set we inhabit, a change of perspective is key.
In the French philosopher Michel de Certeau’s book The Practice of Everyday Life, ordinary people navigating the city are called ‘Wandersmänner’, walkers, whose bodies are grasped by the urban ‘text’ they blindly write without being able to read it themselves. In contrast, it is the voyeurs who, from a heightened perspective, transform the bewitching world that ‘possesses’ them into a text that lies legible before their eyes, allowing them to read it.2 I argue that seeing and blindness alike are crucial if we are to lift ourselves up out of the grasp of the construct that is the built environment.
In new cities built from scratch, such as Las Vegas was, the language of the city’s text is often an easy read. For a city dweller, there doesn’t seem to be much to it: one simply behaves according to the rules imposed by the infrastructure. In that sense, no alternative use of the cityscape is promoted. If we step into the shoes of De Certeau’s voyeur, navigating the back streets of Las Vegas using Google Street View (Fig. 3), we find ourselves in extremely polished environments. Those who are supposedly navigating the area on foot or in an air-conditioned car are battling the Mojave Desert heat and so seem narrowly directed and controlled: a pedestrian crossing, road markers, stop signs, fences, and red-coloured curbstones prevent those who are ‘lost’ from getting tripped up. A heavily armoured car underscores the atmosphere of control and surveillance. The street plantings are subjected to this rationalized scheme; palm trees and small bushes are neatly aligned in an artificial arrangement that matches and decorates the concrete jungle. In traditional Zen gardens, gravel beds are meant to represent a flowing river or a serene pond. Here, the gravel functions as a stone blanket, an obstruction that prevents the natural from overtaking the urban stage. Overall, the scene depicted resembles the aesthetics of a first-person shooter video game. In such games, personal preferences and choices are challenged or even prohibited through the imposed comforts of regulation.
Viewing the stage of Vegas through the manipulating lens of Google Street View – erasing human bodies from the scene by blurring their presence – lays bare the true ‘nature’ of the cityscape’s features to an even greater extent. It presents the bare skin of the hyperfunctional aesthetics of urban design. Through this seemingly stimuli-less environment, it gives an impression of an increased mode of wandering and exploration. However, I think the opposite is happening here. The easy readability and convenient layout of the city can also blind its users by making them passive. These environments ‘protect’ us from potential danger, from the unfamiliar, but at the same time, through this protection, they obstruct an authentic exploration of the cityscape and the self. It is exactly this friction between the rigid and the imaginary that fascinates me. The order and perfection of these sophisticated structures also draw me in. Jumping out of the shoes of the voyeur to those of the urban planner or architect, I fantasize about an even more rigid landscape. Completely stripped of decorative elements, the city would be made up of archetypes, as if the catalogue supplying the city’s building blocks has just one version of every feature.
In my ongoing photographic series Crash Barriers (Fig. 4) I use photography to capture the stage of various cityscapes around the globe at those moments when the built environment presents itself as a carefully maintained set. Any possible cracks in the rigidly designed mise-en-scène of the city emphasize the looming threat of ‘the vague’ behind the scenes; the natural landscape appears on the prowl to take over the endless polished environment, and stampeding citizens step out of their lane. These archival snapshots, from disparate places around the world, converge as it were into a new, imaginary city. To me, this way of world-building creates a simplified reality that seems far more manageable in relation to the complexity involved in the construction of the city.
Experiencing the city as manageable or easy to customize in its construction is also made palpable in the work Location (1) by the Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck.3 A hyper-realistic and fully operational tabletop model of an ordinary traffic junction allows us again to adopt the role of the voyeur, with a commanding bird’s eye view of the set we would normally inhabit. Standing in front of the model, one could almost feel as if one were a city planner contemplating a change of layout: its mechanics or the atmosphere on a smaller scale seems fit for manageable tasks. The stage of the city described earlier seems to have become an actual stage: a raised platform with several actors who, imaginatively, can be placed and moved around according to the commands of the director. This performativity of the model (the traffic junction), its actors (cars, traffic lights, and trees), and my role as director of this scene reminds me of my early childhood.4 Immersing myself in the worlds of world-building toy brands such as Lego City and Sylvanian Families allowed an easy controllability and ‘directorship’ of my worlds. In the latter, various fluffy animal species live in Sylvania Village ‘where everyone enjoys nature to the fullest and the world is built around comfortable, everyday life’.5 Who wouldn’t want to be a Sylvanian? Is my longing for such realities an answer to my personal need for a society characterized by order, comfort, and regulation – a reality that requires only that I submit my body to the demands of its script? What about my longings for the supernatural, the sensorial, the unfathomable? How would I direct these scenes using the limited and unilateral buildings blocks provided by Sylvanian Families?
I think seeing and acknowledging the fabric of the city as a scripted set confronts us citizens with a question – namely, to what extent do we allow our lives to be lived in ‘automatic mode’, directed by its mechanics? Additionally, an understanding of its construction and manageability might open up possibilities of interference with its rigid rules and fixed significations. We may wonder whether the built environment already harbours sufficient qualities for the fulfilment of our longings and desires. In order to experience such satisfaction (or failure), we have to confront its building blocks in the flesh.
Section 2: Consuming the set
With a deliberately activated ‘Wolkerian gaze’ – a way of observing that opens the entire body to image, sound, and any other physical impulse6 – I move myself to the edges of the city to explore Amsterdam’s Duivendrecht area. Cities’ peripheries, providing a mixture of cultivated and uncultivated land, serve as an ideal environment to experience the cities’ building blocks. Here, manmade structures are often still embedded within natural environments, which function as a neutral canvas to showcase them and for such structures to be experienced. This is also noticeable in Serafini’s triptych. The natural landscape highlights the harsh demarcations of the manmade structure, and vice versa.
From the vantage of a creek, I noticed how a row of gigantic bridge pillars was piercing the landscape. These massive entities pulled me both mentally and physically towards them. For construction workers it must be quite satisfying to unmould freshly baked pillars. As an artist, I can imagine the sensorial impact of its super-smooth surface, probably still warm and damp from the process of hardening. These pillars have the ability to carry the weight of a bridge, which I do not. These endless performers will still live here when I will not. And yet, from a distance, they look as if they had been bought at a toy shop.
However, they seem to dominate more than just me. The landscape is also submissive to the force exerted by the endless row of neatly aligned pillars. On the east side of the creek, I noticed how a frayed edge of turf, like the end of a stage carpet, abruptly ceases at the natural bedding of the creek. A bit further on the massive pillars touch down in a Vegas-like environment: an impeccably mowed grass field alternating with hard, framed gravel beds and many dots of white and fluorescent orange scattered over the green. The same ‘perfect fit’ applies to those traversing the – members-only – zone, rehearsing a movement key to the mastery of an even more specific goal: putting a golf ball. An alternative use of this giant golf course seems impossible. On the west side, the pillars are embedded within an unruly terrain of maximum contrast with the course: dense bushes, piles of garbage, random traces of humanity, and a muddy pool make up this terrain vague.7 Crossing this area, situated between two railway tracks, I stumbled upon a small, cultivated plot reminiscent of a vegetable garden. A chair, still warm from some unseen fellow human, made me feel uneasy.
In terms of functionality, pillars support floors in buildings and infrastructure overpasses to allow the efficient conveyance of trains and cars through the (urban) landscape. The unyielding nature of what they are made of – namely, concrete – makes pillars a durable public space typology. Their shape reflects the mould in which they were formed. An assortment of moulds can be viewed through Google Street View. Placing them side by side enhances the feeling of building blocks from our childhood, perhaps revealing their inclusion in a fictional ‘Pillar Catalogue’ (Fig. 5).
These pillars’ main ingredients (rock, sand, and gravel) are often stored at sites adjacent to shipping routes outside the city. I stumbled upon such a site at exit 3 on the highway to Argenteau, a small village just across the border in Belgium. It was my entry point to a company that sells alluvium sand. I stepped onto the prohibited terrain after working hours. It was just me traversing a landscape of giant piles (Fig. 6), each possessing unique qualities in terms of size, structure, and colour. Their overall appearance radiated extreme tranquility; their tactile presences evoked many bodily intensities. A road sign indicating this Belgian zone industrielle contains an icon of a smoking factory. I would consider this terrain ‘zone sensorielle’, a godsend among the petrified landscapes of the built environment. I remember those bodily sensations from my occasional visits to construction sites in the city. I see such temporary spaces as almost utopian settings: the sensitive qualities of the raw materials still being processed, the undefined acts of construction workers performing their tasks, and a space which hasn’t yet found its shape. Those temporary modern-day pyramids encountered in the ‘zone sensorielle’ surely answered my longings for sensorial confrontations with my surroundings.
As I circle the base of a pillar one last time, exploring its superhuman size, my gaze is forced towards the stars. Literally and symbolically supporting the ongoing human effort to ‘petrify’ (natural/cultural) space, the ‘pillar’ also invites adoration. This impressive, silent ‘entity’ – with its superhuman scale, geometric perfection, and dominating appearance – will surely outlive me. Especially within the contrasting and unruly landscape of a terrain vague, the pillars start to evoke metaphysical potential in me. So in that sense my aim is not to take the pillars out of the built environment or prevent them from being built in the first place. Instead, we should explore and expose their metaphysical potentialities through the mobilization of a variety of scenographic strategies. Should we organize a Dutch Pillar Pageant or even a World Pillar Pageant to give these monumental performers a moment in the spotlight? What can we learn from these ‘zones sensorielles’, where entry is often prohibited? And how can we adjust the sensorial perimeters of the built environment for those citizens longing to immerse their bodies in a sea of tactility?
Driven by the bodily sensations I experienced within the ‘zone sensorielle’, I wondered: To what extent does the built environment allow for prioritizing the senses when it comes down to its design? In my work The Urban Crust Is Not Flaky (Fig. 7) I developed a machine-learning programme that operates like a slot machine. The programme randomly places parts from a model landscaping catalogue alongside verbs from the gastronomical guide The Pastry Chef’s Companion. These engineered conceptual collisions yield results such as ‘concrete floor topped with dredged lamppost and frosted bridge pillar’ or ‘candy-coated sidewalk tiles with bride and illumination’.
Three-dimensional iterations of these generated scenes were performed in an exhibition space, suggesting the endless possibilities for reconfiguring public space through the increase of its sensorial perimeters. However, when it comes to the implementation of these scenes, do our urban landscapes allow us to interfere with their rigid rules in all of their complexity?
Section 3: Sensitizing the set
In an essay on terrain vague, the architect, historian, and philosopher Ignasi de Solà-Morales describes the role of architects and city planners in relation to cultivating and designing the urban landscape as problematic:
When architecture and urban design project their desire onto a vacant space, a terrain vague, they seem incapable of doing anything other than introducing violent transformations, changing estrangement into citizenship, and striving at all costs to dissolve the uncontaminated magic of the obsolete in the realism of efficacy.8
I agree with Solà-Morales and see a terrain vague as a void in the urban landscape, a liminal space possessing a vital force that can change our ways of perceiving the built environment. To me, they serve as a moment to breathe, contesting the force of regulation experienced in the urban landscape. Furthermore, the open-ended character of a terrain vague activates the savage eye: a gaze that allows us to see as if for the first time.9 As these deformed terrains follow their natural cycle – not swept clean day after day – they offer many sensorial qualities: the reddish-brown textures of a rusty iron fence, bright green accumulations of moss, or a muddy pool of rainbow colours. These sensorial entities are usually not allowed to flourish within the homogenized urban landscape. Thus, a terrain vague has the ability to make those navigating its spaces more sensitized. It offers sensorial experiences stimulated through our haptic eye, a way of feeling through visual exploration.10 Furthermore, the ongoing natural cycle pushes humanity to the margins, turning humans into ‘extras’ subjected to the main protagonist: the terrain itself. I think that adopting the savage eye inspired by terrains vagues can allow us to activate the unthought possibilities in constructed urban landscapes that (seem to) preclude open-ended exploration.
Architecture is forever on the side of forms, of the distant, of the optical and the figurative, while the divided individual of the contemporary city looks for forces instead of forms, for the incorporated instead of the distant, for the haptic instead of the optic, the rhizomatic instead of the figurative.11
Coping with terrains vagues requires a suspension of the question of how we might master, utilize, recycle, or repurpose them. Doing so provides opportunities for encountering a given terrain as it is or for investigating the terrain, allowing us to appropriate its unruly forces to destabilize other environments. I wonder: Could a terrain vague be created anywhere within the city? What scenographic strategies might contribute to this act of transformation?
The open-ended character of a terrain vague activates the savage eye.
First and foremost, I think we should establish more challenging readings of space. I suggest we subject habitualized building blocks in the built environment to the process of defamiliarization. This artistic technique, also known as ‘ostranenie’, was first proposed in 1917 by the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky. In his essay ‘Art as Device’ he states:
The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.12
However, in the process of defamiliarization an environment should not lose all its familiarity. When an environment becomes too abstract – too unfamiliar – a feeling of losing one’s grip or total detachment from the built environment might well be the main result. Ideally, I envision the optimal environmental defamiliarization as a situation where everything seems to be in its right place and in a plausible order, yet the bigger picture remains on the horizon. In that sense there should be sufficient recognition, but one can also experience the transcendental. To me, this process of ‘making difficult’ or problematization is delicate, but it is essential to interrupt and postpone the easy readability of the built environment. I believe this will prevent us from becoming blinded or transformed into petrified creatures while fully adapting to the pre-sciptedness of the cityscape. I therefore agree with the literary theorist Uri Margolin:
Defamiliarization of that which is or has become familiar or taken for granted, hence automatically perceived, is the basic function of all devices. And with defamiliarization comes both the slowing down and the increased difficulty (impeding) of the process of reading and comprehending and an awareness of the artistic procedures (devices) causing them.13
Building further on Solà-Morales’ coinage ‘terrain vague’ and Shklovvsky’s technique of ‘defamiliarization’ I here introduce a new verb, ‘to vague’, into the field of scenography and urban design. This verb combines the action of defamiliarization with the concept of a terrain vague. ‘Vagueing’ would allow us to create a terrain vague anywhere, resulting in a vagued space. Serafini’s triptych could therefore be seen as a two-dimensional blueprint for the transformative process of vagueing. The architectural structure loses its clear definitions after the implementation of ‘vague’ ceremonial objects. A ‘vagued space’, then, would be an existing environment transformed through the implementation of an artistic intervention aimed at destabilizing its rigid rules, fixed significations, or hyper-functionalities. Derived from the adjective ‘vague’ (meaning ‘not clearly defined, grasped or understood’) ‘to vague’ might be regarded as signalling impeded perception. I want to suggest the opposite.
Methods of vagueing may serve to destabilize rationalized and habitualized engagements with the cityscape. They make the city’s petrified features become more malleable and, through the slowed-down reading of space, they open up direct, embodied confrontations with the space as a whole, even as they allow for new visions of the urban landscape and the self alike. This raises the question: What methods can we deploy to transform our existing petrified environments into vagued spaces? Or, how can scenographic strategies liberate the set we inhabit and its building blocks from their pre-scripted functionality in the first place?
Section 4: Exposing the set
At a young age I mastered ‘the triangular composition’: a method of arranging products in shop windows into a geometrical shape. I learned this technique from my father, a window dresser. The products of importance were placed at the three outer points of the triangle; ‘a way of directing the gaze of the potential buyer towards these specific products’, he explained. In general, the act of display is used to boost sales. A variety of scenographic tools – for instance a rotation platform allowing a 360-degree view, a single spotlight highlighting its texture, and a neutral backdrop showing off its shape – are deployed to stage an ideal environment to showcase the products potential.
In my work, I often appropriate those displaying techniques to provide urban typologies with a new stage allowing them to step out of their hyperfunctional roles. In my video work 360 Brick Pile (Fig. 8), for instance, a pile of bricks infinitely spins in a moonlit space. Through the soft lighting, a neutral backdrop, and the rotational movement I aim to enhance the aesthetic qualities of this temporal entity. Although this pile is a filmed tabletop model, I can imagine full-scale versions of them, scattered throughout the city, transforming construction sites into nocturnal ‘zones sensorielles’.
In the site-specific work In Praise of Parking Curbs (Fig. 9), the décor of a chapel allowed an urban typology to step out of its role. Through a mobilization of a chapel’s ritual-oriented atmosphere and architecture, I questioned whether prefabricated building blocks (such as parking curbs) can be offered up for adoration by connecting them to higher forces, to infinity. The wooden floor of the chapel was transformed into a parking lot construction site. At set moments ethereal music faded in, while a parking curb was hoisted from a bed of sand towards the sky. The functionalist aesthetics of the built environment were elevated to a metaphysical plane. Akin to a priest deploying a variety of techniques to transform a piece of bread, stored in a cardboard box and bought online from Amazon, into the body of Christ.
On the inner back cover of Serafini’s encyclopaedia he reflects on his own work by mentioning the illustrated content looks like it means something but in fact does not; it has been freed from the cage of a language and a syntax.14 Therefore, I believe, deploying strategies that destabilize the functionality of our public space’s building blocks can potentially open up new sensorial and metaphysical confrontations with our surroundings. I think it is the undefined that makes way for the self to become an active interpreter, to be lifted out of the grasp of public space and its rigidities. However, the discussed works in this chapter were presented within an artistic context which may have the effect that the encountered building blocks are experienced as ‘props’. In my practice, I consider these works as speculative design or as rehearsal grounds for future realization in the city. When aiming for a prolonged reading of the built environment itself, through a vagued space, we should intervene more directly in public space.
Section 5: Customizing the set
Transforming an environment into a ‘vagued space’ is a meticulous process which involves various tactics to disguise an implemented ‘vague’ into an existing space. We can take inspiration from the Japanese principle of borrowed scenery: the incorporation of an uncultivated background landscape into the composition of a human-constructed garden in order to blur the demarcations between them.15 Encountering the totality of such an environment means that the interpreter or spectator is denied the ability to specify where the human intervention starts or ends. I use a similar method when I seamlessly blend artistic objects or installations with existing spatial elements. I thus blur the border between the artistic and non-artistic, the existing space.
In the mixed-media installation Architectural Choreographies #01 – The Other Rooms (Fig. 10), I ‘borrowed’ the qualities of the architecture, a former jail, to suggest spaces to which the public had no access. Furthermore, I mobilized security monitors to depict videos of spaces which conveyed a similar atmosphere as the building itself. Film as a medium is commonly used to capture reality, but it also allows us to fake content. Capturing realistically constructed scale models of fictive worlds, I was able to merge these fictional layers with the existing architecture. The larger non-artistic space normalizes and at the same time dramatizes the ‘strange’ element that has been implemented artistically. In return, that ‘strange element’ is able to vague the entire environment. This way of working enables me to step into the shoes of an architect ready to transform existing spaces into alternative realities; my efforts reflect my personal longings while circumventing laws of gravity or regulations aimed at preventing vandalism. These spaces can become as malleable and as real as the way I directed ‘my life’ as a ‘Caramel bunny’ in Sylvian Village, back in my childhood.
Thus, vagueing an environment not only entails the destabilization of fixed significations, but it also hides the artistic frame surrounding the intervention. In that sense, an intervention, appropriating the material language that surrounds us in our everyday lives, is disguised as something common. In the site-specific work I created for a Dutch municipality, Public Green Through Hoops (Fig. 11), I exclusively mobilized prefabricated elements such as doors, hedges, and trees and merged these public-space typologies with the existing features of the environment. This resulted in a configuration that tightens the reins on its performers: Three conifers, forced into a cage structure, compete in a race to a hoop, a contest that reflects how the mass regulation of us citizens can be encountered in the built environment.
The process of creating permanent works in public space often is a rational trajectory. The clients, often municipalities, wish for vandalism-proof works which require low maintenance and the need to last for at least ten years. Many boxes must be ticked, and many parties need to agree on the design prior to its formal approval. What will happen if we deploy the irrational machine-learning programme from my work The Urban Crust Is Not Flaky (Fig. 7)? ‘Flambéed residential house sprinkled with rotating villagers and lacquered conifer trees’, perhaps? Nevertheless, how can we possibly stage such scenes within public space, which is strictly maintained as a place designed for and accepted by the mass of citizens? Or should we settle for speculative scenes only?
Bypassing the bureaucracies of a municipality when attempting to vague public environments might necessarily entail secretive implementation. On 18 November 2020, in the United States, state biologists of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources spotted a 3-metre-tall metal pillar, the Utah Monolith, in a red sandstone canyon.16 Personally, I welcome any bold act of such a defamiliarizing implementation. Although the Utah Monolith did not land within the city’s periphery, the strange entered our lives via mainstream media. Unfortunately, the collective reaction to the discovery was devoted merely to trying to unmask the makers of the undefinable object. I guess coping with the strange invading our everyday lives can be disruptive.
The site-specific work Sic Transit Gloria Mundi by the Dutch theatre company Studio Dries Verhoeven did land in the heart of the city. This wasn’t a finished sculpture but something in the process of becoming one, vagueing the entire environment.17 One of the main squares in the city of Utrecht was transformed into a giant construction site. A large billboard depicted a fictional future of the new square, including a giant sculpture covering it in its entirety. Its materiality was made up of recognizable performers such as cranes, soil, construction workers and pieces of the sculpture awaiting future realization. For an amount of time the work, successfully disguising its status as an art project, blended seamlessly into its environment.
Building further on ways to vague the built environment, I was inspired by the conspiratorial ideas of one particular resident, who lived atop a row of eighteen neatly aligned garage boxes. I got to know the resident during one of my terrain visits at his property. I recognized elements of my artistic practice in this person’s conspiratorial way of thinking, seeking relations that would connect a variety of (historical) phenomena. I could see the potential of an interesting method to vague larger areas when linking common phenomena in public space. For instance, the sound of church bells could be affiliated with other phenomena or artistic interventions in public space. What if the church bells from a nearby church were interacting with the opening of all the garage boxes underneath the resident’s house? Each garage box would contain full-scale versions of the rotating brick pile seen in my video work 360 Brick Pile, with the bride who had performed in The Urban Crust Is Not Flaky coating these boulders with Serafini’s yellowish substance. If these scenes were staged secretively, would that also imply that we should restrain the staff of an art institution or theatre festival from pointing to my staged spectacle? Should I also get rid of festive openings or invitations to visit my site-specific works? Who would ever see them then? Or should I be as patient as the silent directors of the Utah Monolith installation?
Perhaps staging the strange, the mysterious, or supernatural is in itself a lost battle. My Sylvanian self may opt for the convenient idea to render my envisioned otherworldly scenes into drawings, as Serafini did, or perhaps I could run an AI image generator to capture them in 2D images and hang the results in fancy frames above my sofa (Fig. 12). Or should I recruit and invest in a larger force devoted to the vagueing of spaces more collectively in an effort to answer my explorative self’s longings for bodily confrontations and immersion in the ungraspable?
Rebooting the set
Acknowledging the built environment as a carefully maintained set, garnering knowledge of how this set is constructed, and exploring strategies to intervene in its very fabric are crucial if we are to reclaim its malleability and to witness ourselves as performers on a stage. Methods of vagueing allow us to customize urban environments while destabilizing its rigid rules and fixed significations. The process calls for a considered approach when intervening with the artistic within the urban fabric. Through seamless implementations in public space, the process of vagueing prevents artistic interventions from being downgraded to a mere building block drawn from the (un)imaginative catalogue ‘Artworks for Public Space’. Vagueing is aimed at enabling the strange or unfamiliar to fully exist outside an artistic frame; it can reactivate the savage eye in habitualized environments. When aiming for a prolonged reading of space, the strange should never be announced or anticipated in any way. I believe that only invisible interventions can help eliminate the invisible scripts that guide us, walkers through space, in our society. The core of the matter lies in one’s entry into a disruptive encounter, a vagued space, which brings forth new thoughts of self and can open up new relations with the urban environments that we have come to no longer perceive. This should enable us to oscillate between being a walker and a voyeur.
is a visual artist and scenographer (1983, Maastricht). He earned a BA in design at Design Academy Eindhoven and recently graduated from the master’s programme in Scenography at HKU Theatre in Utrecht. Lüschen’s work has been exhibited internationally, including at the International Biennale of Graphic Design (Chaumont, FR), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Taipei, TW), the New Renaissance Film Festival (London, UK), and in various venues in the Netherlands, among them the Over het IJ Festival (Amsterdam), Het Nieuwe Instituut (Rotterdam), and the Museum het Vrijthof (Maastricht), as well as several public spaces such as a jail, a church, and a village square.
- Serafini, Luigi. Codex Seraphinianus. Rizzoli New York, 2013. ↩
- Certeau de, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. University Of California Press, 2011. ↩
- Beeck op de, Hans. Works. Lanno Publishers, 2017. ↩
- Brejzek, Thea and Wallen, Lawrence. The Model as Performance. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. ↩
- Sylvanian Families. Catalogue 2020, 2020. ↩
- Groot Nibbelink, Liesbeth. "Jan Wolkers of het wollen dekentje". In Cecile Brommer & Sonja van der Valk (eds), Het ligt in uw handen: De rol van de toeschouwer in hedendaags theater. Domein voor kunstkritiek, 2008. ↩
- Solà-Morales coins the term ‘terrain vague’ which roughly means 'wasteland’ or ‘ambiguous space’ and applies to areas which are still free from clear definitions and limits. Existing at the blurry edges of the built world, they are often abandoned or overgrown. ↩
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