Drawing on the legacy of modular and unconventional architecture, design and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture, Nina Dubois’ trans-disciplinary approach to art making seeks to question our perceptions of the built environment and the ways in which it influences and shapes our understanding of place. Through her investigations of the phenomenological, Dubois offers prototypes or experimental models for a variety of forms and structures that, through their reconfiguration and deployability, offer a variety of opportunities for itinerant place making. On the occasion of her MFA thesis exhibition PROTOPIA: almost a place at SCA Contemporary in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I interviewed her regarding this latest body of work. Conducted via e-mail in January and February 2014.
Claude Smith: Looking at several of your pieces in PROTOPIA, I’m immediately reminded of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. But while the counterculturists explored the notion of place-making through DIY experimentation and communal living, you seem to offer somewhat of a divergent path and perhaps much more of an individualist approach.
Nina Dubois: I am definitely looking back at the counterculture movement and DIY experimentation, especially with the structures that are low-tech appropriations of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome design. The counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the current DIY culture, are rich territory for looking at how the adoption of certain forms and unconventional building methods can embody and maybe even engender alternative possibilities. One of the things that is so fascinating about the Southwest is its long history of alternative settlements. On the one hand, the beauty and openness of the landscape are awe-inspiring and represent kind of a tabula rasa that has enticed many generations of utopians to attempt to build their version of an ideal world out here—from the Mormons in Utah and the counterculture communes of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, to the high-tech and space-bound Biosphere II in southern Arizona
That being said, I wouldn’t necessarily frame my interest as individualism versus communal living. What these pieces are really about for me is taking this iconic reference to visionary architecture as a departure point for exploring the possibility or impossibility of translating utopian and transformative ideals into built form. The smaller, single-person structures point to individual desires for freedom and autonomy, while the bigger forms, such as Hive and Colony/Bench, point to shared desires for community and connection.
CS: Hive and Deployment Exploration Units I and II seem to suggest a more ephemeral, itinerant exploration of the intersection of the built environment and nature. What was your impetus for their construction?
ND: Before I returned to the University of New Mexico for graduate school, I had been making these delicate, gossamer structures out of tracing and tissue paper. I made versions of these, for indoor and outdoor spaces. The goal was to amplify some of the more discrete and subtle forces at play in a given environment. My choice of working with paper and creating ephemeral installations was in part a reaction to the monumental scale and permanence of the works I visited with the Land Arts of the American West program. It was also a way for me to think about architecture and built forms as mediating spaces between human needs and desires, and the larger environment. And with that, I became very interested in understanding what and how built forms communicate and give shape to certain ideals.
My interest in modular and itinerant forms of architecture was a direct extension of that exploration and an attempt to frame my work within both a personal and shared historical context. The geodesic dome was a natural place to start, having grown up in Montreal, in proximity to one of the largest geodesic domes ever designed and constructed by Fuller and which served as the U.S. Pavilion at the [World’s Fair] Expo in 1967. For my parents’ generation, the futuristic and visionary architecture that was showcased at Expo 67, and the geodesic dome in particular, represented a much-needed break with the past and carried the promise of the bright future that would follow as a result of modernization and new technological developments. The pavilions housed a series of exhibitions under the theme of “Man and His World,” and together with the radically modern forms of the pavilions themselves, painted a picture of a near-future in which cultural and national boundaries would be broken down and give way to a technologically enhanced global community. By the time I was born, most of the pavilions had been dismantled or fallen into disrepair—Fuller’s dome is one of the few remaining structures, minus the original acrylic sheathing, which was consumed in a fire in 1976—but as I was growing up, through the mementos and printed material that my parents had collected from that period, I got a sense of the idealism of the period and what a turning point it represented for the city and for the country as a whole.
For me, the geodesic dome and its subsequent appropriation into counterculture experiments came to embody a sense of lost optimism and naiveté that today is viewed both critically and with longing by people of our generation, concerned as some of us are with how to live in the world in light of the ever-looming environmental crisis and failures of modernism, of capitalism, and technocratic systems. And because my starting point was lightweight, gossamer and phenomenologically based structures, I have tried to maintain that relatively light-handed and even provisional approach. In contrast to the idealism of the 1960s and early 1970s, I think it speaks to the uncertainty and precariousness that a lot of us feel when thinking about the present and the near future.
CS: How do you see these structures occupied or experienced over time?
ND: It is important that they be tested and experienced in different contexts, but none are designed to stand up to the elements or to be occupied for an extended period of time. This is partly why the documentation comes into play. I can display the structures in a gallery setting, and this shows you how they are made, their scale, and that they are more like emergency shelters than permanent dwellings. And then staging them in different settings and creating these different kinds of sci-fi inspired, dystopian scenes through photos and video shows perhaps a more open-ended and ambiguous sense of their deployment and potential occupancy in different contexts
CS: At some point, your materials were more than likely used in the packaging, shipping, and protection of goods and objects during transport. How does the lifecycle of the media inform your work?
ND: Decisions about what kinds of materials make it into the work are based more on ubiquity and familiarity than on any kind of virtuous aspirations. I choose these materials—cardboard, shipping pallets, etc.—because they are familiar to me, they are banal, the stuff-of-the-world as I know it and that I have access to. I enjoy the challenge of taking something so unimpressive as a shipping pallet or a stack of cardboard and seeing how I can incorporate it into something that has to do with a more visionary and utopian, non-vernacular sensibility. There is already a quality of standardization and a certain kind of order and modularity that comes with these materials. I am just reworking it a little bit so that something maybe a little more unexpected emerges. And, yes, there is this transient, always-in-flux quality that is inherent in the fact that these materials are typically used for shipping and packaging, and I like that about them.
CS: Are there instances where material boundaries limited what you were able to accomplish?
ND: What I am attempting to accomplish is intrinsically linked to materials and their possibilities, and usually I am pretty good at being able to anticipate the result somewhat and to explore the edges and push the material beyond what it is supposed to do. But in some cases, I fall short. For example, when I came back from participating in the Land Arts of the American West program, I made a portable, two-part, press mold, a toolkit designed for producing individual clay bricks. The idea was to allow myself and other users to fashion interlocking, standardized building blocks out of locally sourced clay. The stylized geometric form of the brick module was an abstracted representation of the various forms we encountered in the field—from mountain ranges to the fantastical architecture of Biosphere II to Arcosanti, the experimental settlement envisioned by Paolo Soleri. So while the brick form ended up being pretty satisfying visually, the whole kit and getting the clay to release from the mold proved to be quite difficult and not ideal for public participation. I made only about a half-dozen bricks with the kit before I gave up. It operated in a different way than I had intended. But in a way, the failure of the kit resonates with some of the problems and failures that have plagued a lot of utopian projects like Arcosanti. The commitment to a radically different aesthetic and to alternative, idiosyncratic building processes can be the biggest impediment to realizing the vision of an alternative settlement. When you visit Arcosanti, you get the sense that they are kind of trapped in a Sisyphusian loop, trying to get new buildings and systems off the ground while scrambling to patch up and repair the original structures that now are starting to lose the battle against entropy. It’s an interesting predicament, reminding us of the imaginative struggle to make what we want of the world, no matter what limitations and boundaries seem to press down on us.
CS: Lucy Lippard once described Land Art by saying, “At best it can be simultaneously a spectacle and a very intimate experience.” I think in many ways, this characterizes several of the pieces (or their potential) in PROTOPIA, despite the fact they are functioning in the context of the gallery. How important is it for the viewer to understand the original context or intent behind the artwork? Does it matter that they were created to function within—or for—a particular landscape, or does the variety of possibilities enhance the meaning?
ND: None of the works in PROTOPIA were designed explicitly for or directly informed by any particular place or context. Some of the pieces, such as Algaeic Infrastructure and Hive, have been shown in specific outdoor contexts, but the original impetus behind all of the work and what ties everything together is more the exploration of modular architecture as a means of working with a particular set of functional and conceptual problems related to how our habits of dwelling shape us and how this, in turn, shapes the world we inhabit. So what is important, I think, is more that these structures can and have been set up in different kinds of contexts, that they have this instrumental quality that is defined more by their deployability and less by the particularities of place.
But, I suppose there also is something of the spectacle in terms of how I have chosen to stage and document some of the works in the landscape. The photographs of Deployment Exploration Units I and II, for example, show the structures in relation to these kinds of surreal and even post-apocalyptic environments. This has perhaps less to do with the sublime—which is where the spectacle quality of some of the Land Arts works lies—and more to do with the speculative and future-looking world of science fiction and dystopian fantasies.
Frederic Jameson talks about dystopianism in the work of classic sci-fi writers—such as H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Ursula K. Le Guin and Phillip K. Dick – as a powerful way to think about the possible shape of the future by considering the consequences of changes that could be made in the present, for better or for worse. He talks about the power of sci-fi as being in the way it constructs an almost banal parallel present that results from a merely mild realignment of current conditions. This is definitely something that is on my mind when I am thinking of placing my structures in relationship to the landscape around me.
CS: With respect to Land Art, I typically think of monumental gestures meant to last for long periods of time, yet you seem to advocate for a more delicate or even mindful way of incorporating into your practice some of the same tenets. Did you have to wrestle with the ideas of temporality and itinerancy, given that the predominately male-centric genre tends to measure success in grandiosity and permanence?
ND: We have come a long way from the monumental and grandiose gestures of the 1960s and 1970s Land Arts movement. There was definitely something valuable that these artists developed in terms of bringing the experience of the environment and of embodied space into the realm of art. But there also was something decidedly esoteric and apolitical about their conception of the environment as a blank canvas of open space.
In terms of art-historical precedent and inspiration, I think that what Gordon Matta-Clark was doing at the same time contributed to generating a much more complex and layered sense of art in relationship to the complexities of place. His exploration of urban conditions, of the absurdities of real estate development and the leftover/liminal spaces that it generates, carved a path that moved away from binary, nature/culture, people/environment thinking toward an effort to expand the definitions of the environment to include constructed urban spaces and social spaces, as well as wilderness. Yes, his Building Cuts displayed a certain machismo also present in the work of the predominately male-centric Land Artists, but works such as the Fake Estates and Food paved the road for other artists, such as Fritz Haeg, Nils Norman, Amy Franceschini and Futurefarmers, the N55 collective, and many others to further investigate and challenge the arbitrary distinctions between art/life, artist/viewer, and artist/architect/agent of the real world.
So even though much of my early references for thinking about art in relationship to the environment came from looking at the American Land Art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, I have come to really appreciate and identify with this other branch of art in relationship to place. Temporality, itinerancy and scale become less about taking a position vis-à-vis Land Art and more about having more fluidity and a more direct and responsive way of considering notions of space and place.
CS: Where do you see your practice headed?
ND: I enjoyed putting together the work for PROTOPIA and got a lot out of the experience of seeing all of these itinerant structures together and reframed within the context of the gallery. Part of me enjoys working within the boundaries of that kind of contained experience. Part of me is also really interested in working in a more open-ended way, introducing temporary and modular structures within the infrastructures of everyday life—in spaces that intersect more directly with different kinds of cultural, social and political activities, and where it might be possible to experiment with new models of “social space.” I’m not sure what that might look like exactly. I’ll let you know!