FALL 2011: V.07 N.02: CAA Conference Edition 2011
Culture critics, artists and urban planners have for generations presented the hotel as a site of cultural production and philosophical consideration. In Frederick Jameson’s essay on the utterly bizarre Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles, he describes a “postmodern hyperspace,” an emblem of the 80s trend in which building design hoped to create hermetically sealed miniature cities.  At the Bonaventure, human activity is directed in a space threaded with fitness centers, plants that thrive without any natural light and functionless open spaces offering the blank hyperreality of grandeur and respite contained in concrete.
It is hardly surprising the Westin Bonaventure is a complete failure as a design specimen, and years of retro-fittings still betray the empty shops on its second floor (at one point, a color coding program was used for the towers, as guests got hopelessly lost on the journey to their rooms.) Ironically, it was a perfect venue for the 2009 College Art Association conference, where the participants delighted in the history of the building and utilized the confused floor plan for media projections and events.
The 2011 CAA conference was held at the New York City Hilton Hotel. Eminently more navigable than the Westin Bonaventure, the Hilton still has all the strange signifiers of hotel existence, a spiritless landscape of long elevator rides in silence with the hotel community we never know (but are likely competing for the same handful of teaching jobs at CAA’s conference career fair.)
A Room to View, a one-day exhibition during the New York conference, embraces many of these references to the discombobulation of postmodern (post-millennial) society. The brainchild of Mat Rappaport, Conrad Gleber & Gail Rubini, A Room to View is a project of v1b3 (Video in the Built Environment) presenting video work in dialog with urban space.
Perhaps most directly, GlobalQuilting by Christopher Cassidy offers live feed of over 130 webcam images of the skies over the eastern United States projected on the ceiling as a Mondrian-like tableau of squares. Other iterations of this installation feature locations across the globe, from Hawaii to the Middle East, their shifting skyscapes transforming like the room inhabitants themselves.
The inescapable bedbug scourge (reported to be a product of international air travel) rendered a discussion on the insects among us a necessity. With extreme quiet and grace, Annette Barbier transforms the bathroom sink into the projected image of a cicada’s struggle for life trapped by water. The natural world is a parallel universe in the space of the hotel, and yet it subsumes us in ways we can only imagine… an epic reminder of nature’s imprint on our manufactured experiences.
The bathroom is the stage for two additional installations, both considering human impact on the world. Crude: Black Gold, Texas Tea and Me, by Jim Jeffers, transfigures the bathtub from Calgon relaxation station to a complex statement on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Crude oil in the form of chocolate syrup pours from the subject’s mouth in a solipsistic abnegation of our carbon footprint and the impact of urbanization. In Toilet Art, David Gordon takes a similar approach by turning an object of innocuous necessity into a somewhat sad contemplation on water pollution. Projections of freshwater fish in the bowl and audio of humpback whales turn our excretions, the most basic product of human existence, into a pollutant.
With a nod to the hilarity of unseen worlds and events propagating in hotels, the bed is animated in two works. Olga Ast, Julia Druk & Alex Reid create a media-infused murder site under the bed, complete with a police tape outline and a mysterious soundtrack of the potential victim. On top of the bed, Elizabeth Demaray’s Tell Me TV offers a video projection of 2011 CAA conference attendees talking about their favorite TV programs in projections made directly on the hotel pillows.
Along with some sense of intimacy and shared knowledge, an aura of massive ennui pervades, the TV being the ultimate hotel time killer in an unknown city. Reg Garvey’s PULL FOR FIRE (an homage to Jim Dine) is a goading gesture pressing us to “set the alarm,” triggering an image of a robe going up in flames. While lighthearted, it points tangentially to the horror of inescapable hotel and building design resulting in hundreds of tragic events globally.
Mary Agnes Krell’s delicate yet arresting Nothing That is Not There is viewed through a desktop mounted frame, the most basic hotel room portal for visual material. Photographs related to this Hilton hotel room are triggered through interaction, constructing views a bit like 19th Century afterlife photography, desperate to prove lives exist beyond our tangible present. They mutate by our movements, fading elegantly between images as we try to grasp a static frame.
A Room to View offers contemplation on physical spaces and objects undergoing unpredictable transformations, a metaphor for a modern world struggling to define its place in nature or a purpose for its technologies. And so, we run to the next appointment, ghosts in the machine of our built spaces.
1. Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).