H a u s  W r i t e
John David O'Brien

Open House revolves around the creation of an architectural environment, resembling and ordered like the rooms in a home. Twenty-one artists were invited to create new installation works for this environment. The artists were asked to work with the nomenclature of specific rooms (e.g., the master bedroom, the TV room, the kitchen) and to create installation works that reveal their understanding of and involvement with that room and their ideas about its meaning within the context of their work. The proposals for the installation works could comprise anything from the modification of the room's spatial coordinates to the arrangement of objects and images in the room. Many of the larger rooms were assigned to two artists, who could work collaboratively or create individual works to be placed together in the space. The installation could include work by other artists. All of this was entirely up to the artists to decide.

Given the history of Los Angeles as a place where many experimental architectural case studies for houses have been developed and implemented, it seemed particularly apt to utilize this premise for an exhibition here. It is also a city with a very large and diversified arts community, which frequently finds itself building spaces just like this one. There is also the Los Angeles tradition of utilizing homes as art galleries and of employing the many vast, unused industrial spaces throughout the city as alternative exhibition venues. Moreover, installation art, with its desire for total control of all the elements surrounding it, takes unique advantage of the multiple articulation and overlap that an environment like a house contains. That this desire for total control is exercised in a quasi-domestic environment where no single element can dominate is a very apt metaphor for the art world today.

Open House concludes a series of artist-organized initiatives that started with the Out of the Blue installations done at the Vignes Building in Los Angeles (1992-93) and continued through the M*Y*T*H* Series done at the Brewery in Los Angeles (1993-94). Naturally a lot could be written about the present exhibition's relationship to earlier, historically significant installation artworks such as Womanhouse or the Capp Street project, to name two, but it wasn't really projected as a coda or response to those or other works. What is more important to note is that feminist philosophy seems to be the subterranean linkage that relates all these endeavors. Any other semantic haloes that this open house may conjure up will depend on each viewer's own experience of installation art.

The title Open House was chosen for this exhibition because of the many ideas it immediately brings to mind. In real estate an open house is used to lure prospective buyers--to show off a home in its ideal or "model" condition. In this sense the open house is a fiction or somebody's idea of a perfect home. Obviously it is in the best location in the neighborhood. It has been furnished and decorated to somebody's taste. It aims at making visitors feel at home so that they'll want to acquire a similar home in the vicinity. It is no one's home really, a simulation that's all dressed up for play and display. The underlying preconceptions guiding those who finish out these model homes have always made it interesting to drop into one and see what model of lifestyle is on exhibit. The term open house is also used to describe a kind of party or get-together where one can come and go as one chooses. It is generally an informal occasion, suitable for large crowds and buffet-style eating. Coincidentally it is similar to gallery openings in its structure and etiquette and to other kinds of gatherings typical of the art world. Since the practical side of organizing the creation of installations by twenty-one artists together in a single, contiguous space required a number of meetings and extended conversations, the development of the exhibition became, in effect, an ongoing open house. Lastly, in order to underscore the blatantly nondomestic nature of a gallery space, the structure of the "house" in Art Center's Williamson Gallery is literally left open to the gallery's high ceiling.

Open House is a test in vitro. It is conceived of as under glass, as a showcase for some exemplary samples. It underscores the potential (which these artists have already been exploring for years) for installation art to address the differences between the realms of art intended as a specialized practice and of objects and spaces intended for functional purposes. As traced in the work of many of these artists, even in the supposed symbolic neutrality of function, all objects and spaces can be made to reverberate with variable connotations. Open House works with both the content and the context of a given site, even modifying or creating a new architectural envelope. It is the visible tip of the much larger, individually articulated bodies of work that these artists have carried on outside this showcase.

Open House was conceived of as a contradiction in act because it places a kind of work (installation art) in a kind of environment (the modernist gallery) that is historically at odds with it. Installations are generally done in noninstitutional contexts; they can be difficult to find and are very difficult to document. Open House works to overcome these limits by putting the work in an institutional setting where hopefully it will be seen by many people. The catalogue works as an extension of the viewer's gaze and documents other installation works of the artists involved which were not transposed into an antithetical setting. To accomplish all this has required some degree of artificiality. In fact, the willfully open house, with its pseudo-architectural home skeleton, admits to being just a construct, part of a series of works that each artist has constructed over the years.

The artists in Open House have been matched up with the various rooms by association. Some had already worked with the same kind of domestic space in another instance; for others the denotations of the room had a relationship to their prior work; sometimes a particular room just turned out to be of interest to an artist. The dialogue about how the artists would develop their ideas about the rooms and the subsequent decisions about how their ideas would impact the other artists were developed over more than twelve months. Though time-consuming and a little awkward on occasion, this process led to some significant reelaboration of ideas. It also ended up resembling the way artists actually negotiate among themselves when their exchanges aren't overdetermined by power.

For the breakdown of how the house was divided, the proportions were kept as close as possible to those you might find in a typical house. Gavin Lee and I did the entryway/foyer; Andrea Bowers and Sam Durant did the living room; William Leavitt and Paul Tzanetopoulos did the TV room; Sylvia Bowyers and Mara Lonner did the dining room; Jorge Pardo and Pae White did the kitchen; Ellen Birrell and Andrew Freeman did the attic/storage area; Liz Young did the guest bath; John Outterbridge (with Tami Lynn Outterbridge) did the children's room; Susan Silton (with Terry Wolverton) did the master bedroom; Lauren Lesko did the master bath; Wendy Adest did the vanity; Matthew Thomas did the back porch; Lynn Aldrich, Sharon Suhovy Vander Meiden, and Daniel Wheeler did the backyard.

There are specific aspects of installation art with regard to its approach to art making which differentiate it from traditional art forms.(see Notes) To gain an understanding and appreciation of its different basis, it might be useful to trace some of its general characteristics using this exhibition as a concrete point of reference. Installation is an art form that has always been contaminated by traces of the real world. Installation artists have historically chosen to work in ordinary venues, often with the intent of absorbing the functional things in that venue. Installation art moves away from the separation and distance that a viewer is usually accorded in a traditional aesthetic framework. Installation is an event that the viewer must experience physically and temporally. It is an open-ended work that requires the viewer to draw conclusions about its sense and significance. If painting traditionally aspires to the quality of presentness, which gives it a perpetual sense of perceptual newness, then installation art, by comparison, needs to be experienced as a fugitive event, with a specific duration and a meaning that shifts over time. In Open House viewers are given the names of the rooms and the oddly domesticated gallery as points of departure; for the rest, they must decipher the sense of each artist's choices.

Installation art generally aspires to total control of the interpretative criterion surrounding it. In installation objects are positioned to be seen in a specific context (or, vice versa, the context will often dictate a site-specific response). The specificity of this context is studied by the artist and calibrated as part of the viewer's overall experience. In a successful installation all of the surrounding elements need to be taken into consideration, even if they are left untouched. The work, its framework, and any other contextual supports are what installation art works off of. Artists often provide written guides that seek to elaborate afterward on the viewer's comprehension of the experience. In some ways installation art can be seen as a kind of overall design effort. (And traditional design can likewise be thought of functioning like a sort of homogenized installation art in which any given social class can find itself mirrored.)

The artists who were invited to create rooms for Open House generally develop their installation work in spaces outside galleries. Inviting them to interact with one another in these preconditioned spaces was one way to structure the mediations that installation work typically encounters. With installations there are always preexisting structural and hierarchical parameters to recognize and surmount. There are always quantities of hidden localized ambient noise to be charted and considered. Inevitably there is also some mediation of pure creative necessity with surrounding contingencies. In this gallery project the restrictions and preexistent conditions were incorporated in a way analogous to those found by artists when working elsewhere. Rooms already had specific designations, and accommodating their individual efforts to this nomenclature became part of the artists' overall process of adaptation. Many of the artists worked in pairs in one room, and negotiating this became another part of the process. In all cases the traffic flow and openings between the rooms and the resulting proximity of other artists' work needed to be accounted for. A series of meetings were scheduled to discuss overlap and potential interference. These conditions are very much like those encountered by installation artists when they work in noninstitutional venues. The ambient noise that installation entails includes everything that comes with working in an environment where art is not normally the only thing being seen or done. It includes foot traffic, interference with the work by habitual users of the environment, unforeseen changes in light or sound quality. Usually installation artists try to find out about these elements beforehand in order to determine whether they need to be controlled or not. Site-specific work often incorporates as much of its surroundings as possible in order to influence a viewer's understanding of them before and after the installation. Existing outside the context of galleries (where art is sanctioned and all extraneous diversions have been filtered out), installation art must negotiate the conditions and extent of its freedom. Compromises are often incorporated into the process. In most cases the compromise doesn't detract from the work; it simply becomes one of the conditions of its existence.

Installation art is often an ephemeral art form, one that exists only for a moment in time and then is gone. There is often a need to go see the work in person because it requires a body moving through space to be experienced. Photographic or video documentation of an installation is usually insufficient to give someone an idea of what it was like to go through it. This catalogue documents portions of earlier installations done by the artists in the exhibition. The present exhibition will be photographed in process, underlining again the peculiar conditions under which installations come about. Catalogues generally need to be produced in advance of an exhibition's opening, and installations are generally completed concurrent with the opening. Viewing a catalogue that traces some of the fragments of each of the artist's past installation work, literally folded into images of the installation in progress, should give some sense of the overall process of this art.

The difference between a curating an exhibition and being an artist organizing an exhibition is not readily apparent to the viewer. It becomes evident only in the organizational phases of the work, and this is due to the relative equality between artists. In this exhibition the process of deciding how to lay out the skeleton house involved extensive mediation and numerous reconsiderations. It is typical of artist-organized exhibitions to present all new work. The exchanges between a participating artist and an artist organizing an exhibition are complex and susceptible to unpredictable, productive synergy. I believe that this is because artists create more significant works when they are involved in their thematic delineation from the outset. The gathering of a roughly collective poetics is more cumbersome to navigate with but ultimately mirrors the inefficient creative processes within the artists' community.


Somewhere between the dialectical reasoning of Michael Fried's "Art and Objecthood" (1967) and the didactic exhortations of Allan Kaprow's "The Education of the Un-Artist, Pts. I - III" (1972) the theoretical underpinnings of what was going on under the rubric of "installation art" was being encoded. For Fried, the "theatricality" of minimal and installation art was engendering a de stabilizing participatory mode for the viewer, one destined to undermine the traditional philosophical basis of aesthetic judgment. Kaprow unerringly predicted an increasingly active involvement on the part of politically and environmentally conscious viewers in determining what would constitute the arts. Twenty years later, installation occupies a central position in our cultural and artistic vocabulary. Yet, it is still characterized by the ambivalent nature it exhibited upon its emergence. Radical in the way it thrusts the viewer into a position of absolute determinacy as sole activator/observer, installation has at the same time become an acceptable academically developed art manifestation. This contradiction marks all of our current paradoxical modes of cultural production. ["Rooms with a View 2," Visions 5 (Winter 1990): 34-36]
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Installation art walks a line between exploring an objectified solipsism and developing an ongoing cultural narrative; between espousing art world didacticism and engendering critical understanding. It is a free zone in which unpredictable hybrids are created. To venture forth into installation art is to enter into an open situation involving certain factors of chance, since the artist and viewers collaborate in gestating an interpretative model. Although viewers must construct the pattern of meaning, they perceive it according to the spatial and visual material laid out by the artist and their reactions are grounded within their diverse individual and cultural norms and mores. Installation artists often feel implicitly charged with determining to the fullest extent the context of the work. because an installation is posited in this global manner, it belongs to the world of everyday experience - especially the realms of the social, the political and the linguistic - a much as it does to the art world. ["A Room of One's Own,"Artspace 16 (July-August 1992): 57-59]
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