A+A TALK : WORK! with Sheila de Bretteville + Martin Kersels
Note from the Editor:
The term Work has a range of definitions, disparate in nature and connotation. As both a process and a product, Work has managed to take over our lexicon as the primary distillation of what we—as students and practitioners, architects and artists—do. We exhaust our energy, deplete our time, sacrifice our sleep—all justified in the grand pursuit of Work.
Work, by its quantifiable definition borrowed from the field of physics, demands an inherent displacement—a distance and direction—in relation to a force. Both the pedagogical and practical models that drive contemporary Architecture are fueled by the exhaustive processes of repeated production and the devaluation of previous efforts. In a paradigm whereby the life of a project exists from desk to pit and back again, we ask: if the displacement of our efforts are equal to zero, are we as Architects actually producing Work?
Not only is the definition of Work subjective, but so are the means by which we collectively assign value to it. So how do we value our Work? And ultimately, is there a purpose for all of this Work? These are the kinds of questions that we will try to discuss together in the next hour or so.
Until the early 90s both the School of Art and the School of Architecture used to work here in Rudolph Hall, formerly the Art and Architecture Building, creating a more unified culture between the disciplines. Sadly, this isn’t the case today—with the great divide of Chapel Street separating our two worlds. So here we are at 180 York to reignite the dialogue between our faculties.
And please feel free to participate since this is by no means a lecture, but the chance to get as many different voices into the conversation as possible.
The following is an excerpt from the A+A Talk : ‘On Work’ with Sheila de Bretteville and Martin Kersels on September 27, 2016. Moderated by Hyeree Kwak, Jack Lipson + Asad Pervaiz.
Hyeree Kwak: So Sheila and Martin, what are you up to these days?
Sheila de Bretteville: I’m currently on leave driving myself crazy with work. I have three projects I’m working on. One is in the south and it’s to make visible the enslaved population at Poplar Forest, the house where Thomas Jefferson lived after his Presidency. The second is in LA, as a response to the city tearing down the old arena which was a very democratic place. My job is to make visible what it once was. The third project is something that I have proposed in New Haven, at the underpass to the train station which is the most dismal, dark, miserable thing that the city hasn’t ever taken care of. So I made a proposal four years ago, about howto make it just a little bit better. Peter [de Bretteville] was saying, “No you should take on the whole thing from the train station to…” and I said yeah, then it will never happen! If I take on something small and if I do it well, maybe it could. So those three things are keeping me pretty busy. I’m reading everything I can get my hands on about slavery, and everything I can find out about the great different communities related to the arena as a venue. And then the last one is just making sure that they don’t fuck it up until it gets built. That you edit out.
Martin Kersels: [Singing]: Thank you, for coming, to this talk tonight. Before I start I need you to look at the screen and things I have done before tonight. Tonight. Tonight. You and I tonight.*
Ok so now there will be a list of things I am going to talk about, the materials I use in my work. I hope I get them all because this is the scat part of the song, a little showy. I’m going to see if I can get this right.
[Singing]: Materials. Materials. Materials that I work with. Materials that I work with. Materials that I work with. Wood, nuts, bolts, and lots of wire. Aluminum, brass, and cold rolled steel. Phonographic half stacks, ba ba ba ba dee and pieces of rope, da da doo da ba! These things I. These things that, these things I bring to you tonight. Tonight. Tonight. You and I tonight!! Ok, so that’s all I can remember. [Applause]
I have two different kind of pathways that I see work. I think they feed each other. They’re not wholly separate. One is be here and talking, teaching class and talking with students, and doing crits and doing those things that inform the work I make and also my work informs what I say to them and my experiences through that. The other is the studio practice which at times suffers and at times takes precedence over what I do here. Because sometimes when I am in the midst of being in school and being in the groove of the semester, that fulfills the desire of puzzling out things and thinking about ideas and solving problems or solutions to problems that I see within somebody else’s work. So I could be looking at someone else’s work and really try to puzzle it out and come up with something even three weeks later. Which is a way of similar towards thinking about the studio.
Jack Lipson: That’s pretty interesting how one starts to inform the other. So for both of you, who you have your academic ground and there is also the ‘real world out there’, what are those big differences between those two and how you approach your own work?
S: Part of it is that it’s different and it’s not different. One of the things that our students are trying to deal with is a kind of iterative method where one project leads to the next project leads to the next project and certainly since I’m doing work I can see how that happens. How it is different is that my work is permanent. I mean I’m crazy in a way, about permanence, because it’s actually a fiction, but I enjoy that fiction. So there is a kind of a need for making something permanent that I can’t really explain. Since my work is very much about who’s been left out, it has a kind of extra layer of desire that comes with that. How they’re different is that when I’m here, I’m here for the students, I really try to push all that other stuff away. I want each of them to have their own work and their own projects. I really feel its separate, as a separate activity. The thing that is most similar is this notion of iteration. You’re working helping you build your next work.
M: Permanence though. That doesn’t seem like you. I mean it’s…
S: I said it was a fantasy.
M: Yeah, but what drives that? Because I think of my work and I think of what I do within the school and with the studio and what I do in the world in whatever galleries, museums, they’re sort of all transient, right?
S: But, you have people in galleries and museums who take care of it…
M: I know, and that is a totally freaky thing. I had this piece in my first gallery show, it was a flame speaker, it was a speaker, a flame that emitted sound through electric wires and seeded with potassium nitrate and I put the record player on a little side table that once belonged to my deceased grandmother and I just thought of it as my grandmother’s side table because I grew up with it. And I’m moving it around the gallery after the show and [they’re like] “woah woah woah woah, that’s art!”
S: But do you think of yourself as a performer? When you say performance you don’t expect it to look, you expect it to be a memory.
M: And that’s what’s beautiful about it.
On What is Work
S: When I left here I had 46 dollars, so the way that I think about work now is so different than what I thought then. I had to have a job, that is what I needed, that, a job is not work in my mind, a job is a job, and work is what, everything that you do except sleep. Having a relationship is a job, cooking is a job. Everything is a job.
M: When I was fifteen, I had this summer job for a place my dad worked, it was, hot stamping boxes. Like with this hot stamper. But, I used to say “I’m going to work”, right. I’m going “to” work, work as a place, yea, for short “to work” and I was just trying to think when was it that somehow I all of a sudden when I was making things I said “oh this is my work” because I think for a long time I would just say I was making “things”. I didn’t want them tied to some sort of system that I related to like, boring piece work, or xeroxing transcripts, or working in a coffeehouse, or doing all the things that I had done, I just, things were nonspecific and they could be more magical in some way and not tied to this sort of like drudgery in some way. Because the studio for me, is free, and it’s both a place of, you know, like maintenance, of cleaning up, and getting materials to be used but it’s also just a place of total, of “anything is possible.”
S: I feel that way about my work as well. Especially those things that I propose. I see something that should be done. And I try to make it happen and of course making it happen changes and develops and becomes something different than that. So, I think that, that sense of freedom to make or to believe should be in the world, is worth doing in the world is what I hope all students get to do, because, why wait to do it, do it now, get it strong, and make it so everybody wants it, or at least somebody wants it.
On Process, Production and Presentation
S: Well when you say ‘presentation’, I would imagine that there are lots of different presentation forms, and not everyone who comes to a presentation expects everything to be resolved so you were in the process and you’re only wherever you are in the process when you have to present—it’s not like it’s done. It’s on its way to something, or you might actually after the presentation decide, ‘hmm, I think I’d like to do this to it’. So you continue to develop that idea differently, or you develop something you learned in another project. So it has that kind of leap frog pattern to it. It doesn’t end with the presentation.
Jonathan Molloy: I think there’s something with process and work, particularly in architecture school and all we produce ultimately—other than the house in New Haven—are drawings. I think that’s particularly something that I’ve thought about with architecture and the way that we present our work, just the fact that it interfaces so often with people—and I’m sure this is true of art in galleries as well—where there can’t be expectations that the person knows how you made this thing or why you made this thing, but that they are just met with an artifact. So in many ways, process relates only to the conversations that are taking place like this, or within academia or in the publications that are talking about it academically or intellectually.
Matthew Wagstaffe: I’ve only been here this semester, but I would say that presenting your process is very much against the grain in Architecture presentations. You have all of this work, but you need to stay up all night for the final pin-up and make these finished things. Even your dress has to look finished. We dress–up.
S: How do you feel about that?
MW: I think it makes no sense. [Laughter] It seems to be an odd version of a sort of economical model of what architecture is in the world. It’s very surprising to me, I really didn’t expect it..
M: Second semester thesis shows I said—I do this every year—’this is not the last show you’re going to do—hopefully’. This is not going to be the last thing you’re going to do. This is just one show amongst the many that you’re going to be doing. Or projects, or books that you’re going to do. Whatever it is, this is just the beginning, in a way, at a different time, different than it was from two years ago when you entered (or for three years here in architecture, right?). So, that end thing, personally in Sculpture I try not to emphasize it too much and make it the ‘all important’, because I think it just freaks everyone out.
S: I think that’s true across the board. It is hard for you now to imagine thinking about your work say, 5 years from now and when you look back and see what thing you made that really meant something to you. It’s hard to know that in real time. So we make a lot of things. But you know which are your faves, the things you enjoy the most. If you can be attuned to how you feel about what you’ve made, without having is torqued too much by anybody’s opinion, that really matters. Because that’s the work you really want to do! If it can give you pleasure, it can give it to you again.
M: But pleasure, that is the part I sometimes question. Do we ratchet up the requirements, the pressure, the expectation, the class upon class, the extra things… do we ratchet up our programs to the point where we remove the pleasure for the students. Do you feel that it’s important for people at school to have pleasure in what they do?
S: Yes I do. And I think you have to be able to make a lot of Work.
Ouliana Ermolova: I think there’s a problem with finding pleasure in work. And work that was driven by pleasure. Now it almost seems that sometimes within Work that pleasure is the worst in a way. Pleasure becomes comfort.
M: Because it is self indulgent? That’s very judgmental in a way. It’s comfortable and therefore you are weak?
S: I can give you an example. Last year we had a student who for like a month, all he did was just make letter forms, and he said “ I feel so guilty!” and I said that if you don’t enjoy doing it then don’t do it! But being guilty about, that’s truly crazy! So I think that if you find yourself doing a lot of something, it’s usually something that you want to do!
M: Yes, pleasure doesn’t answer all of the things that we are talking about, but I think—to go off about what you’re saying—if what you’re doing becomes strictly going to “work”, at this point in your life, when the world is totally open for you because you’re not famous, people aren’t going to pigeonhole you to do a specific thing yet, maybe your parents or loved ones have expectation for you—but fuck them [laugh] but don’t start to think “I need to do this thing, I need to make this work” and not enjoy what you are doing.
S: There is a certain agreement that you all came here [to Yale] to get something that you couldn’t get out there on your own. And that’s something that you all have in common. So it’s your job to get it. And you might get something more, or something different than you expected. But that something comes from you. It’s not from your teachers, they are just here to help you. But you have to pay attention to yourself. And that’s a property shared whether you’re a graphic designer, a sculptor, a painter or an architect. You all want to be special in your work. You want that work to reflect something about the person that you are and give meaning to the life that you lead. And that’s not a crazy idea! Especially if you surround yourself with people who share this idea.
M: Seeing all of these people who came to this thing on faith, all of this potential for creativity and for change, like I just think it’s so awesome! Ok I use the word ‘awesome’ too much! Take that last ‘awesome’ out, put in something like “it is so magnificent” [laugh]. And you are all going to go back to your work, your studios and your desks, and it is my hope that you can return and think that what you are doing is a worthwhile project for yourselves. And not just some sort of chore. That it’s something that’s enlivening you.
M: Do you think that sounds to “goopy”?
S: Could be. You could always say that “I’m alone and different from everybody else!”
M: I love satire, and I like sarcasm
S: I like nastiness!
M: I think certain things are more prevalent in culture now, and that sincerity is not given its due. And what you just said sounded very sincere, which is awes—no not awesome! Its truly munificent!
S: You can also subvert it. If you decide to go a different path, then you undermine it. I guess it’s a kind of way to live in life. To just go around undermining things, so people can never get too satisfied.
J: Do you see the impact of having a decentralized spatial setting here at Yale, physically separating all of the faculties into their own island, affect the work of the students? I mean you Sheila were here when it all happened under one roof. Are things different now?
S: I think it’s not so much about the work, but it definitely impacts how you are thinking. When you are in proximity there is more opportunity for conversation. Because we were in the same building I had conversations with Richard Serra and Chuck Close. There was more cross over. It didn’t affect the work as much, but it helped you develop new ideas and a similarity between these groups.
M: I am going to disagree with you. Well I came from Cal Arts which was a single building with music, dance, theatre, film, fine art and critical studies so six programs in a single building. When I was teaching there people maybe got together socially on Thursday nights, but it rarely created moments of collaboration or influence or cross pollination. It was actually an issue that we talked about a lot. I wonder if our programs have gotten so heavy and demand so much of the students time that they cannot actually do anything.
S: So what I am hearing is that it’s not always a spatial issue. Its also time and ease of access…
S: Other things need to be made to allow for crossover to happen. It’s not just a joke those Thursday martinis, they bring people together. If this is something that’s desired it’s definitely possible to create.
M: One thing before we end, Mondays at 2-5:30 in 36 Edgewood are we grad crits. We do two set of crits, for an hour and a half each. You are all welcome to come, usually on the third and fourth floors. Come and sit in and comment… thoughtful comments of course!