Anonymity

2-07

Masks

October 31, 2016

JULIE TURGEON (MArch I, 2018)

It’s 4:45pm. I’m sitting at my grandparents’ kitchen table in rural (and I mean rural—this house didn’t have a telephone until the late 70s) Belgium, rocking a small porcelain coffee cup back and forth across a vinyl tablecloth, letting my mind weave in and out of a conversation I’ve entertained for the third time already this afternoon.

The questions are banal enough, revolving mostly around work and school. But I’m growing increasingly frustrated by my inability to share my excitement and engagement with things that are most salient in my life. When I worked in the art world, these were things like the Julie Mehretu exhibition that went off without a hitch, penning a particularly eloquent press release, or the time a 93-year-old Wayne Thiebaud (Wayne Thiebaud!) got trapped in our freight elevator. Today, it’s the little victories like resolving a plan, dissecting the intricacies of a theory reading, or the thrill of stumbling across the Penthouse left unlocked. Under the polite niceties and platitudes exchanged across the kitchen table, however, there exists a vast disconnect in values, priorities, mindsets, and ways of living that result in a feeling of detachment and isolation. It is a feeling of utter anonymity.

I don’t mean anonymity in its traditional sense as a condition of namelessness. On the contrary, everyone in this small Belgian town—down to the local butcher—knows my name and my place in the local family tree (which is especially impressive considering I don’t eat meat).

Anonymity comes in many flavors. It is achieved through a variety of means, voluntarily or involuntarily. Anonymity is mobilized in pursuance of honest expression, to subvert dominant power structures, to dodge repercussion, and to move through spaces unencumbered by the obligations of identity. Authors adopt pseudonyms to publish under. Internet trolls untraceably peruse the bowels of the deep web.

I would like to elaborate on the nature of that distinct type of anonymity born of disconnect and detachment, one that draws on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of non-economic forms of capital. For Bourdieu, capital is that which is valued in the setting you are positioned in. His theories frame an idea of capital as embodied in knowledge, skills, and relationships, looking beyond monetary value and pecuniary wealth. These are forms of currency we learn to manipulate and utilize to negotiate and stake our place in society. In the context of an architectural education, capital may take the form of fluency in precedents, proper lineweights, modeling software, or just having that magic touch with the finicky Mimaki cutter. I propose that anonymity arises from not being able to put these accrued non-economic forms of capital into play in a given situation. Anonymity results when the system you’ve placed yourself into is pulled out from under your feet.

Yes, anonymity can be a deeply frustrating, unsettling, and jarring condition. But, it can also be reframed as a powerful tool, a technique to utilize advantageously. The history of art is rife with examples of artists who have sought anonymity to further their work and advance their ideas. Most known of these is perhaps Donald Judd in his move to Marfa to escape from the New York City art scene he found increasingly stifling. Moving to the small Texas town where very few knew of Judd gave the artist the creative freedom (in addition to ample space) to pursue his goals without the pressures of professional and social obligations of NYC. Remaining relatively unknown in the context of small-town Texas (at least initially) afforded Judd different opportunities and possibilities than available to him as a big artist in the big city. His move fits into a broader desire pervasive in Minimalism for the artist to erase his or her presence from the work produced.
Yet if Judd (and other Minimalists of the 60s) sought to minimize the presence of the hand of the artist in the work of art, how does the opposite of this approach manifest itself? If anonymity suppresses identity, what happens when identity is made hypervisible? If Donald Judd and his Minimalist contemporaries populate the left end of this spectrum, we can compare him with someone who has attempted to broach its right end: Maya Lin.

← anonymity – identity – brand →

Maya Lin is undeniably minimalist in aesthetic, but decidedly not in terms of her negotiation of her identity as an artist. Maya Lin the individual became “Maya Lin, the Artist” very early on in her career. She has used the fame generated through her winning proposal for the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial to launch her career(s) as artist, architect, and—most recently—activist. She capitalizes on one role to gain leverage and amass credibility as another. Disappointingly, however, she seems unable to successfully synthesize these disparate versions of “Maya Lin” into one. Perhaps precisely as a result of her brandhood, she has fettered herself in place, making it difficult for her to reconcile the varied interests and pursuits she embarks
on today.

Either end of the spectrum proposed above spanning anonymity and brandhood enables distinct possibilities, each with its own associated set of advantages and disadvantages. As architecture students priming ourselves to become creative professionals after graduation, I wonder what we stand to gain by positioning ourselves along this continuum at any given time. What lessons can we glean from a condition of anonymity in this environment within which we constantly, declamatorily, and often dramatically define ourselves, our interests, and our stances on a seemingly infinite spread of issues? Is there a benefit or freedom to creating anonymously, unbeholden to a particular style or approach we’ve consciously or unconsciously become “known” for? Does anonymity breed experimentation, or create a “safe(r)” space for risk-taking, trials, and failure?

How do we transition between the insular world within Rudolph and the enormous world outside the discipline which holds comparatively little understanding of the nature of our work. Even the term “architect” itself carries different meaning and weight in the space within versus beyond the oftentimes opaque boundaries of the discipline. There is tremendous potential and a source of power to be found in operating between these two spheres if only we can better learn to navigate these spaces.

Meanwhile, I lose myself in sips of silky coffee sitting at my grandparents’ kitchen table. For this, at least, is a moment we share in simple, splendid, equal delight.