ASSEMBLY OF ARENAS
(2020 - 2022)
Limited edition of 150.
Signed and numbered by the artist.
Design by Alexandra Margetic.
Soft cover. 149mm x 200mm.
Internal pages printed on ecoStar 100% recycled paper.
Printed in Sydney, Australia.
Assembly Of Arenas is a work comprising 60 images of model chairs, exploring ways that spaces can shape social relationships; how the spaces that we enter or invite others into are underpinned by individual, institutional, or perhaps fundamentally human ideas about fear, freedom, control, separation, and our need to connect.
Images 3-4 by Henry Buttersworth
ASSEMBLY OF ARENAS
7 - 11 September 2022
In The Round: Eternal Circle
framed giclee print on cotton rag
framed giclee print on cotton rag
Heart To Heart
framed giclee print on cotton rag
On plinth: studio model of chairs
Photography by Traianos Pakioufakis
ELIA BOSSHARD IN CONVERSATION WITH IRA FERRIS
Sympoiesis Eastside Radio 89.7FM
IF: Good morning, Elia, thank you for joining us this morning.
EB: Good morning. Thank you so much for having me.
IF: Given that you have spent quite a bit of time researching spatial arrangements, in terms of how we gather, how we organise seating arrangements within a space, I was wondering if you could start this conversation with me today by describing the seating arrangement that you and I have here at the moment. And what you have discovered from your research; how does this particular seating arrangement affect our interaction?
EB: Well, this is really interesting because in the book all of the seating arrangements are just comprised of chairs, whereas today we're sitting across the table from each other, so immediately I feel like that is creating some sort of boundary between us. But as we're facing each other - so we're sitting in this quite intimate small room, with low lighting, it feels very cosy, [laughs] feels very friendly; as soon as I came in - you were facing me coming in through the doorway - and you smiled at me, it felt very welcoming. And we're sitting at this table that has a rounded edge. There's no hard edges to it. So it feels like, I could just come up and find my seat here across from you. And sitting across from each other it feels very, we're ready to have a conversation. It's one of those very social spaces, like going to a cafe or meeting up with a friend to have dinner.
IF: And what are some of the other shapes of assembly, or shapes of gathering, that you have discovered through your research?
EB: The project started with… because I have a background in theatre and designing for performance of dance and opera and music concerts, I really wanted to document somehow the different kinds of theatre seating spaces. So in theatre, especially with a lot more black box theatre, you know, the seating arrangements are very flexible. So we could create an ‘in the round’ theatre space where everyone sits around a central stage, or a ‘traverse’ theatre space with audiences on opposing sides of the stage looking inwards. Everyone knows the classic amphitheater shape like the Sydney Opera House concert hall or any theatre that you go to where the audience is surrounding the stage, looking at the stage, and we sort of form this very graceful circle together; like ancient Greek amphitheater style performance spaces. So yes, that's where the project started, wanting to document these spaces. But as I was playing with these miniature chairs, these model chairs, I started to develop a few settings - I guess you could say they are more imaginative - thinking about possible ways that we could shape listening spaces or spaces for listening to each other. So placing the chairs in a way that puts our ears next to each other, for example. Or placing the chairs in a way that is perhaps more antisocial, so in a circle facing outwards, so facing away from each other. By experimenting with these different shapes I was trying to get a feeling of… is there a difference in feeling when we face each other, when we sit facing away from each other, when we're sitting in a corner or sitting in a circle, or looking at each other, a more equal space…
IF: As you mentioned, as part of this project you were creating a little models of chairs which I think use 3D printing methodologies. You then arranged them in those shapes of gathering and took photographs of those arrangements. Can you speak about that process a bit?
EB: Yeah, sure. As I said from my theatre background I was building a lot of models for set designs and models are fantastic for feeling how a space could function when people enter it, whether they're actors or performers or guests that you invite into a show. This project started in June 2020 during the first COVID-19 lockdown, and I was just really using the materials I had on hand. I’d just come back from overseas and so my studio was a mess and I had scaled down at the time. So this project in a funny way reflects that kind of scaling down of ideas, from [working with] large scale installation into just using small models. These chairs I had them from previous models that I’d built, and I'd always wanted to have time to play with them. So using just some leftover pieces of timber in the studio and… the room I was using at the time had one window with this natural light coming through that was quite beautiful, very directional, so I set up the model box next to the window. I made a setting every day and took a photo of that setting. I had a collection of over 100 settings and then from there I refined the aesthetics of the work and rephotographed every single one and then collated them into groupings. So in the book, there are some chapters and each chapter explores a different kind of social setting or space shape for gathering.
IF: And the book that you're mentioning will be part of this exhibition and we'll talk a bit more about the book itself in a moment. When you speak about these different settings, I was curious what the research phase was like for this project. Were you observing your environment and noticing all these different seating arrangements that already exist in our society and our culture? Were you googling what's maybe in some other cultures? Were you purely imagining what could be possible?
EB: I would say for this project it was mostly based on observational research because I've been performing since I was 10 years old as a classical flutist so I have a long experience of entering into different kinds of performance scenarios. Then, you know, going into studying music professionally, and then studying theatre design professionally, there was a real sense of moving from on the stage to behind the stage and being part of the team that constructs the stage space, and also constructing the experience of the audience. I think within that process of learning and studying, and also working, there was a sense of research in terms of, I always had an interest in experimenting with the ways that we could shape audience and performer relationships. There was definitely something through that research by practical experience that I wanted to capture, and that inspired the work. But then of course, yeah, there's visiting other spaces like… I have a part of my family in Tunisia and they have an incredible array of ancient Roman ruins there. And visiting an actual amphitheater space is just the most incredible feeling because it’s… you know, I've been in a theatre built this century but to go to a space that has been constructed 2000 or more years ago, and it's still standing, its outside, it's constructed to work with the shape of the landscape on a hillside and it has that natural bowl… I mean its just… I think remembering experiences like that, places that I've been to as well, informed the project. And there are a few [settings] I would say are a personal experience as well… like sitting around the family dinner table, trying to capture some of those more intimate social moments as well.
IF: From your personal - your own body's perspective - what is the most comfortable seating arrangement that you can find yourself in and does it change from situation to situation?
EB: Oh uumm… maybe a dinner table, I love a dinner party, so yeah, I think dinner tables are very wonderful spaces.
IF: Is it a round table or square table?
EB: Probably a square table… I have sat at a round table. My grandparents have a round table, I think like one of those classic round dinner tables from the 70s and I love that they still have that and it really changes the shape of the room. At a rectangle dinner table there's something about negotiating the space… In my family we all have a particular seat around the table and so there's something really comforting in that, but then also when you have people over you have to sort of reshuffle that setting or add a few more chairs, and there's a real sense of inviting people into that space because you have to think about where's everyone going to sit. But sometimes you don't think about it at all… like at our place. It's just myself and my partner. We don't even have a dinner table, it's just the kitchen island bench with some stools that we put around it. So it's a very disorganised space but I like that there’s still that kind of flow around this central gathering space, which is the table I suppose.
IF: As part of this project at Sydenham International you will frame a few of those seating arrangements that you’ve identified. You will have three framed prints. How did you go about choosing these particular three? Why those three rather than the others?
EB: Yes, there are 60 images in the book so just choosing three was quite difficult. The one I really knew straightaway that I was going to frame is called In The Round: Eternal Circle. And that is simply chairs placed in a circle setting. I understand it to be one of the most inherently known ways of gathering for people. We stand in a circle with friends; we sit around a dinner table; we build institutional structures like parliaments and theatres in the shape of a circle. So there's something very human about it, something very simple. And it also plays with the idea of circles being inclusive, but also exclusive spaces. So this print, the way that it's framed reflects that kind of tension I hope, where a circle is the most warm and desirable place to be in terms of connecting with other people but at the same time can feel very exclusive if you're on the outside of that experience. And the other two prints had to follow on from that; I suppose that feeling of perhaps a more intimate and very directly human connection, human to human connection. So the other prints, one is called Heart to Heart. And as you and I are sitting now, it’s [an image of] two chairs facing each other but without a table… What has been coming to mind recently is that Marina Abramovic work [The Artist Is Present, 2010]… you know that was a fascinating process in that it started with a table and then partway through the project the table was removed and it was just the two chairs - the two people sitting across from each other - and that changed the dynamic of how the artist could relate with the visitor. And the third print is called Friend [laughs] and this is set into the corner of the model with two chairs sitting next to each other facing out. It's very simple but there’s something that I really love about the simplicity of just sitting next to someone and feeling like a companionship, or that facing out of the corner you're facing the world together. I think perhaps the thread through all of these is the absolute brilliance of connecting with another human and that it's just such a simple thing to do if we're sitting beside each other.
IF: And corners are something that you are particularly interested in, as well... So, is there a significance that this union between those two chairs, and those two entities that occupy those chairs, is coming from the corner? Is there a deliberate choice in choosing a corner there?
EB: Love a corner; very contradictory places. They can be like a cosy nook but they can also be entrapping sort of places. And so there was a very deliberate placement of the chairs sitting in the corner but facing out of the corner together. So the viewer looking at the images looking at what would be the faces of the people occupying those chairs and vice versa, they're sitting in the corner looking outwards. Corners do feature quite a lot. Corners and horizon lines, as the greater architecture of the space that the chairs are arranged within. I wanted to use corners because most of the rooms that we occupy daily are rectangular in shape so we all have an experience of trying to fit something into a corner or putting a chair in a corner or a bookcase or something. So corners are… well you know when you go to… I'm thinking like Golden Age cinema, there's a very different feeling from sitting on the edge of the row as against to sitting in like the corner seat right up the back, or pushed up against the wall. So the seating arrangements also have a relationship with the wall, with the corner, with the floor-to-sky horizon line, and how the camera captures those settings that way is important in framing a feeling of that space.
IF: Yeah a corner for me is also a place of hiding, in a way. Or privacy. So those two entities, those two people who are occupying those chairs, are also maybe wanting to exclude themselves from the wider environment in some way, and observe in privacy the world around them, without being disturbed themselves. [...] In terms of the style of framing these prints, it's quite a particular style where you have chosen the image to sit quite small in the frame and there is lots of white negative space left around the image itself in the frame. What was your aesthetic thinking there, with the image receding inside of the frame?
EB: Well… we always had this picture at home, it was a picture my mum had for a long time and it was framed exactly like that. The frame was not huge, maybe 50 centimetres square, and the photo on the inside was of a dancer with a kind of flamenco skirt or some big skirt on just stepping off a stage; in a space that looks like an old school or town hall with a timber floor and the timber stage and it was almost like [she was] stepping off from a rehearsal or something. And it was framed within this huge white space - a tiny image within a very deep window. I was always so curious about it because it wasn’t something that grabs you immediately and I remember for a long time sort of disregarding it, like oh that's that's just a weird picture. But actually I think looking at it more closely, the way that it leaves so much space around it and it is so small, it kind of draws you in, and for me created this really intimate experience of like being a voyeur essentially into this space. And being very aware of myself not being able to be in the picture and really it's quite imaginative. I don’t know, yeah I really felt something from that framing. Anyway, so I thought maybe it could work for this because actually there was something as I said before, like in that tension of wanting to be close but also feeling on the outside, and this could be a way to create that sense of space, literal space.
IF: I’m wondering if what you're saying now is connected to another thought that you had in regards to this project where you felt that it holds potential for action and interaction. You've mentioned how these chairs that you are presenting as part of the project “are empty of actors, but they hold potential for action and interaction.” Is this somehow related to this attempt to keep us further away, but then also draw us into the image or into the imagination of being part of this arrangement?
EB: Yeah, I think so, thank you for that. Yeah, I think so… Yeah because it's so ridiculous, they are just empty chairs. Why are they provoking such a strong reaction, it's very strange. I think it is the potential to know yourself in that space or feel something familiar from it and have an understanding how that space functions, especially with other people in that space. So yeah I think that way they are. I hope as one goes through the book, that there's more of a sense of an aliveness to the settings and that they are full of potential…
IF: …to be occupied. Which received a whole new significance during COVID. Because this project started couple of years ago before the COVID era and then it was put, well maybe not on hold, but it waited for the moment to be shown to others. And within this time of social isolation, these empty chairs became a metaphor for something else. Can you speak about this transition in those two years; what the project became?
EB: [pause] I don't know really… Yeah, I think it was… All of the conditions for this project to happen were there. Before COVID I was working at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin; it’s one of the largest theatres in Germany and that was the first time I'd worked in a theatre of that scale and it was just the craziest kind of spatial experience. From the audience perspective you're looking at the stage, but then from behind the stage there's actually five more of the stage areas the exact same size where they hold other parts of the set: on the left, on the right, behind, underneath, and also above as well, it goes about 16 to 20 meters high. It's unimaginable really, to comprehend that much space, and then also to think about what the audience is seeing is only a small fraction of that as well. So how we design the space that is seen by the audience is very specific. So anyway, I bring it up as this is where I was before the project happened, in this very large vacuous cave essentially. And yes, then come into my tiny, tiny space which wasn't even my studio, and just using what I had, it was a complete kind of shock in a way. Then also to have all of our our in-person social connections withdrawn as well, those kinds of necessary social interactions, it was a real strange situation I guess. But these are the conditions the project came out of. For the last year it was kind of put on hold - the book came together within a few months, it was done - but I think in the last year, it's been that sort of, you know, emerging from that situation, and that kind of isolation. And for me, personally, I feel like it is actually taken until about now this year to fully reemerge socially and actually be able to practice what it is to be with people and converse again. So it feels like a very nice time actually to share this work again now.
IF: Another thing I was also thinking in terms of COVID and the consciousness of how we gather that COVID brought about - and all the conversation around changing the old norms - and one of the things, as far as I understand, that your project aims to achieve is to bring attention to the way that we construct these spaces of gathering, and if we become attentive or aware that these are constructions we can also deconstruct them. So in some way these empty chairs create space for reorganisation of that space of gathering.
EB: Yeah, power and control is definitely an underlying feeling within this project as well because yes, as you said, the spaces that we inhabit with other people are constructed by people. And so there's always intention in space. An intention in either shaping the relationships within a setting or wanting to control a social situation in the way that we place people within that space or a hierarchy. And one of the images is called Premium Opera Seats, and it focuses on the first few rows of the theatre because there's a hierarchical structure in the way that we sit in a theatre as well. So yes, I mean, following COVID it is a real shake up hopefully to thinking about, well, how do we gather these spaces? How do we set up spaces for other people? Are we considering the environment that we're shaping for other people to experience and is there possibility to be flexible with these structures, these social structures?
IF: The book that you're mentioning, which will form a major part of this exhibition, it begins with a beautiful quote from Yi-Fu Tuan, which speaks about this organisation of social chaos that we have a fear of. And I will just read this quote... It says “Forces for chaos being omnipresent, human attempt to control them is also omnipresent. In a sense, every human construction whether mental or material, is a component in a landscape of fear because it exists to contain chaos.” So this quote in a way frames the whole project, the whole book. In terms of this containment of chaos, reading this quote I was contemplating what is the alternative to this fear of what happens if there is anarchy in the space, or anarchical gathering in the space? And whether it's also about not having chairs at all, because chairs as objects are designed to control the body in some way.
EB: Yes, perhaps. But will we feel as comfortable as well? I wonder. It's a funny thing thinking about fear and design, because these structures were designed spaces… I mean, when I say design, I'm also thinking about like setting up a dinner party for friends, and when we've designed spaces there's a sense of wanting to make a space that feels comfortable, because you want it to be a positive experience. Maybe this like an underlying hope that you will have a positive social experience where you connect, like on a very deeply human, philosophical level but of course we're not very, you know, we're not always aware of this. Its just something that we I guess understand subconsciously. I think this idea of chaos… “Every human construction is a component in the landscape of fear” because we have a need to contain the chaos within… I just have such a strong reaction to entering a space where the rules of behaving in a particular way in that space are so inflexible. I remember going to a performance once at the Opera House, and it was a it was an orchestral performance, and we came in late, you know, it just couldn't be helped… not that I like to arrive late to things… But we weren't allowed to take our seats, which I understand you know, it can be interruptive to other people's experience of the performance, but we were relegated to stand behind the seats in this really awkward kind of corner spot and it just felt so felt excluded from that experience of the music and excluded from being able to sit within the space with everybody else. These kinds of inflexible conventions that don't allow people to arrive to a space differently. I don’t know if this is a very good example, but it's just like, there's so much rigidity in the way that we expect people to behave in different areas, like at school as well; you have to sit in a certain seat and there's not much flexibility with that or like when can you stand up like if you if you want to stand up at school and have a stretch, I don't know if there's that kind of room to just sort of move in a space in a way that feels comfortable for you. So yeah, am I getting off track I'm not quite sure….
IF: There is no track…
EB: …theres no track [laughing]…
IF: …we are flexible about the path that we take. Talking about how we are told to occupy the same chair in school... we also choose to do that because it's part of that comfort where, as you were saying, at the dinner table your whole life you have the same seat, which is your choice because it feels comfortable to have this little space within the larger space that is just yours. But then at the same time it does enclose our perception of the wider environment. And why I'm saying that is because in some of the yoga classes I went to, where as yoga students we also always put our mat in the same spot - we are creatures of habit basically - and some teachers have encouraged students to shift that spot from class to class so they can actually experience things anew from different perspectives. So it's interesting, where does this need come from? Is it something innate to human beings to search for that? Or is it completely culturally imposed? And these are the questions that we will probably leave the listeners with to contemplate.
EB: Yes. In any space what is the balance between freedom and control?
LLEAH SMITH & NADIA ODLUM
NO. 1 THOUGHTS IN MOTION
ink on paper, and facsimile copies
This collborative mind map drawing was created as a response to the works in this exhibition, Assembly Of Arenas. It is also an expression of the ongoing conversation and knowledge exchange between artists Nadia Odlum and Lleah Smith, around the relational, architecture, comfort, permission, participation, power, affordances, spaces...
In an email from Elia to Lleah & Nadia:
... As I’m bringing this work together I’ve been recalling the experience of sitting in a ring with young students at Cementa [in Lleah Smith’s performance Future School], the discussions around spaces and places, principles and rules, and particularly, how that setting created an openness to connect. To explain a little, for this work I wanted to observe how spatial settings themselves can form environments for connection or disconnection, and perceptions of place in everyday life situations. I think it finds links with your interest in how people can relate to each other (and to places) through gathering and sharing. I’m perhaps coming at these ideas more architecturally, whereas your approach is very social. If these ideas resonate, I was wondering if you would consider writing/making a response that could feature as part of the exhibition ? I feel your perspective would offer a pathway of understanding between my conceptual provocations, and real world situations like those that you initiate and aim to work within..."
Photography by Traianos Pakioufakis