– Autumn/Winter 2013

This Is Not About a Building: Mary Ellen Carroll’s prototype 180

Gavin Kroeber

Tags: Mary Ellen Carroll

Mary Ellen Carroll, prototype 180, 1999—ongoing. Architectural model made by Patrick Sinnott emulating the rotation of 6513 Sharpview Drive, 122 × 61 × 46cm. Installation view, ‘Mary Ellen Carroll: prototype 180’, Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, Columbia University, New York, 2011. Photograph: James Ewing Most of the writing on Mary Ellen Carroll’s prototype 180 (1999—ongoing) starts with the building: a dilapidated one-storey home located in Sharpstown, one of the first suburbs to spring up in Houston, Texas, after mass-market air conditioning transformed the Bayou City’s prospects for development. One takes recourse to the building because its physicality and plain availability to perception offer a concrete approach to the complex tapestry of artistic work that surrounds and produces it. This, at least, was how I tried to explain to a companion just why we were speeding along raised freeways to a neighbourhood he had never heard of: ‘She rotated a suburban home 180 degrees — the house and the property — so the back yard is now in the front and the front door is in the back.’

But this might not be the right place to start. In emphasising the building, it is easy to misrepresent Carroll’s work as a kind of sculpture, when in fact it is a plinth: a material support for the artist’s engagement with a set of key questions, and one of many acts undertaken to elaborate a conceptual foundation. This sometimes confoundingly multifaceted work begs the building’s disarticulation, the unpacking of the seemingly unitary physical gesture that has become the project’s emblem — not only in order to highlight its

  1. See Mary Ellen Carroll's statement that ‘the city essentially self-selected itself as the site for prototype 180’, in M.E. Carroll, ‘500 Words’, Artforum.com [online magazine], 27 July 2009, available at http://www.artforum.com/words/id=23335 (last accessed on 11 May 2013). Carroll has similarly explained that the site ‘chose itself because of the land-use policy’. Conversation with the artist, 15 May 2013.

  2. See, for example, Carroll’s statement that ‘making architecture perform as a work of art is the conceptual framework for prototype 180 ‘, in Toby Kamps (ed.), No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston (exh. cat.), Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2009, p.54. Carroll has similarly described the project’s fundamental question as ‘what would be a work that would make architecture perform — but as a work of art, and where the place or the conditions have to do with some kind of unique policy’. Conversation with the artist, op. cit.

  3. Carroll has stated that ‘policy is a kind of readymade material’. Quoted in Joyce Wadler, ‘In Texas, an Artist Plans to Rotate a House 180 Degrees’, The New York Times, 6 October 2010, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/07/garden/07qna.html?_r=2&scp=1&sq=mary%20ellen%20 carroll&st=cse& (last accessed on 11 May 2013). Elsewhere she has claimed to be ‘treating policy as a readymade’. Quoted in José Esparza, ‘prototype 180 by Mary Ellen Carroll’, Domus, 8 March 2011, available at http://www.domusweb.it/en/news/prototype-180-by-mary-ellen-carroll/ (last accessed on 11 May 2013).

  4. See Joe R. Feagin, Free Enterprise City: Houston in Political-Economic Perspective, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988; and Stephen Fox, ‘Planning in Houston: A Historic Overview’, in Barrie Scardino, William F. Stern and Bruce C. Webb (ed.), Ephemeral City: Cite Looks at Houston, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003, pp.34—39.

  5. See J.R. Feagin, Free Enterprise City, op. cit., pp.149—72.

  6. See ibid., p.158; B.C. Webb, ‘Introduction’, in B. Scardino et. al. (ed.), Ephemeral City, op. cit., p.5; and Cameron Armstrong, ‘Un-Zoned: A Memoir’ and T. Kamps, ‘No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston’, both in T. Kamps (ed.), No Zoning, op. cit., pp.32—37 and 158—59 respectively.

  7. See ibid., pp.1 and 172. Examples of fairly recent press coverage include Matthew Yglesias, ‘The Myth of Zoning-Free Houston’, Slate.com [online magazine], 30 November 2011, available at http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2011/11/30/the_myth_of_zoning_free_houston.html; and Peter Coy, ‘How Houston gets along without zoning’, BusinessWeek [online magazine], 1 October 2007, available at http://www.businessweek.com/the_thread/hotproperty/archives/2007/10/how_houston_ gets_along_without_zoning.html (both last accessed on 11 May 2013). The comments posted in response to both online articles merit attention as well.

  8. Porte-bouteilles (Bottlerack, 1914) is believed to have been Marcel Duchamp’s first unassisted readymade.

  9. Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution (trans. Robert Bononno), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003, p.6. Emphasis in the original.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Conversation with the artist, op. cit.

  12. In ‘The Urban Sensorium: Space, Ideology and the Aestheticisation of Politics’, Kanishka Goonewardena, drawing on the work of both Louis Althusser and Lefebvre, writes that ‘the relationship between the production of space and the production of ideology ... is a mediate relationship’. Asserting that ‘to be effective, ideology must also be affective, that is to say aesthetic, if we recall what this key concept first designated as its object: the realm of the senses’, Goonewardena defines ‘the space of the city as a vital ingredient and determinant of our "sensate life"‘. He turns to Lefebvre then ‘as a student above all of mediation’, and in particular to his insights regarding the role of the urban in mediating ideology. K. Goonewardena, ‘The Urban Sensorium: Space, Ideology and the Aestheticisation of Politics’, Antipode, vol.37, issue 1, January 2005, pp.46—71.

  13. Armando Silva’s theory is grounded in the somewhat confounding Lefebvrian assertion, also expressed in The Urban Revolution, that ‘society has become completely urbanised’ and that urbanisation as a process is distinct from the city as a socially constructed category. Moving on from this foundation, Silva insists that the idea of the city nonetheless remains a potent mechanism by which people — even people that may not inhabit the same bounded space — ‘name, evoke and make a city ... the imagined city ... that is being constructed over the blight of physical urbanisers’. Describing these ‘urban imaginaries’ as ‘invented forms that rival, interrogate and converse with the material forms of the architects, designers and planners’, Silva is particularly focused on representational practices and the ways they produce models for behaviour in urban space. Because they illuminate ‘how we construct, out of our desires and sensitivities, collective ways of being, living, inhabiting and abandoning our cities’, Silva argues that these imaginaries allow us to ‘catch a glimpse of ... how the inhabitants of a city ... invent forms of urban life in order to create their city as an aesthetic and political act’. See A. Silva, ‘Imaginaries’ in A. Silva (ed.), Urban Imaginaries from Latin America, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2003, pp.22—45.

  14. See H. Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, op. cit., p.6.

  15. Ibid., pp.6—7.

  16. Conversation with the artist, op. cit.

  17. The rotation of the building took place on 11 November 2010. Documentation of the event is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AiCtgvxgnk (last accessed on 11 May 2013). Details of the collapse were relayed in conversation with the author, op. cit.

  18. ‘No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston’, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 9 June—4 October 2009. See T. Kamps (ed.), No Zoning, op. cit.

  19. See, for instance, Carroll’s photographs Prototype 180, 6513 Sharpview Drive, North Façade and Prototype 180, 6513 Sharpview Drive, South Façade (both 2011).

  20. Carroll hopes ‘to use [prototype 180] as a model ... where you have this kind of hub that then goes out into this area and ... things that are being done to the actual model ... can be replicated on some scale throughout’. Conversation with the author, op. cit. See also T. Kamps, No Zoning, op. cit., p.54; and ‘Artist Mary Ellen Carroll Rotates a Houston, Texas House in a Ground-Shifting Work of Conceptual Art that Will Make Architecture Perform’ [press release], available at http://www.prototype180.com/ docs/press_release_11_11.pdf (last accessed on 11 May 2013).

  21. Carroll has said that the house ‘will be retrofitted and rehabilitated to become an occupied structure that will become an institute for the study of considered urbanism’. M.E. Carroll, ‘500 Words’, op. cit. See also M.E. Carroll, ‘prototype 180’, available at http://www.prototype180.com (last accessed on 11 May 2013).

  22. Conversation with the artist, op. cit.

  23. See Carroll’s statement that ‘the house becomes the protagonist in the narrative’, in T. Kamps, No Zoning, op. cit., p.54. The artist has likewise stated that the ‘structure is the protagonist, it’s the performer in the narrative’ and that it is ‘its own entity, which is what it really needed to be’. Conversation with the author, op. cit.

  24. Ibid. Carroll deploys other anthropomorphisms, such as the use of the two webcams mentioned earlier to suggest eyes and thereby to represent a perspective particular to the house-as-entity. Such measures promote the ascription of a certain subjectivity to the project, as seen, for example, in the following catalogue entry: ‘The footage from these cameras is from the house’s point of view and will be streamed through the internet ... neighbours will be able to talk back to prototype 180 through a Wi-Fi cloud that will be installed over the neighbourhood.’ T. Kamps, No Zoning, op. cit., p.54.

  25. Conversation with the artist, op. cit.

  26. See Julie Ault (ed.), Alternative Art New York, 1965—1985, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

  27. See Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, London and New York: Pluto Press, 2011, pp.152—85.

  28. See Jeff Khonsary and Kristina Lee Podesva, Institutions by Artists: Volume One, Vancouver: Filip Editions, 2012.

  29. J. Ault, ‘Of Several Minds Over Time’, in Steven Rand (ed.), Playing by the Rules: Alternative Thinking/ Alternative Spaces, New York: apexart, 2010, p.99.

  30. For example, other comparisons could be made with the alternative arts movement and the contested legacy of its counter-institutional aspirations. Regarding the movement’s ambitions and its perceived failure to reach them, see Arlene Goldbard, ‘When (Art) Worlds Collide: Institutionalizing the Alternatives’, in J. Ault (ed.), Alternative Art New York, op. cit., pp.183—200. prototype could also be framed within an emergent constellation of US organisations, centres and initiatives that operate discursively at the confluence of art and urbanism, such as Creative Time’s 2013 Summit ‘Art, Place and Dislocation in the Twenty-first Century City’, Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York University, New York, 25—26 October 2013; Southern Methodist University’s ‘Forum for Art and Urban Engagement’, Dallas; and University of California Berkeley’s ‘Global Urban Humanities’ initiative (to name only a few).

  31. M.E. Carroll, ‘500 Words’, op. cit. The affirmation of renewal as a core activity of the other three projects is evident in their respective mission statements: Row House Community Development Corporation, established in 2003 as an outgrowth of Project Row Houses, seeks to address ‘housing and related community and economic development needs by providing low-income rental housing’; Power House Productions, the non-profit that runs Power House as well as other art-design projects in its neighbourhood, aims ‘to develop and implement creative neighbourhood stabilisation strategies to revitalise and inspire the community’; and Gates’s Rebuild Foundation, which oversees Dorchester Projects and other works nationally, claims to ‘help neighbourhoods thrive through culture-driven redevelopment by activating abandoned spaces with arts and cultural programming’. See ‘About Project Row Houses’ (http://projectrowhouses.org/about), ‘info: PHP’ (www.powerhouseproductions.org/ index.php?/updates/info-statements) and ‘Rebuild Foundation’ (http://rebuild-foundation.org) (all last accessed on 11 May 2013).

  32. See Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2002, pp.3 and 11—31.

  33. M.E. Carroll, ‘500 Words’, op. cit.

  34. Such an exercise would likely yield important ways of differentiating not only Carroll’s work, but of productively disaggregating all the works in question.

  35. One recent record of such scepticism (and organisational form’s persistence despite it) is J. Khonsary and K.L. Podesva’s Institutions by Artists: Volume One, which examines the multiplication of ‘artist-run associations, collectives, bureaus, clubs, schools, institutes, centres, offices, initiatives, storefronts, troupes and movements’ simultaneous to mounting conclusions that ‘the bureaucrat-formerly-knownas- artist and the defeat of a particular attempt at self-determination are in evidence’. J. Khonsary and K.L. Podesva, Institutions by Artists: Volume One, op. cit., pp.17—18.

  36. One important organisational development is going forward: the property is being transferred from the limited liability corporation Carroll formed for its purchase to a non-profit she is now incorporating — a passage which for Carroll represents a minor reversal of Houston’s historic dissolution of public institutions into a privatised landscape. Conversation with the artist, op. cit.

  37. Email from the artist, 21 June 2013.

  38. Conversation with the artist, op. cit.

  39. The oppositional Lefebvrian ‘moment’ is ‘dis-alienating in relation to the triviality of everyday life — deep in which it is formed, but from which it emerges — and in relation to the fragmented activities it rises above’, and moreover can be compared to ‘a festival [that] only makes sense when its brilliance lights up the sad hinterland of everyday dullness’. H. Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life. Volume Two: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday (1961, trans. John Moore), New York and London: Verso, 2008, pp.347—56.

  40. For a survey of this tradition, see Claire Tancons, ‘Occupy Wall Street: Carnival Against Capital? Carnivalesque as Protest Sensibility’, e-flux journal, issue 30, December 2011, available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/occupy-wall-street-carnival-against-capital-carnivalesque-as-protestsensibility (last accessed on 11 May 2012).

  41. Friedrich von Borries summarises the issue: ‘Are Nike’s urban interventions, and is the situative brand city, not actually a fulfilment of the Situationist dream of an experientially intensive city — albeit not as a social, utopian project, but instead as a consumable simulacrum?’ F. von Borries, Who’s Afraid of Niketown?: Nike Urbanism, Branding and the City of Tomorrow, Rotterdam: Episode Publishers, 2004, p.74.