Sooner or later we should all go buildering. Combining the words "building" and "bouldering," this is the term coined for “the unsanctioned use of architecture” and the theme of a current exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati. “Beyond acrobatics, vandalism and occupation,” buildering becomes a metaphor “for the creative misuse of built structures,” explains the CAC. What buildering does, in the best examples from the exhibition, is to show how you can have fun in the city—even at its dullest and dreariest. Buildering is parkour turned into art.
The star of the exhibition is the German performance artist Sebastian Stumpf. His specialty is behaving badly in an especially nonchalant manner. In one video, you see him calmly walking across a bridge, and then jumping onto and over the railing with a flash of fluidity before disappearing into the river below. You never seem him arise, though you notice he never jumps into the same river twice. In another video, he waits until garage doors are about to close; We wait as well, contemplating the banality of these maws in all its details, unless he suddenly appears in the frame, runs towards a closing door and slides under it right before the aperture closes and the image becomes static and staid again. Stumpf used the Zaha Hadid-designed CAC to good purpose as well: In another video he disappears into one of the utility hatches that hide in plain sight in the gallery’s white-painted walls. In another he does what I have always wanted to do: he slides down one of the long, angled balustrades of the ramp-like stairs that connect the Center’s various levels.
Sheer play is also at work in Kamila Szejnoch’s “Swing” (2008). The Polish artist attached a swing to the arm of a sculpture of a gigantic soldier advancing into the future or victory, turning this somber Warsaw memorial into a place of joy. In Héctor Zamora’s "Material Inconsistency" (2013) we see thirty-six bricklayers throw bricks at each other in nimble arcs, losing only a few as they make a full circuit through a three-story building. We see Ivan Argote kissing a shiny pole in a subway car in the most lascivious manner possible, while other artists rearrange bits of urban hardware or just caress buildings.
Not everything in the exhibition is video. There are quite a few collages and photographs of people cramming their bodies into cracks around Berlin, imagining Case Study houses on the moon, or stretching on elevators. These make less impact, though, than some of the large installations. “Los Carpinteros” (“the carpenters”), a Cuban collective, erected a stack of cardboard house parts in one corner of the building, while the French architect Didier Faustino slanted a chain-link and barbed-wire fence through an opening from the gallery into the staircase. Monika Sosnowska strew oversized and warped building elements through the galleries. Hadid’s design has never looked better and more alive, reminding me that the Center’s intention when it commissioned the architect was to create a place for new forms of art that would move beyond static objects sitting on floors or hanging on walls—which is why most the CAC’s exhibitions that focus on such things look less than comfortable.
Buildering puts a smile on your face and reminds you not to take architecture too seriously. It also shows that even the most serious architecture can be rescued from its monumental death-wish and death-grip on us with some inventive art making. I went bounding out of the CAC, looking for urban fun everywhere, and I suggest you builder over here before the exhibition closes on August 18th.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.