Essay by Sean Canty
Aesthetics then is more than a philosophy or theory of art and beauty; it is a way of inhabiting space, a particular location, a way of looking and becoming.”
Vigilance implies the building of sensorial knowledge of a place, prior to taking action on what one is seeing, prior to moving into the role of the vigilante. As a nuanced form of vision and visuality, vigilance is a way of seeing that is focused on a specific environment and sustained over a period of time. Shifting focus from the actions of the vigilante towards this critical mode of perception considers how aesthetic practices can employ vigilance to uncover the unseen and, in turn, this focus underscores the impact that this uncovering can have on social relations and the way they shape the physical world.
The slow, site-specific aggregation of sensorial knowledge that vigilance relies upon is central to the practice of artists, who are aptly situated to be purveyors of both sight and criticism. Using the writings of bell hooks as a lens, this piece reconsiders how the work of Theaster Gates, Amanda Williams, and Rachel Whiteread reframes our perception of domestic spaces and how this reframing can begin to suggest an oppositional aesthetic. By working with existing domestic spaces and transforming them, these artists focus our attention on the shape of everyday life. Each artist, in turn, asks how a different understanding of domesticity can challenge our existing ideas about how we live together without prefiguring solutions. Instead of considering vigilance as a first step in reinscribing a new type of order within society, can we learn something from the ways of wielding this knowledge towards subversive acts?
In bell hooks’s work, the domestic space becomes the focus of a close reading of her own life and the aesthetic habits of members of her family. Hooks highlights how her family members were actively involved in shaping their domestic environment. Often, this involved making household items from scratch and repurposing existing materials. In An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional and Beauty Laid Bare: Aesthetics in the Ordinary, hooks talks about how beautiful objects, despite their connection to different aesthetic styles, enhance life. hooks says:
Our grandmother, Baba, made this house a living space. She was certain that the way we lived was shaped by objects, the way we looked at them, the way they were placed around us. She was certain that we were shaped by space… Look, she tells me, what the light does to color! Do you believe that space can give life, or take it away, that space has power?… She has taught me how to look at the world and see beauty. She has taught me “we must learn to see.”2
The connection that hooks’s family members had with their domestic spaces reflected the value of their time and labor rather than the cost of items purchased to fill the space. By learning to see the result of this labor as its own aesthetic, one that has value born of something other than industrialized processes, hooks begins to outline a type of oppositional aesthetics. Depicting the care and attention that her family members gave to shaping their space, hooks outlines a world where consumption is antithetical to the relationships they cultivate.
Domestic architecture is an important environment for learning to see hooks’s oppositional aesthetics. In Beauty Laid Bare: Aesthetics of the Ordinary, hooks articulates how African Americans in the south were often economically deprived and excluded from access to meaningful work. Through a confessional narrative and anecdotes of traditional Black folk culture, hooks depicts the ways that many African Americans cultivated meaning and imagination through the appreciation of the ordinary and a recontextualizing of existing objects within domestic spaces.3 As hooks describes, in some of these homes, beauty is a “force to be made and imagined.”4 hooks talks about how vital this was to her grandfather, Daddy Gus.
To him, beauty was present in found objects, discarded objects that he rescued and restored because, as he put it, “spirits lived there.” His room—a luxurious, welcoming place for his children—was full of “treasures.” Entering that sanctuary of precious “beautiful” objects we were embraced by an atmosphere of peace and serenity.5
For hooks’s grandfather, the value of these objects was self-generated. Instead of seeing these objects as valuable because of their monetary or exchange value, Daddy Gus imbues them with value through the act of collecting and an appreciation shared with other members of the family. In many ways this approach, motivated by economic deprivation, is depicted as an artistic practice by hooks.
The intimacy and the interiority of these domestic spaces actively shapes an aesthetic practice that hooks uses to better understand the world outside of these homes. Reconsidering these anachronistic practices of our elders is—for hooks—a form of resistance to the ways that media and capital socialize our daily lives. hooks’s admonition to turn our focus to the ordinary emphasizes oppositional aesthetics as a form of resistance to consumerist culture, white supremacy, and capitalism. Moreover, hooks’s meditation on the ordinary amplifies the way media and capital mediate our relationship to aesthetics by promoting consumption and capitalist forms of luxury reinforcing hegemonic structures in need of change.6 This mediation disables one’s ability to see beautiful objects and beautiful spaces as a redemptive form of creative practice and self-determination. hooks’s domestic vigilance, the closeness of this particular interior gaze, trains her to see the world outside of domestic spaces not just as distinct, but as potentially lacking.
This idea of oppositional aesthetics is central not only to hooks’s approach to seeing and reseeing spaces of domesticity, but also to the practice of artists like Theaster Gates, Rachel Whiteread, and Amanda Williams. Each of these artists has considered the home as a site for their work, centering vigilance in their approach, and articulating a practice of oppositional (or anti-) aesthetics in response. As Hal Foster elaborates, “anti-aesthetics signals a practice, crossdisciplinary in nature, that is sensitive to cultural forms engaged in politics, or rooted in a vernacular, that is to forms that deny the idea of a privileged aesthetic realm.”7 By training their sight on the domestic, Gates, Whiteread, and Williams each tease out aesthetic experiences from the radical transformation of found spaces. The act of reclaiming an existing domestic space (often a home) plays with the value of domestic spaces that hooks considers in her work: the attention to these spaces, the care given to their transformation, and the development of an aesthetic through artistic practice.
The work of Theaster Gates foregrounds the house as both a medium and typology which can engage the complexities of the social, political, and formal by recasting the house as a museum. The Dorchester Projects is an ongoing project that Gates spearheaded through a series of urban interventions. This body of work transforms abandoned and underutilized houses into community works of art. Unlike a traditional house museum, whose histories and subjects were situated in whiteness or within a particular ideal of American life, the buildings in Gates’ Dorchester Projects foreground black domestic spaces.
With the Dorchester Projects, Gates reimagined the surrounding neighborhood—largely abandoned, neglected, and economically disadvantaged at the time—through a strategic and nimble set of renovations. Using humble and reclaimed materials, Gates slowly transformed his studio house—and nearby houses—into a small cultural complex. Each house, and its respective façade, is subtly altered through common materials and finishes offering those who pass by clues of ordinariness and its internal programmatic exceptions. The façade of the Archive House is reclad in vertical striation of pallet boards, each weathered differently, giving the effect of a quilted tapestry, or a serially stacked collections of books spines on a shelve. The façade of the Listening House presents a muted one-story brick façade with three small strip windows. The façade of the Black Cinema House is another brick building with a mannered set of exterior elevations, contrasting its red brick against black painted bay window which occupies the second story corner of the building. While each of these houses retain the scale and exterior shape that reflects the fabric of the neighborhood, the cladding of the facades and rhythm of apertures break with the surrounding urban fabric.
In Gates’s work, houses become homes for cultural production and experience. As Mabel O. Wilson articulates in “Home Schooled/House School,” the poetics and politics of blackness, space, and property are interrogated in each structure in Gates’s Dorchester Projects. Gates uses these existing structures to both transform and house fraught histories of black life that are typically discarded, lost, or forgotten. Wilson cites the tomes of European philosophy and history that maintain that peoples of African descent had no history worth telling. Thus, the representation of Blackness in both the spaces of domesticity and institution were made elusive through the exclusionary operations of systemic racism.8 Cultural programming is at the heart of the complex taking space in the Listening House, the Archive House, and the Black Cinema House. This intentional infusion of public life into formerly private spaces catalyzed these disenfranchised homes of Black life for renewed value, purpose, and redemption. By opening these houses up to a wider audience, Gates also makes the personal scale of the domestic something that can be collectively experienced.
As an expression of vigilance, the house museum is interesting for the way it blends multiple ways of seeing: the attention of a museum-goer’s gaze and the distraction of the familiar gaze. Within the institutionalized domestic space, the scrutiny of the detail, lingering with an aesthetic experience, is ascribed to the ordinariness of the domestic, wherein attention is often reduced and dismissed as we begin to take the domestic for granted, or view it less critically. Although the house museum is at the core of the development of contemporary institutional and cultural typologies, the intimacy of these spaces creates a specific context in which to consider how our comfort level with spaces of domesticity can divorce us from an understanding of how these spaces shape our everyday life. In Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums, Patricia West explains:
Houses and Museums store things. One contains collections of objects, provisions used in the rituals of everyday life; the other stores collections of often obsolete objects that emblematically represent and shape the character of cultures and nations. A house cradles intimated individual and familial memories, while a museum hosts collective memories and official history.9
The various iterations of house museums created by Gates tap into this unsavory history, subverting historical strictures by way of creative practice. West elaborates, saying: “The American house museum began as a public commentary controlled by disenfranchised, though politically engaged women. This typology gained social and cultural traction and eventually would realign with the interests of male politicians, museum professionals, and businessmen, giving the house museum its modern cast, shaped by political circumstances and historical contexts.”10 At their origin, house museums interrogated the relationship between power within domestic relationships and how these imbalances were projected onto the larger representation of US history. Gates’s reconstitutive project seeks to highlight the legacy of redlining, which undervalued homes of African Americans in cities across the US. By reclaiming the homes of African Americans, Gates projects them back into this landscape, an attempt to add these stories back into the larger narrative.
The process of remaking, renovating, or altering something necessitates starting from a point of reference. This doubling of an artifact brings the opportunity to do things differently a second time around, to syntactically recode, distort, or transgress an original while still drawing reference. As in Gates’s work, Amanda Williams and Rachel Whiteread both create work that acts on an existing artifact (through color and the process of casting respectively) to undergo a particular kind of transformation. Existing domestic spaces are recoded as attention is focused on the shape of these spaces and their relationship to the urban context.
Amanda Williams’s Color(ed) Theory Suite (2014–16) doesn’t seek to rehabilitate or reinhabit abandoned or neglected properties of Black life. Rather, her work draws attention to the role of color as a cultural, political, and social construct. For this series, Williams identified vacated and condemned houses that were then repainted in colors whose unnatural hues reflect the everyday products pulled from her experience growing up in the South Side of Chicago. The work calls attention to the way color is used to market products to Black consumers and the role that those colors play in formulating a shared aesthetic experience. Williams, along with friends, family, and members of the community, performs a reconnaissance of abandoned domestic spaces and structures that are slated to be demolished by surreptitiously recoloring them. Williams explains the series, saying:
The practice of discriminatory housing lending created this landscape to begin with. That trauma that comes after years and years and years of disinvestment, of being lied to, of not really having control over how your environment gets shaped, or your ability to own your environment. These were fully intact blocks and neighborhoods, and so to know what isn’t there, is as important as noting what is there… It really tells that entire story through these colors in these isolated structures that say everything from “I’m still here” to “Will you remember me when I’m gone?”11
Williams’s decision to leave the exterior of these houses intact, while applying color that creates a sharp contrast to the surrounding urban fabric, acts as a beacon to draw attention to these houses. Citing Wilson again:
Such histories include the insidious systems of segregation that legislated where black Americans were able to live and work, consigned by both law and force to the undesirable, polluted and suspect spaces, kept at a distance from white Americans. By extension, such racist practices precluded and made it difficult for black Americans to own both land and property, relegating home as a provisional construct in the black imagination.12
Picking up on themes that both hooks and Gates engage, Williams uses paint to recode these abandoned homes through a creative act, while referencing patterns of consumption that often code and shape the spaces inside.
It is the question of what remains that is asked in Rachel Whiteread’s work, including Ghost, Untitled (house), or Untitled Domestic. Each casts spaces or architectural elements of domesticity in concrete. The resulting forms are uninhabitable. From the outside, viewers’ attention is drawn to the shape of the home’s interior. By perceiving the space of the home as a solid form, unadorned and unornamented, the outline of the home’s shape comes into sharper focus. The protrusion of bay windows on the front facade and the striation of the west facade where volumes are cut away from the edge of the home to accommodate light wells speak to the negotiations that are made to bring light and air into the home in relationship to an assumed urban neighborhood surrounding the home. While not legible on the form itself, this reading of the forces shaping the form of the home references zoning codes whose legal constructs are embedded social, cultural, economic, and historical aspects of a community’s self-image.13 Whiteread’s piece acts similarly to the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, who drew attention to the US suburban dream as an overt use of domesticity as a political tool to aid in postwar development and restore certain ideological values of family and home.14 In each case, home is doubled and opposed through creative critique. Their work taps into a long history of artists questioning and undoing the politics of domestic space.
These critical acts of looking at and reframing spaces of domesticity draw attention to the structures that foreground exclusion, discrimination, or abandonment. Moreover, by working through a medium and within a discipline, these artists aim for a level of engagement with their mediums that is a type of mastery. As Kerry James Marshall asserts, this element of mastery can become a way to use a high degree of technical control and critical self-evaluation to expand the framework of disciplinary aesthetics and knowledge.15 For some, like Gates, we are able to rediscover through an active lens of vigilance, the beauty laid bare by remaking, reforming, and reprogramming spaces of abandonment and neglect. For others, like Williams and Whiteread, sustained attention to domestic spaces calls attention to the structures and practices that shape domesticity. By moving a range of domestic spaces back into our field of vision, it prompts the question—what other models of vigilance might move the needle forward to more inclusive spatial practices? Perhaps we can find a way to look for these close to home.
1. bell hooks, “An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional,” Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry, vol. 1 (1995): 65, doi:10.2307/4177045.↵
2. bell hooks, “An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional,” Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry, vol. 1 (1995): 65, doi:10.2307/4177045.↵
3. bell hooks, “An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional,” Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry, vol. 1 (1995): 65–72., doi:10.2307/4177045.↵
4. bell hooks, “An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional,” 66.↵
5. bell hooks, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New Press, 1998), 121.↵
6. bell hooks, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New Press, 1998).↵
7. Hal Foster, “Postmodernism: a Preface” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (New York: The New Press, 2002), 3–15.↵
8. Mabel Wilson, “Home Schooled/House Schooled,” in Theaster Gates: How to Build a House Museum, eds. Kitty Scott and Theaster Gates (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2018), 115–119.↵
9. Mabel Wilson, “Home Schooled/House Schooled,” in Theaster Gates: How to Build a House Museum, eds. Kitty Scott and Theaster Gates (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2018), 115–119.↵
10. Patricia West, Domesticating History: the Political Origins of America’s House Museums (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1999).↵
12. Mabel Wilson, “Home Schooled/House Schooled,” in Theaster Gates: How to Build a House Museum, eds. Kitty Scott and Theaster Gates (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2018), 115–119.↵
13. Imogen Racz, “Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting, and the Unmade House,” The I.B.Tauris Blog, January 26, 2015, https://theibtaurisblog.com/2015/01/26/gordon-matta-clark-splitting-and-the-unmade-house/.
14. Imogen Racz, “Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting, and the Unmade House,” The I.B.Tauris Blog, January 26, 2015, https://theibtaurisblog.com/2015/01/26/gordon-matta-clark-splitting-and-the-unmade-house/.
15. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” YouTube video, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 7:35, May 2, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2bmHE7MRQU.
Sean Canty is the founder of SSC, an architecture practice based in Cambridge, MA. The studio is interested in choreographing unconventional relationships between spaces of contemplation and collective gathering. The work of the studio engages formal combination and juxtaposition at a variety of scales—from objects to interiors—and explores a range of programmatic types from domestic environments to cultural spaces. Canty is also one of the founding principals of Office III (OIII), an experimental architectural collective that spans New York, San Francisco, and Cambridge. Selected as a finalist for the 2016 MoMA PS1 Young Architects competition, OIII has completed a Welcome Center for Governors Island and exhibited work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Canty is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design and the recipient of the 2020 Richard Rogers Fellowship.
www.seancanty.net | www.officeiii.com |@sean_canty_