On Both Sides and the Center by John Pluecker

When you first walk in, there’s a man, blindfolded and gagged with his hands and feet cuffed to parallel leather rods holding him in place in his chair. Two women in another room are knelt over blankets, sewing strings onto an accordion-folded long sheet of paper, with printed repeated images of rectangles at odd angles. Soft twenties jazz is playing on a record player. In the bathroom, an oracle intones softly through a tube coming through the ceiling; the female voice describes your own identity (past, present & future) by reading the characteristics of your particular bird-spirit. In the vitrine at the back of the house, something similar to a woman’s body contorts within the confines of a red, fabric bag.

Jen Hofer and Myriam Moscona. Photo by Rob Ray.

You’ve stumbled into an evening of performances called Both Sides and the Center organized at the Rudolph Schindler House in West Hollywood, California on the third weekend in August of this year. An innovative publisher, Les Figues Press, worked in conjunction with the MAK Center, which is dedicated to preserving Rudolph Schindler’s Modernist legacy in Los Angeles, to put together this festival featuring readings and performances by writers dealing with various experiences of proximity, intimacy, and distance in relation to the famous dual-family home.

The first night of the festival, there was a more traditional reading in one of the exterior spaces on the rear side of the house framed by two wings of the building. On the second evening, writers from L.A. and cities further afield (Mexico City and London among them) were invited to engage with the space and to perform work considering the architecture. As the Les Figues event info stated, these writers were asked to think about: “the physicality of space, house as stage, voyeurism, private as public, the strangeness in the familiar and the brutal nature of domesticity.”

I was fortunate to be able to attend these performances of potential answers to a number of questions: How is it possible to build a conversation between the literary arts and architecture? What is the history of this conversation? Its present? Its future? I especially found the performances compelling, because they moved beyond the writer-artist dichotomy that usually informs interactions between the visual and literary arts, i.e. the writer is there to comment, to reflect, to meditate, to ponder, to think about the art, but not to make art herself. This event suggests a different relationship: one based on writers as producers of art themselves, not merely commentators or critics.

The event functioned within a broad definition of literary arts as building a landscape of words spatially, or more broadly, as any kind of textual or linguistic interaction in space. And so if architecture means the construction of spaces through materials in the landscape, then the potential for interaction and conversation is much broader than previously thought.

Of course, the location of this festival was supremely important. The architecture of Rudolph Schindler⎯the father of Southern California modernism⎯has come to define a utopian aesthetic that is foundational to the image of Los Angeles architecture worldwide. Think Julius Schulman’s iconic image of two women perched in a Modernist home above Los Angeles.

Originally sent to work on homes in LA by Frank Lloyd Wright, Schindler stayed in the city and established his practice there in 1922 with his home on Kings Road, designed as a live-work space for two couples. Schindler went to work on over 400 projects, 150 of which were built, many of them low-cost homes for progressive clients.

The event pushed disciplinary boundaries constantly as it invited writers to do site-specific performances that reflected on architecture and space. Each writer responded in unique ways. Mexican poet Myriam Moscona and translator-poet Jen Hofer worked together on an intimate level, squatting and kneeling on the floor of one of the rooms. They’d laid down blankets and together sewed figures into a long accordion-folded single paged book, while music from the early twentieth-century played on a record player.

Anna Joy Springer turned a bathroom into an oracular chamber, in which a listener could hear their identity read through a particular bird-spirit. Michael du Plessis sat in a chair by a table with various knicknacks displayed and took requests for him to read individual endnotes from a recent book while in various states of self-inflicted bondage with leather straps, bars, blindfolds, and gags. Vanessa Place read passages from the SCUM Manifesto while Kim Rosenfeld typed it out like a secretary doing dictation for a demanding boss.

In what for me was the most emotional of the performances, Bhanu Kapil set up a table in a vitrine structure in one of the wings, wrapped herself in a red cloth bag and moved jerkily and slowly as a recording of her reading her text, Schizophrene, was played. The text moved between a butcher store in London and a park with South Asian immigrants as it thought critically about violence, imperialism, and the family. The recording repeated continually for the course of the final hour of Saturday evening.

Bhanu Kapil performs Schizophrene at the Schindler House.

Bhanu Kapil performs Schizophrene at Schindler House. Photo by Harold Abramowitz
The idea of writers as artists working in these Modernist spaces from the 1920s left much for all participants and spectators to ponder. On the Sunday following the event, Les Figues Press organized a conversation in a salon-like atmosphere for further reflection on the happenings of the weekend.

From the readings to the performances to the conversation, all of the events of the festival provide an excellent model for interaction and engagement between writers and archtecture. One that I am writing about here as a way of hopefully suggesting the necessity of similar efforts in Cite‘s own city of Houston. There are numerous architectural spaces around the city which would come alive with this sort of event. As suggested by the performances, a space is activated by movement through it, and is as alive as its inhabitants.

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