Stairwell Show Exhibition Map by Eli Siegel
On October 22, 2013, ten undergraduate students went into the eastern staircase of the West 21st building of School of Visual Arts and installed a series of works that ultimately transgressed from the ground floor to the top of the building on the 12th floor. Without announcement, the staircase was transformed into something beyond a means of transition.
Ladder by Taylor Baker; Red Rope by Rachel Zaretsky
Beginning on the ground, those who chose to take the stairs were greeted by a red rope, wound around the stairs’ preexisting railing. This second form of support for travelers mimicked the direction of the straight, metal bars of the handrails. However the juxtaposition of the rope’s fluidity, wrapped around the industrial rigidity of the original railing, provided those entering the staircase with an introduction to the subtle, site-specific interventions within the stairwell. Rather than existing as a transitory space, the stairs were transformed into a destination within itself—something to be discovered, or stumbled upon.
Corner Installation by Minhae Kim
Nestled between pipes in the corner of the first platform between flights hangs a translucent strip of images—renderings of the top floor’s ceiling. Despite the dimness of the stairwell, light filters through the installation, casting colorful shadows in the corner. Thus the viewer on the first floor gets a fleeting glimpse of the top floor while being reminded of the repetition of steps it will take to get there.
Enigmatic clues placed throughout the floors lead viewers on a scavenger hunt around the building. Work by Kiara Hargrove, Lauren Poor, and Lilian Lewis. Video by Lauren Poor.
In the center of the stairwell there is a sugar-coated rope ladder, reaching from the 12th floor to the basement. The sugar attracts ants who are seduced by the sweet taste of the inverted repression of total unfreedom. Ants poise themselves as the ultimate working machines, often times under the totalitarian rule of the queen—a god in their eyes. But this service is rooted in the ant’s most basic and necessary needs for self-preservation. This labor is performed for the accumulation of the most essential property (shelter) and food, in an attempt to preserve their own utopia, where leisure and contemplation are replaced by productivity and the sublime virility of labor. But this constant removing of their own ladder to utopia reveals the immanence of their own destruction, exhibiting Leszek Kolakowski’s notion that “The existence of a utopia as a utopia is the necessary prerequisite for its eventual ceasing to be a utopia.” Labor becomes ritual, which reconciles with nature when it becomes blind instinct, or belief. This belief, for the ants, is necessarily inherent before it is acted upon, and maintained until its own destruction.
The ants ascend and descend the ladder, while manifestations of culture exist in a separate and desolate sphere. Multiple versions of a graffitied “Jacob” and a sound piece that transforms Guns-N-Roses’ “Knockin on Heaven’s Door” into a tool of torture, repeating “Knock knock knockin” after the first chorus, until the droning hypnotism fades into a sample from the Eagles, asking whether this is heaven or this is hell. The sustained revolution of freedom echoes through the graffitied caves of Lascaux revealing the dominating progress and transformative influence of pop culture. Yet the ants remain unaffected. The ants sacrifice material culture for the fusion of life of work, ignoring the curation of the stairwell to reach the absolution of labor which is their own demise.
The viewer mediates material culture and labor. The viewer has a privileged position, empathizing with the ants but ultimately identifying with the queen, for in this instance, the ants are laboring for the viewer’s own aesthetic experience. The ants are furthermore the products of social relations because they are contained within man-made architecture, in a space that predates modernization and denies destination within itself. The ants have been accepted into the institution, not as pests, but both as a means and ends to a work of art. The problem is placed just out of reach, referencing the human tendency to to base growth upon projections. The means become an end end when the production is is a constant synthesis with the goal of life life.
Text and Sound Installation by Harris Bauer and Rivers Plasketes.
Those exiting the second floor into the stairwell will be greeted by the sound of a telephone ringing, triggered by a recording placed above the swinging door. Just inside, one will find a tiny representation of the door they just entered, as well as an emergency telephone. These are clues in three separate scavenger hunts that had been staged throughout the building. The hunt emphasizes constant transition, leading the viewer out and in the building until the hunt is won. While presented as a game, the hunt antagonizes participants, who must climb and search for subtle clues that lead to an insubstantial prize: the exhibition’s press release. At the same time, however, the hunt provides a unity between the stairs, the building, and its participants—with one door leading to the next.
Stairs act as a means to a destination, a necessary tool in both ascending and descending. The liminality of the space conjures a ‘get in, get out’ attitude in the subject, with contemplation suppressed in the spiral repetition of climbing. The show attempts to provide incentive for those who stumble upon the stairwell, those who chose labor over the industrialized leisure offered by elevators. Acting as a whole, the individual floors focus on different traits inherent in stairwells, including phenomenology, autonomy and labor. As of this moment, the stairs have been cleaned out, no longer in the state that we left them - whitewashed to functionality. And yet for at least a few hours, the stairwell was transformed into a destination within itself.