Trickster Games in the Public Space

Elena Zubure [1]

 Public space is a very significant weapon of ideology

- Aigars Bikše

It was a coincidence that just two short weeks before going through some articles from the book called “Trickster Strategies in the Artists’ and Curatorial Practice” (edited by Polish curator Anna Markowska), I had attended a presentation by Angel Borrego Cubero (a Madrid-based architect) in which he gave an overview of his first documentary film, “The Competition” (2013). Why did these two events click together in my mind? The first thing that grasped my attention from the presentation was how silly the mentioned architect acted in talking about his profession, as if it were all a game to him. He made a funny remark referencing the “Spiderman” comic books – after receiving his superpowers, the main character was able to get to the top of skyscraper office buildings and peer into the headquarters of important politicians. That was Borrego Cubero’s first instance of citing architects as being akin to secret agents. The second was an anonymous quotation that he had found: “architects are the secret agents of beauty”. It was then that I began to reflect on how these ideas can play themselves out in provocative, trickster-like ways.

After his success in winning a big international competition, Borrego Cubero decided to make a documentary of this supposedly well-known process of an architectural competition – one that often unfolds as if it were a thriller. “The Competition” is, indeed, the first film to document the tense environment that surrounds architectural contests. Borrego Cubero’s decision to direct this kind of a documentary film, and this film specifically, which sometimes becomes even comical, is reason enough for classifying him as a trickster. One of the characteristics of the trickster figure is to create havoc that is not singularly productive nor necessarily destructive. The trickster still remains a player who has a chance at losing the game. Seeing how straight-forward Borrego Cubero tried to be by making the movie as transparent as it turned out to be, I perceived the impression of an individual who has had a tumultuous impact on his profession. Sometimes the trickster myth draws to the trickster’s failure, other times to his personal benefit, but the key value is to indicate a process or a thought – to become a catalyst for a certain process.

Stanley Tigerman. The Titanic, 1978. Photomontage on paper

Becoming increasingly excited about the trickster myth, I came across the article “Architect as a Trickster”, by Courtney R. Thompson, in which she describes the exhibition of the Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman. One of the examples mentioned was Tigerman’s photomontage “The Titanic” (1978), which is an image of Mies Van der Rohe’s Crown Hall building half immersed in water – the image indicates Tigerman’s willingness to move beyond the formal influence of the ever-present Mies van der Rohe in Chicago during the early 1970s. For me, this kind of a photomontage seems to exhibit more of an artistic approach rather than that of an architect.

In this sense, art and architecture are different – an artist’s methods can be provocative, strange, peculiar, and often, even hard-to-understand – but that is what makes art exciting and fresh. Architecture, on the other hand, has to be more “down to earth”; it must be functional, logical and understandable. Therefore, when introducing an artwork into a public place, often more favored are safe topics, traditional tools and techniques, and interpretations that may be addressed to a large audience.

Reinis and Krista Dzudzilo, “MMXVIII”. Photo by Ieva Čīka/LETA

On this topic I want to mention an exhibition which took place at the Latvian National Museum of Art just a few days ago: “Notes On Things That Are Self-evident” – a competition for contemporary artworks designed for exhibition in urban spaces. 18 young artists were invited to submit a public art project in the form of a model done on a scale of 1:10, with the aim of the competition being the assemblage of potential projects that are flexible, fresh, and not based upon a specific location, but with the expectation that they will be situated somewhere in a city at at later date. I could say that I left the exhibition with a slight feeling of disappointment, as I felt in most of these projects a distinct lack of connection with a surrounding environment. Nevertheless, among the top three was also my personal favorite – an artwork called “MMXVIII”, by Reinis and Krista Dzudzilo. The artwork exhibited a component of architecture – a staircase, but it was dissected from its original and expected function or meaning. The other artwork that appealed to me in some sense was the proposal by Kristaps Epners titled “The Exercise”. In this case, I enjoyed the twisted scale of two human-like figures which destroyed the typical human-dimension-oriented formulation of proportions. In my opinion, both of these examples involve a trick that makes the viewer question his or her own significance, maybe even breaking down his or her ego.

Front right: Kristaps Epners, “The Exercise”. Photo by Ieva Čīka/LETA

In the article “Trickster games in the public space. Between art and culture jamming”, Polish writer Magdalena Zieba underscores the significance of humor and how can it be used by artists, thereby becoming tricksters; she even mentions that the urban space can work as a platform for these kinds of activities. In my opinion, this idea perfectly sums up the direction in which we should develop our society. Without a doubt, the urban space is a tool with which to exploit ideas and reach a majority of the public in a direct way while, at the same time, receiving direct feedback by observing the public’s reaction. These kinds of activities can be used not only for aesthetic reasons, but also for social and even psychological aspirations. Moreover, the fact that for two years in a row, specifically environmental art projects have ended up among the finalists for the Latvian Architecture Award, proves the significance and topicality of these kind of activities.

In modern times, tricksters have emigrated from the forest to the urban space.

[1]   This text was written in the context of the course ‘Art and Anthropology’ at the Art Academy of Latvia.