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  • Good Place and No Place
  • Susan Laxton
Review of: Catherine de Zegher and Mark Wigley, eds., The Activist Drawing: Retracing Situationist Architectures from Constant’s New Babylon to Beyond. New York: The Drawing Center, and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P, 2001.

How can a drawing be activist?

Can a graphic mark constitute direct, vigorous, oppositional action? Graffiti, at its gouging best, comes to mind. But then, that’s writing. Drawing, traditionally conceived, withdraws from the public sphere, a fugitive trace, mute consort to the creative process. And even considering the historical shifts in drawing’s significance—from its function as ideational armature in the Renaissance to a model of spontaneity and expression in the early twentieth century to recent revaluations based in lability, erasure, and obsolescence—to advance its physical presence as an intervention capable of effecting political change is to take up the question of the efficacy of art in general. Specifically, it is to ask the dreadful question, “Does art matter?” and to consider further the implications of what it might mean “to matter.” This is the daunting project launched in The Activist Drawing: Retracing Situationist Architectures from Constant’s New Babylon to Beyond, co-edited by Catherine de Zegher, director of The Drawing Center in New York, and architectural historian Mark Wigley. While its authors would not claim to have found conclusive answers (they cannot seem to agree on a common enemy), opening discussion of the Great Unspoken of art historical discourse gives the book its contemporary urgency. Through their examination of architectural drawing as a hinge between the immateriality of representation and the materiality of lived experience, the authors probe the outcome of nearly a century’s effort toward a positive breakdown between art and life, and they address the possibilities of drawing in general as a conduit for revising lived experience. What emerges is a productive examination of the medium itself: drawing’s historical construction and theoretical participation in the vagaries of artistic practice, and the suggestion that the very characteristics of banality, flexibility, and disposability that have produced drawing as marginal to the arts are the grounds for its historical consideration as a site of resistance.

The book is an expanded record of a symposium organized by Wigley and art historian Thomas McDonough; its title, The Activist Drawing, reflects a shift in emphasis from the more monographically named exhibition at the Drawing Center from which it derived—“Another City for Another Life: Constant’s New Babylon” (2 November to 30 December 1999). Rather than merely documenting the “visionary architecture” of the Dutch artist Constant Nieuwyenhuys as it is projected in the drawings and multimedia presentations of his imagined city New Babylon (1956–1974), the participants—Benjamin Buchloh, Rosalyn Deutsche, Elizabeth Diller, Martha Rosler, Bernard Tschumi, and Anthony Vidler, in addition to Wigley and McDonough—subject Constant’s project to a scrutiny that takes seriously the ideological implications of architectural projections, with their dimensionally driven aura of “realizability,” and the historical imperatives that might call for their revision. The critical dimension of the book, which stands out in opposition to the laudatory conventions of the typical exhibition catalogue, is underscored by de Zegher’s focus on New Babylon’s own idealism. In her introduction, she draws attention to the book’s emergence “in the context of a citywide celebration of ‘utopia’” driven by the New York Public Library’s exhibition “Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World” (14 October 2000 to 27 January 2001). New Babylon, as a fully automated city whose inhabitants, freed from labor, “play” by endlessly reconfiguring their environment to suit their individual and collective desires, is recast in this context as a plan for an experimental lifestyle which in retrospect seems to land somewhere between Fourier and Disney.

The Drawing Center’s exhibition and symposium took place a year in advance of the “Utopia” show, so there is no direct reference to the materials or theories made available there. But founding a theoretical critical practice such as Constant’s, in which the inhabitant of New Babylon “will not have to make art, for he can be creative in the practice of his daily life” (qtd. in Constant 9...

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