In two solo exhibitions, artist Kapwani Kiwanga takes apart the structure of the powers that govern our public space. From hospitals to back alleys, how are modes of control built into the architectures that we inhabit?
As the new urban environment spreads outwards and upwards, turning suburbs into cities, cities into megacities, and megacities increasingly into sites of social unrest, maintaining control of the growing population has become an ever-greater challenge for urban authorities. Technology has been a useful tool in combatting this issue, utilised by governments in turning the public arena into a modern Panopticon in which the Investigatory Powers Act is the watch tower and our phones our cells.
But beyond technology, innovative ways of controlling human behaviour are now, more than ever, integrated into every aspect of urban planning. From the infamous Camden Bench, designed specifically to restrict undesirable behaviour like sleeping or skateboarding, to The Mosquito, an ultrasonic anti-loitering deterrent, the power to control the behaviour of members of the public that are deemed undesirable, in these cases teenagers and the homeless, is not only exerted by governments but by both public and private institutions.
Looking into this phenomenon of disciplinary architecture and enquiring as to how we got here is artist Kapwani Kiwanga. With two concurrent exhibitions, one at Logan Center for the Arts at University of Chicago and the other at The Power Plant in Toronto, Kiwanga is investigating, as she tells me, “how it is that architecture, space and its construction excludes, includes and controls people?” Focussing primarily on the use of light and colour, both ‘The Sum and Its Parts’ at University of Chicago and ‘A Wall is Just a Wall’ at The Power Plant lay bare the material forms of disciplinary architectures in order to expose their reach.
One element that straddles both exhibitions is a particular shade of pink, Baker Miller Pink (p/618), which has, according to colour theorist Dr. Alexander Schauss, the ability to calm everything from respiration to heart rate in the body of anyone who looks at it for a particular amount of time. In 1978 a naval prison correctional facility in Seattle Washington painted their holding cell walls in Baker Miller pink with the aim of reducing aggressive behaviour in inmates and the trend soon caught on, making it a distinctive interior style throughout institutional facilities in the latter half of the 20th century. Kiwanga pays homage to this trend in ‘The Sum and Its Parts’, where she reproduces a deconstructed prison cell based on what Dr. Schauss suggested to be the ideal dimensions. Scattered around the space, painted on walls, fallen partition walls and other elements are fragments of Baker Miller pink that together complete the supposedly ideal 6x9ft cell.
At the Power Plant show in Toronto, this pink reappears in Kiwanga’s immersive installation, lining the walls of a long passageway, which continues along under fluorescent blue lighting. These particular set of lights are often used in public spaces to discourage intravenous drug users by minimising the appearances of veins under the skin. Here, the viewer is subjected to both treatments, both the calming meant for inmates and a deterrent aimed at those who are excluded from society. Creating an assortment of behavioural control methods, Kiwanga sets out to explore how built environments are and have been used to control both psychological and physical behaviour.
As urban areas are in a state of rapid expansion, the amount of open space is declining and hostile tools for manipulating behaviour have multiplied. Layered, these elements of disciplinary architectures have the potential to overwhelm those that it affects with conflicting messages, which pulls into question the ultimate efficiency of these tools. Are they truly protecting the buildings and the people they are intended to serve? Or are they simply making these environments more dangerous for the people that they are trying to deter? “The general tussle over space that is happening in the world, and especially in Europe, is causing tension,” Kiwanga says. “It therefore becomes even more important for us to think about the little spaces but also the big spaces that we’re controlling, protecting, defending or ostracising people from.”
In the extensive research period that preceded these exhibitions, as it does each of Kiwanga’s projects, she explored how light and colour have historically been used as a mode of psychological and physical control in institutional buildings. Arising earlier than the overtly disciplinary nature of Baker Miller Pink was a certain shade of green that became a popular choice for the walls of medical facilities, especially operating rooms, after it was praised during the progressive social hygiene movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries for its complementary visual effect on human tissue, and most interestingly to Kiwanga, how its mirroring of nature was said to have a calming effect on patients.
Playing aloud throughout ‘The Sum and Its Parts’ is an audio track, which loops Kiwanga’s voice as she relates different factual anecdotes from her research into colour and the hygienist movement and how it influenced architecture. She recalls how a widely held belief that open spaces and cross winds could fight diseases such as tuberculosis became confounded when people migrated from the countryside to the cities during the industrial revolution. When it was realised what overcrowding meant in terms of disease, there was a movement that rethought architecture and how to deal with urban planning. Following this research into colour and medicine, Kiwanga then, as she explains, “tried to see how that related to the colonial enterprise and how people rethought architecture when they went to empire.”
“The idea of open windows and cross-breezes were important in Europe for disease reduction but this became problematic in the tropical environment because of the fear of tropical air, which was supposedly meant to get you ill,” she continues. “In Europe, solariums were meant to treat tuberculosis as a healing agent, whilst in a colonial context the sun was seen as something to be protected against. The idea of nature that was evoked in the hospital setting got turned around as a menacing factor when Europeans were in a colonial setting.”
The artist initiates conversation about empire and architecture again most notably in The Primer, an abstract, non-narrative silent video. In which, a tropical plant, jalousie blinds and a vintage fan evoke a sense of clean air whilst large backdrop panels painted in the aforementioned green, Baker Miller Pink and white refers, as Kiwanga explains, “to the Modernist international architectural movement and how it was dependent on experimentation in architectural design and urbanism in what was the colonies.” This subject can also be seen in her appropriation of the familiar two-tone wall paint treatment known as dado, an instantly recognisable style that cropped up everywhere from Canada to Tanzania, Kiwanga’s birthplace and her father's birthplace respectively, throughout the 20th century.
Both exhibitions span a vast amount of historical research, as does all of Kiwanga’s work, in order to understand contemporary manifestations of particular power structures. In this case, it is the impetus to control people’s environment and keep certain people included or excluded that takes centre stage. As Kiwanga acknowledges, “The public space isn’t a shared space. It is becoming more and more controlled.” What is significant though is that the modes of control that exist inconspicuously today within every space we inhabit actually belong within a long tradition of design that has sought to control the people that use it. Through her use of archival images, video, sound and installation, Kiwanga constructs research based and imaginative narratives that tell the story of urban environments that are made for many but designed for few. “The question of the past is always present either in conversation with our present or thinking about the future,” Kiwanga says. “I am reinvestigating the past to understand how it sculpts our present.”
'The Sum and its Parts' runs until 12 March 2017 at the The Logan Center, Chicago. ‘A Wall is Just a Wall’ runs until 14 May at The Power Plant, Toronto. For more information on Kipwani Kiwanga visit Galleries