Panel 2, Martin Beck's new exhibition at Columbia University's Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, revisits the 1970 International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA) to ask how design might influence democracy. Everyone seems to have a different answer.
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Beck is a New York-based artist known for conceptually driven work that engages histories of architecture and design, and the official description of Panel 2 contains so many references that it is initially dislocating.
Although the description clarifies how the exhibition's subtitle—"Nothing better than a touch of ecology and catastrophe to unite the social classes..."—is a line written by Jean Baudrillard in the French Group's response to the 1970 IDCA, which was the first such conference to center on environmental issues in design, it also claims that the exhibition addresses everything from ecology, “as concerned with relationships between organisms (human or otherwise) and their environment,” to “exhibition systems and their relationships to Minimal and Conceptual art,” to “the term 'panel,' suggesting a display surface, section of a wall, or public discussion,” to “the ecology of the aspen tree.”
Before you see the show, it's difficult to imagine how an exhibition of any scale could address such a breadth of concerns without loosing the viewer in a downward semiotic spiral. But when when you enter the small space of the Ross Gallery, you encounter a solid, rigorous, and potently contemplative collection of images and narratives that act as both a closed system and an open dialogue.
Beck's bleakly titled Sculpture (2008), a set of five stainless-steel box-like structures that sit in the center of the exhibition space like museum benches turned to mercury, are strangely arresting. Once your consumer eyes realize that these bent “panels” aren't furniture, but are a part of the show, you notice that they reflect abstractions of the framed works on the wall and the two archival videos on display: The Architecture Machine Group at MIT Lab's “The Interactive Movie Map: A Surrogate Travel System” (1981), which is both an early example of “hypermedia” virtual mapping, and, now, a sepia-toned, 16mm parody of development in the mountains; and Eli Noyes and Claudia Weill's well-known documentary of activist unrest, “IDCA 70” (1970), where conference participants, environmental and media groups, and the modern design cognoscenti, all take turns talking about how important they are. Everyone in the videos, and soon even the objects in the room, seem to be constantly performing.
Beck's five minimalist silkscreen prints in color and black and white, images of aspen leaves taken from the original IDCA brochure (also on display), have been given new names, including The Orders of Freedom and Polarization. These minimalist question marks are veins leading to the heart of Panel 2: The Environmental Witch Hunt (2008), Beck's HD video projection, which runs on a loop in an alcove behind a bright orange rectangular screen. The panoramic film features lush images of the quaking aspen forest, interspersed with shots of architects, or people dressed like contemporary architects and designers, carrying aspen-bark-white tables and chairs through the forest, setting them up on the forest floor, carrying on a ridiculously theoretical dialogue about social engagement and abstraction, and then moving to a new spot and repeating the discussion. As the film goes on, “abstraction” and “distraction” reach a disorienting equation in both the dialogues themselves and the film's movement between people and leaves, and you exit the gallery wondering if we might be blurring similar lines in current discussions about the relationship between good design and sustainability.