»Chimeras in drag«: A Conversation about Ergonomic Futures

 

How do you design a seat for the body of the future? And what might that seat reveal about present conceptions and techniques of the body—particularly in art institutions? Adam Gibbons interviews Tyler Coburn about his project »Ergonomic Futures«, its relation to Artistic Research, where it falls in the long shadow of Institutional Critique.

Adam Gibbons: You’ve been working on the Ergonomic Futures project since 2016. The project manifests as bespoke museum furniture, created in collaboration with New York architects Bureau V, employing some of the principles of the discipline of ergonomics. This furniture is made for a future body, which imbues it with both a speculative form, and a mode of narrating the institutional structures that it enters. Working in parallel to these seats is a website designed with Luke Gould and Afonso Martins, which hosts writing you produced under a disparate set of titles.
What status are the seats afforded in the museums they enter? Are they considered artworks, and therefore tended to through the curatorial and conservationist channels accorded to such objects? Or are they held with other museum furniture, looked after by gallery managers and technicians? I assume artwork and furniture would be located in different bureaucratic systems, different storage rooms, and would presumably be subject to different expectations of longevity. Is this distinction something you’re interested in? And lastly, do the seats have individual titles?

Tyler Coburn: The seats don’t have individual titles. Everything – seat, website, lecture – is encompassed by the title Ergonomic Futures. Part of the reason for this is that I want the seats to read more as furniture than art objects, or as the types of design objects displayed (not for use) in the Decorative Arts sections of museums. Giving titles to the seats might push them more into the art domain. Related to this is the fact that the seats, when possible, enter the furniture inventory of a given museum.
That said, the seats are always installed with a work caption, which mentions the research behind them, as well as the website. The bodies for which the seats are designed are never described on these captions, thus inviting users to speculate about their intended sitters in a tactile manner. If users also navigate the website on their smartphones, while using the seats, then multiple tactile practices come into play.

AG: How many varieties of the seat exist so far, and do you plan on continuing to evolve the design?

TC: There are two typologies at the moment. I would like to realize other design typologies; I would also like to continue producing the existing typologies. One parameter for the project is that, in any city, two copies of a given typology are produced: one intended for long-term use in a fine art museum, and the other in a natural history or anthropology museum. This allows the project to draw upon multiple disciplines central to my research.

AG: Can you provide an exhaustive list of where the seats have landed to date?

TC: The first seat was commissioned by and exhibited in the 2016 Gwangju Biennale. One copy is now in the Seodaemun Museum of Natural History, Seoul, and the other in Art Sonje Center, Seoul.
The second seat was commissioned by Lafayette Anticipation: Fondation d’enterprise Galeries Lafayette in Paris and first exhibited in its 2016 group exhibition, Faisons de l’inconnu un allié (Joining Forces with the Unknown). One copy is now installed in Centre Pompidou, and the other will be installed in Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man), Paris in April 2018.

Tyler Coburn, »Ergonomic Futures«, 2016 – Furniture made of walnut and composite wood veneer, website (www.ergonomicfutures.com) Designed with Bureau V and fabricated by Yong Chul Kim Installation view: the 11th Gwangju Biennale Courtesy of the artist
Tyler Coburn, »Ergonomic Futures«, 2016 – Furniture made of walnut and composite wood veneer, website (www.ergonomicfutures.com) Designed with Bureau V and fabricated by Yong Chul Kim Installation view: the 11th Gwangju Biennale Courtesy of the artist
Tyler Coburn, »Ergonomic Futures«, 2016 – Furniture made of walnut and composite wood veneer, website (www.ergonomicfutures.com) Designed with Bureau V and fabricated by Yong Chul Kim Installation view: the 11th Gwangju Biennale Courtesy of the artist

AG: In the DIS interview that I read on Ergonomic Futures, you often describe the project with the term »research.« Is this connected to your wage labor as a teacher? Are there other reasons for using this term? For example, I’m thinking about the way »research« is often commodified within higher education environments – for example practice-based PhDs – but also about the kind of détournement, which can take place within the term.

TC: Oh lord, I just searched that DIS interview for the word »research.« I used it A LOT.
I did an interview with Eleanor Taylor from Kunsthalle Wien last year, and this topic came up, so I’ll paste my response below. In short, let me say that I do teach a class dedicated to »Artistic Research« methodologies and try my best – with the help of writing by such people as Tom Holert and Renate Lorenz – to define this term outside of the »epistemic violence« that Lorenz notes, via Spivak, characterizes »the Enlightenment’s merciless pursuit of knowledge production« and its attendant forms of objectification and capture.
Okay: here’s the longer response, from the Kunsthalle Wien interview, to a question about whether I consider myself a conceptual, post-conceptual, or research-based artist:

»I think conceptual art denotes a historical period, and I think post-conceptual is a modality still in search of definition. That said, I’m apprehensive at the extent to which ›research-based‹ practices have become implicitly synonymous with post-conceptual ones. I’m ambivalent about this new classification of ›research-based‹ artist: the way it presupposes that only certain artists are researchers, when in fact many artists do research within their practices. Moreover, there’s a sense that delineating ›research‹ as a category gives it an institutional legitimacy; we need look no further than the research PhDs cropping up (particularly in Europe) to see this trend in action.
I’m ambivalent, because obviously research is a big part of my work. As an artist with neither commercial gallery nor market, I potentially stand to benefit from the funding offered by some of these programs. But I do worry that we’re seeing the construction of a new benchmark for artistic professionalism – one that artists will eventually have to meet, if they want to pursue a teaching career.«

»(I) try my best—with the help of writing by such people as Tom Holert and Renate Lorenz—to define this term (›artistic research‹) outside of the ›epistemic violence‹ that Lorenz notes, via Spivak, characterizes ›the Enlightenment’s merciless pursuit of knowledge production‹ and its attendant forms of objectification and capture.«

AG: There seems to be an assumption in your work that the museum will continue to exist in a recognizable material format, which implies that history will continue to be recorded and displayed along similar lines to the ambitions of the twentieth century. Is this a practical consideration or a semiotic one, which presupposes the continued hegemony of forms of knowledge originating from Enlightenment – and colonial – ideologies, and applied socially and politically through museums and other cultural institutions?

TC: I don’t think there’s a need to divide practical and semiotic considerations here, given that the practical ambition of the project – for the seats to survive until the right bodies come along to use them – is preposterous. The designation of these seats as »museum furniture« is a tactic by which seats intended for future bodies can parasite the temporality performed by certain institutions, wherein »timeless« objects are (often painstakingly) preserved as such. This temporality, in my opinion, is one component of the forms of knowledge applied and performed through the museum – particularly, the nineteenth-century heritage model of the museum.
In short, I hope this project makes its audience question the presupposition you mentioned, given its (ironized) faith in the stability and endurance of this predominant model of museum.

AG: As we talk, I’m thinking of Marcel Broodthaers, and of the paradox in his practice, in which he draws attention to the normalizing discourse of museums (in line with their Enlightenment relationship to bourgeois culture) and (in what may now appear to be a conservative position) to the onslaught of the spectacularization of culture, as described by Horkheimer and Adorno. As far as I can see, most of the institutions you’ve worked with in your project seem to reflect the traditional bourgeois values familiar throughout museum history, which of course aren’t immune to neoliberal values of expansion and accessibility that most cultural institutions are now implementing through funding mechanisms and political influence.

TC: If I had my way, all of my seats would end up in museums most indebted to the nineteenth-century heritage model: sites where we find capital-letter discourses (and the normalizing tendencies that come with capitalization) articulating their claims: the art historical museum, the anthropological museum, etc. Given that my project – particularly the writing on the website – works against normalizing tendencies in fields like ergonomics, I see this furniture generating the most friction when sited in such institutions.
Methodologically, I’ve drawn a lot from my colleagues Chris Fitzpatrick and Post Brothers’s writing on parasitical strategies in art. The authors are attempting to build a genealogy that’s parallel and at times coextensive with that of Institutional Critique, by looking at practices that reveal networks of dependency and value extraction far more complicated than unilateral host-parasite, institution-artist models. They draw influence, as do I, from Andrea Fraser’s writing in the past ten years: for instance, her claim that »Itʼs not a question of inside or outside, or the number and scale of various organized sites for the production, presentation, and distribution of art. Itʼs not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution.«

»If I had my way, all of my seats would end up in museums most indebted to the nineteenth-century heritage model. […] I see this furniture generating the most friction when sited in such institutions.«

The parasite is a topic that I’ve engaged literally in another project, A Wide Blank. For Ergonomic Futures, I’m thinking about the dynamics of hosting – and the fact that the French word hôte, as per Derrida, connotes both hospitality and hostility. My seats are entering institutions with an avowed purpose: to function as museum furniture. They’re donated and thus come as gestures of goodwill. But they also enter with an ulterior motive and a will to persist in a very different way than an artifact. Far from being a once-functional thing, they’re waiting for their function to be realized in the fullest.

 

AG: Is the body an institution for you?

TC: Hmm. I suppose if you follow Fitzpatrick and Post’s host-parasite model, then it would be relevant to characterize it as such. But with Ergonomic Futures, I’m thinking much more about the visitor’s body – and about the degree to which an institution should cater to that body. See my story »Seat« on the website, which draws heavily on an excellent essay by Joel Sanders and Diana Fuss on the museum seat.

AG: The categories through which you write seem a far cry from the discipline known as Human Factors and Ergonomics (or abbreviated, as per the managerial logic it is aligned to, HF&E). It is incumbent on the reader to place your writing in relation to this field, however obliquely.
We have talked about the model of the parasite – or different sorts of parasite; through the appropriation of the term ergonomics, which you place centrally in the framing of the project, and the technical aspects of producing the gallery benches, are you inserting your work into the language of ergonomics as a discipline, alongside other forms of parasitism in relation to museological structures?

TC: I’ve been interested in ergonomics for several years, though as I age and feel the effects of decades of poor posture, I find myself more aware of how the objects of the designed world purport, with relative degrees of success, to accommodate our bodies. In conducting research on the field, I was surprised to learn that ergonomics was a child of Taylorism and thus tasked to increase the efficiency of the working body: to minimize wasteful movements, to keep the eye trained on its machine, to quicken the pace of materials as they raced towards the market …

Ergonomics retains an intimate relationship to labor in Henry Dreyfuss’s 1955 book, Designing for People; Niels Diffrient’s Humanscale publications, from 1974; and later seminal contributions to the field. The more comfortable a worker feels – at his seat, within his machine – the more productive he will be. What fascinated me was the way the discipline constructed body types to serve as the measure of design. Humanscale, for example, includes measurements for »standard« elderly, disabled, and obese bodies, as well as those of black, white, and Japanese descent.
While it’s admirable that ergonomics considers different types of bodies, I nonetheless wonder about the implications of these typologies, and how they may figure into broader social notions of normality and ability. Ergonomic Futures takes a circuitous route in addressing these topics: by ergonomically designed seats for unspecified bodies to come, it throws the typological tendencies of the discipline into the future. The effect is to render each of us ill-fitting in the present, no matter our shape or make. In other words: by virtue of the project’s temporality, none of us can be the right, standard, or normal body for which the seats are intended.

AG: The narratives and the language hosted on the project’s website veer obstinately away from the normalizing tendencies of ergonomics and propose the unknown bodies to come, or »Chimeras in drag, « as you coin the emergent category. The points of contact which ergonomics make strike me as surprisingly bound up in the investigation that Institutional Critique has pursued over the last half-century or so. Ergonomics, in its most benign state, is sometimes described as considering the relations between a human subject and a system, which is a summary that could be broadly applied to practices associated with Institutional Critique.
As Andrea Fraser notes in her 2005 text, »From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique, « which you previously quoted, artists have had to contemporize their understanding of the breadth of what might be understood as the institution: »Moving from a substantive understanding of ›the institution‹ as specific places, organizations, and individuals to a conception of it as a social field, the question of what is inside and what is outside becomes much more complex.«
In reviewing the terms under which the phrase »Institutional Critique« emerged in the early 1980s, Fraser draws from canonical figures such as Hans Haacke in order to identify how this dialectical formation of »inside and outside« can be understood in terms relevant to the ongoing critical positioning that already takes into account the »social field« as an implicit precursor to the complexes which form institutions – including the bodies of the artist and viewer.
These complexes undergo critique at multiple points in Ergonomic Futures: through your interactions with other practitioners, and in the implication of artist as institution, which I find to be particularly noticeable in the anecdotal form and highly personal tone of the language on the website.
There is clearly a strong connection to Institutional Critique in your work, and I wondered to what degree this influenced your research into ergonomics and the other disciplines at play in this project?

TC: I’m certainly a student of Institutional Critique, though my interests have always been less with questions of the institution and more with those of site, which, per Miwon Kwon’s seminal writing, can be defined physically, institutionally, and discursively. For instance, Kwon describes how the »aesthetics of administration, developed in the 1960s and 1970s, has converted to the administration of aesthetics in the 1980s and 1990s, « wherein artists play with or literally assume managerial and service roles vis-à-vis institutions. (Think: Andrea Fraser’s 1994–95 project with the Generali Foundation, where the artist provided »›interpretive‹ and ›interventionary‹ services.«) Such works signal more than a shift in strategies of Institutional Critique; the artist steps into a managerial role, and management, in turn, considers the artist as a model for an increasingly flexible and precarious worker.

»I wonder if it’s possible that ›Artistic Research‹ too often permits or tolerates the thing Kwon fears most about these changes: the way a ›renewed focus on the artist leads to a hermetic implosion of (auto)biographical and subjectivist indulgences‹? Are we content, as artists, to be the means by which disparate content gains common value?«

Kwon claims that »[c]oncurrent with, or because of, these methodological and procedural changes, there is a reemergence of the centrality of the artist as the progenitor of meaning.« In other words, what reemerges are discursive practices – often wildly interdisciplinary in scope – for which the artist serves as the »narrator-protagonist«: the force that constellates the chaos.
It’s easy to understand how the valorization of the artist as such abets management practices that seek to imbue a spirit of creative individualism in workers being cut free of safety nets (Freed from security, and thus more free to be me). I can also see these changes preparing the way for the rise of »Artistic Research« as a scholarly field, where the artist – not the field – often defines the methodologies and forms of meaning making that constitute their practice.
To elaborate on our earlier thread, I wonder if it’s possible that »Artistic Research« too often permits or tolerates the thing Kwon fears most about these changes: the way a »renewed focus on the artist leads to a hermetic implosion of (auto)biographical and subjectivist indulgences«? Are we content, as artists, to be the means by which disparate content gains common value?
I’m dwelling on this art historical narrative because Ergonomic Futures is an attempt to dial down my subjectivity and centrality to my artistic practice: in developing a project borne of conversations with researchers and articulated through collaborations with architects, craftsmen, graphic designers, and web designers; in submitting my seats not to the care of a fine art collection, but to the staff responsible for the furniture and support structures of institutions; and in making the question of selfhood not reflexive but speculative, which is to say that the »narrator-protagonists« of this project have yet to come. Who can predict the meaning they’ll make from the furniture that’s been prepared for them?