Benches – Pure and Simple?

FRANCIS CAPE: Utopian Benches
Murray Guy, 453 West 17th Street
New York, NY 10011
27 June — 9 August 2013
e-flux, 311 East Broadway
New York, NY 10002
May 11 July 20, 2013
Francis Cape, Utopian Benches, 2013, installation view Murray Guy. Photograph © 2013 Kathleen MacQueen. Gallery.

Francis Cape, Utopian Benches, 2013, installation view Murray Guy Gallery. Photograph © 2013 Kathleen MacQueen.

Five rows of seventeen benches reach across the floor of the Murray Guy Gallery in Chelsea beckoning us to enter, even sit. The presentation is clean and modest. The narrow plank seats are backless. Each is unique but the uniformity of the poplar wood (sourced locally near the artist’s studio) makes the linear arrangement, both strait forward and repetitive, reminiscent of minimalist sculpture; while the displacement of the functional purpose of the objects, removed from their original context, implies a conceptual framework. Even so, we are inclined to ask, are these merely benches…pure and simple?

First of all there is a great deal of variety among the forms, including methods of craftsmanship and degree of symbolic decoration. Each bench, in fact, holds a place in the history of American utopian communities; every one an example of a material culture that reflects social experimentation, especially during the formative years of US democracy. The sheer horizontality of form and presentation also invokes today’s various Occupy and other radical movements that make use of inclusive, non-hierarchical means of discourse and consensus building.

For the sculptor Francis Cape (b. 1952, Portugal), benches are where We Sit Together and he often organizes group talks when he exhibits this work. The phrase is an apt title for the publication that resulted from his research, visiting living communal societies as well as heritage sites and museums. On his visits he collected both history and measurements for his meticulous reproductions of benches found originally in workspaces, refectory halls, and houses of communal worship from societies as early as the pre-revolutionary Ephrata Cloisters, a celibate community of Lutheran Pietists, and as recent as the Camphill Village communities for people with developmental disabilities, of which 100 exist today.

Francis Cape, Utopian Benches, 2011. Installation view Arcadia University Art Gallery, Glendale, PA.

Francis Cape, Utopian Benches, 2011. Installation view Arcadia University Art Gallery, Glendale, PA.

“Sharing a bench,” writes Cape, “means sharing the same material support; also sitting at the same level.”[1] But sitting on a bench is not as agreeable as it first seems; it requires physical discipline that to many of the social and religious communities of nineteenth-century America served to emphasize the moral discipline demanded of faith and idealism. Cape imagines sharing, giving communities – collectives whose members have individually renounced personal ownership – but often times strict obedience, instead of willing discipline, was demanded by charismatic authoritarian leaders. Margaret Fuller, a founder of the well-known Brook Farm community, warned that such social experiments were in danger of becoming rigid and dogmatic.[2]

Her trepidation was realistic. In fact, the Oneida Perfectionists, believing on the one hand in the possibility of free love (that is, sex divorced from the notion of sin) were, nonetheless, guided by the authoritarian John Humphrey Noyes, who committed his own son to an insane asylum for refusing to submit to the will of his father.[3] While Cape admits that Noyes instituted a practice of “stirpiculture” – an early system of eugenics – he overlooks the contract young women pledged wherein they relinquished all “rights or personal feelings in regard to child-bearing” as “martyrs to science.”[4] Where was their selfhood and physical autonomy? Can we even begin to consider these practices as equitable?

Rossella Biscotti, The Trial, 2011. Keys taken from the high-security courthouse in Foro Italico, Rome. Installation view e-flux, New York, 2013. Photograph © 2013 Kathleen MacQueen.

Rossella Biscotti, The Trial, 2011. Keys taken from the high-security courthouse in Foro Italico, Rome. Installation view e-flux, New York, 2013. Photograph © 2013 Kathleen MacQueen.

Margaret Fuller’s idealism was largely individualistic, practicing free love as a path to self-fulfillment and a means to ensure independence. In spite of her criticism, she nevertheless believed communal experiments were an important antidote to social convention. “Utopia it is impossible to build up,” Fuller writes. “Yet every noble scheme, every poetic manifestation, prophesies to man his eventual destiny.”[5] Cape’s installation is evocative of an openness to explore these lessons again. His, too, is a utopian project that prompts conversation in its directness and simplicity. Its optimism is perhaps a necessary quotient to action: possibility over doubt. Even so, the bench seems fit for a Janus-faced interpretation of idealism, especially if one looks across town to another installation at e-flux gallery on the Lower East Side.

There, spaced throughout Rossella Biscotti’s (b. 1978, Italy) installation, The Trial, are five factory-produced benches, their backs and seats wood but their frame wrought iron, the feet bolted to the floor. In contrast to the care Cape instills in his handcrafted works, the focus of the construction for these benches is stability. Their use is not for gathering but for waiting, not for speech but for silence, not to encourage communal sharing but to induce individual submission to authoritarian bureaucracy. Remnants of the Aula Bunker – the high-security courthouse where former members of Potere Operaio (Workers Power) and Autonomia Operaia were on trial for the May 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, Christian Democratic leader and twice Prime Minister of Italy – these benches were part of the courtroom where the defendants heard testimony against them but also, on occasion, took part in the proceedings.

Rossella Biscotti, The Trial, installation view, e-flux, New York, 2013. Photograph © 2013 Kathleen MacQueen.

Rossella Biscotti, The Trial, installation view, e-flux, New York, 2013. Photograph © 2013 Kathleen MacQueen.

In Biscotti’s installation, the benches are once again in attendance, seating observers during two days of performance at e-flux in May of this year: each a six-hour live simultaneous translation of courtroom recordings also found on site by the artist prior to the courthouse renovation as a sport’s museum. Biscotti edits the 200 hours of original recordings to a six-hour narrative of resistance. At one point, the trial judge admits to Antonio Negri that the two speak different languages, where upon Negri turns the court from dock to dossier, interpreting Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt for the court.[6] As founder of the Potere Operaio and a leading member of the Autonomia Operaia, Negri was charged with complicity in Moro’s assassination. He was among numerous militants and intellectuals held in preventative prison from 1979 until the end of the trial in 1984.

Although Negri escaped to France after sentencing, he eventually served thirteen of a thirty-year term during which he published his best known works – Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth – all fundamental to radical political theory today. During Rossella Biscotti’s exhibition, e-flux hosted a reading group to explore the histories and legacies of the Italian Autonomia movement as they reverberate in contemporary struggles in the US led by Yates McKee, an editor of Tidal, the theoretical journal of the Occupy movement. In a recent issue, political theorist Chantal Mouffe warns of failing to acknowledge the fault lines of a movement whose slogan “we are the 99%” suggests greater consensus than actually exists among activists and the public whose objectives do not necessarily converge.[7] How do we speak of consensus while acknowledging differences? How critical is the relative position of the speaker to the listener in acknowledging and diminishing power differentials?

Rossella Biscotti, The Trial, performance at e-flux, May 11, 2013. Photograph by Ray Anastas.

Rossella Biscotti, The Trial, performance at e-flux, May 11, 2013. Photograph by Ray Anastas.

Sociologist Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century that how we sit and what we sit upon reflects cultural practice and value systems.[8] As a feminist and early proponent of the relationship between material culture and social science, Gilman’s perspective, though intuitively rich, was limited by her world-view.[9] It is as if our imagination seeks precision while life does not. Daniel Tammet, a savant with synesthesia, finds rationality in numbers within a life that slips past their equations. For Tammet, Plato’s ideal society based on numerology, is seductive. “According to this figure,” Tammet remarks, “everything would be divided evenly. There would be no war, there would be no discord, [but] … There is always an element of humanity that escapes mathematics, that escapes numbers as well.”[10]

Francis Cape’s benches – so meticulously measured – are pleasing to the eye and his notion of sitting together antidote to the scant intimacy and cooperation in contemporary society. But in the back of one’s mind lurks “time-out” and Sunday school or waiting in the doctor’s office so Rosella Biscotti’s benches confirm a learned resistance to such codes of uniformity. Meanwhile, Tammet renders our utopian desires refreshingly close by admitting to the predictive model he created of his mother’s behavior: “There was always a way in which my mum got around even the most sophisticated calculation, and so I came to realize that there are always going to be aspects of reality that go beyond our calculations.” Just as Negri could subvert the juridical bureaucracy with a lesson on Brecht, perhaps it is less the exactitude of the benches than the differences of those who sit upon them that escapes predictability and lends credence to their appeal.

[1] Francis Cape, We Sit Together: Utopian Benches from the Shakers to the Separatists of Zoar (Princeton Architectural Press, 2013), 13.

[2] See Michael Fellman, The Unbounded Frame: Freedom and Community in Nineteenth Century American Utopianism (Greenwood Press, 1973), 77-88. Although it is an early work of noted 19th century historian Michael Fellman (1943-2012) based on his dissertation, The Unbounded Frame is a thoroughly researched and insightful text that holds “that freedom and community tugged in opposite directions at visionaries,” as Christopher Phelps writes in Felman’s obituary.

[3] Fellman, 47.

[4] Fellman, 59-60.

[5] Quoted in Fellman, 79, from an 1840 correspondence.

[6] See interview with the artist by Performa.

[7] See Chantal Mouffe, “Constructing Unity Across Difference: The Fault Lines of the 99%” in Tidal (February 2013), 5.

[8] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903).

[9] Her examples were sometimes naïvely orientalist in The Home.

[10] See NPR interview, August 11, 2013.

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