Atmospheres of Institutional Critique: Haus-Rucker-Co's Pneumatic Temporality
In the early 1970s, the Viennese art and architecture collective Haus-Rucker-Co produced a number of collages and drawings that juxtaposed inflatable forms with preexisting architectural structures. Titled, simply, Oasis (Oase), the series depicted whimsical, inflated orbs protruding from, placed within, or fully enveloping buildings. Often containing elements of the landscape—green grass, blue skies, mountain peaks, and palm trees—the bubbles’ utopian airs contrasted with the sterile and often empty interiors of their host structures.
One of the collages in this series entitled Air Unit [Pneumatische Wohneinheit] (1971) illustrates the design of a transparent bubble suspended from the façade of a well-known German institution, the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel. The project was realized a year later at the Fridericianum as Oasis, No. 7 [Oase, n.7], an installation commissioned for the fifth installment of Documenta. Deploying a setup similar to their 1967 installation Balloon for Two [Balloon für Zwei] their contribution consisted of a steel lattice armature installed on the museum’s second story that functioned as a platform leading to a transparent bubble hung from the museum’s window. Containing a mock paradise of two artificial palm trees, the air-supported plastic sphere dangled precariously over the institution’s parking lot.
In a second drawing from 1972, the collective, comprised of Günter Zamp Kelp, Klaus Pinter, Laurids Ortner, and Manfred Ortner, described the atmosphere within the pneumatic retreat more explicitly. A five-step sequence illustrates a subject’s entry into the opening of the plastic orb. A halo of directional vectors mark the sphere’s entrance as an important point in the procession, emphasizing that air would not only circulate through this threshold, but that a tremendous shift in air pressure would converge on the user. Although the images suggest that the contours of the transparent “air unit” would operate as a kind of ambient flue, expanding the institution’s interior atmosphere to its exterior environment, the bubble was not an autonomous object. Rather, its structural integrity was entirely dependent on the circulation of the museum’s atmosphere.
Unusual details in these images reveal additional points of contrariety between the pneumatic appendage and its “host” institution. Despite its function as a pristine repository of time, the monumental museum was represented in an incomplete state, its facade crudely torn in half, like an architectural ruin, while the smooth, unsullied contours of Haus-Rucker-Co’s bubble hovered outside the museum’s window without splintering the wall. The shading used in the installation’s sectional detail reveals the bubble’s unexpected heft, in contrast to the levity one would assume a pneumatic structure to possess. Depicted as a “thick” space, the pressure of the cocooned air inside the bubble was rendered equivalent to the mass of the museum, its structural tension thus highlighting a differential.
In the years that preceded and followed their installation at Documenta, the four-member collective created comparable installations for other museums, involving inflatable covers for buildings, gargantuan life support units, and interactive membranes. These large-scale spectacles were part of a broad range of experiments with inflatables that took place from 1967 to 1973, and stemmed from an interest in ecology—a concern that carried through the late seventies. Their exuberant drawings, collages, and installations of “post-natural” ecosystems explored the parallels between architecture and nature as culturally engineered and aesthetic constructs. In apocalyptic scenarios, inflatable domes (Protected Village, 1970), pneumatic skins (Pneumatic Skin protecting a Farmhouse Against Pollution, 1970), and sealed containers (Piece of Nature [Stück Natur], 1971-3) performed as shields guarding buildings and settlements from unwieldy environmental forces. Similarly, images like Kraftwerk (1972) and the series, Oasis, Ifni, Morocco [Oase Ifni Marrokko] (1971), imagined how inflatable bioclimatic life support structures such as vitrines and life-size pods could preserve existing landscapes—and humans—from extinction. Representing both a platonic ideal and imminent catastrophism, the bubble was a tool for probing the perils and possibilities of the geological epoch we now refer to as the Anthropocene.
Given this political basis for Haus-Rucker-Co’s interest in air, the entry of their inflatables into the context of the museum presents an opportunity for us to uncoil the particular velocity lodged in the relationship between inflatables and institutions, a pairing which has been produced dialectical analyses in most accounts. As a form that has reentered architectural discourse with a great deal of recent interest—catalyzed by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres (Sphären) series, three weighty tomes on the subject—the bubble has become the symbol par excellence of the “immunological project” in the history of Western metaphysics. The critical operation of the sphere, Sloterdijk argues, lies precisely in its ability to remain isolated, incubated, and hermetically sealed from its surroundings; immunity in the form of the interior is our most “natural” state. This position would reinforce the dominant associations and interpretations of the bubble’s closed recalcitrance as a countercultural symbol of utopia. But if we were to engage in a closer reading of the bubble’s material and technical operations, might we extract other interpretations of the inflatable’s critical operations? By probing the soft yet pressurized logic of their bubbles, domes, and lungs within institutional contexts, this essay will propose that Haus-Rucker-Co’s inflatables elided the negational model of rebellion we have come to associate with the avant-garde, producing, instead, a more nuanced and pliant framework for resistance that positioned novelty and tradition, ephemerality and monumentality, utopia and reality, and ecology and immunology in a coextensive framework.
The “Pneu World”
By 1968, the motif and materiality of air had pervaded the fields of art, architecture, and the popular imagination at large. The June 1968 issue of Architectural Design titled “Pneu World,” which catalogued a variety of pneumatic applications spanning from the aeronautics industry and marine technologies to nomadic satellite structures and inflatable furniture, underscores how the aesthetic dimensions of this technology were intricately bound to the militaristic and scientific bases of its development. Similarly, the 1968 Air Art exhibition curated by Willoughby Sharp, heralded the art world’s attraction to aerated artworks and the privileging of the “kinetic, immaterial, disposable, uncommercial, environmental”—epitomized by the throwaway glamour of Andy Warhol’s helium-filled Silver Clouds (1966). Much in the same manner that Pop Art provided an opportunity to democratize the distinction between avant-garde production and mass culture, so, too, did inflatables neutralize discrepancies between high and low, military and recreation, unique and disposable, professional and amateur. Yet despite the capaciousness of pneumatic technologies in the built environment, it was largely the inflatable’s capacity as a carrier of symbolic value that propelled its ubiquity. The sum of scientific, aesthetic, economic, and political vectors, the morphology of the bubble was protean. Operating like a meme, the inflatable’s elastic configuration could absorb a range of intents, associations, and purposes, evolving and self-replicating virally across genres, periods, and geographies.
Although pneumatic technologies were embedded in geopolitical, technological, and economic objectives, the airs of the “pneu world” offered the inverse for young, recent graduates from architectural schools: myriad possibilities for disobeying social, political, and disciplinary conventions. Just as bubbles appeared unmoored and weightless in their constitution, they functioned as agile and non-committal forms of architectural expression given their low cost, portability, and functionality. As Laurids Ortner of Haus-Rucker-Co explains:
We were especially interested in attempts to find new spatial conditions that could not only effect stronger sensations, but also reduce the building material needed for this. Spherical membranes, supported in their form by air pumped in, seemed to offer the best preconditions for this. ... Architecture made of air: a technical return to the roots of building. In this way, it could also be possible to meet the demands for mobility and mutability with soft, flexible building forms. The right angle as a principle of all rigid structures could be overcome without formal arbitrariness, simply through the characteristics of the new materials. What possibilities! Changing a society just by the fact that it now finds itself in a softly flowing environment: gliding into a different way of thinking on gentle wings.
The bubble’s characteristic sense of novelty is patent in the 1972 publication Arthropods: New Design Futures, compiled by Jim Burns, a former editor of Progressive Architecture. Burns featured the work of Haus-Rucker-Co alongside an international array of young, ecologically minded architects, artists, and activists, as a collective response to the “formalist and bourgeois occupation” of architecture. Echoing the sentiments of institutional critique, Burns suggested that architecture had fetishized architectural objects through closed, interior discussions, without consideration to the social and environmental impact of these gestures. This new design generation, he hoped, would catalyze a new relational approach to the environment, countering the permanence, repression, and apathy of modern architecture, while operating as a mechanism to aid the public’s adaptation to rapid urban transformations.
The global flows of pneumatic architectural experiments reached peak intensity during these decades, a proxy for the growing information networks and cyberculture that were then in development. In the work of Viennese architects like Haus-Rucker-Co, Walter Pichler, Hans Hollein, Coop Himmelb(l)au, and Missing Link Productions, inflatables merged with the influence of body art and performance art to produce wildly imaginative, biomorphic, and prosthetic assemblages, often enacted in public space. For Florence’s UFO Group and the Utopie collective in Paris, the use of balloons as an aesthetic tool of protest symbolized the compressed energy, ebullient anxieties, and utopian dreams of the student revolts, literally and metaphorically about to burst. The seminal 1968 Structures Gonflables exhibition organized by Utopie at the Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris showcased the collective’s interest in the inflatable’s quotidian and visionary associations, by displaying a varied assortment of pneumatic artifacts that covered the prosaic, militaristic, scientific, commercial, and speculative uses of this technology.
Meanwhile, others experimented with pneumatic structures to articulate the growing synthesis of ecological awareness and ever-expanding technological networks. While the Eventstructure Research Group in Amsterdam used inflatables to produce environments for expanded cinema and haptic experimentation, Ant Farm’s do-it-yourself, “survival aesthetics”—epitomized in their “back to basics” Inflatocookbook (1971)—featured inflatables as an easily programmable tool to navigate the technological and ideological terrain of the American landscape. Their inflatable production studio designed for the last issue of the Whole Earth Catalog attests to the nomadic potential of what architectural critic Reyner Banham referred to as “that simple wind-bag”—a theme also explored by Archigram in their prosthetic devices for inflated mobility.
The flexible, nomadic aspects of pneumatic architecture—its short durational span and ability to generate ever-changing encounters—were key features in many of Haus-Rucker-Co’s other projects and museum commissions. Early experiments include a series of Environmental Transformers [Umweltveränderer] (1968): plastic prosthetic headpieces, ocular appendages, and clothing that enhanced the sensory experience of the urban environment. Instruments like Flyhead [Fliegenkopf], a PVC helmet with headphones, functioned as an “isolation chamber” for visual and acoustic stimuli; Drizzler, a rotating disc affixed to a PVC visor, created the effect of perceptual displacement; while a patterned lens called the Viewatomizer [Blickzerstäuber] operated as a Claude glass to soften the impressions of one’s surroundings. These sensory experiments continued at the scale of air-supported structures resembling lungs, eggs, and ventricles. In Balloon for Two [Ballon für Zwei] (1967), Connection Skin [Connexion Skin] (1967-88), and Yellow Heart [Gelbes Herz] (1968), human-scale pods and womb-like enclosures functioned as catalysts for the production of social relations based on shared bodily experiences. Like living organisms, these inflatable structures responded to participants’ movements in real time. The political potential of these aforementioned projects stemmed from their ability to effect a rapid rate of change through physical and sensory interaction, which ran counter to the sedate, monumental edifices of modern architecture they so despised.
As an alternative to traditional modes of architectural practice enmeshed in the restraints of client demands, stylistic debates, and bureaucratic protocols, installations in exhibition and event-based formats offered the collective a means to experiment with novel construction techniques, unorthodox materials, and impermanent forms. Their translation of architectural concepts and experiences into more compact spatial formats was symptomatic of the increasing popularity of installation art and total environments at this time, not only for artists but also for architects—a development that, for architecture, evolved from its history with exhibition design. By extension, as formats which typically relied on support from institutional platforms, these young architectural collectives often leveraged channels of cultural funding, galleries, institutions, and media otherwise available to artists, in order to sustain their unconventional practices.
Yet in contrast to the libidinal excess of this “pneu world,” an atmosphere of discontent with social and political constraints had become an unrelenting situation and unavoidable topic for artists and architects alike. For many conceptual artists during this period, the networks and operations of the art institution, which provided the necessary “running room” for architects, became synonymous with hegemony. Their appraisal of the art institution’s unmet promise from the Enlightenment to unite aesthetics with the public sphere formed the basis of institutional critique, an artistic practice which challenged the institution’s commitment to public exchange by drawing attention to the reality of its social relations. A number of artists associated with institutional critique including Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke, and Michael Asher, participated alongside Haus-Rucker-Co in the factious fifth installment of Documenta, organized by the Swiss curator Harald Szeeman. The outpour of hostility from participating artists directed at the museum’s protocols and Szeeman’s own curatorial infractions resulted in artistic expressions of discontent articulated through a variety of site-specific interventions., sought to probe social and cultural problems beyond the scope of contemporary art by placing works of art alongside architectural projects and artifacts from visual culture. His decision to display the work of seventy artists in a section entitled “Individual Mythologies” which essentialized artistic activity as the production of an interior discourse despite its political and critical aspirations, resulted in a wave of hostility by participating artists.] In each of these instances, architecture adopted a highly problematic role: buildings—and more specifically, the museum’s edifice—became a metonymy for institutional power. Take, for instance, Michael Asher’s installation for Documenta 5, in which the artist sliced the Fridericianum’s walls with surgical precision to reconfigure its viscera, and in doing so, destabilized its internal spatial operations for rhetorical effect. Likewise, Hans Haacke’s explorations of real-time systems frequently used architecture as a dialectical foil by positioning buildings as the backdrop from which questionable practices dealing with the exchange of financial and symbolic capital were drawn into relief.
By what virtue could a young architectural collective operating within a climate of institutional critique reconcile its own relationship to systems of power and reimagine new forms of critical practice when architecture had already been ascribed a negative symbolic value? This dilemma was further clouded by the appropriation of architectural techniques by these artists and their frequent deployment of materials and motifs common to Haus-Rucker-Co’s repertoire. Several years earlier, when Hans Haacke trapped the atmosphere of the museum in Condensation Cube (1963-65), he sought to critique the institution’s autocratic airs by unveiling the artificial nature of its hygrograph-monitored climate. The clear Plexiglas device functioned as a mimetic analogy for the regulations of the hermetic institution by drawing a spatial correspondence between the building and the cube to emphasize the museum’s immunological approach to protecting its pristine interior from the impurities of urban life. For this reason, Haacke aspired for his cube to function as a self-contained microcosm of the world with no obvious human intervention, disguising the outside sources and inputs required to initiate the system.
The automony of the cube, rather than its propensity for connectivity, offers us a starting point from which to differentiate Haus-Rucker-Co’s concomitant approach to the critique of the institution, an approach that reflexively leveraged architecture’s entanglement in the museum’s commercial circuits and edifying aspirations to propose anew. In contradistinction to Condensation Cube’s illusory autonomous stature, Haus-Rucker-Co’s design for Oasis, No.7 emphasized the bubble’s permeability and reliance of its construction on the museum’s highly orchestrated and hygrograph-monitored climate. Although, both works drew attention to the determinacy of the system on atmospheric terms by exposing a differential, the bubble’s levitation in Oasis, No.7 was framed as a forced and problematized feature rather than a liberatory or illusory construct. In lieu of eliminating or isolating the institution’s airs, both literally and symbolically, the bubble reanimated and repurposed the active tensions, pressurized forces, and flows of power that were contingent to its survival.
The provisional logic of real-time systems
Just as artists like Haacke used real-time systems as a means to draw attention to the isomorphic correspondences amongst diverse systems, the seduction of real-time systems for architects of this era was driven by a similar aspiration to render forces visible through an open, dynamic, organizational format that in some way mirrored the theory upon which it was based. Indeed, the responsiveness of inflatable technology, its tendency to behave like living organisms, established it as the perfect format for precisely such a social and physiological investigation. For Reyner Banham, the inflatable’s capacity for real-time feedback offered a new lexicon for radical contemporary practice based on user-centered interaction. Banham observed:
In the established critical tradition that so prefers illusion, or allusion…such a physically responsive structure of course doesn’t stand a chance of a fair evaluation. But the influence of that bad old school of platonic abstraction is on the wane; the kind of direct-participation, real-space, real-time involvement-aesthetic that is replacing it—epitomized in events like light-sound happenings (which often feature inflatables)—favors this sensitive kind of environment. … Quite unlike the relationship with the static shell of a traditional building where you can beat your fists on the walls and scream and get no more than an echo for a response: here a blow directed at the enclosing skin would produce a flurry of reproachful quivering and creaking, quickly dying away as the even tenor of its normal breathing ways was resumed. I like that.
Real-time involvement became the theme of Haus-Rucker-Co LIVE (1970), the collective’s first major museum show at the Vienna Museum of the 20th Century. The exhibition, which explored the inflatable as a provisional mechanism to foster social engagement in an institutional context, involved the design of a 225-square-meter inflated air mattress placed in the center of the museum’s ground floor accompanied with three giant PVC billiard balls. As a playground and social sculpture, visitors were encouraged to walk on and interact with this malleable, responsive membrane. The installation was a resuscitative exercise to inject vitality into what the collective perceived as the dead space of the museum. A similar imperative drove their large-scale installation Vanilla Future a year earlier, which consisted of an obstacle course filled with objects designed for “mental training” installed in a school gymnasium located in the Schleifmühlegasse of Vienna’s 4th District. In LIVE’s giant billiard, authorship also became a locus for mediation and engagement: the gallery space became the group’s living and working quarters, visible to the public for three months. By enlarging the apertures between production and exhibition, the collective converted the museum into a laboratory for real-time experiments in social relations and a vulnerable site for cultural creation and presentation. This new atmosphere of spontaneity and uncertainty aimed to abrade the institution’s climate of regulation, producing, instead, a form of syncopation wherein existing social, temporal, and programmatic rhythms were recycled and destabilized, in essence, rewriting the museum’s history in real time.
The seed of Haus-Rucker-Co’s interest in interstitial and user-centered architecture can be traced to this seminal exhibition. Six years later, the group published a decree in celebration of the temporary: a self-published, illustrated manifesto aptly entitled Provisional Architecture [Provisorische Architektur], which discussed the principles by which a makeshift, non-permanent architecture could respond to the inadequate state of architecture and urban design after the Second World War. Postwar reconstruction efforts were performed with such haste, argued Laurids Ortner, that their bureaucratic uniformity mimicked the authoritative modernist doctrines that preceded the war. These poor design decisions effectively erased the urban residues of history itself, producing an environment that seemed static and unchanged. The rapid pace of postwar development had transformed the world into “an erratically changing provisional structure,” which, in turn, demanded architecture capable of functioning with impermanence and obsolescence. The solution? Transitional arrangements intended to perform as mediating interfaces between people, buildings, cities, and the environment-at-large. “…We are now facing an environment which in its outer appearance has reached an international stereotype of uniformity achieved nowhere else,” wrote Ortner. “Particular features of different traditions and cultures have been leveled in the same manner as topographic characteristics. Empty and characterless as they are, urban landscapes have become freely exchangeable.” Often times, these provisional structures were already in existence and could be reprogrammed, precipitating an approach now associated as “postproduction”: “Within the urban areas ‘naturally grown’ provisional structures have already shaped the general appearance to a large degree: The ‘Everyday architecture’ of traffic lights, ad-paintings, traffic signs, masts and wirings has long since overcome classical architecture,” he wrote. “…The architects’ architecture lies behind and constitutes the background structure along which these exuberant growth [sic] of information signals can climb.”
Enter the inflatable: with plastics, the flexibility of pneumatic structures enabled new shapes and arrangements to be formed with ease, intrinsically resisting calcification and stasis. Citing John McHale, architectural historian Mark Wigley suggests that plastic “… exemplifies the constant ‘plastic’ transformation by which culture now produces itself as a continuous ‘flow’ rather than a set of discrete objects.” Similarly, Haus-Rucker-Co’s provisional structures could weave in-between existing quotidian systems to enact temporary interruptions and disappear organically at their own pace without precluding the range of possibilities for future outcomes. Less a particular formal stance or prescribed technique, provisional architecture realigned situations into new configurations, refreshing ambiences rather than obliterating entire systems.
Although LIVE touched on many of the aspirations of institutional critique, the installation was less an explicit social, political, and economic critique of the activities of the art world, than an exploration of architecture’s ability to intervene in prevailing networks through recalibrated material and temporal arrangements, rather than ossified measures. Its isomorphic correspondences and blurring of program between playground, stage, studio, and exhibition space, indicative of a larger drive on the part of young Viennese artists and architects to leave their studios and enact change in the social sphere, illustrated the growing post-studio condition that had infiltrated artistic and architectural practice. The radical proposition offered by LIVE bared structural similarities to the inflatable itself: like a pulse of air, it did not simply sever existing systems, or accomplish an imaginative feat of innovative form; rather, it delineated, accentuated, and modified the contours of preexisting conditions by initiating new behaviors, habits, and regulatory codes, thereby introducing a new logistical paradigm within a given system.
Coffers, Coffins, and Covers
Methods of doubling and redundancy to “break[ing] up burnt-in habits of seeing” and “sharply stress[ing] the crucial problems” were explored a year later in another museum commission titled, simply, Exhibition Cover [Ausstellung Cover] (1971). For two months, a giant inflatable cover sealed the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany, from its environment. Originally designed by Mies van der Rohe for the German textile businessman and well-known art collector Hermann Lange, who had close affiliations to the Deutscher Werkbund and the National Socialist party, the villa was used as both a museum and a living space for a family that, during the time of the exhibition, became voluntarily quarantined under Haus-Rucker-Co’s air-supported bubble. A suspended pneumatic structure bent in two axes over the entire mass of the villa was held upright by the forced circulation of the institution’s air to play upon the correspondences between isolation, insulation, and immunity.
Described by Jim Burns as a “serious play-show about pollution,” the installation immersed visitors in a post-apocalyptic narrative that conjured nineteenth-century visions of insalubrious air as the deadly vehicle for the noxious spread of microbes. The exhibition imagined the increasing contamination of the environment would result in the need for “air islands:” synthetic atmospheres that simulated the sensory conditions of the natural environment using artificial means. Inside, illusory effects mimicked the natural cycles of life: quartz lamps imitated daylight, acoustic and visual scenography created illusory weather patterns, fans recreated wind currents, and artificial heat caused flowers to bloom indoors. The museum contained four climates with corresponding programs: Climate 1: Air Dome, Climate 2: Breathing Zone, Climate 3: Sleep, and Climate 4: Sterilization Room. Nested within these areas was a control room for acoustics, a conservatory, and conference rooms. Although Haus-Rucker-Co had already coffered the building from its environment, human-scale inflatable structures further bagged and shielded spaces inside the museum from pathogenic elements. Climate 2: Breathing Zone, for example, consisted of a transparent, rectangular inflatable suspended above a platform base. Participants entered this “atmosphere” by inserting their heads in holes placed in the underside of the structure, which recreated the altitude and climate of a mountainous region. Likewise, subjects could partake in business conferences in individual plastic capsules with audio transmitters, consume meals in amniotic pods, and have sex in oxygenated bags. Despite the symbolic association between spheres and wombs, the recreation of these virtual atmospheres was not the birth of a new, radical vision; instead, the bubble’s conjugal power was replaced by its ability to vacuum and sterilize.
Just as the bubble’s formal pleasures were encumbered by its immunological imperative, any amusement produced by this spectacle was cancelled by the threat of entrapment. An earlier drawing entitled The Undertaker (c.1970-1) presented a dramatic postscript to the suffocating limits of insulation: an architectural space, submerged underground, using an air filtration system as its only connection to the outside world. “If people don’t take Cover seriously, maybe we’ll have to go underground to get away from the mess we’ve made, after all,” pondered Burns. “Build buildings deep below the surface, with powerful service installations close by to filter air, bring some of the things we remember and probably need to keep from getting spaced out from claustrophobia. … Can all this happen?” Through Haus-Rucker-Co’s forceful immunization and encapsulation via the bubble–turned–bell jar, the sterility of the museum environment was equated with self-entombment.
We may feel inclined to read the encasement of the museum, the use of inflatable “body bags,” and the exhibition’s narrative of the pollution of “the outside” as gestures of dystopian cancellation or strict repudiations of the ideology and narratives of the museum. However, the exhibition’s delirious deployment of insulation mimetically intensified the barriers and boundaries that codified the institution; using a hyperactive logic of surplus, rather than subtraction, the multiplication of this spatial trope reanimated the museum’s suppressed history to consider new perceptual and spatial schemes, social programs, and modes of subjectivity. The exhibition’s fabric cover, which literally materialized the museum’s complex history with industry and nationalism into the present moment, was refashioned as a surface onto which an alternate reality was projected. In doing so, the installation reified the institution’s surreptitious entanglements and presented these otherwise invisible threads of the institution’s past alongside tangible artifacts of its cultural heritage, reorganizing rather than erasing existing systems of regulation. Just as Oasis No.7 explicitly made use of the institution’s air to support its own framework, Exhibition Cover made tangible its own imbrication in this history to create new assemblages and constituencies. Rather than suggest an arbitrary or radical break, the Cover show proposed that critique, in its most projective form, could emerge from the museum’s legacy of material engagements, ideological residues, and economies.
Whereas Exhibition Cover explored the movement of air through the spatial trope of suffocation, the circulation of air became the basis for Haus-Rucker-Co’s next major museum commission in 1973: Green Lung [Grüne Lunge], an apparatus consisting of a pair of monumental inflatable lungs installed on the second floor of the Hamburger Kunsthalle. In their “air circulation system,” plastic tubes connected to aerated plastic sacs ran through the building’s facade, across the length of the first floor, and out of the building’s envelope to expel the institution’s air into the city. This “discharged” air led to four helmets placed on a platform by the front steps of the institution. Users were encouraged to stand underneath these spherical oxygen masks to breathe in the filtered institutional air. Just as in their earlier pneumatic projects a small life support tube was often made visible, the cables or “veins” connecting this inflatable structure to its air pump were a central feature of its construction. No illusionistic attempt was made to conceal this apparatus; its functions were made apparent.
While Green Lung functioned in a metaphorical manner similar to Exhibition Cover and Oasis, No. 7 by playing with the dialectic of interiority and exteriority, its permeation of the building’s façade performed a different function by renewing the institution’s existing airs through respiration. The group’s accompanying statement on the work described a process of filtering the museum’s holdings. Referring to the museum’s extensive collection of Caspar David Friedrich’s landscape paintings, their environmental critique used the romantic ideology of nature as a historical backdrop to suggest that in the future, nature would only exist as representations of memories:
Images of nature become projections for dreams of a conflict-free life. Being alone and a beautiful environment: The dream of paradise. One remembers. Memories of nature. From Caspar David Friedrich to anonymous roaring stag, from the raging torrent to alpenglow. Nature in oil, at home on the wall. … One remembers. That's it. There must not be any different. Even if the images have long since become mirages , the men have migrated... The memory of experiences that one has never experienced remains. And the longing it produces is a necessary Vanishing Point: Paradise in compensation.
Additional representations of nature flanked the large respiratory sculpture. Tacked to the walls was an enlargement of an advertisement featuring an image of a landscape of mountains and a collage of a futuristic scene entitled Reservat (1972), in which a pair of larger-than-life pneumatic lungs hovered over the Salazar bridge in Portugal. These images, along with the reference to Friedrich, activated a material history of popular, collective memory in the context of the gallery. Like the inflatable and the institution, the memory of nature was presented as a concept with myriad associations, rather than a singular essence with rigid, congruent laws.
Yet behind the sheen of the installation’s spectacular, comic absurdity lingered a deeply cynical acknowledgement of the impossibility of this return to a “natural” and “normative” state. These synthetic lungs would thus perform a provisional recuperative function in response to the irrecoverable loss of nature by supplying city dwellers with purified, chemically enhanced air charged with idealized illusions of green space. Green Lung, they proposed, could revive a sense of nature in collective memory by synthetically reconstructing the atmospheres of a fictitious space and time. By reconciling affects and flows as part of the same ecosystem as the semantics of the material world and built form, the installation performed in a proto-cybernetic model, akin to Marshall McLuhan’s “counter environment.” Air circulation was a means of temporal and affective regeneration that mixed, in an alchemical sense, multiple temporalities of what once was with what could be.
The Inner and Outer Contours of History
At the turn of the twentieth century, art historian Alois Riegl proposed a model for thinking about temporality, preservation, and monuments. “A monument,” he wrote, “in its oldest and most original sense is a human creation, erected for the specific purpose of keeping single human deeds or events (or a combination thereof) alive in the minds of future generations.” Monuments, in this case, referred not only to what he called “intentional monuments,” but also to works of art and historical artifacts. The past was thus given historical value—the notion that “what has been can never be again”— in the present. As Mark Wigley notes, the monument, in this way, was not so much an object as “a space, a protected zone, a preserve for time... evoking memory by holding a previous time against the flow of the present.” It was a device for temporal “synchronization.” Institutional regulations thus suspended time by providing an illusion of stasis, amidst the flow of change.
In his book, The Shape of Time (1962), art historian George Kubler, evoking Riegl, suggested that synchronous registers of temporality can be located at every historical juncture. Using a spatial model that summons an image of the bubble’s membrane mediating between interior and exterior atmospheres, Kubler argued that specific historical periods can only be seen from a distance through a larger topological vantage. “By the same token,” he continued, “we cannot clearly descry the contours of the great currents of our own time; we are too much inside the streams of the contemporary happening to chart their flow and volume. We are confronted with inner and outer historical surfaces. Of these only the outer surfaces of the completed past are accessible to historical knowledge.” He expounded on his idea of simultaneity using comparisons of objects to suggest that these contours formed a kind of temporal parallax, such that objects made at the same time could not constitute a suitable basis for comparison if each was produced within a different context. In this temporal model, historical change could take place “when the anticipated ‘renewal’ of conditions and circumstances from one moment to the next is not completed but altered. ...In history the interferences preventing the faithful repetition of any pattern are mostly beyond human control, but in language the interferences must be regulated or communication will fail.”
Insofar as the museum could be seen in Rieglian terms as an apparatus for the synchronization of historical artifacts, Haus-Rucker-Co’s museological interventions and breeches into the museum walls can properly be called “anti-monumental.” The precariousness of their structures is precisely what enabled them to evade forming a new kind of monumental effect. In their unstable physicality, their pneumatic explorations conjured notions of contingency and indeterminacy rather than that of the constitutive or chronological, offering a formation of novelty, temporality, and history that was simultaneously diffuse without concealing synchronicity. Their bubbles sought to make change substantive as both a visible and materially “felt” condition, rendering not only the solutions but also the problems themselves accessible to a public.
Just as the contours of the bubble in Oasis, No.7 served to highlight a differential, Haus-Rucker-Co’s museum installations reoriented the institution’s air by re-pressurizing its atmosphere to enact forms of structural maintenance. In doing so, their bubbles reemphasized the institution’s air as a malleable yet essential element required for the constitution of their radical arrangements. A heightened awareness of the pressure and force of the museum’s atmosphere was caused by the interstitial space between the housed object and the “double skin” of the covering, revealing that despite the flexibility of inflatables, air-supported structures are in a perpetual state of active enclosure. In this way, the “double skin” of the inflatable was not the introduction of a foreign system or new mode of temporality into the museum but rather, an exaggeratedly forceful version of the museum’s existing pressures—materialized, rearticulated, and amplified to produce anew. This model of critique and change is premised on a logic of flows, responding to Kubler’s invocation, that the contemporary draws from the threads of history. Rather than amputate the pressurized and power-laden matrices of the past, Haus-Rucker-Co’s pneumatic criticism functioned like pulses, mixtures, and mists through persistent, yet incremental negotiation, rather than absolutes. Their emphasis on ventilation suggests that even their refreshed airs were not without regulation and that the notion of an “outside” to the system is an illusory construct. Although the appearance of their work was one of playful naiveté, this stance foreshadowed a new mode of critical practice that would take shape nearly thirty years later and that we are still struggling to formulate today: a post-critical logic of temporary, ephemeral intervention that anticipates the rapid flow of logistics, connection, and obsolescence that would eventually come to be associated with global capital.
Proposals for radical change during this era have typically been depicted as visionary utopian reimaginings of a new form of subjectivity represented through a pathological condition of elsewhere and otherworldliness—sealed bubbles floating in nondescript sites, representing what is impossible in a given reality. Yet If Haus-Rucker-Co proposed a utopian vision, it was most certainly not of this immunological variety. The immanence and site-specificity of their installations emphatically suggest that the institution was, in many ways, pivotal to their ability to reimagine new kinds of societies that might be possible here and in the future. This positive, constitutive model of utopia, according to Paul Ricoeur, is characterized by its capacity to project imaginative modifications to present circumstances and its intention to form, rather than deform, social imagination. Unlike pathological utopias, constitutive utopias can incorporate practice, action, incompatibility, and tension through “elastic conceptualization.” This social function of utopia produces a kind of “no place” or a space of extra-territoriality. The “exterior glance…cast on our reality” is a necessary precondition for speculative re-imagination to occur. Ricoeur writes:
The field of the possible is now opened up beyond that of the actual, a field for alternative ways of living. The question therefore is whether imagination could have any constitutive role without this leap outside. Utopia is the way in which we radically rethink [reality]… The fantasy of an alternative society and its topographical figuration “nowhere” works as the most formidable contestation of what is…[what may or ought to be] proceeds from the possible to the real, from fantasy to reality.
The entire premise of institutional critique could be seen to rest on the certainty afforded by the institution’s regulation and synchronicity; that artists have had to rely upon sanctioned entry into the museum to critique its strictures has been its ultimate paradox. Yet Haus-Rucker-Co’s understanding of these systems through the lens of pneumatic temporality may offer a way for us to formulate a utopian model of resistance outside of modernist opposition. In the suspended time of Oasis, No. 7, and the manner by which LIVE, Exhibition Cover, and Green Lung drew attention to the precarious boundaries of air, the pneumatic bubble floated indeterminately within temporal regimes, literally and figuratively making ideology matter, without eclipsing the possibility for experimentation. And herein lies the most challenging and provocative aspect of the bubble’s political aspirations: “Criticism of insufficiencies was expressed playfully, if at all, because the world felt right,” Ortner mused, “and it even offered dissenters a future—as future was altogether a concept of intact possibilities, no matter which way one turned. The image of a ‘better’ world seemed to be within reach: setting out together for new, unknown possibilities.” The thin membrane of critical reimagining which mediated the inner and outer contours of history enacted a kind of doubled simultaneity, producing an air of radical aspiration amidst the historical legacy of institutional authority. In these installations, suspension, contingency, and liminality cast doubt as a productive gesture, always on the edge of both possibility and collapse.