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Poetic Thinking 2016 | January 28, 2020

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Misuse is sublime

Misuse is sublime
Vivian Lam

Apropos to our discussion about art and poetic thinking translated from the private to the public space, and how the engagement of autonomous bodies with complete liberty to interact with public installations (save for vandalism, perhaps—but would we consider taking Grindr/Gay Romeo profile pics or children climbing up pillars vandalism? Is patrolling user interaction and refiguration of the piece a kind of censorship?)—I was reminded of this article about the art collective Odyssey Works, on deliberately designing an urban space for misuse.

Their performances, lasting from days to months, are woven into the life of an audience of one. For the sake of that singular individual, an entire city is transformed into a stage that is infused with personal significance—architectural and natural facades made human by its misuse, no longer static but shimmering in the forefront of our awareness (quote from this excellent interview):

“Our intent is to make the spaces of the city more luminous, and that happens when we create meaning. An urban space by itself, while it has certain phenomenological qualities, is only filled with meaning once we interact with it or attend to it. So one thing we strive for and that our participants often speak of experiencing is “pronoia”: the irrational belief that people are out to do good things to you. If you believe people are planting beautiful things everywhere you go, you are forced to perceive the city in terms of meaning, and in that way you create place. This is why it’s so important to allow the misuse of architecture.”

              It is in this misuse that the artwork becomes our own—evokes deeply affecting thought about our personal present, considerations about what we may become. In paying attention to what is before us, we see that we share this topographical and temporal space with millions of individuals before and after us, that a horrifying horizon of possibility stretches before us.

           ”We’re not interested in a performance where the audience gets to sit and watch from a safe distance offstage,” Burickson tells us. “We want our performances to be live, dynamic interactions. And in order for that to happen we have to move into live dynamic space.” This ideology infuses all of his collective’s work, their intentional unsettling of a person’s routine life to make room, as Burickson would put it, for the sublime.

Perhaps it seems sacrilegious, with a pinch of ignorant, to engage with the solemn and sublime as mere idiosyncrasies and embellishments in a public concourse. but art can only become personal when it has become part of the backdrop of our lives, a temple that we can either ignore or step into in our quest to “unconceal the world.”


  1. Scott Weiss

    I also had intended wanted to revisit this issue after class. Especially when we were talking about the captions on memorials and the potential for misuse of commemorative space, I was reminded of a controversy surrounding the 9/11 memorial and its use of a quote from Vergil’s Aeneid. The line (“No day shall erase you from the memory of time”) comes from a moment when the poet eulogizes the deaths of two Trojan soldiers who get killed during a nighttime raid. These New York Times articles detail the controversy over the use of the quote out of context:

    I certainly agree that misuse can create new meaning that adds layers to the complex emotions surrounding a repository of memory, but I think it’s fair to say that this can occur in both positive and negative ways.

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