Space Mediations, Space Meditations: An Interview with Gabi Schillig

Gabi Schillig, artist and architect, has just completed her four month residency at the Van Alen Institute in New York City. A resident of Berlin, Schillig investigates the relationship between the body and its surrounding space. Her work as a Van Alen Fellow culminated in photo-documented performances around New York involving dancers interacting with her unique, transportable and transformable felt structures. These structures were temporarily grafted onto architectural elements in the city, a form of space mediation which instantly cleaved the wearer's body to their urban environment. Now back in Berlin, Schillig has graciously answered a few questions regarding her provocative project.

What was the importance of felt to your project? Were there any other materials that you had experimented with? Did the fact that felt was traditionally used in housing in Central Asia play into your decision?

For me, there were many different reasons to use felt for my project. One, of course, is the tactile quality of the woolen felt, its variation in thicknesses, density and finally its initial pre-defined structural quality that it provides. Felt is very structural from the onset - fibers connect to each other through a dynamic production process, creating structural surface through density. Furthermore felt protects from environmental conditions such as rain, sun or noise, yet still has the potential to transform in shape despite its structural strength. There are other interesting social and artist´s positions that have influenced my choice of material. Felt’s tradition in general was certainly of great influence for me. But what fascinated me the most was, on the one hand the traditional notion that comes with the felt, but on the other hand its very contemporary and technical uses.

What was specifically interesting to me was to bring the materiality of felt into the urban landscape, a material that is usually considered to be alien to the hard, static and rigid surfaces of a city. Any form of textile materiality in the city constitutes an oddity. Textile structure, in conventional usage, relates clearly to the human body, figure and scale, and thus has the power to produce something new. Within the urban / built environment, the soft geometries and textural surface of textiles allow different social space and interactions to emerge.

I'm reminded of the Turkish Kepenek cloak currently in the Fashioning Felt show at the Cooper-Hewitt. This traditional cloak is worn during the day by sheepherders, and then used as a type of "pup tent" for sleeping at night. Similarly, your structures are portable, and can alternately protect, clothe, and shelter people. Was the multi-functional and portable nature of your structure a primary concern of yours?

I saw the Turkish Kepenek cloak about one year ago in a book on felt and its traditional usage. It was amazing to see it now at the Fashioning Felt Exhibition at Cooper Hewitt - the Turkish Kepenek coat was one of my favourite pieces in the exhibition. This traditional item fascinated me for the simplicity of its shape and usage on the body. Of course it also functions as a kind of shelter against the rain and sun, and the fact that it is "transformable" from a piece of clothing to a tent, a mini-architecture or a cocoon-like structure, had already informed my previous project "Raum(Zeit)Kleider" that I worked on a year ago. A multi-functional nature played an important role in that work, and has always been essential to all of my textile projects. My architectural understanding is about creating spatial boundaries that are not rigid, but rather permeable, changeable - open for adaption and appropriation, creating an ephemeral state of space and allowing for a temporary spatial experience.

"Raum(Zeit)Kleider" still stayed very much in the studio where I had a dancer interacting with it, exploring different states and functions that the textile object could take on in relation to the human body. Now, with "Public Receptors: Beneath the Skin" I had the chance to develop three textile structures and implement them in New York City´s urban public space. Those body/urban structures were moving out of the studio, away from a static and autonomous architecture, towards open systems and soft geometries. Both clothing and architecture can be considered an extension of the body, establishing specific spatial organizations by defining relations within the system itself, as well as between the human body and the built environment. Basically as an architect I am providing an open system, which I give away at a certain point to be appropriated and used by other people. This inclusion of the observer in the design process plays an important role in my projects.

The portable nature of the public receptors was very important, as we needed to transport them in the city - walking, taking the subway etc. The textile objects come folded in bags that can be attached to the body, carrying them through the urban fabric. There is this whole notion of unfolding and folding, packing and unpacking the pieces when being used in the city. It is a temporary intervention that happens spontaneously as soon as a certain locations are "found" in the city where we wanted the structures to unfold and to appropriate space.

And finally, for me three artists were of great importance: Lygia Clark, Helio Oiticica and German artist Franz Erhard Walther. They all investigated in their works notions of participation, the body, performance and particularly geometric abstraction and were working with open systems - textile structures, which reveal entirely unique visual, tactile and acoustic qualities, creating a dialogue between the person and his/her environment. All to be discovered in an object that is not static but that is an open system which is transformative.

Felt structure portable
Felt structure portable

What were your criteria in picking public spaces? Are there any spaces that you would have liked to interact with that you didn't?

Our aim was to document one day of walking through New York City, implementing the objects into various urban environments that are very diverse from each other. A few days before, the performers and I discussed together various locations that we were interested in. It was great that two of them are originally from New York, so I could share my own experiences in the city with theirs, which were much more the views of "real" New Yorkers. My projects are collaborations where the influence and ideas from my partners are very much appreciated, starting from Barbara Barone, who was the key figure in producing and sewing the heavy felt structures with me, to the performers Lydia Bell, Khalia Frazier and Stephanie Fungsang, who were interacting with the objects out in the public.

As you have seen in the exhibition, I had 11 images framed on the wall. Each of those images basically represents one site that we had chosen on our way up from Central Park down to Brooklyn and back up to Grand Central Terminal. Most of the location we decided upon beforehand, but of course, as soon as you enter a specific location you have to find a spot where you want to attach the soft geometry to an urban element. Especially in the beginning of the day, at the beginning of our "endeavor" I was pretty worried what would and would not be possible in certain locations. Central Park seemed to be pretty easy, but when it comes to sensitive locations such as Times Square, Wall Street or Grand Central Terminal where there are a lot of police, army or security around, I got a little nervous and was waiting for them to stop us doing what we were doing. But nothing happened - on Wall Street we were doing the performance close to a police car and nothing happened. So, obviously soft bodies and geometries are not to be seen as a threat, even if you attach them to building or urban elements. This was a completely surprising and positive experience for me, as I thought after 9/11 especially in New York everything you do out in the public is monitored and observed with great anxiety and concerns.

The Mapping of those 11 specific sites were of great importance as well. We were doing the performances on March 16, 2009, s specific day with specific characteristics in terms of weather for instance. And of course each site carries specific information with it such as the exact coordinates, weather conditions, time during the day and also dirt. The dirt became conceptually very important for the project as well. Each site carries its specific dirt that leaches traces on especially on the white felt structure that we were using. It basically now carries the memories of the city, of 11 different locations, which we went to on a specific day, during a specific time under a certain weather condition. This mapping of the specific locations and its characteristics and the white felt carrying the memory of New York City became a strong point in the work.

Quite often we found interesting locations and urban objects on our way through the city and did a performance there spontaneously. It was all about improvisation and what can be discovered in that process. I was lucky to have great people around me who would be as curious and enthusiastic about the project as I am, to come all the way with me.

Of course, there are many more spaces that we could have used for our interventions. I guess the more you do the less afraid you become and the more you risk. For instance, how about doing such a performance on a very public building that is so highly secured that usually you´re not even allowed to touch or to enter. The trick is that by using clothes and soft materials you seem not to be a threat to the public at all. And that was also the strategy - to start with a piece of clothing and then use this structure to form your own body architecture in the urban fabric, extending your own private body into public space. For me, the limit of a person is not the outermost layer of skin. Therefore, these spatial structures de-limit the surroundings of the body, marking out a territory in the public urban fabric that allows a person to reappropriate the notion of living, bringing architecture back into the realm of the everyday. Also, I am planning to implement public receptors back here in Berlin - I am interested to see if people would react here differently in comparison to New York.

Did you tell the dancers how to interact with the structures? Did they tell you how they felt inside the structures?

As soon as I met Lydia, Khalia and Stephanie I completely trusted them. They knew from our discussions what I was after and that the interaction between the textile structures and the urban environment was very important for me. We met one time before to discuss possibilities and what was I interested in. After that point I left the interaction with the textile structures completely open to them. As I've mentioned before, in my work an essential element is leaving my own control behind, handing it over to other people so that I can explore what will happen and see with surprise what new things are able to emerge out of the open system that I've provided. The question of authorship gets blurred in this moment, which I like. The dancers were basically becoming part of the design process, which is for me open-ended. It is not about the end product or object, but what the spatial system can generate when being used by others. I have learned how important it is to give things away to see how other people interact with it. The figure of the architect traditionally is very much connected to the notion of power. Many architects say they are building for people, but I often doubt that. In the end it is about their own power and control, building designs which leave no space for true appropriation, and the people who have to use the space in the end don´t have any influence on the design process itself.

The dancers told me they "learned" more about the objects with each performance. It was basically about "getting to know" their behavior in relation to the body (or many bodies), their materiality and exploring different possibilities that are hidden in the objects and their different usage. But of course also every site of implementation if different, with its own specific urban condition, people and environment. So each performance was exciting and a new challenge. I guess that one feels pretty safe and secure while being inside those structures. On the one hand, it is an extension of the own body into public space, but the inside space stays very private. That of course relates again to the material and tactile qualitiy of the felt itself, its protective characteristics in terms of outer physical conditions, also including the protection against sound or noise that comes from the outside. So in the end it is a protective device that puts you out in the very most public spaces of New York City, but that still preserves your own, very personal and intimate space that surrounds your own body.

Why did you choose not to document your interaction with the structures?

For me my own interaction with the structures is basically the process of the "Making". During the three months that I worked on the Public Receptors, I continuously documented the design and production process, using different techniques, my camera, camcorder, computer and sketchbooks. For the exhibition at Van Alen Institute it was very important not to show only the textile structures and "final" images. In the whole exhibition you can find traces of the process, to be shown as films on small screens (e.g. the sewing process as short film or me interacting with the objects while figuring out the best strategic way to fold them) or in the little booklets that are distributed in the gallery space on specific locations. The two sketchbooks that you find in the gallery space as well, document my whole thinking process from the last one year, which now manifested itself in the production of the objects themselves.

Are you planning on continuing working with felt? Are there any other textiles that interest you?

I think that felt will definitely continue to play and essential role in my future work. On the other hand I am very curious to explore other materials as well, such as other textiles but also completely different materials. How for instance could I create a transformable object out of a rather static material? I am on a continuous search for new possibilities and am curious about different materialities in general.

The relationship between designing and making requires a certain body of knowledge that resides in the space and time of the working process. Spatial techniques and their established relations may be based upon a beautiful way of ordering elements by defining an open, but clearly defined, system that is able to transform. At the same time the system´s behavior is very much related to its constituent elements, their materiality and their spatial organization. It is fascinating that even flexible elements have the potential to collectively rigidify, when brought together in a certain geometrical order and hierarchy - to be found, for instance, in spatial formations of textile techniques. Open spatial systems that are generated physically and on a material level, hold a great potential to explore unexpected links between those relations. Those tectonic structures possess the ability to adapt, are open for appropriation, and at the same time interact with the environment and enable a constant change of bodies and spaces. This design model stands against a loss of the living body and its senses in the design process and looks beyond humanist practices to consider the body as fixed and static. The rebirth of the tactile, the transformative potential of space and matter determine that action and perception become one.

Photographs courtesy of Gabi Schillig

Interview by Sarah Scaturro