FRAME
Snark Busters, March/April 2011
By Shonquis Moreno

Named after a poem in which hunters pursue the unknowable Snark with the aid of a blank map, hybrid New York artists-and-architects SNARKITECTURE are experts in the unexpected.

Oliver is a girl. That’s unexpected thing #1. Unexpected thing #2: Oliver is a pet rabbit. Unexpected thing #3: Oliver lives in an architecture office and art studio shared by her owner, artist Daniel Arsham, and architect Alex Mustonen, who are a cross-disciplinary practice called Snarkitecture that, from its inception, has been collaborating – here comes unexpected thing #4 – with the likes of modern dance master Merce Cunningham, Christian Dior fashion designer Hedi Slimane and gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin.

Unexpected things tend to pile up around these two. Fitting then that they named the studio after The Hunting of the Snark, a book (and nonsense poem) by Lewis Carroll about a search for something that can’t be described or defined and in which language and signs aren’t what we assume them to be. Snarkitecture is telling a similar story. The studio name contains ‘arkitecture’ and even, if you cherry-pick the letters, ‘art’, but its projects encompass everything from retail space, furniture and residential design to lighting and stage sets. Arsham and Mustonen usually sabotage existing architecture, manipulate its structure slightly, pluck materials out of context and generally render the familiar just a little bit less so.

Take Box/Box, an 8-m2 apartment the two designed for Arsham and realized using 25,000 hand-painted but otherwise ordinary ping-pong balls. On Box Street, above their workshop in a postindustrial section of Brooklyn, this tiny plywood box, perched on a shelf beside huge Styrofoam offcuts, was designed and built within eight weeks. ‘The time constraint was partly practical,’ Arsham confesses. ‘I needed a place to stay.’ But the project was also a self-imposed exercise in abbreviating the architectural process. On a wintry weeknight, Arsham crosses an unusually tidy shop space, opens the door to a bathroom large enough to contain only a shower stall and toilet, and ascends a wall-mounted wooden ladder. As he disappears through a hole in the ceiling and pops up through his bedroom floor, the fact that he’s wearing a grey sweater and grey plaid scarf becomes suddenly conspicuous. This is because, all around him, the walls are lined with ping-pong balls in an uninterrupted and deeply textural shade of grey and with the mirrors that reflect them. The balls were cannibalized from one of the pendant Cloud sculptures that Arsham produced for Perrotin in 2010. The materials, which make it extremely difficult to read the edges of the room, and two walls that have been canted subtly backwards create an illusion of ample but cozy space. Overhead, white ping-pong balls lining the glass-paneled ceiling look like a low cloud that has been set on a dimmer.

The small-scale and short production schedule of Box/Box was matched last October by a bright, white, 44-m2 temporary retail space that Snarkitecture made with, and for, fashion designer Richard Chai. Chai insisted that the designers present his clothes in an untraditional way to generate a more interactive and ‘emotional’ shopping experience. ‘The attention span of consumers nowadays is two seconds long,’ Chai explains. ‘When creating a store, I think it’s important to tap into the senses, from the look of the interior to its sound and smell.’ Most architecture is constructed in an additive process; instead, Snarkitecture fabricated the shop through a process of subtraction, by first filling the entire volume of a converted construction trailer with 1.2-x-2.4-x-6-m blocks of EPS foam before carving into them, as a single piece, with customized wire cutters that left wide, whittled striations: shoppers appeared to have fallen into the crevasse of a glacier.

‘It felt excavated, and, like a cavern, no wall was entirely vertical,’ Arsham says. ‘This gave a sensation of a natural world housed within an industrial, rectangular volume.’ The day before opening, while the fashion designer arranged rabbit-fur vests, crisp military jackets and sequin dresses on hang bars, Snarkitecture tailored niches and shelves for the display of particular groups of garments. In general, though, individual fabricators had earlier decided where each cut would fall, having been told what the finished surfaces should look like and where various elements like cash desk and fitting room would be located. Installation took three days; disassembly, a week later, took 45 minutes, after which the material was returned to its manufacturer for recycling.

Arsham (fine arts ’03) and Mustonen (architecture ’05) met while studying at New York’s Cooper Union, where Arsham worked on a number of architecturally orientated art projects. Not knowing how to draft, however, he recruited Mustonen to help: ‘If there’s something impossible to do, Alex will figure it out.’ In 2003 Parisian gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin gave Arsham his first show, for which he sculpted the surfaces of walls while maintaining the appearance that they were part of the architecture: vents melted and walls wrinkled, crumbled or knit themselves into a bow.

On seeing the show, Dior Homme creative director Hedi Slimane asked Arsham to make a site-specific artwork-cum-fitting room in an LA shop, specifying the need for a seat, a hook, a mirror and no colour. The artist embarked on the project alone, excavating sections of the existing architecture, but at a certain point he realized the project ‘was beyond my skill set’. He again tapped Mustonen, who was doing a three-year stint at New York-based architecture firm Openshop Studio. Finally, in 2007, as architectural projects continued to arrive, the two formalized their relationship. 

‘I’ve been interested in manipulating people’s expectations about architecture and the materials it’s constructed from – what they feel like, what they do and what they represent physically for us,’ says Arsham. ‘We’re trying to manipulate what surfaces can do without changing the materials themselves.’ This approach is reflected in his evocative gouache paintings, which are a quiet collision of Magritte, Dürer and 2001: A Space Odyssey: obelisks floating in wooded, moonlit clearings; architecture growing weedlike over a swamp; lost houses that find themselves adrift at sea. With a kindred surreality, Arsham has designed stage sets for Merce Cunningham since 2005, which he does independently of both choreographer and composer to encourage chance-based performances. More recently, Snarkitecture made an austerely abstracted set – which the firm’s two principals call a ‘visual design’ – for a performance by Dance Works Rotterdam of American choreographer Jonah Bokaer’s Why Patterns, which debuted in February 2010 and appeared in, among other venues, a deconsecrated 743-m2 church in Hudson, New York. The black-and-white set consisted of two elements at any given moment: white spheres and tubes that framed a section of the floor. Anchored to an improvised score, the piece involved dropping, tossing, bouncing and rolling 10,000 ping-pong balls from the ceiling and offstage, the pursuit or avoidance of which determined the dancers’ movements as they attempted to corral thousands of errant balls. 

The use of the ball as the protagonist of the performance was inspired by Snarkitecture staffers’ ping-pong playing, which occurs at the centre of the studio over a detachable net that spans a heavy, white, prototypal, regulation-size table that weighs a hefty 140 kg, has trestle legs and an upside-down topography hanging from its belly. The Why Patterns set – marked by the same sort of redundancy of material and single-minded improvisation – was developed in close collaboration with the dancers. ‘The stage is a different space,’ says Mustonen, for whom theatrical work was new. ‘We thought about, but moved away from, more architectural ideas, like screens and walls, before reducing the piece to the pure geometry of a round ball and a square space. We put a lot of those initial ideas into the set without trying to reproduce architectural elements on stage.’

Arsham believes that architecture can have a direct impact on how people experience a body of work that represents a different discipline. ‘It can act as a supporting armature that runs parallel with the original concept,’ he suggests, ‘or it can act in contrast, moving in a perpendicular direction. Snarkitecture is interested in the confusion between these two.’ 

Snarkitects make armour and bunker-busters both. Currently, studio projects include two large public artworks in Miami and the production of a series of seating, mirrors and monumental tables that were prototyped in 2010. As part of the renovation of the Brooklyn studio, Mustonen wants to design a cardboard house for Oliver. The fact that Oliver eats cardboard would allow the architect to design a fresh residence for the rabbit on a regular basis. 

So, yes, Snarkitecture’s work moves fluently ‘through unexpectedness’, as Mustonen puts it. ‘We create places that can’t be read in a single moment,’ he says, giving as an example ‘a wall that is a wall in one area and not a wall in another’ and stressing that such places ‘oscillate between the normal and the unexpected’. The dynamic state he describes would likely make sense to Lewis Carroll’s Snark hunters, who navigated using a blank map and for whom the nonsensical was the most clarifying condition of all. In Snarkitecture’s hybrid practice, the sleeper is unable to judge the limits of his room, people find focus by attempting to contain chaos, and windblown fabric with nothing holding it up becomes a heavy chair. Architecture is no longer about containment, and art is no longer limited to escape. Snarkitecture isn’t simply creating a map without a legend; it’s creating a legend without a map. And you may find yourself comfortably adrift in the resulting space.