Users and Abusers

Andrea Phillips

On Gordon Matta-Clark’s Window Blow-Out (1976)

Upon being invited to participate in the 1976 exhibition Idea as Model at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (a “progressive forum” for the discussion of new architectural ideas founded by Peter Eisenman and very much influenced at the time by the climate of debate at Cornell University) alongside contemporaries such as Michael Graves and Richard Meier, Gordon Matta-Clark initially proposed a small-scale “building cut” before turning up on the afternoon of the opening with an air gun borrowed from Dennis Oppenheim.[1] Having gained permission to shoot out a few of the windows of one floor of the IAUS, Matta-Clark then proceeded to shoot out all the windows while in a fairly drunken state, all the time shouting abuse aimed at his university teachers. After the opening (just before which the windows were hastily boarded up), the artist replaced the broken windows with images of Bronx tenements, images that are in circulation today. Or so one version of the story goes.

Window Blow-Out seemed designed to inject a dose of urban realism into the explicitly liberal, reformist and hierarchical pedagogy to which the artist had been subjected at Cornell as an architectural student (wherein resided the instruction to build architecture as urgent modernist salvation through attention to form). But what exactly is at stake here beyond the myth of an artist, to which we turn with a sentimental desire for pure gesture at a time when such things seem ridiculous, absurd, already co-opted? After 9/11 (it has to be said, a major window-breaking event), does Window Blow-Out not seem small, petulant? Perhaps so—and perhaps it would have been also if we’d been there (imagine being the curator; the tired smile, the tolerance of the wrecked idiot-savant, the conversation to be had with the sponsor). But amid the fruitless performances of insurgency in the field of contemporary art (from Ai Weiwei’s global porcelain smashing to Peaches recreating Cut Piece in London this summer), is there still not the need to do something—anything—in the face of an exhibition called Idea as Model in which the dominance of post-structuralist thought in architecture—then through Eisenman in particular and now as a hollow ideological shell of its former conceptual and dominantly benevolent intent—presupposes the condition of the urban?

The production and promulgation of inequality is the predominant purpose of urban design, the patina of creative freedom glossing the division between those that use the city and those that own it. Given the state of New York City in 1976, its ghettoization and financial collapse, one might understand and sympathize with Matta-Clark, whose work was yet to be feted internationally and whose documents were not then financially fetishized. Yet there is something more to be found here than nostalgia. As we look back longingly, we might recognize that our current urban condition is very similar to New York in the mid-seventies (in the stark division between those with wealth and those without, within the co-option of civic imagination for the purposes of capital accumulation, in the consistent punishment of the poor). But artistic destruction is now entertainment, and there exists an institutional ambivalence and monetised incorporation of artistic acts of violence (now it is not inconceivable that Window Blow-Out would be commissioned by Tate for the Turbine Hall). Violent entertainment has always been with us, backed by major business. But the foundation of a particular institutionalization of forms of oppositional or anti-authoritarian politics was already to be observed during this earlier period, a fact often misrecognized and far more mendacious than the simplistic dismissal of all opposition as institutional critique.

Which is not to historicize Matta-Clark’s drunken hysterics too quickly. Many of us feel the same way today when our cities are overlaid with plans without our consent. But being public with your anger now is different if you are a user, if you refuse or seek alternatives to the participatory frameworks through which your opinion, your thought is squeezed (it is worth remembering that in 1976, when Matta-Clark is blowing out windows, Ronald Reagan is running for the Republican presidential nomination and Margaret Thatcher has already been snatching milk as secretary of state for education and science for some years in the UK—in other words, that the architects of contemporary political participation were already past the planning stage, past, as it were, Idea as Model). Publicity and its contemporary incorporation—physical, mediatic, spatial—were already at work. Gestures were already in many senses futile. So how might spatial anger work now that, particularly within the creative industries, the capitalization of destruction is complete?

Two more texts on Gordon Matta-Clark’s Window Blow-Out (1976): Jeder braucht mindestens ein Fenster by Wouter Davidts and Enhancing the Reputation of his Building by Letting it be Known that it was Hostile to Humanity by Francis McKee.

Dr. Andrea Phillips is Reader in Fine Art and director of research programmes in the Art Department, Goldsmiths, University of London.

  1. For a fuller account of Matta-Clark’s action as well as the academic and architectural climate in which it took place, see Pamela M. Lee, Object to be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 115–117. return to text