Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Exact Space, Exact Time: David Burns of N

by Giselle Stanborough

Issue 23 | 21 May 2012

N was recently invited to collaborate with Kaldor Projects in the creation of Parlour Nights. Held weekly throughout April 2012, Parlour Nights were evenings of round table discussions, workshops and architectural interventions to accompany the exhibition of Thomas Demand’s The Dailies in the Commercial Traveller’s Association club, located in Sydney’s Martin Place.


Giselle Stanborough: What is N?

David Burns: N is the product of three similar people who realised there was a need for architectural curation in Sydney. N is a loose collective of myself, Sam Spurr and Adrian Lahound. Over the past couple of years we’ve been doing curatorial projects in which we’ve gathered like-minded groups of young architects, artists and designers to do large-scale exhibitions.


How was N born and what is the significance of the name?

It was born because I was asked to curate a show in Prague for the Prague Quadrennial, which is a kind of bizarre exhibition that conflates architecture, performance and design. I was asked to do to the Australian Architecture exhibition. I think the assumption was that I would do it either about my own work or about one or two practices, and that didn’t sound interesting to me. So instead, I brought in Adrian and Sam and we created a project that was called “How to be a Good Witness”. We commissioned 18 teams of architects and ask them to make an urban architectural performance that we would then photograph and document.


We didn’t want to credit that exhibition to just one person, so in the lead up, none of the materials created for the exhibition talked about us at all: our names never even came into it. At some point we realised we should have a website to put up all of the research, and we thought, ‘what’s the most generic website we can come up with?’. So we just took the variable N, which is kind of like ‘the unknown’ and made it “website-n”. It wasn’t even the name of the group, it was just a website waiting for a name. Then we got asked to do another show in Gwangju, and then the projects with Kaldor and then it just kept growing. We needed something to put on things so we just kept the N moniker.


It seems like there is a manifold-collaborative process - firstly with the three of you as individuals, then with the artists you engage with, and finally with broader events like Biennales and now Thomas Demand’s The Dailies that you sit in conversation with.


It's interesting that you use the word ‘conversation’, because all of these projects were always the result of very intense but unstructured conversation between Sam, Adrian and I. The constellation is a bit strange because the three of us are different people, and now Adrian is in London teaching at Goldsmiths; we'd always been aware that we would be distributed at some point. The idea was that if it is a conversation-based practice, and the curation always stems from these discussions, then it doesn’t matter if it’s across the table or around the world.


Can you tell me a bit about the process you employ when choosing artists?


With the first project that we did, because it was a Quadriennal that was based in performance, the discussions were going to be very much about theories of performance. So, we chose people whom we knew could conceptually get behind a provocation that we gave them and then would want to respond that way. There are certainly people in our circles who would not like that. So for the first one we had to choose people that would buy into the idea of a performance-based architecture, which is a bit strange. Everything else that we have done so far has been almost like curating either discussions or additions to events.


For the Parlour Nights held on the throughout April 2012 [as part of the 25th Kaldor Project, accompanying the exhibition of Thomas Demand's The Dailies], we had three or four designers and architects doing interventions. Some of that was performative, like bell-boys dressed up and standing very still, some of it was overtly architectural, responding to the bar space beneath the Commercial Traveller's Centre with coned gold foil, and the tape on the floor mirroring the floor plans of the rooms above you. Very subtle, most people didn’t even notice that one.


We chose those particular different architects and designers because we knew they would respond to a certain space. Because architects are always site-specific, because there is never a non-site-specific architecture, we’re always thinking about the context in which people are going to be showing. Thus far, we’ve never curated a show without knowing where it was going to be, or what it was going to be, or who was going to view it. We knew the people coming to the Parlour Nights would have either an interest in photography or art or architecture because of the building, so I guess for us it was about context in a lot of ways. We chose the participating people because of the context.


Having worked with performance in the past I wanted you ask you about Nadia Wager’s work at the Doppelgänger Parlour because I feel like it touches on some pertinent issues about time and space. It was so strange! The two bellboys swapped places, and I never saw them do it. It was like this weird bilocation thing. As a curator, how much of that performative action were you aware of before the event?

Well, we knew how Nadia would respond to this by finding an avenue that would be critical to the event.I think a lot of her performance was a means of addressing the spectacle nature of this event. So we knew from the beginning what her plan was; she and the three of us had these discussions about lack of the figure in Thomas Demand’s work and the dryness of that. Then there was the site, which we went to immediately with all the designers and they were amazed at this time capsule. I think Nadia saw it [the Commercial Traveller’s Association club] as something that had stopped in time. This was something that was built in the 70’s and because it’s a private club they never felt the need to update so they just didn’t. For us, it’s fantastic. It’s like walking into a David Lynch film or something. Her response was very quick and it came about instantly. The idea was we should get those guys from Circular Quay, put them in bell boy uniforms, and place them all over the place.


Once we got there and Frank (Minnaërt) was installing the tape, and Rob (Benson) was doing his thing, we started to understand the space a lot more. We knew that it was going to be really crowded, we knew it was going to be sold out and I think Nadia changed her placement a little bit, so that it became this very one-to-one binary of those two actors. I think it worked tremendously well, and I think in many ways it was a foil to the spectacle nature of the King Pins (which we did not curate, that was not part of our focus), and I think that those two additions to that space gave the space an even more surreal and disconcerting atmosphere.


What’s in the future for N?

We feel that if anything, the power that N has had before is just the ability to get people talking in architecture. It's now overlapped into the art world more deliberately with the Kaldor Projects so I think we’re stepping back for a second after two years of steady work to try and figure out what the next project should be.


N conducted a series of interviews for "7 Kinds of Happiness : Conversations on Design and Emotion", curated by the Office of Good Design and presented as part of DesignEX from 14-16 May 2012