INTRODUCTION TO JIM DROBNICK BY DAVID HOWES
By way of introduction to tonight’s lecture, “Guarded Breaths” by Jim Drobnick, I would like to draw your attention to an article published by Robert Gordon in Parachute arts magazine back in 1989. This article proved to be extraordinarily prescient, as you will see presently, of the current direction of research at the CCA . It is entitled “The Canadian Centre for Architecture: Phyllis Lambert’s magnum opus - expanding categories, moving boundaries.” In this article, Gordon (who is now a member of the Board of the CCA, but back then was a freelance arts writer) draws out the parallels between the careers of three highly innovative collectors and their collections: literary critic Walter Benjamin, author of The Arcades Project; art historian Aby Warburg, founder of the Warburg Institute; and, the architect, historian and preservational activist Phyllis Lambert, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (which first opened in 1989).
Gordon argues that: “As an instrument of retrieval, the collection organizes material into categorical fields. The innovative collector both expands the categories and moves the boundaries ... And these expansions do not simply add more divisions, but require that established areas of relevancy and categorical fields be re-examined.” Gordon goes on to detail the dialectical relationship between the activity of collecting and the intellectual and institutional legacy of each of these great private collectors.
In Phyllis Lambert’s case, Gordon writes, we find a curator who uses her personal financial resources (as the daughter of Seagram distillery founder Sam Bronfman) to create a quasi-public institution with a view to “establishing architecture as a public concern.” The CCA is dedicated to promoting architectural literacy so as to enable us, in Lambert’s own words, “to understand, enjoy, and cherish the built environment.”
“In the face of heedless development, destructive of the past, it was considered necessary to arm public discourse with appropriate conceptual tools and historical referents [whence Lambert’s institutionalization of her private collection of 20,000 prints and drawings, 45,000 photographs and 125,000 books and periodicals]. Deep connoisseurship would attach detailed factual knowledge to urban sites and give to their “anonymous history” a familiarity and some names. People tend to be more protective towards buildings which have stories attached to them.”
Gordon goes on to observe that: “The CCA’s collection and program constitute a certain vision of architecture and of how architecture transmits and is transmitted. As a museum of architectural representations, the CCA and its collection compose a representation of those representations.” The dominant aspects of the CCA’s program has indeed been to develop ways of organizing and cataloguing the diverse visual materials in the CCA’s collection using newly available computer technologies, such as the Art & Architecture Thesaurus. “The purpose of the ATT project is to standardize identificatory and descriptive art terminology and to establish conceptual and categorical hierarchies so as to organize the entire realm of visual artifacts for retrieval from a computer database.” Gordon characterizes this approach as grounded in a “mechanistic model of archival knowledge” and raises concerns about the ways in which such an ordering may entrench boundaries, instead of moving them, given the way in which it infringes on what Warburg called “The Law of the Good Neighbour” (i.e. the “casual wandering” which is permitted by a library, where one goes in search of one book, but comes away with the one you found next to it, which in turn proves to contain precisely the “vital information” you needed, but could never have told from its title).
But after raising these concerns Gordon goes on to note that there are “signs that Lambert is also bringing to the formative scope of the CCA some of that beneficial passion of the collector” - that is, of the passion that disrupts orthodoxy, and is therefore capable of transforming conventional categories of representation. As a case in point, he notes that Lambert not only tied the CCA to the ATT project, but also commissioned Melvin Charney to build a sculpture garden for the Centre. Now, a sculpture garden is, of course, a multisensory site in contrast to the hypervisuality of the archive of architectural prints, drawings and photographs that is the CCA’s primary raison d’etre. This tension between multisensoriality and computer-assisted visuality is further expressed in what Gordon calls Lambert’s “municipalism” (a combination of art, activism, architecture, urban studies, history and law). Lambert’s municipalism, according to Gordon, has “tremendous potential” to correct the computerized or disembodied mass media model of the urban environment. As he states
“Analysing the street corner, neighbourhood and city as physical sites of an historical narrative both symbolic and materialist serves to remedy the disembodiment of electronic communications. Visually oriented studies collapse existence into mere sight. As physical beings [however,] we move in passages, between walls and under roofs, and in real time. Yes, the other senses must be acknowledged ....”
It is just such an acknowledgment of “the other senses” that, I would submit, has been realized in the case of the “Sense of the City” exhibition, where visitors are invited to experience the city through all their senses instead of merely visualizing it. Sense of the City is about collecting our senses, and thus precipitates a transformation in awareness that shatters the visual hegemony of the archive. Robert Gordon’s 1989 article therefore anticipated the liberation and enlistment of the non-visual senses in the study of architecture that is only now coming into focus.
Tonight’s speaker, Jim Drobnick, was a Senior Contributing Editor at Parachute arts magazine until his recent move to Toronto. His contributions to that magazine include such articles as "Reveries, Assaults and Evaporating Presences: Olfactory Dimensions in Contemporary Art," which was reprinted under a slightly different title in Empire of the Senses. He is also the editor of Aural Cultures and of The Smell Culture Reader, the fifth volume in the Sensory Formations series from Berg (which is due out in March 2006). In addition to these highly erudite contributions to the field of sensory studies, Jim, as a member of the DisplayCult curatorial collective, has been responsible for staging a number of exhibitions which transform the conventionally pristine space of the visual art gallery (or “white cube”) into a kind of sensory gymnasium. It is therefore with bated breath that we await his lecture tonight on “Guarded Breaths: Art and Smell in the [cough] Metropolis”.
Phyllis Lambert, Mirko Zardini, members of the CCA, and members of the public, I present you Jim Drobnick.
(Click here for the Jim Drobnick lecture).