Matteo Cavallieri

The garden as a performative project

A lecture by philosopher Matteo Cavalleri and Collettivo Millepiani.

Good evening. I would like to thank the director Angelika Stepken and atelier le balto for inviting me. My position is an eccentric one in that I do not deal with architecture, with landscape or with garden art. Rather, I deal with political philosophy and forms of representation of the urban space. In this perspective, I think that the garden work contains a strong component of meaning and as such demands philosophical reflection. Any work of man has within it a philosophical element; the meaning resides in the ability of that work to be further developed. Therefore, I would like to start with a question. Within which paradigm for the representation of the urban space can the garden offer a new form of representation of the space itself? Or rather, how can the garden emerge from the form of representation of the urban space and, at the same time, how can the urban space emerge from the form of the garden?

I propose using the concept of the METROPOLIS, understood as the intrinsic quality of the urban space and not as a city model, as a useful explanatory key in order to analyse the current statute for the representation of the urban space. The contemporary metropolis, understood in this sense, is characterised by a profound and continual lack of structural homogeneity. In Greek, it means MOTHER CITY, thus it is different, in its very essence, from the cities of the colonies. This lack of homogeneity is therefore intrinsic to the metropolitan space. The metropolis, unlike the city, does not enjoy the statute of isonomy, neither political nor urban, and it constitutively perverts the elementary binary forms: public /private, place of work /leisure, green /built-up space. Giorgio Agamben describes how, in the paradigm of the contemporary metropolis, these forms are dispelled; the metropolis destroys its own forms of representation. This immediately poses a political problem. There is a parallelism between, on the one hand, the form of the space and its representation and, on the other hand, the level of democratic feeling in the spaces that we inhabit.

The German constitutionalist Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde claims that democracy is a form of government that continually erodes and corrodes its own premises (for example social relations). The same is true for the form of the metropolis. Because of the way it manifests itself nowadays, it appears as a disorderly assembling of a series of devices, or rather processes of subjectification, which produce subjects. For example, a town square is a device in as much as it transforms the individual who crosses it into a citizen, or rather into a subject. This process, which materialises as a real grapple between individuals and devices, is never neutral. The process of subjectification does not merely produce free, emancipated identities; it always entails a component of subjugation.

There is a considerable problem in translating from Italian to German as regards the ambivalence of the signifiers spazio pubblico (public space) and luogo comune (cliché); this disparity in translation is owing to the fact that in German the two expressions sound like synonyms. The town square is a public space because it produces a subject, but it risks becoming a cliché in showing its ability to flatten and level out subjectivity.

This erratic threesome involving devices, subjects and forms does not just dispel the isonomy of the urban space but continually produces discards: residual spaces not subject to classic planning choices. Having defined, thanks to the Metropolis concept, the paradigm within which a performative project can operate, it is now necessary to attempt to state the peculiarities of this type of project. In the first place, the performative project involves a lexical issue, or rather an issue regarding the theory of linguistic acts. John Austin, author of How to do Things with Words, one of the most important works dealing with the concept of performativity, asserts that a performative utterance does not describe anything but that, at the very moment that it is uttered, it implies and produces an action.

There is no separation between the content of an action and its actual implementation. A performative utterance is a phrase such as "I forgive you" or "I bet it will rain tomorrow"; I am unable to say whether the utterance is true or false but once I have said it, I have carried out an action and produced a transformation in the present state of things. A performative utterance is a fragment of accepted custom, language and action are combined, it is a speech-act, says Austin. At this point, the political dimension re-enters the picture; performativity seems to connect the two definitions of man dating back to Aristotle, namely that man is a political animal and that man is the subject that masters language. The performative utterance holds them together. When I am speaking, I interact with another subject and bring about an occurrence; I am not describing an action but carrying it out by means of the very act of making an utterance. I think that this digression into the theory of linguistic acts can help us to deal with the intrinsic peculiarities of the performative project. I will attempt a definition: the performative project may be an architectural project that invents in the now its possibilities of meaning; these possibilities are all immanent within the very relations involved in the project in question’s occurrence.

What do I mean by saying that the performative project finds its possibilities of meaning in the now? It means that the project has a reflective component that disrupts the classic topic of the planning setting. There is no designer creating a project; the project is not the result of objectification, a product. The designer is inside the project and disrupts it continually. The utterance of the project must contain the very act of its design, the actual gesture of designing. We can quote, as an exemplifying analogy, Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty. From the moment that a researcher enters into the field of investigation of an experiment, he disrupts the existing field and becomes a part of it. The outcome of this is that it is not possible to determine a particle's momentum and position synchronically. The designer, in the performative meaning, is inside the project itself. The content of the project cannot fail to include within it the actual action that is being enacted, designed.

I would like to mention Veronique and Mark's performance at the botanical gardens in Bergamo. They had asked participants to place artificial flowers in the garden. As each person was placing his flower, he was somehow capturing the gaze of the onlookers and producing a fragment of the design; he was modifying the present state of things. If that is the way things are carried out, the performative project, unlike the project drawn up at the drawing board, compels the designer to show himself. The performative project is therefore a primitive political gesture. Hannah Arendt states that politics arises where man has become manifest. The matrix of politics therefore would not be philosophical thought but theatre, tragedy. The performative designer, in a way, lives in an epiphanic dimension of continual manifestation. He is obliged to present himself and is therefore able to supervise the action that he himself is disrupting; he does not design at a drawing board in the sanctuary of a study.

It is as if the designer has embarked upon a journey by sea where one has to navigate by sight. He drifts afloat in a space that he continually helps to change, he may get lost (the Italian word for drift or wander, errare, can indicate both a movement and a mistake). As he sails he journeys within a process of discovering new relationships between images of reality. Still referring to linguistic theory, we could claim that the garden becomes a sort of treasury of possible worlds. Corresponding with the designer’s journey is the project’s journey. The project, in the performative act of its being realised, tries in all ways to find harmony in the relationships between the images of reality that have just been discovered. Both the new relationships and the harmony between them are indeed inside the project but they immediately impose a re-declension of reality itself, they give rise to the need for a new grammar of the vision of things.

The concept of now (the performative project may be an architectural project that invents in the now its possibilities of meaning) also paves the way for reflection on the temporal element. We can think of the garden as a space in which the present and the past coexist: a sort of layered verticality that, in the performative project, is investigated without any philological or historicising purpose. Performativity suggests to the designer that he should consider the garden as an image loaded with time, as a constellation, as Walter Benjamin would say, in which the past and the present continually search for a point of contact. The constellation should be understood therefore as the attempt to intertwine, within a living relationship, a moment from the past with a moment from the present.

We could say that performative garden art expresses itself by means of a ball of intensity, which, although it unravels in different contexts such as the political, social and aesthetic ones, is continually searching for the temporary vocation of a space. The term vocation contains within it receptiveness to the possible. In order for possibility to be maintained, a vocation must necessarily be temporary. The space is not temporary but the vocation of that space is. The performative project must therefore be able to recall its own vocation. It is necessary to pose the problem of recalling a vocation in order to preserve both the meaning of garden as an image loaded with time and the receptiveness to the possible.

I shall conclude with a final suggestion deriving from another translation problem, which involves the English verb to perform. Performing the Border, a work by Ursula Biemann an artist from Zurich, is an intelligent video from 1999 about the free trade zone created on the border between Mexico and the United States. The video is a true cinematographic investigation into that border zone, which is characterised by the maquiladoras, enormous industrial agglomerates where most of the workforce is female.

The expression performing the border (which is difficult to translate into Italian) expresses the existential component inherent in each space (fulfilled by the subject of the verb to perform) and at the same time outlines that which the artist calls counter-geography, namely the attempt to construct a geography, a spatial image, starting from the subjective outlines housed by that space. Biemann seems to suggest that a space has within its being a subjective component, or more precisely a true subjective condition. The border exists in the moment that someone crosses it; at the same time the border, at the moment that it is crossed, produces, changes and (more and more often) destroys subjectivity. A continual interaction, grappling, is at play in the space, between an objective and a subjective component.

To conclude, I believe that in the space /time paradigm of contemporaneity that I have tried to outline briefly, the garden can be, from a performative perspective, a point of rough, porous, meaningful and destabilising insurgence: an opportunity for meaning which encourages one to search for new forms of representation of the urban space and, at the same time, to weave multiple, dynamic and temporary counter-geographies into this same space.