Fat Chew 2: Bubbles

James Beckett & Alison Nguyen on the occasion of Haseeb Ahmed’s “Interior Weathers”

December 13, 2021

Haseeb Ahmed’s “Interior Weathers” was on view September 3 - October 16, 2021. The flow, temperature, and humidity of air within 1708 were central to this exhibition. For Ahmed air is an artistic medium and a mediator. Exhibition spaces generally attempt to mitigate and dismiss outdoor weather conditions; however, Ahmed applied circulation, temperature change, and the molecular phase transitions of air to create a chaotic interior weather system within the gallery. Ahmed’s use of household machines, pre-existing infrastructure, and sound, gesture towards the development of a techno-poetics between the quotidian technological surrounds of modern society and the sublime, ineffable nature of air and wind. “Interior Weathers” linked the body and building as breathing systems and to the cultural significance of breath itself.

"Fat Chew 2: Bubbles" is composed of excerpts transcribed from a lecture by artist James Beckett on his body of work “A Seedless Grape” (2020) and editorial responses by artist Alison Nguyen. This dialogic essay elaborates on how air quality, histories of climate control, and the air conditions of labor are paralleled in Ahmed’s exhibition. Beckett and Nguyen have research-based practices focusing on cultural signs–their history, their political implications, and their ability to transmute and transform.

Introduction: James Beckett

Haseeb Ahmed first asked for me to contribute towards an exhibition he was making, revolving around a series of reflections on a self fashioned wind tunnel, an iteration which followed his long-term fascination with all things wind. A preceding work of his, a sword suspended in one such tunnel, exemplifies the poetics of Ahmed’s approach—a motion perpetual, potency suspended in scientific analysis. Since the beginning of 2020 my focus of research has been the material and cultural histories orbiting air-conditioning, for which “manufactured weather” and interiors became important. The project evolved due to the fact my studio in New York City was the first space in the world to be truly air-conditioned in 1902, by engineer Willis Carrier. The regulation of humidity was key to this invention, and following its first implementation in this building, launched a new approach in internal climate control. My installation and lecture which followed, “A Seedless Grape”, draws from the language and methodology of the essay film—it plays with the compacting of sources and layering inherent in storytelling, as much as a form of philosophical poetics.

In Ahmed’s “Interior Weathers” many motifs from this lecture reappear: the idea of conditioned air coming to describe the shapes of the spaces it inhabits (particularly those of the body); the vent as interface between a pure conditioned space and the designated room to be cooled; and humidity itself (or dew point regulation) the key parameter in the attenuation of one's comfort. In Ahmed’s installation there is a cancelling out of these controls, a short circuit in the apparent task of climate control. A kind of sisyphus of the interior weather of the 1708 gallery space. We cannot help but entertain the space as a unit or petri-dish, waiting for a 1709 equivalent, and wondering what happened in control room 1707.

Haseeb Ahmed, "Interior Weathers" 2021 (detail), electronics, data visualisation, custom software, wood, found appliances, HVAC ducting, cinder blocks, respiratory anatomical model, and found pedestals, paint, colored sand. 90" x 90" x 50". Courtesy of the artist and 1708 Gallery. Photograph by David Hale.

Transcription and Editorial Response: James Beckett and Alison Nguyen


James Beckett:

In a more expensive than usual space

Air-conditioning is an ‘artifactual event’, an ephemeral, experiential entity that is produced however, by a very real infrastructure.

Unlike an artifact in the archaeological sense—the tangible, that which one can hold, an ‘artifactual event’ is something in passing, an occurrence which is constantly fed, which constantly needs feeding. There is nothing passive about it. In absence of this feeding, the air which is ‘conditioned’ ceases to exist, or at least it becomes less like its core self, and more like the other ‘airs’ around it.

In its life cycle, this conditioned air is manufactured, channeled, contained, maintained, and eventually replaced. In turn, it has a series of artifacts of its own, peripheral entities that have come to shape its identity and reputation in areas of architecture, environment, health and industry. If the process of conditioning air were to be likened to the production of a chair, one could say the chair is the desired artifact, whilst the wood shavings are the more residual, or unintended artefacts.

James Beckett, “A Seedless Grape” 2020 - 2021. Backlit plexiglass, condenser coils, various objects (Bellevue Stradford convention facilities brochure circa 1965), wood, UV print on glass. 25’ x 12’ x 12’ at International Studio & Curatorial Program, Brooklyn, NY. Courtesy of the Artist.

In the late summer of 1976, the American Legion opened its annual three-day convention at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. Due to the contamination of a water reservoir of the hotel's air-conditioning system, harmful bacteria causing a form of pneumonia was pumped through the air vents of the hotel's reception hall. This became the world's first major outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease totalling 182 cases, of which 29 people died.

As air has no inherent quality, purity, or even shape, it comes to adopt the characteristics of the spaces in which it resides. It becomes a describer of other entities – architecture, lungs – and in the case of conditioned air, an indicator or marker of a more expensive than usual space, a special space.

Alison Nguyen:

Around the broken the bubble of a Limousine

Through the glass windows of a limousine, passengers can see the world but they cannot be touched by it. The material connotes the essence of American aspiration: a surface sense of indestructibility, an agelessness, an inability to decay. If reality has been subsumed by moving images, then the cool glass car window is the ultimate membrane through which they can be viewed.

With a partition separating the driver and the passenger one can inhabit the limousine as if it were their own solitary planet. Climate control sliding knobs. The pulse of the engine. The car has its own circulatory system; its own weather system; limousine passengers act as god manipulating an artificial sun. The flapping tongues of pink napkins peeking out of plastic cups. An intercom. A miniature bar. Flashing LED lights. Cupholders. The curvature of the two-toned seats. Sitting closely next to each other passengers can feel each other’s heat. Slide the vents so that the wind brushes your ankles. This is luxury: the illusion of control and protection from an exterior environment rife with unpredictability. The simulated extra-sensory heightened. Passengers and drivers are cynical performers aware of artifice while all the time taking part in it.[1] The auto-cinematic.

Alison Nguyen, “my favorite software is being here” 2020-2021. Video, color, stereo sound. 19 minutes 47 seconds. Courtesy of the Artist.

“It is not, as here in the great capital New York, the vertiginous glass facade reflecting each building to the others. There is a science-fiction story in which a number of very rich people wake up one morning in their luxury villas in the mountains to find that they are encircled by a transparent and insuperable obstacle, a wall of glass that has appeared in the night. From the depths of their vitrified luxury, they can still just discern the outside world, the real universe from which they are cut off, which has suddenly become the ideal world. But it is too late. These rich people will die slowly in their aquarium like goldfish. Some of the university campuses here remind me of this.”
― Jean Baudrillard, America, 1986


In/outside the glass envelope of the Lever House

The Lever House, completed in 1952, became the 2nd so-called curtain wall building in New York City, with four sides of its structure completely clad in glass. These glass walls were in fact hermetically sealing the building for the purpose of climate control.

James Beckett, “A Seedless Grape” 2020 - 2021. Backlit plexiglass, condenser coils, various objects (Magazine spread on Lever House circa 1955), wood, UV print on glass. 25’ x 12’ x 12’ at International Studio & Curatorial Program, Brooklyn, NY. Courtesy of the Artist.

Prior to this architectural phenomenon, a window washer would be a kind of transitory member of staff, an additional employee with which to interact. A day's work would consist of exiting through the very windows to be cleaned, cleaning the windows, then returning to the inhabited space of (presumably satisfied) workers—essentially the extension of the flux of a village. With the Lever House, and its windows sealed shut, the window washer would now need to drop to street level, or return to the roof, then enter the building in order to interact, or even hear a resident.

Glass is a crucial ultra-thin, enveloping, and enabling a visibility of the outside world, but without participation. Somehow inviting, whilst simultaneously forbidding—the drawing of a line. A window washer is in a way as close as possible to this threshold of privacy. Through the nature of maintenance of this membrane, the washer almost shares the space with the resident, as much a flirtation as an invasive presence.

Here he/she becomes the ultimate voyeur. In a near comical interaction, one player is suspended from strings, bustled about by the wind, whilst the other is trapped in a kind of complex viewing aquarium.

Cool: (Salvatore Basile) It justified all those old sci-fi stories, by offering a completely controlled working environment. Lever House allowed employees to avoid all contact with the grubbier aspects of the city; they could drive directly into the building's underground garage, take meals in the company cafeteria, and work in its well-lit offices… One observer noted acerbically that Lever employees didn't even have to breathe the same air as other New Yorkers.


Around the broken the bubble of a Limousine 2

Orgies; presidential parades; weddings; celebrity transportation; death. The limousine embodies the desires of a collective cinematic imagination, and with that, a deformation of such.

Limousines gained popularity in the U.S. around 1935. The vehicle was adopted by the Hollywood movie industry as a means to transport key staff, including actors, to and from movie sets. The rise of the American cult of celebrity and the ascendancy of the image came hand in hand with the vehicle.

With all of its associated glamour, the limousine also embodies a strong linkage to death. John F. Kennedy’s presidential limousine was a modified 1961 Lincoln Continental. It was a bold departure in style with low hanging lines and rear-hinged "suicide" doors. Blue metallic flakes had been mixed into the paint making the vehicle look more reflective and brilliant in the sunlight, thus photographing better in black & white. A vehicle designed for image reproduction and dissemination.

The morning JFK was driven into Dallas in 1963, it was agreed upon that the bubble panels would be removed from the roof of the car, leaving the president exposed and more open to interact with an adoring crowd.[2] In this way he and Jackie would photograph better. Thirty minutes after embarking on his drive into the city JFK would be dead; the limousine became the site of the crime itself.

The original customized 1961 Lincoln limousine (code name: X-100) that John F. Kennedy was later assassinated in. The car, a joint venture between Ford and partner Hess and Eisenhardt, is shown here being delivered to an unknown destination with sections of its removable bubble roof panels laid out behind it. The panels could stick into the trunk of the car. (The Henry Ford Museum)

Throughout history Americans have displayed an amazing predilection for amnesia. Succeeding JFK, Lyndon B. Johnson wanted his presidential vehicle to be distinct from the deceased former president’s limousine, avoiding any physical likeness to what had been dubbed the "Death Car" in a 1964 Associated Press story. An upgrade, Lyndon B. Johnson’s limousine had a telephone, a TV, a reserve gas tank, and a specially designed communication system housed within the car for contact with the Secret Service.

The limousine that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in on a trip to Dallas was sent back to Ford and partner Hess & Eisenhardt to rebuild and improve its safety and design. The project started around Dec. 1963 and was dubbed the "Quick Fix." These photos show the process and the rebuilt car on display in front of Hess & Eisenhardt's headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio before it was sent back to the White House. (The Henry Ford Museum)

Status symbols shift over time and slip and turn and transmute. The modernist dream of glass, of free travel throughout cosmopolitan space has long been perverted and reinterpreted. Limousines, too, entered into mass production and thus underwent a different stage of class signification. They are no longer a rarity careening through the suburban streets, passengers in their tinted glass worlds en route to proms and theaters and hot tubs. The specter of death is nowhere near as cocktail glasses chink and rattle in occasional traffic.

James Beckett (ZA/NL) Born 1977, Harare, Zimbabwe is currently based in New York City, US and Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Beckett’s research-based practice explores overlooked histories concerned with industrial development and the built environment. His resulting installations and works for public space deal with cultural signs that shape our experience in the modern era.

Key in Beckett’s work, is the focus on the physicality of historically-laden objects. Through anecdotal accounts of little-known artists, inventors and workers, he shapes a romantic reading of peripheral historical eves. His approach considers proximity – how close is one able to come to a given subject through tertiary bodies, and what are the implications of their given traces? In the amassing of his own collections, and working with those of museums, Beckett activates objects in order to unpack their abstract and metaphysical potential, often employing the absurd and uncanny to form new perspectives on formative events.

An obscure associative logic is key to Beckett’s visual language, which often uses a strict formalism that reflects museological convention and design. This involves craft-like assembly, placing the work uncomfortably between bourgeois decorative art and crude social reality. His work entertains history in a state of constant re-interpretation, and portrays a world where anomaly and change are fundamental.

Beckett is in residency at the ISCP, NYC, 2020/2021 and has exhibited at the Belgian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale 2015; MAAT, Lisbon 2017; MCAD Manila 2017, The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 2012, amongst others. His work is represented by galleries: T293, Rome; Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam and Markus Lüttgen, Dusseldorf.

Beckett was resident at the Rijksakademie (2001-2002) after which he won the Prix de Rome for Art in Public Space. His works are in the public collections of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Centre Pompidou, Paris, amongst others.

Alison Nguyen is a New York-based artist whose work spans video, installation, and performance. Her screenings include: e-flux, Ann Arbor Film Festival, International Film Festival Oberhausen, CPH:DOX, Edinburgh International Film Festival, Crossroads presented by SF MoMA/SF Cinemateque, Channels Festival International Biennial of Video Art, True/False Film Festival, Open City Documentary Festival, and Microscope Gallery. Her work has been exhibited at The International Studio & Curatorial Program, AC Gallery Beijing, The Dowse Art Museum, Hartnett Gallery, La Kaje, and The University of Oklahoma, Contemporary Art and Digital Fair, Miami, among others.

Nguyen has received residencies and fellowships from the International Studio & Curatorial Program, The Institute of Electronic Arts, BRIC, Squeaky Wheel Film and Media Art Center, Signal Culture, and Vermont Studio Center. She has been awarded grants from NYSCA, the Foundation for Contemporary Art, and The New York Community Trust. In 2018 Alison Nguyen was featured in Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” In 2021 she was awarded a NYFA/NYSCA Artist Fellowship in Video/Film.

Nguyen has been a Guest Lecturer and Visiting Critic at numerous institutions and organizations including e-flux, Cooper Union, The New School, Rhode Island School of Design, The University of Buffalo, The School of Visual Arts, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, and Squeaky Wheel Film and Media Art Center.

[1] In The presentation of self in everyday life, Goffman (1956: 10) distinguishes between a “sincere” performer and a “cynical” performer. A cynical performer is one who “may be moved to guide the conviction of this audience only as a means to other ends, having no ultimate concern in the conception that they have of him or of the situation”(1956: 11).

[2] Wynn, Christopher, “Would a bubble-top have saved Kennedy? More answers from the strange story of JFK’s Lincoln limo,” The Dallas Morning News, November 19, 2018.