Review: Geometric Asylum

Lachlan Anthony, Geometric Asylum
Metro Arts, Brisbane
13 - 30 July 2016

Fig 1: Lachlan Anthony, Vast Impenetrability (2015), ABS Polymer, Enamel

Words by Llewellyn Millhouse

On entering the gallery, the visitor to Geometric Asylum is met with Vast Impenetrability (2015, fig.1), a grid of intimidating cone spikes blocking a direct path into the main gallery space. The most striking aspect of these spikes is their repeated perfection. As the viewer is directed away from these obstacles to view them from a distance as a singular sculptural object, the flat, perfectly pointed and unblemished finish of the cones gives them a feeling of non-materiality, like a field of platonic geometry hovering above the physical plane.

Approaching the main space from its far side, the work Circulation (2015, fig.2) drives a length of aluminium slowly around the perimeter of the two-walled central room, asking the viewer to navigate the space like they would a revolving door at the base of a high-rise building. The scale and speed of the motorised arm in relation to the viewer’s body reminded me immediately of an obstacle in a side-scrolling platform video game. The indifference of the arm’s movement to the bodies in its space appears like the kinetic traps of video game environments, specifically the cogs and blades of 2D castles, factories or underground labyrinths. Although representing no literal danger to the audience, the movement of the slender arm prevented many viewers from entering its demarcated zone. Effectively channelled towards the back of the gallery by the symbolic threat of the motorised arm, the viewer is again obstructed by Thresha (2015, fig.3). Forced to move around this rotating barrier of anti-pigeon spikes, Thresha reiterated the aggression of Geometric Asylum’s sculptural obstructions. Struggling under its own weight, the motorised rotation of the skewer produces a painful and high-pitched mechanical noise heard throughout the gallery space.

Fig. 2: Lachlan Anthony, Circulation (2015), Rotating Display Motor, Steel, Aluminium, Wood, Enamel

Anthony describes the works in Geometric Asylum as ‘hostile kinetic systems and deterrent architecture’1, sculptures modelled on design elements used to direct and preserve the flow of human traffic through retail centres and urban space. Anthony uses the hostility of these design elements to characterise public space in neo-liberal societies. At the core of Geometric Asylum is a critical position regarding privatisation and commercialisation of public space. In drawing a relationship between neo-liberal economics and the spiked and threatening obstacles of Geometric Asylum, Anthony aims to highlight the prevalence of ‘exclusionary spatial strategies in the built environment’2. To Anthony, the authoritarian violence of pushing individuals through and out of public space is not a metaphor for neo-liberalism, but a literal reflection of the real objects, designs and experiences of individuals traversing the in-between space of urban centres.

There has been significant effort put in to giving these objects a professional finish. The lustrous black uniformity of Anthony’s sculptures produces a dramatic contrast against the white walls and patina timber floorboards of the gallery. This ultra-sleek finish seems a necessary way of separating Anthony’s intent from the DIY, robots-are-fun aesthetic of kinetic art. However, the result of Anthony’s professionalism does not bring to mind his object’s literal equivalents in the public infrastructure and architectural industry, but instead the formal singularity of minimalist sculpture, a kind of absence of materiality that celebrates line, space and abstract form. The obstacles that Anthony has fabricated are not made to sink insidiously into the design of the room, but appear instead as enlarged and accentuated, their violent potential made hyper-real.

To be seriously affected by the hostile architecture that Anthony references in Geometric Asylum the individual needs to fall almost completely out of the neo-liberal social system. As sociologist Erving Goffman suggests, it is not physical obstacles that ensure normative social functioning in public space, but ‘a fine mesh of obligations’ internalised in the form of self-image and social status3. To assert your ownership of public space is often to appear as mentally ill, as ‘many classic symptoms of psychosis are precise and pointed violations of these territorial arrangements'4. While neo-liberalism physically undermines the use of public space, in Anthony’s example, by removing public toilets so as to discourage individuals from spending long periods in public without entering retail or hospitality businesses, hostile architecture exists to coerce those who have lost their stake in the neo-liberal system, those who are unable to give what it demands of them in public space.

Fig. 3: Lachlan Anthony, Thresha (2015), Anti-Pigeon Spikes, BBQ Rotisserie Motor, Steel, Aluminium, Wood, Enamel, Shot Bags

The brutal design strategies of Geometric Asylum correspond to what Michel Foucault describes as a medieval politics of coercion. In Discipline and Punis (1975), Foucault documents the modern history of disciplinary practices in architecture and social ritual. In the example of walls separating class communities, dungeon architecture and public executions, medieval spatial politics operated through direct physical interjection and bodily punishment to produce the spontaneous consent of a public. In contrast, Foucault suggests that industrial-era spatial politics rely on the coercive methods of the panopticon prison design (1791). By placing a surveillance hub in the centre of a cylindrical prison, all prisoners in the panopticon can potentially be seen at once without knowing if they are being watched at any given time. As inmates cannot know whether they are being observed, they must act is if they are constantly observed in fear of punishment.

Foucault uses the example of the panopticon as a metaphor for the internalisation of coercion through symbolic surveillance. To Foucault, the maintenance of power no longer relies on medieval spatial politics, but on a translation of the omnipresent threat of punishment into the idea of self-in-public. However, contemporary neo-liberal capitalism is as historically separate from the conditions that produced the industrial panopticon as the distinction that Foucault makes between medieval and industrial societies. Risking accusations of naïve conspiratorialism, it might be useful to compare Foucault’s panopticon to a more contemporary architectural model.
On completion in 2017, Apple Campus 2 will operate as Apple’s corporate headquarters. Housing up to thirteen thousand employees, Apple’s new design factory represents a micro-utopian city, a benchmark of the success of neo-liberalism in the twenty-first century. Putting the luxury and extravagance associated with Apple aside, a comparison of the architectural model of Apple’s Campus 2 with that of the panopticon yields a humorously glaring result. In the place of a central hub that symbolically conducts the surveillance of inmates, the Apple panopticon has a perfectly manicured aspirational park.

Apple’s flat, cylindrical office model functions as the symbolic opposite to the pyramid power structure that so obviously underlies Apple as a corporate company. In the glass donut, no office stands clearly atop the others, or has the corner view. Instead, the circular form promotes lateral visibility between workers. As is typical of cutting-edge twenty-first century workplaces, the use of glass, the absence of private space and the prevalence of open plan design in Campus 2 are said to privilege visibility between walkways, offices and communal workspace5. The perimeter of each floor is a continuous walkway, an infinite loop from which the worker views both the activity of their co-workers and the idyllic interior park 6.

It can be safely assumed that no hostile architecture will be necessary to maintain public order at Apple Campus 2. If we consider the distance between the industrial era panopticon and the neo-liberal paradise of Campus 2 as a perfection of a single ideological trajectory, Campus 2 must represent the perfection of a fully internalised form of self-surveillance. As opposed to the threat of punishment symbolised by the unseen gaze of the panopticon hub, the internalised self-surveillance of neo-liberalism is framed in the positive, in terms of aspiration, reward and success. Through the mythology of competition, the neo-liberal worker is coerced as they identify as a competitor, simultaneously watching others and being watched in the social space of Apple’s corridor-as-public. Always visible from within the building, Campus 2’s Garden of Eden serves as the tangible symbolic representation of success, a constant reminder that the Apple worker must compete to remain in their Apple utopia.

In the panopticon, individuals are separated by their fear of punishment, discouraged from the articulation of their public power as a majority. In societies informed by neo-liberal ideology, the concept of public becomes entirely the domain of the other. According to neo-liberalism, public space is irrational, wild and unsafe, a symbolically hostile space that belongs to no one. The push towards privatisation does not just represent a series of economic transactions, but a shift in the individual’s relationship to the concept of public. From this view, physically hostile architecture appears as a kind of last resort for the maintenance of neo-liberal normativities. Rather than the brutally medieval design features of Geometric Asylum, it is the functioning individual’s own internalised coercion that maintains neo-liberal public space.

Returning to the experience of Geometric Asylum, the perfectly smooth, hyper-real and unblemished surfaces of Anthony’s sculptures now appear as an imagined, symbolic infrastructure. Geometric Asylum dictates a particular circuit through the gallery space, but the appearance of the sculptures give the impression of traversing a fantastical obstacle course. To the individual as competitor, public space is imagined as a series of platonic obstacles, each to be conquered in order to achieve individual success. We see ourselves navigate a hostile public space in our own narratives of self-image, performing what reality TV describes as our own exceptional “journey”.

This imagined journey through a uniform succession of accentuated and hyper-real obstacles is what first struck me about Geometric Asylum. Like the Italian American plumber Mario from the platform video game series Super Mario (1985-1990), the viewer observes their image traversing natural and built environments in order to capture an arbitrary object of desire. In various iterations of the Super Mario series, the Mario character must evade hostile autonomous rotating arms, jump over spiked walls and pits, and avoid rolling spiked skewers. These symbolic threats to the competitor’s self-image are very similar to those fabricated by Anthony in Geometric Asylum.

Mythologies of competition and the individual struggle for success rationalise the violence of neo-liberal economics. In their quest for self-achievement against an abstract and symbolically hostile public, the video game player often practises the values of neo-liberal mythology unwittingly. Our idea of public space in these narratives denies the possibility of solidarity and social power, the public other inevitably a faceless zombie/Nazi/alien obstacle to be overcome by the competitor-subject. According to the principles of Super Mario, the success of the Mario avatar is entirely dependent on the talent, persistence and hard work of the player-competitor. It is no surprise that when we imagine public space our fantasy narratives fail to acknowledge the infrastructures of power that rig the “game” of neo-liberalist competition from the very start.

For more information, please visit Lachlan's website.

  1. Anthony, L. 2016, Lachlan Anthony, http://www.metroarts.com.au/artist/lachlan-anthony/
  2. Ibid
  3. Goffman, E. 1972, Relations in Public, Penguin, p.415
  4. Goffman, E. 1972, Relations in Public, Penguin, p.415
  5. Ibid
  6. Moore, A. 2016, Complete Guide to Apple Campus 2, http://www.macworld.co.uk/feature/apple/complete-guide-apple-campus-2-3489704/
  7. Saval, N. 2014, New Trends in Office Design, https://nplusonemag.com/issue-19/reviews/new-trends-in-office-design/