BFO Projects



Catalogue text:  Versus: BFO meets FCG in Room + Board by Susan Schuppli



Catalogue text:  Versus: BFO meets FCG in Room + Board by Susan Schuppli

Forestall the enemy by seizing what he holds dear.
Sun-Tzu c. 453-221BC

This succinct bit of counsel hails from the earliest treatise on warfare, advice that has tipped the scales in many of history’s crucial battles, whether it be Wolfe vs. Montcalm, Ali vs.Foreman or Godzilla vs. Mothra. Perhaps BFO vs. FCG will be added to this list. FCG stands for Forest City Gallery, one of Canada’s oldest artist-run centres. BFO for Bits Fallen Off, the name of a shifting international collective (anchored by Mitch Robertson and KIT) and an abbreviation used by the military to describe the debris collected from a runway. Not unlike a stray bolt on the tarmac, BFO’s Room + Board project suggests seemingly modest elements setting unpredictable chains of events. Not remotely akin to its bucolic sounding title, the Forest City Gallery has a history of surprising those that underestimate it.

As a proposition, BFO’s Room + Board project links visiting and local artists in a collaboration that is structured as a rivalry. While the basic parameters remain the same, the form of each event is determined by the specific and spontaneous interaction between visiting and local artists. The Forest City Gallery event marks the travelling project’s fifth episode, with previous events in Liverpool, UK (Static), Belfast, NI (Presentation Gallery), Calgary, CA, (The New Gallery) and Montreal, CA, (Dare-Dare). The concrete parameters are spelled out as follows: “Two or three local artists will be invited to produce a ‘hostile environment’ in the gallery. The local artists will be asked to produce a mediated environment in which they use video, sound, slide projection, smell or light …There are no rules whatsoever as to what a ‘hostile environment‘ might be.”(2) The BFO artists, joined for this event by New Yorker Charles Goldman, must counter the hostile environment by constructing ephemeral protective structures using only the components contained in a standard, carry-on bag (a parameter dictated by the various airlines they use to arrive at the exhibtion site). Arriving at the host space unaware of what they will be walking into, the BFO artists are called upon to realize structures that respond directly to conditions and events beyond their control. For their part, the artists of the host gallery must await their visitors, not knowing what tactics they will deploy. The event itself lasts only a few hours. What comes to be produced during the encounter is left on display for the duration of the exhibition as evidence and document of the struggle.

The emphasis on hostility in BFO’s project slips between the register of war and the register of competition. As co-director of Static and a participant in the inaugural event in Liverpool, Becky Shaw pointed out the incompatibility of these levels(2) . The extreme hostility of war entails one party violently enforcing its goals at the expense of the other, while competition evokes the game, an opposition bounded by rules circumscribing the players and their goals. In this sense Room + Board is neither game nor war. Whereas a game of soccer has clear rules and goals, here there are only provisional guidelines that remain open to misinterpretation and reworking. This zone of potential misunderstanding is crucial. As a physical contestation it is mapped into the gallery: a process in which visitors and hosts both try to anticipate the other so as to better give them the slip. By creating this dynamic, Room + Board levers traditional notions of the gallery out of joint. While it is common to think of a gallery simply as an empty shell that awaits exhibitions, a gallery must also be seen as a complex web of sociality. This web links artists, gallery workers, board members, sponsors, community members, and most significantly that shifting and ill-defined entity hailed as the audience. It is a web that cuts across histories of friendship and animosity, that routes itself through word of mouth, rumour and publicity and that takes place within local geographies, institutional politics and relations of cultural capital. This emphasis on relations (both those produced through art works as well as the conditions that frame art works) has played a key role in the practice of many artists in last decade.(3) The strategies of Room + Board take up this relational aesthetic but in a way that deliberately interrupts some the more naïve notions of interactivity, generosity and connection that have circulated around relational practices.

Not quite a game nor quite a war, Room + Board strategy might be thought of in terms of a parasite grafting itself into the host institution’s connective tissue. By making themselves at home in the body of another parasites alter the behaviour of their hosts. No longer the sole tenant of their biology, the host must struggle to hold on to what seemed to be the most familiar of things: their body. In an analogous way the rivalry set up by Room + Board obliges the host to perform intellectual and physical labour simply in order to be at home. Seizing “what is most dear”, the project prevents the host gallery from doing what we expect it to: neutrally offer its architecture to the visiting artist. In this sense, Room + Board draws attention to the rivalries built into the art world and implicitly questions whether such offers of hospitality can ever be seen as neutral. Displaced from their default position, the gallery (in its expanded sense) is forced to occupy its own territory, an awkward posture invented through the invitation and threat posed by the other. This awkward posture is further complicated by the role of the audience, who as an unpredictable collectivity, confounds the neat opposition between visitor and host. By intervening in the events, the audience has the uniquely powerful ability to disrupt both visitors and hosts at once. In the triangulated space created by Room + Board the tacit relations that flow through any gallery situation,-- between visitor and guest, performer and audience, collaborator and rival,-- can thrown into confusion.

While it uses hostility, the project seems less about finding new ways to create enemies than about seeing what happens when circuits are deliberately slipped into reverse, bringing to light many contradictions inherent in the hospitality of exhibition spaces. Collaboration, for instance, usually signals a form of shared work but often euphemistically glosses over relations of inequality. Addressing this contradiction Room + Board prescribes hostility, a prescription that actually allows for a far more collaborative engagement than usually takes place between visitors and hosts. By being set in opposition each party carries equal responsibility for making the project a success. This strategy also subverts the visiting artist’s dependence upon the host institution (i.e. for space, tools, time, etc) as the participants must carry with them everything they need for the show. Perhaps more importantly, the project serves as a reminder that hospitality is never a thing but an offer made to another; in agreeing to take on this strange guest no gallery can predict what consequences their offer of hospitality will entail. As an event, the project has the potential to create new relations between audience members, visiting artists and guests. As something designed to unfold over time, to travel from place to place, and to assume new and changing forms, Room + Board also exists in the anticipations and residues of its various manifestations: an offer that carries the potential for creating new webs of relation amongst the galleries and individuals drawn into its hostilities.


1 As described in BFO’s initial proposal.
2 Becky Shaw compiled all the documents and discussions surrounding the initial BFO event in Liverpool. Her reflections on the project have been helped me think through the issues it raises.
3An influential take on these issues can be found in Nicolas Bourriaud. Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Presses du R?el, 1999.