Book Review: The Long Now

Photo by Cheryl O’Brian, courtesy the Art Gallery of York University

Published by Art Gallery of York University, 2018

Tamira Sawatzky is an architect. Elle Flanders is a filmmaker. Together they are more than either of these: they form Public Studio, a cross-disciplinary practice engaging space and visual art. As their name suggests, Public Studio also engages public participation. What kind of public? What is meant by “public”? What is the artists’ relationship to that public when it comes to creation and authorship? These are questions re-examined with each project. The recent book The Long Now offers an overview focusing on Public Studio’s installation work.

Prior to the convergence of their careers in 2010, Sawatzky worked with Toronto firm MJMA on community centres and libraries. Flanders’ art focused on conditions of life in Palestine, as exemplified by her film Zero Degrees of Separation, produced for the NFB. This interest in the Palestinian condition informed Public Studio’s work for its first several years. Their preoccupation with the political deployment of space as a tool of settlement turned to Canada with the project The New Field (2017), which took them and a community of supporters on what might be described as a dérive through the colonized Canadian landscape.

Their work since then has frequently superimposed political and ecological critiques in a rich layering of ideas with minimal, even austere, images and architecture. In their installation What We Lose in Metrics (2016), for example, architecture is reduced to its barest bones—a variety of screens and the icon-like frame of a plywood house help frame thoughtful relationships between spaces housing work from a range of collaborations. That work references the civil and the wild: tearing a jungle from the film Apocalypse Now, for example, and projecting it into a house; or screening, for an audience of potted plants, a legal, Indigenous-inspired declaration of our responsibilities to the living world. As is frequently the case with Public Studio, rather than a single work, this piece presents us with a kind of community—of ideas, forms, images and authors. It might be understood as a thesis about what architecture can be.

The interval implied in a title like The Long Now would seem to exist in space as much as time—fittingly for a creative practice where architecture and film share equal importance. The title was taken from a proposal to encode, in DNA, a film evoking the timescales of the Laurentian geography, and then bury it forever on reclaimed land at the edge of one of the Great Lakes. Interpenetrating discourses on politics and ecology are clearly a part of Public Studio’s own DNA. These are avenues for exploring what Sawatzky identifies as the difficult (and perhaps unresolvable) relationship between architecture and art—in particular their public aspects.

The book includes documentation of key work, accompanied by thoughtful essays by T.J. Demos, Susan Schuppli, Jayne Wilkinson, and John Greyson connecting it to ecologies of media, art/science hybrids, surveillance technologies, and a meteorology derived as much from satellites as from clouds. While at times the reader wishes that more of the images could be seen at the widescreen scale of film and architecture, rather than as curatorial thumbnails, the book is a thought-provoking overview of Public Studio’s work.

It leaves one hungry for another opportunity to experience their work—in public.

Lawrence Bird, MRAIC is an architect, planner and visual artist. He works at pico ARCHITECTURE in Winnipeg.