Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Bang Bang Room

Paul McCarthy's Bang Bang Room (1992) at the 4th Berlin Biennale in 2006 struck me as being a suburban domestic space mainly because of the early seventies wallpaper and the rooms weren’t of grand proportions and suggested the size of a single person's or child's/teenager's bedroom. It also struck a chord because it had the quality of a film/tv/ theatre set that had become disembodied from its purpose or its legitimate home. It made me think of Gregor Schneider's work that resonates with me for his reconfiguring of architectural spaces to create metaphors for psychological familial trauma. I also thought of Fritz Lang's Secret Beyond the Door and it also echos Piranesi’s work in that it's a functionless, surreal space where there are doors in every wall.

When the work heaved into action the rooms came to life and I was struck by the ferocity of the animation of the inanimate. The walls move mechanically to create a closed room space and then open again to reveal the platform/floor inside. At the same time all the doors are banging loudly. An animated room that makes its own noise immediately made me think of horror films that invest in the idea of the agency of the house, or the anthropomorphising of the house. It’s possible, when there is a gap in the walls to stand on the platform and experience the walls pulling together to make a room that you are trapped in momentarily.

The experience of watching the structure is different to standing on the platform. Watching it you can see the mechanisms and hear the sounds and observe the way the piece operates and moves. this makes the piece a bit like a sideshow, as you watch people go into the work its like watching people on rides on the pier and enjoying their fear from your safe-place of observation. It’s tentatively and with the invigilator's reassuring permission that you dodge the closing walls and stand on the internal platform. There is a masochism involved in agreeing to ‘put yourself through it’ and also to know that you can be observed doing this masochistic act. It reminded me of noisy neighbours, being told off for noise as a child, the discomfort of high density living. Bang Bang Room immediately appeals to me because it draws on the idea of the resonance of a place that lingers. Also the repetition of the movements and banging in the work make it powerful, a kind of looping or blind violent fury. The aggression subsides, but we know it will come again. This makes me think of a cycle of abuse, the knowledge that we can do one thing wrong and the aggressor will be set off again.


  1. Hi Nicola, thanks for bringing up this work, it's one I'd completely forgotten seeing. What I do recall now quite clearly is being in the building (the Jewish School I think) and approaching the work, or rather just walking down the bright and hard sounding corridors and hearing the the noise of this work, the huge extended crash of the almost synchronized collisions. Before having a context, the sound would perhaps have felt alien, but the scale and regularity of it seemed to assert its suitability. Like hearing machines in a factory, the respective workings of a mill or pumphouse or a basement furnace it's an experience that instils the sense of a building with a capacity for kinetic action. Perhaps this is like the agency ascribed to buildings in horror films which you already alluded to, we imagine this action to be autonomous, ocasionally even concious. Like the cinematic cliché of the slamming doors, slamming shutters, slamming windows, whether directed by a supernatural agent or pathetic fallacy. The engine room or furnace already blur the line between building and object, Bang Bang Room distorts the distinction further by referring less to a real room and more to a set (as you write), not least due to the absence of a ceiling. Perhaps what I'm trying to say is that at the Bienale at least, this work's thinglyness spread out from itself and infected a bit more of the building around it, started turning the Jewish School into a house-thing.

  2. Yes, the building itself was quite phenomenal. The Bang Bang Room room ceiling was this expanse of peeling paint, looked a bit like skin falling, white paint, brown ceiling behind. The whole place felt austere and just 'girls school' always takes me back to scenes like the end of Picnic at Hanging Rock for instance, with the 'stoop cure.' What you write makes me think of this relationship between the room and school, it was a gift really that room. The work would have been so different had it been installed in, for want of a better example, a shopping mall say. Acoustically this place made for the monstrous sound you describe. Already the residue of social control implicit in the school environment set us up for this controlled, domestic nightmare.

  3. Good call on Picnic at Hanging Rock. I thought there was another filmic reference for that kind of space, I still think there is but I can't place it (Return to Oz???). It has totally been absorbed by my own secondary school. Brick walls which have curved corners where they jutted out, covered in layers of mute but heavy eggshell. Waxed, scoured and scuffed wooden floors. Everything worn smooth, or else softened (the form, not the matter) with repeated applications, yet still incredible hard. Bright. Nowhere echoes like that kind of institution, everything just flows through, meeting no resistance if it follows the order and authority of the building, slapped back the way it came should it try to subvert this order.

    This brings to mind Brian Massumi's writing on schooling in "A user's guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia", defining the use of the school as to "make-young-body-docile" but also identifying that "The subject [of the process called schooling] is a transpersonal abstract machine, a set of strategies operating in nature and spread throughout the social field." It is interrelations (rules, roles within the school and beyond), matter (the genes which decide human potential, the raw material which dictates the subject of the students training, however indirectly) and socioeconomic (the decisions to define a behaviour or skill achievable through the school system as desirable).

    The school obviously retains the remnants of its operation through these different levels, even without the content that is students. The school was a system of expression applied to this content, the students passed through the building geographically and temporally, rebounding from the walls or learning to walk between them, continuing to do so even after graduation, after they have left the building. The controlled domestic nightmare you describe might then be expression of the school (building an' all) wrought upon the student body, "a selected set of humanoid bodies grasped as a biophysical matter to be molded". The offered freedom of a world without walls is a false one held as it is within a rigidly established (as matter, as interpersonal relations, as socioeconomics), and even so its lesson is a violent percussive one repeated over and over again, even in the absence of students. Paul McCarthy knew the school can't be turned off, the peeling paint on the ceiling just makes the school more visible, makes its entrenchment (in the place, in us, in the outside) visible.