Intento dibujar y re dibujar una línea (ReLine Attempt), 2018. Indelible ink on skin (tattoo), 15 x 10 cm. Photo: Lucas Sarmiento

Acting on Impossibility: A Conversation with Ignacio Unrrein

Architect and doctoral candidate at Argentina’s National University of Arts, Ignacio Unrrein explores highly theoretical terrain in very concrete terms. His works occupy gaps—in perception, art-making, and personal relations (whether between individuals or between citizens and the city)—sometimes closing them, sometimes widening them, but always drawing attention to their existence and promise of opportunity. For him, the artwork is not a final, finished thing, but an ongoing journey of experimentation based in realizing the potential of impossibility. Conceptually rigorous, his two- and three-dimensional works, installations, and actions question the role of aesthetics in the work itself as well as in people’s minds while serving as provocateurs, nudging us to rethink the rules that we use to define ourselves and our role in society.

María Carolina Baulo: The American sociologist Richard Sennett has had an important philosophical impact on your “Attempts” series (2013–ongoing), which includes Reconstruction Attempt, Line Attempt, ReLine Attempt, and Printing Attempt. What are these works about, how are they structured, and what is their internal logic?
Ignacio Unrrein:
Sennett’s The Artisan (2008) has had a deep impact on me in recent years. He mentions that every person, at some point in his or her life, tries to do something well for no other purpose than just doing it well. It seemed interesting to focus on “the action of trying something often without getting it,” to develop a series of work-attempts that, though thwarted by the impossibility of carrying them out, nevertheless find opportunities to be developed within that impossibility. The first, Line Attempt, was to draw a single continuous line that would never cross or touch; then, in ReLine Attempt, I tried to re-draw it digitally to measure its extension. Printing Attempt begins with impossibility in a more obvious way—like an oxymoron or tautology. I tried to print a full black on acetate until the ink cartridge ran out, even though acetate is a material that prevents full prints of one color. I made 729 prints—their procedure identical, but each one unique and unrepeatable—until the cartridge was used up. What interests me is the dialectic between the right way to do something—to do something right just for the sake of doing it right—and the willingness to experiment through error and the construction of meaninglessness as a symbolic production. In the attempt to cut an acrylic panel into a multitude of pieces, reassemble it, and then cut a new one interpreting the reconstruction inaccuracies and slippages generated in the first piece, I could better focus on the relationship between repetition and error, which results in an indefinite continuity of action and the possibility of probing success as an outcome of remaining and returning to remain in failure.

Intento Imprimir (Printing Attempt) (detail), 2015–17. 729 inkjet prints on acetate, glass, and wood, 21 x 10 cm. each; 300 x 600 cm. overall. Photo: Emma Livingston

MCB: How much importance do you give to aesthetics as a value in itself—which implies taking form and appearance into account—and on a symbolic level?
The feeling I have is that the aesthetic value is intrinsic to the value of learning to develop something based on my specific concerns; it is the epistemology that comes from each particular investigation. The symbolic production focuses on nonsense, or what Aristotle mentions in his Poetics, where he binds the ridiculous to the ugly and postulates that the ridiculous can be defined perhaps as an error or deformity that produces no pain or harm to others. On the other hand, he stated that the best knowledge is useless. This is the space where I try to produce value, the space of the excluded.

MCB: How does your work fit into the framework of the art institution, which involves legitimation, a critical point of view, and the market? Is this important to you?
IU: When I presented Tapiar Buenos Aires (Walling Buenos Aires, 2018) at the Acéfala gallery, we walled up the main entrance—in agreement with the curator. Bricking up the exhibition space defined the show as a non-show, paradoxically giving visitors full freedom of action because they could transgress the impediment by entering through the machine room of the building. The impossibility proposed by the wall promoted the possibility of reflecting on its relationship to the exhibition space, as well as a re-evaluation of the concepts of institutionalization and legitimation that, together with forms of inscription and visibility, define art spaces—many times without taking into account the existence of other practices, as diverse and artistic as they might be. Despite the fact that the wall was installed between the border of art and the border of the legitimizing institution, and that it led to the recognition of artistic alterity by questioning what is and isn’t art, it was not created as a mere denunciation or indeterminate parody of art spaces; the idea was that this limit could be approached as a space for reflection.

Tapiar Buenos Aires (Walling Buenos Aires), 2018. Ceramic and brickwork, 240 x 448 x 8 cm. Photo: Pat Madia

MCB: Balloons (2012) deals with memory and the impossibility of finding an exact correlation between an image we produce in our minds and the materialization of that idea. How is this tension represented in the work?
The tension manifests itself in the impossibility of achieving the correlation. This might have been the root of the work-attempts based on the impossibility of doing something. That single second when the balloons and the fabric were floating in the air, balancing their weights, was a fleeting way of inhabiting the vacuum generated between what we imagine, the ways in which we represent it, and the ways in which we materialize it. Addressing that void remains a topic of interest, as does memory. I recently realized that the attempts, even when they are their own back-up documentation, interact in a space where memory enables the error.

MCB: Rapport (2014) questions the space between individuals, the distance between our personal space and that of others—something like the difference between “what one says and what the other hears.” Impossibility and the action of attempting are here as well; there is a struggle to demonstrate that no matter how hard you try, the gaps always generate close, but separate universes.
IU: Rapport examines perception and experience. It begins with the idea of building a mirror that reflects a person—with delay—and it deals with the distances between what we imagine, create, represent, and remember. These distances exist within the individual’s inner dialogue and in dialogues with others. This search is completely aligned with what you were saying and seeks to highlight that tension. I’m interested in thinking that they are separate, but they also often come close. “The Legend of Painting” by Michel Tournier (published in Le Médianoche amoureux, The Midnight Lovefeast) was an important reference here. In this story of a famous contest, two artists are asked to paint facing walls of a room for a caliph of Baghdad. The first painting to be revealed depicted a beautiful garden paradise that no one thought could be surpassed; when the curtain was raised on the second artist’s work, it revealed a mirror reflecting the most incredible painting of all time, as well as the splendor of the gathered court. The second artist was declared the winner.

In Rapport, that void becomes an impossibility, altering expectations with the collapse of illusion. Spectators become a part of this impossibility through reflection and delay, exploring the gap—what seems to be an insurmountable distance—between their own perception and reality, the void between two people. The mirror re-creates an environment for new narratives and dialogues within ourselves, between people, between communities. Unconquerable distances start to become accessible, so that everyone can share different contacts, access and live different stories, and explore the rapport of impossibility.

Rapport, 2014. Installation, dimensions variable. Photo: Iara Kremer

MCB: Your installation Israel-Palestine / Palestine-Israel was intended for three different moments and places, with almost one year separating each phase: the Jerusalem Biennial (2015), the Riwaq-Qalandiya Biennial (2016), and the Jerusalem Biennial again (2017). How did you determine the interaction between the three spaces and times, and how did you envision the viewer’s experience?
IU: This project continues Rapport, and here I could approach the aesthetic as a matter of management. I had Jeremy Deller’s work in mind and how it would be possible to build sensitive devices that operate not on people’s lives but together with them. I didn’t finish the project because the work wasn’t accepted in the Riwaq-Qalandiya Biennial, although my meeting with the Palestinian ambassador after installing the work at the 2015 Jerusalem Biennial closed one of the most moving experiences of my life.

I built two mirrors placed a few meters away from each other. When viewers moved from mirror A to mirror B, they found the reflection of A, and when they moved from B to A, they found a reflection with a one-year delay. The idea was that viewers at Qalandiya 2016 would find the reflection of Jerusalem 2015, and that viewers at Jerusalem 2017 would find the reflection of Qalandiya 2016. I was interested in exploring the figure of the author as mediator, the artist as an agent who seeks to shorten the distance between arts and people—to make a wish come true.

MCB: Your work always considers the individual who reflects on himself alone and as part of society. A good example might be your multipart Proyecto de Acercamiento Sociocultural (Project for Sociocultural Approach, 2015–ongoing), which consists of installations, renderings, and conceptual components.
Proyecto de Acercamiento Sociocultural (PAS) aims to build an artistic model of solidarity, thus generating a positive impact on the environment and culture. In different scenarios, the project enables the development of a drinking water collection system to be distributed among populations lacking that resource. Every drop is a product of the tension between the impossibility of having water, of being part of an artistic event, and of the dynamics across all those elements and efforts that make it possible
to counteract such impossibility. Viewers were invited to make donations in order to avoid the “loss” caused by the dripping—every contribution is a drop contained in a framework of awareness about the waste of natural resources and of involvement and cooperation. Each contribution is exponential when it unfolds from a sensitive approach that aims to reinforce social bonds through art. I’m very interested in questioning the processes that transform certain daily and universal tasks artistically, trying to recognize an artistic otherness precisely in that becoming.

Proyecto de Acercamiento Sociocultural (Sociocultural Approach Project), 2015–ongoing. View of installation with water, sanitary installation, faucet, pressurized system for water collection, water tower, and electronic counter, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MCB: What materials do you typically use and why? I’m interested in formal practicality, as well as aesthetic and conceptual concerns.
I don’t choose any specific material. I’m interested in the state where materials respond to the research I’m carrying out or vice versa. For example, I recently had to find a way to make soil harder. I discovered seed bombs, which not only allowed me to harden the soil, but also to achieve the needed dimensions. The piece, which was one element of 749,766 m3 of summer (2018–19), represents the estimated volume of land eaten up by the swimming pools of the City of Buenos Aires, represented in 1:100 scale. The soil construction can have a life or death outcome depending on its watering, which reflects on the types of alliances that we establish politically with other beings and realities.

This is all part of the larger “Argentine Swimming Pools Union,” which “organizes” the object and seeks to work with the politics of things. It consists of images, objects, and sensations related to swimming pools and speculates on the possibility of expanding the political horizon to other, impersonal forms of life that co-exist with human beings in this peculiar ecosystem. It considers the possibility of objects having a voice and the ability to act, highlighting the existence of other ways of perceiving, claiming, demanding, and being. It was not only about isolating elements from the infinite sequence of familiar images that we have of a pool, but also about trying to generate a dialogue between different materialities and notions about the meaning of life, its unlikely connections and necessary estrangements.

MCB: You created Cartography and other open narratives (2018) for the experimental contemporary art space Proa21 in the La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires. Since it was conceived as a work-in-progress, with other artists participating, the role of cartography became dynamic, making the entire installation into an action field, almost like a performance.
IU: Taking over the exhibition space became literal: I built bricks from material extracted from the patio and carried out a process to verify that Proa21 could serve as a quarry producing ceramic bricks. This is a way to make the space of the exhibition visible and exposed at the same time. I decided to document several alternatives of collecting brick pallets that were there in the room, in a 1:5 scale.

749.766 m3 de verano (749,766 m3 of summer), 2019. Living being, seed bombs, and tile spacers, 75 x 100 x 100 cm. Photo: Lucas Sarmiento

MCB: Tapiar Buenos Aires has been presented on several occasions, adapted to different spaces in different formats. I am interested in the flexibility of your work, which always maintains a conceptual axis beyond the space that contains it and also takes into account what the new environment can provide in terms of re-elaboration. What were the variants between one experience and another?
Tapiar Buenos Aires is an ongoing project that consists of research into walled façades in the 48 neighborhoods of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires. The interest resides in the fact that if architecture was born from the necessity of a “space of being,” a wall contradicts that most primitive necessity because it becomes an invitation to inhabit a “walking space.” The project consists of a series of guides to the walled façades in each neighborhood and artistic objects that honor them by replicating them as models. It adapts to each place where it is presented because I investigate each walled façade in the neighborhood in order to make the guides. The last exhibition (at Proa21) was the most varied because I built a façade on a 1:5 scale, whose integrated support was based on the logic of construction struts, generating a unique artifact.

MCB: What direction is your work taking now, and what do you have in mind for the future?
I think I’m going to end up oriented toward the notion of Civic Arts that Francesco Careri mentions in his book Pasear, Detenerse (Walk, Stop, 2016)—no longer producing works or formulating projects, but generating relationships and journeys. I am also continuing the ideas of “Argentine Swimming Pools Union.” I’ve been thinking that I’m more and more inclined to work in the territory of the excluded. This is somewhat connected to my doctoral thesis, which focuses on contemporary artistic otherness. I’ll seek to act in the space that remains between the project and the action, between art and politics, between the city and the citizens— where the anonymous politics proposed by Jacques Rancière in The Politics of Aesthetics allows us to avoid and maintain separations at the same time, which enables the dissent of walking and the recognition of the otherness in the universal of the attempt.