Politics of Space

Written by Jordan McKenzie reviewing the Norman artwork by Juliet Robson and held in the Live Art Development Agency Archive.


The Politics of Space: Difference as Discourse in the work of Juliet Robson.

“What I deduce from all this is the value of a rich, complex language. Instead of creating dichotomies between good and bad words, we can use accurate, individual descriptors. Instead of taking for granted the meanings assigned by one or another political group, we can struggle with distinguishing our own definitions from theirs. The process is awkward; it slows down talk; it is uncomfortable. It slows down thought and  increases complexity.” ( Hillyer 1993 )

How do bodies operate in social spaces? How is meaning inscribed across the body? Who describes the body? Juliet Robson’s creative practice has set out to investigate these questions. Her artistic output has taken her into the territories of film and animation, performance, installation, sculpture and new technologies. Though diverse in nature all of these investigations have posed questions about how we read the body in space, whether that be physical, social or emotional.

What is important here though is that physicality is not seen in terms of an abstracted ideal type (THE body), but specific constructed identities ( my body, your body, our bodies) and it is the languages and power relationships that are generated around these specific bodies that provide the locus of the work.

An example of this is the installation entitled NORMAN ( alluding to the fictitious nature of normality ), that she produced at Loughborough University. For this piece of work she re-situated another academic institution ( Nottingham Trent University ) within the gallery space of  Loughborough University creating a dialogue between the two institutions. A wheel chair user since the age of sixteen, Robson  projected architectural blue-print plans of the visual arts faculty building onto her body employing a colour coding system that highlighted all the parts of the building that she could not gain access to. Upon a facing wall there was an illustration of Corbusier’s Modular Man, an idealized bodily form that was to act as a blue-print for Corbusier’s modernist architecture. As Rob Imrie in his essay Oppression, Disability and Access in the Built Environment goes on to point out:

“The Modular by Le Corbusier was devised in 1947. Modular man is 6ft tall and became a standard for architects and/or designers to build from. It seeks to present the human body as singular and universal, as a type. In this sense, it is insensitive to bodily variations.”

Robson’s exhibition did not just look at the relationship between the ‘impaired’ body and the built environment but opened up questions of the impact of space on all bodies. The piece is not an illustration of essentialism but a way of asking questions about all our bodies; if Modularity is a primary discourse within architectural practice then what are the implications of gay bodies within space, female bodies, black bodies? The piece examines which modes of power are present and which are absent within these architectural spaces.

Yet the implications of this piece go beyond asking us to recognize other kinds of bodies and the particularites of identity. Norman, by referring to Le Corbusier acts as a kind of mirror held up to normality, making us realize that the very thing that acts and impacts upon other bodies in very real ways is often the very thing that remains invisibilised, that the normal body itself is yet another constructed idealized myth.

Robson’s work asks fundamental questions about bodies, space and the discourses built around them. These questions are complex and rely on new levels of engagement and understanding of both ourselves and others. The process is awkward; it does slow down talk; it is uncomfortable, yet it is absolutely vital.

Jordan McKenzie


For more information see chapters on Norman and Shopping written by Robson, commissioned by Arnolfini Bristol for The Degenerate Art Book.

Edited by Matt Hawthorn. Contributors: Paul Gannon, Juliet Robson, Jordan McKenzie, Roddy Hunter, Glyn Davis Marshall, Otiose (Alith Roberts and John Dummett), Kira O’Reilly and Doran George.