I encountered The Living Room (2001) for the first time while I was heading to Locust Projects from the Wynwood Arts District and looking for parking. I imagine this is how a lot of people find it—on the way to someplace else. Located at the edge of the officially named Design District, the large-scale installation is attached to nothing, though its form alludes to the shape of the building it was previously attached to. The oversize seating and lamps still exist amidst a slew of wheat-pasted posters. A window stands out against the dark paint and graffiti tags. A contemporary ruin, the nearly two-story-high structure is still impressive, beckoning the viewer toward the empty lot where it sits.
Despite its current rundown appearance, The Living Room accomplishes what most Miami architecture doesn’t. By flipping a corner inside out and making what was once private public, it literally inverts the dynamic of the out-of-reach skyscraper condos or the window-less Brutalism of the many nearby warehouse-turned-gallery spaces. Its grandiose presence, graffiti and all, inspires one to think about the possibilities of space more generally, while the piece’s history, as I later found out, mirrors the shifting relationship between the city’s art scene and local real estate development.
I met with Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt of R&R Studios, which designed and built The Living Room, at the couple’s Miami Beach home on the morning Hurricane Isaac rolled in. Over banana omelets and coffee, we talked about Miami’s culture and history and how their work relates to the city. Roberto and Rosario came to Miami from Argentina over twenty years ago. With formal training as architects, they create work that often employs scale and has a charming exactitude in its execution. Their projects include A Place in the World (2003), an installation created for the Miami Art Museum that includes a sculpture of a house of cards large enough to walk through, and unrealized work such as I LOVE YOU, which would transform Miami’s downtown skyline by installing each of the three words in red lights atop separate buildings. Intertwining memory, both personal and universal, and place, both real and imagined, each of their projects creates a kind of shared experience that is often underwritten by a sense of optimism.
This optimism does not foreclose criticality, despite the fact that many viewers’ initial response to their work is along the lines of “It’s great!” or “How interesting!” or “That’s fun!” Through our conversation, I found that their positive perspective is embedded in a deeper critical dialogue that centers on why the proverbial “we” chooses to create and live in the built environment as we have. Their strength, in practice and in conversation, is their ability to consistently zoom in from macro to micro when discussing their relationship to the world around them and to their interventions within it.
Fittingly, this relationship is nowhere more apparent than in Roberto and Rosario’s home. A colorful string of small triangular flags hangs throughout the house, undulating from room to room. It begins in a front room that contains a sandbox full of miniature replicas of their completed projects: two small figures stand in the sand, symbolic of the artists themselves. From there the bunting leads to the living room, replete with paintings, diagrams, and models lining shelves of books; a large-scale paper sailboat made out of a map sits near the couch. Leading then into the dining room and eventually into a sitting room at the end of the house, the bunting is a material metaphor for Roberto and Rosario’s journey together and their intertwined histories and art practices, which are often completely indistinguishable.
I was surprised that few of the artists I met with during my residency knew who Roberto and Rosario were. Because of this, I wanted to present an excerpt of my discussion with them here, as much of what they share resonates with many of the inquiries currently guiding artistic practices in Miami.
Kara Q. Smith: What is your relationship to the Miami art scene? While I am here, I am talking to a lot of different people with different experiences, but so far much of the conversation seems to be centered on before-Basel and after-Basel.
Roberto Behar: I think Rosario said the last time we spoke about Miami with someone from elsewhere that perhaps the key moment was not Art Basel but in fact Christo’s project, [which was] believe it or not in 1983. This is the first time that Miami is put on the map, the world map.
Rosario Marquardt: The art map.
RB: We had just arrived to Miami in 1983, or 1984, and it was an incredible project. It brought attention upon something very unique to Miami, which is the geography of this place, something that most of us overlook. We tend to think of this place as a place without history or individuality. We tend to think that we are the ones who are going to do it all. There’s already a history, and there’s already a place that has its own character with a history in the making. History is not being made by me or you who will come after us but by somebody who came before me, you, and someone who is going to come after you. Unless you are able to see that continuum, it’s difficult. Everyone tends to see history with her own eyes.
KQS: There are many histories.
RB: Exactly. That’s what makes it interesting.
RM: Regarding the changes with Art Basel. [Christo’s project is] a key moment, more a premonition of what Miami could be. It was such a perfect project. He surrounds the islands in the bay with this pink fabric. It’s a beautiful project. Some projects suddenly make a click with the place, with the time, and he was able to make that click.
RM: What happened with Art Basel is suddenly Art Basel came—everybody from all over the world, all these galleries and everything—so it looks like something incredible. But it was more like a fiction. It is something that comes and stays here for one week, and then the art scene keeps on growing on its own and then Art Basel comes again. But I don’t think it changes the internal development of the art scene in Miami in a radical way.
RB: But it’s also because Miami is occupying a new position in the world. I mean the fact that Art Basel is coming into Miami and didn’t choose, let’s say, San Francisco. That’s the question that comes first: what did they see in Miami that brought them here? Why did they choose Miami when nothing was here? Well, because they saw an enormous amount of possibilities and developing possibilities.
RM: It’s the tropical with the geography that is incredible. You have the beaches, the bay. It’s a place where you can see the city because you’re driving on the causeway and you see downtown, or you’re coming to Miami and you see the skyline.
KQS: You’re always aware of the city. The skyline just moves with you.
RM: Exactly. And that gives the place extraordinary potentiality. It’s very appealing.
RB: If you see that the city is so young, then what you see is possibility. The reason that we stayed here is that here one is able to become part of the history of the city because the history of the city is in the making. We are living in, let’s call it, the foundational moment of the city. The foundation of the city is happening as we speak. In 1896 the city is incorporated; that’s
RB (cont.): the legal foundation. But the foundation of the city is the first one hundred years, maybe two hundred, when the city defines an identity for itself. There are moments when it changes radically, I understand, but we are still at the foundational period.
KQS: You’re still dragging all that stone up to the hill.
RB: Really! It’s just like an overgrown kid. The city is so big, in a way, and so strong, and it’s so well known everywhere. People are beginning to say they are from Miami—“Oh, you’re from Miami??” Also, it is a very ambitious city. It has the ambition of a kid.
RM: But also it’s incredible how you feel the influences in the city. It’s not like San Francisco or New York or Paris. For example, there is a crisis in Brazil or Cuba or Venezuela, and the city is transformed because of the people that are coming [here] because they have to leave the country. You feel the change of the city. The city is very young, and it’s looking for its personality and its destiny, and that is what is so extraordinary. The language is being invented; the music is being invented; the literature of the city is being invented.
KQS: As people who have lived and worked here since the early 1980s, do you see shifts in your work that mirror the fluctuations you are experiencing in the city?
RM: Our work is very influenced by the city. We use the city as a canvas. For us, the city is our inspiration for our work. Of course, you’re always inspired by what the city is or what is happening, but since the very beginning we felt that it was in flux and was not one city. You can talk about Miami and you can have ten, twenty different discourses.
RB: Most people tend to be very critical. Perhaps that is why they say we are very optimistic—because we love to live here.
RM: We see the extraordinary part.
RB: We don’t want to live anywhere else. It’s not like we are waiting to become famous to go to New York City. We really believe that the place to live is this one. We love it because, if you think about it, in the 1930s, when the skyscrapers were being built in New York, that’s the moment when New York became New York City.
KQS: Because of buildings.
RB: Because of these buildings. Now where was the place to live at that point? It was not New York; it was Paris. There is a difference between the place that [a city] is becoming and the place that it is currently. If you want to live in the place that is [already established], perhaps you want to live elsewhere. But if you want to be part of the construction of something new, then Miami is the place. And that’s the difference.
The difference [in midcentury Los Angeles, for instance] was that there was a new urban landscape. Suddenly everyone saw a new American kind of city. You had New York, you had Chicago, you even had San Francisco, but Los Angeles suddenly emerges as a new model of a city.
KQS: Los Angeles in the 1950s had complete potential for development. And it happened so quickly.
RB: Exactly. Suddenly you see that it’s a capital; it’s not just a place that makes movies. It’s a capital that people go to and that people imitate all over the world. Car city becomes king. Suburban town becomes the model anywhere. I think Miami has that same potential. So when Rosario says our work is related to the city, she means it’s not just that it’s related to what it is but also, and most importantly, to what the city could be.
RM: Or it’s an interpretation of what the city could be.
RB: Yeah, of course. It’s more about the possibilities based on elements that we see in the city than it is an echo of what is here. As artists our role is not just to be excited by what’s going on, because we’re not real estate developers; our role needs to be a little more distanced from it in a way, and our role should also be critical and point out the limitation of what’s going on.
RM: [For example,] the lack of public spaces, the lack of showing what the weather can give you in Miami…
RB: [The weather here offers the potential for] life outdoors. What The Living Room is all about is pointing out the possibility of life outdoors,. You cannot live outdoors in Minnesota. You cannot live outdoors in New York City or in Chicago. But in South Florida, there is this fantasy, at least, that you may be able to live outdoors; life can happen outdoors; it can be feasible.
RM: It’s like an act of resistance to the privatization of the city…
RB: …and [resistance to the] enclosed-ness…
RM: …with the air conditioning, with the barriers saying you can walk until here and then this is private. The idea of The Living Room is like an act of resistance. The city should go in another direction.
RB: It should be a city that is open to all. More open in all regards, in regards to the card that you have to show in order to come in, in regards to my home is your home, toward immigrants; it has many dimensions. It has a fantastic dimension; it has a political dimension; it has a geographic dimension. It’s not one-dimensional.
No one has really written a great piece on The Living Room yet, and we are not the ones to do it. Yes, there is [the element of the] fantastic; yes, the scale, which I talk about; all of that is true. The hand-painted wallpaper—it has many dimensions—but what else? How come? There has to be something else. I think there is this yearning inside all of us, all over the world, for a city that can bring us together in a way, and we find no place where we have to meet each other, to interact with each other; we find no physical place to do so. The Living Room, I think, is the representation of that possibility, of that openness, of the public square, a place open to all, that place where you and I are the same despite the millions that you may have and the lack of money that I may have.
KQS: Did you find that people would hang out in The Living Room, or were there more people visiting to take a picture?
RM: Well, people were taking pictures all the time, but it was a place to hang out. There was a sofa with cushions and the lamps. People were going to read the newspaper there with their coffee.
RB: It’s also a fragment of something that can be bigger.
RM: Exactly. That is what I wanted to say. This was an act to say: look at what is possible. It was not the solution; we always speak about imaginary solutions and not about the solution to solve the problem of privatization of the city or lack of public space. It’s something that makes you pause and think, Oh, why not?
RB: Imaginary solutions. That is the word[s]. That is what our projects are about. They are imaginary, but they are a solution. It’s a real problem, but solutions are not supposed to be imaginary. There’s a real contradiction there. The Living Room is kind of that—it’s an imaginary solution that is built.
KQS: You currently have an installation, Watching the wheels go round and round (John Lennon) (2012), in the exhibition Temporary Structures at San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter & McBean Galleries, and on one of the walls you chose to cover the entire wall with a mirror. Can you talk more about that decision?
RB: We have a natural interest in the fantastic. We study this stuff. The use of the mirrors in our work is fantastical, like the funhouse, but it also duplicates [the viewer], like the concept of the twin. It’s the only time you can see yourself in the piece, which is a reflection of a reality. So there are all these layers that are introduced by the presence of a mirror. In a mural painting, usually you look at it, right? You never see yourself within it. You see others in the space that the mural may construct.
KQS: Traditionally murals tell specific stories relevant to the community where they are contained.
RB: Absolutely. The mirror helps us to see ourselves within the piece and become part of it. We’ve never done it. It’s new. I think it’s important for us because it makes the mural perform.
KQS: Returning to The Living Room, I like thinking of it being a mirror of the changes in that district.
RM: Oh, completely. The year that The Living Room was inaugurated, there was an article in the New York Times that spoke about The Living Room as an allegory of Miami and the way that the city was growing and going forward. Now that the city is in another state, The Living Room keeps up that reflection.