1.9 / Birds Flying By

Visible Alternatives, Part 2

By Christian L. Frock February 24, 2010

Invisible Venue(s): Alternatives to the Institution

Image: Jonn Herschend. The Man Who Disappeared into His Own Clothes Pile, 2007; installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Christian L. Frock presents Invisible Venue. Photo: Christian L. Frock.

This essay was originally presented as a paper with the same title on the occasion of the College Art Association 98th Annual Conference in Chicago, an academic conference for artists, art historians, scholars, curators and critics.1 It was read by the author in a session titled “Site Variations: The Shifting Ground of Public Art,” chaired by Dr. Harriet Senie and Dr. Cher Knight on February 12, 2010.

The emergence of alternative exhibition spaces in the 1970s subverted traditional exhibition formats and notions of public space. This shifting dynamic also resulted in an expanded conceptual framework for the definition of public art through the advent of site-specific interventions, performance, and new media, among other genres. This essay surveys recent artworks that expand on the early innovation of private space as a public platform with artworks that engage domestic environments, utilitarian spaces, and the Internet.

Invisible Venue, an independent curatorial enterprise I founded in 2005 to collaborate with artists to present art in unexpected settings, has produced projects that include temporary site-specific installations, street projections, telephone-based audio work, guerilla billboard interventions, and web-based exhibitions, among other locative media. Through an overview of Invisible Venue, I examine how this contemporary alternative exhibition format investigates inherent politics of public space and challenges widely accepted notions of public art.

Often in speaking about Invisible Venue my language switches back and forth between “I” and “we.” Though Invisible Venue encompasses my independent curatorial practice and research, the work itself is collaborative and has been dependent upon a number of generous collaborators, particularly the artist Aaron Stienstra. All of the artists who have collaborated with Invisible Venue have brought tremendous brio to the task of making something from nothing.2

Is it possible to show something (artwork), that is also nothing (conceptual, digital, ephemeral), everywhere (public spaces), and nowhere (online)?

I created Invisible Venue in response to these questions: Is it possible to show something (artwork), that is also nothing (conceptual, digital, ephemeral), everywhere (public spaces), and nowhere (online)? As a curator and cultural producer, I wanted to collaborate with artists to explore their ideas and through this collaboration interrogate the relationship between contemporary art and daily life. Intrinsic to my objectives was finding a way to work both independently and publicly—to what extent could I interject the work of artists into the public realm through the force of personal autonomy? What kinds of opportunities exist in between the margins of regulations and special permissions? What, in short, are the alternatives to the institution?

Invisible Venue originated as a website to present new media projects in the widely accessible public forum of the Internet, an unregulated public space that allowed for complete creative freedom.3 The first project, titled You Don’t Know San Francisco (2005), featured 11 videos by Bay Area artists.4 The website launched a week prior to Frieze Art Fair, an international showcase for contemporary art that takes place annually in London. I distributed cards with the web address throughout the fair and in public spaces around London and arranged a public screening by borrowing a flat, a laptop, and a projector to project directly from the website.More than 100 people attended the all-night event. It was my first realization that I could independently create the circumstances to present art publicly in alternative locations. In 2008 Invisible Venue won an Alternative Exposure Grant, awarded by San Francisco nonprofit Southern Exposure, in conjunction with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, to support independent initiatives in contemporary art. In addition to a vote of confidence, this grant provided small budgets for 11 projects last year; otherwise Invisible Venue operates as a do-it-yourself venture, with all of the self-directed autonomy and limited financial means implied therein. Since the inception of Invisible Venue, I have collaborated with more than 30 artists to present projects in a variety of unconventional spaces.6 Projects have included digital media online and on the telephone, guerilla billboard interventions, ephemeral performance, site-specific temporary installations, public events, happenings, and accidental encounters.

Public art agencies ArtAngel, Creative Time, Dia Art Foundation, and Public Art Fund have been valuable educational resources in the development of Invisible Venue. My work is significantly influenced by their work. Most frequently I am interested in the temporary, site-specific, and conceptual artworks that exist for a limited time before being absorbed into public memory or not. Key also to my interests is artwork with the power to engage accidental and art-initiated audiences alike. One important example that I discovered through research is Michael Bramwell’s Building Sweeps (1995‑6), a yearlong site-specific art action sponsored by Creative Time that involved the artist’s mopping, sweeping, and cleaning of the public areas of a city-owned Harlem tenement building, unannounced and uninvited. Though the community response to this work was contentious, and its success, even by the standards of its sponsors, is unclear, it is the DIY spirit of this project, absent of permits, which gives me permission to trespass into private and public spaces. As does Chris Doyle’s Commutable (1996), a temporarily gilded staircase on an otherwise unremarkable Manhattan pedestrian walkway produced by Public Art Fund. Finally, Janet Cardiff’s The Missing Voice (1999) an audio walk that navigated the neighborhood surrounding London’s Whitechapel Public Library taught me that the work does not have to have a material presence to continue to appear in your mind’s eye.7 Further, I am captivated by art that is surreptitiously integrated into the fabric of everyday life, such as Walter De Maria’s Earthroom (1977), situated in a discreet location and yet right in the middle of Soho in Manhattan.

Michael Damm. incidental films for an accidental audience, 2008; installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Christian L. Frock presents Invisible Venue. Photo: Kevin Wright.

Inspired by public artworks that engage domestic spaces, I decided to curate and produce artist projects in and around a four-bedroom flat in July 2007. Over the next two years Invisible Venue commissioned 11 projects for this location, or rather project space, in West Oakland. The neighborhood was both central and remote; it was a two-minute walk from the first train stop outside of San Francisco, in a partially industrial neighborhood. The space of the main entry, the stairwell and landing, and the two front rooms—literally half of the 101-year-old Victorian era flat—was dedicated to Invisible Venue. I lived with my family in the back half of the building, separate from the project space, with our own entrance and living areas. Artists were invited to use the project space however they wanted and consequently projects spilled into our living areas, the yard, the billboard on the side of the building, and the empty lot across the street. It is important to stipulate this was not a gallery for commercial endeavors or for showing pre-existing two-dimensional work. All the work that I commissioned investigated the inherent politics of the location as a public platform—in every instance, the space itself was intrinsic to the ideas. Investigations included the physical building and its architecture, but also macro-level considerations of the past and present politics of the neighborhood, the historical and social concerns of Oakland, the location in the vicinity of an important industrial port, and the micro-level considerations of the space as both public and domestic, interior and exterior.

For one of the first projects in this space, Invisible Venue collaborated with Jonn Herschend to present The Man Who Disappeared into His Own Clothes Pile (2007). A self-navigable installation representative of The Man’s living quarters prior to his disappearance was installed in the project space. A deadpan documentary in which Herschend interviewed those who knew The Man simultaneously played in my living room, as if the television had been left on. Visitors were brought in the street entrance and directed to go through The Man’s personal effects in the project space, including a journal and drawings. Visitors were told to take as much time as they needed, then make their way to the living room to watch the documentary for more information. The documentary was filmed on site and featured various neighbors from the building. As visitors moved through the house, I continued to work in the kitchen, doing dishes or something equally banal, further blurring the lines between the artwork and quotidian domestic life. The work combined the voyeuristic experience of reality television with the live action of eavesdropping or peeping, placing the viewer in an uncomfortable position to fully explore the dynamic tensions of a public project in a private space.

Helena Keeffe. Talking to Neighbors: Jim in West Oakland, 2007; installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Christian L. Frock presents Invisible Venue. Photo: Aaron Stienstra.

Concurrent with this project, Helena Keeffe collaborated with Invisible Venue to present Talking to Neighbors: Jim in West Oakland (2007). This social sculpture, to use the artist’s term, and audio piece consisted of a recorded and edited interview between the West Oakland‑based artist and Jim Edgar, a local resident of nearly 70 years. The interview was transferred to an answering machine hooked up to a landline and installed on the landing, as if it was the house telephone. A disused telephone booth, located at the other end of the block, was cleaned and painted for the application of a vinyl sign that advertised the telephone number to access the interview. Additionally the information was distributed on Invisible Venue’s website, over email and in blanket text messages. As a freely accessible recurring experience this work challenged the assumed materiality of public art.

In December 2008, Michael Damm projected a series of videos onto windows in the project space, as well as the living area because they offered the best vantage points from the street and the passing trains. The videos ran for 10 consecutive nights, during the darkest time of the year, from about 5 to 9 p.m., overlapping with the heaviest commute hours. Consisting of images from various locations in Oakland, the work reflected the visually rich experience of navigating the city, when one is only half aware of their environment and is en route to somewhere else. This piece, titled incidental films for an accidental audience (2008), played upon the visibility of the building and its windows from a distance; the videos were visible to passing trains, from the train platform itself, to passing cars and neighborhood pedestrians. This accessibility reflected on the nomadic features of contemporary communities as the work was visible to West Oakland residents and to everyone in transit. It also interrogated the public and private aspects of the space by co-opting the windows for use as an alternative venue, projecting outward when windows are typically covered for privacy and inviting attention to the building from every direction.

Christine Lee. Order and Ornamentation, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Christian L. Frock presents Invisible Venue. Photo: Christian L. Frock.

Christine Lee furthered this exploration between interior and exterior space with Order and Ornamentation (2009), a site-specific installation and concurrent intervention that existed both in the project space and in an undeveloped publicly accessible lot across the street from the building. In the project space, Lee installed living sod, cut in lengths and arranged to mimic the pattern of the original century-old hardwood floors. In the lot, Lee installed a collection of reclaimed carpet remnants, cut and assembled in a historic floral pattern that evoked the original interiors of the surrounding Victorian neighborhood. This unconventionally “woven” rug bisected a pre-existing “desire path” worn into the lot by pedestrian footfall. The term desire path was coined by Gaston Bachelard in his 1958 book The Poetics of Space, an analysis that privileges a lived experience of architecture over the abstract rhetoric of theory. Both the installation and the intervention explored the lived experience of West Oakland and its complicated history as an old family neighborhood with once-beautiful architecture in contrast to its present state.

We did not attempt to prescript encounters with the work...it was left to the viewer to wonder at its existence.

Though we regarded the project space as a public site, there were of course concerns about safety due to the fact that we lived in the building. Whenever we projected videos out of the windows to the street, we wondered if we would invite vandalism, but we never experienced a single incident. Projects are and have always been listed on numerous public event listings online, as well as postings on Facebook and Twitter. Press releases are sent to all of the most prominent local critics, newspapers, and publications, and the announcement list includes hundreds of strangers. Anyone who emails about being added to our list is added. Anyone who asks to see projects by appointment is scheduled an appointment. Sometimes the doorbell would ring from the Invisible Venue entrance because someone on the street wanted to know more about the flickering projections. Other times I would walk up to a person outside who was puzzling over an intervention and chat with them about the work. We did not attempt to prescript encounters with the work—like much public art, it was left to the viewer to wonder at its existence. We continue in this same vein. Though every project has information online and there are project descriptions available upon request, by and large, we leave the accidental audience members alone to interpret or ignore the work as they choose.

Since relinquishing the West Oakland space in August 2009, Invisible Venue has transformed again to produce projects in exclusively public environments. (Meant to be) Lost and Found (2009) recently featured work by Charles Gute, Anthony Discenza, Jonn Herschend, and Jamie Hilder. Predicated on the private/public nature of displaced personal correspondence, the participating artists created artworks that resembled official letters, business memos, and handwritten notes. One hundred inkjet prints of the “letters” were printed on the reverse with “This is public art. www.invisiblevenue.com” The letters were left in public spaces throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn over four days in October 2009.8 Locations included restaurants, cabs, elevators, lobbies, the subway, baskets on bicycles, stores, and front porches, among many other places—all locations were chosen at random to mediate chance encounters with an unquantifiable public audience. Here printed correspondence provided a metaphor to ask questions about public art, as both printed correspondence and permanent public art appear to be diminishing products of a bygone era in favor of increasing digitization, the passive call and no-response of social networking, and temporary spectacle. The range of audience engagement was anticipated to mimic that of formally recognized “public art” and likely also incited any number of positive and negative responses: indifference, derision, contemplation, or enjoyment. The production of this project challenged the market-driven budgets and architectural scale of much recent contemporary public art and deployed the recessionary conventions of revolutionist movements—including interventionist tactics, low-budget production methods, and portability.

Site-specificity is still at the core of Invisible Venue investigations, except now the site is once again transient with projects taking place in all manner of public spaces rather than limited to a specific location. Based on these experiences, I have discovered it is possible to present something that is also nothing, everywhere and nowhere, when one considers every possible site an invisible venue.


The original full-length text from the conference is available on Invisible Venue. It has also been published as a paper on Art & Education.


  1. Slight modifications have been made to this essay for this publication.
  2. Complete documentation of each project and details about all of the artists are available at http://www.invisiblevenue.com.
  3. The original version of www.invisiblevenue.com was inspired by the online portfolio of artist Tommy Becker and was created with generous design assistance from Aaron Stienstra and technical assistance from Dai Nakabayashi; I redesigned the website in 2007 to streamline ease of use, with Typepad blog technology.
  4. Participating artists included Tommy Becker, Nathan Burazer, Anthony Discenza, RL Jablo, Skyler Thomas, Yin-Ju Chin, Tim Sullivan, Catherine Czacki, Melissa Day, Heidi Zumbrun, and Sieglinde Van Damme.
  5. The flat was loaned by Sophie von Olfers and the equipment was loaned by Elizabeth Neilson.
  6. Collaborating artists in chronological order, as of December 2009, in addition to the artists who participated in You Don’t Know San Francisco, include: Charles Gute, Steve Lambert, Andrew Austin Reilly, Susan O’Malley, Aaron Stienstra, Jonn Herschend, Helena Keeffe, Victoria May, Kimberlee Koym-Murteira, Alex Clausen, Michael Damm, Christine Lee, Elysa Lozano for Autonomous Organization, Chris Basmajian, Jamie Hilder, and Chris Kubick.
  7. Though the Whitechapel Library has since closed, the work is available as a download on the ArtAngel website: http://www.artangel.org.uk//projects/1999/the_missing_voice_case_study_b/about_the_project/about_the_project
  8. This project took place during the same weekend that Creative Time and the New York Public Library presented “Creative Time Summit: Revolutions in Public Practice.”

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