Art spaces are rarely just that. Museums, galleries, and art halls are endowed with a certain kind of cultural significance, moving past the rather passive role of hosting artworks and events. Art buildings often undergo a process of spatial metamorphosis, with architecture and design acting as social agents; they operate an ethos of cultural engagement predicated on various extensions of their materiality.

In Little Frank and His Carp, performance artist Andrea Fraser tackles this matter, employing corporeal responses as a form of engagement with the “voice of the museum,” recorded on the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao audio guide. Fraser´s sensual, soft reaction to the concrete structure of the building refers to the impact of these institutions: on the city, on art audiences, and arguably on the artworks they host. The sexual aspects Fraser uses speak to what might be seen as a libidinal attitude of art consuming masses towards these megalithic structures, placed simultaneously within and without the city.

Popular reuse and redesign of former industrial architecture is a form of appropriation, both of built environment as such, and of a larger cultural trope: the industrial. Creative re-contexualisations of this trope imply a redefining of notions like “urban ruins,” “obsolete structures,” or “abandoned sites” calling for a shift in approaching the city space and various cultural and social interventions occurring within its scope.

Kara Walker's ' A Subtlety ' exhibition in 2014 at the original Domino Sugar Factory in New York.

Kara Walker's 'A Subtlety' exhibition in 2014 at the original Domino Sugar Factory in New York.

With the transformation of former industrial spaces into art venues and studios, creative practice turns into a catalyst for interaction with and within the city, inviting a rethinking of possibilities and vectors of development and sustainability. Former mills, silos, and warehouses are edgy, rusty markers of a form of resistance to our form of modernity, an anti-fluidity of sorts: these buildings are enough just the way they are, no restructuring interventions are needed, which translates into a mode of confronting the sleekness of steel and glass that define our built environment today.

This clash produces an experience in its own right: a whole new way of art seeing and exhibiting. What´s interesting is the lingering tension between periphery and centre. The sense of remoteness is an inalienable characteristic of these spaces, a centrifugal force that pulls them towards a cultural edge, one to parallel their geographical marginality. Industrial sites turned art halls are essentially alternative spaces; what´s interesting to ask is whether their nature expands to the point of inspiring creative practices that are equally subversive and experimental.

Exhibition view at Kunsthal ULYS, Denmark.

Exhibition view at Kunsthal ULYS, Denmark.

Kunsthal ULYS of Danish city Odense is a telling example. Driven by a creative collective of ildsjæle, directly translated as “burning souls,” ULYS exists physically in a former silo, on a small island, Silo Island, by the Odense Harbour. The rusty and rough building stands majestically tall, its concrete walls heavy with their industrial history, yet welcoming of ever so delicate canvases.

Members of ULYS describe their collective as being “provoking and poetic,” “alternative,” and having a “rebellious groove.” Although ULYS existed before relocating to Silo Island, this monstrous building appears to embrace their groove and to lend its spirit, along with its structure. Its solidity echoes the fragility of thought and artistic gesture. Unlike a softly lit, white-walled, and warm gallery, Kunsthal ULYS does not fade behind the art; it seems, rather, to wrestle it, challenge it, test its strength against its solid, unflattering architecture. The beauty of it is when art engages and responds, brave and unyielding, turning souls into burning souls.

Words: Elena Stanciu