What happened to our housing? -We sold it!
What happened to our park? -We bought it!

An interview with Nils Norman by Knut Asdam

Nils Normans work is informed by urban politics and ideas on alternative economic systems that can work within the city. It merges urbanist utopic alternatives with a pungent but humorous critique of the history and role of public art. He is well known for his models in conjunction with diagrams, for example "Tompkins Square Park Monument To Civil Disobedience", 1997, however his latest show at American Fine Arts in New York City featured a series of diagrams proposing an alternative development to the Hudson River Park in Manhattan, together with a prototype bicycle that would function as a mobile information centre on alternative uses for the city.

I met with Norman in New York to discuss his work.

KÅ: Can we talk a little about the work from your last show at American Fine Arts?

NN: This one diagram explains a fictional occupation of pier 33 on the West Side Highway of Manhattan. The reason why these people are occupying the pier is to oppose the development of the Hudson River Park in New York City which has been pushed through illegally by the city.

KÅ: How illegally?

NN: The development hasn’t been properly analysed in terms of its ecological impact, and it also hasn’t been properly voted in by the community boards. There have been many different sneaky changes in the rules, regulations through different manoeuvrings that have changed the decision making process that would normally regulate a big construction in the city. Basically it has changed so that big business or private interests can actually develop the park to their own ends. These people occupying pier 33 would create a permaculture container garden on the end of the pier, and a large scaffolding tower which have portable solar panels on it. It would be barricaded with some tripods which would prevent eviction for a short amount of time. Another part of the diagram shows a proposed atoll that would move around Manhattan; a moving community garden that would have large composting stations on it and different experimental greenhouses and a geodesic dome made of recycled material where one could cultivate seeds—organic heirloom seeds that have not been genetically engineered. The atoll would travel around Manhattan, locking on at different local stations for community gardens to get supplies from. It could lock on the east side’s FDR Highway, and the community gardens go there and could collect compost or deliver their own compost to the atoll, and also exchange heirloom seeds. It would have a water-filtration unit on it, and as it travels around Manhattan it would also filter the water and purify it or clean it.

KÅ: So would these units work?

NN: No they wouldn't work at all (laughter). But the point is, all the different elements of this fiction do work and work in reality. So there are all these different parts and tools stuck together to make a fiction or utopian whole that would be impossible to make, but in part they are very possible. For example the water filtration unit is a very real thing which is actually used. Boats have these filtration units built into them to clean ponds and rivers. As the boat moves around a pond a lower part in the water has reedbeds in it that organically filter the water and clean it. It is an invention by the a group called the Ocean Arks International, which used to be in Cape Cod.

This other diagram is of the northernmost part of Battery Park City, Nelson Rockefeller Park, explaining how this park could be redesigned in a way that would highlight what is actually wrong with the park. It is not a design for a better park, just a design for showing what is wrong with the park. For example it has a viewing garden with viewing moats which you look down into to look at the rubbish which Battery Park city is made on. Battery Park City is a landfill and this is a design to expose this landfill as part of the park. The diagram shows how you design the park so that cop-cars can't actually get inside. Because all the parks in New York have been redesigned in the 70-s, they are now made so that police cars can move quickly around them. There is an existing pavilion by Dimitri Porfurious there, and the plan redesigns it to support alternative energy. It also has a local economic trading system (LETS) registry in it, which is online so that people in Battery Park City could possibly come and participate in a LETS system. The pavilion also has some Gordon Matta Clark hanging pods from it so you can hang out in it. There is also an earth works competition that anyone from the public of Manhattan can participate in. The competition is to design an earth works sculpture that would be most appropriate for the park, the example of a possible winner has a very large raised number which is 1400. The number of how many low income units that were meant to be in the final Battery Park City design but that was ignored by the developers. Part of the deal of developing the property in this area was that it was meant to be partly low income housing and mixed income. Over years of negotiation they fazed that out, the developers got the development contract but they got rid of the main part of the plan which was to build low income units too. Finally, the park would be renamed to Protestation Park.

In another part of Battery Park City there is a sculpture by Richard Artswager called Sitting Stance. In my diagram it has been redesigned so that it can be occupied by the public and used to prevent them from being removed from the park. There are holes especially cut into the sculpture that you can lock-on to, you are actually locked into the sculpture and cannot be removed without the authorities destroying the sculpture first. Built around it are makeshift nomadic dwellings that you can live in for a short period of time while you are occupying the area. There is a treehouse, a small information stand about the neighbourhood’s history, and the different developments it went through, the negotiations about who was actually going to get to develop Battery Park City. The final diagram about the park, has a pergola. It is redesigned as a hanging garden that has permaculture container gardens built into it, and it has a 24h free access outdoor sound production studio available for anyone to make demotapes or whatever they want. Of course that would be a totally impractical thing to have. But this is just an utopian idea of what might possibly happen. And then there is also a makeshift bubble kiosk to distribute information about housing rights where you can lock yourself into the ground of the park so that you cannot be removed.

Together with these diagrams I have shown a prototype of a bicycle with a small solar powered Xerox machine on it and a library of books. The books are a very special library on urbanism, architecture, city design, experimental gardening, alternative energy and also alternative city design. You could travel around, stop at any place and people can Xerox parts of the books if they wanted to. On the bike is also a weather station so that you can measure the humidity, the windrate etc. when you stop at gardens.

KÅ: What seems a little different with the work from New York is that it takes on a larger part of the city fabric and its financial and public priorities, while the work in Cologne deals perhaps with a smaller almost private group of people. With regard to the idea of communities of people and the background of the work, are you involved in any urbanism and activist groups?

NN: The only group that I have been involved with is a group called The Metropolitan Council on Housing, an organisation which has been going for more than twenty years and is primarily set up organise tenants as a union, to oppose landlords and basically fight for their rights as tenants. It is the main organisation that fights for rent stabilisation in New York, and it is very local to New York. They arrange demonstrations and have a hotline you can phone to ask questions on housing, and I have been trained through them to deal with questions to do with housing and rights as a tenant in New York. The laws in New York in terms of housing are very complicated! There are alot of old people there that are incredibly knowledgeable about housing issues.

KÅ: What is it that got you to work with urbanism and occupation of space?

NN: I think what interests me most is living in the city. Living in a city has become very important to me politically, living in an urban space, that has been heavily controlled during the last years by private interests. It is not unique, but an idea of urban protest and uprising is a very important political mechanism.

KÅ: In terms of the way you are working, -you are member of this one group that deals specifically with housing rights and so on, but you are not working artwise in any public space, your work takes the form of the model and the proposal.

NN: It is mostly proposals

KÅ: Some of your drawings/diagrams in the last show toy with the idea of public art. Do you see that there is a point or rather a necessity to work with the proposal when dealing with the idea of public art?

NN: Working with proposals is a way for me to highlight critically what the whole idea of artists working with public sculpture and what that means in terms of their own participation in the gentrification process and also how a lot of public sculpture is in collusion with corporate/private interests in terms of controlling and redefining public space in a way that is detrimental to the space. I would only really consider developing public sculpture or working with a community if I had been with those people for a long period of time and living with those people. So the idea of actually making these things is not very interesting to me. The idea of actually putting this together as information, as something that has a slightly didactic quality to it is very interesting.
KÅ: How do you choose the different approaches to the spaces you are dealing with? You for example have ecological approaches in some work.

NN: Well I just take whatever I find would be helpful to that space. I have a lot of interest in the theoretical notion of experimental gardening. Which is coupled to for example permaculture which is very much a form of activism in terms of gardening: It is an activist methodology using gardening which I find very interesting. Permaculture has many different parts to it: It has a lot of experimental design techniques and involves many alternative forms of energy. It has gardening, it has activism, it is about public space, it is about the city, it is about urbanism and it is about the countryside. So all these different things in permaculture I have found have been very helpful in analysing spaces by using many different elements, like local economic trading systems, experimental gardening, makeshift nomadic furniture or architecture. But it is always very specific to the site that I decided to analyse. I have no set of special things that I always use.

KÅ: How do you choose the different sites that interest you? Sometimes you have worked with gallery spaces and used the situation there particularly.

NN: Working in a gallery has been very site specific to New York, because there are very few artist groups here working and there are very few alternative spaces left. There doesn’t seem to be any other space than galleries apart from museums. In Europe it is very different, there are groups that are working and considering other forms of artmaking than just showing work in galleries. So what I do in Europe is very different than what I do in New York. But in regard to how I decide on location, for example the West Side Highway: The development for this park is very important and will affect a lot of Manhattan, this park will go from the downtown Wall Street-Battery Park area all the way up to Harlem and possibly further to the Bronx. So in terms of its power to create one continuos corporate park, I think it is something that will change the city considerably, particularly in terms of real estate gentrification and exclusivity.

KÅ: One thing that I find really interesting with your works is that a lot of institutional critique work just ends up verifying the institution or affirms it to a degree. Your work reveals the politics of the space, but also shows these other possibilities and pulls in these other narratives from outside (I.e. in relation to the city, with all the issues of occupation of space) not only what has to do with that place—so it overflows a very narrow institutional critique.
I am also interested in how you deal with reading in your diagrams, how you break up between information and humour so it is quite easy to read, -I am one of these people that can get offended if there are ten pages down with solid text in a gallery.

NN: ..I quite like that..(laughter), what is interesting is peoples hostility or inability to read something in a gallery, I made these models because I was thinking about making these very large diagrams that had these incredible amounts of text describing what these things were, and I thought that making the models would be a medium between that and the public so that they wouldn’t have to read so much. And that was successful in terms of the audience understanding what these models and these ideas were about.

KÅ: The piece you did at the Generali Foundation in Vienna seems linked to the diagrams at American Fine Arts. Working with that institution reflects many similar things; it is a big insurance company providing a public function as a sort of public space; the public gallery. But it is so clearly inscribing that space with their corporate stature, and the work shown there inevitably takes part in that in one way or another. The work at the Generali seems to want to deal with that and has this analogy to the use of public art in public spaces—and how they participate in the gentrification of those spaces—looking critically on that economy, similar to the works at American Fine Arts.

NN: What was interesting about the Generali Foundation’s space was that, first of all it had been heavily analysed by institutional critiquers. It is a main location for that practice. They actually invite people to critique them (laughter). They have had a lot of really interesting shows, but it is interesting that the space was actually designed, and they always deny this, so that it can very easily be changed. If the Generali insurance company doesn’t think that operating in this cultural realm is of importance to them anymore in terms of their profit or what it means for them, they can then change that space very quickly. The storage space below could very easily become a carpark and the space above which is the gallery space has these incredibly thick ceiling beams and it is only one floor, but it would be very easy to build on top of it and just convert it into an office space. So if it doesn’t go to well with these artshows they could very easily turn it over to offices.

KÅ: Where you invited specifically to think of a way to change that space?

NN: No it was completely open with what we could do. But since I didn't know Vienna very well, I didn't want to go outside and impose my ideas on people I didn't know or communities I didn't know and a city that I really didn't know. Instead I decided to keep it very local and just keep it to the site which was the Generali that I had some knowledge of and had done research on and been told a lot about. It was the only way for me to not have to go out and make up something about a city that I really didn't know. I think it is problematic for artists to fly in and impose themselves on a city.

KÅ: What about the role of the utopic element in the work? It is important to you that the work has the utopic narrative rather than something that can be realised or found in everyday life?

NN: My main use of utopia as a tool, is to use it to show what isn't there, to use it in a critical way. I have no intention for these utopias to realised. They are meant to show what cannot be realised. I use them to try to develop a consciousness for myself as well and also for whoever might come in to a discourse with me about them. It is about why these things aren’t possible and then it opens up discussions on capitalism, urbanity and so on.


"Tompkins Square Park Monument to Civil Disobedience" 1997
"Breaking into Battery Park City after Curfew" 1998
"The Gerard Winstanley Mobile Library and Fieldcenter..." 1999