As we go about our daily lives, we encounter spaces designed to shape and regulate our behaviour. In A wall is just a wall, Kapwani Kiwanga exposes the mechanisms of these underlying structures through wall paint inspired by colour theory and targeted fluorescent lighting.
In the late 1970s, Dr. Alexander Schauss, then director of the American Institute of Biosocial Research in Tacoma, Washington, concluded that the colour tone Baker-Miller Pink reduced aggressive behaviour. Today, it is used as wall treatment in prison confinement cells to calm violent inmates. Fluorescent blue light reduces the visibility of veins on one’s body. Installed in public toilets, it is meant to deter intravenous drug-users. We are prompted to consider the social implications when confronted with the materials that produce these intangible yet powerful relational dynamics. Does the fluorescent blue lighting prevent users from injecting drugs? Does this result in greater danger when doing so?
In her new film, A Primer, Kiwanga delves further into disciplinary architecture by deconstructing the physical and psychological qualities of different built environments including schools, prisons, hospitals and mental health facilities. Sometimes focusing on details, other times looking at larger trends, she continues her research-based practice of incorporating archival material and found footage, and blending documentary with fictional narrative.
Though the intention of such architectural elements may be to protect people the outcomes can be ambiguous. Kiwanga’s gestures remind us that as with any design, ways to circumnavigate it quickly emerge, and so the ageless tussle over space – that is, who can access it and who cannot-remerges.