“The term ‘Infrapolitics’ seems an appropriate shorthand to convey the idea that we are dealing with an unobtrusive realm of political struggle,” James C Scott writes in his 1990 book Domination and the Arts of Resistance. This concept serves as primary inspiration for artist and writer Alan Ruiz’s exhibition Infrapolitics—on now at 1708 Gallery in Richmond, Virginia. The artwork uses power—literally—to explore the idea; pulling energy from the gallery’s basement up through the air vent, and lighting four LED safety lamps. The exhibition continues with a series of glassworks and air vents, presented as conceptual sculpture. Asking literal and metaphorical questions, it all addresses existing conditions and socio-economic issues.
Ruiz continues to address administrative protocols that constitute power in the gallery with his request to have the gallery receive W.A.G.E. certification. To tie in aspects of the local community, Ruiz explores the Valentine Archive to present three images that depict the planning of Richmond—specifically plans that segregated an area of the city called Jackson Ward. Ruiz highlights the fact that an urban planner has drawn arrows on these photographs to call attention to a particular stretch of highway. Someone took pleasure in drawing these arrows—essentially dividing the community in the interest of “urban revitalization.”
On now through 29 June, this exhibition explores real-life architecture, philosophical concepts, and traces histories of the way our human-built environments create and continue disenfranchisement. We spoke with Ruiz to find out more.
How would you describe the differentiation of electric power and authoritative power your work is invoking?
“Infrapolitics” considers the way power is distributed across different scales and systems. A quick answer to your question would be that electricity—though largely invisible in the built environment—is distributed through a clear material network. Authoritative power, by contrast, does not necessarily come from above, but is constituted not only by systems we rely on but also believe in. This is made manifest in “WS-K80X4” (2019) which reroutes the building’s power supply from its configuration in the basement up through the gallery, illuminating the space with four LED safety lamps which remain on throughout the duration of the exhibition. Of course this supply of electricity is also connected to the city’s larger electrical grid, but the works in the show draw attention to more than the formal design of this system—the politics of distribution and design that they enact, illuminating certain spaces while casting others in shadow.
An explicit reference point for the work is the interstate highway system, and the way infrastructure continues to be used to divide and suture cities across economic and racial lines. The history of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, in particular, produced these effects. 1708 Gallery is located on Broad Street which is, and historically was, one of the main economic arteries of the city. One of the insidious effects of the planning of the turnpike was that it partitioned Jackson Ward from Broad Street both spatially and economically. This infrastructural project, coupled with Red Lining, disenfranchised communities even further by cutting residents from the energy source to those business districts, as it were, and the larger social fabric of the city. I wanted to draw attention to these spatial politics, and also extend this line of thinking to the systems of power that flow through the gallery site—not only electricity, but also systems like the wage form. It’s important for me to make the distinction that it’s not an exhibition about referencing authoritative power, rather it’s conditioned by those systems. It exists within them.
This site-reflexive work functions through the architecture and infrastructure of the gallery space, presenting what is often hidden beneath the walls. How does the exhibition in this space connect with the overarching “infrastructures of city planning, construction, and the homogenization of architectural environments” in Richmond’s arts district?
My work is certainly site-reflexive and always context sensitive, but what I’m more interested in is thinking about the repeatability of sites. The Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike is unique to Richmond, but it’s also a familiar formula of segregation and economic divestment in city-planning’s long history. I think about it as not only engaging a space, but a spatial condition—looking at the repeatable elements of gentrification and urban design.
My work engages with these conditions most emphatically through the use of architectural standards. Standards are a kind of operating system that structure the repeatability of spaces. (For instance, consider the four-foot by eight-foot sheet of drywall and the way this material has contained any number of interior environments in which we work and live.) With Infrapolitics, it’s exciting to think about how this system as an exhibition—the redistribution of electrical power—could technically exist in any space connected to an electrical power source. In this sense, it is site-reflexive and also carries the potential to be nomadic.
However, it’s equally interesting to me to consider how the work could exist in any number of different cities that carry similar infrastructural projects, and how it might map out these repeated formulas while also pulling out more local forms and histories.
Kind of like Robert Moses’ proposition to knock down Washington Square Park and lower Manhattan to make tunneled highways for suburban commuters coming to the city.
And that happened in the Bronx too—where, unlike the failed LOMEX project downtown, the Cross Bronx Expressway was actually used to partition, separate, and clear communities. Let alone everything Moses did with Lincoln Center and what was so-called “slum clearance”—decimating historically black neighborhoods. Often these histories have been presented under the guise of “urban revitalization,” a phrase that continues to be deployed and which, in my opinion, should only be met with deep skepticism about what this suggests.
How was the process of getting the Gallery W.A.G.E.-certified? Can you speak more to the need and importance of fair wages in artistic and creative fields?
I’ve been familiar with W.A.G.E. for many years and believe that we need all the collective organizing we can afford when it comes to fighting the exploitation of labor in the art world—which is also one of the largest unregulated markets in the world. I wanted to honor the work W.A.G.E. does to confront the conditions in which artists and culture workers are often put—situations where we are asked to work for meager fees which not only undermine artistic and creative labor, but also helps to normalize this expectation. Although it’s not a union, in many ways W.A.G.E. is the closest model to an artist union that presently exists.
But what was particularly curious about having 1708 undergo W.A.G.E. certification as part of Infrapolitics was that it precipitated from my requesting this—as the artist, constituting an administrative and infrastructural shift within the institution. The notion of standardization that’s being activated by the physical objects in the exhibition, could then be extended to the minimum standards set by W.A.G.E.
Seeing your previous work that references gentrification, neoliberalism, construction, and ordinances concerning the urban built environment, how has your previous study and research informed your current position?
This exhibition certainly comes out of a much larger body of work that spans writing, drawing, exhibition making, architectural intervention, and sculpture. Much of my work revolves around a central question of how architecture, and the built environment reproduces and reflects social hierarchies.
I often say that what I’m trying to do is show what is already there
I’ve thought about that question across several different registers and one of those being an engagement with what I’ve called “radical formalism”—a question of how aesthetic and material form actually carries social history embedded within it. I often say that what I’m trying to do is show what is already there—and what is already there is filled with all sorts of data which we can use to speculate and make certain hypothesis about what the built environment is doing to the body politic.
For me, this is an ongoing commitment. Again, one explicit way that I’m thinking about that is through an engagement with standards. For instance, “WS-E-1-12” (2019) utilizes specific standardized materials more commonly found within commercial and corporate architecture. These materials commonly regulate thresholds of public and privatized space, inclusion and exclusion, access and refusal. At 1708, these units are placed according to the standardized dimensions of drywall present within the gallery, and may be hung according to a similar logic in other sites. While standards might carry innocuous information about electrical outlets, or paper sizes, they can also work to reinforce normative ideas, not only about the atmosphere in which we live, but how we live. Another word for this might be ideology.
In my work, I’m trying to illuminate the normalizing function of standards, but also attempting to posit a different way of thinking about them—that they can be hacked or perverted in some way. It’s not just about the media history of standards but about how we might also think about them alongside economic and social histories of neoliberalism, gentrification, globalization, and perhaps queerness. I’m interested in how these complex systems can be explored through standards as cultural techniques, and the way certain ideologies are concretized through physical form.
Images courtesy of Alan Ruiz + 1708 Gallery