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A technically minimalistic gesture




In Heart of Glass, edited by Louise Rutledge and published by Enjoy Public Art, Wellington

August 2018 

Published in response to the exhibition Heart of Glass by Isabella Dampney and Theo Macdonald, Heart of Glass brings together a selection of media responses to the exhibition alongside commissioned texts and interviews by writers from a range of creative disciplines.

Reflecting on the exhibition in relation to art, music, architecture, politics and popular culture, these contributions consider both the effectiveness of the broken window as an aesthetic gesture and the discourse generated by the exhibition. Together, the texts slowly unpack the wealth of references that stem from both the title of the exhibition and its aim of engaging public media.

Publication available here


Graciela Carnevale, Acción del Encierro, 1968. Photographic documentation of the performance

The broken window has been an allegorical figure in a number of situations over the past fifty years. And depending on which side of the obtrusion you position yourself, it has differing viewpoints. In 1968, Graciela Carnevale exhibited Acción del Encierro (“Lock-up Action,” also translated as “Confinement Action”) in Rosario, Argentina. Prior to the exhibition opening, Carnevale had covered the gallery’s front windows with posters, restricting the soon-to-arrive audience’s view to the street. As is customary, the exhibition had an opening event during which the main component of the work was enacted. Once everyone had arrived, Carnevale lingered in the exhibition space for an hour before secretly slipping out and locking the door behind her. The audience—a decidedly public body—was consequently confined to relative privacy. Carnevale didn’t plan to return to the gallery to free the guests, and instead hoped to elicit an act of “exemplary violence” from an audience member. This moment came in the form of an unexpected figure: a passer-by noticed the panic on the faces of the trapped gallery guests (who by now had torn down the posters obscuring their view) and smashed the front glass window open with a brick. This commotion caught the attention of the police, who were densely populating the streets at the time, resulting in the forcible closure of the event.

Police intervention was also the subject of a second incident with broken windows. Throughout the 1990s, New York mayor Rudy Giuliani promoted his now notorious “broken windows” approach, a theory coined by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, as justification for his “zero tolerance” policy for policing petty crimes in the city. The theory reductively argued that addressing small- scale problems, like vandalism and broken windows, would be a preventative measure for more serious crimes. Infrastructural “disorder” was factored as a symbol for a kind of social order entropy. This only needed to be addressed and a reduction of crime in the city would follow, apparently. 


In both of these situations a certain relationship between the individual, the collective and the administration played out. Just one year prior to the exhibition of Carnevale’s work, General Juan Carlos Onganía took power of Argentina by overthrowing elected president Arturo Illia in a coup d’etat. The provocation of violence from Carnevale wasn’t just simply an aesthetic happening—it was an incitement for a more active social body. While on the one hand the work negated the passive art viewer, on the other it encouraged participation beyond the sphere of art and in defence of participatory democracy itself. Such a defence would not have gone astray in New York either, where Giuliani’s unscrupulous “zero tolerance” agenda saw misdemeanour arrests rise from 10 to 644 per year. The broken window then acted as a provocation for two vastly different plights: one whereby the act of breaking was a kind of motivational manoeuvre in light of state-led confinement, and the other where the broken window, having already occurred ahead of time, was the origin and apogee of civil policy intent on privatising access to the public sphere based on racial profiling and class. Such a technically minimalistic intervention emphasises the possible threshold between the aesthetic act and matters of public interest. By being utilised as symbolic of something other than itself, the broken window unintentionally became a site of rebellion purely by its uncontrollable proliferation (whether physically in New York, or verbally in Rosario). These occasions illustrate the aesthetic realm as a site of public address, therefore factoring it as something able to engage productively in matters of public interest. And if it is Giuliani’s job as legislator to act in the public interest, so too is it Carnevale’s as an artist, to work at this threshold, reporting on alternative possibilities for citizenship in an attempt at cutting through.

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