According to conceptual artists and amateur architects Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa living too comfortably was catastrophic to the human condition.  They believed that humans should live in a perpetual state of instability and even suggested that that their designs might enable their inhabitants eternal life. Here we have an insight from their one-time collaborator, Don Byrd.

Arakawa + Gins, Hotel Reversible Destiny—124 West Houston Street, New York, 2006, digital photomontage © 2008 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins Courtesy of Reversible Destiny Foundation

Madeline and Arakawa were the most generous of artists, forever looking for co-conspirators.

I would get phone calls from Madeline. “Hi, are you well enough to talk? How are we not going to not to die?”

That put you on the tips of your toes. ‘To Not to Die’ is the title of one of their most important books.

They were also always at play. I remember talking to Arakawa on a street corner in Philadelphia, and he said that we have to learn to move like snakes.  Suddenly, in a dance-like move so smooth that I almost didn’t see it, he was on the sidewalk, moving like a snake.

Arakawa + Gins, Isle of Reversible Destiny—Fukuoka, 2003, digital rendering © 2021 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins Courtesy of Reversible Destiny Foundation

Arakawa + Gins, Isle of Reversible Destiny—Fukuoka, 2003, digital rendering © 2016 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins Courtesy of Reversible Destiny Foundation

Sometimes I got packages of texts from them. They were signals to expect a call. Sometimes Arakawa would sit near the phone.  We got in an argument when they asked me to contribute to their book ‘Making Dying Illegal’. I said that I thought people with a death wish should be allowed to die. It might be genetic and reproduced. She told Arakawa, “He’s an anarchist. He doesn’t think we should have laws.”

From their earliest work Madeline and Arakawa were committed to collaboration. Madeline called her early work, ‘Word Rain’ or ‘A Discursive Introduction to the Intimate Philosophical Investigations of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says’ (1969), a group novel and she put out a call for material to be included. It is not clear how many contributions she received, but when I met them, probably in 1986, they had begun to think in terms not of collaboration but coordination, and in their book, ‘The Architectural Body’, they put forth dense, disciplinary protocols for a sciences that they call “coordinology” and “biotoplogy”—  disciplines, unlike interdisciplinary collaborations, that would allow all kinds of incoherent and contradictory inputs to a project.

 Arakawa and Madeline Gins, Drawing for Ubiquitous Site X, 1990, graphite and color pencil on paper, 20 x 26 in. (50.8 x 66 cm). Photo by Nicholas Knight © 2018 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins

Arakawa, Ubiquitous Site X, 1987–91, mixed media; 244 1/2 x 295 1/4 x 157 1/2 in. (621 x 750 x 400 cm). Photo by Norihiro Ueno © 2018 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins

Although their hope for help in their work was real, it was not easy to collaborate with them and even more difficult to coordinate. Their work together had been a daily fact since they met in 1963.  I imagine them getting up in the morning, and one of them saying, “How are we not going to die today?” It was a tight relation and could only be entered in ways that were perhaps barely more than superficial.   Of course, at times they had a substantial number of people working in the studio who collaborated in some sense. Joke Post, who was Madeline’s assistant, was an important one. The coordination was mostly talk among friends which repaid not with finished works but with its own energy.

Jondi Keane, Alexis Bhagat, and I proposed an audio system for the Bioscleave House.  The idea was to break up the auditory space as the architecture broke up the visual space. We had a fairly elaborate plan. One subsystem that can be easily described recorded sounds in the house and played them back at random times. Another picked up the sound of footsteps and amplified them to be heard in other parts of the house, so you would hear your footsteps where you were not walking.  The sound system was planned in a few email exchanges as far as I recall. Madeline and Arakawa were excited about the idea and produced an essay with handsome graphics entitled ‘Close Your Eyes: Sound Components at Bioscleave House.’  (Still unpublished)

Then, when I had mostly forgotten the proposal, I got a call from Madeline, “Don, we need the sound system for the Bioscleave.” I asked when she would need it. “Two weeks.”

We were not a part of the daily work flow, and we had missed our time. We had ideas, not a specced-out plan ready for an implementation. Alex was no longer working in the office, I was three hours away in upstate New York, and Jondi was in Australia. The Architectural Body Research Foundation worked on the wild energies and imaginations of its principals.

But think of living in a space where your words might be thrown back at you tomorrow or next week.

Arakawa + Gins, Ubiquitous Site, Nagi’s Ryoanji, Architectural Body, 1994, permanent installation, Nagi Museum of Contemporary Art, Okayama Prefecture, Japan. L 70 x Diam 30 ft. (L 21.3 x Diam 9.14 m) © 1994 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins Courtesy of Nagi MOCA

Arakawa + Gins, Ubiquitous Site, Nagi’s Ryoanji, Architectural Body, 1994, permanent installation, Nagi Museum of Contemporary Art, Okayama Prefecture, Japan. L 70 x Diam 30 ft. (L 21.3 x Diam 9.14 m) © 1994 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins Courtesy of Nagi MOCA

Madeline and Arakawa were masters, and in some sense, one cannot enter or question the work of the masters. What they do is already complete, even if it is inherently incomplete.  We can now see that their work together from ‘The Mechanism of Meaning’ to the last architectural work is of a piece.  They pursued the possibility of another kind of knowledge. It is not an aesthetic or theoretical whole; it is an incomplete and incompletable, not a work of art but a work of life, inevitably cut short.

At the Guggenheim Conference on their work in 2010, I was sitting next to Madeline. Arakawa, as we suspected, but did not know -- they were not talking about his illness -- was at 124 West Houston Street, dying. Madeline squeezed my arm as if to break it, she was so tense, then she got up and gave a stunning, ad lib talk.

A couple of weeks after Arakawa’s death, Madeline circulated a brief note among her friends. It had carried the motto that was on a huge banner above the entrance to the show at SoHo Guggenheim in 1997: WE HAVE DECIDED NOT TO DIE. And she wrote: “By thus deciding we kept an all-important end -- yes, this end needed to become a non-end! -- always in sight.”

Their paintings, writings, and buildings require our moving attentions and moving bodies. What the works make possible, not the works themselves, is what is important. The work deals with our tentative and untenable condition. At any moment, we might fall.

It is about what can be done now.  “Are you well enough to talk?”

I liked getting the phone calls. They were the real thing. It required you to think about the hardest things, whilst on your tippy-toes, and the whole Earth trying to knock you over.

After an hour I would be exhausted.

Arakawa + Gins, Reversible Destiny Lofts—Mitaka (In Memory of Helen Keller), 2005, nine residential apartments (two unit types), Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan. Total Area: 6,300 ft2 (858 m2). Photo by Toshi Ando © 2005 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins

 Arakawa + Gins, Reversible Destiny Lofts—Mitaka (In Memory of Helen Keller), 2005, nine residential apartments (two unit types), Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan. Total Area: 6,300 ft2 (858 m2). Photo by Masataka Nakano © 2005 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins

I remember a lunch with Madeline and Arakawa at a small Italian restaurant in the West Village. It was a nice day, probably in the fall, sometime in the early 1990s, and the restaurant had a comfortable garden. We talked of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who had been by far the biggest philosophical influence on their work, but by the time of this lunch, they felt that they had exhausted his usefulness to their work. Wittgenstein begins the ‘Tractatus’: “The world is all that is the case.” I proposed to them that rather than describing the world, from which we exile ourselves in the very act of describing it, we must think in terms of instructions on how to live on the Earthly data site: ‘Always act so there will be more ways to act next time’. Of course, a related idea was already at play in their work.

Arakawa and Gins are not well known, except in Japan, where their Yoro Park is a popular attraction. With the sponsorship of Marcel Duchamp, they had started on the course of becoming important artists in the United States. They bought a building on the northern boundary of SoHo, when real estate in the neighborhood was cheap, and 124 West Houston became a gathering place for artists, poets, and the intellectual community. At an event in memory of Madeline, Kate Millet, the author of ‘Sexual Politics’, recalled the parties and repeated again and again, “We had so much fun…. We had so much fun.”

From 1972 until 1990 they had regular shows at the Ron Feldman Gallery, and then, suddenly, as the art market began to skyrocket, they broke off relations with Feldman for reasons, as Feldman himself told me, he did not entirely understand. They had begun to think of their work as not belonging to the commercial world of art or architecture. They are among the few artists that did not get locked into the art business. How they managed to finance their work is not clear. They looked for patrons. In one phone call Madeline told me of a billionaire who was going to fund a Research Center in Texas. They got a commission to build what they called ‘a city; on recovered land in Tokyo Bay, but it fell through for political reasons. I suspect that they let this massive project go because they were not willing to compromise their design for the building code.

Arakawa + Gins, Reversible Destiny Lofts—Mitaka (In Memory of Helen Keller), 2005, nine residential apartments (two unit types), Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan. Total Area: 6,300 ft2 (858 m2). Photo by Ken Kato © 2005 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins

Arakawa + Gins, Reversible Destiny Lofts—Mitaka (In Memory of Helen Keller), 2005, nine residential apartments (two unit types), Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan. Total Area: 6,300 ft2 (858 m2). © 2005 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins

On January 8, 2015, the first anniversary of Madeline’s death, some of her friends  met at Pascalou restaurant on Madison Avenue to remember the immense energy that she had often loaned us. It was a warm meeting on a cold night, and we decided to meet annually. This year, the year when almost everything is called off, the call to the dinner did not come.

I found myself wondering what Madeline and Arakawa would have said about COVID-19. They would have worn their masks and rigorously observed the distances, probably almost to the point of disappearance. Madeline would have been outraged, Arakawa would have been stoic. Madeline would have been on the phone, as she always was. It would have been, however, consistent for them to say, "Human history is an endless pandemic. Everyone has died ."

How do we pick up from where they left off? There is much to be done. We should remember in the midst of everything, they were playful.

Play Ball!