Cells of colour on two-dimensional planes atop larger two-dimensional planes that together define a space. That is how Peter Halley presents his work. Taken as a whole, it is a 3D presentation comprising two 2D layers. From his viewpoint, this makes all the difference, as it instils in the work the nature of a text rather than a sculpture.

Halley's calm and gentle character contrasts with the fierceness and storminess of his work. In his work he represents, with great wit and humour, the mechanisms of control employed by post-industrial societies using geometric mechanisms for interconnected isolation. He first conceptualised these back in the 1980s using his now famous cells (or prisons) and conduits, which today are more relevant than ever, given the evolution of communication technologies and the ruling of the internet. Actually, in a 1985 article called On Line, he wrote:

INDEX A to Z: Art, design, Fashion, Film, and Music in the Indie Era, edited by Wendy Vogel, published by Rizzoli, new York, 2014
“The proliferation of the computer is the development that most ensures the closure of this system.”

DAMN had the pleasure of Halley’s company for several hours in his New York studio, once the headquarters of the independent Index Magazine he ran from 1996 to 2005. A lively conversation about art, architecture, sociology, philosophy, urban theory, and popular culture, ensued.

Mary Boone Gallery, New York: A collaboration with Alessandro Mendini, 2013
DAMN: Your work is more contemporary than ever, now that technology has almost completely overtaken social relationships. Did you foresee this when you started?

Peter Halley: Oh, sure. Most of it! (Laughs) The only big surprise is maybe email. That people would rather write than talk. But the fact that they are isolated in front of computers and tied into the network isn’t so surprising. Truly big influences in formulating all this were: firstly, Norbert Elias with his book The Civilizing Process, which is about how we all become self-constrained; and the second was The Fall of Public Man by Richard Sennett, in which he describes the decline of heterogynous, chaotic urban life and the desire for everyone to be in a safe, vent-less society.

Coiled, 2014, Acrylic, fluorescent acrylic, and rolla-Tex on canvas, 213 x 178 cm
Banco Suisso d’italia, Torino, 2003 installation of unique prints
What do you think about 3D software and parametrical architecture creating new forms that imitate nature? In a way, computers are allowing us to not be geometric anymore.

I don’t believe that. People talk about this a lot, and about all of the complex illusionistic 3D curvilinear forms they can achieve on a computer. To me, it’s a case of the computer making a spectacle; there are still 0s and 1s. And it’s still Cartesian, and still a binary system. I mean, experimentation has been done with different kinds of computer networking, but that doesn’t exist now, and so I really object to people like Zaha Hadid and even Frank Gehry, to all this Baroque curvilinear stuff, as to me it’s simply the kind of spectacle you can make using the software. And everybody has gone for it!

It’s a fashion, in the end.

Or a spectacle, in Guy Debord’s sense of the word. It seduces. To me it’s more than a fashion, because it is intrinsically fascinating, seductive. But let me take this back one step. What I've gradually realised with algorithms – I didn’t quite know this in the 1990s – is that algorithms are pathways: if 'yes', then this; if 'no', then that. I assume it has to be entirely binary, so, in a way, not only parametrical architecture but the whole culture of Google or search results or big data is, on a deeper level, also tied to these pathways. The other thing I used to try to emphasise was labelling the 20th century a structuralist century, saying that the principle of abstraction in art, and maybe in architecture, is absolutely parallel to linguistic analysis, or semiotic analysis, as well as to what occurs in biology with DNA, which is to say that life can be explained according to basic linguistic grammar, and I think that one could say that subatomic physics is the same, with the interaction of all these nameable particles that have different characteristics, like words in a sentence. So it dominates everything. I was reminded of that in a symposium I lectured at last week, that for a good part of the 20th century these things were seen as progressive or exploratory tools to help us understand the structure behind the things we didn’t understand. But at this point in the 21st century, they have become dominant or pervasive, and are actually tools of power themselves. That’s an important reversal and, in a way, makes sense of a postmodern reaction to utopian geometry, or anything else.

In the mid-1990s, you began to produce site-specific installations for museums, galleries, and public spaces, where the paintings were ‘floating free’ on painted or decorated walls, by you or by others. One of these collaborations was with Italian architect Alessandro Mendini, founding member of Studio Alchimia (the Italian postmodern group that embraced decoration, symbolism, and appropriation), like that wonderful show you did together in 2013 at Mary Boone gallery. How did you come to work with him in the first place?

Well, he did this amazing project, the Byblos Hotel in Italy. There was an old villa that they wanted to make into a hotel. He commissioned everything for the interior: they had Vanessa Beecroft, and whoever, design these various pieces of furniture. And then, for the bar, they wanted me to do the walls and some paintings. They were really disorganised and I was really busy, so I told them I could send them the paintings, but I couldn’t do the walls. And Mendini went ahead with this. It made me realise I could have somebody else provide that sort of architectural setting, the walls being a setting for the paintings, very much in line with the idea of Rococo or Baroque.

What are you looking for in these installations?

In terms of architecture, I am very interested in interior ensembles, like the library. Traditionally, a big part of architecture is how to elaborate the interior – form a cube, various subdivisions, colour, and you’ll get the room.

And in those, you also made the background?

Yes, I used to do everything. And still do, sometimes. Each wall with three paintings was divided into three areas, essentially, like chapels in a church, so it’s a pretty simple concept. And before I did that one, I guess my first large-scale installation was in 1995 at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris.

What happens to the work, or what are the effects you are looking for?

It is a Gesamtkunstwerk. I was first interested in the juxtaposition of 2D works in different media – prints, paintings, flow-chart diagrams, in order to turn all the walls of the room and the room itself into a kind of text, limiting myself to only two dimensions. Other people have done really interesting things, as well, including Joseph Kosuth – I think his goal in some projects was to try to turn the room into a kind of walk-in text, and Barbara Kruger, whose interior installations are fantastic. But my purpose was also the desire to do an art installation in two-dimensions, not a sculpture.

This article appeared in DAM51. Order your personal copy.
Byblos Art hotel, Verona, italy: Main salon, designed by Alessandro Mendini, 2005
Neutral Territory, 2010, Acrylic, Day-Glo acrylic and Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 80 x 88 inches
Peter Halley