Kitbashing, street remakes, and bisexual architecture: a conversation with Kim Adams

Research slide from the collection of Kim Adams
Rafael Gómez-Moriana: Kim, you gave a talk in 1988 at the Christiane Chassay Gallery in Montreal in which you showed slides of “street remakes”: vehicles and buildings re-made by their owners, such as buses with beetlebody roofs, pick-up trucks with home-made campers and other creations of a do-it-yourself culture. What struck me about these often quite humorous images was that, collectively, they constituted a typological study – or a body of research – into a pop-vernacular building tradition. How do you come across all this material: do you just bump into it while motoring across the Arizona desert? And secondly, how does this research inform your practice?

Kim Adams: My research began in high school while I was skipping classes. I found street life more interesting. Later, I began traveling with a caravan as part of late-hippie culture: in those days, converting your bus was what you were supposed to do. Paint it yourself, make the roof higher, start having babies, start traveling. It was a freedom culture of sorts, and I did enjoy the idea of being a gypsy. I was a musician at the time too, playing in acoustic love bands. One day, I came out of an art gallery in Victoria and there was a vehicle that somebody had converted for hunting. From that point on my art practice changed and I just started seeing these things all over the place: a bus with a Fargo van on the top where the kids would stay. A lot of those finds were accidental but I was keeping my eyes open. People have also contributed to the slides – sometimes students will give me some when I do a talk. When I moved to Ontario this culture had disappeared. It’s rare, it’s really rare to find these things today. There isn’t as much experimentation. Things are pretty well done and bought as is. The inventiveness is not there anymore. My father’s generation could fix things with a little binder twine, while today we have to trade it in or have somebody else fix it. The old Volkswagen was something that could be rebuilt and made into something else. You made love in it, you listened to Jimi Hendrix in it, you got married in it. The cottage business or street industry is quite rare today. I mean, getting licensing in Toronto is very difficult: when we did the Curbing Machine in 1988, we had to get a permit and a license, and we had to lie about it. We got it under the category of being a dumpster, because it was on the sidewalk as well as on the road. So it was a dumpster. With the Toaster Wagon in San Diego, the officials seemed to run out of the office every time we requested a permit. We only got busted a couple of times, and they couldn’t even describe it to head-quarters: “What is this?” “Well, actually, it’s two VW buses. ” “On the sidewalk? How did it get on the sidewalk?” And I would just say; “It’s the back ends of two buses put together to look like a toaster.” “Well, next time you come here, don’t go on this side of the street, go on that side of the street.”

RGM: Why wouldn’t you just tell the authorities or whomever that it’s art?

KA: Because then the conversation just ends right then and there. When someone would ask, “What is this?” and I would answer, “It’s a Curbing Machine – do you want to try it?” they might become interested. But if I said, “It’s an artwork,” they’d ask “Who’s paying for that?” The subject of the conversation becomes the taxpayer. But when a work just sits in an abstract, quiet way people do a second take on it. French-fry truck, that’s right. Ice-cream truck, that’s right. Satellite dish spinning around with man sitting next to it. That’s not quite right. And then it’s: “How much, how much?” “Nothing. Just try it.” “Well what’s supposed to happen?” It would keep the conversation going. When I did all three of my machines on Granville Island in Vancouver, which is near an art school and therefore a trained area, the trained people came up and said, “This is artwork right?” And I would reply, “No it isn’t.” “I know it’s artwork! I saw the poster!” “Yeah right, OK. Go away, will ya?” I’m waiting for tourists. I don’t need conversation about whether it’s good or bad art.

RGM: You seem to enjoy a rapport with your audience. Earlier installation works, such as Leisure’s Restraint at the Ydessa Gallery, consisted of rides that gallery visitors could actually enjoy. You would even be present to assist with the operation of the rides and to answer any questions. Where does this interest in your audience come from? Why do you care so much about your audience?

KA: My first ride piece was at the garbage dump in Victoria. The gallery thing had already been done and I was looking for some other venue. So I got permission and built an interactive possibility for whoever hangs out in dumps. That was my audience and it worked out fine at first, but then somehow it got press and became public. Media people were coming over from Vancouver, as well as bus tours. It got on the art circuit and that just completely changed it. Then I was asked to do a gallery show in Santa Barbara along the same lines. What happened was wild. The entrance ride came into the corridor and crashed through this truck. There was another ride called the Moon Ride – a half inch steel rolled plate that would crash into the main building support and shake it. A third ride involved going through a video room. I wanted an attendant so I became that attendant. At the dump, though, I wasn’t an artist, I was just this guy, and people were asking “What are you doing?” I was testing myself. “What do you do with it?” “You get inside it and then it just moves.” Then people would come back and bring the kids, and teenagers came on Friday nights. I was living nearby in my van at that time and got to know this other culture, as well as the police, who kept on moving me away. From there, this idea of movement went into galleries for awhile. The gallery itself was a learning experience for me: what do you do with that space? What is it? What is its meaning? The Curbing Machine came out of these questions, the idea of just planting this thing outside the gallery in the street and seeing what happened. And sitting at the same street corner for a month, there are enough lessons in that memory for a lifetime.

RGM: So being an attendant at these rides you created was really a pretext for observing people – for conducting more research?

KA: Sure, but it was also to see how comfortable it is for people to get up on a platform with a spinning disk – I had to provide something to hang on to.

RGM: These sound like architectural concerns. Indeed, it seems that many of your works are inhabitable or proposing some form of inhabitation.

KA: Almost.

RGM: Alright, almost inhabitable. I’m thinking here of the Decoy Homes and Auto-Office-Haus. Of course, as an artist all media are open to you but this isn’t the case for architects. Architecture carries a degree of public responsibility, from which art is exempt. Do you ponder this question much? Does the fact that you’re an artist make your architecture any different?

KA: Well, I would love to say it’s architecture, but it’s not. I learned that in 1988 when I built the Chameleon Unit. I flirted with the idea that it’s possibly architecture, but just a little. The Decoy Homes come out of Donald Judd’s work at that time, the earlier plywood boxes on angles. Riding a train across Ontario I noticed between here and Windsor there are more garden sheds than houses. Viewed abstractly from the corner of an eye, these sheds look just like houses; the same dumb shapes. The idea of a model emerged: why not buy three or four of them, stack them, and make a Surfer Shack. I was just borrowing what the urban realm offers, but in abstract. Looking at it as abstract forms allows you to borrow from it. I was finding stuff at Canadian tire. That was the beginning of my shopping. There was a whole period when I was building things from scratch and trying to re-invent the wheel; in fact I was often trying to make four wheels exactly the same. I didn’t see the simple side: it took a lot to find it. And that was Canadian Tire. “Four lawn chairs and three garden sheds, please,” and I would just set them up in the studio. But how they work as models is important because garden sheds are not made for people. So that’s where the Decoy Homes become models, or maquettes. There is a little bit from the visual world of architecture, though. The Chameleon Unit, the truck piece, was the first piece I made that you could actually live in. I could buy these units that are made for truckers to sleep in and convert them into “apartment” units in the plaza in front of the new American Express building at Battery Park in New York City. It got reviewed in Architecture magazine as an ashtray, this horrible ash tray right in front of this beautiful piece of architecture. So in 1988 I learned that there might be a difference here, and now I never say I make architecture. Gordon Matta Clark’s work was not accepted as architecture, even though he studied it. When he shot those windows out of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, that was an architectural show and architects dumped on him. I mean it was the art world that enjoyed the curiosity of the difference between art and architecture and it crossed over that way. When I worked in Germany there seemed to be a conversation with my work that I wasn’t experiencing so much here, where I am a freak or a weird guy. In Germany I was taken quite seriously: Auto-Office-Haus was looked at as a serious proposal. They didn’t talk a lot of art at all, but said it was bisexual architecture. I had to look more at the living possibility of the structure, effectively propose it as a small living space.

RGM: The history of architecture is full of proposals that have remained unbuilt, and indeed some proposals have been designed to be unbuildable.

KA: This is probably where we sympathize with each other. Unrealized projects are celebrated in Germany now; the unrealized has actually become subversive. The conversation came up a lot: “We’ll realize this project.” In Canada our problem is that things don’t get realized. Here, the unrealized is a reality.

RGM: So all of your works are models, whether full-scale models, or miniature scale models. How did you actually get into miniature scale? Was it through constructing studies for your larger models?

KA: My first memory of sniffing glue at a young age was when I built a model kit of President Kennedy’s boat. After that I was constantly building models. Especially cars. Model building was big. Then it disappeared. At the University of Victoria I got back into making model cars because It seemed to make more sense than learning abstract painting or something like that. The first car piece I ever saw was by Joseph Beuys at the Guggenheim in the 1978-79 retrospective. He had a VW bus on the ramp, together with the survival sleds. And it just made so much sense right there in that gallery, which is basically a car park. Just think: Winnipeg, Regina, these prairie towns, they all have mini Guggenheims. I think that made quite an impact on me, just seeing a car in that high-art situation. I didn’t understand the survival part. I was just thinking, “Ooh, cars look alright in galleries, especially old, rusty ones.”

RGM: Both your full-scale work, if we can call it that, as well as your miniature work, is assembled from off-the-shelf components, things you can buy, whether actual car parts or model-car kits. Where does the “craft” come into it? Is craft even important here?

KA: It’s making these model-building kits look like the period. that’s what the craft is. Painting it to look aged and square; they have to look how the kit’s supposed to be made. But then it’s also when you start “bashing” them. All my work is what I would call “kit-bashing.” This is a common term in the model industry: you cross breed a Volkswagen with a Cadillac, and you’ve got a kit bash. They must do it in architecture too, although I don’t know if they talk about it in those terms.

RGM: In architecture there’s a lot of value placed upon a kind of originality that has to do with having things made from scratch. It’s very much an Arts-and-Crafts ideal. In fact, a lot of architects have a disdain for ready-made products from catalogues because these products are associated with commercial building production. Meanwhile, you’ve even begun incorporating action figures in your work.

KA: The Breughel Bosch Bus is a proposal for an amusement park – Breughel-Bosch Land – at Niagara Falls. The work is a theme park at 1:87 scale, so the bus itself would be about twelve stories high. You take your family through this late industrial-age North American steel plant turned amusement park. The action figures are there to make the piece believable as a proposal for fiction but it’s also about the shutting down of the steel industry in many towns.

RGM: Much of your work deals with the average middle-class family’s two principal purchases: the house and the automobile. Yet, while the typical new house today is backward-looking, cars are cutting- edge design. There’s a real irony to seeing a new “ye-olde” tract house with a sleek late-model car parked in the driveway. If you look at historical photographs of the villas of Le Corbusier, on the other hand, it is the cars that Le Corbusier liked to park in the foreground as symbols of modernity that look antiquated today, not the villas. In the Decoy Homes, for example, the house becomes a vehicle and the vehicle a house. A lot of your work is about mobility as lifestyle but it’s a lifestyle that is less current today.

KA: It’s from my parents’ generation, no doubt. But I don’t know what is going to happen with the next generation; maybe they’ll have computers in the trailers. When I was invited to do Chameleon Unit and they gave me some money I felt guilty and I didn’t want to make something that wasn’t functional. If it fails as art, at least then you can still live in it! Or sleep in it. That work really came out of a fear of being homeless.

RGM: Are you still shopping at Canadian Tire as much as before or are you working with different kinds of components now that require other sources?

KA: When I first discovered Canadian Tire as a source for art materials I would get a buzz. Everything on the shelves – from ironing boards to cups and tents and fishing rods – turned into art supplies. Canadian Tire became an exciting place to be. The garden sheds were my first entry because they were always on display outside. Everything was there, including the hardware to put things together. No welding: everything had to be fastened mechanically and treated as a supply. But some of that excitement wore off after ten years. I still check it out – I keep my eye out for new models, such as the Space Saver shed – but I don’t buy as much from there. In 1991, I made a new work because they came out with a new model. I’ve been increasingly investigating other industries. I’m looking for new shapes so that’s what’s making me move to other places. The computer has generated a curiosity for making shapes. Right now I’m working with GM and Ford, just for the new shapes and bodies – especially the new truck bodies. And working with a company here in Toronto that makes interesting computer shaped cargo boxes for trucks. We’re working on a project in Vancouver that’ll become a housing workshop that folds out so that a little truck comes out of there that has fake artworks made of wood, rubber and plastic stacked to look like hamburgers and desserts. The whole thing will look like a gift shop. With miniature models it’s the same: they’re all available materials. They’re all industrially made, so pretty well anything I want to put together I can find. Specialized model stores have become a major new supply.

RGM: If you could do a residency in any factory, store or warehouse that you desired, where would you choose to go?

KA: Well it would be automotive, probably where they build the Smart Car in Germany. The place where Airstream trailers are assembled would have been wonderful earlier. In Europe, they’re interested in having artists working in industry. I was approached by BMW but I wanted to take the shell off a BMW and make it look like another car and they weren’t into that. They Just wanted me to paint one. I said “Can I drill holes? I’ve got to do something else with it!” And that was the end of that project.

RGM: In your earlier work you fastened things together that were always recognizable, whereas it seems that in your more recent work one can’t quite recognize the components as readily.

KA: Yes, the recognizing gets a little bit more special this time. You have to look more carefully. The language has become more specialized. It’s still off-the-shelf, but now stuff is kit-bashed in such a way that it becomes its own image. I’m always surprised at the many people playing with the Toaster Wagon who don’t know the spokes. And then there are people who recognize it right away: “That’s what I thought it was!” With others, I’ve had to tell them, “No, it didn’t come like this; it’s two old VW buses.” With other models you’ll recognize a tractor cab, but a corn feeder from combines? It’s allowed me to expand into the full range of kitbashing possibility. It’s finding the parts! I could design from scratch, perhaps using computers. But I still have to have that satisfying level. I think if I was asked to build some of these models I have here strictly from scratch I would be very unhappy. Combining things together is satisfying in some way.

[originally published in C International Contemporary Art #70, summer 2001]

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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