Asking Questions Beyond Architecture: Nina Barbuto Assembles Art and Technology

Interview by: Abigail Salmon

Nina, with long dark hair, wearing glasses and a turquoise blazer, smiling with hands in the air. in the background are kids seated around tables doing art projects
Nina Barbuto, founder of Assemble, pictured in her brick and mortar community space in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood.

Nina Barbuto’s enthusiasm for “making the vernacular spectacular” fills the air in Assemble Pittsburgh’s open workspace. In 2011, Barbuto founded Assemble, a community space in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood that promotes arts and technology education through community exhibitions, events, and workshops. The glass-enclosed room includes space for rotating exhibitions featuring local artists, movable walls double as shelves full of recycled and affordable maker materials, and a 3D printer sits against the back wall; all remaining surfaces are occupied by colorful student artwork.

Barbuto’s experience in architecture complements her talent for building spaces that bring people together, sparking creativity, and supporting community growth. Assemble’s creative identity is rooted in Barbuto’s experience as an undergraduate architecture student at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), where she currently teaches, and a graduate student at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SciArc), by fueling creative inquiry into a variety of media. Barbuto has worked at several design practices including Vito Acconci Studio in Brooklyn and Lubetz Architects (now Front Studio) in Pittsburgh.

In between teaching at CMU and running Assemble, Barbuto continues to grow her personal practice as an installation artist and plans to exhibit her recent work at a solo show at Boom Concepts in fall 2019. Barbuto’s boundless enthusiasm and promotion of creativity, empowerment, and resilience through art has earned her a place among Pittsburgh’s “renaissance women.” Here we speak with Barbuto about learning from Vito Acconci, building an empowering space, and fostering creative work at all scales for all ages.

Installation shot from Brascape, a piece by Barbuto at the Inmo Gallery in Los Angeles, 2008. Courtesy Nina Barbuto.

an installation that looks like a black woven net - a light from above casts a unique pattern on an adjacent white wall

You worked for a time with the late artist-architect Vito Acconci. How did he influence your work and where you see yourself in the field? Apparently he was a fun person.

When I was a second-year architecture student at CMU, we were assigned to design an annex to the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMoA). Everyone was assigned artists to respond to, and I was assigned Vito Acconci. I did not really know much about performance art. I didn’t have access to learning about what actually happened because no one tells you these histories if you didn’t have the chance to go to MoMA and see these things live, or the work being shown in the CMoA.

Vito was an amazing artist. He started as a writer and a poet, then got into photography and film. He got more into performance and installations, then public installations, permanent public art, and then architecture—”Capital A” architecture. I was a creative writing minor and did a lot of poetry. I worked with all a vast array of media—I felt so connected to this person.

He had a way of doing things in a perverse, sometimes literally seedy, way taking the private and the public and turning them on their heads. He said “public space is leaving home.” He did a lot of furniture. He made some furniture that was a bra, because he said: “this is the most private space that you could be in.” Space for one boob.

On one trip to New York, I walked down to his office and was just creeping around. I saw him smoking outside the studio. I asked, “Are you Vito Acconci?” “Yes.” He let me walk and talk with him and ask different questions: “Why architecture?” He said, “No one can truly own a staircase.” Because people need to be able to move. It’s that idea of architecture versus art. One doesn’t own a staircase like they do a sculpture, and yet staircases are very sculptural. Or take a ramp; you can’t just say, “I own this ramp.” A ramp is for everyone to use as a mode of transportation, but it is critical to architecture. Assemble is my “ramp” or “staircase”—a place where my community and beyond can connect to a world they want to see and build for themselves.

How did you become Vito Acconci’s intern?

I emailed the office saying, “Hey, is it possible to have an internship?” That summer I worked on some amazing projects in his studio. The way that the office worked with materials, I was very attracted to how things transformed from one thing to another—the wall becomes the seat, that becomes the floor—I try to practice that connectivity in my own work.

Saturday Crafternoon at Assemble with Drafting Dreams during an exhibition curated by Point Line Projects featuring the work of artist-architect Annie Wang in fall 2017. Courtesy Point Line Projects.

in a room with colorful flags handing from the ceiling and large line drawings of houses on the wall, people sit around a table containing art supplies

What ideas or practices from Acconci’s studio have influenced the mission of Assemble?

Definitely the flexibility and the share-ability. Knowledge is something that can be shared in a ubiquitous manner. With the introduction of fancy devices like smartphones people were freaking out that books would never be used again, but we’re still reading books, and this technology has opened us up to new things. But just because we have access to infinite knowledge doesn’t mean that people are any smarter than they used to be, or that people are actively using it

Something else from that whole experience that I try to practice at Assemble is this idea of “the everyday” or “everyday materials.”  Within my own art practice, I use the phrase “making the vernacular spectacular.” Yes, you can build robots with high-tech materials, but you can also understand how to do this with cardboard and things that are free or from the dollar store. If you look around Assemble, we have some IKEA furniture, but most things, including our walls, we built ourselves. It’s all wheeled shelving which can be moved around the room, and we designed the system with plain strand board and fiberboard.

Artist-architect, Annie Wang leading a workshop at Assemble during her solo show, Collage City: Memory Experience, and Depicting Dreams at Assemble in fall 2017. Courtesy Sean Chia.

Annie, wearing a sweater and with long dark hair, with arms in the air, leading a workshop in a room with people of all ages sitting around tables full of art supplies in small red baskets

How has Assemble evolved? Where do you hope it will go?

We started with absolutely nothing. When I think of the future of Assemble now, I don’t have a clear picture. I don’t know what this space will look like next month, but I have a clear message. It’s parametric thinking—I’m thinking of systems, and how different parameters related to Assemble might work out.

At Assemble, one of our values is to build agency and confidence. By building confidence, we’re helping folks who ask “Why can’t I do that?” to then do the speculative work and say  “I’m going to! And these are the steps how I’m going to figure it out and do it!”

To me, this is a kind of science-based learning involving tech, engineering, art, and math. This is how I’ve been thinking and practicing contemporary architecture, too. There’s a short essay by Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime,” which talks about an architect who plans everything, kind of like Frank Lloyd Wright. Instead of architecture being a process where people don’t have the ability to really make choices for themselves, it’s building out systems where people have that flexibility, that choice, and can react within it.

Have you been able to maintain your individual art practice?

I’ve had to put my own art practice on hold because Assemble is so time consuming. I do mostly installation art, and it’s really expensive and difficult, especially if you don’t have someone saying “Here’s $500, go do something.” Lately I’ve been starting to work on more of a smaller scale, including doing paper cuts. I have a show opening in November 2019 at Boom Concepts, actually. It’ll have some installation elements among other things, but it’ll be a lot of paper cuts with layered elements. I’ve been really interested in automatic drawings, too—they’re kind of like cityscapes.

Barbuto’s piece, Growth, installed for Project Lido outdoor art exhibition at the Leslie Park Pool in Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, 2012. Courtesy Nina Barbuto.

an installation made of arched metal strips - arranged to make a walkway that people can walk through. at night. it's illuminated by a couple warm lights

What does your future at Assemble look like?

My goal is to make this a space that could live without me, which leads to a couple of questions. How do I build my role to be something someone else would want? I’m also examining Assemble’s DNA and thinking: How would one open their own Assemble somewhere else? How can I grow something that is reflective of the community while also including other sources? However Assemble grows and changes, it needs to have local spice and still continually bring in new things. It should be instinctively reflective of the place it’s in.

The thing that I like to project through Assemble is that this is truly social architecture. We’ve created a space here, a space for conversations, meetings, and new interactions to happen. We’ve always been conscious of operating at the boundary of two neighborhoods, where one side of the street has one list of demographics and the other side has another. We’re thinking about how to bring people together, to go beyond the school we go to and where we live  to get to “we all like the same glitter–let’s do this!” Then, new levels of diversity can come into play.

By showing up and just doing something, we’re creating and defining the world we want to see, and that is something that’s not just for grown-ups. There are certain things that some people can’t do because of their age, like drive or reach certain heights, but all people dream and have imaginations. As soon as we start communicating we can understand that we all share that. Everyone can speculate about the future and make something that helps to get them there.

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