Alfredo Barsuglia’s SOCIAL POOL is an installation in the South Californian desert in the form of a 11 by 5 feet wide pool – free for anybody to use. White, unadorned and geometric, it is formally reminiscent of a Minimal sculpture. Its location in a particularly remote area in an already scarcely populated geography in Lucerne Valley – visitors to SOCIAL POOL are advised that several hours of driving from either Los Angeles or Palm Springs and willingness “to walk a long distance to reach the pool from the nearest road” are required to reach the destination – connects it to yet another US-American art phenomenon: that of of large-scale installations in the desert (generalized as Land art) such as Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field in New Mexico, Robert Smithson’s famed Spiral Jetty, or Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels in Utah. Conceived in the 1970s by artists affiliated with New York, already then the epicenter of the contemporary art scene, these works bore a critical response to and refusal of the increasing commodification and institutionalization of art as well as the destruction of the ecological environment. While Barsuglia’s endeavor, too, has a palpable and explicit idealistic side to it – in a short text he suggests that the drive and walk to the pool should provide “time to reflect on social values, dreams and reality” – SOCIAL POOL is not a nostalgic affair. On the contrary, the work embodies the massive socio-economic changes that have taken place since the 1970s. It thus understands itself as the product of an economy in which privacy and immateriality have been fully commodified. For many a consumer, art is expected to operate according to the principles of the service economy rather than following humanist ideals of intellectual or moral stimulus and education. Museum visitors, for instance, increasingly expect a readily prepared experience rather than a contemplative and self-motivated dialog with an artistic object. Social media are designed to “share” emotions and insights that aren’t granted the time and thought to actually register. The successful renaissance of live performance and the reversal of its intrinsic potential to circumvent commodification, has not without reason largely been revived while being subverted into a sellable asset and tool of entertainment.
The title of Barsuglia’s work alone makes it clear that he is clearly aware that SOCIAL POOL might operate in ways more similar to that of a yoga lesson or a vacation “away from it all” than to that of an enlightened dialog with a mysterious object – escapism rather than dialog, digression rather than transgression. In line with the demands of the consumer society, he conceives of SOCIAL POOL as an experience encompassing a potentially transformative journey, a promise of relaxation, the peace of remoteness, all while staying tuned in: SOCIAL POOL is a sculpture that’s a bath, an art work that is literally immersive and forcibly relaxing; at the same time, it is a pool that has enough cultural clout to deserve a press release published by a significant cultural institution plus it was built by an emerging artist! Astutely intertwining semantic constructs – contemporary art, pool (the symbol of carefree wealth, even more so in the desert), relaxation and nature – SOCIAL POOL is a complex replica of the contradictions and ideology of contemporary society in which remoteness from others and quietude are luxuries for the ever-communicating city-dweller. Barsuglia directly translates this desire for seclusion, and individual enjoyment in the layout of the installation and the larger concept of the project: bisected into two halves, one cubic, one rectangular, one filled with water, one empty, the pool offers just enough space for one or two people to stand or sit on either of its sides (appropriately, a bench is built into each half). The walls of each pool segment are so high that the seated person cannot easily see whoever sits in the adjacent space, despite the fact that they are just next door. In a deliberate overdetermination of the work’s suggested idiosyncrasies, Barsuglia stipulated that only one person or small party at a time can use the pool and for no longer than 24 hours: GPS coordinates, otherwise kept secret, are provided to the willing visitor by either one of three art institutions, together with a key that opens the pool cover. In a feat of design and engineering, the pool cover also keeps the water from evaporating and serves, when opened, as a resting area.
In its purposefully slick absurdity and its stance against nature – SOCIAL POOL has a built-in automatic solar-penal filter and chlorine system that keeps the pool clean – combines elements of the sublime and the ridicule. Its absurdity becomes even more tangible through the relative inconvenience of reaching it, similar to the pains one goes through to “take a break” or “get-away”. When no internet research is too time-consuming, no journey by plane, car, train, bus, boat (or any combination of the above) too arduous to reach the location where one can relax and hopefully rediscover, for the time of a week or two, one’s true self. However, Barsuglia does not propose escape from society as solution. He is genuine when phrasing the time spent driving to see SOCIAL POOL as an opportunity to reflect on our commodity- and entertainment-driven lifestyle, and just as genuine when providing GPS coordinates to do so. The escape Barsuglia offers is temporary, it is futile and self-involved, it is pleasure-driven and it is not egalitarian – it is the embodiment of life in late capitalism and the “treat-yourself” attitude of consumer society. Whether we follow Barsuglia’s advice and think about why we do what we do, is as much up to us as the choice to question (and act upon) our libidinal investment in a prestigious job or precious apartment. His is a well-meaning advice, not an order. Maybe our trip to SOCIAL POOL will be atrip to the spa, maybe an interesting encounter with an art work, maybe a life-altering experience, or, maybe the beginning of a revolution.