Johnnie 俞润中

Space as a Medium for Remix: Museum of Modern Art’s 2019 Renovation

May 01, 2022

Remix studies extend far beyond digital media and should be appropriated in other humanities fields to understand hybridized and interdisciplinary creations. This paper proposes a new framework for studying physical space as remix, questioning underlying biases and reimagining the role of remix in documenting and shaping culture, borrowing from Edward Soja's thirdspace concept.

This piece was originally written in May of 2022 for “Everything is a Remix” at New York University.

While the theory of adaptation or remix in the present day is most immediately applicable to fields relating to tech-enabled media due to the power of the digital economy on the creation or perhaps revival of Lawrence Lessig’s “read/write culture,” the essence of remix extends far beyond the obvious applications of this lens[1]. The interdisciplinary nature of the field means that the ethos and approaches of studying digital media remixes could just as easily be appropriated for many other fields under the scope of humanities. This should be done not just for trivial purposes, but to extend the significance of remix studies beyond the at times limited frameworks of media studies.

The significance of remix, or perhaps the common people’s ability to participate in the (re)creation of culture, I argue lies in the hybridized and interdisciplinary creations that can arise from adaptation. A reference in a song could easily infer gender commentary, just as a meme from a fashion event could easily be imbued with heavy political undertones. These creations are capable of capturing a “slice” of culture or civilization, and in one way or another, preserving a piece of the zeitgeist of an era. Yet, the complex nature of the field also means that outside of film, music, and literature classics where one can almost map out the genealogy of original and derived ideas, there really is no set canon of adapted works to reference as the foundation of the broader “remix studies.” Quite literally, everything can be a remix. As a result, I also believe that there is tendency in remix studies to adopt the biases and limitations from immediately adjacent fields like cinema studies, for valid reasons and practical concerns. That said, I also do believe that it could be productive to occasionally revisit the idea of remix under new lenses. In this paper, I propose the idea that perhaps physical space could be a productive subject of remix studies, using the Museum of Modern Art’s 2019 renovation as the object of study[2]. I examine how the idea of “space as remix” questions underlying biases in our current methods in theorizing remixing, and reimagine the role that remix plays in documenting and shaping culture. And from there, I propose a new framework for approaching space as remix, borrow extensively from the work of Edward Soja, a self-described “Urbanist” and post-modern geographer, who first coined the term *thirdspace, *a concept that deals with ever changing and dynamic space, in relation to the people that interact with it.

A Brief History of MoMA

The MoMA is intentionally chosen for a few key reasons. The first of which is its rich history of renovation and expansion. Most notably, since its debut in its current home on 53rd Street in Manhattan, New York, it has had three prior expansions in 1964, 1984, and 2005, led by Philip Johnson, Cesar Pelli, and Yoshio Taniguchi respectively (The Museum of Modern Art Press Office). The 2019 project, led by DS+R, extends the campus by another one-third in space.  Each one of these renovations are a literal “remix” in physical space and a reimagination of the collective efforts of prior architects, too. Just as a work of architecture alone, the MoMA houses exciting stories of adaptation.

Turning to the MoMA’s interiors, one of the greatest differences between the 2019 renovation and previous renovations is the “sheer size” of changes which goes beyond simply increasing exhibition space as previous extensions have done. In the words of Charles Renfro, a partner at DS+R:

In order to make MoMA’s curatorial vision possible, our architectural intervention had to be quite stealthy in a lot of ways. We knew we couldn’t overwhelm those different building projects that have happened over the past almost 100 years, so we tried to work within the DNA of MoMA to advance a new concept of detail that reflects the 21st century.[3]

It was clear that it was the intention of DS+R to adapt rather than rebuild, which reflects in many of the key decisions made in structuring the interior. Most notably, Arch Paper writer Sydney Franklin highlights that “a central blade stair, visible from the street below, reveals activity and circulation within the building while signaling the separation between old and new” and ties together the expansion project[4].

Relating to the interior and exterior changes to MoMA, it is also noteworthy that DS+R was tasked with reimagining MoMA’s relationship with New York. In particular, “one of the motivations behind [the glass facade],” an associate principle at DS+R explains in relation to the blade staircase, “is the opening up to the streets of MoMA, which they didn’t really have before.”[5] Highlighting activity within the museum was a big motivating factor to the designs. And to show commitment of integrating of the public and the private, Franklin further notes that the new lobby was designed so “passerbys should be able to see right through the lobby to 54th Street [from 53rd Street].” In addition to visually integrating the space with its surrounding, the new MoMA also does so spatially, as “the new ground-level galleries, just like the lobby itself, will be free to the public.”[6] This opens up an entirely new realm of “remix” as the public nature of MoMA’s design suggests that while space could be a subject of remix, it could also be the medium for other instances of remixing. In this instance, it becomes the grounds on which people of different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds can come together to enjoy art, in a space where money and wealth is less relevant.

Turning inward once again, the new MoMA also represents a new curatorial direction for the museum. “The vision was to dissolve the media divisions that have guided the curatorial position since the beginning, merging up painting and sculpture with photography, film, design, and architecture,” Renfo explained. He believes that the new “borderless” exhibition space can “breathe a new kind of life of possibility into its curatorial direction.”[7] On a literal level, it is easy to comprehend that MoMA is remixing its exhibitions and exploring new configurations of its traditional collection. However, widening our lens on the museum experience, perhaps MoMA had to change its ways to stay relevant with the everchanging sociocultural landscape. In a world where children can have instantaneous access to entire catalogs of artwork, perhaps even in 3D space through metaverses and artificial/virtual reality, the MoMA has to design a new kind of museum experience in order to stay competitive and relevant. The borderless exhibition spaces open up new opportunities of storytelling, beyond arranging artworks by their physical properties. Instead, curators have more flexibility creating a narrative compelling enough to keep customers in the museum, regardless of their age or interests.

Venturing one step deeper into the abstract, MoMA has also built itself into a consumer brand over recent years with MoMA Design Store, a unique position to be in as a museum. The gift shop boasts major collaborations with top brands like Nike and Vans, has numerous satellite retail locations across New York unassociated with art exhibition, and even has footprint internationally in Japan and Hong Kong[8] (Nicolaus). While MoMA’s extension in space beyond its 53rd Street location into the rest of the world is certainly an interesting perspective on physical space already, the focus of this paper will be on its flagship Design Store. In the 2019 renovation, the now 5950 square-foot Design Store was “lowered one level, expositing it to passers-by on the bustling street by means of a sleek glass wall.” Related to this expansion is a new 3600 square-foot café on the sixth-floor, available for casual refreshments and dining”[9]. The increasing commercialization of the MoMA accurately reflects the state of consumerism in contemporary America. Especially since it is no secret that the museum business is tough to operate, as just as operating any business, there is always consideration of cost and profitability to stay afloat to bring art to more people and more generations. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, while frequently receiving millions in donations, is famous for struggling with profitability. Artnet reported back in 2020 that the Met Breuer, which took over the Whitney’s old home, will not return after COVID-19 lockdowns, “officially shifting control of its historic brutalist building to the Frick,” allegedly saving the institution $45 million[10]. Yet, despite its $3.6 billion endowment[11], The MET still reports falling 150M short in revenue, and considers lay-offs and “selling its artwork to cover operational costs” in February of 2021[12].

Through all of these layers of remix and adaptation relating to MoMA physically and metaphysically, it becomes clear that the ethos of remix is universal across mediums in its ability to change properties in accordance with time period while still signaling a past or “original” form. And just as media remixes are able to integrate hints of culture and civilization into future iterations of the original work, so too does museum planning and physical space reflect our relationship with the socio-economic landscape in America.

That said, to me, something somehow still feels materially different about “space as remix” compared to music or film. It seems as if individual creations of art could be their own units of culture (as per the academic definition of “meme”), as Kirby Ferguson describes in his documentary Everything is a Remix [13]. The same could not necessarily be said about space and renovation. Using a more specific example, when Kanye West sampled Nina Simone’s 1965 version of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ in his 2013 song “Blood on the Leaves,”[14] most are comfortable recognizing that these are separate artistic creations, or “units of culture.” However, it feels awkward when the same language is applied to space, as Yoshio Taniguchi’s MoMA and DS+R’s MoMA are, in fact, still the same MoMA. I argue that this is not a mistake in our understanding of remix, rather, we are biased in the way we approach remix theory, and space simply attempts to broaden our scope of what constitutes a “remix.”

Two Fundamental Biases in Remix Theory

“Space as remix” questions two biases in remix theory. The first bias favors commodified media. We tend to prefer content that is consumable and are often self-contained products, whether that be a song, a feature film, a live performance, even a meme image posted on social media. This could be an extension of our overall transition into a consumer society, where media has more generally become commodified over time. Regardless of cause, the field is more comfortable working with products of remix rather than on-going acts of remixing, a bias that perhaps “space as remix” can counterbalance. A unique characteristic of commodified media is they have static forms, as opposed to dynamic forms. This is because the consistency of static “products” allows it to be accurately priced and traded in exchange for money, as well as scaled and mass-produced. Even in instances where there are multiple variations of the same product, for example deluxe albums or remastered albums, they are still distinctly separate static products rather than one that slowly transitions into another. Space, on the other hand, is always dynamic. Should you be willing to consider the people in a space as part of the space (which is justifiable), then MoMA is technically in a different state every second of every minute of every day, and constantly in transition into its next state. Should you not consider the people involved in shaping the space, even then, with each new exhibition, each new artwork, the MoMA is slightly different materially. Space is meant to be dynamic and everchanging. And dynamic representations are valuable because rather than capturing a “slice” of society freezing time, culture and civilization are instead slowly stirred into a “mixture” of society. This makes the MoMA just as important to remix theory as the artwork it exhibits, whether it be film, music, literature, or traditional art, only slightly different in form.

The second bias favors intentionality in remixing. Works that are intentionally adapted with evidence of self-awareness are often seen as more sophisticated than naturally occurring or perhaps “naïve’ acts of remixing. Any analysis that calls attention to the artist or creative direction, self-awareness and reflexivity, intertextuality and embeddedness, typically view intentionality as most valuable. While MoMA’s 2019 renovation is not a perfect counterexample to the value of intentionality, as I have at numerous instances brought up DS+R or associated people, it can certainly challenge some boundaries. Space has a tendency to evolve based on “need” rather than “want,” which is also commonly caused by external factors in an everchanging socioeconomic environment rather than an intrinsic desire to create something. For example, MoMA’s new lobby has an expanded coat and bag check, not because architects strongly desire coat and bag checks in their creations, rather because it is seen as a necessary service that can keep MoMA competitive among other museums or create additional value for VIP customers. I see this as a “naïve” act of adapting existing space, motivated by how people practically interact with the space after its original creation, rather than artistic vision. In the case of MoMA’s Design Store expansion, it is not necessarily motivated by a necessity of commerce in general art appreciation experiences, rather it helps keep the lights on at the museum, and there is enough demand among shoppers to maximize square-footage-to-revenue ratio after expansion. The phrase “adaptation” here seems more fitting in the sense of biological adaptation for survival, rather than artistic adaptation for creation.

Given that both biases illustrated naturally arise from directly adopting methods of media study in analyzing instances of remix, I believe that strategically adopting a new framework for analysis could alleviate some of this bias. In particular, I propose post-modern geographer Edward Soja’s idea of *thirdspace *as a competitive candidate, given the concept deals directly with changing space, both empirically and imaginatively, as well as changes in the relationship between people and space.

A Framework for “Space as Remix”

While the idea of thirdspacewas proposed in context of urban geography, I would not necessarily deem the appropriation of thirdspace for remix studies as uninvited. Soja notes specifically in the opening chapter of his book by the same name, Thirdspace[15],  that “the challenge being raised in *Thirdspace… *is transdisciplinary in scope. It cuts across all perspectives and modes of thought, and is not confined solely to geographers, architects, urbanists, and others for whom spatial thinking is a primary professional preoccupation.”[16] He further sees “thirdspace”as “purposefully tentative and flexible term that attempts to capture what is actually a constantly shifting and changing milieu of ideas, events, appearances, and meanings.”[17] In other words, Soja may have alluded to aspect of remix in understanding space.

Taking a step back, the premise under which Soja proposes thirdspace is a disagreement with modernism’s emphasis on history in the expense of geography. He leads the introduction with the thought that “understanding the world is, in the most general sense, a simultaneously historical and social project.” And he believes that while we have “creative and critical imaginations” developed around practical and theoretical understanding of historicality and sociality, there is a growing awareness of a spatial dimension. If unaddressed, it “reduces the significance of” our understanding of the world around us[18]. He further explains that Thirdspace is “a distinct mode of critical spatial awareness that is appropriate to the new scope and significance being brought about in the rebalanced trialectics of spatiality–historicality–sociality.”[19]

To touch on Soja’s definition of the *thirdspace, *he describes the “firstspace” as the “concrete materiality of spatial forms and… things that can be empirically mapped.” In other words, it is everything perceived to be “real” in space. “Secondspace” is defined as a place “conceived in ideas about space, in thoughtful re-presentations of human spatiality in mental or cognitive forms.”[20] In other words, secondspace is imagined, and is influenced by any efforts that help shape imagination, like marketing, social media, news coverage, etc. And finally, “thirdspace” is defined as journeys to “real-and-imagined” places, a “fully-lived space,” and an “actual-and-virtual locus of structured individuality and collective experience and agency.”[21] I see thirdspace as a consequence of people interacting with firstspace based on their imaginations of secondspace. And thirdspace, over time, also has the power to materially impact firstspace, in an ongoing cycle.

I would argue that remix theory similarly fits this premise of the shortcoming of modernism that Soja has identified as relevant to his trialetics lens. For most, it is easy to situate virtually any piece of artistic creation in a two-dimensional plane of the historical and the social. With MoMA’s architecture, the historical lies in DS+R’s past work, and MoMA’s past expansions. The social lies in the importance of MoMA’s continuous expansion, roughly twenty years apart each time, to remain competitive and relevant in the contemporary art and museums world as our society progresses. The spatial dimension that is missing is perhaps the understanding that New York’s geography also quite literally shapes MoMA and the museum experience, and is, in many ways, inseparable from both the historical and the social.

Specifically, MoMA’s new wing came into existence after the demolition of the American Folk Art Museum and the construction of Jean Nouvel’s 53 West 53 apartments. Over the past decade, a so-called “Billionaires’ Row” began emerging around Central Park South, technically concentrated around 57th Street in central Manhattan, but in reality, it includes a much wider set of luxury high rise apartments in Midtown.[22] The emergence of virtually a whole new class of real estate is a new phenomenon to New York (for reference One57 was the first of the bunch to complete in 2014[23]) and is a product of the flourishing global economy. Naturally, with more wealth, one place to store the wealth is in luxury real estate for a variety of financial and tax reasons. 53W53 is no exception to this phenomenon, with its construction starting in 2015[24]. The “950-foot-tall apartment tower next door now houses three levels of gallery space,” Franklin explains, which translates to roughly an additional 11,500 square feet per floor of museum real estate to the older, eastern galleries.

While there are more nuances involved in the planning of MoMA and 53W53, it becomes abundantly clear that geography plays a substantial role in MoMA’s expansion. It has been previously identified that operating a museum cannot be seen independent of the world of capitalism and consumerism that we exist in, for the museum has to somehow remain operational, and it cannot do so on just people’s love and adoration of MoMA alone. But this world of capital that MoMA exists in does not start and end at the Design Store, it exists everywhere around it. And it appears that here, in the instance of the 2019 expansion, that it materially impacts how and where the museum can go. Soja famously wrote in a separate book, Postmodern Geographies, that geography is not a product of modernity, but a “reflective mirror of societal modernization.”[25] This distinction here is significant to understand as it implies that despite the choice and intentionality there is in how each building is designed, there are external spatial and geographical forces to consider that already indirectly shape the outcome in permanent ways, whether one desires so or not.

Even if geographical context is not more influential on MoMA’s 2019 renovation than historical or social context, there is clearly a symbiotic relationship between the three. This is exciting in relation to remix studies and the two biases I have identified in the field’s preference of commodified mediaand media with intentionality, because the spatial lens qualifies a larger breadth of instances of remix to be considered for study, and not just commercial works of art. Furthermore, the idea of geographical context to art introduces an element of uncertainty that is not within the control of any artist or creator, as geography simply exists, rather than being an intentional choice that can be employed in creating artworks.

[1] Lessig

[2]The Museum of Modern Art Press Office. “The Expanded and Reimagined Museum of Modern Art Opened on October 21, 2019.” Accessed May 14, 2022.

[3] Franklin, Sydney. “MoMA Reopens with a $450 Million Mega-Expansion and Slick Renovation.” The Architect’s Newspaper, October 16, 2019.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Steel Institute of New York. “MoMA Blade Stair.” Steel Institute of New York. Accessed May 14, 2022.

[6] Franklin

[7] Franklin

[8] Nicolaus, Fred. “The MoMA Design Store Unveils a Major Partnership.” Business of Home, September 27, 2021.

[9] Valeris, Monique. “The New MoMA Is Here, and It’s Incredible!” ELLE Decor, October 23, 2019.

[10] Cascone, Sarah. “The Met Breuer Will Not Reopen After the Lockdown Lifts, Officially Shifting Control of Its Historic Brutalist Building to the Frick.” Artnet News, June 22, 2020.

[11] Cascone, Sarah. “In a Reversal, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Is Considering Dipping Into Its $3.6 Billion Endowment to Cover Costs.” Artnet News, March 31, 2020.

[12] Eltohamy, Farah. “The Met Considers Selling Its Art To Stave Off Financial Shortfall.” NPR, February 22, 2021, sec. The Coronavirus Crisis.

[13] Ferguson, Kirby. Everything Is a Remix. Documentary, 2021.

[14] NME. “The Best Samples in Music… Ever!,” May 25, 2020.

[15] Soja, Edward. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. 1st ed. Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

[16] Soja, pp. 3

[17] Soja, pp. 2

[18] Ibid.

[19] Soja, pp. 57

[20] Soja, pp. 10

[21] Soja, pp. 11

[22] “Why New York’s Billionaires’ Row Is Half Empty.” Accessed May 14, 2022.

[23] Ibid.

[24] 53W53. “53 West 53.” Accessed May 14, 2022.

[25] Soja, Edward W. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. Second Edition. London: Verso, 2011, pp.33