What about FREESPACE - Reporting from the Biennale
On Thursday July 5th, Het Nieuwe Instituut and the Creative Industries Fund NL presented an evening of contributions to the Venice Biennale of 2018. The evening completed a nearly year-long series of lectures, debates, open calls and discussions on the Biennale and its theme FREESPACE. The cycle of events opened with lectures on the Fund's open call 'Work, Body, Leisure' during the Dutch Design Week in October 2017. In the end, the wide range of lectures, workshops, publications and contributions to the Venice Biennale encouraged an ongoing conversation on the societal impact of architecture, design and the creative industries.
This year's Biennale presented a broad palette of sensory experiences, from imagery that draws in the spectator to installations with a highly material articulation. Most of the objects triggered an immediate visceral response, more direct and compelling than the intellectual framework for each installation. Notwithstanding the thorough and clearly delineated intentions of the curators, the sensory took primacy over all other approaches. Engaging and provocative, it could be tempting to approach this Biennale as a purely aesthetic experience, which therefore disengages from societal and political challenges currently facing the world. After all, if it is aimed at the senses, how could it possibly provide a critical view to society?
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the proposition of Grafton Architects in FREESPACE seeks to connect people to their environment in a more coherent way. It suggests that the challenges are more easily faced if the environment is amenable to fostering observational skills, connections and a sense of generosity. More than that, though, it allows its observers to seek their own questions and draw their own conclusions. These spaces give rise to an affinity that draws in observers, provokes them to explore further, and thus allows new perspectives to appear.
multiple perspectives on FREESPACE
This undercurrent is what drew the evening's participants together. Each contribution provided its own distinctive approach to the material, performative, and social interpretation of FREESPACE, from a film registration of a dance performance to a study of Irish marketplaces as a model for understanding social cohesion. The multiple perspectives provided a springboard for addressing the issues put forward in the curatorial statements on FREESPACE, shaping the conversation throughout the evening. While the discussion remained necessarily brief after six presentations, shared questions for the future could be traced through the program: how might architecture and design help to address or even reposition societal challenges? How may design proposals reveal hidden social mechanisms? How may our built environment challenge our preconceptions, or indeed foster unforeseen connections?
'What is it that brings us together, what are the connections that run throughout people, places, and cities?'
After a brief introduction highlighting the collaborative efforts of the Fund and Het Nieuwe Instituut, the main program began with a 10-minute film by Make Move Think, which compiled the ideas and registration of a dance event held during opening weekend: a dancer on a quay, shards of poetry in the background and the occasional voice explaining the qualities of Venice. During the film, the audience was notably silent – the quiet and steady rhythm of the film seemed to be mirrored by the audience. As unusual as it might be to include this performance in the notes of the Biennale, it also goes to the core of FREESPACE. What is it that brings us together, what are the connections that run throughout people, places, and cities? The body in space is one of these shared elements between architecture and dance, fully justified as a starting point. Moreover, this film directly questioned the assumption that a direct and fundamental exploration of the material, the performative, and the artistic, may be seen as escaping traditional forms of academic reflection and thereby circumventing critical discourse.
All of the evening's presentations – four pavilions, one installation in the central pavilion, and one registration of a dance performance – in fact provided space to rethink the divide between the material and the intellectual. Even with the wide range of topics – how much does a dance performance have in common with a manifesto on nation-building or the documentation of rural marketplaces? – the underlying commonalities became increasingly apparent as the evening progressed. Most projects explored (urban) spaces from more than one perspective, and highlighted both their social and their formal characteristics.
After the film, Traumnovelle presented their installation for the Belgian pavilion, an EU-blue circular tribune that transformed the interior of the pavilion based on their question of how architecture can become part of a political project. Situated somewhere between utopia and a future fiction, their installation even triggered one visitor to post a dance on Instagram. The Dutch pavilion, curated by Marina Otero Verzier, was a bright orange locker room with hidden doors and cabinets showing various interpretations of the pavilion's theme of 'work, body, leisure'. The rigorous structure of the lockers reflects the highly regulated contemporary landscape, questioning where we can still find FREESPACE in today's world.
In the following presentation, Jeffrey Bolhuis showed how the Irish pavilion recreated the marketplace typical of rural Irish towns. The installation will be shipped to Ireland after the Biennale and continue raising awareness on the nature and the necessity of social cohesion, here materialized in the marketplace. The Turkish curatorial team approached its pavilion as a 'global masterclass', inviting students and professionals to contribute to the pavilion through workshops in situ. Finally, Michelle Provoost presented Crimson Architectural Historian's installation on The City of Comings and Goings. In various media, this installation presented the topical issue of migration in all its facets: not just refugees, but expats, temporary labor forces, different types of travelers, showing the impact on our cities of these regularly moving groups of people. The installation included an image of this fictional city in the style of Saul Steinberg, a Nolli-plan of the public spaces related to migration, and six theses on migrations (harking back to the original positions nailed to the church door by Luther).
'nation-buildig' and the role of architecture
Notably, a number of the questions during the discussion underlined the continuing discomfort with the issue of 'nation-building' and the role of architecture in relation to political and institutional structures. The discussion showed how Europe is still struggling to transcend national identities, also visible in the project 'Europa' by Central Office for Architecture and Urbanism. This lighthearted installation placed on the three neighboring pavilions of Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands spells out 'Europa' in neon letters with the colors of each nation's flag, overwriting the names of the individual countries. In the debate, both the need for more collective action was underscored, as well as a general resistance to the very idea of nation building. One member of the audience questioned whether adding new (even if more neutral) structures such as the 'metanation' suggested by Traumnovelle was the answer to Europe's identity crisis. Léone Drapeaud responded that their proposal was less about traditional 'nation-building' and more about a platform that emphasizes common aims and actions.
a different approach to the socio-political
At the same time, alongside the pressing political concerns voiced in the debate, there is an undercurrent of social concern that cuts across political lines and national boundaries. Drawing the contributions together is an open-ended demonstration of the contemporary conditions each of these groups observe in today's city – not documented in numbers or shown in data collections, but rather encapsulated in symbols, in materials, in spaces and even in dance. The tangible, individual experience, the subjective observation and the manner in which these objects, images and performances provoke the observer to reflect and draw their own conclusions, delineates a different approach to engaging with the socio-political sphere. It is a departure from clinical, scientific observation, yet it does not retreat into the purely individual sphere. Instead, it encourages debate, and dialogue.
Strikingly, all the contributions presented this evening were by some type of multidisciplinary, collaborative group. This seems to draw new contours for the future of the architect, replacing the mythical male genius with a network of reflective practitioners. The contributions were diverse, yet held together through shared concerns. Three pairings in the overall program show these distinct but common interests. The two pavilions most easily captured in a single image, a blue tribune (Belgium) and an orange locker room (The Netherlands), pointedly encouraged unforeseen interventions by their visitors. The two pavilions that explicitly engaged with the Biennale as a process in time (Turkey and Ireland) show how the actual building and exhibiting of architecture is but one moment in a trajectory of social and spatial configurations. And finally, the assemblage of symbolic and performative gestures that come together in the dance performance and the multiple media of the City of Comings and Goings show how the material and even ephemeral crystallization of collective ideas can have a lasting impact upon our cities and our imaginations.