12/18/2013

Close, Closer ı 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennial : Reinventing architecture's agency

My apology for being very unproductive these last weeks since I am particularly busy with projects in which I'm directly or indirectly involved including the interview with Neeraj Bhatia (here and here) which, as I wrote in a previous post, may go to another platform. Again, when official, I will let you know where and when to read the interview. However, I may post not-selected questions/responses in this blog.
Another project on which I am working is my first guest-posting but again I may content merely with posting abstracts as I'm thinking of publishing them. If so, this will be by 2014.

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Last week-end I was in Lisbon for the triennial whose theme is Close, Closer. This was my first-ever trip to Lisbon, a very beautiful European city with its port, its very lively streets, and colored buildings, and its famous tramway.

The Lisbon Architecture Triennial has been founded in 2007. For this third edition, the committee has elected as Artistic Director a young and notable British curator Beatrice Galilee who has co-curated the Gwangju Design Biennial 2011 with Helen Hejung Choi. For this Triennial, she teamed up with three curators Liam Young, co-founder of Tomorrow Thoughts TodayUnknown Fields Division and Under Tomorrow Sky, Mariana Pestana and José Esparza Chong Cuy, and co-curator Dani Admiss. The curatorial team's aim was to draw on a political manifesto that claims that a new form, (rather new forms), of architecture practice is emerging out. Of what? The 21st century? Multifaceted crises? As the curatorial team states, Close, Closer tackles "the political, technological, emotional, institutional, and critical forms of global spatial practice." At issue is new forms of practice. New forms of practice, still stammering but seething, still fragile but resolute (see here and here).

Close, Closer is presented as "an intense and multiple debate network on 'what architecture can be,'" says José Mateus, Chairman, also founding Director of José Mateus Arquitecto at a moment when Portugal, but many European countries a well, is struggling against a profound economic and identity crisis. Seven months or so ago, I interviewed the curatorial team for a first look at the curatorial content, strategies — even at a primary stage — and goals behind Close, Closer. Remember the website. The curatorial team regularly posted new questions about what architecture could be: What else can architecture do? When does produce architecture? What answers should architecture be giving today?, and so forth. This website, particularly dynamic since based on a participative mode, invited us to reply to these questions, be you architect or not. Beatrice Galilee said that:
The premise of this event is not to give answers, but to position questions about the condition of architectural practice today. These questions — pregnant with meaning or innocent in their simplicity — contain both a statement and a call to action. They resonate on a public stage beyond traditional discourse in order to find their way to a conversation between disciplines of culture and structures of real power.
The theme — a generation of young architects in the face of an ever-changing world— reveals architecture's position today.
This, the third Lisbon Architecture Triennale, has been commissioned and procured in the midst of the yo-yoing economic fortunes of a faltering Eurozone country where, currently, unemployment for graduates stands at 40%. This is the generation of young architects who may ask themselves if they should be designing the architecture of networks and systems, of societies or conversations, rather than buildings.
What interested me in this third edition is the curatorial function of architecture, how architecture can tackle these complex, multi-faceted issues within curating, or what position, role or function curating can play within the architectural apparatus. At stake is the potentiality that curating can offer to architecture in going out of its ivory tower, just as some of the participants of Close, Closer said, to push the architectural practice to be more engaged with the world from the smallest scale to the extra-largest scale. For that matter, I decided to focus on one of the exhibitions programmed there, namely Future Perfect. I will profit from this occasion to discuss the contingent trait of architecture.

As an evidence what is at issue, albeit partly, in this third edition, at least in accordance with my interest, is the relationship of the architect and his discipline, and, beyond this, the world. A unquestionable fact: The architect cannot content merely with the scale of building, or, to push further, the very act of building. On one hand, the architect is now extending his skillness in operating at a larger system — not necessarily the scale of the city, but that of the regional, the territory, the planetary — I'm speaking of infrastructure. On the other hand, the architect, more politically-engaged, uses other forms of practice, that is to say, curating, writing and publishing. Although many of them do not build, their influence on architecture is strong. Other build but use these extra activities as a means of leveraging their built projects. But what is common is that they aim to repurpose the architectural practice.

An example, present in Close, CloserAndrés Jaque and his firm the Office for Political Innovation, for instance, examines "the potential of post-foundational politics and symmetrical approaches to the sociology of technology to rethink architectural practices," as he states in his website. He participated in a three-day event 'Super Power of Ten' at the Triennial including two talks 'Radical Pedagogies: A conversation', and 'Phaidon Atlas Talks'. He also took part in 'Definition Series/OLD: from elderly to lateness' at Storefront IS Lisbon, a project curated by New York-Based Storefront for Art and Architecture, which was also part of Close, Closer. The list of the participants is long. And you should have been there at the opening days to profit from the program: exhibitions, talks, performances, etc.

For those who couldn't be present, other events were scheduled within these four months including Spatial Agency composed of Jeremy Till, Tatjana Schneider, and Nishat Awan, who curated a two-day event (17-20 October), The Institute for Radical Spatial Education, an event part of the Institute Effect. The event's ambition was to re-imagine professional and pedagogical agendas for architecture through a series of 'actions' that will alter the space within the gallery and beyond, the curators said. If you have read Jeremy Till's Architecture Depends, you certainly are familiar with the purpose of this event. In his book, he defends a new contingently educational methodology for a better — or real — engagement of architecture with the uncertainties of the world.

Not far away from Spatial Agency was Design as Politics, another two-day event (20-23 November) curated by Wouter Vanstiphout and Marta Relats. The event is declined as an exhibition "of the work undertaken at the institute and through a series of talks." The participants were invited to vote in the line of participative exhibitions.

I decided not to attend the opening week despite the fact that a large number of events were scheduled in September. I decided to go to the Triennial the last week.
Future Perfect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC, 2013
Future Perfect ı Close, Closer 2013. Image credits: ULGC 2013

Which brings me to one of the strongest points. Of great interest, indeed, was Future Perfect, an installation curated by Liam Young with a large panel of contributors, mostly scientists, technologists, designers, artists and science fiction authors, including Rachel Armstrong, Marshmallow Laser FeastBruce Sterling, Bart Hess, Tim Maly, Cohen van BalenFactory Fifteen, and Warren Ellis, among others. As the curator presents
Future Perfect ı Close, Closer, 2013. Image credit: ULGC 2013.

Emerging in the shadows of the decaying towers of a post-oil Dubai, geo-engineered by climatologists and influenced by the imminent economic boom of the Indian subcontinent it is a terraformed urban island. A city is grown rather than built, a creature, living, breathing and computing, a seething ecology that has become a new metropolitan megaform. A speculative urbanism, an exaggerated present, where we can explore the wonders and possibilities of emerging biological and technological research and envision the possible worlds we may want to build for ourselves. For the future is not something that washes over us like water, it is a place we must actively shape and define. Through fictions we share ideas and we chronicle our hopes and fears, our deepest anxieties and our wildest fantasies. Spend time in the districts, read the fictions of those who live there, meet friends and strangers, listen to their stories and share their lives. Some of us will be swept up in what the city could be, others will be reserved and look on with caution. We have not walked these streets before, what things may come, in a Future Perfect.
More explicitly,
Future Perfect ı Close, Closer, 2013. Image credits: ULGC 2013

Future Perfect is trying to present a vision of the future that is somehow ambiguous. I don't think it is completely utopian or positive, but neither is a classical dystopian vision of the future with dark skies and endless rain. It is somewhere in between. Right now we are in a really interesting moment where there are so many unknowns about the future: biotechnology, climate change, failing economies. All these things are massive issues, which as a culture we just don't know how to deal with.
We began the projects with a think tank of scientists, technologists and futurists — these individuals are actually in the process right now of making the future. They are in labs and in companies and are building the things that we are going to be faced with in the next 20 or 30 years. And I think engaging them is a really unique thing to be doing — putting them in direct collaboration with artists, designers and visualizers, to communicate those ideas broadly. We have created an entire fictional world with all the subtleties of a real city, with characters and stories that describe their lives. This is an imaginary place but it is built out of the cutting edge research that is happening right now in places such as MIT Media Lab, or in the bio labs of Michigan University, a leading proponent of biotechnology, where extraordinary world class coders, digital artists and scripters are working. These practitioners, industries, companies and universities, are really shaping what our cities are going to be.
Future Perfect ı Close, Closer, 2013. Image credits: ULGC 2013

The installation was housed in the Museu Da Electricidade (the Museum of Electricity) occupying two spaces. In the first space, two installations: a Quarantine zone composed of lightning, and a model of a speculative, terraformed, land or decaying city. In the second room a large installation composed of five zones including The Looms, The Wilds (a forest including a video installation), the Supercomputer, The Garment District (prosthetic bodies), and The Lookout (a video installation).
And Nowhere a Shadow | Cohen van Balen | Future Perfect ı Close, Closer, 2013. Image credits: ULGC 2013

The common denominator of these speculative projects lies in the transformation of the individual body, or the collective bodies (the city) in the face of emerging technologies, climate change, ecological and economic crisis. How can human beings adapt to this transformation?
And Nowhere A shadow | Cohen van Balen | Future Perfect ı Close, Closer, 2013. Image credits: ULGC 2013
For the youth tribes of Future Perfect the body is a site for adaptation, augmentation and experimentation. They celebrate the corruption of the body data by moulding within their costumery all the imperfections of a decaying scan file. Shimmering in the exhibition landscape is a network of geometric reflective pools of molten wax. Their mirrored surface is broken by a body, suspended from a robotic harness, plunging into the liquid. A crust of wax crystallises around its curves and folds, growing architectural forms, layer by layer, like a 3D printer drawing directly onto the skin. Slowly the body emerges, encased in a dripping wet readymade prosthetic. It is a physical glitch, a manifestation of corrupt data in motion, a digital artefact. They hang from hooks like a collection of strange beasts and frozen avatars. Body prints, imperfect and distorted and always utterly unique.

Chupan Chupai, a film produced by British Factory Fifteen, showed a group of children playing, running around the city. As Jonathan Gales and Paul Nichols, co-founders of Factory Fifteen, stated: "through their play the children discover how to hack the city, opening up a cavernous network of hidden and forgotten spaces, behind the scenes of everyday streets."
Chupan Chupai | Factory Fifteen | Future Perfect ı Close, Closer, 2013. Image credits: ULGC 2013
One may be attracted by the color of the images: yellow, blue, red, orange, green in contrast with brownish-colored buildings unfolding the fast-urbanization of the Indian society that will absorb tradition… or human contingency.
Chupan Chupai | Factory Fifteen | Future Perfect ı Close, Closer, 2013. Image credits: ULGC 2013
Watching this film, I was reminded of Zygmut Bauman's Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts, in particular this sentence "the birth of the new requires the death of the old." The children are innocently confronted with "an emerging technology and economic superpower." Put it simply, they are facing or will be swallowed by the machine, the interlinked facets of urban growth and globalization.
The Garment District | Bart Hess | Future Perfect ı Close, Closer, 2013. Image credits: ULGC 2013

The Garment District | Bart Hess | Future Perfect ı Close, Closer, 2013. Image credits: ULGC 2013
The Garment District | Bart Hess | Future Perfect ı Close, Closer, 2013. Image credits: ULGC 2013
Another video-based installation is And Nowhere a Shadow produced by Cohen van Balen, part of Future Perfect, consisting of a woodland including metal structures whose functions are to feed blueberry plants. Cohen van Balen describes this woodland as follows:
And Nowhere a Shadow | Cohen van Balen | Future Perfect ı Close, Closer, 2013. Image credits: ULGC 2013
We are wandering a new kind of wilderness, where the line between biology and technology is becoming increasingly indistinguishable. Through genetic modification, engineered meat, cosmetic surgery and geo-engineering we are remaking our world from the scale of cells to the scale of continents. The woods, wild and mysterious from afar, appear as a stage on which every element is considered. Genetically engineered plants, artificially sustained, are hanging from the trees, embedded in the ecology yet detached from it. Their scaffolding systems of gleaming steel and neon light sway in the wind, waiting. Grey wolves approach the structures during the night to scratch their body on the steel branches. In an intricate arrangement of devised symbiosis, the contraption takes on the role of host organism. The wolf's movements generate electricity for the system, while the blueberries are engineered to contain rabies vaccine in its fruit to protect the animal from self-destruction. Cameras transmit footage of the wolf's presence around the globe, adorned in invisible garlands of electric display, to be enjoyed by those whose passion for the spectacle of wilderness sustains its survival.
Again, this reminded me R&Sie(n)/New Territories's Lost in Paris, in particular this fern, a plant that grows around the house. Not surprising since R&Sie(n)/New Territories develops a speculative architecture. In this project, and just like van Balen's And Nowhere a Shadow, technology is interconnected with nature. The plant is fed with an engineered nutrient mixture combined with harvested rainwater. This system, then, is monitored by the inhabitants to prevent the fern to decay and, in doing so, to protect the building and its dwellers from externalities.
The Supercomputer/Pushing Boundaries | Marshmallow Laser Feast | Future Perfect ı Close, Closer, 2013. Image credits: ULGC 2013

A disappointment, however, was another installation, the Supercomputer/Pushing Boundaries by Marshmallow Laser Feast. Not the project on its own but its curatorial approach. It seems to me that another curatorial strategy would have been more appropriate for this installation. Indeed, I nearly missed it. It is because I noticed a visitor intrigued by a wall that I raised my head and finally saw the projection on the wall. The room likely was too dark for that installation. Such curatorial decision raises the question of grouping a complex set of micro-projects with their own context when one of them probably would have required another option. Indeed, it seems to me that the other installations have overwhelmed the Supercomputer, unless it was intentional.

Here lies the Triennial's conceptual center: architecture's agency. What position, what role can architecture play in an ever-changing world, when everything goes fast causing unpredictable, irreversible turbulence? What methodology? What is the architecture's agency in the face of this shift? Or, better, what could we do?

The common denominator of these micro-installations resides in the exploration of bodies across a shifting society, technological apparatuses, connectivity, and uncertainty creating new potentials for design. Liam Young wrote in his statement that "Our familiar infrastructure of roads, buildings and public squares are giving way to ephemeral digital networks, biotechnologies and cloud computing connections." This paradigmatic shift is profoundly transforming our perception and relation with others, with space as well as time. It is also redesigning us. Transformation is going too fast to be controllable calling into question design's potentiality, say, what is design's agency in the face of this transformation? How design can tackle it? For my perspective, this is the message that this set of curatorial projects attempted to convey. What if architecture reconsiders its relationship with contingency? That architecture is bound to contingency, as Alisa Andrasek forthrightly wrote in the 25th issue (summer 2012) of Log Journal of architecture, this is an indisputable fact. And no-one will contest her statement. She, then, is right to claim that architecture, however, has not integrated contingency. In this context, this is indisputably that architecture must cope with contingency to problem-address a set of uncertainties. And no! Not everything is under control except if we, happy nihilist, continue to view our changing world as a… continuation (I am thinking of Timothy Morton's excellent essay "Same as it ever was"for the 35th issue of Volume Magazine.)

Speculative architecture allows for trials and errors to stimulate creativity. An object, for instance, is too unstable or irreversible to be finished. It must be capable of absorbing contingency to adapt and respond to uncertainties. This is one of the characterists of speculation: never allow for finite product, accept processual, becoming. Second, society, as a large, contingent and complex system, becomes a laboratory to explore, or speculate a set of scenario that could leverage new ideas, new potentiality. Neither cannot its contours be fixed. Nor cannot they be hard. So are its structures. Society must be understood as fluctuating all the time. Remember what scientist Ilya Prigogine said about fluctuations: "[T]hese fluctuations are sometimes amplified on the macroscopic level and lead to non-equilibrium structures, to biological structures, and so on." Now failure. Failure is at the core of society. Society is based on trial and errors like nature. And yes, not everything is under control, once again in that you have to deal with contingency, indeterminacy, instability, fluctuation and change. See these hyperobjects like radioactive decay, weather, biological cell, the Earth, they are some examples of irreversibility. It seems to me that Future Perfect attempts to unfold the importance of integrating this very fact that we no longer must consider our modern world (or architecture,  or nature, or city, or any object) stable, finite. It also reveals that future should not be comprehended as something too blurry or, on the contrary, too predictable. Future is fluctuant and ever-changing, consequently creative and innovative. So must be urban space. As Liam Young explains
In Future Perfect the city is being avidly redefined. For instance, I live in London and my friends live in London, but I spend most part of my time on Facebook or on my twitter network, therefore my experience of London is actually an augmented one. It is one distributed across luminous rectangles scattered around the planet. The city as a physical place is starting to disappear as a notion altogether. In this sense, the Future Perfect city isn't necessarily just about a place, but about a community, and this community is connected through technology. The Future Perfect city is an assemblage of devices, servers, proxy locations, IP addresses and of people positioned at the end of fiber optic cables and circuit boards, scattered across the world. And, in the end, the physical place that we describe is just one place. I wouldn't necessarily call it a city in the traditional sense — it is a community that is formed through technology. In general Future Perfect is interested in the idea that emerging technologies are fundamentally changing the way that we live and interact with each other. They are fundamentally changing the idea of what a community is or what a city is.
Imagining the future allow for tackling the present. Liam Young continues
We take emerging trends and we exaggerate them, we play them out in a series of different scenarios so that we can test them and access them. We can talk abstractly about something like climate change, we can see it on the news, we can hear scientists talk about how many degrees the temperature is rising or how many meters the ocean level is rising, but it is not very tangible.
Hence the critical function of speculation, or science fiction:
Science fiction has a great capacity to communicate these urgent ideas and present them in a way that generates a conversation. And that allows us to be more active in thinking about what our future is what futures we want. We can all collectively try and get to somewhere preferable, exciting and positive as opposed to just waiting for us to have the future thrust upon us by forces larger than ourselves.
Let me put these fascinating problems aside for another moment. Back to the Triennial, and more explicitly to the curatorial function of and its articulation with architecture. How does architecture articulate curating?
The reason why I have gone too far with my analysis of Future Perfect is that I wanted to stress a possible articulation of fiction, speculation, contingency and curating within the notion of potentiality. Fiction and speculation first (allow me for putting these two notions at the same level for that matter). Let me go back to Liam Young's statement about the potentiality of science fiction as a tool to "communicate these urgent ideas and present them in a way that generate conversation." Curating is a form of fiction or speculation. It lies in "critically examining the present". Curating can allow architecture for testing, experimenting as François Roche said about the role of exhibition in his design practice. I'm thinking of Une Architecture des Humeurs, this design research/exhibition for instance. For the architect, the exhibition can be "a suite of visual indices," as François Roche said, or a result of a research, this is, at least, how it seems to be articulated in R&Sie(n)/New Territories. In the case of Roche, the exhibition is part of his practice, like research, a process, or a speculation.
First, the architect extends his role into a curator. Second, the exhibition elaborates, experiments, tests a scenario-based project that deploys, a "constantly mutating sequence of possibilities", to paraphrase François Roche. An approach not very different from Future Perfect to a certain extent.
What interested me in this Triennial, beyond the theme of future practices as elaborated by Close, Closer, is the way the curator, Beatrice Galilee and her associated curators have articulated the potentiality that curatorial function can offer to architecture. Of course Future Perfect is not the only exhibition that stresses this potentiality. Other exhibitions and events have done it but differently. Galilee and her curatorial team have used curating to investigate the state of architecture practice in this new and intricate era, how the discipline of architecture is challenging this very complex mutation that is transforming architecture profoundly (and, in turn, how this mutation is challenging architecture). In this context, Close, Closer is an example of the potentiality of curatorial practices in enabling a discussion about architecture's agency in tackling these issues presented by the show.
With an evidence, this form of curating may have not seduced everyone. Some critics have complained the lack of coherence or the dizzying problematic of the edition or, worse, its puerility. To the contrary, it seems to me that these critics reveal a misunderstanding of the potentiality of curatorial practices within architecture. Such criticism, in fact, is itself too accustomed to pre-codified exhibitions — the solo show, or the mid-career survey or the group show. Or, it also is possible that the format of the biennial itself should be clarified in its distinction from the Venice Architecture Biennial model and its national pavilions. The field of art has already engaged a reflection on it. Given the growing number of exhibitions, biennials as well as other forms of curatorial practices like lecture, conversation, or even, publication, it won't be a surprising if architecture is confronted with this task of engaging a serious reflection of the potentiality of curating as an expanded field, at least to avoid such misunderstandings.
The Institute Effect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC.
The Institute Effect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC.

Neither did I find Beatrice Galilee and her associated curators' curatorial approach to this edition the best curatorial approach architecture ever has. Nor, on the contrary, would I say another curatorial approach would have been better, or something has not been deepened enough for a better understanding of the curators' statement.
The Institute Effect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC.

Beatrice Galilee is neither the first nor the only one to break with the tradition in curating architecture in this manner — I'm wondering, for instance, what curatorial methodology Think Space's curators will establish for their exhibition Money — a hint: the curators have opted for a competition-based curatorial strategy. These curators are no longer willing to merely fill up an available space. As I attempted to demonstrate, they aim to project their own ideas, their research into the space.
The Institute Effect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC.
The Institute Effect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC.
The Institute Effect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC.

The Institute Effect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC.
The Institute Effect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC.

The Institute Effect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC.
The Institute Effect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC.
The Institute Effect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC.
The Institute Effect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC.
The Institute Effect ı Close, Closer, 2013, Image credit: ULGC.




Close, Closer was curated by Beatrice Galilee, and co-curators Liam Young, Mariana Esparza, José Esparza Chong Cuy, assisted by Dani Admiss as the third edition of the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennial, from September 12 to December 15, 2013.


Notes
All subsequent quotes by the curatorial team and architects in this blog are drawn from their writings in the triennial catalogue.

* Liam Young (ed.), Expect Everything and Nothing Else, Booklet for 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennial/Close, Closer, 2013
* 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennial, Close, Closer ı Os Lugares Estão Para As Passoas e Vice-Versa, Catalogue Guide, 2013.
* Thinking in Practice, Future Perfect ı An Interview with Liam Young, 2013
* Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts, Polity, 2003.
* Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, MIT Press, 2009.
* Jeremy Till, "Scarcity contra Austerity", Design Observer, 10.08. 2012
* Scott Timberg, "The architecture meltdown", Salon, 4. 02. 2012
* Alisa Andrasek, "Open synthesis// Toward a resilient fabric of architecture", in Log journal of Architecture, Issue 25, Summer 2012.
* R&Sie(n)/New Territories and Caroline Naphegyi, "Protocols & Process ı in Cahier Spécial du magazine Mouvement, pdf (in French. in English).
* Timothy Morton, "Same as it ever was", in Volume Magazine, Issue 35 "Everything is Under Control", 20-22.
* Catherine Rampell, "Want a Job? Go to College, and Don't Major in Architecture", The New York Times, 5.01.2012
* Asada Akira, Prigogine Ilya, Time and Creation ı An Interview with Ilya Prigogine (pdf).


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