Getting to work: Digging into common ground

Who’s working in the service of whose vision? Unexpectedly (for me), this was the question that seemed to predominate the “Common Ground” theme of the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. From the main exhibitions the national pavilions, the contributing exhibitors espoused varying understandings of who or what constitutes the commons implied by the title. Curator David Chipperfield’s explanation of the main exhibition theme in the August 27 printed edition of Architect’s Newspaper acknowledged the theme’s generality as intentional:

I don’t think an exhibition about architecture is agile enough to make precise statements. Clearly the whole theme of Common Ground was a provocation to the profession to think harder about what we share intellectually and physically in terms of our inspirations, our concerns, and predicaments. (5)

It’s not clear to me how many of the contributors took up the provocation to think about collective disciplinary concerns per se. In my opinion the most interesting responses to the Biennale theme localized their focus geographically or otherwise. For example, out of the exigencies of national conflict addressed by the Croatian Pavilion came the question of how to collectively produce an “unmediated space” for consensus, or what the project broadsheet called “unmediated democracy.” In his introduction to that printed piece, Tomislav Pavelić anticipated the general breadth of participant reactions to the Common Ground theme, and in response forwarded the Pulska Grupa’s decision to concentrate on a “personal vision” opened out to multivalent address:


It seems to me inevitable that the answers to the fundamental questions posed by David Chipperfield will be different. Some of us will opt for the joy of creation, and will literally form the common ground, i.e., the spatial preconditions of community. Others will develop critical thinking and will seek dialogue partners….  Luckily, and paradoxically, the differences are also a potential advantage. For this, we all have to make use of the chance offered – we who have obtained the chance publicly to search for an answer to the question raised, and all of you who are reading this text and/or looking at our, or any other, exhibition. This is a personal vision of the state of affairs. I have deliberately given up on any attempt to furnish an answer of my own, the ambition of which is to be final and unquestioned. Very much aware of the latent dangers of one-sidedness I have developed this project with the great and crucial help of the people immediately involved…. Together, I hope, we have created a democratic context that will not only provide answers to the questions posed, but show that consensus, even if only about a joint appearance, i.e. just for the occasion, and for a moment, is possible.


Pavelić’s text simultaneously celebrates the advantages of difference while looking to create a space for democracy that is consensual. Such an ideal – of producing a forum for consensus – recalls debates within my own discipline of art history and theory about the efficacies of participatory art – including the baseline questioning of the virtues or even feasibility of common space as in Mouffe and Laclau. Yet across the exhibition’s many inroads to the theme of the commons, I encountered very few challenges to the premise of consensus. Is this a disciplinary difference? I am currently reading Claire Bishop’s recent book on participatory art, Artificial Hells, which starkly traces the dual tendencies of participatory practices as attempts at social redemption or critiques of existing social orders. Bishop attributes the participatory tendency in either case as “the latest instantiation of the art vs real life debate that so typifies the twentieth century.” (275) Of course, the discourses of architecture and design suffer from no such identity crisis – they are not (for the most part, and for better or worse) positioned in the same privileged place apart where art tends to reside – and more readily step in to problem solve.  To speak of creating unmediated spaces for social engagement and even consensus in the architectural design context, where the connection to “real life” is more or less de facto, means something different from the quasi-Habermasian ideals that might be suggested by such a claim in an artwork whose temporality and publicity is delimited by the circumstances of its exhibitionary occupation. But while the stakes of public engagement and democracy may be different, it is worthwhile to consider these  in-process discussions about the commons from an interdisciplinary standpoint.


In fact, many projects in the Architecture Biennale actually straddled that space between lived construction and provocations to imagination. I sincerely admired the simultaneous pragmatism and poetics of the Kuwaiti group, whose first ever contribution to the Biennale was overseen by architect Zahra Ali Baba and her deputy curators Deema AlGhunaim from the Master Plan Department of Kuwait and Ricardo Camacho of Multitude Agency. Their pavilion, documented beautifully over on Domus, is formatted as a Diwaniya, a congregation space, with mats around the walls and city plans adhered to the floor. Deputy Curator AlGhunaim explained to me that these plans are housed within government offices, but not available for public access – not strictly because of security or censorship, but because there is no formal mechanism for requesting them through official channels. Releasing these plans into public view was one of the primary objectives motivating their team’s campaign to participate in the Biennale. Meanwhile, speakers hanging from the ceiling in this room played sounds sourced in varying built environments. Using a large fold-out chart, visitors can locate sounds listed by categories of sociality – parliamentary, public, religious, and otherwise – within the installation of recordings taken from restaurants, civil service authorities, domestic worker’s meetings, markets and other social spaces. This was not the only pavilion that foregrounded the sounds of architecture – artist Katarzyna Krakowiak’s Making the walls quake as if they were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers for the Polish pavilion also focused on an expanded phenomenological sensorium with a project intended only for auditory perception. Perhaps also a response to the Common Ground motif, the statement accompanying this project suggested that picking up and amplifying the sounds made within neighboring pavilions was a form of “collaborating” with them.


Here and elsewhere, some of the exhibitors’ claims to collaboration or shepherding the commons hinged on activities that to this viewer appeared primarily symbolic* – or even just like outsourced labor. Architect Anupama Kundoo participated in the Arsenale with a reconstructed full-scale model of her Wall House, built in Auroville, India in 2000. The wall text for the Venice version, titled Feel the Ground. Wall House: One to One, championed the importation of Indian builders, “some of whom had never before left their home country,” whom in Venice had been socialized with students from the University of Queensland and from the IUAV. In response to a question about the predominance of big names in the exhibition, president of the Biennale Paolo Baratta cited the Wall House as a hallmark of curatorial inclusivity, saying, “This is the first time that such modest construction techniques have been employed here so explicitly, even if, at the same time, the Biennale does have a strong focus on visual architecture. I’m not only interested in the architecture deriving from rich countries!” (quoted in an interview with Roberta Chionne and Cristiana Chiorino titled “Crossroads towards optimism,” also for The Architect’s Newspaper.) I found it challenging to invoke a mental image of this encounter as the “skills exchange across three continents” described in the wall text, because the preview days found the Indian builders working alone to finish the structure in time for the public opening, their continental exchangee counterparts nowhere in sight. This lent a strange valence of global-south servitude to an already uncomfortable reverse-missionary program (if the mastery presumably resided in the Indian craft technique, why not bring the students to the Auroville site to learn from the original construction?)


Spanish architect Luis Fernández-Galiano also made use of outsourced labor – or “delegated performance,” another art theory Bishop-ism – in his contribution, Spain Mon Amour. Here, Fernández-Galiano continued what has been an ongoing lament of his about the underemployment of architects in Spain. For Spain Mon Amour this grievance took form in a protest action: temporarily employing students to perform as living pedestals and didactic orators to present fifteen Spanish architecture projects (none of which, it should be noted, were the students’ projects). The art historian sees in this presentation traces of Tino Sehgal’s annihilation of the wall label for the sake of enhanced discursiveness or Oscar Bony’s exhibition of a working class family to call attention to economic relations. Galiano himself suggests a correspondence with artists Ai Weiwei and Santiago Sierra. Reading the curatorial premise ahead of time, I found Galiano’s equation of his student hires with Sierra’s employment of subaltern or otherwise deprivileged groups particularly strange – do the students in their tyvek costumes know that they are being compared, for example, with drug-addicted prostitutes, hired for the cost of a hit of heroin to have a tattoo imprinted on their backs? Since Galiano made the reference himself, I must understand his gesture critically – as an attempt to force into stark and uncomfortable view the direness and exploitative potential of the employment situation. But at the same time, the gesture seems only to further the cycle of exploiting an overproduced corps of architects as underpaid interns, a scenario that folks like OWS Arts and Labor have been working to address State-side, doing little to directly address or grapple with the core issues that stand behind the situation, or offer a solution.


The Israeli curatorial team of Erez Ella, Milana Gitzin-Adiram and Dan Handel made an excellent polemical statement of their pavilion. Titled Aircraft Carrier, the exhibition treated Israel as an infrastructure for United States corporate and military operations. The historical timeline thereof was expressed in the form of a haute design gift shop, wherein IBM’s 1972-founded Haifa research center was manifested as a black satin men’s tie with the IBM logo (I purchased this for something like €9.99) or nesting eggs with the faces of Israeli Ministers of Finance from Simha Erlich to Yitzhak Moda’I, represented the period of economic “liberalization and hyperinflation” that spanned 1979-1984. Following the gilded vinyl by the entrance “to the American pavilion” next door, we encountered the Spontaneous Interventions exhibition, where ICE-POPS (a Boston-based group in which I am a non-core member) participated alongside 123 other “design actions for the common good.”


I was struck by this subtitle’s unmitigated claim to “good” that I think would be unlikely in an art context. For one: Who decides what is good for whom? We’re all too aware that the construction of “needs” (as summarized, for example, in Ivan Illich’s entry for the Sachs Development Dictionar) has been leveraged “as a euphemism for the management of citizens who have been reconceptualized as subsystems within a population.“ (99) And in the context of art production, there has been a longstanding debate about what art does well – i.e. can an philanthropic organization do a service project better? Or does art as activism allow for an autonomy that Grant Kester for example situates as having an “adjudicatory, critically-reflexive relationship to the operations of NGOs?” (Kester, “Wazungu means “White Men”: Superflex and the Limits of Ethical Capitalism”: 13) Again, I suspect that in the fields of architectural and built environment design, the notion of client-serving problem-solving doesn’t seem quite as fraught. In this sense the U.S. Pavilion’s focus on projects that for the most part did not wait for a client’s approval or financing to incept direct action campaigns was an interesting rebuttal to an industry norm. And yet it was also interesting – and unsurprising – that the state department representative who spoke at the pavilion opening was able to so smoothly integrate these impulses as part of a tradition of neoliberal bootstraps Americanism – and later that night, at the Guggenheim reception, to triumph (and in so doing, to assimilate and thus diminish) the virtues of “anarchist power.”


Offsite, the US pavilion officially and unofficially extended to other venues: the curatorial team inaugurated an online forum, which continues to invite public conversation, and workshops in Lido after the public opening, led by the Urban Intervention Camp looked at the privatization of beaches and a community initiative to save a neglected theatre. Meanwhile, more literally spontaneous interventions occurred both inside and outside of the exhibitions. Occupiers in Venice held a series of panel discussions on municipal and institutional space. A protest advocating for the punk protest group Pussy Riot assembled on the steps of the Russian pavilion. As we left for the day, I passed a man with a portable amplification system pacing across the entrance to the Giardini, broadcasting, in Italian and English, that “architects are the slave labor to your dream.” He seemed to summarize the anxieties of laboring for the interests of others that could lead to the facile integration of a conception of the commons – who doesn’t want for their work to be designing  – or innovating  – for and with the commons? While my impressions here are based on only momentary engagements with these various reactions to the theme of the commons, I am interested to continue to follow the conversations by and about each of these contributions as they develop.


Images: Kuwait curatorial and exhibition team. Photo courtesy of Brian Hoffer. Occupy Biennale poster. Spain Mon Amour pre-performance set-up. Israeli pavilion: White and Blue IBM Tie. US Pavilion opening speeches.



* A qualification: I am a staunch believer in the power of symbolism and artistic gesture to provoke efficacious change through reflection.

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