While it is fashionable to quote Bruno Latour at present, his project has particular relevance to the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture given David Chipperfield's curatorial theme. Chipperfield's agenda is aligned to Latour's reconstruction of the Social, interrogating the possibilities of re-assembly after the exhaustion of critical theory and the critical method of deconstruction.
We understand Chipperfield's theme - Common Ground - simultaneously as an optimistic projection of a discipline and a critical rejection of architecture as it is currently constructed. Architecture is understood here not as buildings but as a discipline. That is, architecture in Common Ground focuses on architecture as a practice, not an object.
Perhaps the most obvious question raised by Common Ground is where exactly this common space might exist? Is it to be found between buildings, pavilions or nations? Or is it something that needs to be constructed, rather than discovered? Is the project of Common Ground a form of archaeology, or a projection?
Our curatorial direction for the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale - established some months before Chipperfield's appointment - is based in similar questions and concerns about the state of the profession. Coming off a post-economic-boom exhaustion with the novelty of form and images that have come to dominate architecture, we went in search of a way to reconstruct our discipline. In these times of economic recalibration, and with a growing sense of the dangers of the excesses that we have taken for granted since the beginnings of modernism in the industrial revolution, we found ourselves not so much interested in critique but in being activists. That is, we saw the potential to be actively engaged with the project of 'redirection' of our discipline, to use Tony Fry's term.
Common ground seeks this same space - a reconstruction of the field of architecture - but leaving open the question of what it might be reconstructed into. In this sense, the Biennale is a project without a goal but with a sense of necessity and of a need for action which, in its own way, is not so far removed with the Occupy movement that emerged in New York in the early part of 2011.
This thematic has emerged as a strong undercurrent for many events in contemporary arts culture - take for example the recent Sydney Biennale with the curatorial pairing of Catherine De Zeigher and Gerald Mc Master and their theme 'all our relations.' While this theme is part of the same constellation where both our and Chipperfield's position can be found, the lesson perhaps from the Biennale in Sydney is the danger of over-theorisation and a lack of exploration in the works themselves. The danger and the necessary risk of any good exhibition is to know how to ask what risks are meaningful in setting an agenda. Chipperfield has done this, in that his proposition for Venice is less a demonstration and more an invitation to act in new ways - immediately setting the traditions of the architecture biennale in Venice against his call.
These issues led us to ask how an exhibition around the theme of 'Common Ground' could exist within the compartmentalised exhibitions of different individuals in the Arsenale and different countries in the Giardini pavilions? How could Common Ground be anything other than a slogan without a genuine attempt to reassemble the idea of architecture, through a direct and immediate reassembly of the forms of its representation? A challenge is set, one that seems more structurally challenging to the authorities and machinery behind the Biennale itself, rather than the exhibitors and countries invited to participate, as what is critically at stake are the forms of participation themselves. Rules need to be broken.
As part of the Australian pavilion, we have attempted to stretch the possibilities of the pavilion and our exhibitors took up this motivation when considering their contributions. By considering the pavilion as an infrastructure to support a range of actions rather than as container for urban jewellery, we make the case that it is not adequate to simply identify the common ground - as Latour might identify a pre-existing idea of the social - but to activate it via the action of constructing it for ourselves in this instant. Not tomorrow, but now.
Our exhibitors assemble this space: through zip lines which connect to the pavilion across the canal for the first time; through explorative boat tours that re-centre the Giardini within Venice; through engagement with public housing in Venice and demonstrating how we can improve the health of its inhabitants by refurbishing key elements; by opening out the space between our and adjacent pavilions for common gathering and games; and through a discourse in and around all these actions via a continuous radio show broadcasting and thus connecting us with the world.
This series of actions, more than a series of exhibition items, makes a direct commitment to the idea of Common Ground and its immediate actioning in the exhibition rather than by providing some representations of how someone, somewhere else, might action these ideas in the future. In taking this approach, we also re-conceive the pavilion itself, transforming Australia's building from a domestic-scaled salon for the viewing of works to an infrastructure that provides a base and form of support for these various actions - thus relocating the building itself as a player within the architectural agenda but not to be confused as the sole carrier of architecture itself.
Anthony Burke and Gerard Reinmuth (Creative Directors): Anthony Burke specialises in contemporary design and theory in relation to technology and its implications for architecture. He is an Associate Professor and Head of School of Architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney; a curator and writer; and Director of the architectural practice Offshore Studio. Anthony’s academic background includes a Bachelor of Architecture of UNSW with First Class Honours and an MS AAD from Columbia University.
Gerard Reinmuth is a Director of TERROIR and Professor in Practice at the University of Technology (UTS) Sydney from 2011, with both roles concerned with questions around the agency of the architect in making our cities and the future of the profession in a globalised interconnected world. TERROIR’s work encompasses projects, research and regular contributions to the profession through exhibitions, teaching and writing. The practice will be featured in both the Danish and Australian pavilions for the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.
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