What is the point of architecture biennales?

An edited transcript of a special debate between curators from the Sharjah Triennial, Oslo Triennale, Chicago Biennale and Seoul Biennale

Marie Bak Mortensen: For me it’s really interesting to be invited to chair this event. It has quite a provocative title to try to interrogate the purpose, the meaning, and also I think the legacy of the biennale. Architecture biennales have been in existence for about twenty years or so, so a shorter run than art biennales which have about 120 years’ existence behind them. From the mid-20th century biennales started to become more of a fair or an opportunity to showcase new radical art rather than a promotional showcase.


What also would be interesting to discuss today is how architecture sits within what is usually used within an art market and visual arts ecology. Architecture sits awkwardly in terms of how it’s being displayed or consumed by audiences in particular.


Laura Mark: I’m going to get all the curators here to talk a little bit about each of their biennales and introduce themselves. We have curators here from Seoul, Chicago, Oslo, and Sharjah.



Moad Musbahi: The Sharjah Architecture Triennale is being curated by Adrian Lahoudand I’ve been working with him on the curation since June of last year. It’s the inaugural edition, it’s opening in the city of Sharjah, which is in the United Arab Emirates. It’s building up on the legacy of the art biennale but thinking through the ways in which architectural exhibitions can operate and have a certain agency in, let’s say, post-colonial contexts, and engaging with a region that architecturally is incredibly rich but has a different level of, let’s say, engagement.


The theme for the triennale is Rights of Future Generations. It’s thinking through the ways in which present decisions can have long-term intergenerational consequences, and the ways in which certain alternative perspectives, both in architecture but also thinking through a more expanded field of what architecture means in this context, can provide alternatives to a dominant western perspective. It’s looking to engage with a variety of artists, scholars, and other forms of practitioners, and thinking through the ways in which it can also build up a platform and a legacy and consider the fact that in this region there are numerous obstacles. Restrictions to travel, the lack of archives and other forms of infrastructure that we typically rely on. So how does an exhibition begin to both have a form of engagement of very contemporary issues and then build up a platform that has a different form of longevity past it?


Sepake Angiama: I’m one of the curators for the Chicago Architecture Biennial. I’m co-curating the biennale with Paulo Tavares and the artistic director is Yesomi Umolu. It will be opening in September this year. The biennale is titled …and other such stories. It looks into the context of Chicago not as a backdrop to the biennale but as the initial site of investigation and research. From there we have taken a research-based approach to curating the biennale. We spent an extended period of time in Chicago looking into what has seeded that land, and looking at the relationship to settler, colonial, and indigenous lands, and how the Treaty of Chicago has continually created displacement as a frontier city. We’ve gone from there to looking at São Paulo, where we looked very much at the question of the rights to the city. What does it mean for a building to constitutionally serve a social function, and how the occupations and movements have shaped and formed the city of Sao Paulo.


We also travelled to South Africa, to Johannesburg and to Cape Town, and looked at public space as a contested site where certain memories of the formation of nationhood are contested through thinking about the generational shift between those who are now studying architecture and the established structures, and how you begin to deconstruct those or think those through decolonising movement. Lastly we went to Vancouver, where we looked at the relationship between architecture and land, and it means for a city to illegally occupy a site, and the relationship to an acknowledgement of a land being an illegal, unceded territory. What is that relationship between being a guardian of the land but also at the same time looking at how a city should develop in relation to questions of offshore financing, questions of extraction, and questions of labour. We returned to Chicago in September to think about how those dialogues and conversations can be articulated between speech acts and action and socially engaged projects in the city.


Francisco Sanin: The Seoul Biennale emerges as the result of a political commitment by the mayor’s office to implement architecture as some kind of tool of social transformation or responsibility. About seven years ago, Seoul created the office of city architect, and through that office is beginning to promote public programs and public projects. In a way the biennale becomes the natural extension of this desire to explore the potential of architecture to be a transformative agent, if you wish. To create a sort of global network of exchange of ideas and cooperations about what are the possibilities for the city to develop at this moment in time.


This year is the second biennale. As director, I set myself three very simple goals. One, that it would be research based. It would be about production of knowledge, not representation. It would be the construction of knowledge, the exchange of knowledge. As a consequence, that the biennale would be a platform, a global platform that would give a space to geographies and cultural spaces that are not normally represented in biennales. The third point would be that it would have continuity.


Out of the biennale there might be the creation of a research centre that then becomes the feeder of themes and research of further biennales. So, in order to be honest to my own word I have to figure out how to give continuity to the first biennale, which was titled Imminent Commons. The idea of the commons is about the rights of access to resources that are not based on private property. So, if those are the rights, the question is, what is the political agency that can reclaim those commons? The response in my case is the idea of the collective subject as a political agent that could reclaim the city and geographies if you wish. At the moment we are the most urbanised, the most dense, but also we are the cities becoming the most privatised, commodified, and unequal, where issues like segregation and marginalisation are being the landmark of urban development. How can we redefine architecture as a form of knowledge that can act in the city to reclaim the city?


The structure of the biennale is similar to Venice. We have the thematic exhibition, we have a cities exhibition. (So instead of nations it’s a system of cities.) We’re inviting about 70 or 80 cities to participate. Then there’s research centres — universities and so on, and then our on-site program that engaged very literally with the city of Seoul. So the venues of the biennale are scattered through the different parts of the city. Each one has its own curator working in Seoul and other parts of the world.


Phineas Harper: I am co-curating the Oslo Architecture Triennale with Interrobang, who are architects but also engineers, and Cecilie Sachs Olsen, who is an urban geographer and artist. Our interest is in architecture’s relationship to Degrowth economics. It seems increasingly clear that in the near future there’ll be a fairly fundamental transition from an economy that is entirely obsessed with growing GDP year on year to one that is shrinking. That impending prospect should not be seen as something scary and alarming that is going to cause suffering but as an opportunity to realign human activity within planetary limits and enable human flourishing. The question, of course, is what is architecture like in that economy? How do we make architecture in a shrinking economy? How do we make great architecture without requiring it to be part of an economic growth project?


As architects we feel in our day-to-day work that we are constantly participating in a growth project. Economic growth frames almost every decision we’re able to make. It’s almost impossible to imagine what architecture would be like if we no longer needed to deliver growth for our clients. The curatorial tactics we’re using to try and aid that imaginative step is to use theatre and fiction. For example, we’re not producing an exhibition catalogue essays — we’re producing a book of short stories. We’ve commissioned sci-fi writers and architects and a whole mix of people to write fiction. There’s even a small graphic novel coming out as part of that. There’s also a theatre program, and we’re bringing together some theatre makers in collaboration with the National Theatre in Oslo, but also turning some of our gallery spaces into theatres in their own right.


We’re transforming three galleries into a library, into a playground, and into a factory, each of which are sort of performative versions of those new institutions of a possible degrowth economy. The reason for that is that we’re trying to create an exhibition that be nourishment not just for the brain and the eyes but for the whole body. I hope you’ll be able to feel your way through the Oslo Architecture Triennale rather than having to read your way through it or cognitively process your way through it.


LM: This is the first time all the curators of these various biennales have got together. Despite the fact that they’re all happening within two months of each other they hadn’t communicated before. It is interesting that you can get projects like this where they are so important but there is no communication about what is going on between them.


What do you think your role is as a curator of a biennale? I know some of you are curators and some of you are researchers, and some of you are architects. For the architects, I’m also interested in if you feel like you are prepared for this role, and do you have the skills? I think architecture biennales are quite rare in that they’re given over to architects to curate, whereas the art world doesn’t really work in that way. How you see your role?


SA: Regardless of whether it’s for architecture or art, I would say that one of the things I think has been really important is creating a context or a framework in which these practices sit. The space that I’m trying to produce is one that’s dialogical. I see curating as very much situated practice. Especially in the case of biennales, I think there has been a tendency for worlding — creating our own world. I live in Kassel, which many people don’t believe exists unless it’s for Documenta. However, it is a city that has its own life. Similarly in the context of Chicago, people think of it as this dramatic backdrop, but it also has a kind of life and practice that we wanted to engage with. The role, for me, is about creating the right conditions to produce meaningful conversations which are related to architecture and the city, and that conversation isn’t one that’s just privy to architects so that lived experience is also of value in that conversation.


FS: I very much agree. It’s the kind of question you ask yourself when you are invited to be a director, and you don’t have a ready answer because you realise that you are a kind of DJ, MC, facilitator, accountant, programmer, diplomat. The first thing I would come with to the biennale is a sense of crisis. There is definitely a very real crisis, whether it is social, environmental, etc.,in cities and territories. There is a moment where architecture has been squeezed as a profession into a very narrow band of possibility of practice by corporate practice, by capital, by money, and so forth. So the first thing one tends to think is, ‘Okay, but architecture is more than that. Architecture is a discourse, a discipline, it’s a form of practice that is not always contained within the boundaries of the profession of what is institutional. So how can I use the biennale to explore that wider band, and also allow practices that, in order to survive, exist within that band to explore other dimensions and other possibilities of what architecture can do. Also to map around the world practices that are emerging that don’t have a voice, to bring them to the notice of others so that we can actually being to engage in a much wider dialogue, by being aware of a much wider range of possibilities of what the discipline and the practice is. So as a curator it’s been one of the most exciting things, to see these things coming out that were not in my radar but have been naturally attracted to our discourse, and hopefully to provide that platform.


MM: I think the context of Sharjah is somewhat distinct insofar as there is a relationship to the discipline and the field but there is also a relationship to the context. One of the main ways in which the role begins to expand is the openness to allow other things to enter how the role should be defined. In a sense it’s a kind of feedback in the ways in which the theme of these rights of future generations leaves a lot unknown. So a lot of the role is really incorporating or promoting viewpoints or positions that otherwise might not have been conceived of, and actually begin to take them seriously and see the ways in which the exhibition doesn’t operate an extractive logic as far as things are made to be on display or exhibited in a conventional sense, but are actually propelled in one aspect or another.


PH: I find the role of the biennale curator to be a tricky question to be honest because it depends so much on your client. When you’re an architect, your client is defines your role to an extent. If you are an architect to Taylor Wimpey you’re clearly a different kind of architect to if you’re an architect for some small community theatre. It’s understood that, in practicing as an architect, who you work with, who your clients are, and how you navigate that is part of the complexity of being in practice.


Whereas in curation there doesn’t seem to be that understanding that what your client is like has an impact on what is possible for your role. It’s almost assumed that there’s a totally blank canvas and as a curator you can make anything. I’m yet to encounter an exhibition or festival situation where there wasn’t quite a precise set of expectations. So I guess the role of the curator is trying to keep some sort of vision in mind, but then also understand the realities of what is possible, and then navigate between them and try to find a nice Venn diagram where you can sit yourself comfortably.


What I’d really like to be as a curator, honestly, is super situated. To have moved to Oslo and spent a serious amount of time there learning the culture, the context, the language, exploring the streets and so on. But I can’t because there’s not the money. So we do everything over Skype, which is fine but it massively changes what is possible within the role. Certainly there’s a disconnect between what you pitched – on which you get given the job – and what you’re actually able to deliver. So I guess I think the role is about negotiating and finding compromises between what might be a “pure” but unrealisable vision and what is actually expected of you from your client.


MBM: It’s the biennale that was responsible for the birth of the independent curator. Before then, the curator was a very specialised role within institutions, museums, galleries. They had a specialist knowledge about collections and communicating that, and then suddenly it became the curator that looks more at exploring ideas and experiences for an audience. For some people they’ve made it a day job to fly around to different biennales around the world and take a lead on that for a two year period. The question is also that fleeting engagement with an area, the governance structure behind it, which often is disguised because the face of the curator and of the city is so prominent for biennales compared to other exhibition projects. How much is your autonomy being squeezed between those interests, and is there anything you feel like you’re losing as part of that curatorial process?


FS: I think there is no illusion to the fact that biennales and exhibitions are part of a sort of branding circuit, and that it is, in a very crude manner, a tool to promote careers. So there is no illusion there as to the purity of the biennale. I think it’s a question of how you then use that condition to produce something of value. As you said, it’s really interesting because, not being a professional curator, you bring an agenda, and you need to be able to develop it. For instance, my first encounter with the Seoul government was like, ‘We need to do research.’ And they said, ‘No, we’ve brought you because you have a network.’ So that’s the first sort of miscommunication about what a biennale is. On the other hand, I have to say that for me the most attractive part of the invitation is that there is a real interest in the biennale as a system of production of knowledge, as a platform to exchange experiences across the world. They have been very supportive in terms of engaging with Africa, Asia, India, Latin America where I come from. So that’s been a really positive experience. The rest is a lot of negotiation that takes place in terms of money and support.


MBM: It is quite evident is that research is becoming a big part of the biennale rather than exhibition-making or showcasing. Again, I wonder with that word ‘research’ comes responsibilities about where that knowledge ends up. Is that research being folded into the next biennale when to some extent you’re already competing against previous curators and you want to make your own mark and statement? Are biennales now competing with universities? What would normally take the form of a conference, with conference papers being distributed and published, if it’s part of research then how do you take on that responsibility?


MM: We take really seriously the context and the ways in which the theme can be understood through a series of sub-themes. So the last six months in Sharjah we’ve been working with the local universities and other architecture schools in the city developing original research around, ‘What does housing and domesticity mean in this context? What does school and education mean in this context? What does environment and ecology mean?’ This has culminated in a series of workshops where we’ve invited local members of the municipalities and other government stakeholders in which a team of around eight architect researchers have been doing fieldwork in the context of Sharjah, looking at what the history means. From our perspective, the curatorial agenda there is, ‘How is the audience going to associate the work that might not be from the context of Sharjah but has an association with it?’ That’s something that, for us, is incredibly important, especially where it’s an inaugural edition and there aren’t any architectural exhibitions of this type, so that legibility is not so present or mature. Then, in a sense, it’s around thinking through other forms and other strategies. So the ways in which the publications and other materials disseminate or support the exhibition. So thinking through the variety of strategies in which that also has a different duration and temporality that the actual exhibition has to fill.


PH: The question of ‘Should your biennale actually be a conference’ is a really clever one. I don’t think ours should be a conference, but I do wonder whether it should be a biennale. My sense of what happens is that cities feel like they ought to have a biennale. ‘Cool cities have biennales, we’re a cool city, why don’t we have a biennale? Let’s have one.’ It’s only a lot later down the line that a curator is appointed, and they’ve inherited this brief. There’s not actually so much scope by that point to revisit the fundamental assumption that the best way to interrogate this particular theme at this particular moment is through a multi-faceted, multi-venue city-wide exhibition of international work. This is quite mean, but there’s a kind of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ aspect to it, in that cities look to other biennales and they want to compete. I’ve never been confident that competition is the best way to deliver culture. It works well for pop music, but I’m not sure it is actually so good for culture at-large. I don’t think it’s so good for architectural richness and ultimately it leads to some slightly weird outcomes, where a very small triennale that is in essence trying to do something modest and local ends, up feeling like it has to be as glitzy as the Venice Biennale. Actually, that inhibits its capacity to do what it needs to do in the situation that it is in. I think there’s this fundamental mismatch between the presentation of some biennales and the actual conditions of that biennale. Maybe we do need to ask ourselves some hard questions like, ‘Should this biennale actually be a conference? or should it be a walking tour? or should it be a community barbeque? or even something more surprising?’ rather than always reaching for the biennale format because it is familiar.


SA: I disagree. Fundamentally I think there has always been competition between cities. I think that is often made manifest in architecture. We see that in London right now. I haven’t lived in London for ten years, but every time I return to the city I see another huge building looming in our skyline. I ask myself, ‘What are the drivers behind that development that’s happening in the city? Is there a demand for this kind of spectacle?’ What I do believe is that often biennales, where they are most successful, are not necessarily in capital cities, interestingly enough. Look at the London Festival of Architecture, and what’s happening to that, and what’s the difference between that and other failed attempts of bringing these questions to the fore in a city like London. Why does that not work particularly well? Whereas a very small city, like the one I live in, where there is very little furore until this moment happens once every five years and a million people over a hundred days descend on the city, which is also quite unbearable. There is a question in my mind, which is why it’s the second city and not necessarily the capital. Chicago, although it would describe itself as a great city, or at least Chicagoans would say, ‘Our great city of Chicago,’ there is a notion of that competition that has happened between Chicago and places like New York through the built environment. So what I feel is that biennales actually offer a serious opportunity to bring together practices and professionals and citizens to discuss the city, to think about how we can shape and form and transform the city. I think the notion of creating spectacle is very much up the curator. That’s part of our responsibility and role.


LM: Do you actually think that biennales should have a long-term impact on the cities in which you’re curating? Is that the point of them, or should that not be the case at all?


PH: I’m not sure there is one answer. You could imagine a biennale which said, ‘All we care about is the local area and the local people, and the many narratives that go into this place.’ All the production of that festival would be assessed on ‘how useful is this for here and now?’ That sounds great to me, but another curator might say, ‘It’s not really about this place. It’s about a global survey. Widening people’s perspectives or seeing things that you can’t get from your local context.’ Maybe that’s valid too. Personally, yes, I think that if you are not interested in the immediate context of where you’re working then what are you doing? But I think you can have biennales for many motivations, however you should always be clear what your motivation is and then hold yourself to that.


MM: I think one thing that comes to mind is also thinking through it not as a singular, cohesive thing. There is a different answer based on which part of the biennale you are engaging with. There’s obviously an ethical position around bringing in work or people from other contexts. Are you about concentrating or creating a point of intensity in the city itself that then takes away from other contexts? Or actually are you trying to think through the ways in which the exhibition feeds into those other contexts and so reverses that gaze or the direction people are looking at? Then there’s a kind of different engagement insofar as, in the context of Sharjah anyway, a lot of our conversations about the distinction between the edition and the institution. So the institution, that’s responsible for taking care of the editions that come after our edition, how do collaborate in the ways in which there is then a longevity within that? How do we begin to create a much more multifaceted approach? I think that’s really important to think through and consider the fact that these things are not singular objects but are composed of many different actors, many different projects, many different engagements. Each of those has a different answer in the ways in which it feeds back into the city.


FS: There are over 200 biennales, so in a way we are a sort of species that needs to be classified. I don’t think we can any longer talk about biennales as a singular event. There are multiple topics, structures, systems, supports, and I think each one of them demands a certain reflection. So giving a unified answer is incredibly difficult. One of the things that is exciting about this conversation is finding biennales that have similar attitudes, where there is not this idea of branding or trying to stand out through some kind of gimmick, but a kind of commitment to something that is at stake. Something that is important. In a way, one could say that biennales might grow through the practice of those who are engaged in doing them, that we might transform them by making them happen. In other words, by bringing to the biennale a certain type of agenda and a certain system of reflection or an approach, one might be able to shift the paradigm of what biennales might be about. In an ideal world, one’s commitment is to a certain set of issues that one believes are important, and therefore have a certain permanency.


The biennale in a way is an opportunity. We’re opportunistic; I’m not Korean, I don’t live there, but I do hope that what I am doing is relevant enough that the city will take it on board, and what I bring will reverberate through time. So that’s why my first commitment to this year’s biennale was to have continuity with the first. Although I may not have agreed with it’s themes, I tried to establish that continuity. Secondly, we have many different audiences. The people who visit the biennale are an audience, the people who might read the books in the future are an audience, the city itself and its officials are an audience. You’re constructing multiple levels of engagement that may grow over time in multiple ways. One hopes that there is a validity to what one is doing, that it will carry on in different manners but it’s really hard to anticipate.


SA: I believe that biennales are short-term. They happen for a moment. They allow for experimentation. They allow a kind of incubator of ideas and then they are gone. We just have to deal with that.


MM: Agreed; incubator of ideas, moment of experimentation. But what is your role as curator insofar as how do you ensure or consider the ways in which those ideas move forward? What is the future of those ideas?


SA: Beyond the biennale, beyond the structure of the biennale it’s practice. You embody those ideas and you take them with you and hope that you, in a healthy way, contaminate others. But you don’t have control. There is a moment that you are contracted to. Beyond that moment you have no control as to what is going to happen. I think it’s just having to relinquish the idea that, for some reason, something that we might do might have a long-term effect, fantastic, but that’s not necessarily going to be the case.


LM: Who do you think the audience for your biennale is. Sometimes I feel that architecture biennales are impenetrable for non-architects. They appeal to architects but to no one else. They are inward-looking. I want to know whether you are trying to do something that engages an outside audience or engages audiences who wouldn’t necessarily come to an architecture biennale or exhibition, or whether you are just engaging architects?


SA: I consider myself outside the field of architecture. I think that although architecture is something that totally informs and shapes our lives, it somehow is invisible but in plain sight. Everything that we do from the moment we were born until the moment we die, we will have a relationship with a building. But we don’t necessarily consider how that space has been produced. So we know it has an effect on our behaviour and our bodies, but maybe the door hasn’t been open to question of why or how a decision was made that has had a certain effect on the way that we behave in space. I’m hoping that, through smaller interventions, there might be a possibility to open up that conversation as opposed to creating a bigger spectacle. Sometimes there is a sense, and especially in Chicago, of ‘Go bigger. Just go bigger. Someone’s going to notice. Go bigger.’ Actually I think we need to get smaller.


FS: On the one hand you want to be provocative, and on the other hand you want to be understood. You want to educate and you want to provoke. How to maintain that balance is really difficult. On the one hand, I think was Walter Benjamin who said that we experience architecture in a state of destruction and yet it shapes our lives. How do we amplify professionally in a way that is stimulating enough for city officials, citizens, NGOs, all kinds of different participants in the construction of the built environment, that they can talk to each other and have the kind of legitimacy to participate in that discourse that is not centred on the profession. Not on the making of icons or fashion, but in the awareness of what our responsibility is in the construction of the built environment. Social justice, environmental justice. What are the tools that we have? I think in that sense the biennale has that multiple scales — that has to be accessible for a two-hour visit and incite a certain curiosity that somebody might want to come back and visit it again, but also to be intellectually ambitious enough that it can produce something. Maybe not to the city, but at least to the discipline of architecture.


MM: We have been trying to directly engage with the people who are using the venues. What are the social aspects that actually relate to their everyday lives? How can we think through work that then resonates with that and is able to break down those thresholds of access. On another level it is to take really seriously the point around communication and dissemination, and speaking to different audiences. One of the things that the Sharjah institution requires us to do is to publish everything in Arabic and English. We are beginning to think through the other language groups like Urdu and Hindi, and the ways in which one is able to communicate on a very basic level to different audiences. And to think through that not simply in terms of having a dominant English language where things are translated and mirrored, but actually what are the forms of communication that are possible within different types of expression. Do we partner with e-flux or do we begin to think through the other online platforms that exist in the region that already have circulation and readership? Do we co-publish with a German publishing house, or do we think through what other publishing houses exist in Beirut or Cairo? So these are, for us on a really practical level, how do we actually being to enact these things that conceptually we’re really interested in but have a different hurdle or amount of work that required to try and do them and push them forward.


PH: The mistake that I think sometimes is made is that people make something that is trying to be all things to all people. I totally get this ‘you should just get bigger! Do bigger and bigger events, and that’s the way that you’ll reach the widest audience. mantra, It sort of makes sense on an extremely simplistic analysis of what’s going on, but actually we have found that our largest events, which is 2,000 people in a room for a lecture, is a completely different audience to a really small event with only eight people at it, or a walking tour on a rainy Saturday. Rather than trying to do everything for everyone, I think we should be trying to fragment a little bit and tailor pieces of programme for certain audiences. Of course you can try to have diverse groups within that, but I think it’s a kind of impossible challenge to make an exhibition that is 100% accessible to all audiences, and you’re just destined to fail.


Personally, I’m not an academic, I’m an extremely slow reader. I find a lot of research-led exhibitions really hard work. That’s not necessarily the fault of the curator. It’s partly my fault as someone who just hasn’t put in the time to get good at reading that kind of content. But hopefully that curator has anticipated me as a potential audience member and there are other ways that I can engage with their theme.


I think the other thing that’s often missed in this conversation is that not all architects are the same. We often say ‘this exhibition is only for architects’ when we actually mean it’s only for this niche small subset of architecture who are interested in that particular nexus of conversations. Actually there’s a huge number of jobbing architects who have never heard of e-flux, who don’t go to the Venice Biennale, and maybe are never going to. I’m interested in how we reach them. We’re already putting on an architecture festival, but that doesn’t guarantee that architects are going to turn up. Maybe we should be working with more low-brow institutions in an opportunistic sense to reach an audience where they already are rather than forcing them to come to us.


MBM: There’s been a lot of talk of production of knowledge, about research. For me – and I may be a bit old-school – biennale is a remedy to stale exhibition-making. It’s the one institution that really pushed the boundaries of art exhibition.How are your thoughts around how to turn this production of knowledge into a manifestation that pushes at boundaries and sets agendas for future biennales, that  trickles down to museums and galleries? Phin, you are the only one that so far has talked about how this manifests in a public way through performances, theatre, and testing new ways of communicating with audiences. What are your thoughts about that? How do you convey research through new means?


Katarzyna Wlaszczyk: It is to not only to think of what kind of practitioners, artists, architects, and thinkers to work with but also how to work with them and how to approach exhibition-making and its fraught history in a way that navigates or tries to challenge the regimes of visibility and representation that are so embedded. I feel like, coming from a contemporary art background, those kinds of discussions are very evolved and common but maybe not so much within architecture. So it’s interesting to try to think of the institution itself. In terms of how these structures work and try to rethink them on an infrastructural level. How to unthink or undo architecture from the main western paradigm into thinking about other realities and other forms of existence.


MM: We disagree on the ways in which architectural exhibitions have provided forms of experimentation. On a broad level I feel like they have provided a certain avenue around what architecture is. It’s from a particular perspective, a very Eurocentric North American perspective. The way in which architecture is taught across the world, one can draw a line from the Renaissance to the present day. I think about the ways in which other forms of spatial environmental adaptations can begin to be thought through architecturally. We’re having a lot of conversations around performance and the ways in which performance needs to be an important interlocutor around the ways in which spatial experience is communicated. We’ve held a series of events around the ways in which image projection and models are operated. But I think it’s really important to make the distinction between different perspectives within the ways in which the discipline is operating. We’re thinking through the conventions.


FS: In the case of Seoul there is one whole sector that is called Onsite, which basically colonises many parts of the city to create events. For instance, one of them is in this huge market area that is a very collective condition. There is shared ownership. It’s one of the last manufacturing centres in a big city in the world with huge networks. So we are trying to map those and bring awareness to those that live there. What are the networks that are actually producing it? There are other biennales, for instance in 2011 I designed the Gwangju Biennale working with Ai Weiwei and Seung H-Sang, and part of the agenda of the biennale was to build objects or spaces in the city to leave traces to mark spaces of collective memory. I guess each one of the biennales would have its own form of manifestation, but I very much agree that to reduce that manifestation could be a bit reductive.


SA: This comes back forms of representation. What are the forms in which we understand architecture, in terms of exhibition-making? Or biennale-making, because biennale-making is not just about exhibition-making. It’s about an expanded format in which the very site you select to work with is also part of that conversation. In terms of the forms that we’ve been looking at, we’ve been looking at architecture as forms of pedagogy, architecture as forms of publishing, understanding publishing as the act of making something public, architecture as forms of protest – so how do you conceive or display a movement within an exhibition? There are other ways of making public ideas and concepts that exist in architecture rather than believing that models and plans are dominant forms. There are other forms. That’s what we’re trying to push. But I think that actually my biggest concern is that, especially coming from outside the field of architecture, people would not recognise these are forms of architecture. This is obviously not just about our individual pursuits — there has obviously been a need for this in regard to the architecture profession as a whole.


MBM: Biennales were set up to break away from institutions and institutional barriers. What you’re trying to do seems to be like trying to break away from the perception of biennales to a non-western perspective. You’re breaking away from a concept that is so beholden to Venice and the west. Is it then pointless to talk about ‘biennales’? Do we need another word, another concept, for what you’re trying to explore now? Is it hindering you for your agenda, that it sits within that history?


SA: I don’t know if we need another word. I think we’ve got enough words. It’s just a responsibility of thinking through formats and the ways in which we do things. I don’t know if another word is necessary.


MM: There are things that exist in the world. How do you begin to privilege them or promote them? Just on a really practical and logistical level, the biennale concept allows certain things to be enabled. Thinking through the ways in which funding can be solicited, thinking through the ways in which we work with the city, the ways in which there are different actors and stakeholders that understand it in different ways. There’s obviously a somewhat problematic history, or a history that has been of one kind, and so thinking through expanding that rather than simply disregarding it is also a particular ethical position, and one that shouldn’t be quickly dismissed.


FS: The word ‘biennale’ is a very banal word. It means every two years. There’s nothing wrong or right with it.


MBM: No, but it may have been taken over for a branding exercise, placemaking, gentrification, other ways of using that from different stakeholders.


FS: The way we practice begins to change the way a biennale is perceived. So far it has been practiced as a branding, starchitect-oriented celebratory trade fair. But it can also be something very different. It’s through curatorial practice that it changes. It’s not going to change by definitions. It’s going to change by progressively putting out in the area other models. When I first presented to the city of Seoul my proposition for the biennale, the first thing I said was ‘this is not an exhibition.’ They almost died. I said, ‘I’m not going to make an exhibition, this is a place for debate.’ That’s the difference between a fair, an exhibition, and a biennale. A biennale is a place for debate, for discourse. How it is produced, that is the next thing. In that very simple step, one is changing the paradigm. That’s the best we do, those of us who work with culture and politics. You try to infiltrate or activate certain ideas that you hope will gather some traction and in time will transform the institution. It’s not going to change by naming it, but by the way that we practice it.


KW: I totally agree. I think also insisting on another name could just be another way of further excluding other types of participation and contexts. We should be able to use that word for our own interests rather than having to insist on a different type of context. There is a value in being able to participate in it and then critique it or challenge it rather than being given another platform.


Audience questions


Rob Fiehn: First, you talked about how to access the 90% jobbing architect. I have a really easy answer for that question, which is they want to win work and meet clients. Maybe biennales could be a little bit more functionally practical because that is what those people care about. That’s not a shameful thing. I think that’s normal.


The second thing is that if people think the word ‘biennale’ is not already perceived as elitist and attached to high art and culture then they’re just completely kidding themselves. It’s a bad word for a lot of people who think, ‘It’s not for me.’


PH: I try to use the word ‘festival’, which I think is clearer and is actually more inclusive of different kinds of format, which is partly what we’re trying to do. One of our piece of programme is a live-action roleplay version of Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. A piece of science fiction turned into a piece of theatre somehow sitting in an architecture exhibition. Obviously we didn’t write The Dispossessed and we didn’t invent live-action roleplay, it’s not a new format at all. But maybe what is new is that we’ve inserted it into an architecture festival, and hopefully it will help people to think through urban issues in a slightly different way. I know what the word biennale means, but I totally see your point and we probably do need to think quite carefully about the impact of the words we use. I don’t think we need more words, but I do think we need to be aware of why we use words and the impact we have. I also think, in terms of formats, we’ve used football tournaments as a tool in the Architecture Foundation, we’ve used people dressed as ghosts in graveyards. In a way, there are so many formats out there that it seems quite weird to me that architects, who are highly creative people, use so few.


I always think of musical theatre as the best possible format for communicating a message. It’s an extraordinary night out, it appeals to all of your senses. All right, there are some really rubbish musicals out there, but there are also some amazing ones that have intense political undertones that not only can challenge you intellectually but get into your bones. I absolutely feel that there is so much more that we can learn from theatre, from performing arts in general. Even from political culture and the tradition of organising youth camps, which used to be a big part of how British political movements established themselves in the early 20th century. There’s things like Hello Wood, which is a king of architectural summer camp or Studio in the Woods. I can’t see any reason why those kinds of formats could not have a place in a biennale if we wanted them to other than that the client, who is the commissioning institution, has certain expectations.


Lee Ivett: How important are the reviews going to be? What do you want people to write about you and say about you? How important is that element? Ultimately you’ve chosen to do something that has to be public, has to be perceived. I presume that you don’t want to do all these things in anonymity, under the radar, otherwise you would not be calling these things anything or having curatorial themes. You’d just be getting on and doing useful stuff over a period of six months. So what is the desired either reception, legacy, or the way you want this work you’re about to produce to be acknowledged? What validates it and makes it all feel lovely for you at the end of it all?


FS: There are so many questions that we have faced today. Who are we trying to reach, or what are we trying to accomplish? In my case, and I think maybe through our discussion, we all believe that there is something really important at stake that has to do with our future. As a culture, as a civilisation, as a profession, as the built environment. It’s not about getting jobs or creating fairs. That’s a different kind of scheme. It’s trying to challenge this idea of the biennale as elitist or secluded and actually putting something at stake. So if you accept that as a parameter, that the purpose of the biennale is not simply to benefit the profession but is actually engagement of the profession’s responsibility with the larger world and developing the tools and making up a space for discourse about that, then it’s not about reviews.


It’s not about how people are going to see you, because even in this small audience you will have twenty different reviews and perceptions. So if you do it in order to get some kind of legitimation or approval then you’re losing the point. You don’t do it because you want to get good reviews, you do it because you believe in what you’re doing.


Lee Ivett: I imagined that everyone sat there would say, ‘It’s not about the reviews’ but we all know that for a lot of people in certain situations, and certain points, they can’t escape the fear or the excitement or the reality that people will judge what they do. I’m scared of being judged all the time. It’s just a thing that most humans carry with them. When you put yourself and your work in any situation into a public sphere and a public reading, you wonder how the message spreads further than the situation you’re actually trying to deal with. It’s difficult in that mind-set not to engage with the reality that people are going to judge it, they are going to write about it, they are going to have opinions about it.


MM: The first part is who is writing the reviews. Who are those people judging you? In a sense, that’s a big part of our concern. It’s not about having a great ArchDaily piece, but actually who is engaging in the context of, say, North Africa, what are the reviews within that context? That, for us, is a really big part of thinking through how we consider a certain level of that ambition. It’s also not to consider that whole value system of architectural criticism and reviews is monolithic. It’s varied across different people.


PH: Yes, I’d echo that. There’s a tendency to look at the most famous journalists who came to the show and think that that’s the most important review. But in a way, maybe we should just think about the local papers and how they respond to something. If it gets on the local radio and they’re like, ‘It’s a great day out, bring your whole family,’ maybe that’s the best possible review you can get. Whereas you might have an extremely sophisticated review in Frieze Magazine but it’s not necessarily that useful to the local people involved.


Having said that, I am conscious that I really don’t want a bad review. Not particularly for me, but given the amount of people contributing for very little money or no money over a huge amount of time into this beast, for Olly Wainwright to slag it off in The Guardian would be such a demotivating factor for all of those people — many of whom are young practitioners. I’m conscious of the need to get at least one good review just for those guys. So it’s a moral obligation that I’m going to have to bribe Olly or something to make sure it happens.


SA: The worst review is when there isn’t one. The worst thing I think could happen is that you work your bollocks off on making this exhibition and no one has anything to say. Nothing. You think, we’ve just worked a year on that project, is there nothing of interest to write about? There is also something quite important in realising that this is part of a dialogue. It’s not necessarily about a good or a bad. It’s not a moral judgment. It’s about a continuation of thinking through practice. This might be a bad review, but hopefully, the next one will be better, or I would have learned something, or I get really pissed with that writer and write back and say to them, ‘You’ve totally misunderstood my project.’ I don’t see those as finite. I see those as the potential for a continued dialogue or something that has an effect on practice.


Caz Facey: Maybe this is the elephant in the room. Why are all your shows on in such a short space of time in such disparate parts of the world? Who manages the clash calendar? Olly’s air miles must be going to be through the roof. I can’t wait to watch this on his Instagram stories, but for the rest of us how does that work?


SA: That’s such a good question. Something that I’m really enjoying is the fact that we are in very different geographies means that we are drawing from very different relationships to those cities that we’re working within. It’s not that we’re supposed to go to all of them, but also I find that, this will just happen again in two years, right? In two years’ time exactly the same thing will happen. It is obviously a unique moment when these are all happening, but I do think that’s why there’s an opportunity to say something that has maybe a bigger resonance that one biennale on its own would necessarily be able to say.


FS: When they start their biennale, they don’t want it to coincide with Venice. They don’t want to compete with that so they put it on an uneven year! Is there the possibility going forward of biennales not being this isolated brand treatment but actually this more coordinated effort to collaborate. We see overlaps of discourse, we see overlaps of resources. Hopefully in the future one could imagine biennales having much more of a collaborative condition that also breaks down this idea of standing out and being unique.