Just back from Venice after a visit of what was my fourth and definitely not favourite Architecture Biennale. Mind you, I'm in a minority here, most of the reviews i read so far were very enthusiastic.
I still have to go through the hundreds of pictures i made, the catalogs, leaflets i grabbed and notes i scribbled. Before i come back to you with a fleshier report, here's a quick and easy post about Cloudscapes, one of the most talked about works presented inside the Corderie, a 319 metres long space once used to make ropes and cables for the Italian navy and now hosting a part of the main exhibition.
Architect Tetsuo Kondo has teamed up with German climate engineering firm Transsolar to fill a closed space inside the Corderie with clouds. Clouds, after all, are part of our architecture: they frame outdoor space and filter natural light.
Visitors can experience the cloud from below, within, and above as they climb up 4.3 meter high helical ramp erected in the center of the room. The cloud is based on the physical phenomenon of saturated air, condensation droplets floating in the space and condensation seeds. The atmospheres above and below the cloud have different qualities of light, temperature, and humidity, separating the spaces by a filter effect. The cloud can be touched, and it can be felt as different microclimatic conditions coincide.
The cloud is created through climate engineering. Three layers of air are pumped into the room: cool dry air at the bottom that keeps the cloud floating, hot humid air in the middle to fashion a dense fog and hot dry air at the top.
More information in this short interview of founder of Transsolar Matthias Schuler and silent Tetsuo Kondo by Hans Ulrich Obrist:
And here's a video of the cloud experience with comments from Matthias Schuler in german:
See also Diller and Scofidio's Blur Building for the 2002 Swiss Expo.
The Venice Architecture Biennale continues until 21 November, 2010.
Last year, the UK government announced their plan to build new nuclear power stations in 11 locations in England and Wales in order to meet their CO2 emission targets. Nuclear offers a clean, near limitless energy solution that could allow the UK to meet its emission targets without having to moderate consumer's access to energy. The broad public however is everything but prepared to accept the move. Over the past few years, science have failed to assuage the public's unscientifically-based fears and sometimes irrational concerns over nuclear energy.
With his speculative proposal Nuclear is good. What will it take to convince you?, Oliver Goodhall is trying to shape convincing arguments in favour of nuclear energy. The project is in no way propaganda, it's more about opening up a debate about nuclear energy and energy policy in general. The video below gives a clear overview of Oliver Goodhall's project:
One of the outcome of Goodhall's research was walking and talking tour to the site of a potential power station in Bradwell-on-sea, in Essex, England. He enrolled nuclear engineers, environmentalists and designers to have a nuclear-theme picnic with plenty of mushrooms and toxic-looking icecream but more importantly, to exchange views about nuclear energy in a way that would not have been possible had the encounter taken place in an office meeting room.
Among some of Oliver's proposals is a protective barrage cloud hovering over the power station to respond to fears of a disaster incident that would release radiation into the atmosphere; benefits to citizens for accepting to take responsibility of their individual nuclear waste; a special emergency team always on call to intervene in case of a problem at the power station, etc.
What if we ask for protective barrage balloons, establish concrete emergency services and resign ourselves to the perceived 'hazards'? What if we embrace pet polar bears and pineapple ice cream along with other benefits that nuclear energy could bring? And what if not; are we prepared for blackouts instead?
My research was based on UK policy, partly because of the immediacy of some of decisions that need to be taken (the Department of Energy and Climate Change was running consultation on the new nuclear power stations at the same time as the beginnings of my project too) and partly because of the re-emergence of nuclear energy as a potential energy source after a long time out in the cold.
My favourite examples of other strategies employed by other countries came from France. This probably stems from France being highly invested in nuclear energy, and it gets over 75% of its electricity this way. A couple of these examples formed the basis for some of my proposals - although I extrapolated them to a farther fetched conclusion.
One was the reporting of the Chernobyl accident in the French press whereby a supposed meteorological anticyclone effect prevented the radioactive cloud from settling, which was discredited more recently. If that story allayed fears about a nuclear accident in France for all that time, then could it be a solution to generate an artificial anticyclone to protect UK inhabitants from this perceived hazard?
The other example I enjoyed was about the channel tunnel. In order to meet CO2 emission reduction targets Eurostar switched is electricity supply from 50% UK 50% France to 100% France. As nuclear energy produces a tiny fraction of the CO2 emissions of the coal and gas-fired power the UK relies on, this slight of hand allowed them to easily meet their target. What if you scaled this up as a policy solution applied to parts of the UK?
I thought these were both fascinating examples, although not necessarily for entirely honorable reasons.
A part of your project involved a guided tour of the site of a potential new nuclear power station in Bradwell-on-sea, Essex. Do you know if the inhabitants of the area have a say in the installation of the power station? Did you go around Bradwell-on-sea to ask how people felt about the proposal?
Locally, they are consulted as part of the planning of the Government's proposed power stations and the local people I spoke to (although not many) were positive about Bradwell producing electricity again. It is a big industry, offering jobs and employment and local prosperity - before the current power station was decommissioned it provided a socio-economic stimulus to this part of Essex.
Interestingly, there were quite a few anti-windfarm stickers in the village protesting the nearby off-shore wind farm. So it's not that people are undiscerning about their energy supply choices.
What were the reactions to your project outside of the design sphere? Did you get feedback, invitations, critiques and comments from members of the governments or from scientists?
My proposals came from 9 months of research and investigation, and were heavily influenced by conversations I had with professionals from the fields of ethics, political science, materials chemistry and the Government's Department of Energy and Climate Change. Reactions were varied, but these other professional fields are engaging with the topics I was interested in; affecting policy choices and contributing to decision-making.
I think in terms of design, a common question tends to be 'what did you design?'. I say I designed an argument. Engaging with large-scale policy topics requires negotiating complex issues, getting to grips with them, and finding ways to engage the public in a meaningful debate. I'm keen to take a similar approach to other topics, such as rising sea levels, GM or land use futures (there was an interesting government report issued earlier this year on this).
The practice I established, We Made That, has just been offered an opportunity to take forward a project on energy supply vs. demand - so I think that the approach has a broader value.
I'm a bit puzzled by your idea of a cloud hovering around station. i guess i'm not comfortable with the association between cloud and nuclear. Can you explain me what it would be made of and how it would work?
This was loosely based on the example of the Windscale fire incident; escape of radioactive particles through the containment being breached. Reactors now have containment and passive safety controls. But these are shrouded within a generic shed-type building - the cloud was about us considering a more conspicuous and obvious safety infrastructure. What would it take to convince you that this safety infrastructure was sufficient?
The conversations that stemmed from this proposal were very interesting - especially with the nuclear engineers - about the 'public understanding of' reactor safety, and what measures might be most expedient to convince an unsure public. Some of this debate can be seen in the documentary film of the guided tour.
You mentioned that science didn't quite manage to convince about the benefits of adopting nuclear energy and that a reason for that was that science had to face argument that are "irrational or unscientifically founded". Can you tell us more about these arguments and why they are unscientifically founded?
Nuclear energy has been around for 60 years in the UK, but now we are at a point of dilemma; looming climate change alters our perspective on energy production. If the scientific arguments put forward are falling on deaf ears then how else can you go about convincing naysayers that difficult choices need to be made? On the guided tour there were both pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear participants - and the argument between them typically came back to;
"It's very very unlikely, imperceptibly unlikely, that something could get out of all that containment"... "But is that meant to comfort people?"
This reinforces that a shift in tactics or approach might be necessary - although not an admission that science might be very comfortable with.
You will present your work at the sustain 2010 exhibition. Are you going to present the project in the exact same way you did at the Summer show? Or has the content of your project or the way you communicate it changed over the past few weeks/months?
I'll actually be showing the project differently. I imagine it will remain fairly provocative in terms of sustainability, nuclear tends to be a divisive topic, but the implications of our energy choices still need to be addressed. Setting these energy choices against climate change leads to difficult questions.
I personally consider nuclear to be necessary as part of an eco-pragmatic energy agenda. My approach to the project considered nuclear the 'what if', but there's also a 'what if not?' choice available to us - but maybe this is less palatable than the nuclear option. As you might be able to tell, I question whether it is genuinely 'sustainable' to continue making more 'sustainable products' - and I would rather address the fundamentals at the root of our energy choices.
Ehécatl Cabrera Franco is an architect, he's also the founder of the collective of the digital media and urban activism group MANGUM and an independent researcher of various urban phenomena. Whether he is busy doing graphic/architectural/industrial design, developing interventions in public space, organizing happenings or shooting videos, Cabrera is interested in making fissures into architecture. The hackarchitect believes that since architecture isn't able to answer the many issues that a city has to face nowadays, we should raise and 'make the city ourselves'.
In 2007, Carbera created MANGUM, an independent agency of digital media and urban activism. While MANGUM pays homage to MAGNUM it also differentiates himself radically from the photographic cooperative by encouraging a more bottom-up approach in which the very people who were so far only the subject of photos must now be recognized as critical actors.
MANGUM questions traditional models of cultural management, its objective is to generate answers to existing but inadequate institutions. MANGUM doesn't just portray the "otherness", it interacts with it.
MANGUM seeks to build an urban culture characterized by action and critique, to find opportunities in underused or intermediary spaces, to inhabit public space. The members of MANGUM believe that interacting with the city is an important form of daily communication that shouldn't be left in the sole hands of artists, activists and architects. They believe that a city is produced day by day through critical encounters, relationships, actions and events.
One of MANGUM's projects is PÁPALO PAL TACO, a series of workshops about urban gardening that aim to disseminate alternative forms of participation, diversify the use of space and create environmental awareness among participants. Some of the activities were especially designed for children such as a workshop about 'vegetal activism', eco-cine, etc.
MANGUM built the miniLAB, a mobile station built with cheap materials that travels through the streets of Santa Ursula Coapa (in the area of Coyoacan, DF, Mexico) to promote the activities of PÁPALO PAL TACO and explain passersby that instead of just buying fruits and vegetables, they can also cultivate them and while doing so contribute to the construction of a more participative public space.
Tomo had invited Raúl Cárdenas to close our last day at Postopolis. Cárdenas is the founder of Torolab, a collective workshop/laboratory for territorial research and contextual studies, based in Tijuana. The artist was in Mexico city to present his ongoing project Instituto de la Basura (The Institute of Waste.)
The city of Mexico produces 12.500 tons of waste every day, only 12% of it is recycled. Raúl is proposing to set up a platform that would encourage a dialogue and exchange of ideas between citizens and experts on the issue of waste.
Called Instituto de la Basura (The Institute of Waste), the proposal is part of a wider project called Residual. Artistic Interventions in the City. Residual addresses the problem of garbage from different points of view and aims to raise awareness among residents about the shared responsibility associated with its generation and management. The projects attempt to interact with the local community, and are developed in collaboration with a multidisciplinary group of university experts.
The themes, questions and problems explored by Instituto de la Basura are restricted to the context of Mexico city. Waste is an international issue, the pollution generated by an inadequate handling of waste knows no boundaries. Therefore, Torolab suggests to create the Embassy of Waste. The Embassy is the traveling branch of the Institute, it would move from location to location, adapt its approach to local contexts and reflect on themes closely related to the issue of waste (which should not necessarily be regarded trash.)
Both the Institute and the nomadic Embassy actively attempt to develop an international and interdisciplinary network of experts who would share their knowledge and look for -technical, legal, urban, social, environmental, or economic- solutions to problems related to consumption, and to the generation and management of waste.
The Museo del Estanquillo is currently lending its terrace to the project. There, the Instituto de la Basura has not only started to archive the information provided by specialists, it is also organizing and recording talks, interviews and working sessions around the issue of waste.
The furniture that the Instituto is using for its office in the museum is made mostly of wooden crates used to pack and transport art works, tetrapacks and other recycled materials.
You can visit the Instituto de la Basura until September 5, 2010 at the museum. After that, the institute will move to San Francisco, California to follow the discussion in a different context.
No matter how often i go to The Museum of Photography in Antwerp, i never seem to find any fault with their exhibitions. American Documents is no exception. While writing a report about it this afternoon, i realized that one of the body of works i discovered at FoMu deserved its own post.
In American Power, Mitch Epstein explores and questions the 'power' that lays at the core of the United States. 'Power' in this case stands for both strength and energy. Over the course of 5 years he traveled through 25 states to photograph nuclear reactors, oil refineries, mines, rigs, abandoned gas pumps, wind parks, pipelines as well as their environs.
The project started in 2003 when a magazine commissioned Epstein to photograph a town called Cheshire, Ohio, where American Electric Power Company owns one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the country. In a bid to ward off lawsuits caused by environmental issues with the plant's emissions, the company decided to buy out all of the residents.
Fascinated by interconnections between energy production, the community living there and consuming that same energy, between industrial corporatism and environmental issues, the photographer decided to broaden his research and investigate how the transformation of the American landscape reflects social order.
As he moved from site to site, Epstein quickly attracted the attention of Homeland Security agents. As he explained in an interview with BOMB magazine: Soon, though, I was facing harassment from local and federal law enforcement agents whenever I went to shoot in the vicinity of a corporate energy production site, despite being on public property. This got me pretty angry. I was suddenly subjected to national paranoia, not just reading about it in liberal magazines. Cops or the FBI threw me out of town and inspected my pictures. Their actions were illegal under the Constitution as I knew it, before the Patriot Act. The fury I felt about losing my freedom as an artist fueled a desire to keep working and get the better of the system; it made me want to make pictures that would express the tension and fear I felt contending with that system. So, yes, the project began about energy, but quickly became about power in all its dimensions--not only voltage power, but governmental and corporate power.
The project is documented in the book American Power (available on Amazon UK and USA) but Epstein didn't want to turn his back on the issue right after the publication. Along with his wife editor Susan Bell, he has since been working on a public art project which turns some of his pictures into billboards and transportation posters in order to raise passersby's awareness on environmental issues. The accompanying website, which reproduces many of his magnificent and bleak photos but also details the environmental facts behind them, invites people to join the discussion about energy production and consumption.
In the mountain of ludicrously overdue posts that prevent me from getting the sleep of the righteous is a report on the first chapter of Herbologies/Foraging Networks which took place at the Kiasma museum during Pixelache Helsinki in March.
Told you that was so long and cold ago...
Herbologies/Foraging Networks is a series of workshops, seminars and expeditions that explores the connection between traditional knowledge of herbs, edible and medicinal plants and media networked culture. The result of the Helsinki chapter of H/FN was a wonderful and eye-opening fusion of hydroponic technologies, vodka-making workshop, fermentation sermon, DNA isolation experiments and lectures on herbs and berries.
The conference was particularly good. We snacked on apples that had been foraged during a Dumpster diving trip through the bins of Helsinki and heard about topics as different as biopiracy, urban beekeeping, and the best plants to eat when you suffer from poor circulation.
Here's a few highlights from the two days i spent in the company of the Herbologies/Foraging Networks crowd:
The participants that completely blew me away were the members of KULTIVATOR, an experimental cooperation of organic farming and visual art practice located in the village Dyestad, on the island Öland, Sweden. Founded in 2005 by 3 artists and 2 farmers, Kultivator is a platform for art and agriculture that involves an organic farm with cows, sheep, vegetables, forestry but also residences for foreign artists, exhibitions and screenings on site on Öland or internationally.
Over its 5 years of existence, Kultivator has been harvesting potatoes and milking cows but they have also been busy installing rapeseed oil press in art foundations, building a chicken house with students, inviting foreign artists to leave their mark on the landscape of Dyestad, wondering how the open source philosophy can be applied to farming, producing a Glocal guide for an old walking trail from Dyestad to a nearby ancient ceremonial ruin and organizing a dinner with ruminants.
Publik.dk has a great interview with KULTIVATOR.
Another high point of the seminar was Christina Stadlbauer's presentation of her experiences in beekeeping on urban rooftops. She installed 3 honey bee hives in Brussels, one of them at NADINE, another at OKNO and the last one on a private rooftop. She observes the hives, how their weight fluctuate over time, how well they can cope in urban environment, etc. The bees' behaviour and the honey they produce act as monitors of natural processes in the city.
Within half an hour of being relocated on the Brussels rooftops (with the authorization of the neighbours), Christina's bees had understood where they were and set out to find food over the city (they can fly up to 3 km to find flowers.) The flora of a city is much more diverse than one would expect. In cities, bees can feast on wild flowers growing in abandoned parking lots, tulips in backyard gardens, tomatoes cultivated on small balconies, etc. Besides, there might be a lot of pollution in cities but there's also less pesticides on the flowers. The honey that city bees produce has therefore a totally different flavour. In city, there's also less competition for food and the good season lasts longer as it's warmer there than in the countryside. The successful Ginza Honey Bee Project, which has hundreds of thousands of Western and Japanese honeybees living on the roof of a 11-story building in downtown Tokyo, demonstrates that bees can thrive in urban settings.
Unfortunately, many of Christina's bees didn't wake up from Brussels' Winter.
Next, Andrew Gryf Paterson gave a fascinating presentation of foraging culture. Among the projects he mentioned, was Kayle Brandon and Heath Bunting's The Keepers. Since 2005, they've been mapping edible plants that can be found in public places in Bristol. Each plant is assigned a Keeper whose mission is to learn by heart the locations, uses, histories and biology of the plant, committing to share their knowledge when requested.
Keeping and sharing the knowledge about food that can be foraged is important.
That evening, Adam Zaretsky gave a popular and lively workshop on how to extract DNA using everyday households. I'm not going to blog about it since i've covered a couple of Adam's workshops in the past. What i can say, however, is that each time i meet Adam he does something totally unexpected, not to say utterly bizarre. This time he found horse poo on the street of Helsinki, brought it to the workshop and added it to the ingredients he mixed to obtain the juice we extracted DNA from.
The morning after, we met at Kiasma again, this time to harvest some plants that had grown on the Windowfarms installed in February in the museum. Right after that, we moved to the botanical garden for a series of workshops.
The vodka tincture-making workshop was inspired by one of SERDE's research about the instruments people have at home to brew their own vodka. Although it is illegal in Latvia*, moonshining is still alive and part of the intangible cultural heritage of the country. The alcohol produced by homebrewing can be turned into curative herb tinctures that are later used for internal use and external application. Ironically, SERDE organized workshops on Moonshining in Latvia with the blessing of local authorities and even won a State award for their contribution in 'innovation in tradition.'
Turns out that making your own alcohol is much easier than i expected. You just need simple kitchen tools, fermented apples or fermented jam and bread.
The second half of the programme took place a few weeks ago in the Kurzeme region, Latvia. I'm so sorry i had to miss it. Kultivator wrote a small report and there's some more information on Herbologies/Foraging Networks facebook page.
* Andrew Gryf Paterson just informed me that 'Since april this year, Latvian government have apparently changed the law so that farmers (who have surplus produce such as apples) are legally allowed to make homemade alcohol (i guess for small to medium -scale sales and use).'
Gilberto Esparza first appeared in the radar of bloggers a couple of years ago when he started colonizing Mexico City with Urban Parasites. Made of recycled consumer goods, the small robotic creatures explore the urban space in search of any source of energy they can feed on. Under its quirky, amusing side, the project also had the objective of providing a basis for a critical exploration of the role that technology plays in cities.
Gilberto Esparza is currently showing one of his latest projects, Nomadic Plants, at Laboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre in Gijón. Just like Urban Parasites, this new work is part of a series of experiments that aim to stimulate a critical discussion about the ambiguous forces wielded by technology.
Vegetation and microorganisms live in symbiosis inside the body of the Nomadic Plants robot. Whenever its bacteria require nourishment, the self-sufficient robot will move towards a contaminated river and 'drink' water from it. Through a process of microbial fuel cell, the elements contained in the water are decomposed and turned into energy that can feed the brain circuits of the robot. The surplus is then used to create life, enabling plants to complete their own life cycle. As Gilberto wrote in our email conversation, "The nomadic plant is a portray of our own species. It also deals with the alienated transformation of this new hybrid species that fights for its survival in a deteriorated environment."
I'll quote the artist again, this time from a text included in the press material for the exhibition:
The fact that a new species, the by-product of those alienating processes, appears -merely by coexisting- in those areas of ecological disaster represents a manifestation pointing to the serious social and environmental impacts on communities that once depended on rivers, now the source of their ailments. At this point, it is important to highlight the ambiguous potential of the transforming power of the human species, due to its ability to destroy but also to restore. For that reason, what is required is a new way of thinking, which would position us as antibodies on the planet, and a proper understanding of the importance of living in symbiosis with our planet and with all species.
Extracts from our online conversation:
When i first read about Plantas Nomadas, i immediately thought about Archigram's Walking City because of the nomadic and self-sufficient qualities of Plantas Nomadas. But what was your actual inspiration? Sci-fi novels and movies? Ongoing research in laboratories exploring the possibilities of microbial fuel cells in robotics?
I have been researching and building autonomous robots that can survive in urban space, stealing the energy that the city itself generates. Later on, i found online some publications about research projects using microbial fuel cell. I was immediately inspired to develop a project that would engage with the issue of pollution in rivers. I visited El Salto Jalísco, a community very affected by this problem. I was therefore interested in making it the location of the intervention.
Can you tell us which kind of plants and micro-organisms cohabit inside the body of your machine?
The microorganisms that live inside the robots are identical to the ones you can find in the river. I prefer to use the plants that used to be native to the river before it became so polluted.
How has the public reacted to your work so far? Both in Mexico and in Spain?
People liked it a lot because the project opens many doors on issues such as our relationship with nature, the thin line that separates the inert and the living and also the directions taken by scientific research which, very often, respond to the interests of the current economic system.
The installation at Laboral features the robot but also a video of the process of its creation, a documentary showing the robot in action in the river Santiago, El Salto, Jalisco (Mexico), a series of photos taken by the artist and computers showing the project's webpage.
Plantas Nomadas is on view at Laboral, Gijón (Spain) until June, 7, 2010.