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At Venice Architecture Biennale, U.S. pavilion tackles borders and citizenship

With no mention of the T word

At left: Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line), by Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez with Shani Crowe at the 2018 U.S. Pavilion.
All photos © Tom Harris, courtesy of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago

At the press preview for this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, the opening of the U.S. pavilion’s “Dimensions of Citizenship” exhibition felt like an exercise in restraint and diplomacy.

With the exhibition largely funded by the U.S. State Department, and the opening attended by a visiting representative, the commissioners from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago—and the exhibition’s four co-curators—discussed a “need for an urgent conversation about what it means to be a citizen.” There was no direct mention of the current U.S. presidential administration.

Visiting the pavilion later that day, I realized that far from shying away from the topic the curatorial team had in fact pulled off a masterstroke. By looking at the idea of citizenship across seven different scales, from the body to the cosmos—or the personal, via the regional and national, to the global or universal—and exploring it in all its possible permutations, they had elevated the discourse on citizenship to notions of belonging, immigration, sovereignty, and ecology.

And, above all, they created an exhibition that encompassed a level of nuance that not only greatly surpasses the rhetoric of the “presidential tweets” mentioned in the exhibition’s introductory panel, but made them almost irrelevant.

“On the one hand, this topic emerged from a certain emergency: our sense of being in a really troubling climate,” explains Ann Lui, one of four curators for the pavilion, adding that the proposal was put together between the last U.S, election and inauguration.

“But, on [the other hand], the exhibition does something important by situating these questions on a larger time frame. A single tweet about migrants or people that are considered ‘other’ feels like a violent punch to the gut, but these are issues that we have been discussing for millennia and that we need to continue working on going into the future.”

A detail of “Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line)” by Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez in collaboration with Shani Crowe.
Tom Harris

The stage was set by “Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line),” a circular installation in a corner of the pavilion’s courtyard, by Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez in collaboration with Shani Crowe. Visitors were able to climb into and stand in the installation, surrounding themselves in a protective veil of black rope-like braids.

This space of withdrawal referenced the way, throughout history, black women—like Harriet Jacobs who hid for seven long years in her master’s garret to save her daughter’s life—have had to modify their physical behaviour and navigate social and spatial landscapes of exclusion in order to move forward in society.

The hugely tactile and inviting piece leans on a corner of the building on a rail that projects skywards symbolizing the underground railroad, or system of safe houses,that helped bring the enslaved to freedom.

By partially occupying, and concealing, the neo-Jeffersonian pavilion’s facade and forecourt, “Thrival Geographies” was a powerful statement of intent—and a metaphorical gesture toward a different future. “It points to the fact that there should be a pivot from just surviving to actually thriving,” said Lui.

“Stone Stories” by Studio Gang.
Tom Harris

Inside, this exploration of potential futures continued with a recreated segment of the Memphis, Tennessee, riverside landing, presented by Chicago-based Studio Gang (which is currently working on reconnecting the Mississippi Riverfront to the city). The installation featured real stones from the landing—currently held in storage—as well as zoomed-in cross-sections of the stones on the wall, designed to accentuate the diversity of stone types that exist in the landing, and in turn reflect the diversity of stories of the people who have walked and stood on it.

Filmed interviews with local activists, policymakers, and residents are part of an attempt by Studio Gang to understand what this fraught space in Memphis, that was both central to its economy and the slave trade, should become in the future.

Next door, landscape architecture firm (and 2017 Curbed Groundbreaker) SCAPE took us one scale further with an installation called “Ecological Citizens” that looked at the Venetian lagoon as a universal case study for tidal regions under immense ecological threat. For their installation, SCAPE filled the elegant surrounds of the pavilion with low-tech materials used to combat erosion, like bundles of willow branches (collected and used by local fishermen), coir logs, and concrete blocks.

Another installation poked holes in the utopian idea that Earth is a blue planet without borders where we are all equal citizens, using photos taken by the Suomi National Polar Satellite. The poignant, absorbing photos contrasted densely inhabited, low-wealth urban areas with sparsely inhabited, wealthy ones, using differences in urban electrification to underscore inequality across borders. Images that showed the transition from lights-on to the dramatic total blackout in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria last September brought home the fallacy of the global village.

“MEXUS: A Geography of Interdependence” by Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman at the 2018 U.S. Pavilion.
Tom Harris
The Transit Screening Lounge at the U.S Pavilion 2018.
Tom Harris

A personal highlight was the “Nation” scale exhibit, which featured work by research-based architectural and political practice Estudio Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman. The pair used a series of topographical maps, drawings, and documents to emphasise the artificiality of the Mexico-U.S. border—or “Mexus,” as they call it—a construct that disregards the watersheds, indigenous lands, and migratory and socio-economic flows that cannot be stopped or erased by a physical wall, but that can be significantly disrupted and damaged.

As Cruz says: “While the wall has been sold to the American public as an artifact of security, ultimately it can be proven to be an artifact of insecurity.” The wall is really “a self-inflicted wound” he adds, and has an impact on U.S. environmental resources as well. The wall constructed between San Diego and Tijuana, for example, has greatly accelerated the flow of waste and sediment from the informal settlement on the Mexico side into the estuary, according to the curators.

What Forman and Cruz propose in practice, and are working on with the mayors of San Diego and Tijuana, is an alternative transborder commons, based on shared environmental assets and cooperative opportunities.

“We present this as a binational asset, [and] an environmental system that should be cared for by the two communities,” says Cruz. By elevating what people share, instead of what divides them, “citizenship can become less something you carry in a document and more a way of understanding how a region is organized and thinking about shared interests and shared aspirations,” says Forman.

In Plain Sight by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Laura Kurgan, Robert Gerard Pietrusko with Columbia Center for Spatial Research at the 2018 U.S. Pavilion.
Tom Harris

“Dimensions of Citizenship” is a dense and comprehensive show; it is not about instant gratification or sheer sensorial delight (the “Thrival Geographies” piece is a notable exception, and works on many levels), but rather an accruing sense of greater knowledge—and even wisdom.

If you spend some time in the exhibition, reading and delving into the topics, it begins to feel like it is precisely what has been missing from discussions around the issue of citizenship and nationhood both in the U.S. and abroad. Here is a much-needed moment of reflection that acknowledges the complexity, the hurt, and the inequalities of the reality of citizenship for many people, but that also zooms out to make these human stories part of a larger narrative of interconnectedness, one where the animal kingdom, environmental systems, and digital networks are all part of the picture.

In an era of climate change and instability, where working together and forming allegiances that go beyond artificial border lines and nation states will become ever more necessary, the U.S. Pavilion is a profound, urgent entreaty—and a faint but persistent signal of hope.