Venice Biennale Curator Series: Baltics

by | 17. May 2016

Article | Interview | Venice Biennale
0. The Baltic Pavilion Logo.jpg

The Baltic Pavilion logo

The Baltic Pavilion will represent Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia 2016 with a project that won three separate national competitions with the proposal to represent three states in one joint exhibition.

The team is made up of nine architects representing the three countries who are seeking to unravel the conventions and instruments operated by a wide range of spatial practices, industries, and infrastructures that are actively transforming the built space of the three Baltic States and wider region.

Dagnija Smilga, one of the curators from Latvia, recently spoke with arcspace editor-in-chief, Robert Martin, to discuss the their exhibition and how it will address a broader context than the national pavilions are traditionally able to.

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The Baltic Pavilion curators. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Robert Martin: Hi Dagnija, thank you for giving up your time to come and talk with arcspace today. This is the first time that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will be represented at the architecture biennale as a single pavilion under the title The Baltic Pavilion – How did the idea for this regional pavilion come about?

Dagnija Smilga: It’s been an interesting development because the idea for the regional pavilion really began as a non-governmental initiative of nine curators from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It is a self-initiated project rather than an official action by the Culture Ministries who usually commission the national pavilions.

Two years ago, during the opening of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, the architecture collective, Åyr, set up an unofficial pavilion in an AIRBNB rented apartment. During the preview days, friends and colleagues from the Baltics, were sitting next to the Canal Grande, drinking wine and discussing how Åyr were able to do so much with so little – generate a buzz on a conceptually strong exhibition even if it was open just for few days. It was a very successful example of experimenting with the format of an exhibition – communicating a rather global idea of “home” outside of the framework of the national representations.

At that time we also discussed the increasingly tense geopolitical situation. While witnessing the increasing focus in the global forces on politics, borders, sovereignty we as architects felt an urge to strengthen the discussion of the real built environment and all the different practices dealing with it. We knew we would have to do something strong and visible that addressed a broader context that the national pavilions were struggling with – a project inverting the logic of national representations and highlight the opportunities arriving from collaboration.

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Laugas Purvs. Photo: David Grandorge

RM: How were you able to convince the three separate countries to let you present this way?

DS: Later in the summer of 2014 we published a kind of a manifesto in a Latvian architecture online platform to see what the general reaction would be towards a joint Baltic pavilion. Most of the comments seemed to say it was a nice idea but would never work due to the lack of collaboration between the three countries. Ministries were asked to comment this idea but soon after we understood that the official process of the cross-border thought exchange and collaboration would take a few years just to start. Instead of waiting for institutional and diplomatic processes to happen we agreed on starting the project ourselves.

The selection process for the pavilion curators in Latvia and Estonia is done through an open competition around 9 – 12 months before the opening. We were lucky though because this will be the first time that Lithuania is represented at the Architecture Biennale so the Lithuanian Culture Ministry announced the open competition 1,5 year in advance to allow adequate time for research and preparation. It was very exciting when we won the commission for the Lithuanian Pavilion with our concept of a regional construct rather than separate nation states and it gave us another half a year to prepare for the Latvian and Estonian submissions. When we won the last competition in Estonia suddenly the whole thing raced up and became very robust as it had to deal with all the three country political entities. A kind of a cultural diplomacy starts to play an important role.

The project was intended to be realized even if we wouldn’t win any of the national competitions. The conceptual framework would stay, but I guess it would just be a question of support and stability during the project. Since the beginning we wanted it to become a research based project where process and content plays the main role.

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Cartogenesis – Infrastructure Colonization of the Baltic Sea Image: Muriz Djurdjevic and Thomas Paturet

RM: How do you see the Baltics? As individual countries or more of a region?

DS: This is exactly what we are exploring. Perhaps the phenomena of the shifting definition of Baltic countries is a double fold – from outside it is clearly addressed as one region while from the inside it is often understood as three separate searches for identity. Thus, the project is an attempt to link the contrasting concepts.

I have met people that have said they’re interested in the region because there is this mystical notion and the feeling of unknown behind the Baltic Sea, but rarely people know more. One cannot perceive the unifying concept of the Baltics. There is a very clear sense of place and different cultures; however, there are common issues, besides geography and history, where Baltics can be seen as region first.

RM: So it’s national identity vs world consensus?

DS: I would not say versus – they coexist. It’s looking at both and then repositioning ourselves. Are we really completely separate? Or does it make sense that on some fronts we share the ideas and even operate commonly? The reason why we’re looking at these three countries is because Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania presently, as well as, historically share common processes of the political, economic, cultural and infrastructural transformations – from the central planning of the Soviet Union to the current governmentality of the EU. It might be more productive to share the knowledge, ideas and solutions.

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VKG Kohte Jarva Kohtla – Jarve “Black Mountain” Photo: David Grandorge

RM: The Baltic Pavilion is being curated by nine individuals from three different countries. How does the working relationship between you work? Is there a hierarchy within the team?

DS: Well it’s really fun and at the same time a tough experience because we are always trying to maintain a non-hierarchical structure. We had to construct the project robustly enough to accommodate the ideas of nine curators and operate like a kind of an agency.

I could call ourselves a small ministry in itself with different committees and expertise and I strongly believe the quality of the project is only possible due to the different mind-sets we all are having. We are able to generate a complex multi-layered interest of the Baltic region with sometimes very clear and precise attitudes and opinions and other times playful utopian visions. The diversity is very productive in this case.

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Decommissioned Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant Unit 1 Reactor Photo: David Grandorge

RM: As an ongoing question within the Arcspace Biennale Series, I’ve been asking curators how they think their pavilion exhibition fits in with the overall theme of the biennale, Reporting from the Front. What do you see is the front in the Baltic States?

DS: I like the question of searching for the front in the Baltics. In the Baltics, we are operating on a ground where in a period of the last 25 years the geographical and political decisions has changed the built environment quite dramatically. The previous centrally planned Soviet space is facing now the influences of a neoliberal power operated by three nation states as part of the European project and NATO.

In order to understand the spatial scripts of the Baltics we have a dimension of time in our project. It aims to research history, nowness and futurity. This is reflected in two questions we constantly pose to both ourselves and all the involved authors.

Firstly, what is possible? Meaning a factual analysis and research of the infrastructures, industries and processes that form the built space in a time period of at least last 100 years.

Secondly, what is possible to imagine? In a form of theoretical and speculative responses towards our built futures. So far in the Baltic region we have been skillful of completing the tasks to become integrated in the European Union project. However, the main question remains – what kind of future and society do we want in Baltics? I think there needs to be a vision, an operative image.

We aim to understand conditions that could initiate projects in order to make the region prosperous therefore we need to encourage a much broader range of spatial practices to take part, not only architecture.

On a side note, after seeing the 14th Architecture Biennale, Fundamentals, by Rem Koolhaas, I had the feeling that the next Biennale would be about specific issues of vernacular. Everyone was questioning what could follow such an extensive exhibition but I was quite sure that that it was going to be on something local. In some ways, choosing Aravena as a curator fits with this progression.

RM: It also seems like Aravena’s selection has been a reaction to Fundamentals. Koolhaas’ approach was very architectural in the way he traced the evolution of architectural elements such as the door and window – it was almost museum like. Aravena’s brief seems to question more what architecture does and how it responds to all the conditions going on around it.

DS: Koolhaas was able to take a building, tear it apart and look at each specific element. In contrast, what we’re interested are the relationships, rules and accidents that create the built environment. And here the infrastructure in a broader sense plays a crucial role.

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Future track of Rail Baltic, Riga Photo: David Grandorge

RM: Within the Baltic Pavilion text, you state that there are many transformative efforts that are going to unlock the region. Can you outline an example of these transformative efforts?

DS: The first and maybe the most easy to portray is the Rail Baltica – pan Baltic train line project that will connect Berlin with Helsinki through the Baltic States. This is one of the priority infrastructure projects for the EU, but the importance of it might stretch much further than just passenger connections between the capitals. Positioning the Arctics on the map of Rail Baltica is a move that allows us to discuss this project more significantly as a cargo route for resource flows in both North and South directions. Therefore, opening discussion on much more significant issues of regional change.

Another topic of interest is the Baltic Sea as it faces increasing growth in terms of urbanization and environmental pressures. We are facing the Baltic Sea as a territory, large landscape overlapped with the flows, conflicts and relations such as maritime traffic, shipping incidents, oil spills, agriculture, and forestry pollution. It is not a coincidence that lately the spatial planning of the sea territories has become an important part of national planning departments. This process in a form of a cross-border collaboration still facing challenges of managing this collective resource as the sea territories are even more difficult to plan with national borders. For me this is ironic to plan the sea in this way because the water is so fluid – it doesn’t make sense to look at it in terms of national borders.

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Palasport Arsenale, Giobatta Gianquinto – Bing Maps, 2015

RM: This is sounds like a really ambitious project. How are you going to exhibit all this work? None of the Baltic countries have a permanent exhibition space.

DS: We will be exhibiting in Palasport Arsenale, Giobatta Gianquinto, which is a brutalist architecture sports hall located next to the main Arsenale exhibition grounds. It’s a huge concrete  structure planted into the fine urban grain of Venice. It belongs to the Venice community and is an actively functioning sports hall. It was important for us to have a public building, a kind of a public forum to exhibit. The exhibition will interact with the building and local community as during a period in June a girl’s gymnastics competition will be held in the hall. At the end of the summer the sports hall will resume its normal function for sports activities. At this time the exhibition will turn into a travelling exhibition and inhabit another smaller space of Palasport and after the closing of Biennale in November it will travel to the Baltics. It is really great that the show will transform and turn into a new format throughout the Biennale.

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Lasnamae, Tallinn 2016. Photo: David Grandorge

RM: As a final question I’d just like to ask what ambition you have for what you want visitors to take away after they visit the Baltic Pavilion?

DS: To be honest, I’m most interested in what the visitors from the Baltics will take away from it. I want the architecture students and professionals from the Baltics to come and see that the discipline of architecture can be broadened beyond traditional methods. In our exhibition, we are including all the other spatial disciplines that are part of shaping the big space and the territorial landscapes. We’re showing the tools of these other disciplines that aren’t usually incorporated into architectural design methods. During the development of this project I’ve been exposed to new materials and I’m starting to think of how I could incorporate them into my own practice. I have a feeling that what is being produced right now in the Baltic region as contemporary architecture is lacking a level of criticality. I hope that the different approaches that we’re exhibiting in Venice can inspire new ways of producing architecture.

RM: Thanks Dagnija for giving up your time to talk to arcspace today.