Sometimes the ending is the beginning. Curation, as with criticism, hinges between the labor of production and turning that work to face the public. As such, the opening of an exhibition represents an end point for the curatorial team and the start of an audience’s engagement with the ideas, materials, and experiences on view. Which is why, when reflecting on representation and a broad interpretation of the term to convey both the mechanical processes of display and the making seen and heard the bodies and voices structurally left out of the discourse, it makes sense to begin at the inauguration of the U.S. Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.
Who belongs and how to visualize inclusion and exclusion is at the crux of Dimensions of Citizenship, the theme of U.S. Pavilion curated by Niall Atkinson, Ann Lui, and myself, with associate curator Iker Gil. We invited the interdisciplinary arts collective Postcommodity to stage the ceremonial performance entitled We Lost Half the Forest and the Rest Will Burn This Summer to mark the opening of the pavilion. Dressed in Southwest regalia, artist Raven Chacon manned a mixing board and mic, flanked by proxies for absent members Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist. The piece was loud and powerful. Experimental music conveyed the violence of colonization wrought on indigenous landscapes and communities.
As curators, our intent was at the very least, to ensure the representation of first peoples and acknowledge that any claim to the rights of United States citizenship comes with profound loss to those who once freely occupied the land. What we didn’t foresee was how performance destabilizes architecture’s reliance on institutionalized power structures. The piece was staged in the courtyard of the Monticello-like pavilion with the columns of the portico as backdrop. It is the kind of architecture that is ubiquitous among civic buildings across the nation, but also a form that comes with a dark history of enslavement and alienation. So although the pediment boasted the words “Stati Uniti D’America”, We Lost Half the Forestunderscored just how tenuous that unity is in our current political moment.
Perhaps because architecture is primarily a visual discipline, noise makes people uncomfortable. It’s a form impossible to ignore or escape. Bureaucrats shushed us when atonal blasts from the loudspeakers at soundcheck interrupted remarks given by architect Bjarke Ingels at the Danish Pavilion opening. Some people complained about the amplification throughout the 30-minute set. Yet in order to own up to architecture’s responsibility to represent many voices, not simply those of the most elite design circles, we had to begin with a racket.