For our final Landscape Surgery session of this term we welcomed Cecilie Sachs Olsen, a British Academy post-doctoral research fellow at Royal Holloway’s Centre for the GeoHumanities, alongside Matthew Dalziel, an associate of the transdisciplinary architecture and engineering practice Interrobang, as two of the four-person curatorial team for next year’s Oslo Architecture Triennale.
Taking place from 26th September to 24th November 2019, this event is the Nordic region’s biggest festival of architecture, and an internationally-important arena for discussion around the challenges of architecture and urban space. Cecilie and Matthew’s joint presentation focused on the process of curating the Triennale around their chosen theme of ‘degrowth’, the role that art and performance will play within their practice, and the challenges they’ve encountered since starting work on the Triennale programme.
Degrowth and architecture
Matthew, speaking as a practising architect himself, began the presentation by outlining how individual architects often have very little agency in the construction industry to which they contribute. Despite typically being motivated by social, cultural and artistic values, 60% of architects at any given time are working on private housing, with much of it marketed towards the wealthiest 1% of the population.
However, cultural events such as the Triennale are one outlet that architects have for more critical interventions, giving these individuals opportunities to experiment with ideas outside of a ‘project’ ecosystem, and into an arena that could potentially inspire a global conversation.
The curatorial team chose their conversation for the Oslo Architecture Triennale to be about ‘degrowth’.
Degrowth has been understood to stand for “a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions” (Research & Degrowth, 2018). Central to this definition is the reasoning that the drive for continued economic growth in our societies is unsustainable for a world that supports life.
Many will recall that this argument has been made for decades by organisations such as The Club of Rome, whose famous report The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972) is widely recognised as one of the first significant studies that illuminated how the unprecedented economic growth occurring throughout the 20th century was causing, and would continue to cause, widespread ecological destruction.
Cecilie illustrating the arguments in The Limits to Growth with a cartoon showing a hamster gradually consuming the earth, based on the idea that a hamster doubles in size every day until it reaches puberty (author’s own)
Nonetheless, according to the presenters, reports such as The Limits to Growth failed to capture the impetus of the public and policymakers due to the tone of doomsaying that accompanied the stark environmental impacts indicated by their studies. Indeed, a continual problem confronting the degrowth movement has been the negative connotations associated with the notion of reducing economic growth, as it might seem to imply a logic of austerity.
In order to avoid this risk of scaremongering by simply offloading information to the public, the curatorial team instead wanted to use the theme of degrowth to change how people think about urban environments in a way that is relevant to their lives. And in particular, to challenge the assumption that the function of the spaces we use in everyday life is already predetermined, which is one reason why people can feel alienated from the spaces they inhabit.
According to Cecilie, this is why art and performance are so important, as they have the ability to free people from their everyday roles in society and experiment with other ways of being in the world. In theatre, for example, if a person acting as a queen sits on a normal chair, the chair becomes a throne. The pre-given conception of an object can be transformed simply by putting it in a context where re-imagination is welcomed, and the enchantment accompanying such experiences can help us to rethink the agency we have within our own surroundings.
Curating transformational spaces
This is exactly what the curatorial team is aiming to achieve in their programme for the Oslo Architecture Triennale, for which they will be creating three ‘transformations’ in three different sites in Oslo to turn them into spaces of sharing, play and connecting.
The first location is Oslo’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design. An institution whose buildings are made to house conventional exhibitions of art, crafts and design work, the space the team were given for the Triennale was a typically bland, concrete room.
The challenge facing the curators was to convert it into a catalytic space, and the idea they came up with was to create a library within it. Cecilie reflected that not only are libraries environments of sharing and making, but the most celebrated libraries also often have a uniquely awe-inspiring atmosphere to them. How could they construct such an effect in what was a small, rather uninspiring room?
Trinity College Library, Dublin (Skitterphoto, public domain)
In their design of the ‘library’, they were particularly inspired by Olafur Eliasson, whose work has used light, mirrors and liquids to evoke seemingly limitless spaces within physically restricted sites. At present, the curatorial team are planning to craft four mirrored rooms separated by walls of varied thicknesses, with participants moving between them to gradually transition into the imagined space of the library from the ‘real’ space of the museum building. Immersion is central to the curators’ vision of the library experience, and they are keen to employ techniques used by interactive theatre companies such as Punchdrunk, which give participants the opportunity to explore and engage with fictional environments in meaningful and believable ways, guided solely by their own interests and inclinations.
This journey into the imaginary will begin from the moment visitors reach the building, where they will be given library cards to enter the space rather than museum tickets. Upon leaving the ‘library’ and re-entering Oslo city centre, participants will then be invited to extend the experience by taking part in an immersive audiowalk that zURBS, the ‘social-artistic urban laboratory’ that Cecilie co-founded in 2011, will be running.
The second transformation will take place in the urban public space of Oslo through the creation of a ‘playground’. Here, the curators will be drawing on the capacity of play to de-emphasize the urban environment’s economic value and functions and instead render them as arenas for “pleasure, surprise and critical possibility” (Dickens, 2008: 20).
Previously, play has been considered an activity that takes place in alternate realities separate from our everyday lives (sports pitches, games tables, virtual realities, etc.) where different rules apply, in what Huizinga (1955 ) calls the ‘magic circle’ of play. By using public playful art to expand the magic circle spatially (beyond designated environments), temporally (beyond specific time limits) and socially (beyond designated players) (Montola, 2005), the stages of everyday life can be re-enchanted as realms of the possible (Klausen, 2014).
Through play centred around the concept of degrowth, the curatorial team wants participants to imagine opportunities for an improved way of living, rather than a reduction in individual agency that might be inferred from the term. Central to this viewpoint is the idea that non-essential activity should be understood as an enjoyable state of being, rather than something defined through the lens of economic growth as ‘unproductive’. Games don’t necessarily lead to the most efficient ways of completing a task – golf is a rather complicated way of putting a ball in a hole, for example – but negotiating the affordances games present to players in creative and skilful ways can ultimately lead to enrichment that wouldn’t occur otherwise.
The final transformation will take place in DogA, the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture, which will become the site of a makeshift theatre.
Here, the curators are enlisting the skills of METIS, a Cambridge-based performing arts organisation, and more specifically their interactive piece We Know Not What We May Be. Originally performed at the Barbican in September, this participatory performance asks the audience to imagine a more sustainable future, featuring talks from experts about what the future could be, and giving the audience the option to decide which one they want. These participants can then see their decisions become a reality, as the actors perform scenarios based on what has been chosen, followed by further discussion about these possibilities amongst the actors and audience.
One of the difficulties faced by the team when arranging this performance is the institutional context in which it will be set. DogA is funded by the municipal government’s budget for the economy, creating tensions between the theme of ‘degrowth’ and the continued demand for growth in Oslo’s economy today. In order to reconcile this apparent contradiction, the curators have emphasised that the performance will be focused on facilitating discussion between a wide range of people – including elites – rather than silencing points of view to further a particular political agenda.
Alongside the three transformations, as highlighted previously, Cecilie’s artist collective zURBS will be using audiowalks as a way to engage citizens and planners to think about alternative futures. These will be framed in an imaginative way. For example, in one walk participants will imagine they are researchers from the future, and will choose individually between different options of what Oslo might look like in the decades to come. Collectively, participants will then traverse the present-day environment and attempt to identify how these brave new worlds began, without knowing what futures the other walkers chose to seek.
Cecilie explained that the idea behind the audiowalks was to de-centre accepted understandings of how the city operates. By encouraging citizens to identify the transformative potential of the present city, such ‘defaults’ don’t have to exist. As soon as we’re afforded the agency to redefine what a space is for, the alternative futures we dream in our heads could become possible.
Nonetheless, in talking about the challenges the team have faced so far throughout the curatorial process, Cecilie and Matthew accepted that there are often limits to what people are able to imagine as they think about better ways of inhabiting urban space. If the street is seen inherently as an instrument of consumption, this epistemology will mean that even seemingly beneficial changes, such as pedestrianisation, will be become tools to reproduce the dominant paradigm of consumption through processes such as gentrification.
Language is another force that imposes epistemological limitations on how the curatorial theme can be explored. Most problematically for the curators, the term ‘degrowth’ doesn’t even exist in Norwegian, meaning that they have had to think about alternative prefixes to use other than ‘de-’, while attempting to remain faithful to the understanding of degrowth that is implied when used in English. Yet even without language barriers, reaction to degrowth as a concept has frequently been ambivalent, as was highlighted in the discussion after Cecilie and Matthew’s presentation when its usefulness for societies in the Global South was questioned.
The last challenge the curators discussed was one that many academics will be familiar with: the need to be rigorous in their engagement with the material they are discussing, while also making their work accessible enough for members of the public to engage with it. This necessity was brought sharply into focus when the curators of the last Oslo Architecture Triennale were criticised for making works that ‘normal people’ couldn’t understand.
In contrast, the curatorial team’s efforts to avoid a similar fate are reflected in the participatory qualities of the installations, performances and other artworks they are curating, which give ‘normal people’ the greatest power to define and interpret what is meaningful within the installations and experiences on offer.
We’d like to offer enormous thanks to Cecilie and Matthew for taking time out of their busy schedules to talk to us about their work, and we wish them every success over the coming months as they prepare for the Oslo Architecture Triennale, which starts on 26th September 2019.
Dickens, L. (2008) “‘Finders keepers’: performing the street, the gallery and the spaces in-between” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 4: 1-30.
Huizinga, J. (1955 ) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press
Klausen, M. (2014) “Re-enchanting the city: Hybrid space, affect and playful performance in geocaching, a location-based mobile game” Journal of Urban Cultural Studies 1(2): 193-213.
Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J., Behrens III, W.W. (1972) The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.
Montola, M. (2005) “Exploring the Edge of the Magic Circle: Defining Pervasive Games” Proceeedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Copenhagen, Denmark [online] Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download;jsessionid=AB62B5B3CD2B349DE8846879B58B4AC8?doi=10.1.1.125.8421&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Research and Degrowth (2018) “Definition” Research and Degrowth [online] Available at: https://degrowth.org/definition-2/
Written by Jack Lowe, edited by Megan Harvey and Alice Reynolds