Curator Sascha Hastings reflects on the consequences of COVID-19 starting from the postponed La Biennale di Venezia – Architettura
On April 14, Australia became the first country to announce that it will not be participating in the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale. The Australian Institute of Architects issued a statement that “The rapidly changing and escalating situation regarding Covid-19 has made it impossible for us to plan for the exhibition, as the health and safety of our staff, members, partners and volunteers is our main priority. We know that Covid-19 is presenting architects with significant financial and economic challenges. Therefore, we are going to reallocate our resources to fund initiatives to help support our members as they navigate through this crisis.” There’s no arguing with that.
It remains to be seen how many other countries will follow in Australia’s footsteps, and how quickly. The Biennale has recently reconfirmed their intention to open as planned on August 29 (after postponing the original, late-May opening). As an additional reassurance the Artistic Director, Hashim Sarkis, has sent personal emails to all participants, emphasizing the vital role that architecture has historically played as a convenor of other arts and in creating resilient cities, even in times of plague and war. He has written in a spirit of immense generosity and hope, with a commitment to help participants find creative new forms of public engagement when resources have evaporated, and survival of people and jobs is the primary concern. But even if Italy does succeed in beating back Covid-19 by the summer, how likely is it that the country, which has suffered so profoundly from loss of life, loss of physical liberty, and the swingeing destruction of businesses and livelihoods, will want its nascent recovery jeopardized by floods of foreign visitors, a.k.a. ticking viral time-bombs?
As the most prominent architecture exhibition in the world struggles to both maintain its routine in Venice and suitably adapt to a global pandemic, valuable questions can be raised: What will become of architectural exhibition in the short term? How will it affect how we exhibit design and architecture in the future? What does this mean for audience engagement and development?
Elevation view of central shell structures, Meander, Cambridge, Canada, 2020. Courtesy of Philip Beesley Studio Inc.
In the short term, I think a lot of exhibitions will go partially or fully online or move outdoors, where possible. Architects and designers might build works and installations, or smaller scale models of them, in their own studios, and provide immersive and intimate viewer experiences of them through VR, AR, and technologies such as photogrammetry, that allow a sophisticated “fly-through” experience from home. Related public programming can continue through online live events. Where physical visits are possible, numbers of visitors will be limited, one-way routes through exhibitions will be clearly delineated, and there will probably be fewer works to look at and more space between the works. This is not a terrible thing, as most people currently spend about five seconds looking at a work anyway. Less stuff could translate into people learning how to look at what is there more closely and with greater appreciation.
While some of these changes may become permanent, as the risk of Covid-19 recedes (and inevitably, it will), people will get back to being people, who want to gather together and have shared physical experiences of original work. Exhibition venues will eventually return to normal, where crowds can move about at will. But the memory of Covid-19 will remain, and just as public health systems will (I hope) be reformed so that they can respond to the next pandemic quickly and effectively, so too will museums, major exhibitions like the Biennale, and other cultural institutions have action plans in place that will make it easier to switch their programming into social distancing mode with a minimum of disruption.
PROVISIONAL ADVERTISEMENTS by Traumnovelle, inspired by this text by Sascha Hastings
I believe that the 2020 Venice Biennale will go on in some form and that architects and curators will rise to the challenge of finding new ways of mounting an international exhibition that typically includes more than seventy national pavilions, a major central exhibition, and dozens of official collateral events, not to mention a mind-boggling amount of travel and logistical coordination. Certainly the theme of the 2020 Biennale—“How will we live together?”—has become more relevant than ever. Russia has already announced that its national pavilion will be online. The Biennale has recently invited participants to create videos and other multi-platform content, probably in anticipation of a possible first ever fully virtual Venice Biennale. Perhaps the Biennale will be able to physically open its doors to visitors, but maybe only to those who are able to reach Venice without flying. Grove Nebula, a new work by Philip Beesley I am curating for the central exhibition, may take any number of forms, from a more condensed version of the approximately 1,200 sq ft immersive, interactive physical installation originally envisioned, coupled with an expanded audio and/or AR/VR component, to something that lives purely in the virtual world. We don’t know yet. We, like everyone else, are trying to figure it out.
But that’s what architects, designers, artists, curators and other arts professionals do. We try to figure it out. We try to make sense of our world and express it in ways that make it possible for people to live in uncertainty and questions long enough to find better answers. We try to offer spaces and experiences, physical and virtual, of meaning, connection, community and belonging. The precarity and vulnerability of our existence has been laid bare, and this new knowledge will have permanent effects on how we live together, how we express ourselves creatively and how we share this creative expression with others. It will not, however, change the fact that there is always opportunity in crisis, and that architecture and the arts are fundamentally hopeful endeavours because they remind us that we can imagine and build a different future.