What we don’t know we don’t know

September 26, 2020

Below, the text of the interview by journalist Lara Crinò with the President of Triennale Milano Stefano Boeri, published on 22 September in “la Repubblica”.

Today’s world is uncertain and broken, a world that lacks perspective on the future. Is resigning ourselves to the short horizon of the present the only possible way or do art and science, together, offer us another perspective, just starting from what we realized we did not know because of the pandemic? The project for the XXIII International Exhibition, which will take place at Triennale Milano from March 1 to August 30, 2022, is based on these questions: President Stefano Boeri anticipates the title and themes of the XXIII International Exhibition on the Italian newspaper “la Repubblica”. It will be called Unknown Unkowns: a tribute to the "unknown part" of the micro and macro universe, to the unknown side that frightens us, but which can instead become the fertile ground for an encounter between arts and sciences. And a real invitation to redesign what is to come on a new basis.

Dimitri Kerkentzes, Secretary General of the Bureau International des Expositions of which Triennale. the only Italian institution, is part, already defines Unknown Unkowns "a unique and transparent platform" that will allow us to "ask ourselves the questions we do not know". Stefano Boeri explains why and how our current fragility can become a tool for growth. Without ceasing to believe in what he calls the "anthropocentric culture of design", and with a new confidence in what he calls the "self-critical and creative abilities" of that same culture. To look at the future with new, mobile eyes.

Photo by Babak Tafreshi

The title of the 2019 Exhibition was Broken Nature: what is the link between that reflection on the relationship with nature – that turned out to be prophetic – and the new project for 2022?

In times of uncertainty it is important to find cultural roots to work on. This pandemic leaves us with the feeling of a species fragility. Fragility for not being able to predict what was happening, for not being able to face it. The theme now is how not to transform this fragility into despair, but into a reason to imagine a different relationship with the world, with the future, with nature. We come from an Exhibition, the XXII, which was centred precisely on the unbalance in our relationship with nature. With Broken Nature we told how we compromised, destroyed, deforested the natural environment. But the present time and the coronavirus epidemic have confronted us with the fact that nature is within us, because the virus has grown within the human species. As I said at the symposium last March, which was the first step towards the new 2022 edition, the great misunderstanding of our environmental culture lies in the oppositional or distinctive relationship between the human sphere and the sphere of living naturalness. It is time to change perspective. 

Do we need another vision?

What is happening has already turned the vision upside down. It has shown us that the dimension of what we do not know is still gigantic. We told ourselves that the great challenge is perhaps this: to try to explore the unknown world.

The San Francisco Bay Bridge is seen along Harrison Street under an orange smoke-filled sky in San Francisco, California on Sept. 9. ⁠Brittany Hosea-Small, AFP Photo

What does this “Unknown Unknowns” – the unknown part, the unknown worlds – refer to?

To develop this idea, we have built a network in which art and science meet. Our partners include Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, with whom Triennale has established a long partnership; ESA, the European Space Agency; Fabiola Gianotti's CERN; Hans Ulrich Obrist who heads the Serpentines Gallery in London; architect and designer Joseph Grima, director of the school of Eindhoven; Matthew Claudel from MIT; the team at Tongji University in Shanghai, and Maxxi. The cues come from all these subjects. Astrophysicist Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta from ESA, for example, told us that we know five percent of the visible universe. Oceanographer Nadia Pinardi told us that we know only five per cent of what is in the oceans. As a town planner, I can say that cities occupy almost 5% of the land that has emerged. But even that 5% is actually part of a much larger whole. The underlying theme of the XXIII International Exhibition will be to explore not only what we do not know, but what we do not know we do not know, which is much more.

How do we face the unknown?

If we really have to learn from this pandemic, we need to reflect on the fact that our species is not detached from other living species. The clear message of the spillover process, as philosopher Emanuele Coccia reminds us, is that we are a ring of a chain, which is that of life, which unites us with other species. The challenge that we have set with Broken Nature and that we will continue to set with Unknown Unknowns is just that: it is time not only to take care of other living species, but to understand what their point of view is. We need a double movement.

Are we the species that needs to make the evolutionary leap?

We must decentralise ourselves, learn to take the gaze of the other – that of every living species – as a resource to act in the world. If we succeed in this decentralisation, we will be able to transform fragility into strength. The strength of a new intelligence of species. And this can only be done with an "interference" between art and science".

Credits

Cover photo: Eagle Island, Antartide nasa

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