The Chicago Architecture Biennial co-curator on architecture, unlearning, and how to be together.
As told to Deem
Photography by Anjali Pinto
Sepake Angiama at Sweet Water Foundation in Chicago.
I am from London and I trained as a curator at the Royal College of Art. I had been working in museums and galleries, mostly in education and public programming, as originally I had studied to be a teacher.
1. The Chicago Architecture Biennial is a non-profit organization that creates exhibitions and public programs about architecture and urbanism. It’s inaugural biennial took place in 2015.
My interest has always been speaking with makers about their process: designers, artists, architects, people on the creative side. Last April I was invited by artistic director Yesomi Umolu to co-curate the third edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial¹ with Paulo Tavares.
For the past twenty years, I have been working with and within institutions and large-scale exhibitions. Most of my work considers how to connect international and local practices. In the world of art and architecture, there are a number of practitioners whose work lends itself to being part of large-scale projects like biennials or festivals. And there are others whose practices unfold over time and are very much embedded within a local context. Creative practices that are specific to cities or towns or neighborhoods have a strong connection with their locality; I think it’s important to situate a visiting art practice to forge a connection with the place where that work will be experienced. I’m interested in how to build relationships between these two kinds of practices.
2. documenta’s aneducation program is devoted to creating environments of collective study by developing relationships with learning institutions, artist-run spaces, and local neighborhoods.
In the past, I’ve worked to create small and intimate settings within these larger scale projects. I was head of education for documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens (2015–17). documenta is an organization and contemporary art exhibition that was initiated by the German artist, curator, and professor Arnold Bode in 1955. It reoccurs every five years as a 100-day museum that is spread throughout the city of Kassel, in the middle of Germany. Over the course of the summer, the city will receive about 1 million visitors. It was important to set up a number of projects that recognize that Kassel is not a blank canvas, but is entrenched in narrative and story.
The aneducation² team and I created different spaces within the urban fabrics of Kassel and Athens for people to come together. Peppermint was our space for gathering, meeting, and working. It also housed a library of Anne-Marie and Lucius Burckhardt, professors who developed “the science of walking” as a methodology and approach for gathering knowledge and experience about place. Narrowcast House was a project by Anton Kats that created a radio station only accessible to the residents and business owners within a certain street. Periptero utilized kiosks dotted around the city that usually sold newspapers, tobacco, confections, and drinks, and that were slowly disappearing. We also activated an old university library and the mezzanine level of a museum. These interstitial spaces acted as in-betweens or social interfaces that allowed for a different way of being together than the spaces where art works were typically presented.
A number of programs were created to unravel threads of thinking and to listen and explore other ways of being: Unpacking Burckhardt, Losen Faden, Nightshift, Under the Mango Tree—Sites of Learning. Each created a shared social situation and experience to eat, cook, read, listen, move and think together. We worked with a community liaison to invite local residents to establish different groups of people who would meet regularly at Peppermint around a particular activity. We then invited visiting artists who were coming to the city for documenta to join us. Every Thursday morning in Peppermint you could have a coffee with Losen Faden (Loose Threads), this incredible group of seamstresses from different parts of the world. As artists visited they would drop in, sometimes to join in one of the activities, or just to listen to the stories, read a book, or sit on the couch. Because the environment was already casual and convivial, it allowed people to get to know each other—to share their practices and talk about themselves. As a result, often local people would be invited to work with the artists on their projects. For example, Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama was making a large-scale installation that involved sewing together lots of jute coal sacks; this very group of women participated in creating the work with Ibrahim and his studio assistants.
“Socialization is at the heart of learning. The way that we engage with one another to share experiences or knowledge is key.”
Under the Mango Tree came about because we were thinking about decolonization practices within learning institutions and I realized that a lot of the practices dealing with these topics existed outside of the context of the established academy or universities. We had a real sense that, across various global locations, there were a number of artists, schools, project spaces, and libraries that were interested in figuring out how we might destabilize the European canon and access types of knowledge that had been oppressed. We were able to bring these people together to share some of their methodologies and approaches by delivering workshops, doing readings, and being in dialogue with one another. It was empowering and encouraging for everyone involved to know that other people were dealing with the same topics and questions in different parts of the world. The exchange of skills, knowledge, and ways of producing knowledge has always been important to the kinds of practices that I’ve curated. Now, I’m thinking about how these can be developed outside of their place of origin, and in particular, how they can be used in Chicago.
Socialization is at the heart of learning. The way that we engage with one another to share experiences or knowledge is key. How do you create these spaces of coming together? How do you create intimacy? How do you produce space?
In Chicago, we’re working with many types of cultural spaces, both physical and psychological.
For example, we’re working with a group from Istanbul called Architecture For All. They are asking questions about recipes and food that prompt us to think spatially. By asking about a favorite meal or a memory in relation to food, they also prompt us to remember the setting in which this memory occurred. What was that place? What made it special?
As plans for the biennial come together, I am realizing that a lot of my intuitions and interests belong to my memories of what community meant to me growing up, whether a shared meal or a street party. When I was a child, we always had family meals and we always sat around the table together. This is a formality that doesn’t exist in the same way that it used to. It’s also very much about hospitality. Food creates a sense of welcoming, but at the same time, the mutual preparation of a meal can totally break down the relationship between host and guest. Within an institution, how do you create that sense of a space being shared? Architecture For All is organizing a potluck for which Chicagoans will bring food they’ve prepared at home.
“It’s becoming increasingly important for me to think about learning and unlearning: not just the programmatic practice of learning, but the formats that we use in public education and public programs.”
In the last few years, it’s becoming increasingly important for me to think about learning and unlearning: not just the programmatic practice of learning, but the formats that we use in public education and public programs. I have noticed that we tend to reproduce the formats that we experienced in our own schooling. Growing up in London, most of the educational formats were designed to enforce an old-world ideology about how children learn. My primary school was housed in a Victorian building. The teacher was physically placed at the front of the classroom as the sole distributor of knowledge; all the desks faced forward. Lately, by working with artists who have pulled away from the typical design of formal institutions and spaces, I have recognized the importance of how we embody and exercise knowledge spatially and in relation to our bodies.
For the biennial, we are working with and in spaces that were formerly schools and already have a specific social architecture. Yet, one of the educational formats that is quite dominant throughout the biennial is the circle, which I find interesting. Circular formats don’t necessarily create a hierarchy between teacher and student or host and guest, but actually impose an equal exchange. Paola Aguirre of Borderless Studios has been working with developers on the interstitial period between a school closing and the function of the space being shifted by a developer. As an architect, she anchors herself in these sites to collaborate with the people of that neighborhood to imagine another future for the building.
“Part of the process of unlearning is recognizing the power that architecture has on constructing the way we behave.”
I hope that some of the practices we are bringing to the forefront in this biennial will question how architecture is strategically used either to bring people together or to drive them apart. Part of the process of unlearning is recognizing the power that architecture has on constructing the way we behave. Whether you feel that you need to be quiet in a certain space or whether you feel that you can be loud—the architecture determines that. For me, this is part of an ongoing practice of thinking about what our references are and where we draw them from. This requires us to increasingly recognize that, regardless of where you are in the world, Western thought tends to dominate. Its influence on our way of being, even if you don’t study it specifically, comes through in lots of different ways. One these is how we construct ways of being together. We must reflect on our own learning and knowledge: what we are reading, what we are listening to, how we construct our sense of self.
For the biennial, we are working on a beautiful project with Puerto Rican artist Jorge Gonzalez called Other Forms of We. He’s looking at the relationship between indigenous creative practices and the introduction of modernism and how these two ways of thinking about design have come together through weaving. He is creating a space to teach weaving and will also introduce different texts for consideration. He has spent a lot of time gathering knowledge that is slowly disappearing by learning directly from people and then disseminating these skills by personally instructing others.
“What is vital about this biennial is that we are asking what it means to think about architecture as a methodology to look at the world instead of looking directly at buildings.”
I am excited that this biennial will engage elements of architectural practice that deal with pedagogy and forms of exchange. This means taking on ideas about co-learning, co-designing, and public space. There’s incredible strength in the practices that have already been happening in Chicago for some time—practices that deal with social and spatial justice in the city. I’m excited to highlight practices that may not even be known to Chicagoans, but also to create a platform for practitioners to learn from each other. There will be multiple levels of exchange between contributors and with the public. I hope that the biennial inspires people to go beyond their neighborhood within Chicago. I hope that visitors who come from other cities and countries, perhaps only expecting to experience the city center, will also venture out into a variety of neighborhoods. What is vital about this biennial is that we are asking what it means to think about architecture as a methodology to look at the world instead of looking directly at buildings. What are the forces that shape and form the capacity of what architecture can be? How can architecture shape and form the way in which we live? We have experienced many other exhibitions that put materiality, models, and plans at the forefront. I think what will set this biennial apart is that we are telling the story of architecture otherwise.