The seven works that make up the American contribution to the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale (May 26 through November 25) are dense, complex concretizations of what it means to be a citizen—of a region, a nation, the planet, and beyond—during a time of fraught political discourse about citizenship. Each design team was assigned a “scale” at which to consider citizenship, the exhibition’s theme, from the individual to the cosmic. Together they moved this familiar, currently troubled concept into unexpected dimensions.

#1 SCALE: CITIZEN

Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line), by Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez with Shani Crowe (Chicago, IL)

Employing as its “muses” Harriet Tubman, who led scores of slaves to freedom, and Harriet Jacobs, a fugitive slave and author who once lived hidden in a garret for seven years, this courtyard installation uses braided cords to evoke concepts of space as experienced and created by black women and to celebrate the lines and routes they followed in seeking liberation. Williams, Crowe, and Hernandez are pictured above.

#2 SCALE: CIVITAS

Stone Stories, by Studio Gang (Chicago, IL)

Cobblestones transported to Venice from Memphis Landing, a paved landing on the Mississippi waterfront in the iconic Tennessee city, have been reassembled in the pavilion. Studio Gang’s ongoing work in Memphis focuses on reclaiming forgotten or untold stories from the city’s past and its neglected places.

#3 SCALE: REGION

Ecological Citizens, by SCAPE (New York, NY)

This installation rejects artistic ordering altogether in favor of simple storage: storage of biodegradable logs of coir (coconut fiber), concrete blocks shaped to create mini tide pools, and other environmentally aimed materials that, when the Biennale is over, the SCAPE team will install on nearby Certosa Island. It’s part of the team’s collaboration with the University of Bologna and the Italian Institute of Marine Sciences to restore habitat for marine animals in the heavily degraded salt marshes of the Venetian lagoon.

#4 SCALE: NATION

Mexus: A Geography of Interdependence, by Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman (San Diego, CA)

An exploration of how a contentious political boundary intersects and conflicts with natural systems, Mexus uses maps to isolate the region on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. The area contains eight watersheds, for example, and U.S. dam construction, surveillance, and wall-building have created a galaxy of environmental problems. A collaboration among Mexican and U.S. government units and universities, Mexus envisages a cross-border land conservancy that would address one of the issues, sewage flow from an informal settlement near Tijuana, and in so doing establish “a new jurisdiction that is socially and ecologically continuous.”

#5 SCALE: GLOBE

In Plain Sight, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Laura Kurgan, Robert Gerard Pietrusko, with Columbia Center for Spatial Research (New York, NY)

Drawing on images from a weather satellite operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, In Plain Sight displays global economic disparities in a vivid fashion: by showing which parts of the globe are illuminated by night. Densely populated areas with few lights—zones of poverty and limited access to resources—contrast with thinly populated zones that are brightly lit: luxury resorts and military installations, for example.

#6 SCALE: NETWORK

Many, by Keller Easterling (New Haven, CT)

Architect Easterling and her colleagues created an online platform that links displaced people across the globe with opportunities to use and exchange their skills. Rejecting one-dimensional characterizations of global migrants—that they are either citizens or noncitizens (“legals” or “illegals”) and/or helpless victims of political and social forces, Many uses the transnational networking power of the Internet to connect migrants with short-term training and research projects and other initiatives, worldwide, that don’t involve travel or require only short-term visas.

#7 SCALE: COSMOS

Cosmorama: Mining the Sky, Planetary Ark, and Pacific Cemetery, by Design Earth (Cambridge, MA)

Three powerfully ironic exhibits comment on the strange relationships between the earthbound economic/ecological/political order and space. Mining the Sky projects the future of privatized space exploration: asteroids towed to a near-Earth orbit and strip-mined. Planetary Ark imagines the International Space Station repurposed as a haven for Earth animals facing extinction. And Pacific Cemetery proposes that Point Nemo be the “landfill of the Space Age.” Decommissioned satellites and other space junk are “terraformed” into tiny sovereign states in the remote Pacific where escapees from islands inundated by rising seas can find refuge.

Transit Screening Lounge: Videos

The rotunda of the pavilion is given over to the screening of short films that, in the words of the exhibition’s website, “[present] citizenship through a lens of movement: migration, transgression, transmission, travel, and mobility.” They range from Frances Bodomo’s quirky Afronauts, a fictionalized account of the attempt of a Zambian science teacher to create a space program for his country, to Cosmic Generator, Mika Rottenberg’s documentary-style fantasy of a tunnel connecting a Chinese restaurant in Mexico with a dollar store in California.

Jon Spayde is the senior editor of Public Art Review.

From Public Art Review #58, where this article appeared in Projects We Love as “Citizenship Explored and Expanded: Dimensions of Citizenship, the U.S. contribution to Venice Architecture Biennale.”
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