“Can you tell me what’s going on here?”

….I asked the host/interpreter who was standing near the Canadian entry at the Biennale Architettura in Venice. I could tell he was the host, because he was wearing a ball cap, and standing near a fold-up table displaying printed materials. Seriously.

(With true patriot love,  I had chosen the Canadian pavilion as my first stop when I -finally!- found the portion of the Biennale hosting the permanent pavilions.)  After discovering the installation wasn’t actually inside the Canadian pavilion (it’s being renovated, but the Canucks in the crowd will be happy to know it has gorgeous water views) this is what I saw…..

image from edmontonjournal.com

image from edmontonjournal.com

I had initially walked past , not understanding that this is Extraction, the Canadian presence at the 2016 Biennale for Architecture.

image from cbc.ca

image from cbc.ca

Perhaps you understand my confusion.

The young man in the ball cap was happy to answer my questions and explain the project to me.  He’s an architecture student at Harvard, studying under the Canadian Pierre Belanger, a co-director of the Post Graduate Design Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.  He said Extraction is based on Canada’s role in resource extraction, both nationally and internationally.  It seeks to ask all kinds of questions about the global impact of resource extraction.

Here’s a quote from the catalogue:  Extraction redefines our understanding of urbanization in the 21st century.  If everything we build comes from the ground, then extraction is the process and practice that reshapes our assumptions about urban economies……..Where do these materials come from?  Whose lands? Whose laws? Where do they go?  Who processes them? How are they moved?……From land rights to mineral rights, aboveground and underground, between rule and representation of the ground, every dimension of urban life is mediated by resource extraction.  It is our urban, political and cultural ore.

He explained that the white sacks are filled with gold ore from an abandoned Canadian mining company’s project on the Italian island of Sardinia….a project that left behind a poisonous spill.  On the ground is a gold survey stake, marking the intersection of the UK, France and Canada pavilions.  Inside is a peep hole, where you can lie down and watch the film 800 Years of Empire in 800 images in 800 Seconds.

image from cbc.ca

image from cbc.ca

 

Yes!  I did lie down, and watch the whole film.

No, I did not have an audience.

 

Click here for Extraction’s  website.

 

You may want to read Robert Enright’s interview with Pierre Belanger in the arts journal, Border Crossings.  (Find it here.) It helped me to further understand the conceptual nature of the project. The CBC’s News article (click here) acknowledged the controversial nature of the installation.

I asked the young man how the project is being received.  He told me most visitors liked it enthusiastically;  Canadians were less pleased.  My quibble isn’t with the conceptual nature of the project, or the issues raised.  It’s important that we question, and acknowledge the sources of the materials for our built environment. I did enjoy the variety of ways the ideas are presented.  I only wish the presentation had provided a vision for a way forward.  How do we deal with the environment in a sustainable manner?  How should we extract resources in a way that is both ethical and sustainable?  Big, challenging questions, I know.  But isn’t that why we have events like the Biennale?  It’s important to ask the difficult questions, and to also offer up possible solutions, and a way (or three) forward.

 

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