OPINION

Small Revolutions

Oslo

3 October 2016

“Can it be that we are all exiles?", wrote the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño in 'Exiles'. "Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?”

In the present, two women take the stage and speak in short, vivid sentences. One of them gesticulates enthusiastically, looks audience members in the eye and speaks of utopia: the utopia of stateless democracy, a framework within which the Kurdish communities of the autonomous region of Rojava, in west Kurdistan, northern Syria, establish their principles of self-governance, decentralisation, gender equality, cultural co-existence and social ecology.

We are in Oslo, on a Sunday afternoon that marks the end of the opening weekend of the 2016 Oslo Architecture Triennale. The speakers are representatives of the Kurdish community in Oslo and partners in the The New World Embassy: Rojava project. Lead by Dutch artist Jonas Staal, the project is developed as part of his New World Summit, an artistic and political organisation dedicated to creating “alternative parliaments” to host organisations currently excluded from democracy.

The New World Embassy: Rojava is part of the core program of the Triennale, and proposes to build a physical parliament, where during two consecutive days representatives of Rojava will come into conversation with politicians, diplomats, academics, and journalists, among others. Through discussions, conversation and analysis of the situation in Rojava, the initiative examines the efforts of building a new civil society in a war-torn region, and presents Rojava’s alternative model for democracy as something that all of us could learn something from.

If such a proposal sounds complex, with far-reaching implications and an immense potential impact, it is because it is. It is also a good example — and one of the most powerful components — of a Triennale that does not shy away from complexity, and in fact embraces it whole-heartedly. Titled After Belonging, the event proposes an analysis of “the objects, spaces, and territories of the ways we stay in transit,” an ambitious goal that is further elaborated by the curators, After Belonging Agency. “Belonging is no longer just something bound to one’s own space of residence or to the territory of a nation, not does it last an entire lifespan,” the practice points out in the Triennale catalogue’s introductory essay. “After Belonging analyses the ways in which architecture intervenes in the construction of attachments to places and collectivities — Where does one belong? — as well as in the changing relations to the objects that are produced, owned, shared and exchanged — How are belongings managed?”

Composed of five New York-trained Spanish architecture scholars the After Belonging Agency proposes a Triennale that is multilayered and dense, rich with inquiry and research proposals, and denies the kind of solutions promptly offered at these kinds of events. Instead, they aim to start conversations and ask further questions. The common theme under which they came together still allows individual research interests to shine through, in a polyphonic curatorial vision that emerges as refreshingly contemporary.

Two exhibitions anchor the main lines of inquiry. The first, titled On Residence, is staged at the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture (DogA), and includes 33 research projects structured in five different clusters – Technologies of a Life in Transit, Furnishing After Belonging, Markets and Territories of the Global Home, Borders Elsewhere, and Sheltering Temporariness. All propose radically different ways of exploring “the contemporary reconfiguration of belonging,” and the results vary accordingly. Some are speculative, such as in Unfold’s The First Moon Catalog, which explores avenues for mankind’s survival and the development of tools in a hypothetical moon colonisation. Others are fascinating researches, such as Studio Folder’s Uncharted: Footnotes to the Atlas, a project charting the evolution of mapping technologies in the Landsat program and painting a complex picture of how contemporary geographic knowledge is produced, assessed and managed.

In the same vein, architect Andrés Jaque's transdisciplinary practice Office for Political Innovation presents the ingenious Pornified Homes, where the expedition, displacement and resettling of the Victoria amazonica water lilies in the grounds of in Chatsworth House is intertwined with an inventory of Brazilian sex workers and their domestic environments in London, while Cooking Sections raises awareness of retirement as a machine of global capital with nefarious global consequences with An Old World in a Former New World. Elsewhere in the show, Roto exhibits custom-made components salvaged in the demolitions of the 1970s Génerale de Banque building in Brussels, while Kër Thiossane and the Dakar-based Fablab Defko Ak Nïep present a rather pragmatic, but no less fascinating object: a repurposed jerry can that becomes host to a self-assembled computer using recovered hardware, which is currently being produced in Senegal.

On the other side of the city, at the Oslo National Museum of Architecture, the In Residence exhibition is the complementary pole of the Triennale, offering several types of architectural interventions in a variety of sites around the globe, which according to the curators “encapsulate the contemporary transformation of belonging.” The choice of sites is representative and surprising, and each story that is told is captivating, prompting a newfound suspicion that architects, in the end, are just storytellers. Matilde Cassani’s Sewing Machines, Dragoons and Firecrackers, for example, is a fascinating narrative of the social changes in the Prato community, in Italy, where a large Chinese community produces most of the textiles the regions is known for. Next to it, Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine present Selling Dreams, which follows an allegedly real Airbnb landlord in Copenhagen and the multiple fictions he has created for the houses that he rents out. The game of mirrors continues on the other side of the exhibition, with Emeka Ogboh’s recreation of a “techno-religious” interior in Lagos, a flamboyant and welcome immersion in one of the many places of worship that have popped up in the Nigerian city in recent years.

However, the most dynamic aspect of this Triennale materialised in the myriad exchanges, conversations, and encounters that took place everywhere in the city during the opening days. Many were consciously provoked in the opening conference and the large-scale international student exchange program launched by The Academy, a forum organised by the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. Many more were unexpected and spontaneous, triggered in courtyards, parties, restaurant entrances and walks throughout the city. The opening weekend of After Belonging featured many personalities but little ego, and a larger interest in discussing and sharing ideas than in presenting solutions and absolute visions. There was plurality and tolerance, openness and exchange.

At the City Hall, Oslo’s Mayor Marianne Borgen shook hands with every single person entering the room for an official Triennale reception. Shortly afterwards, in a promising turn of events, she announced that Jonas Staal’s New World Embassy: Rojava would take place at the City Hall during the closing weekend of the Triennale in late November. The ground is paved for a small revolution.