Freedom In Between 0

An interview with Johan Tali, one of the curators of Estonian Pavilion at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice

Sandra Kosorotova in Tallinn

At the 14th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, running from the 7th of June to the 23rd of November 2014, Estonia will be represented by three young curators from Estonia, all of whom are currently living in Vienna.

The curator of the Biennale, Rem Koolhaas, has asked the participants to react on the assumption that after World War ll, national particularities in architecture vanished and in their place, a new universal architectural language appeared.

Johanna Jõekalda, Johan Tali and Siim Tuksam see the future of architecture as closely related to the development of digital technology and social media. Their project, “Interspace”, deals with the topic of public influence on the environment. We contacted Johan Tali for a little catch-up on how the project is evolving.

More than a year has passed now since your decision to participate in the Estonian curatorial competition. What has been your strongest motivation in doing this project?

I think what got us interested was the call by the Biennale's artistic director (Rem Koolhaas) to approach proposals for national pavilions from a more research-oriented perspective. We found ourselves very comfortable in coming up with a proposal not fully knowing what we would like to do in the end -- the proposal was more about pointing out the general problematics and specialties, and leading from that, to set a task for ourselves. Whereas past Biennale themes have been very abstract and open to interpretation, this time the general theme deals very specifically with national and global influences of the last century upon the fundamental elements of architecture; we found it an opportune moment to bring Estonia into this comparison of more than 50 nationalities. Furthermore, it would become an opportune moment to review our spatial conditions from the view of an “outsider”, i.e., ignoring the local romantic views and values placed on local projects and instead, looking at them from a global perspective. I think that was our trump card in the competition for the curatorship -- being fresh and open to collaborations and ideas on a given theme which, in our case, was public space in the age of digital communication.

Photo: Kristina Õllek

As a result of the competition, the public and the jury voted for your proposal, “Interspace”, to represent Estonia at the Biennale. Could you please give a brief introduction to the project?

To put it simply, it will be a 1:1 model of a contemporary public space -- we call it Interspace. It is our aim to concentrate on the general shift towards a more individual participatory model of defining the public domain via technology, and to compare it to an institutionalized definition of public space. In a digitized society (E-governed Estonia), there is still a need for physical space, and we seek to point out the individualized, fragmented, multidimensional nature of these spaces.
The interactive installation aims to produce a reading of spatial conditions that dominate our everyday environments by showing how digital technologies and physical bodies are related to both each other and to the public collective space. For example, we increasingly communicate not with each other, but rather, with the imagery and avatars on our mobile devices; instead of acting out in public, we publish, tweet and reblog using the web. Associations for the word “public space” have changed radically in the last century, and our project aims to show what public space in Estonia was and is.

It is quite unusual that, in addition to the large number of three curators, the project also involved the participation of a group of students from the Estonian Academy of Arts who took part in a workshop that you organized. Please tell us about this experience.

We started off with a question: “What is digital public space and how does it change physical space?”. To be quite honest, in the beginning we did not know the answer to that question, so we decided to crowd-source the answers. A mindset of twenty students set off to answer the question, while our task was to curate and document all of these different approaches. What came out of it was a set of new ideas about public space; the material greatly influenced our understanding about the key elements of public space. The class really became a laboratory for experimenting with different ideas. In that sense, teaching really became researching -- we could only supervise their ideas and we had only indirect influence on the outcome. This kind of collaboration can only lead to new ideas -- it was not about sharing our knowledge, but about creating a platform for creating new knowledge. This modus operandi is at the very core of not only contemporary academic work, but also of a contemporary architectural practice; this is something that we will definitely continue to pursue.

Photo: Johanna Jõekalda

So, you have been talking about the progression of humans diversifying, which then suggests the need for a more adaptive architecture. But the most recent trend, #normcore, is, on the contrary, about the homogenization of people – the choice to be approachable by anyone, and to not be unique. How might this affect architecture?

Normcore has NO core. The common denominator is an illusion of satisfactory conditions for everyone when, in fact, they identify no one. In society, no single person is truly “the norm” (in the mathematical sense of the word). There is no single person that matches the profile of the generic customer upon which shopping malls were modeled. The question, “What is a collective average, and how to not express the collective in such a way that it does not really relate to anyone, but rather, is open to everyone’s interpretations?” has actually been one of the main topics of our research. From such things as the very modernist idea about an abstract, unified style that can be expressed with a clean, purified shape, or from the method of organizing cities( Le Corbusier’s plan of Paris) as a strict, anonymous grid of continuous “sameness”, we have learned that modernist architecture has failed to house the multitude of our identities. The counter-movement to these modernist ideas about the city grew out of postmodernism -- the attempt to capture the complexity and diversity of society into a unified, complex system. This costly-to-build complexity that emerges from an invisible field of fluctuating information has one problem -- it gets old very fast because the world that it expresses is in constant change, and thus, sooner or later, it renders out any fixture that has become outdated. This is the starting point for our project. Instead of averaging the individuals to a common denominator, we seek to define a new style of complexity by using technology as a tool for information about ourselves and our behaviors. We are trying to imagine a public space that accommodates and communicates this fluctuating information field. Without the exclusion of a single, individual trace of information, Big data could help us render the model of society in all of its complexity. The key here is not to rule out anomalies or oddities, but rather, to include all of this (and everyone) in an interactive design done in the name of diversity. The expression of diversity and a multitude of individuals will carry a much bigger potential for everyone to confront what they did not see, relate to, or know of, thus providing a bigger potential of discovering something new and meaningful. The statement behind #normcore can be seen as a an attempt for the fashion industry to desperately find the one last trend in a world in which fashion is not possible anymore due to personalization. The anonymous style that #normcore is thriving on will lead to a lack of potential in discovering anything new.

Interspace” is about the public's influence on architecture. In his book “Architecture of Happiness”, the writer and philosopher, Alain de Botton, talks about how, on the contrary, buildings can affect our state of mind...

From my point of view, freedom is even more important than happiness. We are looking at ways to use public space as a creator of a maximum number of freedoms. So, instead of architecture limiting one's freedom, we seek ways for architecture to allow it. It is a feedback loop of behaviors that feed architectural placemaking. From the point of public space, architecture has the exclusive tasks of storing the ideas of the collective and formulating a scenery for the collective in which to interact and communicate; as individual trajectories are becoming more and more personalized, the multitude of views about the public don’t seem to fit “under one common roof” anymore. An example of this is Tallinn, where the public domain is being formulated by the interests of a specific class of Estonian nationals in order to maintain the status quo and to diminish the different cultural backgrounds and hierarchies. This friction can only be overcome with spatial conditions that do not discriminate against the individual, but that are open to different uses and associations. They must provide freedom.

How, in your opinion, might the engagement with the Biennale affect your career and international profile?

Over the course of the last year, we have learned not to predict the future, as whatever we will imagine to happen will surely end up differently. We have been able to provoke an international discussion with professionals (from Estonia, Italy, the USA, The Netherlands, Austria, the United Kingdom, Norway etc.), some of whom have been dealing with these topics since the sixties. Surely the topics that we are interested in are not just trending, but there does not seem to be any turning back. Estonia, having been called a “forerunner” in digital technologies, is a perfect place to critically look at the effects that these new technologies have on society and the spaces that we share.

Currently, the curators are organizing a fundraiser to develop an additional virtual pavilion for the exhibition in Venice. The virtual counterpart of the pavilion will allow people to use their computers to browse the exhibition, and furthermore, to manipulate the physical space in the pavilion and vice versa, in real time -