After Belonging: Where we are and How did we end up there

Strelka Magazine talked with Oslo Architecture Triennale curators Ignacio González Galán and Marina Otero Verzier.

Oslo Triennale curators Ignacio González Galán, Carlos Minguez Carrasco, Lluís Alexandre Casanovas Blanco, Marina Otero Verzier and Alejandra Navarrese Llopis / Photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Virag

“Being at home entails different definitions nowadays, both within domestic settings and in the spaces defined by national boundaries,” Oslo Architectural Triennale 2016 manifest postulates. This year the sixth edition of the Triennale is curated by After Belonging Agency (ABA), a group of five professional architects from New York and Rotterdam

A Triennale In Residence, On Residence and the Way We Stay In Transit,the official title of this year’s biennale, takes some effort to puzzle out. The opening manifesto clarifies the meaning: “Global circulation of people, information, and goods has destabilized what we understand by residence, questioning spatial permanence, property, and identity – a crisis of belonging. But, simultaneously, circulation also promotes growing inequalities for large groups, kept in precarious states of transit. After Belonging examines both our attachment to places and collectivities as well as our relation to the objects we own, share, and exchange”.

After Belonging conference at the Oslo Opera House / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Viraq

The entire program of this year’s Triennale is an attempt to figure out where we are and how we ended up there. In order to find answers to these questions, the curators have split the program into nine parts, including: two exhibitions, On Residence and In Residence; a conference at the Oslo Opera House; a forum,The Academy, at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design; a publication, After Belonging; a collection of articles investigating the idea of belonging; and The New World Embassy: Rojava, a development of a stateless embassy representing Kurdish communities of northern Syria in the heart of Oslo. Despite bearing similar names, the exhibitions have conceptual differences. On Residencedocuments the spatial conditions that shape the new belonging and the constant state of transit. In Residence explores ten sites where the new identity has already formed and five intervention strategies that study architectural opportunities in these new conditions.

Strelka Magazine executive editor Darya Golovina asked Oslo Triennale curators Ignacio González Galán and Marina Otero Verzier whether the moment of transformation of belonging can be caught in time, about the similarities with the theme of the 2016 Venice Biennale Reporting from the Front, and what architects are to do in the fast-changing world of today.

— It looks like After Belonging, the theme of this year’s Triennale, has been out there for a long time. Immigration crisis, internet of things, Uber, Airbnb – these are the realities of the same new era we are discussing here. Were you afraid that the selected theme would be perceived as trivial? How did you discover the right angle to make your theme conceptually appealing?

Marina Otero Verzier: Well, I think you put it quite right: the theme and term that we have selected are relatable and easily understood by many people. And yet precisely because of that we think they deserve “unpacking” and further investigation. As curators, we think it is important to discuss belonging as a common and relatable concept and at the same time remain very precise about discerning between the different definitions of that term which exist today. Aspects that may appear obvious might actually be surprisingly obscure, as shown by the various debates which we observed.

Ignacio Gonzalez Galan: I think that “belonging” in the architectural culture has been associated with a very particular sense of attachment in a very traditional way. This phenomenological attachment to places deserves being researched and discussed. Nowadays the idea of belonging is being discussed everywhere and by everybody, which forces architects to look into it. In architecture, the term was somehow appropriated by a specific approach to the profession. We wanted to question and inspect that approach.

— What part of your work on this Triennale’s program and theme did you find the most challenging?

Ignacio Gonzalez Galan: I would say that curating is a challenge of being able to give voice to those who are producing content related to the topic that you want to investigate, and at the same time empower certain voices through your selections or the type of conversations you want to have. I suppose it is a common challenge for any curator, so that rose up in our case as well. At the exhibitions we have created platforms where most of the practices that we aimed to empower and certain kinds of fair protest have been highlighted. When a conference tries to bring different agents from completely different positions, certain frictions between them should be expected.

Marina Otero Verzier: When we started the Triennale project in 2014, there had already been issues connected to the migration and refugee situation. We had to make decisions on how to talk about these issues and what type of practices and what sort of interventions we would include in the Triennale. We decided that we did not want to approach these issues from a paradigm of the crisis or resort to a rhetoric of urgency. For us, to discuss issues like the ones that we are discussing today in a moment of global and media pressure was the hardest challenge. And we tried to avoid thinking only about solutions. Our take is that by focusing solely on providing a shelter, we ignore the consequences and the larger context of circulatory processes that affect the conditions of these people. Positioning ourselves at the Triennale within this particular moment and this particular context was a demanding challenge.

— There are a lot of similarities between this year’s Oslo Triennale and the Venice Biennale. What, in your opinion, were the goals of the Venice Biennale, and which large-scale goals are set for the Oslo Triennale?

Ignacio Gonzalez Galan: I think that they are similar because they regard an architect as someone who can have a say in contemporary challenges. We have been very willing to engage in the transformation of the profile that an architect has to take and the way in which they have to engage with a very large set of technological transformations, aesthetic processes and sociopolitical actors that might empower the architect not as an autonomous practitioner, but as one who has a more fluid definition and has to negotiate numerous questions of varying scale.

Iranian asylum seeker Fazel waits in Torshov transit zone for Norwegian authorities to grant him an entry permit. Fazel claims that he feels like a prisoner and is being treated like an animal. The only thing that keeps up his spirit is the hope that Norway will soon approve his application. Javad Parsa, Moments of Freedom, 2011-2014

— Was Oslo an essential choice of venue? Or could the Triennale have taken place anywhere in the world?

Marina Otero Verzier: Both the curators and the organizers have global ambitions, so we have to discuss global questions that also have local implications. In a way the Triennale could have been held in other places. Yet this Triennale is unique in a particular context: we have collaborated with the School of Architecture, the Museum of Architecture, the Centre for Design and Architecture, the Oslo Business Region, the Association of Architects and many other different organizations which all are a part of this event. Norway is a place that provides an opportunity for a very particular conversation. This welfare state provides a perfect space to search for the ideal political, economic and social model – if such model can even exist within the concept of After Belonging.

— Although you attempt to avoid the word “crisis”, there is hardly a better way to describe the situation that Europe is currently facing. Has there ever been a similar-scale event resembling the current crisis of belonging or its consequences before?

Ignacio Gonzalez Galan: I think that the crisis we are describing or the conditions of the said crisis are closely linked to the ideas of liberal economics and mass migration, and the development of the digital technologies which underlie this transformation. It is linked to modernization, more particularly to its expansion into globalization. Comparing this to any other crisis from human history is futile. At the same time the transformation we are looking at stems from historical processes. These processes are not something that has occurred within the last five or ten years; they originated way before that.

— How would you describe the role of new digital technologies in this crisis of belonging?

Ignacio Gonzalez Galan: Let’s stop calling it a “crisis” and rather refer to it as “changing conditions”.

Marina Otero Verzier: The way in which we look at the technologies is by thinking about the media, forms of organization and logistics that generate new forms of being together. Thus we are looking at new territories,which are not only physical but also digital, and these new conditions create new forms of belonging, new forms of sovereignty, new forms of collectivity and political agency. At the exhibitions we make no attempt to distinguish between the technologically mediated and unmediated realities, because right now it is not that easy to make that distinction. And we are not celebrating technology, nor are we saying that technology is the key component of the problems that we are facing. It is a part of our daily life in many different ways.

So, for example, at the “On Residence” exhibition we have “Uncharted,” a project developed by Folder studio. Their installation tells us that the idea of “belonging” – being connected to the land or to a particular territory – is actually a construction. We experience that construction through the work of satellites; we are ultimately the ones that position ourselves with our cell phones and report our movements. We are interested in how these new technologies allow us to position ourselves and move through these different aspects.

Project Uncharted by Folder / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Viraq
Project Uncharted by Folder / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Viraq
Project Uncharted by Folder / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Viraq
Project Uncharted by Folder / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Viraq
Project Uncharted by Folder / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Viraq
Project Uncharted by Folder / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Viraq

I wanted to just give an example of the project that explains that condition quite well. A group of architects and sociologists from Bergen developed Open Transformation, a project that looks into new ways of hosting asylum seekers in Norway. They asked a question: why are immigrants treated in a different way than the rest of Norwegian population? As a result, the group proposed a solution: bnbOPEN, an Airbnb-inspired platform, which could replace centers for asylum seekers. The platform, developed in collaboration with Hack4Humanity, allows the recent arrivals to get in contact with citizens of Oslo to find proper temporary accommodation.

The developers also think that there is still a need for a gathering place for the new immigrants or refugees where they could share experiences and engage with the local population. They are designing a gathering place within the city center, and this site will not be mediated by bnbOPEN. So, these two projects work together, reconfiguring the city.

Project bnbOPEN / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Viraq
Project bnbOPEN / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Viraq
Project bnbOPEN / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Viraq
Project bnbOPEN / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Viraq

Ignacio Gonzalez Galan: The PANDA project developed by OMA looks into the operation of the sharing economy and how it is affected by mobile apps. The advancement of apps produces efficient aggregations of individuals, the new modes of being together. What would happen if an efficient aggregation was turned against itself by efficiently aggregating the individuals who want to protest against their economy?

Project PANDA by OMA / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Virag
Project PANDA by OMA / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Virag
Project PANDA by OMA / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Virag
Project PANDA by OMA / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Virag
Project PANDA by OMA / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Virag
Project PANDA by OMA / photo by Oslo Architecture Triennale / Istvan Virag

We are neither technophiles, nor are we technophobic. But being people connected to the development of digital technologies, we have to incorporate it into our approach to architecture. Technology directly affects the way we organize spaces, territories and feels related to our own constructions of belonging.

— Conditions that this Triennale studies could prove challenging for architects both young and experienced. How can the architectural profession potentially change in these shifting conditions of belonging? How will professionals be able to adapt and remain relevant beyond their narrow specialties?

Ignacio Gonzalez Galan: I think that one option, as I was saying before, is to be able to reinvent and reconfigure the kind of alliances we have established with other kinds of professionals in order to maintain a certain capacity to transform the context in which we operate. I think that acceptance of other knowledges and practices is going to be key for the future of architecture.

Cover photo by Javad Parsa, Moments of Freedom

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