EXPO 2018: “Dimensions of Citizenship” and the U.S. Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale

Newcity Art
By Lee Ann Norman

Chicago’s annual EXPO stands out among art fairs for its comprehensive slate of supplemental programs, including artist talks, book signings, panel and roundtable discussions, all designed to contextualize the contemporary art landscape as well as Chicago’s role in it. In a timely discussion on citizenship and the role of art, architecture and design, artists and curators participating in the SAIC-University of Chicago curated and organized United States pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale discussed the background and rationale for the 2018 edition, titled “Dimensions of Citizenship,” in which architects and designers were invited to respond to the paradoxes and contradictions around the notion of citizenship. Mimi Zeiger, one of the four pavilion curators, serving as moderator for the discussion, explained that the current political environment ushered in after the 2016 presidential elections along with state and federal funding for the U.S. exhibition made answering questions about what it means to be a citizen of not only the U.S. but also the world, a fraught and charged topic to address visually. The curatorial team and artists created a surprisingly eloquent and concise installation by addressing the question through the lens of the seven scales, a perspective that allowed visitors to look at relationships from the local and regional to the national and global.

After providing a quick walkthrough of the pavilion, describing the featured artists and installations, Zeiger turned it over to the artists for more in-depth descriptions from Keller Easterling, who worked to create a platform called MANY, designed to assist migrants through an exchange of need. Keller noted that adjusting to displacement is eased by the existence of infrastructure—a major reason why migrants go to urban centers to resettle—but barriers often make readjustment a perilous task when most of the infrastructure’s resources are limited to the nation’s definition of “citizen.” The MANY app, according to Easterling, “proposes to diffuse or outwit this opposition by more robustly networking short-term visas and exchanges that may not involve travel. Deliberately positioned at a distance from the sharp end of migration emergencies, the platform serves those who want to resettle as well as those who want to keep traveling—those who never wanted the citizenship or asylum that the nation withholds or reluctantly bestows.”  The project addresses the essential question of agency and choice, Keller noted. Too often, we assume that migrant’s loyalty, affection, and fondness for “home” disappears the minute they flee the chaos at hand.

With “In Plain Sight,” Laura Kurgan and Robert Gerard Pietrusko revisited a prior commission they created in collaboration with Diller Scofidio & Renfro about ten years ago, this time mapping access to natural resources through data visualization. Examining places around the world where there is an abundance of people and little connectivity to the electrical grid in contrast to much connectivity and few people, the artists were able to show the political and social reality of being invisible while simultaneously being visible. For the EXPO discussion, Kurgan and Pietrusko highlighted connectivity rates in Houston pre-and post-Hurricane Harvey, and in Puerto Rico pre-and post-Hurricane Maria, never once in the exhibition or this discussion naming the current U.S. president, the administration’s policies or its disaster response.

Only after these more thorough forays into the artworks did the panel begin to get to the “meat” of the discussion, and to my chagrin, it was much too late. The conversation portion of the panel began with the notion that artists, particularly architects and designers, do a great job of “show and tell” or visualizing problems and issues, but little else to assist people with creating solutions and addressing the challenges. The artists and curator agreed that this is certainly an issue, but this gesture is necessary, providing people with tools to come to their conclusions, make their own decisions and solutions. While I can appreciate that sentiment, after the panel, I was left wanting and wondering: how might art and architecture be used to facilitate notions of democracy instead?