A Conversation with the curators of the Angolan Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale

Beyond Entropy works around the concept of energy for producing new forms of spatial practice. It is directed by Stefano Rabolli Pansera, an Italian architect based in London. The Africa projects are co-directed by Paula Nascimento, an Angolan architect who studied and lived in London for over a decade before moving back to Luanda. Stefano and Paula curated the exhibition “Luanda Encyclopedic City”, awarded the Golden Lion at the 55th Venice Biennale (1 June to 24 November, 2013). The following conversation took place in July 2013, between Lisbon, Porto, Luanda and London.

First of all, congratulations for the Golden Lion at La Biennale di Venezia. I would like to start by talking about the formation of Beyond Entropy (B/E). What are the scope and objectives of the project?

Stefano Rabolli Pansera: Beyond Entropy was set up in 2009 as part of the Architectural Association (AA) in London. At the time I was teaching and I was interested in exploring a specific theme: Energy. I believe this is a central issue in contemporary architectural discourse but very often architects reduce the concept of Energy to a technical issue: CO2 emissions, green energy, solar panels, etc. I was interested in Energy beyond the rhetoric of sustainability. I wanted to create an inter-disciplinary cluster, to collaborate with artists, scientists and architects in order to create prototypes for a new spatial understanding of the concept of Energy.

You were part of the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale and then the Milan Triennale. How – and why – did a think-tank jump to such important events?

SRP: The cluster of research was a huge undertaking. We visited CERN in Geneva, we took part at Lecce Energy Festival, we organized lectures and symposia in London. All the participants were incredibly committed and I wanted to offer them a platform for exhibiting their research in a larger stage than the academic framework of the AA. I decided to apply as a collateral event to the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale. The works that we developed were very ambitious and unpredictable: they were prototypes in-between artworks, architectural models and scientific experiments… They were brilliant inventions to understand the relationship between Energy and Space with new eyes. The show was very successful and we were invited to exhibit at the Milan Triennale in the following year.

Meanwhile, B/E expanded to different regions. What motivated the re-definition of the project? How is it structured?

SRP: After the Triennale exhibition in Milan, I wanted to separate Beyond Entropy from the school and transform it into an independent spatial agency. In a way, it was a natural progression. Today, Beyond Entropy operates in Europe, Mediterranean and Africa: B/E Europe focuses on the dissolution of the distinction between city and countryside in a uniform entropic landscape; B/E Mediterranean focuses on the bipolar occupation of the Mediterranean coast, constantly alternating between protection and touristic exploitation, between shrinking urban life and overcrowded seasonal tourism; B/E Africa focuses on the morphology of the African city where huge urban conurbations are built and occupied despite the lack of basic infrastructure. In each territory we propose a new spatial model in the form of a building or infrastructure, exhibition, publication, etc…

Paula Nascimento: It is important to stress the geo-political aspect of the projects, thus Beyond Entropy gradually established itself as an international network. We started by researching Luanda, as the paradigm of the extraordinary urban transformations currently happening in sub-Saharan cities. Since last year, we have been developing this research, supported by several exhibition projects…

…Including the Architecture Biennale in 2012. How does such a young project gain institutional recognition so quickly, becoming the Republic of Angola first official representation in Venice?

SRP: Paula and I met in Venice in September 2010 during a workshop organised by the AA. I had just completed the exhibition “Beyond Entropy, when Energy becomes Form” at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini. While chatting in the beautiful gardens of San Giorgio Island, we decided to organize the first participation of Angola in the Venice Biennale.

Yes, but how did you find official support, funding, etc?

PN: I would say we’ve been relentless, above all. Stefano and I discussed potential projects and routes to pursue, and a clear interest in Luanda and its mutant characteristics emerged. By then we began to conceptualize a project for Angola and – why not? – an official participation. It was very important to frame the proposal in such a way that the Angolan authorities – in this case the Ministry of Culture – could understand why it could be important for Angola to have a National Pavilion at the Biennale.

How did you convince the Ministry?

PN: If Angola is on the news every so often because of its economic growth, why not expand this presence in events of such high cultural calibre, especially bearing in mind the strength of its contemporary production? By exporting culture at highest level, we are also making a statement about a young nation that is not just about oil and money but has something else to export.

Then how did you manage to put this in practice?

SRP: After an initial understanding of the logistics and the overall budget, we met in Luanda in November 2011 and, thanks to the Italian ambassador in Luanda, Giuseppe Mistretta, we had a meeting with the Minister of Culture of Angola…

PN: The Ministry considered the project but took almost half a year to give us permission to participate as a National Pavilion. It was a complex process of negotiation – and in fact we are thankful to the extraordinary help from the Italian Embassy, as well as the Angolan Embassy in Rome. In the end, we did get a letter confirming Angola’s first ever participation and Beyond Entropy as curators.

How did you move on from there?

PN: In parallel to this long process, we made proposals for collaborating with local universities and only one – Universidade Metodista de Angola – seemed interested in the idea we presented. At the same time, we started fundraising. We got private sponsoring from Angolan and Italian companies, and also had to investment some of our personal money in order to design and build the installation.

Stefano Rabolli Pansera and Paula Nascimento with Golden Lion. Photograph by Italo Rondinella.

The project presented an approach to Luanda that is often neglected in architecture and urban studies. It acknowledged the infrastructural problems of its complex urban mesh, but it also understood its qualities. Can you describe the model you proposed and reflect on the impact such model could have?

SRP: We developed an initial investigation in Cazenga with a group of students from Universidade Metodista. It was a wonderful experience to try to understand how space is dwelled and inhabited there. Every space performs simultaneously a multiplicity of functions: every house is simultaneously office, warehouse, garage, public space… We proposed to preserve this quality. We suggested a proposal that performs simultaneously as public space and infrastructure, using a plant called Arundo Donax, a shrub whose roots filter naturally dirty waters and whose log contains filters that are ideal to produce bio-mass.

PN: The proposal is a critique to the notion of requalification as it stands and is being implemented in Luanda, a city that is chaotic yet emblematic on many levels. Luanda is changing and growing extremely fast, and between extreme conditions: on the one hand, a city planned according to Chinese and American models; on the other hand, an informal city growing organically in the interstitial spaces; then there is the colonial city, which is slowly being erased… Our proposal somehow negotiates in-between these realities.

You’re raising many interesting topics. I’m interested in the methodology you followed, I know it’s not easy to work in the ‘forgotten’ areas of Luanda. Can you tell a bit more about the workshops with students?

PN: After a few meetings with the local administration and the directors at the University, we started a week-long workshop with 4th and 5th year students in Cazenga. Initially, we visited the neighbourhood to understand its contrasts and complexity, and to make students engage with a reality that is often under-represented or forgotten, as you say. Later, students choose four buildings and examined them in detail, almost like a forensic investigation of each space, looking at the construction details, the living habits, the time passage, drawing everything, understanding the spatial intelligence that exists and is often unseen. In addition to this live experience, we managed to receive some data from the local authorities, which helped us to shape an image of the neighbourhood. Almost simultaneously to this boot-camp work, we did research on the properties and use of Arundo Donax.

http://www.vimeo.com/51669672

The concept seems absolutely suitable for the context. How was the exhibition received in Angola and elsewhere?

SRP: There was an extraordinary interest on the project both from the architectural world and from the art world. For instance, we were invited by Bice Curiger to write an article on Parkett and we had the chance to extend the research with an exhibition in Porto [Luanda de Baixo P’ra Cima].

PN: To be honest, we didn’t get much scrutiny and visibility in Angola. The truth is that barely anyone believed in the project or saw relevance on what we were doing, apart from the academic world. Internationally though, the conversation was different. The fact that Angola was participating for the first time at La Biennale, in such a special location – Isola di San Giorgio –, drew a lot of attention. I believe that the ideas behind the project and the fact it offered a potential solution to a real problem, created an agenda for discussing the city.

These are somehow controversial topics in the context of Angola, where the ongoing strategies of urban regeneration give little attention to a city that is already there, in favour of something else. What were the common reactions you got?

PN: Opinions sometimes reduce the project to a purely academic research, but I think that perspective is wrong. It is obvious that the aim of the installation was to communicate the concept and make a bold statement, but we believe in the implementation of the project, which would require adjustments and deeper on-site exploration. I think that it is a project to be revisited. Perhaps more important than its implementation, is the transversal discussion it can raise. We will present the project in Luanda in the end of the year and I am very curious to see how the Luanda society will react.

Let’s stay at the present for now. The readers want to know about the Golden Lion! It is very clear that Luanda Encyclopedic City emerges as part of your ongoing engagement with Luanda, there is a continuity. Despite being part of an art biennale, there is a strong architectural connotation in it – for sure for both of you being architects, and Edson [Chagas] being a photographer documenting the city. But the exhibition also complies very straight-forwardly with the general theme of the Biennale, very “architectural” itself [Encyclopedic Palace]. Edson’s photographs show a silent Luanda, which seems almost a paradox. I found his images very poetic, beautiful and meaningful. They talk about walls, textures, imperfection… They show a certain kind of Luanda that is certainly not that of a fast growing city full of glazed walls and shiny materials…

PN: Absolutely!

And then your work as curators enabled for a tied relationship between all the different elements, at various scales: the photos in relation to the rooms and its old paintings; the exhibition in relation to the city, as the visitors were able to take the posters with them…

SRP: The work of Edson embodies the encyclopedic modus operandi which is simultaneously a documentation as much as a poetic invention. He does not just simply documents found objects. On the contrary, he finds the objects; he re-locates them in the city and then he documents them. Every time an object is repositioned, it produces a new kind of relationship with the context that affects the surrounding and that changes the object itself. It is the moment when his work becomes a creative act.

PN: Luanda’s downtown, where most of the photographs were taken, is made of colonial architecture which is being left to die to give space for the speculative buildings. There is almost a sense of nostalgia, because soon most of the details captured in Edson’s images will disappear…

Funnily enough, most of the painters present in that room were urban painters… What could be seen as an act of transgression with the placement of the contemporary Luanda against the classical Venice, ended up being a well-balanced coexistence.

There is also another aspect which I think is important, the relation with the city. It is not only about the fact that people take the posters with them, but also the fact that we managed to activate another point in the cultural geography of Venice and the Biennale. The Pallazzo is always closed; no one’s allowed to see the Cini collection. It is now open only because of this show. To a certain extent, Piero della Francesca and Botticelli must be thankful to Edson for his photographs allowed them to be seen and revisited.

http://www.vimeo.com/69163650

By the way, how did the relationship with Cini Foundation start?

SRP: We have the privilege of working with the Fondazione Giorgio Cini since 2009. This collaboration has been central in the development of Beyond Entropy. Fondazione Cini is the epicentre of Beyond Entropy Europa, the headquarters of our research on the sprawl and the entropic landscape of the contemporary European territory.

There is another aspect I would like to address, the exhibition’s rationality. The heights of the piles vary due to structural reasons. It is a technical decision, there is nothing random about it… Although, I admit, it makes the exhibition more beautiful. This sort of conjugation between technical and poetic decisions make a project successful…

PN: That is exactly what architecture – or spatial manipulation – should be about: using technique to express poetry in every situation. I like control, and the spatial arrangement was meticulously planned, but I must admit, there were moments of ‘chance’ when for example the colours of Edson’s images matched and complemented the existing paintings…

SRP: The rational aspect that you are referring to is very much in line with the motto of Beyond Entropy: “changing nothing so that everything is different”. The Angolan Pavilion activates a latent Museum in Venice by not changing anything: no painting was moved from the walls, no radical change in the layout of the rooms. We filled the centre of the rooms – which are always empty – with twenty-three stacks of posters. All the decisions were almost pre-determined. It was very important the collaboration with Tankboys, the graphic designers and art directors of the pavilion who played an active role in the definition of the format of the exhibition.

We had to work on a low budget: so the catalogue had to be the exhibition and the exhibition had to be the catalogue. The disposition of the stacks of posters on the floor was determined by the distribution of the load on the beams. The structural load of the posters defined the height of each stack and the position in the room while the number and the distance between the posters was set by the fire regulation.

In this respect, your exhibition is fundamentally different from the Portuguese one, which to me seems almost too extravagant. For instance, a boat is not a building, so why would you cover it in ceramic tiles? Anyway, have you been at Portugal’s exhibition? And, by the way, any comments about the Biennale as a whole?

SRP: I confess I haven’t seen the Biennale yet. We spent all the time at the pavilion…

PN: Honestly Paulo, I haven’t seen it yet! I saw it from a distance, at the Giardini. The time in Venice was so hectic, there wasn’t a chance to appreciate other pavilions, which is a shame. I noticed the Portuguese pavilion had a great program of events. But maybe due to the current political and economic situation that Portugal is living, I feel a slight nostalgia when I see the “old cacilheiro” and the tiles, a memory of greatness that was and will not return.

Image from the series Found Not Taken, 2009-2013, by Edson Chagas, Luanda, Encyclopedic City, Pavilion Republic of Angola, 55th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Cortesy of Edson Chagas, A Palazzo Gallery.

To the eye of an outsider, the Angola participation in Venice had some unclear situations… I’m talking about the exhibition “Angola em Movimento”, parallel to yours. Can you tell how you co-lived with the other exhibition, and with the coverage it had in the Angola media?

PN: In order to understand this, we must go a bit backwards… and mention the proposal we presented at the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale. Like we said, it was very successful internationally and generated an invitation for participation this year, at the art biennale, and we decided to engage the Ministry once again. When we presented the proposal to the Minister of Culture, she agreed to support our project in half of the initial budget, but wanted to organize a wider showcase of Angolan arts, and we agreed to help the Ministry doing that. They decided to take a sample of the ENSA collection and organized an exhibition, curated by Jorge Gumbe, titled “Angola em Movimento” which is a more traditional showcase of Angolan arts. This is a parallel exhibition, not the official biennale participation and is installed on the 2nd floor of the Pallazzo Cini. We are in the first floor.

Perhaps because this was the contribution from the Ministry, it was publicised in Angola as being the main exhibition, and very little attention was given to the actual official show. This is also a new process in Angola, and the ambiguity in the communication of what was happening in Venice generated a lot of confusion. There seems to be an understanding that the prize was given to everything shown at the Pallazzo Cini, when in fact, it was given only to the registered project – the jury statement is very clear! We weren’t in Luanda at the time and decided to detach ourselves from any discussion regarding this confusion. But among the international artistic community there is full awareness about the different statuses of the two exhibitions.

Concerning the reactions to the prize, an important German magazine dismissed the Angola participation in an article titled “Angola! Wo ist Angola?”, as if the country had no legitimacy to succeed in the Art World. Among other insinuations, it accused personally Stefano for lobbying among the Venice art circle. Would you like to comment?

PN: I have to say that it was quite sad all this because the criticism wasn’t directed at the artworks of Edson or even the curatorial approach. It was an article from someone who was clearly frustrated that Germany or other country with longer tradition at the Biennale didn’t win and was implying that Angola (and thus Africa) could only win because of lobbying… It is sad that the author did not engage in a conversation about art and state of African arts.

SRP: This is the reason why we decided not to answer publicly to that journalist: there is no point in arguing on the basis of insinuations and cheap gossip. The answers by other curators and by the general public were clear enough to terminate the debate around this mediocre and unfortunate article. Apart from this episode, we are happy to engage in any discussion and we accept criticism based on the curatorial approach and on the artistic contents of the exhibition.

For you, what is the state of Angolan arts? And how do you plan to keep contributing to artistic culture in the near future?

PN: There is a lot of production from young artists and obviously an older generation. However, there are very few proper professional structures that can support those artists. We need more schools, galleries and platforms to support what is being produced by Angolan contemporary artists. The Luanda Triennale gave the starting point, and the several independent studios and projects such as e-studio [Antonio Ole, Rita GT, Francisco Vidal and Nelo Teixeira] are trying to establish alternative platforms for debate. But we still have a long way to go…

SRP: We are setting up an ambitious programme of artists residencies in Sardinia, as part of Beyond Entropy Mediterranean. The open-air gallery of Mangiabarche and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Calasetta will operate as epicentre for the continuous cultural and artistic exchange between artists from Mediterranean and from Africa. In other words: the best is yet to come.

This interview was originally published by Arte Capital in August 2013. Versão portuguesa, disponível aqui.

Further Reading

The house of exile

Edward Said once said of the usefulness of exile for intellectual work: it involves adopting “a spirit of opposition, rather than accommodation.” James Baldwin and Sisonke Msimang took it to heart.