Image: LA BIENNALE. Part Freudian slip, part squatter, part as home as it gets. The program banner at Ole Bouman’s Value Factory announcing the L. A. Biennale to be. Shenzhen, February 2014. Video still.
A recent trip to Shenzhen to take part in the yet to be founded Los Angeles Biennale, brought to mind an odd selection of works I treasure for their possible outcomes. More allusions than reference, they suggest an expanded view at lasting resistances.
“Perhaps it would be better to get accustomed to designing obscure uncertainty than presuming the design of certainty” closes Ettore Sottsass’ brief introduction to Designs for the destinies of man.(1) One piece in particular, Design of a floor on which your steps will be uncertain, demonstrates his operating the uncharted: a fragile grid spanning a reflective ground. Seemingly a combination of various scales, if any, it challenges your sense of surface, space and potential. This is probably the most ambiguous and revealing piece in this series of fast translations which he began in the early 1970s while on a self-imposed vacation from consumerist products and attitudes, and on excursion into the blunt territories of the Architettura Radicale.(2) Installations, photographs and drawings animated the recurring subjects then at the center of his practice. More than 40 years later, uncertainty and destiny continue to play out their seductive powers.
Image: Design of a floor on which your steps will be uncertain. Bañolas, 1973 © Ettore Sottsass.
An invitation to join the ‘idea’ of a Los Angeles Biennale does just that—you read it, you are in. Next, I find myself on endlessly delayed flights eastward, from Berlin to Istanbul to Hong Kong, then sailing to Shenzhen. As far away from Los Angeles as before. I am used to traveling the other way around; when they say that once you reach the Los Angeles coastline this is the end of the continent. And of an attitude, which matters more. This line is the limit of what was laid out as Manifest Destiny, for those challenging their fate in that world. It is also the boundary of a land—all included—that for reasons of precaution or control, has been tamed through the imposition of an abstract grid.
The grid has long extended its lure and the staging of the birth of the Los Angeles Biennale nowhere near L.A. seems a natural consequence. A dropped pin, not even renamed. The usual impossibilities ‘on location’ are but jovial challenges to village-turned-megalopolis Shenzhen. A Los Angeles-based biennale would be a mutant much in the tradition of all those biennales that mushroomed around the world ever since la Biennale (first held in Venice in 1895). At its best, this would be an absurd endeavor with the sole touch of ‘been there, done that.’ At its worst, it would mean agonizing questions about time, location, protagonists, or content—naturally met with dismay, hostility, unease. The common denominator pops up: to agree on what it isn’t.
A journey that wasn’t is a collective experiment undertaken in 2005 by Maryse Alberti, Jay Chang, Francesca Grassi, Pierre Huyghe, Q Takeki Maeda, Aleksandra Mir, Xavier Veilhan, and ten crew members of a research vessel. The journey was to lead to the encounter of a single white animal, as rumors went, the resident of an unnamed island in the environs of the Polar Antarctic Circle. All foreseeable though unimaginable obstacles fell into place—weather, currents, pack ice—provoking corrections in the storyline and countless assumptions. In the end the group might have seen embodiments of the single white animal. But what had been the incentive for a polar expedition meanwhile became supporting cast of an ‘anti-spectacle’ or, as Pierre Huyghe put it, “We just invent fiction and we give ourselves the real means to discover it. ...It’s just a process of finding something and bringing it to light. The important thing is the movement. It’s not so much what you find as whether the movement exposes something.”(3)
Image: A journey that wasn't. Antarctica, 2005 © Pierre Huyghe, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York
Later in 2005, in what could be seen as a sequel, Pierre Huyghe reenacted the journey in the Wollman Ice Rink in Central Park. Contrary to the Antarctica trip, which, deliberatly or not, left little evidence apart from a good story, this time he produced a film record of some 20 minutes. To blur the scope again: “‘A journey that wasn’t.’ It’s called that because the journey happened . . . or did not. It was also kind of a mental journey, and maybe that’s the one I’m most interested in. I think of it as a process. ...We don’t know if I even went there—if I saw this island or the albino penguin. Maybe I did. Maybe it’s a special effect. I don’t care.”(4)
And really, in this somewhere between one’s own untraceable existence and the inability to focus within an allegedly white, single color context, doesn’t it seem just adequate to only temporarily operate on the assumption of this single white animal, instead of forthright evidence?
Image: A journey that wasn't. New York, 2005 © Pierre Huyghe, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York
To the Los Angeles Biennale both Designs for the destinies of man and A journey that wasn’t are the unsolicited muses. This ‘idea,’ that on the verge of emergence finds itself invited to the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture, also meant to spend days on end perusing Los Angeles: the impossibility to grasp ‘it’ while ‘it’ creeps into your subconscious. A longing, an awkward ambience, all blurred and intrinsically related, bearing little to focus on. This is the challenge when plotting a biennale on Los Angeles. Anything can happen, including yourself on live broadcast tuning too many airwaves with no signal. L.A. is just that.
Eight of us sitting at a table in the huge and drafty industrial space of what is the lobby of the Value Factory. We endure our analog and somewhat alien existence, obviously banking on the disconcerting glam that Los Angeles spreads naturally. Conversations nowhere near a topic, location or state of mind to ‘justify’ a biennale. A slightly deluded audience lingers around. The Los Angeles Biennale diffuses from documentation to narrative to fiction. And what else would it want to be?
This is the biennale that isn’t. Where concepts are abandoned for realities. Where Los Angeles is as is: a desire, a horizon, a place where they call you an Angeleno the moment you understand the Freeway system, all fatalities and absurdities included. Where even the latest technology suggests rather than anticipates possible outcomes. This does not happen biannually. It happens, it is a life feed, and it needs little more than a corner to squat. While in Shenzhen this past February, the Los Angeles Biennale that isn’t did just that.
1 Ettore Sottsass: Designs for the destinies of man, in Ettore Sottsass, Metaphors. Milco Carboni, Barbara Radice, eds. (Milano: Skira, 2002), 43.
2 In the late 60s Sottsass ended his collaboration with Olivetti, which he commented “I didn’t want to do any more consumerist products, because it was clear that the consumerist attitude was quite dangerous.” http://www.iconeye.com/read-previous-issues/icon-046-|-april-2007/ettore-sottsass-|-icon-046-|-april-2007
3 Pierre Huyghe in a conversation on PBS Art 21, 2005, http://www.pbs.org/art21/images/pierre-huyghe/a-journey-that-wasn’t-2005?slideshow=1
Image: The Los Angeles Biennale at the Bi-City Biennale, Shenzhen, February 2014
A Biennale That Isn't by Karen Lohrmann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
The Los Angeles Biennale is an experimentation in creating a nomadic biennale on urbanism, hosted by the International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam. This blog will cover the preparation, activities and findings from this experiment.