One morning I woke up to a surprising text: my friend was on TMZ. For reasons never communicated to me, she had been hanging out with a celebrity of some renown when, as they walked to a club, they were surrounded by paparazzi. To distract them, my friend impulsively decided to lift up her shirt. “FRIEND FLASHES BOOBIE DECOY … Photogs Forced to Choose,” the headline read.
Despite what you may have heard, not all publicity is good publicity. Celebrities might run on attention but that doesn’t mean they always want a camera trained on their chiseled features. Sometimes they need a kind friend to lift up her shirt. Corporate sponsorships are similar. The whole point is to bring positive attention to the company, but the sponsoree doesn’t necessarily want the public’s gaze to fall on the relationship. Attention is finite—so you want to make sure it’s oriented in the right direction. Better cue up some good programming.Attention is finite—so you want to make sure it’s oriented in the right direction
Such was probably the case with the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Sure, the logo for the oil and gas mega-corporation BP is featured prominently on their site. Yes, the head of BP spoke at the opening press conference. But, at the same time, and in line with its mission to catalogue the “state of the art of architecture” today, the exhibition made clear reference to the ecological catastrophes that mark the present. So it probably didn’t want all that much attention paid to its bosom buddy, the company that spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico—the worst oil spill in the history of oil spills.
After all, what are the implications for works like “Filter Island” by UrbanLab, which centered on the issue of water pollution, when it was funded by a company that ravaged the coast of Louisiana? Or for the work of BIG, which used the blood money it received from BP (the oil spill claimed the lives of at least twelve people) to publicize a waste-to-energy plant that they brand as a beacon of their “hedonistic sustainability”? Or, for that matter, the Biennial in general and its claim to serve as “a platform for the creative breakthroughs that are reimagining the ways we inhabit and shape the world around us”?
In any case, it’s easy to see why BP might sponsor an architecture exhibit, despite having little to do—ostensibly—with architecture (besides helping to make buildings run, of course). By dumping cash into a major cultural initiative, they appear benevolent rather than evil. It’s the same reason they changed their logo to look like it belongs to an overpriced organic grocery store. But does it go both ways? In short, were the politics presented in Chicago mere window dressing for an event that’s more about gaining social—maybe even a bit of regular—capital for the people who put it on and the architects who participated? Or, perhaps more disturbing: is the architecture exhibition—or even architecture in general—a sleight of hand, a distraction from the true architecting of the world happening in the background as supposedly concerned parties concern themselves with ‘discourse’ while sipping bellinis?The state of the art of architecture is looking pretty rough.
In other words, one could argue that the ‘true of architecture’—that which is most responsible for the design of the world we inhabit—is not what was pinned on the walls of the Chicago Cultural Center but rather what took place miles to the south, in the now-iridescent waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In that, exhibitions could be said to serve as a form of exhibitionism. According to Freud, exhibitionism is “a means of constantly insisting upon the integrity of the subject’s own genitals” (1905). By showing off your junk, you’re saying, “Look, I’m still intact!” (The castration complex is just about as fraught an idea as you can get, but go with me here.) Translated to architecture, the exhibition could be said to constitute an attempt to vouch for the integrity—and autonomy—of the discipline. There is still a legit architecture, even if other architects are cashing checks from dictators or twiddling their thumbs while workers die en masse on their sites. Or: look at our "sustainable" practices, not the fossil fuel company that funds their presentation. But the (often legitimately) radical research on view is just as embedded in this messy, neoliberal world as the “other architecture”. Exhibitions are paid for by oil and gas conglomerates. Academics belong to institutions funded by hedge funds. There is no escape. There is no autonomy. The state of the art of architecture is looking pretty rough.
Of course, Chicago is hardly alone in this. A vast architecture of corporate relationships supports and enables the exhibition of architecture today. The catalogue for Alejandro Aravena’s Reporting from the Front—the most recent Venice Biennale, widely touted as returning ‘social consciousness’ to the profession—is emblazoned with the Rolex logo, a company universally recognized as a symbol of extreme wealth. If we want to talk about “fronts” right now, we should probably talk about the unequal distribution of wealth worldwide.
The 2016 Venice Biennale was also funded by JTI, or Japan Tobacco International, which peddles cancer. Meanwhile, the American Pavilion in Venice is, and always has been, sponsored by the United States State Department, best-known to most non-U.S. Americans for its role in toppling their democratically-elected governments. The German Pavilion is funded, in part, by the wealth management company s. boehme & co. and the von Metzler banking family. The Brazilian Pavilion is paid for by the bank Itaú, the telecommunications company Oi, and the oil and gas company Petrobas, as well as other major corporations.Does dirty money invalidate a discourse?
The 2016 Istanbul Design Biennial, which was based on the premise that “we live in a time when everything is designed” from chemicals to the planet to humans, was sponsored by the leading petrochemical company in Turkey, Petkim, which was scrutinized in the late ‘90s for dumping large quantities of toxic waste into the ground. It also received support from the Turkish industrial group Eczacıbaşı, whose holdings include major pharmaceutical companies and financial groups. The Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism is paid for by the China Merchants Group, a state-owned enterprise, as well as Vanke, the massive real estate developer (among other corporations, notably several other luxury real estate developers).
Meanwhile, on the smaller side of things, there are the sponsors of architecture galleries, like the Serpentine Galleries, which hosts the annual Serpentine Pavilion. This year’s architecture programme, the largest ever, was supported mainly by Goldman Sachs. On the other side of the pond, the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s founding partners include the mining company Alcan and the holding company Power Corporation of Canada. Does dirty money invalidate a discourse? Maybe not, but we should probably start talking about it.
According to Francisco Diaz (in a letter written for a publication produced by the Chilean architects TOMA as part of their exhibit within the Chicago Architecture Biennial), there were at least 37 biennials related to the fields of architecture, design, and art between 2015 and 2016. That amounts to one biennial every 2.59 weeks. For a significant chunk of architects, biennials (and triennials) are one of the most important venues to showcase their research. In fact, in 2017, one could claim that there exists an entire subsection of architects who could be called ‘exhibitionists’ (if you were so-inclined). They tend to not—or rarely—receive commissions to build. But they are academics or intellectuals, responsible for the production and dissemination of discourse.
In many ways, these are the architects producing the most radical thinking and the most engaging work. As such, rather than looking at exhibitions as a site of mere representation, present conditions demand that they be viewed as a site of the practice of architecture. Or, more precisely, as a site within the larger architectonics of architecture: a launching ground for careers, a venue for the display of new ideas, and a mechanism for the production of discourse. And, like most architecture, exhibitionary architecture requires real estate to happen. In the case of big biennials, that real estate is purchased by corporate sponsors (unless you’re in Oslo, where your triennale is funded in part by an oil-funded government).you can’t eat discourse or social capital
Then there’s academic galleries hosted by universities. Of course, this real estate is also, indirectly, funded by corporations. But, probably more to the point, such exhibitions produce a discourse so hermeneutic that it’s even rare for students outside of the architecture department to participate in it. A few alum will probably come by. One or two visitors to campus. It would be hard to defend these exhibitions as truly public. In other words, it’s private land on which private space, for private ideas, is built.
In other cases, the real estate is purchased, or leased, by an individual, typically called a gallerist. In general, these architecture exhibitions are a floundering mess when it comes to money (and, to be frank, form, but that’s for another essay). By and large, they borrow their financial model from the art industry. But, unlike (some) artists, architects don’t accumulate collectors over time. Their work doesn’t accrue more value the more they exhibit. In other words, there’s no real point for architects to exhibit besides the production of discourse and the collection of social capital. But you can’t eat discourse or social capital.
To make matters worse, architects don’t really tend to produce exhibitable work on their own. Instead, architects usually make pieces specifically for a given exhibit, which can be a costly endeavor. After all, architectural works tend to be more expensive to make than your average acrylic painting or bricolage sculpture. Either the gallery coughs up some money, which is bad business, or the architect scrounges up some cash, which means their participation in the exhibition is a cost-negative affair. So, it’s not really a coincidence that most exhibiting architects are also (often financially precarious, adjunct) professors. Of course, there are many architecture galleries that valiantly try to develop a collector base for the architects whom they exhibit—but this is a difficult challenge and, from what I’ve gathered anecdotally, it rarely pans out. And, for what it’s worth, many architects seem to prefer it this way since, particularly among the politically “woke” bourgeoisie, money is still a bad word. But then what’s the point? Is architectural discourse really worth precarity? If the political language of big biennials serves to distract from their complicity with corporations, then the price list for a small gallery is basically a streaker that nobody notices trying to draw attention away from the fact that architects are, by and large, completely victim to economic configurations that marginalize them. And they’re not really doing anything about it.Is architectural discourse really worth precarity?
Basically, the real estate market that serves as the foundation for the production of architectural discourse is unsustainable. Either it requires a re-evaluation of what it means to partner with corporate money—as well as a wager that corporations will continue sponsoring shows if another crash comes around—or architects need to get their hands ‘dirty’ in another way and experiment with new financial models. Just as architects are increasingly having to invent economic models for their practice, the economy of the architectural exhibition must be re-imagined. And there are ways to do that. Rather than just some poor schmuck taking out a loan and going into the red, the costs of operating a gallery, or even a biennial, could be shared by all interested parties—the students, professors, practitioners, and public who care about how and why architecture is made. It’s not about constructing a false appearance of integrity or pseudo-autonomy from economic realities, it’s about treating economies—and other structures structuring architecture—as objects to be designed. In other words, it’s possible to own the means of our own discourse-production. It just requires some smart investments.
Some of this research was conducted under the auspices of Adjustments Agency, a research-driven curatorial studio.
Writer and fake architect, among other feints. Principal at Adjustments Agency. Co-founder of Encyclopedia Inc. Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org