I was selected to participate in the Venice Biennale Fellowship
Programme at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018. Co-ordinated by
the British Council, the programme provides the opportunity for university
students to explore a topic of research, in Venice, whilst working as
stewards at the British Pavilion.
In their statement,
the curators Adam Caruso, Peter St John and Marcus Taylor said:
“There will be many ways to interpret the experience of visiting the 2018
British Pavilion. An island can be a place of both refuge and exile. The state
of the building, which will be completely covered with scaffolding to support
the new platform above, suggests many themes; including abandonment,
reconstruction, sanctuary, Brexit, isolation, colonialism and climate change.”
A STARTING POINT//
A book published by The Store X The Spaces, titled “Island”, was created to
accompany the British pavilion installation. It brings together a collection of
works that have informed the installation’s concept. The book features “The
Raft of the Medusa”: a true story of a devastating shipwreck, in 1816, which left
the 150 crew members to build a makeshift raft. For 13 days the crew floated
aimlessly; fighting, arguing, killing each other, committing suicide, eating each
other – until only 15 remained at the time of rescue.
A painting by Théodore
Géricault in 1818-1819 depicts the raft; here the remaining 15 survivors view a
ship approaching from a distance while death and despair surrounds them.
During my time at the Venice Biennale, I had the opportunity to experience
a sound installation titled “Île Flottante” presented by Kunstakademie
Düsseldorf. The students created an installation based on their interpretations
of this devastatingly true tale.
Two survivors of “The Raft of the Medusa”, Henry Savigny and Alexandre
Corréard, drew a plan of the construction of the raft. The illustration was transformed into a digital three-dimensional piece of architecture. Within a computer programme, a simple ocean wave sound clip was sent through the structure. The sound reverberated against the frame of the raft’s structure. This reverberation was recorded and edited to alternative speeds: creating a disturbing, ethereal, wraith-like noise.
Speakers were set up in corners of each side room; each with a slightly different pitch or speed in sound. This allowed the musical composition to change: to oscillate and to create jarring differences in experience. As the tempo and pitch increased, so did the anxiety levels of the audience.
During the Kunstakademie event, my position was based amongst the internal rooms; like the sounds, I drifted from room to room, often being drawn into conversation and discussion with the visitors of the pavilion.
The sound, created by Arjan Stockhausen, had multiple frequencies overlaid on top of each other to create a perplexing array of noises. The installation ranged from calming, organic frequencies to overwhelming, resonating sounds which alluded to a disturbance. Many people stood in awe, some felt uneasy, while others thoroughly enjoyed moving through alternative dimensions of the sound. The fluctuating vibrations bounced off the walls, the ceiling and the floors: echoing, contracting and expanding.
The sound was continuous, constant and habitual: it moved through the rooms like it lived there. Yet, it remained organic: oscillating and undulating in varying frequencies and pitches as it resonated through the structure of the raft. The architectural layout of the pavilion is symmetrical, however the speakers set up in each room were playing different frequencies of sound. This affected the normal practice of circulation through the pavilion and instead created a foreboding and ominous experiential journey as the visitors move in a circular fashion from entrance – to internal rooms – to entrance: no space was the same. The internal rooms themselves vary in size, so visitors would generally move from a large room, to a smaller room, to another etc.
Flyers of mythology, historical quotes and anecdotes were available for visitors to take away with them. This allowed visitors, who were unaware of the story, to understand the presence of starvation, dehydration, cannibalism and even death
Upon conversation with the visitors, many were fascinated by the story of The Raft of the Medusa and its underlining topics of isolation, precariousness, escape and survival. A particular subject of interest was how societal behaviour acted under uncontrollable circumstances.
“How do we survive on a raft?” “Is a raft an island?” “How should we behave in times of merciless survival?” “How does man-kind react to problems beyond his control?” “If we surround ourselves my only water, who do we go to for help?”
The visitors would also draw connections between The Raft of the Medusa with Marcus Taylor’s and Caruso St John’s depiction of Island. About half the people who I held discussions with, began to ask questions relating to climate change and isolated society:
A visitor said, “It’s scary to think that society – essentially, the people on your raft- are actually your demise: they can harden you and survival makes us vicious.”
Another visitor said, “So, I guess, if climate change does affect our world – will we be fighting each other for survival? Fighting for land? – for space to live, while sea levels rise…?”
A couple, who had not known of the story prior to arriving, were deeply taken back. We discussed the tale and its implications in depth. I explained how the sound installation responded to the story and left them to experience the spaces themselves. Afterwards, they met me again before leaving and said, “This is truly ingenious! To recreate and represent a structure – a story of the raft’s emotional journey – through sound! Amazing! We love it”
Lots of people were also taken aback by the unexpectedness of the event: there was no object to photograph. Instead, the object in question was being represented by sound and so, many people used a voice recorder on their phones to take the installation home with them.
TEA TIME PERFORMANCE//
During the tea time performance, Arjan had used the Aqua Alta siren signal as a base noise for his piece. During this time, the resonating sounds became much more disturbing: as if we were in an alternative reality or within a world that had become increasingly unsteady. As the volume of the piece increased, as did the agitation of the audience. They became noisier, chattier and began to express their confusion. Many of them wanted to join the party and enter a space which others were using. This is a prime example of normal societal behaviour: a party of high aristocratic individuals had been closed off to them, and they wanted to join. We see and therefore we want.
“Surely space, clothes, food and drink should be shared out equally?”
The performers however, were only inviting certain individuals into the closed space – leaving many of the audience to merely observe.
In my experience, the event itself was highly successful in raising awareness on subjects of isolation, society, climate change and “Island”. Creative and thoughtful in their response, the students and tutors of the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf created a consuming and captivating installation that has changed the way I look at civilisation. The event provoked audience and steward interaction – where confusion and question led to stimulating discussions about how we live as a society, our human traits and how we should act.
HEAR FOR YOURSELF//
Below is an audio link to the sound installation created by Arjan Stockhausen.
Many thanks to all staff and students from the Kunstakademie
Düsseldorf and Genevieve Marciniak from the British Council.