Ebooks review by Luís Santiago Baptista
Expanding critically for an absent object
The Lisbon Architecture Triennale has just launched three of the six ebooks slated in the editorial plan of Close, Closer. For the time being, these new releases relate to three of the four core exhibitions of the Triennale’s 3rd edition, held in 2013. With considerable delay, the exhibitions Future Perfect, held in the Electricity Museum, The Real and Other Fictions, shown in Carpe Diem and New Publics, which centred on the Civic Stage in Praça da Figueira, Lisbon, now acquire substantial matter for reflection. The publication corresponding to the exhibition The Institute Effect is still eagerly awaited. But one question inevitably arises: does it make sense to publish these ebooks months after their respective exhibitions have closed?
After reading these recently launched books, my answer is unequivocally, yes.
In fact, from the start of the project, chief curator Beatrice Galilee had never thought of these publications as mere exhibition catalogues. In her own words, they have been conceived to “further investigate and develop our curatorial position, presenting oppositional and coexisting architectures”. It was not, therefore, the straightforward transposition of the exhibition contents into book format that was behind the idea of these ebooks. Rather, the publications were intended to work as instruments that would critically broaden the spectrum of the issues address by the different curators in each exhibition. In this sense, they possess a relative autonomy that seems to justify their subsequent publication. Which is not to say that their launch in tandem with the exhibitions would not have yielded an amplifying effect that was lost in the meantime. Some misapprehensions in the way Close, Closer was received by critics might have been avoided. But more important than regretting their belated publication is to highlight the satisfaction afforded by being able to read them now.
If, as we have seen, the curatorial concept at the root of these ebooks is challenging, its realization is no less so. Aptly expressed through an effective unifying graphic design, one single, shared idea gave rise to three, highly differentiated publications in terms of both approach and content.
Thanks to the openness inherent to the editorial concept, each curator was free to build his or her own publication in an intimate connection with the specificities of each exhibition. This resulted in a successful adaptation of the model to the uniqueness of each curatorial approach. If the experimental and activist dimension of Close Closer permeates, to different extents, all the publications, there are significant differences between them. These differences are visible in the greater proximity or distance vis-à-vis the exhibitions, in the more speculative or reflective nature of the contents or even in the tenor of the approaches, either more programme-based or more methodology-based. Let us observe each case separately.
Brave New Now, by Liam Young, curator of the exhibition Future Perfect, presents us with a series where “authors have been invited to inhabit the city”, imagining the settings and narratives of a time in a closer or more distant future, framed freely by the exhibition.
In the introductory essay, the curator clearly lays out the project’s intentions, capturing its historical genealogy and the role of fiction in contemporary architecture. In Young’s own words “fiction is a powerful medium through which we share and discuss our hopes, fears and anxieties about the futures we want to have”.
Following the exhibition’s fragmented discourse, Brave New Now chiefly surveys the speculative literary exercise through multiple voices. We are easily grabbed by the narratives which, enveloping the reader in strangely familiar atmospheres, explore that seductive territory between fiction and reality. The thematic diversity of these short stories is remarkable and the unexpected strategy of confronting them with outside images from other creative artists and photographers proves both effective and productive (it is somewhat curious that, in two consecutive stories, we are faced with different yet surprisingly similar descriptions of a quarantine operation, which no doubt tells us something about our limitations in the act of imagining the future). Nevertheless, in spite of the diverse narratives, what stands out the most is the evenness of the discursive narrative that is carried out in the first person of the singular and rests upon impressionist depictions of the future city. After reading the book, we feel like each unique point of view is, in a way, made cohesive by the literary strategies, almost as if we were in the presence of a single author. That is the reason why it is precisely with Brave New Now that the absence of the exhibition is more strongly felt. In this case, the literary genre would function as another medium to expand on the different, more experimental discourses shown in the exhibition.
Curator Mariana Pestana coordinated the book The Real and Other Fictions, from the same-titled exhibition. This publication presents itself as a medium for research, a possibility to theoretically explore the concepts and strategies upon which the exhibition was built. That is to say, “this book was organised as a preparation for the exhibition”. As the publication of a process whose end-result is external to it, we could risk thinking that once the exhibition is held, it would no longer make sense. But much to the contrary, the publication of this material proves to hold an interest that goes beyond the exhibition, manifesting a theoretical autonomy that would nevertheless profit from the practical experience of the interventions in The Real and Other Fictions. With great precision and economy, the curator centres this investigation on the idea of “enactment”, using visual and text essays to convoke a wide range of interpretations of the term. As you can read in the introduction ”rather than representing the use in architecture, what the exhibition proposes is to present it, to enact it”, examining the “relationship between re-enactment and spatial practice”. Ultimately, the book can be seen as the research on how to do it. As a “collection of contributions from different times, places and fields of academic inquiry”, it incorporates perspectives from literature, psychoanalysis, performative arts, activism, curatorial practice and architecture, in the form of original or republished essays. The final result is a brief yet consistent thematic anthology that will certainly prove useful to anyone interested in these issues.
The Civic Stage was edited by José Esparza, curator of the exhibition-event New Publics. As pointed out in the opening pages, this ebook “is meant to be read as a script through which we can collectively perform a real-life theatrical civic demonstration”. Considering that this exhibition was the hardest one to transpose into a publication format, as well as its fundamentally performative and ephemeral dimension, the book is a surprising leap forward. With an editorial arrangement inspired by a theatrical play, structured in acts, it managed to compile varied contributions of pronounced ideological and activist tenor. Since it could not actually reflect the exhibition programme, it presents itself as a manifesto for the emergence of a new international political conscience that resonates through architecture in a significant way.
References to movements such as Occupy, the Arab Spring and the anti-Troika demonstrations in Portugal critically frame the editorial proposal. Thus the essays gravitate around notions of public space based on protest and participation, as well as civic action, illustrated by beautiful images representing the Civic Stage, by Frida Escobedo and Hooper Schneider.
In a sense parallel to the curatorial project, The Civic Stage is an assertive exposition of the ideological framework of New Publics.
Both as speculative discourse and theoretical structuring research, as well as a contextualizing performative manifesto, the three books now being launched are proof of the potential of thinking about publication as a curatorial project in itself. The plurality of editorial answers presented is a clear indicator of that, as each book takes on an active and critical role in the exhibitions that formed the programme of Close, Closer. Through discourse, they expand its curatorial proposition even in the absence of the objects shown.