A Bore Is More
Venice Architecture Biennale presenter privileges postmodern pulp as new public sites
By R. Tyler King
Graham Coriel-Allen, a member of the “Spontaneous Interventions” U.S. team at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, is the proponent of the New Public Site (NPS) where, as a “radical pedestrian,” he encourages people to identify and catalogue overlooked and abandoned usable spaces in urban settings. This interview followed his guided tour of the NPS landscape of Baltimore.
“There is an island—a manmade island—called Tronchetto,” says Baltimore-based public artist Graham Coriel-Allen as his hands sculpt from air a model of the storied car-park destination west of Venice—its invisibility apropos. “From the top, you can see all of these beautiful towers and campaniles of the city. And it’s all one big public space.” Amid the hype of participating in the 13th International Venice Architecture Biennale, Common Ground, self-described “radical pedestrian” Coriel-Allen could be found drifting not so aimlessly through Tronchetto, one of the city’s two gargantuan parking garages.
“What I found illuminating is the fact that even Venice, which is all about the spectacle of its historic architecture and pedestrian urbanism, is predicated by the infrastructure for tourism and motorists,” he noted, recalling that Beck’s 1993 hit, “Loser,” piped from Tronchetto’s speakers to score his dérive. The facetious chorus, “I’m a loser, baby/So why don’t you kill me,” may serve as a suitable jingle for Coriel-Allen’s ongoing investigation of the prolific, yet often nameless, “losers” of postmodern urbanism. Through New Public Sites, spaces like cloverleaves, parking lot perimeters, or median strips, provide a platform to discuss the societal role of liminal territory—both physical and invisible.
The American pavilion, titled Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good, featured NPS among a total of 124 urban interventionists operating at the grassroots level. “It’s certainly radical for the American pavilion to elevate Spontaneous Interventions as opposed to some big, sexy project,” he noted about the largely documentary exhibition curated by Architect magazine editor Ned Cramer, along with Anne Guiney, Cathy Lang Ho, David van der Leer, and Michael Sorkin from the Institute for Urban Design. To exhibit these Web-based or site-specific “design actions,” San Francisco’s FreeCell Architecture lent visitors a petit sense of discovery through a system of retractable banners explaining each project with images and infographics.
Coriel-Allen’s cheekily acronymous twin of the National Park Service operates as guided tour, semi-fictitious in flavor due to his signature “astronaut meets boy scout” uniform embroidered with custom NPS patches. “The uniform serves both a non-ironic projection of something that I believe in, as well as a way of lampooning symbols of authority,” he explains, adding that his definition of public space dismisses the rubric of private property. With regard to the pungently anarchic flavor of NPS, he added, “I get a lot of questions like, ‘How effective are the tours? Do they cause any change?’ And the answer is ‘yes,’ but it’s not as concrete as people expect from architecture or even from activism.”
Following the routes on Coriel-Allen’s strategically disorienting mixed-media maps, NPS has taken unsuspecting tourists through the vestiges of greater New York, Baltimore, D.C., and this spring, Richmond. “Parking Archipelago,” “Displaced Forest,” and “Parallax of Transit,” are but three of the 34 sites defined on newpublicsites.org, where an upload feature encourages the public to expand NPS typology. “Ultimately I want the typology to appeal to diverse audiences; from academics, designers and explorers, to curmudgeons and the curious passersby,” he explained, adding that as a wordsmith, the varying degrees of sensational language of NPS pay deference to the episodic manifestos of the 1960s Situationist International movement. “They were the first to realize that when competing with the spectacle, we have to first convince participants that critique can be funny and make revolution fun.”
His proposed tour through Tronchetto in concert with the Biennale’s opening never materialized, but only in an effort to maintain the egalitarian curatorial strategy of Spontaneous Interventions. He explained, “They didn’t want it to be like 100 Americans coming into Venice with all of our solutions. Imagine how ironic that would be for interventionists working at a DIY scale.” Remaining similarly vigilant of an imperialist reading of NPS, Coriel-Allen added that the notion of “latent potential,” often used to describe NPS, should not be confused with capitalist land speculation. “Not all public spaces need to be developed. It’s not like, ‘We’re going to put a farmer’s market in a median strip,’” he explained, adding in jest, “Unless it’s wide enough.”
Perhaps even more than offering potential sites for cute little parklets, the liminal territories of NPS provide a handy semaphore for the hazy disciplinary boundaries of art and architecture biennials, alike. Architectural Association press has devoted a series to this contemporary polemic that opens with the problematization of Architecture on Display (to borrow the title of the first publication). Through these published transcripts, the purity of disciplinary inquiry at the Biennale is debated as either threatened, enlivened, or in the case of architecture critic and curator Aaron Betsky, irrelevant. “What’s more important is that there is a series of crucial issues that we as human beings have to confront,” he noted in the second of the AA series, Four Conversations on the Architecture of Discourse.
Lacking the promotional confetti of experienced architects, Spontaneous Interventions set a new curatorial mission into motion with its display of those who experience architecture from alternative perspectives. Through socially engaged art practices like NPS, a suspenseful discursive scaffolding begins to envelop otherwise “placeless” places. In the context of the Biennale, in particular, the new archetypes of public space offered passage into the long Venetian tradition of imaginary urban experiences, from the images of its Enlightenment polemicists that coupled documentation with fantasy, to Italo Calvino’s postmodern portrayal of Venice as a series of fictional places, Invisible Cities. Coriel-Allen explains, “You can fictionalize cities, but make them feel so real.”