The Surprise Guests: Interview with Unfolding Pavilion

The Surprise Guests: Interview with Unfolding Pavilion

At the 2018 Venice Biennale, the Unfolding Pavilion was praised as one of the best exhibitions to visit. With one catch: the Biennale knew nothing about it. Now that they are about to launch the new exhibition on December 17th, Francesco Degl’Innocenti talks to the minds behind the initiative – Daniel Tudor Munteanu, Davide Tommaso Ferrando and Sara Favargiotti – about the genesis, the physiology and the future mutations of this curatorial parasite.

Francesco Degl’Innocenti: The Unfolding Pavilion thrives off the hype of the Venice Biennale, creating a parallel exhibition for the days of the vernissage. This got you the label of ‘adversarial’.

Davide Tommaso Ferrando: Yes, this is an important point to start: our goal is not social activism. We had this feeling, right before the annual gathering of the Future Architecture Platform, and we were proven right. We presented the project thinking we had positively stimulated the audience, but then people from important Biennials and Triennials came to us and asked why we were criticizing these events so much. We do not, quite the opposite: establishing the Unfolding Pavilion as a trojan horse to enter the Venice Biennale in fact recognizes the importance of the biennial as a device for the production of architectural knowledge. The ambiguous position that we take is exactly at the crossroads of the contradictions of our cultural industry, from financing to branding to consumption to agency. But of course, at the same time, the occasion of the Biennale allows us to gather energy, time, money, and people in an extraordinary fashion. This is the space in which we move.

FDI: Adversarial in your case seems to be more akin to a parasite than an antagonist; pivoting on the ambiguities and building atop the contradictory aspects.

DTF: Exactly. I am conscious that one of the reasons why the Unfolding Pavilion is appreciated, is precisely because it is adversarial, and for me this is a very ambiguous matter, which I like. The truth is that I’m personally interested in experimenting with exhibition formats, so at the core of the project there’s the wider conversation about what architecture exhibitions should be and should do.

Sara Favargiotti: The exhibition protocol of the Unfolding Pavilion is really dependent on certain constraints: time, money, labor, location. We try to feed these limitations into the process and transform them into challenges that affect the outcome. That’s why the pavilion changes at every edition: site-specific, time-specific. 

FDI: Let’s take a step back. What was that first contradiction that made you wonder: “Yes, but why?”

Daniel Tudor Munteanu: Speaking for myself, after visiting the Venice Biennale for more than 10 years I was looking for ways to be actively involved. There are only three: either you are invited by the curator to be part of the bigger exhibition; or you are part of the national participations; or you organize a collateral event. And they all come with several limitations: at the beginning of your career it’s unlikely to be invited in the main exhibition; for the collateral event you have to organize it all yourself and buy your way in the Biennale – 15.000 euros for the use of the name, and a quarter-page in an 800-page catalogue; so, what’s left is national participations, and they happen mainly through open competitions, which – and I’m speaking about the Romanian Pavilion here – are not exactly open to experimentation. The Ministry of Culture wants to play it safe, to have an exhibition that is cheap and doesn’t engage in any controversy. In 2005, called to represent Romania at the Art Biennale, Daniel Knorr decided to exhibit nothing, literally nothing. It was really a fabulous contribution: the pavilion was empty, with traces of the past exhibitions, and only a pile of books. This caused a huge scandal in Romania, I mean, it was on the national TV, everybody hated it. So, in December 2015, working on the competition for the Romanian Pavilion I thought: “Even if I win I will be forced to make so many concessions that not much will remain”, so I dropped it. Now, my goal is figuring out another way to organize an exhibition using the Biennale hype, but with complete freedom. 

Contrary to how we usually tell the story of Unfolding Pavilion, the first thing I thought about was content: I was intrigued to curate the documentation of Tumblr archives, and Davide had written on it in 011+. So, I reached out via Facebook – we didn’t know each other – and curiously he said yes. We were inspired by ÅYR and their 2014 pavilion, so we looked for spaces on Airbnb.

Casa alle Zattere by Gardella, host of the 2016 Unfolding Pavilion. Photo Giorgio Casali, 1958. © Archivio Gardella, CSAC Parma/Fondo Casali, IUAV Venezia

DTF: Renting a gallery was out of the question.

DTM: We basically had no budget, 2.000 euros – 1.000 from my pocket and 1.000 from his – and we said, “Everything must fit in. A national pavilion has an average budget of 200.000 euros; let’s make a full exhibition with 1% of a regular pavilion!” This really was the starting point of the concept.

I had this obsession that I did not want to see representations of architecture, I wanted to see architecture in 1:1 – I mean, to feel it, to experience it. We had a stroke of luck that Ignazio Gardella’s Casa alle Zattere had a couple of apartments available on Airbnb; the first one we saw had beautiful balconies toward the Giudecca, but it was furnished – or rather clogged with objects – so it was difficult to reconfigure. Not to mention, it went for 1.700 euros per night! Not doable. But in the same building, there were smaller units for really cheap, one was around 80 euros per night, so we went for it without telling the owner anything. Also, Davide went [to stay] for a night in January…

FDI: …the lookout before the sting…

DTM: …right, and the apartment was hideous inside, with very awkward second-hand furniture. Not exactly our dream white-box apartment. We had to measure the space and survey it in the most professional sense – we even mapped the nails in the walls.

DTF: Yes, basically I spent one weekend emptying the rooms for photo-ops, moving all the furniture from one into the next, and then repositioning it all over again.

DTM: This building is really famous, it’s studied all over the world, but the extraordinary thing is that no one, not even the local professors, had ever been inside.

FDI: Catchy way to advertise the exhibition: the one opportunity into the belly of the architect.

DTM: Exactly. It’s a private condominium for wealthy residents and to be honest, not particularly astonishing inside. So, we organized everything from a distance: we assembled a list of people to invite, and all their contributions – objects, prints, drawings – were sent by courier to Davide who was living in Torino at the time. He and I met [for the first time] right before the exhibition. He came to pick me up at the airport, I had a suitcase full of posters printed cheaply in Romania, because everything had to fit in that budget. Everything, including our travel and accommodation expenses. We basically slept inside the pavilion: after closing we used to take the mattresses out of the storage and crash inside the exhibition. It was really fantastic. Several hundred people came to our vernissage, more than at the simultaneous opening of the Dutch Pavilion. 

FDI: So, in 2016 you decided to actually compete with the Biennale.

DTM: Competition is part of the game, and we obviously wanted as many visitors as possible.

FDI: But instead two years after you piggybacked on the Biennale: you opened right when the others were closing, to attract not only the people of the Dutch Pavilion, but everyone. Afterparty at Unfolding?

DTM: Yeah, it happened during the process. At first, we thought it was a pity to run the exhibition for only 5 days due to budgetary constraints. But after the experience of the first pavilion we noticed that the hype fades after the vernissage. Architects go back to their jobs and no one visits your exhibition. So that’s when we decided that if we are to do an extra exhibition we will only organize it for three days. It was a learning process.

FDI: Sounds like your target audience was really defined: the people flying in for the vernissage. In these frozen months several writers criticized big events like the one you latch onto. Your curatorial decision selects the networking side of the Biennale as central.

DTF: Our decision to make it last three days is strictly a matter of scarcity, and scarcity as a creative condition, like the concept of bravoure by Jan De Vylder: when you have limited means you really have to make the materials perform in a way you didn’t think was possible. Scarcity pinpoints the first days as the most important for us, so this becomes one of the leading elements of our curatorial concept and the whole protocol.

Giudecca Social Housing by Valle, host of the 2018 Unfolding Pavilion. Photo Tjaša Kalkan

FDI: In the protocol, the way you communicated the two editions was crucial for the success of the exhibitions.

DTF: Well, in 2016 we tried to follow the conventional steps – you know, press release to various digital platforms etc. But the vast majority of people we attracted came through our own social media channels. I found it extremely interesting. So, in 2018 we didn’t even send a press release, no need: if we build-up content on Facebook and that’s good enough, people in your network start sharing it and the message flies on its own. As we were getting closer to the second edition of the pavilion, I remember we received an email from e-flux: it included compliments, the possibility to become media partners, and an 800 euros invoice.

DTM: Come on, we are just an independent pavilion, we don’t have money for that. And instead of paying with money, we paid with intelligence. 

The first edition received so much support from people that we thought it might be a nice idea to continue. A lot of people were actually asking us: “Where will the next one be?” So, strolling around Venice looking for other places of architectural significance to open up, we ended up at the Giudecca social housing complex by Gino Valle, and we immediately said: “This is it!” We even advertised it on Instagram.

FDI: But social housing cannot be rented on Airbnb.

DTM: Right, so it took two years to work out a way to enter it. Davide and Sara spent a lot of time around the complex, talking to the neighbors to gather information, and they found out that 12 units were not inhabited, making them potentially available to organize an exhibition inside.

DTF: Yes, we reached an agreement with the City Council to refurbish one of the 12 empty apartments in exchange to use it for free.

SF: The second edition was the moment I joined the team; initially collaborating with Davide on a research project – Little Italy – that later became the de facto topic of the exhibition. When I came in, the location was clear but everything else was uncertain. We knew about the different challenges due to its status of social housing, so the first time me and Davide visited the site we were focusing on the courtyard and the open spaces, which also have a very strong artistic component. But as we found out about the vacancies, we also discovered for how long they had been vacant.

DTF: The one we used had been empty for more than 5 years already.

SF: What a shame. Exposing this hidden controversy of course adds value to the exhibition itself.

FDI: Unfolding contingent aspects is more than the name of the pavilion. If the first edition was the impenetrability of the private, the second dealt with social housing contradictions and the retreat of the public.

DTF: Exactly, and with bureaucracy. To access one apartment, we went through an incredibly long chain of emails. The son of Gino Valle introduced me to someone from the Venezia city council in hope of their support, then the sequence got absurd: the architect of the municipality told me that I should talk to X from Insula, the company that manages the complex, and X was saying that no, I should instead talk to the same municipality architect I was in contact with. We found out later that they were buying themselves time while deciding what to do, because Insula had previously applied for European funds in order to refurbish part of their stock of apartments. The apartments had to be completed that same year, so they saw our initiative as an opportunity to have one more apartment renovated without spending a dime. They proposed a pro-bono deal: we could open one unit to the public, as long as we cleaned and refurbished it by ourselves. They showed us a few options, the most expensive required 24.000 euros. No way. We went for the cheapest one (6.500) luckily it was a great apartment over three-stories in an acceptable state: we had to repaint, fix the toilets and the kitchen, the terrace required a lot of work, but not too much overall – the longest part of the work, from November to March, was in fact spent convincing a public institution to make us do something never done, for them to fit us into a scheme that they had from before. On top of that it was a gratuitous loan for use, so that meant we weren’t allowed to sleep in the apartment. In the contract we used a little trick: we agreed that it would be an experimental artistic space, so the three of us, the architects who produced the installations, and some other friends, we all slept inside saying that it was part of the artistic experiment.

FDI: But wait, 6.500 for a three-storied apartment seems a bit low, no?

DTF: Exactly, 6.500 euros was an absolutely unrealistic estimate: when we approached a local constructor it grew to around 15.000 – once again this famous amount that comes out in the Biennale contexts. Part of the works we left to the constructor, part we did ourselves for free and documented all steps on social media. During those weeks we produced a massive campaign on Facebook, posting obsessively; we are buying the paint; we are emptying the apartment of all the rubbish; we are dismantling parts; we are repainting; we were really explaining all of the process. But this was crucial, it created momentum for the opening. It even allowed us to get into contact with 12 IUAV students, 24 extra hands that got to know about it on Facebook. Basically, just with updates constantly coming out of our accounts we reached so many people that Dezeen put us among the five key projects of the Biennale, although we were not even officially part of it. That gave us the final push, but in terms of hacking default dynamics, if you are strategic you don’t need too much money, you don’t need big sponsors, you don’t even need an institution behind you. You really can do it using the momentum of the Biennale, exploiting the domain and reinforcing it.

FDI: One aspect intrigues me. On one side yours is an incredibly grounded pavilion, it adapts, almost belongs to the location, thus indirectly to its occupants. On the other you choose to open in conjunction with the Biennale, implicitly catering to the extraordinary concentration of brains that gather that weekend. Space and time speak to complementary audiences. The in-crowd has been clearly satisfied with the project, but what was the reception among the daily inhabitants?

DTM: The neighbors were really enthusiastic. They helped quite a lot during the refurbishment, but to our surprise, on the day of the vernissage, they probably felt inhibited by these brains that you’re talking about. They felt like “there are so many architects around that they may not actually belong”, and during the conferences they stood at the margins. But gradually they became curious and visited the exhibition.

DTF: True. Although the opening was really their party, to celebrate them and the place where they live, that day they just passed by. They felt intimidated. But one of the most interesting things was how the conversations with them evolved: in the beginning they were mainly complaining about the poor conditions of the building. They felt abandoned and thought that they were living in a shitty place. There was no way for us to shed a light on the fantastic typology, no way. We were even concerned that in the short documentary that we wanted to interview them for, they would have only complained. What happened after the party was quite amazing – those same people started praising the building to me: “Davide, I’m so lucky to live here: have you ever realized that the central axis designed by master Gino Valle was designed to frame perfectly the chimneys of the abandoned industrial building beside?” and so on. They started to look at the very same place where they lived in a completely different way because we exhibited it. This for me is a fundamental point, because exhibitions are works of decontextualization: rather than a drawing, a maquette, a photograph, what happens when you decontextualize a building which is inhabited? What we noticed is that by exhibiting architecture as architecture – instead of as art – suddenly, people started to inhabit it differently. Exhibitions are non-inhabited spaces, but we work with exhibitions which are inhabited instead, and this is where the sparkle happens: through communication, through exhibition you can change even the perception and the way in which a place is inhabited, which for me was an extraordinary discovery.

FDI: That makes me think of what Oliver Wainwright recently pointed out: every time he publishes something that architects love, such as biennials and other exhibitions, The Guardian website records almost no engagement. Sectoriality becomes sectarianism. Yours is a remarkable achievement: you managed to bring people into the discipline of architecture. Do you know if the effects lasted?

DTM: Last time we were in Venice together, we thought to go and meet the happy family finally living in the refurbished apartment. Instead, we found it still closed, but with a plaque saying, “this apartment was renovated with funds from the European Union”, which is of course a false claim, and a scandalous thing. No-one has benefitted from the work we put on; it is outrageous.

DTF: Social housing in Italy is a very delicate matter especially in regions like Veneto, currently ruled by right-wing parties. Immigrants have equal rights to housing, but during the project we realized how distant the inhabitants are from the politically correct left-wing imaginary. Don’t get me wrong, people are very nice to you, until they see an immigrant passing. But in several cases the trigger is really the architecture: poor materials, thin walls transforming normal noises into unbearable annoyances for the neighbors. You really see how architecture can generate intolerance. Vacancy is also a political strategy to keep foreigners out, otherwise I can’t really think of another excuse to keep apartments empty.

SF: The [average] age of the inhabitants is also quite high, several dwellers are original tenants. There is no turnover in the community. Younger people would even love to move in, instead of going into the mainland, but the process of social housing doesn’t facilitate it. The mission of the pavilion is also to unfold these hidden dynamics and eventually use the opportunity as a reactivator of these places.

Boano Prišmontas, 165×165 installation for the 2018 Unfolding Pavilion. Photo Boano Prišmontas

DTF: We are not naive; we don’t think that refurbishing one apartment paradigmatically changes the terrible situation of social housing in Venice. We absolutely acknowledge our minuscule action. But, and this is important, this small project transforms the exhibition into a cultural object, an object around which we can generate a conversation. This debate on the scandalous management already creates thinking about alternative ways. Please refrain from transcribing the parts in which we are critical, because this is precisely the objective of the pavilion; as I said, although the project did not arise from social activism it became somehow recognized as a kind of social activism. We wanted to make an exhibition, and we ended up in this kind of process. We’re not activists, 100%, but we think these discussions are relevant from a political point of view, and as far as architecture and planning are concerned. 

FDI: So the first year was Airbnb, the second a clever negotiation with a public institution, what about the third? Will it happen? When? How?

DTF: Our pavilion relies very strongly on gatherings, on mobilizing local neighbors, so I personally disagreed with the early decision to postpone the Biennale to August. Of course I understood the economic reasons, the money that the event brings to a city devastated by Covid-19 – virtually emptied, the population reduced by 50% due to lack of tourists. But I mean, the Oktoberfest was cancelled, the Salone in Milan was cancelled. The decision to move the architecture Biennale to the odd years is the right one.

DTM: Every parasite needs a healthy host in order to thrive, right? Well, the Biennale host this year was not healthy. We had big doubts to intervene physically this year, although right after the Gino Valle pavilion we had started looking for another building to open up next. Venezia has such an overwhelming architectural heritage, so we were also focusing on the 20th century on a very small scale: early on we targeted a small shop in San Tomà, one of the first works by Carlo Scarpa in the 1930s.

DTF: True, I had forgotten about it.

SF: How could you forget?

DTM: It was retail in the front, manifattura in the back. We contacted the owner, but when we visited it we found not one trace of Scarpa’s design. Nothing had survived the 1966 flood. It was quite a big disappointment, but we thought we could still work with the space. Then it got rented out a few months later, so we opted for Gregotti’s Ex-Saffa social housing complex. We worked on it a lot, developing a curatorial concept.

SF: Also the curatorial process was in full flow: this year we did not put out an open call, we had selected specific practices and people and we were already in contact to develop the installations. But during the lockdown we all agreed that it would have been impossible to carry out the project as we initially intended, so we moved on to discuss alternatives.

DTF: The final postponement of the Biennale took so long that we had already started working on a digital experiment.

DTM: All installations for the 2020 Biennale were conceptually finished in March; so, “How will we live together?” would have not addressed this moment critically, also because we can’t fully comprehend it since we are still in the middle of it. How should we reframe our own concept then? We had all sorts of dilemmas, and three options ahead of us: to try to do it anyway, to cancel it completely like Australia did, or to switch to digital like the Russian Pavilion. So we wondered: “What if we go digital?”

FDI: Experiments to bring exhibitions online are not new.

DTF: Not at all: beyond this specific case let’s remember that in the early hype of virtual reality of the 1990s the Guggenheim commissioned a virtual museum to Asymptote. It was a disaster. In the last decade we had so many exhibitions and museums producing digital content for people not capable of visiting the venue, but until now most digital translations have been virtual tours of real exhibitions, digital reconstructions of museum spaces, apps to look at paintings. We find these options pretty lame. We believe that there are more relevant ways of exploring the potential of what it means to direct an online exhibition.

FDI: And so there is going to be a digital Unfolding Pavilion? Wouldn’t going digital be literally the opposite of what the Unfolding Pavilion…

DTM: …does. Right, to open architecturally significant spaces that weren’t available to enter before. But that’s part of our mission, so it can’t change. 

The concept for this digital Unfolding Pavilion happened by chance, actually: we were looking at a book published after a seminar that Francesco Dal Co organized in 1979, “10 immagini per Venezia”. There we found The 13 Watchtowers of Cannaregio by John Hejduk, a speculative project without any precise location. All the context is invented, it could be located anywhere in Venice. As we started going deeper a building appeared, named…

DTF: …”the House for the Inhabitant Who Refused to Participate”.

DTM: Right. When we read the name, again: “OK, that’s it! That’s our location”. 

DTF: Hejduk’s narrative is fantastic: there are 13 towers in Venezia, each one is inhabited by one person, and only one person can enter into each one of the towers. In front of these 13 towers there’s a small house for a 14th person and only for this 14th person. When someone from the 13 towers dies, the person who lives in the house in front becomes the dweller of the empty tower, and someone else comes into the small house. And then, somewhere else, there is one more house, a house for one person who refused to take part in this macabre ritual. 

The House for the Inhabitant Who Refused to Participate is itself part of another weird spatial game imagined by Hejduk, because in front of this house there is a 14th tower, in which people can hide to spy on the inhabitant of the house. 

But the weirdest thing of all, is that we discovered that somewhere in the Venetian lagoon, someone actually built an almost exact replica of this house! And since the owners don’t allow us to physically open it to the public – who wants to fly to Venezia right now anyway? –` we are going to exhibit the site-specific installations by our contributors in an experimental format, mixing physical and digital reality in a seamless way… More to come soon! 

See the exhibition at:
Opening on Dec. 17th, 6PM.

Editorial Volume 57: Mind the Gap