We were the ones who disappeared. We lived as the person who turns in the door, still wants to say something, but has nothing more to say. We did not insist on our survival, because our surrender was also a "move with the times". We had nothing to oppose our disappearance.
Roger Willemsen in “Who We Were”, an obituary to mankind.
So now we are living in the anthropocene, the man-made age, the period during which our activity has been the dominant influence on our planet, its resources, its climate, its environment, its gene pool and even its atoms. We rule them all and decided to use our powers to knowingly and in full consciousness commit collective suicide.
We know exactly what it takes to prevent this collective suicide, but we are not willing to act on it. It would require fundamental change: a new global economic system, a new global governance, a new social contract, equal distribution of resources. Well, read any book by Buckminster Fuller written between 1940 and 1970, it is all laid out in detail. But change is what we fear most. Change implies uncertainty and we are not made to endure uncertainty. We are the rabbit in the headlights in rigor mortis staring at the catastrophe, heading at us in full speed, thinking: “It won't hurt as much as change”.
Since 2007 for the first time in human history more people live in cities than in the countryside. In 2050 over 80% of the world population will live in urban areas. By 2050 the world's population will grow by another 2.2 billion to 10 billion people. In parallel temperatures will rise by 1.8 degrees globally until 2050. The consequences are dire: droughts, rising sea levels, wars, migration, failing ecosystems which lead to more droughts, rising sea levels, wars, migration. The next decades won't be funny. In cities like London, Madrid and Seattle a temperature rise by 6 degrees is predicted, New York 4 degrees, Seoul 3 degrees. None of these cities are prepared for this change.
Architecture is responsible for 40% of all CO2 emissions, followed by agriculture and meat production with 24%. This makes architecture the worst climate killer with the most potential for cutbacks. Roughly 25% are emitted due to building and another 15% for the grey energy to inhabit these buildings. Looking at a city like Seoul with harsh winters, humid hot summers, insufficient insulation regulations, air-conditioning, and individual gas boilers the percentage rises to 55%.
From 2005 to today more concrete has been used than ever before in human history combined. Concrete alone is responsible for 8% of CO2 emissions. Producing 1 ton of cement emits 1 ton of CO2, making it the most environmentally harmful material we have. The mining of gravel, sand, and lime is destroying entire ecosystems. The high demand has led to widespread illegal sourcing under mafia-like structures, spiraling the devastating impact on the environment. The Korean building industry is widely relying on these illegally sourced components.
One 20 storey building requires 40% more concrete than two 10 storey buildings. Land take and soil sealing have a huge impact on local groundwater levels and eco systems. For example in Europe from 1990 to 2015 the population increased by 2.4% while the built-up areas expanded by more than 30%. The urban heat island effect, describing the relation between soil sealing and temperature, is especially bad in Seoul, raising temperatures by 5 degrees in contrast to nearby rural areas. The life-span of an apartment complex in Seoul is now set to 30 years, after which the owners can organize another round of redevelopment: demolishing the existing and rebuilding with even more concrete, insufficient insulation, air-conditioning, and gas boilers.
The numbers don't add up: more people, higher temperatures, more urbanisation, more CO2 emissions, more fine dust, more land take, more soil sealing, more buildings, more resources needed.
"There is no true life within a false life." As the historian Volker Weiss points out, Theodor Adorno’s aphorism in “Minima Moralia” refers to the impossibility of setting up private happiness amid a society's catastrophic developments. Adorno used it to explain how far-right movements were intertwined with capitalism and nontransparent democracy, but now it has to be widened to describe all mankind. Modern society has a tendency to impact every sphere of life, the individual cannot escape it, and thereby is willingly and unwillingly complicit. In the TV show “The Good Place” since the beginning of the industrialization no single human went to heaven. There we are judged by a score system with positive and negative points for good and bad deeds; and just living an ordinary life accumulates so many negative points through our CO2 footprint that we automatically go to hell. Even as we try to live a consciously true life as individuals, our global society operates and is structured in a way it is made impossible. There is no nice way to talk around it: we are living a false life.
“But who is we?” Felwine Sarr, the Senegalese academic, musician and writer, states it very clearly: “It is an occident-ocene, not an anthropocene. It is about the occident, the west. They want to share the responsibility but caused the problem. The west separated the world into nature and culture. Because they saw nature as an object with resources, they took nature into possession and altered it. They say “we against them”, but we should accomplish a collective “we”. But how do we accomplish a collective “we” with people who don’t want that?” The west, as in the “developed world”, is put on the spot. “We”, as the west, have to act, have to make good, have to change, without pointing fingers, without waiting for “a global solution”. We all know that, but are still only whispering it. And by the way, don’t get me started on the men-ocene.
“But what can I do as an individual?” - accomplish a collective “we”, simple as that. Since the beginning of industrialization and the rise of capitalism, we have been told that every man is the architect of his own fortune. The “we” slowly but persistently got replaced with the “I”; I the consumer, I the social media persona, I the individualist, I phone. Neoliberalism sped up this trend, completely shifting responsibility from the “we” to the “I”. We have to find our “we” again, reclaim it, fight for it, hold the “we” accountable.
Reclaim requires antagonism, resistance against institutionalized thinking, opposition to established structures. The Venice Art Biennale 2019 closed early due to historic flooding, while the Amazon and California burned, the Venice Architecture Biennale 2020 was delayed for one year due to a global pandemic, the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 takes place while the Mediterranean and California (again) is burning, and hopefully will not have to close early again because of the next historic flooding.
The Curators Collective was born out of the circumstances of the delay. It is a humble attempt to establish a “we” in a system of “me against them”, where “one” will be awarded with the grand prize, the golden lion, the “I”. As a global coalition of curators and participants from more than 50 nations it reflects on a micro-scale the global need for interrelation, exchange, consensus finding. During this journey it became painfully clear how hard it is to establish a “we”. The Curators Collective is many things: a support system, an exchange of information and resources, and willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously a political statement. Even if it doesn't oppose the Biennale Foundation in any way, its existence alone is antagonistic, as it challenges the status quo. The Curators Collective has yet to realize its political nature and not shy away from expressing it. As Pablo Helguera notes in his book “Education for Socially Engaged Art”: “Confrontation implies taking a critical position on a given issue without necessarily proposing an alternative. Its greatest strength is in raising questions, not in providing answers.”
The Curators Collective Manifesto Group attempts to raise these questions, literally, as a collective manifesto; an open structure to be added on and thereby constantly evolving: questions as questions, questions as a point of reflection, questions as statement, questions as antagonism, questions towards a “we”.
Ryul Song and Christian Schweitzer, Seoul August 16, 2021