The swamp plants creep up through the cracks in the concrete

We sat down with the 431 collective – which consists of Lietje Bauwens and Wouter De Raeve – high up in Tower 1 of the WTC at North Station. Maximilian Park lies at the foot of the building. Buses drive past, somebody plays with a car tire. The tower houses many artists who find themselves in the centre of the power game between project developers, local organizations, architectural visions, and politics. 431 is also based here and is currently working on a docudrama about this transition: WTC A Love Story. During CITY:LAND, they will form the second part of Michiel Vandevelde’s Precarious Pavilions series on and around the Muntplein. Instead of a tower, they will focus on a square. But if you zoom out, you will see that some overlap is inevitable.

For Precarious Pavilions, Michiel Vandevelde invites a different artist or collective in each different city to reflect on the kinds of architecture that are still viable today – while we are plagued by ecological, economic, and social crises. In Brussels, you are presenting the second pavilion: the new local. Who or what is this ‘new local’?

We are interested in how we can relate locally to global and abstract challenges, such as climate change or the consequences of capitalist power mechanisms. Along with the new local we explore a progressive conception of localness that does not fall victim to the illusion that you can solve global problems on a purely local scale. At the same time, it is imperative that you are able to relate physically to these changes. This brings us to the notion of ‘experience’: how can we open it up both temporally and spatially, so that it becomes possible to experience the things that are not directly present? the new local is based on the premise that both the causes and our ability to devise solutions for current precarious situations is based on a Western and anthropocentric ontology in which the focus is on ‘control’. Instead of simply designing a new pavilion or presenting a new spatial proposal, we primarily seek to create a situation in which we can stimulate the search for new ways of thinking about the uncertain and the unpredictable and of experiencing it spatially.

How do you search for these new forms of experience?

We invite various artists who attempt to experience the environment of the Muntplein in their own different ways, through and with their respective materials. We thus hope to approach the place in ways that are not currently conventional, and we seek to make our own contribution to the architectural field because that is ultimately what Precarious Pavilions is about. How to coordinate a – local – space in – globally – precarious times? Architecture has to take many different players and factors into account. This limits the possibilities to speculate beyond conventional and known forms because there is no space to take genuine risks. With the new local – and actually, this is a leitmotif throughout all our projects – we engage in a thought experiment based in an artistic and performative context. We are thus able to diversify the various approaches to ‘space’.

Helena Dietrich – one of the artists who will explore the Muntplein – told us about a workshop in which she had to engage in conversations with her organs. We are interested in such an approach because a different relationship to our body enables us to break open standardized and limiting interpretations of what a human body is and to examine the influences that they have on our relationship with our surroundings. Just think of the standards that Le Corbusier, Ernst Neufert or Henry Dreyfuss developed. How can you ignore those?

The pavilion that will occupy the Muntplein during CITY:LAND will not be visible to the average passer-by. You are thus reacting to the event-focused character that the Muntplein has had since 2012. Why do you think this is problematic?

There is nothing problematic as such with a square being built specifically to host events. But we do have criticisms of the way in which this currently occurs in the centre of Brussels: the city is focused on tourism and aims to use these events to draw as many people as possible to the city, while its residents themselves receive very little attention. The resulting identity of the Muntplein is thus completely defined by the two adjoining shopping streets and the shopping centre.

How is this critique related to your pavilion, which one might in principle also characterize as an event?

Attracting three hundred people to the square for five days is not an option for the new local. We first ask the artists to conduct spatial tests during the day, each from their own perspective. These interventions will be documented and then presented in the evening in a venue facing the square (Rue des Princes 12). The square will thus be empty, and the artists can really test how the space feels, and what is possible. In the evening, we will invite them and a range of guests to continue and open up the conversation. We thus hope to neutralize the event-focused character and to create a space for peaceful and exploratory research.

Part of the new local is set in Miami. What do these two cities have in common?

Miami is a 21st-century city on steroids: capitalism rules and there is consumerism everywhere. We see the same thing on the Muntplein – but in an excessive measure – which is something we seek to avoid at all costs. At the same time, the consequences of climate change are very palpable. Sea levels are rising and there has been a clear increase in the number of hurricanes. These consequences are so visible that the city has been forced to take concrete action. The idea that we must be able to predict any threat and know how to tackle it is very prevalent, but there are also neighbourhoods and spaces – some have no alternative – that continue to adapt to the urgency and thus learn from the ecological situation that confronts them. We are interested in the relationship between on the one hand, the exercise of control – or at least the illusion of it – and on the other, with the development of an open attitude that is capable of growing along with the uncertainties in our environment.

How do you integrate the experience of Miami into the pavilion in Brussels?

We initially wanted to fly to Miami to research the situation ourselves and to publish a series of interviews about it. But such a flight is a good example of the abstract character of climate change becoming a personal choice, and we thus opted for an alternative approach. How could we experience Miami without actually being there physically? We looked for a solution that was similar to the way we ask the artists to explore the Muntplein. The idea is to ask activist/artist Rozalinda Borcila to map out a walk across the city in which she exposes financial and political movements that define and manipulate the visual language around the climate crisis. How can you develop other concepts and narratives that reject colonial perspectives? Artist Naïmé Perrette will then present video footage that she recorded in Brussels. The resulting installation will be the scenography for both the online space and the evening presentations.

Based on your critique of what the Muntplein is now: what do you think a square should be or what should it contain?

We are so accustomed to looking at things based on a certain ‘desire’ that we often forget everything else that is going on. We consider certain products so important that we tacitly assent to the terrible circumstances in which they are produced, or the fact that forests are felled to make them.

Within our collective, we spend a lot of time developing integral thinking, which considers the bigger picture and analyses how various social constructions are interconnected. Due to all the global crises, it is difficult to do otherwise. Many contemporary theories contain forms of such an inclusive vision: the focus is no longer anthropocentric but is focused on non-human players and factors and their mutual relationships. But ultimately, we are people, and it would be pointless to ignore that fact. The question this raises is how we as people can develop integral forms of experience. This is our primary concern and it is essential before we can claim what a square should be or what it should look like.

We do believe in the potential of art to open doors to possibilities that standard forms of knowledge production do not contain. Instead of asking architects to organize workshops and to conduct design research, we only select artists to come and look at the square and thus to offer us a whole range of different experiences. The architecture collective Parasites 2.0 will respond to the presentations via text from a design perspective, creating a first bridge to an architectural interpretation of our experiment.

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Michiel Vandevelde & 431

Precarious Pavilions #2 – the new local

Precarious Pavilions #2 – the new local
Precarious Pavilions #2 – the new local
Muntplein / Place de la Monnaie
Wed 10.10 - Sat 13.10.18

Artist-in-residence at Kaaitheater Michiel Vandevelde is touring four cities with his Precarious Pavilions. In each city, he builds a pavilion with a different artist, each time asking the question: ‘How do we deal with space and architecture in this unstable world?’ For his second pavilion in Brussels, choreographer Michiel Vandevelde and the collective 431 are coming to the Place de la Monnaie.