Investigating the social role and relevance of cultural institutions during the pandemic, the curatorial team led by Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli sought to transform the Russian Federation Pavilion at the Venice Biennale into a platform for interdisciplinary dialogue and a space for the survival of ideas and networks of people. The pavilion has been awarded a Special Mention by the international jury of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition.
Through the exploration of both digital and physical environments, Open, the Russian pavilion at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale, has tried to formulate new architectural and institutional frameworks. The pavilion has been renovated by the Russian/Japanese architecture studio KASA in collaboration with 2050+ to revive the spirit of the 1914 design by Alexey Schusev, opening up the architecture towards the gardens and the lagoon. The ground floor of the pavilion features a gamer station that explores the potential of digital environments as a testing ground for world-building practices and institution-making through a curated selection of three Russian indie video games. In addition to this, the pavilion’s publication Voices (Towards Other Institutions) features twenty-eight texts commissioned from an interdisciplinary cohort of practitioners and thinkers from Russia and beyond.
Strelka Mag spoke to the curators of Open—Ippolito Pestelini Laparelli, Liza Dorrer, Giacomo Ardesio, Dasha Nasonova, Erica Petrillo, and Vladimir Nadein—about their experiences working on the pavilion and their visions for more inclusive and resilient cultural institutions.
How the pandemic transformed the project
Vladimir Nadein: Perhaps it’s a sign of a good curator—the ability to ask very important questions at the right time. Obviously, it wasn’t just Hashim Sarkis who asked this question. The Moscow Biennial had the project “How to Live Together,” but the how will we part of “How Will We Live Together?” is very important. It turns out Hashim Sarkis felt very clearly that something was coming. And I keep thinking about that, about how this issue has transformed over the past two years.
Liza Dorrer: Over the past year, the theme of the biennale has become much more relevant than it was originally thought to be. Not that the virus created any new conditions—rather it accelerated the trends that already existed. So over the past year, I think we as a pavilion have answered this question in a quite concise manner.
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli: I think the pandemic transformed, quite radically, our project. Firstly, with the migration online, we were able to expand the conversation and open it up to many more disciplines and thinkers. We were not stuck with a fixed format of an exhibition happening within a pavilion at a certain moment. From the moment we migrated online, the project became an open process for the production of ideas and the exchange of content. It took the shape of a sort of an editorial platform. And that allowed us to think about it far beyond the specificness of this particular edition of the Biennale. In a way, it became more relevant as a discussion on institutions because it started at the biennale—from a national pavilion within an international event, and then mutated into something else with a different and maybe more expansive ambition.
Giacomo Ardesio: The original aim was to rethink both the architecture and visitation of the Russian pavilion. Since visitors could not go to see the exhibition, it forced us to think globally and to consider the digital presence and the digital twin of the pavilion that manifested through the website.
Reinforcing the culture of solidarity
Erica: At the very peak of the pandemic, there was a moment when we were questioning if it was important to keep the project going. And it was a very deliberate and intentional choice to do so, to reinforce a network of solidarity among all the people that had been involved in the pavilion, and to also reinforce a network of solidarity among our audience. And we also made a very deliberate choice at that point not to overwhelm people, maintaining a pretty slow rhythm. We decided to deliver content on a weekly basis, which was contrary to what other cultural institutions did at the beginning, overflowing the internet with content.
Ippolito: Network is a really interesting word in this case because the composition of the curatorial team changed as time went on. Originally, when this project started, I was the only curator. But then the pandemic happened, and we had to organize ourselves into an almost quasi-institutional structure to make it work. Giacomo and Erica came in, then Vladimir, and then Liza and Dasha. So now, there are six voices, and each one has a different perspective. We are all part of this network that emerged while the pavilion was mostly online.
It’s about the network of the curatorial team, but it’s also about the network of the community that emerged around this project. In a way, it’s really a tentative answer to the question raised by Hashim Sarkis. The pavilion itself is a process of self-interrogation and self-questioning. We often mentioned it was an institution that had turned into a living object, adapting to different contexts or circumstances and inputs from other people.
Liza: If it wasn’t for the extraordinary conditions of the last year, I’m not sure this team would even exist. It’s a pretty radical decision to put together a team that can’t meet at the same table. What happened this year wouldn’t have happened in other circumstances.
There was a cool moment when we first gathered together inside Mikhail Maksimov’s game Sanatorium Anthropocene Retreat. Online Sessions. This “Let’s Play” event was the first event of our public program. The whole team played, ran around, watched different creatures that Mikhail had invented for the game. I don’t think any of us normally play a lot of multiplayer games with a big group of people. The moment of this virtual meeting right inside the Russian pavilion was very important, where we ran and shot at each other, transforming into viruses and bots.
Games as a cultural, political & philosophical statement
Dasha Nasonova: The gaming part of the exhibition received a lot of attention and I was delighted to see how seriously the curators took video games and the gaming industry in general.
In my professional experience, I’ve always had to explain that video games are not just about racing and shooting. It is a full-fledged instrument in the hands of an artist—a medium and a cultural, political, and philosophical statement. So I was delighted to see that for the curatorial team, this was a proper space for coexistence.
One of the four games that we released resonates very strongly with the experience of life during lockdown, when we were all trapped in our apartments. I am referring specifically to It’s Winter by Ilya Mazo, co-created with Alexander Ignatov in 2019. It’s a game about life inside a regular Soviet five-story apartment building where nothing happens. You can only interact with objects, walk inside and walk outside. It’s Winter creates a rather meditative experience, transmitting an atmosphere of solitude and calm. It’s very similar to what we experienced in the first wave of the pandemic.
Liza: Games are a well-established form of experimentation on how we can all live together without being physically together; how we can build a relationship without physical contact. The pavilion has become an interesting test and testing ground for research in circumstances where we cannot meet.
Vladimir: For me, the hardest thing was to come up with a film program that didn’t overwhelm people. We decided that we would release only one film a week, available for two weeks. At the beginning of quarantine, content flow and production were incredibly strong. We couldn’t become another structure that would drown people in the sheer volume of content. In this sense, we anticipated the strategies of “slow media” which everyone would eventually come to sooner or later.
It was interesting to see how the worlds in games interact with cinema, and how they intersect. All films in the program were made in game worlds and on game engines. I can tell you that over the last year, the virtual has become much closer to me.
The film program provided many clues to help understand these virtual game worlds and the opportunities they offer. Among the many themes are dissident gaming as a means of sabotage in gaming spaces; how do video games affect us, our dreams, our bodies, our physicalities; and, more broadly, how to design entire worlds to talk about the future, near or far.
Towards flexible institutions
Erica: Personally, I think that one of the key answers we emerged with is that collectively created answers are the only ones that institutions should and can give. The answer we have reached is a tentative one. It’s ultimately that institutions—if they want to be relevant to society—cannot be expected to function as static bodies that deliver messages in a top-down way. They should rethink themselves as flexible entities that can adapt to external circumstances and try to make collective decisions. This answer emerged from the two-year process of putting together the pavilion, which in the end emerged not just as an institution but as a collective of bodies that endured despite the lack of physical proximity.
Giacomo: In the context of the Venice Biennale, the national pavilion is not a full-blown institution per se, in the sense that the institution is the biennale. The Russian Pavilion posed this question of the relationship between the biennale and the role of a national pavilion. It posed a basis for different uses of the pavilion by adapting to its circumstances, and by extending its life beyond its normal six months in the biennale.
Liza: Based on Ippolito’s curatorial ideas, the pavilion managed to achieve a lot. The mere existence of a digital platform and the involvement of a wider curatorial team is a type of reformation which lays the groundwork for the future development of this institution.
Vladimir: The pavilion has two layers: the open space on the main floor and the Underground on the ground floor. The Underground represents the gaming community, which in turn represents a huge number of other communities. I think the challenge for cultural institutions is to look into these spaces, to keep them in mind, to pay attention to them, and to allow them in. This is an important shift that I hope will begin to take place. Our institutions need to look at these communities, among which we exist. The gamer community is one of the clearest examples because Russia has one of the biggest game markets. It’s crucial to always start dialogue and to stay away from elitist representations.
Ippolito: There are a couple of words that resonated through this whole process. Although again, we have more questions than answers at the end. But that’s fine; that’s what any institution should actually try to do—ask questions more than display artifacts or display power. One word is “inclusivity.” This was as much as possible—given the circumstances—a project that tested inclusivity as a method, across the digital, the physical, and everything that sits in between. The other word that we took from one of the conversations that were included in the book Voices, is “survival.”
It’s a word brought to our attention by curator Chus Martinez, who eloquently explained through her interview and through her contribution that institutions today have the role to actually be spaces for survival. And survival means the survival of ideas and of the network of people—cultural practitioners, regular citizens, etc— participating and sharing in those processes initiated by institutions. There are many, many other things of course. I think one of the main ones that we try to push on is obviously the simultaneous relevance of the digital and the physical as sites of explorations and institution-making.
Ippolito Pestelini Laparelli