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by Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter

“Plumbing the System” at the Dutch Pavilion. Interview with Aric Chen, Jan Jongert / Superuse, Carlijn Kingma

OnCurating (Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter): Can you explain the concept that inspired your project at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023?

Aric Chen: I would like to start by giving a little background and context. To be honest, and this is a long story, we got started on this year's pavilion a bit late. But what we had already started was an ongoing collaboration with the Stimuleringsfonds—the Creative Industries Fund NL—on a research project. This research project looked at the flows of materials, people, and labor that pass through the Biennale and was related to a broader initiative called The Green Lion by a number of pavilions that had joined together to look at ways to make the Biennale itself more sustainable and reduce its environmental impact.

In this context, we thought we should build on this research and also use the pavilion as a way to advance our institutional agenda of providing not only a platform for discussion, debate, and presentation, but also a testing ground for the implementation of ideas. In this atmosphere of striving to make the Biennale itself more circular and sustainable, all roads led to Jan Jongert of Superuse as curator of the pavilion. Perhaps Jan can take it from here.

Jan Jongert: Long before the Venice pavilion, Superuse was able to conduct research and develop an approach to a circular and sustainable way of working in the practice of architecture. This research led to the realization that the economy itself is something that hinders the continuous sustainable development of design and architecture. Investigating the financing processes and the economics behind them was definitely one of the most important topics for me to show in the pavilion. Since Carlijn Kingma had just finished her series of drawings, The Waterworks of Our Economy, illustrating how dysfunctional our economy is, I thought it was important to show these works. And at the same time, it was interesting to see how a flow of money, namely, the investment in the exhibition in the pavilion, can literally be transformed into something that has an immediate impact on the ground. Both of those things led to the idea of taking the resource of water, which is abundant on the site, and showing the lack of value that it creates, and seeing what kind of different values can be created that contribute to the pavilion itself, and the contribution of biodiversity and the use of scarce resources like water.

Dorothee Richter: How was the collaboration with an artist for the pavilion at the Architecture Biennale? In a way, it brings the theme into the representational space beyond architecture and design. What are the challenges and the benefits of such a collaboration? And vice versa, an artist working with architectural themes.

JJ: To briefly introduce Carlijn, she's an architect by training and decided not to design another new building, but to use her skills as an architect and understand systems to draw the reality we live in. She is on the border between art, science, and architecture, I would say...

Carlijn Kingma: As Jan said, I'm actually trained as an architect and still consider myself an architect in the sense that I still make architectural drawings, but I use architecture as a language to think about these issues, like the design of our monetary system, our tax and financial systems, and how that produces certain economic outcomes where we value one over the other. I had known about Jan and Superuse's work for quite some time. And we had been in contact on certain issues before the work on the pavilion. I think that my work is very much related to Jan's. He is trying to change certain structures to create a more valuable, sustainable, and circular kind of process in architecture. I reflect, through the language of architecture, on the systems that Jan is trying to fight from within. We work in different disciplines, but I think that also makes it very interesting because it adds up rather than competes. It's two completely different skill sets trying to find each other somewhere in the middle.

Plumbing the System, Dutch Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennial 2023. Photo Cristiano Corte

Shwetal Patel: The Venice Biennale is, of course, very clearly focused on the topic of climate. It wouldn't surprise me if, in the future, the topic of sustainability becomes hotter and hotter in some way, would it?

AC: Literally, yes.

SP: I know, for example, that the German pavilion is using its location this time to go to Venice to refurbish, to renovate, to repair, to understand the local context in Venice as a city, right? And I know that, as you mentioned earlier, you had conversations with some of the other pavilions. Did you feel that those conversations led to agreement on certain things? Were there any results that you felt indicated a closer collaboration and perhaps because these kinds of exercises are highly untenable at first glance? After all, you create these temporary exhibitions for a certain period of the biennial, and people essentially fly in, visit, and then leave. The whole economics behind it is rather paradoxical. I think these exhibitions are extremely important to hopefully help the wayfinders, the practitioners, and the feeling in the field. But are these ongoing discussions?

AC: Yes, absolutely. For me, this biennial is a sign that the wind has changed. I've already mentioned how we've been trying to promote an agenda for cultural institutions as testing grounds, not only as places to talk about and show things, but also as places to do things that the government or commercial sector can't or won't do, right? In a way, cultural institutions occupy, to misuse the term, a third space. We operate in the public sphere but are at least theoretically unencumbered by the same forces, pressures, and agendas that drive and constrain government and the private sector. We can do things for their own sake. That's our job. When we are faced with all these endless crises, the question is whether we can do more with this privileged position. Can we use ourselves as guinea pigs, or our exhibition venues or the systems we belong to as guinea pigs, to put into practice some of the speculations we develop and present?

In this biennial, we saw that we are not alone in this feeling. I think there was a shared sense that we know what the problems are. We don't need to do much more to raise awareness or ask questions—the kinds of things that cultural events tend to focus on when it comes to all these pressing issues. And so you do have pavilions like the German one that actually acted as a kind of hub for circular practices within the Biennale and Venice. You had the Austrian pavilion that, instead of simply talking about the privatization of public space and the exclusionary nature of events like the Venice Biennale—which excludes many Venetians themselves—, tried to open its pavilion to non-ticket-paying Venetian neighbors on the other side of the Giardini's wall.

To go back to Dorothee's question about the relationship between curator and artist, it was a bit of a special case here because we had a curator (Jan) who is a practitioner himself, commissioning an artist (Carlijn) with a background in practice as a trained architect. Carlijn thinks on a macro level in this pavilion, and Jan works on a micro level, trying to make the connection between these big global concepts and defined local practices—sort of a biennial version of the mantra of thinking globally and acting locally. The fact that we had water as a common metaphor worked well, I thought. Finally, I'd like to point to broader trends in architecture, or at least in exhibiting architecture: when we talk about architecture in the discursive sense today, we no longer think mostly in terms of brick and mortar but instead look at architecture as a manifestation, enabler, mediator, or agent—an articulation and articulator of broader forces at work, broader economic, regulatory, political, social, and cultural forces. When we talk about rethinking the world to address all these crises and urgencies, we need to think about the systems that have brought us to where we are now. In this sense, we invited Jan as a kind of systems thinker, in the context of the Biennale itself as a system of cultural production.

DR: In a way, you made a suggestion for a larger context with the analogy between water and money. It's a very interesting suggestion, but as a metaphor, perhaps a bit difficult. Water is a common good that we should all care about. Would that mean that not only the common good "water" but also, for example, all monetary systems should be shared equitably? Would that be the result of that thought, or if we look at it from the perspective of art, what does it mean if we look at everything as a commodity?

JJ: The theme of water was the result of the whole process, and of the conversation between me and Carlijn and her team and the Nieuwe Instituut and the other contributors that started collaborating with us. Water was the language that we used after all. In Carlijn’s work, it is this powerful metaphor that forces all stakeholders to speak in a completely different way and remake their daily processing. And in our practice, the value of water was physical. Those processes also started to talk to each other. Carlijn, for instance, showed three possible futures of how the economy and the water system could be organized differently, more equally and sustainably. And at the same time, we wanted to find options for how to literally store and value water in this pavilion. The language of water was a very powerful means to develop this narrative.

SP: I have a follow-up question about the drawings. I have a bachelor's degree in economics. When I looked at your drawings, Carlijn, I saw a lot of economic functions that you had illustrated. At first, I thought I was looking at the work of an economist because the details were so sophisticated, but there were also things that I didn't recognize and that I didn't associate with financial and monetary flows.

How did you come up with these illustrations of these complex economic systems? Did you work with economists, or do you have a natural interest in economics?

CK: I've been creating these cartographies for a few years now. All the other cartographies I've done have always been in collaboration with journalists or scientists, experts from the private sector or whatever. It's always been about money and funding. When I've done a map on health care or climate change or the history of democracy, it's always ended up being about whether or not there's funding. And that raises the fundamental question, "How do we actually organize ourselves?"

For me, money and our monetary system is actually an agreement. It's not very interesting in itself. It's a stack of paper and bills, but it's more about how we're going to allocate the resources that we have. And who decides that? And that was the reason for me to start this research. I started three years ago researching new grants with a financial journalist and a professor. That was the core team. And to do that, we interviewed everyone involved, in over 200 interviews. I was an artist in residence at a bank for a while, where I also did 30 in-depth interviews and made a few meters in sketches and flowcharts, also exploring this metaphor, not just the system, but also the language that we should use.

After all, we chose this water metaphor because many cartographers in the past have used it. We didn't make it up beforehand. Apart from the fact that it's nice to see that money somehow makes some economic-social processes grow, and if you don't irrigate it, progress seeps away.... It's very much embedded in the language—we talk about frozen assets, assets that can evaporate, trickle-down economics, pooling of assets, liquidity... All of that is already in the metaphor of water.

All of these macro effects always go through all these different institutions, from the pension funds to the banks, to the private equity firms, to the big companies, to the shareholders... It's always a very long chain of actors. And that's what we tried to capture in the drawings.

The Waterworks of Money by Carlijn Kingma

Ronald Kolb: This translation of the metaphors of waterways into the language of economic transactions is very interesting and revealing. If you want the money to flow your way, you have to understand the system and be able to “manipulate” it. The phrase immediately came to mind: “Water flows uphill toward money!

CK: That is what is at the heart of my research. We have a majority of people in a society in the middle, and you see money trickling down, but more is being pumped up. It's more extractive "pumping up" than "trickling down." At the top, they are "swimming" in money, and at the bottom there is financial "drought" because too much is being extracted. For this reason, we studied the irrigation system. For the drawings, we have elaborated six mechanisms by which you can understand that this irrigation system favors the growth of inequality.

It's also about finding ways that we can implement this in our own practice. Architecture becomes a way to put social issues that we face into action. I think I'm trying to do this also through the language of architecture, making people understand that if we look at this monetary system as an irrigation system of our economy, of our society, and see where we can change it or where we can make even small adjustments, we understand this as an architecture that is not something neutral but is actually the result of agreements that we make together, that is, that can somehow help us make small or big adjustments, depending on the democratic debate....

SP: I wonder if we can apply this thinking to the Venice Biennale itself and the way the Biennale works in the city. The city has 20 million visitors, about half a million come to see the Biennale. That's less than a tenth of a percent, but the kind of economics of the visual arts and architecture biennials together could be an interesting diagram of how the flows of finance and money drive and influence what becomes cultural heritage. [00:29:05] JJ: Actually, we designed a third element for the contribution to the Biennale, which is not visible in the pavilion. It would be the groundwork for such a future project. Last October, in a workshop with students from the Università Iuav di Venezia, the collective Temporiuso and with the participation of other curators and commissioners, we made a list to see where various ingredients for a positive contribution in the areas of housing, work, and food already exist throughout the Venice Lagoon. We've started mapping those ingredients, and we're calling it a Harvest Map, which we're also offering to the commissioners that are collaborating in the Green Lions as a tool for other future curators to work with, but also to continue this process. This process is still an ongoing project that deals with the metabolism of Venice.

DR: One last question relates to the irrigation or containment system that will be installed in the pavilion for sustainability reasons, and how it relates to the artworks...

RK: And on top of that, there's the aspect of the economic calculations. You've calculated not only how much water will run off each year, but also how much value would be gained by implementing this retention system. Is there a break-even point, or would the actual cost of water have to be calculated differently?

JJ: Yes, indeed, this is directly related to this very low valued resource, water. On the roof of the pavilion, it rains down 180,000 liters of rainwater. But if you were to turn on the tap in your house in Venice, it would only cost 270 euros. If you multiply that by 10, that still wouldn't be enough investment to install a green roof on that pavilion. To install it, we need to create other improvements—maybe the acoustics will be better with the new roof, or the insulation could be increased. We are thinking about how we can use the materials that are already there. For example, we can install a five-square-meter version in a hidden room, so we don't have too many complicated regulations to test it and see how it works. This investment will lead to a completely new prototype of a natural water-containing roof, which we can install there at least until the next Art Biennale in April 2024. In the end, the dismantling of our exhibition turns into an installation of a test run.

DR: Thank you very much! That was very interesting. Would you make a final statement? Maybe we forgot to ask something, or you would like to mention something that we didn't cover.

AC: I’d just like to emphasize the concept of enacting change by doing. Many of the things we take for granted, the way current systems work, are human constructs. They are the result of some kind of agreement, consensus belief, or mass coercion, depending on how you look at it. And just as we have constructed these systems, we can deconstruct and reconstruct them. Much of what we’re proposing concerns rethinking systems that we often think of as being timeless and immortal, but we don't have to take that as a given. Even the notion of the nation-state (and national pavilions) is one that can be easily challenged. We hope that the pavilion, but also cultural institutions and events more generally, can begin to not only discuss alternative possibilities, things that may seem completely crazy or radical or strange now, but begin to explore and push them through different forms of staging, to begin to enact and even normalize what may be better possibilities.

We always say that things are only weird until they become real. When they are real, and if they somehow work, they become obvious. It's that area between the weird and the obvious that I think we, as cultural institutions, can and should be working in.

CK: I totally agree with you, very well said, Aric. For me, this notion of scale is important. On the one hand, you have to understand global things and talk about those things, and on the other hand you have to do the things yourself, and sometimes you can drive the change through people showing what they do, like Jan does.

JJ: For me, it was important to bring Carlijn's drawings to the Architecture Biennale as a helpful visualization. As architects, we make a lot of decisions that seem normal or neutral but are based on certain assumptions about how the financial system actually works. Visualizing these systems will teach you how they work and where the conflicts lie. This will teach us as architects how to work differently. We can think better about our own practices, where we often don't even consider the hidden costs of the resources we use and how unsustainable they are. These are completely internalized everyday practices of an architect to keep the amount of work low and use a lot of resources to do it. This, of course, reproduces a growth system that forces us to extract more and more resources to meet the needs of the system that generates them. This project wants to bring these considerations into architecture as something that can be seen and discussed in practice, and hopefully it also provides an impetus to future biennial models with new contributions in this way.

OnCurating: Wonderful statements! Thank you so much for your comments

Systemic waterflow diagram by Superuse

Nieuwe Instituut is the Netherlands’ national museum and institute for architecture, design and digital culture. Based in Rotterdam, a global centre for design innovation, the institute’s mission is to embrace the power and potential of new thinking, exploring the past, present and future ideas in order to imagine, test and enact a better tomorrow. Encouraging visitors of all ages to question, rethink and contribute, the institute’s exhibitions, public programmes, research and wide-reaching national and international initiatives provide a testing ground for collaboration with leading designers, thinkers and diverse audiences, critically addressing the urgent questions of our times.

Aric Chen is General and Artistic Director of the Nieuwe Instituut, the Netherlands’ national museum and institute for architecture, design and digital culture, in Rotterdam. American-born, Chen previously served as Professor and founding Director of the Curatorial Lab at the College of Design & Innovation at Tongji University in Shanghai; Curatorial Director of the Design Miami fairs in Miami Beach and Basel; Creative Director of Beijing Design Week; and Lead Curator for Design and Architecture at M+, Hong Kong, where he oversaw the formation of that new museum’s design and architecture collection and program.

Jan Jongert / Superuse Studios
Architect Jan Jongert is a co-founder of the architecture office Superuse Studios. Jongert is guest professor Circularity in the Built Environment at the Architecture Faculty of TUDelft. As a designer of interiors and buildings, Jongert works on tactics to enable the transition to a responsible society. With Superuse, he develops tools and processes and realises concrete projects that stimulate local exchange and production, as an alternative to transporting raw materials, products and parts all over the world, whereby much is lost unnecessarily.

Carlijn Kingma is a cartographer, but clearly not in the traditional sense. She is society’s mapmaker, a cultural cartographer. Her astonishing drawings map the intricacies of our complex social systems. Kingma develops an architecture that reveals the social and political power structures we normally cannot see, and allows us to visualise new, alternative futures. For The Waterworks of Money, she collaborated with Thomas Bollen and Martijn Jeroen van der Linden. Thomas Bollen is a financial economist and a journalist with the Dutch investigative platform Follow the Money. Martijn Jeroen van der Linden is a professor of new finance at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. Kingma's spatial installations are designed and developed by architect Sarah van der Giesen.


Ronald Kolb is a researcher, lecturer, curator, designer and filmmaker, based between Stuttgart and Zurich. Co-Head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, ZHdK and Co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal On-Curating.org. PHD candidate in the Practice-Based Doctoral Programme in Curating, University of Reading/ZHdK. The doctorale thesis entitled "Curating as Governmental Practices. Post-Exhibitionary Practices under Translocal Conditions in Governmental Constellations" deals with curatorial practices in global/situated contexts in light of governmentality – its entanglements in representational power and self-organized modes of participatory practices in the arts.

Shwetal Ashvin Patel is a writer and researcher practising at the intersection of visual art, exhibition-making and development studies. He works internationally–– primarily in Europe and South Asia–– and is a founding member of Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India, responsible for international partnerships and programmes. He holds a practice-based PhD from Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, where his thesis was titled 'Biennale Practices: Making and Sustaining Visual Art Platforms'. He is a guest lecturer at Zürich University of the Arts, Royal College of Art, and Exeter University, besides being an editorial board member at OnCurating.org and a trustee at Milton Keynes Museum and Coventry Biennial. He lives between United Kingdom, Belgium and India.

Dorothee Richter is Professor in Contemporary Curating at the University of Reading, UK, and head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS/MAS Curating at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland; She is director of the PhD in Practice in Curating Programme, University of Reading. Richter has worked extensively as a curator: she was initiator of Curating Degree Zero Archive, Curator of Kuenstlerhaus Bremen, at which she curated different symposia on feminist issues in contemporary arts and an archive on feminist practices, Materialien/Materials; recently she directed, together with Ronald Kolb, a film on Fluxus: Flux Us Now, Fluxus Explored with a Camera. She is executive editor of OnCurating.org.

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Issue 58

Speculations: Funding and Financing Non-Profit Art

by Ronald Kolb, Dorothee Richter, Shwetal Patel