Power and Architecture: ‘This lineage of history doesn’t end with the Berlin Wall’ 11.07.16

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Curators Ekow Eshun and Will Strong talk to Douglas Murphy about the Calvert Gallery's season exploring the utopian public spaces of the Soviet Union

Nestled alongside the famous Boundary Estate in London’s Shoreditch is the Calvert Gallery, home of the Calvert 22 Foundation, a Russian-founded organisation with the aim of ‘furthering international understanding’ of the ‘New East: Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia’. Under creative director Ekow Eshun, the foundation is responsible for exhibitions, a magazine and a think tank that investigates the role of the creative industries in the region.

Its latest programme is Power and Architecture, a season of exhibitions, talks and workshops that examine the utopian public spaces of the Soviet Union and their strange afterlives in the quarter-century since the end of the communist experiment, as well as the quest for new national identities across the region. We caught up with Eshun and programme curator Will Strong to discuss the series.

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Ekow Eshun (left) and Will Strong amid suburban Moscow buildings drawn from the Instant Tomorrow series (2013–15) by Dmitri Lookianov

ICON What was the seed of the idea that gave rise to Power and Architecture?

EKOW ESHUN It comes out of stuff we’ve been exploring for a long time through exhibitions and our online magazine The Calvert Journal, where we work with artists from Eastern Europe interested in the built environment. We became fascinated by a number of things, one of which was the afterlives of monumental structures built for one system that are now markers of a different state – from Soviet and socialist, to globalised and neoliberal. Because the citizens of so many of those countries have lived through this transition, the afterlife of these monuments becomes a significant thing in as much as they’re the last witnesses to a previous state. We’re interested in artists and photographers who can bring some nuance and depth to an exploration of the city in post-socialist times.

ICON Is this a particularly topical theme to be investigating at this time?

WILL STRONG There’s nothing specific that makes it the perfect moment to reflect on the subject, but what’s interesting is that, in the 29 countries that comprise the New East, the urban epicentres now have different national identities and trajectories. Until recently, these places had a shared history – we are trying to offer reflections on that previous unification, but be mindful of the fact that these places are now completely different. EE In Britain and the West, you can get this very aestheticised idea of Eastern Europe – a kind of ‘ruin porn’: crumbling buildings and so on – but actually if you were in Kiev, or if you were in a number of other cities in the region, you have these live battles around national identity and around what you do with the monuments and markers of a Soviet past that’s not your past anymore.

ICON The exhibition programme comprises four separate shows. How do the different exhibitions relate to each other?

WS The title Power and Architecture is quite a broad one, but it’s very rich. We divided it into a series of thematic and visual foci within that broad title. The first, Utopia and Modernity, looks at the utopian ideas of modernism and constructivist architecture that inhabited a lot of these places. For example, the early era of the Soviet Union was a very futuristic and fantastical time in a lot of senses – it created large buildings that were aesthetically astounding, but sometimes didn’t perform a function well. This was a topic we wanted to explore.

Although the subject of the second part, Dead Space and Ruins, can be very aestheticised, it’s still relevant to ask: what are the remnants, the dead space or the evidence that’s been left behind, of certain things that have just been forgotten in the wake of the transition from communism?

The third part, Citizen Activated Space – Museum of Skateboarding, will look at the role the citizen takes in activating the city and built environment. The Afterlives of Modernity – Shared Values and Routines looks at new national identities and the connected nostalgia that a lot of these centres still have, exploring the current climate and what could happen next.

 

Words

Douglas Murphy

 

Illustration

David Sparshott

quotes story

We are trying to tell some aspects of a story that’s still unfolding

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Still from Walking the Sea (2014), Anton Ginzburg’s film exploring the Aral Sea

ICON And how do the exhibitions fit within the programme as a whole?

EE We felt it was important to take time away from the investigation of visuals, to think about the theory and the practice involved, so the conference we’re doing with UCL is a chance to look in-depth at specific aspects of the topic. It’s such a broad topic – you can’t cover all of it. What we’re absolutely not trying to do is offer a definitive take on what that condition is in Eastern Europe. We’re more interested in trying to find several routes into that – some of these routes are about individual presentations from the conference, the exhibition, and covering a raft of territory online with The Calvert Journal.

ICON Is there an element of spatial production?

WS We’ll be launching a project at the end of the season: an architectural ‘hack’. We’ve partnered with reSITE, a Czech architectural research organisation, to come up with solutions relevant to two architectural case studies. It will be a two-part exchange: a large hack-a-thon in Prague, then a research trip to the UK. We’ve also partnered with the Museum of Architecture here to do that. The first half will be a walking tour of London curated by architecture collective Assemble; the second day will be a pitching workshop for those participants, where they can pitch ideas to a panel of UK experts.

ICON What do you hope people will come away with after engaging in the programme?

EE We are trying to tell some aspects of a story that’s still unfolding. It was such a significant moment 27 years ago with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and to some extent, at that point everything changed in Europe – if not in the world. But obviously history doesn’t stand still – it continues to move – and the lives of people in Eastern Europe become richer and potentially more complex. We’re trying to unpack this lineage of history that doesn’t end with the Wall, but has a further episode that takes place after that. It’s unlikely we’ll come to particular conclusions about it, but we want to explore the complexity of the lived experience, and the strange charisma of the architecture as well.

Power and Architecture runs from 12 June to 9 October 2016

   

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Communist party headquarters, Yugoiztochen region, Bulgaria, from Restricted Areas series (2015) by Danila Tkachenko

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