“You’d be a fool not to be there”

03.06.2013, 09:30
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Anton Kalgaev and Anna Shirokova, curators of the summer programme.

Describe in two sentences the main concept for this Summer at Strelka. What will it be about?

Anna: The key idea is to go beyond what has been discussed in the past. We wanted to go beyond Moscow, and we also wanted to link the summer program a little more closely with our education program, since our students are working on a whole range of different issues.

Anton: If you compare it to last year’s program, this time there’s a lot more on the agenda about Russia, as opposed to just Moscow. We’re looking at what’s happening on the Chinese border, what’s happening on the Norwegian border, what’s going on in Chelyabinsk, and what’s going in the North. It’s an effort to change the scope of our discussions.

Anna: Three key words this year are future, scope and borders. We’re looking at particular topics here and now which will have a decisive impact on the future. We looking at the future and thinking about how life in the city is going to change.

Anton: “Here and now” on one level means Strelka and what we are discussing this summer, but it also means the planet, the universe and the changes going on within them right now.

You seem to have answered my next question. I was about to ask you haven’t given this year’s Summer program a specific title, as you did in previous years.

Anna: We do have the slogan “here and now.” When we were choosing topics for discussion we were looking for issues we think need to be discussed here and now, not put off until the day after tomorrow. It doesn’t matter whether they are very specific questions or broader, global changes. One of the new formats this year is a series of intellectual discussions called “four quarters” – the first one was this week – where we discuss important questions with different speakers, including people from the academic world, who we don’t often see in Strelka.

Anton: I prefer not to call “Four Quarters” a discussion so as to avoid association with formal panel discussions or academic round tables. There are three main differences. First, it is a new event format. Second, there is a very thoughtful selection of participants so the problem can be illuminated from all sides. Thirdly, we want to push not only different disciplines but intellectual culture – that is, we want to see how the participants bounce off one another. At yesterday’s conversation about dirt we had a journalist-biologist, an ecologist, an archaeologist and an anthropologist and philosopher. It was immediately obvious that the first three were thinking very much in the same key, but the anthropologist Nikolai Gryakalov had a radically different approach. He was something of an “enfant terrible,” and surprised everyone with his manner of conversation.

This project is done in much the same way as the entire summer program: events are united by a format and topic that lies at the intersection of many disciplines and academic or public debate, but that have somehow been excluded from public discussion. Hence the very full program this summer: alongside the discussion about mud this week there are events looking at waste management and the environment. Why, for example, will there be a discussion about the fact we know nothing about Russia on June 10? Because June 10 is Russia Day, which we will all celebrate with great pomp and ceremony even though no one knows why. Even experts who travel all over Russia often have little idea of what is going on in the country.

So, different concepts are explained from different points of view, like mud?

Anton: Yes. I forgot to say that “Four Quarters” always happens on a Monday or Tuesday afternoon at four o’clock, so to participate in this intellectual feast takes time. It’s kind of a game – if you set it for an awkward time when not everyone can come, you know that those who do show up will be genuinely interested.

Anna: When we thought of this we imagined ourselves just chilling out with a cup of tea talking about subjects that interest us. That’s the kind of informal and above all interesting conversation we want to have.

So these conversations aren’t trying to establish the truth?

Anna: Absolutely. It’s important to have different disciplines and points of view. That’s true for all of the topics of the summer, not just “Four Quarters.” If we talk about technology and how it is going to change cities in the future, we won’t just be looking technology for interactive architecture and how that will affect our concept of design space, but also the ethical side of all that.

In everything you’re saying you seem to be if not exactly breaking patterns, perhaps playing with them and maybe sneering at them and turning them upside down. Is Strelka becoming more radical?

Anna: Strelka was a radical and ambitious project from the word go. The main idea is to search for new strategies to think new thoughts and change the space around us. And even more important is how we talk about it. When you spend all your time talking with a straight face about how you’re going to change the world around you for the better (as happens with some activists), there’s a danger that people will start to find you a bore.

We want to show that all these topics – the future, technology, protecting the environment, and so on – are about making people comfortable in their cities and building a comfortable environment for ourselves. The goal is not to save the planet, but to create a good city for people.

Anton: All the projects this year are about self reflection. “Four Quarters” is a reflection on the rise of “edutainment,” in which Strelka has played an active part. Everything now is done in open lectures and seminars, studying micro-districts, and so on. It is an attempt to engage in public self reflection.

Anna: This self reflection is especially pronounced in two themes – urbanism and public spaces. We would like to talk about what urbanism is and what people who call themselves “urbanists” do. And we also want to talk about public spaces, their importance and the roles they play, how they should look in future and how we should manage them.

What new ideas would you like to introduce into discourse in the media, or perhaps simply impart to the minds of citizens?

Anna: One very important concept – though to be fair I’m not sure that it will enter into mainstream debate – is that of the frontier.

Anton: Couldn’t we just say border?

Anna: A frontier is not simply a border. It is a border of the untapped and the unknown, that you are always pushing back, beyond which there is something unknown to you, which you aspire to and strive to learn, to conquer both literally and figuratively. The idea of motion is important, the idea that the borders of states and cities, the borders of our capabilities and perceptions, can change.

Anton: Reflection within the process of change is fundamentally different from reflection when you’re at a standstill. We inhabit internal changes, and how are we meant to think of them if we are inside them? How can you think about a border from the inside, how can you be aware of yourself as being on this frontier? A frontier, like any border, has an ambivalent character – on the one hand, you move it; on the other, you have no idea whose frontier you are. Maybe something is moving you. The theme of existence within change is the self-reflection of an agent of change. That’s the kind of thing we’ll be discussing next week, which we’re devoting to the topic of borders.

Anna: The summer program includes several workshops – multi-day seminars people usually go to for some kind of practical training. Many of this year’s workshops are directly or indirectly connected to borders. For example, there will be a seminar on the invisible borders of Moscow, divisions between different communities and districts. Again, this is a reflection of boundaries of Moscow which we may not know, and which you’ll certainly never find on any map.

Which three events of the summer are you most looking forward to? What can’t be missed?

Anna: What can’t be missed? Some of the coolest architects around, Charles Renfro, Toyo Ito, and Doris Sang. We’ve also got Chinese architects coming, and we really have very little idea what is going on in China, where they’re not only exporting foreign ideas, but successfully developing themselves. In July, there are some exciting pilot projects with Roger Connah and Felix Madrazo and his colleagues – gonzo journalism in architecture and an intensive course on how to get the most out of your studies. There is also a very interesting workshop on parks, a very hot topic in Moscow at the moment. Then at the beginning of September there is “Technology Fantastic,” including the Russian creator of the blue laser, people from the Pentagon and other people how like to innovate and streamline. In July the conference about urban food will clearly attract people, if only because you’ll be able to try all kinds of delicious things.

Anton: We’re going to talk about food with our mouths full.

Anna: But mainly we’re discussing the relationship between food and cities, how to feed a megapolis, what our eating habits say about us, whether they reflect social trends or vice versa, how tasty or not so tasty food or the quality of service in restaurants affects a city’s image and the self perception of its residents and visitors. There will be lots of cultural and philosophical questions, and also questions of planning – how do you organize all the processes associated with food in a city?

There is also a series of events by people who worked with Rem Koolhaas while he was developing the concept for next year’s Venice Biennale. What can you tell us about that, Anton?

Anton: Again, this is part of Strelka’s self-reflection, because for many people what we do is something of a black box that occasionally throws something out into the public space. But all this actually has a very specific casuistry. Strelka is curating the Russian pavilion at the Venice architecture Bienalle. And we’re calling people who are working with Rem on preparations for the main project for the Biennale. There are two people: Manfredo Di Robilant and Stefan Trüby. Rem’s whole exhibition is called Fundamentals and tells the story of the fundamental elements of architecture. Di Robilant is the sub-curator of the section devoted to ceilings and windows. Stefan Truby, who has written a book about corridors, is sub-curator of the corridor section. All this is worth seeing and hearing because these are people straight out of that “black box” of the Biennale. You’ll be able to meet and talk with them. And one seminar Di Robitlant is holding will have a direct affect on his section at the Biennale.

Tell us a little about your own “cooking” process. When you think up the summer program, what audience do you have in mind? Who do you think you are appealing to? Is it city activists, the Moscow city government, businesses, or some kind of abstract public?

Anna: We work with all the people you’ve mentioned because they all come and continue to come to Strelka. The age of people who come to Strelka ranges from 20 to 40. These people are not indifferent. There’s a key word for you. It’s not just a pastime, these are people who come because they value something.

For example, at a conference about separating rubbish collection the audience sat for almost three hours listening attentively and asking lots of questions. Some of the invited experts had been at professional conferences in the same week, and they told me that even there they had not seen such attention.

So these are people with an active lifestyle who are not indifferent?

Anton: Yes, but besides people with an active lifestyles I would add people with “radioactive” lifestyles. All of us, as we go through our daily routines and make every day choices, in fact form a huge crowd that is moving in directions that we cannot see. That’s what I think of as a radioactive. It doesn’t mean that today people will hear about waste management and tomorrow they’ll all run to sort it out. It just forms a huge crowd of people that in the future, whether consciously or not, will apply what they have heard here.

We tried to figure out what distinguishes someone who comes to us, and it goes like this: a shrewd character who knows a lot, has heard a lot, and has seen a lot. And it is extremely difficult for me to choose one thing. I think that nothing happening in Strelka here and now can be missed. As the St Petersburg artist Grisha Yushchenko said, “you’d be a fool not to be there.”