‘Unceded’ as Elsewhere: Indigenous-Led Concepts of Architecture at the 2018 Venice Architectural Biennale

Douglas Cardinal, 'Unceded' exhibit (photo by author)
Malini Guha explores the recent Venice Architectural Biennale through the Turtle Island Pavilion, where land is wrested from a settler colonial and neoliberal conception of ownership and imagined instead in terms of community building and indigenous sovereignty
[But our demise is greatly exaggerated – Chelsea Vowel, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Issue in Canada]

‘Unceded: The Voices of the Land’, the very first Indigenous-led exhibition to be presented at the 2018 Venice Architectural Biennale, was housed in Turtle Island Pavilion in the Venice Arsenale. ‘Turtle Island’ denotes a border-free North America and correspondingly, neither Canada nor the United States receive direct mention in the exhibition. The permanent Canadian Pavilion, located in the Giardini della Biennale, was unavailable earlier last year due to restoration efforts. This change in venue was incredibly fortuitous, as Turtle Island Pavilion is nothing less than a declaration of an alternative, Indigenous-led conception of sovereignty and nationhood at the Biennale. If the machinations of settler colonialism rest upon the usurpation and the subsequent commodification of land, ‘Unceded’ offers a potent response to such practices that is grounded in Indigenous conceptions of the relationships between land, architecture and communities.

Presented by the legendary Blackfoot/Métis architect Douglas Cardinal, ‘Unceded’ was co-curated by David Fortin, member of the Métis nation, and Gerald McMaster, a Plains Cree who is a member of the Siksika First Nation. The exhibition featured the work of 18 Indigenous architects and designers from across Canada and the U.S. The term ‘unceded’ generally refers to territories that were never surrendered to the Canadian state in the form of treaties or purchases. Their status as ‘unceded’ has not protected such lands from being violently seized by the state for their own purposes. Contemporary examples include fraught battles over pipeline developments, such as the resistance mounted by The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs to the Costal GasLink pipeline that will cut across unceded territories located in the province of British Columbia. But as McMaster suggests in interviews and in the exhibition publication, their use of the term broadens its parameters to encompass the articulation of a strong, vibrant and thriving Indigenous presence that has survived every attempt at eradication transpiring under the aegis of settler colonialism.1For example, see: Gerald McMaster, “Gathering Megosowin: Spirit, Land, and Form among Turtle Island’s Indigenous Architects and Designers”, https://www.unceded.ca/downloads/Exhibition%20Publication%20-%20EN.pdf, pg. 57

Two of the exhibit’s most striking features include the use of myriad soundscapes that interweave voices with music and its deployment of an expanse of moving imagery, located on nearly available surface of the pavilion. These images range from motion graphics in lush and saturated colors, to interviews with the chosen architects and designers rendered through eye-to eye life size video projections, as well as documentary footage and images of natural landscapes. Combinations of all three types of imagery were also in evidence, superimposed on top of one another. ‘Unceded’ was one of the few pavilions at the Biennale that relied almost exclusively upon a coterie of audiovisual techniques in its finished form and in the complete absence of architectural models, plans or orthographic drawings.

The overarching theme of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale was ‘Freespace’, curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelly McNamara from the Dublin-based Grafton Architects. Free space is described in reviews and by some curators, including McMaster, as signifying a certain harmony between nature and. architecture2McMaster, “Gathering Megosowin”, pg.56 But within the space of the Biennale itself, more concrete definitions of free space abound, one of which strongly reverberates with the aims of ‘Unceded’. A wall text located in the Arsenale explains that free space emerges when architecture recedes into the background rather than imposing itself on an existing space. As the text states, “Paradoxically, it is the best architecture that allows one to be oblivious to our built environment. Architecture is no longer the spectacle but suffused into free space”. We are cautioned by the text not to conceive of free space as an architectural playground nor as public space that is open to all.  Rather, free space begins when architecture, in perceptual terms, ends.

The curved spaces of ‘Unceded’, adorned with images, text and most prominently, screens of varying shapes and sizes, serve as our introductions to the principles of Indigenous architecture. These principles, which privilege the role of community and the existing environment across architectural undertakings, are closely aligned with the definition of free space outlined above. We learn that Indigenous architects must allow themselves to be guided by Elders based in their respective communities, to train themselves to be in service to others and to assess the impact of their work on seven generations of “life-givers.” Additionally, “architectural form is inspired by nature” for an architect working in accordance with these principles. These guidelines are not simply outlined near the entry point of the exhibition. Rather, they are embodied in the very architecture of the pavilion itself, and more precisely, in the relationships forged between its material structure and its images, sounds, text and screens. As explicated in the exhibition website, Turtle Island Pavilion is envisioned as a series of “surfaces” that will convey narratives of Indigenous life and design practices that correspond to the four themes of the exhibition: sovereignty, resilience, Indigeneity and colonization.3See: https://www.unceded.ca/venice_biennale, accessed February 5, 2019 Co-curator David Fortin privileges the narratively driven impetus of the exhibit, noting that “our exhibit is about storytelling”4Ashifa Kassam, “Canada’s indigenous architecture Biennale exhibit weaves nature, culture and technology”, May 31st2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/31/venice-architecture-biennale-canada-indigenous-exhibit, accessed February 2nd2019. Fortin explains that models and orthographic drawings belong to a Western rather than Indigenous tradition of architecture; Indigenous architectural knowledge is disseminated primarily through narrative means, reinforcing the notion that architecture exceeds its status as object or structure.5See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0PJ73_gV4c

The emphasis on storytelling in the existing critical literature on ‘Unceded’ often effaces the screens as one of the primary means of narrativization utilized across the exhibit. The screen is a particular kind of architecture that takes up residence across other architectural structures. Giuliana Bruno discusses screens using the language of ‘surface’, claiming that such surfaces function as new sites of materiality, not conceived of as materials themselves but as material as well as architectural relations.6Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality and Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), pg. 1 and 8 She conceives of surfaces in all of their potential dynamism, “in which different forms of meditation, transfer and transformation can take place”, in keeping with her longstanding preoccupation with the haptic qualities of screen-based media.7Bruno, Surface, pg. 3 While Bruno’s scholarly objects and interests are very different from those of ‘Unceded’, her theorizations of screens as surfaces that are ‘alive’ with potentialities and possibilities for narration, exchange, connection and learning, resonate with the experience of moving through and dwelling within the walls of ‘Unceded’. These screens features short documentaries that concern a variety of topics that are germane to the Indigenous experience under the regimes of settler colonialism, including the Residential School System, the building of the First Nations University of Canada in Regina, as well Douglas Cardinal’s architectural practice. Cardinal himself appears in one of the eye-to-eye life size projections situated throughout the pavilion and directly addresses us, as it also true of all the architects and designers featured in ‘Unceded’. As such, the screens in this exhibition project facets of Indigenous life and experience while also serving as an interface for direct address, thus conveying the effect of ‘liveness’ that has a longstanding affiliation with moving images and sounds.

The principles of Indigenous architecture as outlined within the exhibition space establish clusters of material relations between the figure of the architect, the existing environment and communities that stretch back into the past, as embodied in relations with community Elders. These relations also extend far into the future. Time is envisioned as circular rather than linear across these relations, which finds expression in the motif of the circle that governs the architectural layout of the exhibition. One of Cardinal’s architectural signatures involves the material manifestation of circularity in the curved structures that comprise many of his buildings, including the renamed Canadian Museum of History. As explicated by Cardinal himself, Indigenous societies are often represented by the circle, signifying a non-hierarchical set of relations, that follow the law of Nature.8Q&A:Douglas Cardinal, Canadian Architect, February 27th2018,https://www.canadianarchitect.com/features/qa-douglas-cardinal/,accessed January 27th  2019

The exhibition soundscapes overlap and bleed into each other to produce the effect of immersion in ‘the voices of the land’, the most apt of surtitles for this exhibition. The effect is non-hierarchical as all sounds and images exist on the same perceptual plane. Some of the sounds originate from the screens themselves, in the form of testimonials, while others are part of musical soundscapes employed throughout the pavilion. The final room in the space serves as a point of ecstatic culmination; a set of chairs are set up in a circle, surrounded by screens, where a continuous loop of exploding circles moves across them. The exhibition ends with a completed circle, where all architectural elements converge in its creation. This room is the very embodiment of freespace, where architecture itself recedes in the production of the sensation of circularity, and of perpetual movement without beginning or end.

The circular space that ends the Turtle Island Pavilion (photo by author)

The screen-scapes and soundscapes of ‘Unceded’ convey an overwhelming sense of presence. Bruno usefully returns to the root meaning of medium in her work on surface, as “a living environment of expression, transmission and storage”.9Bruno, Surface, pg. 5 This is precisely how ‘Unceded’ makes use of screens and sounds, but in ways that convey a sense of relationality, where the temporalities of past, present and future are intertwined. The narratives articulated through text and across screens tell the stories of vibrant communities that have suffered from the devastating and ongoing effects of settler colonialism, while also mapping out pathways towards a sovereign future that involves the continued establishment of ethical relations with the land and all that the land encompasses. As Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer, artist, and scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson proclaims in an interview with poet Dionne Brand, “The present, our presence, is interesting to me because each moment is a collapsing of the past and the future. The present, our presence, is our power”.10Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Dionne Brand, “Temporary spaces of joy and freedom: Leanne Betasmosake Simpson in Conversation with Dionne Brand, Literary Review of Canada Magazine, June 2018, https://reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2018/06/temporary-spaces-of-joy-and-freedom/, accessed February 2nd2019

The assertion of presence speaks directly to the notion of ‘unceded’ in its expanded usage; in the face of concerted attempts at cultural genocide and later marginalization, First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples persist, thrive and grow. A line from one of these documentaries remains with me today, which articulates a need to “awaken the land for a different purpose”. This phrase encapsulates the spirit of ‘Unceded’ in microcosm. If land, within a settler colonial, but also a neoliberal context, is more often than not conceptualized in terms of ownership and profitability, this exhibition is keen to demonstrate that land can be ‘awakened’ for the purposes of community building and in the interests of sovereignty. McMaster describes Turtle Island Pavilion as both a site of gathering for Indigenous groups as well as a space that participates in potential reconciliation efforts with non-Indigenous groups.11McMaster, “Gathering Megosowin”, pg. 57

It was on July 1st, 2018, that I found myself at ‘Unceded’, the day that Canada has been celebrating its birthday for the last 151 years. Finding myself at Turtle Island Pavilion on Canada Day is both a matter of happenstance and of a certain irony. As a settler of colour living in Canada, I am hardly prone to blind patriotism. However, it is only very recently that I have come to understand ‘Canada Day’ as the commemoration of now 151 years of ongoing settler colonialism. I, like many others belonging to settler communities, experienced an awakening as a result of the final report issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 that outlined a number of calls to action to address the horrors of cultural genocide enacted by the Residential School System. This awakening has sired land acknowledgements as well as calls for reconciliation, solidarity and decolonization across numerous fronts.

As a settler of colour, I bear a complex and contradictory relationship to the Canadian state. As articulated by numerous scholars, while I remain on the margins of settler colonial projects of nation-building in Canada, I am also complicit within such an agenda by virtue of my status as Canadian citizen, who partakes of the benefits and privileges of such a position in ways that are not afforded to First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.12See: Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor”, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol 1., No. 1 (2011): 1-40: Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Duo, “Decolonizing Antiracism”, Social Justice 32, no. 4 (2005): 120-143; Melissa Phung, “Are People of Colour Settlers too?”, in Cultivating Canada: Reconciliation Through the Lens of Cultural Diversity, eds. Ashok Mathur, Jonathan Dewar, and Mike DeGagne (Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2011): 290-298 As Phung, Tuck and Yang all claim, the more settlers of colour assert their narrative arc as one of ‘rising’, of ‘entitlement’, and of ‘rightful belonging’, the more we become imbricated in settler colonial norms that override the recognition of this land as belonging to Indigenous peoples.13Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization”, pg. 18; Phung, “Are People of Colour”, pg. 293

While debates concerning what the politics of reconciliation, solidarity and decolonization might look like are ongoing, as a settler of colour, perhaps the most important task I can undertake is coming to grips with how my understanding of the nation and subsequently the world, partly originates from my assimilation of settler colonial norms. A point of departure for this kind of work, one that lies at the very core of this exhibition, concerns the question of land. As Tuck and Wang explain, land is the most coveted element within a settler colonial regime, as that which must be brought under settler ownership and ushered into a capitalist system of buying and selling. As they write, the loss of land and by the extension, the loss of Indigenous sovereignty, sets in motion “a profound epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence”.14Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization”, pg.55 Settler colonialism thus constitutes a particular iteration of ‘world building’ based upon the logic of eradication, dispossession and commodification. ‘Unceded’, rooted in the principles of Indigenous architectural thought, offers ways of conceptualizing relationships between land, architecture and communities that are antithetical to settler understandings of this particular triangulation. While I remain sensitive to calls for Indigenous sovereignty, which extend to who has the right to tell Indigenous stories, my decision to write about this exhibition stems from a desire to listen, learn and look differently. As I noted in an earlier essay for Mediapolis, a starting point for envisioning alternative futures of and for the nation may reside in an acknowledgement of ‘the fractured state of the Canadian nation’ as ground zero. 15http://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2018/02/the-world-is-not-enough/


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