Alison Killing thinks a lot about death … and specifically, how its ubiquitous, hidden presence shapes our cities. In Death in Venice, her June 2014 exhibition on the topic, Killing mapped London’s death-associated architectural features — hospitals, cemeteries, crematoria, and so on — making visible the invisible mechanics of death and dying. She asks us to consider: What might a good death experience mean today? And how can we design differently for the dying, as well as those caring for them?
Here, the Netherlands-based British architect and urban designer, who specializes in humanitarian architecture, talks about how the project has challenged her own perception of death, and how she plans to make space for better dying.
First of all, it’s hard to miss the connection between your work and your name. Is it just a coincidence?
Yes, it’s my real name. My firm is called Killing Architects — I like to say that I started Killing Architects four years ago. [laughs]
How did you become involved in the architecture of death? Was it a long-term interest?
It began rather suddenly and recently with a call for proposals to the 2014 Venice Biennale. The theme was “fundamentals.” Most countries in the world stage their own exhibition in a national pavilion. For 2014, nations were asked to look at modernism in their own country between 1914 and 2014.
Two days before the deadline, a friend emailed me with an idea for the British Pavilion’s call for entries: “Let’s do an exhibition about death.” He and a partner had already completed a thesis project on this topic, and I pulled in a couple more friends to build a solid team with a curatorial and research base. We didn’t get accepted, but at the end of a quite rushed process, we had a proposal that was well worked out, and an idea that we liked. So we applied for funding on our own, and produced it in Venice as an independent event, coinciding with the opening week of the Biennale.
We had about 500 people come and see the actual exhibition, a few really nice reviews and quite a lot of press attention for the project, too. Part of the funding for the exhibition came from a Kickstarter campaign, and through that we had a lot of social media buzz. We could only stay open a week, but we heard of a lot of people going to Venice for the Biennale later on and looking for Death in Venice.
A close-up of one of the infographics in Death in Venice, showing changing life expectancy over the course of the 20th century. Early in the century, many children died before their 5th birthday, and the average life expectancy at the time was around 48. Today we can expect to live to almost 80. Photo: Alison Killing
What was your focus for the exhibition?
When death has been studied before, it’s usually been from a memorial standpoint — about monuments and tombstones and so on — straightforward architecture. We had a lot of background research on this aspect, but we decided to think about how, while death is something that we don’t talk about much publicly, or even think about on a day-to-day level, it’s pervasive in our lives. Hospitals, hospices, crematoria and cemeteries surround us, yet we are not aware.
The architectural history of the 20th century is often presented in terms of advances in science and technology leading to light, airy, green, healthy cities for the masses. It was a reaction to the filthy industrial slums of the previous century. The narrative is about life and increased health and progress — but death is never mentioned in this story, even though these developments have also massively changed the way we approach it.
At the start of the 20th century, people typically died at home and of infectious diseases after a short period of illness (and a huge proportion died of “other causes” that couldn’t be adequately explained at the time). Developments in medicine — like the discovery of penicillin — and in public health led to a decline in deaths from infectious disease. At the same time, the invention of heavy and expensive medical equipment, like X-ray machines, needed to be kept somewhere central, which gave us the modern hospital. Universal health care meant more people got access to proper medical treatment, which in turn created a need for more of these buildings.
Jorge Mañes Rubio explains he makes his new souvenirs to create interesting interactions at TED2014. Photo: Ryan Lash
From China’s underwater cities to Amsterdam’s neglected neighborhoods to Italy’s looted ruins, Jorge Mañes Rubio seeks out forsaken places and makes art that memorializes, reimagines and reengages them with the world. His project “Normal Pool Level” — which emerged from his exploration of the cities, towns and villages submerged by China’s Three Gorges Dam Project — is on exhibition at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, England, until September 7. So it felt like the perfect time to ask Rubio more about this exhibit, as well as about the experiences that led him from a stable career in design to life as a perpetual tourist.
Let’s start with your current exhibition. How did you end up in China, looking for abandoned underwater cities?
My project in China was something very special to me, on so many levels. It all started when I moved to Chongqing for two months in 2013 as part of an artist-in-residence program. The city was quite tough, and pretty much nobody could speak English, so in the end I decided to travel along the Yangtze River, looking for the remains of the cities flooded by the Three Gorges Dam Project. Thousands of cities and villages have been submerged, and so far 4 million people have been forced to relocate—but very few people know this.
During my journey I came across cities that have no name, cities that don’t appear on any map. On one hand, I was really excited to be able to explore these places which very few people have seen. But on the other, I was appalled to see the conditions people were living in. We’re talking about entire cities that have been pretty much destroyed and left isolated, but where some people have refused to leave. I decided to create a series of souvenirs and symbols that would document and recognize these forgotten cities, and at the same time help me to express this inner conflict I went through during my journey.
What kind of objects did you create?
In the beginning, my intention was just to look for these cities, and to explore this area. But the more I saw, the more I understood that these places deserved recognition. I was struggling with the fact that I found some of these places extremely beautiful. It was a strange and tragic beauty, but a fascinating one nevertheless. I knew photographs were not enough to convey those feelings, so I started to gather materials and objects along the road, and later I modified them and transformed them into the symbols that compose the project.
The most representative are probably two plastic jerrycans that contain water from the Yangtze River. I collected this water at the exact point where the old city of Fengdu used to stand, now completely submerged under the water. Later on, I painted these jerrycans with traditional chinese motifs, as if they were precious Chinese vases. The result is an object whose identity is heavily questioned, which doesn’t seem to belong either to Eastern or Western culture, but that represents the clash between traditional Chinese culture and industrialization. There are more than 10 objects and installations in total, together with a series of photographs.
Fengdu Jerry Cans, from the Normal Pool Level series. Exhibition view at the 501 Contemporary Art Centre, Chongqing, China. Photo: Seethisway.
You call yourself a “perpetual tourist.” What does this mean, especially in the context of design?
Until fairly recently, I worked with design companies on everyday items like chairs, furniture or small products — homeware, vases, so on. But while I was studying at the Royal College of Art in London, I joined a program that was very experimental, pushing the boundaries of design. So my work became much more about the impact design can have in our current society, beyond manufacturing everyday items.
To put it concisely, I became interested in experience. Right now, with any product that you have or acquire, what you look forward to is the experiences the product might allow you to have. So I started thinking about tourism. In a way, industrial design is about creating a product, and replicating it millions of times. And tourism is the mass-production of experiences. You create one experience — say, going to the top of the Eiffel Tower — and then millions of people have, literally, that very same experience. I also find interesting the way people behave when they are tourists. Things look different, the food tastes different, and you dare to do things that otherwise you’d never do. You’re way more open to learning about new cultures, meeting new people. You become someone else. I thought, “What if I apply that kind of behavior to everyday experiences? Can I behave like a tourist every day?”
I did a few projects that explored these ideas. One was an illegal souvenir production project on top of the Eiffel Tower. Another one — my graduation project — was a portable souvenir factory. I rode my bike for three weeks along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and attached to the bike I had a portable rotational molding machine. In every village, I met different people, and I used my machine to manufacture my own souvenirs on the road — in contrast to the experience of buying, you know, fridge magnets.
Gabriella Gomez-Mont receives the 2014 TED Fellows Hero Award. Photo: Ryan Lash
At TED2014, Fellows director Tom Rielly presented the 2014 Fellows Hero Award to 2009 inaugural Fellow and Senior Fellow Gabriella Gomez-Mont, arts-and-culture curator turned Chief Creativity Officer for Mexico City. The award recognizes outstanding service to the Fellows community, an exemplary member who takes the time to work with, create opportunities for and build collaborations with other Fellows. We were delighted to catch up with Gomez-Mont at the conference to congratulate her, and to find out how she’s settling into her new role as director of Laboratorio para la Ciudad, Mexico City`s brand-new creative think tank that is revisioning the city as an international vortex for creative and multidisciplinary urban thinking.
Were you surprised to receive the TED Fellows Hero Award?
I was completely surprised and blown away. I really did not see it coming this time around. I’m grateful and touched and inspired and all sorts of other things. Taghi Amirani [who won the award at TED2013] and I were saying we now have to go buy a billowing cape and get ourselves into all sorts of heroic adventures.
How is your new job unfolding for you?
It’s unfolding very quickly and at an amazing pace. I’m very excited about getting a better and better sense of everything that’s possible working from within government structures–structures that cover the whole city–creating collaborations across borders and disciplines. In these last months, I’ve been transitioning into a completely new space; before TED I was very much interested in multidisciplinary work within arts and culture, but now the conversations, tools, methodologies and input come from an even wider array of disciplines. And now it is the city itself that must become a surface for ideas, for experimentation, and Mexico City’s creative ethos must be let loose into other areas, beyond those usually thought of as “creative fields.” I also find it fascinating to think of government as a place to catalyze all of this. It is both seemingly a counterintuitive yet also very powerful idea. Imagination is not a luxury, I will say over and over again.
Many of the things that are coming into play have been inspired by the conversations I have had in recent years with people from all sorts of fields and walks of life. When I got Senior Fellowship, for example, I kept meeting such inspirational amazing people at TED — both the speakers but also the Fellows themselves and the people that attend the conference. As a result, I’ve become more interested each time in blowing open what “multidisciplinary” means and starting to work in new ways.
It’s been a very interesting exercise, extrapolating all the lessons that there are in the arts and culture space, working with narrative and metaphor and creative methodologies, but now applying them to the urban space itself, to social practices, and to this hybrid world in the making–between government and civil society–which is our lab. So now instead of it being a museum or an art project, the city — the whole delirious and intricate megalopolis — becomes the site for invention, the space to infiltrate our questions.
Tell us about some of the initiatives you’ve been working on.
I was hired about a year ago, but it took awhile for me to get a team together and figure out the administrative and legal structure, as well as the funding. It comes with inventing a non-existing government office from scratch, I guess. So, in fact, the Lab has only been operating for the last six months, and we had our first budget allocated in December 2013. Momentum has really sped up since then. My team is multidisciplinary in nature. I have architects and artists, designers, urban psychologists, historians, writers, internationalists — a motley crew for sure. It’s lots of fun.
We have very wide mandate, and so we decided we had to design constraints for ourselves (a beautiful problem to have) and to work in the framework of what we are calling “provocations”: open-ended questions that spin off events, interventions, pilots, workshops, and so on. Our Provocation no. 001 is “Government as Platform”; Provocation no. 002, Walkable Megalopolis; Provocation no. 003: Urban Imaginaries and Residual Spaces; Provocation no. 004: Sharable City. I could go on. I won’t. There are around 10 of them, and we’re opening them up slowly.
I must say we have had a fantastic response from civic society and press, as well as huge government support, specially from our mayor. Our first civic hackathon filled up in 4 days: we hosted 500 young programmers, with more than 200 people on the waiting list. We’ve just had our first conference on the walkable city, which was filled to the brim with 500 people — standing-room only, projects and pilots to follow. Our international guests were really surprised with the civic energy in Mexico City. In terms of open government, we are already working with 13 ministries, and the legal department just jumped on board. It told us it wants to put Mexico City on the map with the most progressive legislation on the subject. Very exciting.
The core question is, how do you put out these themes that can be very complex but also make them engaging, and gather passionate communities around them, within and outside of government? How do we create a culture of great ideas and swift implementation?
One of our next experiments will be “Mexico City: The Largest Dance Floor in the World,” for which I received a grant from the TED City 2.0 Prize. It’s a citywide happening and competition that will bring together Mexico City’s love for public space and crazy street dancing, and will offer a different way of thinking about health-related urban culture, taking advantage of the natural energy and effervescence that the city has while tackling the obesity related problems we are also facing.
It sounds like you’re trying to get conversations started, circulating ideas so that the ideas create momentum for change to happen.
Absolutely. One of the most important experiments coming from the lab is how to start marrying interesting public policy with unbound social energy, articulating common efforts. How can we start identifying the interesting things that are happening within government — such as its interest in making the city more walkable, or more healthy or so on, and surround these initiatives with active communities and provocative accomplices? Projects and themes must function as strange attractors and form multilayered realities. Government lays the groundwork. Social energy gives public policy a grounding in reality instead of it hovering above our heads as law. Academia gives it depth, a framing device and a language. Private initiative funds, promotes, shares values. Instigators drive the questioning two notches further, into more unexplored terrain. We at the Lab bring together, articulate, pilot, experiment, rethink, provoke.
It’s truly a collaborative process, very much about co-creating the reality of the city. It’s different type of city, beyond the pragmatic precepts of modernism and into the experiential city, the human-scale city, the creative city. At the Lab, we truly believe that cities nowadays should not only house the human body but also the human imagination.
You’ve often talked about involving people from all over the world in this project, including TED Fellows. What about all the creative people in Mexico City who want to be involved?
The thing is, this is not about an either/or in terms of local versus global. Nowadays, the city cannot necessarily be defined by its borders. On the contrary, it’s about how many bridges, how porous and intensely connected it is within itself and with other cities.
One number that doesn’t often get thrown out often is that 90% of the new cities and the megacities of the future are going to be in the emerging world, so many of them are going to be a lot like Mexico City. We are an emerging-world city–with all the challenges that entails–yet Mexico City is also the eighth largest economy in the world, plus it is truly one of the most fascinating places on Earth. So it’s the perfect ground to pilot futures — to instigate international conversations that are very relevant not only to ourselves, but to a whole populous worldwide.
One of the changes we’ve been seeing in the last decade is this contagious effect between cities. For example, you have a successful bike sharing program in Paris and suddenly we have it in Mexico City and we have it New York. It starts creating this worldwide momentum. So one of the things that we’re doing is actually marrying the most creative minds of Mexico City with the most creative minds that the world has as well–this new generation of provocative city thinkers from different disciplines–and then see what happens in that space of interaction and friction. It’s not necessarily about people coming to Mexico City to stand on the podium tell the people about the truth with the capital T, but creating a space for questions and passions, collaboration and mutual intoxication.
Percussionist and composer Susie Ibarra is creating virtual sanctuaries for real cities. Working in collaboration with local artists, historians, architects, city planners and musicians, Ibarra and her partner Roberto Rodriguez — who together form Electric Kulintang — have created a musical pilgrimage that takes the public on a sound walk through 12 sites in Lower Manhattan, each featuring an original composition. But more than that, the locations offer respite — they are an invitation to contemplate the special qualities of the built environment.
It’s a music mobile app sound walk — an interactive dialogue, with music and technology as the medium. It’s about bringing sanctuaries of sounds to these historical sites, and partly about bringing the sounds of the natural world back into the built environment. Roberto and I had been talking about the possibility of doing a mobile app sound walk with Andrew Horwitz, an arts promoter, writer for Culturebot and the former programs director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. We were asking if we could do a technology piece based around walking within communities in Lower Manhattan.
As the idea took shape, we started looking at sites: the African Burial Ground, the American Indian Museum, Titanic Memorial Park, the New York Stock Exchange, Castle Clinton, Peter Minuit Plaza (where Manhattan was first purchased), Teardrop Park and Battery Park Labyrinth — memorials that were built after 9/11 — and Pier 15. We asked ourselves, “What are the cultural stories of each of these places? What is the energy? And what can we offer both city dwellers and tourists?”
Other cities are interested as well. Pittsburgh is commissioning it. Troy, New York, is interested. We have been talking to Sydney, and we are thinking about taking it to Mumbai and Delhi. I’ve also just talked to a visual artist in Taipei. It’s fascinating, because there’s so much history in each city, combined with contemporary forces.
I’m thinking about bringing Digital Sanctuaries to the Visayas, in the Philippines, which recently suffered a big earthquake. My brother and sister-in-law were in Bohol the day it happened. Luckily, they are okay. Electric Kulintang has worked with the beautiful Loboc Children’s Choir in Bohol. Fortunately, the earthquake happened on a holiday when many places were closed, but the choir lost its church — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and its community and rehearsal spaces. I’m thinking about what kind of sanctuaries would be needed there. How might we help them rebuild?
What makes Digital Sanctuaries interactive?
Digital Sanctuaries offers the audience a virtual experience at each site. The music streams from each location base, and when someone enters the space, they can listen to the music and read about the site’s history. There is also a four-channel mixer page where they can make their own remix, share, and post responses.
Those who cannot visit the Digital Sanctuaries sites in person can visit the website. We’ll have short samples of the compositions on SoundCloud for each place, and information about the work and collaboration. It will also link to Electric Kulintang’s album Song of the Bird King.
Tell us about your concept of sanctuary.
It’s a very intense place, Lower Manhattan. Have you walked down there? The Financial District can really be very intense. We wanted to provide the people who live and/or work in this environment with a place of respite. We considered who might engage with such a sanctuary. It might be people who live there or work there, or just people who are visiting.
The poster for Digital Sanctuaries.
So do you think the idea of sanctuary will change from city to city?
Yes. Each city will be different historically and culturally. I think that even between Mumbai and Delhi, the sounds we create will be radically different.
What was the process of putting Digital Sanctuaries together?
In the development stage, we work with the collaborating partners — those who are hosting the piece or commissioning it — to listen to what the voice of the city is, and then we do research on which sites resonate best with that. And then, what are the stories of these sites? All this informs the composition. We’re finding that creating these digital sanctuaries of music involves a remapping of cities constructed by histories, and numerous dialogues with the people who live in each place. History and present culture both weigh into the creation of the pieces, and along with stories of indigenous people and immigrants, there’s the natural history of each site.
Roberto and I composed compositions for 12 sites. He composed some, I composed some, and then as a duo, Electric Kulintang, we co-compose. Roberto does some pre-programming with electronics. We invite guest artists for each composition to perform and record in the studio. He and I also perform and record various electronic and acoustic percussion.
All of the artists for Digital Sanctuaries, New York City, are from or live in the area. For example, African Burial Ground features Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa reciting a poem he wrote for the site, Guinean master artist Famoro Diaobate performing on balafon and vocals, and the Young People’s Chorus of NYC singing.
Our collaborating visual artists are also New York City residents. Long-time collaborator Makoto Fujimura is a former resident of Lower Manhattan and is a visionary in supporting and preserving cultural practices. Our interaction designer Shankari Murali, originally from Mumbai, has a well-developed understanding of how to integrate music, art and design for a city. Together, we developed the mobile app. These will be re-adapted for each city.
Do you think that over time, the compositions themselves will change and evolve?
Yes, I like to think so. Cities’ geographic location, natural history, current residents and those who preceded us have all combined to create cultures unique to each place. Music is one of these amazing gifts that ebbs and flows and rises out of these pockets. Culture has defined music, and music has defined culture. And one of the things that interested me in creating Digital Sanctuaries was the potential and possibilities for collaboration. I like the idea of digital public art, a web that can grow and move — something people can build and add onto.
If you happen to be in New York, join one of the inaugural hosted walks happening every day until Sunday, November 10. Meet at noon and 2pm for the Red Walk, at the African Burial Ground, 290 Broadway, New York, 10007. Meet at noon and 2pm for the Green Walk, at South Cove Park, 50 Battery Place, (Between 1st and 3rd Pl), New York, 10280. Meet at noon and 2pm for the Blue Walk, at the India House, 1 Hanover Square, New York, 10004.