Beyond Anthropocene optics: Interview with curators of the Luxembourg Pavilion on “Down to Earth” at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023

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Luxembourg Pavilion
SnT University of Luxembourg, LunaLab, training robots for space mining, Luxembourg, 2022. © Armin Linke 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Vista.

The project Down to Earth by Francelle Cane and Marija Marić was chosen to represent the Luxembourg Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023. The pavilion will be open to visitors between May 20 and November 26, 2023.

“Down to Earth” focuses on the backstages of the space mining operation, providing a new perspective on the Moon that goes beyond the present Anthropocene optics. According to the curators, “Down to Earth critically unpacks the project of space mining through the perspective of resources.”

Here is the conversation between the curators, Francelle Cane and Marija Marić, of the Luxembourg Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023, and Serra Utkum Ikiz of PA!

Luxembourg Pavilion
Unified Geologic Map of the Moon. Image © United States Geological Survey (USGS), NASA, and the Lunar Planetary Institute.

Serra Utkum Ikiz (PA): Would you like to talk about the process of developing the “Down to Earth” project for the Luxembourg Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023? What inspired you to focus on the theme of earth’s resources, and how did you approach this topic in a way that both reflects the unique perspective of Luxembourg and resonates with a global audience?

Francelle Cane and Marija Marić: During the last century, the Earth has turned into what may now be described as a sort of planetary mine, as Martin Arboleda effectively framed it. The need for resources under the current paradigm of a capitalist economy has grown exponentially. At the same time, we have become increasingly aware not only of the limits of the resources on Earth but also about the destructive environmental and social effects that such exploitation produces. The contemporary industrial narratives—which, in the context of our neoliberal economy, usually represent the dominant, mainstream ones—have not managed to challenge this paradigm of extraction and propose, instead, what one could call ‘techno-fix’ solutions to continue mining—cleaner and greener. In this context, the space mining project has emerged during the last couple of years as one such industrial answer.

This project is grounded in a belief that technology and the displacement of destruction elsewhere (in this case, literally to asteroids and the Moon itself) could solve these complex issues. Next to the United States, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates, Luxembourg has also appeared as one of the leaders of this new interest in space. With its long mining history and early presence in the development of space technologies, Luxembourg represents our starting point for this discussion. We saw the question of space mining as one that is both situated in and specific for Luxembourg, but that also goes far beyond it: we believe that the project of extraction of minerals in outer space is a question of shared interest of all of us on Earth—a planetary concern.

Luxembourg Pavilion
© Design & Art direction: OK-RM; Photography: Ronni Campana, 2023.

Serra (PA): What were some of the challenges you encountered in conceptualizing and designing the pavilion, and how did you navigate these challenges to create a compelling and thought-provoking exhibition?

Francelle and Marija: One of the main curatorial challenges that appeared as soon as we started working with this topic was: how do we talk about the sites that we cannot visit? How do we talk about the Moon—when everything we know about it is its mediation?

As we started researching, we learned that many organizations and private companies working with space mining have so-called “lunar laboratories”—physical, small-scale simulations of the lunar landscape (often including simulations of its light conditions)—and use them as testing grounds for different mining technologies. This was an important moment of research for us, as we realized that “lunar laboratories” are not just neutral, technical spaces meant for scientific experimentation, but also often operate as media studios for the production of imagery of human technologies on the Moon; imagery necessary for maintaining the financial potential of the speculative space mining industries. They appeared as both laboratories, as well as theater stages where the performance of mining technologies takes place—an ambiguity that productively embodied our broader understanding of the way the space mining industry operates. We decided to turn our pavilion into one such lunar laboratory, using it, however, not as a stage for the performance of extraction technology, but rather as a platform from which we unfolded the backstages of the space mining project.

© Design & Art-direction: OK-RM; Photography: Ronni Campana, 2023

Serra (PA): As mentioned before, the Luxembourg Pavilion focuses on the theme of the earth’s resources and the impact of space exploration on our understanding of these resources. While this is an important and timely topic, some might argue that it overlooks other pressing issues in contemporary architecture, such as sustainability, social equity, or economic development. How would you respond to these criticisms, and what steps have you taken to ensure that your curatorial approach is inclusive and holistic, taking into account a range of perspectives and concerns? (Additionally, how do you see the theme of earth’s resources as intersecting with these other issues, and what opportunities does this present for innovative and transformative design solutions?)

Francelle and Marija: In our opinion, the question of the exploitation of resources, whether on Earth or beyond, is absolutely inseparable from the questions of sustainability, social equity, and economic development. The mining industry represents perhaps the most illustrative example of the capitalist paradigm of growth, and its devastating social, political, and environmental effects on Earth have already been known and widely studied. Displacing mining elsewhere, beyond Earth, to places and spaces that are considered at the same time “empty” (and thus legible for destruction) and “full” (of minerals and metals, as well as dreams of their monetary value), in our view, represents a continuation of this paradigm and the status quo it produces.

In other words, we argue that, if we really wish to address the question of resource crises—which everyone would agree is necessary—we need to change our relationship with resources on-the-ground, or rather, down on Earth, instead of constructing new frontiers and sites of destruction elsewhere. In our research, we tried to work with very different voices: from protagonists of the space mining industry to space lawyers, geologists, historians, and activists fighting for the rights of the Moon (against extraction). Our goal was to unpack the dominant industrial narratives that present space mining as the solution to the resource crisis, to situate this discussion historically and against other visions of our shared futures, challenging and complicating its agenda by allowing other voices and views to emerge.

© Design & Art-direction: OK-RM; Photography: Ronni Campana, 2023

Serra (PA): What types of technology or materials do you plan to use in the construction of the Luxembourg Pavilion? How do you see technology and sustainability intersecting in the field of architecture, and what opportunities do you see for pushing the boundaries of traditional construction methods in your work?

Francelle and Marija: Practically speaking, Luxembourg Pavilion will feature a lunar laboratory, built according to the existing protocols of construction for this ‘typology.’ Most of the materials in our exhibition will be sourced locally, constructed with the help of local companies, and reused after the exhibition ends in November this year. The exhibition will feature three fragments of our research: a film by video artist Armin Linke based on a series of conversations, shots, and archival materials on the subject; another kind of material library developed as part of the workshop titled How to: Mind the Moon, which we conducted in collaboration with the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Lev Bratishenko, Jane Mah Hutton, Anastasia Kubrak, Amelyn Ng, Bethany Rigby, and Fred Scharmen; and a small publication titled Staging the Moon. Resource Extraction Beyond Earth, designed by OK-RM and published by Spector Books, unfolds our critical take on different aspects of the topic—from the rendering of the Moon as a new resource frontier, to the legal histories and media genres of the space mining project.

While our pavilion does not feature new construction technologies, it does open up the question of the role of technologies in shaping our material realities. We argue that, in order to address complex political issues such as the crisis of resources, we need to go beyond mere technological solutionism, taking into consideration systemic issues that made this crisis—in all of its manifestations—possible in the first place.

We encourage you to stay tuned to ParametricArchitecture for detailed updates on the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023.

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