Every two years, Venice hosts the world's most important architecture exhibition. In 2016, Canada will be there with an installation about the stuff that makes our buildings and cities – and Canada's prominent global role in digging up resources from the earth.
Next week, Canada Council for the Arts will announce the winner of a national competition: "Extraction," a project led by the landscape architect and Harvard University professor Pierre Bélanger. It will include an installation at the site of Canada's national pavilion in Venice, an accompanying essay collection, and a film made with the artist Edward Burtynsky and the filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier.
Contemporary conversations about architecture and cities "have artificially separated the city from the rural," Bélanger said. "Our discourse is focused on places of consumption" – where we live. "But where does all this stuff come from? Who gives us rights to it? And where does it all go?"
The exhibition, which opens May 27, is also commissioned by the Art Gallery of Alberta, which will present the show as it makes a national tour in 2016-17.
Each Venice Biennale has an overarching theme, selected by an individual curator; this time, it is the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, and he has chosen the title, Reporting from the Front. His invitation is for architecture to contribute to the public good, "to improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people's quality of life," Aravena said in a statement.
Extraction responds to this, Bélanger suggests, by focusing on "what actually supports urban economies." That is to say, in large part, mining – the sector in which Canadian companies, technologies and capital markets play a central role. Bélanger is adamant that the project is not a critique of the mining industry. "It's an acknowledgment," he says, "of what actually supports urban economies."
"We usually overlook the complex technologies of exploitation required to support a metropolitan lifestyle." For example, Bélanger cites the rare earth elements – which require intensive processing – that are crucial to mobile phone production. "I challenge anyone whose life is not touched by a cellphone," he said, "to raise their hand."
The exhibition, designed with the architecture firm RVTR, will bring into Venice's public gardens a physical representation of the scale and impact of resource extraction. Canada's exhibition usually takes place there in the Canadian national pavilion – a small 2,000-square-foot gallery building, completed in 1958. That building will be closed during this year's exhibition; the Extraction project will "bury the pavilion," Bélanger says, with a pile of gold ore – supplied from a mine in Sardinia that has been controlled by Canadian mining companies.
The project's accompanying essay collection, edited with Nina-Marie Lister, will address the political, environmental and economic aspects of Canada's place in the global resource economy. It will include contributions from (among others) writer Thomas King; artist Michael Awad; architect and planner John van Nostrand; Baichwal, de Pencier and Burtynsky.
Baichwal, de Pencier and Burtynsky are now collaborating on a film and photography project that "is looking at, in a broad sense, the human impact on the planet," Burtynsky explained this week. Extraction speaks to the central theme of his previous collaborations with Baichwal and de Pencier, Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark, and his photographic work.
"How do we, as the top predator species, relate to nature?" he asks. "We hive ourselves off from nature, through politics or religion or urbanization. … That's always been the interesting thing that I've looked at: that dangerous separation from nature that we've inculcated within our society."
Partly because of Burtynsky's body of work, Bélanger said, Canadians are ready to have a more thoughtful conversation. "If there's a moment to engage in a deeper discourse on extraction," he said, "now's the time."