Ahead of the opening of the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale, AN speaks with the curators of the American Pavilion

Everlasting Plastics

Ahead of the opening of the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale, AN speaks with the curators of the American Pavilion

Tizziana Baldenebro and Lauren Leving, Cleveland-based curators of the U.S. Pavilion at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale. (© McKinley Wiley)

Last fall, Tizziana Baldenebro and Lauren Leving were announced as the curators of the next iteration of the United States’ contribution to the Venice Architecture Biennale. Their proposal offers a close look at the material possibilities of plastic for architects, designers, and artists. In the midst of finalizing the pavilion’s offerings, Baldenebro and Leving spoke with AN’s executive editor Jack Murphy about their efforts.

AN: Why plastic?

Tizziana Baldenebro (TB): We live in Ohio and are surrounded by plastic. Petrochemical polymers are one of the state’s leading industries. Especially after events like the Norfolk Southern derailment, the presence of plastics is something that everyone understands. The ideas for Everlasting Plastics started to develop from living in this region. A lot of artists connect plastics to systems of waste and waste production and are interested in thinking deeply about this region’s relationship with the material.

Simon Anton, After the Federal Reserve, 2023, plastic and steel (Coutesy Simon Anton)

AN: What can you share about the exhibitors who will show their work as part of the pavilion?

TB: The pavilion’s five participants all bridge architecture, design, and art. Simon Anton is a Detroit-based designer who has been working with plastic waste and makes works with locally sourced material.

Xavi L. Aguirre, who is an architecture professor at MIT, has been thinking about larger metaphors of plasticity in relationship to aesthetics, reproduction, and modular systems.

Ang Li is an architecture professor at Northeastern who has been working with waste systems, extrapolating from the scale of bales of waste into conversations about materials like EPS foam, which often isn’t perceived as being plastic.

Norman Teague, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is working with the idea of creating sustainable workforces, which is a big conversation in the Midwest. We wanted to exhibit someone who hadn’t worked with plastic, so we are challenging him to research and learn new skills and methods and apply them to his existing working methods.

Lauren Yeager, a sculptor based in Cleveland, has been creating assemblages of plastic refuse using Midwestern Americana like Coleman coolers and Little Tikes play sets that embody another aspect of our relationship to plastics: There is a veneer of nostalgia with a cynical undertone. You see that these objects were waste, and now they are being repurposed into sculptural assemblage. It raises questions about waste, value, and production streams.

Xavi Aguirre, multi-channel film installation, 2023 (Courtesy Xavi Aguirre)

AN: How will these works be arranged in the pavilion? What will the exhibition look like?

Lauren Leving (LL): We’ve been working with two exhibition designers who are drawing from factory aesthetics inspired by sites of industrial production to support the flow of the exhibition. We will be opening the doors of the rotunda, which haven’t been used as an entrance in quite some time, to think about a circulatory system that parallels industrial versus individual waste streams. People will be able to navigate in their own ways, but each artist or architect has their own moment for visitors to engage with the work.

Norman Teague, extruded recycled plastic, 2023 (Courtesy Norman Teague)

AN: How will you share these efforts with wider publics beyond the attendees in Venice?

TB: We are at work on a book project undertaken with Columbia Books on Architecture and the City titled Sketches on Everlasting Plastics. For the first iteration, we invited 20 or so writers to write texts in response to the themes of the exhibition. There are poems, heartfelt letters and conversations, critical thought—it’s a robust way of expanding ways of thinking and ensuring the dialogue doesn’t end with the five featured exhibitors. We plan to have a first run of this publication available when the Biennale opens and then it will be more widely available alongside a catalogue. We will also add these texts to the website so everyone can read them.

AN: What kind of feedback have you received in Cleveland about the project?

LL: We’ve received a lot of positive feedback, and everybody is excited. We’re working with an art history professor at Case Western Reserve University and her upper-level undergraduate and graduate students, who are reading and conducting research about environmental practices in arts and plastic. The students are helping to develop programs alongside Everlasting Plastics in Cleveland to engage local audiences who are unable to travel to Venice. Petrochemical plastic polymers are the largest industry here, so we’re situating a critical discourse here, even though the artworks won’t be present.

These conversations are now rippling beyond our work into local design schools and architecture programs, which have huge influence on the city and the state’s architecture culture.

Lauren Yeager, Yellow Tower, 2023, found object sculpture (Courtesy Lauren Yeager)

AN: When working on waste and the Rust Belt, where do you locate hope and strength?

TB: It’s important to think about altered relationships to plastic, even positive ones: There are applications that are lifesaving medical devices and there are gender-affirming and body-affirming uses. Aguirre’s work will address the relationship between queer futures and plastics. How do we critique the topic through a lens that is not dismissive or derisive of these experiences and ways of being? We’re working through this multiplicity of narratives. One of the authors included in Sketches on Everlasting Plastics talks about giving birth in a hospital and how much plastic is involved in that. Another considers the nostalgia for the shape of a bottle that used to be made out of glass.

LL: We’re talking about the sustainability of jobs here too, as plastics producers are the leading employer in the region. As we’re thinking of uses and reuse for material and waste streams, we’re also considering the resources that plastic manufacturing offers to workers. There are dire downsides, but at the same time it is employing many people and supporting their families.

Ang Li, compressed polystyrene foam (Courtesy Ang Li)

AN: The last four American pavilions have been led by Midwest-based curators. Why is that? Have you been mentored by past curators for this project?

TB: The mentorship has been tremendous. We spoke early on with Ana Miljački, Ann Lui, Mimi Zeiger, Iker Gil, Paul Andersen, and Paul Preissner. There has been an outpouring of support, and it is special to receive that “whatever you need, just text away” response.

The region offers an expansive place to think about architecture and design. There’s so much industrial design going on, and there’s a strong connection to postindustrial landscapes. There’s this flyover mentality, which imagines that people aren’t watching us, so we get to be more experimental, bold, and daring in our ways of thinking and get to define what things are in ways that more visible parts of the country don’t get to. There’s space for experimentation and interrogating what it means to bring together art, architecture, and design.

These four pavilions—from The Architectural Imagination in 2016 to Dimensions of Citizenship in 2018 to American Framing in 2021—all work with a heartland mentality that this region is the most American America gets. How do we engage with that? How do we start to exploit that and expand its definition?

AN: What else should readers know about the upcoming American Pavilion?

TB: We’re trying to establish the ability to extrapolate from plastics our expectations for other materials. Plastic creates expectations for other materials, and these ideas can change over time. How do we go back to the genesis of the word plastic as a good way of being, a flexible and adaptable way of being?

We’re also trying to make a connection between our region and Venice. We’re connecting with Venice Lagoon Plastic Free, an organization that collects plastic waste in the Venetian lagoons. We’re working on partnerships that start to resist the typical biennial/triennial mindset and instead build longer relationships that impact ways of operating and thinking. Hopefully, these become institutional and infrastructural changes.

Tizziana Baldenebro is the executive director of SPACES in Cleveland.

Lauren Leving is the curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.