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Did someone say 'Adhocracy'? An interview with Ethel Baraona Pohl

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Ethel Baraona Pohl develops her professional work through links to numerous architectural and design publications. She has collaborated with blogs and magazines, including Domus, Quaderns and MAS Context, among others. She has been invited to present work at events like Postopolis! DF and the international architecture festival eme3. She was co-founder, with Cesar Reyes Najera, of the independent publishing company dpr-barcelona, whose projects, both digital and printed, subvert the limits of conventional publications, and approach the architecture and design publications of the future. Currently, Ethel serves as associate curator of Adhocracy one of the two exhibitions of the first Istanbul Design Biennial, that opened on October 13th, 2012 and runs through December 12, 2012.

Ethel Baraona Pohl
Photo: Marcelo Isarrualde
Latitudes: We would like to start with your participation as associate curator of the Istanbul Design Biennial.1 In particular, how are you working with Joseph Grima (co-curator of the Biennial with Emre Arolat and editor of Domus magazine) around the idea of 'adhocracy', something that "captures opportunities, self-organizes and develops new and unexpected methods of production. "

Ethel Baraona Pohl: Adhocracy is one of two exhibitions that divide the Biennial. The team consists of three people (Elian Stefa, Pelin Tan and myself), apart from Joseph Grima. The focus of the concept adhocracy is very broad, which has allowed us to structure the exhibition along two complementary lines: one for projects selected by the curatorial team, and a second for projects included in response to an open call, from which approximately 30% of the content was selected.

Today, we might say that the concept of adhocracy is almost inherent in design. Work tools, new technologies and forms of communication, and strategies that facilitate self-organization—like DIY projects—are readily developable, urban actions that have a real impact on our environment.

Among the projects selected by the curatorial team is Wikitankers by Todo por la Praxis (All for Praxis), a project based on the design and construction of furniture items made ad hoc to activate collective spaces. The pieces have different uses—from a kitchen built for public space, to media tanks that project guerrilla multimedia messages in urban space. I think it's a project that perfectly represents the idea of adhocracy, because all of the devices are mobile, made of available and reusable items such as trash cans, and have an immediate capacity to transform public space. It is also a project that allows replicability and adaptability in different contexts.

Website of the first Istanbul Design Biennial
istanbuldesignbiennial.iksv.org
Another example, this time received in response to the open call, is La Ciudad Jubilada (The Retired City) by Pau Faus. The research is based on the self-constructed gardens on the outskirts of Barcelona built by retired people. These are autonomous practices, a kind of 'disobedience', shaping the contemporary city. We think the spontaneous emergence of gardens is very important, but were also interested in their social and even political implications because they show different forms of occupation of vacant space, and in the end, what they do is strengthen the conviviality of the people who work them, creating spaces and relational exchange.
 
L: Has the open-call process functioned as anticipated? Do you think it is possible (or reasonable) to organize a biennial event like this using only an open call?

EBP: In the particular case of the Biennial, there was some confusion on the part of the participants on the topic 'imperfection'—the overall theme of the Biennial—and the concept of adhocracy was brought up as a response to the proposals. It’s difficult to know whether it was a problem with communication, or with the wording and circulation of the topic, or that, as is typical in these cases, we sometimes read diagonally without delving into certain concepts.

As for the second part of the question, I think that part of the importance of curatorial teams being made up of people from different disciplines and experiences has been that the team can cover a wider field, and can respond to the study or research that is realized by the selection of projects. In the case of Adhocracy, the team includes sociologists, architects, editors and designers, which gives a great richness to every meeting and conversation.

L: ‘Open’ practices can easily be caricatured as a mortal threat to the knowledge of the expert, or academic practice. They seem to suggest a scenario where specialists are replaced by volunteers, interns or just fans. If we accept that generosity is a good thing—and that things can't work without trust, care and quality—how do you think this has changed the role of the publisher or the role of curator beyond being a mere 'guardian'?

EBP: I’d like to start by quoting Peter Gadanho (curator of contemporary architecture at MoMA), who recently said in an interview, "curating is the new criticism" 2. What caught my attention most through this phrase was the importance (in some cases exaggerated) that the role of the curator has been taken on in recent years, and in some specific cases, has led to the caricature that you mention.

For Adhocracy, the intention was to be coherent with the concept itself, and allow ourselves to see with other eyes, out of enthusiasm and the desire to learn. All this work has been reinforced by our active role in different social networks, which somehow comes to represent the power of many: a more horizontal structure. We could say that our network has also worked with us, sharing projects via Twitter or Facebook. In many cases these even coincide with projects we had on our list, and in others, they allow us to meet new designers, architects and activists that we had on our radar.

L: This brings us to talk about the idea of participation—or rather the expectations that participation generates. dpr-barcelona published the Spanish edition of Did someone say participate? An Atlas of Spatial Practice (MIT Press, 2006). What conclusions have you extrapolated or applied in your architectural and editorial practice as a result of this publication?

Did Someone Say Participate?
An Atlas of Spatial Practice

Edited by Markus Miessen and Shumon Basar
(dpr-barcelona, 2009)
EBP: Did Someone Say Participate? has been very important for dpr-barcelona for various reasons, but among the most important ones, I think, is that it allowed us to voice a concern we had had for quite some time, and that the publication could spread and create an active dialogue, from the format we chose for the launch [link in Spanish, Eds.] (avoiding the traditional closed presentation and making a global, multi-connected action), to the influence it has had on our way of networking with open formats.

Many of our books have come into being through networks and collaboration; our work with other magazines like Domus or Quaderns has emerged from an open, collaborative approach ... that is to say, participatory.

L: In The Nightmare of Participation, Miessen discusses the overexposure of the term 'participation', and what he describes as a perverse sense of urgency to achieve inclusion and consensus in all areas (political, cultural, etc.). He continues by analyzing the multiple traps involved in understanding the participatory process as a political correctness that is governed by expertise, and as a consequence as something that can appease our critical notions. Finally, he alludes to the notion of the curator as a clear example of this exclusion, since the curator makes decisions (decides what to include and what to eliminate) and therefore is the opposite of the romantic notion of participation, of generosity. How do you negotiate that relationship in a project like Adhocracy: the seemingly opposite, 'top-down' model, versus the 'bottom-up' model which the project seems to call for?

EBP: This is a very interesting question, and different confrontations and positions related to the term 'participation' have been circulating through our conversations from the start. In principle, I believe that in a project like the Biennial there is the need to communicate the inherent conflict you mention—hence the idea of combining a selection of projects with projects that have been received through the open call.
Obviously this cannot be entirely open, although that might be considered desirable. To create a space that generates discussion we have to have an argument to share, to show, and exhibit, in order to receive responses and create a dialogue. It's in this moment that the most important element for participation emerges—the interaction between different positions, including opposing ones, in open conversation. The intention is that Adhocracy is that platform; and that the curatorial selection is not a closed element, but becomes a catalyst for debate and encounter.
 
The importance of the way stories are being told
(dpr-barcelona, 2012)
L: We are interested in the process and spirit of development of the eBook publication The importance of the way stories are being told, which dpr-barcelona began in July 2012 after a talk at eme3, as a way of keeping momentum after the end of the conversation. Could you explain how this editorial process worked on a practical and conceptual level?

EBP: At dpr-barcelona we have long been interested in how new forms of communication and the use of new technologies are changing the editorial world, the ways in which we publish and ways in which we read and learn.
In this case, the motivation came directly from the eme3 invitation to moderate a panel discussion. The list of participants included people from diverse backgrounds, like Tiago Mota Saravia (architect and blogger from Portugal), Klaus (caricaturist and critic, among many other things) and Nerea Calvillo (architect with extensive experience in data visualization), among others, and the moderators, included Ana María León (architect, currently working on his doctoral thesis at MIT), Clara Nubiola and Pedro Hernandez. We thought it was a shame that everything shared in this session of two hours was so ephemeral. And so (using our editorial experience) we decided to ask participants for a brief text related to their participation in the debate. In order to expand the content and the overview of the topic, we invited three more participants, all related in some way to the world of publishing, architecture or ‘bottom-up’ (this being the theme of eme3 2012). The result has been very experimental. Using the platform Booki, each author has the ability to upload and edit their own text. And finally, we publish the book in .mobi format for Kindle and ePub for tablet, and it can be purchased on Amazon.

With the intention of it being a completely open book, it can also be downloaded from our website by Pay with a Tweet, which both provides a high degree of circulation for the work of our authors, and opens a debate on the new editing models with a concrete example.

L: On the editing process specifically, have you defined a framework or parameters to help you navigate the process?

EBP: Our processes and parameters are difficult to classify. We work in a very open form, and we are constantly in the process of learning. This means that every project is born and managed differently: from publishing a book using a floppy disk, to publishing content in ePub format. It is clear, however, that if we want to publish content, no matter what the format is, there has to be a clear message that serves to generate debate. The social and political implications of architecture interest us a lot, for example.

L: In the world of coding and software development, GitHub has become an initiative for open publication and mass distribution as well as a social network of distributed collaboration. What technological tools or ways of working on the internet do you think are the most important for the future of architecture, publishing, curating and editing?

EBP: It is likely that the future of publishing and writing will be related to ways of making knowledge more accessible, allowing faster editing with fewer intermediaries. I would emphasize, however, that the type of speed we refer to has nothing to do with the loss of quality. The time for the author’s research and reflection may be the same, yet the process becomes more efficient is in the use of appropriate formats by which publications can reach a wider audience—like Kindle, tablets or smart-phones.
Personally, I'm passionate about books in their traditional format. I love the smell of paper, the underlinings, and notes in the margins. So I don't think that there will be a fight between formats. Between digital and analog there is a complementary use, not a rivalry.
'Through the lens of Aurasma'
Augmented Reality
Photo: Domus
An example of this is the use of Augmented Reality with apps like Aurasma. The first experiment we conducted with this was in Domus magazine, for an article called From Line to Hyperreality, in which the images are linked to interactions with Augmented Reality, allowing the contents of the article expand beyond the physical limits of the paper. The book Weaponized Architecture (dpr-barcelona, 2012) will have a mobile-book version with this type of interaction, following Léopold Lambert’s investigation of physical to virtual space and vice versa. Other platforms that we are using and researching are collaborative, like Booki that allows us create 'open books', constantly evolving and without a definite end—the Borges's library of Babel in just one volume!

L: How do you think it might be feasible to open a conversation with multiple authors, while keeping a realistic financial model in mind? We’re thinking not only about how dpr-barcelona must balance pro bono work with work that generates income, but also more generally about how to work together to avoid becoming a new model of (auto) labor exploitation.

EBP: This is a very sensitive issue in recent years. Digital communication tools and social networks have opened the term 'participation' to very subtle meanings—where sometimes you lose the respect and value of the work.
Digital communication tools and social networks have opened the term 'participation' to very subtle meanings - where sometimes you lose the respect and value of the work.
We believe that new economic models like crowdfunding (collective financing) are made viable by the tremendous distribution capacity and outreach that social networks offer. You do not need a book to be expensive to generate sufficient profits: the sale of content through micro-payments can be fragmented to generate a steady flow of income. So, we’re not selling more units at higher price, but micro-content totaling more; consequently these formats permit a better share between the collaborators in each project.
A clear example of this is our series Synapse: an editorial project in Kindle format with which we try to break down barriers and bring content to the public through digital formats that allow fluidity, speed and low cost, while maintaining a high quality of content. The prototypes are between 4,000 and 6,000 words and are sold through our website for € 1.99. For every book sold, the author gets 30% of the profits compared with the usual 8%, which represents a very reasonable increase, considering the work of the authors.

L: As an avid user of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Pinterest, Vimeo, LinkedIn, Architizer, etc., Do you find it important to remember or reproduce our lives before the web 2.0 / 3.0? Paraphrasing Douglas Coupland, do you miss your pre-internet brain?

EBP: The truth is, no! I think the important thing about this era we live in is to learn self-control. I cannot deny that in some way I could be considered a net addict, but I also believe I’ve achieved that balance of being able to sit and read a book or have a coffee and completely forget my cell phone.

L: And relating to this, what roles do you think are available for artists who would rather not be connected or reachable—is loneliness, marginalization or illegibility inappropriate behavior or utopian in a new order of relations?

EBP: Personally I think the most beautiful aspect of our times (and this is also related to the adhocracy), is that there is room and respect for all. In principle every form of work, the use of networks or media, are personal choices, and obviously respected. The big change in the last twenty years of a multi-connected society can be very saturating for some people, but it also allows them, from their loneliness and isolation, to find what they need (information, peers, etc.) in the moment they want it. Instead of any particular relationship to these tools being seen as improper behavior, it simply becomes a proper use of each one of our digital tools. Human relationships are complex in nature and within this complexity there is also a diversity of behavior in terms of ways to communicate and socialize.

L: The character of Sean Parker (a co-founder of Napster, played by Justin Timberlake) in the film The Social Network (2010) has a memorable line: "We lived in farms, then we lived in cities, and now we live on the Internet ". As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the built environment and technology, do you agree with the idea that social media have become our architecture?

EBP: Rather than considering social networks as an architecture, I think they are a territory. But not the only one. I understand architecture as a public space, where people meet, talk, share ideas—and with social networks it works the same way. They are only another meeting point, which does not replace the traditional city or territory, but complements it.


[1] The Istanbul Design Biennial runs from October 13 to December 12, 2012. The Biennial is divided into two exhibitions: Musi-bet, curated by Emre Arolat, will be held in Istanbul Modern, and Adhocracy will be presented at the Galata Greek Primary School.
[2] The publication is part of a trilogy that questions the existing notion of participatory practices, and includes two more publications edited by the architect, writer and spatial advisor, Markus Miessen: The Violence of Participation (Sternberg Press, 2007) and The Nightmare of Participation (Crossbench Praxis as a Mode of Criticality) (Sternberg Press, 2010).


* This interview with Ethel Baraona Pohl, originally conducted in Spanish on October 8th, 2012 and titled ¿Alguien dijo Adhocracia?, is part two of Latitudes' ongoing #OpenCurating project. Latitudes and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis are content collaborators on this project. It was translated for Big Red & Shiny by Miguel Miró-Quesada.

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