Keller Easterling on MANY at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale

Keller Easterling on MANY at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale

Professor Keller Easterling is one of the invited participants in the U.S. Pavilion at this year’s installment of the Venice Architecture Biennale. Titled “Dimensions of Citizenship,” the U.S. exhibition gathers work by architects and theorists studying the conflicts between definitions of territory and movements of populations that don’t fit those definitions. The component projects—by Studio Gang, DS+R, and Estudio Teddy Cruz, among many others—vary in subject matter and format, including project maps, built interventions, and simulations. But Professor Easterling’s entry, simultaneously ethereal and immediately practical, challenges conventional approaches to issues around migration while also stretching the boundaries of the issue to include the territory of the entire world through that most ubiquitous of network forms: the app.

Tasked by the U.S. curatorial team—Niall Atkinson, Ann Lui, Mimi Zeiger, and Iker Gil—with designing for the scale of the network, Easterling assembled a team of Yale students from the architecture, graphic design, and computer science departments to form MANY, a matchmaking protocol for migrants with specific skills and organizations in other places in need of those skills. While the version on display at the Biennale is just a demo of the project, Easterling and the MANY team have big plans.

Yale School of Architecture: How did you first get involved in refugee and migration issues?

Keller Easterling: The globalizing space I study manages to move tens of billions of products and tens of millions of tourist and cheap laborers around the world in spaces like free zones. The spaces of refugee camps are almost like the perverse carceral cousin of these free zones. Faced with the task of moving x million people away from atrocities like those in Syria, suddenly there is no legal or logistical or spatial ingenuity.

So in an experimental design studio in the Spring of 2017, we decided to demonstrate the importance of spatial variables in global governance decisions related to refugees. We collected so many examples of ways in which urban spaces could be resources for mobile people. We also discovered many exchange networks for agricultural or environmental information.

What aspects of these issues are better dealt with through the medium of space than through finance or policy?

MANY strings together shorter-term project-based visas. These are not work visas with salaries. They only provide stipends and in-kind contributions.

There was a perfect match between the spatial assets of cities and the compensating packages of benefits needed to trade skills and time with a mobile person. A city with properties worth less than nothing after a financial crisis can still aggregate that perfectly good building stock and land to trade and put together a bargain. Cities can bargain with their underexploited resources to attract a changing influx of talent—matching their needs to the needs of mobile people to generate mutual benefits.

The platform deflates many xenophobic arguments because it is designed to serve those who never wanted the citizenship that the nation withholds or reluctantly bestows. It speaks for those who might say, “We don’t want your victimhood, or your citizenship, or your segregation or your bad jobs. We don’t want to stay.” Rather there are many people can enter into these spatial non-market exchanges of time and training to earn global credentials.

How is MANY incorporated into the US Pavilion at the Biennale? How does it relate to other components of the exhibition?

The Dimensions of Citizenship curators developed 7 scales of citizenship: Citizen, Civitas, Region, Nation, Globe, Network, and Cosmos. I was to work at the Network scale. During the design studio, we kept wondering why there was no platform for trading needs and trading spaces, skills and time to facilitate migration. So when assigned the network scale, it made sense to take it on.

But the platform is not the real object of design. MANY is a heavy information system (not a sunny one-world sharing app). It exists to build spatial networks and cosmopolitan mobility. There are no haves or have nots and no solutions—only needs and problems to put together. Individuals, organizations, congregations, institutions and spatial assets form groups on either side of the exchange. These persistent, resourceful group to group connections increase security and help to outwit abusive actors or nationalist obstructions. Groups even develop a visual language that engenders trust.

What are your goals for MANY? What effect are you hoping it will have at such a high-profile event?

I didn’t want to offer another speculative project to be consumed in the gallery, so MANY was only interesting if it could become a real platform. It is an idea that should be given away, first to a group of students in a special seminar at Yale in the spring of 2019 and then to a real developer outside the school.

It seems to me that this is the very thing a university should do—allow students to rehearse what it actually takes to realize such a project. MANY is an ideal project for engaging a truly interdisciplinary cohort of students from Design, Law, Computer Sciences, Graphic Design, REM, and RITM. YSOA plans to host a seminar with invited guests from within and beyond the university, workshops, and a final presentation/symposium.

MANY is on display at the U.S. Pavilion in the Venice Giardini through November 25, 2018, and is coming soon to a smartphone near you.