INTERVIEW by BRIAN EDELMAN and BR!NK STAFF | PHOTOGRAPHY by ROGER KISBY
Environmental degradation. Overpopulation. Lack of housing. Are you getting a headache yet? There is no shortage of urban challenges our civilization currently faces, especially with more than 50% of us living in cities. If you’re a resident of the Big Apple, you might have visited the pop-up structure known as BMW Guggenheim Lab, which gathers architects, artists, designers, tech geeks, scientists, and all types of other engaged citizens, to discuss those issues. For the next six years, this constantly-evolving project will be traveling to nine cities around the globe. Why is this so exceptional? Well, let’s face it: it’s pretty rare that issues of such magnitude are addressed in a cool public gathering space, with the opinions of those directly concerned with the issue actually taken into consideration. Lab Co-Curators David van der Leer and Maria Nicanor tell us more about their baby, that will soon move to Berlin.
What is the BMW Guggenheim Lab and what is its goal?
David: We really are a mixture between a think tank, a community center, and a gathering space. The main goal is to raise awareness among people about city life. Most of us live in the city, but the way many people organize their day is they get up, go to work, come back, go out, and then go to bed, without really thinking about their environment. What does it mean if we start to think about it a little bit more? And also allow people to develop their own voice to speak about it? That’s very important, especially in a city like New York where there is such a great system of communication with public officials so you can actually get things done.
Is the goal empowerment of the people or is it something where you guys take all the ideas and implement them some way?
David: We’re not city administrators. Although sometimes… it feels like we are. [laughs] I don’t think it’s our official duty to implement those ideas—you never know what comes up if we did—but to give those ideas a voice. Many ideas we’re hosting in other cities will be jointly owned by Lab members as well as by the organization.
How was this project conceived? What was the inspiration for it?
David: Maria and I met working on the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition at the Guggenheim. That’s the biggest show in the history of the museum. Which is interesting, because it was an architecture show. It was amazing that the show drew so much attention. We were asked by our director to write a proposal. He said, “BMW has come to us with a request. With having the success of the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition in mind, use the potential of architecture and what our needs are in large cities as the basis of a new project.” We wrote this proposal very quickly, actually. And we convinced BMW that this is something they want to do.
There are multiple cycles in this project. Can you explain how that works?
David: There are three different cycles. The first cycle is happening right now. Each cycle we get one new building and in that building we are travelling to three different cities around the world. In each of those cities we work on the same theme. And then we repeat that process for the next cycle: new building, new architects, new cities. And in each of the cities we get new Lab members to join the project. At the end of the first cycle we reconvene at the Guggenheim Museum.
Maria: The Lab is an indication of new tendencies in museum practice that favor active experiences rather than passive contemplation and that encourage participation. It also encourages the crucial value of the local, precisely to avoid this feeling that we are seeing the same thing over and over again. The future of museums will rely on a balance between these two directions. The Lab will not be the same in NY as it will be in Berlin or in Mumbai, because its programs will respond to local individuals and collaborate with local partners and organizations, so it will inevitably be different every step of the way.
How do you think that new global problems and increased interconnectedness among nations are affecting the art one can see in museums around the world?
Maria: You make a good point that with an ease in global movement, one sometimes starts feeling like we’ll see the same Picasso show in New York that we will in London or later in Paris. While I’m not sure there is an immediate solution to that (in part because of the rising cost of organizing traditional exhibitions), I do feel there are alternatives to that formula or ways to complement it. I also find it fascinating that we get to run a project like this from a museum. It could have easily been a city government initiative to active public spaces, for instance. Instead, we are running it from a cultural institution. This allows us to address very serious issues with creativity and a certain flexibility. We need to address real life issues from cultural institutions the same way that we address art, design, and other creative representations.
Do you know the themes for the next two cycles?
David: We do, but I’m not going to say. [laughs]
Keeping the mystery. I like it! How do you choose the cities to go to? Do you pick the cities by lab members?
David: No, we choose the cities before the lab members. How we choose is we look at cities that have a large population and at Western and Eastern cities. We’re always trying to get a nice set of circumstances. After Berlin, we’re off to Mumbai.
Maria, why was Berlin one of the choices for some of the upcoming locations of The Lab? How has your experience been there so far?
Maria: Berlin has increasingly become one of the centers of Europe in the past years, in great part due to its affordability. We also knew that after a presence in America (New York), we wanted to move on to Europe and eventually to Asia (Mumbai). No one city can represent Europe – it’s the nature of the European story – but Berlin has certainly become a magnet for creative initiatives. We were interested in its rich historical past and the rapid urban transformations that it has gone through as a consequence of them. It embodies urban change at a very fast pace. The experience here has been truly remarkable and the city has welcomed us with open arms since we first arrived. We’ve been working with local partners and organizations for the past month and will build our programs for the Lab based on the input of these local partners.
What has been the greatest success so far?
David: There is very little in the way of barriers. We create public forums to exchange ideas; people come hang out, they walk through, stop in for just a couple seconds, and anyone can walk in off the street and join a workshop. One of the best things that has happened in New York is the attendance. We had very good attendance from people in the neighborhood, not from the neighborhood, and even not from the country.
Maria: Attendance has certainly been beyond our wildest expectations, but as well as that, I would say that we’ve been able to reach people’s minds and inspire them with new ideas. This is difficult to quantify in a number or a percentage of success, but thinking about new ideas around how cities work and how they can work even better is, I think, what can transform all of us into real agents of change as individual citizens. It sounds very idealistic, but I truly believe it!
What can Daily BR!NK do for you?
Maria: Participate in the conversation! Read the blog, post your ideas and add new ones, check out the NY events online that you weren’t able to attend but that are available to watch online. For what we’ve seen in New York, the Lab turns people from spectators into producers, and I hope that people walk away with a new sense of their own agency and ability to affect change or at least an understanding that the way things are is not the way they have to stay.