Is the Chicago Architecture Biennial’s Radical Message Compromised by Big Oil?

In the third edition of the biennial, progressive politics and BP sponsorship underscore the tensions between discourse and direct action 

Construct Lab, How Together, 2019. Courtesy: Chicago Architecture Biennial; photograph: Cory DeWald

Construct Lab, How Together, 2019. Courtesy: Chicago Architecture Biennial; photograph: Cory DeWald

A now-famous photograph shows a crane hoisting a bronze statue over the Western Cape province of South Africa. The monument of Cecil John Rhodes, once towering over the University of Cape Town, appears feeble mid-air, dangling helplessly from the long arm of justice. The image marks a victory of the #RhodesMustFall campaign, organized by university students to remove from their campus the statue of the colonizer responsible for the deaths of thousands of Africans.

Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, Marj and Prairie: Eating Our Histories, 2019. Courtesy: Chicago Architecture Biennial; photograph: Cory DeWald

Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, Marj and Prairie: Eating Our Histories, 2019. Courtesy: Chicago Architecture Biennial; photograph: Cory DeWald

This photograph appears in the catalogue for ‘… and other such stories’, the third Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB), curated by Artistic Director Yesomi Umolu with Co-Curators Sepake Angiama and Paulo Tavares. It may give pause to find a project of removal rather than construction spotlighted in North America’s largest survey of contemporary architecture – though that break with expectation is precisely the point. This sprawling edition, which opened on 19 September – a day before the Global Climate Strikes – includes over 65 participants from 20 countries and over 100 partnering institutions. It is also its most progressive in scope, expanding its focus from the built environment to what the curators call ‘advocacy as a spatial practice.’ Rather than sounding a call to arms, the biennial carefully examines the ways architectural practices enforce (and inadvertently enable) forms of social and political control. Industry standards are overall de-emphasized; sleek displays of maquettes and blueprints are forgone for social advocacy projects by organizations such as the SweetWater Foundation, which transforms vacant urban spaces into community gardens, and the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library. The most meaningful agents within public space, this framework suggests, are not always architects or planners, but often artists, activists and others who work against existing spatial orders.

If biennials are often progressive echo chambers, CAB’s main location in the Chicago Cultural Center is well-suited to reach a broader public. The former public library building draws nearly a million annual visitors, many who flock to see the world’s largest Tiffany dome. This means, of course, that during its four-month run much of the biennial’s audience will be incidental – drawn in by a sublime stained-glass spectacle and treated with a new, even confrontational experience. This could include the massive Land Acknowledgement sign in the grand stairway that recognizes Chicago’s original residents as the Council of the Three Fires, from the Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi nations. Or the clear acrylic plaques erected by the Settler Colonial City Project that confront the building’s gorgeous marble with the ugly history of its extraction by exploited quarry workers. The plaques are counter-phantasmagoric, in that they reveal the social character of labour in commodity production that capitalism tends to hide.  

Adrian Blackwell, Anarchitectural Library (against the neoliberal erasure of Chicago’s common spaces), 2019. Courtesy: Chicago Architecture Biennial; photograph: Kendall McCaugherty

Adrian Blackwell, Anarchitectural Library (against the neoliberal erasure of Chicago’s common spaces), 2019. Courtesy: Chicago Architecture Biennial; photograph: Kendall McCaugherty

Architectural exhibitions are often dense and text-heavy, bombarding their viewers with charts and schematics better suited to a book. Vancouver-based labour unionist and catalogue contributor Vincent Tao likens this tendency to a house of cards: ‘A biennial tries to build a structure out of balancing two-dimensional planes, the exhibition walls.’ As for complex histories of social movements, ‘when they’re presented in exhibition format, it can flatten the sensuousness of struggle.’ Perhaps the textual excess here can be read as an homage to the Cultural Center’s former life as the main branch of the Chicago Public Library, with projects such as Adrian Blackwell’s Anarchitectural Library (2019), a pop-up radical reading hub on the building’s fourth floor. On the first floor, Construct Lab’s installation How Together (2019) presents a circular ‘agora’ of crate-seating and plywood colonnades bedecked with multi-lingual rallying phrases referencing various works in CAB. Among those in English: ‘We Make Space for Indigenous Peoples’ and ‘Who Gets to Say Which History Deserves Presentation?’

Construct Lab, How Together, 2019. Courtesy: Chicago Architecture Biennial; photograph: Kendall McCaugherty

Construct Lab, How Together, 2019. Courtesy: Chicago Architecture Biennial; photograph: Kendall McCaugherty

One of these slogans is particularly vexing: ‘We Shall Keep Oil in the Ground.’ It references Territorial Agency’s Museum of Oil (2019), a research-based installation that uses satellite and remote-sensing data to analyse fracking in Texas, the Dakota Access Pipeline and Gulf of Mexico (the scene of BP’s own Deepwater Horizon spill). Could the inclusion of the work be a dig at the biennial’s main sponsor, fossil fuel giant BP? Or Construct Lab’s self-criticism for participating in a biennial compromised by its affiliation with an oil company? BP has been with CAB from the start, when it was conceived as part of former Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s passion-plan to position Chicago as a cultural lodestar. The relationship has cast a shadow over its reputation as dark as Trump Tower’s over the Loop; some artists have opted to boycott, citing, as did writer Marc Fisher in his public statement to the 2015 edition, the company’s history of ‘enormous environmental destruction.’ This year’s dissenters were gender-equity advocacy group ArchiteXX, which also organized a panel discussion ‘Activism Within & Against the Biennial Complex’ at Co-Prosperity Sphere during opening weekend. ArchiteXX joins a long chain of refusal against BP-sponsorship of arts and culture, such as Culture Unstained, and the relentless #artnotoil demonstrations at major London museums.

It’s notable how similar ‘We Shall Keep Oil in the Ground’ reads to the posters brandished at the #artnotoil demonstrations, yet from the opposite side of the picket line. These tensions force a productive confrontation between the declarative politics of art and real political action. Museum of Oil aims, according to wall text, to elucidate ‘how the oil industry has infiltrated and disrupted global finance, communities, and the natural environment.’ Does the funding structure that made it possible for these findings to reach the Biennial’s audience muddle whatever clarity they bring about the oil industry’s impact? 

Territorial Agency, Museum of Oil, 2019. Courtesy: Chicago Architecture Biennial; photograph: Cory DeWald

Territorial Agency, Museum of Oil, 2019. Courtesy: Chicago Architecture Biennial; photograph: Cory DeWald

At ‘Activism Within & Against the Biennial Complex’, when asked about their aims, one speaker responded that the biennial should divest from its founding sponsor. It would be difficult, they acknowledged, but alternative funding is possible. At the biennial, Museum of Oil’s wall text echoes this sentiment: ‘for thinking collectively about the structural changes that abandoning oil use would entail.’ Whether such criticism is unforgivably compromised or an effective use of an institutional platform is difficult to say. The biennial's radical framework, as demonstrated by #RhodesMustFall, reminds us that the power of change is vested not only in those with the authority to build, but also in those who can mobilize to remove what unjustly remains. Destruction – of toxic customs, beliefs or relationships – can also be an act of creation.

The 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, ‘… and other such stories’, continues at the Chicago Cultural Center and other locations around the city through 5 January 2020.

Minh Nguyen is a Saigon-born, Chicago-based writer and curator.

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