In Conversation: Joyce Hsiang and Bimal Mendis

Publication Date
November 22, 2021

In Conversation: Joyce Hsiang and Bimal Mendis
9:40 a.m. Book Trader Café, New Haven, CT, United States, Earth, Universe.

Chloe Hou (CH): Your Installation “The World Turned Inside Out” at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 recalls the reference to Henry Holiday’s Ocean Chart (1874). The ocean, once a white space on paper suggesting a lack of knowledge, is filled with countless traces of human activities. Lines define the oceanic, terrestrial, aerial and outer space, registering the social, economic and technoscientific history of humankinds. What strategies did the installation employ in order to call for an un-exploring of the earth, rather than manifesting a global ambition of constant territorialization?

Joyce Hsiang (JH): “The World Turned Inside Out,” was in response to a previous project “The City of Seven Billion.” And that project materializes the lines that we’ve come to know about the world. One of the moments in that project was to recognize a strange disconnect, where we were seduced into reflecting upon an omniscience. Moments like the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines reawakened a present day reality of “to fall off the face of the earth.” So we started to demarcate pockmarks and hidden voids, for example, the ocean floor, which remains 99% uncharted and barely scraped beyond a very grainy version of satellite imagery and inaccurate interpolation of data. We first looked at Henry Holiday’s illustration through the perspective of charting. Then, the fact that it is a blank resonated in an even more meaningful way. The act of unknowing, if contextualized, is extraordinarily important as critiquing urbanization and development, but also as an attitude. Umberto Eco’s description of how “if we know too much, we become…” What’s the term?

Bimal Mendis (BM): It’s not a politically correct term. He discussed forgetting — the idea of losing history as a culture is as important as keeping. They have to occur in reciprocity.

JH: When Umberto Eco spoke at the 50th anniversary of the Beinecke Library, he talked about the role of the library and archives as less of an intentional curation of knowledge. The burning of the great library of Alexandria created an arbitrary collection, a record which wasn’t curated. Even before any drawings, a lot of work was just trying to understand the role of the unknown. We regard various concepts of unknowing as potential and productive strategies in the world of architecture and in questions of how we engage larger planetary questions.

BM: Holiday’s ocean chart is a form of storytelling. Every map is a story; every form of representation is about making a fiction. The idea that the world is urbanized is also a construction of the way we understand it in topography and in motion. Instead of using that story or drawing to be something that conquers, we use it to balance the fear and the ferocious desire of exploring, exploiting, extracting, and constructing, and colonizing.

CH: Thinking back to the ocean floor, one of the research projects I participated in is to chart the ocean floor following the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The work was to map out forms of territories owned by the nation-state 200 nautical miles offshore. At the same time I was wondering what are the voids in the land? How do you inscribe voids where the infrastructure becomes abandoned and useless?

JH: Absolutely. One specific strategy in our project is the ghosting infrastructure. The second was about a new form of aqua incognita. And the third was this Inclusive Degrowth Zone, which is a counterpoint to the Exclusive Economic Zone.

BM: The idea behind the Inclusive Degrowth Zone can relate to how a drawing becomes political. With it, we put common stewardship of EEZ across countries, removing fictional boundaries that were off the map and creating a common territory, because everything along the coastlines is very contingent from rising sea levels to stormwater surges to the marginalization of people and even ecology. It’s the most vulnerable part of the planet, and therefore wants to be thought holistically not individually. So that’s where the idea of preservation and drawing becomes political by essentially redrawing the map without our nation state boundaries.

JH: The other kind of strategy — aqua incognita, describes unknown volumes of water. Some of the lines in the drawings are about connections from port to port; and others, you see this intense activity of serving or oil extraction; or for others, it’s a more scientific exploration of seismic plates. We take the inverse plan oblique of those lines and preserve these volumes of water as unknown and sectional un-exploration of the depths of the ocean.

BM: And the existing land becomes a precedent that we build on. For example, national parks are territories that have been marked for a certain kind of unknown. They are places to be demarcated for further degrowth. Elevationally and typographically speaking, there are so many areas that are uninhabitable and unexplorable. So we mark further areas for preservation that build on this notion of the National Park. A key part of what we’re proposing is also the role of the architect. We’re not just constructing a building, but also absorbing within our repertoire — strategies of subtraction, reduction, rewilding and removal, the preservation and the idea of closing things off. So building is not just constructing but also deconstructing in a proactive way.

JH: Another example regarding voids is the point Nemo, which is considered the most inaccessible point in the middle of the sea. And it is a graveyard for satellites because ships rarely pass. What if you conceive points of inaccessibility and imagine the ripple effects they create. These voids reflect a moment of intensity in the lack of intensity. A moment of this de-intensification. By drawing and mapping the existing conditions, each of them has a very different kind of series of systems, rules, logics, organizational strategies, patterns. They are spatial forms that are not just through drawn compositionally, but actually are reflective of a larger series of interactions of political systems, technical systems, cartographic systems that come together, and they all suggest very different ideas of built form. In our mind, unexplored is a way to think about how you draw the planet which relies very much on very abstracted conventions and vertical boundaries, rather than the material conditions and the logics of systems that actually change the way things are organized and materialized.

BM: A few thousand years ago, the beginning of cartography — the Ptolemy’s world map, was more interesting because people did acknowledge that the Earth was a sphere, but they didn’t know it fully, so the map was always like a quadrant, which they had explored. The shape implies that there are things that lie on the outside. Whereas now I feel like because we think we know the world, we draw it as a circle or a sphere, but there’s so much within it that we don’t know yet, yet we don’t acknowledge that. So how do we draw back in doing so?

CH: You’re talking about varying degrees of abstraction that allow architects to discover what’s interesting in particular spatial forms. I wonder how you discover these uncanny voids? Just print the drawings very large?

JH: There’s a lot of automation, scripting and reliance upon existing datasets. But all of those become an analog process of checking against them and a moment of discussion case by case. Because no matter what you do, you don’t actually see it until you print it out at the scale you’re working at. Using those kinds of scales we recognize what kinds of scales are representational of the world at large. Yet, the physical installation is actually the most revelatory moment. It wasn’t until the whole thing went up that we began to give configurations to different viewpoints. In this project, we privileged the South Pole, often treated as the site of the unknown, as a critique to the dominance of the North. So the unknown reveals itself right at this moment.

CH: Datasets and particular viewpoints are closely linked to visualize the makings of “centers.” Without extrapolating masses of real-time data into legible graphs and tables, your visualization renders the complicated journeys that mobilize resources. In the other formats, for example, I’m thinking about those recruiting videos of Tax Free Zone which always prioritize an aerial view to show the augmentation of data in the built form through vertical growth and horizontal expansion. Relating to Bruno Latour’s concept of “Immutable Mobiles,” drawings and descriptions materialize fictions and engage people (investors) ‘s interest and imaginations.

JH: Gabriel, Hashim, and Roi’s book The World As an Architectural Project opens up by talking about Le Corbusier on his first flight and how that completely changed his outlook on architecture. And it’s also similar to Harrison’s map, which is your favorite.

BM: Richard Edes Harrison was an incredible architect from Yale. He was commissioned to make maps that adapted the point of view of the Boeing B-52 bomber during the height of WWII. Ironically, the map is called a chart of pathways to peace. In order to achieve worldwide peace, you have to control the sky. It shows strategic locations, points of vulnerability and source code, referring to the larger location of Russia and Eastern Europe. Looking at it positions you in a global perspective and allows you to always see from the viewpoint of someone flying high and looking down, which is the vantage point.

JH: But very politically, taking the war up into the sky re-perceives things as strategic epicenters and creates larger impacts on the infrastructures, adding to another idea on the vantage point, especially in cases of climate change and deforestation. They become present with the rise of satellite imagery. It replicates the notion of Overview Effect, a standard concept that many astronauts have described. Well, it isn’t until they actually go out into space, and all of a sudden, they understand and recognize the fragility of the planet and the precarity of human existence on earth.

BM: Another analogy as to how to draw the world at its scale is Borges’ story On Exactitude in Science, which talks about the fiction of a one to one map as the only way to represent countries in full accuracy. A Lot of times, we perceive fragments of existence. But you can’t color the world on a one to one scale.

JH: We also often question the inside and the outside. This Venice piece plays upon this and what it means to see both views simultaneously.

CH: “Better to be cautious than clueless.” Do contemporary societies still need tales of creatures or monsters?

BM: I think this is partially what you are doing with Paprika!, giving forms to the things we do not know and celebrating them. Drawing them continues the traditions of making stories. Inventing them to help us guide who we are. Also simply to acknowledge that there’s a phase for things we don’t know.

JH: To reawaken previous geographical mythologies also requires us to be critical about the context in which these creatures were previously described. Appropriating and further inscribing them makes us extremely aware of the unknown. The other dimension for it is the role of imagination. There’s this constant seriousness and reliance on scientificism and empiricism. These fables don’t exist without our interests and imaginations.

BM: Even with time. How do we ingrain time, rather than a point in time in architecture drawings, as this great unknown of the past and projections into the future. I think we need to be good at drawing it.

Publication Date
November 22, 2021
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Felix Yiu
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