Biennale Architettura 2018

UNES-CO and "Normal Life"

 John Hill
6. June 2018
Photo: John Hill/World-Architects
The Czech and Slovak Pavilions at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice is the setting for UNES-CO (United Nations Real Life Organization), a fictitious company founded by artist Kateřina Šeda that draws attention to the impact the UNESCO World Heritage List has on cities.
The pavilion is simply adorned: a manned desk with pamphlets, some white flags along the sides of the gallery, a UNES-CO logo hanging below the skylight, a video screen at the far end of the space, and the phrase "Normal life is a full-time job" above the screen. Visitors expecting an exhibition where they digest information via images on the walls may be disappointed. But the simplicity of the exhibit belies Šeda's multi-faceted, layered contribution, which exists as much in the Czech town of Český Krumlov as it does in Venice — both, it should be pointed out, on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Photo: John Hill/World-Architects
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee inscribed the "Historic Centre of Český Krumlov" on the World Heritage List in December 1992, a little over 25 years before the opening of the Venice Architecture Biennale in May 2018. The designation led to the dramatic restoration and cleaning of buildings in the historic center, but it also turned the area into one targeted at tourists rather than residents. The latter moved out en masse to the periphery, leaving the center as primarily hotels, restaurants and retails catering to the busloads of tourists that spend a half-day or maybe a couple days in the small town of around 13,000 residents. The swapping of residents for tourists means that a live feed of the town, such as that displayed in the pavilion, displays people carrying cameras, for instance, rather than groceries.
Screenshot from "Live from Krumlov" (Source: www.unes-co.cz)
Kateřina Šeda's contribution to the Biennale draws attention to this draining of Krumlov's center, but she does it in a way that blends performance art with architectural criticism. Before the Biennale opened, she solicited people for paid jobs via the unes-co.cz website:

We are looking for inhabitants of the Czech Republic who would like to spend 1 or more days during the tourist season (June–August 2018) engaging in occasional employment in the historic streets of Český Krumlov. The work entails VISIBLY ENGAGING IN NORMAL LIFE and performing a selected activity associated with this objective.

These jobs, assuming they're filled, ask people to "push a baby carriage through the city center" or "take out the trash" or "water flowers in the windows," among many "normal" activities that Šeda asserts are missing from the center of Krumlov.
Cover of "UNES-CO" catalog (Source: www.unes-co.cz)
The activities are listed in the impressive catalog that accompanies the exhibit, pulling the UNES-CO theme from a place (Krumlov), space (pavilion) and screen (live feed of Krumlov) to the printed page. While the many interviews, snippets from articles, and photographs of the town reiterate the touristy state of Krumlov, the catalog also extends the ideas of UNES-CO beyond the confines of the gallery (necessary in any exhibit these days) and explicitly draws comparisons between Krumlov and Venice, which has been grappling with tourist issues for even longer. Even if Biennale visitors never venture to the Czech town, experiencing UNES-CO does shine a light on their experiences in Venice, where tourists outnumber residents a little more than 1 to 1 and "normal life" is nearly impossible to come by.
Spread from "UNES-CO" catalog listing "endangered activities in the centers of UNESCO cities." (Source: www.unes-co.cz)

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