September 27, 2009

An Interview with the founders of PROGRAM: Initiative for art + architecture collaboration

Carson Chan and Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga founded PROGRAM in 2006 as a forum to explore and test the boundaries of architecture through collaborations with other fields. As a non-profit project space, PROGRAM offers a platform for artists, architects, researchers and others to explore ideas of space through exhibitions, performances, workshops, lectures and various other events. Along with the gallery, workspace is available for rent in an open office for people looking for a shared creative environment to conduct their work. This includes individual desks as well as a shared reading and conference room. A residency program further enriches the community and the collaborative spirit of PROGRAM. Through these collaborations the intent is to challenge the traditional notions of architectural representation and broaden our concept of what architecture and space can be. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Carson and Fotini to talk about PROGRAM, their other interests and their thoughts on current trends in architecture and design.

How long has PROGRAM been established?

Fotini: Almost three years now.
Carson: We have had about 18 shows, 19 shows.

What is your background and where did the idea for Program come from?

Fotini: I have a professional degree in architecture from Greece where I’m from. I moved to Boston to go to grad school - we did a masters program together at Harvard - the Masters in Design Studies in the History and Theory of Architecture. I stayed in the States for another couple of years - first working in an architecture office and then I worked on a documentary film project. Since then we have been wanting to engage in architecture in a different way [from traditional practice]. We worked in architectural firms after graduating, but soon realized that we wanted to do other things; to think about questions of space and experience of space - things we were thinking about in grad school but we couldn't really do working in architecture offices.

Fotini: I was in Boston at a big firm doing construction documents. I learned a lot but it was not that exciting. Then we decided very quickly to open a space and try to pursue this interest through exhibitions, workshops, lectures and different kinds of activities. Carson was in Berlin already, and I moved to Berlin as well. We were very lucky to find this really great space.

Carson: I grew up in Toronto and then went to school, grad and undergrad, in the States. I then moved [to Berlin] and worked in an architecture firm - Barkow Leibinger. From there I started working at the Neue National Gallery, they have an architecture curating department and I helped work on three shows. I then did some freelance curating. Fotini came to visit while I was doing a show at the gallery 0047, and we came up with this idea to start our own thing.

Fotini: That's also another thing that influenced what we wanted to do here - the fact we were looking at other exhibitions of architecture. Usually it's a presentation of a building, a drawing or a model, that most people can not really engage with if they don't have an education in architecture. And even then it is usually not that interesting. So we decided that what we wanted to do is try to find another way to share architecture, mainly through the experience one can have visiting an installation, and what you can learn through that in a more embodied way.

Carson: Architects have a hard time expressing themselves, because it takes so many years and so much money to build a building - if you chose to build buildings, as an architect. City planners have a doubly hard time expressing their ideas physically, because you come up with a plan and by the time its implemented it is completely different than what you initially wanted. There are so many contingent factors.

Fotini: Because we started this soon after graduating, PROGRAM has been a learning process. And this experimental aspect of many of the things that we do is just because we want to try things out - or have other people try out things and then see what we get and learn from it.


So you have always been more interested in the curating art and architecture rather than practicing design?

Carson: Well, not before I started doing it. I made exhibitions in college, art exhibitions and things like that. But exploring exhibition making as a discipline or as a way to ask architectural questions, not so much until we actually started.

Are most of the people who show their work here architects or people who are interested in the built environment?

Fotini: We’ve worked with architects, but its mainly artists we are working  with. Very often we try to do collaborations between architects and artists, or people from different disciplines. The previous show for example was a collaboration between an artist/architect and a choreographer. We are interested in working with different disciplines and seeing what are the different methods and ways of seeing and being, what we can share, what we can learn from eachother.

Do you help bring those people together or do you let people approach you?

Fotini: It varies, sometimes it was an idea coming from us - what would happen if we bring together an artist and a fashion designer and give them the space for a month and see happens - and sometimes, its people that approach us with a proposal. We have been very open to different ways of working. Every month and a half [there is a new exhibition].

Who funds the overall organization or individual exhibits?

Fotini: The whole space is run with this idea of having the workspace here, where we rent out desks to different creative people - architects, artists, graphic designers, journalists - but anyone who can work off a desk. That helps cover the running costs of the space - when we are full. The idea is that it is a workspace on a temporary basis - some people have been here for two years already - but most stay in the space [for a shorter time]. Like Michael Hoepfner, he is an artist and is showing this piece in an exhibition that opens next week. He wanted a desk space for a month. What's nice is that it is this practical way of running the space but it also creates this community of creative people. They come and go but there is a lot of sharing and collaborations that come up just because we share the space. That is how the space is funded, and then for each exhibition we try to find funding - its usually through embassies and sometimes through private sponsors. We don't have continuous funding so every month we have to knock on doors.

What about Berlin made this possible? You both went to Harvard so did you consider Boston or other locations?

Fotini: It just fell in our lap. However, I think it wouldn't easily happen in other places. It happened here because Carson was already here and was going to move back to Europe anyway. Also, Berlin has cheap rent. We were also really lucky to find this space - it was empty for 10 years before we moved in. Finally, the movement of people through the city helps make a space like this possible. For example, renting the workspaces and also the people that we work with for the exhibitions are often international artists. This is something that can happen in Berlin because, at this moment, the city is attracting so many creative individuals.

How do you advertise? How do artists find PROGRAM?

Fotini: Well now, its mostly through the website. We advertise each show with postcards and through email. Because of what we do, because we have this special focus, many people in the city started to know about the space. Mostly, we advertise through word of mouth combined with the Internet. We are not a gallery so we don't have to operate with a commercial logic – that means we can just support and pursue the things that we really like. There are a lot of people in Berlin who are interested in different kinds of collaborations with PROGRAM.

How do you see it growing in the next 2 to 10 years?

Fotini: 10 years is too long a time... We have established our position in the past three years and this is giving us now the opportunity to work on a different level. PROGRAM also has a residency program - an artist, architect, or theorist, comes to Berlin and works on a project for up to three months. An integral aspect of PROGRAM is that there is always someone living in the back of this space and contributing to the space’s daily life. They often present their work in an artist talk, a screening in relation to their work, or sometimes exhibit in the gallery. We have also been organizing lectures and events – things that we want to focus more on in the future.

Carson: We are here [in this location] for at least three more years.

Fotini: We have always seen this as a platform and there are many things that this thing can encompass - different activities, workshops but also research projects and I think the more we grow the more we would like to include these.

Carson: PROGRAM is not just a gallery. We see the residency, the office, whatever kinds of activities and lectures we do, as an integral part of the exhibition program. They are all, as Fotini has said already, to question architecture and its boundaries and how other media, other disciplines can inform architects about architecture. We’re also interested in questioning architecture exhibitions in general.

Fotini: Like not showing architecture through its traditional representations...

Carson: If you go to an art exhibition you see the actual art. Often when you see architecture exhibitions you see representations of architecture – a picture of a building, or a plan, or a section. Plans and sections, technical drawings, are almost meaningless to anyone that is not an architect. Even for architects, they only show you the dimensions of a space, which is interesting only to a certain degree. In our current installation, by Andy Graydon, you get to hear what MOMA sounds like. Even if that is a oblique was to think about spatial representation, it starts to open up ways of operating that goes beyond the physical dimensions of space. Sound is something that, I think, most people that exhibit architecture never actually think about as a mode of representation. Architecture exhibitions have become somehow like a PR engine. You make a new building and you exhibit pictures of it in a gallery. This shows you what it looks like but not all that much more.

I think its really interesting talking about collaborations between artists and architects. I mean getting the guy who is studying Neuroscience together with an architect - I don't know what they are proposing - but I think it is an interesting concept - the question of what could happen out of these juxtapositions of different expertise.

Carson: We have worked with choreographers and musicians, fashion designers. The idea is to experiment, to allow ourselves the risk to make mistakes. We have worked with students and we are going to work with students more.

So you run the space, but is this your full time job or do you also design, and make art, and pursue other interests?

Fotini: We do other things too. This is ‘full time’ in terms of time but it’s not a paid job. I'm working on various research projects, and as far as design goes, I make websites and graphics. I’ve been also working on different art projects – usually with video.

Carson: I write about art and architecture and curate other exhibitions. Not necessarily about architecture.

So you use this as an office space for the things you do on the side?

Carson: I don't think anything is actually on the side. Everything is all at the same time.

Have you noticed the impact of the current economic crisis on the city of Berlin and it's art and design scene? Has it effected PROGRAM at all?

Fotini: In a way, Berlin has been a place has been able to be what it is because of all these different crisis.

Carson: [Berlin] was never rich to begin with.

Fotini: That is what brings many people here and what allows them to live and create here. In that sense, I think it is kind of resistant to the current economic changes in the world. Of course the crisis is still here. There were people working in architectural offices that have lost their jobs or projects.

Carson: There a critical mass of creative people in Berlin that didn't come here necessarily to make money but rather to spend very little money. And they are still here and were here to begin with. I don't know, in terms of the design scene and how it affects us... it’s an abstract question... whenever we think about what to do here it’s always in a very myopic way of seeing our own interests and what we want to do as opposed to larger design questions in general - or larger exhibition questions in general.

Do you ever focus on the city at large as part of your interests?

Fotini: Yeah, we have actually been trying to do more of that. We launched a web-based urban project more than a year ago where we have invited the people living in Berlin to contribute a map of their daily routes through the city. Through the website they can upload a map of their route along with a short description of the things that they see along the way, and what they experience. It came from this idea of trying to focus on this very banal and everyday ritual, which is actually much more real for people who live in Berlin than the route between, say, Alexanderplatz and Brandenburger Tor, through landmarks, which is what tourists usually see when they visit the city. The idea is to create an online archive of the maps and then be able to offer them as alternative routes to tourists wanting to experience the city through the everyday routine of its inhabitants - instead of going from one landmark to another. It is interesting to see where these routes cross, where they go.

Carson: It can be the twice a year visit to the dentist, if it is a route that is somehow memorable for your experience of Berlin. This would be, for travelers experiencing these routes, a much more interesting way to see the city, to experience the lived Berlin rather than just seeing the monuments, which Berliners don't necessarily have relationships with.

Fotini: Last year I worked on a project in collaboration with an artist - Elaine Ho - where we looked at the spaces between individuals and publics through a daily series of experiments, interventions and discourses. Some of these events took place here, some were in public spaces throughout the city.

Have you used this as a forum to instigate change or is just purely research based? Does it have any social agenda?

Fotini: We don’t really have an explicit agenda but hopefully some of what we do is creating change in small ways, by opening up some questions in people’s minds, in the ways they think about space or the ways they experience it. We had a reading group that explored questions of community and cohabitation. We’re quite happy with engaging in ideas as a material.

What do you see as a current trend in architecture? Is there a defined movement like modernism, post-modernism, deconstruction, perhaps sustainability has become the movement of the day?

Carson: Right now, I don’t see a general movement that everyone is really into. Architects talk about sustainability and green architecture but I don't think it’s looked at with the same sustained academic rigor granted to deconstruction, postmodernism or modernism. It’s almost more of a responsibility than an actual desire, an actual interest.

So you don't think there are those people for sustainability? What about people like Glenn Murcutt, who designs and talks about keeping a small footprint on the land and building in harmony with nature?

Carson: Yeah, but as I said, I think that ‘green’ is seen by architects as a responsibility rather than as a genuine interest. The way that architects throw around their LEED qualifications makes sustainable practices seem like a form of validation than a real questioning of building practices and traditions. In terms of design, I don't know if there is any specific trend or language or anything in the atmosphere that is guiding everyone.

It's not simply about making buildings look [a certain way], it’s about developing a sensitivity towards the environment. I think Glenn Murcutt is a good example of this attitude. He seems conscious of the environment: the climate, how the sun is moving, becomes a design tool and helps determine whether or not, say, need windows are needed. Le Corbusier's Villa Shodan, in India, has few glass enclosures because it never gets cold enough to require them. He’s designed a brise soleil and the way the walls work, the rain never actually gets inside. This is a clear example of how the weather and local specificities of the place affected the architectural design. The curtain wall, for tall buildings, is kind of the de facto thing; everything has to be climatized. Sustainability, these days, is often about finding an ‘environmentally friendly’ alternative. We get buildings that are cooled with lake water rather than energy-draining cooling units, but the discourse rarely questions the affects this has on the fundamental design and conceptual tectonics of architecture.

Visit the www.programonline.de for information on upcoming events, lectures, concerts, etc.

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