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bArtist Mac Collins with his exhibition, Runout, a
Mac Collins with his exhibition, ‘Runout’, at the British Pavilion, 2023Photographer Taran Wilkhu, © British Council

The artists reimagining a UK where we’re all free to have fun in public

Kemi Alemoru reports back from the Venice Biennale of Architecture, where British artists proposed a new kind of public space – which actually serves the public

Last year, a group of elderly Caribbean men in London fought for their right to meet up in Maida Hill market square. This wholesome activity was the highlight of their weeks. The retirees would combat social isolation by playing dominoes, slamming pieces on the table when they made their move and teasing their opponents when they lost. It was great, until Westminster City Council slapped them with a ban, meaning that they’d face jail if they were seen playing music, drinking or shouting in that spot ever again. Ernest Theophile, 74, who stated that West Indians “just can’t play dominoes without making a bit of noise”, took the case to court and won. But this instance was part of a larger societal shift towards becoming a nation of prefects.

Have you ever felt like the city was telling you to piss off? It is. You’ll notice it next time you’re walking around. Ridged teeth that run along walls, steel bumps across the floor… these innocuous details manipulate our behaviour daily, and make it harder to exist freely in public, pushing you to go inside. In 2012, Camden Council actually commissioned a bench that people would not really want to sit on and it won awards for its uncomfortable design. You could perch on it for a little bit, but due to its odd angles, you’re forced to get up and move on fairly quickly. If you were homeless, you wouldn’t be able to nap on it. This is a prime example of hostile architecture, a shorthand for all the subtle ways that boring, anti-social moral panics are being baked into everyday design.

For curators Jayden Ali, Joseph Henry, Meneesha Kellay and Sumitra Upham, architecture can often feel like an intangible and complicated world until you realise that beyond being about a genius’ vision to make their mark on the skyline: it’s about all of us. We all own the public realm and have the right to have spaces to exist and be visible freely. Dancing Before the Moon, the exhibit showing at the British Pavillion at this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture, hosts a number of works commissioned with the help of the British Council. It received a special mention from the jury during the opening weekend for its urgent theme. How, in this increasingly insular and xenophobic Britain, can we take cues from immigrant communities to rethink our attitude towards the built environment to make a country that accommodates us all?

The prestigious space, which was designed in the style of an 18th-century English country home, is punctuated with heavy bass from the film at the entrance which mixes clips of steel-pan players, dancers, street carnivals, and holy festivals to contextualise the art on display. These public acts show how Asian, African and Caribbean communities stake their claim to British public spaces via rituals, social practices, and play in a country that isn’t built for them. Henry says the story of Theophile and his friends is a perfect example. “The built environment never really thought about these Jamaican men in the public realm,” he says. Kellay, his co-curator agrees: “People either have to make makeshift spaces or they’re siloed back into their own home or forced into places where you have to pay.” Their aim has been to get everyone thinking about how “everyone has a role to play” in shaping and animating our shared environments.

At the entrance, you’re greeted by Jaden Ali’s sculpture “Thunder and Şimşek”, which is suspended beneath the portico. The structure reflects on the designer’s Trinidadian and Turkish-Cypriot heritage, blending both the design of a huge steel pan – an instrument you’re likely to hear at Notting Hill Carnival that he learned at his primary school and on one occasion performed for the then Prince Charles – and culinary pans that would sit atop open flames as his mother’s side of the family-cooked Mediterranean dishes.

The display also includes works by a rising Mississipi-born artist Shawanda Corbett whose ceramics are a nod to her family’s Voodoo and Hoodoo practices. “She has traditions from elsewhere that informs who she is,” explains Kellay. Proudly displaying a part of herself that has been forced underground in public is one way of reimagining more liberal spaces. “[She feels] women are expected to uphold this idea of purity and colonisation in [her native land] Haiti characterised these practices as evil or profane.” Another piece – a large sculpture that took the form of a colonial-era balustrade, which was rendered in blue soap – by the artist Sandra Poulson nods to domestic washing rituals of Angolan women.

Then, I enter the room that plays host to Dazed 100er Mac Collins’ impressive ash wood structure “Runout”. Styled after a supersized domino piece that looks like it’s been distorted as its stretched. The word in the pavilion is that he’s been informally calling it “Blacktrick”, like Patrick the starfish of Spongebob fame. As we look up at the sculpture, Collins explains how it’s an ode to The Limekiln, a pub in Nottingham where he plays dominoes with local Caribbean men. The mixed-heritage British-Jamaican furniture designer describes the bar which has regular punters from Black and white communities nearby as the “perfect amalgamation” of all the elements of his heritage. Having space to play a game that links him back to his heritage even though he’s never been able to travel back to the island has been integral to his own identity. It’s form is a metaphor for how something “tiny” like a domino can grow to become something much more important, much “bigger than how it started”.

The group of young curators and artists wanted to bring British architects into dialogue with formerly colonised lands, cultures and peoples. The impact of British rule over these places, the seizing of land, the burying of languages and traditions is something a lot of the pavilions at the Biennale are reckoning with in different ways. Canada’s very literal approach was to show how much land is still owned by the British royal family and propose a manifesto of how to redistribute the land back to the indigenous communities it was stolen from. However, Britain’s curators are using examples of joyous practices as a roadmap to rethink the possibility of the space we now share here and heal together. “You can use history and nostalgia as a way of not moving society forward, or it can be a tool to be progressive and think about how to change the future,” Henry says.

Over the last couple of years particularly, accelerated by the pandemic and also Conservative paranoia, public space has been made to feel deliberately inaccessible. Libraries, pubs, and community centres continue to close. Suella Braverman demonises teenagers for loitering in parks – spaces famously designed for everyone to relax in. Police used new Covid powers to fine Black people three times as much, and social media posts showed it was utilised for activities like sitting down in public.

Each behemoth artwork paying homage to diasporan traditions fills each room forcing guests to bend and manoeuvre around the room to fit. It’s a comment on how they’ve found ways to thrive in a society that deliberately doesn’t bestow them with adequate room. Henry adds: “The point is we want the space to navigate around these diasporic rituals, rather than for them to navigate around spaces that don’t want to hold them.”

In that way, Henry hopes their curatorial approach is a call to arms to question how we can hold space for each other to avoid heading towards a future where the public realm does not fit the public it’s supposed to serve.

The British Council commission Dancing Before the Moon at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 is on from 20 May to Sunday 26 November 2023

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