With the opening of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale almost upon us, architects, curators and artists have already started to migrate to the city to unlock pavilion doors and sweep out the past six months of hibernation from the previous biennale season. This year, however, one pavilion has confirmed that it will remain closed – the Canadian Pavilion will not be opening its doors. Closure of the space has been attributed to a much-needed renovation, which has been mentioned by those who have exhibited in the space, specifically Shary Boyle at the 2012 Venice Art Biennale. Nevertheless, there are whispers that the political nature of this year’s entry may have been another reason to keep the pavilion shut. That said, Canada will be present by staking claim in the Giardini with a provocative installation entitled Extraction.
The installation outlines the strategic and expansive role that Canada has played in the mining industry, both at home and abroad. Canada’s involvement in worldwide mining extends long past its history as a nation. According to the curators, it can be traced back to the time of King John of England and the Magna Carta 800 years ago – a document which provided the proper legislation to separate surface rights from mineral rights, making the latter the domain of the Crown. Today it is the largest land owner in the world, having authority over 95% of Canadian lands.
The power of the State of Canada, the largest constitutional monarchy in the Americas, gives its corporations the same access to mineral rights. This has made Canada home to over 75% of all global prospecting and mining companies. Silently and tenaciously this prolific mining activity has worked fairly unnoticed, extracting the raw materials that make up the building blocks of contemporary urban infrastructure. The materials that make buildings and cities are grounded in colonial construction; that is, because architecture itself serves the political purposes of building of a country.
Extraction will present 800 years of building an empire in a short film of 800 images from 800 contributors in 800 seconds. The 13 minute and 30 second film will be viewed through the keyhole of a survey stake that will be driven through the core of Canada’s colonial past, its Italian neighbors at the Venice Giardini being France, Germany and the United Kingdom. This intervention will take place outdoors, in the open air, strategically aligned at the intersection of these three pavilions to expose their histories and tensions, enabled by the security of foreign ground.
Deliberately embedded in the ground, it asks visitors to kneel down to watch the film one by one – a unique event for Canada and the Venice Architecture Biennale. The curators have designed a rare survey stake for the installation to be forged in pure gold and inscribed with the words summa virtus terra est, or "the greatest power is land." Typically used in mining, a survey stake is the legal and territorial instrument at the interface of a legal property boundary on a survey drawing and the actual ground and precedes all forms of territorialization, construction and power. In this language, Extraction uses the golden stake as a counter-monument; in the words of the curators, the intersecting arrows marked on its face nullify the stake itself and will therefore symbolize the self-cancellation of the empire.
The team behind the installation have donating their time and services as landscape architects and ecological engineers at a contaminated gold mine in Furtei, Sardinia. First owned and operated by Australian mining companies, the Furtei gold mine was later sold to Canadian companies, who abandoned the site in 2009. Mining and exploration there spanned twenty years and failure to clean up the site following invasive operations generated significant levels of acid mine drainage and contamination, including cyanide and arsenic–based processes that threaten the agricultural region and Cagliari watershed.
The story of Furtei is not isolated. It is only one among many mines left behind in the shifts of global resource capital. Being in Italy, Furtei was chosen specifically by the curatorial team in order to ground Canada’s history to Italy at this year’s Biennale. A small booklet outlining the story of Furtei and Canada’s current remediation efforts will be given to visitors, along with 100g of aggregate ore from Furtei. Interestingly, the concentration of the gold ore is one part per billion; this extremely low ratio marks an important shift in world mining today – as the concentration and grade of ore (from precious metals and other minerals) in the ground decreases, the environmental effects dramatically and irreversibly increase. In other words, it's fool’s gold.
Notwithstanding the bunker-like appearance of Canada’s closed pavilion this year, its location outdoors and in the open air reinforces the root of Extraction. Typically dwarfed by its neoclassical neighbors in the Giardini—a bittersweet irony given that the Canadian Pavilion should be tucked between these political powers—Canada will this year emerge from beneath the trees to declare a new identity. This is the debut of the “territorial revolution,” since the grand and final act planned by curator Pierre Bélanger (OPSYS) and the Extraction team is to present Queen Elizabeth with the golden stake at the closing of the biennale. This gift, which will coincide with the eve of Canada's 150th anniversary of Confederation is, as Bélanger states, "a declarative gesture of retrocession and independence."
Extraction has been commissioned by the Art Gallery of Alberta and is curated by OPSYS, under the direction of Pierre Bélanger, a Canadian landscape architect, urbanist and associate professor at Harvard. In addition, OPSYS is collaborating with Canadians, Atelier Hume, goldsmiths and gemologists, who are forging the stake and with RVTR to co-write the book Extraction Empire.