The “Seoul Biennale of Architecture & Urbanism”, an international event initiated by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and titled ‘Imminent Commons’, was co-directed by Hyungmin Pai, acclaimed architectural historian, alumnus of MIT, and professor at the Seoul National University, and Alejandro Zaera-Polo, award-winning architect and professor at Princeton University, U.S.A. The Biennale was organized to provide to policy makers, experts and citizens at large, a global forum for debate in which to view and address the current state and imminent future of the major city centers of the world. The Biennale ran from 01.09.2017 to 05.11.2017.
In this time of global environmental crises, unprecedented wealth inequality and urban expansion, representatives from cities around the world gathered in Seoul to explore important issues pertinent to contemporary urbanism. Such issues included current social and economic changes, the politics of resources, privatization of commons, and imbalances in ownership, consumption and capital. The Biennale hosted over 100 participating projects from around the globe, and was organized along two major sections, the ‘Cities Exhibition’ and the ‘Thematic Exhibition', which were located at two main venues in the Korean capital.
The ‘Thematic Exhibition’ was housed within the Donuimun Museum Village, a newly-renovated space within the historical city center of Seoul. This venue consisted of remodeled traditional Korean hanok timber houses, a central square, restaurant, café, library, shops, and the Seoul History Museum nearby. The Museum Village showcased forty international projects that presented various types of solutions to address urban issues based on the "Nine Commons", of which four are ecology commons – water, air, fire, and earth.
Within the extensive ‘Thematic Exhibition’ was an installation that addressed the issue of public ownership of water in urban centers around the world. Here, a presentation (Say No to Water Privatization) of primary source and digital material– such as protest posters, petitions, and text – provided by the Athens Employees Federation of EYDAP, shed light on the ongoing struggle against the corporate privatization of water resources and distribution systems in Greece.
Alongside the Federation, was also a contribution from the organization “Save Greek Water”, which included short films and a series of TV ads that were part of their information campaign ‘Something’s Up with Our Water’. This citizen’s initiative has been a parallel and dedicated anti-privatization voice in the continuing fight to keep this commons in the hands of the people of Greece.
The Greek participation in this Biennale was part of a larger initiative of activist-artist and curator Melina Nicolaides, whose collaboration with the Federation has been based on the desire to help make known the many committed efforts in Greece to hold onto this public good within the climate of drastic austerity measures of the past seven years - which has forced the government to sell off resources, public utilities, and most of its economically viable companies.
This contribution by the Employee’s Federation to this Biennale is a cultural initiative that expands the scope of their ongoing efforts –to reach and inform an international public on the many dangers of water privatization – into a contemporary art venue. By sharing the story of their continuing efforts to safeguard the water of Greece, the Employees Federation supported the Biennale’s discussion of the dangers of the ‘privatization of commons’ and the ongoing global debate around this issue. Moreover, they reinforced the message in the context of the Korean public that water is not only a natural resource, but also a communal and cultural heritage that should be protected for all members of society.
Nicolaides, founder of ACTIVATE (http://activate.zone/), a nonprofit arts organization engaged with water issues and other environmental causes explained, “Within the context of the Seoul Biennale, the situation of Athens was also a channel through which to expose the potential impact of today’s austerity-led pressures - on both national and municipal levels - to take water supply out of the hands of the people in countries most affected by the European sovereign debt crisis. This is a dangerous trend that is also occurring in other economically-pressured cities throughout the world.” Under the curator’s subtitle ‘The People’s Water’, different aspects of Athens’s water were presented as separate projects within both the ‘Thematic’ and ‘Cities’ Exhibitions of the Biennale, in collaboration with EYDAP.
The two-month long Seoul Biennale provided a global academic forum and exhibitions that promoted creative ways to address urban issues and the active exchange of ideas to resolve problems. Moreover, the public projects presented gave Korean and international viewers the opportunity to explore the common values that cities around the world promote, and a context in which to also question both city governance and policy direction of the future.
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