Between Reality and Fiction

Between Reality and Fiction

Chris Zhongtian Yuan utilises video, fiction, sound, design and performance, and looks into the messy web of human construction. Counterfictions, which won the Emerging Award at the 2020 Aesthetica Art Prize, uses Donald Trump’s speeches as a starting point as he builds a fictional wall in the public imagination. The film weaves together scientific facts and quotes from the US President, as well as references to literature and mythology.

In conversation, Yuan discusses the piece alongside Manijeh Verghese, who is co-curating the British Pavilion at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale with Madeleine Kessler. Manijeh and Madeleine co-founded Unscene Architecture in 2019. Manijeh teaches Diploma Unit 12 with Inigo Minns at the Architectural Association, where Chris developed the prize-winning project Counterfictions between 2018-2019.

CY: Today, the truth is being made and remade. Counterfictions originated in the present moment when the status of truth is no longer stable. My initial research delved into the fact and fiction in Trump’s speeches, tweets and words surrounding the US/ Mexico border wall. I was able to construct a sliding scale of reality and fiction, and placed each of Trump’s fictions along this scale. The gradients made it believable – the fictions have become alternative realities that require serious attention and precise actions. How does the value of truth come into play for British Pavilion: can truth be so absolute or is it more about degrees of fiction?

MV: For the 2021 British Pavilion, we (Madeleine Kessler and I) were interested in exploring privatised public space as a middle ground between the extremes of public and private space. Privatised public space is often polarised into an argument where public equals good and private equals bad. Similarly, too often people see the world through a binary lens – there is no absolute truth, instead everything can be understood as a gradient: there are degrees of truth. Contemporary society is so divided, when in reality there needs to be a middle ground. Rather than public spaces becoming obsolete, why not rethink the model and see how private development and funding from the private sector can be used to create these important community spaces – libraries, police stations, green spaces, and playgrounds or youth centres to better serve the people who use them. 

CY: Perhaps this is the reality that we have to confront – bridging different groups and opposing forces in realising projects. Developing the Counterfictions project in Diploma 12, I knew it had to be accessible, precise, with a slight sense of self-deprecating humour. Storytelling seemed to be the appropriate tone and medium. As a strategy popular amongst artists and architects, the agency of storytelling has now been corrupted by politicians. Trump’s strategies were then turned into a set of counter-strategies to develop a new, alternative reality – mutated species, the monster folklore, the Texan islands, all in the real, plausible future as results of an immense border wall.

MV: Exactly – in Diploma 12, we explore the idea of “telling” instead of storytelling. Rather than designing fictions that remain speculative, we are interested in how these fictions can become reality or truth to a certain group of stakeholders or a specific community. We think of the architect as the teller of these truths – and how, by understanding who they are for as well as showing the alternate world they could create, they start to become real and believable. In the last election, Boris Johnson didn’t win because he told the truth, he was just better and more succinct in repeating his three-word slogan “Get Brexit Done.” What I find fascinating about your project – Counterfictions – is how it takes the same tools that Trump employs – repetition, volume, obfuscation, and uses them to undo Trump’s fiction by splicing it with folklore, myth, observations, stories to construct a new narrative as a counterpoint that could be just as real although just as fictional.

CY: The tools and strategies politicians use often are accessible and clear. For Trump, he managed to build a monumental Wall in everyone’s mind without doing any construction work – this ability is perhaps what we architects need. As the architect of Counterfictions, building a new, imaginary community was essential to the work. Winning the Aesthetica Art Prize was vital for me to further disseminate the stories in Counterfictions, which alludes to the logic of the work itself. How can architects learn from the tools deployed by politicians to tell better stories that allow people to understand the forces that shape society, cities, spaces and identities?

MV: Architects are communicators. We don’t just build buildings; we bring people together across disciplines to discuss ideas and coordinate how they will transform into reality. Politicians don’t just deal in policies, they use media, or words specifically, to suggest alternative futures that then get achieved through policies, actions, rallies etc. Similarly, we need to rethink the architectural project – every architectural brief poses a question, but the answer doesn’t always have to be a building. Through reframing the role of the architect beyond just building, we can start to apply our communication skills across scales to develop strategies to reimagine everything from who we are to what we do and where we exist. How do you feel your project on Counterfictions framed the role of the architect?

CY: Interestingly, the way Trump built the wall was phased similarly to how buildings are traditionally built. In Counterfictions, multiple mediums and platforms were tested: performances, podcasts, storytelling sessions, online screenings. Across different methods of communication, there is certainly the desire to test the project in reality. Showing the project in the Aesthetica Art Prize exhibition was another way to further the act of building spaces in people’s minds. How does an exhibition go beyond being a cultural project and become a series of live engagements and interactions?

MV: I often find that exhibitions are too static – representing architecture rather than capturing the experience of being in a space. For Maddie and I, the pavilion is a testing ground – a way to build 1:1 prototypes of what privatised public space should be and then observe how people use, misuse, appropriate and transform these spaces over time to inform what they could then become. We always saw the pavilion as a platform for a much wider project – a way to gather so many diverse strands of research on this topic into one space. We also see the exhibition as the beginning of a wider set of live projects that would return to be installed across sites in the UK. Simultaneously, we want to widen access to who can participate in the conversation around privatised public space using a range of media such as walking tours like a Public Space Crawl to reveal the wealth and variety of privatised public spaces that surround us, conversations about the city with a wide range of stakeholders, craft workshops to understand how people use a space and how conversations can be captured through objects, and now – in a new reality shaped by Covid-19 – understanding the role of public space as a tool to bring us together in socially distanced but collective ways.

CY: This new reality might in turn conjure up new meanings in things that are familiar to us. Counterfictions’ monster was born out of an apocalyptic mood; the result of overlapping issues and crises. On one hand, the border wall is causing a local ecological and migrant crisis; on the other hand, the long tradition of folklore tales overshadows the construction project. The mutated species become real, plausible figures that also exist as a rumour or tale. In the final chapter, the untraceable mutated species haunt the border wall, with the wall gaps widening and the crumbling concrete being reused by residents – the Wall is unbuilt. This is perhaps my way of acting upon Trump’s border wall.

MV: Yes, Counterfictions is a form of activism. It doesn’t always confront you directly and in the end, the twist is that the monster is none of the characters presented but the Counterfictions themselves – the story that is told and retold that has the power to undo the dominant narrative. To draw a parallel between your method and mine, by rejecting the binary understanding of privatised public space, our form of activism is not to reject privatised public space but rather to explore its potential. If the architect collaborates with practitioners across disciplines, why not extend this role to rethink the formats through which we communicate with different groups and disciplines. Yet, to avoid becoming dilettantes in other disciplines, we should think about how to adapt these media to be specific to architecture – what is our unique spatial skill set that we add to these new tools to drive a new form of conversation? 

CY: I agree. I think architects have the ability to weave together different stories, actors and spaces in order to construct a coherent narrative. This is similar to the making of moving image works, where editing brings together different imagery, narratives and disciplines. Both are spatial in the way they are structured and edited. An architect’s film is different from a filmmaker’s because it is about communicating and connecting ideas from different sites, people, and disciplines. The film becomes the way an architect negotiates and ultimately disseminates these ideas. 

MV: Yes, in a way studying architecture teaches you more about how to think about space and how things connect within space than being limited to construction, door schedules and detailing. Architects are adept at seeing the connections between concepts, objects and spaces. We have the skills to visualise the invisible forces that shape our behaviour and how we inhabit physical spaces, in addition to space itself.

CY: And that’s perhaps what we are the best at. In Counterfictions, an immense border wall would inevitably mean the disruption of public lands, national parks, ecosystems, and habitats of endangered species. By visualising these invisible but powerful systems as drawings and diagrams, the film was able to show the messy web that the Wall sits within. Perhaps, architectural projects aren’t only about the physical qualities they have. How will the British Pavilion communicate the invisible forces which shape privatised public spaces?

MV: That’s the unique quality of privatised public space – it looks for all intents and purposes like a public space but it is often only when you perform a specific activity within these spaces that you discover it is privately owned. For example, during the Occupy movement, protesters were removed from Paternoster Square in London because the seemingly public space was actually privately owned by the Mitsubishi Estate Company. This is an example of how a privatised public space is subject to invisible by-laws and rules that aren’t immediately apparent. There is a lot of research to show that if you give people a sense of ownership over their space, they will take care of it and recent developments like the Mayor of London’s draft Public London Charter aim to bring greater transparency to how these spaces are owned, managed and used. In your project, the US/ Mexico border exists as both a line on a map, and through the human infrastructure of it being patrolled. If a wall exists already in a less visible form, why do we need another wall?

CY: A physical wall indeed becomes unnecessary when the line already exists. By giving people a sense of trust and ownership, an invisible wall might function better than a concrete structure. Counterfictions are a device to disrupt the existing walls and find solutions that are beneficial to different groups of users. Here, the architect sits in the midst of various forces, and perhaps has the power to communicate the different needs of those involved. For both our projects, the aim is to discover a new, non-binary language to tell better stories and make more inclusive spaces.

The 17th International Architecture Exhibition will run 22 May to 21 November 2021.

The Aesthetica Art Prize Exhibition is now open at York Art Gallery.

Images: Chris Yuan, Counterfictions. Courtesy of the artist.