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Book Review: Teatro della Terra Alienata
Re-imagining the Fate of the Great Barrier Reef.

Like many other natural sites in the world, the Australian Great Barrier Reef – a renowned UNESCO World Heritage site – is facing a serious ecosystemic crisis due to the global effects of climate change and the industrial apparatus on the neighbouring coasts. To the authors of Teatro della Terra Alienata (Bartlebooth, 2022) the reef “makes visible – through its current status of degradation – present and past forms of violence that occur on a planetary scale”1 epitomising the current discrepancies between governance and the response to the climate emergency or, as they call it, a “’necropolitical’ management of all forms of planetary life.”2

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Teatro della Terra Alienata is a long-term investigation that was born in 2017 at the School of Architecture of the University of Technology Sydney and focuses on multi-layered implications of the political and environmental struggles of the Great Barrier Reef in order to imagine “alternative ecological contracts”.3 It combines research, pedagogy and creative practice and is run by the collectives GRANDEZA (Amaia Sánchez-Velasco, Jorge Valiente Oriol and Gonzalo Valiente Oriol) and BAJEZA (Miguel Rodríguez-Casellas). They were appointed curators of the Australian Pavilion at the XXII Triennale di Milano, so Teatro della Terra Alienata became an exhibition in 2019 and was published as a book in 2022.

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The project intends to propose an epistemological change in the debate on the climate catastrophe both at a political and architectural scale. It tries to achieve it through a series of different media (installations, video, collage, photograph, sculptures) involving a variety of university students, academics, artists, activists, and professionals from different fields. The book includes contributions by some of them: Shoufay Derz, Patricia Reed, Cigdem Aydemir, Janet Laurence, and Marcelo López-Dinardi. Given the scope and breadth of the project, rather than just a single publication Teatro della Terra Alienata feels like a combination of different books, tackling the issue of the Great Barrier Reef’s precarious conditions from a rich variety of viewpoints and disciplines. Like the x-rayed scuba diver designed by the authors, the reader navigates the dense waters of this book overwhelmed with feelings and thoughts. This demonstrates the urgency and complexity of the problem, and perhaps more books will stem from this ambitious project in the future.

Faux x-rays of the environmental preservation and monitorization technologies and creatures that populate the Great Barrier Reef, presented in the lightbox (frontstage) of the Australian pavilion, 2019. Grandeza, Bajeza, Charles Curtin, and Isaac Harrisson.

One of the interesting sources of reflection that emerged from reading Teatro della Terra Alienata is probably the most formal one. The book itself has an experimental format that combines fictional, narrative methods – its core chapters are the acts of the video exhibited at the Triennale – academic research and writing (challenged through an unconventional use of the footnotes), and creative practice (there are numerous, beautiful photographs of the Pavilion). In specific, each footnote is a condensed academic essay that touches upon each of the theories, sources, scientific and political facts that informed the project. What would normally constitute the content of a scholarly publication is, instead, a kaleidoscope of information and critical reflections that are not necessarily connected to the script of the video to which the notes are connected.

The dichotomy factual-fictional, academic-creative is evident in the design of each page, demonstrating the polemic stance of its authors: they wanted to move away from the “prison of theory” through the use of fiction and storytelling.4 The tension between the linearity of the script and the complex fragmentation of the notes is evident in each page and prompts the question: how does this tension help conveying, in the best possible way, the important political message of the book? In an interview with the authors, they explained how “amateurism” and experimentation with different forms of knowledge and epistemologies in their work helped them break disciplinary boundaries, especially between pedagogy and their creative practice. This ultimately led, they explained, to an “estuary condition of contamination.”5

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This “estuary” of broken disciplines, fragmented knowledge, new epistemologies, and footnotes’ numbers floating above waters made of sounds and images is the core matter of Teatro della Terra Alienata. The author’s inspiration from experimental literature in order to achieve the “atmospheric condition”6 of their Pavilion might seem confusing to some and brilliant to others, however, it undoubtedly brings to the fore two important topics of discussion in the current architectural debate: first, the reshaping of architectural discourse in light of the pressing climate and environmental concerns on the more-than-human and, second, the increasingly loud debate on the outdated processes of validation of academic research in architecture. In short, this book epitomises not only the current, fragmentary debate on the future of the discipline in light of the climate catastrophe, but also architectural researchers and academics’ intolerance towards the perverse mechanisms of validation of their work.

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Teatro della Terra Alienata’s rich set of reflections probably culminates in its chapter “autopsy”, a “post-curatorial” exercise that “breaks the artworks” exhibited and then published in the book in order to re-analyse them, reflect once again on the reflections that generated the research.7 This is the moment in which one looks at the Teatro della Terra Alienata estuary’s waters on a hot summer afternoon and realises that the sun’s endless reflections on the water could be blinding, but below that layer of accumulated reflections major ecological damage is happening and it should concern us all.

Notes

1 Grandeza, Bajeza, Teatro della Terra Alienata, Re-imagining the Fate of the Great Barrier Reef (Madrid: Bartlebooth, 2022)212.
2 Ibid, 213.
3 Ibid, 211.
4 Interview with authors.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.

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