The Pilbara is an immense, arid, and thinly populated territorial crust in the north of Western Australia. Since the first colonial incursions, the progressive “discovery” of its rich mineral deposits has transformed the region into a spatio-temporal battlefield of expulsions, explosions, and exploitation perpetrated in the name of the Commonwealth’s extractivist mythologies. Pilbara Interregnum takes the opportunity offered by the current energy paradigm shift to put in crisis the extractivist, colonial, and capitalist mythologies that are turning this region – and the rest of the planet – into sacrificed areas. In this interview, we talk about the different stages and partnerships of the Pilbara project, the meaning and importance of allegories and how the most recent exhibit sets the stage towards the imagination of other, better, future worlds.
KOOZ The Pilbara Interregnum research project is not new. Before its most recent iteration as an exhibition at the Biennale Architettura 2023 in Venice, it took the form of an architectural design research studio taught at the University of Sydney. How has the project evolved since its inception and how have its previous stages informed this last iteration?
GRANDEZA STUDIO GRANDEZA STUDIO´s work hybridises methodologies that entangle with research, critical spatial practice, writing, performance, design, and pedagogy. These allow for constant conversations with cultural institutions, universities, students, and colleagues that collectively contribute to choral projects where dissonant encounters with "others" define many of the aesthetic contradictions present in the work. Pilbara Interregnum: Seven Political Allegories is a long-term research project that has been formalised across several steps, each generating different outcomes over three years. The exhibited work feeds from all these outcomes and each has involved collaborations with extraordinary people that we would like to acknowledge (some of which even became co-authors of specific political allegories).
Pilbara Interregnum: Seven Political Allegories is a long-term research project that has been formalised across several steps, each generating different outcomes over three years.
A very fruitful outcome, as you mention, was the Master Thesis design studio called Pilbara Interregnum: A Time for Monsters, which took place in 2021 at the University of Sydney. This four-month research intensive studio allowed us (in collaboration with students) to expand our cognitive tentacles into several sites of the Pilbara region. Through a previous study, we had identified sites of unresolved conflicts where human and non-human communities, myths, ecosystems, and geological formations faced normalised forms of structural violence exercised by extractivist and neocolonial powers.
Batterfields map. Source: www.grandeza.studio
Once mapped out as battlegrounds, these locations became allegorical sites to deploy an arsenal of architectural and political imagination. Brainstorming sessions to imagine "what-if-scenarios" and "hypothesis-making" discussions were followed by extended debates to imagine post-extractivist and post-colonial forms of (co)habitation—a creative attempt to put in crisis Frederick Jameson's famous provocation, which asserts that "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism".
These locations became allegorical sites to deploy an arsenal of architectural and political imagination.
Two of the students of this master’s studio (Caitlin Condon and James Feng) became co-authors of the project, as they kept collaborating with us in the production of the work currently exhibited at the Arsenale, as part of The Laboratory of the Future.
But before this studio took place in 2019, we had already outlined a preliminary research brief (in collaboration with Miguel Rodríguez-Casellas) as a response to a curatorial proposal that finally didn't take off. The brief approached the Pilbara region as a “spatiotemporal battlefield” of colonial exploitation, expulsions, and explosions—a territory whose dynamics were as deeply situated in its singularity as they represented a paradigmatic, placeless condition.
The brief approached the Pilbara region as a “spatiotemporal battlefield” of colonial exploitation, expulsions, and explosions.
To qualify this placeless (or planetary) condition—related in many ways to Lesley Lokko's pertinent approach to questions about Africa—we chose the word interregnum, a term used in ancient Rome to refer to the moment of legal and political in-betweenness that followed the death of a sovereign and preceded the enthronement of a successor (a concept later-on revised by Antonio Gramsci and other thinkers). Today, we are experiencing a generalised moment of in-betweenness amongst the imminent death of capitalism (as we know it) and the consolidation of a new world that struggles to be born. In its early stages, this "new world" navigates the tensions between the desires for a radically democratic project of emancipation—that feeds from diversity and equity, and does not fear conflict, risk, reparation or transformation—and new forms of fascism that are resuscitating old nationalistic, religious, and essentialist moralities while flirting with a "negationist futurism" that renders its techno-deterministic cosmovision (survivalist, neocolonial, extractivist, feudal and hyper-capitalist) as inevitable. These last ones are the mythologies that Pilbara Interregnum puts in crisis.
We are experiencing a generalised moment of in-betweenness amongst the imminent death of capitalism (as we know it) and the consolidation of a new world that struggles to be born.
After this preliminary research and the design studio at Sydney University, other equally important milestones allowed the project to keep mutating and receiving feedback and input from voices that are somehow present in the work—including Alessandra Ponte's invitation to present the research at the Phyllis Lambert Seminar in Montréal in 2021, or Francesca Hughes invitation to present it at The Berlage in Delft in 2022.
Out of all these interactions, the invitation by Lesley Lokko to participate at the Biennale Architettura 2023 became the ignition of a countdown to materialise a multimedia installation that would convey the multi-layered research we had conducted so far. We would like to give a big thanks to Lesley and all her curatorial team for the fantastic follow-up they did in this process.
Some weeks before receiving the invitation, we had been granted a funded research residency at Chile's Andrés Bello University (UNAB), through the program "Residencias Remotas". There, we developed an investigation on the tentacular geographies of Mars's colonisation (epitomised by Elon Musk's 2018 launching of his personal Roadster to the space). Before initiating this project (Mars Interruptus), one of the seven political allegories of the Pilbara Interregnum project already delved into the relationships between the Pilbara and Mars (as well as the material and discursive tentacles connecting both seemingly distant geographies). But we did not predict the complexity, the depth, and the connection with the Pilbara that the project would reach through our intense collaboration with a wonderful group of students at the UNAB. As a result, the model we produced during this residency became part of the larger territorial model of the Pilbara exhibited in Venice.
The entire process has involved many stages, failures, beautiful moments, frustrations, and some conflicts that have managed to nurture the project and our relationship with it.
To produce the rest of the work, we were granted another artistic production residency— organised by the Consorci de Museus de la Comunitat Valenciana—which gave us space, resources, and support through the “Cultura Resident” program at the cultural centre Las Cigarreras, in Alicante. There, we had the pleasure of working with three outstanding recently graduated students from the effervescent Master of Architecture at Alicante University, who joined us for the project's final phase—and also became co-authors of the work. All these brilliant collaborators (Laura Domínguez Valdivieso, Jordi Guijarro Contreras and Raquel Vázquez Romero), together with the aforementioned ones from Sydney, helped us express and imagine worlds we would not have been able to conceive without them. The entire process has involved many stages, failures, beautiful moments, frustrations, and some conflicts that have managed to nurture the project and our relationship with it.
Finally, we also had support from Acción Cultural Española (AC/E), the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), the University of Sydney (USYD), and the Fab Lab of the University of Alicante (UA)—an essential support that made this project feasible.
Pilbara Interregnum is a small constellation of voices trying to imagine radically democratic and emancipatory ways of being in the world.
Lots of other fantastic contributors helped us with editing, composing music, designing costumes, acting, dubbing, filming, making models, etc. In the end, Pilbara Interregnum is a small constellation of voices trying to imagine radically democratic and emancipatory ways of being in the world.
KOOZ The language you chose to describe the Pilbara region as “a spatio-temporal battlefield of expulsions, explosions, and exploitation” (alliteration included) is very particular. What are the reasons behind the use of these particular warlike words?
GS There is nothing new in addressing contemporary conflicts by applying warlike terminology. For instance, in her seminal book Duty Free Art, Hito Steyerl describes the state of contemporary art as one situated within an “Age of Planetary Civil War”. Neoliberalism is the totalization of war. We learn to win, to grow, and to beat the other. There is an assumption that destroying ecosystems and subjecting people to live in “sacrifice zones” are collateral damages meritocratically distributed by the free market religion.
Neoliberalism is the totalization of war. We learn to win, to grow, and to beat the other.
But it is also quite common to discuss past and present processes of colonial dispossession as “frontier wars”. When we describe the Pilbara as a “spatio-temporal battlefield”, we highlight that warlike violence already exists (and has existed) in the region since the first colonial incursions that started 160 years ago. This violence exists in the form of dispossessions, cultural eradications, racist segregations, and ecosystemic destruction, amongst others. But it has also existed in the literal form of nuclear bombing performed by the British empire (in total complicity with the sovereign state of Australia), as well as in the form of the recent explosion of a highly significant Aboriginal archeological site to expand an iron ore mine.
The Pilbara also has a unique legacy of political resistance.
However, our intention in the use of such language goes beyond reminding the region’s multi-layered legacy of endured colonial violence.In fact, the Pilbara also has a unique legacy of political resistance. For instance, in 1946, indigenous pastoral workers mobilised against their enslaving work conditions and initiated a strike that lasted three years. This strike became the longest strike in Australia to date and marked a milestone in the country’s sociopolitical history. Pilbara Interregnum revisits this and other recent histories of resistance in the region to reclaim back its politically ravenous legacies.
We also introduce the warlike language to reclaim the Pilbara as a global epicentre of what we call the contemporary “epistemic war”. In his latest book Can the Monster Speak?, philosopher Paul B. Preciado argues that the epistemic crisis we are experiencing today— evidenced by capitalism’s incapacity to respond to contemporary challenges—is triggering a paradigm shift. Following the studies by Thomas Kuhn, Preciado asserts that “paradigms are ‘universes of discourses’ where a certain coherence, a certain peace, and a certain agreement reign. But paradigms are not worlds of immutable sense” and, today, coherence, peace, agreement, and sense seem to be all out of reach, everywhere. This lack of discursive peace and consensus is what we call “epistemic war”. Preciado continues saying that, “until a paradigm is completely shifted by another one, the accumulation of unresolved matters does not generate, paradoxically, a lucid critical response, but a temporary 'stiffening' of the theoretical grounds upon which the paradigm in crisis has been constructed”. According to Preciado, “this might explain the current proliferation and hyperbolic mise-en-scène of neofascist ideologies” around the world today.
The epistemic crisis we are experiencing today is triggering a paradigm shift.
Pilbara Interregnum positions the Australian region as a centre-stage territory of this “epistemic war”—a mythological struggle between patriarchal-colonial forces (and its techno-deterministic promise that a smart-green-capitalism will resolve today’s infinite concatenation of crises—and an amalgamation of discourses, practices and mythologies that are mobilising a shift towards the abolition of any regime, discourse or mythology grounded on the validation of necropolitical power.
In summary, our use of warlike terminology and aesthetics is as instrumental to denounce the scope and shape of contemporary structural violence in the Pilbara and beyond, as much as it is a powerful and provocative tool to mobilise and spatialise counter hegemonic acts of political imagination.
Our use of warlike terminology and aesthetics is as instrumental to denounce the scope and shape of contemporary structural violence in the Pilbara and beyond.
KOOZ Can you provide insights into the specific unresolved territorial disputes that serve as departure points for the seven political allegories in Pilbara Interregnum? How do these allegories contribute to the project's exploration of political imagination?
GS At the beginning of our research, we identified a series of unresolved territorial disputes in the Pilbara. From all of them, we selected seven that allowed us to speak about the most incandescent “epistemic battles” of our current planetary interregnum. Indeed, these battles are already re-defining the global political agendas.
These battles imply trans-temporal or trans-scalar complexities that are often difficult to represent or comprehend. For that reason, we borrow the figure of the allegory as a dialectical weapon that we use both as a research and as an architectural design tool.
Allegories have historically been complicit in consolidating and disseminating imperial and Western-centered narratives and their associated ideological frameworks.
Allegories have historically been complicit in consolidating and disseminating imperial and Western-centered narratives and their associated ideological frameworks. In all their forms (oral, written, or pictorial), allegories use symbolic figures, actions, concrete objects, characters, and spaces to make often ungraspable concepts, ideas, or events more tangible and transcendental. Indeed, allegorical representation bridges scales and connects the local with the global by relating figurative and quotidian elements to existential, universal, or structural matters. By definition, allegories are unfinished, as they present unresolved struggles or mysteries that need to be decrypted, sometimes rendering visible—and most commonly, strategically veiling—the violence intrinsic to the very ideals they promote.
The seven allegories that compose Pilbara Interregnum make tangible seven situated territorial disputes in the Pilbara, unveiling a series of violent factual events that occurred on each location. Each allegory also proposes an action to profane each of the seven colonial spatial interventions that attempted to shape the region as an extractivist playground: the mine, the farm, the reserve, the vehicle, the port, the power station, and the war memorial.
The seven colonial spatial interventions that attempted to shape the region as an extractivist playground: the mine, the farm, the reserve, the vehicle, the port, the power station, and the war memorial.
The project navigates the region in a fabulative journey that re-stages the Pilbara by moving it away from a resources-extraction battlefield into an “epistemic war of political imagination”.
UNEARTH/RE-EARTH denounces the blasting of a 46,000-year-old archeological site (of major significance for aboriginal Australians) by mining giant Rio Tinto inviting to reimagine the Marandoo mine as a somatic archive, an infrastructure for the reparation and perpetual reconstruction of collective memories. REMYTHOLOGIZE warns about the extraction of potash from the Kumpupintil Lake (used today to produce synthetic fertilisers vital for contemporary agroindustrial farming) and invokes the lake´s ancestral inhabitants, the Ngayurnangalku – terrifying cannibal creatures according to Martu Mythology – to feed decolonial imaginaries with the ferocious fertiliser of emancipatory thinking. UNFRAME unveils the Pilbara as a planetary hotspot for stygofauna under threat of extinction due to the expansion of iron ore mines. In this allegory, a blind cave eel invites us to reimagine the reserve beyond “ecosystemic servilities” and urges us to admire the “invisible ugliness of its body”. DEVIATE narrates the extraction of a mineral fragment from a rock formation in the Pilbara’s Marble Bar (that was sent to Mars in the Rover Perseverance by NASA) to discursively and materially connect Mars and the Pilbara as two new frontiers of extraction. INTERRUPT commemorates the interruption of work through the longest strike in Australian history led by aboriginal workers and proposes to continue this tradition by interrupting Port Hedland (the largest bulk export Port in the world) while asking the audience: Can algorithms strike? Can non-humans strike? Is the climate already on strike? DISTRIBUTE reimagines the Asian Renewal Energy Hub at Pilgangoora (one of the world’s largest solar farms) as an urban laboratory to test the first post-labour metropolis in the world, where forms of coexistence are liberated from the mandates of productivity and reproductivity. BECOME remembers that Australia was the first nation to willingly cede its own territory to conduct nuclear tests at the Montebello Islands and imagines an anti-war monument in perpetual becoming that would permanently archive Australia´s nuclear arsenal, commemorate the end of the planetary civil war, and reclaim the beginning of the Age of Planetary Grievability.
KOOZ Could you elaborate on the alternative social and ecological contracts that Pilbara Interregnum envisions for the Pilbara and its broader implications? How do these relate to the audiovisual pieces of the installation and the scenographic model exhibited?
GS Today's planetary interregnum is a time-space in which inherited "truths" reveal themselves as historically contingent and, therefore, transformable. We propose a critical act of defamiliarization and anti-naturalization from inherited epistemological constructs as a first step towards the imagination of new worlds.
We sequester traditional means of architectural representation such as drawings, perspectives and models and hybridise them with storytelling, theatre, and cinema, putting them in service of the construction of alternative political fictions. The installation welcomes visitors into a dark space where a 5.5m highly elaborated golden model represents the territorial crust of the Pilbara. The model seems to float in the dark space and is surrounded by a tryptic of projection screens displaying a three-channel film of the seven political allegories.
Today's planetary interregnum is a time-space in which inherited "truths" reveal themselves as historically contingent and, therefore, transformable.
The golden territorial model plays a double role: On the one hand, it served as a stage set where the performative component of the audiovisual was filmed. On the other hand, it operates as a narrative vehicle and an exhibition device in the space of the Arsenale. Seven real-size characters narrating each allegory in the film interpellate the audience, inviting them to coexist in a space where the recorded performers and the visitors intimately surround the territorial model. The installation blurs the dichotomies between the production and exhibition, as well as between stage and backstage.
The model takes inspiration from war strategy boards to reinforce the urgency of today's "epistemic war". In particular, we were inspired by Guy Debord's Game of War and a military strategy model from the Second World War preserved at the Battle of Britain Bunker. Both references are interactive models that bring the irresolution of the battle to the exhibition space, ultimately urging the audience to take an active role while the film claims, "we need you to take action along with us".
Pilbara Interregnum aims to provoke visceral while critical and informed reactions in the project’s eventual audiences.
KOOZ Pilbara Interregnum “takes the opportunity offered by the current energetic paradigm shift to put in crisis the extractivist, colonial and capitalist mythologies that are turning the region and the rest of the planet into sacrificed areas.” How does the exhibition achieve this? What is the potential of exhibiting such a project at the Venice Architecture Biennale?
GS Our purpose is not to document the consequences of an increasing concatenation of dramatic environmental, geopolitical, sanitary, existential and financial crises that affect the world at all scales (molecular, subjective, communitarian, national, and planetary). Instead, we aim to weaponise the trans-scalar forms of violence associated with these crises as a departure point towards the imagination of alternative political, social and ecological emancipatory scenarios (beyond the tropes of apocalyptic blockbusters or retrotopic nostalgias).
To do so, Pilbara Interregnum aims to provoke visceral while critical and informed reactions in the project’s eventual audiences. Our work revisits what Bertold Brecht did with his epic theatre through the Verfremdungseffekt (alienating or distancing effect). We aim to provoke a particular state of “alienation” in the audience by de-naturalising given epistemological frameworks. We see in this process of alienation the first stage towards the imagination of other worlds.
GRANDEZA STUDIO (Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Jorge Valiente Oriol and Gonzalo Valiente Oriol) is a collective of architects and artists founded in Madrid in 2011. Their work studies late-capitalist spaces and narratives to identify – through critical analysis – and challenge – through political imagination – the mechanisms that veil and normalize late-capitalist structural forms of violence. The studio methodologies entangle with research, critical spatial practice, writing, performance and pedagogy.