Carson Chan is the founding member and head curator of Program, a nonprofit exhibition space for art and architecture in Berlin. He regularly writes for various art and cultural magazines such as 032c where he is also a contributing editor, and advises cultural institutions in Denmark and Italy.
Along with Nadim Samman, Carson Chan was appointed curator for the 4th edition of the Marrakech Biennale in 2012.
Antje Stahl met Carson at his office at Program. He was sitting at a long wooden table, behind his back piles of catalogs on beveled book shelves, in front of him a silver laptop that could not possibly have been ignored, and thus, accidentally became the protagonist of the conversation: laptop as mobile home, as exhibition space, as party or the place where imagination expands.
Antje Stahl: Carson, you‘re Canadian.
Carson Chan: Yes.
What brought you to Berlin?
I came to Berlin to work at Barkow Leibinger Architekten. Frank Barkow taught at Cornell where I got my bachelor’s in architecture, and he asked me to come work for him after grad school. Working there, great as it was, showed me that my interests in architecture were not exactly in design.
How is that?
I did a master’s in the history and theory of architecture at Harvard just before moving to Berlin. While working as an architectural designer I came to understand that there’s a difference between buildings and architecture – that not all buildings are architecture. Most buildings are built by developers, not architects.
And what do you consider to be the difference?
Architecture could be understood as any spatial practice of a body of knowledge that deals with context, history, society, and urban forms. This can take any kind of shape – a building, an art exhibition. But what is important is the intention. If you intend to have an architectural effect, that’s when architecture begins, but if you just make something to simply shelter people you make a building. One is not better than the other, they’re just different. I think this difference made me understand that one could practice architecture without building buildings.
So what did you do after you left Barkow Leibinger?
I worked in the architecture department of the Neue Nationalgalerie, but beyond enjoying my work there immensely, I became aware of the problems with exhibiting architecture. When you go to an art gallery, you see the art works on the wall, but when you go to an architecture exhibition you mostly see a representation of architecture – a model for instance.
At around the same time, I also freelanced, curating exhibitions throughout Berlin. One day, my friend Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga who was a classmate at Harvard, came to visit and saw an exhibition I made for a small non-commercial space and we both thought: hey, we can start our own space here in Berlin. By chance we passed by this building we’re sitting in now – a former Russian hotel on Invalidenstrasse – and it was available for rent. We knew there would be a lot of potential for doing something beyond exhibitions here: We have about 400 square meters.
So this is how you came to start PROGRAM – a non-profit space “testing the disciplinary boundaries of architecture in collaboration with other fields” as it is indicated on the homepage.
Stil in Berlin features a series called “At Home”. People are photographed in their homes. Since you’re often traveling, I was wondering, where you would call your home?
I would say here, at PROGRAM. The place where I sleep at, my apartment, is a place I found on Craigslist a few days before I came to Berlin in 2005. I don‘t spend much time there. It’s really only a place to sleep.
So if you had been asked to be photographed at home, you would choose PROGRAM as your home?
Well, it depends on what you mean by home. This is where I spend most of my time. The concept of home is something I guess I haven’t thought about too much in the past years. Anyway, the concept of home is abstract. Home is where I find my interest and my work. It’s wherever I can start working on something, typing, researching, and thinking about new exhibitions. That feels homey for me, besides seeing friends of course. Most bars feel quite homey as well, come to think of it.
When I came in to meet you this morning, I encountered what I would consider a typical image: Carson Chan and a laptop. Would you say then that a laptop is your mobile home?
The Internet is a big part of this equation. The fact that I can do a lot of things online is a new, and already naturalized condition; it’s a condition that didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate. The Net is a system of communication, of expressing, thinking, and creating with which we in the West are spending more than 60 percent of our waking lives. The fact that it has become second nature to us, I think, has something to do with my difficulty to answer your question about home. The constant communication with friends, family, colleagues, and even strangers eliminates the physical distances, of space, that helped define concepts like home. A Facebook artist friend that I met once or twice liked a paper that I wrote and posted online, where she read it. She then invited me to speak and teach a workshop at the Schaulager in Basel last year.
A new part of PROGRAM recently launched online. It’s called PROGRAM ANNEX, and it’s a virtual exhibition space?
Yes. We’ve been running PROGRAM for about five years, and we’re asking ourselves: How should we continue to operate? Do we stay in Berlin? Should we keep the library? The residence program? Do we expand to other cities? So much has grown and evolved in the last years that we needed to respond. Both Fotini and I spend so much time away from Berlin or online, and somehow this idea of developing something in cyberspace kept creeping up here and there. The Internet has always been structured around spatial metaphors: chat rooms, web sites, etc. In discussion with artists like our former artist-in-resident Timur Si-Qin, who himself runs an online gallery project called Chrystal Gallery, we talked quite seriously about how some of the things we do, beyond our website, could migrate to, and develop in, cyberspace.
What does the virtual space offer?
Think about the logistics of actually making exhibitions – budgetary concerns, the physical obstacles of making an exhibition. In cyberspace you don’t have the same demands. There’s no gravity for instance. So if you want to have a ball of water floating in the middle of the air, you can do that in this gallery. If you wanted to knock down the ceiling and build another five stories on top of that, you can do it without spending 20 million euros.
But do you think cyberspace holds up to our understanding of space?
I think it does. I think it expands it. Physical reality has generated and provided our experience in the world thus far. I would say cyberspace sponsors an extended imagination, one that would not have been possible without it. That’s what I’m interested in: how will our imaginations expand, how will our spatial imagination expand?
Have you seen the movie “Inception”?
In fact, it was an inspiration for PROGRAM ANNEX.
The scene that exceeded my imagination was when they walk through Paris, and Cobb suddenly starts to fold the city like a piece of paper, and you see familiar Parisian streets, people, cars, buildings moving as if gravity has never existed. Those visuals left a very strong impression on me, but obviously it can’t ever be the same to actually and physically move within such a space or to simply see it moving on a screen in front of you.
No, probably not in the next few years, but what connects physical space and the one that is born of digital technologies is the question of experience. Where we have physical experiences in the city, literary experiences through novels, abstract musical experiences through music, now we have online experiences. The question is how these experiences coincide or are understood in a comparable way. What are the differences between a physical experience of space and an online experience of cyberspace? As I said, we’re spending more and more time online, our mind is geared more and more to experience through these media. The intermixing of the two realms will continue, and what is interesting for me is how an architectural mind could participate in this kind of discussion. Art, I would say, has been far better reflecting on the blurring of the physical and digital realms.
Do you prefer one space to the other?
It depends on what I want to do. All physical interaction is important and will always be. The question is how the world will physically change, what will constitute physical interaction in the future so mediated by the digital-virtual? Online architecture will not be about construction the way we have known it for the past 4.000 years. As physical materials fall away into pure structure, what architecture is left with is its use, its purpose, its functions. The activities that happen in architecture will continue. One could still go shopping, have community discussions, virtually attend a party.
A few weeks ago a friend had a party at her place here in Berlin, while a good friend of ours was in New Zealand. We had him on video Skype and projected it life-sized on the wall. He saw all of us and we saw him, and we quite successfully hung out while he was physically on the other side of the globe. All we needed was a laptop, a projector, and a Skype account, and what sounds science-fictional actually became homemade and quite easy to accomplish; DIY Minority Report.
And how was it?
It was fine, and for us in Berlin, after a few drinks, the interaction normalized quite automatically. Our friend in New Zealand had a completely different physical experience than we did. He was alone, in his house, it was during the day, and he had his windows open. And of course, it was summer for him, and winter for us. I was in a smoky room with a great number of people. The physical experience cannot be fully transported, or represented online right now. This difference is what I think we should value.
As you remember Hans-Ulrich Obrist has invited around 50 artists to produce and discuss maps; as he put it “in this new age of GPS, Google Earth and multidimensional digital maps, mapping is suddenly hugely relevant”. I would like to know what kind of map you would give yourself?
Hmm, that’s a good question. It’s a hard question to answer because maps, or using a map, imply moving decisively in one direction or other. I know some of my basic life trajectories – I want to teach in the future – but the idea of future time is itself hard to imagine apart from being simply a continuation of the present. The Internet, or the Internet state of mind, flattens time.
What do you mean?
With online search engines like Google, one could potentially find information on, say, McDonald’s, Beethoven, or World War II in a few seconds. Historical and social hierarchies are now all equalized. In the past, finding out about McDonald’s would include a planned visit to their head quarters. Learning about Beethoven meant you would have to go to a music library, and for World War II a different one. Information was always structured by the hierarchy of its access.
You mean the same way TV equalized information?
Sort of, only that the search capabilities of the web surpass television’s ability to flatten so much that I think we’re talking about something else completely. Online, you’re in control of the program, you’re the agent that determines what you see. As time and space is flattened by technologies like Google and Skype, the idea of a map with a personal trajectory seems out of place. The future has been replaced by a perpetual present.
First, and foremost, I would consider mapping as some kind of cartography – as an understanding of a territory.
Yes, but personal territory and how one navigates within it in one’s career is a whole other ballgame. Take for example the artist group AIDS-3D. They became well known online before they began to exhibit in galleries and museums. They made a sculpture called the OMG Obelisk – a religious altar of sorts. It’s an older work that they don’t identify with so much anymore, but I like to refer to it as the articulation of a new mode of art making. They did it at a student exhibition in the UDK, Berlin, and an animated .gif of this piece that they posted on their site became highly circulated on the Internet. This made them famous in cyberspace before they were known through physical exhibitions. They went on to show this piece in New York at the New Museum. So this is what I mean by the different life terrains of physical and cyber space. For artists emerging in the last five years, they completely overlap. Traditionally, artists try to meet curators and gallerists, and get them to visit their studios. AIDS-3D simply put work on a website, and ended up in the museum.
But beyond how artwork is made more accessible and visible online, the OMG Obelisk could also be understood as a connection between the two worlds; it speaks of a fundamental mysticism, magic, of the Internet. There’s the obvious reference, where God is replaced by ‘oh my God’ (OMG), but when you ask the artists they really understand the artwork as existing without an original. The online image is not a representation; it is the online version. The physical one, you can say, is the downloaded version. Neither version is more real. The piece exists in duality.
Imagine a world in which we could download sculptures and objects. Simply push a button and you have your item right there in front of you at home.
But it‘s possible already.
What do you mean?
Text: Antje Stahl
Photography: Trevor Good