Landscape Futures Super-Workshop

Geoff Manaugh is trying out a new shared and experimental approach to curating which calls for direct interaction among participants.


Architecture / Nate Berg

Sure, you could curate an exhibition like everybody else: pick a theme, commission a few artists, and then sit back and wait around to sip your plastic cup of Cabernet on opening night.

Or, you could curate like Geoff Manaugh.

The prolific writer and thinker behind the architecture and landscapes blog BLDGBLOG is taking a somewhat unconventional approach to his upcoming exhibition at the Nevada Art Museum in Reno. Instead of merely pointing at his exhibitors from a distance and letting them on their way, he's brought them all together in one place to share ideas, compare projects, and harbor a real, face-to-face conversation between participants who might otherwise have never even met in a more typical exhibition environment.

Manaugh's curation focuses around the theme of landscapes and how architecture, design and technology can dramatically change the way we perceive them. He's drawn exhibitors from around the world to explore how we think of landscapes, how we explore them, ways that we document them and the tools we used/use/will use to gain a deeper understanding of them. The exhibition, "Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices, and Architectural Inventions", will run from August 2011 through February 2012, and though some of the work is already done, much of it is only just beginning.

As part of that creation process, Manaugh recently brought many of the exhibitors together in Los Angeles for what he's dubbed a Super-Workshop. It was a week-long collection of workshops, seminars, critics, site visits and design challenges, all pertaining to the exhibition's proposed discussion of landscape investigation and the tools and techniques that will be used to explore landscapes in the near and distant future.

L.A. Ice by Victor Hadjikyriacou, student work produced for Smout Allen's Unit 11 at the Bartlett School of Architecture, presented and discussed at the Landscape Futures Super-Workshop.

The core of the super-workshop consisted of Mark Smout and Laura Allen of Smout Allen, David Benjamin of The Living and Columbia University, historian David Gissen, Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse of Smudge Studio and professors at the Arid Lands Institute, among others. Twenty students came out from the Bartlett School of Architecture at London University College and Columbia University's GSAPP, in addition to 12 students from the Arid Lands Institute in nearby Burbank, California. They were all joined by architects, researchers, writers and other not-so-easy-to-classify people to explore Los Angeles and its surrounding geography. They held studio-like workshops, looked at the camouflaged oil sites of L.A., toured debris basins in the San Gabriel mountains with a site manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, heard about the robotic innovations researchers at Cal Tech are developing for possible future landscape monitoring on Mars, and ventured to the headwaters of the L.A. River.

A vandalized "satellite tracking station" found at the headwaters of the L.A. River during a Super-Workshop field trip. Photo Geoff Manaugh

Well-endowed with such a variety of landscapes and practitioners, Los Angeles was a fitting research base, and a nice springboard for the researchers and students to delve deeper into the theme of the exhibition. Manaugh says much of the value of bringing everyone together was to let the work going into the exhibition evolve, and have participants together "talking about their projects and talking about their ideas and offering feedback and seeing how each other was approaching the general description of the exhibition."

One of the tragedies of the world is that there are so many talented and smart people, but they all live in different cities and they don't overlap and they don't get to work together on similar ideas

Electric Aurora by Liam Young, part of Young's Specimens of Unnatural History project, discussed at the Landscape Futures Super-Workshop. Young's project is "a contemporary recasting of the bestiaries of the past," he explains, using concepts taken from "taxidermy and biotechnology to gaze out across the near future population of an augmented wilderness... These monsters form critical instruments through which to view the potential of a transformed nature, perverted by the hybridization of culture and technology."

"It's almost like different teams working on the same project," Manaugh says. There was the risk, Manaugh acknowledges, that bringing together exhibitors before their projects were complete would potentially skew the work and create a homogenous collection. But given the sheer volume of topics and ideas raised during the weeklong workshop, the risk of this togetherness creating too much similarity was minimal.

The headwaters of the L.A. River, sealed in concrete. Photo Geoff Manaugh

At a closing symposium at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a home base during the week, exhibitors shared some of the related work they've previously done and future work they will be developing ahead of the exhibition. With nearly everyone together at one time, it's almost like the exhibition has already opened. And in some ways it has. For those creating the work, they've already found a viewing audience and a group of critics in their fellow exhibitors, and the interactions between them during this week is likely to impact and redirect the flow of their work as the pre-exhibition gets ready to open to the actual viewing public. And that's exactly what curator Geoff Manaugh was after.

"One of the tragedies of the world is that there are so many talented and smart people, but they all live in different cities and they don't overlap and they don't get to work together on similar ideas," says Manaugh. "To me it seems increasingly valuable to get people together as often as possible and, hopefully, let good things happen." Nate Berg

Landscape Futures Super-Workshop students visit the Pine Cone Road Debris Dam on the outskirts of Los Angeles, a site that helps to protect the surrounding neighborhood from landslides. Photo Geoff Manaugh

Smout Allen
Living Architecture Lab
David Gissen
Arid Lands Institute
Bartlett School of Architecture

Nate Berg is a writer and journalist covering cities, the environment and urban planning. Nate's work has been published in a wide variety of publications, including Planetizen, Wired, Metropolis, Fast Company, Dwell, Architect, The Christian Science Monitor, LA Weekly.

Geoff Manaugh leads Landscape Futures Super-Workshop students around a housing division near the Cascades, where freshwater is piped into the San Fernando Valley, taken from hundreds of miles away. The students were later to realize that the landscape around them was actually the remains of an abandoned golf course. Photo Jamie Kruse

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