This year’s Serpentine pavilion was designed by Big, an architectural practice whose main force is the 41 year old Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. The practice’s signature is using simple lines in a bold way to support a conceptual story. Usually there is also a playful element in Big’s projects and the user of the building is urged towards a rather adventurous, at times even childlike behaviour. For example they have designed a waste-to-energy-power plant in Copenhagen with a roof that is in fact a ski slope and the Serpentine pavilion (if it weren’t for health and safety measures in the UK) was originally meant to be climbed to the top.
The pavilion, as has been observed by many writers already, is quite beautiful. It encloses the space but but it also “leaks” views to the park from certain angles. The structure does not however manage to protect from nature’s elements very well, but really how many of the pavilions ever did? Similarly as far as its spatial qualities are concerned, like many of its predecessors, it photographs better than it feels when visited.
This year though I would like to focus on an event that I attended when I went there for the first time, on June 24th one day after UK’s famous referendum that decided the future of the country within the European Union. That strange day, Implicated theatre a group of theatre practitioners, funded by Serpentine Galleries and directed by Frances Rifkin took over the space. Implicated theatre’s performances are based on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed which is an experimental workshop-based practice that aims to “explore the relationships between political speech and action”1. Usually a scene is presented to the audience who later on is urged to participate in transforming it by taking the place of one of the original actors. The focus usually is underprivileged people and their stories. Their struggles and their interpretation of their experiences within the frame of society and its political structures.
This particular performance called Towards a Radio Ballad: Songs of the Journey emerged from a year-long collaboration with unionised migrant hotel workers from Unite’s Hotel Workers Branch. As described in Serpentine Gallery’s website: “The sound piece that accompanied the performance, is a sketch working towards a possible Radio Ballad, taking its cue from Charles Parker’s original BBC Radio Ballads, a series that aired from 1958-1964.
The audience was divided in two groups depending on whether they had ever worked in the Services industry or not. Walking freely within the pavilion we were given trays and by holding them the feeling of being a waiter was simulated. The stories of actual migrants who have come to London and worked as waiters were heard in the background. In the actual scene presented by the actors and later on moulded by the audience’s participation, a waiter was cheated out of his tips by the head waiter, a common story of professional abuse of power. I will not go into details on what happened as the experience of it is what really matters.
The intellectualisation of a workshop-based performance where everyone’s conclusions are purely personal would diminish the importance of the experience with weak generalisations. In the end though we were all given seats and a microphone went around. People spoke of how they felt and shared thoughts on their being in that particular space as part of the group. Very personal stories were heard that attested oppression and injustice. Migrants’ search for a better life by leaving their country of origin were juxtaposed with the dramatic political events in the country, as the decision of the previous day’s referendum. Ultimately the migrants’ journey instead of easier is going to become much more difficult. Surrounded by the loose boundary of the pavilion, we were confronted with the sad reality of a world that chooses to become more closed-minded and closed-bordered. And the feelings were real, people spoke of their lives and their families passionately and even cried.
Never did I expect to experience the sharing of real emotions and harsh truths about major political events, especially in a group, within the Serpentine Summer Pavilion. A space which is a product created and consumed by an international cultural and economic elite. Most nights at the pavilion not that many working class people are present, other than the waiters of course. And there is not that much truth spoken by the well-groomed guests that sip cocktails while exchanging empty pleasantries.
June 24th ‘s performance placed a small bomb of controversy within the fabric of the pavilion focusing on the lives of those who stay in the background unseen and uncelebrated. The space of the pavilion did not matter to me that night, not because its architecture was unworthy but because no architecture should be more important than the people who inhabit it.
1. From Implicated Theatre’s website