Grandstanding with Rem and David: opening MPavilion 2017

A few months ago, MPavilion invited me to think about the kind of event I’d like to present in 2017. Having presented and participated in events every year that this gift to Melbourne has been offered by the Naomi Milgrom Foundation, I was dazzled by the possibilities afforded by OMA’s design. And once I’d had the opportunity to interview David Gianotten with thanks to Assemble Papers, I knew exactly what I wanted to propose.

My idea was for a grand event that would showcase the pavilion as well as our most timely Melbourne thinking on the contest of public space that characterises the Australian culture. A three-hour evening event in multiple spatial configurations, the event would pit architects against academics against artists against journalists against you. Together we would experience public space as alternately confrontational, performative or collaborative, inviting us to examine the possibilities and limits of our own civic participation.

When Robert Buckingham and Sara Savage asked if I would consider scaling this down to a one-hour lunchtime event, I was skeptical… but when they suggested it would be the one-hour event that would open MPavilion in the presence of its architects David Gianotten and Rem Koolhaas, my mind started ticking away – and so, Grandstanding was born.

Enter Paola Balla, Rory Hyde, Patricia Karvelas, Ian MacDougall and Prof. Naomi Stead, and suddenly we had a firecracker of an event: insightful experts with sensitive, confident approaches to the complexities of public space.

Grandstanding was designed to showcase what OMA’s MPavilion makes possible: a reconfigurable debate that would contest public space by changing it before our eyes.

So many times we see politicians argue with very little respect for their audience: us, the public, who pay their salaries – and to whom they are both primarily and ultimately responsible. Within the limited time and fixed format of Parliament or the media interview, politicians dodge the question or change the subject or shift their ground entirely – and they do so freely and brazenly, knowing there are unlikely to be any meaningful consequences. And yet, a shift in ground is most often a tacit admission of defeat, exposing the politician’s incompetence – but so rarely pursued by their interlocutors.

What if the ground could shift around our key decision-makers? What if the media interview suddenly shifted into a soliloquy, a dialogue, a cross-examination, a forensic investigation, a confession? What if the senate chamber could become a stadium, an oratory, a circus tent, a courtroom, a theatre?

Spatial design conditions our experiences as much as culture and convention, and when we can experience a change in spatial design, we can begin to experience that conditioning. All of this helps to train us as critically aware citizens – one of MPavilion’s hidden benefits.

At one point during Grandstanding, our discussion turned to guilt – a word introduced by Gianotten in response to the suggestion that a suburban location should perhaps instead have benefited from such a structure or such a cultural experience. Discussion readily moved on towards the constructive imperatives of responsibility – a vital shift, given we stood on country whose sovereignty was never ceded by the Boonwurrung nor the Wurundjeri nor any of the First Nations. As we spoke about the active and the civic, the space around us changed as perceptibly as the massive physical feat we’d all just achieved together to rotate the tribune. Earlier, even though we were perilously over capacity, together we focused on that common purpose: standing and moving our own bodies, allowing space for others, watching as new platforms emerged, new ways of engaging with one another, and then, joining together in conversation. And now, even though we are perilously confident in a post-colonial present, we recognised our power to reconfigure space by recognising and acting on truths. One of the most complex events I’ve ever facilitated, Grandstanding asked important questions about the ways we occupy place and enact change.

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