Gilly Karjevsky and Xin Cheng first met at Floating
University Berlin in spring 2018. Late February 2022, they met up online, between a Wellington summer and Berlin spring, and shared some recent projects and reflections.
Xin: The other day we went through a business building that was to be converted into residential apartments. There were all these furniture and light fittings etc. which are being stripped out. Normally it would all go to a landfill, but the project manager wanted someone to make use of them. It was amazing what gets thrown out.
Gilly: Sure, you know also Rotor Construction? They started as an architecture firm that researched a lot about material cycles and one of their projects was going into buildings that are about to be demolished and stripping them back in a reusable fashion. They became such experts in this that they eventually swarmed into another enterprise, called Rotor Deconstruction. It is now a huge warehouse where you can go in and find salvaged architectural materials—everything from furniture and lighting to tiles, doors, windows, sanitary fitting, all kinds of materials. You know when the original 70’s architects were designing every element of the building of the interiors as well—so you can find unique design pieces that are about to be demolished.
X: Were they expensive?
G: No, I mean—considering that it’s a unique design. They are really fine prices and sometimes they get iconic buildings to get demolished and you can get access to crazy things. If you look now on their website, they are about to demolish this amazing building on the outskirts of Brussels by Constantin Brodzki and Marcel Lambrichs, and the windows have this really special tinted glass. They’re going to get the entire stock of the glass from this building. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings in Brussels, it’s amazing.
X: I thought there was something similar in Berlin as well?
G: You mean the Materials Mafia? They salvage materials for the arts, you can book an appointment to go and buy things very cheaply from them. There is also this huge project in the art world, it started from the Venice Biennale—the yearly exhibition for art and architecture —this huge production with a lot of materials, and then what do you do with it afterwards? There is an organisation called Rebiennale that is salvaging these materials. There is also a warehouse in New York, Materials for the Arts. They also have a nice educational department. You can go and get materials from exhibitions from the museums. It’s been there forever and is fully funded by the city.
X: It’s amazing. We’re starting these conversations with the city council as well. Last week we met with the waste-minimization councillor, Laurie Foon. They are starting to think about it from the policy level. It feels like many people are passionate about these issues here. They have a landfill that’s about to fill up in 4 years.
G: Well those are good conversations to have! But of course, with the waste cycle, it’s also about avoiding the production of waste, not just about salvaging waste and using it differently. It’s about thinking from the beginning, what is the afterlife of the materials you work with before you start working with it? It has to be part of the consideration from the get-go.
You know also Umschichten right? They’re based in Stuttgart. Their philosophy of materials is to borrow the materials for a short while. If it’s materials from a car company or timber company, they use it without harm, or minimal harm, and then put the materials back into their original cycle which is also a really interesting approach – to say they’re creating temporary exhibition or installations. You don’t need to buy materials, but borrow them for a moment and put them back into the cycle. I think that’s a super good approach, but it has a limited effect on the afterlife of the material in its original cycle. It does react to the thinking around the materials cycle.
X: Just before the new year, I was trying to clear my old works and art-school leftovers from my parents’ garage. There were heaps of materials which I wasn’t sure what to do, with other than sending them to the landfill. I realised it’s not just up to the artist to deal with this. When the materials were made in the first place, the producers didn’t consider what would happen to them. For example, I had these used sail cloths from sailing boats. They were designed to be durable in that particular condition, then thrown away afterwards. So I feel like it’s not only the artists and architects, but all of these other people need to collaborate and think/make together.
G: Yeah, think about the material cycles from before the production moment, from the manufacturer’s position. And change the demands. The market responds to demand so if we can change the way we demand materials… I see this in Berlin. If you go into Lidl [Supermarket] now, there is almost as much oat milk as there is regular milk. When I moved to Berlin 7 years ago, it was impossible to find alternative milk in a supermarket like Lidl. Now it’s almost as available as regular milk. I think when consumers’ demand changes, then the market adopts.
X: Do you think that this happening in architecture or other fields that you’re interested in?
G: Absolutely. When you go into architecture schools now, all the students are talking about it. There isn’t the creative discipline that is being taught now without some underlying approach towards ecology, whether that approach is working, or providing the solutions. I’m not saying all approaches are equally good, but it doesn’t matter because a shift has already started. When it will meet the tipping point, I don’t know, but I strongly feel there is a total shift, for sure. I think the generations that are coming out now–they’re much more aware of how they shop and how they consume.
X: What have you been doing lately?
G: We’ve done another Climate Care festival.
X: Ah yes, I got the reading from Marjetica Potrč. And the vision for the future!
G: Exactly. So we had Climate Care again in August and then worked on, remunerating how we perceive this site [Floating]. You remember in 2018 it was ‘An offshore campus for reformation’ and then in 2019 Climate Care was ‘A curriculum for urban practice’. Now we’re narrating Floating as a ‘Natureculture learning site’. We’re thinking more and more about learning through ecological perspectives and focusing more and more on the characters of the site. More projects within the organisation are measuring the site, working with the biomaterial of the site, trying to let themes emerge from researching the material culture on site. And thinking about Floating as this hybrid infrastructure in the city with a fully functioning rainwater retention system, it is hybridised with an artist-run organisation— it is a bio-social-techno site. We’re looking at similar sites in other places, right now, mainly in Europe to understand how these hybridised infrastructural uses can emerge and towards understanding how to manage sites in and outside of the city— to expand understanding on the roles of the infrastructure of the city. It’s the kind of research we’re doing now, I am doing now, with Floating. There are all kinds of research at Floating by different association members. Katherine is still doing her stuff, she is running a programme that is contaminations and is working between movement and materials, material cycles, understanding human movement as part of material cycles on the site as well. There was a moment where we thought we might have to leave the site in October, but now that’s been renegotiated. So we can stay but at some point the landlord, wants to refurbish the basin. So at some point there will be a renovation process there. It’ll change the infrastructure works or the use of the site, but we don’t know when and what, so we will see.
X: It’s interesting how you work with these uncertainties but then somehow things evolve out of it.
G: Yeah, That’s a very good observation. It’s not only interesting it’s also tiring. You can look at it from a different perspective because the precariousness that comes with uncertainty can be tiring on a personal level, but on a creative level, it can be very inspiring right? The uncertainty can be used as a metaphor for where any way things are uncertain. “Learning to stay with the uncertainty” to paraphrase [Donna] Harraway. But we’re human so we need safety to relax and be creative actually. We need certainty. It’s a good observation and a good question.
X: I feel like the people involved have stayed, or at least some of them?
G: A lot of people have stayed and we also move the conversation with fixed members, which started with 15 or so. The project grows and the biggest project is the Floating Association. Katherine [Ball] is there still doing projects. We are still there. A much bigger group is involved with the architectural design when it used to be only a couple of architects making decisions. Jeanne [Astrup Chauvaux] and Sarah [Bovelett], they’re doing their programme – it’s called Free Radicals and it’s a student-led seminar programme collaboration. You can find all these projects on our website.
X: I remember when I was at Floating there was a meeting where I had this idea of ‘coexisting diversity’, which was what I felt to be very special about the project. How do you keep that over the years, with all of these people changing and new ideas growing?
G: Well, everybody in the association is free to run their programmes and this is an important freedom to have. We have to negotiate space and resources, of course. But anybody that wants to do a programme can fundraise for themselves and can use the resources and space. It’s all about negotiating with each other. That kind of acceptance of each other’s programme is important to this diversity. Whereas at the same time the topics are being shared, as this kind of, slow drift from being engaged in only the urbanism of the site but more and more through different programmes and people involved, we’re more enagaged with the human ecological relations on the site, understanding the site in an ever-deepening way which you can only do with long-term presence. And of course, also responding to changes from the outside. From 2018 when we opened to now, the world has changed quite radically. I think it’s kind of like this practice of trying to work in a hyper-local manner but not being closed off to what’s happening around us.
X: There is no leader or vice-chancellor at Floating, but how do you make decisions there collectively?
G: [Laughs] There is a strong sense of do-ocracy, so the person who does makes the decision. Not everybody has the space or time to engage with every topic so when you’re there and engaging, then you’re part of the decision making and when you’re not, you’re not. There is very minimal structure to try and develop, right? Agendas and so on, there is a board of course, there is the funding group that is writing applications and by writing applications, they’re narrating potential knowledge processes on the side. But the funding group is open to everybody so if people want to write funding using floating as a base, we don’t want to block anyone in the community. It’s very open in the sense of creating opportunities for people to engage but accepting the fact that if you haven’t engaged, then someone else is making the decisions for you and you have to accept this. That’s the ideal representation of a framework but the reality of it is that we fight a lot and negotiate a lot and that’s part of the process and that’s the way it is. At the end of the day, we are all engaged in, more or less, established programmes on-site and therefore our interests as individuals are already declared and clear but then there is also a dialogue emerging between similar interests. But it’s a constant human dynamic and working in a group.
X: I am having similar issues working with my collaborator, we also have slightly different interests. But I think when the space is open to the public there will be more input and desires.
G: It is crucial to carve out time and space for internal processes and internal negotiations. I do see the difference between the dynamic between people who take the time to engage with other people’s wishes and desires and the dynamic with people who don’t take the time to listen. If you don’t carve out this space for internal negotiation about, even simple hang-out, then the fights will grow and grow. I highly recommend programming that into your work regularly even if you come to it and you have nothing to say and you’re only doing it for half an hour but you’ve scheduled in 2 hours.
X: How often do you have these internal discussions?
G: We don’t have enough and that’s why we fight. Do you remember in the first Climate Care? We used the morning to do a process with the association: we invited artists from the programme to meet the association on a 1-on-1 basis so that organisation could learn from the artists. So we carved out the mornings of the festival duration and did 3 hours with only association members every morning. The members of the association that came benefited from personal access to the festival program. Then within the association we have monthly meetings and we have group meetings. I’m in the application group for eg. so I go to those meetings and we also see each other on-site informally. By and large, it’s a matter, for me, of being present and listening, respecting your boundaries within each of these situations and respecting others’ boundaries. Respect is a very central word. And then, just accepting what happens. Just carving out time and arriving at those discussions, and then being able to express your feelings is important. Put what you feel on the table.
X: That’s also something I am learning myself.
G: I am also learning it! Definitely the pandemic has made our boundaries change, I think. My boundaries have changed over the last two years. My priorities have shifted a lot.
X: I feel like that too. Maybe that also relates to the idea of care?
G: For sure. Very strongly. Very closely. I’m arriving at ethics of care more from the theoretical side of how it pertains to systems or how it pertains to thinking and languaging processes. And others are more informed by somatic practice and body practice and embodied experience of how the body can take care of itself. I think it’s really important to care for both the rational side of processing relationships and also the physical side of relating, to others and to our environment.