STIRring Together: Julijonas Urbonas and Jan Boelen on Lithuania’s ‘Planet of People’

STIR interacts with the curator and exhibitor of the Lithuania Pavilion by the Lithuanian Space Agency (LSA) on their extraterrestrial imagination at Venice Architecture Biennale 2021.

by Devanshi Shah, Anmol AhujaPublished on : Jul 09, 2021

"Take a large population of humans, strip them of all social, racial, cultural, sexual, political, and economic constructs and bring them together so that they stay in close proximity for a substantial amount of time. That would be the ultimate revision of human architecture."

-Julijonas Urbonas, Founder, Lithuanian Space Agency

A completely revisionist approach, and a jarringly radical one at that as stated by Julijonas Urbonas, founder of the Lithuanian Space Agency (LSA), and exhibitor of Lithuania’s official national representation at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021, is what may indeed be the kick in the head for all notions alluding to the future of architecture, the big unknown. Amid a full-blown space race on planet Terra, a number of tech and architecture giants including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and BIG’s Project Olympus, the Moon and the red planet seem to be frontrunners in our search for an alternate habitat. Along with curator Jan Boelen, the Lithuanian Space Agency’s Planet of People melds as well as transcends these ideas, at least in theory. Proposing and researching alternate ways of being, more than mere existing, both on and beyond Earth, the LSA’s futuristic proposals and prototypes intend to democratise the realm of space, giving it as a cosmic realm of occupation and existence to the people, and away from private mega-conglomerates. “The most ambitious prototype is a machine for an escape from Earth that catapults us into space where we merge into an alternative planet,” states Jan Boelen.

  • Axonometric view of the LSA’s laboratory and display at the Venice Architecture Biennale | Planet of People, Lithuania Pavilion | Julijonas Urbonas, Jan Boelen | STIRworld
    Axonometric view of the LSA’s laboratory and display at the Venice Architecture Biennale Image: © Julijonas Urbonas and Isora x Lozuraityte Studio. Courtesy of Lithuanian Space Agency
  • Sectional view of the LSA’s laboratory and display at the Venice Architecture Biennale | Planet of People, Lithuania Pavilion | Julijonas Urbonas, Jan Boelen | STIRworld
    Sectional view of the LSA’s laboratory and display at the Venice Architecture Biennale Image: © Julijonas Urbonas and Isora x Lozuraityte Studio. Courtesy of Lithuanian Space Agency

The Lithuanian Pavilion at this year’s Biennale in Venice, a beautiful dichotomy of a deep-space simulation set against the near poetic backdrop of the Renaissance Italian church, Santa Maria dei Derelitti, merges gravitational aesthetics and cosmic imagination to envision the cosmos as a site for an other-world, one that may not exist entirely physically, bordering on cosmic – nebular – spiritual almost. It is a deeply fictional narrative, and with that, an artistic and scientific enquiry that considers the basal, elemental human being the building block of an enigma, free of all socio-economic-politic constructs that guide our lives on earth. What then would be our role, miniscule or transcendant, is bound to be a revelation nonetheless. The installation achieves this via 3D scanning participants at the Biennale, 'sending' them into space as animated simulations. Aptly, as more and more people participate, the commune grows into a planet.

As rare and refreshing as it may be seeing a national pavilion take on issues and ideas beyond the scope of national identity and crises within geographical boundaries, the display provides engaging new insights, and possible answers, into curator Hashim Sarkis' now nearly omniscient question, “How will we live together?”, by proposing this higher form of living, radically refurbing our existing methods of, well, existing. Read STIR’s equal parts engaging, equal parts mentally stimulating conversation with Julijonas Urbonas and Jan Boelen on the genesis of their Planet of People, and what sustains the idea in the ‘space-age’.

  • A digital simulation still from Planet of People | Planet of People, Lithuania Pavilion | Julijonas Urbonas, Jan Boelen | STIRworld
    A digital simulation still from Planet of People Image: © Julijonas Urbonas and Studio Pointer*. Courtesy of Lithuanian Space Agency
  • The LSA identity design comprises a typeface based on human skeleton, derived from digital simulations of 3D scans of the installation’s participants | Planet of People, Lithuania Pavilion | Julijonas Urbonas, Jan Boelen | STIRworld
    The LSA identity design comprises a typeface based on human skeleton, derived from digital simulations of 3D scans of the installation’s participants Image: © Julijonas Urbonas and Studio Pointer*. Courtesy of Lithuanian Space Agency

Devanshi Shah (DS): How did the idea of the Lithuanian Space Agency emerge?

Julijonas Urbonas (JU): The agency came out as a fictional corporate framework institutional to the project, Planet of People, an artistic and scientific feasibility study of an artificial planet made of human bodies. We – me and the team – chose such an institutional labelling as a sort of bureaucratic scenography, to add ‘realness’ to the project, to expand the context beyond ‘Planet of People’, but also to emphasise the collaborative nature of it. 

DS: The notion of floating bodies amalgamating in space to create a planet is an incredibly unique idea. Could you elaborate on the genesis of this idea?

JU: In a sentence, at a certain moment in my artistic research, I was looking for ways to place a human being in nothingness. The most accessible equivalent of the latter turned out to be some of the Lagrangian points in outer space – empty, weightless, super cold, and a dark vacuum. Having placed a certain number of individuals in such place, I found out that they would start to move towards each other because of their weak gravities, thereby forming a new celestial body from themselves.

It was very provocative and radically different from any space programmes and visions, complex and at the same time laconic: capable of pushing imagination and critical thinking to its extremes, away from terrestrial bias. This was perfect to spark a discussion between very diverse audiences. Such a discussion nurtured and matured the project, paving the way to the establishment of the agency.

Regarding aesthetics, it is quite a broad subject touching on the specifics of space architecture and art, including planetary architecture such as terraforming, design for extreme environments, choreography in weightlessness, etc. and cosmic imagination. More specifically, the fact that imagining the body as a building material is (surprisingly) unprecedented as if nobody had done a true reverse engineering of Vitruvian architecture. In terms of ethics, it directly refers to the recent development of astro-ethics and deals with issues ranging from space colonialism, astro-anthropocene, eschatology, survivalism, to questioning of the very definition of life. Lastly – politically – the project taps into the questions of the development of national cosmic identity and the policies governing the activities in the exploration and use of outer space.

Having placed a certain number of individuals in such place, I found out that they would start to move towards each other because of their weak gravities, thereby forming a new celestial body from themselves. – Julijonas Urbonas

DS: The exhibition comprises many different, smaller elements and displays. Could you tell us a little about how all these different elements worked together?

JU: First of all, it is important to consider the project as an interactive architectural fiction, in which a visitor becomes a co-architect of the planet made out of human bodies. It is a sort of expanded form of architectural narrative, powered by deployable structure engineering, kinetic furniture design, speculative material science, extraterrestrial choreography, interactive arts, astroscientific research, and corporate vocabulary – all of this to provoke a unique form of cosmic imagination. 

At the entrance of the pavilion, you are greeted by a printer which automatically prints a metre-long ticket featuring info about the project and a unique queuing number for the 3D human scanner. The whole installation anchors itself on two large reflective walls that bracket the project within the church, thus referring to the fictional nature of the project. Within this structure, there is a 3D-scanner that scans the visitors and transposes their 3D models to an astrophysical simulation, where they can see how they interact with other bodies to form a new celestial body. In this way, everybody becomes a planetary co-architect. This is also the place where everybody is asked to abandon their earthly origins and imagine what they can do, something that their body cannot do here on Earth. It works as an extraterrestrial striptease stage encouraging to strip off such labels as culture, gender, race and even terrestrial parameters of space such as ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘vertical’, and ‘horizontal’.

On the other side of the installation, there is a revolving table that contains both a reception desk and an archive of the Lithuanian Space Agency, a number of scaled models referring to selected projects of mine that gave birth to the LSA. In this space, you will find a number of torus-slice shaped seats made of recycled plastic, which may be considered as a kind of plastic poo because of its degrading qualities. Conceptually it refers to the origins of the material, as well as that of human, as a post-fossil. It’s also unique in its imaginary quality – it is hard to tell what it is and where it comes from – is it unearthly brain, intestines, or faeces? 

All the elements of the exhibition – from the queue ticket, human skeleton based typography, kinetic furniture, and astrophysical animation, to the first annual report of the agency – play in tandem as an expanded form of architecture to create an evocative, empathetic bridge between the public and the otherworldliness of the cosmos and themselves.

Animation showcasing the digital simulation of the Planet of People and its unique visual identity design| Planet of People, Lithuania Pavilion | Julijonas Urbonas, Jan Boelen | STIRworld
Animation showcasing the digital simulation of the Planet of People and its unique visual identity design Image: © Julijonas Urbonas and Studio Pointer*. Courtesy of Lithuanian Space Agency

DS: What is the most important idea or experience you would like visitors to take away from the exhibition?

JU: The sense of cosmos within themselves.

DS: Could you tell us a bit more about the published Annual Report no. 1 released in conjunction with the exhibition?

JU: Having designed the look of a legit institution, we started to contact a wide range of experts from the fields that we thought would be relevant to the development of this space programme. We basically asked their opinion on the possibility of making an artificial celestial body out of humans. It worked very well: we have got a wide range of reactions, from astrophysical calculations to speculative anthropological musings. In addition to those contributions, the publication also documents both the prehistory of the agency and its current activities that mostly revolve around the project, Planet of People.

DS: What would be the next step in terms of research or further iterations for this exhibition of this nature?

JU: Currently we are starting to get requests to show the pavilion in the next one to two years, around the world. All of them are quite different in terms of scale, type of venue, exhibition context and curatorial vision. They will require both physical and contextual modifications, and it looks like it will be the key topic for a while. Talking about farther future, we will look into how to turn Planet of People into a national space programme.

Deployable structures of the LSA’s laboratory at the installation | Planet of People, Lithuania Pavilion | Julijonas Urbonas, Jan Boelen | STIRworld
Deployable structures of the LSA’s laboratory at the installation Image: © Julijonas Urbonas and Vladas Suncovas. Courtesy of Lithuanian Space Agency

DS: Could you elaborate on a comment you made which said “the current crisis is a crisis of imagination”?

Jan Boelen (JB): I think we are in an economic crisis. We are in a political crisis. We have a healthcare crisis. We have an environmental crisis. If you would really start analysing it, it is created by the so-called solutions we are in, and we want to answer them with the same solutions that we formulated before that created the problems. We need fundamentally different approaches. We don't need an escape from earth or a super technocratic solution, like the ‘Elon Musks’ of the world are proposing. They are not only colonising space and earth, they are also colonising and privatising our thoughts and ideas, as if there is only one solution. And this is something I really think that artists, designers, architects can react to, by formulating alternative projects that create not only critique, but awareness and use humour as a strategy to deal with reality.

DS: How did you start working with the Lithuanian Space Agency?

JB: It was Julijonas Urbonas, the founder of the Lithuanian Space Agency, who invited me to collaborate together. During the discussions, I understood that if we would work with him, the body of work would need a kind of context to be presented in. It is not just an installation, but it should represent a body of work for him. And that's how we came up with the name, 'Lithuanian Space Agency', as a kind of play on the Lithuanian Pavilion and the European Space Agency, or NASA or the other ones, since they all have a similar business model. The Venice Biennale is constructed in a similar way. And of course, it's completely absurd to have a Lithuanian Space Agency. It's such a small country. It is kind of a joke in itself. So, you are continuously there and raising questions like, is this real or not, is it meaningful or not? And it's this doubt that we wanted to create in order to have another take on what a biennale and an architecture biennale can be.

  • Reception of the LSA’s laboratory | Planet of People, Lithuania Pavilion | Julijonas Urbonas, Jan Boelen | STIRworld
    Reception of the LSA’s laboratory Image: © Julijonas Urbonas and Isora x Lozuraityte Studio. Courtesy of Lithuanian Space Agency
  • Schematic axonometric diagram of the LSA’s laboratory at the Biennale, showing the position of the 3D scanner and the Planet of People | Planet of People, Lithuania Pavilion | Julijonas Urbonas, Jan Boelen | STIRworld
    Schematic axonometric diagram of the LSA’s laboratory at the Biennale, showing the position of the 3D scanner and the Planet of People Image: © Julijonas Urbonas and Isora x Lozuraityte Studio. Courtesy of Lithuanian Space Agency

DS: The main idea of the Pavilion is very different and a little unusual: we are talking about creating this exoplanet made up of people. Could you elaborate on that?

JB: It is of course responding to the overall theme of the biennale, “How will we live together?” The Planet of People is taking that idea literally and saying, maybe we live together with everything that is around us, surrounding us: we are the planet, we are the earth, but we are also stardust. Scientists are researching about this - that with biomass, you can create new planets. Of course, you need incredible amounts of biomass to create that exoplanet, but the idea was to let people participate in the experience. Doing that in a church in Italy, where the Vitruvian body was drawn as the norm of everything, questions it and reduces it to pixels and atoms. It is in this environment, where people are stripped from their gender, cultural backgrounds, and religions that we thought the idea of living together becomes very beautiful and poetic.

It is of course responding to the overall theme of the biennale, “How will we live together?” The Planet of People is taking that idea literally and saying, maybe we live together with everything that is around us, surrounding us: we are the planet, we are the earth, but we are also stardust. – Jan Boelen

DS: There are a lot of collaborators on this project. As the curator, how was it working with so many moving parts and working with so many different creative minds together?

JB: We first defined the core idea in a small group. We created a frame for everybody to work in, and with that we could easily give an open framework for everybody to work on and to give guidelines, so that everybody could operate autonomously. This also relates to the space agency as they are collaborators with the same goal. It was this kind of imaginary institute that was helping us frame it for everybody.

  • Julijonas Urbonas, exhibitor of Planet of People, and founder of the LSA | Planet of People, Lithuania Pavilion | Julijonas Urbonas, Jan Boelen | STIRworld
    Julijonas Urbonas, exhibitor of Planet of People, and founder of the LSA Image: Visvaldas Morkevičius
  • The Lithuanian Space Agency (LSA) team | Planet of People, Lithuania Pavilion | Julijonas Urbonas, Jan Boelen | STIRworld
    The Lithuanian Space Agency (LSA) team Image: Emilija Filipenkovaitėm
  • Julijonas Urbonas and Julija Reklaitė, commissioner of the installation oand director, Rupert | Planet of People, Lithuania Pavilion | Julijonas Urbonas, Jan Boelen | STIRworld
    Julijonas Urbonas and Julija Reklaitė, commissioner of the installation oand director, Rupert Image: Emilija Filipenkovaitėm

DS: How was the installation itself designed? Was it something that was redesigned or modified to host your installation inside?

JB: We designed the Space Agency to resemble engineers setting up for an experiment. We addressed it in a very straightforward manner, form follows function. We know it's in Venice, so you need to have light walls that function as a room divider on which we could hang the screen on. And of course, if you have an agency, you need to have a reception desk where you can receive people. These were the simple ingredients, and we could plug it into many institutes and museums in the world. It is like a moon lander that can land in almost any place. Every context will give new meaning to the installation. Here, it is in a church where the bodies of the people that had no family and no names were buried. This church, and the Renaissance movement that gives it an extra layer, allows us to talk about architecture and the human body. A new situation, thus, will give us other meanings and we'll give other possibilities to deal with the project.

Project Details

Project by: Julijonas Urbonas
Curator: Jan Boelen
Assistant Curator: Milda Batakytė
Commissioner: Julija Reklaitė
Laboratory design: Isora x Lozuraityte Studio for Architecture
Deployable structures design: Vladas Suncovas
Engineering: Povilas Ambrasas
Graphic design and 3D scanner programming: Studio Pointer*
Producer: Mindaugas Reklaitis
Communication: Jogintė Bučinskaitė and Vilius Balčiūnas
International Press Coordinator: Marta Atzeni
Local Manager: Marco Scurati
Coordinators: Eglė Kliučinskaitė and Erika Urbelevič
Interactive Media Manager: Ignas Pavliukevičius
Printer machine programming: Andrius Mikonis

STIRring Together:
Curated as a series of thoughtful engagements that enhance the contemporary debate and discussion on architecture, the STIRring Together series introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Tracing the various adaptations and following the multitude of perspectives, the series carefully showcases some incredible projects and exhibits, highlighting the diversity and many discourses of the show.

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