Talk to curator and architect Mariana Pestana, and certain words circle the conversation like butterflies, metaphorically landing here or there as she calmly describes her work and her multidirectional thinking. Empathy is one; community another. Care is yet another—certainly a buzzword in the institutional art and architecture scenes at the moment—and also civic, sensing, and research. But the recurring word that perhaps best captures Pestana’s practice is imagination.
My take on imagination has a political orientation because it is concerned with how it can be harnessed to empower people to imagine alternatives that can improve their lives, says Pestana. True, her curatorial and spatial work is driven by imagining futures—thinking up, and then testing, ways of living differently than most people in the Western world do now, on scales both large and small. On the broader, more public side of her practice are exhibitions she has curated or co-curated, like The Future Starts Here in 2018 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The engaging, extensive show consisting of 100 objects, like home robots or self-driving cars, proposed future scenarios with a dose of criticality to go along with technology’s typical utopianism. Also on view in 2018 was Eco-Visionaries: Art and Architecture after the Anthropocene, a travelling exhibition that kicked off at the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) in Lisbon. The show saw Pestana (working with other curators in a multi-institutional collaboration) and participating artists ranging from artists including John Gerrard, Rimini Protokoll and Design Earth tackling issues related to how humankind might continue to address the effects of climate change.
Smaller, more intimate and taking place in real-world environments are the many projects that Pestana has orchestrated with The Decorators, a multi-disciplinary collective that she co-founded in London in the early 2010s (Portuguese-born and currently based in Lisbon, she moved to London in 2008 to study at Central Saint Martins and returned to her home country just before the COVID-19 pandemic). In the group’s interventions, imagination can run wilder than in the white cubes of a museum. Many of The Decorators’ scenarios play with community-building based on research and context—they’ve created urban parklets and mobile gardens, run design psychology tests and experimented with a legless table that diners would have to balance. Then there was Expedition Empathy, a 2019 happening on a volcanic island in the Azores in which a group trekked across a rugged landscape historically inhospitable to humans, then baked bread in the ground using geothermal heat before eating it together at a long outdoor communal table (food and its preparation and sharing has played a large role in many of The Decorators’ interventions and enactments). The project was about merging with the earth, giving respect and rights to nature and its non-human beings, but also working together through ritual. In most projects we had to learn new skills, like running a restaurant, and explored new ways of working, she says about The Decorators. We were often more interested in learning and exploring than applying acquired skills.
Indeed, Pestana’s work is nearly always collaborative, interdisciplinary, participatory and meant to provoke thought, but also to make space for sensory experiences. It’s also non-linear and sometimes difficult to describe due to the complex ideas the projects embody. Still, many projects are remarkably straightforward. At their core, they reflect basic human needs like eating, moving the body, feeling the world, and taking our fellow non-human creatures into consideration.
Empathy Revisited: Designs for more than one, the edition of the Istanbul Design Biennial that Pestana curated in 2020-21—of course assembling a sizable crew of collaborators—embodied these ideas too, even if (or perhaps because) the global pandemic brought many of its installations and interventions outdoors. There were solar kitchens, a public oven for making tea or bread perched on a busy riverside boardwalk, and Dansbana! Kalami—a whimsical dance platform placed in a public park. Created by the Swedish design collective Dansbana!, the latter is a shell-shaped turquoise-hued stage that allows anyone to connect their own music source via Bluetooth to the speakers embedded in a stage, and dance to their hearts’ desire. It’s simple, but based on extensive research revealing an invisible bias: most public park space in urban areas around the world is used by boys. But Dansbana! Kalami attracts primarily girls and young women. And Rotterdam-based architecture firm Studio Ossidiana’s Büyükada Songlines, a floating island that cruised through Istanbul’s waterways during the biennial’s run, brought multiple species together while hosting talks and other events. With lush foliage and fixtures meant to attract birds and insects, the movable aquatic garden was attuned not just to people, but also plants and animals.
The biennial’s name reveals a connection to the aforementioned Azores expedition and ongoing research. The earlier work spurred Pestana to investigate the very origins of the word empathy: she discovered the term was only about a century old. Back then, it denoted feelings between a person and objects in the built environment and natural world rather than understanding the emotions of another person. It was about how things like chairs and paintings and sculptures elicited certain bodily sensations in us, Pestana explains. It comes from the German word Einfühlung–feeling into.
Pestana’s most recent work takes feeling into to other realms, many of which reflect the need to acknowledge and address the anxiety and fragility in the world’s air right now. From December 2021 to February 2022, she presented a public programme called 7.8 Hz Meditations, curated to accompany Belgian-born German artist Carsten Höller’s exhibition Day at the MAAT. For each of three live performances, Pestana matched a thinker or philosopher with a musician to create a work focusing on ecological interdependence: each duo led participants through meditations accompanied by sound. The events were quiet, powerful, and grounding in the most literal sense of the word: 7.8 Hz is the electromagnetic resonance of the earth, but also the frequency emitted by the human brain when it is in a relaxed state. What surprised me is that this form of delivering and transmitting knowledge has a really particular caring format. It’s very attuned to the body of the person receiving it, says Pestana, who was clearly in synch with the current atmosphere in orchestrating something so collectively emotional and healing in an institutional space. Right now, after two years of a pandemic, a lot of people are saturated on the emotional front, and they are seeking modes of encounter that are safe and meaningful.
And what might her own visions for the future be? What could she imagine things becoming? She hesi-tates at answering. I’m not very comfortable with a saving-the-world agenda, partly because of the inevitably small scale and impact of what we do in cultural contexts, she admits. Nothing I do is a solution. Her works rather plot steps toward possibilities, or outline new zones in which some of society’s closed doors and rigid structures can start opening up. They could be seen as the first trial runs of imaginative futures, the first sketches of the stories that humanity might tell itself, or even enact, in years to come. Interestingly, Pestana wrote her PhD dissertation on the connections of fiction and architecture; and at a recent series of workshops carried out at Porto Design Biennale in 2019, a group of design thinkers and curators brought together by Pestana dissected the idea of using fiction as a tool by using characters to rethink institutional models like a school or an archive. I use fiction as a tool to enact possible futures, and a methodology that I call ‘radical hospitality’, she explains.