Pedro Lasch’s Curricular Intervention in Venice

A new piece by visual art professor Pedro Lasch, HOW TO KNOW: The Protocols and Pedagogy of National Abstraction, was presented recently as part of the 2015 Creative Time Summit at the Venice Art Biennale. It is part of a larger series of highly collaborative projects called Abstract Nationalism & National Abstraction. The first installment, which drew on the expertise of a number of artists, performers, and scholars at Duke, was presented last year at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.

It is Lasch’s intention that the piece should grow and change from one presentation to the next. The performance in Venice drew on much the same material as the one at the Phillips, but it was recast to fit the occassion and the available forces. Here is part of his program note:

HOW TO KNOW, a new work by Pedro Lasch, frames the 2015 Creative Time Summit: The Curriculum at the Venice Biennale, and is part of a larger series. Social interventions, visual compositions, flag displays, and musical works enable audiences to understand national anthems of other countries in their own language, while their own anthem becomes incomprehensible. For those speaking several languages, or having strong associations with more than one anthem, the experience is even more layered and representative of today’s cultural pluralism.

Each of the forty-eight flags of the installation at the Teatro alle Tese, in the Arsenale, combines four countries, so that all of the world’s countries are represented, in alphabetical order.

The flags are set in motion through simple choreographed movements by members of a color guard, here called the curricular guard for the multilingual terms and phrases that appear on their shirts; together the flags and color guard propose a re-envisioned curriculum for All of the World’s Futures.

The musical dimension of HOW TO KNOW is a sonic mosaic created by Craig DeAlmeida, a 2004 graduate of Duke’s PhD program in composition. It fuses the national anthems of Indonesia, Ireland, Iraq, and Iran, each sung in the language of one of its alphabetic neighbors. In Venice, Fran Newark sang the anthem of Indonesia in Persian, Larry Speakman sang the anthem of Ireland in Bahasa Indonesia, Cameron Aiken sang the anthem of Iraq in English, and Erica Dunkle sang the anthem of Iran in Arabic. Craig DeAlmeida is at the keyboard, and the conductor is Rodney Wynkoop, Director of Duke Chorale and Chamber Choir. (In the video, Lasch introduces the piece at 2:45 and the performance begins at 5:00.)

“Curriculum” was the summit’s theme. As the event overview explains, the term originally referred to a physical path, like a race course, and was first applied metaphorically to a course of study in seventeenth-century Scotland.

Eventually, it signaled that which prepares a person for working, thinking, and participating as a fully developed member of society. When understood as a network of lived experiences, learned actions, and known facts, curriculum speaks of all that this Summit hopes to address.

How is knowledge formed within a person and transmitted through time, space, and social relationships? What learning practices reinforce colonialist views, leave out essential narratives of history, or otherwise support dominant power structures? How do new technologies effect the way information is controlled and disseminated? By asking questions such as these, we ultimately reiterate questions that arose from the tremendous hope, passion, and ambition that accompanied many of the key populist movements in the last few years, from the Arab Spring to the revolts in Greece, from Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Hong Kong: Who do we—as a world community—want to be, and what forces shape who we are?

Each member of Lasch’s curricular guard (a group of volunteers recruited at the event) carried a “flag fusion” made from four national emblems. The terms and phrases on their t-shirts, printed on opposite sides in English and another language, were proposed and chosen by a group of Duke undergraduates sponsored by the Humanities Writ Large initiative along with Duke MFA and PhD students.

Photos are by Dan Smith, Andrea Curtoni, and Andrea Sanson. Smith, a Duke MFAEDA student, was also the project manager and played an indispensable role in coordinating and documenting the event.