Today, Friday 22 May 2021, marks the official opening of the 17th International Venice Biennale of Architecture. The fact that this festival, which includes 61 pavilions and 17 exhibitions from across the world, was delayed by the unstoppable force of COVID-19 for only one year is quite an achievement. The Biennale theme of 'How Do We Live Together?' seems especially poignant after the last eighteen months.

From Entanglement

Ireland at Venice

It is twenty-one years since Ireland was invited to exhibit its first pavilion at the biennale with architect Tom de Paor. Even at this early stage of his career, de Paor had the confidence to produce N3, a structure built from a material exhumed from the ground to scandalise the beau monde of the international architectural community: 40,224 peat briquettes. This dark, corbelled structure built in the Venetian heat unapologetically demanded a visceral response from the Biennale visitor to the sight and smell of the Irish bog. The architecture world’s gaze was directed to the environmental impact of traditional turf-cutting rights and the commodification of common lands.

Fuelled by Data

Fast-forward to 2019 when Annex, a collaboration of artists, architects, and urban researchers, take on the mantle of curators for the 2020 Irish Pavilion to ask the question, How do we live in, and with, data? The Annex team are Sven Anderson, Alan Butler, David Capener, Donal Lally, Clare Lyster and Fiona McDermott. Their pavilion, Entanglement, unravels the environmental, human, and cultural impacts of data production and consumption in Ireland. They evolve the modern question of where Ireland fits on the international stage to consider the country’s current position as nexus of data infrastructure and storage. Annex recall the historic importance of this little island on the edge of Europe to the evolution of international communication technologies, such as the landing of the first transatlantic cable at Valentia Island in 1858 and the Italian entrepreneur Marconi’s transmission of wireless radio messages across the Atlantic in 1919. Ireland’s current role as Europe’s data centre hub builds upon these earlier infrastructures.

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Gathering Around the Fire

Annex have chosen to abandon the traditional format – plans, models, etc. – of the architecture exhibition. Instead, Entanglement is an installation that resembles the most primitive of communication technologies: the campfire. Today this conflagration serves the growth of supposedly immaterial digital human connectivity. This campfire-like structure represents the thermodynamic and material relationship between the architecture and infrastructure networks of the data centres, revealing to us us the reality of a mostly covert industry which is forming our realities. The curation team shows the audience this through thermographic imaging technologies of key sites associated with data infrastructure in Ireland. Entanglement connects people, storytelling and the environment to data’s materiality, the spaces and infrastructures it produces, and the vast ecological footprint of, for example, posting photos of your breakfast on Instagram.

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This industrial pavilion of steel and wires demystifies the softness of the cloud that we have collectively absorbed without question into our vernacular while confronting us with the question of what are the material impacts of the digital age. After the HSE data breach revelations, this interrogation and acknowledgment of the role data infrastructure plays in our lives could not be more timely.

The Venice Architectural Biennale runs from 22 may until 21 November 2021 - find out more here.