Unknown Unknowns - An Introduction to Mysteries
Unknown Unknowns, the main thematic exhibition of the 23rd Triennale Milano curated by Ersilia Vaudo, is an exploration of human consciousness and its place in the universe. Spanning a range of scales from the molecular to the cosmic, it includes the works and voices of over 100 participants ranging from designers and artists to scientists and physicists.
The exhibition design conceived by Space Caviar responds to the specificity of the site, introducing a grid which references the point of origin around which architect Giovanni Muzio organised the gallery's geometry. From this grid, a series of surfaces are extruded to provide supports for the works, tracing an orbital voyage around an inaccessible and unknowable center of gravity located at the heart of Palazzo dell’Arte.
The display system, developed in collaboration with 3D WASP takes advantage of architectural-scale on-site 3D printing to achieve unique geometries for each pedestal while also making possible the use of a range of earth-based materials whose use in such an application is unprecedented. This is the first time an exhibition set-up has been printed entirely in 3D, entirely in situ and entirely with organic materials.
The printing compound, developed by Ricehouse is composed primarily of clay and a rice-based binder derived from byproducts of the food industry. As a fully organic material, it can be demolished and returned to the fields after use.
The unfolding of the exhibition is punctuated by a series of large-scale cylindrical volumes - “listening chambers” of chain curtain custom-produced by Kriskadecor, in which the voices of four leading scientists reflect on the mysteries that underpin their scientific work. Large transparent LED panels suspended from the ceiling present images collected from the outer reaches of human knowledge, both in space and in time.
/ 3D Printing in Outer Space
When we were commissioned by Triennale to look after the exhibition set-up for the 23rd International Exhibition, we immediately began an extensive and in-depth dialogue with Ersilia Vaudo. What emerged was a desire to expand the vision of the Unknown Unknowns exhibition beyond the normal boundaries of architecture. Our way of designing the space around us is also determined by the earthly conditions in which we live. With reference to the exhibition theme – the unknown –, there is certainly plenty that is unknown on Earth, although obviously one of the main focuses of our curiosity as the human species is to go beyond the Earth, beyond the boundaries of space, which is regulated by mathematics and physics, something that we designers are used to working with. We therefore started researching how to design and build outside Planet Earth.
We have recently become aware of research into the use of substances and elements that can be found on the Moon, Mars or other planets and that are suitable for transforming into building materials through 3D printing. Hence the inspiration that led us to contact WASP, an Italian company at the forefront of manufacturing architectural-scale 3D printers. We worked together to try to imagine a set-up system that could be printed on site.
/ Gravity as the greatest Designer
Once the set-up method had been identified, a long research phase began with WASP on how the constraints of the space in question – namely the upper curve of the Palazzo dell’Arte (built in the 1930s by Giovanni Muzio) – could be combined with the limits and potential of 3D printers. Very quickly, given the rather significant size of the necessary set-up, we decided to print on site using large printers suitable for being moved through the space and progressively shifted, depositing pedestals, plinths and other necessary supports point by point. However, a rule was needed to interface with the geometries of the space designed by Muzio. So, we developed a geometric system that has as its reference a point that is normally completely “invisible”: the centre of rotation that describes the curve itself, which determines its geometry. By working in a space that is not linear or rectilinear but orbital, we were able to produce a much more dynamic and fluid set of shapes, volumes and relationships between objects. Once again, we drew on Vaudo’s ideas, which permeate the exhibition. The curator talks about gravity as a designer, how many of our design choices are determined by the presence of gravity itself.
By working in a space that is not linear or rectilinear but orbital, we were able to produce a much more dynamic and fluid set of shapes, volumes and relationships between objects.
/ Material Experimentation
As with many of our other exhibition set-ups, we wanted to pay special attention to the issue of the materials being used, because unfortunately exhibitions can easily become large (collateral) producers of waste and refuse due to the fact they are temporary. We therefore approached this exhibition as an opportunity to research what alternatives there might be to using highly processed raw materials (such as plasterboard), which are difficult to reuse. One of the most interesting aspects of 3D printing is that it actually lends itself well to the use of particularly crude raw materials, such as earth or clay. These are completely biodegradable organic materials that can then be returned to nature. This seemed a great opportunity for this exhibition: on the one hand, we could use 3D printing technology to also introduce a new idea of aesthetics, a geometry of space that can only be produced through these means; on the other hand, we could propose a palette of materials that is completely different from those normally seen in exhibitions, which generally rely on materials much closer to those used by the building trade.
Since it would have been difficult to imagine reusing these plinths and podiums – whose shapes are specifically related to the geometries of the Palazzo dell’Arte – we wanted to use a basic material that could be disposed of without harming the environment. This is why we worked with Ricehouse, a Piedmontese firm based in Biella that specializes in the production of building materials that are biodegradable or in any case of organic origin. They suggested using a series of materials resulting from their research, which are based on agri-food industry waste, biodegradable and locally produced. We made the most of this opportunity to look for a production idea that is as local as possible, using materials found in the place where we operate. We therefore used one of the waste products of rice production: husk. A material that is normally thrown away has become the binding agent that holds the printed exhibition set-up at the Triennale together.
As regards exhibition design, we’ve become accustomed to a very specific aesthetic, and we expect it when we go to see an exhibition. We’re used to a certain language based on certain materials. As our awareness of environmental issues grows, we should also reinvent the aesthetic language that governs practices for cultural production and the development of major exhibitions.
/ Installation Views
15/07 2022 - 11/12 2022
Triennale di Milano Milano, Italy
Space Caviar (Joseph Grima, Camilo Oliveira)
3D Printing and Technical Project:
3D Printing Material Supplier:
Stefano Boeri, president, Triennale di Milano
For the full interview with Joseph Grima and Triennale Magazine:
Staging the future: interview with Joseph Grima - Space Caviar