Dualchas: Design and its peripheries
Much of our recent writing about contemporary design explores how it overlaps and intersects with other artforms; we speak to writer and film director Peter Marsden about his work on the Dualchas installation at the Venice Architecture Biennale
Selected in recognition of their work developing a regional architecture on the periphery of the continent, Scottish architecture practice Dualchas have developed a concept for the 18th international architecture biennale in Venice, using film and sound to tell a story about design. The film describes the environment that Dualchas works within – including the Hebrides and the mainland of Scotland, its climate, geography, and topography – using a combination of language, music, and field recordings. The exhibition is located at the centre of the Arsenale surrounded by around 60 other international architecture contributions invited by Ghanaian-Scottish architect Lesley Lokko that respond to the theme The Laboratory of the Future. Four screens project in a seven metre square with immersive sound design accompanied by a vitrine holding a traditional fiddle and a Gaelic bible gifted to the architect’s grandparents in 1945.
We ask Marsden to describe how he and the creative team formed their initial ideas for this important international exhibition? “Dualchas have a very clear sense of what they are trying to do with their architecture and the philosophy behind it. A central goal at the heart of their approach is about repairing a connection to the heritage of the Gàidhealtachd, to invigorate and imagine Highland architecture had the thread not been cut through the Clearances.
“We worked on the concept over several months with writer Cal Flyn and sound artist Hector MacInnes. The writing process happened simultaneously alongside the practical development of the installation, Cal and I landed on quite an unorthodox writing process, working across four threads of story simultaneously. You're creating an experience for the viewer within the space so you have to think of the installation as a whole as opposed to a single screen traditional film, taking into consideration how all of the elements inform each other and how the viewer might move or focus differently – it was a really interesting challenge.”
Marsden explains how the team set constraints for themselves which included looking at the architecture as a location for a film as opposed to a product being photographed.
“The function of the film is about communicating the firm's ethos (as opposed to selling the work). Knowing the context in which the film would be shown at the Biennale removed the need to overtly explain why this architecture is exceptional. We could lean back a bit and focus on the feeling of being there. The Dualchas buildings and how they interact with the landscape around them is stunning so the issue was never finding beautiful images but more about giving a sense of the space in the most efficient way possible.”
A central idea from the Dualchas team was that viewers could return to the exhibition several times and have a different experience, seeing things for the first time or making new connections.
“The interaction between the screens gives a huge amount of opportunity for layering meaning and multiplying the effect of an image. We also worked within a quad speaker setup with the sound design, so each screen's audio interacts and intersects with the others in the space. It leads to a deepening of the viewers' experience, and with a slight overload on the senses it can be quite powerful."
Dualchas' exhibit at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale. Photo: Dualchas
Much of the creative team are operating at the edges of bigger landmasses – Isle of Skye (Dualchas, Hector MacInnes, Jordan Young), Orkney (Cal Flyn), and Isle of Man (Marsden). The majority of work prior to filming was done over video calls – something Marsden considers to be a very positive thing for contemporary creative projects. Did the geographical distances involved have any bearing on the approach?
“I don't know if most of the team living in remote places was a coincidence – or if there is a sensibility that comes with it that lent itself to the project. I've got a personal connection to Skye, so communicating the ethos of the practice cinematically really felt quite effortless, I was using my own voice in terms of the visuals of the Highlands and Islands – like speaking with a thick accent.
“I think a lot of Scottish creatives are quite nomadic due to the nature of where the work takes you, but there's a strength and depth of talent that seems to come out of the country that outweighs its population. It's exciting that the connection to opportunities to make world class work are becoming more and more accessible from more remote locations.”
For Dualchas director Rory Flyn, it was Marsden’s clear vision about how to blend the narrative with the landscape to create something cinematic that impressed him most. “It is very moving to see your own story and environment portrayed so beautifully. Our work demonstrates that design that is of a place, a landscape, a culture, creates something that is distinct and of value. And it also shows that the architecture of the Gàidhealtachd has as much value as architecture of any other place, architecture that acknowledges our past and has confidence in our future. If this rooted knowledge of ourselves is important for us, it is equally important for other places and cultures."
On the subject of collaborating in an architecture and design context Marsden is characteristically frank and enthusiastic. “It's important, good design makes the world a better place. I think there's a mutual respect between designers and filmmakers which makes working together really feel like collaboration, so rather than a client adding restrictions it becomes a multiplier for creative opportunities. They're not miles apart as disciplines and I'm sure there are many architects that would have made great filmmakers and vice-versa. This project in particular really felt like a group of people all moving in the same direction, working together towards the same goal – it was amazing to be a part of it.
“It's so important to have the film represented at the Venice Biennale. It can be a challenging task on many levels to make contemporary and progressive work in Scotland, you have to push past resistance and work outside of the comfort of your industry at times, which is why Dualchas is such an impressive practice. It's great to see them showcased on such a prestigious stage, and well-deserved.”
2023 is the first year that Scotland has had two projects included in the Venice Biennale; a testament to the quality of our design and architecture sector. It adds poignancy to the news that Scotland + Venice* – a project founded in 2003 to promote the best of contemporary art and architecture from Scotland on the world stage – has been paused for 2024 “to allow for a period of reflection and review”. We hope to see a positive announcement about the future of this important project in the coming months.
A spokesperson for Scotland + Venice said: “We anticipate the review process to be underway in Summer 2023 and opportunities to participate will be widely advertised. At the same time we’ll be working with partners to create funded opportunities for artists, curators and producers to engage with La Biennale in 2024 and more will follow on that as we develop our plans.”
Collaborators: Peter Marsden (Film Director), Hector MacInnes (Sound Artist), Cal Flyn (Writer), Peter McCaughey (Artistic Advisor), Jordan Young (Photographer), and Marcus O’Connell. With the additional support of Creative Scotland, Torabhaig Single Malt Whisky, Heb Homes.
* Scotland + Venice is a partnership between Creative Scotland, British Council Scotland, National Galleries Scotland, Architecture & Design Scotland,V&A Dundee and the Scottish Government.