unknown, unknown

Curator's Special Project "unknown, unknown" opens at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia


Venice, Italy - As part of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, Mabel O. Wilson (Columbia GSAPP), J. Meejin Yoon (Cornell AAP), and Eric Höweler (Harvard GSD) announce their installation “unknown, unknown” for the Curator’s Special Projects “Mnemonic,” curated by Lesley Lokko. This immersive installation constructs a space of light and sound to remember the unnamed and named members of the enslaved community at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S.


"unknown, unknown" draws from archival research informing the design of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia that opened in 2020. The installation explores the archival absence and erasure of approximately 4,000 unknown and known community members who built, worked, and maintained the university from 1817 to 1865. In contrast to the West’s typical stone or bronze monument form that uses figures, names, and dates to compose timeless historical narratives, "unknown, unknown" constructs an ephemeral sonic, visual, and haptic memorial of this enslaved community. The immersive installation acknowledges the vast scope of racial violence that made Black men, women, and children less than human to become property owned, rented, and sold by the academical village’s residents. By forming a counter archive of imagery and sounds, “unknown, unknown” re-humanizes this community by rendering their unknowability into moments of refuge and spaces of liberation.


Over the course of designing the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, a group of dedicated historians at UVA uncovered references to enslaved persons in archival ledgers, wills, and letters. This historical documentation was recorded in spreadsheets used by the design team. The sheet’s columns listed approximate dates, first and last names, and an excerpt from the primary source document. The resulting spreadsheet recorded examples like “Peter, Unknown,” “Sally, Unknown,” “Runaway, Unknown,” or the most common “Unknown, Unknown.” The audio and video components of “unknown, unknown” reanimate these archival traces and erasures.


The fragments of “unknown, unknown’s” two videos are composed from the spreadsheet, a cache of historical photographs, architectural drawings, historical material from antebellum Virginia, archeological documentation, letters, receipts, ledgers, letters, and B-roll video footage of UVA’s grounds. On the front video the cadence of the archival fragments unfolds the structure of the archival spreadsheet’s listing of known and unknown persons to coalesce into a mnemonic cloud. The rear video scrolls back and forth through the spreadsheet’s contents to expose the sheer scale of unnamed and named members of UVA’s enslaved community. In a similar manner, the six-channel audio for “unknown, unknown” creates a binary sonification of the spreadsheet. Fragments of two data generated bass notes repeat, sounding an atonal archival metronome based on the known and unknown names on the spreadsheet. This is overlaid with the voices of five women, three of whom are descendants of UVA’s enslaved community, who recite a fragmentary roll call of names whose sound emerges from all corners of the exhibition space.


The two-sided multi-channel video and audio projection is captured on suspended sheets of muslin, a cotton fabric that recalls the domestic labor by Black women at UVA and the spaces where they lived and worked. The fabric panels are conceived not only as a projection surface, but an articulated textile that begins to expand on the narrative created within its mnemonic space. The front faces of the panels are torn strips of fabric that are resown as an act of repair and reparation. On their opposing face, the fabrics are pleated and subtly stitched along diagonals—alluding to the unseen domestic labor of seamstresses and laundresses. The handmade tactility and material nature of the suspended fabric panels transforms an ordinary cloth into a memorialized artifact.


The only documented recollection of slavery at UVA comes from Isabella Gibbons, an enslaved woman who taught herself and her husband William Gibbons to read and write. Once free, Gibbons became a school teacher in Charlottesville’s Freedman’s School. An excerpt from her published letter in The Freedman’s Record (1867), which begins with “Can we forget” and appears on the timeline of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, is repeated multiple times in gold paint within archways of the exhibition space to form a chorus of remembrances.


"unknown, unknown" examines the erasure of identity and humanity within the incomplete archives of slavery and sheds light on the untold stories of the enslaved community and their contributions to the University of Virginia. Through a multi-media transmutation of these archival traces into visual, sonic, and haptic fragments, “unknown, unknown” also unfolds a time-space of memory and Blackness by way of what geographer Katherine McKittrick imagines as a “nonworld that unravels, in postslave contexts, as a totally different system of geographic knowledge that cannot replicate subordination precisely because it is born of and holds on to the unknowable.”


The installation will be open to the public from May 20, 2023 to November 26, 2023, at the Biennale Architettura 2023. For more information about the event, please visit the official website at www.labiennale.org





Mabel O. Wilson, J. Meejin Yoon, Eric Höweler

In collaboration with Josh Begley, Gene Han


Ancestral Voices: DeTeasa L. Gathers (descendent), Jessica Harris  (descendent), Saidiya Hartman, Elleza Kelley, Cauline Yates (descendent)


Project Team: Justin Tan, Jessica Black, Lyric Barnik, Ye Sul E Cho


Technical Collaborators: Kirt Von Daacke, Erik Duda, Mitchell Powers, Elliot Taylor


Special thanks to: Jan Tichy; David Hartt; Ben Bausher of Jaffe Holden; Sanjay Suchak; Nontsikelelo Mutiti; Jaamal Benjamin; Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia; Harvard University Graduate School of Design; Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; PostWorks New York; Kelly Hrebenak; Jay Rubin; Elliott Taylor; Lesley Lokko, 18th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale Venezia - The Laboratory of the Future; Loophole of Retreat Venice, Simone Leigh; Rashida Bumbray; Tina Campt; Saidiya Hartman; Practicing Refusal Collective


We are grateful to our collaborators in the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia.



About The Team:

Mabel O. Wilson is the Nancy and George Rupp Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, a Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies, the Director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS), and Co-Director of the Global Africa Lab at Columbia University. With her transdisciplinary practice Studio&, Wilson has completed award winning built, experimental research projects, and exhibitions at galleries and major museums including SFMoMA and the Art Institute of Chicago. She has authored Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016), Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (2012), and co-edited Race and Modern Architecture: From the Enlightenment to Today (2020). For the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, she was co-curator of the exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America (2021). She most recently received a Guggenheim Fellowship in U.S. History (2023) and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Architecture and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Humanities and Arts.


J. Meejin Yoon AIA, FAAR is the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP) at Cornell University and co-founding partner of Höweler + Yoon. An architect, designer, and educator, Yoon is committed to advancing creative and critical practices and pedagogies, scholarship, and research that address the many urgent environmental and social challenges we face in our cities and communities. Yoon's work and research examines intersections between architecture, urbanism, technology, and the public realm. Her professional projects include cultural buildings and public spaces including the Institute of Democracy and the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia, the MIT Museum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Living Village at the Yale Divinity School. Yoon received a Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University (1995), and a Master of Architecture in Urban Design from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (1997). Recent honors include the 2022 World Cultural Council Leonardo da Vinci World Award of Arts, and in 2021, Yoon was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in the field of Architecture.


Eric Höweler FAIA is an architect, designer, and educator. He is currently Associate Professor in Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he teaches design studios and directs the Master of Architecture Thesis Program. Höweler’s design work and research focuses on building technology integration and material systems. Höweler is co-founding partner of Höweler + Yoon, a research-driven studio with a reputation for work that is technologically and formally innovative. Recent and current projects include the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers and the Karsh Institute of Democracy at the University of Virginia and the MIT Museum. He is the co-author of Expanded Practice (Princeton Architectural Press 2009), author of Skyscraper, Vertical Now (Rizzoli/Universe 2003) and co-author of 1,001 Skyscrapers (Princeton Architectural Press 2000) and Verify in Field: Projects and Conversations Höweler + Yoon (Park Books 2021). Höweler received a Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University with the AIA Henry Adams Certificate in 1994, and a Master of Architecture from Cornell University in 1996.