Beyond Its Intended Purpose

Words by Veronica Mike Solheim

Marcos Zotes is a Reykjavík-based architect, multimedia artist, and exhibition designer with a creative output ranging from buildings and public spaces, to art installations, exhibitions, and public interventions. He spent his early years living in Madrid as a young skateboarder, musician, and graffiti artist. Through these art forms, Marcos learned that the urban environment could be experienced beyond the limitations of its intended purpose. The entire city became a playground, an environment to be colonised through a creative process. 

Hi Marcos. Please introduce us to your world.
Learning to move across multiple creative spheres and different urban environments in cities like Reykjavík, London, Rotterdam, and New York has very much shaped the way I see the world today. My professional life is currently divided in two different but inter-related worlds. On one hand, I co-direct Basalt Architects, an architecture studio based in Reykjavík with award-winning projects such as the Blue Lagoon, Hofsós Pool, or the recently completed LAVA Centre in South Iceland, which includes an interactive exhibition dedicated to Icelandic volcanoes. On the other hand, I direct UNSTABLE, a design research lab that allows me to work more fluidly within the peripheries of art practice and architecture research. 

How would you describe the creative sphere of Iceland? 
Iceland has a very unique creative network. The fact that Iceland has a very small population, and everybody knows each other, creates a certain sense of social cohesion and a general will and drive to realise ideas. These factors create the perfect conditions for collaborations across the different creative disciplines. Although you are physically isolated, and work with very limited resources, these are actually key factors and possibly what make the approach of many local artists and designers so special––the challenge of how to best utilise the available means. And then there are Iceland’s unique geographic conditions, the extreme weather and the stunning nature––you have so little, yet so much. 

You are originally from Madrid, but moved to Iceland some eighteen years ago. Why Iceland? 
In 2001 I decided I wanted to try some new experiences in life, and I went on to explore different possibilities in foreign lands. I had already visited Iceland before, and I had very good friends there. The contrast between Spain and Iceland, both cultural and geographic, felt both so challenging and renewing at the same time that it seemed like a perfect location to start a new life. To put myself in a new context, starting from zero offered me the space to realise what I wanted to do in life, and so I went on to develop my creative practice while building up my professional career as an architect. 

After studying architecture in London and New York, and a period of tutoring at the Iceland Academy of Arts, you founded the multi-disciplinary design and research lab UNSTABLE. Please tell me about this studio of yours.
I founded UNSTABLE in 2012 while I was completing my post-professional architecture design and research studies in New York. The intention was to create a multidisciplinary and collaborative platform where I could work at the intersection of art and architecture, in order to explore critical urban conditions. I believe a multidisciplinary approach is necessary when attempting to address the complexity of social and political issues affecting urban public space. The term ‘unstable’ relates directly to a certain capacity inherited in urban public spaces to be able to accommodate unpredictability, conflict, and transformation. Today UNSTABLE operates in an intermittent manner from Reykjavík, working not only in Iceland but also internationally in places like Detroit, New York, Manchester, Toronto, or Moscow. 

Your work floats somewhere between art, design, and architecture. How would you define your projects? 
I like to think about my projects as a constant work in process. Very much like a skateboarder that colonises the city by subverting the use of the urban environment, my work is conceived as temporary transformations in the urban fabric of the city. Rather than thinking of my work as a series of objects in space or events in a calendar, the work is intended to be perceived as temporary spaces and collective experiences where the participation of the audience is seen as an essential aspect. 

Some of the constructions you’ve made are pretty complex, like the Maze in Toronto—where the goal was that people find themselves while getting lost. How do you take on a new project, where do you start?
All my work is site specific in a way that each project is conceived as an exploration of the particular social, political, or cultural issues affecting a particular site. In ‘AMAZE’, for example, the intention was to transform the use of a large private parking space in downtown Toronto into a space for social encounter. Working with the concept of a maze allowed me to create an immersive environment where visitors would actively experience the work, by walking through its narrow pathways. The flow of participants through the maze was therefore vital, their movements articulating the structure and their shadows creating a constant state of transformation.

In ‘Ljósvarða’, I wanted to create an opportunity for children to express their particular take on the city. Located besides Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s most iconic landmark, is a kindergarten for children aged 2 to 6 years. I asked a group of these children to make a series of hand drawings of that particular building, with total freedom of expression. These hand drawings were then translated into digital form and used to transform the façade of Hallgrímskirkja. The aim of the project was to give voice to the children community, and to question contemporary issues of privacy and control over public spaces. 

Read this story as well as the rest of our deep dive into Icelandic creativity in the upcoming Volume Twelve