Q&A with Jen Zielinska, creative director of MPavilion

In a year like 2020, MPavilion was never going to unfold in the usual way. But if anyone’s up to the task of generating something spectacular from challenging circumstances, it’s Jen Zielinksa.

As the creative director of MPavilion, Jen is well accustomed to thinking outside of the box. She’s been the curatorial mind behind the groundbreaking, lateral programming that’s come to define MPavilion as a cultural laboratory at the best of times. And now, at a time when minute-to-minute adaptation has become the name of the game, Jen has led the MPavilion team in mapping out a season with more ideas, voices and experiences than ever before.

Full of surprises—all guided by rigorous Covid-safety practices—MPavilion 2020 launches on Thursday 12 November. So we caught up with Jen to talk about collaborations, themes, and the choice to have all of MPavilion’s programming take place online for November, before it happens both online and in person for the rest of the season.


MP: Hi Jen! So… 2020. Take us through the thinking that guided you and the MPavilion team’s approach to programming at such a critical time in history?

JZ: For me, it all came down to a quote from the Danish architect (and friend of MPavilion) Jan Gehl: “First life, then spaces, then buildings”. After the decision was made not to build a new pavilion this year, I have had that quote unconsciously reverberating in my brain whilst developing the program, like some sort of slogan for the season. Because I don’t think any other idea could be more pertinent for MPavilion in 2020. 

After the roadmap plans were announced, we considered postponing the MPavilion season, but quickly realised that we can’t wait for Covid to subside—we have to adapt, be resilient and be optimistic. So that’s why we decided to be virtual for November, and time our opening to coincide with NAIDOC week and Melbourne Fringe Festival.

Beginning our 2020 season as a virtual festival enables us to seamlessly and safely include our collaborators and visitors, while reaching new audiences, too. It also enables us to have international speakers like Andres Jaque and Alice Rawsthorn take part via video. 

So with adaptability as the guiding force, the planning for MPavilion 2020 has absolutely been driven by our collaborators. They’ve always been at the core of MPavilion, but this season it feels like they’re really spearheading the way. 


MP: Can you tell us more about what we can look forward to for the online part of season 2020, in November? And then both online and in person after that…

JZ: Each month of every MPavilion season is themed, and the theme for November 2020 is ‘Re-Emerge: A Remix’. ‘Re-Emerge: A Remix’ is ultimately about processing—making sense of what we’re all living through, what we’ve learnt, and what our futures are going to look like from here on. Throughout the month, our events will be led by both local and international experts—First Nations voices, the design community, musicians, urbanists, architects, artists and more. Then for December, the theme is ‘IRL: Exploring Social Space’.  This’ll be a really poignant part of our program, as we regather and regroup in person at the MPavilion sites. As we operate in wonderful, carefully considered, Covid-safe ways, the beauty of MPavilion as an outdoor phenomenon will really come into its own. 


MP: So what will happen in the program from January 2021?

JZ: When we get into 2021, the season will expand across an even bigger range of locations. While Covid has come with its challenges, the opportunity to rethink MPavilion and its role in the city of Melbourne has led to many powerful realisations and ambitions for this season, and the future of the project beyond it. The early part of the season—November and December 2020—will perhaps be less dense than usual, but when we can bring more people together again with activities, workshops, talks, music and even a hair salon, the program from January to March in 2021 will more than make up for it. 

We stand committed to building on previous seasons, and creating a design-led festival that is evocative, stimulating and forward-thinking. Our ambition is to provide as many opportunities for artists and designers as possible, as well as establishing and opening up collaborations. That’s a huge motivation for us—bolstering creative communities. 


MP: For you, what have been some of the most rewarding parts of putting the 2020 program together?

JZ: Being super proud of the MPavilion team, and all that we’ve accomplished in this last six-month zoom existence! Including commissioning upcycled uniforms for our front of house staff and a special socially-distanced stool, and undertaking our collaboration with Open House Melbourne and Melbourne Music Week on MERGE.

I’ve also adored our recruiting of a 16-person cohort of new M_Curators. The fortnightly zoom meetings with our M_Curators are completely energising and motivating—they’re where we’ve been brewing up so many ideas, and plotting events for the 2020 season ahead. The M_Curators are the most diligent, devoted and interesting group of 16-25year olds, and I can’t wait to see their ideas come to fruition. Similarly, I’m so excited to read the essays that our First Nations Writers in residency have been developing since their tenure with us began in August. The five writers are currently being mentored by Maddee Clark and Bridget Caldwell, and it’s going to be great to read what they’ve been working on during this time. 

Overall, the great reward will come when we’re right in the thick of this incredible program, powered by the creativity, hard work and love of the almost 200 collaborators who responded to our Expressions of Interest call-out earlier this year. With each of their events responding to the unique themes of each month, our collaborators are set to help us deliver a totally revolutionary MPavilion season.