Former Volume contributor, now editor in chief of Tracés* Christophe Catsaros interviewed Istanbul Design Biennial 2016 curators Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley on their intentions with this show: Are We Human? (20 Oct – 20 Nov 2016). The interview with the power couple was published in French (Tracés no. 18, 2016) and Christophe was so kind to share an English edit with Volume.
TRACÉS: This will not be a design biennale featuring chairs and lamps? You’re operating an extension of the field concerned by the term ‘design’. What is the significance of design according to you?
Mark Wigley: The typical model of a design biennale is a kind of trade show which presents an array of beautiful objects. It reinforces the idea that designers make good things for a good life. But we are trying to challenge this concept of good design.
What does ‘good design’ mean when the weather, the human genome, business and political relationships are being designed? What do we do as designers and design theorists when the whole world is being designed?
In regard to this, making an exhibition of beautiful and smart objects somehow infantilizes the designer, returns the designer to a smaller space.
Beatriz Colomina: This extended perception of design applies also to the time frame. Biennales are supposed to report the developments in the last 2 years. This frame is somehow restrictive, reducing the timeframe to fit a narrow conception of novelty. Celebrating ‘a new chair’ or ‘a new lamp’. In fact, we found that 2 years is an impossible frame to work with. It forces a kind of false idea of novelty, and in the end does not reflect what is happening in the world.
Design in the restricted way that we understand it today was more or less formulated 200 years ago, in the context of the debates around the Great Exhibition in London. So from a narrow conception of biennale novelty we first leaped to a more historical dimension with the idea of the industrial design object and the polemics – developed at that time in the face of major transformations in industrialization and globalization forces. We are now going through an equally massive transformation which begs the question again of what is design, and what is a design biennale.
From 2 years we went to 200 years. And that was just the start.
We ended up going back to the beginning of humanity. Since many theories as to what makes us human go back to the question of the tools, we explored the idea that tools are designed, that the beginning of humanity is design. This is how we ended up with this formulation that the human is not just an animal who designs tools, but the tools design the human. The moment you have a shoe instead of walking barefoot, for example, your feet have started to change. You have a new body.
So the timeframe defining the biennale is that of the anthropocene.
BC: It is the anthropocene, but there is also this other dimension on the other end of the timescale when you start to think about social media and the way communication has so profoundly changed in the last few years, and that opens a new space for understanding design, which we call “design in 2 seconds”.
‘2 seconds’ comes from a very particular social media, Snapchat, where you can put something up in-between one and 10 seconds before it disappears. So we started thinking in terms of the powers of 2. From the 2 seconds of social media to the 2 years of the initial timeframe of a biennial, to 200 years, and 200,000 years. There is a bit of the Eames ‘power of ten’ translated into a power of 2.
This first expansion leads us to this idea that we live in a world that is entangled in design, the entire planet being caught in design. Even what we consider natural, like the Swiss alpine environment, is in fact constructed, designed.
MW: The moment we call something ‘nature’, we’ve already placed it inside the human sphere.
The very word nature brings the outside inside. So nature is always designed. For a long time, it was thought that nature was the most beautiful design of all. There is a tradition that understands design as an effort to echo the beautiful design that we find in nature and in our own body. But if nature is designed, it is not by a God but by humans who at one point became Gods.
And maybe all this happened at the very beginning of the human, with the very first gesture by which the human invented something. The world changed the moment we started to invent. If that is the case, the question is what was the first design, when did the human begin? And was this gesture ornamental or functional?
The normal story is that humans made objects to survive, tools to kill more animals, before producing ornamental objects without physical function, social artefacts that communicate. More recent archeological theory explores the possibility that the ornament comes first, that the first human gestures were symbolic gestures using ornament to communicate and share.
If design really begins with ornament, not with function, then the human is not simply the species that has tools, because other animals have tools, nor is the human the species that has tools to make tools. A more precise definition would be that the human is the only species that have tools that don’t work. Our ability to make useless things would be the sign of our intelligence, even its source. We make things that have no apparent use, to contemplate, to speculate. We make objects that confuse us, that are strange or do things that we didn’t expect.
In this perspective, design is not a thing that goes from your brain to the object, but mainly the other way, from the object to the brain. This could be the real history of design: the history of the strange way in which we externalize our thoughts in the form of objects. Objects, which are thoughts that then make us think differently. This idea of the object producing thought is central in the making of this biennale.
BC: Contemporary research demonstrates that tools, in the beginning of humanity, were not always useful. They offered no physical advantage but on the other hand, they had some characteristics, like symmetry, that were socially meaningful. A sharp looking ‘designer tool’ may have helped find a sexual partner. This becomes even more obvious with the ornamental aspect of weapons.
In this perspective, the ‘ornamental’ dimension of an object may actually contribute to survival, not because that tool kills better, but because that tool is saying something about the person who designed it.
MW: 1.7 million years ago, Homo Erectus started by making a perfectly symmetrical hand axe by chipping a stone with another stone. It didn’t need to be symmetrical, and many of these axes show no sign of being used. It looks like it was better to make a beautiful hand axe than one that worked better.
Placing the symbolical at the beginning of the definition of design would mean that the object preceded its function? Does it mean the object emerges and then finds a use?
MW: To make an object that has a strong use, you have to make objects that don’t have an obvious use. You have to speculate. And the symbolic is a realm of speculation with objects.
It’s very important for us that this exhibition is asking questions. Design is a way of asking questions, and not a way of bringing answers. We are leaving behind the normal assumptions of a design biennale were you’re shown beautiful answers to clear questions. We prefer a definition of design which sees it as a restless questioning where the idea is never so clear. The object you make can be as mysterious to you as found objects are to archeologists who look at techno-fossils and try to imagine what kind of behavior was associated with them.
When you look at our first images on the walls of caves, they are often of the animals that posed the greatest danger to the human. These are not images of the animals that we were eating, but the animals that were eating us.
It seems the act of representation is trying to absorb the fear, to convert the danger into something else.
So a crucial part of design is its role in absorbing the shock of being alive.
In this regard, modern design would be something more than confortable objects for modern life in a global world. It could also be the objects that allow you to survive psychologically in a modern world.
Hence the idea that design is anesthetic.
MW: What if that’s the number one role of design? This also means that modern design was not so modern. The modern building communicates ideas about the machine world but is not a machine. We live in a machine world. Machines surround us and there are machines inside our body but the architecture that pretends to be a machine is never really a machine. Even if it seems to be environmentally and technologically sophisticated, it’s not a very sophisticated mechanism.
Most people’s houses are the least sophisticated objects that they ever experience.
Their telephone, oven, television, computer, even their own body, is extraordinarily sophisticated and interactive, but the house is not. It’s a kind of prophylactic layer against technology.
Is there a parallel between what you are doing to design and what George Bataille did to architecture in his 1932 definition? Are you extending design to the point where it includes its negative?
MW: Yes, Bataille is definitely a relevant argument. Part of his definition of architecture is to say that anything that has a sense of design has an aspiration to violent authority.
At this point, I can’t help thinking of Giedion’s Mechanization takes command. Think of it: the main promoter of an architecture for the machine age in the 1920s and 1930s becomes incredibly self-critical during the Second World War in the face of mass slaughter and genocide and starts thinking that the machine is eating the human alive. He ends the book by saying “it’s time that we became human again.” What does he do right after that? He goes into the caves and looks at ‘primitive’ painting and writes two huge books about the origin of art and of architecture.
This gesture of looking at the beginning of the human is actually a feature almost of all important theories of design. So asking “Are we human?” as we are doing in the Biennale is both urgent and ancient. We feel that it’s always the question that each designer is asking. If the exhibition is challenging the normal assumptions about design, it also goes directly to the question every designer asks, and is asked to ask.
BC: Also, very importantly, it claims for design a role that it doesn’t have at the moment. No one is surprised to go to the Venice art biennale and to find artists asking very important philosophical and political questions. But no one expects a design biennale to raise any kind of issues beyond design itself, the very limited world of design. Why is that? So we are claiming for the field of design a role that is much bigger.
When you look at it historically, you understand that design had this role. You have critical theory of design in the 30s, people like Hannes Meyer worked to bring out design’s political significance.
MW: Yes, he thought design was biological, a biopolitical apparatus. Our exhibition is political in that sense. If the human is a designing animal, we’re insisting on the animal dimension. Design is biological, physiological and psychological, and therefore political and philosophical. Not political first then applied to biology. It’s political in the biological sense.
Design being also design of neglect, does it include the informal patterns and behavior should be perceived as systematic? Is it a way to make room for the informal?
BC: For example, in the last two years, it has become impossible to ignore the situation of the refugees. The more you look at what is happening, the more you realize that there is design involved in every step of the process. The boats of the refugees crossing the Mediterranean or the Aegean have been designed, the life vests, the plastic condoms for the cellphones, and so on. The boats are designed for one time use with lower quality plastic than that used for a child’s backyard pool. They are designed to fail and many actually do. Refugees are instructed to destroy the boats as they arrive to the shore so they cannot be sent back in the same boat. What is incredible is that this designed tragedy occurs in a space that is absolutely controlled. The military has more sensors in the Mediterranean than in any other sea. This design for failure is what we have called the design of neglect.
MW: Every boat that moves in these waters is being tracked through multiple systems.
Not forgetting that migrants have operating cellphones with them so they are also tracking themselves. They are being watched by us and by the media, by the military, by other migrants waiting to cross. We actually watch them die as citizens of a global community that has carefully produced the situation in which they have taken this dramatic risk.
What we are saying is that every dimension of that situation, a situation of radical neglect, is being designed. In regard to this, we need to develop a new concept of design.
We are also looking at this design of neglect in psychological terms. How is it that we have been trained to watch people die?
BC: Not to rescue them is a deliberate act of neglect, because the information is available.
MW: Many designers are trying to help and there is a great tradition of emergency design, which we totally respect, but it could be important for designers to move from the emergency role to address the conditions that produce the problem in the first place.
If you accept design as a form of speculation, then that’s where you go.
Somehow our belief is still in designers, why else would we do a design biennale? We think there is an amazing intelligence to the way designers think, but this intelligence is devoted to a kind of cosmetic layer of society, the elegant chair, the table and the lamp – a prophylactic anesthetic layer that hides the world from us. Designers could do more interesting things.
If anesthetic design is the prophylactic layer that hides the world, what is design without anesthetic? Does it refer to the design of death: Prisons, slaughterhouses and concentration camps, as designed environments?
MW: To think of ‘design without anesthetic’ was the last of the 8 propositions we presented to around 80 different contributors to the biennale to respond to. This includes designers, architects, philosophers, scientists, archeologists. This is the proposition we are most interested to see the reaction to.
BC: And yes, the design of death is uniquely human. If you try think about what is different between the human and other animals, death very quickly emerges. This is not death as a kind of 20th century nightmare. It is rather the design of death as the starting point of the human. We are the only species that commemorates death, investing huge amounts of resources, material and symbols in celebrating it. In all cultures there are numerous rituals involving different forms of design. Death is definitely an important part of design.
MW: We also design death in the sense that we design the killing of other humans and other species and we are extremely sophisticated at that. This question of death is central to any discussion on design.
Every designer suggests that life is better as a result of their designs. You will never hear a designer that feels that life is not so good as a result of their work. So why not introduce a hesitation right there and say it’s not always better. And it’s not only life and death. It’s also inequality. Designers may dream of a design that is good for everyone, everywhere, all the time, yet be generating inequality.
BC: Designers are often engaged with this kind of decision. We tend not to think about this aspect, but it is there. George Nelson, the famous American designer who curated the American pavilion at the 1959 Moscow world fair, made a film precisely on this aspect of design, called ‘How to Kill People’. Nelson explains the history of the killing methods as a history of good design.
MW: This concept of good design was incubated around 200 years ago and developed in a long debate that started in England and then went to Germany, Austria, the United States and to the world. It was produced in close association with government and business and never innocent. It became a symptom of the industrialized and globalized world rather than a reaction to that world. Today, it is everywhere. You get design hotels, festivals, biennales, and neighborhoods. Politicians speak about design. There is biological design, medical and weather design. The concept has gone viral but the community that developed it remains stuck to the tables, lamps and chairs as if nothing has changed. Their dream of total design has been realized but in the hands of other people.
Shouldn’t we consider the possibility of developing a new concept of design?
The main purpose of our Biennale is to say: “Let’s redesign the concept of design”. It is part of an effort to sharpen our disciplines, to recognize that design has become something different, and urgently mobilize our community to rethink.
We are not presenting the new theory. We are just saying: design is now so successful, that we need to hesitate, rethink and reboot. Redesign design.
It’s a project of reclaim.
BC: In a way. Now business schools have a department of design because design has become such an important part of business. Companies that have nothing to do with design have a ‘Chief Design Officer’. In universities, design has become so important that they are paying attention to what we have been doing in the schools of architecture for a long time. Pedagogically, the method of the studio, the kind of think-tank where you bring a number of students to work on a problem collectively, is becoming a model for other disciplines, people in business, in science and in the humanities. Design-thinking has become a kind of mantra.
MW: This moment, early in the 21th century, is a moment to think again. If you look back, you see the 19th century debate about design started a tradition of exhibitions, journals, books and manifestos that acted as a powerful engine for developing and disseminating the concept. Now the concept is so accepted that you just receive it as given. You imagine that since Aldo Rossi designed your coffeepot, you are a slightly better person, and you don’t need someone to give you the theory, because everyone seems to share the same idea of design. When we say it is time to reboot design, yes we are trying to reclaim a certain historical dimension.
BC: There is also another dimension: Design is no longer done by a limited number of people. Everybody is a designer in some way; everybody is designing their own life and creating their own life on social media. So the people that designers design for are already designers themselves.
MW: At the same time, none of us is fully conscious of the effects of design. The cellphone is slender, delicate, extraordinarily efficient, feels like it’s part of your hand, part of you. But it’s also an anesthetic. You don’t want to know that the communication infrastructure it connects you to may be the single largest artifact ever produced by human. Every time you touch this delicate little object that doesn’t seem to be connected to anything, this vast brain is activated. It’s not just that the phone is now part of your body and your brain. So too is this huge infrastructural intelligence.
When you ask Google a question, it doesn’t simply give you an answer, it gives you an answer based on the questions you have been asking recently. This makes Google a part of your brain, your self image. Even when you design yourself by stroking your phone, it’s not clear who is doing the design, you and all of your friends, or the algorithms.
So in that world which is just the world of every day life, what is design? Even though the word ‘design’ is everywhere, we don’t have a concept of design adequate to everyday life.
Was the open call for participants at the biennale fruitful?
BC: Yes, there has been an amazing response. Around 200 teams from 35 or so countries have submitted 2 minute videos that will be exhibited alongside the 80 or so installations in the biennale. We have very different kind of people in the exhibition, not just designers but architects, artists, historians, archeologists, activists, and scientists. One of them, Sebastian Seung, is a fascinating brain scientist from Princeton that argues that as we think, our brain changes. This perspective is interesting. As we design our brain changes, then.
Our brain would be fundamentally incremental?
BC: Yes, as if the first thing being designed is our own brain.
MW: Maybe the brain is today what outer space was in the 1960s.
BC: Exactly. The new frontier. We have number of installations in the biennale on the Russian and US space programs which were in their own way a carefully curated exhibition of design, or designing the human. The Voyager 1 spacecraft that was sent in intergalactic travel is actually a portable exhibition. It contains a special collection of sounds and images that are emblematic of the human species just in case the craft is intercepted by another kind of intelligence. A representation of the human is flying away from Earth at a million miles a day, and this little exhibition of the human is now outside the solar system.
MW: That machine in space is part of us, a part of the human body. If historically the task of design was to negotiate the relation between the human and the machine, what is the task today, when we have long become machines? That is what we will be exploring in Istanbul.
BC: At the very least we should open up the discussion. That is what we are trying to do in the exhibition. Rather than answer questions, or present objects, it’s more like a philosophical inquiry on what we have become.
*Tracés is a Swiss architecture and engineering publication edited without interruption since 1875. https://www.espazium.ch/traces/