‘observing eyes, flexible minds and skilled hands’
Josef Albers, Search Versus Re-Search (1969)
Since its inception, in 2012, the Istanbul Design Biennial has carved a space for thought-provoking and critical curatorial positions unlike any other event in the global design calendar. Titled ‘A School of Schools’ and curated by Jan Boelen with Nadine Botha and Vera Sacchetti, its fourth edition looks to education and learning paradigms that, as the curators write in their introductory essay, look ‘beyond design as solution and school as institution’. The curatorial premise builds upon a century-long history of pedagogical critique and cultural radicalism – from the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto, to Black Mountain College, to the ‘hippie modernism’ of the Whole Earth Catalog and the Italian Global Tools initiative, among many others. While inspired by such precedents, the biennial seeks to interrogate their legacy, as well as to reflect on the inadequateness of extant educational models vis-à-vis the uneven socio-economic conditions of the global present. Searching for alternative propositions to rescue design education from the functional pragmatism of industrialized creativity, ‘A School of Schools’ asks: ‘What if the school we need now is a personal attitude of questioning and figuring out?’
This is an urgent and ambitious task – the 700 submissions received in response to the open call attest to its resonance. (Of these, a reported 200 international practitioners were eventually selected to participate.) Nonetheless, in refusing to offer concrete solutions, the curatorial impetus of ‘everything and everywhere is a school’ falls prey to a nostalgic neo-utopianism that never fully engages with its subject. The show advocates for the re-positioning of learning in ‘spaces of exception’ in which ‘the temporary suspension from normal functioning’ and ‘empowered doubt’ would encourage free thinking; however, this feels anachronistically at odds with real-world predicaments of social insecurity and occupational precarity.
‘This should be one of those millennial moments where people [i.e. students] descend onto the streets,’ observes professor Peter Lang, of the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, in his contribution to the biennial reader. He recalls, that ‘the biggest takeway from the Italian radicals [of the late 1960s and ’70s] is that every time they got really pissed off with the education they were receiving, they rebelled’. And so, in an attempt to transform ‘streets into corridors’ and the city into a classroom, the biennial has adopted a distributed strategy spanning a website, a reader with essays and selected interviews, a public programme running for the duration of the show and an exhibition across six venues. All iconic cultural institutions in the central district of Beyoğlu, these play host to six ‘schools’, looking at themes of Unmaking (Akbank Sanat), Currents (Yapı Kredi Culture Centre), Earth (Arter Gallery), Scales (Pera Museum), Time (SALT Galata) and Digestion (Studio-X Istanbul). Despite its intention to expand beyond institutional confines, however, the exhibition remains safely sheltered in its own custom-made scenography – a modular structure designed by architect Aslı Çiçek and product designer Lukas Wegwerth, which objectifies rather than mobilizes the collaborative, networked character of the projects on show.
The works that best embody a realignment of design, education and everyday reality are to be found in the Unmaking and Currents sections. The first of these looks at the expanded nature of the ‘workshop’ and changing notions of labour and human creation. It includes the excellent Water School (2018). This speculative project – spearheaded by designer Jurgen Bey, with a vast group of collaborators – centres around the creation of a primary school whose construction and curriculum would address the topic of water shortage.
In Currents, we find examples of how design can materialize unseen connections across cultural or geopolitical networks. Stitching Worlds (2014–18) is the outcome of a collaborative research project run by Ebru Kurbak at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, using textile production techniques to make electronics. The work of the hand and machine swap, revealing unexpected potentials for traditional skills and historic means of production. The results are exquisite pieces of functional craftsmanship such as The Embroidered Computer, made of 369 electromechanical relay switches knitted using electricity-conducting threads and magnetic beads, which allows simple algorithmic programming.
In an adjacent room, the Transitional School (2018) by the Pearl River Delta-based Aformal Academy and Amsterdam-based ARK.WORLD, is a multi-layered archive of footage, objects and drawings. It presents China’s Belt & Road Initiative as a physical as well as an immaterial journey, retracing Eurasian flows along the historic Silk Road. Developed through workshops held in Bangkok, Doha, Istanbul and Saigon, the project uses specific objects and materials to demonstrate entanglements across national boundaries. During the workshop in Istanbul, for instance, a clock that sings ezan (call to prayer) and a Şahan Gökbakar robot doll, both popular Turkish items made in China, were deconstructed and the pathways embedded in the making of their various components mapped out, revealing underlying infrastructures of trade and production.
In the Earth school, where environmental crisis serves as a thematic anchor, Staying Alive (2018) is a collection of commercial products and other projects that present survival strategies responding to financial, ecological or occupational scarcity. Curated by design duo Solsulsal, it includes their own Neo-Survival School – a tepee-shaped unit that was installed in Amsterdamse Bos in the summer of 2016 as part of the Cure Park programme. Inspired by the Tiny House movement, originally a response to the 2008 housing crisis, it offered classes on food biohacking and doomsday design, among others.
Boelen is a prolific practitioner whose curatorial projects and teaching as head of the Social Design department at Design Academy Eindhoven have deservedly cultivated a following that is rather heavily present in the show. This does not weaken the biennial’s premise, but it does reinforce design criticism’s longstanding Eurocentricism, thus underscoring the exhibition’s partiality. Furthermore, the critical, social and speculative practices that characterize ‘A School of Schools’ are not entirely new. ‘Critical design’ is a term coined by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in 1999, and a key part of the Design Interaction programme that they founded and led at London’s Royal College of Art between 2005–15 (both now teach at The New School in New York). Their immensely resourceful book Speculative Everything (2013) contextualizes conceptual practices at the turn of the new millennium, and consequently those present in the biennale, in terms of a response to the failed social dreams of the modern era and the desire to build updated, post-radical versions of a common future. Employing speculative scenarios to test possibilities rather than to predefine outcomes, critical design can be used to question extant socio-economic orders.
Whether fighting the increasing bureaucratization of education or the pressures imposed by today’s market-ready solutionism, design practitioners should not be retreating into safe spaces of exemption but engaging with new social horizons and common values. It is the job of educational institutions to provide the critical and practical tools needed to do so.
The 4th Istanbul Design Biennial,‘A School of Schools’, runs in various venues until 4 November.
All quotes from ‘A School of Schools – Doubting a Biennial, Doubting Design’, curatorial essay by Jan Boelen, Vera Sacchetti and Nadine Botha in Design as Learning – A School of Schools Reader, 2018
Main image: Nur Horsanali, Halletmek, 2017–18. Courtesy: the artist and Istanbul Design Biennial
Beatrice Leanza is a cultural strategist and design critic based in Beijing. She is the former creative director of Beijing Design Week (2013–16), chief curator of the ongoing research project ‘Across Chinese Cities’, featured at the Venice Architecture Biennale (2014, 2016 and 2018 editions) and co-founder of The Global School, China’s first independent institute for design and creative research.