— Frame Magazine —

The curators of the 3rd Istanbul Biennial ask big questions about design and humanity

You have spoken about the ‘relentless motion’ of the design world which is amplified by the typical trade show biennial. Can the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial be seen as taking a stance against the ‘newness’ normally promoted by design festivals and fairs? BEATRIZ COLOMINA and MARK WIGLEY: It’s definitely anti-newness – unless you think of the arrival of the human 200,000 years ago as very new in geological time, which it is! Design biennials typically advertise the latest products produced over the previous two years, as if life will suddenly get better with this or that chair or lamp. But what if “good design” is not such a good thing in the end and the latest products are just a distraction from the real design that is going on, which is the redesign of the planet, our bodies, our brain and genome, along with all the other species that are our companions and collaborators on Earth? To want another biennial that just presents design for design’s sake is like wanting a hole in your head.


The biennial asks more questions of the visitors than is perhaps usually expected. Instead of merely observing and documenting, they are encouraged to make their own connections. How pivotal is the role of the visitor and is their participation an area you think has been neglected in other formats of exhibition and/or display? 
The whole idea of a “visitor” needs to be rethought. When the whole world has been designed, the visitor doesn’t simply come from outside design to be blessed by its magic in an exhibition. On the contrary. Maybe we have to reverse the whole concept. What if a biennial would be the one place where you question the role of design? Our whole show is about questions. We think design should ask questions rather than answer them. The main proposition is that designers never simply design for humans but actively redesign humans. Design is always a kind of human engineering. The visitor to the biennial is therefore the most sophisticated design object on show. We think of the exhibition as a kind of mirror in which people can see themselves permanently suspended in design in their everyday life, being themselves designed but also being constantly encouraged to think of themselves as designers – self-designers.


The current format of trade show fairs is one that has been in existence since the Great Exhibition. While a biennial is quite far removed from the trade fair, do you think there are some aspects that could be applied to the current trade fair model to make them more relevant or valuable? In fact, most biennials, even those with provocative themes, are thinly disguised trade shows. The market is always pulling the strings, as it was with the Great Exhibition in 1851. The organizers of that massive display, Henry Cole and his gang, were convinced that “design” could galvanize art, industry and government in the face of industrialization and globalization using a concept of “good taste.” They were super unhappy with the artefacts that were shown in the massively popular event but eventually, after a continuous parade of such exhibitions, the imagined protocols for industrial design became defaults in the early decades of the twentieth century. The concept of modern design is inseparable from the global market. We are not anti-market. It is not even clear that there is an outside to the market to which one could escape. But the market now includes genetics, the weather, risk, information, algorithms, body parts and new organisms. The world of design has expanded beyond any modern designer’s dream and the whole world is a kind of permanent exhibition anyway. The great exhibition is now the Internet. So the role of biennials needs to evolve. It is no longer about products. The stakes of design have become the fate of humanity in all its intimate entanglements with countless species inside and outside its body, and thereby with the living planet itself.  

How do you envision the biennial living on beyond its set period of four weeks? The hope is to launch a long, deep, interdisciplinary conversation that can start rethinking the question of design -- to reboot design thinking. Our idea is to multiply the number of voices and the number of time frames beyond the 70 or so invited designers, architects, artists, historians, archaeologists and scientists that will be exhibited for four weeks in Istanbul. This wider conversation started before the biennial and will continue long afterwards. During this last year we started a series of events around the world discussing the main questions and this will keep going for another year or so. The open call for a two-minute video project has already finished with around 200 amazing submissions from 37 countries. Another collaborative project with our friends Anton Vidokle and Nikolaus Hirsch at e-flux called SUPERHUMANITY has invited more than 50 writers to address the question of self-design in 2000 words over the next year.  And finally, we initiated an interdisciplinary team in Istanbul to start a ten-year project to assemble a chronology and working library of all dimensions of design in Turkey over the last 200 years. The biennial itself will become a platform to present and accelerate their research. We have also expanded the usual biennial publication program of catalogues and guides, for example, with a book documenting our thoughts on the subject entitled Are We Human? – Notes on an Archaeology of Design. It’s a lot, but at the same time, it seems like a minimal infrastructure to start asking some big questions about design.

Can you explain the exhibition display concept and what effect you hope it will have on how the visitors engage with the biennial? We are working closely with Andres Jaque and his Office of Political Innovation in Madrid to present the contributions not as individual works by designers but as “clouds” of related projects. And we are working with five brilliant young graphic designers from Istanbul to avoid any sense that the biennial itself is a singular design product – one of the obvious problems with design biennials. How do you open up design to new thoughts when the biennial itself has already been gift-wrapped in a particular design? It’s not a matter of being anti-design. On the contrary. It’s just a matter of resisting the idea of design as a seamless, reassuring prophylactic layer that hides questions rather than opening them up. Anyway, the idea is that the projects being shown are not in independent rooms or territories but overlap, forcing the visitor to think about the interconnections. They are organized into four clusters: Designing the Body, Designing the Planet, Designing Life, and Designing Time – but these are not strict divisions. We think of it like a forest that you can enter through four different gates. The projects near the gate seem directly related to the title on the gate but the deeper you go the more they overlap with the title on the other three gates. Everything is virally interconnected. There are 5 venues, including the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, which is very important for us, since we see the whole exhibition as an archaeology and we see archaeological museums as design collections.

Yours is a decidedly more critical approach to the model of both the design biennial and design fairs in general. What do you think this can achieve and do you hope it will impact on future iterations of other design events? Who knows what the impact will be and we wouldn’t do it if we knew. The first objective is to try not to be boring and hope that the next event is even less boring in response. We are just trying to frame a question that for us is urgent.

How will the biennale connect with the city of Istanbul? We tend to see it the other way around: how can a complicated place with an extraordinary design history like Istanbul, a city that is on the frontlines of East and West, incubate a conversation that wouldn’t be possible in the smug so-called design capitals of the world? There are big public audiences at Istanbul biennials, and a dense set of events around the city, but we don’t imagine that this project is, as it were, bringing the glories of design to Istanbul. The issue is rather, what role is design playing in constructing the current global disaster we are in, of which Turkey is clearly an obvious symptom but has no monopoly on the horror. And can the question of design be rethought, without any simplistic sense of suddenly reversing things, but at least hesitating and taking account of design?

In your statement you claim that: Design needs to be redesigned’. If that is the case, what effect do you think this reconsideration will have on the formats in which design is displayed? Yes, that is the question. How do you design an exhibition of design that contributes to the redesign of design? How do you stop the design of the biennial from getting in the way? Fortunately, design is never quite what it claims to be. What if the attempt of design to smooth over worries and minimize any friction always fails, in the same way that the unsuccessful attempt to bury the unconscious organizes almost every minute of daily life? If so, then it’s possible to have an exhibition that puts design on the couch and simply asks it to talk. And if you do, it’s remarkable what comes up. That’s why we ask the simple question: “Are We Human?” It’s just another way to ask “What is design?” and to keep repeating it until the confessions and the fantasies are exposed.

The 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial will run from October 22nd  to November 20th, 2016. Find out more at arewehuman.iksv.org