For this Belgian festival, digital city invasion is all about connecting design’s dots

Namur, Belgium – Walking through Namur almost makes you wonder if you’ll see a centaur pop out from a corner – I spent the duration of my stay in the cobblestoned Belgian city rife with medieval charm biting my lip: as an American, I’ve learned ‘It’s just like Disneyland!’ is not a well-received comment in Europe. Lucky for me, though, that weekend did give me sufficient content to indulge my imagination, as this year, the KIKK festival came back to Namur for the eighth time with a twist: city invasion. Now, there were no cannons, fire-breathing dragons or turkey legs scattered on the ground… but there was an inflatable brontosaurus, one that stood guard outside of KIKK’s main gathering tent in the heart of the city, a visual welcome for the 25,000 attendees over the weekend.

Founded in 2011, KIKK is a non-profit association that promotes digital and creative cultures through multidisciplinary conferences and attractions. This year, the theme for the festival was Species & Beyond. The Jurassic icon was not just a selfie-op, but a manifestation of the team’s idea to stay away from the homo-sapien-centrism that typically defines conversations about technology.

And then you may be asking yourselves: ‘But isn’t technology inherently for us?’

The hidden stories behind the rise of technology in the Anthropocene was necessary dialogue for the festival to explore

KIKK took this question and sought to dispute it through clever curation, resulting in an event intended to shift our human perspective to the other species we share our planet with. Being in a day and age where certain political leaders are pulling out of climate agreements, covering ecological issues – the hidden stories behind the rise of technology in the Anthropocene – was necessary dialogue for the festival to explore.

Above: In the 16th century Cathédrale Saint-Aubain de Namur, Berlin-based Pfadfinderei presented their video sculpture, Monolith. Below: Young KIKK attendees enjoy the Water installation, by Brazilian artists Rejane Cantoni, Leonardo Crescenti and Raquel Kogan.

In the heat of this collective anxiety about our changing climate, it’s hopeful to look at design as a sort of saviour: today, it could not be clearer that the future is reliant on approaches that look at physical and digital possibilities. But how can one properly explore how digitalism affects design culture and politics without first positioning it within the physical world? Responding to this is something that KIKK excelled in this year, with a variety of installations comprising a 20-location exhibition journey across Namur.

For example, the work of Berlin-based Marco Barotti was featured in two places: in the garden of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Swans was situated eerily in a central pond, eight satellite dishes emulating the title subject, but emitting bass frequencies and human breath through built speakers. Down the street, Woodpeckers was fixated to trees and the walls within the Les Bateliers garden, creating a drum soundscape powered by invisible radiations from bystanders’ mobile devices.

Each of the installations questioned personal perceptions of space, asking the viewer to consider the parameters of their own inhabitation. Barotti’s touch on two important conversations: our conscious-subconscious reliance on technology, and tech waste in nature.

Above: A group of people spend a quiet moment with Marco Barotti's Swans. Below: Attendees visit Woodpeckers in the garden of the Les Bateliers museum.

An augmented reality app played digital tour guide, with seven locations featuring commissioned work disrupting users’ viewfinder of the city. A certain spirit of fun and excitement permeated each of the conferences and outpost locations – this implication was meaningful, as there was no disputing at KIKK that design is able to facilitate cerebral political and societal commentary. Better yet, they show that this can be done without weakening the joie de vivre of creative percolation.

Symbiosis needs to be both physical and digital, but one realm doesn’t have to mute the other

To carry home this mentality, they chose leaders spearheading the multidisciplinary future of design with an inclusive approach. Paola Antonelli, the celebrated senior curator of architecture and design and director of R&D at MoMA, was one of the keynote speakers. Her talk, named after the upcoming Broken Nature symposium, looked at restorative design, acknowledging the impermanence of our species while proposing a plan for a ‘more elegant ending’. Like most of KIKK, Antonelli’s speech felt less like funereal planning and more like an ode to human persistence: the goal is to promote a more conscious relationship with Earth’s complex systems.

 

 Using the KIKK augmented reality app, users test out a digital Namur through the designs of commissioned artists.

The power of collaboration is one of the most fundamental survival lessons we’re taught in life: like humans, design only thrives with on a spectrum of symbiosis. Today, that symbiosis needs to be both physical and digital, but one realm doesn’t have to mute the other. At KIKK, germinating crossover between the two and different creative industries is what keeps the narrative strong, whether that looks like alcoholic architecture, robotic sculpture or something else unexpected altogether – active community creation allows the design forum to evolve past its original form. And so, the question repeats itself: why do designers need to stick only to one type of design – and why do they need to stick to design at all?

In Namur, every year, answering this question and moving forward is as simple as saying: ‘They don’t.’

Frame's coverage of the 2018 KIKK Festival was part of a sponsored press trip to the event.

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