With Are We Human—the exhibition of the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial, which ran for one month at the end of 2016—curators Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley were researching the fundamental notion of ‘design’. Their historic, cultural and conceptual exploration attempted to unravel the various programs and ambitions behind a (mainly) market driven inventiveness, which is presented as progress. This pushed the notion of design and the biennale as a format beyond their established definitions.
This interview was first published by Volume in their 50th issue, Beyond Beyond, the editorial of which is available to read here. You can also find a full list of the partipants in the event here and read ArchDaily's interview with the curators prior to its opening.
Arjen Oosterman: What precisely has been your ambition with this insane show, knowing that a general audience will understand maybe 10% of the intelligence and ideas behind the installations and the show at large?
Beatriz Colomina: Why is it insane? Even if I have nothing against the insane!
The insanity is the scale.
Mark Wigley: It is very ambitious.
BC: Ambition is good, even though it’s full of risk.
MW: The concept of the show is that design has gone viral and is now in fact organizing much of contemporary life. But much contemporary life is not good so our concept of good design is no longer good. If we really want to reboot the conversation about design and start again it requires a trigger, and so the idea of the exhibition is to act as a fuse for a whole new conversation. We’ve often said that we would feel happy with the exhibition if we could see that four or five years later quite different ideas are being generated which could be traced back to lighting this fuse.
BC: The idea of good design first emerged as a product of the Industrial Revolution – the creation of a new kind of human that works from 8am until 5pm that travels from the place in which they live to the place in which they work. We are now living through another incredible transformation in the way that we live, communicate with one another, make love – but at the same time we’re working with an outdated concept of design that belongs to a time in which objects were being produced by machines for the first time. We think that this is no longer valid; that the idea of good design is no longer sufficient for our time. Actually, we think the public gets 90% of the show. They don’t just look at it, they are eating it. It is more traumatic for designers.
It’s a very specific definition of ‘good’ and of ‘design’.
MW: One of the primary modes by which this now ubiquitous concept was incubated was through exhibitions, beginning with London's Great Exhibition of 1852. In that sense we are using an almost classical model here in Istanbul – that one uses exhibitions to attract attention to the gestation of an idea and, as with the Great Exhibition, it’s an intellectual work carried out within the genre of a popular show. The Great Exhibition was an exhibition of and for the people and yet there was also a huge negotiation between designers, industry and government. There really was a coalition to formulate the concept of design!
In this exhibition there is a very necessary deconstruction taking place in order to unravel the notion design and its agency. A key statement is that “the actual ambition of design is to create a better human,” which is a very compelling idea, reversing the relationship between object and its user or producer. Yet this also suggests, or perhaps even implies, an evolution: today we’re very different animals compared to what we were two millennia ago, let alone 20,000 years ago. But if I read a Roman writer like Catullus, I meet a contemporary; that man could have been my neighbor! He is not an alien or a primitive, he is in fact struggling with the same emotions and existential issues that I am.
MW: That’s a great observation and something that we’re particularly interested in too. The human being that redesigns itself is clearly, on the one hand, an extremely contemporary phenomenon. Look at Beatriz’s research on how social media now transforms the human, for example. But that degree of transformation isn’t different from when Beatriz describes the effect of the first pair of shoes – the utter strangeness of them, the way shoes produced a new human. The human being is always a question mark and design is the way we engage with that question.
So in that sense this is definitely a show against ‘the new’. The tradition of the design biennale is to market new products; the idea that yesterday was in the laboratory, now it is in the showroom, and tomorrow you can buy it in the shop. We’re saying: “No! This exhibition will be a historical show” and that it’s truly fascinating to look at how things began. To give one crucial example: the whole idea of the post-human was clearly articulated in England in the face of industrialization through thinkers like Mary Shelley, Samuel Butler, and so on. Modern design, therefore, comes from the post-human – it was a response to the horrifying thought that humans were being treated like machines in the industrial world, and that machines were a new form of life. Already in the 1850s, Samuel Butler was suggesting that these machines might no longer need us. The notion that the superhuman, or the cyborg, is a contemporary idea is ridiculous.
BC: It really has been around for a very long time – you can argue that prosthetics start with humanity. The moment that you have a stick, or an axe…
MW: There isn't such a thing as small augmentation. Buckminster Fuller argued that words were the first tool, the first extension of the body. But he went further by saying that the body itself is the prosthetic addition to the mind. The mind only fantasizes that the body is a part of it. Everything about us has been added.
You have mentioned that you don't necessarily want to take a moral position with this show but it could be argued that many of the installations on display do.
MW: We’re saying that there has to be an ethical moment for design to evaluate its own responsibilities, but what we do not say in the exhibitions is how. David Benjamin’s installation says, for instance, that the invention of a genetically modified mosquito to prevent the spread of the Zika virus in Brazil needs ethical consideration. When you can design an insect, you need a wide-ranging interdisciplinary discourse to discuss what might be deemed ethical or not. And this is one of the reasons why the proportion of designers in the show is not particularly high. Design is no longer in the hand of designers.
BC: Ruha Benjamin, who is teaching African-American studies at Princeton University, is often part of a group of people who are in discussion with Washington about the ethics of genetics. And this group are always composed of lawmakers, politicians, and scientists – but representatives from the Humanities were never invited, even though they are fundamental to the discourse. She calls for another kind of conversation, an urgent ongoing debate involving the humanities.
MW: We are not saying that designers should start being ethical – we are arguing that design must be a crucial part of the ethical conversation that has now become urgent, simply because of the way that we’re treating one another.
If it’s more about how design becomes a crucial part of any ethical debate and what are the repercussions for design itself? We argue that the traditional function of design is much more about denial, erasure and serving an anesthetic function than about engagement. Design has not been a way of addressing questions but a prophylactic layer. There is no point telling designers to be ethical because they already think they are. Rather it is a matter of looking for alternative modes of design as engaging rather than denying.
And is ‘life without objects’ representative of such a position?
BC: Superstudio is very prophetic in a way...
MW: …and absolutely relevant. Interestingly, Neyran Turan, one of the brilliant young Turkish architects in the show, produced an almost pure Archizoom / Superstudio project – and she is not disconnected in a utopia; she recognizes in that period exactly these sorts of questions.
Let's talk about the very notion of design itself. In English design can be a very confusing word – there isn’t the kind of differentiation that there is in Dutch and German, for example, from architecture.
BC: Yes, because design is a wholly English term that originated in this very debate in the nineteenth-century. In fact, if you read it in Italian – disegno – it means ‘drawing’ as an act and a thought, drawing as thinking and vice versa. When I arrived in the United States to the School of Architecture at Columbia University, and I heard about ‘design studios’, I was confused and thought the school was also teaching industrial design. You simply do not use the word ‘design’ for architecture in Spanish.
This misunderstanding is a problem and that’s why it is now up for reevaluation. Design is an English word that came up from a very particular condition and now it is taking hold of the world: politicians talk about design thinking, schools of business use the word to describe whole new departments. The most powerful company in the world (Apple) has based its success on design; even companies that have nothing to do with design have Chief Design Officers these days with the same status as Chief Financial Officer. Today, everything is designed and so called design-thinking applied to anything because it is considered inherently good.
MW: We have worked on a really detailed study of the word design and, indeed, it transpired that it is the current use is absolutely British. We found the moment in which it was invented, and why. It came into being out of the country’s jealousy toward Prussia and France in the early decades of the 19th Century. The English were very confused by the fact that they were the world’s foremost industrial power but did not have the ability to shape the objects in the way that the French and the Germans (Prussians) were doing, so they sent a government delegation to study and to try to understand why Europeans appeared to have this ability.
BC: It was especially puzzling because it related to mass industrialization – a phenomenon that was invented by the British themselves. The reason was that the French and Prussians had government backing; they had schools, museums, associations and the like. So the British decided to implement that model and before long Germany were sending people to Great Britain to try to understand the English way!
MW: It was born out of jealousy, then – which is always a strong motivational force. As the English invented the word ‘design’, the concept is explicitly engaged with industrialization. But what does all of this mean? It means that design was invented to deal with the trauma of industrialization; it was primarily about the extraordinary shock of the rapid transformation of the machine, of the human body, of the economy, and the associated forms of conflict and wars.
The British created a colonial empire of people brutally assigned varying degrees of humanity, so the question was how to make this elaborately formed zoo survive in a world of machines – which do not have hereditary titles or a class system. This is the reason why the word has been so successful, because there has been an inoculation of denial to deal with a very strange world. The conception of design as disegno, in the 15th and 16th Centuries, is almost completely the opposite, having been born from a sort of exaggerated or wishful confidence in the human ability to faithfully represent the invisible order of God – to make objects that are more beautiful than the planet itself.
So once the birth and mission of the generic concept of design is clarified, we insist that it makes sense to reboot the word in the face of today’s trauma – trauma that has moved on to a completely different scale when the planet itself has become a human artifact. This is the motivating force behind the entire exhibition: we need to redesign design, and that is a genuinely collaborative project.
BC: It is to redefine the human and to redefine humanity.
MW: So this biennale is not so focused on the role of the designer and the products designed by him or her, but more about asking what design could be right now?
Speaking as teachers, it is unclear if there are any schools of architecture in the world that are really interested in the current state of the human being, even though the people in the departments in every school of architecture are adamant that they are the only loyal representative of the human being. What you’ll usually see in drawings are young white men, aged between twenty and thirty, on skateboards accompanied by models – and this reveals a deep cynicism, because even though you might occasionally see someone is black, disabled, sick, restrained, lost, confused, bored, dead, or having a bad day these rare glimpses are always positioned in relation to the supposedly humanizing effects of design, underlining the idea that people are so lucky to live in the Architect's design.
We argue that while architecture says that it is always about the human and that it cares about people, it is profoundly uninterested in the human. Imagine bringing the human in as a client, because then the architect’s question would be “What the hell are you?” It’s actually pretty promising for design, because the human actually turns out to be the weirdest thing there is.
Some of the questions were proposed by Shumi Bose, who was also present during the interview.