With an on-going digital and physical evolution, the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial took a new approach. “Rather than focusing on the presentation of final results in a compressed period of time and space”, the global circumstances created the opportunity to present new projects on a longer period of time and in expanded spaces, offering not an exhibition but “a digital and research program with a series of permanent interventions in the city.”
Launched on October 15, 2020, the event brought together, with its new structure, different formats under the theme of Empathy Revisited. As the first part of the physical display has ended, ArchDaily had the chance to discuss with Mariana Pestana, architect and curator of the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial, the event and choice behind this year’s theme, the programs and the participants as well as the evolution of her approach due to the global circumstances.
The 5th Istanbul Design Biennial, organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) under the sponsorship of VitrA and with the support of the Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism, is bringing together ideas and projects that seek to define a new role for design based on Empathy. Read on to discover insights into this edition of the Istanbul Design Biennial, brought to you by the curator herself.
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About Mariana Pestana and Her Interdisciplinary Work
ArchDaily (Christele Harrouk): Can you tell us more about yourself, your practice, and how you ended up curating exhibitions all over the world?
Mariana Pestana: I’m trained as an architect, and I run a practice called The Decorators together with Xavi Llarch Font, Carolina Caicedo, and Suzanne O’Connell, which does cultural programs and interventions in the public realm, often involving food and orchestrating the collaborative participation of many people. In parallel, I work as an independent curator having recently co-curated the project Eco Visionaries, which was presented at MAAT (Lisbon), Matadero (Madrid), and Royal Academy (London), and the exhibition The Future Starts Here, presented at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where I used to work.
At the moment I’m living in Porto, after many years of London. In all of my projects I use fiction as a tool to enact possible futures, and a methodology that I call radical hospitality- basically I try to create systems of participation that involve many people and keep the door open for more. For me, spatial design & exhibition-making are means to construct, prototype, and inhabit fictional possibilities – ideas that are not fully accepted in the “real” world but can be tested in cultural contexts, with and among people. Collaboration is a fundamental aspect of each project for me, I like to work with others and prototype these ideas as a group.
For the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial, I invited Sumitra Upham and Billie Muraben to join my curatorial team, Studio Maria João Macedo as the graphic designer, Future Anecdotes as exhibition designers and Max Sterling as sound designer. And I created a curatorial group in Istanbul too, with Nur Horsanalı, Ulya Soley, and Eylül Şenses. This became the core group together with the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), which then started to grow as we invited participants.
AD: How important is it to be interdisciplinary in today’s world?
I believe interdisciplinarity is essential, as the essential questions of our time are complex and intersectional.
MP: Design has the capacity to operate across scales and thus it lends itself to dialogue across disciplines too – some of the most interesting design experiments today engage with biology, sensing technologies, geology, digital engineering, and other disciplines. And it contributes critically to some of the conversations happening in other fields because design can help us visualize, test, and better imagine what integration of some innovations into the social fabric of everyday life could look and feel like.
Overall my work explores the intersection between the worlds of science and technology and the worlds of art and design, posing research questions that aim to better situate and orient us in face of the climate crisis and technological acceleration that make our contemporary world so complex. I do this by prototyping what-if scenarios, visualizing fictional propositions, and creating modes of engagement with citizens that invite them to be part of the conversation. The idea is to bring big questions and debates outside of conference rooms and labs, into the public realm, with the hope of nurturing critical citizenship.
About the Istanbul Design Biennial
AD: How is this edition of the Istanbul Design Biennial different from the previous ones? How did you respond to global changes?
MP: This edition is different from others in its approach and format. Let me begin with the format – this edition offers no exhibitions but instead a digital program, a series of permanent interventions in the city, and a research program. It combines different modes of spectatorship, engaging visitors across media and inviting them to take a range of positions. The digital arm, the Critical Cooking Show, is a series of films, lectures, and performances that depart from an ingredient, recipe, or kitchen tool to reveal geopolitical, ecological, or socio-economic stories through design. To give you an idea of what you can expect, Linda Schilling’s film reflects on the ecological effects of production and consumption of avocados in Chile, Meiller Schang’s Case of Meat depicts the slaughterhouse as an architectural typology that supports cattle farming, MOLD and Yardy World have produced a manifesto-film that encourages us to think more critically about our power as eaters, Depatriarchise Design takes us on a journey around the diasporic narratives behind prosaic kitchen tools, whereas Vivian Caccuri reveals how the unexpected connection between mosquitos and sugar plantations made the eighteenth century a very unique moment for the Latin American psyche, health, and music. Every Sunday, a new film is available to watch from home, via the biennial website and e-flux architecture. We invite everyone to become a spectator, potentially a cook, but above all, a critical cook.
The research arm, the Library of Land and Sea, archives 10 projects developed in the Mediterranean Basin. Air, land, and water were once common, not commodified. But these bodies have become assets, areas of jurisdiction, zones where political conflicts are enacted. Istanbul sits in the Mediterranean basin, a region that is limited by a liquid internal core, the sea. We decided to focus this program on projects that are researching less visible connections between land and sea, and food sovereignty. Visitors can book a place at the Library and become researchers themselves, making connections between the objects and documents in the archive. The New Civic Rituals invite people to perform new protocols, to develop new etiquettes, to connect with entities beyond their immediate scale, from the microbes in the soil of Bostans to the birds in the Princes Islands. It’s about recognizing citizenship as a more-than-human category, expanding our sense of place to include a multitude of species and organisms. And finally, the philosophical arm, Empathy Sessions, is a series of films that expand one’s understanding of empathy. They were available at Pera Museum or later in the year online.
In terms of approach, we decided to expand the biennial in time and space.
Rather than focusing on the presentation of final results in a compressed period of time and space, we decided to bet on new beginnings – use the biennial as an opportunity to start new projects that are launched during a longer period of 6 months, and that are viewed in different circumstances – expanding outdoors to the city and even to the Asian side of Istanbul, expanding to the Mediterranean by supporting a series of ongoing and newly started activist projects, and expanding also digitally, with programs developed specifically for a global audience. For each strand of the program, we developed a different approach regarding its engagement with viewers. For example, an important aspect of the New Civic Rituals is that they will remain in the city beyond the time frame of the biennial. In order to do this, we have developed partnerships with municipalities and community groups to ensure the afterlife of the projects. And the Young Curators Group we formed for this biennial was fundamental. We appointed three curators based in Istanbul – Nur Horsanalı, Ulya Soley, and Eylül Şenses – whose role was fundamental in supporting relationships between the designers we are working with and specific groups or hosts in the city that receive them. Their work was very important because the value of a Biennial is to a great extent the exchange of knowledge that it makes possible between designers, practitioners, citizens, and others. I also don’t believe in an exhibition approach that parachutes contents into a city – I trust that a caring, nurturing approach to each project and a preparation on the ground for its reception is of value for both sides.
To answer your question about the global context, the theme was set before the pandemic, but perhaps it has gained a new resonance since. The pandemic has brought about a general state of social isolation, the psychological consequences of which we are beginning to understand. And it revealed many of the fragilities of contemporary society – from the wrongs of an extractive relation to nature to the fragility of the global industrial model. It has made us even more aware of the climate crisis and how it is critical to rethink how we relate to the natural world.
The theme of this biennial indeed responds to some of the anxieties that we are facing in the contemporary context, because it invites us to think critically about how we relate to one another and to others, be them human or other bodies – biologic, bacterial, and geologic.
I believe this is a very challenging but unique moment in time because the whole world is engaged in imagining what will come next. And then, we focused on food across all the programs. Food is the most universal subject and the most urgent too, but we don’t seem to be paying enough attention to it. This is why we have put food at the center of the discussion at this biennial. For example, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report about the use of soil shows that it is impossible to keep the global average temperature at safe levels for human life unless there are radical changes to the diet and food production.
About the Theme of the Biennial
AD: This year’s theme is centered on empathy. Why was this approach chosen for the 5th edition of the Istanbul Design Biennial? What was its purpose and what were you hoping to achieve?
MP: With the term “designs for more than one” I want to argue for a kind of practice that takes into consideration not just its immediate user or client but the many constituents and complex entanglements inherent to any design process. I want to capture the idea of designs for multiple bodies, dimensions, and perspectives.
My aim is to carve out a space of responsibility and nourish a culture of attachment towards the more-than-human. To recognize a role for design based on empathy: design as a mediator of feelings, as a practice that takes care as its main purpose.
That means that the figure of the designer adopts sensitive, diplomatic, sometimes therapeutic functions with the aim of connecting us with one another but also with the world around us, with other species.
More than 100 years ago, Violet Paget (Vernon Lee) wrote about empathy as the lending of one’s life to a thing. The thing could be an object or a landscape. And empathy was the process through which feelings transferred across that thing and her own body. The term empathy was translated from the German einfühlung, and it literally means “feeling into”. Empathy sought to capture the transference of feelings from one body to another. It has since gained new meanings, and nowadays it is generally understood as the capacity to understand, grasp, or simulate the feelings of other people, not objects or the natural world. Biologically, we were affective before we were rational, cooperative before we were individual. The standard histories of human evolution and culture focus on rational achievements, problem-solving intelligence, invention. They disregard the role of affection and feelings. But as neuroscientist António Damásio puts it: reason and intelligence’s purpose is care, because caring is a fundamental aspect of survival. I think that revisiting empathy today, in a time when we broadly recognize the agency and the rights of more-than-human entities - be them plants, animals, microbes, fungi, minerals, or bodies of water - but struggle how to care for them, can open up new forms of sociality, new modes of citizenship. And it echoes particularly loud in the precise now, when we have been deprived of sociality between humans.
AD: Entitled “Empathy Revisited”, the theme tackles design as a mediator for emotions and feelings. How did the participants respond to this hypothesis? Can you tell us more about their initiatives?
MP: The current state of social isolation, globally motivated by a virus, accelerated the already rising atomization of society. We now see the world from a new perspective, split as we are into as smaller as possible units of people. It shows how irremediably social, interdependent we were, after all. The psychological effects of social isolation are yet to be fully written, coined, and proved. But we already feel what the deprivation of care and affection to which we have been subjected to produce. And we also suspect that the cause of the spread, in the first place, was a larger crisis of ecological effect. Despite knowing that we are living in an ecological crisis, we became immune to the data and statistics and numbers that are shown to us on the news, every day. We need to engage emotionally with the ecological crisis. And here, I believe empathy is fundamental: bringing emotions, affects, care, and kinship into the design equation.
We need to reassess our design processes and aims so that they benefit not just the immediate context in which they operate but also the myriad of places, matter, and species and indirectly are affected by any new design production.
The question that you focus on makes me think of sensing and perspective. I was interested in enquiring how design is a mediation tool between us and the world around us, how design is a tool to sense the world. But I was also interested in asking, what perspectives may this sensing reveal? Could it connect us with elements, matters, and living beings that we don’t normally connect with? And would such a connection elicit empathy in us? For example, as part of Empathy Sessions, at Pera Museum, we are screening a film by Calum Bowden that takes you on a journey to experience the contested origins of life deep inside the Earth. The story shifts between human, bacterial, geological, and mechanic perspectives to unravel scientific mysteries about extremophiles, creatures that thrive without any sunlight in extreme temperatures and pressures. One of the New Civic Rituals installed at Besiktas Pier is a seating arrangement by Soft Baroque called Point Cloud. When machines “read” reality, they create point clouds –- these are digital nodes that join together to form three-dimensional shapes. With the advent of artificial intelligence, machines and software are now able not just to “read” reality but also to generate new forms and designs. These furniture pieces are inspired by such technological developments and invite you to consider how the world looks from the eyes of a machine. Another New Civic Ritual, which will be installed in April, is designed by Orkan Telhan and elii. It’s a platform that tells the complex histories of Istanbul community gardens (bostans) from the perspective of microorganisms. Developing a new ‘oral-culture’, this installation will distribute a fermentation kit to make microbial fruits—microorganisms, ingredients, and recipe. The microbial culture will continue to live in the fermented foods (boza, yogurt, or other) and in the gut of visitors.
Visitors become guardians or carriers of that culture.
We hope that this will allow the audience to experience, empathize with, and learn about the heritage of gardens in relation to the ecological and socio-political realities of our time. All of these projects have required a deep research process involving biologists, laboratories, and software. The last one in particular initiated a really interesting process in collaboration with Kokopelli Şehirde, Nadas İstanbul, and the Kuzguncuk Neighborhood Association. We will reveal the findings very soon in April!
About the Physical Event
AD: Reaching the end of the physical event, what is your overall impression of the exhibition? What should we expect by the end of the biennial in April of 2021, and what is the final outcome you are hoping for?
MP: We have now ended the first part of the physical event, but in April we will launch 5 more projects within the program New Civic Rituals. I mentioned Microbial Fruits of Istanbul by Orkan Telhan and elii. We will also launch a floating garden by Studio Ossidiana, called Buyukada Songlines. It is built on a barge and designed to accommodate plants, soils, insects, birds, and people, towed between the islands and the waters of Marmara and the Bosphorus. Like a floating embassy, this garden collects plants, artifacts, matter, and stories from the nine islands. And it’s an inter-species architecture. In addition to this project, we will also install a series of food preservation units in the Kuzguncuk garden created by publicworks, a solar kitchen by Martí Guixé, and launch a Tree School by Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti. In April we will also launch a book that compiles all the projects and the thinking behind this biennial. It might be early to share my overall impression, but I’m very happy with the results so far.
This is a smaller, slower biennial but also a much-focused one. One can get lost in each project because they are all so deep, complex, and rich. […] The projects you encounter at this biennial are deeply personal and idealistic. And I think that makes this group a very special one. Together, they put forward a new paradigm for design: one that engages empathetically with the other, human and not.
I believe that every practice that we have invited is an activist practice – that is, there is clear, coherent thinking behind their actions and a desire for change.
AD: How did you manage to hold the event with all the COVID-19 restrictions and limitations? How will the evolution of the biennial look like?
MP: In face of the many and constantly shifting challenges and regulations brought about by the pandemic, we devised a program that rather than resisting or ignoring the current scenario, adapts to it. Biennials are events that concentrate many people in the same place, they often involve the transport of pieces across countries and continents, and frequently display a sample of works that have been produced in a previous couple of years. The pandemic motivated us to completely rethink this model and ask, what would be a biennial with less transport and travel? What if instead of showing existing work it promoted the making of new works and new research threads? So, we propose a biennial that is generative and locally produced, that is an opportunity to begin new projects in dialogue with, and catered for, the citizens of Istanbul.
About the Future of Biennials
AD: Finally, how important are biennials during these times of general uncertainty and change?
MP: In my view, biennials are very important cultural events in that they bring together ideas, projects, and propositions that may help us reflect and resituate ourselves in face of a very complex socio-economic and climatic context. But I also believe that the model of the biennial should be questioned and continue to evolve and morph into different forms.
In opening spaces for experimentation, biennials foment the implementation of alternative modes of producing design. It is of course fundamental to make exhibitions that archive, display, and document existing projects and produce critical discourse about design practice, but also to open space for experimentation through research because it is through this kind of hands-on research that design can contribute to imagining different worlds. A more conscious reflection on the local dimension of the event is also fundamental in my view.
I believe that when designs are installed in specific places and in specific communities, with their own social and political contexts, they contribute to researching and testing the future of those places and people too.
The commissioning of projects can contribute to boosting the plausibility of the visions that they propose. It was with this in mind, that we opted for commissioning new work instead of showing existing projects. To articulate global discourses with the locality of specific neighborhoods and communities. To present beginnings rather than final products. I like to think of cultural projects as ‘synecdoches,’ fragments of fictional worlds built in actual places and contexts, inserted into the fabric of everyday life.