Design as an active mode

courtesy of Nur Horsanali
Nur Horsanalı / Halletmek


The title of this year’s Design Biennial in Istanbul is sure to catch the attention of Bauhaus fans: it’s “A School of Schools”. Organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) under the direction of Deniz Ova and Jan Boelen, the international design event raises many questions. Isn’t any school ideally open to new ideas – and shouldn’t it always reinvent itself? Shouldn’t the phenomenon of school be constantly scrutinized and explored? It is, so it seems, a tribute to the Bauhaus, because there, too, there was no obstacle to regarding intangible things such as learning and training as the objects of design.

“For me designing is an active mode”, says curator Jan Boelen. His professional life is at least as multifaceted as the event he has curated: Boelen is the founder and artistic director of the Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Belgium, artistic director of the experimental laboratory Atelier LUMA in France, and director of the master’s programme in Social Design at the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. In Istanbul, he has now set himself the goal of expanding “the space and time of the traditional design event”. While the first of these dimensions is seen in the pop-up schools, alias exhibition venues, the time factor is stretched out by turning the traditional biennial into a one-year programme. The reason is that Jan Boelen has always wondered if there is really a need for projects like a biennial.

Ninety-nine years after the Bauhaus, the Belgian curator critically notes that schools still let their students design and present “objects and products that are more of the same”. The systems around us need to be reconsidered, and that also means rethinking education. Which is why Boelen comes to the conclusion that if something is necessary today, it is the need to confront design education in general. Despite the desired dynamic openness of the Biennial, there is still a conceptual framework for the substantive programme. Jan Boelen allows the participants to implement various learning situations, or “schools”, within a framework of eight themes: Measures and Maps, Time and Attention, Mediterranean and Migration, Disasters and Earthquakes, Food and Customs, Patterns and Rhythm, Currency and Capital, and Parts and Pockets.


Veerle Frissen
Jan Boelen, Kurator Istanbul Biennale


“Six weeks, six venues, six schools” is the motto of the educational units whose venues for the biennial, some of which are outstanding buildings, are transformed into spaces of learning. “Unmaking School” (Akbank Sanat) attests to the human instinct of being creative, like an educational dynamo. “Currents School” (Yapi Kredi Kültür Sanat) explores the flows, networks, distribution and hierarchies of information and themes. “Scales School” (Pera Museum) examines the fluidity of institutionalised norms, standards and values. “Earth School” (Arter) asks what is natural, what is a disaster and what is evolution, in our situation in which people and the planet are forced to renegotiate their educational relationship. “Time School” (Salt Galata) travels from hyperspeed and acceleration to reach the expanse of “deep time”. And “Digestion School” (Studio-X Istanbul) looks at metabolic systems, consumption patterns, cultural rituals and food infrastructures to learn how circular education and lifelong learning are manifested.

Despite all the specialised jargon that resonates in this programme, the Belgian curator emphasises: “We want to bring a variety of people together: not only in terms of local and international, but also in terms of professional backgrounds. Not only designers that are working with other designers, but programmers, coders, engineers, sociologists, art historians, critics working together around projects with people from different generations, different genders. Ambiguity, uncertainty, and variety are the key elements to make something into a successful collaboration.” One thing quickly becomes clear about this Design Biennial: more than the products, what is at its core are the processes. And maybe the city itself is a part of these processes, without which the active design mode à la Boelen would be less impressive. After all, this school of schools must first be tracked down within the vastness of this megacity.

Yapi Kredi Kültür Yayıncılık


“Istanbul is like a huge playground,” says Ottonie von Roeder, one of the roughly 60 participants. “In Germany, I sometimes go to museums or libraries to get inspired. Here, I feel I can just walk around because every street is very different.” The designer, who studied product design at the Bauhaus-Universität in Weimar, is present in Istanbul with the project Post Laboratory, which deals with robot production.

Also represented in Istanbul: the Berlin designer Judith Seng. She is presenting her project “ACTING THINGS VII – School of Fluide Measurements” at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Seng was, among other things, a guest lecturer at the Burg Giebichenstein University of Arts and Design. Since August 2016 she also teaches at the HDK Gothenburg. With her project series ACTING THINGS, she examines production processes as socio-material choreographies.

But do we even need design education? That’s a question asked by Nur Horsanalı, who currently studies at Aalto University in Finland. With her project “Halletmek” – which is Turkish and translates roughly as to deal with and resolve – she encourages to consider the streets of Istanbul as a unique open-air museum of anonymous and yet highly individual designers, who master the everyday problems of life with clever ad hoc designs and make life in such a busy city much more pleasant. If you have enough street smarts.

[ÖÖ; Translation: DK]

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