An Archaeology of Design


27 October 2016

Images spin by in a darkened gallery at the Istanbul art space Alt: a baby being born, a gymnast doing flips on a balance beam, researchers studying chimpanzees in the jungle, a family sitting down to dinner. Headphones on pillows in front of the screen add a soundtrack to the visuals: classical music, heartbeats, political speeches.

Each of these sounds and images replicate those now travelling through interstellar space, encoded as phonographic signals on a gold-plated record attached to the Voyager 1 space probe in 1977 as an introduction to humanity for any extra-terrestrial life that might come across them. These records represent “our greatest expansion of design,” says Mark Wigley, who co-curated the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial (IDB) along with Beatriz Colomina. The IDB, which opened on 22 October, takes on a similarly ambitious task: exploring the theme Are We Human?

The projects that Wigley and Colomina selected to respond to this theme range widely: from Voyager 1’s current location, 20 billion km from Earth, to down the production shaft of the TauTona gold mine in South Africa, 4km below its surface. Some travel through the invisible networks of electronic signals that criss-cross our planet, while others journey inside our very bodies, down to cells and genes.

All of these, the curators posit, are part of design, a 200,000-year-long dialogue between homo sapiens and their creations that has had far-reaching consequences for us and for the rest of the world, if not the universe. As Wigley puts it, “Design is everything you see and the way you see. There is nothing outside of design.” Working from this wildly broad definition makes for a fascinating but often perplexing biennial, one more interested in questions than answers, and in the past than the future.

The curators describe the IDB as an “archaeological exhibition,” holding archaeologists up as the “real design experts,” who reverse-engineer human design thinking over the millennia by examining the traces and objects we’ve left behind. In keeping with this theme, Wigley and Colomina selected the Istanbul Archaeological Museums as one of the event’s five venues. Seeing the museums' curated array of garishly decorated mobile phone covers next to some beaded necklaces from antiquity prompts amusement at the long human pursuit of beauty and identity through adornment. But the scant number of projects displayed in the museums and their general lack of connection with the institution’s rich, if not always well-displayed holdings, makes the venue’s inclusion feel more like a gesture than an integral component of the biennial experience.

The curation at Alt is better thought-out, with visitors who enter the subterranean space ("alt" translates to "below" in Turkish) passing first underneath a ceiling-mounted slab containing casts of 8,500-year-old footprints, and ending their tour of the galleries amidst a visual bombardment of social media imagery. Both here and at the IDB’s largest venue, the Galata Greek Primary School, the overlapping sounds and visuals of different projects on display create a visceral sense of a world the curators describe as “made up of layers and layers of design”. At the same time, though, this sensory overload can make it difficult to give the exhibits the close attention they demand. The dim lighting and poor placement of wall text in some rooms doesn’t help matters.

Wigley and Colomina vociferously reject the idea that design can only be carried out by designers; contributors to the 70-plus projects on display as part of the IDB include historians, theorists, scientists, and choreographers. The curators also seem to eschew any suggestion of intentionality as an essential element to design. When prehistoric humans first chipped away at rock to form hand axes – represented in this biennial as a grid of 3D printed objects in both original and contemporary forms, created by Istanbul-based studio PATTU – they surely did not consider how beginning to use tools would shape the evolution of their future descendants’ hands. Nor did the makers of the first mobile phones likely anticipate how thoroughly these devices would change their users’ habits, ways of thinking, and their very physiology.

Devoting almost the entire top floor of the Galata Greek Primary School to the emergence of homo cellular feels a bit superfluous given how much public discourse already occurs over the effects of our mobile phone use on our attention spans and emotional states, the omnipresence of selfies, and the environmentally and socially insalubrious aspects of the phones’ manufacture. One of six “curatorial interventions” in dialogue with participant projects, this investigation of the “human-cell phone hybrid” does inject some light notes in an overwhelmingly serious biennial, with its displays of selfie sticks tagged ancient-relic-style as homo-cellular tools and old Nokias under glass looking like the historic relics they essentially are. It also includes a graceful, if somewhat oblique, nod to the technology’s more humane aspects in the form of a wall-sized reproduction of a photograph showing refugees arriving on the shore of the Greek island of Kos, their relieved faces lit chiaroscuro-style by the glow of their cell phones.

Giving a tour of the exhibition last week ahead of its public opening, Wigley described the photograph – taken by Greek photojournalist Angelos Tzortzinis – as the “most important image” in the biennial and its subjects as “cyborgs," a term he seemed to use approvingly, or at least without judgment. How people alter their bodies chemically, surgically, and through the use of accessories or tools is a major preoccupation of the biennial, which is divided into four overlapping project “clouds": Designing the Body, Designing the Planet, Designing Life, and Designing Time.

Daniel Eisenberg’s three-screen video installation entitled The Unstable Object (II) – part of the filmmaker’s larger investigation into mass production and individualisation – depicts workers in the world’s biggest prosthetics factory, painstakingly crafting artificial hands, feet, and other body parts. Next to these artfully made, direly needed creations, the adjacent displays – on detox centres in the United States and a plastic-surgery neighbourhood in Seoul, Korea, where some patients get their faces so fully reshaped they need to have new passport photos taken – look crass and frivolous, as they were perhaps intended to.

The damage humans do to the planet as well as our own bodies is likewise amply represented in the IDB, with striking maps and animations visualising the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the accumulation of space debris in orbit around the earth, and the roads, shipping lanes, and flight paths criss-crossing the globe. In Ali Kazma’s hypnotic short video Safe, shot in and around the snow-covered Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, the environmental threat is only implied, a menace lurking far outside the vault’s remote, rock-embedded walls. In the equally mesmerising Texas City Landscan, the Centre for Land Use Interpretation’s slow flyover of one of the world’s largest industrial sites – a four-mile wide oil refinery in the United States – the danger seems not only immediate, but omnipresent.

Overall, the curators’ wide-ranging selection of projects well represents their stated aim of “rethinking design from the beginning of humanity.” Upon leaving the venues of the IDB, it’s difficult to look at even the simplest, most banal objects in the outside world without considering the role design played in their creation. But with so many displayed projects heavily reliant on archival material and accumulated data, this is, intentionally, a design biennial more focused on contemplating design than actually designing anything. The literal making of things is mostly relegated to side events like the Design Routes tours, which include visits to artisans’ ateliers, and the Sustainability in Fashion Design workshop and exhibition.

Having done so much to demonstrate why “design needs to be redesigned," the curators scarcely hint at how this call in their manifesto could be answered, despite their urgent description of “a planet and a species in unprecedented crisis.” I couldn’t help finding a poignant parallel to the 3rd iteration of the IDB in one of its exhibits, a room full of photographs, pamphlets, news articles, and other materials related to Buckminster Fuller’s World Game. The late American architect and inventor envisioned this game, which he devised in the 1960s, as a way for the global public to participate in figuring out the fairest, most sustainable way to reallocate the world’s resources. Instead, the wall text dryly notes, “the game remained largely speculative and pedagogical.”