Back to School


27 September 2018

Walking around Istanbul, especially in the older parts of the city, it’s not hard to spot examples of what has been affectionately dubbed “Turknology.”

It could be a stack of Styrofoam blocks elevating a portable grill up to waist-height. Or the frame of an old pram converted into a street vendor’s cart. Or a metal post sunk into a cement-filled yoghurt bucket to create a mobile parking barrier.

As documented by master’s student Nur Horsanalı in a book, video and map, these aren’t just clever, if makeshift, solutions to everyday challenges – they’re also the kernel from which grew the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial, which opened 22 September under the title A School of Schools.

“This is the project the biennial started with; it’s not just about the objects themselves, but the people involved, the webs they create,” says curator Jan Boelen. He has spun his own web over six cultural institutions – Akbank Sanat, Yapi Kredi Culture Centre, Arter, Pera Museum, SALT Galata and Studio-X Istanbul – in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district, with each biennial venue given the name of a new type of multidisciplinary “school.”

Horsanalı’s project, titled Halletmek after the Turkish word for sorting or figuring something out, reflects one of Boelen’s stated goals for this biennial: taking design education, which he feels has become formulaic and insular, out of the classroom and into the streets. Quoting political and social thinker Ivan Illich, the author of the 1971 book Deschooling Society, Boelen says the aim is “to transform each moment of living into one of learning.”

Many of the most intriguing works in this biennial draw from, or play with, types or sources of knowledge that are generally little-valued, from the vernacular design of Halletmek – on display at Akbank Sanat, aka the “Unmaking School” – to the first-person interviews with Syrian refugees that artist Ebru Kurbak inserted into related sections of a travel guidebook. An entire page under the header “Around Damascus & The Hauran” has been redacted, for example, and replaced with a quote from a woman named Tamara that begins, “The most beautiful day-trip locations around Damascus have become battlefields.” Titled Lonely Planet, this is one of three works by Kurbak in the biennial, all included as part of the “Currents School” at Yapı Kredi Culture Centre.

Infrequently Asked Questions by Ebru Kurbak. IMAGE Kayhan Kaygusuz, courtesy of Istanbul Design Biennial.

Kurbak’s other two contributions, both particularly strong, challenge the underestimation of domestic skills, especially those that are traditionally considered feminine. As a Turkish migrant to Austria herself, the artist observed how women from Somalia, Afghanistan and Turkey were given courses to help them integrate into Austrian society, and wondered what such education would look like if the roles were reversed. Her project Infrequently Asked Questions explores skills that these immigrant women have described in workshops with the artist as necessary in their home countries: how to select the most appropriate sticks for building a nomad’s hut; how to pick a good watermelon; how to milk a camel, or fillet a swordfish.

Created with a group of collaborators, Kurbak’s Stitching Worlds installation re-envisions textile handicrafts as a potential medium for manufacturing electronics. Using yarn woven through with metal thread, Kurbak and company have created delicate embroidered circuits that actually perform basic computations, and a Yarn Recorder that registers and plays back sound. The cheekily titled The Knitcoin Edition suggests a variation on the board game Monopoly where players have to knit their own money from patterns — a reminder that the shells, beads, metal discs and pieces of paper that people have traded with and fought over across the centuries have no value other than what we have collectively ascribed to them.

The question of value is also at the heart of Cansu Cürgen and Avşar Gürpınar’s Ambiguous Standards Institute, a series of works riffing on the Werkbund crates developed in 1950s Germany as sample boxes of good design. Cürgen and Gürpınar’s crates, displayed at the Pera Museum (the “Scales School” in Istanbul Design Biennial parlance), instead contain assortments of sounds, objects, and even moulds of hand gestures that interrogate how standards come into being in the first place. A box of birds’ eggs in different sizes, shapes, patterns and colours, for example, prompts the viewer to wonder how and why these diverse varieties have been whittled down by the market into just a few options that are considered acceptable to sell and eat.

Gökhan Mura’s Object Academy, included in the “Digestion School” at Studio-X Istanbul, similarly presents a series of items – in this case, gifts brought back to Turkey by migrant workers living in Europe – whose worth is mutable, rather than fixed. Tools like a yoghurt maker, a cheese cutter and a potato peeler, seen in Europe as helpful labour-saving devices, gathered dust in Turkey, where they weren’t deemed suited to local food-making culture or ingredients, Mura’s research found.

Gökhan Mura’s Object Academy. IMAGE courtesy of Istanbul Design Biennial.

This gets at a question biennial curator Boelen thinks is too often forgotten: what (and who) is design for? Railing against the standardisation of design education that he says has resulted in hundreds of students with nearly indistinguishable portfolios, Boelen called in his announcement of the A School of Schools concept for a reinvention of the biennial format as a “playground to test new possibilities.”

Though the concept posits a complete reimagining of design education, few of the 120 projects selected from a wide-ranging open call for “schools” and “learners” put forward a total vision for a different kind of learning. Two notable exceptions are the graphic design collective åbäke’s proposal for a Fugu School that would teach biology, geography, philosophy, politics and all other subjects through the lens of the poisonous fugu fish, a Japanese delicacy that is now an invasive species in the Mediterranean; and Studio Makkink & Bey’s WaterSchool, an idea for a primary school with a curriculum centred around the theme of water that also operates self-sufficiently, using as inspiration the model of the old Turkish hans that combined commerce, manufacturing and lodging.

Overall, the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial seems like less of a radical break from and more of a synthesis of previous instalments, however, taking the expanded definition of design put forward by 2016’s Are We Human? and applying to it the activist sensibility of 2014’s The Future Is Not What It Used To Be.

Boelen’s idea of a biennial as “an attitude of using design to contribute to larger societal issues” is felt most urgently at Arter, the so-called “Earth School,” home to what the curator characterises as “a critical mass of projects related to survival.”

In Hope on Water, the Istanbul-based design firm SO? and its collaborators tackle the looming threat of a massive earthquake that continually hangs over the city. Starting from a news report about the development of dozens of open spaces that were supposed to provide safe gathering spaces when “the big one” hit, this interdisciplinary research project resulted in a prototype for floating emergency shelters that could be anchored all along Istanbul’s Golden Horn waterway.

Another practical-minded project at Arter, Atelier LUMA Algae Lab’s Blooming Algae, displays the aesthetically and environmentally pleasing results of experiments to replace fossil-fuel-based plastics with microalgae. One such collection is based on designs from leading Turkish housewares firm Paşabahçe. It includes a pair of stylish rakı glasses whose winding motif recalls not only the traditional Ottoman glass-blowing technique çeşm-i bülbül, but also the spirulina algae biopolymers these modern drinking vessels are made from and the spiral 3D printing mode with which they’re manufactured.

Also at Arter, the eclectic collection of materials and designs gathered by SulSolSal for its on-going design research Staying Alive contemplates survival strategies for all kinds of disasters: ecological, financial, political. At turns humorous and horrifying, the assembled items — dubbed a “Whole Earth Catalogue 2.0” by Boelen — include everything from a pocket chainsaw to a book called Handbook of Tyranny, a doomsday clock to a concept for drone delivery of the morning-after pill.

Research- and process-based works like Staying Alive are one hallmark of this biennial. So too are open-source projects and those that are still being developed in front of viewers’ eyes, and in some cases with their participation. This latter group includes a magazine, YAY-POP, being written, designed and produced live during the event with weekly editorial meetings open to the public; and an artificial-intelligence experiment, [AI]stanbul, that will be learning about the city of Istanbul from visitors throughout the run of the biennial.

Conceptualising a biennial as an ongoing event may seem like a handy way of putting off assessments of its overall achievement, but the longer-term implications are exactly what Boelen has hinged the event’s success or failure upon.

“I want to build something that lasts after this biennial,” he said last year after being named curator. “I don’t want to just have a party, and a hangover afterwards.”