Bio 50 and the importance of process


2 October 2014

When a biennial has stayed loyal to the same format for more than 40 years, it takes a certain temerity to rethink it.

Last week BIO 50 in Ljubljana opened. It is the latest iteration of Slovenia’s design biennial (BIO) and this year is curated by Jan Boelen, founding director of the Z33 art and design museum and a professor at Design Academy Eindhoven. For its 24th edition, BIO has quietly reinvented itself, shifting away from a showcase of finished design objects and instead placing collaboration and process at its forefront. 

With a population of just over 270,000, Ljubljana is one of Europe’s smaller capitals. Its size however has not hindered its potential as an incubator for design. The city’s biennial is the world’s oldest, first taking place in 1963, and it has previously featured works by big name designers such as Ron Arad, Philippe Stark and Marcel Wanders. Yet Boelen’s involvement marks only the second time that BIO has been guest curated (the first coming in 2012 when it was overseen by Dutch design PRs and curators Margo Konings and Margriet Vollenberg) and for this edition Boelen invited a jury of design experts – industrial designer Konstantin Grcic, design critic Alice Rawsthorn and designer and professor Saša J. Mächtig – to judge the projects on display.

BIO 50 is the first biennial that Boelen has curated and his approach is participatory and experimental. It is one that sees audiences as active participants rather than passive observers and this is familiar from Boelen's work at Z33. In 2013, for instance, a project at the museum (overseen by London design collective Åbäke) brought a performative aspect to Z33, inviting an invigilator to lead visitors through the galleries, telling them stories about the ordinary objects on display. A similar emphasis on participation and collaboration is present in Boelen's development of BIO 50. As a result, the biennial brings together the collaborative efforts of more than 120 international multidisciplinary designers.

Arranged into 11 teams, these designers were invited to tackle themes based around local issues (affordable living, hidden crafts, nanotourism, the fashion system and public water public space, among others) while also offering perspectives on possible futures for design. “During my research for the biennial I met very interesting people who had dreams for a possible future”, says Boelen. “It was that link between the past and the possibility for the future that made me start thinking that maybe we can find and develop a biannual as a place for production rather that just as a place to present polished finished products that have already been on the market for several years”.

Over a six month period the teams collectively developed their projects, each collaborating differently. Nanotourism - a team exploring the possibilities of an alternative, participatory and locally-charged tourism - split themselves into two groups. The first group researched possible experiences of tourism and how these translated into regional potentials within Slovenia, while the second group developed these findings into tangible projects. Their collaborative efforts resulted in the BIO 50 Hotel - a space within Ljubljana’s MAO gallery where members of the public can apply to spend a night in exchange for a personal contribution to the biennial. During their stay visitors are encouraged to customise the space and interact with the exhibits. This participatory and experimental approach subsequently won the BIO 50 award for best collaboration.

Comparatively, Affordable Living explored how contemporary, inexpensive living could be achieved through the development of multiple individual projects. Collaborating remotely, team H.A.U.S developed their ideas around this sense of distance. They created architectural models that directly folded up into packages that could then be mailed between America to Slovenia, the most cost efficient way of sharing designs with one another. “In the past collaboration has been much more clean-cut about who was involved, but now it is branching out and expanding,” says jury member Grcic. “BIO 50 involves people that are spread out across the globe because we now have the tools to connect people. It is amazing to see how the young generation connect and how natural it is for them to use the tools that engage with this type of practice.”

The collaboration within these multidisciplinary groups is at the core of BIO 50. Although not neglected by the discussion, the finished products exhibited in the biennial were given secondary importance to each team’s attitude towards developing them. “This biennial is an exhibition not of final finished projects but rather showing the production of things - something still in process but yet already tangible,” says Grcic. “It is something quite unique and ambitious. The nice dimension to the work on show is that it is about triggering ideas, putting them in motion and seeing what shall come out of it.” The catalogue accompanying the biennial is a reflection of this. Rather than a series of product shots – typical of some other biennials – it has a scrapbook aesthetic that is replete with sketches, email exchanges, Facebook posts and photographs from field trips. It is an honest and meticulous documentation of the processes integral to the development of each project over the six month period.

BIO 50 has made a laudable start in cementing its identity as a biennial that emphasises and showcases design in process. Whereas, for instance, the London Design Festival is most celebrated as a platform for installations and Milan Design Week is built upon industry and commerce, BIO is attempting to stake a claim as a festival that shifts its focus away from these areas and instead exposes the thought process and collaborative efforts behind design. “One of the best things about BIO 50 is its honesty”, says jury member Rawsthorn. “Through exposing the process, it doesn't shy away from its failures.”

As part as the design-in-process concept, the projects on display at the biennial do not have the polished aesthetic or mechanical precision of those displayed at other biennials, yet this is a sacrifice the event seems happy to make. Rather than a showcase, BIO 50 is a refreshing platform for experimentation or, as Boelen describes it, “a laboratory for design”. The question of how Boelen’s concepts will translate to further editions of BIO perhaps remains unclear, but as a model for showcasing transparent, process-led design, BIO 50 sets a significant precedent.