OPINION

The Future Is Not What It Used To Be

Istanbul

12 November 2014

There are few objects and many unresolved questions at the second Istanbul Design Biennial this autumn.

Curators Zoë Ryan and Meredith Carruthers titled it The Future Is Not What It Used To Be after an evergreen observation made by poet Paul Valery in 1937, and created an exhibition – ambitious and brainy, theoretical and theatrical – that overflowed with exhibits dealing with diverse topics, but not always in a compelling or legible way. 

The theme was bifurcated, much like the building that houses the exhibition, which was bisected by a white banner bearing Agit Prop-scale quotations (in a leaning Caslon Doric font customised by New York-based graphic design studio Project Projects). Participating designers were asked to reimagine both what the future is and also the medium of the manifesto. Where past manifestos – the Futurist Manifesto, say, or Dogme 95 – have seemed idealistic and dogmatic, the curators asked if they might instead be discursive and grounded in daily life. Could they take the form of an “open system” instead of text? 

Presenting every project as a manifesto however put pressure on relatively small projects to act big, diminishing the notion that the manifesto can be a catalyst for cultural change. At times, the privileging of “open systems” over text meant that there was either too much to read or too little, leaving meaning unclear in either event. Formafantasma’s Open Manifesto, for example, was a portrait of their practice in collages, images, soundless videos (subtitled in Turkish) and a few unlabelled objects that the catalog described as “statements in themselves.” Formafantasma’s is an important practice that weds experimentation in both craftsmanship and materials, and the designers intended the format of their presentation to create “a condition of wondering and questioning.” It achieved both, but perhaps to too great a degree.

The white banner that bifurcates the building, featuring a font customised by design studio Project Projects (IMAGE Ali Guler)

A manifesto is a declaration of motives and goals that represents the end of a period of wondering and questioning: a commitment to, and prescription for, change. Dutch design company Droog, Super Normal (designers Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa) and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier have all in the past published design and technology manifestos. But it seems a stretch to suggest that many of the projects presented in Istanbul – collaborative architectural drafting (Public Drawing by Atelier Bow-Wow), an introduction to the Turkish bonito fish (Palamut Timeline by Didem Şenol with Elif Esmez and Esra Acar) or designing ways to nap in public space (Nap Gap by Jürgen Mayer H. with Wilko Hoffmann and Julien Sarale), for instance – are also manifestos.

Many posterboard presentations of intriguing conceptual or experimental projects felt incomplete or hastily put together: Sean Lally’s almost wordless New Energy Landscapes depicts (in illustrated photos of models) invisible architecture “built” from electromagnetic, thermodynamic, acoustic or chemical energy, while in the comparatively wordy Designing for the Sixth Extinction, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg adapts synthetic biology to create (drawings of) a bio-remediating slug. Another room was crowded with 13 tall sandwich boards full of text, introducing (an excellent selection of) historical design exhibitions – from the IBM Pavilion to Expo ’70 – that could be considered manifestos in their own right. Yet while the show featured roughly half the number of exhibits (53) of the first biennial (100+), there still seemed to be too much content for the curators to effectively fit into five floors and a 408-page catalogue.

Sean Lally’s New Energy Landscapes (IMAGE Ali Guler)

Lush illustrations inked for design thinkers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in their United Micro Kingdoms: Lives and Landscapes project depicted scenes from “four imaginary countries in a parallel world” and “alternative futures for the UK” that represented an evolution of a complex series of sociological fantasy realms whose meaning remained obstinately opaque to anyone who wasn’t already familiar with the project. But one couldn’t help but wonder what kind of “alternative futures” Dunne & Raby could create for, say, Turkey’s civil war-torn neighbour Syria? Objects like a carpet made of sugar or a pink cubbyhole for napping that might give viewers pause in Chicago or Paris, may not prove as engaging in Istanbul right now. How much should a biennial influence its location and vice-versa?

“The projects deal with issues that are inherently related to Turkish life, but are also issues that the rest of the world is grappling with,” says Ryan. “The biennial positions issues that are critical to Turkey within an international dialogue to encourage an exchange of ideas and make clear that Turkey, a country currently emerging and redefining itself, is a place we can learn from. Our aim is to show that the biennial is an essential platform for identifying and presenting critical issues that question the role that design can play and its agency in contemporary life.”

Nap Gap by Jürgen Mayer H. with Wilko Hoffmann and Julien Sarale (IMAGE Ali Guler)

Contemporary life and Turks’ agency in it has become increasingly uncertain in recent years. During the Gezi Park protests last summer, many Turks proved tirelessly resourceful, resilient and brave, using Twitter and other social media to further their aims. Protesters used Twitter to coordinate the transport of street animals affected by teargas around Taksim Square to free veterinary clinics. When Turkey’s then-prime minister (and now president) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan banned Twitter and YouTube, graffiti blossomed across city walls depicting strings of alternate DNS numbers, allowing people to slip past Turkey’s firewall. And when deputy prime minister Bulent Arınc said that Turkish women shouldn't laugh in public, #direnkahkaha (#resistlaugh) began trending. 

The goal of TWTRATE, a Twitter-based project in the Biennial from seven Turkish designers, was to “collect and visualize a dynamic manifesto drawn from design-related Tweets … suggesting that the totality of individuals on Twitter might create a collective, though decentralized, voice”. They didn't mention that it already had. 

Atelier Bow-Wow's drawing of Istanbul's Galata Bridge (IMAGE Ali Guler)

Retreat by Ethel Baraona, Marina Otero and Malkit Shoshan also dealt with controversial current issues – terrorism, remote warfare, disaffection – and made a compelling read. A wall-mounted series of alphabetised tear-away pads formed a dictionary of words related to withdrawal from civic life: Shield, Shopping Mall, Thermal Imaging, with blank pages under words such as Introversion, Safety or Utopia that you could tear off and write notes on. Yet as in an art gallery, the designs weren't obliged to have a practical application as long as a big idea was introduced. A detailed architectural drawing of Galata Bridge by Atelier Bow-Wow in collaboration with local students represents a notional victory in the battle for public space, but only if you assume that the act of Turkish and Japanese students successfully “negotiating” space on a blank sheet of drawing paper is, in itself, a victory. 

DisturbATI Collective's ABC Manifesto Corporation projects, featuring a variety of objects to help people make their own manifestos (IMAGE Ali Guler)

Like Adhocracy, the first design biennial co-curated by former Domus editor Joseph Grima in 2012, Future tried to draw from a spectrum of design and other disciplines, and to tap all of the senses. There was a smell map of the city (Nasalo Dictionary of Smell, Sissel Tolaas), food-related projects and a design walk devoted to street sounds – projects with “tendrils,” as Ryan put it, that reach out of the building. The show was more playful, participatory and entertaining than Adhocracy, with tattoo vending machines in the toilets (Poly by giffin’termeer); a music video by Sputniko! a female pop star, computer scientist and MIT Media Lab professor (The Moonwalk Machine); and a blackened room in which a visitor’s chosen avatar became the hero of a video game (In the Future, Everyone Will Be Heroic for 1.5 Minutes, Sarraf Galeyan Mekanik). But while Adhocracy’s transparency and DIY ethos challenged the design world hierarchy, Future’s alternating diffuseness and opacity seemed only to confirm it. 

It was wonderful then, to find that the most memorable critique of the biennial was the curators’ own: On the roof, at the midpoint of the show, Italy’s DisturbATI Collective opened the fictional offices of the ABC Manifesto Corporation where visitors filled red shopping baskets with absurd objects –an iron, a plastic head, a fabric dartboard, smudged photocopies of historical manifestos, the results of a psychological test – in order to customise a personal manifesto they never even had to think about. Perched atop a building in which everything had become a manifesto, ABC suggested that the manifesto had become meaningless. And if that wasn’t clear enough, after each statement had been read out loud in front of a camera, it was fed immediately into a compact shredder.