Jan Boelen on curating BIO 50


7 January 2014

This year one of the world's oldest design events, the Ljubljana Biennial of Design (BIO) turns 50. First hosted in 1964, this Slovenian design festival is now being reinvented by Jan Boelen, a Belgian design curator tasked with overhauling the event for its 24th edition.

Boelen – the founder and artistic director of Hasselt's Z33 museum and head of the Master department of Social Design at Design Academy Eindhoven – was invited to invent a new curatorial direction for BIO, which opens in September 2014. A fierce critic of many design festivals and biennials, Boelen has taken the opportunity to cast Slovenia's festival as an opportunity for experimentation and cross-disciplinary practice.

Aiding Boelen in the biennial are a collection of leading designers and critics. Rianne Makkink and Aldo Bakker will both act as mentors in the production of projects for the biennial, while Konstantin Grcic and Alice Rawsthorne will join the Slovenian designer Saša J. Mächtig on the biennial jury. "Konstantin and Alice are two people who are really interested in collaboration and who see the value of bringing people together with different perspectives," says Boelen. An open call for participants for BIO 50 is currently open.

Below, Boelen speaks to Disegno about his motivation for curating a design biennial, as well as explaining the direction in which he will lead BIO 50.

How did you get involved with the Ljubljana Design Biennial?
I was invited to give a lecture there in May, when I wasn’t aware of the Biennial. I’m not that interested in design biennials or events really. Most of the time I find them useless or uninteresting; they’re parties and the day after a party you have a hangover. What did you learn? What’s the meaning of them? So when I was at the lecture I asked the Ljubljana organisers why they wanted to do a biennial and what they wanted to get out of it. After a few questions they said, “Why don’t you curate the biennial if you have so many comments.” It’s easy to criticise and not formulate an alternative.

How did you find the city?
I discovered all kinds of interesting things. It’s one of the oldest design biennials in the world for instance. But the economy has really imploded in Slovenia, so the question is about how you can make a difference in a place where the economic crisis has hit really hard. But it’s an interesting context to work with. There’s a scene of young Slovenian designers who are really ambitious and it’s a very dynamic, energetic field.

How did you begin planning the biennial?
I talked to the people involved in the design scene there and they were very keen on ideas of connecting and collaborating. They want to engage with more people and create things together. Previously, the biennial was just a competition. You entered your stuff and if it was selected, it was put on a plinth. I didn’t like that. I want to produce new content and commission people. So I focused on the idea of local and international collaborations. Instead of being very passive, I want to create an active, process-orientated biennial. I don’t know what the outcomes will be and don’t know what will be presented, but I have defined certain topics and themes.

The themes are things such as Affordable Living, Knowing Food, Public Water Public Space, and The Fashion System. How did you develop those?
What I did was listen to people in Ljubljana. What did they want to do and what fields were they interested in? One person I met was a cook who had a vast knowledge about where the food he was preparing was coming from; how it had been cultivated; how it had been harvested. This is knowledge that many of us have forgotten and I think that interest in context is very relevant for design today. It’s not, for instance about the plate anymore – it’s about the food that is on the plate and where it’s from, how it’s processed, if it’s healthy, if it’s organic. These elements are the points of discussion we have around the table and the plate has just become an object serving that idea. Those sorts of concerns are inspirational for designers to work with and collaborate on. So each topic is related to everyday life.

What has the reception been like? How have the Ministry of Culture reacted and the people who used to organise the biennial, for instance?
It was a bit tough at the beginning, but they knew something had to change with the old format and it’s easier if someone from outside is proposing that change and formulating the needs, because you can bring in another view and see the things that they perhaps take for granted, but which are meaningful.

Is there a risk that that is patronising? “We can see what is good for you.”
It depends. You’re right to ask, but that’s why I’ve been talking to people to see what is of interest to them. It isn’t curation as such, I have just stumbled upon interesting things. If I saw people who were engaged with or talking about something that they wanted to share and they had a certain knowhow and passion for, then I wanted to help them fulfil that dream. I don’t think that’s patronising. I think it’s more patronising to ignore dreams and to just say “Buy this chair.” An approach that many events take.

There’s currently an open call for participants.
Yes and participants who are successful will be formed into groups to collaborate on projects for the biennial. Design in general has become a collaborative process and that process is done by designers with different profiles and backgrounds. They can go from a very socially-orientated person, to an engineer, to someone who is very engaged with making. All these different perspectives – economical, technological, sociological, cultural – enrich topics and projects. This biennial will be a kind of laboratory for design collaboration. There will be failures, but failure is interesting if you’re aware of it and what you learned from it.

What are you looking for in people’s applications?
They need to apply with a certain motivation and explain why they want to be a part of a group or work on a theme. I want people to be aware of which process they want to be a part of. So they have to provide a motivation, but they also have to say how they want to participate. That’s what we expect – the why and the how.

You mentioned your disillusionment with many biennials. How will this differ from others?
My ambition is to create a new format for a design biennial. For example, what I felt about the last Istanbul Biennale, Adhocracy, was that it wasn’t a part of the daily life of Istanbul itself. I liked its critical edge and its contents very much, but if it had been more a part of the city, then things really would have happened as a result of it. I think it was design about design and self-referential, – which is very nice – but design today needs to relate to everyday life. For me that’s urgent.

You could also look at the Lisbon Architecture Triennale, which I liked a lot. It had a political, poetic, activistic and institutional approach, all strategies which had the potential to reformulate the relevance of architecture nowadays. So I liked that, but I also thought that the same event could have been done Belgium. Only one exhibition was really site-specific. So I keep coming back to where I started from. Why a biennial? I don’t want to be flown in somewhere and be a nomadic curator popping up and organising parties, drinking champagne. It needs to be meaningful and it needs to be contextual.