4 May 2013

The exhibition Adhocracy is opening at The New Museum in New York today. Disegno saw the show in its first incarnation during the first Istanbul Design Biennial last autumn.

“If the last industrial revolution was about making perfect objects - millions of them, all the same, to the exactingly consistent standards prescribed by the International Organization for Standardization - this one is about making just one, or a few. It looks to the workshop, rather than the factory, as its epicenter of production and innovation. Instead of pursuing perfection, it embraces imperfection as an expression of identity.”

These are the words of curator and Domus editor Joseph Grima in response to The Economist’s announcement of a third industrial revolution in its April 21, 2012 edition. If we are undergoing this third industrial revolution, then what are the implications for the design profession and the consumer? That’s the question that Grima’s exhibition Adhocracy was trying to resolve at the inaugural Istanbul Design Biennale in October 2012.

The press images that remain of it are conspicuous because of their lack of visual appeal. The pieces included in Adhocracy have a ready-made aesthetic, making them attractive because of their ability to invite collaboration, but not so much for the final outcome. The pieces have a rawness, their parts clearly telling of their previous uses and whereabouts - such as a kettle made up of a glass jug, a heating element and an electricity cord - demonstrating the simplicity with which a consumer object can be replicated. It is part of the Openstructures.net database where users can upload designs that are then altered and discussed collectively. But it’s not pretty. You cannot even be sure that these pieces have identity: they blend into one mass, appearing consciously un-designed and anti-aesthetic.

“Must a creative work inevitably be guided by the tyranny of one person’s heroic vision? Should the audience, the reader, the public, the inhabitant be actively involved in the processes of creative production? What stands to be gained from renouncing the idea of the individual authorship? Where does the work of the designer end and the control of the user take over?” Asks Grima in the exhibition’s catalogue. And this is the crux of the third industrial revolution - it redefines the role of both the consumer and designer. It throws the latter off the pedestal, which was created for the profession sometime with the arrival of Modernism in the early 20th century, while putting higher expectations on the abilities of the end user. To what end, nobody knows.

Despite The Economist’s bold statement in April 2012, this is not a new phenomenon and Grima clearly points to its history in this show, which starts off with a series of publications on Spazio e Società by the Italian architect Giancarlo De Carlo from the 1970s, who fought for the inclusion of the user in the design process of buildings. Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione - instructions which he published in book form in 1974, showing how to create DIY furniture from cheap, raw materials - also appear in the exhibition’s early stages.

However, in both these cases the intent is political, anti-authoritarian, closely linked to both creators’ left-field political views. Nowadays the politics of these statements seem less straightforward. In fact, the idea of the consumer taking an active role in shaping his/her surroundings, sounds like something from the right-wing Tory agenda Big Society. Although Grima argues that “to create something is to interrogate oneself as to the value of labour, the nature of intellectual property, the ethics of consumption, the limits of technique, the order of power”, it seems that in its 21st-century guise, this open-source design strategy is ultimately a preoccupation with process.

For example, how do new technologies such as 3D printing give rise to new aesthetic possibilities, asks Antwerp-based Unfold’s Stratigraphic Manufactury. The studio has designed seven vessels and sent the digital files to four different manufacturers who used 3D printing techniques to create the pieces in porcelain, with each outcome very different from the other, demonstrating the individuality of machines.

Only 25 projects will be included in the New Museum show, compared to the close to hundred projects that were sprawled over four floors at the Greek Galata Primary School in Istanbul. The focus is on on-site “laboratories of production”, inviting the audience to interact with the exhibits, such as Blablablab’s Be Your Own Souvenir where visitors are scanned and can then walk away with a 3-D printed miniature of themselves.

Doubtless, it will be a very different experience seeing the show at the SANAA-designed New Museum in New York, compared to at the Istanbul Design Biennale. There it served as an interesting starting-point for a new design biennale, challenging the hierarchical design world.