Vera Sacchetti & Tamar Shafrir. A Good Virus

Partly triggered by the crisis and partly fighting to stay relevant, in recent years biennials have stepped out of their traditional boundaries by inviting multidisciplinary teams of curators to share relevant perspectives, exploring controversial niches in the design world or overlapping design and architecture with politics and policy.

When in November 2011 Italian architecture and design magazine Domus charted what it coined as the “Biennialozoic Era”, a foldout spread displayed a world map with a comprehensive overview of architecture, art and design events throughout the world. In a methodical manner, the mock atlas illustrated 150 events of the kind, from the Biennial of Design in Ljubljana, founded in 1964, to the 2012 inaugural edition of the Istanbul Design Biennial. Of these, 65% have been founded in the last fifteen years, the most recent being the newly announced Biennial of Architecture in Chicago, which will hold its first edition in 2015.

While some of these events are born in contexts that have been historically culturally rich – such as Venice or Istanbul –, others are created in the hopes of generating cultural value for a given location, becoming a catalyst and driver for culture or commerce. Inherent to the modernist context in which these manifestations were initially founded was a blind faith in progress – industrial progress. In Ljubljana, the Biennial of Design (BIO) was a showcase of the industry’s finer achievements, a platform for sharing and encouraging excellence in industrial production from both the East and West of Europe. It also acted, very simply, as a pedagogical experiment. Much like the Good Design shows proposed by the MoMA in the 1940s and 1950s, it educated its visitors in what was effectively “good” in design, and encouraged national organizations and governments to pursue it and commit to it. By displaying products organized by categories instead of country, BIO subscribed to a very modernist ideal of standardization for all. As David Crowley states in this volume, this worldview believed that no borders were, simply, a benefit of modernity, with no understanding of the very real consequences – economic and otherwise – of looming globalization.

Although the early post-war design biennials were unable to properly distance themselves from the trade fair, their only contemporary parallel, the two terms would wrestle in the following years. It was only when “culture” became a de facto economical export, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that the two were effectively reconciled, and biennials and design weeks alike were founded at an alarming rate all over the northern hemisphere. Thin lines differentiate them at times, but a distinction seems to have crystallized that while a biennial offers an externalized, “curated” view of the commercial world of design, pushing boundaries and proposing new perspectives, a design week is markedly open for business, embracing design’s commercial dimension to the fullest.

Partly triggered by the crisis and partly fighting to stay relevant, in recent years biennials have stepped out of their traditional boundaries by inviting multidisciplinary teams of curators to share relevant perspectives, exploring controversial niches in the design world or overlapping design and architecture with politics and policy. Even if confined to a predetermined set of buildings, such as in Venice or Gwangju, most biennials have opened up to the city and a less specialized audience. Exhibitions, events and happenings have overflowed into the surroundings, temporarily transforming the urban space to the delight and intrigue of the passerby, or opening the doors of previously closed-off, exclusive areas of the city. While at first these dynamic invasions dressed up public space in celebratory attire, soon the impact of these temporary, cosmetic changes came under scrutiny. After the duration of the biennial, what remained, other than a huge pile of trash to be discarded or (hopefully) recycled?

Seeking to create a different program with a longer-lasting impact on the city, the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale selected a young, mostly unknown curatorial team spearheaded by British curator Beatrice Galilee. Surrounding herself with similarly young and energetic curators – Liam Young, Mariana Pestana and José Esparza – Galilee proposed a lively program of exhibitions, events and installations focusing on public participation and involvement, connecting architecture and design to politics and economy, in a country deeply affected by the 2008 crisis and under an IMF bailout. The result was something the city had never seen: in September 2013, the opening week of the Triennale included, for example, public presentations by mayoral candidates at the Frida Escobedo-designed New Publics civic stage, in one of the busiest public squares in Lisbon. Galilee and her team, alongside the local Triennale team, managed to engage with an emerging generation of local young architects, bringing to the forefront and connecting a network of unknown practitioners. Galilee used the web actively, transferring her proposals and the debate they generated to a platform that could be experienced from anywhere in the world. An older generation, however, did not see itself reflected in the event, and ultimately accused the chief curator of inexperience and disregard for the local scene, interpreting her efforts as a direct attack on the status quo.

The event had its share of mishaps, failing to engage with the community of architecture students in the country and at times miscommunicating its premises and goals to the local audience, but the result was an intense discussion, both off- and online, which led the local community to question its aims, objectives and boundaries. While the results will only become fully visible as time progresses, the 2013 Triennale deeply impacted the Portuguese architecture scene, and stands as an example of the power a manifestation of this kind can have in our day and age.

In a similar effort, Jan Boelen has orchestrated an even larger-scale operation for BIO 50, the 2014 Biennial of Design in Ljubljana. The context is particularly interesting; the event’s rich history is combined with a privileged geographical positioning, just slightly off the design epicenter, which allows for a more experimental character. Radically transforming what had become a negligible showcase of mostly anachronistic objects, and working alongside the event’s local organizer, the Museum of Architecture and Design, Boelen created a collaborative odyssey where more than a hundred participants voluntarily teamed up with people they did not know to tackle issues that impact “everyday life”. The themes were carefully researched, and several local agents were involved prior to the elaboration of the Biennial’s brief, attesting to Boelen’s willingness to impact the context of the event. The goal is collaboration, not a series of finished products for display. Technology plays an important role, with collaborative processes overflowing to the web, in Facebook groups, Google Drive folders, Tumblr blogs and Pinterest boards. The timeframe, six months. The risk of failure is immense.

Strongly rooted in its local context, BIO 50 has involved hundreds of agents, effectively creating a small ecosystem that can serve as a model for production. Simultaneously, it has generated stronger links to the city than in previous editions. Not only has a remarkably large network of local agents been involved in the preparation of the event, but upon the opening, various exhibitions and events will take to the streets of Ljubljana, effectively bringing the developed work into contact with the local context. All teams involved in BIO 50 have worked with Slovenian-based partners and companies, seeking to develop projects that would continue past the Biennial. At a higher level, discussions to formulate a national design policy will materialize upon the Biennial’s opening, effectively creating an impact that will last long beyond the duration of the event.

And perhaps this design biennial is the ideal scenario to reflect on alternatives to the untenable models of 20th-century production that such events once celebrated, ultimately glorifying luxury and exclusivity or obsolete technological innovations under the pressures of the market. Could a design biennial pioneer a new working methodology to encourage such an evolution? Rather than presenting the object of design in the isolation of the white cube (as if it had sprung fully-formed from the designer’s imagination like Athena emerging out of the sword-split in Zeus’s skull), the stage could be given to the full chain of ideas, materials, systems, and agents involved in the design, fabrication, and commercialization of design objects, systems and frameworks – the ensemble cast of a play that thus far has been acted out behind the scenes, in silence.

Beyond the results that such a process can yield, what BIO 50 ultimately advocates is the sort of modest utopia that lead to the original Biennial of Design’s foundation in 1964, by displaying alternatives to our current modes of production, and harboring in itself a strong alternative to what a design event can be. May these results inspire many others to search for their own alternatives, and act as a good virus, spreading across previously established limits and boundaries.

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Vera Sacchetti is a design writer and critic, managing editor at the Barragán Foundation and co-founder of editorial consultancy Superscript. She is a graduate of the SVA MFA in Design Criticism, which she attended as a Fulbright scholar. Vera was web editor at Domus, co-edited The Adhocracy Reader for the first Istanbul Design Biennial, and lead of international communications at the EXD’11 Lisbon design biennale. With Superscript, she recently curated the Towards A New Avant-Garde event series for the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale. Her writing has appeared in Domus, Disegno and Frame, among others.

Tamar Shafrir is a writer and designer based in Genoa, Italy. She co-founded Space Caviar, a design research collective, with Joseph Grima in 2013. They have co-curated exhibitions for EXD’13 Lisbon, the Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, Atelier Clerici in Milan, and the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale. Her articles have been published in Domus magazine, and she was catalogue editor for the first Istanbul Design Biennial and a contributor to Printing Things (Gestalten). She has lectured at the Design Academy Eindhoven and Domus Academy.