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“Design that can be spoken of is not the eternal design”

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[A Dutch version of this review can be read at Archined]

For once it is nice to be on a biennale that is not exclusively visited by a cynical art-crowd and intellectuals only. The Korean Gwangju biennale is visited by people from all strata of society, and with its half a million visitors in two months the best visited biennale in the world. It is heart warming to see the school classes shuffle by following the guide of the educational program who patiently explains the biennale. The biennale was once established as a living monument to remember the hundreds who have fallen in the democratization movement of 18 May 1980. The biennale is truly a festival of the people.

The thesis this biennale poses is that: Everything is design and everybody is a designer. Designers are those that draw and write a D.I.Y instruction for peaceful protests in Egypt, those that supply the screens of stock traders with numbers and graphs, and they are those athletes that submit their body to very specific training programs.


Various D.I.Y strategies for peaceful protest explain what to wear and how to behave. Photo by Christiana S. Chae


Athletic Body Design by Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein. Photo by Christiana S. Chae

The departure point of this forth Gwangju Design Biennale is as radical and progressive as it is problematic. The slogan ‘design is design is not design’ is a reduction of 圖可圖非常圖 (do-ga-do-bi-sang-do), meaning “design that can be spoken of is not the eternal design” and is a play on the words of the 2500 year old classical Chinese text, the Tao Te Ching (道德經) by Lao Tzu (老子).

With her theme the biennale has chosen a very ambitious point of departure: to break open the definitions of the design discipline and an attempt to redefine it. In the West the term design triggers a range of rather established but still vague associations, design is mostly recognizable as adjective, as in “design sofa” or “designer dress”. Brendan McGetrick, one of the curators of the Unnamed section explains: “[the idea of design is] Western-centric, commodity-driven, and wealth-dependent. It is hugely influential–much copied and frequently referenced–but it somehow loses depth with each incarnation.”
In Asia the term design is newer and less defined, an opportunity the curators seize to liberate the term from her Western straightjacket. McGetrick: “Ours is an exhibition about the power of ideas, a salvo in honor of the millions of acts of imagination that occur beyond the bounds of design”

Nobody will contest that outside the bounds of the design-world an infinite amount of creativity and imagination exists, but if the project of the biennale is to redefine design, then you have to expand your argument. A clear and explicit new definition about what design is or should be is missing, although the exhibition gives some clues in what direction the curatorial team is thinking. Firstly the exhibition shows that a new design definition should move away from the artifact or object towards defining systems and rules, form is consequence of design, but not design itself. It’s about designing frameworks, instead of infills. It’s about the design of process instead of product.


An overview of what is needed to make Improvised Explosive Devices. Photo by Christiana S. Chae


An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Cockpit. Photo by Christiana S. Chae

Secondly, the makers behind the designs that are presented are divided in the categories Named and Unnamed. Unnamed doesn’t state if something is done by a designer or not, it rather indicates that the designer is unknown, that he or she doesn’t consider themselves a designer, or that design was the result of invisible (sometimes unconscious) processes like bureaucracy or tradition. For example, the dress-code of Swiss bank employees, or the various veils and body coverings of muslim women. Or a wall exhibiting an inventory of diverse Improvised Explosive Devise (IED) designs including a workbench with the necessary parts and tools to make them. Across from the IED workshop a cockpit for an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), monitors and ‘joysticks’ with which one can control one of the many drone airplanes flying over afghanistan. The designers in the Named category are known (and sometimes famous), but often play the role of researcher. Like the curators of the exhibition their objective is to show something, to surface a hidden design, pattern or even intention. With We Feel Fine, Jonathan Harris shows a emotional weather map of the blogsphere. With the Acacemy of Work, Partizan Publik and Arne Hendriks build a laboratory in which the body can be transformed and conditioned for new forms of labour, from farmer to factory worker to knowledge worker, inspired by Soviet engineer-poet Aleksei Gastev.


The Academy of Work. Photo by Reineke Otten

A problem that remains unsolved is that in principle one can see everything as design, but this doesn’t mean that everything is design. The designer that researches, studies the world as designer, has a tendency to see the world as design. It is the familiar metaphor that with a hammer in your hand everything starts to look like a nail. This also seems the case at this biennale, the world is read as design, which doesn’t mean it is the result of a design process. The practices and methods of scientists, artists, engineers, squatters, athletes, architects and policy makers will perhaps have similarities, but what these similarities could be remains obscure.

Today everybody can design, states artistic director H-Sang Seung, independent of the question if this results in good or bad designs. Information technology has given everybody access to means of production and distribution, this privilege isn’t anymore solely for the design professional. Seung points out that uniqueness and diversity in design have attained priority over universality. If designs do not constantly update they will be forgotten. The biennale exhibition answers this observation with a return to designs that wan’t to be universal projects, that are about everything except fashion or trends. It’s about problem solving, designs that actually want to make a societal difference. Sometimes naive, but mostly practical and provoking. Design as objects of desire are largely absent, but at the same time all contributions are clearly rooted in material and technical culture. A culture that was once more exclusive than it is today. The design of the professional is juxtaposed with the hack or the solution of the amateur (the UAV next to the IED). Both require a deep rooting and literacy in our ubiquitous technological culture although the ‘training’ behind both design-practices are radically different.

The question that the biennale implicitly poses, but does not answer is: What is expertise, the practice necessary for ‘creating a human environment within a certain medium.’ Clearly ‘designing a city on paper’, the original meaning of 圖/do (the Korean character for designing) is not anymore the way to mange the wild expansion of Asian cities, and perhaps it is also not anymore the way to deal with the stagnation and shrink of the West. But that we’ll keep making and remaking the world with technology and through media is a fact. It requires courage when one as a designer actively looks for an answer to the question this biennale posses, because it could turn the conception of your vocation up side down. What it does for sure, is open up the narrow conceptions of what design is and could be for an Asian audience to whom the idea ‘design furniture’ isn’t as ingrained yet as it is in the West.

Update 17 October 2011: Brendan McGetrick’s insightful blog-post on the experience and agenda that was pursued wit the curation of the Un-named section of the Gwangju Design Biennale.

You can still visit the Gwangju Design Biennale until 23 October