This year’s Istanbul Design Biennial is an interconnecting collection of responses to a pressing question posed by the curators, Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley – Are We Human? It is an exploration into what it means to be human and how our relationship with design is continually shaping that meaning. The contributors are from a diverse range of backgrounds and disciplines. There are not only designers and architects, but also filmmakers, artists, archaeologists, scientists, historians and NGOs; a wide range that also reflects the underlying notion to the Biennial, that the act of designing doesn’t solely belong to designers.
My first reaction when I walked in through the doors of the Galata Rum Okulu, one of the 5 venues of the Biennial, was “But is it design?” I felt that I was witnessing more of an analysis of the processes and outcomes of design through the eyes of artists. Controversial. How dare they?! Though, what is ‘design’ exactly, and is it really only shaped by designers? In this extremely chaotic, contradictory and confused era we live in, has the term design not taken on a diverse range of definitions? What does design mean for art? For healthcare, beauty, addiction, the global economy, climate change, the refugee crisis?
The breadth of the contributions showcased and their conceptual depth prove that it is a question deserving an urgent thinking over, especially by the design community.
Design Has Gone Viral
The showcase in the Galata Rum Okulu opens with a simple animation played on two facing screens at the main entrance stairs of the building. It’s essentially frame after frame of the word ‘design’ displayed in its various contexts: book titles, names of university programmes, neighbourhoods, magazines, exhibitions, councils, associations, job titles, websites, blogs, methods for thinking.
“The word ‘design’ is everywhere. It pops up in every situation. Along with ‘designer’ hotels, drugs, bodies, and food you can have ‘happiness by design’, ‘diplomacy by design’, or ‘design for social justice.’ A new wave of designers shape ‘experience’, ‘interfaces’, ‘software’, ‘brand’, and interaction.’… Design has become dangerously successful” – Curatorial team
What does this ‘success’ of design actually mean, though? Has design become a catch-all term for what we produce, how we communicate, govern, educate and think, but is also now somewhat diluted? Is it a reflection of our creativity and intellect; all that makes us human?
Or is it indeed laying the foundations of our extinction, as the curators state?
The first floor of the Galata Rum Okulu houses a collection of works that investigate the human body itself – its structure, biology and chemistry – and its relationship to design.
The piece that stood out for me the most here was Marshmallow Laser Feast’s music video for the British band Duologue’s Memex. Described by the filmmakers as a ‘3D study of morality’, the video portrays an elderly woman turning to dust. The visuals have been built around a hyper-realistic 3D body scan of the model and actress, Beryl Nesbitt. Due to the incredibly extensive amount of detail captured by the scan, the piece portrays the human form in all its textures, layers and age, revealing perspectives that would never have been presented through conventional techniques of filmmaking. The eyes are particularly striking. Subtly animated with fine lashes and tear ducts, they create a visceral connection with the audience. However, the skin is so hyper-real that it looks unreal, like landscapes from an alien planet. An emotional juxtaposition that creates an odd disconnect.
A visual as well as a technical feat, Memex is not only a study in emotional storytelling, it’s also a glimpse into filmmaking and production techniques that will begin to shape virtual reality environments.
Will there come a time when humans feel MORE human and real in the realm of virtual reality?
It is Obvious From the Map
The next two floors of the Galata Rum Okulu showcase works that explore the relationship between humans and their physical and cultural environments, and how we are shaping the earth, both politically and physically.
One piece that stands out from this group is “It is Obvious From the Map”. An examination into the act of map-making, it investigates the role maps play in the migration crisis currently taking place around the Mediterranean. The exhibit is set up in two parts, focusing on two types of maps: “those created and exchanged by the migrants themselves and those created by various governmental and international agencies for the purpose of tracking and controlling migrants.”
Within this wider exhibit, what I found particularly noteworthy was Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani’s Liquid Traces: The Left-to-Die Boat Case, a video report of the 14-day deadly drift of a migrants’ boat under the watchful eyes of the NATO, in one of the most heavily observed sections of the Mediterranean.
The viewer is taken through a systematic and highly precise reconstruction of the boat’s doomed journey, which tragically ended with the deaths of sixty-three migrants. It’s an analytical but horrifying account of human suffering that was closely tracked, but never intervened in, by major forces responsible for observation and control.
These major forces are bound by jurisdictions, red lines and bureaucratic protocols; strict frameworks designed by states and politics to manage governance in an increasingly complicated world. At the cost of what, though? At what point will a human being regain its “human” substance in the eyes of this monstrous and inhumanely designed system?
What is Design Anyway?
Being human is entwined with the ability to design. Does this mean all design is useful? Sadly, no. As in the case of the Left-to-Die Boat, the neglect that resulted in the tragedy was the direct result of systems designed by conflicting and competing bodies to manage the status quo. Design for the sake of design, a means to save the day that does more harm than good in the end.
When do we move beyond that?
Good design should provide a means to resolve a problem, fulfil an unmet need and improve the existing. Be that in society and governance, human life, communication, your bank’s new service or even your next kettle. It needs to be led down a clear path, requiring vision and and a generous helping of courage. So we need to ask ourselves when designing an object, a process, a system, an experience, a brand, a piece of communication: what is the real problem we are attempting to solve? How will we truly improve upon what came before? And, most importantly, how will that improve our future?