Some of the work shown here has a timeless quality. After studying the elegantly simple calligraphy of the ancient Kufi, Hozan Zangana understands that the designer might need to play a role in preserving a people’s heritage in times of political turmoil. Using the latest technology, Commonplace Studio revisits the earliest days of cinema to recapture the miracle of moving images. Nicky Assmann needs no more than soap, sub-zero temperatures, and the wisps of fog they produce, to create ephemeral images of quiet beauty.
But most of the work is an investigation into today’s crowded and messy world. Many of these designers took the opportunity to explore hubs at the cutting edge of contemporary civilisation – which they otherwise would have had no access to – via residencies in Karachi, Cape Town, the Northern Arctic, international laboratories, university archives, nodes of data collection, and scientific experiment. They explore with wide-open eyes – almost childlike at times – scrutinising, in wonder, the miracles, cunning, and injustices of the world.
This open gaze and suspension of judgement is a conscious stance; the result of an education that zooms in on the world of design instead of zooming out to the wider world in which design must find its place. It is the latter that applies to most of these young explorers. Many of them have used this year as a first step into the historical, scientific or political research they need to create new work; turning some of these designers into fearless autodidacts. It’s exciting to see how Femke Herregraven navigates her way through global finance, how Sander Wassink stumbles upon the murky world of fake brands and cheap labor, or how Viktor Hachmang traces the images of the New Man of the 1920s back to the utopian theories from which they arose.
Of course, addressing today’s most complicated social and economic questions without prerequisite knowledge can be dangerous. To begin with, these designers do so from a position of privilege – educated in a Western-European safe zone, where experimentation is encouraged, and failure is an interesting, even commendable consequence; they now receive additional support in the form of a talent development grant from the Creative Industries Fund NL. Any research these designers dedicate their attention to can just as easily be withdrawn from, with no strings attached. Some of the work exudes a playful, almost comfortable lack of the sense of responsibility one might expect from designing in the real world, where choices are dictated by financial investments, cultural impact, consumer targets, and net profits, rather than by the open-eyed curiosity of the young explorer, who feels free to move from one fascination to another without repercussions.
The more serious risk is that these designers wield real power; a power they risk underestimating. Having learned to excel at their craft, these designers cannot help but discover that, today – more than ever before – almost everything in the world is presented through design. Design explains, uncovers, manipulates, hides, beautifies, polishes, and simplifies. From urban development to the ideal of beauty, from technology for the masses to the food industry – design is the interface between sender and receiver, producer and consumer. Donna Verheijden is an uncanny observer of the mechanisms at work here and is capable of translating it into tantalisingly ambiguous work. This awareness is an essential trait for these designers to develop. As their work enters the arena of real money and real power, it can easily slip into the confirmation of power structures, invisible to most, that are capable of perpetuating precisely the precarities and inequalities this research year has enabled these designers to unmask. A designer cannot afford to underestimate the power they carry: their work can make a difference – it really can – but they must remain alert in order not to find themself on the wrong side of the power balance.
To question the status quo, one should first question oneself. Almost everyone has the presence of mind and courage to do so. ‘My work unpacks taboos – it questions common knowledge and how we unconsciously define our attitudes.’ In the interviews and statements that accompany the work on show, many of the designers express their motives along these lines. At times, it almost starts sounding like a mantra, and no serious designer today starts working without first analysing and questioning the common knowledge, assumptions, and fixed ideas that precede any topic or assignment. But when this questioning itself becomes a ritual, where does serious (self)interrogation give way to just another automatism?
One way to prevent this from happening is by returning to the very basics. To focus one’s curiosity, before embarking on anything else, on the primary elements of any design. Take light, for example. Arnout Meijer starts by studying pictures of rays of sunshine, their movements across clouds and landscapes, and then he incorporates his knowledge of the tango between light and space into the objects he makes. Ricky Rijkenberg understands how light and shadow form an integral, forever shifting part of good architecture. Matthijs Munnik’s installations are playful and yet serious about using light as a tool for creating sensory experience.
Similarly, consider Ricky van Broekhoven approach to sound or Amber Veel's to skin. They spend a lot of time investigating the qualities of things that have always been and always will be part of this world: the inalienable elements with which every designer must begin. To question them is to question yourself, your place in the world, and the place of your work within it.
At this point in their career, some of these designers feel, to quote Viktor Hachmang, ‘like a kid at the adult’s table.’ It is all about learning, listening, and discovering. But once they have reached adulthood – which, in most cases, is about now – they soon arrive at a crossroads: they can go micro or macro. Both are equally valid and infinitely complex. Rogier Arents opts for the micro and understands that the closer he zooms in, the wider his horizon will be. Typically, photographs of leaf veins and snowflakes diagrams, both in the most intricate detail, are amassed into a collection called 'Worldview'.
When a designer decides to go macro, there is another choice: the physical world or the virtual world. Dazzled by the often unintentional chaos and absurdity of street life, shops, and marketplaces, some designers prove themselves to be masters of observation and arrive home with fresh and witty perspectives on the myriad of ways one can transform household objects into hitherto unimaginable or simply hilarious things of beauty. Consider Mark Sturkenboom’s intricate mash-ups of equipment so familiar that their transformation is hardly noticeable, or Marjan van Aubel’s palmbrella – a prime example of ‘manufactured nature’.
More and more designers are both intrigued and repelled by the manufacture and manipulation of data and algorithms. The production of the virtual services, networks, and security systems we have come to depend on attracts them like no other feature of today’s world; probably because it would simply not exist without design. Nowhere else does the designer feel so necessary, powerful and even dangerous. It is precisely our dependency on the digital domain that motivates them. Like any addict, they give in to the addiction one moment and fight it the next. This dependency informs playful and ironic work by Yuri Veerman and Alicia Ongay-Perez, too, but also serious digital activism.
‘There are lies, damned lies and Big Data,’ says Jonas Lund. Just like Jesse Howard, Henrik van Leeuwen and others, he is designing resistance. They have all come to grasp the enormity of the system that is about to incorporate them: its greed and dishonesty. A consumerist system that is forever expanding and forging new markets, and yet is always teetering on the brink of self-destruction. Will the new designers get caught up in the system’s never-ending competition, or will they start using their insider’s knowledge to enable its sabotage from within? For now, this last option barely appears in the exhibition, as many designers remain occupied with the compromise between their artistic vision and the rules of the marketplace. There is, however, a collective unrest that is tangible here – possibly kindled by this gathering of widely varied talent – that, yes, the marketplace is shifting, and no, it might not be the safest place to face the future. Some of these designers – especially those researching the production of data and knowledge, the flow of money, and the brutal gap between the haves and the have-nots – might soon decide to use their skills to speed up the demise of the consumerist system that is fencing them in.
Many of these designers are, to quote Macular, ‘researching the intersection of art, science, technology, and perception’. They have decided to do more than just rely on their designing skills. During this year of research, they have carved out ambitious questions for themselves. Their aims are high. They have come to understand something about the mechanisms of power and the power they, as designers of our future, wield themselves.
Now they have arrived at this point, will they be able to make clear-cut choices for the future: open gaze or fearless autodidact, comfortable or responsible, micro or macro, questioning or complacent, physical or virtual, entrepreneur or saboteur? Unfortunately, no. The designer’s world is currently much more complicated and ambivalent than that. Anyone fascinated by the micro will soon understand that what he or she discovers is true for the macro, too. The more one understands about digital traffic; the more one sees the consequences for the movements we make in our physical life. Today, being critical and complacent at the same time is an actual career option.
None of this has to be a problem, as long as these designers keep questioning themselves – as they have done throughout this year of research – and avoid easy answers and clear-cut choices. In doing so, they inevitably question the status quo: the system that has opened its door to them, the infrastructure it offers them, and the place it has in store for their future work. For some, the answer to that question will be that they possess the skills, the power, and the fierce curiosity to break through the status quo and leave it behind altogether.
Chris Keulemans (Tunis, 1960) grew up in Baghdad, Iraq. In 1984 he founded the literary bookshop Perdu in Amsterdam. During the nineties he worked at De Balie, Centre for culture and politics in Amsterdam, first as a curator, later as director.
He has published books, fiction and nonfiction, and has published numerous articles on art, social movements, migration, music, cinema and war for national newspapers. Recently he wrote essays for publications by Jonas Staal, Lidwien van de Ven, Anna Tilroe, Gert Urhahn, Fiona Tan and the exhibition The Unwanted Land (2009). He traveled extensively to study art after a crisis in cities such as Beirut, Jakarta, Algiers, Prishtina, Sarajevo, Tirana, New York, New Orleans and Ramallah, where he visited many talented artists.
For the 2015 edition of In No Particular Order Chris was asked to write a review, which you can read on this page.