The very first Istanbul Design Biennial began with a bang in the halls of the old Galata Greek School. The imposing six storey neoclassical building, which has not been used as a school since 2007, had new life breathed into it with the pour of visitors from Turkey and abroad. Joseph Grima, the main show’s curator, says the show comes out of a general shift in the world from mass consumption to individual comsumption and out of the fractioned design world of warring armies, some who see design as something for people to buy, some who see it as a medium through which to ask questions, and others as a cultural arena free of industrialism.
Drawing on the idea of the “Third Industrial Revolution” as coined by The Economist earlier this year in which every single product is unique and reformed for each citizen, the design objects on display range from practical items to conceptual drawings of future buildings and city planning which responds by taking cues from their environments rather than imposing order on nature. That is not to say that the idea is completley new. In “Secondary Use Experiment” by John Habraken which was created in 1963, for instance, old Heineken bottles shaped like rectangles with dimples and protrusions in grid patterns have two functions. This old model was created after the owner of the Heineken Brewery in Curaçao noticed that people on the Carribbean island used bottles as bricks, and so, a dual purpose objects, they could be reused after their primary purpose as holders of beer. This and an original architectural model from 1969 for the Villagio Matteotti by Giancarlo De Carlo which features an imaginary living space where grass fills balconies like a hazy carpet and people frolic in the various stages of the buiding, all in a coat of white, remind us that what we see in the rest of the exhibit takes its cues from earlier movements in that great era of social experimentation and newness.
Take that concept into today where “open sourcing” has become a household term in the internet world to create free software and programming which is open to modification and personalization and something which is no longer in the hands of the designers begins to emerge –actually, that’s exactly the point, to be precise. In an exhibit by Maker Faire Africa, a group in California which began experimenting with new technology to innovate how people relate with objects, a few such objects were on display, mainly known as “keystones”, which are meant to act as the single key point of an object which can then be used by the consumer in combination with common objects and materials found in their environments to create the whole object, eliminating the need and cost of shipping an entire object from China, effectively overturning the present model of manufacturing and consumption. An example of this on display was a plastic multiple-point joint created by a 3D printer which could be used as the start of a coat stand, with the square wood legs of the coat stand to be supplied by the consumer. Another example were several metal keystone joints and parts to create a bicycle –of which two finished ones were on display – one made with clearly identifiable unfinished tree limbs and the other with brightly spray-painted pvc pipes.
Further examples of the tongue-in-cheek “Adhocracy” title of the Istanbul Design Biennial (ad hoc, ie, something created for a specific purpuse, so we see the neologism as “the rule of objects created for a specific purpose” –which can’t be serious), can be seen in the reuse of weapons as musical instruments. Artist Pedro Reyes takes weapons which were confiscated from drug cartels in Mexico and decommisioned and then turns them into musical instruments. The array of guitars, xylophones, and tympany in their gritty colors still reek of death, but the brave gesture and merely thinking about possibility of creation from objects intended to have a deadly use vividly embodies the intention of the Biennial. In fact, that may be realized soon by a performance by a group of local Istanbul musicians.
Finally, in the video installation “Drone Journalism”, we see the future of journalism and surveilence through tiny drones created for only $2,000 to $3,000, in footage taken when one of them floated through Warsaw during the independence day riots in 2011 behind police lines where journalists couldn’t normally go. The effect is at once very sci fi and very cinematic, but also shows the direct consequence and future power of design which will may pose ethical problems in time to come.
In the portion of the Biennial at Istanbul Modern, “Musibet” (Tribulation), curated by Emre Arolat, we are presented with a distopia, jail-like atmosphere and a series of architecture projects which contemplate Istanbul’s present as an overcrowded city with a need to listen to nature and take note of other cities, such as Sao Paolo, to transform safely in the future to accomodate an even bigger population. While “Musibet” is not short on bold effects and impressive presentations of work, it fails to speak to a general audience and lacks the coherence of “Adhocracy”, which not only engages in the problems of the modern world but provides fantastically bright solutions on how to overcome future challenges. The city scape has changed, as has the way that people relate to one another via the new networks created by the internet. Design has a new need to reflect on this or else to be cast aside as another part of art which only has the use to exist for the sake of itself.