An interview with Jan Boelen
Interviewer Emanuele Quintz
The interview was originally published in a book ‘Strange Design – From Objects to Behaviors’ (2015), directed by Jehanne Dautrey and Emanuele Quintz.
Emanuele Quintz You work as an exhibition curator, as artistic director of the Z33 House for Contemporary Art, and as a teacher in the field of contemporary design. Over the last 11 years, you’ve curated a series of exhibitions that compose a sequence: a line that represents – like a very sensitive seismograph – the subtle reverberations of contemporary design. These exhibitions not only show innovative design practices, but also question – each time from a new perspective – the notion of design, its mission, and its social and cultural impact, identifying emergent definitions of design.
Your exhibition Designing Critical Design (2007) was one of the first events to focus on the emergence of critical design. But instead of recognizing and analyzing the phenomenon, you preferred to initiate new processes. You offered Dunne and Raby, Marti Guixé, and Studio Makkink and Bey the opportunity to produce original projects. Why did you do that? How does it relate to your definition of critical design? And what is its genealogy? Can you give me a brief description of the works presented in the exhibition?
Jan Boelen Z33 has been conceived as a place to initiate new ideas and produce new relationships and effects, and not as a place for simply presenting current ideas. In some way, this is not only a choice but also a responsibility, because many of the themes we want to investigate do not correspond with the traditional market structure. Therefore, we want to carry out research and projects that are not primarily focused on profit.
When we conceived Designing Critical Design, I enjoyed reading Dunne and Raby’s texts. At the same time, I felt that there was a misconception about the movement – everyone seemed to believe that they were the only ones engaged in critical design. Critical design is, in fact, difficult to define, because it cannot be categorized simply in terms of the formal appearance of the projects – it’s about an attitude. It focuses less on the product, and more on the process, with greater implications for other developments in society beyond the traditional boundaries of design.
To create the exhibition, I looked for a group of designers who were already related in terms of their approach. Jurgen Bey and Marti Guixé had done an internship together; Jurgen had also worked at the Royal College of Art (London) with Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne. It was like inviting a group of friends who had a consistency in their approach, even if the formal results were completely different. In 2007, this was a novel framework for creating an exhibition. We commissioned each designer to create a new work related to critical design that would also contextualize their existing work. Dunne and Raby’s work linked the technological to the emotional, blending the irrational with the rational; they were already developing their Technological Dreams objects, so we presented them at the time (they were later bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York). Makkink and Bey dealt more with architecture – the notion of objects becoming part of or composing larger structures, and questioning the scale of things. We asked them to make something related to the environment of the exhibition. And, lastly, Marti Guixé focused on public space.
EQ Critical Design, as it has been defined by Dunne and Raby, contemporizes certain strategies that were previously adopted by Italian Radical Design in the 1960s and ‘70s, and by Dutch Conceptual Design in the 1990s; on the other hand, the opacity and ambiguity of the relationship between the form and function of objects, and, on the other hand, the creation of ‘design fictions’ – narratives that challenge uses, behaviors, and values. The convergence of these strategies releases the object from the constraints of functionality, and gives it a critical, social, and even political dimension – as a strategy of “resistance.” With regard to these strategies, Dunne and Raby wrote: “A slight strangeness is the key – too weird and they are instantly dismissed, not strange enough and they’re absorbed into everyday reality.” How do you analyse, in this context, the use of this “slight strangeness” as a design tactic? Don’t you think that this strangeness, as a deviation from function to dysfunction, shifts design practices into the domain of art?
JB I don’t think we’re shifting design into the art sphere. What we’re trying to do is to look at the everyday world in a different way. In this sense, when we present design objects, they still have a function – but that function is more concerned with researching and examining a certain situation, and developing a scenario in response. I wouldn’t go as far as speaking of such a function in art, in the same way as Dunne and Raby have described it in design. At the same time, they themselves declare that their role isn’t necessarily to solve the problems they’re highlighting in their work. This is more the role of the artist, and the boundary between the two spheres is becoming more and more blurred.
Ultimately, I don’t think it’s particularly interesting or productive to dwell on the distinction between art and design. Rather, we should think about its impact on us as individuals – seeing and hearing a story, having an experience, and analyzing and reading between the lines. What impact does it have on us? How does it change us? The focus is more on meaning and meaningful effects than on questions about the discipline. Z33 has always presented both contemporary art and design, particularly work that straddles the boundary between the two. Perhaps the distinction is that the design exhibitions deal more with the discipline of design itself, while the art exhibitions deal more with the wider context of society, science, politics, culture, and so on. In that sense, the art exhibitions are, in fact, driving the debate on content, whereas the design exhibitions – Designing Critical Design, Design by Performance, Alternature, and The Machine – are more about stretching the definition of the methods and media that are associated with the discipline.
EQ Do you think there is a difference between conceptual design and conceptual art? What’s the difference?
JB Again, I maintain that the difference isn’t important. However, I’ve come to the somewhat strange conclusion that art and design are both primarily physical, material.
EQ English Critical Design – like Italian Radical Design, and, to a more limited extent, Dutch Conceptual Design – prioritized theory, and particularly theoretical manifestos. How important was theory in these movements and in design in general? How important is theory in critical design? What is its role in design in general?
JB Theory, in general, can be highly problematic. Manifestos are very easily transformed into dogma, which even discourages thinking. In this respect, I like to compare Judaism with Catholicism: Jewish philosophers in each generation are able to read the Torah and interpret it in a certain way, adapting it each time to a particular situation, whereas Catholicism is much more strict – the pope issues an edict and there can be no debate on it.
From my perspective, the role of theory is less important that that of contemporary culture, and how this contemporary culture digests critical theory and forces it to evolve. This is far more interesting that theory in itself. After all, in our current era, it can be difficult to find vantage point from which one can observe what is happening and then communicate that, from the inside, to a larger public audience. Metaphorically, we need some “mirrors” to reflect evolutions in society.
My role is therefore to observe the things that are emerging around me, to connect them together, and to analyze the situation and draw meaningful conclusions. Initially, we may be unable to say what exactly these isolated occurrences are about. Eventually, however, we find an attitude or framework to link them together, to perceive them in a certain way; this attitude or framework remains dynamic and critical, and theory can sometimes act as a sort of magnifying glass and shed light on a phenomenon.
EQ The exhibition Design by Performance (2010) was about ‘performative trends in contemporary design, which focuses not on the production of a finished product, but on the production process itself: objects whose realization is a continuous project, affected or formed by either the environment, the specific situation in which they find themselves, or onlookers.” How did this focus on the performative dimension emerge? What has this focus on the production process as a performance brought fort?
JB Before Design by Performance, we’d held an exhibition called SuperStories. At around the same time, the Victoria and Albert Museum presented Telling Tales. In both cases, I was not really satisfied with the approach. Every designer says, “my object tells a story,” but actually it’s more interesting when the object gives a performance. Such objects are not intended to have a static, final form, molded by aesthetic preferences; instead, they emerge from open-ended processes. The notion of process in design is related to the notion of performance in art: performativity demonstrates the fact that the artwork has an audience, and makes the work respond to the public around it. In the same way that John Cage creates his pieces as interactions between the performer and the public, designers can do that with their objects.
At the time, I was exchanging ideas with the rapid prototyping firm Materialise. I was interested in the idea of objects being built up layer by layer, coming into existence almost like a film. I wanted Materialise to collaborate with several designers in order to introduce coincidence and randomness into the process, thus showing the consequences of action and reaction in the emergence of an object. They weren’t interested in that idea, because they didn’t want to make imperfect objects. Of course, imperfection is an essential part of a performance – that’s what makes it ‘live.’
Then I talked to Dries Verbruggen and Claire Warnier from Unfold; they had one of the first rapid prototyping machines for home use. They’d placed it next to their washing machine, and, as a result, they encountered problems because of the humidity in the room. I thought that was fascinating – the home “weather” influenced the machine and the quality of what it made. Rather than regulating the environment, they had the idea to adapt the material to a humid atmosphere, and they started working with liquid clay as the printed material. They eventually collaborated with Tim Knapen to develop a digital potter’s wheel, which scanned the motions of the hand to make the 3D form. This story shows how the ideas of randomness, interaction, audience participation, performativity, and the machine all came together within the framework of this exhibition.
Looking back, I think this focus on the production process has developed into a sort of fetish about the machine and the generative process. We were all curious about the possibilities of what could come out of it, but we were blind to the very real consequences and political questions related to process. In the meantime, it has become very problematic, and will continue to do so as it leaves the glass vitrine of the exhibition and enters the real world. Let’s take the example of using a rapid prototyping machine to print a gun. This feeling of freedom – being able to print whatever we want – has enormous consequences. In fact, the designer is becoming more like a doctor in terms of the responsibility he or she bears for the ethical consequences of their decisions. In making something possible, we also make it accessible – and that can become “dangerous” or, at the very least, lead to unforeseen outcomes.
EQ The exhibition Architecture of Fear (2011) explored how feelings of anxiety and fear pervade daily life in the contemporary media society. In his book Warped Space (2000), Anthony Vidler analyzed the emergence – in design, art and architecture – of a form of “distortion” of space that he called “warped space.” This distortion is directly connected to the spread of a “new form of anxiety,” of an unfamiliar sense of fear. Vidler analyzed two forms of spatial warping: the first is “produced by the psychological culture of modernisms from the late nineteenth century to the present, with this emphasis on the nature of space as a projection of the subject, and thus as a harbinger and a repository of all neuroses and phobias of that subject;” and the second is produced “by the forced intersection of different media – film, photography, art, architecture – in a way that breaks the boundaries of genre and the separate arts in response to the need to depict space in new and unparalleled ways.” In Vidler’s vision, the disorienting spaces, the alienated landscape produced by artists and architects (like Mike Kelley, Rachel Whiteread, Vito Acconci, Daniel Liebeskind, Martha Rosler, and so on), and the sense of fear come from the void, the desolate nihilism left by the decline of the system of certitudes proposed by modernism. What sort of fear was presented in Architecture of Fear? What is its origin and nature? And how do design and architecture stigmatize it, using the same notion of distortion?
JB Architecture of Fear addressed an invisible form of fear in our society. Fear concerns climate change, financial crisis, immigration, genetic modification, disease, and so on. This is the system of fear: it’s outside, and we can’t touch or see it. And strangely enough, we need it to continue, to develop as a society. That’s the tension that was examined in the exhibition.
Fear is not stigmatized by design and art; actually, they enforce it, by creating a pretense of order upon a foundation of chaos. Architecture creates order by building walls, blocking off the other, and making this separation more visible. Such walls are built in America, in Europe, and in Israel. This tension has always existed; even the new fears about drones are simply another manifestation of that tension between control, surveillance, and freedom, which, as Michel Foucault has observed, has created an urban environment in which the degree of control is maximized. Interestingly enough, we have an economy of fear, a scarcity of fear, and a demand for fear. The safer we are, the more security we want.
EQ Your work as curator and director of a house of contemporary art consists of extending the critical design strategy to cultural politics. As in critical design, the aim of the exhibition and of Z33 was not to propose (or impose) “an unambiguous answer, but provoke an occasion for doubt.” In your opinion, doubt can be “an agent for awareness of complexity.” What is doubt for you?
JB Z33 is not a museum: it’s a “white cube,” in the sense that it doesn’t have a permanent collection. Therefore, with every exhibition, we can start “from scratch,” with a completely new point of view. We can respond freely, in a relevant time frame, to developments that we observe in society, and hopefully our exhibitions have some effect on those developments or the society around us as well. My role is to initiate the exhibitions, but I’m also aware of the larger context. My priority is stirring up debate, making connections between different phenomena or agents, and bringing in different characters or groups as our “partners in crime.”
We use doubt as a strategy. The issues that we confront tend to have at least two sides, and, in order to maintain their complexity, we always have to consider these various dimensions; for example, in fear, you have the tensions between security and freedom, between order and chaos. You have to bring these different points of view together in a single exhibition, since no single perspective gives a complete answer to the question. This applies also to the people who we invite to participate as initiators, contributors, and observers. If we have successfully confronted an issue, then people will emerge from the exhibition with many questions. These questions create awareness.
At the same time, doubt is always employed via visual poetry. It’s not simply about the idea – the spatial experience is also highly important. The exhibition must create a different rhythm of time, where consuming and producing are defined differently than in the rest of the city.
EQ As your exhibitions demonstrate, the performative and participatory extensions of design lays the foundations of a form of social design. What is social design? And what are the theoretical references and the practical strategies of this approach of design?
JB I’m not sure that social design really exists, or that it’s of any particular interest. Furthermore, it doesn’t have a monopoly on either performative or participatory elements. After all, very autonomous art projects can also be performative; and participation does not always fit neatly into the definition of design. This definition of design is of much greater interest as a topic of discussion. There cannot be only one definition; everyone participating in a design process must be able to define his or her own way of working. Therefore, the multiplicity of approaches or attitudes matters more than a clear definition.
We’re now dealing more with what is happening in a changing world. Through these developments – in society, in the market, and in the relationship between labor, capital, and production – design and designers will play new roles. I hope that greater importance will be attached to the human aspect in relation to the object as such; I hope to see more processes than products, more living than consuming, and more context than concept. Design, under the guise of neutrality, has the capacity to transmit highly political critiques of these relationships.
As suggested by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, I think design is more to do with tactics than strategy. Strategy implies a theoretical, a priori attitude, while tactics are a reaction to what is happening on the ground. As in the exhibition Mind the System, Find the Gap, design can be used as a tool to discover, analyze, and utilize the gaps in this everyday environment. The question of everyday life is still new for design, even after the 20th-century projects to improve the world through mass manufacture. Much of the design we see today is representing everyday life, rather than taking part in it. This position is important: too far in one direction and it’s simply an illustration; too far in another direction and it’s reduced to a function or a market demand. Therefore, design needs to confront both extremes as a tool for debate and discussion. The power structures and systems of control are no longer clear, and neither are their representations in material objects.
EQ To conclude, do you think it’s possible to isolate certain general criteria that define design’s function? Is the function of design to adapt to human behaviors or to influence them?
JB The desire to isolate some aspects of design – and, by implication, to exclude others – is certainly attractive from the point of view of clarity and simplicity. But we have to be honest with ourselves: we’re living in an ecosystem, a biotope – a complex combination of objects, people, and systems. There’s no longer any distinction between nature and culture; it’s all culture, and everything is interrelated. The adaptations of our behaviours and our objects and systems are continuously evolving, and constantly reacting to each other in an unpredictable, self-organized system. We can try to provide insight on that ecosystem through design; we can show not only the relationships between things, but how those relationships become meaningful. Design has always existed, and will continue to exist, as a tool; but now, more than ever, it’s a tool for debate, for discussion, and for doubt.
Dautrey, Jehanne and Quintz, Emanuele (2015). Strange Design – From Objects to Behaviors. Czech Republic, it:editions. With contributions of Gijs Bakker, Jurgen Bey, Pieke Bergmans, Bless, Jan Boelen, Elio Caccavale, Florence Doléac, Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby, Didier Faustino, Catherine Geel, Ugo La Pietra, Mathieu Lehanneur, Luca Marchetti, Alessandro Mendini, Gianni Pettena, Stijn Ruys, and Noam Toran.
 Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby, Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects (Basel, Berlin, and Boston: Birkhäuser, 2001), p. 63.
 Anthony Vidler, Warped Space. Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2000), p. VIII