In Good Hands

The interview is a part of an article ‘In Good Hands’ by Sven Ehmann for DAMn°39, published on 6 July 2013.

The role of design curator is slightly more recent than that of art curator, but it too suffers from opportunism by those who think that making an exhibition of objects is facile, disconnected, or fleeting. A curator worth his/her salt is someone who devotedly does the research and sets out to present seminal works that affect people’s lives; someone who considers the content and the larger context within the evolution of our time, and desires to introduce important or challenging developments to the general public, the very audience that is design’s best and most effective critic. DAMn° prods seven proper curators for their views.

DAMn° What makes an exceptional curator?

JB To be a curator today means operating in more than one field, often transgressing the division between curation and creation itself: it means writing, teaching, researching, commissioning works, participating in their execution, and so on. In effect, the curator has become a partner-in-crime in the design process itself. The contemporary curator may not have trained in “curation” itself or even in obvious fields such as art or design history, but rather in architecture or design “proper”. In short, the curatorial process is becoming another medium of expression in the vein of design or art.

Even more, curation itself is becoming a design process, with a crucial need to shape and create the form of an exhibition relative to its content. The subjects that we try to explore, the relationship of societal developments with intersecting and inter-melting spheres of art and design, cannot be presented through an objective, neatly catalogued museum filter. The contemporary curator knows that such clear answers are impossible. The challenge is to bring these subjects into material and spatial form that creates a powerful sensorial experience, one that opens itself to many related themes and that uses strong emotional, intellectual, and bodily impressions to render a powerful form of ambiguity.

DAMn° What is the context you are working in as a curator? You are in the special situation of working towards the restructuring of your institution. Could you describe the dynamics and challenges of the project with regards to the curatorial work or positioning?

JB At the moment, we are looking into the particular question of archiving and the timeline of curatorial practices. I have always found it a pity that many of the most interesting reactions and discoveries related to a particular exhibition happen after it has closed, meaning that opportunities for further collaboration are often limited. As a result, we are trying to move beyond the strict phases of separate exhibitions into a more research-oriented structure. We are putting together a series of research centres – including Studio Future, Studio Limburg, and Studio Meta – to build a platform for connecting with different partners and intersecting between themes in the longer term. Our programme has always been much bigger than just the exhibitions, with temporary projects in public space, installations, debates, performances, and education, but this initiative would take us even further.

DAMn° How would you describe your particular approach to curating? Is there a particular field you are specialized in? Which field? How do you find, decide for, or develop a topic? What are the main steps in the process of your work?

JB First, it is important to say that Z33 is not a museum with a permanent collection, so we can take a fresh start with every project. We observe what is going on around us in a larger context of people, culture, science, politics, economy, and so on, and try to trace an underlying network of changes and evolutions, and then react to that in real-time. Maybe our work could even have an effect on the developments we see, in turn. We are not very concerned with fitting into the normative conversations going on in the design world, nor with interpreting critical theory. I am much more interested in how contemporary culture forces critical theory to evolve.

Personally, I give a general starting point for an exhibition, but it is used to stir up debate rather than give a fixed boundary to the theme. We strive to maintain a sense of ambivalence or doubt, a tension between order and chaos, throughout the entire process, largely by giving space to many different voices without trying to harmonise them too much. It is also necessary to work in long time-frames on these projects, because sometimes the bridges between isolated occurrences or ideas need to evolve.

DAMn° How did you get into curating in the first place? What influenced, impressed or taught you the most – institution, person, show, text, something else?

JB In a way, it just happened with no predetermined direction. I studied design and graduated with two projects, one very “artistic” and one very industrial. Curation and art or design history were never my primary fields of interest; in fact, I was thinking more about the philosophy of science, chaos theory, quantum mechanics – in general, more philosophy than design or art themselves.

Still, I was very influenced by art and certain exhibitions when I was young. Most of the teachers who had an impact on me were artists. In particular, I recall one exhibition at Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts in 1993, called The Sublime Void: On the Memory of the Imagination, with works by Jeff Wall, Gerhard Richter, Cristina Iglesias, and Arte Povera works.

DAMn° What was your most challenging project so far and why? Please describe it a little in terms of the curatorial work.

JB The most challenging project is the one that we are currently preparing, a project on scarcity. The issue is now so omnipresent that it has become a very big trend, with very political consequences. At the same time, we have to present it in a way that creates a very engaging experience; we have to make people rethink the subject and re-evaluate their position when they encounter the works.

DAMn° Whom are you working with? What is your team like?

JB At Z33, we have a very strong team of people involved in the development and design of our projects and exhibitions. I am also fortunate to have an academic position, so I am constantly confronted by my students, as well as by my colleagues at the Design Academy Eindhoven, including Thomas Lommée, Aldo Bakker, Liesbeth Huybrechts, Louise Schouwenberg, and many more. I collaborate very intensely with former students like Tal Erez, a designer, and Tamar Shafrir, a writer. I also have a wider circle of people with whom I have very fruitful and reflective conversations about the themes we are observing, people like Franziska Nori from the Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina.

DAMn° How would you describe the work relationship between yourself as the curator and designers, architects, artists? What is your impact on them? How do they impact your work?

JB My working relationships with the many designers, architects, and artists connected to Z33 are in constant flux. There is no strict division between my responsibilities and those of others; these decisions are always made in a responsive way to the content. For example, take someone like Aldo Bakker – he is a designer whose work has appeared in exhibitions, but he is also now part of the team to redesign the building, and he teaches with me in the social design master’s programme at the Design Academy Eindhoven. Other artists or designers who exhibit at Z33 can almost be like mini-curators. On the other hand, we cannot merely be “curators” that pick objects to exemplify a certain theme. The issues we approach at Z33 are not usually supported by current market structures. Therefore, we have to be more active in the creation of projects related to our chosen subjects, commissioning work and creating partnerships between different people: even if we do not know what the outcome will be, this is part of the underlying strategy.

All of these different practitioners challenge me; they change the visions I formed throughout the encounters I have had and absorbed. Someone can create an entirely new provocation, and from that moment I start to reflect, use it as a mirror, develop my own reactions and instincts. One of my students, Pablo Calderón Salazar, calls himself a “dialogue designer”: I think this is a very good description, and something to which I also aspire. True dialogue means coming to different insights and going further than a linear relationship or conclusion.

DAMn° In your particular field, what is currently the biggest challenge in terms of content and audience? What kind of development have you experienced on the side of the audience and the general media over the recent years regarding your work?

JB The greatest challenge is to identify and understand themes that are really contemporary, that reflect and explain what is happening in society. In the midst of our own time, it can be difficult to find a vantage point from which everything seems connected; and even if we do achieve that viewpoint, it can be even more difficult to communicate that idea to a large public audience. It is very difficult to achieve the right balance between the power of an imaginative vision and the doubt that emerges from complexity.

At the beginning, our work did not have much resonance with what was going on in the media, especially the design media of the early 2000s. The design magazines were quite top-down and fixed-format, and they were more product- or object-oriented; on the contrary, we have always been rather process-oriented, avoiding a snapshot definition. In the end, we did not really try to change our relationship with the media, but the media itself changed, expanding into online platforms, blogs, and multimedia content; furthermore, there was a shift in its focus after the financial crisis in 2008. They began to think about what role design might play in society, in a much bigger way. Because of that evolution, we have a much more fruitful relationship with media now. We even have done projects with magazines like Abitare to think about different issues, such as education, with articles and debates, generating content in a different way than through exhibitions.

DAMn° How does your work as a curator relate to the commercial side of – or interest – in your field? To what extent are you setting the agenda? To what extent are you as a curator “making stars”?

JB My primary concern is investing in ideas and subjects; of course, they are nearly always fulfilled and embodied by individuals with strong concepts, stories, languages, or tactics. It is true that we push people, in the sense that we begin to collaborate with them from the moment we begin upon an idea. We discuss with them how to produce, execute, fund, and communicate their projects, so we are involved with them in a trajectory that can last years. Sometimes I try to lead them to commercial work or introduce them to our network so that they can survive. Not everyone can survive on their ideas, and we are quite explicitly interested in ideas that aren’t profitable or market-friendly. These concerns have to do with supporting our relationships; they are not at all aimed at generating commercial power for the gallery. Regardless, I doubt that the people we work with want to become “stars” in that sense – that is quite obvious from the work they do, much of which has to do with open-source platforms, open methods of production, performances, etc. Z33 also puts almost all of its images, texts, and other content online with a Creative Commons license. For us, interest and engagement is much more valuable than money.

Of course, we are lucky to work in a context in Belgium and the Netherlands, where historically financial support for creative production has been seen as a public responsibility. This frees us from thinking too much about the commercial side. If that changes in the context of financial crisis, we need to rethink our methods, not change our ideas.

DAMn° Do you see yourself in a curatorial tradition? How important is the theoretical or academic part of your work to you? How are you following or contributing to the academic discourse around curating?

JB The curatorial tradition has been predominantly established by the art world. Meanwhile, curating and design, in design, by design, and through design is a practice that is still very much in development. This is obviously related to the rapid evolution of design in general, as well as the shifting and porous boundaries between different aspects of design. I am not overly concerned with the theoretical aspect of what we do at Z33, and focusing too much on theory always holds the danger of veering into dogmatism.

I do participate in the discussion on design curation through writing and publishing, but there is no organised forum for the subject. I think one can get inspired through these many informal kinds of encounters, collaborations, and dialogues.

DAMn° If you are seeing other exhibitions, places or media that inspire your own work, what are you looking for? Could you name a recent project that impressed you and tell me why it did?

JB Recently I am fascinated by the work of a Belgian economist, Bernard Lietaer, on money and its value and future. For some reason, there seem to be many Belgian theorists working at the moment on the way we organise our financial and social systems – including Gunter Pauli, who writes about sustainable economies, and Michel Bauwens, who writes about the economy of peer-to-peer and open-source platforms.

DAMn° Right now being a curator is like being a DJ, artist, or a barista a little while ago. What is your comment on that development? What separates the temporary curator from the professional?

JB I do not think there is such a thing as a “professional curator”. Professionalism lies in the attitude and commitment; it does not imply strict demarcations around the behaviour or strategies allowed. Already, it is impossible to define what a curator does with any uniformity, and for most curators, the organisation of exhibitions is only one of their roles. The most interesting practitioners let these different positions and relationships interfere and interact with each other.

Sven Ehmann: In Good Hands. DAMn°39, published on 6 July 2013.