Frieze: Everything and Everywhere is a School, review

Tuesday October 30th 2018 by Peter Thomas Lang

observing eyes, flexible minds and skilled hands’

Josef Albers, Search Versus Re-Search (1969)

Since its inception, in 2012, the Istanbul Design Biennial has carved a space for thought-provoking and critical curatorial positions unlike any other event in the global design calendar. Titled ‘A School of Schools’ and curated by Jan Boelen with Nadine Botha and Vera Sacchetti, its fourth edition looks to education and learning paradigms that, as the curators write in their introductory essay, look ‘beyond design as solution and school as institution’. The curatorial premise builds upon a century-long history of pedagogical critique and cultural radicalism – from the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto, to Black Mountain College, to the ‘hippie modernism’ of the Whole Earth Catalog and the Italian Global Tools initiative, among many others. While inspired by such precedents, the biennial seeks to interrogate their legacy, as well as to reflect on the inadequateness of extant educational models vis-à-vis the uneven socio-economic conditions of the global present. Searching for alternative propositions to rescue design education from the functional pragmatism of industrialized creativity, ‘A School of Schools’ asks: ‘What if the school we need now is a personal attitude of questioning and figuring out?’

This is an urgent and ambitious task – the 700 submissions received in response to the open call attest to its resonance. (Of these, a reported 200 international practitioners were eventually selected to participate.) Nonetheless, in refusing to offer concrete solutions, the curatorial impetus of ‘everything and everywhere is a school’ falls prey to a nostalgic neo-utopianism that never fully engages with its subject. The show advocates for the re-positioning of learning in ‘spaces of exception’ in which ‘the temporary suspension from normal functioning’ and ‘empowered doubt’ would encourage free thinking; however, this feels anachronistically at odds with real-world predicaments of social insecurity and occupational precarity.

‘This should be one of those millennial moments where people [i.e. students] descend onto the streets,’ observes professor Peter Lang, of the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, in his contribution to the biennial reader. He recalls, that ‘the biggest takeway from the Italian radicals [of the late 1960s and ’70s] is that every time they got really pissed off with the education they were receiving, they rebelled’. And so, in an attempt to transform ‘streets into corridors’ and the city into a classroom, the biennial has adopted a distributed strategy spanning a website, a reader with essays and selected interviews, a public programme running for the duration of the show and an exhibition across six venues. All iconic cultural institutions in the central district of Beyoğlu, these play host to six ‘schools’, looking at themes of Unmaking (Akbank Sanat), Currents (Yapı Kredi Culture Centre), Earth (Arter Gallery), Scales (Pera Museum), Time (SALT Galata) and Digestion (Studio-X Istanbul). Despite its intention to expand beyond institutional confines, however, the exhibition remains safely sheltered in its own custom-made scenography – a modular structure designed by architect Aslı Çiçek and product designer Lukas Wegwerth, which objectifies rather than mobilizes the collaborative, networked character of the projects on show.

The works that best embody a realignment of design, education and everyday reality are to be found in the Unmaking and Currents sections. The first of these looks at the expanded nature of the ‘workshop’ and changing notions of labour and human creation. It includes the excellent Water School (2018). This speculative project – spearheaded by designer Jurgen Bey, with a vast group of collaborators – centres around the creation of a primary school whose construction and curriculum would address the topic of water shortage.



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