Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley Are Tangled Up in Design

With this year’s Istanbul Biennial, academics Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley aim to reboot the history of civilization and “redesign” the human subject altogether.

A Masai farmer uses a mobile phone to check the latest market produce prices. Kenya, one of the countries where the Masai live, has almost 20 million cell phone subscribers.

 Courtesy Sven Torfinn/Panos

Biennials can often be exercises in insularity whose impact vanishes soon after opening weekend. The third Istanbul Design Biennial promises to explode the whole model. Curated by architecture academics Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, Are We Human? The Design of the Species: 2 Seconds, 2 Days, 2 Years, 200 Years, 200,000 Years reboots the history of civilization with the aim of “redesigning” the human subject altogether. In conversation with Metropolis editor Samuel Medina, Colomina and Wigley, who have elected to be quoted jointly, discuss the pitfalls of “good design” and why it’s gone viral.

There’s something cosmic about your timeline if read even in a slightly future-oriented way, or as a post-humanist, post-terrestrial gesture. On the other hand, there’s something much more playful, as a commentary on the two-year intervals of the art and architecture biennial. Are you simply “trolling” the biennial as a cultural form? Which is it?

Actually, it goes 200,000 years into the past! We are looking back toward the prehuman rather than forward to the post-human. Or maybe when humans started to “leave the earth” with their very first designs. Maybe the relationship between human and post-human is an ancient one. It’s a question anyway, and this show is literally a question: “Are we human?” For us the project is precisely not projective, and this is why we are challenging the two-year protocol written into the word “biennial.” Our very strong feeling is that biennials, which are breeding like rabbits, are amazing condensations of people and the latest ideas, but their two-year cycle implies that what you’re going to see is fresh work from the design studios that will therefore be the work that will likely arrive in the world soon. The biennial becomes a preview of the immediate future. Biennials are geared to this image of an immediate future, and they try to reassure that interesting people are doing interesting things or, to say it another way around, that we have a future, right? There’s an optimism of the biennial form. It’s kind of like “Look what’s cooking.” Our feeling was “But what if actually the main point would be not to reassure people that design is happily continuing as a kind of business, but to point out that this business might be a bit of a smoke screen and that the very condition of design has now changed so profoundly that we need a completely different time frame to even register it?” Instead of two years, let’s go to 200 years because that’s more or less when the typical understanding of design or industrial design began with the debates in London. And if the point is to develop a new understanding of design, we might as well go back to when humans began 200,000 years ago. Instead of doing the projective thing with some cozy image of the near future, let’s do a documentary. Let’s try to say what’s really going on with design in our world. More precisely, let’s talk about the fact that our whole world has been designed.

Given this sweeping timeframe that you’ve laid out, is there a danger of ahistoricizing design? Perhaps that’s fine if you consider it a manifesto.

Well, we are ourselves historians, but are not afraid to make some bold trans-historical propositions to see what that provokes in the work of others and in our own work. Historical specificity is actually one of the goals. Our feeling is that to launch a conversation that would outlive the biennial itself, we should write a manifesto and then invite a unique group people from different fields and trajectories to respond to it, to disagree, to reinforce, to elaborate. Manifestos can generate precise history. History doesn’t just hide inside universities. A number of the 80 contributors to the show itself, all of whom are responding to this manifesto in different ways, and many of the more than 50 participating in the publications, are historians. Their primary responses are historical and draw on very particular expert historical knowledge, while others are archeologists, brain scientists, artists, architects, and designers. Because of the expanded time-frame—from the last 200,000 years to the last 2 seconds—there’s a lot of historical argument being made by all participants.

In that spirit, we have formed a working relationship with the Istanbul Archaeological Museum—which is like a sister institution to the British Museum and one of the world’s great museums—because what we are arguing is that an archeological museum is a design museum. It’s a collection of designed objects and a serious design biennial is simply thinking about what should eventually be added to such a collection. So are very happy and honored to partner directly with the museum and we will exhibit objects from the archeological museum inside the biennial and have part of the biennial exhibition inside the archeological museum. Again, it’s all about history. If design is the invention of the human, it is historical by definition.

To the question “Are we human?” the rebuttal or retort, of course, would be “All too human,” etc. But apart from that, your curatorial statement seems to bristle against the idea of humanistic design, in its simplest sense at least. It could even be read as being almost antihumanist, in that it says that humanism is outmoded. Should designers leave that idea behind?

In a sense, the very planet itself is now a human artifact. So we have to really ask that question “Are we human?” Yes, it bristles against any kind of laziness like “human-centered design.” Part of what we are doing in the show is to demonstrate how “design thinking” has gone viral and what its implications are. It has successfully taken the concept of “good design” that was developed at the end of the 19th century and perfected in the first decades of the 20th century and mobilized it for the market. It’s a business model. The new position of “chief design officer” now has the same status as “chief financial officer” in companies that don’t do design in the traditional sense. Likewise, politicians, NGOs, departments, consultants, etc., are using “design thinking.” Everyone is using it—except for designers. If you look at the latest statements of design thinking, they are now saying that what they mean by design thinking is “human-centered design.” And what do they mean by that? Not much more than saying you should listen a lot to the humans that you’re designing for. But listening to a human is not quite the same as knowing what a human is. So yes, this biennial bristles at the complacent humanism that imagines that the human is something inherently good and needy so that if you pay attention and take care of this human, you’ll be doing a good thing. But what if the human is actually the thing that we know the least? What if the human is a big question mark? Perhaps even the biggest question mark? It’s not that there is a stable human that needs to be taken care of, but almost the other way around. Perhaps design covers over our doubts about our own condition or generates speculations about what might be human. That’s our premise. Humanistic design says, “Let’s put the human at the center.” It’s ridiculous because what it says is “I want to put this huge question mark at the center,” as if that would rationalize design decisions.

So part of what you’re saying is that it does no good to assume that the human is always a positive force in the universe.

If you were coming to Earth from Mars, it would be easy to conclude that here is one species entirely dominating the planet. But where would you meet this species? What would the first encounter be? Maybe when you hit a piece of space junk on the way in? You wouldn’t say, “Well, that’s an object and let me wait till I find out who made that.” Your first thought would be “Okay. Contact with another creature.” After passing through clouds of satellites chirping to each other, you would see airplanes and cities and maybe even the internet buzzing with countless thoughts. Would you have stopped when you see these creatures walking around on two legs and say, “I’ve found the humans”? Would you even see the fleshy bag of organs inside these creatures, or would you keep going into the genome, or into the reshaped earth or into the weather? You might conclude that a species has dominated the planet for 200,000 years, which is a pathetically short time, but that species is like a kind of cloud of design—countless overlapping spiderwebs at the scale of the planet that are part of the body of this creature. The human is occupying itself in a strange kind of way.

Speaking of spiders, how will the exhibition look beyond the human?

We have invited people concentrating on the relationship of the human and other species. Of course humans design species, which we have been doing with plants and animals for a long time. That’s why we go back 200,000 years, to observe the eventual domestication of plants and animals and think about what was the chicken and what was the egg. What if design was first? The normal story is that the human tries to survive, learns how to kill animals, and eventually gains more and more skills and starts to make beautiful objects and decorate and communicate. What if it’s exactly the reverse, and the human started being human through design? That design is not necessarily about function?

By the way, this is one of the theories, that the human species is always thinking, “I wonder if I could do that differently,” whereas every other species, once it’s figured out how to do something,
it just does it again and again forever. What if design is simply this curiosity, this constant production of alternatives? What if these alternatives, some of which turn out to have unique functional advantages, keep multiplying and feed on themselves in an ever-expanding intelligence? Then design would not be about solving problems.

That’s a pernicious axiom, that designers are mostly problem solvers.

Yes. Take social media. It’s hugely important, but nobody predicted it or its transformative importance in everyday life. Same with the internet. We know exactly the history of the internet, its relationship with the military, the ARPANET, etc. We know how the universities were involved, but it became something unexpected. We can certainly look at writers going all the way back to people like Buckminster Fuller in the ’30s who predicted a kind of global network of interconnectivity echoing radio engineers of the ’20s. The idea was there, but even the people who actually made the ARPANET linking a set of military and university hubs didn’t realize what would happen. Years ago, Buckminster Fuller said that it’s always like that, that any invention that makes a difference would be considered unbelievable before it happened. Design is unexpected, even to those who do it—which makes the designer a very interesting figure. Exactly the opposite of a problem solver. It’s not about functional needs and delivering solutions but about unexpectedly inventing new problems or new capacities. This is an argument against the market.

Visualization of space debris orbiting the earth: Out of roughly 3,600 satellites still in orbit around our planet, only about 1,000 are operational.

Courtesy European Space Agency (ESA)

It’s interesting the way you disentangle design from commodities. Is that the first step in requestioning what the human is?

It’s possible that designers who have lost touch with the fact that the design has gone viral are generating objects very much at the level of the commodity, these seemingly magical objects whose primary purpose is to help us forget about how weird the human is. The smoothness of the cell phone to the eye and hand is a kind of perfect example of “good design” trying to take away from our consciousness the shocking capacity to redesign the human that the very same object has. It’s this lightweight, smooth, delicate instrument that has actually entirely changed our biology, our mentality, and our planet. It’s a kind of fetish object with magical power, but equally its design acts as a form of anesthetic.

This concept of the smooth, integrated, efficient, mobile, and global object that minimizes friction in personal life and in the market is exactly the concept that was born in England in the 1830s in response to the first big wave of industrialization and globalization, and was refined as it made its way to Europe and through the Bauhaus over to the States, then was redistributed globally as a default concept of “good design.” But what do we do with that argument now that embryos are being designed and economic systems are being designed and the oceans are riddled with design and the Amazon forest is layer upon layer upon layer of design, and human design now races out beyond the solar system in the form of exploring spacecraft?

The idea is not to say that designers are misleading us or seducing us away from reality but just to consider the thought that if we were able to invent such an influential concept of design 200 years ago, this might be a good moment to try to do it again when globalization and industrialization and immaterial labor and all these things have taken such an incredible turn. Is this a moment for us to get a diversity of minds together and reboot the conversation to come up with a more relevant concept of design? That’s the spirit of this biennial.

A design biennial is somewhat of a different animal than an architectural biennial because it typically takes the form of a trade show. It’s interesting, then, that as architecture academics, you’ve chosen to tackle and critique that form.

Well, design biennials are usually trade shows, but architectural biennials are often too! That’s why we resist that model. Almost all works of celebrated designers are smooth, integrated, efficient, adjustable, following the idea of “good design.” All of this language of smoothness implies absorbing all complexity into an object and hiding that complexity, especially the complexity of our own relationship with the object, and the desire to soon end that relationship in favor of a new object. If a cell phone is so smooth and so compact, nestled into the body so intimately that we are not sure if we hold it or it holds us, it is so that we become ourselves with this object. We literally sleep with it. We can’t think without it. But its smoothness includes the lack of friction with the market. The object reassures us that “it’s all good but could be better, and by the way, there is a new model coming.” This sense of relentless motion, that each object stimulates a desire for the next, is magnified by a typical trade show biennial.

Instead of a set of products ready for the market, each of them smoothly answering agreed-upon questions in self-contained worlds, our biennial invites designs that ask questions of the visitors that overlap each other and force the visitors to make their own connections and observations.

This also informs the exhibition design, which promises to really depart from the typical exhibition format. You’ve said before that the displays will be akin to “clusters of interactive clouds,” but what will they look like?

The cloud idea that we are working on with Andrés Jaque tries to get away from the trade show model of the latest products lined up representing the brands of individual designers. The exhibition will create constellations of overlapping thoughts that act as a kind of mirror in which the visitors strangely start to appreciate some of their own capabilities. The trade show only treats the visitor as a potential consumer of sophisticated objects. What if it’s the other way around? It is not by chance that Andrés Jaque may be the architect today most tuned in to the self-production of new kinds of social agencies, interactivities, and identities. Even the name of his office—Office of Political Innovation—asks what kind of forms of social creativity could be enabled by new forms of media and architecture. This is why we’re a bit hooked on this cloud thing. It means there will be very few designer objects other than the human itself.

And in their place what content will you be showing?

We can show the visitor the human design of the Amazon, of the ocean, of the Antarctic, of the brain, of artificial intelligence, and of biological organisms. We can show a specific exhibit of the human that’s racing away from our planet in interstellar space at a million miles a day.

That speaks to a resonance that I attribute to something like the Eameses’ Powers of Ten, which gets at the sublimity of scalar expansion.

Absolutely. If you want to look back and find role models for challenging design and what’s human, figures like Buckminster Fuller and the Eameses come up a lot, and not by accident. This show is a kind of response to Powers of Ten, which is both a model for us and something to be critiqued. We have a kind of “powers of two” dealing with scales of space like the Eameses—from the genetic code to interstellar space—but also scales of time, from two seconds to 200,000 years. So there is clearly an Eamesian bandwidth.

Perhaps you might think I’m baiting you, but I wonder how you see your biennial in relation to the current Venice Architecture Biennale and its notions of do-goodism and obsession with “good design.”

The big difference with Venice, and with most architecture biennales, is that their main purpose is to protect the figure of the architect, saying that in today’s world architects are basically good people doing good things, as if defending their union. We are saying, well, let’s forget about good and bad actors. Let’s just imagine that whatever our current professional expertise is, it’s not adequate to save our planet, or ourselves, or even to modify the way we share our world together. It is not a matter of criticizing other biennials. It’s just introducing a hesitation in the flow to say maybe we need to redesign design. The real purpose of the exhibition is to start to gather a sufficient density of people, ideas, and arguments so that we can genuinely rethink design in an ongoing debate.

It’s urgent. When the human is in interstellar space and we can design our future children, what are we going to do with our word “design”? What are the opportunities, what could our community contribute? At that level, we are optimistic, super optimistic even. Designers, by which we mean all the diverse interactive networks of collaborative actors, are using a concept of design that has passed its expiration date, but they do have a real ability to engage with complexity. It’s just that these networks have become expert at synthesizing singular marketable forms out of that complexity and sort of cleaning the difficulties away, smoothing things over. If we give up the ambition to smoothness, there’s an extraordinary capacity in the design community to rethink design. That’s what we’re hoping to unleash.

As Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrived from Turkey at Skala Sykamias on Lesbos Island, Greece, in October 2015, they were helped by Spanish volunteers.

Courtesy Georgios Giannopoulos

On August 5, 2010, when a 97-square- mile chunk of ice broke off the Petermann Glacier along the northwestern coast of Greenland, the event and its aftermath were carefully analyzed by researchers, thanks to satellites monitoring the planet.

Courtesy NASA

At Berlin’s Charité, one of the largest university hospitals in Europe, physician Thomas Klotzkowski cleans Florian Steiner, a doctor specializing in tropical medicine, in a disinfection chamber at a quarantine station for patients with infectious diseases.

Courtesy Reuters/Thomas Peter

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