Please, accept cookies in order to load the content.

The effect of this digital nightlight is a yellowish curtain that gradually descends over the screen. As a result, the digital space ultimately reminds us more than anything of a place where we might have spent the evening instead: the classic Dutch ‘brown’ café, unrefreshed since the introduction of the smoking ban, whose artificial light is somewhat grudgingly reflected by a ceiling still impregnated with decades of tobacco smoke.

Healing powers

Could this be an example of what head curator Paola Antonelli has in mind when, while explaining the theme of the 22nd Milan Triennial (1 March -1 September 2019), she talks about the need for ‘restorative design’: a form of design that introduces the power of recovery into a world in which the relationship between humans and their natural environment has been so radically disrupted?

In the context of the main theme, Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, Antonelli, for over 30 years an authoritative voice in the field of design and architecture, as well as a fixture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, communicates a contemporary mission for the designer. To recover, rather than to replace. To heal, rather than to amputate. She observes that the ‘threads’ connecting people and the living environment have worn thin, and in some cases are permanently broken. Perhaps we have already passed the stage in which recovery is possible, yet even then she sees an important role for the designer.

In her Triennial explanation, Paola Antonelli expresses that scenario – in accordance with the latest discourse in the field – as a final chance. Now that it’s becoming apparent, in all sorts of ways, how humanity’s selfish actions deplete the planet and disrupt ecosystems, we need to rely on the healing powers of the natural environment more than ever before. And in order to activate these forces, we need to lend them a helping hand with the assistance of the designer’s ingenuity. For example, by connecting natural and technological processes so as to slightly accelerate the slow responses of nature.

Antonelli expresses her starting point for the Triennial in these terms:

“Through researching architecture and design objects and concepts, on all sorts of scale and in all possible materials, Broken Nature celebrates the ability of design to provide powerful insights for the big issues of our time, without falling into innocuous compliance or uncertain fear. The 22nd Triennial focuses attention on the existence and perseverance of humanity, in order to demonstrate the importance of creative practices with which we explore the links between the human species and the world’s complex systems, and use them where necessary to design repairs using objects, concepts or new systems.”

After which she hopes to convince the last sceptics with unadulterated pathos: “Even for those who believe that humanity is ultimately (now, or in the distant future?) doomed to extinction, design provides a means to make an elegant farewell. It may cause the next dominant species to think about us with respect as worthy and caring, if not intelligent, creatures.” Design as a universal suicide pill? As our sole saviour? Or perhaps as a mask to cover its own shortcomings?

Downside

Because in all fairness, as much as design can contribute to the solution of what Broken Nature calls ‘the big issues of our time’, we must never forget that there’s also a downside. The material-progress thinking, of which design has been the expression since the beginning of the industrial age, has contributed to our current problems. Every time the well-being or material prosperity of the human species seemed to be in need of improvement, the designer began to develop a new field of work in that area.

Author Robert Hughes once showed with his television series The Shock of the New (1980) how, since Impressionism, the search for what was yet unseen in the visual arts has always disrupted the perception of reality. Pretty much simultaneous with this movement in art was the formation of a design practice in which an appeasement with the new prevailed. In architecture, the tendency had been going on for centuries, while the concept of design (and then the profession) actually only gained significance when production processes were mechanized (from the mid-19th century). Design made the new world less threatening, and life more comfortable.

Strikingly enough, a counter-reaction soon followed – in particular, with early British socialism and the related Arts and Crafts movement. Industrialization caused a fundamental deterioration of the natural order, which had to be reversed by artists and designers. Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities, the wallpaper of William Morris: these carried working people back to the harmony of nature and positioned themselves – in the terminology of Howard’s popular book about the garden cities of the future – as ‘a peaceful path to real reform’.

Perhaps we can view this retroactively as an early example of ‘restorative design’. And it’s tempting to continue a bit further with the parallel. The search for ‘real reform’ that arose from the Industrial Revolution seems to be reflected in the call for radical change going hand in hand with the Digital Revolution. In such a turbulent time of transition, even the idea that every design act is also, inevitably, a form of political action builds a bridge between the two periods.

Satellite image

In I See That I See What You Don’t See, the Dutch contribution to the 22nd Milan Triennial, Het Nieuwe Instituut focuses on the rationalized landscape that can be read as an expression of Broken Nature. A nightly satellite image of the earth is sufficient to make the diagnosis. The entire Randstad is, like other parts of the Netherlands, bathed in artificial light. The greenhouses in the Westland region, for example, outshine the entire starry sky. As an unproductive, uncontrollable and potentially threatening factor, the night is almost completely designed away – with all of the potential consequences for flora, fauna and people. Energy, technology and data streams have become the essential fuels for a 24-hour production landscape that is fully geared to efficiency and profit. It is continuously in operation, so the traditional distinction between light and dark hardly matters. Production continues uninterrupted, while being further optimized step by step.

At the same time – and this is the fascinating contradiction – this optimal landscape has been made relatively invisible, shielded from prying eyes. And this invisibility is also constantly being designed. There’s a similarity, perhaps, to the acoustic barriers flanking the motorway network. Reportedly present to reduce noise nuisance in the environment, they are nevertheless objects of alienation. The continuity of the landscape is interrupted, leading to the emergence of parallel realities, each of which achieve their optimal state under their own conditions. On the road, the barriers optimize transport speed and efficiency, while disconnecting the road user from the surrounding world. On the other side of the screen, the rural idyll is maintained in the nearby villages, including the slowness of country life. As long as these two realities see and hear as little of each other as possible, they don’t belong to the same system, but each continues a seemingly undisturbed existence in its own landscape. Alienation helps to disguise opposites, and design provides the necessary tools for this. In addition to being the ultimate instrument for creating visibility, design is also the ideal tool for tucking reality out of sight.

Speculative instrument

Het Nieuwe Instituut has repeatedly paid attention to the ability of design and architecture to conceal, and the significance of that. With its capacity to transform fundamental innovations into usable products and environments, design has marked the face of progress. But at the same time, it has helped to mask the conflicts associated with innovation.

Recently, this topic was an aspect of Work, Body, Leisure, the Dutch contribution to the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018, and the related project Automated Landscapes. Previously, it was also part of an investigation into the current validity of Sicco Mansholt’s post-war centralized agricultural policy (including his late conversion to small-scale farming).

Such projects are part of the larger canvas on which Het Nieuwe Instituut has been working since its foundation. As a national institute, it is naturally subject to the agenda of current cultural policy, but by operating as a speculative force in the cultural sector it aims to be able to question the underlying framework of its own remit. This includes the design of cultural policy itself, in which ‘the market’ has gained the upper hand in recent years. In the light of this, the invitation from Milan, and the willingness of Minister Van Engelshoven to seize the opportunity to participate in the Triennial, are important signals for a changing perspective. The critical approach chosen by the institute is validated.

In her concept, Paola Antonelli explicitly opts for a broadened notion of design, in which the role of the designer is not limited to that of an image maker.

The institute will recognize itself in this definition. It may be the designer’s core position to imagine, yet the profession is increasingly becoming a research practice, as a link between various disciplines and complex social issues. In that role it may be possible to acquire a new position, one that is less complicit with the prescripts of the market.

Market

Such a holistic, primarily research-based concept of design is crucial for the Dutch Triennial entry. The research capacity of designers and architects offers an opportunity to understand the disruptive effects of technology. To analyse, at least, the systems that have caused the ecological balance to deteriorate. Insights thus acquired can then contribute to recovery, but the opposite is not inconceivable. Perhaps – and this is also the case with I See That I See What You Don’t See – the only real alternative is to speed up the process of disruption.

An exhibition like Broken Nature doesn’t escape the expectations of the discipline, dictated by the way in which design is encapsulated in the capitalist system. Its vocabulary is derived from the market. Success in the sector is still largely determined by the power of marketing. That seems an inescapable given. But every system can change and so it is not unthinkable for design to develop into a truly critical practice, with its own language and a position that is no longer exclusively legitimized by the economy.

Rationalized landscape

In order to adequately demonstrate the changing role of design – and therefore the essence of design research – new forms of presentation are needed. Especially in Milan, where in the Spring the Salone del Mobile will sing the old song of design ‘stardom’ and the latest-of-the-latest. The Dutch presentation I See That I See What You Don’t See presents a panorama of different landscapes: various reflections on an ecology that has been seized as a part of the culture, thanks to the interventions of designers.

A diverse group of makers and designers has focused on aspects of the rationalized landscape and developed their own themes. These participants – the Academy for Urban Astronauts, Ramon Amaro, Danilo Correale, Design Academy Eindhoven, the Research and Heritage departments of Het Nieuwe Instituut, Lucy McRae, Melvin Moti, Bregtje van der Haak, Pascal van Hulst and Oscar Peña, Richard Vijgen and Leanne Wijnsma – all explore the appearances and meanings of the (lack of) darkness, and the relationship that different species – from animals, plants and machines to humans – maintain with the darkness. Together their research projects, films, performances, sound and fragrance environments form a collection of testimonies to the role that design plays in our understanding of the world, and how design can also be used to change our perceptions.

The choice of an originally 19th-century format, the panorama, is an essential component of the project. At that time, dioramas and panoramas were a favourite means of engaging audiences in complex issues. The power was mainly in the effect on the spectator, and that is exactly what I See That I See What You Don’t See exploits. More than in other exhibition environments, in the panorama the viewer realizes that his or her gaze is being steered. It literally defines the angle at which things can and must be observed. Moreover, it is an extremely suitable form for representing the voices of multiple artists, film makers and designers.

A somewhat more contemporary reading of the panorama leads to the work of the art historian Aby Warburg and his predilection for discontinuity and juxtaposition. The fragmented panorama of I See That I See What You Don’t See forces spectators to adjust their gaze several times, in accordance with the intention of the curators not to tell a one-dimensional story.

Light pollution

The core of the Dutch contribution to Broken Nature can be characterized as a kaleidoscopic exploration of light pollution, plus other aspects of the contemporary Cartesian landscape. From a historical perspective, the connection between light and pollution initially arouses surprise. Already in the oldest religions, light is associated with what is good and safe, and the darkness acts as the beloved instrument of the enemy. Light is synonymous with trustworthiness and truth, as expressed in idioms such as to ‘bring to light’ and to ‘see the cold light of day’. Certainly, in a European context light is equal to productivity, and dark is synonymous with stasis or even decline, as expressed in the ‘Dark Ages’, the name given to the historical period of economic, demographic and (presumed) cultural decline in Western Europe.

But aren’t we disqualifying the important restorative force that is also connected with night and darkness? Are we forgetting too easily that the immense amount of artificial light disrupts the nightly orientation of birds, for example? And is it really so strange that fully indoor workspaces are increasingly being provided with 24-hour daylight simulations to enable the various teams to work around the clock?

Urgency

The programming of the Dutch entry regularly interrupts the physical boundaries of the exhibition format, and even the Triennial building, with performances, discussions and conversations between experts on specific themes in the presentation. This makes a connection with the surrounding city and the themes in the outside world. Various positions in design are discussed, including those of cultural institutions such as Het Nieuwe Instituut and the host itself. After its glory years, the Milan Triennial had slipped in recent decades to the level of a rather tenuous Italian get-together. That changed immediately after Milan-based architect Stefano Boeri took over the helm in 2018. Under his leadership, the event seems to be regaining the international urgency that had been lacking for so long.

In an environment like this, Het Nieuwe Instituut seems to want to prove that the inclusive, broad approach to design can come into its own – and reach a global audience. Whether such an entry should necessarily be provided with a Dutch stamp is doubtful. Unless, of course, it is typically Dutch to show a project in which an international company of creators collaborated with an international team of curators. In any case, it is characteristic of the client’s view that the international focus is totally intertwined with virtually all the activities that Het Nieuwe Instituut undertakes.

Il grande numero

In exactly the same place in May 1968, 50 years ago, a foundation was laid for the presentation of 2019. In the time of the massive student protests in Paris, Berlin, Milan and Amsterdam, architect Aldo van Eyck attended the Milan Triennial under the flag of Team 10, with prominent colleagues such as Giancarlo De Carlo and Alison and Peter Smithson. Even though their installation il grande numero was occupied immediately after the opening by protesting students – an action that defined the legendary status of the exhibition – it’s worth remembering Van Eyck’s project for what it showed. Especially in the light of Broken Nature.

Aldo van Eyck’s installation commented on the exhaustion of the earth and contemporary architecture’s answer to that. He designed a dark space: a sort of haunted house in which visitors first had to make their way through a forest of tree trunks. Once inside, they saw themselves reflected in broken mirrors. In the pavilion were two opposing perspectives: how much can be done with little, which Van Eyck illustrated by showing examples such as the Dogon architecture of Mali; and how little is done with a lot, summarized by the anonymous architecture of new towns in the Western world.

Activists

Just as in 1968, we are again facing a turning point. Whereas then the Club of Rome translated the concern for the planet’s survival into the report Limits to Growth (1972), and in this way pointed out the full responsibility of the design world (among others), it is now the climate scientists and especially the activists that advocate a fundamental rearrangement. As if we had never been warned, we continued to create landscapes that have become increasingly productive in a small area, while in the meantime we have become alienated from our natural environment.

Paola Antonelli seeks the answer in ‘restorative’ design. The Dutch contribution subjects this option to critical questioning. Not to conclude what is right or wrong, but to explore alternatives. What is needed to not have to ask the same questions about the survival of the planet 50 years from now? That conversation is being started in Milan. With designers, artists and researchers, but also with companies, policy makers and citizens. In Dutch, the title of I See That I See What You Don’t See refers to a children’s game, much like ‘I spy with my little eye’. The presentation is more than a game, however: it’s time that we start to see what some others have observed long before us.

Text: Gert Staal

Guus Beumer, artistic and general director, Het Nieuwe Instituut
Angela Rui, Marina Otero Verzier, Francien van Westrenen
Rudy Guedj
Olivier Goethals