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Istanbul Design Biennial revisits empathy as an objective, a toolbox, and beyond

Through a series of offline and online spaces, the fifth edition of Istanbul Design Biennial continues to iterate means of caring as the fundamental principle of design.

by Aastha D.Published on : Apr 23, 2021

Empathy, undoubtedly very different from sympathy, has lately been at the centre of conversations around the human spirit, social justice, environmentalism, and has essentially been touted as the ultimate ambition of one’s humanity. It is a concept that has been around for a while now (a little over a century), with its origins in art and later in understanding why art moves us. Empathy has informed the creation, perception and interpretation of art, and found its way into mainstream culture thanks to psychologists, and the growing fusion of science with art in early 20th century Europe.

The 5th Istanbul Design Biennial is entitled ‘Empathy Revisited: designs for more than one’; here, design is presented as a practice that positions care as its primary purpose. With this objective the various exhibits (offline and digital) begin to disrupt the matrix of: the designed, the designer, the designed-for and the designed-at-the-cost-of. Reconciling with the anthropocene as part of empathetic practice, the works also attempt to decentralise humans in ecological and cosmological relationships with other organisms, microbes, natural resources and the universe at large. The biennial is curated by Mariana Pestana with Sumitra Upham and Billie Muraben. The graphic identity is by Studio Maria João Macedo, the exhibition design is by Future Anecdotes and the sound design is by Maxwell Sterling. The Young Curators Group are Nur Horsanalı, Ulya Soley and Eylül Şenses. An intrinsic aspect of the biennial has been its involvement of new practitioners from various locations and disciplines, and the team’s commitment to support local industries.

Poster of the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial “Empathy Revisited: designs for more than one” | 5th Istanbul Design Biennial “Empathy Revisited: designs for more than one”| STIRworld
Poster of the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial “Empathy Revisited: designs for more than one” Image: Courtesy of Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV)

The biennial since its inception in 2012, has positioned itself in the context of the city of Istanbul while speaking to universal and esoteric ideas, this year’s edition (started in October 2020) is especially focused on inhabiting a diverse range of voices, perceptions, requirements and causes.

“Aspiring to carve out a space of responsibility and nourish a culture of attachment towards the more-than-human, this biennial explores designs for multiple bodies, dimensions and perspectives. The projects on display encourage us to rethink practices of care and civility at this critical moment in time, and to collectively build new systems and structures for reconnecting. The biennial offers critical tools and alternative pathways in face of urgent climate and economic crises, a general state of social deprivation and an exhausted global industrial model” - mentions the curator’s text.

The cosmology of racial capitalism | Dele Adeyemo | 5th Istanbul Design Biennial “Empathy Revisited: designs for more than one”| STIRworld
The cosmology of racial capitalism: Dele Adeyemo Image: Kayhan Kaygusuz

The biennial meets people where they are—out in the streets, parks, or even at home—and invites them in as participants and performers in New Civic Rituals, researchers at the Library of Land and Sea, and cooks at the Critical Cooking Show.

New Civic Rituals

A series of sites activated across the city engage inhabitants in a range of activities that compel them to reflect with awareness, the interdependent nature of human existence—with each other and the world around. The installations perform a multitude of empathy driven functions: from dancing with local dancers, breaking gender barriers in occupation of public spaces, witnessing seed germination, understanding sun-dials, to gathering for communal learning and knowledge production, indulging in therapeutic functions, becoming part of The Map of an Empathetic Society’, to name a few.

The Germinator, witnessing the slow sprouting of seeds | SKREI | 5th Istanbul Design Biennial “Empathy Revisited: designs for more than one”| STIRworld
The Germinator, witnessing the slow sprouting of seeds Image: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Empathy Sessions

A selection of film works that expand the notion of empathy to inform the inherent biases in AI, facial recognition, biotechnology etc.; from fictional technologies to paths being forged by current research carried out by inequitable human occupation.

What to catch: New Works April 2021

In its last phase, you can still catch the following—

Desiccate With Care: public works with Freddie Wiltshire and Billy Adams turning food dehydration and preservation into a collective civic practice, the work takes as its starting point the Turkish culinary tradition. The process of dehydration and the cultures that surround it are explored, while produce is gathered to test and discuss drying rituals from around the world. As a counter-narrative to modern immediacy, this slow race against decay sets a new pace for public life.

Dessicate with care | Freddie Wiltshire and Billy Adams | 5th Istanbul Design Biennial “Empathy Revisited: designs for more than one”| STIRworld
Dessicate with care Image: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Microbial Fruits of Istanbul by Orkan Telhan + elii(a project by IMNA): if microorganisms could narrate the complex histories of Istanbul community gardens (bostans) from the perspective of microorganisms! A hybrid between a soil microbiology lab and a fruit tree, it displays microbial cultures collected from a variety of gardens in the city of Istanbul, over 1,500 years.

Municipality Solar Kitchen by Martí Guixé: This public solar kitchen uses alternative energy – the sun – as its power source. It plays with the flexibility of its users, and their willingness to adapt to atmospheric conditions. At the mercy of the weather, it forces us to reconnect with the environment, to deal with the unexpected and ultimately, to be subject to nature.

A robocaliptic manifesto: techno politics for liberation | Paula Gaetano Adi |  5th Istanbul Design Biennial “Empathy Revisited: designs for more than one” | STIRworld
A robocaliptic manifesto: techno politics for liberation Image: Paula Gaetano Adi

Büyükada Songlines by Studio Ossidiana: a design project and a journey, this is a floating garden inhabited by plants, soil, insects and birds. It will travel across Istanbul’s Prince’s Islands archipelago in the spring of 2021, before heading towards the mainland. During its travels, the garden will host people and other animals, events and conversations, becoming a nomadic pavilion populated by the life and the stories of the archipelago.

Dansbana, occupying streets with the act of dancing | Kalamis Parky / Kadikoy|  5th Istanbul Design Biennial “Empathy Revisited: designs for more than one” | STIRworld
Dansbana, occupying streets with the act of dancing Image: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Looking for Stigmergy by Looking for Stigmergy Team: a growing online platform, which expands, contracts and morphs depending on the context or institution in which it operates. The platform is ‘fed’ through temporary exhibitions, pedagogical experiments, round-table conversations, conferences, and publications, through physical and non-physical means.

Over a span of six months, since the October of 2020, the biennial continues to evolve in the virtual and physical realm. As installations sprout across the city, and lectures and screenings continue to broadcast, the Spring of 2021 is bound to see Istanbul’s integration of these works and the collective consciousness they have shaped.

The 5th Istanbul Design Biennial - 'Empathy Revisited: Designs for more than one' will conclude with a day-long closing event 'Not quite a finissage!' on April 24, streaming on İKSV’s YouTube channel. It marks a closure while opening new works to the public at the same time. The event will be focused on the research projects displayed in the Library of Land and Sea but will also encompass many surprises reflecting the spirit of this edition.

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