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Victoria Broackes on collaboration being key to the London Design Biennale 2023

Speaking with STIR, the LDB director discusses how the event challenges the traditional biennale model and why there's a need for connections to pull people closer to design.

by Samta Nadeem, Zohra KhanPublished on : Jun 02, 2023

The fourth edition of the London Design Biennale opened to the public on June 01, 2023, at the Somerset House. Packed with an intriguing mix of countries, practices, and installations, the Biennale sets the stage for showcasing the importance of collaboration in addressing some of the most pressing issues of our times. The theme of this edition, The Global Game: Remapping Collaborations, is suggestive of the curatorial emphasis on seeking new vocabularies of design from crossing cultures, objects, and ideas. As the first design-focused biennale of its kind, according to the biennale director Victoria Broackes, the event aims to make design accessible and explicable for everyone. In the quest of subverting people’s misinterpretation of design being something that’s ‘just nice’ and is meant only for a select few, Broackes' intention with the biennale is to exemplify the closely knit relationship of design with our everyday lives, in addition to creating a platform with a broad public appeal.

The fourth edition of the London Design Biennale is hosted at the Somerset House in London; photographed here is the Malta Pavilion
The fourth edition of the London Design Biennale is hosted at the Somerset House in London; photographed here is the Malta Pavilion designed as a large scale village square Image: Taran Wilkhu

Together with Samta Nadeem (Curatorial Director, STIR), I speak with Broackes on what more is expected from this edition.

(The following are edited excerpts from our conversation)

Zohra Khan: Can you give us a sneak peek into how you collaborate with the Artistic Director for each iteration?

Victoria Broackes: I think for all the participants, countries, citizens, territories and for all the collaborations that come through that, having a theme is really important as well as the exhibition itself. It helps in engaging the audience with what are we doing here and how are we doing it, and this is the reason why we have an artistic director this year, and have had for the last biennale as well. Initially there was no one. We are delighted this time to be working with an institution, and not just with an individual, because it has allowed for a real scope in the activities that we are doing. Actually some of it is quite unexpected, but we have different departments working on it and looking into how it's developed. For this edition, the theme is The Global Game: Remapping Collaborations, and as part of the development of theme’s engagement with the participants, the Nieuwe Instituut developed an actual online game so that people can communicate with each other in advance, lead up to, and during the biennale. So, that has given us broader scope than a few words can give.

Aric Chen, the General and Artistic Director of Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, at the opening of the biennale | London Design Biennale | Somerset House | STIRworld
Aric Chen, the General and Artistic Director of Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, at the opening of the biennale Image: Courtesy of STIR

Zohra: Could you elaborate more on the engagement facilitated by the online game that has been initiated by the Nieuwe Instituut, led by its General and Artistic Director Aric Chen?

Victoria: If I could just start by contextualising the theme itself, which was inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s The World Peace game of the 1960s and the idea of one world politics, where we are all flying Spaceship Earth and we are all in it together - I think the Nieuwe Instituut and Aric took that as inspiration with how do we bring this into the 21st century in seeking out ways of working together. So, the game has been set up with no kind of prescriptiveness in it. It's simply a tool for people to engage. They can ask questions or particular specialisms; if they need a physicist or an engineer, they could go on and ask for that as well.

Austria’s pavilion titled BROT: baking the future focuses on the sensory experience of a bread, a staple food item in the country| London Design Biennale | Somerset House | STIRworld
Austria’s pavilion titled BROT: baking the future focuses on the sensory experience of a bread, a staple food item in the country Image: Taran Wilkhu
And Beyond, the pavilion by Dubai transports visitors from Dubai’s ancient camel caravans to the futuristic Emirates Mars Mission Hope Probe | London Design Biennale | Somerset House | STIRworld
And Beyond, the pavilion by Dubai transports visitors from Dubai’s ancient camel caravans to the futuristic Emirates Mars Mission Hope Probe Image: Taran Wilkhu

The real value, we feel as a design biennale is to facilitate collaboration and the online game is a tool to make that easier for people to do, not just during the exhibition, but in the run up to it. What we will see as a result of it, if you ask, there are actual collaborations in terms of the installations—we have Spain working with Peru, Austria with Germany, Denmark with Switzerland…we also have many others, where there are multiple partners engaged with an installation. Not all of those have come through the game, but it sets the scene so that people understand this is what is expected of you and it is in some ways, of course, a challenge to the traditional biennale model in which you take your pavilion and you do your thing, where it is all about that nation, city, or territory.  

  • Spain and Peru’s audio and visual installation Common Vibrations showcases the cultural heritage shared by two countries through a percussion instrument: the cajón | London Design Biennale | Somerset House | STIRworld
    Spain and Peru’s audio and visual installation Common Vibrations showcases the cultural heritage shared by two countries through a percussion instrument: the cajón Image: Taran Wilkhu
  • The Ukrainian pavilion narrates stories about new design collaborations in times of crisis for the country | London Design Biennale | Somerset House | STIRworld
    The Ukrainian pavilion The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn narrates stories about new design collaborations in times of crisis for the country Image: Taran Wilkhu
  • The Ukrainian pavilion narrates stories about new design collaborations in times of crisis for the country | London Design Biennale | Somerset House | STIRworld
    The Saudi Arabian pavilion named Woven simulates the artisanship of Al Sadu – a traditional weaving technique performed by the women in the country Image: Taran Wilkhu
  • Virtual Congo, the pavilion by the Democratic Republic of Congo reimagines the country’s national museum as a vivid virtual world | London Design Biennale | Somerset House | STIRworld
    Virtual Congo, the pavilion by the Democratic Republic of Congo reimagines the country’s national museum as a vivid virtual world Image: Taran Wilkhu

Samta Nadeem: I would like to delve deeper here because this sounds quite intriguing. Consider the case of Spain and Peru—the countries might have a historical connection, but geographically they are extremely far removed. I wonder what came first: the idea for these nations to collaborate and come forward or the game which encouraged people to collaborate?

Victoria: Once the theme was chosen, the people and the countries which were already taking part understood that one way or another, they would be creating a pavilion that addresses collaboration.

Spain and Peru had a fantastic proposal around the Picasso Drum that is now taken to be an icon of Spanish flamenco music. It actually originated in Africa and travelled to Peru where it was used, and then was seen by a flamenco player when he visited the country only 50 years ago, adopted and brought it back. It is a really nice story about crossing cultures, objects, music and ideas that come through in the work. But speaking about how the game has facilitated it, is really a continuum.

There can be a sense that design is a nice thing to have but not necessary something that is at the heart of an awful lot of ways of addressing or creating things. But it really is.

Zohra: While the biennale exhibitors are chosen from 40 countries, why was Eureka’s scope of showcasing university-led innovation limited to only the UK?

Victoria: I would say it is accidental and I hope, in the future, we will broaden this out to be international.

It was ‘a happy accident’ in 2021, we had fewer countries that were able to take part for all obvious reasons, and we went out very late in the day to the UK art schools. We just had three; it was Cambridge, the Royal College of Art, and Kingston University. They presented research-led design projects, and those were a great success, both for them and the public in terms of what they were showing. This in a way inspired Eureka, and in this edition, we have made it a platform, a separate exhibition. People will find it different in a sense that some design is about telling the stories and some is about addressing the issues. These research projects are generally focused on issues, but not all of them, as it turns out. We were aware of this following 2021 that there is no platform really where this research is shown, alongside other people working in similar or very different capacities, and as with the biennale generally, the possibilities to put that on a public stage and get responses from the public, I think is really interesting and exciting. Also, for Eureka exhibitors to meet other exhibitors and researchers in the same areas could be helpful.

  • An installation by Lab4Living, Sheffield Hallam University, for Eureka | London Design Biennale | Somerset House | STIRworld
    An installation by Lab4Living, Sheffield Hallam University, for Eureka Image: Taran Wilkhu
  • Glasgow School of Art’s Eureka presentation, Undercurrents: Art and Ocean in Africa and the Pacific, brings a series of community-led art commissions surfacing cultural and emotional connections with the ocean | London Design Biennale | Somerset House | STIRworld
    Glasgow School of Art’s Eureka presentation, Undercurrents: Art and Ocean in Africa and the Pacific, brings a series of community-led art commissions surfacing cultural and emotional connections with the ocean Image: Taran Wilkhu
  • King’s College London’s Seeking Connection allows visitors to engage with a selection of transformative interdisciplinary research into digital technologies | London Design Biennale | Somerset House | STIRworld
    King’s College London’s Seeking Connection allows visitors to engage with a selection of transformative interdisciplinary research into digital technologies Image: Taran Wilkhu

A lot of this research is not yet in production and so I hope the people coming to the biennale includes those who are looking for the next thing that should be in production.

Zohra: As a fairly young biennale in a city packed with cultural events, what do you think sets the London Design Biennale apart?

Victoria: It's the first design-focused biennale of its kind. I haven't actually been to Venice this year but I have been looking closely at the exhibits there. Obviously there’s a focus on architecture, the works are very theoretical and super exciting, but we are very different in terms of the type of content we present. I am particularly pleased that whilst we attract a professional audience as well as students in the area of design and engineering, we have a broad appeal to the public.

I worked at the V&A for many years. There can be a sense that design is a nice thing to have but not necessary something that is actually at the heart of an awful lot of ways of addressing or creating things. But it really is. I think design biennale puts a spotlight on the enormous breadth of what design can be and how designers are trained professionals seeking solutions to a host of problems, and that's what they do. We show how in many different ways that works.

I do feel that design is in that area where once people understand how connected it is to their everyday lives and that they are a part of it and can help shape it, it's theirs, and then the connection comes.

Samta: It’s interesting that usually when people think of visiting an art exhibition or an art biennale, there is an expectation that they will see installations, digital art, paintings, and different formats of art. But what do people really understand of design beyond the experts? I think the general understanding of design is still confined to objects, while design is so much more beyond. What do you think?

Victoria: I agree. If we look at where does design fits, I think it is literally everywhere. I actually heard George Freeman, Minister of State at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology in UK, talking about design the other day, and he said, “Design is the fuel of innovation.” It should be, and often, not always, part of the idea development, but it is also utterly necessary to make an idea into something that is useful. It's a crucial role and I hope that London Design Biennale will show that to people.

It’s interesting to look at design institutions, such as the Royal College of Art and other schools all over the world with the number of different disciplines that are being taught as part of design.

For Eureka, I actually talked to the head of design of a business school in Spain—that was unexpected but it makes sense. McKinsey now has a whole department dedicated to design, so it's getting out there, but I think still in the public consciousness, design encapsulates the idea of something being nice. We are working against it.

The biennale aims to create a public appeal around design’s engagement with people | London Design Biennale | Somerset House | STIRworld
The biennale aims to create a public appeal around design’s engagement with people Image: Courtesy of STIR

Samta: If we look closely, it’s the way we inhabit and interact with the world around us that encompasses everything. From the visible and invisible, obvious and unobvious, everything is designed. And to see it all coming through in the biennale sounds quite exciting.

Victoria: It's quite a thing getting there. You have to start a biennale at scale. You can't say that I want to have a little one because that's not the purpose of a great international gathering.

So, all credit obviously is to John Sorrell, the founder of London Design Biennale who has spent an entire career in design. What a brilliant idea and well done for getting it up and running! I am thrilled to be leading it at this stage.

Zohra: Having previously curated theatre and performance exhibitions, you once said that music as an art form has a way of reaching people’s hearts, but art and design independently for people with no education in these fields is often hard to understand. With the biennale, has there been a focus on tempering the esoteric nature of design, and in making the narratives lucid for everyone?

Victoria: I think that is exactly for me, I suppose, the link. I am trained in design history and when I was doing the music exhibitions at the V&A, I was approaching them because we have a fantastic collection in design, related to music, dating back to 1960s, but everyone was still looking at them through a design lens. There hadn't really been an acknowledgement but now it's different. If you look out of the window, 10 of a 100 people will be interested in design and say they are interested, but 99 in a 100 or a 100 in a 100 will say they are interested in music and they know about music, and therefore there was a natural connection that we had with everybody out there. It was just a question of being interesting when they came through the door rather than stopping them right there for not being people who know design. It stops accessibility by over trying or bringing things to a level. I am really against that idea. If you are interesting, relevant people will be interested and will pick it up. I do feel that design is in that area where once people understand how connected it is to their everyday lives and that they are a part of it and can help shape it, it's theirs, and then the connection comes. It's also about finding ways to make those connections.

I do feel that some ideas are very complex and I don't believe in trying to strip out all their complexity. It's also a question of where that complexity comes from and how you level it so that you don't lose it.

STIR attended the opening of the London Design Biennale at the Somerset House | London Design Biennale | Somerset House | STIRworld
STIR attended the opening of the London Design Biennale at the Somerset House Image: Courtesy of STIR

Zohra: What is NEXT for London Design Biennale? Are there any plans of hosting the future editions beyond the Somerset House? 

Victoria: We certainly will consider moving beyond the Somerset House. It's a really nice idea, I think, to go beyond a bigger, borderless arena. The fact is that, in this year, we have a couple of exhibits that connect something in the Somerset House to other exhibits elsewhere, maybe in the host country or in other parts of the UK. We actually did have that with Hong Kong in 2021, where the exhibit in London was speaking to something in Hong Kong in real time digitally. I think from a public point of view and I do try and keep the public— the audience—very much in mind. I think it's quite helpful at this stage of our development to be in a place that people can come to and see the whole thing.

We are very open in the future to having things not just on site. This also connects to some of our exhibits that will travel after they have been with us. There's clearly a renewed essential focus on sustainability. Having worked in exhibition for many years, I have seen them go up and then everything goes in the bin. That's not acceptable now. So, every one of our exhibitors thinks about that from the outset that what will happen next.

Samta: Any project of this nature like the London Design Biennale is an outcome of a lot of rigours—intellectual rigour, physical and emotional rigour. But once the event concludes, what happens?

Victoria: Yes, that is a real challenge. I can say that the biennale is the starting point, and that is the purpose of it. I can't prove that is true, but I would say that in terms of our exhibitors that have come back year after year, they have picked up relationships with other countries and other teams which will develop. It's a crucial part of the vision.

What do you think?

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