In August 2010, Ai Weiwei asked if I wanted to curate a section of the Gwangju Design Biennale. It was my first time hearing of the project and the place, and my first ever offer to curate. I accepted immediately.
A 30 minute conversation followed wherein Weiwei briefed me on the virtues of the event, including its big budget (“bigger than Venice!”) and open-minded leadership (“they wouldn’t have asked me to be director if they weren’t willing to take risks”). He talked about the host city (“good food”, “Korea’s democracy movement started there”, “many, many love hotels”) and described the biennale site, a complex of four interconnected galleries containing more than 8000 square meters of exhibition space.
As he talked, I started to worry. The scale of the project seemed huge and the expectations were high. The biennale’s theme, a strong, unclear concept derived from the Tao Te Ching and developed by the biennale’s co-director Seung H-Sang, I found difficult to penetrate. “Design Is Design Is Not Design,” Weiwei explained, was an epigram implying limitless creativity. “It is the end and the beginning,” he said. “For the biennale, we need to show design not as just a final product, but as part of a continuous process.” I scribbled the statement down. I wasn’t sure what do with it, but it seemed to me an anchor point, something solid enough to grab on to, extend out from.
I needed more, so I dropped the pretense of collaborating and reverted to my journalist roots, transforming our meeting into a desperate sort of interview. I prodded Weiwei with questions; I offered suggestions and requested clarifications, I repeated and rephrased his responses. He confirmed or corrected me, but he rejected nothing. It was as if his ambition was endless and capable of absorbing everything. By the end of the meeting, I’d written down dozens of commands (“Explore the reasons for similar activities in design”), analogies (“Exhibition like a body – fat, bone, organs, muscle, skin”), conceptual pairings (“Stephen Hawking + Buddhism”), and seemingly unrelated references (“Beat Generation”, “Big Bang”, “Food”, “Kunstkammer”, “French Almanac”, “KKK/Abu Ghraib/Burqa”).
At the center of the page, repeatedly underlined and surrounded by a cartoon cloud was the most important, least defined phrase of them all – Unnamed Design. This was the title of the section that I would curate. It was one of several sections in the show, but the only one that Ai Weiwei would oversee personally. Most of the points he’d made during our discussion were about Unnamed and when it was over he suggested I write a short statement to declare our intentions. That night I pored over my notes and eventually came up with this:
To illustrate the text I created a simple collage of design icons that I thought helped express what our section was aspiring to avoid. This image would provide the opening to every one of the dozens of Unnamed Design explanations I’d offer over the next year, the first and most important of which occurred in Gwangju two weeks after my meeting with Weiwei. It was a brief presentation, one of many that day as each of the biennale’s curators, its two directors, and exhibition designer introduced himself – the team was only men at that point, a mistake eventually corrected – and offered a first take on his appointed tasks. I presented a 30 slide PPT meant as a kind of declaration of intention. It was a lunging statement, short on details but unambiguous about the section’s ambitions; a year later, it still provides as good an explanation of our image of Unnamed Design as anything that followed, with a surprisingly high percentage of its proposals eventually making it into the show.
The following is an excerpt, illustrated with the original reference images and a few photos of the realized exhibits:
After the meetings in Gwangju, having been inspired by the biennale’s executive vice president Yongwoo Lee, director Seung H-Sang, Minsuk Cho and Anthony Fontenot, curators of the Named Design section, Francisco Sanin, the biennale’s master planner, and Massimiliano Gioni, the director of the 2010 biennale, whom I never met but who nevertheless provided invigoration and anxiety via his exhibition, I wrote a second, more grandiose expression of Unnamed Design.
With a few refinements, this would serve as the all-purpose “project text” that we’d use to try to seduce would-be exhibitors, convince unsure collaborators, and promote our exhibition to the public. It was written in September 2010, a year prior to the opening of the show. From there we worked to address three inescapable needs: we assembled a team, added exhibits, and engaged our fellow curators in a discussion about the relationship between the Named and Unnamed sections.
From the first presentations it was obvious that Named and Unnamed overlapped; we shared common interests, in our earliest presentations we shared several proposals. In order to make it work we needed to find definitions that distinguished each section without enclosing it. The discussion went on for months, animating (and dominating) the biennale’s meetings, sometimes to the detriment of other sections. Eventually we came to a consensus, expressed best by Anthony, co-curator of Named: “The difference between ‘Named’ and ‘Unnamed’ is based on work being produced within the ‘design field’ and that outside of it… The field of art, graphics, fashion, etc. constitute an acknowledged design practice. This is what we consider to be ‘Named Design’… This phenomenon of ‘name’ functions in contrast to practices that are not necessarily acknowledged as ‘design’ (in the academic sense).”
This insight added another slide to my pitch presentation:
Unnamed Design became a kind of codeword for the forms of creativity excluded by the architecture/interiors/fashion/graphics/furniture/home furnishings design definition found in most blogs and magazines. It allowed us to escape issues of authorship and fame and concentrate on the idea of design itself. It also made apparent the lack of definition within our section. Our list of exhibits was growing by the day; Weiwei was providing a steady stream of intriguing, confusing suggestions – “low cost medicine”, “wikileaks!”, “nuclear smuggling ring” – and I knew we needed some way to situate it all. I made some proposals: the first was to organize Unnamed according to China’s traditional five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, water. Based on the biennale’s Tao Te Ching foundation, I thought this might be an elegant way to incorporate the ‘everything under the sun’ subject matter that Weiwei seemed to want. He dismissed it out of hand. After that we tried a geographical organization, then grouping according to the sections of the newspaper, then according to a complicated but maybe interesting interpretation of cause and effect. In the end, the newspaper idea won out.
To firm up the concept, we made a survey of high and low brow papers from around the world and devised eight sub-categories based on the most frequently occurring section titles. We rearranged our exhibits to fit: six pieces in Politics, seven in Money; fifteen in Body, five in Culture; five in Home, seven in Environment; nine in Science, two in Sports. In a curatorial meeting in Gwangju, I proposed organizing the exhibition according to these sections. “A good biennale shares the traits of a good newspaper,” I announced. It should be timely and international in orientation, it should combine complex and common subject matter and should engage emotional and rational thought with equal energy. Our exhibition should encourage the collisions that occur everyday as readers pass through collections of curated news stories, before ending up at the sections that most closely match their interests. I closed by suggesting that we change the event’s name to the Gwangju Design Bulletin in order to emphasize the concept. That was one metaphor too many, though, and the idea didn’t make out of the meeting. For clarity’s sake, we hung on to it, and in the following months filled out the categories, adding, moving and removing exhibits, defining positions and deciding on story lines in a process that was essentially editorial.
In April, Ai Weiwei disappeared. His studio was shut down and his staff temporarily scattered to safe havens around China and elsewhere. I remained in Beijing and tried my best to hold things together. The remaining team was made up mostly of students from the Oslo School of Architecture, an ambitious, inexperienced group that by this point was accustomed to the precariousness of working with Ai Weiwei. Just a couple of months earlier, they’d had to relocate after the local government demolished Weiwei’s Shanghai studio; now it seemed their space in Beijing could go too. They carried on, nevertheless, often from their apartments and local cafes. We met regularly but my mind was elsewhere.
To be more precise my mind was nowhere. After Weiwei’s arrest I spent most of a month in a highly active, agitated and almost totally unproductive state, a kind of 24-hour news channel of the mind. I participated in circular conversations about the where/why/hows of Weiwei’s detention and theoretical release. I sought out the opinions of journalists and lawyers and thoughtlessly parroted their talking points about the Party’s rules of conduct. I listened to supposed friends offer anti-Ai opinions straight from the State papers’ opinion pages. I read gruesome, baseless stories about his treatment. I witnessed the international outcry, made a FREE AI WEIWEI mix and posted it on my blog. My website was hacked and taken offline. I stopped going to the restaurants where we used to meet.
As a coping mechanism, I re-doubled my efforts to develop the Unnamed section. The project became a kind of tribute in my mind, a testament to the artist’s vision and an uprising against the powers of info control that were attempting to delete him from Chinese consciousness. In an effort to preserve his presence, I made a document called “Ai Weiwei’s Advice”, a sort of greatest hits compilation I made from four months of meeting notes. It contained commands like:
– You have to find a way to make people understand
– You don’t have to say much but you have to be very clear about what you’re saying
– Always emphasize the bigger theme
– Always give another definition to what you’re presenting
The points were typical of Weiwei’s direction – vague but unambiguous, resolute in his commitment to communication and unafraid of misinterpretation or disagreement. We tried our best to uphold these virtues: we scrutinized our exhibits for hidden angles, we cultivated uncertainty and devised display strategies that emphasized clarity over spectacle. In this effort, we received invaluable, undercompensated assistance from Jingjing Naihan Li and Mi Michelle Liu, two Beijing-based architects who have chosen to forgo The World’s Fastest Urbanization in favor of furniture and graphic design, respectively. They joined in the days following Weiwei’s disappearance, spurred by their support for the artist and pity for his panicked collaborator, and their professionalism and clarity of vision brought the project back from the brink. With the return of An Xiao Mina, a member of Ai Weiwei’s FAKE Studio who was forced to relocate to the Philippines following his arrest, and the continued support of Hyun Jee Kim and Kayoko Ota, Unnamed’s associate curators in Seoul and Tokyo, we formed the Unnamed Design Team and set about finalizing the look and content of the section’s seventy exhibits.
It was a complicated process. Our commitment to featuring “fields such as bioengineering, virtual communication, permaculture, pre-modern technology, and performance-enhancing drugs” meant that most of our artists had no prior exhibition experience. For many, the design element of their work exists in disembodied form. In order to convince the audience that what we were showing – a political protest manual, DNA barcodes, execution procedures, a transcontinental monetary system – qualified as Unnamed Design, we needed to understand the thinking that powered them. We needed to make clear, in our minds first and then hopefully in the minds of others, that design extends past the physical to include intellectual creations of all kinds: it includes intangibles like software, law, and political strategy; most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more invention, more mutations, more self-enhancing connections. From this perspective, design becomes a much richer and much simpler concept: if a well made website qualifies as good design, then the 1000 lines of code that determine it must qualify as well. If these 1000 lines of HTML qualify then Tao Te Ching‘s 5000 characters of Chinese must. They both can change our behavior, alter the course of events, and enable future inventions. A workout regimen and an earth projection, then, are in the same category as Mies’s Farnsworth House and Apple’s iPhone. They are design; they’re, to borrow Kevin Kelly’s phrase for describing technology, “something useful produced by a mind”.
To enact these ideas in our exhibition, we developed an active, micromanaged approach to curating. In a manic two-month push, the Unnamed Design Team produced over thirty original exhibits, with thirty more attributed to outside designers but developed and produced by us in Beijing. We conducted interviews, transcribed and edited videos, made models and illustrations. We educated ourselves on subjects we knew nothing about and visualized the lessons. To compensate for the non-standard nature of our material, we applied standard display techniques – wall prints, monitors, cases, pedestals, etc. We designed the furniture ourselves, based on a strictly limited pallet of plywood, acrylic, and steel. I wrote descriptive texts for the catalog and gallery walls in a stripped down style to match:
‘Afterlife Design’ presents promotional material from commercial services for disposing of dead loved ones. These services are drawn from a rapidly developing design field that incorporates superstition and science in order to modernize the memorial ritual.
A couple of months before the exhibition opening, Ai Weiwei re-appeared. His release was as sudden as his arrest and considerably less predictable. By that point our effort had achieved a self-sustaining energy and Weiwei was content to let the project play itself out. We met several times, but mostly about logistics – “Has everyone been paid?” – and communication – “Please tell them I appreciate their support and hope I can come to the opening.” In the end, he couldn’t. The police still held his passport and couldn’t risk an outburst outside their jurisdiction. We all missed him. We wanted to eat and drink and force him to dance at the opening. I wanted him to see what we’d done. It wasn’t to be, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Ai Weiwei had made his essential contribution almost a year before. From there his idea was taken over, complicated, violated and improved by a messy collective of people committed to his vision, locked in an unpredictable and occasionally painful process of unnamed design.
Beijing, September 2011