As I’ve mentioned a few times, I spent most of 2011 working on a exhibition for the Gwangju Design Biennale together with Ai Weiwei. At the exhibition opening, working with Weiwei was what most people wanted to talk about, so I wrote an essay about the experience for the Biennale’s catalog. It was written in a rush and I’m still not 100% happy with it, but since the biennale is still running, I think it’s important to put it out there….


Where is Ai Weiwei?
The Making of an Un-Named Exhibition

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 – Un-Named 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 Un-Named 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:

The Un-Named Design component will explore those facets of the human environment that are not conventionally considered design, yet influence everyday life and the perception of it. The works included in this section will derive from areas of creation where originality, signature, and marketability are not the primary source of value, and where the identity of a product is based on its theoretical force and practical use, rather than its material appearance. Examples from this creative territory range from highly purpose-driven virtual designs for social networks to the low-tech, custom manufacturing of low cost artificial limbs. The goal of this theme is to reframe design as a set of strategic solutions to human needs, rather than an ego-driven pursuit of subjective beauty. It will expand the concept of design beyond the material and show that it is not only about providing more or less useful goods, but also about the modification of human perception in a rapidly changing, interconnected world.

Post in full here.

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