Utrecht Manifest 3Modeling the Social
As the curator of ‘NU! 90 Jaar Pastoe!’ and because of his involvement in the initial phase of Utrecht Manifest Guus Beumer was well aware of the biennial’s functioning as an exhibition vehicle and platform for manifestations. Now, as the commissioner of its third edition, he set out to locate the biennial for Social Design at the very heart of Modernism's renewed relevance: as explorative practice. Considering the changes in political and cultural life in the Netherlands, with a recent surge of budget cuts and austerity programs that had dramatically uprooted the Dutch cultural field, Beumer reiterated one of Modernism's implicit but nonetheless fundamental questions: How is design social? In operational terms: To what extent can design facilitate society in discovering its own potential for change and develop the means to reflect on that potential? Interpreting the biennial as a semi-institutional phenomenon, Beumer combined a pragmatic approach with critical questioning; taking the biennial's customary manifestations – its formats, subject matter, logistics – as a given, he set out to analyze the inherent potential of these attributes for (re)addressing the social. The question 'how and where is the social produced today?' can be answered in a great variety of ways and Beumer edited this diversity into a series of 'social models,' sections of the biennial's program that would each produce their own specific discourses on social design's connection to society's needs and aspirations.
Thus, instead of projecting an abstracted image of design onto the burdensome complexity of society's challenges at large, Beumer opted for actively testing how these challenges could be recognized as living social realities by using the instruments of the biennial itself. With this approach Beumer molded his edition into a series of "social constructions," which addressed the issue of Social Design on more than a representational level – they each became vehicles for and expressions of a critical reflection on the social in the specific context of design.
Discursive Method Mon AmourThis discursive method was applied in a series of social models, which each addressed a specific aspect of Utrecht Manifest’s aims:
‘Unresolved Matters, Social Utopias Revisited’ probed the museal or historical model, by taking three books as points of reference for the conception of three exhibition spaces: Social Greenery; Social Transparency; and Social Sculpture. The three books, Ebenezer Howard’s ‘Garden Cities of To-Morrow' (1898), Siegfried Giedion’s ‘Befreites Wohnen’ (1929), and Victor Papanek’s ‘Design for the Real World’ (1971) offered a reflective structure for three exhibition spaces in Centraal Museum Utrecht that contextualized the showcased designs beyond their formal qualities and historic origins. Chair designs from Thonet to Castiglioni, glass designs from Copier to Wagenfeld, fashion from Henry van de Velde via Johannes Itten to contemporary paper fashion, utopian designs from Archigram to Haus–Rucker–Co, and conceptual works by Stephan Willats, served not so much as lessons from history, but more importantly as incentives to reflect on society's cultural potential and explore the ways in which it evolves.
Foto: Johannes Schwartz
Unforeseen MagicIn ‘Unforeseen Magic’ Beumer revisited one of the first models of an open channel platform in the Netherlands by asking Bas van Tol together with Madje Vollaers and Pascal Zwart to restage their 1992 exhibition ‘Koer Locale’ in the Centraal Museum Studio. Conceived in first instance for the Amsterdam experimental art space W139, the exhibition represented a process of ongoing change, evolving into various kinds of networks, touching on a broad array of disciplines and showcasing myriad practices. The reconstruction provoked thoughts on 'actuality' and contemporaneity through a largely chance-driven program, contained by practical considerations of cost and accessibility.
Foto: Johannes Schwartz
United Minds: Hoograven Invites You'For ‘United Minds: Hoograven Invites You!’ Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner (Urban-Think Tank) were invited to stage an activist model for redeveloping the Hoograven quarter in Utrecht by involving residents, local authorities and housing corporations. In the course of the project they worked collaboratively on alternatives that would allow the existing residents to stay in their neighborhood, restoring the initial social agenda underlying the quarter's design when it was conceived during the post-war building boom. The proposals included adding new density to the existing housing blocks and repurposing the latter as DIY housing.
Hoograven plans by Alfredo Brillembourg & Hubert Klumpner
Ahead of its TimeAs challenging and evocative its experimental and discursive method was in concept, and despite its meticulous execution, the program of this edition of Utrecht Manifest did not attain the visibility and response the curators had hoped for. Looking back at the wanting impact of Utrecht Manifest 3, Beumer is still baffled: "We did not get any media attention, which in itself was an accomplishment! At the time you only had to put a chair on display in a museum and you would have the attention of all magazines. The great exception was Kunstforum International, the Swiss-based magazine on art, architecture and design. It dedicated a complete issue to Social Design, prominently featuring our edition of Utrecht Manifest. If not for this substantial publication, this edition would have remained totally invisible." Speculating on the reason why his edition did not attract more attention, Beumer suggests that at the time the public was not yet prepared for a perception of design's reach that exceeded the confines of representation. A self-critical reflection on design's social potential is harder to relate to when it is not directly translated into a display of objects that represent this potential and in a sense prove it.
The communication strategy of the biennial, developed by Deneuve Cultural Projects (Taco de Neef and Daniel Bouw) was another issue. It had been conceived as integral element of the biennial's activities, and followed a similar reflective strategy as the other programs, as a 'social model.' Approaching social communication as a network of communicational modes and practices that change rapidly over time, the communication team embraced social media as a critical counterforce to the traditional 'authoritative' media. Curators, designers, artists and students were invited to reinforce the team as active members of the biennial's target groups. Another important party in the biennial's group of communication workers was Metahaven, the critical design practice of Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk, who were responsible for the visual communication of this edition of the biennial.
Beumer associated their discursive and explorative approach with his own vision of the biennial as critical practice. But Metahaven's referential tactics of branding the event in a self-critical way and challenging visitors to exercise their influence on Utrecht Manifest's social media did not so much result in broadening the biennial's reach as in narrowing it to the more active recipients of its messages.
Turning the program's public communication into an advanced research tool for probing new modes of exchange resulted in weakening the kind of explicitness and authority the more traditional media – and their audience – still need for picking up a story in the first place.
Foto: Johannes Schwartz