LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!
The YouTube phenomenon – in which designers film their work processes – feeds directly into Z33’s exhibition of performative design.
WORDS charlotte Vaudrey
PHOTOS kristof Vrancken, courtesy of Z33
‘Artists shooting themselves on stage,’ says Z33’s diminutive curator, Ils Huygens, ‘is the kind of shock element you get in performance art. So when we settled on Design by Performance
as the theme for our exhibition, we had to ask ourselves what performance is, how it can be defined in relation to design, and how is it different – because it is very different – from performance art.’
The resulting show that Z33 recently unveiled in Hasselt, Belgium, is in parts reflective, poetic and theatrical. By bringing together specific works by 19 carefully chosen designers, Z33 highlights a recent shift in focus from the finished product to the process. ‘Performance is all about action,’ says Huygens, ‘and action is the core element that connects all the works we selected, whether it’s action going on in the exhibition space, in films of activities that take place during the production process, or in the activation of the space itself. Even the objects on show speak so strongly of the action that led to their creation that you only have to look at them to start imagining their back story.’
The growing fashion in contemporary design for performances that tell a tale about the processes behind a designer’s or a studio’s work has been seen at shows from Design Miami to Milan’s Salone. Live performances are becoming the norm. Reflecting this trend is a presentation conceived for the closing weekend of Design
by Performance in which Martino Gamper plays the role of a student learning traditional woodworking skills from a craftsman.
Tellingly, there are films posted online of almost all the works in Z33’s exhibition.
‘It’s the YouTube phenomenon,’ says Huygens. ‘Everyone’s taking pictures and documenting everything they do, making films and uploading them online. Designers are being made to think: how can we represent our production process? Some show it as it is, in real time, while others make theatricalized versions of such processes or use cinematic techniques to make short films. Having watched this movement evolve, we decided to pick up on what performance means to designers and to give it a context.’
Design by Performance encourages the visitor to view performance from different angles. It showcases 26 works (three of which were commissioned especially for the exhibition), grouped into four categories: design performance (designers are the players), performing objects, performing machines, and performing space.
A photo series by Bruno Munari from the 1950s, Seeking comfort in an uncomfortable chair, appears as a design performance. ‘Inspired by Munari, we got our own chair and re-enacted the critique,’ says Huygens. Visitors can strike their own pose in the chair and take a picture. ‘We now have a whole collection of weird images mounted on the wall,’ she adds, smiling.
Also in this section is Maarten Baas’s Sweeper Clock. It’s considered more than a poetic, albeit amusing, performance because the film can be played in real time and used as a timepiece. Work Survey, a film by Eric Klarenbeek, is an aesthetic reflection of the designer’s work process presented in a theatrical, stylized way. Lucid Dream, the product whose development
he traces in the film, is on show too.
The category of performing objects brings together products whose manufacture is connected to a ‘performance by the product itself’, explains Huygens. ‘Designers are opening their creative processes to external factors and relinquishing control of the product.’ There’s the impact of digitally simulated wind in Front’s Blow Away Vase, and the results of creature- crafted objects in the Swedish group’s Design by Animals. Some products, such as Tjep’s Do Break, leave the studio unfinished and have their final decoration dictated by the user’s ‘performance’ (in the case of Do Break, a theory-heavy way
of saying: throw that thing!). Pieke Bergmans’ Unlimited Edition points to a theme that underpins the exhibition; many designers are reacting to mass production by making one-off pieces. The notion is taken a step further in Oscar Diaz’s slow printing. His Poster Plants take weeks to complete. Extending the concept even further is Studio Libertiny, whose Honeycomb Vase is the result of bees busily at work for months.
In sharp contrast are the works displayed in performing machines: production processes doubling as performative installations. Process and product are one and the same in Atelier NL’s Sleeping Beauty, in which the knitting of the lampshade continues only when the lamp is switched on. They coincide again in Studio Glithero’s Panta Rei, where the movement of the machinery is so rhythmical it’s almost hypnotic. ‘These are objects that perform and create themselves while they’re performing,’ says Huygens. A film of Studio Glithero’s Running Mould, another project commissioned especially for the exhibition, transforms the traditional plastering technique shown in the sequence into a mesmerizing, sweeping motion. The visitor is invited to reconstruct the process from the debris left behind.
‘Rapid-prototyping machines have a performative quality,’ says Huygens, explaining the inclusion of David Bowen’s Growth Modelling Device and Front’s Sketch Furniture. L’Artisan Electronique is an adaptation of a 3D printer created by Unfold and Tim Knapen. The machine, which prints with clay, makes use of the latest digital technologies to combine a virtual potter’s wheel with traditional methods for producing ceramics. Edhv also used software, tracking and then mapping out the paths taken by insects in Debug.
Performing space sees the exhibition area itself change into a performative environment. The domestic noises emitted by Laurent Liefooghe’s Machine for Living, another work commissioned for the exhibition, suggest an ordinary home, but a walk through the installation reveals a chillingly empty haunted house. Equally alienating and intense is Lawrence Malstaf’s Nevel, which features walls whose movement is triggered by the visitor’s approach: get too close and you’re trapped in a labyrinth before being slowly released. ‘Step in, and you’re a performer,’ says Huygens. ‘Keep your distance, and you’re watching a performance.’ Less intimidating but no less intriguing is Simon Heijdens’ Lightweeds, a project in which software reacting to outdoor sensors that register the weather dictates the movement of the designer’s projected plants. A question lingers: is it art or design?
‘There’s an end product,’ says Huygens. ‘It may not always be highly functional, but its existence is a testimony to action taking place, and that action leads to the design of a product.’ Her words suggest that this show and its exhibits are not just about performance – but not simply about autonomous products either.