A School of Schools

The Precarious Learning Proposition of the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial

It’s a risky moment to open a school in Istanbul, let alone a school of schools. Believing that precarious times in particular call for expanded notions of design, the 4th Annual Istanbul Design Biennial, entitled A School of Schools, is intended to function as “a safe space of learning.” Curated by Jan Boelen, with associate curators Nadine Botha and Vera Sacchetti, it invites a temporary suspension of rules and looks towards new models, asking design to inspire learning, and conversely, for our learnings, to inspire design. Using doubt as a curatorial framework, their intent is not to present solutions but to inspire productive uncertainty and curiosity, asking each of us to take responsibility for becoming agents of our own education.

A School of Schools was born out of an international open call extended to designers, architects, scientists, engineers, chefs, craftspeople, activists and everyone else, invited to propose a school, or learning experiment. Submissions addressed the role of the design biennial and how it might be used as an exploratory space for the future of design education. What resulted (out of over 750 responses) is 120 collective projects, bringing together more than 200 interdisciplinary practitioners, and spread out over 6 different “schools” situated in Istanbul cultural institutions.

Each school presents new possible directions encouraging creative production and social connection and functions as an active, durational site of learning for the 6 week run of the biennial. According to Boelen, founder of the influential Z33 House for Contemporary Art and Artistic Director of the Luma Foundation, the schools are intended to “generate more questions than answers.”  The curators have even painstakingly created Design As Learning: A Schools of Schools Reader companion piece to the biennial grappling with the relevancy of, and reimagining a future for, design and design education.

But while the curatorial pretext may favor inquiry over implementation, many of the designers are nevertheless urgently compelled to present practical modes of living and concrete resolves to the pressing issues of our day. There is a self-aware eagerness amongst this class of designers to get down to work on creative solutions, making the mood onsite hopeful in spite of the many dire quandaries they are up against.

The Earth School, questions and subverts the prioritization of capital growth over the planet’s natural resources to suggest alternative less fatalistic futures. Here SO? Architects and collaborators present the Hope on Water Project. It asks “what if the response to Istanbul’s next expected disastrous earthquake is not about stable land management but manageable water?” With Hope On Water, So? Architects, along with civil engineering and sociology students from Bogazicci University and architectural students from MEF University, have created an inexpensive speculative floating structure taking full advantage of the Golden Horn as a natural Tsunami and earthquake-free site. From easily understandable flow charts and videos to complex implementation manuals, there’s no reason Hope on Water couldn’t radically shift the future of earthquake readiness response. That is if, Turkey’s government will listen to its forward-thinking, impassioned architecture class. This feels unlikely and is why perhaps doubt and unknowing are a more digestible framework for the present design biennial.

Many of the projects contend with the everyday incursions of surveillance and data mining. This is nowhere more on display than at the Scales School which investigates norms and standards to highlight scientific and cultural biases. In A Body of Trust a research project curated by Mark Henning, exploring how trust is learned through socialization and built through bodily encounters, Bogomir Doringer’s timely signs read “Today’s selfie is tomorrow’s biometric profile,” and “Fuck my like.” Alix Gallet offers a fashion range of fake noses, ears, and fingertips to facilitate hiding and faking our biometrics.

Across the room, design studio Legrand Jäger present Deep Digital Twin where a 19th-century head-to-head seat is reimagined according to 21st-century gaming console aesthetics, with an added twist. Custom facial emotion recognition interface listens in on your conversation, monitoring emotional feedback, and actively teaching your face to outsmart the software. Biometrics are currently able to identify only 7 emotions and every twitch of our face is lumped into one of these.

In the remaining 4 schools —Unmaking, Currents, Time, and Digestion— a wide swath of conceptual territory is covered, from the rapidly changing relationships between humans and machines, to possibilities for manipulating time in a world increasingly dictated by standardized systems, to highlighting our gut rather than our brain as the primary site of cognition. Many of the design propositions are of a social nature, prioritizing robust community organizing and public participation.

There are many Turkish designers in the mix. Several are based abroad and there was a sense of urgency amongst them at returning to contribute on “home” turf. And yet in spite of the wide-ranging chorus of voices participating, A School of Schools is still shortchanged by what is plaguing all creative industries and beyond, a truly diverse representation of colors and countries and ages and the biennial offers no ultimate provocations for what design education might do in order to break, or even subvert, the cycle.

This is indeed a sprawlingly curious and durational biennial asking the fundamental questions of existence. In the end, of course, there are no easy answers. However, A School of Schools does confirm that there is a vast dedicated corps devoted to creating a timely, relevant future for design. 

Text by Alyssa Nitchun

Images by Kayhan Kaygusuz