A/D/O by MINI | “How can we redesign borders?”

At The Border curators interview: “How can we redesign borders?”

Jan Boelen and Charlotte Dumoncel d’Argence explain why now is such a critical time for the design world to shift the discourse around the “depressing” subject of borders.

Borders, in whatever shape or form, are increasingly prevalent in daily conversation. News of detained migrants on the US-Mexico frontier, updates (or lack thereof) about the status of Brexit, friends and relatives fretting about pending visa renewals...

Unfortunately, the majority of these discussions – and current associations with the topic – tend to be negative. But Jan Boelen and Charlotte Dumoncel d’Argence hope to change this during the course of At The Border – the second year-long research program spearheaded by A/D/O, which launches this summer. Over the 12-month period, the pair of curators plans to put an optimistic spin on the subject, with the intention to inspire change for the better.

“There are other conversations about borders than those we have today,” Boelen told The Journal. “Those are depressing.”

“We don't just see the mess of lines and places of separation. We want to see [borders] as places of production, as zones where exchange is possible... And we want to respect differences and diversity, that's really the quality of a border.”

In order to move away from the negativity shrouding today’s border issues, Boelen and Dumoncel d’Argence are focusing on a different facet of “borders” for each of the program’s three cycles: Charting the Border, Imagining the Border, and Crossing the Border. These cycles will involve two designers or researchers in residence, and a partnership with an educational institution – allowing participants to build on, develop and expand previous work that relates to borders in some respect.

“There are already people that are dealing with these topics at this moment,” said Boelen, who was recently appointed rector at the Karlsruhe University of Arts, having served as head of the Social Design master department at Design Academy Eindhoven since 2010. “So how can this kind of program elaborate on that work? And how can we bring different practices together – multidisciplinary practices?”

Of the three cycles, the first will investigate the past, and the second will look to the future. As for the third, which deals with the present, Boelen admitted that it will be the trickiest to address.

The involvement of designers in the conversations about borders – typically reserved for “politicians, lawyers, social workers, probably military and police, and national security people” – will allow for a different perspective at a time when global opinion is starkly divided on matters such as immigration and trade. “[Borders] are designed objects,” said Boelen. “So if we can design borders, how can we redesign them? How can we reimagine them?”

According to the curators, design is crucial in helping to tackle a multitude of global issues, as designers are uniquely positioned to not only suggest solutions, but present them in ways that are understandable for a wider audience.

“Design and architecture are the places where the needs of contemporary society need to be discussed.”

“If you’re dealing with the same topic as a political scientist, or a researcher, an engineer – designers have the means to communicate and to make it visible, and to make it so people can relate,” added Dumoncel d’Argence.

With this in mind, the curators hope to find locally driven solutions that could be applied worldwide, and ways to distill broader problem-solving ideas down to specific instances. Spanning a full year, the research should be able to gather momentum and spread beyond the immediate network that A/D/O has built in New York City.

“If we can build longer trajectories of events that accumulate and build not only knowledge, but also communities, then we are doing or contributing something to society,” said Boelen.

“When you start to aggregate a community around a topic, then it grows and the conversation grows,” Dumoncel d’Argence added. “For us, it's necessary that we're giving a voice to people in different locations… So we are really building a group of people, not just like one or two designers, but a group of people that will work together on a larger discourse on borders.”

To find answers to “how can we redesign borders?”, a series of events, exhibitions, workshops and articles will accompany the At The Border research program. Through this combination of activity, Boelen and Dumoncel d’Argence plan to gain the attention of those in a position to act on the outcomes. “I would really like to see some of this discussion brought to a different level – a political level – and involve some of the people are actually taking care of borders, and governments,” said Boelen.

The full impact of the program may take years, or even decades, to be realized. But the optimism shared by the curators and participants that design can help to tackle the issues of borders should present much faster results.

Text by Dan Howarth.

Photography by Justin Ryan Kim.