Experimenta | icon 029 | November 2005

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words Kieran Long

This year’s biennial in Lisbon tries to locate the intellectual undercurrents in design, but far more rewarding was seeing a city so completely given over to this event.

The Experimenta design biennial has been running since 1999 and has, with this year’s wonderful showing, given Lisbon the most enjoyable design festival in Europe.

Other festivals make claims about inhabiting their host cities. Experimenta really does it, taking over major landmarks in the city and filling them with extremely well-realised exhibitions and shows on graphic design, product design and architecture. You get the impression that this is a festival supported by the city – it is funded by the authorities, and uses civic venues such as the spectacular Rossio train station and the beautiful Palácio Santa Catarina (home to the lounging space, with panoramic views of the city, ice tea and nice sofas). The visitors are international, but there is enough of a focus on Portuguese design to make this an event for the city as well as attractive to the itinerant design fan.

Experimenta 2005 did make the mistake of almost all biennales –choosing a huge, abstract theme that most of the events and exhibitions did little to enlighten. The subtitle was a bowdlerised Marshall McLuhan quote: “The Medium is the Matter”. McLuhan seems like an antiquated reference, somehow. In the design world, we have already had a long history of people questioning the medium as a neutral communicator of ideas. Droog has been at it for 12 years, and is a key example of a critical practice that developed after the advent of postmodernism.

But, although the theme felt a little bit sixth-form, the influence of poststructuralist theory on design as a theme gave coherence to the festival, particularly the lecture series, which was by and large fantastic. Speakers included Rudy Vanderlans (publisher and editor of cult graphics journal Emigré), Reny Ramakers of Droog, graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister and others. All of them gave brilliant lectures, expressing how design has reached a point where visual languages are borrowed, mixed and subverted at will. However, all three speakers, in their different ways, were interested in moving beyond this point of post-structuralist exhaustion.

Vanderlans, a Dutch graphic designer living in California, in particular was able to describe the secondhand influence of linguistic theory on Emigré (whose 69th and final issue is out this month). He admitted that he found Derrida too difficult to read in depth, but the influence of these philosophical discussions found its way into his eclectic and anti-functionalist aesthetic. Sagmeister’s theme of Design and Happiness also suggested a stage of thinking beyond cynicism –of using ironic and critical design practices to affect people’s emotions.

The exhibitions backed up this cultural point. The Catalysts! show at the Belem cultural centre in the west of Lisbon was a tightly-curated (by Dutch critic Max Bruinsma) rattle through graphic work that transcends commercial and functional requirements to have a cultural impact more akin to art, photography or cinema. Famous Benetton adverts by Oliviero Toscani rubbed shoulders with constructivist design from the 1920s and subversive graphic work by Adbusters.

It’s a good primer and a fun show. But the pièce de résistance is the final room, which summed up the paradoxical position of visual media. Artist Rob Schroeder made a film that is a collage of 40 years of his television viewing, cut together to make the most disorientating, often sickening and bewildering narrative. Moral Panic, as it is called, demonstrates that visual noise, no matter how shocking, has lost the power to differentiate one issue from another. The show as a whole might have seemed self-righteous without it, but with it offers a profound challenge to the professional designer.

The only really disappointing show was the Casa Portuguesa exhibition, which showed domestic architecture by Portugal’s emerging generation. Although the exhibition was again beautifully presented, the work on show was desperately ordinary. It demonstrated that Portuguese architecture has a long way to go to move out of the shadow of Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura.

One visitor said to me near the end of the opening weekend that he could imagine Lisbon becoming a new Barcelona. It is a wonderful city in which to spend time, and the lack of commercial pressure on the festival makes the atmosphere seem generous, serious and committed. The organisers have taken the opportunity to combine a genuinely cultural show with spectacular surroundings. Don’t miss it in 2007.


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