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Envisioning Democratic Design at a French Biennial

A visit to the 2017 Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne offers an important reminder that we’re surrounded by designs created to encourage some behaviors and obstruct others.

Akoaki’s Mothership at the 2017 Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

SAINT-ÉTIENNE, France — It would likely dismay students of design to learn that, to those not trained to think about the field, it is largely invisible. No object is accidental, no system has fallen arbitrarily into place, yet most of us go about our lives without acknowledging the purpose-built nature of our society. Humans have existed for millennia within constructed environments, all of which are the product of directed thought and effort. This is, perhaps, a heartbreakingly meager revelation to take away from the 2017 Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne — the show’s 10th edition — but it proved to be a major personal step in understanding the context of the work on display and the ideas being discussed.

The theme of this year’s biennial is “Working Promesse — Shifting Work Paradigms,” and as the newest UNESCO City of Design, plus a place with a turbulent labor history, Detroit is a featured guest. It shares with its host the challenge of redefining itself as industrial manufacturing wanes; Saint-Étienne was once a major mining and manufacturing hub of northern France. The future of work is of great concern to designers, tasked as they are with creating the systems that abet and define labor — from the objects moving down the assembly line to the payroll that tracks working hours, and from the ergonomic furniture in an office cubicle to the flak jacket that protects its wearer from gunfire, all the way up to the internal revenue systems that put a percentage of one’s compensation back into the regulatory governing body. All by design.

The main biennial exhibition, Working Promesse: Les Mutations du Travail (Shifting Work Paradigms)

If I sound a little overwhelmed, that’s because it’s frankly terrifying to suddenly realize one is surrounded by objects full of intention. This is an idea I should be comfortable with, as a writer who devotes a great deal of time to unpacking the ambitions of artworks, and as someone with a fairly granular understanding that the world is not made of whole cloth. But something about the biennial — which includes not just an exhibition, but a full program of panel discussions and coffeehouse networking — highlighted for me, as never before, that we are surrounded by designs created to encourage some behaviors and obstruct others. Thought leaders from Saint-Étienne’s Higher School of Art and Design, the University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Architecture, and various local governments, as well as UNESCO commissioners from Cities of Design like Graz, Austria; Dundee, Scotland; and Kobe, Japan, all gathered to share and coordinate strategies for leveraging design in the future of their schools and towns. The decisions made here could influence my work and that of subsequent generations. Taken in that light, even several hundred people in attendance (and the thousands who will visit the biennial over the course of the month) seems like a small turnout.

Installation view of EXTRAVAILLANCES ≠ WORKING DEAD, a collaboration between science fiction writers Alain Damasio and Norbert Merjagnan, and set designer Didier Fiuza Faustino.

So, what of this future? Within the European contingent, there is a collective preoccupation with “bullshit jobs” — the subject of a 2013 article by David Graeber which rightly identifies that the working lives of many people in the modern era are consumed by essentially purposeless tasks, fundamentally designed (never forget, they are designed!) to eat up time in exchange for a paycheck. As an example, have you ever noticed how the staff meeting often takes one hour, whether the topic at hand can be resolved in five minutes or is bound to take two weeks? This subject, among others, is tackled in the student show La gueule de l’emploi, a French expression meaning “the face for the job,” which presents a group of works dealing with the conflation of occupation and identity. Here, job-seeking strategies are broken down in minute and comedic detail, from the semiotics of the cover letter to presenting the right handshake to a device that allows users to generate their ideal employee by setting variables. The end product is, inevitably, a monster.

The ideal candidate generator, part of La gueule de l’emploi

The subject of bullshit jobs crops up again in an adjacent exhibition, L’Architecture du travail (The Architecture of Work), which purposefully addresses a common shortcoming among architects: the tendency to think about construction and execution, rather than systems and maintenance. On one side of a long, narrow room are eight research projects, their individual findings incorporated into a chalkboard wall of macrocosmic design philosophizing that would put A Beautiful Mind to shame. Facing this is a microcosmic project: “Maintenance as Architecture,” a multiyear work in progress by Belgian graduate students Koen Berghmans and R. Robles Hidalgo that meticulously chronicles Saint-Étienne’s ongoing maintenance program. As someone with a background that includes manual labor, I find it patently ironic that these students have made intellectual work of it. It was just one of several moments throughout the biennial when I was made to wonder if students are perhaps too cerebral to be entrusted with designing a functional future.

Curator Manuel Bello Marcano frames the research projects on display, quoting Fredic Jameson: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

But this is where the Detroit contingent comes through. As the featured city, it has three separate exhibition spaces at the biennial, as well as a spate of participatory programming. Altogether, Detroit sent some 70 envoys from many walks of life — including this writer — to represent the city and contribute to the dialogue. The invitation came through Akoaki, a husband-and-wife design team made up of longtime Detroit transplants Anya Sirota and Jean-Louis Farges. Sirota, who came to the US as a refugee from Ukraine, and Farges, a native of Paris, have brought contemporary design training and an international perspective to their work in the Motor City. But what they do has always been based entirely on the lived realities of native Detroiters.

Jean-Louis Farges (left) and Anya Sirota of Akoaki taking a rare moment in the spotlight and meeting the international press
Out of Site courtyard on the opening night of the biennale

The pair’s designated space in the biennial is titled Out of Site and features three of their most iconic interventions in Detroit: the Mothership, which serves as a DJ booth and psychic transport for the members of the O.N.E. Mile project; a series of collapsible set pieces often used as the backdrop for performances by Detroit Afrikan Music Institution; and a modular decorative gateway that can be affixed to the façade of any building where the Detroit Culture Council gathers. Akoaki calls these pieces “urban markers” — and they have indeed become some of Detroit’s most iconic design interventions, often cropping up in repurposed spaces around the city’s Oakland Avenue/North End corridor, where much of the duo’s activity is centered. Importantly, all three works honor and identify the efforts of existing residents to shape their own communities in the face of gentrification. But Sirota and Farges seem to fall into the invisibility trap, too — in their efforts to centralize Detroiters, they tend to divert attention away from their own far-reaching efforts to leverage design in a democratic way.

The gate used by the Detroit Cultural Council that can be affixed to any building to indicate the presence of a cultural meeting. Akoaki focuses on solutions that do not require new construction, but leverage the existing wealth of space in Detroit.

Another quiet powerhouse of Detroit creative infrastructure is Cezanne Charles, founder of Creative Many Michigan. The organization is dedicated to filling the often insurmountable gap between individual practitioners and large institutions, offering services that tackle one of design’s enduring obsessions: how to grow to scale. Charles has helped a stable of small projects achieve greater capacity — including some of those representing Detroit in Saint-Étienne, such as Design99 — largely by offering legal assistance, guidance on nonprofit filings, and help with other tedious, back-of-house details that may not be the strength of creative folks. It’s fitting, then, that Creative Many’s spot at the biennial is ShiftSpace — basically, a coffee shop. It’s exactly Charles’s style to create a place that encourages connections — she’s programmed a full slate of conversations between architects, educators, philosophers, and artists — and to stock it with Detroit originals, including Faygo pop and recipes from Sister Pie. In her unassuming way, Charles is demonstrating her theory of growth in action: her wildly popular exhibition space has created 17 temporary jobs for designers, baristas, and service providers, and actively generated income in the first week of the festival.

Cezanne Charles (right) meets the press in the midst of a busy day at the ShiftSpace Detroit Cafe.

Despite these familiar and approachable projects, it was difficult for me to shake the unsettling realization that design is a major determinant of societal practice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the early days of the biennial were crawling with city officials, ministers of culture, and even Maurice Cox, planning director of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department. Their presence reminded me that places like Saint-Étienne, Detroit, and other UNESCO designees are eager to use design as a driver for development — a broad concept that’s almost always measured in terms of economic growth rather than, say, social justice or greater class equity. If we are to see real change, to make a real departure from the systems that gentrify neighborhoods and generate a bullshit workforce, we need to go as far as Akoaki, and then a little farther yet. Being a democratic designer does not mean the creation of smooth objects that adorn tastefully minimal environments straight out of Dwell magazine. It means recognizing ourselves, each and every one of us, as either complicit in the designs of others or as potential designers of our own lives. The 2017 Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne is a very good place to begin to understand the possibilities of that empowerment.

The 2017 Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne continues at Site Manufacture-Cité du design (3 Rue Javelin Pagnon, Saint-Etienne, France) through April 9.

Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses and lodgings were covered by a grant written by Creative Many Michigan.

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