When design ventures onto the stage, platform, or podium — as it has done increasingly in museums, galleries, and fairs over the past decade — it typically carries certain connotations. These may entail the separation of consumer commodities from the banality of everyday life, the intertwining of contemporary design with the tactics and economies of the art world, and the growing fetishisation of the object as a limited-edition, desirable signifier of taste rather than merely an instrument of utility.
In these cases, the stage poses the danger of effectively stifling conversations about design. After all, we never see the object in the hands of a real person, weathering and growing dusty over years of use; instead, it emerges only in rarefied circumstances, posing under the spotlight and removed from our literal plane of existence.
The conceptual weight of this prevailing condition makes Judith Seng’s design performances all the more remarkable. At this year’s Design Miami/Basel fair, from June 10 to 16, the Berlin-based product designer was commissioned to produce the fourth iteration in her ACTING THINGS series, entitled Material Flow. In the entrance hall of the Messeplatz, Seng worked eight hours per day for seven days alongside members of her studio team, as well as dancers Barbara Berti and Julian Weber, to manufacture a collection of objects. This performance was constructed as a live enactment of design creation, from material processing to formal transformation, from archiving to disposal and re-use. Rather than sculpting a pre-determined shape, however, Material Flow manifests form as the result and record of the interaction between dancing bodies and malleable wax.
Seng was inspired to begin ACTING THINGS in 2011 after seeing the Bandltanz or maypole dancing while traveling in Bavaria. Whereas the maypole dance is a highly traditional cultural artefact, each phase of ACTING THINGS seems to depart further and further from the expected scenarios of collaborative creation or performance. In the first edition, she invited viewers to a theatre, where they were invited onstage to construct tables with wooden pieces, nails, and hammers, and later to dine upon them. In this case, both the material and the final archetypal object fit into a conventional view of furniture design, although the format recalls the radical experiment in furniture design by Enzo Mari in his 1974 Proposta per un’autoprogettazione (in fact, Mari was one of Seng’s design professors).
Later iterations of ACTING THINGS have instead explored the relationship between designer and manufacturer by removing them from the context of the studio and factory and placing them in the realm of choreography and theatre. Working with Berti, Seng has studied the language and techniques of dance as a way of manipulating material (a theme also explored in Cohen Van Balen’s piece 75 Watt as part of Z33’s "Design Beyond Production" show at the 2013 Salone del Mobile). By the current iteration, the different kinds of expertise of the collaborators, as well as their varying degrees of improvisation and personal interpretation of a set of design instructions, have been synthesised into a collective studio practice, transported into the heart of a design fair and thereby upending the usual frames of reference for design interpretation.
What distinguishes Material Flow from earlier iterations, furthermore, is the heightened awareness of the life of the material. Over the seven days of the fair, the team have melted, mixed, and moulded wax powder and water to create different shades of wax, from pale green to indigo, marking the passage of time on a large scale; the finer grain of minutes and hours, meanwhile, is indicated by the range and force of bodily motions carried out by the dancers, from carefully kneading the sticky melted substance to the muscular gestures made on the hardening wax as it cools. At the end of each day, one object is saved, while the rest are melted down again to be coloured and shaped anew the following day. Seng’s piece revolves around the stage paradigm, but she does not use it to separate humans from objects or process from product; to the contrary, in her hands the stage becomes an apparatus to involve the viewer visually, bodily, and conceptually in the entire cycle of design. Tamar Shafrir (@tamars)