EXD'11: Useless

A week before its opening, director Guta Moura Guedes tells Domus about the main events in the Portuguese design biennale and the thinking that inspired it.

Uselessness, having no utility. This is the theme of the sixth Experimentadesign , the Portuguese Design Biennale. It is an important issue and is in itself a declaration of intent of the biennale conceived by Guta Moura Guedes: ask basic questions and discuss possible answers, starting with culture in order to return to designers and architects their role as movers of contemporary society. Guta, director and guiding soul of the Biennale since she, along with Marco Sousa Santos, founded Experimenta in 1998 as an international platform to broaden the culture of the architecture and design project. This year, nearly 30 people were involved, ranging from curators and researchers to thinkers and professionals.

Hers is a biennale of research, discussion and reflection that has always invested heavily in research and production of new content and that, starting next week, will bring a program of 126 events to the Lusitanian capital.
Top image: photo © experimentadesign. Above: photo © Marco Pires.
Top image: photo © experimentadesign. Above: photo © Marco Pires.
Useless is the major theme behind this year's edition of the biennale. Could you tell us how this theme has been developed and why did you choose this subject?
Well, as in any edition of EXD, we explore different formats in terms of presenting the contents we develop, in order to provide different ways of consuming the event to the audience. What is fundamental to know about our biennale is that everything is created and thought specifically for each edition… which means that in fact I know about how each project starts, how we launch them, but I never know the results until the opening day of the biennale. Within the theme and the brief, after the initial discussions, we do give curators, talk hosts and lecturers free rein. Of course I know about the abstract they present but the final result is always something very unpredictable. I really enjoy that.
Then, the theme. During the previous editions we discuss several directions and possible themes within our think tanks. This edition was different....After our 10th anniversary I was feeling like making some changes, and in fact the theme came up after several one-on-one discussions, between me and diverse members of our network. I was interested in knowing more about empty spaces, empty time, apparently meaningless actions or objects or structures and the connection of those moments and things with creativity and innovation. Also the idea of not consuming, consuming differently, saving some resources, exploring others, more hidden and unspoken. I felt 2009 was the end of a cycle; we needed to change perspective and dive deeper. Questioning the idea of use, of useless or useful seemed perfect for this moment. And if it was important in 2009 it proved to be fundamental for 2011, now that we are really facing such a crisis.
<i>Don't look back. Fernando Brízio: Inhabited designs.</i> Photo 2008 © Fernando Brízio.
Don't look back. Fernando Brízio: Inhabited designs. Photo 2008 © Fernando Brízio.
Exd'11/Lisboa proposes the reappraisal of uselessness from different points of view. How can design be useless? Could uselessness also be a value?
One can easily say that to be or not to be useless is always a question of perspective. To be useful is not necessarily a quality per se if you think that useless is also needed. Designers are supposed to create useful projects. I believe that probably no designer has ever been briefed to create a useless object....In my perspective useless places, objects, and actions create opportunities. Blank options. Non-answers that aren't necessarily questions. These aren't produced or designed that way on purpose but the result, after they materialize, may seem useless on a first level. That's when things start to get interesting....On the other hand, if we think about it, we know that we're constantly producing useless objects in the sense that they are just repeating formulas and not innovating. So if it's not innovative, then why do it? Is redundancy a useless thing? For me, the value of useless lies in the possibility of creating something new.
EXD always uses spaces that don't originally belong to us. That's what is so fascinating. We have this need to explore the city, find empty unused spaces, useless spaces, and give them a new use during a certain period.
<i>Don't look back. Fernando Brízio: Inhabited designs.</i> Photo 2008 © Fernando Brízio.
Don't look back. Fernando Brízio: Inhabited designs. Photo 2008 © Fernando Brízio.
The programme is packed with events—lectures, exhibitions, special projects, film cycles, on-going research projects, site-specific urban interventions and open talks. How many events are you going to launch? How many people have been involved in the curatorial programme? Could you introduce us to some of the most original and peculiar ones?
We are presenting a total of 126 events, 25 of which are core programming. Without any formal structure, we involve almost 30 curators, researchers, thinkers, and practitioners. It's a huge investment in terms of producing research and new content. We developed different formats aimed to attract different audiences. We try not to repeat formulas, not to be boring, to be seductive without ever losing a high level of content quality. Effective communication is an act of generosity and it's part of our task. EXD is based on that and also based on the beauty of irregularity and flexibility.
Looking through this year's programme—and this was a very thought provoking theme for everyone involved and not an easy programme to create at all—it's interesting to see that, on one hand, you find co-curated projects and meanings, always showing two sides of a coin, like the Useless? exhibition, with two poles curated by Jonathan Olivares and the duo Max Bruinsma and Hans Maier Aichen. On the other hand we are also showing territories as different in scale as a survey of a special kind of infrastructure, in Utilitas Interrupta, the show curated by Joseph Grima, or the minor scale of useless collections in Sidelines, the exhibition curated by Emily King.
Then, the Open Talks, which are becoming more and more a must at EXD. It's really a privileged moment to listen and interact with high level and sometimes controversial cultural agents. And the Lisbon Lecturers, a classic devoted to big audiences, this year starting with a lecture about the theme done by a priest, Manuel Clemente, one of the most interesting thinkers in Portugal.
Óbidos, September 2005. In: <i>Redundancia. The usefulness of repetition,</i> urban installation at Praça da Figueira a cura by R2. © R2.
Óbidos, September 2005. In: Redundancia. The usefulness of repetition, urban installation at Praça da Figueira a cura by R2. © R2.
This biennial also invites one to rediscover the city, with the creation of new itineraries on foot. Did you reactivate a series of discarded urban spaces? Are you going to make a "gift" to Lisbon's inhabitants providing new permanent spaces for the city itself?
Well, EXD always uses spaces that don't originally belong to us. That's what is so fascinating. We have this need to explore the city, find empty unused spaces, useless spaces, and give them a new use during a certain period. It's very rewarding to see that most of the times, after we use these spaces during the biennale, they gain another life because someone else picks them for another use. It's a very good result, I would say.
For this edition of EXD, we chose to do a biennale with a low carbon footprint, which you can really discover on foot or by taking the tram, and discover the city of Lisbon in a different way. And while we talk about gifts to the city and its inhabitants, I'm proud to say that I've just returned from the ceremony launching the construction of the pedestrian and cycling bridge we developed for one of our sponsors in 2009, the oil company GALP, with an international competition. That's creating legacy for the city.
The World Islands, Dubai, 2006. In: <i>Utilitas Interrupta,</i> curated by Joseph Grima. 1 October—27 November 2011.
The World Islands, Dubai, 2006. In: Utilitas Interrupta, curated by Joseph Grima. 1 October—27 November 2011.
Did you also involve architects in your programme?
Yes. Architects are not designers and designers are not architects, as we know so well, but they both share common tools and act, sometimes, in very similar contexts. That has been always interesting for EXD. So we've constantly had architects in the programme, the same way we've continuously had, from the very beginning, participants from the tangential areas of cinema, arts, history, anthropology, neurology, music. I do admire the way different practitioners from diverse disciplines cross-pollinate and influence each other. Although I must confess that I venerate clarity and focus more and more.
<i>Time Out,</i> Nov 23-29, 1973 Nº 196, Art direction by Pearce Marchbank. © Time Out–Sarah McAlister Collection. In: <i>Sidelines,</i> a cura di Emily King. 30 September-27 November 2011.
Time Out, Nov 23-29, 1973 Nº 196, Art direction by Pearce Marchbank. © Time Out–Sarah McAlister Collection. In: Sidelines, a cura di Emily King. 30 September-27 November 2011.
The lounging space will be the heart of the biennial. How will it work? What is the concept behind this project?
This year we have found a truly amazing space. It's a huge old 17th-century monastery, right in the heart of the city, which was the most important Portuguese courthouse of the 20th century. Some of the most significant trials during our fascist and post-revolutionary period took place there. The court was closed down three years ago. This is a building with more than 3.000 square meters, an interior cloister and courtyard, hundreds of rooms, with remarkable Portuguese tile-work. And it will host the Lounging Space. It will be the hub of the biennale, hosting many small exhibitions and projects, the biennale's communication center, a bookshop, a café, music, our Educational Services and some of our main debates, talks, and workshops. Bursting with energy during the 61 days of the biennale, the Lounging Space will bring an unknown place of the city back to the citizens and general audience.
<i>Platform.</i> Formafantasma Botanica, 2011.
Platform. Formafantasma Botanica, 2011.
In the last twenty years a lot of design biennials have appeared on the international scene. How is Experimenta different from the other design biennials? And how is it different from one of the hundreds of design weeks around the globe?
Well, our focus is from the cultural perspective and our emphasis is on discussion, research and experimentation. EXD is about sharing and discussing information. This is not a design week where you come to see products and by chance you listen to some talks, and maybe you see some shows or someone receiving a prize. You definitely don't come to EXD to buy something—what you can find here are amazing projects, products and ideas. You come to EXD if you want to know more about the design process, design research, new directions and concepts, important questions, and possible answers. We do look at design from a cultural standpoint, focusing on its connections with economical, social issues and impact. To be honest, I don't know any other event similar to EXD; and we've created this concept in 1998.
Photo Carolina Cantante. © experimentadesign.
Photo Carolina Cantante. © experimentadesign.
Considering the global economical crisis, how could a cultural event like a Design Biennale be helpful to relaunch the economy of a sector?
Some big mistakes in our society happened precisely because people tend to ignore the power of culture and its importance as one of the major sustaining pillars of our society. Look at Europe now…a completely failed project because it was only based on economy, money, finance. You can't pretend to design a great new "nation" and to move forward if you forget about people, their differences, their dreams, their aims, their hearts, their emotions. And culture is all about that. And the interesting thing is that it's so much more....Culture is also the basis for real innovation, for the true possibility of envisioning new scenarios and new futures. And, of course, economy needs this now. It has always needed it, but for a stupid exuberant long moment we thought that things were basically about quantity and superficiality, and that people were simple minded. But we are much more demanding than that. So the new economy, the one that is coming, that will be able to answer to the demands of the 21st century, will necessarily need to be linked to culture and people in an intelligent way. What we do at EXD is, hopefully, a modest way of contributing to that goal. This has also motivated us to launch of a series of symposiums devoted to the creative economies. The first one is included in the EXD'11 programme, and will take place on October 13 and 14.

Latest on Design

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram