Articulating a vision for design in India

In its second edition, the Unbox Festival has established itself as a platform for conversations on design and trans-disciplinary practices.

Held in Delhi between the 2 - 5 of February, the Unbox Festival has clearly established itself as a pioneering platform for conversations on design and trans-disciplinary practices in India. Founded by Codesign and Quicksand , two independent communication design firms based in Gurgaon along with B.L.O.T – a multi-media performance Collective - and Blindboys , a Photo Commune, the festival has filled a lacuna for a much-required space for informal interactions between diverse creative practitioners and processes - as a way to meet, exchange ideas, share professional experiences and collaborate on new initiatives. With a country struggling to articulate a vision for its design sector to be taken more seriously by the business and government communities, and a greater role for cultural and creative industries to inform the shaping of national development agendas, the festival is in a position to enable a continuous exposure to innovative experiments across the world, and showcase the best examples of such leadership in thinking and innovation in entrepreneurship within India.

Since last year there has been a distinct shift in its audience – from young design students, to a variety of young entrepreneurs and design firms. And the festival has built its trademark conference repertoire through a series of short talks grouped thematically, which are then contextualized and discussed through moderated panel discussions. This year's themes included the role of new media in social activism, experiences in building brands, re-invigorating hand-craft traditions and exploring what 'curating' means in the context of contemporary culture.
Top: BlowUp is an effort to encourage photographers to present their work in public spaces using affordable materials and a way for the general public to experience the photographic image. Above: The entrance to the Unbox Festival. Photos by Lucida
Top: BlowUp is an effort to encourage photographers to present their work in public spaces using affordable materials and a way for the general public to experience the photographic image. Above: The entrance to the Unbox Festival. Photos by Lucida
Interspersed were individual presentations by a range of designers, architects, artists and social commentators on their diverse work from The Netherlands, UK, US and India, and touching upon subjects like the negotiation of 'the public' and ' the private', changing notions of identity in a globalised world, and the need for community-oriented modes of 'authoring' and 'using' content.

A hugely popular presentation was by Marije Vogelzang , who shared her projects in designing experiences around food, from innovative dinners developed around a single colour, employing inventive use of cutlery and crockery, to workshops with young children where they made fashion accessories with vegetables and fruit - as a way to make them eat! Among these was a poignant setting where gypsy women - often ostracized and shunned in European society - fed anonymous guests with their own hands, while sharing intimate stories, poetry and musings. For the Indian audience, it brought back memories of a feudal past, where social distinctions governed prevented eating between members of different 'castes', and reflections of how urbanization and the emergence of 'modern' cities has begun to erase them.

The Panel Habitat & Community
"Can we create spaces to support emerging communities and cultures of living?". Photo by Lucida
The Panel Habitat & Community "Can we create spaces to support emerging communities and cultures of living?". Photo by Lucida
A major premise that underlay the selection of speakers and projects presented was that of design for activism, social impact and change. A specially curated exhibition showcased such work by design firms in areas like health, sanitation, and sustainable practices in fashion, and formed the nucleus of the festival. And this thread ran through both the accompanying workshops and an expanded feature from last year, the Fellowships . Around fourty Fellows were chosen through a preceding application process to develop projects in partnership with relevant organizations across India in areas of governance, lifestyle design, rural livelihoods among others. One of them – The Great Wash Yatra – brought performing artists to work with a community of traditional puppeteers and storytellers, towards a street-style ensemble of music-dance-entertainment, and towards creating awareness about personal hygiene in urban slums in Delhi.

With a country struggling to articulate a vision for its design sector to be taken more seriously by the business and government communities, the festival can enable a continuous exposure to innovative experiments across the world, and showcase the best examples of such leadership within India
Food Memory workshop with Marije Vogelzang. Photo by Lucida
Food Memory workshop with Marije Vogelzang. Photo by Lucida
It is through the role of such visibly impactful outcomes that the festival can allow a further dissemination on what design can do, in the context of complex cultures like India, where plural technologies exist within over-lapping philosophies of the traditional-modern, rural-urban and across extreme economic situations. It is also, indeed, related to such deliverables that design can be seen synonymously as a process of converging disciplines and paradigms. My final takeaway from the festival, however, will remain the question of whether it is possible to create a larger framework within which cultural 'differences' can be engaged with within such a cosmopolitan setting: For instance, in India words like 'craft', 'artisans' and 'artists' are often used amorphously, and craft suggests the second largest employment generator for the country, and therefore also a 'mass' mode of production. In a European and North American context, 'craft' has come to be associated with highly-revered, one-of-a-kind products made by artists who have come to call themselves 'artisans' and 'design-makers'.

How do we then develop a common language? And what will be the next step for such a platform as Unbox?

Mayank Mansingh Kaul is a Delhi-based textile and fashion designer working with contemporary hand-crafts. He works in the field of Cultural and Creative industries' Policy; and is the Founder of The Design Project India, an organization to initiate and support curatorial ideas and writing on Indian design. He was a speaker at the Unbox Festival this year.
LATCH—Five Ways to Organize Information workshop with Daniel Joachim Christian Gross & Joris Maltha (catalogtree). Photo by Lucida
LATCH—Five Ways to Organize Information workshop with Daniel Joachim Christian Gross & Joris Maltha (catalogtree). Photo by Lucida
Presentation at the Unbox Festival. Photo by Lucida
Presentation at the Unbox Festival. Photo by Lucida
At the opening of the festival, visitors could see Super Everything*, a new cross disciplinary performing arts project, commissioned by the British Council and created by the UK's audio-visual artists The Light Surgeons in collaboration with Malaysian artists. Photo by Lucida
At the opening of the festival, visitors could see Super Everything*, a new cross disciplinary performing arts project, commissioned by the British Council and created by the UK's audio-visual artists The Light Surgeons in collaboration with Malaysian artists. Photo by Lucida
Technodrome at the Unbox Festival. Photo by Lucida
Technodrome at the Unbox Festival. Photo by Lucida

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