Faraway, so close

With the open-call due to end on 10 July and the new edition set to open in May 2017, curators Angela Rui and Maja Vardjan offer us a preview of the content and aims of the 25th edition of the Ljubljana Biennial, the oldest dedicated to design.

“The title ‘Faraway, so close’ has nothing to do with the film,” Angela Rui is quick to point out, the curator along with Maja Vardjan of the 25th Biennial of Design in Ljubljana that is set to open on 25 May 2017.
The objective of the Biennial is to form an analysis of the present condition of Slovenia, a country with two-million inhabitants, where the urban condition is not so significant with respect to the rest of the country, that consists mainly of forests (around 60% of the territory) and cultivated fields (another 40%). Ljubljana, the capital since 1991, is located in the heart of Slovenia, with the Ljubljanica river flowing through it, baroque buildings, picturesque gables, a majestic fortress that looks down from above and a population of just under 300,000. The curatorial statement by Rui/Vardjan is enticing, it confirms that today it no longer makes sense to present finished projects, selecting a series of works to discuss in a critical manner. Instead there is a more pressing need to create a platform of open production to test different fields and disciplines through design. In order to develop a theoretical framework of this kind, the two curators did not begin with either designers or architects, instead they selected seven Slovenian personalities whose professional work involves the wary we live: for example a criminologist, a poet-philosopher and a choreographer, each of whom was then teamed up with a professional designer. With the seven pairs formed, the designer and/or architect is considered as a kind of translator, interpreting the given themes that lead to seven episodes of the same story. We had the opportunity to preview the project with the curators themselves, while it is still at the developmental stage.
Faraway, So Close, BIO 25
In apertura: Faraway, So Close, BIO 25; Bloke Plateau and Trbovlje Coal Mine; Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani; Graphic design: Groupa Ee. Qui sopra: Faraway, So Close, BIO 25; Rakov Škocjan and Miners Waiting Room, Trbovlje; Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani; Graphic design: Groupa Ee

Maria Cristina Didero: If you had to explain it to a child, how would you describe the theme for this Biennial entitled, “Faraway, So Close”?

Angela Rui and Maja Vardjan: The meaning of this title can be interpreted in different ways, it has been conceived to reach as wide an audience as possible. One could speculate endlessly on its connotation, the friction it produces, the contradiction of these terms that are poles apart and its “perturbing” effect. But if we had to describe it to a child, we would say that it is a story that begins far, far away, in seven places that are not very well-known but special in their own way. Places that can open up the imagination of anyone even someone who comes from far away where everything seems different. This is just for children though.

Maria Cristina Didero: Great. And for the adults?

Angela Rui and Maja Vardjan: “Faraway, so close” investigates what is distant but not yet far enough away to penetrate our memory. It is still waiting for a semantic connection. “Faraway, so close” looks at what is close, but so close in time and space that it doesn’t capture our attention, nor our intentions. “Faraway, so close” looks at recent history, the resilience of a near past that starts to leave faint tracks to be reinterpreted. It looks at the use of a new historical frame of reference, “that binds humanity to a new shared history, made of universal human rights and the rights inherent to Nature” (Jeremy Rifkin). “Faraway so close” is based on the possibility of bringing a human dimension into the abandoned and the banal, and focus it on the possible significance of the non-urban.

Faraway, So Close, BIO 25
Faraway, So Close, BIO 25; Lake Cerknica and Tular Cave Laboratory, Kranj; Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani; Graphic design: Groupa Ee

Maria Cristina Didero: How have the key themes been chosen?

Angela Rui and Maja Vardjan: The initial paradigm responds to the notion that although the city remains the model inside of which the evolution of contemporary society is discussed and interpreted and while it is true that the number of people who populate the large, urban centres continues to grow, it is also true that over recent years there has been a growth in the percentage of people who are doing the opposite, moving out of the city to non-urban areas, something which data predictions suggest a further increase in. This occurs for various factors, such as poverty, economics and what big cities offer – in particular in a European context. It is a completely new phenomenon: Young people who are informed and emancipated, who have grown up in an urbanised model will take these values to other, completely-anonymous contexts. This premise is simply to try and explain how we have interpreted the places that we will go and occupy.

Maria Cristina Didero: Why does this title have a particular value in a country like Slovenia today and in the light of his past history?

Angela Rui and Maja Vardjan: Slovenia seems to be a very fragmented country in terms of the diversification of its landscape traditions or even the dialects that are still in use. Driving for just a few hours takes you across regions that are completely different and this is a very specific condition within Europe. At the same time the locals do not see this condition as an opportunity: when everything is so close it is simply taken for granted so locations that are very special remain unexplored. Apart from this territorial specificity, Slovenia is a young country that became independent in 1991. The experience of a specific form of socialism, that of the former Yugoslavia that activated processes of modernisation and profound social changes is still embedded in people’s consciousness, including that of future generations. It is a country that has tested three different models – social, economic and political – in the last century. We are also questioning this history, the experience of different social systems that have altered its fortunes but that at the same time now are quite inadequate.

Faraway, So Close, BIO 25
Faraway, So Close, BIO 25; Bloke Plateau and Miners Dressing Room, Trbovlje; Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani; Graphic design: Groupa Ee

Maria Cristina Didero: What approach does this biannual take curated by two people have?

Angela Rui and Maja Vardjan: Right from the start the proposal was that of dislocating the biennial in general terms, of pushing the format further and looking at what is non-urban. This is because when you begin to investigate Slovenia and its characteristics, what is immediately striking is how small it is. For example, the number of inhabitants is around 2 million, the same as a city like Milan. Meanwhile its territory is incredibly rich in situations related to broad themes that can be discussed on a global level, starting with the natural wealth that this country possesses: 60% is forest, 40% of land is cultivated, there are 11,000 registered caves, 28,000 km of river. The government is dedicating most of its economic funds to the development of agriculture and tourism. At the same time Slovenia is a country suffering a grave economic crisis that is self-perpetuating, and often involves the failure of urban speculation and the exhaustion of development models that in the last century had been a source of wealth, such as mining, that created entire villages that grew up near the mines, now all closing down.

So when the proposal was accepted, there was a clear and inevitable need for a curator on-site who could manage in a way that was original, the correspondence of the overall theme, to direct all the decisions set in the context of Slovenia.

Maria Cristina Didero: This is the thinking behind the collective work but how did it develop?

Angela Rui e Maja Vardjan: Right from the start, we worked hard to establish a close dialogue, starting with a hardware that saw the combining of a place (or a type of place), a Slovenian voice (Profile) who had nothing to do with the world of design or architecture but professionally focussed on authoritative and stimulating projects, and a professional (Translator) chosen for the ability shown in their work to be able to best react to the theme that emerged at that point, using the disciplines as a narrative medium to focus on a problem. So it has been a case for now of conducting in advance a blanket research on places and possible local profiles and once identifying them, to establish a general direction with a view to – finally – introducing the world of design. It is first and foremost an experiment in terms of format, that takes the designers out of the comfort zones in which they normally act, and “at the service” of worlds that are largely unexplored for everyone.

Faraway, So Close, BIO 25
Faraway, So Close, BIO 25; Sport Park Stožice, Ljubljana and Bloke Plateau; Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani; Graphic design: Groupa Ee

Maria Cristina Didero: The theory sounds good but what about in practice. Can you give me an example…

Angela Rui e Maja Vardjan: So, if you work inside a cave, aside from the design approach that obviously remains the territory of design, the theme won’t be “cave” but Underground Release, trying to explore what possible meaning a place could have that was known mostly as a dramatic setting, theatrically illuminated in the 1960s, how today it could be seen through different eyes. And there are many examples: from vegetable plots in the London underground that supply restaurants above ground, to the WikiLeaks data-centre in the Pionen White Mountains of Stockholm, originally a fallout shelter. Or if it is a forest, Occupying Woods: how we really can live in the forest, transform it into an operative platform outside of the romantic tourist use or isolation that immediately fills our imagination. Or then again, how we can use the context of a mine that is closing-down (and its amazing spaces) to discuss Post-Utopia, as much in a country like Slovenia that is part of former Yugoslavia, as enlarging its meaning to a more theoretical context.

In terms of their development inside the Biennial, these projects constitute the central body of the discussion and the event is used as a platform of production of knowledge: we like the idea of being able to maintain a lightweight structure, deliberately compact – that in fact suits the kind performance that the country can offer – in such a way as to be able to get the most out of our resources. A great deal of the research will also appear in the publication that will accompany the exhibition and there will be collateral events to add to the calendar of the Biennial.

Maria Cristina Didero: You selected seven creatives (designers and architects) who will be confronted with seven experts from different disciplines, from criminology up to an extreme athlete you said. I find this a fresh and interesting approach on paper and full of surprises. What will happen? What kind of expectations do you have? What are you thinking of presenting inside the spaces?

Angela Rui e Maja Vardjan: Everything was decided around the table and the seven designers accepted with a great deal of enthusiasm, the idea of ​​a dialogue with profiles that they were yet to meet and with “worlds” for the most part unknown. The seven pairs: Studio Formafantasma (Andrea Trimarchi, Simone Farresin, Amsterdam) and Andrej Detela, theoretical physicist of international renown for Underground Release; Matali Crasset (Paris) and Matej Fegus, explorer, teacher and enlightened entrepreneur, for Occupying Woods; Point Supreme (Konstantinos Pantazis, Marianna Rentzou - Athens) and Iztok Kovač, dancer and choreographer, founder of EnKnapGroup, for After Utopia; Didier Faustino (Paris, Lisbon) and Mojca Kumrdej, writer and journalist, for Brand New Coexistence, Studio Mischer'Traxler (Katharina Mischer and Thomas Traxler, Vienna) and Klemen Košir, a researcher in the field of food chains as historical-sociological connectors for Countryside Reloaded; Studio Folder (Marco Ferrari, Elisa Pasqual, Milan) and Renata Salecl, sociologist and philosopher specialising in criminology, for Resilience of the Past; Odoardo Fioravanti (Milan) and Marin Medak, a young sportsman crossed the ocean in a kayak for New Heroes. It should be added that each Slovenian figure was also selected for their personal commitment in their profession field, for their charisma. Their involvement has allowed us to get in touch with local authorities to attract their attention and have access to programmes already in place. Once we established these people, we knew which architects and designers to invite. The selection is deliberately European, in order to share our thinking on what concerns us close-up, to limit the project and therefore have the opportunity to contextualise the issue more specifically, referring to the quality of the territory and the scale of our habitat.

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Open call for application

Deadline: 10 July 2016

BIO 25
25th Biennial of Design
Ljubljana, Slovenia

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