Are We Human?

Curated by Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, the third Istanbul Design Biennial stimulates an understanding of the world, partly as it affects us all as human beings in our multiple historical, social and economic evolutions – from the Palaeolithic to Facebook.

3. Istanbul Design Biennale
“Are We Human? The Design of the Species: 2 Seconds, 2 Days, 2 Years, 200 Years, 200,000 Years” is the programmatic title of and provocation uttered by the latest Istanbul Biennial, promoted by İKSV – Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts and presented by a curatorial duo composed of architectural historian Beatriz Colomina and critic and author Mark Wigley. She is Spanish and he is of New Zealand origin, both are professors in New York. The former has a chair at the Princeton University School of Architecture and the latter is Dean Emeritus of Columbia University.
3. Istanbul Design Biennale
3. Istanbul Design Biennale. Lu Yang (China), Delusional Mandala, Galata Greek Primary School
At a packed press conference, the two – a couple also in their private lives – simply and enthusiastically illustrated the major themes of their Biennial centred on humans and so – they argue –  on design. A smiling Wigley admitted that they want to talk seriously about design and our hard disk can only emerge more than pleasantly overloaded from an exhibition project packed with so much information (most of the 70 designs selected require careful reading).
3. Istanbul Design Biennale
3. Istanbul Design Biennale. Jose Lirá (Brazil), The Anthropophagic Body and the City, Galata Greek Primary School
This exhibition is a successful example of speculative design in the most profound and positive sense of the word. The very subject stimulates a more thoughtful and denser understanding and exploration of the world around us (and inside us). Precisely because it is a subject close to our hearts, the third Istanbul Biennial concerns us all, human beings in our multiple historical, social and economic evolutions, from our origins to the present day, from the Palaeolithic to Facebook. It is an ambitious project because the experiment of narrating design passing via or starting from us is certainly risky, so hats off to those who have attempted such a somersault and landed firmly on their feet.
3. Istanbul Design Biennale
3. Istanbul Design Biennale, view of the exhibition at the Galata Greek Primary School
Starting from the idea that design has been around since humans have existed, Colomina and Wigley adopt the symbolism of a footprint thousands of years old to tell us that that, yes, it is a foot – with all its due narrative and semantic significance – but, more importantly, it is a trail left by a shoe, an artefact, a man-made product. They say that we design ourselves every day, from the time we wake up in the morning until we go to bed at night. We become human when we add things to ourselves and they even argue that our bodies are design because they represent the constant evolution of previous stages. The project presented on the Bosphorus cannot, therefore, but enthuse and engage us at gut level.
3. Istanbul Design Biennale
3. Istanbul Design Biennale. Ivan-Nicholas Cisneros, Jesse L. McCormick, Iara Pimenta, Gizem Sivri, "Homo Cellular", Galata Greek Primary School. Display Andres Jaque and the Office for Political Innovation
A second consideration concerns the extraordinarily precise and immense research involved because the exhibition embraces several disciplines and takes a singular approach – which the curators managed to complete in just over 12 months. Divided or rather organised into four main sections called clouds (Designing the Body, Designing the Planet, Designing Life and Designing Time) that unfold organically to breathe life into a titanic investigation, it brings together different kinds of projects, presented as one continuum with constant overlapping, references and interferences that visitors are asked to read by themselves. The curators call them “different gates in a dense forest” and they include open calls, local designers and international stars, some from the tangent world of contemporary art such as Thomas Demand, Tacita Dean and Tomas Saraceno. The exhibition is spread across several venues: the Galata Greek Primary School as the pulsating heart of the event, Studio X and Depo in Karaköy, the Alt Art Space in Bomonti and the Istanbul Archaeological Museums in Sultanahmet.
3. Istanbul Design Biennale
3. Istanbul Design Biennale. Annett Zinsmeister (Germany), Virtual Interior Istanbul, Galata Greek Primary School
These locations feature many of the inspirations linked to the macro-theme and help unravel an argument as intellectual as it is engaging and as complex as it is difficult to portray save with the aid of texts, coloured maps, dense graphs, many videos and very, very few objects. This deliberate choice matches the DNA of a duo who seem to have scanned the globe (starting from the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa, a few hours from Johannesburg, where the first traces of humankind have been found) and looked at the galaxies – because you can dig deep and search but there is also the sky above us. This Biennial calls for concentration and time, which is to its credit. It is a Biennial that leaves a smile on your face because, whether for its statistics given the number of projects presented or for its subject, it is impossible to come away without having learnt something new. The bombardment of information is as powerful as it is appealing. With a firm hand and confident in their opinions, now and again Colomina and Wigley inject some irony, repeatedly asking visitors whether they can cope with the avalanche of data, names and numbers on display and prompting visitors to wonder about the intellectual impact of a question such as “Are We Human?”
3. Istanbul Design Biennale
3. Istanbul Design Biennale. City of 7 Billion, Galata Greek Primary School
Although several disciplines agree on fitting answers, the fact that this question has, at last, been asked of design, design and not philosophy or sociology, design and not anthropology is, in my view, in itself a huge success. If design presupposes reasoning, reflection and analysis then, yes, perhaps it will manage to answer this great question. Intellectual rigour, examination, observation, the mapping of a host of diversities (physical, behavioural and professional), courage and vision are the distinctive ingredients of this third Istanbul Biennial which, I repeat, is engrossing precisely because it speaks of us. With the aim of re-designing the human being, this project wants us to ask questions, dig deep into our very roots and understand that we are design, the product of several stratified design levels. This emotional and physical human phenomenology says that design has existed ever since we have.


An interesting small publication packed with illustrations by the curators for Lars Muller is a compendium in its own right. The catalogue cover presents the projects as described by those behind them, not the curators or the critics, and asks us to answer the key question of the exhibition, the most important one of all.

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