This year’s London Design Biennale is an emotional rollercoaster – set across the whole of Somerset House, including outdoor courtyard and riverside spaces, countries across six continents have each taken over a room or area, which respond in various ways to the concept of emotion.
While visitors might laugh at the interesting depictions of their facial expressions in the US installation, or smile sweetly at Norway’s artificial intelligence (AI) robot, they will be feeling far more sombre when visiting the UK and Somalia’s offerings, which delve into the emotional impact of war and terrorism-induced devastation and destruction.
The exhibition, which has collected 40 unique responses to the theme, aims to promote tolerance and multiculturalism in the UK capital, says Jonathan Reekie, director at Somerset House Trust and part of the judging panel for this year’s show.
“One of the most exciting things about this event is that you have so many cultural influences and ways of viewing the world,” he says. “It takes people out of their narrow, Western hemisphere bubble, and opens their eyes to the way different people think and work around the world. We endlessly debate ‘what is design’ – this shows the many, different ways of thinking and imagining the world.”
Through expressing emotion in 40 different ways, this year’s Biennale looks to encourage empathy and understanding of these various viewpoints – an appropriate topic given the confusing and hostile environment many have felt following the Brexit vote.
“We’re living in a world of huge uncertainty,” says Reekie. “One of the biggest uncertainties is around Brexit, but if you’re in the US or Somalia, you’ve got different uncertainties around politics or democracy.”
And London is a fitting place to host such a show, given its diversity, he adds. “London is an international city,” he says. “Which is one of the things that makes it a wonderful place to be – we’re hoping to attract many diasporas to this show.”
Here are Design Week’s top picks from the London Design Biennale 2018.
Greece – Disobedience
As you step into the courtyard of Somerset House, you will be accosted by a huge, horizontal, narrow walkway structure. Visitors are invited to step onto the platform and walk through it, but as they do so, the whole structure moves and inflates, causing a ripple effect of sound and movement as they reach the end.
The 17-metre-long installation is made out of a steel, spring skeleton and recycled plastic, and looks to represent the theme of human disobedience, inspired by examples taken from Greek mythology. “From the cautionary tale of Icarus, to Antigone, to Prometheus, Greek mythology shows a hero who disobeys the gods yet obeys his moral obligation to humanity and creates opportunity for its progress,” says Nassia Inglessis, designer and engineer on the project.
In this way, the piece looks to portray the act of misbehaving in a positive light, standing up against corrupt governments or authorities, and is relevant to Greece as the country continues to go through a period of political, social and economic upheaval.
Designed by Inglessis as part of Studio Ini, the installation is a claustrophobic yet somehow satisfying and interactive piece that allows visitors to participate and become disobedient themselves. It tips traditional art installations on their head by allowing visitors to physically use and play with the piece, and cause change to it, rather than stare at it from afar. As well, its resemblance to a giant wall is not without satire.
Norway – Learning and Play For All
Norway’s room is devoted to the positive contributions of advanced technology – the highlight being a small, cute, AI robot called AV1. While AI is nothing new, this robot is intended specifically for use in classrooms in Norway, sitting in for children who are too sick to attend school.
While this all sounds quite terrifying and dystopian, the ethos and motive behind the product is positive – children with long-term health conditions miss out on forming relationships with classmates and teachers, as well as learning. Using AV1, designed by Oslo-based start-up No Isolation, children can log-in from home using an iPad or computer, and can communicate directly through the robot, which is constructed of a head and shoulders that is able to rotate 360 degrees.
Containing a camera, microphone and speaker, the robot shows the child the full classroom, and flashes blue when the child wants to ask a question. Their voice can then be transmitted via the robot to their classmates and teacher. The aim is to be inclusive of ill children, and enable those who cannot attend school to experience learning in as similar a way as possible to their peers.
Onny Eikhaug, curator of the Norway installation, says that the robot has been “positively received” by other students, who have even been encouraged to take them out at playtime and lunch to improve interaction.
“The robot is like the child’s avatar,” she says. “We think traditional ways of teaching are outdated. This is a way to include isolated and excluded children, and represent them in the classroom.”
Another inclusive design showcased in the exhibit is Kahoots – an open-source platform that allows students and teachers, no matter what their location, to create and share educational games that can be played by others.
Norway’s room not only showcases the steps Scandinavian countries are making to incorporate “inclusive design” into all elements of daily life, but also throws up ethical questions of what we deem to be acceptable in society – whether someone’s presence can truly be represented through an automated object is open to question, but there is no denying that the little robot, which is specifically simple and genderless, partially provides a voice for those who cannot physically be in an environment.
Lebanon – The Silent Room
Escape the hustle and bustle of the main London Design Biennale spaces within Somerset House, and wander onto the riverside terrace, where the Lebanon installation is a spot of tranquillity. Aptly named The Quiet Room, the house-like structure invites visitors inside, where they climb a set of stairs and sit in darkness on a pile of blankets, accompanied by ambient background sounds of nature such as birdsong.
Designed by Nathalie Harb, the Quiet Room is a suggested prototype for public, quiet shelters that could be incorporated into cities all over the world, particularly for those who do not experience peace in or near their own homes.
“Silence has become very rare, and spaces are very privatised,” says Harb. “Spaces like this would be open to public access, and would particularly be for people who live in cramped, dense housing, or those from underprivileged neighbourhoods, or live near motorways or industrial areas.”
While this acts as a space free of noise, it also looks to be somewhere to clear the mind and escape from the world around you – with 24-hour news, app updates and verbal communication becoming more ubiquitous, even big metropolitan cities would benefit from spaces such as this, she says. “It’s not only auditive silence this provides, but also silence of information,” she adds.
Puerto Rico – Soft Identity Makers
The concept of identity and nationality has become increasingly skewed in our politically turbulent times – from European Union (EU) citizens living in the UK wary of their future status following Brexit, to Puerto Rican citizens feeling outcast from their US citizenship.
Puerto Rico explores this conflicted and confused state of national identity through a frivolous, fun and light-hearted installation entitled Soft Identity Makers. An array of colourful, eclectic symbols, badges and posters cover the walls, which all have different cultural connotations.
Visitors are invited to pick their favourite five, and then “make their own identity”, in the form of a printed t-shirt mixing together these symbols, which will be given to them as they leave.
The 45 markers covering the walls are as broad as Arabic script through to brand-names, colours and textures. The idea is that visitors get to choose their own identity, rather than have one assigned to them.
“This is a contemporary coat of arms,” says Celina Nogueras, founder at design studio Muuaaa, which has created the exhibit. “The identity takes into account people’s tastes, feelings and individuality.”
The use of a t-shirt to depict this also has historical context – the origins of the t-shirt date back to 1898 during the Spanish-American War, when they were first worn by sailors and marines as undergarments. The war ended with the Treaty of Paris, giving the US ownership over Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippine islands, as well as temporary control of Cuba.
In this way, the t-shirt becomes a way to reclaim identity, says Nogueras, while giving visitors a fun and welcoming experience rather than a sombre and depressing one. They even receive a miniature bottle of Puerto Rican rum, and metaphorically “sign” their documents as they leave the exhibition room. “We’re like a friendly border control or customs,” says Nogueras.
UK – Maps of Defiance
One of the most hard-hitting installations in this year’s Biennale, the UK’s contribution moves away from the predicted topic of Brexit and instead focuses on the devastation caused by post-war terrorism in Iraq. One of the only countries to create a piece that is not centred on its own identity, Maps of Defiance stands out as an empathetic look at destruction.
The piece encompasses the work-in-progress of a long-term project, conducted by Forensic Architecture with curation from the V&A. It involved the architectural firm visiting Sinjar, Northern Iraq and working with non-governmental organisation (NGO) Yazda, which supports the region’s Yazidi community. There has been a mass-genocide of the religious minority community in recent years, which has been attributed to so-called Islamic State, and has seen women abducted and thousands of civilians killed.
Forensic Architecture worked with Yazidi communities, equipping them with technology that allows them to document the architectural destruction caused by the genocide, through using techniques such as aerial and ground photography and photogrammetry. This has allowed them to virtually recreate Yazidi sites that were destroyed in the massacre, which have then been turned into three-dimensional (3D) model recreations.
“The idea of genocide is not just one of mass murder and death but also cultural genocide,” says Brendan Cormier, curator at the V&A and on this project. “They’re not mutually exclusive. A community is comprised of humans but also culture and knowledge, so if you destroy one, you destroy the other. Many temples have been completely destroyed, and this is about documenting that. The tools we use sound expensive but they can be very do-it-yourself (DIY), and the most beneficial use of this technology is in empowering local communities so they can become stewards of their own cultural heritage.”
Through enabling communities to rebuild their history visually, the project looks to be a psychological aid to those who have experienced such terrible trauma.
“The history is really important – it’s part of the healing process,” says Natalie Kane, another curator at the V&A. “Things like this can help those who’ve gone through extreme trauma, been displaced and whose homes have disappeared. Cultural memory is really important.”
The London Design Biennale 2018 takes place 4-23 September 2018 at Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA. Tickets cost £19.50, or £16.50 for concessions. For more information, head here.