“A School of Schools” avoids any ambitious answers, and rightfully so. Nobody knows what’s next. Educational reform is not trend forecasting and can’t be neatly packaged or subscribed to. Design as a discipline is changing and the way it is taught is playing a big role in that, especially in social design, a field that “A School of Schools” curator Jan Boelen directs at Design Academy Eindhoven.

Throughout the biennial Boelen, along with associate curators Nadine Botha and Vera Sacchetti, focus on some lesser-known yet worthy initiatives, and even more successfully take a broader look at the cooperative relationship that is building between design and education.

Digestion School. Peter Zin – Flag Cloud World Rain. Photo by Kayan Kaygusuz

If learning is understood to be the process of acquiring knowledge, then students can enroll in academies and a long debate can be had over the best way to prepare them for a profession. But Boelen, I think, takes a different position. The biennial’s content looks at the more cultural, less commercial side of design, and what it can teach society about itself. Because education doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) stop at graduation.

At “A School of Schools” design projects were all presented in themes - Unmaking, Earth, Currents, Scale, Time, and Digestion. Running alongside that was an impressive film agenda (curated by Alexandra Midal) and a public programme of symposia and presentations.

Digestion School. Carlos Monleón – A Colloquy of Vessels, Facility Machine. Photo by Kayan Kaygusuz

The strength of themes is that connections between what is happening in design and the world it caters to and represents can be clearly illustrated. And given the biennial’s location, exploring the interconnectedness of all things that make up our cultural, political and economic life seems appropriate. To just dump a biennial’s content on a city with no connection to its own past arguably undermines the very point of such an event.

“Istanbul - a universal beauty where poet and archeologist, diplomat and merchant, princess and sailor, northerner and westerner screams with the same admiration,” wrote the Italian journalist Edmondo De Amicis in the late nineteenth century because for hundreds of years this city has operated as a crossroads for the movement of people, things, and ideas.

Unmaking School. Nur Horsanali – Halletmek

And a lot of the work running across all the themes clung tight to this notion of migration. It was a powerful position and a harsh yet hopeful reminder that too often the migration narrative comes solely from politics. The published story limited to war or religion, globalization or tax with all the associated fears and prejudices. But migration – of both people and knowledge - as seen through design and objects can give the discourse a broader more humane resonance.

Turkish designer Dr. Gökhan Mura presented a simple installation of well-known objects – a yoghurt maker, a jar of Nutella, a packet of industrially ground coffee beans and a collection of kitchen tools. His research aims directly at changing the migration narrative - to steer it towards an analysis of the objects owned by (rather than the politics surrounding) migrants. “Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message,” he explains “but what if the objects become the medium and equally the message.”

Mura talks about how displacement caused by migration causes an immediate displacement then replacement of culture, and new daily habits. “The first thing you encounter when you move from one place to the next is a change in culture, and the designed environment,” he says.

Digestion School. Gokhan Mura – Object Academy. Photo by Kayan Kaygusuz

And in an era dominated by personal paralysis at the omniscience of neo-liberal thinking, global brands, pop culture and mass-media we tend to lose sight of the more discreet or subtle ways that movement affects us. How habits unconsciously change and new customs evolve.

The strength of Mura’s position is his embrace of “us”. His work relates to all migration, no matter what the motivation or devastation – his thinking affects those moving from Syria to Amsterdam, from Tokyo to London, from New Delhi to Sydney. And more, his interest is on the impact one’s departure has on the people left behind, particularly when the emigrants come back home to visit.

From 1961 Turkey started signing labour migration agreements with most European countries that were in desperate need of skilled workers, and as economies expanded all working hands were invited. But when these Turkish expatriates brought gifts home to visit friends and family, the feeling was a sense of novelty at receiving something not part of the recognized material culture. “The local Turkish population had no cognitive memory of how to use or enjoy these objects,” Mura says. “Owning them represented a sort of value shift, especially this idea of the ‘industrial exotic’ – really ordinary things available in Lidl or Aldi that were not available (or valued) in Turkey at the time. Some of the objects were adopted and with that came a new way of using your body and doing things; others were rejected.”

Value as well as migration motivated French designer åbäke’s “Suitcase Schooling” project. Fish have no borders and move according to currents and temperatures. But when fugu – a poisonous yet highly-valued Japanese fish - headed to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, people were surprised. Global warming was dished the blame.

Currents School. Åbäke – The Fugu School.  Photo by Kayan Kaygusuz

åbäke’s own surprise comes more from the ranting, raving and threatening-to build-walls over people wanting to do what the fish did with ease. Just move. His proposed learning method utilizes the same networks and systems that “A School of Schools” is tracing.

Jan Boelens curatorial position is to present connections that can be interpreted via design methodologies. åbäke's pedagogical position is exactly the same. And as with many of the other 150 presented projects the effect of this approach is to challenge the Anthropocene in search of a less egocentric position for human creation - one that dismantles hierarchy in favour of a richer understanding of networks and connections.

åbäke’s installation spans taxidermy, posters, graffiti, images, and words to propose a curriculum that can associate with ease biology and architecture, geography and philosophy, food and the environment, and politics and society.

A further take on migration and a more meta perspective on design comes from French designer Charlotte Maeva Perret (CMP Office) who positions the discipline as a functioning ecosystem. Her “Open Sesame: Exercises in Entrepreneurship” is a collection of recognizable, albeit slightly awry objects that move and relocate. Within the objects is a story about the newest types of economies that develop outside the law and often in precarious locations. The tools, language and exchange system of these market places are familiar, but the stakes and the reality aren’t.

Currents School. CPM Office – Open Sesame. Photo by Kayan Kaygusuz

At the core of Perret’s thinking is a critical take on the concept of an entrepreneur – a creative and brave individual who forges economic success. In design and most likely elsewhere she suggests there is hardly any such thing because the real system is a convoluted web of interactions and collaborations.

One of Perret’s objects is a stacked tower of Aleppo soap that came from a newly opened factory in Turkey. Aleppo is in Syria and since the war, a lot of factories have been forced to close down.

“The disappearance of these factories has left a huge hole in the landscape,” says Perret. “Not just physically, but the absence gives people a sort of tension. They are used to living amongst locally produced products and there is an emotional reaction that comes from that loss.”

The success of this biennial stems from the authentic trajectory it takes from personal reflections to abstract theory. It’s not new to question the viability of national identity in a world whose borders have become increasingly arbitrary and permeable. All societies are in flux, and resistance will be increasingly challenged by global circulatory networks. Newer is the idea that a different analysis of material culture can broaden the narrative and thus our shared understanding of what it means to be human.