Experimenta Portugal: As far as the mind can see

Design Biennial in Lisbon, Porto and Matosinhos - Portugal, until 30 december 2015, some exhibitions until later: check the site!

For the first time in its existence, the Experimenta Design Biennale spreads across 3 cities in Portugal: Lisbon, Porto and Matosinhos. And apart from the usual international big shots, there are also interesting Portuguese as well as Lusophone African designs and shows to discover during the 9th edition of the Biennale. During the stressful days before the opening, DAMNº caught 4 participants and invited them to shed their light on the event.

Veerle Devos November 2015
“So that’s what we did”, says Nascimento, who is with Stefano Pansera the co-curator of ‘From Hands to Mind’, taking place in Lisbon. “Our exhibition doesn’t try to answer questions about ‘African design’. What we show are objects, period. The initial idea was to work with all the Portuguese speaking African countries, but this proved to be too high as a challenge due to the considerably short preparation time, so we did our research in Angola, Moçambique and São Tomé e Príncipe. Since desk research didn’t bring us considerably further, we embarked for a field trip through those countries. We traveled with fresh eyes, in order to discover things. Rather than spotting ‘design’, we found amazing products for daily use that ordinary people created as part of their survival strategy. Without being preconceived as design, it actually is design. One of the key pieces we show in our exhibition is a chair made from tires. It’s a prototype, and definitively not categorized yet.”
“Design is, from a Western perspective, very much related to production, and to the existence of an industry. In Africa, all of this is still in a very early stage. The challenge is to break the preconceptions and understand the possibilities, meanwhile avoiding the African clichés - I mean, I truly love the Moroso M'Afrique Furniture Collection, but for this exhibition we were not looking for that kind of design or for that kind of aesthetics. What we show is perhaps not even considered as ‘design’. It’s a very simple exhibition – and although it’s ordinary people making ordinary objects, there is a level of specialization.”
Experimenta’s broader focus on Portuguese-speaking world is certainly an interesting novelty, even more so the decision to put spotlights on graphic design made in Portugal. This, as well, makes absolutely sense: "Graphic design as such, is still a pretty young discipline in Portugal”, graphic designer Marco Balesteros explains. He and his co-curators Mirko Ilic and João Castro invited 28 Portuguese and foreign communication designers to research and reflect on the main theme of the Biennale - exploring the relationship between the mind, the individual and creativity. The exhibition is divided into two geographically separate presentations: in Porto ‘As far as the mind can see’, and in Lisbon ‘As far as the eye can’t see’, having a range of content that is distinct and complementary. Balesteros got his master in Werkplaats in Arnhem, the Netherlands, and came back to Portugal for what he though it would be just a short stay on his way to Berlin, but now he’s happy to embrace his country.
“During the dictatorship, graphic design was associated with the market and hence with capitalism, and as a result it was resolutely banned. Architects and artists practiced graphic design as a kind of sidekick. It was only after the revolution in 1974, that graphic design came into development. Of course our national level is not like in the Netherlands yet, but it's very interesting what's happening now. Our education system in Portugal is still way too strict, bureaucratic and conservative, rising the eagerness to study abroad. Still, a lot of young Portuguese who studied and worked abroad are currently coming back. And of course there's the Internet which inspires and takes down borders. For our exhibition, we selected young people with some experience. They are open, progressive and eclectic.”
Inês Nepomuceno is such a young graphic designer from Porto who collaborates as a curator in the exhibition ‘Desire, Tension, Transition – Portuguese Paths of Design’ in Matosinhos. Several curators present their vision in this exhibition, which offers a narrative about the history of design in Portugal; Inês Nepomuceno has chosen an alternative, contemporary narrative by focusing on the relationship between image and sound. With her ‘Synaesthesia’ she presents the diverse graphic language of music, from pop and indie, over dance to African electro and jazz. "Since about 2000, there are more democratic tools available and accessible in Portugal so that alternative labels have come into being. Those do not fit into the mainstream and into the existing labels, they follow their own path, and usually they’re way more free to choose their own genuine graphic language too. This is the alternative narrative I present. I hope it will make people curious!”
Experimenta focuses so enthusiastically on graphic design, that certainly carries away Balesteros’ appreciation, even though this choice might have as much to do with the unfortunate economic situation Portugal finds itself in -  a poster is cheaper to produce and exhibit, than a chair or a table ... “Life is not easy for (graphic) designers in Portugal. For work, we go to other countries because in Portugal the institutions are quite conservative, and if they are more progressive they usually hire people from abroad." Does he consider Experimenta to be an agent of change? "It needs to keep up what it once started in the 90's, dedicatedly focused on Portugal. Experimenta did a good job back then opening up the field. Let's continue doing this. I think this exhibition is an attempt to continue this tradition."
“Graphic design might be evolving in Portugal; industrial design is just at the beginning of its journey, and the level has to be lifted. For that we need better schools, and teachers who themselves are makers. It’s also about time to choose for research, sustainability, innovation. Our industry is highly qualified, but most design companies are small and family owned, and reluctant to compete on an international level. We need to invest in new ways of production too, which is now starting to happen in Portugal with young entrepreneurs who are aware of all this quality and are looking for ways to work with it,” says industrial designer João Abreu Valente, who graduated in 2012 from the Eindhoven Design Academy.
He shows his multiple awarded Teapot' set at the ‘Desire, Tension, Transition – Portuguese Paths of Design’ exhibition in Matosinhos: it’s a complete tea set series made with just one single mould. “I use one mould to do everything – it’s like a puzzle! By using less and less liquid clay in the mould, the production of each object leaves less material to make the next one. So in the end of the series there’s only a small plate. I usually show the entire process with drawings and try-outs in order to enable people to read the whole process behind the product. The key is to understand how objects are made – if you understand the process behind it, you start to understand how the world is produced. You need to do research, to do tests, to fail, until you can actually produce something.” As passionated as he is, João Abreu Valente just started an inspiring and ambitious project: “Assoçiação Arquivo 237 aims to link young people with our national institutions like museums and industries – they will be challenged to come up with creative solutions for companies that excel in great quality but are not innovative. They’ll also learn how to create an event, to set up an exhibition, the methodology, how to analyse an institution and make it better.” In this platform, Valente shares what he himself learned at the Design Academy.
Does he consider Experimenta to be an agent of change in a country with lots of talent but also with conservative institutions, and dealing with an harsh economic crisis? “When Experimenta started, back in the days it was launched as a platform for Portuguese design. By now, it’s an event that still has a lot of potential but it is much more focused on international design, international curators and international shows. These shows are conceptual, highly researched and could take place just anywhere – I somehow miss the local context. Experimenta could bring our creative industries much more into an international context. With all these interesting developments in Portuguese design, I believe Experimenta will find a way to tune in.”

DAMNº has spoken with: