If a week used to be a long time in politics, how long Is a decade in design? When Aric Chen was associate curator of the 2010 exhibition State of Things at the Design Museum Holon it was full of objects, ten years on and at the same location, Chen has co-curated State of Extremes. The exhibition’s title reflects an attempt to understand current political, social and climate-based events through design and how design practice can react to the extremities of our times. But by exhibiting speculative visions for alternative realities or futures into a museum context, do we remove already abstract methods further from reality? 

In the last few decades, the word ‘design’ has come to define more than just the ability of form, function and aesthetic to solve perceived problems. Popularised by designers such as Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, critical and speculative practices expanded design as a tactic to imagine the social impact of technological futures. For design curator Aric Chen, “design is less about solving problems and more about moderating, mediating, healing, remediation, reconciling, and building resilience.” Recently, Chen has begun to develop a position for design practice as generating thought provoking ideas which react to current states of affairs, be they political, climate-related or social, and not necessarily to make sellable objects. Rather than speculate on futures, can design react to current political, social and ecological crisis and provide alternative realities for consideration? 

NAthan Smith and Sam T. Smith ME & EU, 2016
 Chen works across various sectors for the presentation and display of design. Newly appointed as curatorial director of Design Miami, until recently Chen was a lead curator at M+, Hong Kong’s yet-to-be opened museum for visual culture, and will stay on at the museum as curator-at-large. He was co-creative director of the Design Fair Shanghai in 2008, and creative director at Beijing Design Week from 2011 to 2012. Based in Shanghai, we spoke across time zones on WeChat ahead of the exhibition State of Extremes. Co-curated with Maya Dvash and Azinta Plantenga, the exhibition at the Design Museum Holon in Israel aims to show the expanded nature of design practice a decade on from its inaugural exhibition State of Things in 2010. Curated by cultural advisor Barbara J. Bloemink with Chen as an associate curator, State of Things was a thematically organised global survey of current design trends embodied in objects and through things with objects from star designers such as Maarten Baas, Tom Dixon and Marcel Wanders. Ten years on, Chen is working from the premise of extremity, in an attempt to understand current political, social and climate-based events through design.  , Neo

Lucy McRae, Compression cradle, 2019 Photo: Scottiie Cameron

Lucy McRae, Compression cradle, 2019 Photo: Scottiie Cameron

Lucy McRae, Compression cradle, 2019 Photo: Scottiie Cameron

For him the exhibition describes a current condition felt across the world, enabled by polarisation, spiralling feedback loops, and an intolerance to listen to opposing opinions, “it is very difficult for most people nowadays to avoid the implications of the extremes that seem to be defining the condition that that we inhabit,” he explains. The exhibition will not focus on one issue per se, but rather explore the mechanisms that trigger current extremes. The team started to work on the project almost a year ago, yet watching the political crisis in Hong Kong unfold during the lead up and installation of the show has been a powerful experience for Chen, “to see both sides dig in; leaving no room for compromise only drives people further and further apart.” Israel is also in a state of political uncertainty. In two elections in 2019, neither of the main opposition leaders, Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu, was able to form a majority government. Israel is heading towards a possible third election in 2020. Can design act as meaningful interventions for these kinds of political events? Chen seems to think so. He gives the example of Dutch designer Rudy van Belkom’s Het Nieuwe Kiezen or The New Vote. The project, which was first presented at the Dutch Design Week in 2017, creates an alternative proposal for democratic voting which aims to alleviate symptoms of polarisation between left and right seen within Dutch political processes, and other governments like the United States, United Kingdom and Israel. Through a simple stop-motion animation, he proposes a modular voting system so people can vote on issues and individual policies rather than parties. Sure, Belkom’s idea may not be bulletproof but, as he puts it in a recent interview with Design Observer, “what’s important is that we start to experiment with new ideas and new systems.” It's these new ways of thinking through design that Chen hopes to inspire. “Is there a way design could reinsert an ethos of moderation? Different points of view can, and should, peacefully coexist.” Chen has commissioned Belkom to apply his theory to the political system in Israel for the exhibition in collaboration with Israeli designer Merav Perez. 


The supposed value of design practice here is not in the development of physical products, but in ideas. Chen points to lighter projects such as Me & EU by designers Nathan Smith and Sam T. Smith, a series of designed postcards between creatives in the EU and UK sent after the Brexit vote to stir solidarity, illustrate the ways in which people attempt to overcome political adversity. Xandra van der Eijk, also a designer from the Netherlands, presents a project called RETREAT, documenting the shrinking of a glacier through photography and 3D printing as a process of mourning and “ecological grief”. According to her website, two laptops, a tablet, a 3D scanner and a smartphone with a 4G signal were used to document the slow demise of the glacier. Ironically, the very tools used for imaging contribute massively to the production of fossil fuels and rare earth extraction, and in a roundabout way, probably contributed to the glacier melting in the first place. Central to these projects is their capacity to provide a kind of alternative commentary on current events through illustration. For Chen, “the content, ideas and substance are still first and foremost the most important. The value of pieces lies in the ideas that they convey.” But a much more intersectional lens is needed for speculative practices if they are to be shown to a wider public.  

New Normal _ Jun Karmel , Amphibio, 2018 Photo: Jukan Tateisi

New Normal _ Jun Karmel , Amphibio, 2018 Photo: Jukan Tateisi

  It can often seem that curation and design sit in total opposition to each other. What does taking the systems, process and objects we use within our daily lives and putting them into a framework for display, in the same framework as say contemporary art, achieve? Chen wrote his master's thesis during his study in design history at Cooper Hewitt on Philip Johnson's exhibition Machine Art at MoMA in 1934. That seminal show saw Johnson take common industrial objects and dissociate them from their contexts by placing them on pedestals in a white gallery. A scandal at the time, the exhibition is a continued influence on Chen, who sees value in dissociating design objects from their function and use. As he explains, “In doing so you are really prompting or even forcing a new way of looking at them. I do think you look at things more closely and in new ways when they are extracted from their natural habitats. There is a discordance and friction between what the object is without its intended environment, and what new meaning it takes on in the context of display ascribed to it.“ But when trust in the media slips, and censorship, fake news and even deep fakes become rampant, what can design actually achieve in spewing our realities back to us in the form of commentary? For co-curator Dvash, “many of the works presented in the exhibition force the viewer to encounter an extreme experience and make decisions that confront their moral standards and prejudices,” and perhaps this confrontation will be able to make a meaningful impact on audiences lives. 

Kuang–Yi Ku, Tiger Penis Project, 2018. Image: Yu–Tsu Huang

Meydan Levy, Neo ruit, 2018. Bogdan Sokol. Image: Shay Maman

When it comes to market interests, speculative design has little presence in a collectible design market still obsessed with aesthetic and trend over substance. Chen is aiming to change that mentality. Design practice has far more to offer than new material processes, trends and products yet, “it is naive to underestimate the cultural power of the market. If we acknowledge the power that the market has, then we better make sure it’s sending the right messages,” he explains. By exhibiting speculative visions for alternative realities or futures into a museum or fair context, do we remove already abstract methods further from reality? For Chen these works, “help to clarify conceptually what is starting to happen in industry in actuality. So speculative design is not totally dissociated from reality. It is reflecting the direction in which things have to go in by necessity. But it serves as a way of making these ideas coherent, in a way that can help change our thinking in addition to the processes of manufacture.”  

Extreme Lab, Kuang-Yi Ku, Tiger Penis Project, 2018. Image credit: u-Tzu Huang

 Design once lived in the realm of commodity, of industry and product. These days, as contemporary art becomes as commodified (if not more) as design, Chen thinks the roles have reversed, “it used to be that art was about ideas, whereas design was about product and commodity, I think one could make the argument that the inverse is true now.” But art versus design is a non-argument really, in the face of various crises facing us. By bringing speculative practices into the collectible market, under the guise of creating ‘awareness’, are the upper echelons able to wash their hands of making meaningful impact by buying speculative design that tells stories of crisis? Perhaps by bringing these practices closer to the underlying system of capitalism that had led us to our current extremes means the very “nature of industry”, as Chen puts it, will be rethought.  

 by Sophie Rzepecky

State of Extremes, Design Museum Holon, until 9 May, dmh.org.il  

This article appeared in DAM75. Order your personal copy.