Jan Boelen: Formulated and decontextualized futures can become a self-fulfilling prophecy

June 3, 2019

Artistic director of Z33 House for Contemporary Art and educator at Design Academy Eindhoven talks with James Auger about the state of Speculative Design.

Jan Boelen is artistic director of Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt, Belgium. He also holds the position of the Head of the Master in Social Design at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. With Z33 Research, the design and art research studios established in 2013, Boelen is transforming Z33 from an exhibition-based to a research-based institution. At the initiative of Z33 and the Province of Limburg, Manifesta 9 took place in Belgium in 2012. As part of his role at Z33, Boelen curated the 24th Biennial of Design in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2014. Boelen also serves on various boards and committees including the advisory board of the V&A Museum of Design Dundee in the UK and the Creative Industries Fund in the Netherlands. He was also curator of last year’s 4th Istanbul Design Biennial in Istanbul, Turkey. He is co-founder and artistic director of European Design Parliament (2018–21).

Around 2007, I was working with Anthony Dunne at the RCA in Design Interactions, so I remember very well the Designing Critical Design exhibition [at Z33]. You were one of the first curators to show interest in this particular approach. We’ll talk loosely between Critical Design and Speculative Design, and Design Fiction as it’s known in other places. We’re focusing on design that’s not aimed at the market but design that’s more about interrogating practices and the role of design and so on. So, I thought it would be great if you could say a little bit about how you think these approaches have evolved since the exhibition. Having looked again at your website, I see that you’re not commissioning so much or not using Z33 so much as a gallery at this time but shifting more into research activity. But, if you could just say a little bit about how you think the practices have evolved and what might have changed in the past 12 years.

For me, first of all, there is a clear distinction between what we call “Critical Design” and what we call “Speculative Design”. For me that’s very important to state, because they are fundamentally different positions. I see that the design field or the expanded notion of design is going into a direction where – maybe 40-50 years ago, we had Relational Design / Social DesignSpeculative Design and Critical Design are the new domains in the design field, where the pragmatic approaches of design itself are questioned. Every design, by the way, is critical, a critique in itself. But these practices (12 years ago) were really questioning larger systems, and were a kind of attitude that wanted to have a kind of autonomous character towards these pragmatic practices. And that was a fundamental difference that was quite new, although we also had (in the Netherlands) Dutch design that adopted more sculptural or iconic design approaches. I never factor them in because I don’t find that they really contribute to the “intellectual discourse” on design itself – they are more like an outcome of the art market and certain time periods than they are a part of practices that pushed the design profession fundamentally further. So, Speculative Design, Critical Design, and Relational / Social Design are practices that have the power to fundamentally change the pragmatic solution-driven design role itself. That is something I believe, because with that we can educate designers, strangely enough. With these practices, we can give designers tools to come up with new strategies and methodologies to create not the same solutions that created the problems, you could say.

Something happened with design practices at that time in Europe. Makkink & Bey, Dunne & Raby and others were using humour, and showing a certain attitude that was questioning society itself. It was not always what they were presenting; it was not always speculative in the sense that the objects and projects they were developing were still objects that could function in the world. Speculative Design, for me, is more the narrative, the scenario, the script; the process comes in and becomes part of the life of the objects that start to function as organisms and become part of our everyday life. So it is fundamentally different from Critical Design.

Design has traditionally been very closely related to the market and the constraints that it imposes. What do you think are the key benefits of using speculation and fiction in the design process?

One benefit is that using Critical, Speculative and Relational Design can help designers currently to change practice in studios and other places, to do research in a profoundly different way and to change perspectives. This is certainly a main field of benefitting, although I also see potential dangers, especially in Speculative Design itself – I always think futures that are formulated and decontextualized can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you take some of the things we did, we promoted, we supported at Z33 and some engineering people, let’s say, that pick up the ideas but not the critique, the narrative or the scenarios … we have huge problems. There are not only benefits in these times where things are faster and more quickly evolving: speculation can help us to think about all these futures that we want to formulate, but there is also potential danger.

I’ll just pick up on one small thing, because I agree with everything you say, but I do wonder how much impact we can actually have on what you’re calling the more pragmatic design, and looking at the power of companies like Apple, but also companies like Dyson that are often flagged as so-called “good design” companies. And it’s really aesthetics and interaction we’re talking about, but their practices are in many ways very dubious. How much can we actually impact upon their modes of practice through education and so on?

First of all, I think that companies like Apple or Google are still part of the 20th century, so I think it will take time. We are in a transition, but eventually they will die – it’s quite a plausible future. Centralised companies, that are centralising the information, the IPs, production and everything that is related to that – their end will come through technology and economy, not through design, though it will be facilitated through design. There design is always following and not really leading the dance.

Z33 School of Time

The Erasmus project is obviously very much about education, so we’re looking into your new project, the European Design Parliament. This is extremely interesting for us. Can you tell us a little bit more about the goals and motivation behind all this?

It’s under construction but it’s getting there. I did not realise that “Designing Critical Design” was already 12 years ago, but what I feel is that still a lot of institutes and organisations in Europe have a very traditional approach. I don’t mind it, but as organisations are doing research, bringing people together, and so on, maybe we could have this kind of regular gathering and discussions of issues where industry, technology, knowledge centres, education, cultural institutes, designers, and scientists meet up in various ways, in different constellations, in a kind of flying circus, parasiting on existing events. That was and is the idea. At this moment, we’re working on a constellation where mainly cultural institutes start working together with educational institutes from another position and also want to reach out to other stakeholders in society. Maybe not to explain, but more to build different networks. I’d say that the traditional lobbies – museums and educational institutes that are functioning in traditional ways – are very strong, and these possible new formats and new ways of working are quite fragile, and you can only make them resilient if they are connected. Not only with their partners in crime, but also with other stakeholders in society. That’s our attempt and we are in the process of asking for European funding for that. We didn’t succeed yet, we had one failed attempt, because we wrote a project that we all wanted, and Europe wants something fundamentally different (as we understand now). But we are working on it and it should be there in October/November 2019.

If we are not able to create more discourse in the design field itself, then we cannot even explain that the notion of design, which is quite a young profession, is changing.

Wonderful, good luck with the proposal. Jumping forward, I’d like to talk about some of the criticism. I don’t know if you followed any of the debate (it was around 2012) coming from the MoMA “Design and Violence” curatorial experiment. It really gets to the purpose of this kind of design, the point of how can we be more active with this design approach and how can we actually change some of the issues that we’re dealing with in this century. I think you’ve probably already answered that question a little bit.

In the European Design Parliament I think we’re really starting to work together; there are not just ideas going into commercial or other knowledge centres where designers are not really represented in a proper way. I think that is very important. Maybe it’s about what kind of impact we want. The only impact at this moment that I think is meaningful or important is how can we change the design field itself. Strangely enough, that should be the first ambition. The design world is quite limited in its critical thinking (and I don’t mean critical as in Critical Design, but more as critical discourse). If we are not able to create more discourse in the design field itself, then we cannot even explain that the notion of design, which is quite a young profession, is changing. And that these new directions are seen as artistic practices, which they are (design itself for me is also an artistic practice). The impact is not embedded yet, in the practice. Only then can we start talking about real life impact. For me, it is more like branding than having a real-life impact.

There seems to be a growing tendency towards dystopic imaginaries (for example Black Mirror); I’ve noticed the rise of these things where I’ve been teaching this type of design. Do you think that the domination of this type of scenario influences our ability to imagine more positive futures?

I am normally very hopeful, but last week I had a workshop with my students on designing democracies, and I did that with a Paris-based researcher/project leader. She was doing a project around future governance, and I can say that out of 40 students divided into 5 groups, 3 to 4 of the groups were quite dystopian. We were talking about democracy, how do we organise democracy in the future. If we guide them through the projects individually, short-term solutions or projects are really positive, but if they work on long-term scenarios and extrapolate the figures that they have from today, it becomes – whoa – so dark. I’m afraid myself. I find it really strange.

I think it’s easier to imagine what could go wrong.

It’s not wrong. It’s dark, fatalistic; “it will be like this”. If I say Apple or IKEA won’t be there in 10 or 15 years, they don’t believe it. I have a group of students that are super smart, very engaged, socially engaged, but they just accept these kinds of powers without questioning them.

Okay, final question and this is one of my favourite questions we’ve been asking people, it talks a little bit about the Design Biennial in Istanbul. If you could just explain or suggest one or two of your favourite interventions or projects, and explain how they might help in designing the future of design education.

(Laughs) I ignored that question, really.

You can still ignore it if you’d like. There is nothing out there that suggests what a great Critical or Speculative Design project is at this moment – it is still too new. So I think that through the Erasmus+ project, we were hoping to open this discussion about what are the great projects. It doesn’t even have to be about design education, just that since that was part of the Biennial theme that seemed like it might be an interesting focus point.

I think in the matrix or the zones and the fields that I sketched – there’s traditional past, pragmatic, “solutionist” design field on the left, stretching to a more speculative, relational, practice-based field on the right. What I find interesting are projects that start to have all these elements. For instance, to introduce and to kick off a debate, you have a provocative Trojan horse that kicks off the discussion. With that, you bring people together and they become a kind of community of stakeholders that start to build a scenario of a future that they want and then they start making it together. I think that then, different fields of design are coming together and are reinforcing each other. With different directions and attitudes, designers are complementing each other.

Z33 Research studio