aspect-ratio 10x9 Graphic design: Anna Cairns, Sascia Reibel, Lino Santo

Graphic design: Anna Cairns, Sascia Reibel, Lino Santo

CLEMENS JAHN
In comparison to other universities, at HfG Karlsruhe the option of studying product design in combination with scenography is unique. But in fact it makes sense to combine a practice that primarily deals with how things are used with one that primarily deals with how things are staged in space. What are the opportunities and strengths that result from this combination, and what are the subtle differences be-tween product design and scenography? What role does context play? Or the factor of time?

ANJA DORN
In terms of your question, the formulations how things are “used” and how things are “staged” seem problematic to me. It reduces scenography to the notion of staging (Inszenierung). At certain universities the idea of scenography is in fact closely bound to the concept of staging, for example at the Dortmund University of Applied Arts and Sciences under Ralf Bohn and Rainer Wilharm. But staging is basically all-encompassing: every store window is staged, every political event, and every private dinner. I think that the concept of scenography guiding our work here at HfG Karlsruhe is more historically informed.

In philosophy the separation between subject and object is now being increasingly called into question, for example by the French philosopher Bruno Latour or the proponents of “speculative realism.” If you no longer assume a separation between subject and object but consider that we are living within a network of objects that influence our behavior, then objects have their own agency. Bruno Latour illustrates this beautifully with the example of speed bumps. In French they are called gendarme couché. The gendarme, or policeman, lies down on the street, and simply from the word itself one understands that he has subjective agency. There is a group of actants, in this case the driver and the car, which are slowed down by the third actant, the gendarme couché. If you think about the subject-object constellations in this way, then it changes how you deal with and design them. In the work 1. Werksatz (First Work Set) developed over the course of the 1960s, artist Franz Erhard Walther created objects made of fabric that only become artworks when someone uses them. For example, one can step onto a block-like pillow covered with nettle cloth. Or there is a long, doubled strip of fabric that can be placed over the heads of two people, who can then pull the cloth taught and thus take part not only in a reflection on what sculpture is but in the constitution thereof. Only when the object is handled does the artwork appear. In other words, the recipients are part of the object.

“Staging is basically all-encompassing: every store window is staged, every political event, and every private dinner.” – Anja Dorn

From a historical perspective, the idea and design of museums is, however, founded on the idea of the separation of object and subject. If one can think about this constellation differently, as an action complex, then the question arises as to what consequences this has for a museum, its design, and potential structures of reception. I find that interesting. This does not necessarily mean that something is gained because you become part of an object. It can just as well mean that the object has power over you, and that the distance necessary for reflecting upon an object is lost. One can describe the aesthetic experience of an object as the uncontrollable opening up of various perspectives for interpretation on this object, which arise with a viewer’s uncertainty when confronted with an apparently alien object. Are these kinds of experiences also possible within a network of actants? What are the determining conditions of such aesthetic experiences? And that, I would say, is something that interests not only me but also BLESS. When you develop an object, the late modern idea of functionality is not a primary concern. Take your fur wig, for example. No one needs a fur wig …

BLESS
You “indulge” yourself with a fur wig, if you are interested in something that can warm you and that has a confusing look – or if the hairdresser is closed on Monday. A common element is certainly our interest in effect: Through the process of creating products and scenography we explore what kinds of objects create a dynamic and how, and we explore in which contexts this dynamic is expressed. In our case – for BLESS – we also should emphasize that our work is always based on personal needs. We thus have an instant indicator as to whether it is something we need or not, and we assess whether the context for which it was requested actually requires it. This does not necessary have to come from our own lives. It can come from a third person who consults us and asks us to do something. A product that we are going to produce in our context has to fulfill these parameters. Otherwise we have the feeling of just adding something that no one needs.

The second indicator is that the product or situation that we create acts to expand one’s horizons. Because we don’t just want to produce a product, but an experience. This can also be immaterial. It is about something that has something new to offer, in one form or another. We often compare the situation that we are aiming for with that of a child who sees snow for the first time. In such a situation the child cannot fall back on any previous experiences, which is why it is primarily not about valuation but about experience, the here and now.

“We don’t just want to produce a product, but an experience. This can also be immaterial. It is about something that has something new to offer, in one form or another.” – BLESS

What sounds limiting to Anja, that is staging, is something that we consider particularly important in conjunction with our work; we see it as inseparable from an object. The fur wig was our first joint work under the name BLESS in 1996. The function of a piece of headwear is not necessarily expanded by the choice of material – it is headwear that also keeps you warm – but it communicates a certain aesthetic, signals a style. That is an important element of our work: combining everyday use with a form of expression that is new to us. Observers – the public – notice that the hairs are striped, which is impossible in human hair, even after many hours at the hairdresser. One can see in people’s eyes or on their faces, when they are confronted with this object, that they are desperately trying to find some aspect to connect with or are attempting to figure out what makes it so odd. We like instigating this kind of interaction with something. That’s what motivates us.

In terms of the presentation of the fur wig, we can say that when it has been used as fur headgear in a ski resort, people were less puzzled by it than when it appeared in a fashion context in 1997, as part of a presentation in Paris or as an ad in a magazine, as we presented our work at that time. So the issue of placement is always relevant, as is the notion of temporality in addition to an exploration of space, the environment, the type of audience, and social considerations.

“The issue of placement is always relevant, as is the notion of temporality in addition to an exploration of space, the environment, the type of audience, and social considerations.” – BLESS

AD
Of course, this is a question of scenography. The interesting thing about your objects is that they are not only to be used but also have the capacity to produce aesthetic experiences. You just said that aesthetic experiences are only possible in certain situations, not necessarily on the ski slopes …

BLESS
When standing in line at the ski lift someone would probably say: “Oh, that must be nice and warm!” But no one would say: “What kind of 1980s haircut is that? Wait a second, is that David Bowie?”

AD
That is the point. That is a question that applies to scenography and exhibition design: What are the surrounding conditions that enable one to open oneself up to an aesthetic experience? When does a product give rise to the kind of aesthetic experience in the same way as a theater piece or a painting?

BLESS
When you buy a theater ticket, you are prepared to have a certain kind of experience on that evening. What we like about product design is the possibility of inserting our interaction into everyday routine, in order to give other people the opportunity to explore the same topics that interest us. In terms of how we teach, we do not just want to encourage students to simply design another chair, another table, or another lamp, or to think about whether there is a material that has never been used for a chair. We are primarily interested in processes, also in regard to issues such as health or social restructuring: How do people live? What divides up one’s daily routine? What are possible ways to call things into question?

“What we like about product design is the possibility of inserting our interaction into everyday routine, in order to give other people the opportunity to explore the same topics that interest us.” – BLESS

Another point that lies between product design and scenography, between the moment something is created and the real application of a product is the aspect of selling something. Exhibition design plays a very important role in this context, and it is not so easy to take this aspect into consideration when creating a product. It used to be that you had achieved your goal, when, as a product designer, you could manage to get a product into a certain store. Today the channels of distribution have opened up much more. The internet offers a myriad of “possible display windows.” We are also interested in how a person comes into contact with a product. Marketing mechanisms take the form of questions such as: Can the things be loaned out? Is something being given away? Does price maybe have nothing to do with how expensive the production costs are? Where on the social ladder could the product end up? Then it really becomes exciting, and important, to explore issues of display, exhibition design, and scenography.

AD
I also think that the whole point is connection. Design is not ultimately about putting concept into form. The separation between thought and form is completely alien to us as designers. Even in the field of theory, thought takes place in a form, that of language. The concept of an exhibition is not manifested on paper or in the head of the curator, and also not in the selection of the exhibited objects, but in the process of building the exhibition and communicating with all the people involved. What materials do I use? In what kind of situation am I placing the viewer? Should I take a scenographic approach or use an exhibition design? How do these interactions alter my decisions?

At the beginning of the 20th century theater came to be increasingly viewed as spatial art (Raumkunst). This is when stage sets began to take on a life of their own. They no longer had to illustrate a given dramatic storyline but brought their own narrative to the production. This began with the work of Edward Gordon Craig and Adolphe Appia. In 1908 Craig developed a theater piece that consisted exclusively of moving geometric forms and light. These same kinds of developments also occurred in exhibition design. The main impetus of Moholy-Nagy’s design for the Raum der Gegenwart (Room of Our Time) at the Hanover Provincial Museum in 1930 was the display and not the exhibited items. The concept was to show artworks only in reproduction and not the artworks themselves. The contemporary emphasis of the Room of Our Time was conveyed by the modern materials of the display and the mediality of the various light projections. That, I would say, is scenography.

CJ
To what extent does this kind of holistic working approach differ from the usual abstract and interchangeable situation of a white cube?

AD
A white cube presents itself as neutral. Of course it is not neutral, but displays a work of art as something auratic. In other words, it is an ideological space. However, the white cube is the result of our consensus. We have developed this format and use it, because we are so used to it. But that is precisely what keeps the exhibition architecture from becoming too prominent, and the focus stays on the objects.

BLESS
We find it really exciting to what extent presentation and staging have become so prevalent, that you can’t get away from them. This is a kind of natural form of augmented experience that today every child encounters.

In product design presentation and staging have long been detached from the product. That is something that one should actually see as an opportunity in terms of design: to define our profession sur-mesure, to create and do anything. It doesn’t matter what it is, a pizza, a situation, the air we breathe, as a dosage, as a flavor, or whatever. We see it as part of our teaching to convey that you can create the reality that surrounds you, adjusting and expanding it in any direction – up or down – strengthening it, or enhancing it through fiction, and everyone has the capacity to do this.

“You can change reality by simply saying certain sentences. If an authorized official says, ‘I pronounce you man and wife,’ then words have been spoken, and these spoken words have altered reality. That is what is meant by performativity.” – Anja Dorn

AD
You can change reality by simply saying certain sentences. If an authorized official says, “I pronounce you man and wife,” then words have been spoken, and these spoken words have altered reality. That is what is meant by performativity. Philosopher John Langshaw Austin formulated this idea. Even Karl Marx talks about the performativity of objects in his observation that the desire for the fetish produces certain behaviors. The key question is how you deal with this performativity. With your products you are very concerned with enabling certain behaviors that initially do not seem to be a matter of course. This is also a critique on the unreflected use of objects.

BLESS
That is certainly something that we like about our vocation, but we want to emphasize here that we see ourselves as representing a nameless profession, and we try not to limit ourselves by the labels used to describe our work. We don’t feel like product designers, fashion designers, or as if we are limited to handcrafted productions. We do not create conceptual art. We do what we think is important and right. At the moment our output medium usually has an object-like character. We want people to be able to touch it, since the element of haptic experience produces something different from just looking at the representation of an object or talking or reading about it. We find this wonderfully pragmatic, because you have to bring things to a point. Decisions have to be made.

AD
Another similarity between curators and product designers is that it is clear from the beginning that they participate in the capitalistic production of goods and power relationships. If you choose these professions, then you definitely get your hands dirty. You can’t get away from producing fetishes, from producing power relationships in an exhibition context or fulfilling functions that support the market. You can’t ever completely get around this, but you always have to make unpleasant decisions and take a position on this set of issues.

CJ
If you work for a major company and design cars that roll off the assembly line in the millions, for example, then you are maybe working in a field where you are helping to produce a collective reality. When projects are smaller in dimension, however, the impact and effects are much smaller.

BLESS
In this kind of situation the decisions are usually not made by the designers. At this point, they serve more as a means of execution, which can also feel comfortable. To stick with the example of cars, the deciding factor is economical. Design is certainly not primary. As a designer you have to be aware of the extent to which you can have any influence at all in such a situation. Then again, for example, we think it is very interesting to see how the designer who developed the first Macs managed to turn the aesthetic of what was initially a niche product into a mass phenomenon – this very simple design, very unusual at the time, hit the nerve of that particular moment.

CJ
Interestingly Apple also managed to achieve this in the field of graphical user interfaces.

“We also think that technical advances in product design, like the 3D printer, will change everything. These are production processes that can democratize the entire design process, when, for example, you can print out your own toothbrush.” – BLESS

BLESS
We also think that technical advances in product design, like the 3D printer, will change everything. These are production processes that can democratize the entire design process, when, for example, you can print out your own toothbrush.

AD
But what does democratization mean? Democracy is not only manifested through unhindered access, but it also has something to do with conveying information and debate. The question is where this reflection then takes place.

BLESS
We are not saying that this is all good. Not everyone has a good feeling about designing an appropriate toothbrush. The question remains whether a toothbrush is a suitable way for promoting the potential of design. Who am I going to show my toothbrush to except maybe a classmate travelling with me at the youth hostel. But in principle it is interesting that thanks to Habitat or Ikea, you don’t have to buy a Cappellini sofa to be modern. Important developments and phenomena in the clothing sector have come from companies like H&M and Zara, which have copied patterns at rapid speed, even faster than the designers themselves, to provide “ready-to-buy” clothing for the continually updated consumer. So in a sense, a student on a small budget gets the product faster than someone who has the money to buy the original, which after being made public has to go through a complex production process.

Today you really only have the option of buying something that is very special and valuable for a lot of money, as a highly exclusive privilege, or you buy it cheaply, and it is a mass produced commodity. We believe, however, that future production processes will increasingly allow us to produce things individually but nevertheless cheaply. The more consumers are able to become part of a design process, the less they will depend on mass production.

CJ
You mentioned earlier that you started as BLESS in the mid 1990s. When you look back at this time, which is also the founding period of HfG Karlsruhe, what do you think has changed since then? Have people changed in the last 20 years, or is it merely the surfaces that have changed?

BLESS
People have maybe not changed as much as one might think. Had one been able to foresee the technical possibilities that would emerge, one probably would have thought that they would have had a much greater impact. What do you think, Anja?

“Criticism no longer plays the same role in the art world, which is not only evident in the shrinking arts and culture sections of the newspapers, but also the declining salaries of critics is a sign of their diminished social esteem.” – Anja Dorn

AD
I often talk with friends about how stressful we find our lives in this neoliberal society, particularly within the so-called “flexibilization” of the working world as well as rapidly changing forms of communication. Criticism no longer plays the same role in the art world, which is not only evident in the shrinking arts and culture sections of the newspapers, but also the declining salaries of critics is a sign of their diminished social esteem. I think that a great deal has changed in this regard.

BLESS
But what about the students? Those that come right from secondary school – we find it very surprising that given today’s possibilities for informing oneself beyond a regional geography, apparently very little has changed. In the age of the internet we are surprised that the mindset is still very narrow and family based and schooled. In retrospect we are happy that we grew up when we did. Everything was substantially less complex.

AD
There was also a lot more room for play. In the 1970s the importance given to play and spaces free from the demands of achievement was phenomenal. As children we were not aware of this luxury.

BLESS
When we think back to the period in which we founded BLESS, the period when we became friends, at the time one of our main concerns was the feeling of being overwhelmed about finishing our studies, and we asked ourselves, “Where do things go from here? What are we going to do with ourselves?” At the time the possibility of setting ourselves apart from those who had no plan, simply by “doing something,” seems like child’s play from today’s perspective. In contrast, today even adventurous attempts to present a certain image become meaningless due to the multiplying possibilities of the internet – and that is naturally a precarious situation. Anyone can do their thing in their bedroom at their parents’ house and then post it out in the world, without having to go through arduous processes like admission tests or similar structures that determine whether something is good or bad. That seemed impossible in our time.

“Today even adventurous attempts to present a certain image become meaningless due to the multiplying possibilities of the internet – and that is naturally a precarious situation. Anyone can do their thing in their bedroom at their parents’ house and then post it out in the world, without having to go through arduous processes like admission tests or similar structures that determine whether something is good or bad.” – BLESS

AD
That is also true in curating. When I studied at De Appel, it was one of the first curatorial programs in Europe. The entire discourse about curating, which had already begun to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s, really took hold at this time. Of course, today it is often said that now it is all about the curators and no longer about the artists. A real hate of curators has developed. Then again, it is of course good that there is now an established discourse that one can be part of, and more and more people understand the problematics of an exhibition.

BLESS
We used to think that one could only become a curator after reaching a certain age and the title was then awarded to you. We used to think: “Wow, curator.”

AD
But today of course everyone is a curator. Bauhaus is also curated – the hardware store called Bauhaus, not the school.

“Today of course everyone is a curator. Bauhaus is also curated – the hardware store called Bauhaus, not the school.” – Anja Dorn

BLESS
Lots of things have changed, but we still look to the future. We profit immensely from newly developed possibilities and today’s speed. Because we are stationed in two different cities, Paris and Berlin, we still recall the difficulties of the 1990s. By the way, it is still hard to found a European company, one based not just in one but multiple countries. In our case we have only managed to improvise this framework by establishing a limited liability company and subsidiary.

The functioning of the structure that we have created in order to enact our ideas and opinions and to make these available to interested groups of people – this is our main field of operation, and this approach also plays a role in how we teach. This relates both to the question of possibilities for production, and also distribution. Our producers are to some extent also our clients; our clients are also our friends; the people that we collaborate with become our employees, etc.

AD
Are you saying that you think about the production process when you are designing your products? And that certain types of collaboration are generated with each new product? This is also an issue in an exhibition context.

BLESS
We would go so far as to say that some products only exist because certain possibilities for production emerged, because a network had been established, or simply because there was a need for it on the part of the producers.

“How you organize collaborative work is incredibly important. It’s not only about respecting those who are working with you, but about taking responsibility for the given employment conditions and how communication takes place.” – Anja Dorn

AD
At the Volksbühne theater in Berlin, an old, hierarchically organized structure, which Frank Castorf represents in addition to his progressive program, currently feels threatened by the appointment of the new artistic director, Chris Dercon, who most recently asserted neoliberal institutional policies at the Tate Modern. These are two iron-fisted institutional systems that are coming up against each other. For many young people in theater the question presents itself: Under what kind of conditions does one want to work together? To what extent does one have to accept the structure of the theater in this institutional form, if one wants to do theater? Can it be done another way? Of course, the same applies to the art business, which produces all sorts of precarious working conditions. How you organize collaborative work is incredibly important. It’s not only about respecting those who are working with you, but about taking responsibility for the given employment conditions and how communication takes place.

CJ
In other words, whether I start a design studio, design a product, or create a publication, I have to take into account its social and ecological repercussions – what Bruno Latour calls “political ecology.”

AD
Yes, exactly. Is it worth sacrificing wood for this publication?


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