Graphic design, exhibiting, curating / 4 – Designing as exhibiting?

2016-04-28 - Maddalena Dalla Mura

While some may still discuss whether the exhibition context is suitable for graphic design, in recent years graphic designers themselves have shown growing investment in exhibitionary activities. As with the interest and investment in self-publishing and editorial practices in the early 2000s, exhibitions have now become a common platform for producing and disseminating design, for collaborating and sharing interests with colleagues and friends, for self-articulation and reflection. This phenomenon may be relatively limited but still noticeable, especially among a number of progressive designers who have pursued an authorial or a so-called ‘critical’ approach to design and who work pre-eminently in the field of art and culture, and with reverberations among new generations of graduate designers who intend to follow those designers’ lead.
In the past decade, the exhibition context has been variously explored and appropriated by designers. Apart from the occasional display of their work in solo or collective shows in art and design museums and galleries, designers have engaged with producing original installations for display only, have organised exhibitions in different settings – including the cultural institutions with which they collaborate – and have turned their offices into cultural spaces for meetings, lectures, presentations, workshops and exhibits. Along with more traditional displays of commissioned as well as self-initiated works, in recent years it has been possible to see exhibitions consisting of site-specific installations; exhibitions conceived to reveal the design process behind the works on display, including those made just specifically for the show; exhibitions of editorial projects that, in turn, originate new publications or printed works, as if in an endless game of mirrors; and, vice versa, graphic design works conceived and presented as exhibition spaces. We have also witnessed exhibitions conceived as opportunities for designers to meet with each other and with like-minded people to come together in order to produce and circulate new projects, as well as graphic designers inhabiting an exhibition space and designing their projects while being on show. Texts and discourse that have spread this phenomenon reveal that graphic designers who have engaged in exhibiting activities regard them as part and parcel of their design practice, but also as an expansion of it. Among these designers, furthermore, while some of those who have organized exhibitions acknowledge, cautiously, the differences between curating and designing, others argue that curating is itself a form of designing, likened by some to the role of the editor and by others to that of the author.
The abating of negative preconceptions concerning the exhibition context and format on behalf of graphic designers is certainly to be welcomed: the exhibition is a powerful communication device. In order for this engagement to develop into an opportunity for advancing the practice and discourse of design in novel directions, however, I believe we shall begin to question certain trends and attitudes that emerge from within it. I would begin with the following.
First, while on the one hand there is the risk of too naively calling any display of graphic works, and of designers, wherever and however made, a ‘curated’ exhibit, on the other hand it is also problematic when exhibition making is too easily equated with designing graphics – manifesting a disregard for the complexities and specificities of the exhibition medium, which is more than a layout.
Second, it is reductive if graphic designers use exhibitions as mainly opportunities for individual or collective exposition, self-reflection and self-articulation, for mediating and re-mediating their work, in order to talk about themselves and among themselves, or for instigating commentary from sympathetic colleagues and friends. Designers have learnt well that organising and participating in exhibitions, with all their appendices and extensions, offer space for attracting attention, establishing relationships and producing discourse that are needed for their personal positioning as well as for advancing their community and discipline. However, designers who intend to expand the scope of their practice and field could do more by exploring ways for contributing – along with other experts and professionals – to the building of exhibits that can engage diverse audiences and communities on topics that are meaningful to them.
Finally, behind and beyond these issues, the attraction that graphic designers manifest towards the approaches and values of the art world may become a liaison dangereuse, an impediment to their vision. As mentioned above, designers who have recently experimented with exhibiting and curating usually work in the service of the art and culture systems. In the recent years, the world of contemporary art has particularly offered several graphic designers the opportunity to not just carry out work but also experiment and push the boundaries of their practice. The opening up of a space for dialogue and collaboration between art and graphic design is due to, among other things, the interest on behalf of artists and curators in all of the conceptual and material components and formats that sustain and surround the mediation of art – a consequence of the renewed wave of ‘demystification’ of the production and dissemination of art through exhibitions. Those components include that which is graphic designers’ typical bread, such as editorial design. In turn, and unsurprisingly, graphic designers have become acquainted with and have appropriated attitudes and concepts of the art world which eventually trickled down to design discourse – think of ‘relational’, ‘collaborative’, ‘performative’. The involvement and interest of graphic designers in the exhibition context can also be read in the framework of this development, evidenced by the more or less knowingly iteration and imitation of modes of art curating as well as by the reverberation, within some graphic designers’ writings and discourse, of references to the history and tradition of art exhibitions.
While it is certainly important that designers who intend to specialise in the service of art production/mediation understand this field, as well as its practices and discourse, this should not be mistaken for a comprehensive understanding of the exhibition medium and apparatus and its potential. Designers should remember that other uses and articulations of the exhibition medium and context are possible, some that may be less biased towards the establishment and sustainment of a closed system of references and relationships. In order to move in this direction, a shift of focus, could help: from the exposition of design and the generic idea of exhibiting as designing, towards the idea and practice of ‘exhibition design’ and of designing exhibits. A critical re-appraisal of the history and tradition of exhibition design – in all its interpretive, imaginative, informative, expressive and constructive manifestations, and as an art in and of itself, and not just as a device to support artworks – can provide designers with a broader toolbox and set of perspectives from which to look at and engage with the exhibition as a medium of communication.

Curating, Exhibiting, Exhibitions, Graphic design