Graphic design, exhibiting, curating / 5 – Schools of exhibition

2016-05-28 - Maddalena Dalla Mura

Design schools play a crucial role in sustaining ideas on and uses of the exhibition medium. Anyone who has had the opportunity to work in or to visit a design school knows well how the life therein is studded with hectic exhibitionary activities, sometimes to the point of obsession. Anything becomes an opportunity to exhibit, and even traditional creative writing courses claim the right to exhibit their installations of paper sheets. To exhibit is to exist, and vice versa. Understandably, exhibiting is part and parcel of the institutional and educational mission of design schools: during semesters and special workshops, as well as for their thesis projects, students are usually required to design and make prototypes that need, in the end, to be presented to an audience of peers, teachers, friends and relatives, and potential stakeholders.
Thesis sessions are an occasion on which the boundaries between exhibiting design and designing an exhibition can become blurred and ideas confused. The year in which I was carrying out research on graphic design and exhibiting practices at the Faculty of Design and Art of the Free University of Bolzano, Andreas Trenker, then a graduating student in visual communication – who was supervised by Giorgio Camuffo and Emanuela De Cecco, the latter an art critic –, asked me to talk about his thesis with him. In Bolzano, graduating students are required not only to present ‘documentation’ – printed documentation (usually a booklet), illustrating the thesis project and process – and a ‘leporello’ featuring pictures of the final results, but also to book and set up a space, inside or outside the university, in which to exhibit their project for the discussion in front of the faculty committee. Thus, in addition to the thesis project itself – which can be anything from a carousel for children to a kitchen prototype, from a pair of 3D printed eyeglasses to a video documentary – graduating students must always also conceive and design a book and a display or installation. It should be added that the undergraduate curriculum includes Interior and Exhibition design; while this teaching is compulsory, though, it is given less time and space (just one afternoon during the semester) than the main design and visual communication studio courses (two and a half days in dedicated ateliers).
When Andreas came to my office he was in a delicate phase: he had conducted fieldwork but was still unsure about how to translate his findings into a communication project. Urged by a personal willingness to experience and, possibly, understand what it means to live in areas of conflict and wartime turmoil, he had visited the area along the Gaza Strip just after the Gaza War of November 2012. In the town of Sderot and in the neighbouring kibbutz Nir’Am he had the opportunity to meet people of different ages, as well as conduct interviews, take pictures, and develop a project in a bunker. During his visit he had taken lots of notes: I remember him sitting next to me showing his sketchbooks and a number of small red notebooks with drawings made by school children. He did not aim to explain the conflict, but share his personal experience in relation to it and promote debate regarding the militarisation of Israeli society. He was looking, however, for a way to connect all those fragments. Certainly, he was going to make a book, in what was to be his ‘documentation’, a sort of diary of his experience. But the question of what to do for the required exhibition remained.
Given he had collected and produced several original stories using various media and formats, however, it appeared clear to me that, in his case, the exhibition could be not just the presentation of something else – the re-mediation of the book, for instance – but rather the very thesis project itself. That is what I suggested him to consider. The nuance might seem slight, but, as he confirmed later, to him this was a crucial shift of perspective which led him to fully value the exhibit as a means of multimedia communication.
His final project consisted of a light, wooden structure (portable and easy to install), made to reflect the space of a bunker and one that supported different materials – texts and images, booklets, projections, videos, sounds. The colour red was a unifying feature, a reference to the “Red Colour” (Tzeva Adom) alarm system used by the Israeli Defence forces to warn against Palestinian rocket attacks – the sound Tzeva Adom was repeatedly played.
Mastering the art of presentation is certainly an essential skill for designers. However, it is problematic and reductive if prospect designers are brought to believe that exhibition design is just a complimentary and servile field of practice and not a field to be explored in and of itself. In the end, it would be like to believe that graphic design should just be taught in order that students learn how to prepare portfolios and presentations of design works.

Curating, Exhibiting, Exhibitions, Graphic design