Graphic design, exhibiting, curating / 6 – Not to exhibit?

2016-06-03 - Maddalena Dalla Mura

While one might have feared in past years that exhibitions could strip design of its meaning and diminish its understanding, today we might wonder whether we are reaching a point in which it is the exhibition medium and apparatus that are being stripped of their qualities, for design’s own sake.
In 2013 oncurating – a very interesting online journal supported by the Zurich University of the Arts – devoted one issue to the theme “Design Exhibited”. One of the conversations it included was “The exhibition as a medium of production”, between Sarah Owens, communication designer and design theorist, and Urs Lehni, a Swiss graphic designer who works mainly in the art/culture framework and, among other things, is the founder of Lehni-Trueb office, Rollo Press print studio, and Corner College cultural space in Zurich. In their conversations they thoughtfully discuss the issues of exhibiting design and more precisely those of graphic design in the exhibition context. They consider different cases of graphic design displays and exhibits held in such diverse contexts as museums, study centers and specialised events, and they reflect on the kinds of experience that are offered to visitors as well as the impact these events can have and the sorts of criticism or discourses that they actually help – or do not help – generate. This conversation is certainly worth reading. Here I would like to focus on one instance that is reported therein.
At the very beginning of their conversation, Lehni says that when he was awarded the INFORM Award by the Leipzig’s Museum of Contemporary Art, he had the opportunity to make a show of his work: “There was no obligation to produce an exhibition”, he declares, “but those awarded during the last few years chose to do so, most recently Zak Kyes, who also tried to work with this problem” (see Zak Kyes Working With…). Apart from expressing his view that the “overly intellectual” and referential approach of this show corrupted the appreciation of certain graphic design qualities, Lehni recounts that while he himself considered the possibility of doing some things in the exhibition space at the Leipzig’s museum, eventually he decided that, instead of an exhibition, he could design a new website for the gallery.
Without intending to over-interpret the personal motivations of these designers, or to determine what is right or wrong, I sometimes wonder if “not” doing an exhibit – or not calling a project an “exhibit” or a “curated” show – is about to become the next expression of a critical approach to design.
Jokes apart, any communication project requires a critical consideration of the appropriate channels, media, formats and contexts according to the intended purpose. And certainly there is no obligation to choose the exhibition.

Curating, Exhibiting, Exhibitions, Graphic design, Museums