Missing Out on Dutch Design Week: Silvio Lorusso
Writer, artist and designer Silvio Lorusso contributes a virtual recap of Dutch Design Week 2020 through the lens of the new intimacy.
Some time ago, I was asked to write about art and design events happening in the Netherlands and abroad. By the time I was able to discuss the proposal - following reciprocal busyness, casual misunderstandings and physiological delays - the events had already happened.
I must admit I was relieved. Attending the events would have meant more regimented screen time: schedules to check, registration forms, logins and so on. All driven by the artificial and natural obsolescence of live streams. Artificial, because often the streams are recorded but not made available immediately; natural, because the presentations are frequently bound to a moment in time and so watching them a week later is pointless.
Missing out is the rule
I've never been an events person. Most of the events I've attended in the past were ones I was invited to, and that's not just a matter of narcissism, but also discomfort: I fear the idle time between talks, panels, film premieres and exhibitions. An invitation corresponds to a task, which in turn offers a precise gravitational position in the event. A position that the members of the audience, once free of their chairs, instead have to build from scratch.
Now that most events take place online anyway, I can set a task for myself. I will be scavenging for event leftovers, I will get lost in documentation, I will follow the participants' footprints: I will browse the festival's website. After all, with the abundance of event opportunities provided by the web, attending one of them, whether online or offline, has become the exception. Missing out is the rule.
Dutch Design Week welcomes me with a virtual recap of their 2020 edition (theme: The New Intimacy), accompanied by stats: 1,500 designers, 750 3D viewing rooms, and so on. The recap is a mise en abyme, a video of a website within a website, with hyper-real clicking sounds. A celebration of technical prowess demonstrated in a time of emergency. In a way, this is no different from pre-Covid days: festivals tend to be about festivals.
In search of the future
I notice the logo-mascot of the event, a morphing reflexive metallic droplet which reminds me of T-1000 from Terminator 2. This being accompanies me on every page of the website, like a non-anthropomorphic fairy. Hello, little friend. I watch the video again, in order to understand what Dutch Design Week understands as "virtual". Volumetric web designs (pages that look like rooms), parallax navigation, filters and camera effects, a DJ set in a Second Life-like universe. I try to place all of these features historically: 3D Flash websites, the webcam art of Petra Cortright, the virtual world hype when I didn't have a PC fast enough to be part of it.
I realise that face filters have improved a lot. All of these features have improved a lot. What's lost is the goofiness, the authenticity, the& No, let's not go there. I don't want to sink into nostalgia. In this time of stagnation, like many other people I'm desperately searching for the future, or more humbly, for change. The Design Week Ambassadors seem to feel the same when they ask: "What will our future look like?"
On the homepage, I'm presented with a series of 360° exhibition videos. I'm curious about the Geo-Design: Sand exhibition at the Eindhoven's Van Abbemuseum. At first I don't realise I have to interact, so I stare at a white wall from a weird angle. It's kind of beautiful. The 360° videos resemble Google Street View and in fact they are stored on YouTube. I navigate rooms devoid of people and sound. I'm drawn less to the art than to the structural elements: the lights on the ceiling, the exit sign, the tripod of the very camera that shot the video. I check the views counter: less than 200. I shared this experience with fewer people than the museum could hold.
Depression as opportunity
All of this happens on my laptop, as my mobile wouldn't equip me with the patience to stare at a white wall. I gather that the new intimacy is not so different from the private, asynchronous, old intimacy of being alone in a dimly lit room, lurking in other people's physical and digital spaces. The museum rooms might feel cold, lifeless and noiseless, but here I am in my overalls with my hot cup of coffee. That's intimacy, of course, but how much of it is needed before it turns into desolation?
Dutch Design Week seems to have the answer. One of this year's trends is in fact "comfort and healing with emo design". Design wants to be therapeutic, it wants to cure, or at least soothe, the ailments of contemporary ersatz life. In certain cases, it focuses on the very pathologies caused by its own environment. Angéline Behr's project is an attempt to cope with the feeling of depression that permeates the toil toward graduation. Deborah van der Putten shot a movie that addresses student burn-out. An exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum is entitled The New Melancholy. Something feels off: there is something morbid in categorising sad passions as a "trend" and turning them into design artifacts. But isn't it what we do on social media anyway? The new intimacy puts the intimate to work. Graphic designer Mieke Gerritzen, who curated a show on self-design, understands this well. One of her trademark slogans in the new book published by Valiz asks: is depression an opportunity?
Shadows of human presence
I keep browsing the site. To check one highlight, I'm asked to create an account. I go back to the home page and revert to the magazine. I skim through the articles where one line by editor Robert Urquhart sticks: "Together, the festival, the city, and I, have gentrified with age. My hairline has receded as the creative districts have grown." I look at the designer index. The spinner spins, takes a while to load, and finally the list appears. The first of the designers' names beginning with A is a familiar one. I know him, we come more or less from the same region, we studied together in Venice and we were once both guests at the same wedding. Nostalgia again& But also the realisation that events are made of people, and it is with people that you can be intimate.
Speaking of people, I open a random panel about interactive experiences with five guys, some of them artists, others architects. Their faces framed by screens placed around an empty warehouse. A big wooden conference table in the middle with microphones on top, white leather chairs around it. The setting is eerie: tables and chairs indicate the presence of people, who however only materialise inside the projector and the TVs. Someone must have placed the screens, must have checked the sound. I skim through the whole video in search of an embodied appearance, but nobody shows up. What will our future look like? Technology relentlessly going on with its business in spaces filled only with the shadows of human presence. This might be the new intimacy: one that is not meant for us, one where we play decor.