Utrecht Manifest 4Working on Work
Commissioner: Jurgen Bey
By situating his edition in Rotsoord, the urban area and part of the Hoograven quarter in Utrecht surrounding the Pastoe factory, Utrecht Manifest 4's commissioner, designer Jurgen Bey, positioned Social Design physically in the midst of a far-reaching socio-economic process of urban transformation. This strategy was also intended to engage Social Design with actually making a difference within such urban developments and contribute to the creation of a new learning, living and work landscape. For Utrecht Manifest's continued project "Hoograven Invites you!" Bey singled out three ‘hotspots’ in the area, a 'Livespot,' a 'Playspot' and an 'Artspot.' In preparation of the biennial's public program, Bey ‘colonized’ these spots by introducing an open network of working communities, which settled in empty factory halls for the course of five consecutive months. From December 2011 until the end of April 2012, these abandoned centers of an industry that had moved elsewhere were thus transformed into alternative work spaces and 'flex spots' that could house a broad array of curators, designers, artists, theoreticians, helpers, volunteers and passers-by.
In the months preceding the actual opening of the biennial on Labor Day 2012 this working community would conduct research, explore the neighborhood, collect resources and invent, design, install, probe, anticipate. Part of this work was revealed in (semi-)public presentations, lectures, discussions, excursions and field trips, often accompanied by inspired dinners for a growing network of participants and stakeholders, prior to the biennial's official opening.
This framework facilitated an active exploration of alternative working relations and conditions combined with experiments in conviviality, directly connected to the 'real world' of Rotsoord. It provided an alternative approach to organizing a biennial for Social Design, which also served to question the function and characteristics of the biennial as cultural form itself by actively committing it to work within a dedicated context. Starting from an inventory of the qualities found in the urban area, whether historically defined or evolved over time, the program set out to make these qualities visible and evident, lifting them up and fuelling them with the new energy of alternative approaches.
This highly contextualized and specific framework could be perceived as a practice-based, bottom-up approach to Social Design, meeting the current trend amongst city planners, architects and policymakers with regard to urban renewal in a focused attempt to make proper and sustainable use of what is readily available. An argued strategy for finding alternatives to the tabula rasa approach towards urban real estate which dominated neo-liberal views on development.
Grounding WorkWithin these roughly sketched outlines for a new working environment, four curators were invited to each develop a part of the main program from the vantage point of their own expertise and thematic interest. For Bey it was a matter of principle to radically share the authorship of and responsibility for this edition of Utrecht Manifest with all those involved, consistent with his ideas on Social Design as collaborative and open practice.
Maarten Kolk and Guus Kusters were invited to develop HELPDESK Rotsoord in an effort to chart the demand and supply of work in the neighborhood. The helpdesk's main purposes were to serve as a platform for mobilizing residents; to chart how they perceived their living and working conditions; and to document their wishes and ideas concerning the neighborhood's future development.
Work Landscape Crosses ICICurator, designer and researcher Sophie Krier was asked to recontextualize a field research she had done in 2010 in Casablanca, which she dubbed ICI or 'Here, Casa Inventive City.' For this project Krier had spent three months in the city probing and exploring the informal world of street workers with the aim of helping them apply their maker skills to a wide variety of crafts and services, boosting the visibility of this small-scale working landscape and economy by situating and showcasing its trades in one of the city's cultural centers. By doing so she connected different ‘worlds’ that are normally completely segregated.
For Utrecht Manifest Krier developed KRUIST ICI, a curatorial program of 20-odd projects, presentations and probes, in which the central issue was: which knowledge and skills – formal or informal, existent or new – are available in this neighborhood and how can they be visualized or made more explicit and better utilized. In other words: an exploration into making a blueprint for new cross-fertilizations and production possibilities, thus fueling new forms of sociality and conviviality in relation with opportunities for work. In one of the projects Krier interviewed residents with the intent to create an alphabetic inventory of found skills and expertise in Rotsoord. The lemmata often referred to standard functions and job descriptions, but occasionally also indicated skills that challenge easy categorization, thus mobilizing potentiality rather than convention. In connecting with the residents and their hidden life stories and living conditions, the inventory not only supplied a demographic of skills, but more importantly also granted a penetrating see-through into the diversity of the social fabric of this neighborhood.
Similarly the project Car Mecca, co-curated with Cynthia Hathaway, showcased the car as cult object and social attractor of experts and lovers, thus making visible its potential for agency and identity as an extension of the body. Hathaway connected existing and new rituals to this sphere of life and sociality by staging a public blessing by a priest of cars in a procession, or by helping residents envision their wildest dreams of pimping their cars with the aid of light artists Jan Willem Campmans and Bram Boomgaardt, who projected the owners' designs live onto their cars.
Work Landscape EATEsther van de Wiel was the curator of a series of projects collected under the title Werklandschap EET (Working Landscape EAT), in which she probed the area for its potential to produce its own food, speculating on ways to transform this former industrial area into a fertile ground for food production. Armed with the knowledge and expertise of a group of experts and amateurs she set out to develop instruments to turn Rotsoord into a culinary breeding ground. Essential in this scenario was the transfer of knowledge, techniques, and skills from experts and explorers to residents and dilettantes.
Work Landscape DEEPENSA public platform was set up, connecting the ‘micro’ world of the designers working on the development of Rotsoord to a wider context of discourse and reflection on the themes of work and urban development. In Werklandschap VERDIEPT (Work Landscape DEEPENS), theme's such as Social Design in education; economic value creation versus social dividend; and speculative visualization as design strategy were addressed. As a platform for thematic meetings, public hearings, discussions, lectures and a symposium, VERDIEPT functioned as a mediating vehicle for curators, stakeholders, residents and the broader public.
Member of the board prof.dr. Pieter Hooimeijer with two panel members
Tenacious SocialityWith a total running time of 7 months this edition was by far the most ambitious of the series of biennials.
Not only because of the enormous effort made by all the people involved in all the projects, big or small, but also because it had set the stakes rather high. Bey conceived his program not as a traditional one-off biennial edition, but as a serious investment in preparing the ground for a follow-up in continuous projects and occasional events in successive biennials. The project Bey had in mind was meant to evolve into a lasting effort in connecting to the Rotsoord area and its development, and use it as a laboratory for testing the discourses of Social Design in a practice fueled by the experiences and shared commitments of the participants for which he had provided the 'work landscape.'
Evaluating his program, Bey expresses his slight disappointment in its results – it remained a rather isolated exploration, even if it succeeded in temporarily connecting the commitment of a broad array of design professionals, social researchers, volunteer collaborators, engaged residents and other stakeholders. The broader public reaction to the project and its research agenda, however, was disappointingly indifferent. In part, this was due to Bey's disinterest in communicating the gist of his program through larger and more public-oriented events and exhibitions, like the first biennials had done. But it certainly also reflects the limitations of the biennial format in general, with its traditional focus on highlighting and summarizing past and recent experiences and products. Taking into consideration Bey's effort to tweak this format towards a continuous and consistent laboratory for researching future scenarios, the character of the biennial as a celebration of successes and a locus for momentary critical reflection on the state of the art proved to be quite resilient.