digging and redevelopment
Joanna van der Zanden






tent / cbk rotterdam

interview by Noortje van Eekelen

The exploration of cultural formats where the audience gets involved in the curatorial process of research, questioning, and making feeds the curiousity of independent curator and creative director Joanna van der Zanden (NL), who focuses on cross-disciplinary (social) design projects. Until January 2010 she was artistic director of Platform21, the incubator of a new design centre in Amsterdam. From 2011 and 2013 Van der Zanden was appointed as artistic director of the Rotterdam Design Prize, a bi-annual Dutch design award that aims to stimulate debate on the role of design in a cultural and social context. We are interested in her perspective on Open Set’s current theme Memories of the Future and the way she approaches the phenomenon from her own experience and enthusiasm for the cultural field.

Reinventing Happiness (2014) | Geregisseerd Geluk. Theatre set within exhibition space. Visitors could audition
for a Happy play on depression. (Jeanne van Heeswijk & Paul de Bruyne)
Social Design Biennale Utrecht (2012) | Schuurtjes. Temporary work/research space to investigate possible possibilities
of the shed for informal meetings and economic exchange. (co-curated with Arne Hendriks)

In your practice you emphasise a social (and sustainable) perspective, related to your work as a curator. If designers are to employ memories into their creation of possible futures, how should we involve an audience?

Whether by an audience you mean the visitors of a show, or the end users of a product, in both cases a way to get them involved is to create open-ended products. Products that can be adjusted, repaired, hacked, finished off etc. Another way is to make use of specific local skills and to offer your designer's qualities more in a co-creative way (which is often referred to as being a social designer).

Looking at the role of the curator, in what way can curatorship go through interesting developments in relation to retention and memory? Are there developments possible in the presentation, representation, storage or experience of successful artist work?

There are many. And to start with: first of all, the curator should allow the opinion of others as well: step outside of its own expert and historically correct vision and create more open platforms. The institutional frame of a museum often doesn't help, but even with small changes within a classical exhibition setting one could find new ways. For instance, the current show at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam about the Amsterdam school missed out, in my opinion, on the chance to make it more contemporary. Many of the items on show are from private collections. They have these interior items in their own houses, sometimes inherited. Why not involve the views and stories of these collectors? Why not show photographs of how these items function in their homes, how they relate to more contemporary design products. What do these products mean to their owners? The show was only set up because it is 100 years ago. This is a typical 'let us remember' something excuse. But what is its meaning at the moment? What is its urgency? I have heard many times visitors of the exhibition say: how ugly! I find this really interesting. What is exactly ugly about it? What does it say about us, in the here and now? Was it perceived as ugly back in time also?

I often wonder in what way we could add new perspectives to historical artifacts. Extra layers? On the process, fabrication and materials, for instance? This could be done very suggestively, it doesn't always need to be educational. For example, looking at a porcelain cup of tea and at the same time viewing a photograph of the English landscape that was changed by the mining industry.

Another way, which I am working on right now, is to actually reconsider proposals from an earlier generation. Many of the societal and environmental ideas we are focused on right now have a connection with what was presented in the past, like in the seventies. Some of these artists, architects and designers are still alive. And why not get their ideas out of the drawer and together with the artists reconsider them, discuss and repurpose them. I love the idea of a living classroom in the museum. To use the museum as an inspirational space for today's and the future's societal issues.

Reinventing Happiness (2014) | Happy Together. Visitors could choose one of the DVDs selected
and recommended by employees of the Stedelijk Museum 's-Hertogenbosch and watch it.
Bosch Geluk (2016) | Staat van Geluk. Solo circus act performance within exhibition (Mees Borgman)

In previous talks you mentioned that designers are better served if they approach everyone as a creator, professional or amateur. Should designers even have the idea of an audience? Or should designers completely ignore their awareness of an audience in the development of their work?

This is a question I cannot answer for designers. There are so many different designers and design practices and each serve their own audiences, from a single collector to millions of users. It really depends on your goal. But what I think I meant with the quote is that many products are delivered as closed boxes. Not to be opened and adjusted by its owners. If we are talking about participative, more sustainable and social futures, the designer's (and manufacturer's role) has to become more transparent to allow genuine ownership. But if you cannot open it, you don't own it. And who is responsible for sustaining the life cycle of a product? Is it the designer, the user, the government?

What role would our memory play in the construction of futuristic ideas?

This is I guess a philosophical question and again very much depending on what your definition of a future is. Does the future have a memory? When we think of a future scenario is it at the same time already not also a memory? A future built on memories is probably a nostalgic future, no? Maybe the future that is not related to memory is best called Utopia, though this term is nowadays often mis-used. This is best described as something un-imaginable. And yes i would love to plea for the un-imaginable futures.

Bosch Geluk (2015) | Academie voor Beeldvorming making use of the flexible white cube space
within the exhibition as an artist studio.

What are your expectations for the development and future of social change, by involving designers and artists? How should we go about this? Where should we look for guidance?

Maybe we need a time-out, a pause. There are just so many great developments, actions, ideas and new start ups that I am afraid that we are too much focused on the new and latest. So start digging and redeveloping.  

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