When Het Nieuwe Instituut was founded in 2013, part of its remit was to make innovation central to its programme. How has it responded to this task? And what was the role of the institute itself in this? Director Guus Beumer explains.
Interview by Gert Staal with Guus Beumer, artistic director of Het Nieuwe Instituut, previously published in Dutch in Boekman 120 Kunst als innovator, September 2019
The name alone can be read as an ironic commentary on the task that the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science assigned us. By giving the name Het Nieuwe Instituut (literally The New Institute) to the fusion of three organisations that represented architecture, design and digital culture, the fledgling institution was saddled with a nomenclature as pretentious as it was meaningless: the very latest in the field of institutes, with a programme around the equally unclear concept of innovation.
From the outset, director Guus Beumer has taken Het Nieuwe Instituut’s task of addressing innovation very literally and has provided it with a critical intellectual framework. In 2014, soon after the institute had become operational, Beumer seized upon the commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War (1914-18) as the context for a series of activities in which radical renewal was not easily celebrated. As the programming made clear, every form of innovation creates conflict, and that conflict is perhaps much more interesting than the innovation itself.
Now, five years later, Het Nieuwe Instituut has curated the Dutch entry to the Milan Triennale in the form of the exhibition I See That I See What You Don’t See. Conflict is once again the subject. Technology and design have made an essential contribution to the creation of 24-hour production landscapes: good for the horticulture sector, but very disruptive for humans, animals and ‘unproductive’ forms of vegetation.
These two examples are indicative of the way Het Nieuwe Instituut positions itself in relation to innovation. In this interview, Guus Beumer explains the choices ‘his’ institute has made and how – despite all the reservations – innovation has been given a central role in the organisation and its programming. Guus Beumer: ‘Our understanding of innovation resides not in the what, but in the how.’
How would you describe the innovation remit that Het Nieuwe Instituut was assigned in relation to the design disciplines?
Beumer: Look at the Dutch Research Council’s science agenda. It seems to fall back on a classical discourse, namely that of the artist who, by definition, is seen as an innovator, whereas we live in a period in which the artist is forced to operate entirely within the market. We all know that this market primarily demands affirmation of the status quo, thus putting every real innovative position under pressure.
People also seem to assume that an innovative attitude in the arts can be the direct result of a policy of innovation. Without batting an eyelid, a nineteenth-century, mainly art-historical notion of the artist is transposed onto a twenty-first-century reality. I don’t see such a direct relationship.
There might very well always have been a relationship between art and experimentation, but the results were never intended as market propositions. Even if the artist could not always be autonomous, the art certainly was!
We are now confronted with an approach in which innovation has become communication, certainly in the eyes of policy makers. Because issues around the climate and safety have become so immense and unmanageable, communicating innovation has become part of the solution. If you transpose innovation policy onto a national institute for architecture, design and digital culture, it is clear what expectations we have to meet: it will have to be primarily about communication and representation. In other words, we are becoming a platform that communicates to the public the applicability of innovation in such a complex environment.
And what was your proposal?
Our answer was: interesting that you address the issue of innovation, a term that we define not only technologically but also socially. Instead of functioning as a showroom for trouble-free, seamless innovation, we see ourselves as a site that seeks out the conflict in various transitional zones.
You talk about the autonomy of art and say that artistic experimentation is not expected to have an application, but aren’t the design disciplines always expected to work with applicability or effectiveness?
What fascinates me is the relationship between government policy and the way in which the design disciplines develop. In the 1980s, major clients disappeared and designers began to cultivate a more investigative position. The government followed that process. A new infrastructure was developed to encourage the artist-designer to explore precisely that free space. That is completely at odds with today’s policy.
We have seen the development of a much stronger, mainly economic policy framework under the name ‘the creative industries’, but the question remains whether there has been a simultaneous development of a cultural infrastructure.
Culture now attempts, at a rhetorical level, to add a social perspective to a mainly economic mindset, but that does not prevent people from using purely commercial concepts such as ‘scaling up’, in which you actually define art as a social start-up.
Is the economic context synonymous with innovation?
No! Of course that is the story we are told, but we know the limitations of an economic context, which is aimed at consolidation. Sorry to be so banal, but when the market talks about innovation, a designer can develop a new T-shirt as long as they don’t alter the T shape with a straight sleeve inset. You can be ‘totally innovative’ within those parameters. The type of innovation that interests me tests the parameters, but unfortunately that’s not what the market is looking for.
How is this realisation expressed in the way Het Nieuwe Instituut addresses the theme of innovation?
As an institution, in recent years we have become very sensitive to the normative tone in much design. We are trying to unravel this and hopefully that will lead to new questions.
In fact, we are less concerned with the question than with the way in which it is addressed. And if we raise the issue of innovation, then it must also be about our own role. If we claim to make innovation visible, we cannot place ourselves outside the issue.
Beumer bursts out laughing, leans back and then continues theatrically: Yes, it’s taken me seven years, but I believe I’ve finally put it into words coherently.
The institute says: ‘It’s great to applaud progress, but if we don’t face the intrinsic conflict, we have actually missed the point.
Exactly. In response to the institute’s many ‘branches’, my philosophical approach to this theme – which always brought with it a sort of meta-position in its tone and outcomes – has gradually been replaced by a more socialised perspective. Sometimes I have my reservations about that. Socialisation is also related to normalisation, and we have to be alert to that. But the institute is transforming. There are now many more voices than there were in the beginning and that is excellent. My hesitation may apply to the changed climate. Philosophy has always been a means for me to relate to the chaotic now. What is becoming increasingly difficult in the institute’s networking methodology is to make sense of chaos, and perhaps that ambition is even fundamentally questionable, whereas ‘making sense’ was the ultimate ideal for my generation.
That is one change that has manifested itself in the past seven years. How has the design field itself changed and how can the institute play a role in it?
The fact that the cultural sector failed to provide legitimacy for the use of government funds at the right time has made it possible to cut back on culture and also to facilitate the emergence of a term like the creative industries. When the institute was founded, you could see just how much the politicians had become fascinated by the enormous public resonance of design. There was a great deal of curiosity about the potential for innovation in Dutch architecture, design and fashion, even though it didn’t earn a cent. Especially in design, designers’ independent position led to formalism: the question no longer renewed itself. The situation is now completely different and we have seen it as our mission to help bring about that reversal, especially by participating in networks of individuals and institutions. Rhizomes are indispensable in cultural practice. And the effect is undeniable: we now only have to ask a question and hundreds of people respond, from all parts of the world.
When the institute invited an American curator to stage an exhibition on biodesign in 2013, it was seen as the quintessence of innovative design: designing nature.
However, now I am inclined to say that we were totally wrong. The real question resides not in the use or exploitation of what nature has to offer. The real issue goes much deeper, namely in our ability to think inclusively. When you no longer define the ecological perspective from the dominant role of humanity, you arrive at completely different questions. That’s why we’re no longer talking about materials but about matter, and knowledge that is certainly not developed exclusively by humans. This was the focus of our recent Neuhaus project.
You said earlier: the institute itself is part of the process of innovation that it investigates. In what form is that manifested?
In the choice of themes and how we approach them, in our research, in the tools and methods we employ, and in the visitors who have become increasingly users of and participants in the institute in recent years. Let me highlight one example: our search for innovative display methods. We made a so-called ‘docubition’ around the theme of plastic. If I’m honest, I have to admit that it didn’t look that good, but the hybrid form of documentary and exhibition proved to be an extremely productive tool for conducting a conversation, opening up new perspectives and – via a dedicated online dossier that is still frequently used – influencing the outside world. We have always succeeded in introducing dynamic models in which the classical exhibition has increasingly had to make way for the programme, for the enrichment of the moment, for all kinds of direct forms of interaction with visitors and participants. It should be noted that this is not a shift that we have initiated independently. It has been handed to us by the public. We keep our eyes open so that we can recognise and respond to these demands in time. But if you pose the question directly, I’m less concerned with the innovation of the institute than with the innovation of the field. If that takes root, and especially younger generations seem to recognise our references immediately, then we are optimally positioned to play our role as a catalyst.
How would you describe the main process of change?
The biggest change Het Nieuwe Instituut has brought about is that we have demonstrated that culture is a fundamental component of innovation. I think we have innovated the concept of innovation. Can I say that?
Gert Staal writes about design and is a lecturer on the information design MA course at the Design Academy Eindhoven.