In the last decade, performance has gained momentum and appreciation in the contemporary arts. First emerging in the mid-1960s, performance was a quintessential part of several focal shifts — the critique of material- and commodity-driven economics, the re-appropriation of the female body in feminism, and a transfer of attention in art from the final product to the process of making, to name but a few.
More recently, performance has appeared as a parallel phenomenon in contemporary design, in which its presence is manifold. First, it is one of the default operational logics of the underlying field: design “performs” through both a constant flow of images and a punctuated schedule of international gatherings in a handful of cities across the continent including Milan, Eindhoven, Cologne, Paris, London, etc. These are ostensibly trade fairs intended to bridge between product designers and industrialists, collectors, and interior designers and architects; however, in an era of declining manufacture, such gatherings rise in significance as literal concentrations of spectators, crowds, and interacting bodies. As the prototype becomes more transparently a MacGuffin* justifying the continuation of this ritual, as the proliferating image diminishes the need to see objects in the flesh, and as the cost of a plane ticket decreases in relation to the cost of a shipping crate, the role of performance acquires new significance as a strategic response by individual practitioners.
During the 2016 Salone del Mobile, the Royal Academy of Art The Hague and the Sandberg Instituut’s Dirty Art Department both staged exhibitions that put the focus on the performing bodies and props of students, who inhabited and reacted to real spaces rather than standing beside finished objects on prefabricated display furniture. Parallel ideas of performance have also been explored at recent Dutch Design Weeks by graduates of the Design Academy Eindhoven. By manifesting a new form of participation in these annual events, students and recent graduates (as well as artists and other interlopers) manifest as liminal figures, exercising a certain degree of freedom amidst the traditional constraints of design as a linear flow from entrepreneur to designer to manufacturer to user. When a designer performs before or with a spectator, who is the creator and who is the user? Who is the tool and who is the material? These polemics reveal the designer-performer as an open-ended position that blurs, fragments, and upends prevailing hierarchies and expectations.
Off the Record: Design Performs in the Wormhole Between Milan and Rotterdam is a kind of investigative report on the recently concluded Salone del Mobile. Rather than disseminating perfected images of the newest product launches, this evening reflects on the event as a watershed moment in the rise of performance as a fundamental act of design. It invites seven designers to restage their work in the context of Het Nieuwe Instituut, as it transitions from the Temporary Fashion Museum to a multifaceted exhibition programme on the human body in the season of the Olympics, crowd control, and the quantified self. Between the designed bodies of the catwalk model and the competitive athlete, the self-designed body of the performer opens a space for experimentation within the volatile field of material things.
*In the films of Alfred Hitchcock, a MacGuffin is a desired object that sets the plot, the chain of events, and the character interactions into motion. It is also the title of a magazine by Kirsten Algera and Ernst van der Hoeven on the life of things.
Each performing artist is also connected to an academy, either as a researcher, tutor or student.
Foreign Objects, Natasha Taylor (KABK, The Hague), Regarding David, Philippine Hoegen (AKV St-Joost, Breda/ Den Bosch), Empty Orchestra, Urok Shirhan (Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht), Treaties and gifts of shifting wills, Quinsy Gario (Universiteit van Utrecht), DE_SIGN, by Gabriel Anne Maher (Design Academy, Eindhoven), Heather & Rosetta by Kitty Maria and Élise Ehry (Dirty Art Department, Sandberg Instituut), EMGS (Experimental Movement and Gesture School), Balcony Performances #4, Aurélien Lepetit (Dirty Art Department, Sandberg Instituut).