“Our Sci aims to equip small farmers with the analytical tools and scientific understanding that are used by big agriculture corporations, but are prohibitively expensive for individuals. The affordable Reflectometer as a tool can empower individuals and communities to better understand their land, how different farming practices can affect it and can give them the knowledge to advocate for themselves at a regional or policy level. The Reflectometer’s open-source design is also a kind of vernacular, where knowledge is shared from person to person rather than sold as a commodity. It is this combination of harnessing technology and vernacular approach that interested us and has the potential to catalyse change,” says Ria Hawthorn, Assistant Curator of BIO 27 – the 27th Ljubljana Biennial of Design – in our interview.
Jane Withers, Curator of BIO 27 emphasizes: “Super Vernaculars brings together designers and thinkers locally and globally who are looking to ecological knowledge and regenerative practices to restore ecological resilience and social justice. These are issues that affect us all, wherever we are.”
“We wish to spark conversations and action because we, as a society, need to re-think what we are doing – especially as a design discipline and as cultural producers,” details Nuša Zupanc, Editor of BIO27, Museum of Architecture and Design, Ljubljana.
Sebastian Klemm: First held in 1963, the Biennial of Design, known also by its Slovene acronym BIO, takes place this year for the 27th time. The Biennial has operated under the aegis of the Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO) since the museum’s founding in 1972. How did the idea for the Biennial come about? What was the momentum behind evolving the biennial as a long-term collaborative process with multidisciplinary actors, and what drives the focus to develop alternatives to established systems? Who develops the thematic orientation of the individual biennials?
Nuša Zupanc, editor of BIO27, MAO: The origins of BIO go way back to the political dispute called Informbiro between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in 1948. Suddenly the severed ties between the two allies forced Yugoslavia into independent political, economic and cultural development.
Yugoslavia had to quickly find its place in the world and establish itself through art, science and culture, and through a pervasive and efficient economy. Many new companies for industrial electronic equipment, homeware and modular interior design, have sprung during this time. At first architects and a variety of engineers were helping the companies to make these new objects look desirable and in trend with the rest of the European companies as Yugoslavia wanted to compete with them on the global market. Therefore the department of industrial design was set up at the University of Ljubljana with the help of the architects Edvard Ravnikar, Niko Kralj and others.
“It was recognized that there was a lot of innovative design in Yugoslavia that should be showcased in the form of a biennial. For this purpose, BIO was started in 1963 with the first exhibition in 1964.“Nuša Zupanc, editor of BIO27, MAO
Every other year they showcased a curated exhibition with exceptional Yugoslavian industrial and graphic design. BIO suddenly became a catalyst for change in the perception of what quality industrial design is and it certainly raised the quality of design.
For many years BIO brought this discipline to the wider public and became a hub for foreign designers exchanging knowledge with Yugoslavian ones. Over time this role was taken over by Design Weeks, but more than this we have to take into consideration the shift in socio-political geographies in the 1990s and 2000s within which the design had to rethink its position and establish a clear distance from only producing objects.
This change was brought to BIO by former MAO director Matevž Čelik and his team who wanted to rethink the direction in which BIO was going. It was time that BIO was once again a catalyst for change, a very open laboratory for experimentation, for dissemination of knowledge about the broad spectrum of change that good design can bring to society.
“In 2012, curator in chief Jan Boelen together with local experts Maja Vardjan, Cvetka Požar and Vera Sacchetti, transformed BIO from a typical exhibition into a safe zone for exploration of the role of design which included a Production Platform.”Nuša Zupanc, editor of BIO27, MAO
This resulted in an exhibition titled BIO50 in 2014. Since then, BIO has hosted hundreds of multidisciplinary designers and experts from around the world which facilitated and empowered multifaceted collaborations and is still a trailblazer for change.
Sebastian Klemm: How is the current biennial received by the local public? Are there already reflections by local professionals?
Nuša Zupanc, editor of BIO27, MAO: The biennial has a vast array of reviews right now. Local professionals are delighted with the direction with which BIO27 is launching a new cycle of environmentally conscious exhibition and production platform format.
The theme by Jane Withers Super Vernaculars – Design for a Regenerative Future has been very well received and has sparked much debate. We are immensely proud of this and put a lot of effort into communicating this theme to the public.
The more conservative public can be critical, and resistant to thinking about new ways of doing things, but we hope that the exhibition can change a few minds. This is what our team is about.
We wish to change the perception of the aesthetic, rethink what design as a discipline is, and back up the multidisciplinary and explorative approach with this new BIO edition. We wish to spark conversations and action because we, as a society, need to re-think what we are doing especially as a design discipline and as cultural producers.
“Our goal is to continue to care about what is happening in the world, resist the raging techno-feudalism and explore what good can such an exhibition and way of working bring to the local society.”Nuša Zupanc, editor of BIO27, MAO
Sebastian Klemm: The current biennial curated by you is themed “Super Vernaculars: Design for a Regenerative Future”. In her curatorial statement, Jane Withers emphasizes: “At the intersection of innovation, anthropology and ecology, the philosophy and movement gathering force around it are based on an increasing recognition of the value of TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge) as a catalyst for inspiring contemporary design culture and rebooting toxic value systems. In contrast to our extractive ‘take make waste’ economy, these vernacular traditions are rooted in regenerative systems and cultures that live with the earth rather than from it.” Why is this theme important today in the Slovenian and European context in your view?
Ria Hawthorn, Assistant Curator: Here in Europe, people have almost entirely lost a deep connection to land and nature. Our world outlook has been shaped by this broken relationship with the natural world and, in modern times, the Earth has been perceived as an endless resource from which humans can take whatever they want. The elements were something to master through technology and industry, infrastructure and systems. We are too-slowly realising we are reaching the Earth’s limits, that continued extraction of materials is not sustainable, and that now is the time for urgent change if we are to preserve the world’s climate balance and to avoid self-destruction.
“The theme for BIO27, ‘Super Vernaculars – design for a regenerative future’ aims to interrogate a growing and ambitious movement that takes inspiration from vernacular knowledge and practices to inform climate action. Latterly, the focus has been on curbing emissions and trying to use resources more responsibly, but this is not enough, and the emphasis must shift to design that drives regeneration.“Jane Withers, Curator
Jane Withers, Curator: For BIO27, Super Vernaculars brings together designers and thinkers locally and globally who are looking to ecological knowledge and regenerative practices to restore ecological resilience and social justice. These are issues that affect us all, wherever we are.
Super Vernaculars isn’t in any way nostalgic or retrogressive. Rather it asks what can we learn from history to shape a more sustainable future? Are there practices that we’ve left behind that might be worth revisiting as inspiration for innovation? How can contemporary technologies learn from traditional ecological knowledge to address the litany of environmental and social crises that we face.
Thus the prefix ‘super’ deliberately adds a contemporary charge – suggesting a vernacular for the 21st century that is not nostalgic or regressive, that doesn’t, as BIO27 Advisory Board member and anthropologist Blaž Bajič observes, present pre-modern practices as solutions to post-modern problems, but uses them as points of departure to makes connections across histories and cultures, between ancestral ecological knowledge and science, open-source technologies and systems thinking.
“In a global context, we showcase designers taking inspiration from their own vernacular cultures – a fertile ground for exploration in Slovenia and Europe – and, when designers work across cultures, we focus on relationships and protocols founded on mutuality and respect.”Ria Hawthorn, Assistant Curator
“With the Reflectometer, Our-Sci, the Bionutrient Food Association, and the Bionutrient Institute are working in collaboration to build a community of meter users. Applications for the Our Sci Reflectometer include estimating nutritional outcomes in food, measuring chlorophyll in leaves as well as predicting soil carbon,” Dr. Dan TerAvest, Our Sci LLC
Sebastian Klemm: Super Vernaculars comprises an Exhibition with four sections and a Production Platform. The exhibition section titled Negotiating Traditions also features the Our Sci Reflectometer. Can you tell us a bit more about the Exhibition section themes?
Ria Hawthorn, Assistant Curator: The exhibition narrative begins with the Introduction – Forgotten Vernaculars which sets out the ideas behind the Super Vernaculars theme. It is an assemblage of objects and ideas from different eras and cultures, and shows how ancient practices can act as catalysts for new departures as well as reminding us of ways of living that are more in tune with the natural world. This section also illuminates the under-acknowledged but influential dialogue between 20th century designers and the vernacular.
Negotiating Traditions shows the many ways in which designers are subverting, reimagining and adapting vernacular and traditional knowledge and practices to address contemporary needs and challenges, and to shift thinking and acting away from the current energy-intensive and resource-draining modes of production.
In Reimagining Systems & Infrastructures, we see how vernacular design principles are inspiring the reimagining of technologies, infrastructures and production processes and examine systems such as construction, materials, energy and water.
The final theme, Catalysing Community focuses on projects that put people and communities at the heart of design thinking. Ensuring fair and equal participation in regenerative change is critical to a lasting impact and we explore how designers can galvanise action and celebrate commonalities by using shared stories to connect people to each other and to their ecosystems.
“We want users to be able to measure soil carbon, leaf chlorophyll content, brix from extracted sap, and the density of a pear fruit all at the same time with the same instrument. This not only reduces the cost and increases utility, it also spreads our development costs across multiple applications. Our Reflectometer design accommodates all of these uses,” Dr. Dan TerAvest, Our Sci LLC
Sebastian Klemm: Being noninvasive, nondestructive and open source, the Our Sci Reflectometer is an accessible tool to monitor Soil Carbon, improve field-level management as well as guide regional politics that support food security and simultaneously tackling climate change. What differentiated mindset and values do you see reflected in Our Sci’s approach to address regional and global issues at scale?
Ria Hawthorn, Assistant Curator: Part of the Slow Tools movement, Our Sci aims to equip small farmers with the analytical tools and scientific understanding that are used by big agriculture corporations, but are prohibitively expensive for individuals.
Our Sci’s affordable Reflectometer is a tool that can empower individuals and communities to better understand their land, how different farming practices can affect it and can give them the knowledge to advocate for themselves at a regional or policy level. The movement aims to develop networks which can share information about farming methods that can regenerate land that has been degraded by industrial farming practices.
“The open-source design of the Our Sci Reflectometer is also a kind of vernacular – where knowledge is shared from person to person rather than sold as a commodity. It is this combination of harnessing technology and vernacular approach that interested us and has the potential to catalyse change.”Ria Hawthorn, Assistant Curator
“I have always been interested in improving the accessibility of tools. To me, open source is way of ensuring that accessibility is always a part of the equation,” Dr. Dan TerAvest, Our Sci LLC
Sebastian Klemm: During the exhibition period until September 29, 2022 and beyond, how does this year’s BIO support the development of local design networks that address pressing challenges facing local communities and the environment? In what ways will a mutual exchange be fostered between these design teams and the actors and their approaches on display in the exhibition?
Ria Hawthorn, Assistant Curator: A key part of BIO27 is the production platform which for focuses the resources of BIO27 to support the development of primarily local design expertise.
“In collaboration with five international mentors, we set five design briefs that asked the team to consider pertinent themes and challenges – food, water, rammed earth construction, communicating architecture and sustainable cultural production.”Ria Hawthorn, Assistant Curator
Teams were appointed following an open call, or by invitation. The teams are made up of talented practitioners from different disciplines – including designers, architects, historians, makers, water scientists, foragers, chefs, educators and more. Some have worked with BIO in the past and others are still finishing their education, but the work they have produced addresses these issues and some of the teams hope to continue what they have started.
The teams include Krater whose project Forbidden Vernaculars examines rammed earth architecture and locally sourced building materials, Garnitura who have experimented with new approaches to communicating Modern Architecture and the legacy of architect Jože Plečnik and Pjorkkala addresses the problem of pollution in natural water sources in Slovenia by creating prototypes for local, nature-based solutions.
Robida.plus were tasked to explore the ‘world of grains’ in collaboration with mentor, food futurist and designer Carolien Niebling. Based in the remote Alpine village of Topolò, the team has drawn on Slovenia’s rich cultural, agricultural and culinary heritage to redesign traditional Slovenian use of buckwheat.
Referencing old pratike, Slovene farmers’ almanacs, Robida developed a new format of recipe book where content is organised through time, following the lifecycle of the plant. In addition to the research and book, Robida have organised buckwheat workshops and are growing the plant in Ljubljana and Topolò.
“As a response to critical conditions – climate change, the global food industry, overconsumption of meat, and a crisis in grain supplies because of the war in Ukraine – Robida is trying to find the tools to raise awareness of the food cycle, from landscape to plate.”Ria Hawthorn, Assistant Curator
Sebastian Klemm: How did you take up sustainability in the realization of the biennial itself?
Ria Hawthorn, Assistant Curator: From the outset, Jane Withers and I, as well as Anja Radović, Head of BIO, were keen to examine and reduce the impact of the biennial.
We explored some options for footprint analysis, but the standard consultancy route was both expensive and limited as it only looked at basic measures such as energy use or transport and didn’t result in a holistic picture.
We commissioned Futuring – academic Barbara Predan with Tamara Lašič and Žan Kobal – to examine the biennial’s activities mentored by designer and sustainability expert Sophie Thomas.
“The outcome is a Toolkit, aimed at enabling cultural institutions and designers to understand and measure the impact of their own activities and empowering them to take decisions about how to reduce their own impact.”Ria Hawthorn, Assistant Curator
We have, so far, shared the toolkit with networks of cultural institutions and museum professionals in Slovenia, and in the UK and the team will host a workshop in September for to embed this knowledge within local and regional networks. There is great potential for this open-source Toolkit by Futuring to grow with the network incorporating combined experience and expertise.
28 September: Meet with Dr. Dan TerAvest to learn how Our Sci can support Smart Accounting for Improved Ecosystem Services & Climate Resilience on landscape and city scale