Any time the word anti is used in a title of an event, it is bound to prompt ferocious criticism. The word is instantaneously wrapped as anarchistic, counter-culture and looked with suspicion as disorderly by mainstream media. However, anti is presently a rare word as much as it’s a trendy cliché: an indication that tactics that once worked in the past seem to be effortlessly digested and ignored today. In here lies perhaps the most evident mistake of the first iteration of the Anti-Design Festival (ADF), which took place in London between 18-26 September 2010.
Visual culture and graphic design are fields that have been given little attention at the London Design Festival since it began in 2003. And it was here where ADF pertinently claimed space for alternative practices and different points of view. Naturally, this should be at least as important as the glossy corporate design that has been showcased during London’s biggest celebration of design. Even though the trendy alternative feel surrounding the event’s main location in Redchurch Street was almost suffocating, it would be unfair to look at ADF’s main site as representative of the whole range of events, which spread throughout East London. Still, it deserves some reflection.
The exhibition was divided into three main sections. Inside the first space, an installation with old computers, messy desks and archives of old and now recycled projects were displayed in a chaotic way, suggesting that an ongoing work was taking place. Printers, fax machines, old phones, rusty cabinets and folders were piled into a simulation of intense activity. Its visual presentations was very familiar, and could be described as a rushed, poor version of an installation by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn.
Underneath flyers of the interesting “subvertisement” Reverse the Wave (2010), it was possible to find some unidentified prints. As loose pages flooded desks, it was more than often unclear what they were doing there or if one should look at it as just a simulacrum. Consequently, one had the disappointingly confusing experience of looking at some sheets made by someone who was responding to something. This anonymity was almost consistent throughout, and while it was under the umbrella of a non-elitist approach, it did make it hard(er) to understand what were the intentions of the work and to consider and evaluate its pertinence.
It may have been a mistake to try to judge the work through normal canons, because the event’s main curator, the designer Neville Brody, was extremely interested in failure. By inverting and antagonizing basic established methods of defining quality, Brody attempted to disinform, rebelling against the status quo. Yet, wandering through the exhibition spaces, it seemed to be more of an easy refuge than a planned risk. To emphasize this idea, doing things fast appeared to be the dominant way through which disinformation was sought. From fast generation of objects to superficial, under-developed “quick” manifestos, there was in this room a call for “action instead of blah blah blah,” as one poster boldly displayed.
The second room hosted the workshop space, manifesto wall, bar and some exhibited work. To fail, or to make mistakes and experiment was the ultimate goal of the festival. On this quest, much of the hope was put on the act of chance. The problem is that quick exercises and ill-informed manifestos will most probably generate revivalism and inconsequential chance. Reliance and hope on chance alone is not enough. Planned chance and accident however, can be surprisingly and positively disruptive.
Unlike LDF’s guest blogger Puff & Flock, I was not “intoxicated by the plethora of refreshing work”. In fact, I found myself in an environment that it is possible to be seen in many student work in progress or even final shows in London. Moreover, anyone who has been to a few of this kind of events, knows that the process of finding something relevant and informed is as hard on these installation/ unfinished “exhibitions” as it is on the swanky framed ones. The third and last room, with its walls completely covered from top to bottom with prints, collages and paintings was the one that best demonstrated this idea.
Looking back, it is fundamental that space for failure exists, for unfinished and non-commercially viable ideas. What is even more fundamental is that this is sought through the continuity of this festival and by promoting discussions with people outside the troops that normally rally behind this kind of events regardless of its quality. Even though the necessity and urgency of an alternative platform for design events is unquestionable, the biggest challenge and danger ADF will face is its potential forgetfulness, with its mistakes falling into oblivion and being undocumented.
As a result of carrying the word anti as prefix, events like the ADF will always suffer from the pressure of quickly delivering a cure to the plague they are trying to fight – especially when they announced they are a response to “25 years of cultural deep freeze“. While revolutions have proved in the past to be the ultimate social leap, it’s obvious that this “cure” cannot be achieved in two weeks – at least, not like this. However, through the creation of conditions of sustained criticality, different modes of production and thinking, and a continued existence with strong curatorial leadership, unlike in this first attempt, this may happen or at least contribute substantially towards a more global realisation that “designers are not on the artifact business, but in the consequence business.”
The ADF seemed an important – yet frustratingly predictable – start of what anti-events (or alternative events) such as this could be in the future: a critical space for alternative practices, to foster informed making and especially to see experimentation as a means, and not just an end.