This is an exhibition about people who make things.
Last April, the world’s most influential financial weekly, The Economist, published a special issue hailing on its cover the advent of a third industrial revolution. This declaration is all the more powerful considering that the magazine, founded in the 1840s, is one of the few active publications that witnessed the last such revolution.
The world of people who make things is in upheaval. If the last revolution was about making perfect objects—millions of them, absolutely identical, produced to exactingly consistent quality standards—this one is about making just one, or a few. Its birthplace is not the factory but the workshop, and its lifeline is the network. In the place of standardised, industrialised perfection, it embraces imperfection as evidence of an emerging force of identity, individuality, and non-linearity.
Still, the changes afoot amount to something much more substantial than a mere upheaval in the technical apparatus of industry. With the advent of the network as the dominant mode of social and cultural organisation, epochal shifts are transforming the power structures around which society has for decades, if not centuries, been organised.
Making things, designing, is not usually defined as a political activity. Yet to create something—from an immaterial network to a very material city—is to interrogate oneself as to the value of labour, the nature of intellectual property, the ethics of consumption, the limits of technique, the order of power. Design is an act of observing, internalising, questioning and rethinking the prescribed responses to these queries, and thereby giving form to everyday life and collective space.
If design is no longer the domain of a select few creating products of consumption for “the many”, according to the top-down model of bureaucratic industrialism, what is it? This exhibition argues that rather than the closed object, the maximum expression of design today is the process—the activation of open systems, tools that shape society by enabling self-organisation, platforms of collaboration independent of the capitalist model of competition, and empowering networks of production.
Design is on the move: it is migrating from the rigid domain of bureaucracy towards the rhizomatic realm of adhocracy.
The temptation is to perceive this as something entirely new, sudden and unexpected. Adhocracy seeks, among other things, to demonstrate that some of the practices we now take for granted as quintessentially contemporary were in fact born long ago—ahead of their times, perhaps. Other ideas may still lie beyond our grasp.
As the theatre of a fast-moving conflict over society’s future, design—the world of people who make things—is today a race between bureaucracy and improvisation, authority and the irrepressible force of networks, in search of a new language and a new commons.
by Joseph Grima