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Tuesday, December 22, 2020, 12:51
Value-based leadership
By Chitralekha Basu
Tuesday, December 22, 2020, 12:51 By Chitralekha Basu

Editor’s Note: Probably the only museum in the region dedicated to the idea of showcasing and interrogating the role of design in people’s lives, Design Society in Shekou, Shenzhen, has been hailed as one of Time magazine’s best places to visit. In an exclusive interview to China Daily, director Ole Bouman says the combination of a world-class urban monument and a very engaged public program might be key to the museum’s success. Excerpts:

Ole Bouman, director of Design Society in Shekou, Shenzhen, says the museum’s main purpose is to promote the understanding of design as a societal act. (PHOTO COURTESY: DESIGN SOCIETY)

Can you tell us anything about the exhibitions coming up at Design Society that you are most excited about? 

We are all very excited about a major exhibition, curated by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and called Fashioned from Nature, which opens on December 19, 2020. It’s one of the highlights of our multiyear collaboration. The exhibition explores not only the many ways in which fashion design has been and still is inspired by nature, but also addresses the complex relationship between fashion and the natural world, and highlights the critical role of design in creating a more sustainable fashion industry. 

China National Silk Museum has contributed a special section, Fashioned from Nature in China: Then and Now, guest-curated by Edith Cheung Sai-May, which investigates how nature has been inspiring Chinese historic costumes and textiles, presenting nearly 400 garments and accessories across almost 2,300 years. We can’t wait to offer this first Design Society show fully dedicated to fashion, from our signature angle of understanding design as a societal act. Through this exhibition, we aim to create dialogues between Chinese and Western perspectives on nature embodied in their respective histories of cloth making and consumption, projecting into a more planetary, sustainable future.

Also in December 2020 the first solo show of A.A. Murakami (the art studio of Studio Swine) from London on the Chinese mainland, comprising 16 newly-created works, opens in our Park View Gallery. The space has been magically transformed into a lab for dialogues between nature and technology, between being in the present and future.

We are preparing more key exhibitions to run in 2021. For instance, the winner of the first Design Society Curating Design Plan, which is an effort to scout new curatorial talent in design selected by a distinguished international jury, will exhibit their winning project in our Park View Gallery. We will also open a solo exhibition by graphic designer Jumping He, who previously curated our successful exhibition Henry Steiner: Graphic Communicator.

Alongside, Design Society is planning numerous events, inside and beyond its main venue, the Sea World Culture and Arts Center (SWCAC). We cannot do without collaboration.

Would you like to tell us about Values of Design: China in the Making and how this is a follow-up of the inaugural Values of Design show — trace the arc from the parent show to its second chapter?

The arc could be traced back to a time when I was creative director of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture of Shenzhen and Hong Kong in 2013, and we transformed an old float glass production plant into a “value factory”, a place for culture, which is now run by the Design Society team.

Since the time the China Merchants Group (the driving force behind SWCAC) started venturing into creative industries, they too emphasized the notion of “value”.  

We chose the name Design Society to reflect the direct relationship between a creative act and its societal impact. 

When Brendan Cormier curated Values of Design, in Design Society’s V&A Gallery, he chose “value” as it main component, to show that design does not just embody but can also create value, in a wide range of manners. Since interest in creativity as driver of the value chain is in Design Society’s DNA, it was only natural to continue this thread while exploring the history of Chinese design in the last 100 years. Lead curator Zhao Rong and her team found 138 of the most diverse objects to showcase, while weaving a cultural history of 100 years of design in China. We will continue to cherish this theme as our long-term identity marker, relying on it from talent scouting to building a unique collection.

Access to the inter-connected green rooftop of Sea World Culture and Arts Center, in Shekou, Shenzhen, creates a sense of ownership among visitors. (PHOTO COURTESY: DESIGN SOCIETY)

At a time when museums around the world are expected to reject older lenses of viewing art such as colonialism and Orientalism and trying to disentangle their art histories from Western cultural narratives, I think getting to display Chinese-made designs side by side with exhibits from Victoria & Albert Museum (some of which were also sourced from China) creates huge scope for rewriting the colonial narratives and offering a fresh perspective. Would like to tell us how the Design Society curators went about achieving this?

As a Dutch director working in China since many years, this is a very important question for me. It is at the heart of my engagement here. Unlike many “enlightened” museums in the West, we don’t have to express post-colonialism in the usual escalating sequence of awareness>>self-criticism>>restitutions>>reparations, with the massive hurdle half-way, when good intentions need to be substantiated by actions. I’m sure we are still only at the early stage of this process, and many painful moments are ahead of us. Meanwhile, from the perspective of a Chinese organization, being part of a larger company agenda for innovation and quality of life, and being in the midst of a social and creative dynamic that drives the entire country to a next stage of modernity, our institution can leapfrog to an entirely new discourse that is rooted in self-confidence, curiosity and an orientation to the future. This is the fresh perspective that emerges from a creative energy, rather than a reckoning. And I happen to believe that the V&A itself already tried to jump ahead by exploring timeless value, rather than, say, the “splendor of the V&A”.

Many public sculptures are on display in the Design Society compound. How has the public response to these been so far, especially in the later months of 2020 when the pandemic was brought under control in China? 

I see the public going through a process of discovery. I think this is a result of our initial decision to combine a world-class urban monument, designed by Fumihiko Maki, and a very engaged public program that goes beyond the physical dimension, and enriches the social one. 

On one hand, Maki chose to reserve more than a third of all space for the public, a generous meandering of plazas, terraces, stairways, escalators and lawns. On the other, Design Society intensifies this architectural richness with numerous public events, often for free, often for the young, always interactive and open-ended. The public art provides punctuations that help people to orient themselves, and shift scales inside the monumentality of the premises to human levels. Sometimes the art is sculptural and traditional, sometimes it is more ephemeral and participatory. Together they help people to feel “at home on stage”.

The sentiment I had in the months after the opening, that people approached the building not just as visitors but as explorers as well, was renewed recently. This sense of discovery has been reinstated because of the sheer pleasure of being able to freely move around in a public space. Recently, we could tap into this mood more directly by installing two pianos in the Central Plaza. Visitors really came to sit down and play – sometimes shy, sometimes very extroverted, creating fluid sculptures of sound inside the architecture.

Would you like to comment on how the Fumihiko Maki-created Design Society building and the spectacular location of SWCAC contribute to placemaking — help improve the quality of life of the people who visit the spot?

I think Maki’s main contribution is the creation of orientation, and hence it’s a celebration of the incredible values of the landscape around us: mountain, skyline, greenery, seaside horizon, a history of connections. The idea is to not just see all this, but to feel it. Maki allowed people to wander, to climb what he calls “People’s Hill”. What we have done to deepen and amplify this strategy is to see all programs as an invitation to participate, to vary the program to cater to many different kinds of audiences, to expand the word design from a noun to a verb and give everyone a stake. You can crawl inside some art, climb on it, find refuge inside it, sit on it, play it, and make it yours. 

Also our Go! Design Community Festivals are good examples of our efforts to give people a chance to try out being a designer. This is how we try to create memories.

Social Network Factory, created by People’s Architecture Office and installed on the Sea World Culture and Arts Center lawn, is a hit with young and mature visitors alike. (PHOTO COURTESY: DESIGN SOCIETY)

You seem to have a strong performance art component in your programing. Would you like to share any highlights from the performance art shows (recent or forthcoming)? 

Our performing arts program consists of the Mountain View Theater Classical Music Season, the Family Program, the Avant-Garde Projects, and the Beauty in Asian Instruments series. The last of these are concerts illustrating the charm of Asian music and a sensational experience of various cultures. The series is aimed at discovering artists who are able to blend traditional elements with innovation. This way we inspire both musicians and the audience to think about the way forward for traditional arts.

Our performing arts management team arranges casual outdoor activities for Shekou residents. Three Good Life Festivals that took place in June, September, and December of 2020 made good use of the grand sea view as well as various open spaces in SWCAC. The all-day activities included Picnic Concerts by local bands, Ocean Breeze Market, Kid’s Barter Corner, Pop-Up Shows, and featured collaborative events  such as one with  Stuttgart Animated Film Festival, in order  to convey a C.E.O (confident, energetic, optimistic) living attitude, both to entertain and stimulate the vitality of the community.

Such events help expand our network with Chinese and international artists, as well as local organizations.

While many museums around the world digitized and uploaded a lot of their collections and exhibitions online, and created virtual museum visit videos, Design Society does not seem to have gone down that road — not in a big way. Instead you have launched an online forum, Go (Online) Design Society, to host talks, panels and networking opportunities. Design Society also curated the Shenzhen Design Week Forum 2020 in August, which went online this year. What is the thinking here? 

Several aspects coalesce here. With our opening so recent, a key objective is still to make sure the venue is seen as a place to be at. It has been designed by one of the world’s finest architects, it crowns a major urban development of Shenzhen, it has been named one of Time magazine’s greatest places in 2018, and, let’s not deny, considerable investment  has gone into elevate it to that status, So we won’t want to give up being a visitor destination anytime soon. Fortunately, the time period we were closed due to the pandemic was relatively short and we have been back on track since long. 

Our second major objective is to function as a platform for professional designers. So, when it comes to online activities, we prefer to invest in debate, exchange, learning programs. Online exhibitions will not easily compete with what we can do on site, but online dialogue can be better than live, as was proven by the large turnout at our conferences. Besides Go (Online) Design Society, which directly tackled the topic of design in the age of Covid-19, we also developed a fully digital country “pavilion” for Shenzhen Design Week, to upload contributions from guest of honor, the Netherlands. It included a lasting global database on design and water management, as well as a substantial webinar. 

By hosting these events, we also helped create a sense of a new intellectual community, involving our international peers. We believe this alternative sense of togetherness will prove as important as the physical one.

COVID-19 has accelerated the growth of curated digitalized museum experience, targeted specifically at an online audience. What are your thoughts regarding this new medium of reaching out to previously untapped audience bases?

We are very interested in the design impact of digital technologies. We opened Design Society with a show called Minding the Digital, with several specially designed works that were halfway between analogue and digital. The show featured Virtual Reality installations. 

For the online content we produce, we are constantly learning from platforms like Xiaohongshu, TikTok and others, knowing that they challenge institutions tremendously – first because they compete in the new “attention economy”, and second because they too are into innovations in the fields of art and design. 

Talking of digital challenges, we just hosted a workshop on the impact of AI on the age-old disciplines of architecture and urbanism as a part of our GO! Design Community Festival. Hence, we engage with new technologies not just to score more users online, but to enhance the quality of design.

Values of Design exhibition at Design Society’s V&A Gallery. (PHOTO COURTESY: DESIGN SOCIETY)

According to a new enhanced definition of museums proposed to ICOM, museums should work towards “planetary well-being”. The gorgeous green rooftop of The SWCAC suggests an investment in environmental consciousness. Would you like to give us examples of how Design Society is trying to be energy-efficient and cut down on carbon footprints? 

SWCAC sits at the end of a long promenade that stretches more than 15 kilometers. The building is a catalogue of architectural journeys, climbing and stepping up ramps and flights of stairs. Once you are on the roof, you can take another stroll to reach several gorgeous viewpoints. Our building is first of all a building to get healthy at. I myself sometimes take the coastal stairs on a quiet Sunday morning, before the museum opens to get some exercise and an eyeful of the sea view. 

The second factor we take into account is how intensely we want to use the building. More visitor traffic means less resources wasted. 

The third factor has to do with promoting a design that benefits society at large, and presenting it as a center of resource of ideas for others to benefit from. For example, the Fashioned from Nature exhibition, a collaboration between many eco-friendly partners, is a perfect example of promoting sustainability. 

In the wake of COVID-19, the museum business model has collapsed around the world. Can you tell us if Design Society was also impacted by the loss of visitors? What do you think might be a bankable business model, going forward? Could the partnership with V&A be a source of sustained financial support? 

We have developed a business case that from the very beginning took into account the need for resilience. The process of building a brand, getting to know one’s audience, and market one’s best assets, has inspired us to diversify the sources of income across rental, tickets, consultancy and so on. 

We are obviously in the process of building a case, where defending quality is eventually the way forward for any business, rather than falling back on the quick fix. I’m glad that since this year we also have a Design Society Foundation that gives further legitimacy to the mission of our institution, and independently defends its standards.

You already run several community-oriented educational and public programs for people across the board. Which among these have proved to be the most popular? Also, would you have programs specifically targeted at disadvantaged or under-privileged groups? 

 We do a lot for and with children, from frequent maker activities to fun performances. Many of these are collaborations with local organizations, like Shekou Foundation, Maker Fair, and many others. We have also set up several collaborations with public schools, which increasingly find their way to the museum. We don’t specifically target disadvantaged groups, but make sure the threshold for participation is low.  

China got a grip on COVID-19 faster than many other states of the world, particularly those in North America and Europe, known for their time-tested museum culture. How can the museums in China harness this advantage they have over the competition?

The comparison between the Chinese and western museum culture is an interesting one, and goes deeper than the way they deal with the pandemic. At the end of the day, it is about the position of history and creativity in society. Having worked in museums on both sides, I observe enormous differences. The already discussed issue of colonialism is one of them, but beyond that it may even be a matter of cultural vitality, future orientation, geo-political dynamics and respect for history. Competition might not be the ultimate lens to watch this scenario though. I’d rather ask what exactly do museums cultivate, and why?  

When Design Society launched in December 2017, there was a palpable skepticism in the coverage — especially the British press — as to whether a museum under the jurisdiction of the Chinese government could actually have an independent curatorial voice. After three years of running the museum, do you think you could do with greater freedom, or do you feel restricted in any way?

We are exactly three years further down the road, and I of course remember the skepticism, alongside the excitement by the way. None of the naysayers ever came back to check the truth of their first-day verdict. I spent more than 1,000 days here ever since and can testify that the overarching goals we set ourselves, to cultivate creativity and position and demonstrate design as social catalyst, were never jeopardized by jurisdiction. 

More important was the challenge of short-term thinking, manifest on various occasions – the wish to see success too quickly, the need to reach financial targets, the sudden process interventions for ceremonial purposes. There were also generic budget cuts and branding errors to deal with. But none are essentially different from the setbacks I experienced in other countries, and none have kicked us off the main path towards a great place to visit, an inspiring platform to learn and exchange at, a lasting architectural monument, a curatorial talent hub and a vibrant institution.

If you have a dream on behalf of Design Society you might want to achieve in the next five years, what might that be?  

I feel privileged to have spent three years preparing the launch of this institution, and three years running it in full operation towards its current vibrancy. In general, I hope that in five years, we are a part of a regional network of thriving institutions, sharing and exchanging ideas, products and resources, serving several millions of residents and visitors who may benefit from fresh, creative leadership.

More specifically, I hope that Design Society will be able to broaden its activity mix to achieve a reinvention of the idea of the museum in this century. Off the top of my head I can think of a few ideas – like curating inspiring moments beyond the walls of a building, matching design talent with social needs, using one of our venues as a multimedia publishing space, supporting designers and creative institutions to establish a creative foothold in China and vice versa, exploring the potential of sound design, and reinvigorating the dialogue with the V&A and other global institutions. 

Interviewed by Chitralekha Basu

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