How London Design Biennale is taking steps towards better sustainability after the pandemic

Director Victoria Broackes says the event is changing directions and that it is 'thinking of design in new ways'

“If you’re not responding to the crises that people are thinking of right now, you’re not relevant,” says Victoria Broackes, director of London Design Biennale.

The London Design Biennale, which closes this weekend, made climate change a visible priority. The biennale’s artistic director, Es Devlin, installed a small forest in the courtyard of Somerset House, surrounded by the participating countries’ pavilions.

An installation of 17 pillars represented key ideas around climate change, and visitors could share their own suggestions by speaking into a microphone. These propositions will become a data visualisation by Google Arts & Culture that will be exhibited at the next UN Climate Change Conference in November.

“Somerset House is an Enlightenment-era building,” Broackes says. “It comes out of the idea that man is the measure of all things. That’s an immediate provocation. Is man the measure of nature?”

As with all provocations, its longevity is in question. Why not just go to a park? And indeed the biennale has been called out for virtue signalling –  lots of art about sustainability, little sustainability itself.

But I wouldn’t be so quick to write it off. What we see in art and culture are indubitably small, yet bona fide attempts to change the ecological footprint of working practices.

The Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai this year commissioned an environmental impact study – but found that water usage, rather than energy consumption, accounted for most of its negative toll. It is now taking measures to reduce this water consumption, in a behind-the-scenes counterpoint to an ongoing research project on water and desert ecologies.

A group of London galleries have banded into the Gallery Climate Coalition, which has developed a carbon calculator specifically tailored to the industry so that art spaces can better understand where they need to cut down. And the Frieze art fairs are now reusing their carpets, stands, and tent rather than buying new ones each year, a process that was first initiated in 2010.

The London Design Biennale has similarly effected simple changes, such as stickers to identify visitors rather than giving them plastic wristbands, and looking into more ecologically friendly versions of the vinyl they use.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 01:   Director of London Design Biennale Victoria Broackes attends the opening of "Forest For Change: The Global Goals Pavilion" at the London Design Biennale at Somerset House on June 1, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

“It’s not perfect,” says Broackes. “Things aren’t properly costed, and you can’t ask people to make irrational decisions. I think of the installation material we throw out for each exhibition, because it is cheaper to buy new than to store things. But that’s because the long-term environmental impact is not costed in.”

The London Design Biennale was meant to go ahead last year, and its delay owing to the coronavirus gave it the enviable opportunity to respond to the upheavals of the year-long pandemic.

But this was also a double-edged sword: like writing a review of a play during the interval, art and design are now struggling to address a crisis that is still ongoing.

“The biggest changes in design will come in broadening out,” says Broackes, who was previously a senior curator at the V&A. “That means talking to other people who usually aren’t considered part of the design industry.”

We are thinking of design in new ways. There's a sense of possibility that design can address these challenges, and provide new and creative responses. People think design is the icing on the cake. But it's not – it's the whole cake

Broackes points to a collaboration between the Design Biennale and policymakers, via the think tank Chatham House, that yielded proposals in response to problems such as health and social inequality that were exacerbated by the pandemic.

Titled Design In An Age of Crisis, the open call brought in 500 projects from over 50 countries – with 30 per cent of the proposals from people new to design.

Designers are also more aware than the general public of the environmental cost of production and construction more broadly – and they are often better placed to offer solutions.

A number of the pavilions looked towards ecological costs in building design, such as Canada’s, for which the firm Revery Architecture created two enormous and strikingly elegant gold-coloured aluminium tubes. These housed air conditioning vents that, installed low in the space, blocked the visitor’s path – forcing the audience to consider the typically hidden and environmentally damaging practice.

La Rentrada, by Maria Elena Pombo from Venezuela, satirised the country's overwhelming reliance on oil via an installation of avocado seeds, which it presented as equally useful: bricks and glass and leather substitutes can be made from avocado seeds (really!), while on a wall, an installation of baggies was full of rotting avocado stones, all turning to mush.

The London Design Biennale is organised similarly to the Venice Biennale, in that each country mounts its own exhibition in response to a central theme, rather than being directly co-ordinated by a curator.

This year, because of the ongoing restrictions, a number of countries had to pull out – which meant that smaller outfits, such as students at the Royal College of Art, were given an invitation to participate. A group of designers from the Middle East banded together as Designers in the Middle, and used their pavilion to think through the formal propositions of the casbah.

These played with the idea of visibility, as for example in a ping-pong table that hid a carved, mashrabiya-like geometric design on its underside, visible only through the reflections of a mirror below.

Most of the pavilions adapted to the changed circumstances of the pandemic – some simply by becoming more virtual, or more able to be remotely installed – but the New York City pavilion changed its entire pavilion. Studio Elsewhere created "recharge rooms" for healthcare workers at Mount Sinai Hospital during the outbreak, which hit New York early and hard, and exhibited the work they did in this acute phase of the pandemic.

“All this is a start,” says Broackes of the biennale’s change in direction. “We are thinking of design in new ways. There’s a sense of possibility that design can address these challenges, and provide new and creative responses. People think design is the icing on the cake. But it’s not – it’s the whole cake.”

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