The following is an interview with Jan Boelen – art and design critic, curator and teacher – who visited Riga in connection with the project, “Make Design! Dutch Design Made in Latvia!” and gave a lecture on the new definitions in design. Jan Boelen heads the Department of Social Design at Design Academy Eindhoven, and, since 2002, he has been the director of the contemporary art center, “Kunstcentrum Z33”, in Hasselt, a town in the province of Limburg. “Z33” has become a notable event center in the Belgian art and architecture scene. In 2012, it will host the European contemporary art biennale, Manifesta.
Tell me about “Z33”, of which you are the director, and which in your lecture, you introduced as a new type of art place.
In 2002, I founded Z33 – a regional contemporary art place. It consists of several infrastructures and ways of how to mediate or transform knowledge – it's an exhibition place, we do publications, lectures, debates etc. We are always looking for the right medium for the right message. At first, the discussion between art and design was at the core of creating our exhibitions. Now, it is shifting more towards discussions about themes that evolve in society.
Z33 started connecting things and their context, which were already there, and brought the international scene to our place. As artistic director of Z33, I try to make links with different organizations and all kinds of parties that are involved in societal themes. For me, contemporary art is not autonomous – it is related to society (this doesn’t mean that an artist can’t be autonomous). It is always reflecting and connecting the world in which we live in. That is how we develop the program.
Designers and artists both react towards what is happening in society. I don’t see the need for the distinction of whether it is a design- or an art exhibition. We also involve other disciplines – philosophers, researchers, all kinds of people who are reflecting on what is happening in society.
Could you mention some exhibitions which exemplify how this line between art and design dissolves?
If you go see the exhibition going on now in Z33, Architecture of Fear, you'll see that it is not so much an exhibition on architecture, but on the system of fear – the system that is, in fact, ruling society at this moment. This is not a society of opportunities, but a society where everything is directed by fear, starting with commercial companies and politics, all the way up to the environment. If you read the press, “crisis” is the word used most often; crises are everywhere – financial crisis, political crisis, economic crisis. Fear is all around us and we, as human beings, are trying to react towards it by creating order – constructing, building, and trying to control the irrational aspects of life.
This exhibition was created not only by artists, but also by designers. Other disciplines were included as well – for instance, there was also a debate with legal specialists about freedom versus security – how far can one go with security systems, aren't they already limiting our freedom, etc.
What has changed in the last years – Z33 is going more and more into the public space, which we are explicitly calling “open space” – the space outside the white cube in which we traditionally make exhibitions. This “open space” is a common playing field for several players – we invite architects, artists and urban planners to collaborate on such public space projects, to circle the relevant things that are on the agenda – these can be issues of heritage, the economy, or the population; or things that have to do with ecology or nature. For several years now, we have been developing this program in a 10 square-km area – it is an ongoing exhibition program and the actions of artists, designers and others have put these things on the political agenda.
For instance, there is a beautiful rural area with old hills and very small, but beautiful, churches – they are the landmarks of the region. The big problem facing catholic churches in the Flanders area is that they are disappearing; they are not being used anymore. But they are the core of these very little villages – people were baptized or married there; all of the most important events in their social lives took place around these churches. I see as our task putting this problem on the agenda. Of course, the line becomes very thin – how far do we go to find strategies, to have discussions with all of the people that are involved in these projects. How can sculpture, or an action, a workshop or performance, be used in that process. >>