Notes on the 8th Cheongju International Craft Biennale

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Reena Kallat, “White Heat” (2008)

The biennial (a format borrowed from the art world) is a rare space in design since it allows for questioning what the discipline is and what social purposes it serves – crucial at a moment when design is moving beyond its traditionally commercial concerns.

Justin McGuirk, on the 2011 Gwangju Design Biennale

Last week I attended the Cheongju International Craft Biennale (CICB, herein) – a publicly funded exhibition that combines techniques and objectives of the art world and the design professions in showing the role of everyday objects under the heading of “Something Old, Something New”. This exhibition highlighted some recent phenomena which have become important aspects of the creative professions: one, that craft and design are becoming interchangeable terms, another being the importance of finding not necessarily a market for one’s work, but a public. After all, the sectors of craft, even as they merge with design, are grounded in their potential to change public space, whether this is through architecture, fashion, or utilitarian objects.

As a public forum, the CICB communicates the role of design in humanizing the environment and the population that inhabits it, and by “environment”, we are not only referring to the natural environment (e.g. climate and the resources at hand), but the social environment, often represented by urbanized areas. This was apparent in the sections of the exhibition, which were Mother, Care, Survival, The Formative Logic, and the Market.

As a government program, an exhibition mounted on the scale of the CICB raises issues on public spending and funding, but also clarifies its role in engaging the public when it comes to aesthetic questions—especially those which concern products, their consumption, and the legacy they leave as precursors to utility, to necessity, and to speculative thinking. When we talk about the utilitarian, it reflects our politics as much as our culture. The things we use, to quote (MIT Professor, author of Evocative Objects) Sherry Turkle, are by nature the things we think with.

From what I saw, what makes Korean design Korean stems from this logic. Design is a profession that is grounded in the public that uses it. That the CICB was not a site for private interests, but a publicly funded program, reflects in its philosophy of catering not solely to the market, but a commitment to the public trust. Korean design can thus be found not in the attempts to inject referents to Korean culture into the design process, but in making creativity an intellectual pursuit that is integral to every level of Korean education. This was evident in the distribution of a Biennale Kids Kit, or a guide made especially for children below the age of 10. If this is not indicative of public service and of reaching out to the broadest possible audience, I don’t know what is. It reflects how design education is rooted in understanding the aesthetic questions that abound wherever you are from.

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The surrounding ideas and existing definitions of craft may connote small-scale businesses that profit from unique production, without the glamour and speculation surrounding the art market, or the necessity of mass production that comes with design. An exhibition like the CICB however makes it clear that, in Korea, not only is there space for this type of practice to thrive; by recognizing that small and medium enterprises (as crafts typically are) need to be made sustainable, the Korean government recognizes their role in balancing the presence of large corporations, conglomerates, and transnational brands, creating homegrown alternatives for Korean consumers, while providing options for those who wish to go their own way.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with large industries, the ideologies accompanying dependence on employment and occupation do little to foster the initiative and confidence among citizens that are necessary to keep a nation afloat. And while entrepreneurship and artisanal production are not for everyone, they need to be (re)presented as viable alternatives.

CICB thus represents an ontology of design that reaches out to its public through the issues surrounding everyday objects. We did not see as much art as we saw things meant for everyday use, mostly in the home. Their status was not necessarily elevated through their presence in the white cube, rather their presence in our daily lives was acknowledged through their role in history and in the sphere of high culture.

The focus of this biennale was not so much in the development of new materials, but in exhausting the use of readily available ones. Yet, the most relevant material, and the objective of this biennale, was in comprehending how the public comes into your work as a designer or an artist, recognizing that society is a valuable material of a design or craft practitioner, thus steeping the exhibition in theoretical frameworks offered by Material Culture and Sociology.

This separates design education from the needs of free enterprise and grounds it in public needs, which are instrumental to the kind of service offered by programs offered in public universities. In serving the industry, we need to understand the role of the public in that industry, and how as a publicly funded program, we can best use our efforts and our intelligence to serve it. This goes beyond employment, beyond consumption, and tackles the things that come free of charge when we are exposed to good design. By confronting the role of design in changing the environment, through the objects we create in order to make our lives easier, we recognize the human capacity for conceptualizing and executing aesthetic decisions upon a specific geocultural context; or rather, if you can change a space, you can change a place.

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