This summer I traveled to the Czech Republic to participate in the 26th International Biennial of Graphic Design Brno. While the biennial has become a popular format for presenting contemporary art and architecture, there are only a handful of graphic design biennials. The Biennial Foundation, an independent nonprofit founded to “create a spirit of solidarity and equality among contemporary art biennials worldwide,” lists 161 biennials of art or architecture. For graphic design, Google finds 6.
Why should graphic design be presented in elaborate, grandiose showcases known as biennials? Graphic design is the logo on our coffeemaker, the layout of the websites we visit, the billboards on our commute to work. Graphic design is a practical profession; it is visual communication that helps one service or organization differentiate itself from another. In the US especially, design is business’s “value added” sidekick.
Yet a graphic design biennial presents an alternate view of design. Like an architecture biennial, a graphic design biennial suggests that the practice’s fundamental feature—communication—can and should be explored in ways that are experimental and speculative. Biennials, and other exhibitions about design, allow the field to reflect on its methods, to surface wild ideas and to generate critical thinking about the social role design plays.
The 26th Brno Biennial, which took place 19 June through 26 October 2014, addressed the theme “graphic design, education and schools” through exhibitions, projects and lectures at the second-largest museum in the Czech Republic, the Moravian Gallery. The biennial encompassed material that was rigorously intellectual and formally exciting but also humorous and fun. The main exhibition focused on the work of students, which was abundant in typographic experimentation and wordplay. My favorite poster, however, was the delightfully out-of-context photomontage of a bread roll as a Mars rover.
In another installation the designers Sulki and Min Choi examined how certain types of design education have been emphasized by the biennial by charting the academic backgrounds of the designers included in its last five iterations. Among the speakers of the opening weekend symposium, curator Barbara Steiner spoke about the social and economic relationship between art and design, and Maki Suzuki of the studio Åbäke presented “Seriously Forks X, a Talk About Talks.”
I was involved in distracted-workshop #1: may change, a project to create a “workshop” on cross-disciplinary learning in which visitors could take part in activities generated by artists and designers; for example, visitors could contribute to the building of a single basket out of an enormous pile of rope, generating a collaborative sculpture by the biennial’s closing. While each Brno Biennial gathers research and information around a specific topic, what participants choose to focus on reflects the current developments and concerns of visual culture itself.
Notably, all 6 graphic design biennials take place outside the US. Chatting one day with our biennial contact, Anna Šimková, she was surprised to hear that graphic design in the US does not get the biennial treatment it does overseas. Anna asked, “In the US, graphic design is not considered an art?”
“We encounter graphic design every day, it’s so close to us,” she continued. “Why would we not want to investigate it further?"