In her book The Circuit (available here), graphic design writer, researcher and educator Hannah Ellis investigates the actual meaning of design when it reaches the scale of fairs, festivals and biennials, as well as the effects of these events on people and places. Here, we publish, with permission of the author, a short excerpt about the political and economic genealogy of these manifestations. The Circuit is the the first title in the ‘Design Capital’ series, edited by Francisco Laranjo, Luiza Prado and Silvio Lorusso.
Common sense suggests that ‘design events’ are obviously and exclusively about design. But a more complex conclusion of what they do or are or how they exist in the world is slightly harder to pin down. They are slippery things, tricky to articulate precisely because of the fundamentals we take for granted, and subject to unofficial precursors — like ‘promotional’ — that change their meaning entirely.
‘Events’ is too big a category to file under, a cluttering of festivals and weeks and biennials, piling together the exhibitions that take over a city for days, weeks, sometimes months. Flags are planted overnight and lay claim to a place that has been conquered by design. From the outside, beyond the length of time that they stretch out and over a city for, they behave largely in the same way, or at least appear to. Differentiation requires a bit of etymological digging: take, for example, the meaning of ‘festival’ – a day or period of celebration, usually religious. For the most part, design festivals are annual, celebrating the subject with Gregorian predictability, much like the dedicated Weeks that block out one fifty-second of the industry calendar. Language puts ‘design’ next to deities and, traced back far enough, ‘festival’ can be followed through iterations of Old French and Latin – festivalis, festivus – to the root of festa, for feast. A day of dedication or a celebratory meal; in this case, what is gorged upon is not good food and wine, but an overabundance of design with the capital D. (They should not, I realise later on, be confused as moments for close examination or interrogation; further backwards still, festa is one step removed from festus – joyous.)
Iconic interior view of the transept of the Crystal Palace, showing the size and scale of the building and the Great Exhibition. (The Transept, Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, from the originals painted for Prince Albert, by Messrs. Nash, Haghe and Roberts.)
Design biennials (biennales, if you’re committed to the Italian) are more complicated still. As both an adjective and a noun, ‘biennial’ starts with botany: a plant with a lifecycle – from seed, through growth and flowering, to eventual expiration – of two years. First used in Ancient Greece to determine two-yearly plants from those that were one-yearly or others that seemed to regenerate forever, it was not until the 17th century that the word was used to mean anything that occurred one year, and skipped the next. It was much later, in the mid-1900s, after Venice, that it was used to define syncopated events: usually a large scale art exhibition presented for and towards an international audience.
This image and the following ones: illustrations showing the critically different ways that exhibitions from Italy, America, Turkey, India and the Bahamas and Trinidad (titled ‘Colonial Produce’ by the artist) were curated and presented to the public during the Great Exhibition. (Italian Court from the Nave, Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, from the originals painted for Prince Albert, by Messrs. Nash, Haghe and Roberts.)
Design enters somewhere in between these two dates, as the lineage of festivals and biennials and other similar events overlap. Mid-way through the Industrial Revolution, early design events that shared the international ambitions of contemporary biennials – expositions (exponere: expose, publish, explain) and world fairs (Middle English: a periodic gathering for the sale of goods, later an exhibition to promote particular products)1 – emerged as countries competed to be seen. By this time, ideas of joyous dedication or celebration at smaller scales had already been replaced by competitive largeness. Promotion was central to these early events. In 1844, the Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie Française, widely thought of as the first international ‘design event’, had gained a reputation for bringing together feats of manufacturing that escaped France’s country borders. For half a century, the event had increased in size, starting as a protectionist attempt to shield French manufacturers from economic damage caused by cheaper English products. Early versions of the Exposition had been small, and stalls were set out with French-made products for visitors to buy. Browsing, it turned out, was more popular though – both with the general public and with makers themselves – a realisation that was quickly picked up on by officials and turned into strategy. In 1834, the President of the Societé Royale d’Emulation, Jacques Boucher de Perthes, spoke of the benefits that came out of peer-assessment, saying: ‘It is here that the producer brings the fruit of his labour side by side with that of his neighbour – takes the measure of his efforts, estimates the merits of his productions … exhibitions are better than prohibitions, which tend to separate men and isolate them.’ (Greenhalgh, 1988, p. 10) French makers, so the theory went, would be encouraged to continue to improve their work, cycling between display, constructive nosiness, and a desire for self-betterment.
America, Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, from the originals painted for Prince Albert, by Messrs. Nash, Haghe and Roberts.
It was through repetition, though, the two or more yearly cycles of growth and improvement, that the promotional value outgrew that of design itself. By its tenth iteration in 1844, the Exposition, publishing outwards, had become something else entirely – both in intent and scale. Catalogues that documented previous events had caught attentions across Europe. Stalls were replaced by a temporary building on the Champs-Élysées that was purpose-built for the two month exhibition. Almost 4,000 items were on display: from Fine and Decorative Arts, to ‘machines to drill the ground for water, to transform sea-water into fresh water, to heat rooms, and improved devices for electroplating with gold or silver.’ (Burat, cited in Daniels, 2013, p. 5) For a while, Paris was the centre-point crossing of industrial production and pageantry. As a city, it could command attention. It was seen to be capable of changing the world.
Turkey No 2, Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, from the originals painted for Prince Albert, by Messrs. Nash, Haghe and Roberts.
Happening at a time of imperial power struggles, the Exposition quickly inspired competitors. Britain, never to appear outdone, held the Great Exhibition shortly afterwards in 1851, in the purpose-built Crystal Palace. Without precedents to refer back to, early events had to ‘invent a way of showing manufactured objects so as to render them meaningful beyond themselves.’(Greenhalgh, 1988, p. 3) Entertainment, spectacle and pageantry became integral elements of display. The size of a small city itself, covering nineteen acres of ground, the Crystal Palace was built over and around the mature trees of Hyde Park that stood in its way. (Later, I read that the displays inside were ten miles long, and ache at the thought.) Overseen by Prince Albert, thirty-four nations, some 15,000 individual exhibitors, took part in the one-off event.
India No 1, Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, from the originals painted for Prince Albert, by Messrs. Nash, Haghe and Roberts.
Architecture was used metaphorically. If the Paris expositions had advocated for industrially-driven progress, the Great Exhibition stood for bigness and dominion. As much as anything else, the Exhibition acted as a show of importing ability. Writing in Ephemeral Vistas, historian and curator Paul Greenhalgh notes that ‘despite a quasi-educational slant, the overall attitude and feeling was one of stocktaking, of an accountant’s inventory of a company’s possessions.’(1988, p. 54) Of the thousands of objects on show to the public, half were examples of products of Britain and the countries that it had forced into subjugation.2 On display were raw materials, commodities, fine art pieces, and manufacturing processes: printing presses that worked and demystified production to a public audience; the 105.6 carats of the Koh-i-Noor diamond; tapestries and textiles; steam-powered trains; cotton was refined and spun and woven in front of visitors’ eyes. Empire, he continues, was seen as ‘a commodity, a thing more important than but not dissimilar to shawls, ironwork, flax, or indeed, sculpture… This point was reinforced by the way the countries within the empire were exhibited, as quantifiable batches of produce rather than as cultures.’
Whilst histories and cultures that had been interrupted, flattened, or erased entirely by colonisation were objectified and reduced into one inside the Crystal Palace, the imbalance of power would see the inverse happen across Europe. Countries were opened up. Railways had cut lines across the continent; new cartographies formed around them. Many people would later point to the Exhibition, converging as it did with a quickly democratising and cheapening transport infrastructure, as the beginning of cultural tourism on a massive scale. Over the course of five-and-a-half months, six million people visited The Exhibition — because they could. A requirement of the event was that it would be self-financing, and entry to visitors was ticketed. It broke even, and then some. In total, the Exhibition made a profit of £186,000 (which, adjusted for inflation, works out at somewhere between £18–26 million today) (Picard, 2009) and the surplus was folded back into the surrounding area, funding London’s museum district, the straight line stretch from South Kensington tube station to Hyde Park colloquially known as Albertopolis. The Great Exhibition, in its success, was soon followed by others as nations were enticed by a heady mix of uncritical attention and easy money: the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (New York, 1853–4); the Exposition Universelle (Paris, 1855); the Ottoman General Exposition (Istanbul, 1863). Within twenty years, world fairs had established themselves as a mode of display of the powerful, and repeated their idea of ‘progress’ around the world.
Colonial Produce, Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, from the originals painted for Prince Albert, by Messrs. Nash, Haghe and Roberts.
Greenhalgh, P. (1988). Ephemeral Vistas: The “Expositions Universelles,” Great Exhibitions and World’s Fairs, 1851–1939. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Picard, L. (2009, October 14). The Great Exhibition. Retrieved from British Library: https://www.bl.uk/victorian-britain/articles/the-great-exhibition.
Other Worlds is a shapeshifting journal for design research, criticism and transformation. Other Worlds (OW) aims at making the social, political, cultural and technical complexities surrounding design practices legible and, thus, mutable.
OW hosts articles, interviews, short essays and all the cultural production that doesn’t fit neither the fast-paced, volatile design media promotional machine nor the necessarily slow and lengthy process of scholarly publishing. In this way, we hope to address urgent issues, without sacrificing rigour and depth.
OW is maintained by the Center for Other Worlds (COW), at Lusófona University, Portugal. COW focuses on the development of perspectives that aren’t dominant nor imposed by the design discipline, through criticism, speculation and collaboration with various disciplines such as curating, architecture, visual arts, ecology and political theory, having in design an unifying element but rejecting hierarchies between them.
Editorial Board: Silvio Lorusso (editor), Luiza Prado, Francisco Laranjo, Luís Alegre, Rita Carvalho, Patrícia Cativo, Hugo Barata
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‘Fair’ is also derived from the Latin feriae – holy days on which fairs were held – neatly tying commodities and production right back up with worship. ↩
Ibid. p. 53. Greenhalgh notes the extremity of domination at the time: ‘The produce of every possession that could be economically transported was to be there… the East Indies, Indian Archipelago, Jersey, Guernsey, Ceylon [now Sri Lanka], Ionian Islands, Malta, Cape of Good Hope, Natal, West Coast of Africa, Canada, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, St. Helena, Mauritius, the Seychelles, St. Domingo, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Kitt’s, Barbados, Antigua, British Guiana [now Guyana], the Bahamas, Trinidad, the Bermudas, South Australia, Western Australia, New Zealand, New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land [now Tasmania], Labuan and Borneo.’ ↩