Zoë Ryan On Curating the 2014 Istanbul Design Biennial

When Zoë Ryan—the first-ever design curator at the Art Institute of Chicago—got a call to be at the helm of the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial, she was ecstatic. For the young British curator, the Biennial presented a chance to get to know a different part of the world, engage a new audience, and take on the challenge of encouraging a global focus on design—with methods specific to the field—all in Istanbul, a place ripe with possibility and uncertainty. Months later, we caught up with Ryan while she was in the throes of planning and the early stages of installing in Istanbul, and learned about what’s in store for the upcoming Design Biennial, as well as the trajectory that led her to this impressive appointment.

Raised in London, and “brought up around art and artists,” Ryan was captivated by exhibition-making from very early on. A sojourn studying art history in Holland invited Ryan to understand a new city while living and breathing it. After several stints interning and otherwise assisting with design exhibitions—working with posters at the Victoria and Albert Museum and on an exhibition featuring the Campana Brothers and Ingo Maurer at MoMA—she began to home in on this intersection of architecture, design, and everyday life. After six years developing her methods and deploying complex, multi-faceted curatorial projects at the Van Alen Institute in New York, Ryan joined the Art Institute of Chicago where she is now the Chair and John H. Bryan Curator of Architecture and Design.

This year, faced with the challenge of curating the Design Biennial, which spans five floors of the Galata Greek Primary school, Ryan has employed her most important curatorial methods: listen carefully, research, soak up everything, maintain a critical eye, and build a team of people she knows as well as some that she doesn’t. Organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) and presented under the title “The Future is Not What It Used to Be,” the Design Biennial addresses the idea of the manifesto, invites new definitions of the future, and questions our own agency within those definitions. Ryan asks: How can we use the manifesto as a lens through which to understand the importance and significance that design has in shaping our everyday life? The exhibition’s title, taken from a 1937 Paul Valéry quote, resonates with Ryan; it is ripe with the interwar potency of looking to the future but also understanding the past and strikes her as relevant to today.

In order to decide what to present, Ryan held “Talk to Us” sessions—informal, roundtable conversations—with over 100 Turkish architects and designers who helped her team to understand the state of design in Istanbul, and also allowed them to identify a set of critical issues to address. Over 800 submissions came through after an open and international call for ideas. With the help of a local advisory group and a steering committee, Ryan and team narrowed down their focus to 53 projects, one-third of which are authored by Turkish practitioners.

Given the task at hand, Ryan and her team have selected projects that bring into the open ideas of the future in myriad ways. Visionary and inventive as they may be, these projects are grounded in reality, addressing themes both immediate and primordial. In a space choreographed by Superpool, the exhibition starts off with a series of possible futures, envisioned though distinct “departments”: Personal, Norms and Standards, Resources, Civic Relations, and Broadcast. Three larger interventions—a broadcast station, a reading room, and a look at past museum exhibitions—collectively titled “Back to the Future,” address specific aspects of the manifesto.

Throughout her career, Ryan has been motivated by the process of making—by what it means to be a designer—and how to rethink established typologies. When it’s all said and done in Istanbul, she will return to her post at the Art Institute with her biggest exhibition to date in 2015: a retrospective on the consummate global modern architect David Adjaye, organized together with Okwui Enwezor.

When asked how this experience in Istanbul will affect her methods of curating and acquisition, the theme of openness comes back again. Ryan laughs as she explains that this project is certainly making her more nimble. The other major takeaway, she explains, is the imperative to craft and rethink what it means to show work inside a museum: to cultivate narratives that are much more open and to invite certain juxtapositions, but not preclude others. The social implications of design will follow Ryan wherever she goes.

The 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial will be open from November 1 until December 14, Tuesday through Sunday, 10am – 7pm at the Galata Greek Primary School (Kemeraltı Cad. No: 49, 34425 Galata, Beyoğlu-İstanbul)

Portrait by Cynthia Lynn, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago; Biennial poster designed by Project Projects; Galata Greek Primary School photograph: Refik Anadol; 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial venue design, Superpool.