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Stéphane Barbier Bouvet Design As We Speak

Design as we Speak

by Stephane Barbier Bouvet

Design as we Speak by the artist and designer Stéphane Barbier Bouvet is the first exhibition in a series of projects at Grand Hall in Zaventem Ateliers, curated by Dimitri Jeurissen, with the aim of critically approaching art, design and craft.

The exhibition develops from Barbier Bouvet’s ongoing engagement with design as an application, a form of knowledge and a critical comment on the field of art and design. His design approach is reminiscent of En rachâchant, a 1982 short film, based on a work by Marguerite Duras, by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. The film is a humorous comment on education: its lead character, the child Ernesto, decides to remain a minor, to persist as such, by refusing to learn anything that he does not know already. When his teacher points to a pinned butterfly under glass on the classroom wall and ask the child to name it, he replies: ‘It is a crime’. As the scene suggests, the refusal to learn, or the processes of non-assimilation and unlearning, can reorganize visual consensus. Or, as Proust put it, ‘The only true voyage (…) would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes.’ Barbier Bouvet works along those lines, upending the market logic that maintains that the purpose of knowledge is the generation of economic value – a logic that dominates not only the field of education, but also those of art and architecture.

Uninterested in prescriptive ways of designing, in fixed solutions or in singular truths, Design as we Speak is a snapshot of an ongoing design process inspired by oft-forgotten bioclimatic principles and vernacular knowledge. Barbier Bouvet’s methodology consists of ruling out all redundant embellishment and taste in order to let logic alone dictate the next step. By reducing objects to their absolute minimum, Barbier Bouvet retrieves the essence of designing. Taking the cabin as a departure point, the exhibition expands principle elements from the artist’s practice relating to autonomy, adaptability, lightness and open-endedness. Three cases – Palama, Cévennes and Maloja – explore various angles, aspects and concerns of this practice. All relatively different to each other in terms of design and habitability, and far from ever being ‘complete’, the cabins address the necessary attitude and conditions for the creation of spaces of refuge and autonomy. All three cabins are designed for seasonal stays and contribute to a sustainable understanding of their individual contexts.

Maloja and Palama could be read as direct consequences of their surroundings. Maloja is a reconversion of an existing hay barn into an artist’s residence in the village of Maloja on Lake Sils, in the southeast of Switzerland. Such wooden barns, typical of the Gräubunded canton, are a classic example of functional, vernacular architecture, with the ground floor being used for keeping cattle and upper for storing hay. These barns’ reason for existing is their agricultural use, and not the creative whims of an architect. Palama is a vacant and run-down cabin situated at one of the highest elevations of Marseille. Built in the nineteenth century, the cabin’s design is based on bioclimatic principles (the use of environmental sources such as sunlight, wind and water). The building has in modern times been altered by renovations, undermining the role of its surroundings and the local climate.

Here, Barbier Bouvet’s design methodology becomes apparent: he restores the cabin and reactivates its original features, while integrating contemporary insights and materials. No longer physically connected to centralized support systems, the cabin is presented as a self-reliant infrastructure that holds the potential of a quasi-autonomous life.

The third cabin, Cévennes, equally takes into account the environment, albeit an ever-changing one: it is designed to travel. Its lightweight structure is made out of a cost-efficient pallet-racking system of standardized dimension, yet – in the spirit of Open Form, architect Oskar Hansen’s theory based on strategies of indeterminacy, flexibility and participation – different types of material can be applied to form its façade, according the locality in which it is erected, to what is needed and what is available: from traditional handmade paper in Japan to knitted banana leaves in India. In the exhibition, Barbier Bouvet combines this adaptable structure with references to the local vernacular: timber cladding, a finish typical of buildings in rural Belgium. Subverting the modern tendency of architecture to provide universal solutions and to create signature projects’, Barbier Bouvet’s structure shelters behind local materials and techniques, introducing a culture of active knowledge sharing and continuous learning.

Ecology is the study of how organisms interact in their habitat; the word stems from the Greek word oikos, meaning both ‘house’ and ‘environment’. The exhibition not only highlights the relevance of traditional knowledges in understanding ecological, processes but also includes experiments with ecologies of property, accommodation, legislation, the social contract and the commons. Cévennes, for example, does not need a building permit. Its structure belongs to an architectural typology of temporary habitation (such as tents, canopies or membrane structures), which, according to most codes of town planning, do not have to be declared provided that they do not remain standing for more than three months. Following this period of time, the structure can easily be dismantled, stored or transported. As the structure travels, it is transformed according to different contexts, adapting to traditional architectures; its previous cladding can be left behind it and redeployed. With Palama, Barbier Bouvet highlights the social dimension of shared ownership. Due to its isolated location, the structure cannot be governed by classic property laws, cannot circulate on the market. As a result, the idea of who ‘owns’, who will ‘inherit’ the cabin is called into question, offering an opportunity to experiment with alternative forms of ownership and tenancy. As a shared resource and a commons, the cabin is due to be inhabited, managed and maintained collectively by a community based on trust and care; allegiance and responsibility.

Reflection is key to Barbier Bouvet’s practice and all three cabins are outspokenly introduced as places of introspection and criticality. Maloja’s barn typology, for example, belongs to Switzerland’s cultural heritage and is a symbol of the customs and traditions of the Swiss Alps. Today, these barns are often converted into modern family houses, contributing to the decline of the agricultural economy. When asked to renovate the structure, Barbier Bouvet proposed its reinstallation not as a domestic space, but as an environment for thought and intellectual development following the long tradition of the secluded wooden cabin – the machine à penser – as a space for introspection and work (Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, stayed in the area to work during the summers of 1881 and 1883–1888). In order to keep the barn’s traditional form, Barbier Bouvet designed a glass house as a second skin inside it, leaving the original structure untouched. Within, the large glass structure allows rays of light to pass through the cracks of the irregular planks.

In Design as we Speak are presented only the elements needed to understand Barbier Bouvet’s interventions, which, after the exhibition’s close, will disappear in the contexts for which the pieces are destined. The opportunity afforded by the exhibition is not used to present three finished structures, but rather as a tool to make possible the implementation of Barbier Bouvet’s proposals in real life. White monolithic blocks elevate the technical parts on display, and in some cases their traditional exhibitory function is reversed, and they act as stand-ins for missing elements, such as a door step or a water tank.

Design as we Speak does not impose any solutions but rather freezes simultaneous processes of becoming; different possible futures are embodied in the exhibition’s temporality. In lieu of presenting completed prototypes, the exhibition primarily serves to introduce a set of notions at the heart of Barbier Bouvet’s ongoing work, which, bridging contemplative practice and technical rigour, carries a political charge that amounts to a subtle critique of ‘the project’ as a future projection or, as the philosopher Lisa Baraitser describes the logic of ‘the project’ as’ a unit of finite time that is lived within the closed horizon of the future’. There are no such projections at hand in Barbier Bouvet’s work, nor is it driven by short-term goals or desire for economic gain, as so often is the case in design. Rather, his work invites us to look at things through new eyes. Here, there is only the dynamic transmission of ideas and stratification of references, continuously evolving as we speak.

Laura Herman

About the artist

Stéphane Barbier Bouvet’s work is a comment on design history and existing design structures and logics. His practice often entails the development of systems and infrastructures and the alteration of existing conditions. Through an expanding vocabulary of gestures and the use of standardized materials, his practice comments on the way we live now while offering up alternatives.

Stéphane Barbier Bouvet (b. Marseille, 1981) is a Swiss artist, who currently lives in Brussels. He graduated as a designer from the École cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL) in 2006 and established himself as an artist working on the intersection of design, sculpture and presentation. Barbier Bouvet is also the co-founder of the independent project space 1m ³ in Lausanne and the Dirty Art Department, the fine arts masters of the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. He has exhibited internationally, with self-initiated, solo, collective and commissioned projects and exhibitions. He is represented by Truth and Consequences in Geneva, Salle Principale in Paris and Maniera in Brussels.