Photo: Jaan /

Investigating the future of suburbia

An interview with the founder and artistic director of Z33, a house for contemporary art that is currently working on development of the European Design Parliament

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An interview with Jan Boelen

An interview by Louisa Vermoere

This interview was conducted over Skype with Jan in a highway restaurant in between Brussels and Eindhoven and Louisa in an ex-soviet apartment in Moscow. It is a search for Jan Boelen’s vision on the Future of Urbanism and how he is taking part in designing it today.

Jan Boelen is a process oriented curator of design, architecture and contemporary art (e.g. initiator of Manifesta 9, BIO50). He is the founder and artistic director of Z33 – a house for contemporary art in Hasselt and is currently working on development of the European Design Parliament.
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In the interview ‘Disruptive Heroes’ you described yourself: ‘I was not an easy child. When people said left, I would do right, but I would always have a story why I did it differently.’ How does this reflect on your intentions as a curator, a developer of the Euro/​Belgian art and design scene?

I like to provoke people with questions and doubts, and use poetry as a strategy to make a partner in crime but not necessarily to make people agree. I do not like agreement: disagreement is an interesting attitude. Do we just have to accept what is already there or can we question it? What is your conviction? Preferences and the convictions have to be expressed and to be tested in a dialogue. After dealing with a conflictual situation, you grow, you become stronger, you get more inside, you become aware. Agreeing with what is already there – thinking it is just a period – is not my attitude.

What kind of European design will matter in 50 years? How are you designing this future?

In 2050, new forms of life, which I can not describe yet, will produce the things we want. They will even get into our bodies. The human being will change much faster than the last 10,000 years: an exponential growth of change in the human life and nature. New terrorists will make new wars. This is how I envision the future: one melting pot, a soup, where ecology of object and things are designed. There will be only a designed world. There will be no natural nature anymore, everything is infected by what we designed and developed which isn’t necessarily a negative thing.


Billboard installed in front of entrance of Z33 suggesting a participative working space

Let’s talk about what you created today: Z33, a research lab that tries to understand the society of today through design. What are the examples or counterexamples that made you create it?

It was a reaction to the context. The name is the abbreviation of the address which implies that the institute is about the place. It is situated in an area which is like the suburb of London and Paris because it is less than two hours away by train passing via Brussels. It is situated in a former industrial area, a former coal mine, with some art academies in the neighbourhood. In the suburbs there is more freedom than in the centre and this allows you to do things that nobody else does. You don’t have to do the blockbusters and you can develop programs with local partners, in a network, in collaboration, instead of just acting like an institute that is there for its own and the numbers of visitors sake. The place gives the opportunity to produce more content; a knowledge that can be used to produce things differently than it has been done before. There was no precedent. I knew it would take us 10 years to play on an international level and to construct the network. A counterexample would be a traditional museum where the object is central, protected under glass, untouchable, sacred. Things and objects are political and they are not neutral. They are there to be used or abused and a result of a never-​ending process. We are not an object-​orientated initiative. Other institutions give me the freedom to exist. Society is good, resilient and functioning when there is a lot of diversity. When a storm or a disease hits a monocultural forest with identical trees, they all fall and die. But when you have a forest with different trees, the forest resists because some survive. A multicultural forest may not be so efficient to harvest but it is a resilient one. Today we focus too much on efficiency and not enough on resilience. It exist out of two elements: one element is diversity and the other one is connectivity; different players in a diverse landscape. A larger tree in a forest will give shadow to a smaller tree, the leaves fall down and protects and feeds another one. Different trees will attract a diversity of birds. But it is not only important what is above the ground but also what is under the ground. The roots communicate and fight while looking for their own space. If you have diversity, you can come to a balance.

Disagreement is an interesting attitude

In cities of consumerism we make segregated areas: to live, to work in factories and offices, to shop and to drink. We think we are extremely efficient but everybody moves at the same time, to shop, to work and to sleep. Like this we create an enormously inefficient society. Because of the lack of social control, we have to place extra security systems during the day in the areas we live, during the night in the shopping centres & office areas. We are creating a problematic society where there is little diversity, where mixture is avoided and we are slowly starting to understand that. What Z33 is trying to create is a melting pot where living, producing, consuming & distributing will be all done together. An example of this today are the urban farming projects, producing (food) in the city again. A home based fab-​lab will be the decentralised way of production. This evolution will accelerate exponentially in the future. I think the future will look like this strange soup where everything will be connected and diverse. You will see hybrid differences.

The local context is very present in the research and work of Z33 but also in your curatorial work. I refer to one of your latest projects, BIO50, where you created ‘yet another biennale’ which was called ‘321TEST’. Why did you choose for a local-​international design collaboration platform a research lab where you can fail rather than show the perfection of well-​detailed and produced objects?

I do things because there is an urgency or a need. You can only put energy into things if what you formulate is also making sense. What I did in Ljubljana for the BIO50 and what we develop in Z33 is to look around to to find particular things which are the results of global developments although they are site specific. We use topics from everyday life as metaphors for what is going on in the world. You don’t have to look for huge topics. We did reverse curating. So I went for a research trip and I looked around and I asked people: What is your dream? What would you like? The general answer was: How to connect this city with the rest of the world?

Society is good, resilient and functioning when there is a lot of diversity

Designers are challenged to make spectacular design, to participate in a society of spectacularity. I try to see the exotic, the poetry of everyday life. We found, not searched for, 12 topics that are grounded in Slovenia in full financial crisis which are for me very simple metaphors for what is going on in the world. On top of that all these topics had local people that were interested to work around it. We created diverse teams with locals, an international crowd of designers, and other professions, like lawyers, psychologists, economists, engineers. This was our method to create the diversity, just like ecosystems are functioning. We and the objects are not differently functioning, we just follow the law of nature. We tried to understand how a biennial can become a place of production rather than a place of representation of existing things. How can a biennial become a catalyst of a process of change, mentally but also physically, material and immaterial, rational and irrational. Working continuously with paradoxes that needed to be connected to make them whole. We tried to implement a holistic way of thinking rather than thinking to products and objects. We designed things that-​are-​not but can become part of a continuous flow that is going on in the society.

Like you said, before Z33 is in suburbia, how does the future of suburbia change if cultural institutions are embedded there?

First of all, I think in the future we won’t talk about suburbia anymore. We are slowly living in a global village. People live scattered around labour, industry and producing facilities. I believe that every spot, every area, will become a knot in the network. Every knot can be the centre or the suburbia tomorrow, it will be centre and suburbia at the same time.


Ceramic 3d Printing by Unfold producing personalised ceramic

How would you reflect to big cities like Moscow that are extremely centralised?

In Russia, centralisation is a way of thinking. An old way. I believe in decentralisation, I believe in peer to peer politics. Where everybody is an actor in the network with an input and an output and related to each other. It is not and/​or but and/​and in this new society. It is the city and suburbia, it is not the city or suburbia.

We use topics from everyday life as metaphors for what is going on in the world 

Z33 is your governmentally subsidised product. Somehow this makes you a political agent. How do you think your Z33 product fits in the political agenda?

In Z33 we try not to fit in the political agenda but try to make the political agenda. We as an institute are able to put things on the agenda to create awareness, to shift minds, to formulate alternatives. I believe that educational and cultural institutes should do this. Institutes should take the advantage of taking a position in society, and play their own role. Their main objective should be to make people look at the world differently. If that is not possible then there is a big problem in society. Luckily our government is quite smart to see that the role that we try to play is to change opinions, creating awareness, stir up debates with the goal to get away from the stand still causes that would be a problem for the society.

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