Working Promesse: design in flux in Saint-Étienne

 Saint-Étienne  |  21 February 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

The 10th Biennale Internationale du Design de Saint-Étienne “promises” a new approach to design to match our shifting work paradigms. This experimental 2017 edition also queries, in inspired fashion, the impact of digital technology on our lives. Opening on 9 March.

Does the 21st century mark the end of the era of the beautiful and functional designer object? This simple question draws an answer that is complex, or at least, qualified! At a time when our society is embarking on deep changes, in a context of world crisis and accentuated tensions, the notion of design also seems to be undergoing a complete metamorphosis. And for good reason: the new technologies which increasingly invade our personal and private lives, are triggering new behaviour from individuals at work, and more widely, in their daily lives. These new attitudes have been assimilated and taken into account by today’s designers in their practice. For the last decade or so, design has turned towards social phenomena, towards services, used by users who also are undergoing deep change. Working Promesse, the latest edition of the Biennale Internationale du Design de Saint-Étienne, takes into consideration these new directions in its exhibitions, performances and experiments, where the object is joined by, or even gives way to social, utopic, or critical reflection on the issue.

In 2012, during the sixth Biennale Internationale du Design de Liège, Ezio Manzini, a professor at the Polytechnic University of Milan and founder of DESIS (Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability), explained to the press that design could now be defined as “an approach and a set of tools”. Exit the one-off production of objects; the profession can now be viewed as the development of “networks” that pay attention to the user who plays a role in perfecting these new systems. In 2017, Olivier Peyricot, scientific director of the Biennale and the research department of the Cité du Design de Saint-Étienne, continues in the same vein: “We need to go back to the roots of the word ‘design’. They refer to a project, a plan, an intention. The designer is entrusted with a social, political or life project, and sets up reversible systems that raise questions of ecology, sobriety, soft growth.” At the Cité du Design de Saint-Étienne, both in the town and throughout the region, he questions the accelerated changes of working modes, raising the themes of “digital labor”, “third locations” that offer “joyful utopias”, and visions of these two interconnected worlds.

Design and digital labor: intimate relations

The first theme raised is that of digital labor, defined by two sociologists specialising in the digital field, Dominique Cardon and Antonio A. Casilli, authors of the work Qu’est-ce que le Digital Labor?, as “digital activities carried out by users of social platforms, connected objects or mobile applications”. On our smartphones, in our kitchens, in the street, in train stations, at the office, digital technology reigns, infiltrating the slightest openings of our lives. “In companies, it wields considerable influence,” explains Olivier Peyricot. “The practice of working from home is now common, that of micro-jobs [editorial note: such as writing comments on blogs, forums, videos, or “liking” the content on social networks] is progressing exponentially.” These new roles are leading to a drop in salaried work, without having an impact on the notion of work. “We are heading towards a society of people without jobs, who nonetheless work,” he adds. In the long term, certain professions will disappear, including those in the legal domain, to be carried out by algorithms. And new professions will emerge.” Similarly, digital technology permanently sails over the choppy waves of personal and professional spheres, creating, at home, undefined geographical spaces, as well as psychological alienation, or even a form of the individual’s slavery to work. “We can send private text messages and professional emails seven days a week, 24 hours a day, with our smartphones, tablets and portable computers,” he also comments. “These designer tools are the best examples of objects that upset our social behaviour.”

“Third locations”, happy new working spaces

So have we become genuine “officeholics” who no longer have any spatial and temporal boundaries between our private lives and our professional activity? From kitchens to beds, via trains, libraries or waiting rooms, we can operate anywhere. This propensity to blend the two spheres, and this geographical adaptability, rhyme with the instability of cross-disciplinary jobs and low incomes. But they also go hand in hand with the appearance of “third locations”, these places that welcome co-working, these fab labs, these hacker spaces.  Designed by designers and architects, these new venues reinvent the worker in an ultra-connected mode, joyfully uncertain of the future and favouring ethical practices based on sharing and unhurriedness.

Digital labor and “third locations” are thus studied along with the issue of artisanal and industrial knowhow, or that of the body at work, automation and robotisation, all themes presented by numerous international curators to whom Olivier Peyricot has given carte blanche. Finally, Detroit, named UNESCO’s 2017 City of Design, is the Biennale’s guest of honour, invited to share on its power of endurance and rebirth, thanks to the setting up of multiple creative industries on its territory. The 10th Biennale also offers a ten-stage “IN exhibition” itinerary at the Cité du Design, the event’s nerve centre, but also in the town centre and in the wider region (Grand Lyon, ViennAglo, Saint-Étienne Métropole, CAPI Portes de l’Isère). Different focus points for the key events in this full programme that turn Saint- Étienne and its surrounding region into a huge experimental field.

Work in every form, under the sophisticated eyes of designers

To start off, visitors are welcomed on the Cité du Design site by Best-of Trades, an exhibition imagined by Christophe Marchand, Swiss designer and curator who has selected around 60 objects based on two criteria: “Excellence of the tool leading to the best result, and the fabrication processes behind this tool of excellence.” Selection thus highlights different types of of knowhow, for example the steel slabs used for Obut pétanque balls, or, the making of fighter-pilot helmets. With the Overview of Shifting Work Paradigms, the viewer is plunged directly into the heart of the matter through a set of experimental exhibitions that demonstrate social transformations and the postures engendered by the digital era. Digital Labor presents the home “as a space invaded by work” while screening films which criticise the fearful world of digital work. “Eva and Franco Mattes from Italy have made a film which questions content moderators in daily life. We discover one who waits in his car for the opening of a MacDonald’s restaurant, where he will work all day on his connected computer. When the restaurant closes, he returns to his car to sleep.” A terrible observation of a violent, fiercely unstable society. Éric Fache has created If automatic?, depicting an automated society. With The End of Work, artists Degoutin & Wagon critically and playfully question the future of our activities. By presenting a call-centre one-third invaded by plants, and showing videos on “scenes of office madness”, the artists denounce the possible flaws of a system destined to vanish. The Bureau générique ou le temps des cols blancs créatifs (Generic Office or the Era of Creative White Collars) studies the relationship between design and work, transposing some offices created in 2016 for advertising agency BETC. “Curated by the T&P Work Unit, directed by Catherine Geel, students and some of its team will fill these spaces and encourage us to think about different times at the office.” Further along, “Extravaillance ≠ Working Dead” is a sound exhibition with mise-en-scène by artist-architect Didier Fiuza Faustino, texts by science-fiction authors Alain Damasio and Norbert Merjagnan, as well as the Zanzibar collective. Visitors will listen to narratives that call on their memories. Meanwhile, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Care, from the KVM-Ju Hyun Lee & Ludovic Burel collective, is a benevolent statement on our body at work. This exhibition deals with new “horizontal workers”… At a skate park, tatamis, deckchairs, and beds will be presented, connected to a sound system allowing visitors to “cut themselves out of the surrounding space and take care of themselves”.

Throughout the Biennale, in the centre of Saint-Étienne, visitors can also enjoy new types of urban furniture – the fruit of prizewinning projects that participated in the competition set up by the company Rondino for students at the ESADSE (École Supérieure d’Art et de Design de Saint-Étienne). “Two prototypes of test benches will be available,” adds Olivier Peyricot, “and the best design will be perpetuated in the Saint-Étienne landscape.” Visitors can also discover a range of design workshops in the Rue de la République, rebaptised, for the occasion, the “Rue de la République du Design”.

This Biennale therefore reveals itself to be an innovative event, designed as a big laboratory of experiments that prove the eclectic nature of 21st century design, ever attentive to the common good. Design that is visionary, never neutral, and that plays an even more fundamental role in our society today.




3 questions for…

Olivier Peyricot, scientific director of the Biennale and the research department of the Cité du Design de Saint-Étienne

How do you see the designer in 2017, and why did you choose this theme, following “Beauty” in 2015?

In this all-digital era, the designer is a genuine social and political strategist, at the heart of society. He challenges the dominant ideology and raises good questions on how we live today, and in the future. As work modes are changing, we touch on a burning issue, one that is very fashionable, and which stood out naturally for our teams. We are shifting from the design of beautiful objects, symptomatic of the modern period, to a design of services, critical or social, which characterise the period of instability which we see today.

What do you mean by this?

We place an emphasis on a social and political approach to design, materialised by field experience. Design experimentation consists in placing a prototype in space and observing how it’s used. Thanks to the feedback of users, it’s then possible to modify the product or the system during the production process. In a tense society characterised by over-consumption, it’s necessary to set up reversible, adaptable and ethical systems. The Biennale’s objective is to reflect, together, on all this.

How does the Biennale fit in with the territory, outside of the Cité du Design?

It’s present at other sites, including Le Corbusier in Firminy, but also Villefranche-sur-Saône, in Saint-Chamond. It finds an echo in Saint-Priest-en-Jarez, at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain… It is also anchored in the town centre, via the Rue de la République du Design. In this historic street that had become unattractive because it was rundown, 35 empty stores were set up, now occupied by designers. Over 70 projects promoting local, national and international initiatives were offered. We can also find an eco-citizen supermarket at the bottom of the road. In the west of the town, the Humanities project and its business incubator is also developing.




10th Biennale Internationale de Saint-Étienne, “Working Promesse – Shifting Work Paradigms”, from 9 March to 9 April. Manufacture – Cité du Design Site, 3 Rue Javelin-Pagnon, Saint-Étienne, France.


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