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Gwangju Design Biennale

Gwangju Design Biennale. Photo © Jong OhKim

Gwangju Design Biennale. Photo © Jong OhKim
Gwangju Design Biennale. Photo © Jong OhKim

Gwangju Design Biennale. Photo © Jong OhKim
Gwangju Design Biennale. Photo © Jong OhKim

Gwangju Design Biennale. Photo © Jong OhKim
Gwangju Design Biennale. Photo © Jong OhKim

Gwangju Design Biennale. Photo © Jong OhKim
Gwangju Design Biennale. Photo © Jong OhKim

Gwangju Design Biennale. Photo © Jong OhKim

11 September 2011
by Beatrice Galilee

The fourth edition of the Gwangju Design Biennale opened last week. Beatrice Galilee senior curator of the Communities section, writes about her involvement in the biennale and the participation in the communities section of three London design studios:-


Under the auspicious and ambitious theme of ‘Design is Design is Not Design’, the 2011 Gwangju Design Biennale opened to the public last week.  The biennale directed by Seung-h-Sang and Ai Wei Wei aimed to open up the possibilities of exhibiting ‘design’, in whatever guise that might be.

From tactics for surviving a political revolt to coffin design in the developing world to choreography, architectural and open source projects, the biennale exposed themes that are largely untouched by the conventional western design exhibitions.  The biennale also commissioned 10 permanent follies which were built across the city.

Three design studios from London were invited to participate in the ‘communities’ section of the biennale curated by Beatrice Galilee and supported by the British Council. The Communities section examines the word ‘community’ from as many different curatorial and methodological perspectives as possible and conceptually abstracts community from place, replacing it with intangible networks, behaviours and pedagogical systems. There were eight 1:1 installations in the galleries with over 72 different contributors.

Something & Son’s ‘Floating Garden’ installation used complex aquaponic growing systems to create a living, growing garden in the exhibition centre that forces visitors to walk through and see and feel the roots of the plants before experiencing the garden itself.  Architecture 00:/’s WikiHouse installation – an open source design where anyone can download the CNC files to cut and build their own house - was already something of an online success before the exhibition opened thanks to their website. As expected it was also the source of much debate and interest at the opening, particularly because the installation will be completed throughout the course of the biennale.

Aberrant architecture’s ‘Peeping Tom’ project was in the form of a traditional Korean Housing block, and visitors can see films exposing the intriguing ‘dark’ communities that lie under the surface of Korean society. Using card games, films and magazines and even origami t-shirts, uncomfortable concepts like the treatment of migrant workers, identity theft and the relationship with north Korea was treated and communicated in subtle and playful ways.

Also in the community section were real Korean telephone boxes which were programmed to ring and then reveal phone calls from local residents – including taxi drivers, poets and musicians as well as stories from the terrible massacre of protestors in the city in the 1980s known as ‘518’. The ‘On Site’ community hub, conceived as a theatre crossed with a parliament, designed by Berlin-based architect nOffice was a fantastic and popular representation of the essence of community and was programmed with talks and events by all sections of the biennale.

After the excitement of the opening in Gwangju, all the British teams and one of the Berliners made it to the British Council offices in Seoul and gave workshops to groups of 10-year-old local children. Aberrant’s ‘design your own biennale’ workshop was particularly brilliant and messy, but Something & Son’s ‘Design your own Super-Hero Plant’ struck a chord with the kids who designed man-eating, nuclear war, and money-making leaves. The next day, architecture00:/ gave a lecture to students at Hongik University who were left intrigued by the concept of an open-source house.

Everyone had an amazing time in Seoul and even managed to make a very memorable trip to a local Korean Karaoke bar!


Beatrice Galilee is the senior curator of the Communities Section at the Gwangju Design Biennale. She is director and co-founder of The Gopher Hole, an independent project space in London and a contributing editor to Domus.  She is the former architecture editor of Icon magazine and was curator at the 2009 Shenzhen Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale.