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Unidentified Acts of Design

At the 2015 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism \ Architecture, currently held in Shekou, the V&A presents Unidentified Acts of Design, a work developed as part of the museum’s ongoing research on Shenzhen’s creative industry. The project has won the Silver Independent Jury Award at the biennale. Sylvia Chan writes.

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BY Janice Seow

January 15th, 2016


In 2017, the Victoria and Albert Museum from London will open the V&A Gallery within the Shekou Design Museum in Shenzhen, China. The Gallery will showcase selections from the museum’s London collection alongside acquisitions made in the Pearl River Delta region.

Prior to that, the exhibition Unidentified Acts of Design aims to identify creative activities occurring outside the conventional design realms in the Pearl River Delta. The programme is curated by Luisa E. Mengoni (Head of the V&A Gallery), and Brendan Cormier (lead curator of design for the Shekou Project, V&A). According to Megoni, the project challenges the idea that “design is exclusively developed and practiced in design studios and under recognisable brands.” Megoni says, “The ambition of the display is to provide an expanded notion of design that is also particularly relevant to the reality of Shenzhen, and give voice to the key players contributing to alternative design thinking and problem-solving practices.” Cormier adds that the project looks at design in a more inclusive and collaborative way, addressing different steps in the manufacturing process and also non-designers such as highly skilled technicians, craftsmen, engineers.

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Eight case studies are presented at the biennale, including, among others, “shanzhai” products, normally understood as pirated brands and goods that undermine creativity; oil paintings from the Dafen Village famous for replicas of renowned artworks instead of original creations; and urban villages in Shenzhen that challenge top-down urban planning. Located on the 3F of the Dacheng Flour Factory, the V&A booth is populated with small objects that represent the case studies, alongside videos featuring interviews with the protagonists in such “unidentified design activities”. Mengoni says, “We aim to identify examples of design thinking and practices in places like factories, ‘shanzhai’ networks, electronics and hardware companies, and communication services.”

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“Shanzhai” mobile phones and watches illustrate how the open hardware and electronics manufacturing environment of Shenzhen facilitates the paradoxically innovative pirated electronic industry. For example, different manufacturers in Shenzhen respectively produce the mobile phone components, such as circuit boards and cases. Anyone can use the components to create new designs that suit particular desires of consumers, including the elderly in need of large dial pads, or people with a need of long life batteries.

“Companies involved in the ‘shanzhai’ business have in fact contributed to the market of innovative open-source solutions that established brands were simply not considering,” says Mengoni. “The discussion on ‘new shanzhai’ has the potential to open a new and exciting scenario, where innovation is fostered by sharing instead of closing attitudes in design practice.”

Also at the V&A booth are oil paintings at different stages of completion acquired from the Dafen Village, where over 10,000 painters work. While painters in the Dafen Village specialise in techniques in replication instead of artistic innovation, Dafen village is a pioneering and self-sufficient supply chain of oil painting replicas. At the Dafen Village, one finds materials for producing paintings, painters, as well as frames and technicians for mounting oil paintings.

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The urban village typology in Shenzhen is another case study presented by the V&A. Urban villages are informal settlements in the city populated by immigrants from different parts of China. The city now has over 200 urban villages. Fu Na, Senior Researcher at the Shenzhen Center of Design, notes that in urban villages, the commercial scene is diversified, small-scale, and mixed-use. The network of urban villages not designed by professional planners has supported different scales of production in Shenzhen as a manufacturing hub.

Mengoni says the eight case studies offer the opportunity to reflect on the unique context of production that characterises Shenzhen, highlighting its strengths and potential in innovation and design thinking. Comier adds, “The display highlights the competitive advantage that has been growing in the Pearl River Delta in regards to rapid prototyping and product innovation that might be attractive to young entrepreneurs from around the world. It might also give other cities that focus on tech development some food for thought as to their future competitive edge.”

Unidentified Acts of Design signal the curatorial interest of the V&A Gallery in Shekou. Mengoni says the gallery will showcase 20th and 21st century designed objects from the V&A collection in London that will illustrate notions of value around design.

The 2015 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism \ Architecture will run until 28 February.