Curating Contemporary Design – Britisch Council Curating Project

After graduating with a BA Hons in Fashion Marketing & Branding, I read Curating Contemporary Design (MA) at Kingston University. This post introduces one of the projects I did during my MA, which is British Council Touring Exhibition for UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014.


Students were required to create a small scale exhibition in Moscow of contemporary British architecture, design or fashion, which is low-cost to develop, and which will tour to numerous destinations within Russia.

The intent is to use this touring exhibition to develop local partnerships in Russia and to present projects which represent the best of contemporary UK practice and which resonates with their local audiences.

The project will be cost-effective to tour and low-budget to produce, to enable these offices to exhibit this work within budget and develop links with key audiences in their country.

It projects a positive image of contemporary Britain, that is, of a country that pro-actively encourages challenging and innovative thinking and creates dialogue between practitioners in the UK and internationally which encourages learning and understanding of each others’ cultures.


The project my team created was ‘Subbotnik’, meaning Saturday. Our presentation is in the form of a commission brief which would present to our design practitioners.

Russian Context

Firstly, we will show the context and inspiration for our concept. In Russian cities creative people are questioning the development of their surroundings, and the lack of sensitivity and concern for a preservation of identity that the rate of change has. They are asking: What influence can we have on the city around us?

As Director of the Strelka Architecture Institute in Moscow, Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsipe has described in relation to redevelopment in Moscow “In order to change the physical landscape, we must start with the mental landscape, with ideas. We need a vision – that’s the thing Moscow lacks.”

And as Jamie and Igor from Calvert told us, across Russia they are witnessing a return to physical spaces – for example, industrial empty spaces are being reclaimed and pop-ups are creating temporary interventions.


Our project title, Subbotnik, from the word ‘Subbota’ meaning Saturday, is a Russian tradition of voluntary collective work completed by a community, that takes place on a Saturday.

This concept is strongly rooted in an ideology of community spirit that had lost its way, but is currently seeing a revival.

We want to extend this recovery of such community spirit. Using a range of design research tools, we would like you to explore and give voice to a set of communities experiences of the urban landscape around them.


A quick nod to two pieces of inspiration for this proposal, which inspired us to focus on the scale of the street.

Flaneur Magazine is new German-based magazine that presents one street per issue. It takes a literary approach to the complexity of the street – highlighting it’s dynamic and fragmented nature.

And We Made That are a British design studio who have done numerous projects that communicate ideas of urbanism, including LOCAL LISTINGS LIVE – a project mapping local activities in the North Kensington area.

UK Context

In the last decade there has been an emergence of an expanded field of design practice – design that is critical, performative, innovative, experiential, concerned with social and environmental issues, and new materials.

So what sort of design do we think is strong in the UK?

Designers based in the UK have played key roles in the developed of a number of “expanded” practices – including Social Design, Critical Design and Speculative Design – where the designer doesn’t necessarily define a problem to solve, but establishes a provocative starting point from which a design process emerges.

And how does this relates to our project?

We believe that these design practices – that are social or speculative – and whose designers can develop approaches for engaging with communities and speculating on their futures – are relevant to take to the Russian context that we have just described.

Curatorial Concept

So, this is the curatorial concept for our project. Through a set of design commissions, we will investigate the mental landscape of a set of Russian urban communities. We want to engage these communities through design and expand their view of the streets and community around them.

Role of Designer

2014 is the UK-Russian Year of Culture. As part of the cultural exchanges taking place throughout the year we see you as an ambassador of contemporary British design.

In the manner of a social anthropologist, we want you to develop a set of research questions (design materials or tasks) with which you will engage with a local community over the course of one day – a Saturday.

The purpose of your questions are to map the memories of a street, building or community; and to consider the past of certain neighborhoods or speculate on their futures.

Selection Process

This project is concerned with the social function of design. We are inviting proposals from emerging designers in the “expanded field” of design – namely speculative, critical or social designers – or those who describe their practice as multi-disciplinary.

We are interested to hear from designers who have experience with using collaborative research approaches, or developing social events as design practice.

This is a commission process. Designers will write be invited to write a detailed 300 word proposal describing their the design research materials, instructions or tasks for a specific urban neighbourhood that you have chosen from our selected sites.

Cultural Probes

Our commission includes the design of playful activities with which to engage a community.

One example of such design-led activities are Cultural Probes. Cultural Probes are used to open up conversations with participants and inspire ideas in a design process. They are a designed collection of materials that purposely aim to seek out subjective thoughts, values and dreams, and were first developed as an alternative to more analytical, scientific approaches of generating research for design projects.

Inspiration for the Probes came from artists like Situationist International, whose approach to urban living is characterised by playfulness and irrationality – as shown here in Guy Debord’s surreal exploration of urban space.

The probes kit on the right, is the first example of Cultural Probes, designed for the Presence project about increasing older people’s presence in the their communities. Materials include included postcards, maps, a camera and a photo album. Postcards combined open-ended questions with evocative images to invite discussion, such as ‘What is your favourite device?’; ‘What use are politicians?’. Maps printed in the form of envelopes were used to get the older people to indicate the emotional topography of their communities – local landmarks, where their friends lived, places they found intriguing or dangerous, and so on. These were indicated with stickers, either coloured or printed with images, that we included with the maps to allow easy annotation.

Potential Outcomes

Whilst we are not trying to define the outcomes of the project – as it is a commissioning process – for this presentation we want to give an indication of possibly outcomes.

The products of the designers research inteventions – such as writings, images, collections of found materials – will then be translated into outputs, the format of which you will be developed in collaboration with the project partners.

This nature of this format would be open for development, but we envisage that the outcomes would be ephemeral in nature, for example newsletters, performed tours, a display of research materials.

They will be presented back to the public in the neighborhoods that you have engaged with.


Uralmash, Yekaterinburg: A city within a city, this is an immense factory complex surrounded by purpose-built workers housing. It is an example of a post-industrial urban landscape.

LaykaLayka, Moscow: Interpreted as ‘a small Russian store or local shop’ LavkaLavka endorses the British ideology of supporting local farmers. Based in the city the shop takes the concept a step further by engaging the local community through the sale of products within a cafe setting in the process connecting a network of farmers through their produce.

Vasilyevsky Island: Vasilyevsky Island is an island in St. Petersburg. The island has had a number of well-developed industries and factories, ranging from shipbuilding to making pianos and to industrial bread baking. A number of buildings of former factories have been converted to other usages. We have chosen Vasilyevsky Island as an example of a post-industrial dystopian landscape.


Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad
In terms of our selection criteria, bahbak is an example of a designer already using research & public interventions, often to engage with a community.

Based in London, Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad is a designer who makes work to explore the social function of design in domestic and urban spaces. His practice is multi-disciplinary – and includes collaborative research approaches, photography, social events, public interventions, furniture and installations.

Related projects are AUBERGINE and CHURCH STREET. These projects aimed to explore the complex interactions and community that surround the Church Street Market in Paddington. It had two phases –

Phase one – The Church St. Cookbook: Bahbak employed a market stall amongst the daily traders, where he exchanged the international ingredient of “the aubergine” for home-cooking recipes and received over one hundred recipes from twenty one nations.

Phase two – AUBERGINE:NW8: Bahbak installed a one-day-only street restaurant within the market where a selection of the recipes turned into dishes and the public into collaborators. He says “The restaurant was visited by members of the public, westminster council chairmen, community officers, gallery curators, artists, and curious by-standers, discussing the current state of the neighbourhood and it’s pending change.”

As Bahbak uses research and public intervention to engage with a community, he may develop game-like activities in this dystopian landscape of Uralmash, Yekaterinburg.

Veronica Ranner

Veronica is example of a designer with a focus on mediating the intersection of design, society and emerging technologies.

Her project that we have focussed on is EMOTION FACTORY — A SERVICE TO SYNTHESISE EMOTIONS. The emotion factory is a device that induces emotional responses through smell. We feel that the subject matter of Veronica’s work – of generating emotional responses through sensory stimulation – and the speculative approach that she has to her work, would be relevant to our proposal. For example, such a designer may want to catalogue the smells of a neighbourhood to map the memories of streets or a community.

As Veronica’s work includes the subject matter of generating emotional response through sensory stimulation, she may use her speculative approach in the public space or streets around LaykaLayka, MOSCOW.

Alice Hattrick

Alice is a london based design writer. Working primarily in audio, her essays and interviews have appeared in numerous publications and journals.

Two examples of her work are relevant to our proposal.

1. Her publication, After Butler’s Wharf: Essays on a Working Building. After Butler’s Wharf presents a series of critical perspectives on the economic, artistic, and political histories of this landmark London building, including: a catwalk commentary on 1975’s Alternative Miss World with photography by Richard young and a fictional conversation between Sir Terence Conran and Mr Butler, the founder of the Wharf. We use this as an example of work that speculates on the histories of a building and community.

2. Another example of her work is the CAR podcast project that she writes for. CAR is an online podcast and performance ensemble that explore art, design and ideas through storytelling. In Spring in 2013, the podcast was performed live at the The Yard Theatre in Hackney, called Unwinding the Windshield. We use this as an example of design writing that has been translated into the format of a performance.

We feel that Alice Hattrik may create a list of stories reflecting the histories of post-industrial buildings including the old factories in Vasilyevsky Island.

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