The third Istanbul Design Biennial interprets design through a boundless lens, interrogating the very idea of what it means to be human.

During the curators’ tour of the third Istanbul Design Biennial, curator Mark Wigley remarked derisively that “design biennial” is often a code word for tradeshow. Are We Human? The Design of the Species: 2 Seconds, 2 Days, 2 Years, 200 Years, 200,000 Years – as its title implies – is anything but. It’s not only the fact that none of the work on show in Are We Human? is for sale that sets it apart. Co-curators Wigley and Beatriz Colomina are both architects, theorists, writers, critics, and professors at Ivy League universities, and their approach to the biennial is grounded in an academic’s curiosity and propensity to question.

As well as designers and architects, the contributors to the biennial include artists, scientists, theorists, filmmakers, archaeologists, historians, choreographers, NGOs, labs, centres and institutes. The result is a biennial that eschews design as we conventionally understand it – in the sense of tables, chairs and coffee makers – and instead sets out to interrogate every aspect of our daily lives and what it means to be human.

Are We Human? runs from October 22 to November 20 at five Istanbul venues. Organised by Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) it all begins with a succinct but thought-provoking manifesto that questions the role and definition of design in the contemporary world. Rather than reflecting on the past two years, and predicting trends for the two years to come (as the curators suggest most biennials do) this ambitious project aims to explore the role of design throughout the entire history of humanity, beginning 200,000 years ago and finishing with a ream of questions about the future of our planet.

“Design always presents itself as serving the human but its real ambition is to redesign the human. The history of design is therefore a history of evolving conceptions of the human. To talk about design is to talk about the state of our species,” the curators posit.

They address this enormous, almost boundless topic, through four distinct yet overlapping categories: Designing the Body, Designing the Planet, Designing Life and Designing Time.
“The average day involves the experience of thousands of layers of design that reach to outer space but also reach deep into our bodies and brains. We literally live inside design, like the spider lives inside the web constructed from inside its own body. But unlike the spider, we have spawned countless overlapping and interacting webs… Design has become the world,” the manifesto states.

Colomina and Wigley take this logic to the extreme – in their interpretation of the term, design encompasses every aspect of human invention and activity. The works on show explore everything from global warming and deforestation, to refugee migration across the Mediterranean, to the space programme, the evolution of mobile phones, global travel patterns, the physiology of the brain and the aging process of the human body.

Wigley, in particular, places a pessimistic spin on many of the works, suggesting that the human race is in the process of designing itself into extinction. It’s hard not to agree with him while wandering among works highlighting the terrible damage wrought by oil refineries in Texas, or reflecting on the unimaginable ways that mobile phones have altered our lives, habits, memories and methods of communication in just two decades. But Are We Human? is also a celebration of the undeniable ingenuity of our species, and the clarity of vision and endless creativity of the artists, scientists and thinkers whose work makes up the content of this unusual biennial.

Granted, we cannot go on as we have been, blithely destroying the planet that supports us. But surely if the men and women whose work and ideas are on display in this sprawling show put their minds to it, it’s not too late to save the human race. As surely as we have designed our demise, we have the tools to design our redemption.