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On Snow Dancing

Some twenty years ago, the effects of an expanding regime of design were starting to be felt in the field of contemporary art. Increasingly, designers seemed to use art contexts as platforms for non-pragmatic reflection and expression. Increasingly, design was also becoming a catalyst in so-called "social" art practices, artistic efforts to engineer or test drive new social and/or economic relations. In the work of collectives like Superflex or Atelier van Lieshout, for instance, design was an all-important feature of their manufacture of innovative objects or technical solutions, as well as the branding of the groups themselves. Concerned discussions about the aestheticization of anything and everything abounded: design should, apparently, know its place. But this new design ubiquity might have actually been grounded less in a political appeal to the senses over reason than on rapidly expanding processes of informatization and a growing preoccupation with their social and economic effects. A wider concept of design thus established itself: defined as “the conception and planning of the artificial,” design reflected the fact that, with computation, it was no longer the final outcome of a process, but an interdisciplinary activity embedded in all aspects of production. This was ”design thinking,” a systematic approach to a plastic environment that more than ever seemed subject to human construction and control.

Yet this was perhaps not all there was to design thinking. Some twenty years ago, a more subterranean art-and-design discourse also emerged, one that was perhaps harder to appreciate due to the curiously indirect way in which it seemed to associate design with the operations of new media. In 1995 Philippe Parreno had just completed a project called Snow Dancing that was supposedly a film, although without camera, editing or projection in any ordinary sense. To most of the people who knew about it at the time, Snow Dancing was mainly a social event; an open party at Le Consortium in Dijon, immediately followed by an exhibition of the rooms in which the party had taken place and a number of objects or spatial arrangements that had played some part in the staging of the evening.

If the question of design could be said to have been at the center of this project, it was only in the sense of something at once ubiquitous and discreet. This was not a project invested in producing the design for this or that, nor could the situations and behaviors it contained be said to have been ”designed” in the strong sense of the word. Design issues were above all present in a text that served as the point of departure for the cinematographic logic that informed the work. Recounted by Parreno to Jack Wendler and Liam Gillick who wrote it down, the text is a loosely scripted scenario providing the outline of a situation or sequence of events to be produced: notably, the party and subsequent exhibition at Le Consortium. As scenarios go, it is a peculiar examplar. Neglecting the scene-by-scene action that defines the genre, the text conjures up something more atmospheric and static, in between environment and situation. Essentially an extended stage direction, it describes in great detail a world where the design of the social environment and related questions of self-styling play a major role. But these details are not simply descriptive: they could also be seen to indicate a particular type of activity or action. To insist that this never-filmed, never-projected, design-obsessed text, social event and exhibition is still a ”film” is to associate design itself with a certain machinic or mediatic logic. It is to imply that design is interchangeable with the production, manipulation and distribution of time materials characteristic of a post-industrial media age and its intensified exploitation of the temporalities at work in cognitive and affective processes. If design is at once ubiquitous and “cinematographic” in this scenario, it is because it consistently highlights complex temporalities of shape-shifting; the breaks and shifts of genetic processes that are not rooted in any clearly established point of origin, agency or plan.

At the outset, the scenario mainly seems to focus on the question of setting and location, the type of place in which film action may unfold. A fictional, yet familiar genre of building or building complex is conjured, one that seems to embody, in dreamily condensed form, the key traits of urban gentrification. It is a place whose original function is obscured, but retains a vague aura of past significance. It may have been a school, a hospital, or a site of industrial production, but exactly what type of industry is unclear. The important thing is that the place bears the visible traces of a long series of recent appropriations, mainly for the purposes of alternative cultures and the more-or-less ephemeral programs of beneficial rehabilitation to which spaces like these are typically subjected. The text is quite specific on the score; concerts and other cultural events routinely take place here. It is also an officially sanctioned place for demonstrations, union meetings and other forms of political activity. And when not otherwise occupied, the place is subjected to more random forms of appropriation: parking, skating, etc. What is important in this context is the fact that such alternative cultures are implicitly centered on issues of style and design, not only as to demarcate a distance to “official” culture, but also to give visible expression to a shared belief in different, if not always too specific, futures. Design, here, is about projection and imagination rather than problem solving—a constant activation of time materials, splicing together future, present and past. The scenario places great emphasis on the way in which the paraphernalia of such imagined futures, many of them incomprehensible in their current state of neglect or disarray, litter the floors and walls of the large rooms. Having survived repeated cycles of use and reuse, they end up as mutant objects, like colorful christmas ball ornaments repurposed as door knobs.

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