Part of Het Nieuwe Instituut’s remit and a focus point of the government’s cultural policy is talent development. In a series of interviews Het Nieuwe Instituut reflects on the notion of talent. The first is an interview with researcher Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, director of Research Marina Otero Vezier, head of Agency Francien van Westrenen and art director Maureen Mooren.
‘We want to investigate the notion of talent, to discover which values are concealed within such a concept, how it functions, to which ends it can be applied,’ says Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, researcher at Het Nieuwe Instituut. Talent development is part of the government’s cultural policy and therefore part of the assignment Het Nieuwe Instituut is tasked with. According to Kuitenbrouwer, it is characteristic of the institute’s interpretation of its tasks to scrutinize a subject such as talent development.
‘This analytical and critical role is inherent to the position that Het Nieuwe Instituut has taken in the cultural system and is essential as a counterpoint to the notion of “creative industry” that prevailed when the institute was founded. As a large institution that encompasses the disciplines of architecture, design and digital culture, Het Nieuwe Instituut aims to be a laboratory for forms of cohabitation and action.’
‘As a cultural institution, Het Nieuwe Instituut operates both nationally and internationally,’ says Marina Otero Vezier, Director of Research at Het Nieuwe Instituut. ‘Operating on both levels, the institute is commited to acknowledging and supporting ideas and practices that serve as a departure from establish modes of thinking and that enable non-exploitative forms of coexistence. We regularly involve established voices as well as tentative ideas and practices. We collaborate with professionals, but also with students and with those who might not yet have had the opportunity to develop their projects. Uniting these worlds, and connecting and learning from each other is fundamental to Het Nieuwe Instituut. Yet, we also ask: can an institution acknowledge independent practices without actually making them part of that small world that paradoxically we call mainstream? We take a critical look at our own methods and try to overcome the temptation to rely solely on well trodden paths, shared languages and validating trajectories.'
Talent always relates to others
‘Everyone has a invaluable abilities,’ Otero continues, ‘that could be cultivated and stimulated. But the concept of ‘talent’ has become problematic. Talent has developed into a marketable product and a series of dynamics that Het Nieuwe Instituut wants to transcend. ‘A person is recognised as a talent if their qualities and abiltiies are appreciated and rewarded by certain people and institutions. School results, prizes, grants, being promoted by people with a certain authority. All these forms of recognition tend to be interconnected. Talent, therefore, now consists of a series of endorsements that a person accumulates and that in turn give access to certain positions or projects. This also means that people outside this system of validation are excluded from certain spaces or opportunities. structure is not recognised.'
'How can we ensure that we value talent, while at the same time not relying on conventional notions of excellence and systems of cultural hegemony. That's a question that we want to ask ourselves at Het Nieuwe Instituut.'
'Talent is often used in a specific way, adds Kuitenbrouwer, 'for example, as a name to which you can attach a programme, or a brand that functions as a vehicle for promotional activities. In addition, the concept of talent is closely linked to certain views on artistry and authorship: the individual genius who creates wonderful things. But talent always relates to others and is in no way a fixed quality: you have commercial, social, political, visual and emotional talent. When talent is manifested, you experience the result of a selection, but the criteria and strategies used to arrive at that selection usually remain invisible. Talent needs a successful context in which people can be effective and radical. We want to highlight all these often unnamed facets.’
So Het Nieuwe Instituut wants to look beyond the lists of promising young designers. ‘The danger of producing lists is that everyone chases after the latest talent,’ says Francien van Westrenen, head of Het Nieuwe Instituut's Agency. ‘Lists imply overview and completeness, but are always subjective, temporal and by definition incomplete. They always highlight only a part of the group, with the risk that a potentially equally interesting group will be forgotten. It’s important to investigate why certain designers are promoted and by whom, the standards by which their talent is measured, which criteria their work must meet, and to which issues they can contribute by applying their qualities. As an institution, it is very valuable to give young people a chance, to let them experiment and show their work. You provide them with a stepping-stone on their way to building a practice. To this end, Het Nieuwe Instituut also presents the New Material Award and the Prix de Rome Archiecture. But talent is not confined to recent graduates, nor is the need for experimentation.’
Room for talent development at Het Nieuwe Instituut
Het Nieuwe Instituut doesn’t only reflect on the concept of talent. Talent development is also interpreted in a very practical way by directly involving designers, makers and thinkers in the implementation and development of the programme in numerous ways by commissioning graphic design, spatial design, the compilation of exhibitions or other activities.
Since it’s founding in 2013, Maureen Mooren, as art director, has been responsible for the quality of the graphic design of the various means of communication, and later also for the spatial design of the exhibitions and presentations of Het Nieuwe Instituut. ‘As an institute that represents the various design disciplines, we have started to make the value of design visible by using the means that we produce ourselves. We didn’t choose one permanent designer, but developed an identity in which we could use a different designer for each project. It began with the graphic design, and we gradually extended this approach to the spatial design of the exhibitions and presentations. It’s a way for a cultural institution for the design disciplines to commission many different designers and give them visibility.'
‘In doing so, the institute sends out a very clear signal: these are the designers we work with, who we want to offer a stage,’ says Van Westrenen. According to her example, Het Nieuwe Instituut’s commissioning policy is a means of stimulating talent development.
‘We explicitly seek out experimentation, for example, by working with designers who have not previously designed an exhibition. This requires great confidence in the qualities of the designer, a responsibility for us as the commissioning body and a willingness to take on and accept the risk of failure.’
Mooren doesn’t need to think long about what talent is: ‘It’s about quality, it means you’re very good at something, that you work very specifically and innovatively, or perhaps even conservatively, but then do it very well.’ Age doesn’t really matter. ‘I think it’s relatively easy to start a career in the Netherlands. There’s always room for young talent and a great curiosity for new names. It’s much more complicated to sustain it.’ According to Mooren, Het Nieuwe Instituut also has a responsibility in this respect. ‘There are very good designers and artists whose talents were not recognised at first, who were not hired by certain art academies. Some people are late bloomers.'
Perhaps we should drop the whole concept of ‘talent’, Van Westrenen suggests. ‘I think it’s much more about stimulating and developing people, or makers. It’s very special how Pascale Gatzen at Artez in Arnhem set up the fashion Master’s programme. She promotes an equality with an emphasis on collective work. She avoids the notion of having to excel as an individual designer.’
A new definition of success
Otero also advocates this search for a different approach to talent development. ‘The concept of talent is closely linked to the individual. But in view of the urgent issues ahead of us, we may need to prioritize forms of collaboration. Then, for example, qualities such as care and solidarity will become more important. At Het Nieuwe Instituut, we are not interested in the next star architect or designer, but are looking for new forms of collective and trans-disciplinary practices, with room for other forms of expertise and knowledge that can be applied, for example, in the construction of the city.’
‘We need a new definition of success. The concept of talent is associated with the expectation that this person will be successful. But how do we measure success? Is it about fame, or about earning money? Which values are absolutely necessary today? Can we conceive of other forms of sensitivity needed for a non-exploitative, non-discriminatory world? Practices that not only position humans, with our individual needs, at the centre, but also make the needs of other living beings and the environment just as important.’
At the same time, talent and success also represent the adulation and recognition we receive from the field in which we operate, Otero acknowledges. ‘Which structures of care or recognition, which are not necessarily about fame or making money, could we develop or do we already know?
'Het Nieuwe Instituut is interested in people who are able to break with traditional patterns and develop alternative practices. It is through these eyes and voices, and through this collective effort, that we can move forward. We need people who inspire us – in that sense, talents are very valuable.’
If you think about the colossal social issues that require attention, such as climate change, pollution and radical political developments, then it’s clear that we desperately need talented people, says Kuitenbrouwer. ‘We need people who can do something, who are critical and courageous, who know how to include others in new developments. The only question is whether individual talent is sufficient to be able to respond adequately. Collective efforts and the formation of alliances are important in order to be able to operate politically and strive for a truly radical direction.’
That is why Het Nieuwe Instituut wants to view talent in a different way. ‘I think that the notion of talent in the sense of authorship can be broadened in several interesting ways. How does talent relate to the use of new techniques and the development of artificial intelligence? What authorship can non-human entities develop? The visual language of so-called Liquid Architecture is just as much the result of developments in software as the individual style of the architects who designed the buildings. The authorship of technology plays a dominant role in early applications of a new technique, when how that new form would be received has not yet been determined,’ says Kuitenbrouwer.
In search of unexpected talents
Since 2016, Het Nieuwe Instituut has been issuing an annual open call for a fellows. An international jury selects three to four fellows from the submissions, who are given the opportunity to do research in the field of architecture, design and digital culture for a period of six months. ‘We decided not to ask applicants for a CV and recommendations because we were not especially interested in the participants’ past achievements. If you focus on that, you may be missing out on someone who hasn’t achieved significant results yet, but has a fascinating plan for a research project that will permanently change our view of the world, or at least that of architecture, design and digital culture. We ask applicants to describe themselves and their project in their own terms. Our quest is to open up the institute to unanticipated participants and voices that will challenge and permanently transform the institute.’
Each year the fellowship programme focuses on a specific theme that addresses a particular issue. ‘These should be simultaneously relevant and formulated in such a way that many different voices can relate and respond to it,’ explains Otero.
‘The fellowship has no age limit and is not restricted to any particular nationality. Among the fellows we have students, recent graduates, and experienced designers or researchers who are inspired to take time to develop a particular project or take a different path in their career. The fellowship mainly provides space and time for experimentation and reflection. At the end of these six months of research, we work together with the fellows to find ways to continue working on the project and opening it up to other spaces and publics.’
Het Nieuwe Instituut uses its extensive network, both nationally and internationally, to this end. The presentation WORK, BODY, LEISURE in the Dutch pavilion during the Venice Architecture Biennale, for example, included the work of two former fellows: Simone Niquille and Noam Toran. The 2018 fellows, Nathalie Dixon, Malique Mohamud and Elisa Giuliano, organised the programme for the vernissage of Het Nieuwe Instituut’s programme in Venice. And the Dutch contribution to the Triennale di Milano 2019 included work by former fellow Ramon Amaro. ‘In the exchange between the interests of the fellows and the possibilities that the institute has to offer, a conversation develops that ultimately transforms both the institution and the researches,’ is how Otero summarises the collaboration.
Interview: Lotte Haagsma
A chain of support measures for talent development
'Talent development for us as an Creative Industries Fund means that we think very carefully about how we design a range of tools with which we can serve designers and makers in various ways during their careers'.
Passion, Love and Empathy
'The only criterion that truly matters is the willingness of the participant to surrender to their own learning process, to shape it themselves and to develop autonomously.'