Roberto Feo : “For me, design is everything”

"Garden Object" by El Ultimo Grito at Rice Gallery, Texas
“Garden Object” by El Ultimo Grito at Rice Gallery, Texas

Roberto Feo of El Ultimo Grito has been appointed Professor of Design here at Goldsmiths, starting this academic year. On this happy occasion for all of us at Goldsmiths Design, we have prepared for you an interview with Roberto on his work and his new job: 

What will you be doing at Goldsmiths as a Professor of Design?

My position is not really about teaching- I will help with teaching on the programmes, but mainly I will be generating a new design research group. It will be inclusive of staff and graduates, and it will offer possibilities of collaboration. Its focus will be similar to my interests in design and to the interests of the Design department at Goldsmiths: an experimental approach to design, and focusing not just on the end product, but on the meta-structure of design that goes behind that. We imagine the product in the vertex of a pyramid- I’m more interested in the system behind the final outcome, rather than just the final outcome as such. So I think that will be the purpose: how the object influences the pyramid and how changing the pyramid means that we also have a different outcome at the end.

I understand that you didn’t start out studying design yourself; what do you think is the role of design education in forming a designer?

I think design education gives you a focus into what design is. In reality, the design principles are present in many other activities, in terms of how you have to creatively plan and in order to materialise knowledge.  We all share the same kind of process, design makes it more apparent, makes you more aware that this is what you’re doing. That’s why, for us ,it is interesting ,having a different background, because certain things are coming through your work in unexpected ways, so it gives you more material to play. But at the same time, education nowadays is not so much about teaching you how to be a designer, but about expanding the idea of what design is. I think that education really investigates design, and both the educators and the students collaborate in the function of the designer as a tutor or a professor in university. It’s not about teaching someone how to be what I am, I have to try teaching them what I don’t know yet. It’s a tricky thing, it requires a design approach to education and being experimental, trying to foresee what are these areas and trying to help students arrive to places you don’t know yet. That’s how you advance what design is.

"Rematerialisation of Systems" by El Ultimo Grito
“Rematerialisation of Systems” by El Ultimo Grito

What is design, then?

To me, design is everything. Right now, I define design as all the processes that we use as humans to materialise ideas. “Materialise” can mean from making physical objects to language , so you start to consider many different things as possible areas to apply design. When you consider them as design, you interpret them and use them in a very different way than when you think of them as history, or language, or medicine. It’s a different approach, but I think it’s an interesting one.

How would you describe your practice to someone who has never heard of you before?

We’ve moved through the years in our practice, we started from industrial design and went into slowly questioning what industry is. The two words, “industrial” and “design”: you start disintegrating them and then your practice starts to move along and you become interested in other things. Right now, our main focus is interrogation of what design is and can be, and we do that through projects that are often shown, rather than as part of an industrial process. The venue tends to be a museum, galleries, public spaces, it’s much more installation-oriented at this state.

You won with your partner, Rosario Hurtado, the London Design Medal. You talked about design not being just a means to a product. What was it like for you to get recognition from the industry, even though you were not necessarily looking for it?

I think we were the ugly duckling of that prize! If you look at the people that have received the prize before and after us, they’re always very prominent within the industry. I believe we are known in the industry, but our achievements, if we can call them that, are in a more gray area. I think part of it was the recognition of the experimental approach that plays an important part in education. Influencing design does not only happen through objects, but also by influencing how other people are looking at design and expanding the field, and I think that the prize acknowledged that there are other practices in design that are recognised and valid, that there is not just one standard, and that was important to us.

"Mise en Scene" by El Ultimo Grito at the Gwanju Biennale- "Burning Down the House"
“Mise en Scene” by El Ultimo Grito at the Gwanju Biennale- “Burning Down the House”

If you had to mention a particular project that encapsulates your point of view, what would that be?

For us, it would be the one we just completed, and it is probably the largest work we’ve done. We were asked to take part in the Biennale of Art in Gwanju. We had a very good relationship with the curator of the exhibition, Jessica Morgan, and she had seen our installation work. We had a conversation about what we could do and we suggested to create a background for all the artwork. The four pavillions of the Biennale were in a graphic layout that guided you. We were thinking: “she will never go with this”- how are you going to convince an artist to have something else behind their work? But she has been amazing, she managed to get 170 international artists to embrace the idea- only 3 refused. So we reconstructed one and a half kilometres of images. The design was called Mise en Scene, and it was a research into the architecture of cinema. The images were designed with halftone: when you’re close to them you don’t see anything, just big dots, but as soon as you back down, they become really dramatic pictures of smoke…because the title of the Biennale was “Burning down the house”, this idea of creative destruction. This represents the kind of work that we are doing now, in terms of ambition and scale. It was a project that ran for almost six months and it was very complex from a technical point of view, software is not even prepared to deal with such big images. The corridors were 12 meters high. It was quite a challenging project, because it had never been done at that scale. It was really good that the artists were happy with it. When you went into the rooms that didn’t have the backgrounds, they looked like they were missing something.

"Mise en Scene" by El Ultimo Grito at the Gwanju Biennale- "Burning Down the House"
“Mise en Scene” by El Ultimo Grito at the Gwanju Biennale- “Burning Down the House”

Would you describe your work as multidisciplinary?

I’d go further, we describe ourselves as postdisciplinary! I think multidisciplinary means that there are still different disciplines- in our definition of design that doesn’t exist. Working on the same project, for example, the outcomes go from material-based (the kind of things we learned when we started), to questioning cinematic systems, creating a digital writing program to write scripts…so suddenly, once you start breaking from the idea of disciplines, there are no places left where you say “I’m not going to do this, because I don’t know how to do it.”

Interview by Nadia Barbu, images and clips courtesy of Roberto Feo