visionandfactory’s Hugo Puttaert on Integrated 2017’s urgent manifesto

Sint Lucas-lecturer, interdisciplinary graphic designer and curator of Integrated conference platform Hugo Puttaert is not one to mince his words. For the sixth edition of this international art and design conference, the Brussels-based creative has carefully pieced together a series of talks hosted by some of the world’s leading visual thinkers and makers. Using the essay Between creativity and criminality: The art & design of the civil domain – co-written between Puttaert and Antwerp Research Institute for the Arts’ Pascal Gielen – as this year’s polemic starting point, Integrated seeks to question all of our preconceived notions on what it means to design creatively in the oft-ignored civil domain. Over the course of the next two days, Integrated and its mighty line-up of notable speakers will be held at Antwerp’s cultural centre deSingel.

Can you tell us a few things about the conference?

Integrated started in 2007 as a biennial conference, even if the idea first popped up in the late 90s, when I added the baseline “integrated design” to my studio, visionandfactory. We didn’t want to be limited to only graphic design, since we’ve always stood at the cross-point of several disciplines. A bit later, when lecturing, I started to use the term integration as a way of looking at these diverse artistic disciplines. Fast-forward to today, Integrated as a conference has nothing to do with being politically correct. Rather, it stands for a place, a forum where ideas, visions and working methods interact, struggle or meet. It’s a plea for unconventional thinking, beyond borders of media, disciplines or even idioms. And it’s a platform for rethinking presumed models in design and art education.

How would you describe the majority of the speakers? In a more general sense, how would you describe their work, approach and aesthetic?

Although Integrated started off as an extended graphic design conference, it’s consciously evolved into a platform beyond the borders of its discipline since then. In that sense, we started to select speakers based on their way of thinking, their approach, the particularity of their practise; rather than on the specific discipline they work in. In this way, Integrated’s managed to always remain an art and design conference in the broadest sense possible. We never opt for the mainstream – there’s enough of that on (social) media. Instead, we explore the “extraordinary” – not in terms of “the spectacular”, but really literally. What the word means at its essential root. We search for “integration practices”, far removed from what is generally accepted as the norm. We try to look forward and backward, but also place ourselves firmly in the present.

In terms of approach, how did you go about producing the conference? How were you involved with the speakers?

Setting up Integrated is a constant, never-ending process. Plenty of people are involved, both as advisors or as friends. I’m open to every suggestion, but I remain very critical and even picky at times. When it comes to finding the speakers, it can take years before a certain speaker finally comes on board, while for others it’s just a matter of one mail or phone call. Sometimes I hesitate, rethink and decide. I then enter into a dialogue with the speakers – sometimes in depth, sometimes not – until I’m confident that there’s no more need to.  It’s a question of confidence, trust and respect; about being able to discuss the conference’s themes without influencing them too much. This is very important: I embrace substantiated discussion, regardless of any tastes or aesthetic preferences.

As an organizer, how important is your relationship with the speakers?

Very – I’m very selective in my work, and am not simply filling up a programme with “exchangeable” speakers. It’s like making a complex and unique cocktail, where every ingredient is necessary. If you lose one, the whole cocktail will taste different. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but then other ingredients have to be changed too. So, the whole cocktail has to be rethought. With this in mind, I very carefully build up my line-up. Speakers know that if they come on board, there’s a certain commitment to be upheld – not only in being present, but also in contributing to some larger issue. This is why we make sure to pay our speakers correctly – even if they don’t always ask for it.

Integrated as a conference has nothing to do with being politically correct. Rather, it’s a plea for unconventional thinking, beyond borders of media, disciplines or even idioms.

From research to scenography, can you discuss the various different people involved in the show?

As mentioned already, the research lies in many hands: fellow teachers at Sint Lucas, external colleagues and of course the studio we work with, Mirror Mirror. The Integrated brand-concept is not based on any fixed strategy. Instead, we want everything to evolve, from scenography and design to the campaign. The scenography on stage is always the result of a back-and-forth between some of my colleagues. Strictly no corporate or event-branding is to be found here. We focus on research – it’s intended to be a platform in its own right. Therefore for each edition, everything is redefined and redesigned from scratch. We want to show transition, instead of just sticking to one brand. It sustains the reason why this conference exists in the first place.

What do you feel is the exhibition’s main statement? And how do you feel it fits in with the artist’s oeuvre in a more general sense?

Most definitely the title of the essay Between creativity and criminality: The art & design of the civil domain – a title which also reads as a manifesto. It was written by Pascal Gielen, a professor of sociology of art and politics at the Antwerp Research Institute for the Arts, and myself. We introduce each conference with a foundational essay; a sort of ongoing condition humaine or chain of thoughts, where we further build on the previous conference. It’s our interpretation of continuity. No hip trends – we simply hate it. When publishing this manifesto, Pascal and I wanted to raise relevant questions without “revealing” any potential answer, if there are any. Although we all have our strong opinions, we try to establish the conference as an open platform for discussion, for opposing views and practises. No slick portfolio shows, even if we do love pictoriality in its broadest sense. This might sound obvious, but it’s surprising how often this isn’t the case.

What do you hope people will get from visiting the conference?

Doubt, really. Or to pronounce it more comprehensively: a transition from confusion, to doubt, to sharp clarification. When exposing yourself to so many different influences and incentives, you open yourself up to an interesting nutritional foundation for future projects or decisions. In other words, to stimulate evolution in your thinking. The creation of a mental space where you can doubt everything you’ve learned so far, through vulnerable honesty and self-awareness. This is something which is reflected in my own book which was published a few years ago, Think in Colour. It’s all about the act of moving away from your comfort zone; or embracing complexity and diversity.

On a more personal level, how has working on this conference enriched your understanding of the people’s work? And of design and art more generally?

Plenty: working on this conference programme, next to being a teacher, designer and writer enriches my life and way of thinking. It offers a lot of self-doubt, too. I use the word “offer” intentionally, since it’s up to you whether to accept it or not. For me, it’s the ultimate trigger to keep on going, even if it’s not the easiest one. Being overly self-confident can lead to vanity, which is counterproductive and generic. Even though I can admire such a trait to a certain extent, I do cherish humbleness more than ever as I grow older. And to be honest, I’m really fine with that.