In Milan, Numen/For Use Dares You to Let Loose and Dream

Design week attendees are welcome to climb in and explore the European artist collective’s giant netted structure for Porsche—and hopefully forget about their next appointment.

Milan Design Week’s ‘round-the-clock frenzy of showroom tours, brisk run-throughs of branded pop-ups, and late-night networking outside Bar Basso doesn’t leave much time for play—or room to clear the mind before cruising to Lake Como for a well-earned weekend of post-Salone decompression. But one installation seems to be breaking that mold. 

Situated in the lavish Palazzo Clerici a brief jaunt from the Duomo and Teatro alla Scala is a giant net installation devised by Numen/For Use, the Vienna-, Zagreb-, and Berlin-based artist collective founded by Christopher Katzler, Nikola Radeljković, and Sven Jonke. Made of lightweight nets whose black-and-white colors dynamically crisscross as they stretch several stories high, the sculpture, Lines of Flight, aims to evoke a cloud of excited starlings taking flight. Don’t be shy—visitors are welcome to climb in, explore the structure, and hopefully forget about their next appointment for a little while.

Lines of Flight is the latest edition of Porsche’s ongoing The Art of Dreams series, which has enlisted talents like Cyril Lancelin and Ruby Barber to design interactive installations that provide pleasant diversions during major cultural events. This year, the German automaker asked Numen/For Use to riff on its Pepita pattern, a classic houndstooth textile made of small squares connected by diagonal stripes that Porsche introduced in the 1960s and has become one of the automotive world’s most rarefied fabrics. (Vitra is releasing three limited-edition chairs upholstered in Pepita this week to celebrate.) Its repetitive geometric interplay resembles crisscrossing nets, and the trio of industrial designers by training have been making inhabitable nets, cocoons, and ropes for more than a decade, so the brief was a no-brainer.

“Our idea of a dream is an inhabitable utopia,” the collective says. “For us, dreaming is a process of self-discovery in which we confront the new and the unknown.” Visitors can take them up on that firsthand—choreographer siblings Imre and Marne van Opstal are staging a dance performance within Lines of Flight today, in which a group of dancers gracefully ascend the structure, get into position, and synchronize their movements to a reverberating musical number. Surface sat down with the members of Numen/For Use to talk about parasitic art, negotiating stability, and the potential of adult playgrounds.

First off, the metaphor you drew between Pepita and a cloud of excited starlings is wonderful. Has the Pepita pattern shaped/inspired your artistic expression in the past? When did you first become aware of it? 

Perhaps not Pepita specifically, but we harbor a long-term interest in monochromatic graphics, binaries, patterns, rhythms, spatial geometry, mathematical forms, tessellations, grids, meshes—and all have featured extensively, as dominant themes or subtle undercurrents in our work across disciplines during the past two decades. This goes especially for our earlier phase, when we were visually more rigid, more minimalist, and highly invested in total formal reduction. Perhaps our creative focus on geometric phenomena and reductive aesthetics was also one of the reasons why we were eventually invited by Porsche to take part in this year’s Art of Dreams initiative, to look into their historical Pepita pattern from a new perspective, or even metaphorically, and explore its sensory and spatial possibilities.

Did previous editions of The Art of Dreaming inspire your approach to Lines of Flight

We analyzed the works of previously commissioned artists, especially the misty rose labyrinth by Ruby Barber, as it was designed for and installed in the courtyard of Palazzo Clerici just like our own work, and seemed to create an enchanted, uncanny atmosphere that intrigued us. The walk-in inflatable by Cyril Lancelin was also interesting on another level, considering that blow-up structures are something we explore, build, and develop too. Since our theme was very much determined by Pepita’s visually strong black-and-white pattern geometry, however, we relied more on our own insights and previous experience with creating immersive environments.

Numen/For Use has a history of pulling off technically ambitious work, especially surreal, interactive installations that upend how we interact with space. What were some challenges associated with realizing Lines of Flight, especially when it comes to its setting at the Palazzo Clerici?

Whoever follows our work knows that we like to create large-scale, site-specific objects that take over the host space like some sort of extraterrestrial parasitic organism. This is the reason why we choose and analyze locations very carefully before accepting a commission, considering that space works in direct synergy with our objects and heavily influences their character and final impact. Occasionally, due to regulatory obstacles or protected status of the host-venue (such is the case with the historical Palazzo Clerici) our structures cannot come to life as true parasites, but must remain autonomous and polite—more supersized sculptures than invading species—while still retaining a certain reciprocity and dialogue with the context.

How will the installation augment Imre and Marne van Opstal’s choreography? What can we expect on this front?

We work a lot in performance design, and collaborations with choreographers and dancers are usually the most rewarding as both sides pay great attention to visual abstraction, geometry, and dynamics. Most of our installations are designed to be experienced and completed by the human user. They are architectural in size and can be entered, which means they’re always at least partially immersive. Lines of Flight is a net installation, and stretched nets are a type of surface that responds to movement and mass, adapts to the body of the visitor, but demands unusual bodily engagement. It’s a kinaesthetic exertion that can be both a challenge and an inspiration for the choreographers. Another specific trait is the netting’s relative transparency and height, allowing the audience to observe the performance from the ant’s perspective and producing the illusion of a levitating body, which expands the possibilities for choreography.

Besides dreaming, did you have a particular theme in mind?

Yes, birds and op art. The high-contrast black-and-white fields and the dual nature of the Pepita pattern (rigid frame, flying diagonals) immediately suggested that we’re in the zone of optical psychedelia and both the garden and courtyard installation tackle with the dazzle effect and the moire pattern and the perceived movement within the duotone graphic. Apart from that, we obviously tried to channel a murmuration of flustered starlings caught mid-flight.

What sensations do you hope attendees will experience at Lines of Flight?

Our host-space is a historical courtyard of a famous Milanese palazzo, so one of the peculiar aspects of entering Lines of Flight is being able to observe the life of the courtyard from above and to peek through the windows of the piano nobile while floating in a series of interconnected hammocks. We actually see our installations as large-scale experimental public furniture; playful heterotopias allowing the crawler to experience architectural environments from unexpected, surreal angles while negotiating their own stability, uncertainty, proprioception, nervousness…

Your installations have been likened to “adult playgrounds” in the past. In general, how do you design to foster dreaming and imagination?

We see play as a form of research and “adult playgrounds” as testing areas for new viable spatial or existential options. When designing such environments, we want superhuman size that brings immersive properties and a sense of alternate reality. Another goal is a certain level of abstraction, which makes the spatial experience cleaner and more meditative. To achieve a more abstract or etheric structure, we consider and exploit the whole spectrum of capabilities of a material at hand. Fantastic or oneiric effect then comes from the combination of spatiality and lightweightness, which is the result of maximizing the material’s technological power.

Outside of your own work, what are you most looking forward to at Milan Design Week?

We have no particular preferences, but are excited about the upcoming avalanche of exhibitions and events and will be on the lookout for those random things that surprise, inspire, or terrify.

All images courtesy of Porsche. Lines of Flight will be on view at Palazzo Clerici (Via Clerici, 5, 20121 Milano) throughout Milan Design Week. 

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