An interview with Setareh Noorani & Jelmer Teunissen, in light of A Funeral for Street Culture

Written by Sydney van Nieuwaal

Installation photo from the group project 'A Funeral for Street Culture' by Metro54 and Rita Ouédraogo hosted by Framer Framed, Amsterdam (2021). © Eva Broekema / Framer Framed

Metro54 and Rita Ouédrago invite you to a critical celebration and mourning of street culture. In the group project “artists, poets, designers, thinkers and hustlers” explore the ways street culture “interweaves with and departs from design, performativity, queerness, fashion, activism and cultural appropriation.”

A Funeral for Street Culture is a group project which can currently be visited, explored and interacted with at the exhibition space Framer Framed until the 8th of August, but will also take new shapes in the time to come. Setareh Noorani & Jelmer Teunissen are the spatial designers of the project. I spoke with them over a Zoom call, unpeeling some of the first few layers of their conception and composition.

Hi Jelmer and Setareh. How are you?

Jelmer: Good, you?

Setareh: I’m good!

I’m fine as well, thanks! Could you start off with telling a bit about yourself, in relation to A Funeral for Street Culture?

J: Shall I go? Or do you want to go first?

S: We can take turns.

J: Sure. Well, we’ve been invited by Metro 54 and Rita Ouédraogo to work on the group project in Framer Framed, in our roles of spatial designers. We were entrusted with creating architectural surroundings to the works: giving them a place within the project, and to create a few spaces as well, such as a nail salon and a bookshop.

S: This wasn’t the first time we worked with Metro 54. We once did a spatial design for their intervention during Dutch Design Week in TAC, Eindhoven. So, we’ve known the team for a while already. I think we align with them pretty closely conceptually and in terms of ambition. We both strive to give Other voices a space. Concurrently, I think we have an understanding where they come from in terms of theory and curation. For this project, they started off by asking us to transform Framed Framed, which was a big white space when we entered, into something polyphonic and something that aims to be explicitly decolonial. Then we got to work.

How do you start such a process?

J: We started with asking ourselves a variety of questions. Rita and Metro 54 shared a text with us, from which we could think and work. The exhibition space prior to A Funeral in Framed Framed was a white cube and former warehouse. However, for us this fits into a history of colonial architecture – in which such spaces are reused as art practices and exhibition spaces, in the shift to a postindustrial economy. That rational approach can lead to a form of rational exhibiting, or to the enhancement of object-subject relationships in the arts. What we wanted to do was to juxtapose, but simultaneously work from the multiplicity of the space. We started by proliferating the grid that already existed – aiming to eventually give a spatial expression to the complex experiences that lay in the works and the intention of the curators.

S: Yes, exactly. The space already had a very forceful grid, on which we’ve tried to proliferate. We tried to imagine a specific shift and translation of the grid, and to position different works within it. That’s one layer, as our spatial design is a layered design. Then there’s the theme, for instance. A funeral for street culture. What does it mean, as Jelmer just said, to celebrate street culture in a postindustrial age? What does it mean to mourn street culture in this age? An age of continual appropriation of street culture and DIY aesthetics. We asked ourselves how do we transpose that? We tried to let that seep through in the use of materials commonly associated with the transformation, appropriation, or gentrification of urban spaces. Via the use of fences and wooden walls that temporarily delineate spaces in transformation, for example.

I think I’ve seen some big black wooden logs as well.

S: Yes, but those are from the artist themselves. From Pillars of Autumn.

Those boundaries are quite interessant. Where does the work start and end? Where does the context in which the work is presented start and end?

J: Yes. Especially with that group of artists it’s hard to find that boundary, as we’ve worked with them on how they could make the particular space they’re presenting. This overlap resulted in very interesting things.

S: That’s how we worked. We, as designers, were in a constant dialogue with artists and curators. We wanted to find out what drove their work and how it would be most aptly displayed. Also, a question that Jelmer and I asked ourselves a lot was: “which institution is being staged?”. You’re working within the institute of Framed Framed, but also within a sort of enclave or mini-institute of this particular project, in which street culture is institutionalised. The way we framed or stage-dressed certain works can also be read as a staging. How do you manage those different stagings?

I was just about to ask how you facilitate and arrange that polyphony you spoke about earlier. How do make sure all voices can be used with the volume and intensity as they desire? Is that because of the constant dialogue? By building a stage for a voice after listening to it, rather than the other way around and asking a voice to step on a pre-existing stage?

J: Yes! Our work wasn’t delivering a set of drawings. Whether it’s drawings or 3D models, there’s always some sort of reduction, where you take an euclidean space for real, rather than lived space. We participated in the production of the space and tried to make all the conversation and processes that belong in the production process part of the work.

How would you like the audience to interact with the exhibition space?

S: We thought about that a lot. We didn’t want to create a typical space where people solely walk through. We wanted to allow physical interaction. And, for instance, the possibility to have a pause, sit somewhere and read a book. Or, to climb on top of an object, or to participate in something. Those physical experiences are intuitive interaction, but then there’s also the aim to start interactions in terms of conversation and exchange. The coming period there will be different programs, focusing on different layers of the group project, to activate people and give them access to thoughts behind A Funeral for Street Culture.

I think that’s a great element. This conversation alone brings me new things to think about in relation to the project. When thinking of institutionalisation and appropriation, I wondered; did you encounter any difficulties when placing street culture in an exhibition context? Specifically the movement of taking something from ‘outside’, ‘inside’.

J: Yes. This reminds me of the question we asked earlier; “which institution is being staged?”. Also, can we give credit, where credit is due, while maintaining institutional street cred? Questioning institutions and institutionalization, is the fundament on which we engaged in conversation. Take the work of Cengiz, for example – he remixed the visual language of immigrants’ shops’ windows for the entrance of the show, or the nail salon we were asked to design. Setareh, would you like to tell some more about that?

S: Yes, but I would first like to zoom out a bit, and respond to the question from a different perspective. In architecture, inside and outside, and the contrast between the two, are points of continuous negotiation. Sydney, you just asked: “how do you take something inside, what actually is outside?” To me, this evokes the concept of the outsider perspective. Who is outside in this situation? Is it caused by discomfort or a certain tension? Is the institute the outsider, all of a sudden? Or, are we still the outsiders, that temporarily can take on the role of insider, until everything will be appropriated again and we’re back being the outsiders? You can think about this infinitely. Anyway, the work of Cengiz that Jelmer was referring to projects from inside to the outside. The materials play with the contrast between inside and outside, but also with self reflection. You can, literally, see yourself in the work because the material is reflective. But, you can also see what’s happening inside, from the outside.

Why is this project dressed in the context of a funeral?

S: From my perspective, mostly in terms of appropriation and commodification. When does something mean the death of something else? For example, take the use of the lashing straps. The logos of Metro 54 and Framed Framed are printed on those strapssomething that we appropriated from Off-White. That’s how things circulate. When is something dead? Can you bring things back to life?

J: We reflect on the way things come and go, and how they move through time. Most of all, our design is an invitation to come and take a stroll with us. Walk with us, stop, contemplate, continue your path, wander through different timelines, mourn, dive back in your thoughts, engage in conversation.

That’s a beautiful image. A stroll of introspection.

J: Yes, but there’s both room for introspection and celebration. That’s very important.

S: Exactly.

J: The celebration of the inward, and of the appearance.

S: That’s why we deliberately chose not to use colours commonly related to funerals, but to really pursue the celebration. Also, I must say that Amal (Alhaag), is very specific about colour. We’re very proud that she had little to no remarks on the colours we selected, haha.

J: Yes, but those colours of celebration are a double edged sword as well. In exhibitions that feature artists who are of colour, colour can also be a way of essentialization and fethisization of colour. A certain visual esthetic that people might deem as ‘exotic’. This was tension we didn’t want to simply evade.

S: No, absolutely.

The space is defined as non-hierarchical. What does that entail? What does that mean to you?

S: I think this has the same answer as earlier, what we said about the grid. The proliferation and decentralisation of it.

J: Yes, but also, there is no walking route for instance. The visitors have to decide for themselves what they will do. Also, in the exhibition, there’s no real stereotypical way of hanging art on walls. We try to dismantle object-subject relations. But, that’s not something we’ve invented of course. That object and subject hierarchy has been experimented with for decades, and we build on that.

S: We don’t want to tell people how to visit the project. We solely want to give suggestions for different approaches. There are multiple ways to experience the project, that contributes to the accessibility. A certain comfort within tensions. Which can lead to connections and conversation. In a white cube gallery or museum I often feel expectations on how to behave and what my position is as a visitor – which makes me freeze.

J: Yes, but this doesn’t mean that the works can’t have authority. It’s not the case that things aren’t elevated or put on a pedestal. But, there is the question of what exactly and the way how it is done. The staging is done in consultation.

Thank you!

J: Thanks. It was fun to reflect after a couple of months.

S: Thanks!

A Funeral for Street Culture is an ongoing project, with new iterations at its horizon. The current shape of the project is on until 8 August at Framer Framed, Amsterdam. Find more info on the project here. Find more info on the work and ideas of Jelmer & Setareh here and here respectively.