0esign_act_cover_364.jpgDesign Act - Socially and Politically Engaged Design Today. Critical Roles and Emerging Tactics, edited by Magnus Ericson and Ramia Mazé, the founders of the DESIGN ACT project (available on amazon USAand UK.)

Publishers IASPIS and Sternberg Press write: Design Act: Socially and Politically Engaged Design Today--Critical Roles and Emerging Tactics is a project that presents and discusses contemporary design practices that engage with political and societal issues. Since 2009, the Iaspis project Design Act has been highlighting and discussing practices in which designers have been engaging critically as well as practically in such issues. Itself an example of applied critical thinking and experimental tactics, the process behind the Design Act project is considered as a curatorial, participatory and open-ended activity. Design Act has developed through an online archive, public events, and an international network.

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Mine, Everything Is OK caution tape

The book is thus putting the spotlight on 'Socially and Politically Engaged Design'. Design! With a bit of architecture thrown in. If you're into activist, socially engaged art, you might find that many of the projects presented in this book are very reasonable and appropriate. They have less bite than the work of, say, Santiago Sierra (more about him tomorrow) but that shouldn't be held against them. Because these designers are smart. And levelheaded enough to look for practical, witty solutions to very circumscribed issues. There's no 'Design will save the world!' here.

The publication attempts to answer three groups of questions:
- What is socially and politically engaged design today? What are its historical antecedents?
- Which form does it take"? Which strategies does it deploy?
- Where do you find socially engaged design? In which contexts?

This book is the conclusion and digest of the ambitious DESIGN ACT programme produced by Iaspis, the Swedish Arts Grants Committee's International Programme for Visual Arts. It took the form of a series of panels, interviews, an online archive and a research that offered a platform for practitioners and members of the public to discuss how design practices are engaging with political and societal issues.

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New Beauty Council, Knitting House Husby Konsthall, 2010

The undeniable strength of the book is the interviews. Every single one of them contains invaluable insights and reflections. Especially the ones with Doina Petrescu, the co-founder of atelier d'architecture autogérée (aaa) (studio for self-managed architecture), an interdisciplinary network that develops "strategies" and "tactics" for research and intervention into city; with Pelin Derviş, an architect, editor and curator who used to head the Garanti Gallery, one of the most forward-thinking cultural spaces in Europe; Joseph Grima, editor in chief of Domus and former director of Storefront for Art and Architecture; Ou Ning, a Beijing-based curator, artist, documentary filmmaker, activist, designer, and director of the Shao Foundation; Yanki Lee, a young designer interested in methodology for participation and social innovation; designer, resercher and hacktivist Otto von Busch; architect and urbanist Mauricio Corbalan who co-founded m7red, a research platform dedicated to exploring the interactions between information technologies, urban ecologies and public policies; and architect Tor Lindstrand, one half of the brilliant International Festival and of Economy.

The experts interviewed share their opinion, experiences, talk about the difficulties encountered when starting a project and keeping it alive afterwards and questioning the role of design and architecture. Their conversation with the editors touch upon more specific dilemmas and concerns as well. Such as why they chose to operate inside or outside the academia, to put forward self-initiated projects rather than rely on commissions, where they find funding, how they manage to maintain a balanced relationship with sponsors, how to involve local communities, how to put traditional craftsmen in touch with young designers, reach out to various audiences, why they developed ideas in Europe but put them into practice in Asia or the USA, how to express a political position within a collective exhibition or a biennale.

And of course, i had to give you a few examples of what i meant when i wrote that many of the projects in the book are smart and rational:

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Raumlabor, Eichbaumoper, 2009. Foto ©: Rainer Schlautmann

Raumlabor turned a neglected and regularly vandalized metro station into an opera house.

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Unsworn Industries, Telemegaphone Dale, 2008

Telemegaphone Dale stands seven metres tall on a mountain overlooking the Dalsfjord in Norway. When you dial Telemegaphone's number the sound of your voice is broadcast across the fjord, the valley and the village of Dale below.

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m7red, inundacion! inesperadas posibilidades urbanas para Buenos Aires (flood! unexpected urban possibilities for Buenos Aires), 2000-2002

m7red designed a board game that projects disaster scenarios and lets players try their own hand at instant urban planning.

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The Anti-Advertising Agency, PeopleProducts123, 2007

PeopleProducts123 brings consumers the most up-to-date information on the people who make the products we use every day in the form of easy-to-use package labels and stickers. The improved packaging shows images and stories about the workers who make them and is 'shopdropped' in stores.

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Otto Von Busch, The Dale Sko Hack, 2006

The Dale Sko Hack workshop built bridges between designer and producer in an effort to evolve small scale production methods, save work places and develop skills within small scale shoe production.

Before closing the review, i need to add something about the design of the book: it is not even remotely practical. You keep getting numbers in red telling you to flip back and forth in the book to see pictures or just a description of a project discussed in a paragraph. It quickly gets tiring.

Image on the homepage: Piazza Taxingeplan in Tensta by International Festival and FRONT.

Related book reviews: Book Review - Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization, Art & Agenda - Political Art and Activism.

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The Critical Dictionary goes from Algeria to ZG. Through interviews with artists and historians, essays, quotations and photos with or without texts, the anthology uses the alphabet as a starting point to look for meanings, shake up definitions and tell readers something -but not everything- about appropriation art, borders, war monuments built in Serbia in 1946-2000, forest, overt research, etc. It comments on 'thing' and on ostranenie. In case you were wondering, ostranenie is the artistic technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar. And ostranenie is a practice Critical Dictionary is particularly good at. In the book, images and words are juxtaposed, they collide and challenge each other. The results often have political undertones, a sense of humour and the witticism one has come to expect from visual art.

Demonstration in this excerpt from an interview the author had with The Huffington Post: To define a forest as a large area with a thick growth of trees isn't wrong, exactly, but is limited. It says nothing about the forest as a pervasive symbol in Romanticism, an international movement of the early 19th century that challenged the Enlightenment by confronting light and transparency with darkness and opacity. Or why from 1948 onwards, Israelis were keen to plant trees on demolished Arab villages, presenting the resulting forests as pure nature. Such issues are raised, I hope, by 'F for Forest' in the book Critical Dictionary.

P-Plinth:
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Tom Lovelace, In Preparation for the Real, 2010

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Tom Lovelace, In Preparation no. 4, 2011

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Tom Lovelace, In Preparation no. 5, 2011

Critical Dictionary was created by David Evans, a writer and picture editor who lectures at the Arts University College in Bournemouth. He was inspired by Georges Bataille's short essays in the Surrealist art magazine Documents and by Bertold Brecht War Primer, photos of war he cut in newspapers and magazines, and accompanied with four-line poems.

W-Whippet:

Jo Longhurst, I know what you're thinking, 2002-2003

G-Greenwich Meridian:
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Simon Faithfull, 0° 00 Navigation, 2010

The Critical Dictionary started as an online art magazine, it then became a book, and it is now an exhibition at WORK Gallery. I can't remember having seen anything like Critical Dictionary before. You can open it at any page and it will wake up your brain immediately. There isn't even an introductory essay to bring any method or order to the experience. And i can't remember either having encountered such exercise of translating a website into a book into an exhibition.

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Richard Paul, Amateur, 2012. View of the exhibition space

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Anon, Found Photographs, 2011. View of the exhibition space

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Office of Experiment, Overt Research Project, 2008-2009

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Office of Experiment, Overt Research Project, 2008-2009

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View of the exhibition Critical Dictionary at WORK gallery

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View of the exhibition Critical Dictionary at WORK gallery

The book Critical Dictionary is published by Black Dog Publishing (available on amazon UK and USA.)

The exhibition of the same name will be on until 25 February 2012 at WORK gallery in London.

All images courtesy the artists and WORK gallery.

Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization: Reflect No. 8, edited by Lieven de Cauter, Ruben de Roo and Karel Vanhaesebrouck (available on amazon USA and UK.)

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NAI Publishers says: Should artists be activists? Is activist art one of an artist's primary responsibilities or a pointless sideshow on the fringes of serious politics? The philosopher, writer and art historian Lieven de Cauter, Ruben de Roo and Karel Vanhaesebrouck explore this theme in collaboration with other thinkers and doers in his new book Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization.

In a time of globalization, populism, hypercapitalism, migration, War on Terror, and global warming, artistic engagement is vital. Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization takes the measure of contemporary activist art. What is the role of art and activism in the polarized, populist society of the spectacle? Art & Activism examines both the criticism of engagement as a mere pose and the need for cultural activism in today's society. Urban activism and activism by anonymous networks are also investigated. Special attention is devoted to the effects of the War on Terror on activism in practice. The book concludes with a theoretical framework for contemporary activism and an impassioned plea for genuinely political art.

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Errorist International, Operation BANG!, 2005

It is traditional in the blogosphere (is anyone still using this word?) to close the year with a 'best of' post listing the 10 most popular stories, the best exhibitions seen, the gadgets that have changed our life. I wish i could do it, it's excellent for traffic. Alas! i have the memory of a mongoose and i'm too lazy to go through the archives of the blog. But i can safely declare that the best book i've read in 2011 was Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization.

A number of books about art and activism have landed on my doorstep over the past few years but this is the first one that takes as its premise the fact that activism, protest, subversion, disruption, criticism, community, resistance, etc. have become little more than buzzwords. Punk has lost its bite and essence and is now little more than a fashion trend. Che Guevara is more famous for the t-shirts his face sells than for the role he played in the Cuban Revolution. Subversion has been the cornerstone of Madonna's rise to pop power for decades. The discursive fringe has reached the mainstream. Resistance is hip! Subversion is cool!

The popularity of these terms have depleted them from any meaning or strength. Well almost... Today you can land a commission or assignment from public institutions and private sponsors by writing application that claims that your 'subversive' artwork will raise 'a healthy debate in the community'.

The editors of the book have therefore found it necessary to come up with a new word to define a powerful strategy that connects art and political engagement: subversivity. Subversivity is a disruptive attitude that tries to create openings, possibilities in the 'closedness' of a system.

The quality of the book extends way beyond its premise. Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization is composed of 30 essays by artists, art historians, philosophers, cultural critics, social scientists, curators, theatre directors, etc. I expected at least one or two of these texts to be bland, too scholarly, or cliché. But all i read was solid and relevant. There were a few repetitions but i never grew tired of the thoughts, experiments and ideas shared in the book.

The texts jumped from one discipline to another: visual art, theatre, architecture, hacktivism, urbanism, performances. They discussed artistic and activist practice in Europe and North America of course but also in Syria (exploring the form activism can take in a country where public activity is closely monitored by the State), South Africa, Argentina and other countries which ought to appear more often on the contemporary art map.

Unlike many books i review on the blog, this one contains very few images. Two to be precise and that includes the one on the cover. I didn't really miss the images and discovered a few artistic/activist projects that would have deserved an individual post:

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Renzo Martens, still from Episode 3, 2008

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Renzo Martens, still from Episode 3, 2008

Ruben De Roo takes Renzo Martens' film Enjoy Poverty as a platform to explore how artists can stimulate the political consciousness of the consumers of tragedies that we ('Western' audiences) are. A few years ago, Martens went to the Democratic Republic of Congo to launch a two-year project that examined the exploitation of one of Africa's major exports: images of poverty and suffering. The artist traveled with a blue neon billboard that read ENJOY POVERTY and worked with Congolese photographers, teaching them how to sell images of suffering to Western media and aid agencies.

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Christoph Schlingensief, Bitte liebt Österreich / Please Love Austria, 2000 (Image: Baltzer)

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Christoph Schlingensief, Bitte liebt Österreich / Please Love Austria, 2000 (Photo © Paul Poet)

In their remarkably powerful and compelling essay, members of the collective BAVO call for socially committed artists to abandon "NGO art" (mostly art devoid of any political stand for fear of loosing subsidies) and urged them to be 'really political' by developing strategies and practices of resistances that stretch the limits of their discipline in the direction of radical politics. They gave Christoph Schlingensief's Please Love Austria as a meaningful example of art engaging with politics:

In 2000, shortly after Jörg Haider's far right party became part of the Austrian government, Christoph Schlingensief set up a camp for asylum seekers in a shipping container outside the Vienna Opera House. Twelve asylum seekers lived in the container for 6 days, their lives streamed over the web in a kind of Big Brother show, and the audience were invited to vote their least favourite players to exit the container and be deported to their native country. Decorated with a banner saying Ausländer Raus! ('Foreigners out!'), the container became a flashpoint in Austria's national and racial debate. One of the outcome of the work is that, at the end of the show, antifascist action groups stormed the container and freed the immigrants (who were actually actors.)

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Alfredo Jaar, Lights in the City, in 1999

Gie Goris mentions Alfredo Jaar's Lights in the City as an example of art work that fuels a debate in society and unsettles without resorting to easy provocation.

The artist installed red light on the Copula of the Marche Bonsecours, a landmark monument in the centre of Montreal. The lights were connected to homeless shelters located 500 yards from the building. When a homeless person entered one of the shelters, they could press the button that would make the top of the building glow red.

Eventually all the shelters for homeless people in Montreal could be wired and connected to the Cupola. This way, a major landmark and historical monument in the city would be acting as a non-stop lighthouse, producing endless, painful distress signals to society. With enough media coverage and public outrage and support triggered by these ongoing distress signals, homelessness could be completely eradicated from Montreal, Jaar explained.

The strategy worked so well that the commissioning authority ended the intervention.

The book ends with the most honest plea: to burn the book (or burn your brain) because subversion (or subversivity) can be undermined by essays, books, intellectual jargon and 'radical' theories.

Image on the homepage: Steven Cohen, Chandelier, 2001. Photo: John Hogg.

Participate, Designing with User-Generated Content by Helen Armstrong and Zvezdana Stojmirovic (on amazon USA and UK.)

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Publisher Princeton Architectural Press says: Creativity is no longer the sole territory of the designer. User-driven design has never been easier for the public to generate and distribute. Users of websites such as Flickr, Threadless, WordPress, YouTube, Etsy, and Lulu approach design with the expectation that they will be able to fill in the content. How will such a fundamental shift toward bottom-up creation affect the design industry? Participate considers historical and contemporary models of creation that provide ideas for harnessing user-generated content through participatory design. The authors discuss how designers can lead the new breed of widely distributed amateur creatives rather than be overrun by them.

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Daniel Eatock, No Smoking Sign Library, ongoing

Nowadays, many of the tools of production and distribution used by graphic designers are available to the broader public. And not only are members of the public turning into amateur designers, they are also invited by professionals to contribute to their creative process. The book addresses the curiosity of the amateur of course but it also talks to professional designers (or artists) who fear that they might be trampled underfoot by distributed amateur creatives.

Participate is a introductory book for anyone who is interested in the impact that networked co-creativity has on design, graphic design but also on other fields such as typography, silk-screening, craft, fashion, advertising, etc.

Each chapter analyzes one of the key components of participatory design: community (or what drives people to participate in the absence of a financial compensation), modularity (the groups of units that makes up a larger system), flexibility (making branding more elastic) and technology (or why code is 'the new literacy.')

Chapters are colour-coded: the white pages are for theory and examples of successful participatory design. The yellow pages contain the interviews with designers, programmers, communication 'strategists' and curators. And because the authors of the books are designers but also educators, the blue pages are for exercises that invite readers to experiment with the concepts, projects and the ideas presented in the book.

The theory sections are written with clarity, they do a good job at explaining basics such as how the Open Source ad the Copyleft movements have paved the way for new mindsets, how technology has pushed users to adopt a more active role, what generative design is, etc.

A few projects presented in the book:

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Clemens Weisshaar and Reed Kram, Outrace, 2010

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Clemens Weisshaar and Reed Kram, Outrace, 2010

For the London Design Festival, Kram/Weisshaar and Reed Kram installed eight industrial robots on Trafalgar Square and let the public take control of them to write personal light messages which were recorded and shared as video files.

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Keetra Dean Dixon, Willing Wonder, 2007

Keetra Dean Dixon created a photo booth-like space in which people activate a hidden camera each time they lift a bubble wand and blow a bubble.

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Stefan Bucher, the Daily Monster, 2006

For 100 days, Stefan Bucher filmed himself drawings monsters and posted the short clips on his website. He then asked readers to write the story of the monster. His "open Source Monsters" also allows people to submit their own drawings based on the inkblots he provides. The online project lead to a book which had already gathered a public long before it hit the bookshops.

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Graphic Thought Facility, MEBOX, 2002

MEBOX is a customizable storage system. Each box has a grid of perforated discs that can be pressed out to create characters. When assembled, the double-thickness construction presents the message against the contrasting colour of the box lining.

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Posttypography, The Splice Today logo, 2008 - 2009

Check out the website of the book, it presents dozens of projects that have not been included in the volume.

Photo on the homepage: Joe Galbreath, Paper Robot Army. Credit image: Kristian Bjornard.
Related: Le Cadavre Exquis.

Utopia Forever - Visions of Architecture and Urbanism. An inspirational exploration of utopias and radical approaches to city planning. Edited by Robert Klanten and Lukas Feireiss (available on amazon USAand UK.)

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Publisher Gestalten writes: Whether created by established architects and artists or new talents, the examples in Utopia Forever are important catalysts for fundamental change and are radically shaping our notions of life in the future. The current projects and concepts from architecture, city planning, urbanism, and art collected here point beyond the restrictions of the factual to unleash the potential of creative visions. This inspiring work explores how current challenges for architecture, mobility, and energy as well as the logistics of food consumption and waste removal can be met. Text features by both architects and theorists give added insight.

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Amid (cero9) + Colectivo Cuartoymitad's proposal The Big Mech Co

Everything in this book is orderly and rational. Clean and clear design. Project neatly presented: title, name of the architects, envisioned location and envisioned completion date. Followed by a brief summary of the context for the project and a few paragraphs that describe its principles and the way it works.

Five themes govern the selection of projects. Great Scapes examines proposals of living in inhospitable spaces: deserts, caves, online, up in the sky, etc. As its name suggests the chapter Rising Tides is all about projects that responds to rising sea levels. Ecotopia Emerging presents projects that have distinctly (and at times, extreme) eco-conscious ideals. Technology Matters highlights the impact of innovation on the way architects envision utopia. The last section, Sky's the Limit engages with vertical architecture.

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Studio Lindfors, Aqualta

The dozens of projects presented in the volume are accompanied by six essays that vary from the pragmatic to the humorous: Dan Wood and Amale Andraos walk us briskly through architectural utopia of the 1960s and 70s while Geoff Manaugh offers a tongue-in-cheek but also remarkably spot-on game that would help you build every possible scenario of utopian architecture.

Everything in this book is orderly and rational. Everything but the subject of the monograph of course. But no matter how 'conceptual' and outlandish the works presented in the book might appear, they come with irony, lucidity and a desire to focus on society/the planet's most pressing needs and as such, they provide valuable food for thought.

Some are mere exercises in speculations while others almost have their feet on the ground. Some are strangely seducing, others will give you nightmares.

Of course you will find in this book what any respectable book about utopian architecture should offer: pods of all sorts, vertical farms a gogo, mobile living spaces, cities built in the air, on the water, in the water and of course flooded cities. But there were also a few scenarios i had never heard about:

David A. Garcia has a couple of exciting projects in the book. My favourite is the Quarantined Library located on a cargo ship. Its mission is to collect infected and radioactive books, a robotic arms that engraves secrets on wooden panels infected by termites, and historically censored books. I couldn't find illustrations online but i did find some for the South Pole living station for 100 visitors with minimum environmental impact. The space would be holed out in a super large iceberg which would eventually melt in 7 to 10 years time.

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David A.Garcia, Sustainable Iceberg Living Station

Mila Studio proposes to build a 1,000m tall faux mountain at the site of the masterpieces that is the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin instead of hotels and sky-high offices. The Berg would be the world's largest man-made mountain, covered with snow from September to March and would serve as a tourist attraction for skiers in the otherwise slope-less city.

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Mila Studio, The Berg

London-based NaJa and deOstos office develops speculative, alternative urban concepts. One of the most attention-grabbing is the Hanging Cemetery of Baghdad which explore a possible response to extreme cultural and political challenges such as the crisis in the Middle East. Initiated in 2004, the project envisions "a gigantic presence of a hanging funereal structure [that] extends over the volatile city of Baghdad."

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NaJa and deOstos, Hanging Cemetery of Baghdad

Nicolas Mouret's Phyte is a 380m high tower that would move in natural flow and offer a stark contrast to the city's static skyline. The mechanical energy of the rocking tower would generate enough electricity to supply the building's lighting.

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Nicolas Mouret, PHYTE

Stéphane Malka's Self Defense hijacks The Grande Arche De La Défense in Paris and turn it into the 'Great arch of fraternity' at the service of the forsaken, the marginalized, refugees, demonstrators, dissenters, hippies, utopians, and the stateless of all kinds.

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Stéphane Malka, Auto-Défense

Where the Grass is Greener by Tomorrow's Thoughts Today envisions a group of Londoners who have chosen to segregate themselves from the rest of society, and has taken up the mantle of sustainability in an extraordinary way. Driven by a set of ethics that places them in sometimes radical opposition to the rest of London, they have adopted a lifestyle that effectively makes them a carbon sink for the remainder of the city.

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Tomorrow's Thoughts Today, Where the Grass is Greener (Hallucinogenic garden)

Saturation City explores the future of Australian urban space in 40 years time. The proposal manufactured a crisis - a rise in sea level of 20m, tested around Melbourne and Port Philip Bay - that would require dramatic urban upheaval. The park/garden, the business district, the suburb and the coastline, are subjected to dramatic densifications in response to the 'flood'.

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Bild, Dyskors, MGS and Material Thinking, Saturation City

Views inside the book:

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Image on the homepage: NL Architects, Cruise City, City Cruise, 2003.

The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch by Thomas Thwaites (available on amazon USA and UK.)

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Publisher Princeton Architectural Press says: "Hello, my name is Thomas Thwaites, and I have made a toaster." So begins The Toaster Project, the author's nine-month-long journey from his local appliance store to remote mines in the UK to his mother's backyard, where he creates a crude foundry. Along the way, he learns that an ordinary toaster is made up of 404 separate parts, that the best way to smelt metal at home is by using a method found in a fifteenth-century treatise, and that plastic is almost impossible to make from scratch. In the end, Thwaites's homemade toaster-- a haunting and strangely beautiful object--cost 250 times more than the toaster he bought at the store and involved close to two thousand miles of travel to some of Britain's remotest locations. The Toaster Project may seem foolish, even insane. Yet, Thwaites's quixotic tale, told with self-deprecating wit, helps us reflect on the costs and perils of our cheap consumer culture, and in so doing reveals much about the organization of the modern world.

A few months ago, i was in Pittsburgh with 3 other authors writing an art&science book in seven days. Luke and Jessica, the designers of the book, were sitting across the table reviewing almost almost in real time the notes and images we were sending them. At some point we all raised our head because the designers had started laughing uncontrollably while saying "brilliant! this is brilliant!" This was the Toaster effect! Thomas Thwaites's project is mocked almost as much as it is admired. The designer has toured the world to show and discuss what is probably the most uncomely toaster that ever was created. It generated so much press, so many questions and such interest that i even suspect that Thwaites wrote the book as a catharsis, a way to get the toaster out of his life. He won't have to tell the story again, it's all there for us to read.

As befits the project, the book is hilarious. I never though reading about iron smelting and descents into mines would be so engrossing. You follow Thomas Thwaites' email correspondence and phone conversations with (mostly baffled) experts, miners and other "jolly nice chaps". Next, he is smelting iron in his mum's microwave, trekking in the highlands of Scotland in search of a mica mine, trying to convince BP to take him on a helicopter ride so that he can collect on an oil rig the crude oil he needs to make the plastic case for his toaster, attempting to cook some plastic using potato starch, 'stealing' water from the Marquis of Anglesey, etc.

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Suitcase of iron ore

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Iron smelting with leaf blower

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Iron smelting in microwave

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Mica harvesting in Scotland

With his über-english self-deprecating tone, Thomas takes you from one failure to another. Yet, this accumulation of fiascoes and disappointments, which at times reads like a hybrid between the story of the dodekathlon and the script of a Woody Allen comedy, turned into an extraordinary achievement. Thwaites went through experiences none of us would ever dare to undergo just to fabricate an object that would perform the mundane function of toasting a piece of bread.

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And if you prefer taking a shortcut:

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