Austin Houldsworth's PhD research at the Royal College of Art in London focuses on the development of a new design method called Counterfictional Design which embeds alternative socially dependent technologies into social science fiction novels. The 'technology', Austin is interested to explore in this context is Money.
Money, he says, 'is inherently conservative.' As currency expert Bernard Lietaer points out in his 2001 book The Future of Money, money functions through belief. You believe that everyone else believes that the money is valuable. What we are talking about here is belief about a belief. This collective belief contributes to economic stability, but it also fosters scepticism towards alternative monetary ideas. In his paper on the stone money of Yap (the inhabitants of this small island in Micronesia used huge stone wheels as a medium of exchange and as a store of wealth.) Milton Friedman suggests: 'Our own money, the money we have grown up with, the system under which it is controlled, these appear 'real' and 'rational' to us. The money of other countries often seen to us like paper or worthless metal.'
According to Houldsworth, the conservative nature of money explains why most market driven payments devices are focused on increasing efficiency of the current monetary system, rather than designing alternatives. His counterfictional design method acts thus as a tool to help shift the cultural design constraints surrounding money and imagine alternative systems, which would otherwise be impossible to envision.
Over a year ago, the designer illustrated the counterficitional design method with Walden Note money which explored the way money might function within a behaviorist society.
His latest project, Wealth Beyond Big Brother looks at what happens to trans-border exchanges when they take place inside highly unregulated states. The literary context this time is Orwell's book 1984. But instead of looking at the paternalistic control of Big Brother, the scenario takes place in the disputed territories that lie between the super states of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia.
In practice no on power ever controls the whole of the disputed area. Portions of it are constantly changing hands, and it is the chance of seizing this or that fragment by sudden stroke of treachery that dictates the endless changes of alignment.
Because each new invasion of these areas brings a new ruler, no trusted financial institution ever has the chance to establish itself. People living within these areas have thus developed a completely decentralised payment system which serves as both personal protection and a medium of exchange.
All of the disputed territories contain valuable minerals, and some of them yield important vegetable products such as rubber.
Through continual war and invasion, the disputed territory regions have been depleted of most natural resources. Scarcity of even semi precious metals like copper has led to a high demand for such materials. Therefore, gold, silver and copper act as a standard 'store of value' and 'medium of exchange.'
People living within the disputed territories mostly trade with people they know and therefore these small groups operate through a type of gift economy. However, when a resource is needed from another area, trade with strangers is inevitable. Historically these trades have often ended in blood shed. Given the impossibility of establishing a state-controlled culture of trans-border commerce, the factions have decided to take matter into their own hand and cast their currency into the form of bullets, creating a payment system which acts as security and therefore helps contextualize the meaning of value. Both sides are forced to be civil to one another, with the potential for loss of life or livelihood playing a key role in maintaining harmony between people who have little reason to trust each other.
Individuals craft their own payment devices from reappropiated weapons left behind during the ongoing conflicts between the super states. As most of the components of these weapons were made under the guidance of big brother Ministry of Plenty, the gun parts are made from very cheap plastics, electroplated to look like gunmetal. They have little metal content and are in fact worthless compared with the small metal bullets used as a medium of exchange. The payment device has a groove cut out of the revolver section, without the need for the buyer to remove it from the breach.
During transactions, the buyer holds the device towards the seller, with all the bullets required during the transaction, loaded into the breach. When the buyer and seller have agreed on the price of the item being traded, the buyer takes the required amount of gold, silver or copper bullets from the guns breach and hands the unfired bullets to the seller in exchange for the goods.
Very rarely is the payment device used as a weapon. But occasionally transactions have been known to turn hostile and pressing the release catch to fire the gun becomes necessary. The bullets themselves have an electronic ignition, and are activated when the electrical contacts from the bolt touch the contacts at the back of the bullet.
I did have one last question for Austin:
That institutional control isn't always a bad thing. And a completely decentralised payment system can also produce nightmarish scenarios.
In light of the banking sector scandals. Decentralised systems like Bitcoin suddenly appear rather alluring. Yet financial institutions, I believe, can both represent individual interests and collective interests for the benefit of society. A financial institution like a bank or building society can set precedents on idealised behaviour both for the institution and individuals within a given context. Money by itself, doesn't often offer any ideological framework.
Therefore, perhaps remembering both nightmare visions within 'Nighteen Eighty Four,' the extreme control of 'big brother' and the dog eat dog environment of the 'disputed territories'.
Last year, the Unknown Fields Division, a nomadic design studio that explores peripheral landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness, travelled to Asia to follow the path of the symbol of globalization: the massive container ship. The group came back with amazing stories, images, videos and with a set of radioactive Ming vases made from the toxic waste of our electronic gadgets.
Along their journey, Unknown Fields investigated Rare earth element, a set of seventeen chemical elements which are all metals that are often found together in geologic deposits. What makes REE important to our times is that they are used for computer memory, rechargeable batteries, night-vision goggles, precision-guided weapons, phones, energy-efficient lighting, solar panels, and many other electronics and green technologies.
China is the number one consumer of rare earths, they use it mainly in the manufacture of electronics products for domestic use as well as export. Since the 1990s, China is also one of the world's main producer of rare earths. A large proportion of the country's rare earth production is located in the west of Inner Mongolia where the Bayan Obo Mining District oversees the largest deposits of rare earth metals yet found.
The giant industrial complex is one of the most polluted regions on the planet. It processes 100 thousand tons of rare earth concentrate per year using the sulphuric acid-roasting method and for every ton of rare earth concentrate produced 10,000 cubic metres of waste gas, 75 cubic metres of acid-washing waste water, and one ton of radioactive residues are generated.
To accompany the film that documents their adventures, Unknown Fields Division crafted a set of three ceramic Ming vases, using mud extracted from one of Bayan Obo's gigantic radioactive tailing ponds. The toxic sludge, which contains acids, heavy metals, carcinogens and radioactive material, was transported it to London where it was tested for radioactivity. After that, the mud was given to sculptor Kevin Callaghan who turned it into elegant vases which silhouette evokes the Ming dynasty porcelain Tongping Vases. Once a family global superpower, the Ming dynasty presided over an international network of connections, trade and diplomacy that stretched across Asia to Africa, the Middle East and Europe, built on the trade of commodities such as imperial porcelain.
Each object is made from the amount of toxic waste created in the production of three items of technology - a smartphone, a featherweight laptop and the cell of a smart car battery. Besides, the vases are sized in relation to the amount of waste created in the production of each item.
The three Rare Earthernware vases embody the contemporary global supply network but also the long-lasting impact that our thirst for technological goods has on the environment. They will soon be shown at the What is Luxury exhibition in London:
These three vessels are artifacts of a contemporary global supply network that weaves matter and displaces earth across the planet. They are presented as objects of desire, but their elevated radiation levels and toxicity make them objects we would not want to possess and in this case the museum vitrine serves to protect us from the exhibit on display rather than the other way round. They are the undesirable consequences of our material desires.
Rare Earthenware is a work by Kate Davies and Liam Young of The Unknown Fields Division in partnership with the Architectural Association. Photography by Toby Smith. Ceramics by Kevin Callaghan and the London Sculpture workshop.
A few days ago, i was at Parsons Paris for reFrag: glitch, a series of workshops, talks and performances that address the multifold ways in which glitches manifest and/or are mobilized artistically in our lives. Participants talked about flash crashes in the financial market (more about that one soon), wacky operating system from the early nineties, Spinoza glitches, archaeology of bugs, etc. It was good, brain-stimulating and intense. We even watched the documentary of a fist fucking performance. Here's the project page if you're into that kind of entertainment.
I'll probably write an incomplete but enthusiastic post about the event in the coming days but for now, i'm going to kick out the reports with Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke's presentation of the 3D Additivist Manifesto + Cookbook. Rourke was in Paris. Allahyari spoke to us via skype.
Allahyari and Rourke's 3D Additivist Manifesto is an invitation to artists, researchers, activists and critical engineers to submit ideas, thoughts, and designs for the future of 3D printing. The submissions should reflect on the current state of additive manufacturing, identify the potential encoded into the most challenging 3D printed objects and push the technology to its most speculative, revolutionary and radical limits. Once collected, these submissions will form The 3D Additivist Cokbook.
The project started germinating in the artists' minds when Rourke interviewed Allahyari for her project Dark Matter, a series of 3D printed sculptures that combined objects, beings and concepts forbidden by the Iranian government. Most of these objects look pretty harmless to us. However, in her native country, a dildo, a dog, a satellite dish, a Barbie, or a neck tie (??) are frown-upon and in some case strictly forbidden. The work is both an archive of vetoed objects and an encouragement to those who live under oppressions and dictatorship to use the printer as a tool for resistance.
Allahyari and Rourke have recently teamed up for the 3D Additivist Manifesto + Cookbook, a works that brings together art, engineering, scifi and digital aesthetics under a mind-blowing and slightly weird umbrella.
The cookbook is inspired by William Powell's Anarchist Cookbook. Written in 1971, the manual brought together various readily available sources of knowledge and offered instructions on how to build bombs, make drugs, hack arcade machines, etc.
Other sources of inspiration for the 3D Additivist Manifesto include recent 3D printing projects such as the 3D printed gun, Julien Maire's (amazing) 3D animation that uses 3D printed objects instead of film and F.A.T.'s Free Universal Construction Kit.
One last major source of inspiration is Donna Haraway. Because the scholar is the author of the Cyborg Manifesto of course. But also because she believes that the Anthropocene is not a radical enough way to describe our era. Human beings are putting themselves in a situation similar to the one that the cyanobacteria experienced at the beginning the Earth history. They made life breathable for other other organisms by converting CO2 into oxygen, and they almost killed themselves in the process. Haraway suggests that we call our era the Cthulhucene.
reFrag:glitch, a collaboration between Parsons Paris and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Film, Video, New Media & Animation Department, is an international Glitch Art event that ran from the 19th to the 23rd of March 2015.
Printing Things. Visions and Essentials for 3D Printing, edited by Dries Verbruggen and Claire Warnier.
Publisher Gestalten writes: 3D printers will soon be found in more and more workshops, offices, and homes. With them, we will be able to print out small pieces of furniture, prototypes, replacement parts, and even a new toothbrush on-site at any time. Consequently, new production methods and business models are developing--along with a new visual language of multidimensional formal explorations. Today, 3D objects and complex forms can already be printed out that were previously impossible to achieve with traditional methods.
Printing Things is an inspirational and understandable exploration of the creative potential of 3D printing. The book not only introduces outstanding projects, key experts, and the newest technologies, but it also delves into the complex topics that these paradigm-shifting technologies bring up, such as how to handle copyrights and seamless manufacturing.
I've no idea why i waited so long to get my hands on Printing Things. Visions and Essentials for 3D Printing but i've just finished reading it and it is brilliant. Which shouldn't surprise anyone who knows the work of the authors of the book. Dries Verbruggen and Claire Warnier are Unfold, a duo of designers who have worked, experimented and provoked debates with their 3D printing experiments.
In 2011 already, the duo walked around the Salone del Mobile in Milan with their mobile Kiosk, making 3D scans of the new objects presented at the fair. They then started to appropriate, sample, remix, improve, up/downscale or copy new objects 3d-printed on the spot.
And because the members of Unfold believe that 'there can be no revolution without disruption', i'd say that it was a brilliant idea to let them edit a book that sums up and illustrates the opportunities and challenges offered by 3D technology.
Printing Things starts with a few pages that explain very clearly and briefly what 3D printing is and how it works. Then come a series of essays that explore issues such as the empowerment that the technology gives to people and the responsibility that comes with it, the right to copy and create derivative content, the way 3D printing affects the figure and role of the designer, the decentralization of production, the peculiar aesthetic characteristics of the technology, the compatibility with craftsmanship, etc.
After these first 50 pages of reflections and ideas, you get almost 200 pages of pure Gestalten paper entertainment: photos and short texts that highlight the best of what artists, designers, architects, and even experts in prosthetics are 3D creating today.
The boyfriend has been a 3D printing maniac for a couple of year. My involvement with the technology is much more distant but we both really enjoyed reading this book. I particularly appreciated the way the 'case studies' and the introductory texts cleverly balance the down to earth practicalities of 3D printing and the near future scenarios the technology might give rise to.
I'm going to leave you with some of the projects i've (re)discovered in the book:
Axel Brechensbauer 3Dprinted a cheerful-looking UAV that would playing loud 'clown music' and spray 'terrorists' with a cloud of Oxycontin, a pain-relief drug that also induces feelings of euphoria, relaxation and reduced anxiety. I used to think that a weapon could never be more devious than a predator drone....
The OpenReflex is the first open source 3D printed analog camera with a mirror Viewfinder and a finger activated mechanic shutter. All the pieces can be printed and assembled at home using a RepRap-like ABS 3D-printer.
The DIY instructions are up on Instructables.
Jesse Howard designed household appliances for a not so distant future that will see people being increasingly involved in making, repairing, and customizing their own products. Each appliance is constructed from 3D-printed and CNC manufactured components based on OpenStructures, standard components, and parts salvaged from discarded appliances.
Amanda Ghassaei created a technique for converting digital audio files into 3D-printable, 33rpm records that play on ordinary turntables. Though the audio quality is low, the audio output is still easily recognizable.
This Growth Modeling Device scans an onion plant, 3D prints a plastic model of it and then displays it on conveyor belt. The process is repeated every twenty-four hours. The result charts the growth of the plant in little plastic models.
Dries & Verstappen scanned the interior of buildings with their own developed hardware. The resulting 3-D sculptures are materialized with a 3-D Print.
Foster + Partners looks at how 3D printing might be used to construct lunar habitations, using raw lunar soil as building matter.
Views inside the book:
In the playhouse, as in the courtroom, an event already completed is re-enacted in a sequence which allows its meaning to be searched out. [...] The courtroom is, or should be, a theatrical space, one which evokes expectations of the uncommon. [...] Theatrical effects are such dominant factors in the physical identification of a courtroom that their absence may raise doubts about whether a court which lacks a properly theatrical aspect is really a court at all.
Milner S. Ball, Caldwell Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Georgia
Lawyers learn their lines before their performance, witnesses are given advice about how to play their roles, the judge intervenes when the rules (or should we say the script) are not respected. Meanwhile, the audience sits on the side to enjoy the show.
The architecture of modern courtrooms brings justice and fiction drama even closer to each other. The International Crime Court in The Hague, for example, is equipped with cameras, microphones and sound proof sheets of glass that separates the audience from the main protagonists of the trial. In doing so, the choreographic structures of the court are becoming separated and externalised through the medium of video feeds shot from multiple sight lines, artificial viewpoints and mechanical movements.
Objection!!!, the latest work of artist, writer and film-maker Ilona Gaynor, pushes the court strategies and dramatizations to their most cinematographic limits. Using a series of models, objects, images and a fictionalized case in which a tv National Lottery draw is fixed, Gaynor exposes how the language of film-making manipulates the way a case is presented to the court and how it is understood by it. According to the whim of the team that scripts, shoots then edit the trial, the unfolding of a court case could thus be made to look comical, suspenseful, romantic, tragic or even satirical.
Among the pieces on show is a courtroom diorama the director would use to plan the filmic direction of the trial, a green Chroma Key Set designed to be positioned as needed and edited out in post-production, a show reel that illustrates cinematographic courtroom drama, an elaborate drawing that maps out the location of the cameras, dolly tracks and people required for the shooting length of a real time testimonial deposition, etc.
I particularly liked the photographic 'documentation' of a lawyer practicing persuasive gestures in preparation for a trial. The images are inspired by 1925 photos showing Adolf Hitler rehearsing his oratory.
Objection!!! is part of Designers in Residence 2014: Disruption, an exhibition that showcases the work developed by young designers during their residency at the Design Museum in London. I interviewed Ilona a few weeks after the opening of the show:
Hi Ilona! The starting point of the project is the new courtrooms built by architects where the jury is seated in a separate room. Is that already happening? And what motivates the change in architecture?
It is to an extent, with jurors becoming separated by glass and mirrors with live camera feeds and sound to accompany them. There was a surge in European courts that were being retrofitted into pre-existing office buildings, to save resources (and sometimes for safety of civil unrest) during late 90's and, the use of camera's, audio/video feeds is now becoming common practice and is considered state of the art.
The international Criminal Court, in the Hague operates as a very bizarre enclosure, scattered with cameras, positioned at varying heights around the room, their lenses sight and proximity fixed upon on the faces and edges of tables, glasses, mirrors and reflections all screening on live fed monitors to the both the prosecution and defence. These cameras intercut each other at moments pivotal of play, documenting the dialogue and sequence of events from much higher heights then those of eye level.
The piece that attracts the most attention in the museum show is probably the elaborate diorama. Could you describe it, what happens there?
The diorama depicts the redesign of a courtroom, the UK crown court to be exact. The geometry of the courtroom was redesigned with the audience in mind; the imagined viewing sightlines to be much more acute then they would normally be; the seats would be positioned as ascending podium steps (the kinds that you see at sports stadiums) to enhance the viewing experience.
The model was designed to be self-assembled, by easy slotting conjoining walls and furniture.
It also comes with a kit of parts that consist of prefabbed folding camera equipment such as: camera's, dolly rigs, tripods, microphone stands, audience participation signs such as "boo" and "applause" and a set of dramatically posed lawyers and corresponding court room furniture.
I'm quite curious about the fact that you chose to explain the work using objects. That's not unusual in a design museum of course but you are openly influenced by cinema, your work often refers to it, you hired an actor and there are indeed films in the show but they are not yours. So why didn't you just make a video to explain Objection?
I've got a strong aversion to films that's sole purpose is to explain a work. For some reason it's becoming common practice in design (especially when referring to objects) that the designer needs to reveal the 'imagined' interactivity of the 'objects', in some candidly scarce scenario.
For me, I actually tend to get accidentally commissioned to make objects; I don't even really value objects and often find objects hard to engage with, because somehow they tend to lack rhythm or sequential value. I see my work as studies, or compositions that try and allude to a balancing act of arguments or sequential chapters as you may have noticed I often index the 'objects' or give them a sort of taxonomy or textual story with which to engage with.
Cinema for me is a common ground with which the fantasies of popular culture are often revealed in much more interesting ways then most other mediums, films allow us freely to wonder around the unimaginable in ways that are contextually and textually rich. My work is often tiptoeing along the edge of this medium because I believe the interrelations between cinema and topics I often pivot around are inextricably linked: aesthetically, contextually and culturally. I am actually this year moving my practice much more into the film going forward, both professionally and personally.
The films that you are referring to in 'Objection!!!' are a series of edited clips taken from TV dramas and films that depict the courtroom on screen as a scene or sequence, spanning across the last century of TV and cinema. The purpose of this film is to put my argument into a broadly understood context... the collectively memorised experience of the courtroom, which for most of us, has been experienced through a series of lenses rather then first hand. The film of edited sequences also reveals to the audience the stylistic differentiations between filmic genres, revealing how hard it becomes to remain objective as a pervasive viewer (in this projects case, the jury) when a sequence of camera cuts, pans, soundtracks intertwine. It would be very disturbing to witness (or watch) a case dealing with violence or rape depicted accidentally or not as a comedy for instance; the viewer's perception and adjudication could sit solely on the head of a deft handed technician. Of course this is an extreme example, but we are much more conditioned to filmic languages, no matter how subtle they are, than we think. A fast zoom to face shot for example is a classic attribute to comedy filmmaking.
I was reading the interview you did with Shona Kitchen for the Designers in Residence catalogue. I really liked the way you define your work as designing 'ruses'. Could you explain what you meant by that (since not everyone has the catalogue in their hands)?
I suppose what I meant by that (although actually not so much in this project) is that I'm interested in taking pre-existing functioning models or systems that often serve to exploit the misfortune of others (legally or sometimes illegally), in some form of monetary or political bargaining and use them in ways to turn it inwards on itself. For example the only way to counteract a trap; is to use another trap, which triggers the setting of a 3rd trap, then a 4th and so on.
It is within these terms that I define my practice of design. I would say that I design 'ruses' as a stratagem to plot, to plan, to scheme, as ways to imagine the conceivably unachievable but very logistically possible.
My work often uses design as a vehicle to manoeuvre the arrangement of material in space and over time to pursue an examination of the mechanisms of risk assessment, financial calculation, and rather more literal, legal forms of judgement, in order to generate new situations events or moments to invoke an aesthetic of precision, by really obsessing over narrowing margins of space and time, where exactness matters and becomes a force (I define as design) in its own right.
Also my work often takes form as an anticipation of another form, as a pretext often constructed to allow something else to happen or to be imagined.
My commercial work under my company name The Department of No, uses this practice in much more commercial spheres such as law enforcement, legal planning, crime prevention and script plausibility studies. The ruses directly relate when cross contaminating commercial work with exhibitions and consultancy, they all amalgamate, the fiction feeds the real world and vice versa.
For example I'm currently setting up a practice of licenced Private Investigators to operate in an office located in West Hollywood in Los Angeles, to investigate civil disputes across the city that repeatedly plays itself. The pretext being to write and direct a play of experiences and cases (individuals case plaintiffs unrevealed of course), but we will be operating as a real firm with real clients, attesting to real legal cases.
We live in a time of state control, secrecy and surveillance. But by turning a trial into entertainment, you remove some of the gravitas of the justice system and leave the procedures and interpretation of a trial into the subjective hands of a film director. I've just been reading articles from last year about the introduction of television cameras into UK courts to film the sentencing of serious criminals. There was a lot of debate around losing some of the 'mystique' of the courtroom vs helping "the public re-engage with the criminal justice system". Is that something you'd like to comment on?
I'm not sure the 'mystique' of the courtroom has ever really entered the minds of most, I say this though however because we have been conditioned to the action of the court, its demeanour, atmosphere and so on through television, film etc. Of course these are highly dramatized, with little or no legal references alluding to the true nature of the law but oddly, legal dramas are some of the highest rated shows on television... the sexed up Ally McBeal was supposedly responsible for a boost of people studying law during the early 00's.
I think there's a really odd disconnect between the perceivable "public re-engaging with the criminal justice system" and actual engagement with the issues that ensue due to pervasive camera's in the courts. The Oscar Pistorius trial was undoubtedly entertaining, however the engagement was only of merely entertainment mixed with a public lust for blood of a 'murderer' to be brought to 'justice' at the viewing onslaught of a booing crowd. It seems to be taking form as a contemporary Roman games, I'm not sure how to feel about that, it requires both a smirk and a exhale of disgust. But I think the 'vs' in the articles you were reading were perhaps in the wrong place. The more concerning question is how the cameras will inevitably affect the trial and veracity of testimony itself rather then jog the public's perception.
Ilona Gaynor is an artist, writer and film-maker. She is also the founder of research studio The Department of No and teaches digital + media students "how to tell better stories" at Rhode Island School of Design.
Designers in Residence 2014: Disruption is at the Design Museum in London until 8 March 2015.
Here's one last post about a work i discovered at BIO50, the 24th Biennial of Design that closed in Ljubljana a few days ago (at the bottom of this post, you'll find links to stories i wrote about some of the projects developed for the biennial.)
One of the eleven themes explored at BIO50 brought design into the realm of life sciences. I was thus expecting one of those futuristic, speculative and over-serious projects that explore scenarios of a life mediated by biotechnology. However, what designers Dimitris Stamatis, Pei-Ying Lin, Jasmina Weiss, and Špela Petrič came up with didn't meet my expectations at all. And that's always a good thing.
Their Plant Sex Consultancy is exactly what its title suggests: a series of design interventions aimed at 'augmenting' the sex life of plants, through long discussions with 'plant clients.'
Take the cyclamen, for example. The particular species of bees that pollinate the flower by shaking it with a specific frequency has gone extinct. PSX designed a vibrating pod with a sensor that gently grasps the flower. When triggered by an insect, the pod shakes with the exact frequency needed to release the pollen onto the insect. PSX has devised a total of six gadgets that meet the specific sexual needs of plants. Some flowers were outfitted with a vanity lace to prevent the spread of STDs, others were given an algae-containing dildo or a vibrator.
By applying human-centered design methodologies onto plant life, PSX ends up serving its own agenda, creating objects that are familiar to the human and that bear a meaning to the human only. Not the plant.
Besides, the legitimacy of intentional anthropomorphism depends on the viewer's cultural context. The method is effective if the designer employing it subscribes to the Eastern philosophy, which grants an equivalent status to all entities, living and inanimate, but irrationally unpalatable to designers stemming from the Western Cartesian tradition, which ascribes true individuality and sentience solely to human beings. The inherent antagonism, absurdity and humor apparent in the augmentations also manifest themselves in the design process, which stems from West, but is in this context more congruent with the Eastern world view.
What made you want to design artifact for the sexuality of plants?
Within the framework of this year's BIO50, intended to test the limits of incidental interdisciplinary collaboration while taking a critical stance towards contemporary design practices, we (Dimitris Stamatis, Pei-Ying Lin, Jasmina Weiss, and Špela Petrič) wanted to push the envelope by proposing a project that wilfully transgresses common sense, good taste, and the purpose of design as a branch of applied art with utility at its core.
For all empathic and philosophical purposes, plants are the incomprehensible aliens living amongst us, which we experience daily but perceive through their ubiquity, their slow pace, immobility, at best as a source of food and their potential applicability to reduce our detrimental environmental impact. We see, taste, smell and touch the otherness of plants, but spend very little time daydreaming to comprehend it. And even if we did, we'd hardly find a point of identification, of justifiable commonality between humans and plants that would spark a comparison, which would release plant agencies from the murky bottom of the anthropocentric valorization of living beings.
Then, there is sex. In the abstract realm of biological sciences, which seeks commonality in processes across the living world, sexual reproduction stands out as a staple principle of natural selection. Using a gastronomy facsimile, sex results in genetic cocktails of individuals. It is one of the crucial steps in the recipes of species under pressure to suit the changing taste of the environment. This applies to all organisms, from bacteria to humans and, of course, plants.
We recognized the uncanniness of likening plant and human sexual reproduction as an agora to juxtapose conceptions of "unique" human cultural practices to cross-species biological necessities, and the design process, promoted (by BIO50 amongst others) as a widely applicable approach, to the limits of its meaningfulness.
Prosthetics to enhance the 'natural reproductive strategies' of plants! Even the term 'consultancy' sounds ironic because it implies having an actual face to face conversation with a plant. The whole project actually doesn't sound very serious, more like a parody of design project. However, while i was listening to your presentation of the project in Ljubljana, i was surprised by how much 'sense' these little sex toys and gadgets might have. They are a bit ridiculous but they also respond to a perceived need or shortcoming of the plant reproduction system (for example: a bee going extinct.) So how do balance the credible and the fanciful? How seriously should we take the project and the various problems these plants have when it comes to reproduction?
The PSX Consultancy presents a hybrid manifestation of tongue-in-cheek discourse stemming from established concepts; it is conceived using artistic and design approaches in response to a body of knowledge provided by science. The identified reproductive problems of plants and the proposed solutions are as serious as they can be, but are coined using a methodological twist during the process.
The PSX's research of reproductive problems of the plants is based on scientific papers, meticulously interpreted by the team, two members of which have a scientific background, one of them a biologist with a PhD. We applied the scientific reference overview towards the construction of a "profile" for each plant, which included their adaptation to indigenous habitats and the issues they face during their ongoing evolution and introduction to non-native bioregions, all from the perspective of plant reproduction. We then synthesized the background knowledge gathered around each "client" in the design process and by doing so considered the factual biological elements in a cultural way. Solving the interactions of elements (criteria or issues) led the PSX Consultancy to an original but miniscule fraction of all possible answers to the reported problems of particular plants. Freed from design's usual imperative of utility, we found ourselves facing an abyss of options. To collect a wide spectrum from meaningful to meaningless augmentations, we purposefully decided on a very flexible criterion for acceptability - the proposals had to poses bio-logic and preferably allude to human sexual practices.
The results are feasible to varying degrees. For example, the Cyclamen vibrator is quite rooted in reality, as a similar device is agriculturally used in the pollination of tomato plants, which have a mechanism of pollination analogous to the Cyclamen. On the other hand, the carnation's vanity lace preventing the spread of STDs, or the helium balloon-assisted mutation of turmeric roots, primarily outline lesser-known facts about plant reproduction but are "a bit of a stretch" when it comes to their applicability.
In the context of BIO50's challenge to designers, artists, architects, and scientists to collaboratively undertake "Designing Life", the credible and the fanciful continue to wade in the "punny" cesspool delineated by the curators of the biennial. The plant sex toys' uncertain and obscured position in relation to fact and fiction hopefully stimulates the viewer's critical perspective on the design process at hand, which can be applied to many similar endeavors undertaken and advertised as truthfully applicable. It seems that the message was successfully transmitted, winning the project an honorary mention at the biennial.
Once you outfitted the plants with these little devices, did you observe how they reacted? What happened? Did the plant accept the devices, were they useful to the reproduction and well-being of the plants?
We found it oddly effortless to transfer the human experience and sexualize the prototypes we envisioned for the plants. Our first test was the insertion of the "algae-containing" dildo into the carnivorous leaf of the pitcher plant. It's difficult to describe the awkwardness of the anthropomorphic projection the moment the dildo slid into the pitcher. Mounting the other devices provoked a similar estrangement, even producing giggles of embarrassment. We succeeded in materializing a cross-species taboo that never existed; because of their assumed soullessness, sex with plants, unlike bestiality, was never in the milieu of cultural debauchery. Does the instigated proximity of human and plant reproduction facilitated by these devices fetishize plant reproduction, banalise human sexuality, or does it incite an association quickly disregarded as obscure?
Keeping in mind the project is currently in its conceptual phase and that the prototypes produced thus far were plastic, non-functioning proposals, the augmentations were innocuous to the plants. If we were to progress to technology-enabled functioning gadgets, we are confident the sex toys would have surprising (favorable or detrimental) effects, which are impossible to predict without actually trying them out.
How did you select the plants you worked for?
After the initial sweep of candidates based on personal preference, oddity/familiarity, scientific interest, and general popularity, we had to pragmatically narrow our selection based on plant availability in Slovenia and the timely expression of their reproductive organs during the biennial from September till December. Further, we focused on plants with unique reproduction issues, which resulted in most of the clients being species originating from the tropics and making do in temporal climates, often due to human intervention. Humans indirectly caused many of the problems the PSX consultancy is attempting to fix.
What is next? Are you planning to push the project any further?
Since in the context of an exhibition, the legibility of individual augmentations depends on the presence, traditional use and symbolism of a particular plant species in the specific cultural environment, we hope to expand the collection by conceiving augmentations for different locally important plants, reaching a wider audience. In the process we also realized the project somehow mirrors the differences between the Western (European) / Eastern (North East Asian) mentalities, making it an interesting point of conflict and resolution to culturally dependent artistic practices.
Thanks Spela and Pei-Ying!