Last weekend was the Goldsmiths degree show at the Truman Brewery in London. There were quite a few interesting projects but the one that really stood out for its depth, coherence and reach is Tearlach Byford-Flockhart's The Social Mining Union (SUM.)
The BA Design project aims to reposition the role of the 'labour union' (and function of positive activism) within a globalized landscape of post-consumer society, examining the industrial mining industry and peripheral territories it is associated with.
Tearlach's adventures took him from scrapyard in south London to Glencore Xstrata's Annual General Meeting in Switzerland.
Metal scrapping, i learnt from my conversation with the designer is a a multi-million pound business. A documentary on Channel 4 revealed that the business of a yard owner in south London can turn over £7million a year while "scrappers", the men who scour the streets in the hope of turning trash into cash, can make up to £800 a day.
Trailer for documentary 'Getting Rich In The Recession - Scrappers'
Tearlach joined the scrappers and collected discarded objects from all over New Cross, a district in the London Borough of Lewisham. He also 'mined' websites like Gumtree and freecycle for discarded computers. He then sold his scrap in scrapyards and used the money to buy Glencore (a multinational commodity trading and mining company) shares. Being a shareholder, he somehow managed to infiltrate the annual general meeting of Glencore Xstrata last May when he took the opportunity of a Q&A session to suggest more positive economic, social and environmental impacts in the mining industry. His intervention might not have had much effect but imagine what would happen if whole communities of scrappers engaged in similar forms of activism!
The Social Mining Union project looks back at the Industrial Revolution when large-scale industries were centred around people and place. The paternalism of companies such as Cadbury's and Unilever ensured that communities flourished around places of work, sharing a common ground and an inherent sense of place. This affiliation between workers, industry and environment strengthened social and cultural values and cultivated prosperity at an individual level, and consequently this had a positive effect on the commercial output. The picture is obviously quite different in today's global context.
Extracts from my conversation with the designer:
Hi Tee! I'm very interested in your experience in scrapyards. Could you detail where you collected the scrap and how you turned it into money that you then used to buy some Glencore shares?
I collected old radiators, piping, cans which were often left in skips and on the side of the road. I then visited two different scrap yards - Sydenham scrap metals and Lewisham scrap metals ltd. When you arrive you weigh your van load for the cheaper scrap - iron and steel etc and then for the more valuable scrap such as copper you weigh it separately on smaller scales. Once the van has been weighed you then remove all the scrap and weigh it again working out how much scrap you had.
You then get payed by check, which I put strait into a bank account set up for the union - this then gets transferred into my Barclays stockbroker account where you can by any public companies shares, once bought you can request a proxy from to attend shareholders meetings and other events.
By the way, why did you chose Glencore rather than any other mining company? Any particular reason?
Glencore is the largest commodities and mining giant, from my research I was interested in the anonymity and secrecy they only recently become a public company so not many people know about their operations. I felt it was important to show some transparency and realised that whilst investigating them they were incredibly corrupt in a variety of ways.
One of the goals of your project is to question the role of the union and of activism nowadays. What is wrong with the way they function now?
Activism it seems still predominately relies on models such as protesting, embarrassment and sometimes aggression, these are important but outdated, as policing and government legislation has changed and evolved. The Battle of Orgreave is one of the signifiers to how policing was evolving to deal with large crowds with new techniques being used to control the people.
Unions have lost the strength they once held. Although in the past they did at times act like bullies, they have lost the sense of community connections and this is due to the combinations of small unions into larger ones. They are also stuck in a mentality that suits the past in terms of how they deal with gaining better paid employees based upon a time when striking had more of an impact.
During our conversation, you mentioned the industrial paternalism policy of Cadbury's and Unilever which 'facilitated social capital at a domestic level.' If i understood your project correctly, workers and unions would have to take matters into their own hands and recreate this social capital, instead of relying on corporate mining industries? Can you walk us through what you did once you owned some Glencore actions? And what you think could happen if other people did like you and the whole action was scaled up?
Once I bought the shares I was able to begin a dialogue with Glencore via emails, this enabled me to assess what was possible at the meeting I was planning to attend.
What I found from the meeting is that if we are to make a change within this centralised forum we need to one take matters into our own hands as management seem little concerned and two to speak through a collective voice, if we imagine The Social Mining Union with 1 million members each of these members holds a small amount of shares but collectively they hold a massive amount of shares then we collectively are a threat, as our voice is much louder than one. But I also think it is important to remember that this project is about access and navigation The Social Mining Union suggests a new way to engage with these global companies at a human level.
Thanks Tee Byford!
Synthetic Aesthetics. Investigating Synthetic Biology's Designs on Nature, by designer Alexandra Ginsberg Daisy, social scientists Jane Calvert and Pablo Schyfter, bioengineers Alistair Elfick and Drew Endy.
Publisher MIT Press writes: Synthetic biology manipulates the stuff of life. For synthetic biologists, living matter is programmable material. In search of carbon-neutral fuels, sustainable manufacturing techniques, and innovative drugs, these researchers aim to redesign existing organisms and even construct completely novel biological entities. Some synthetic biologists see themselves as designers, inventing new products and applications. But if biology is viewed as a malleable, engineerable, designable medium, what is the role of design and how will its values apply?
In this book, synthetic biologists, artists, designers, and social scientists investigate synthetic biology and design. After chapters that introduce the science and set the terms of the discussion, the book follows six boundary-crossing collaborations between artists and designers and synthetic biologists from around the world, helping us understand what it might mean to 'design nature.' These collaborations have resulted in biological computers that calculate form; speculative packaging that builds its own contents; algae that feeds on circuit boards; and a sampling of human cheeses. They raise intriguing questions about the scientific process, the delegation of creativity, our relationship to designed matter, and, the importance of critical engagement. Should these projects be considered art, design, synthetic biology, or something else altogether?
Synthetic biology is driven by its potential; some of these projects are fictions, beyond the current capabilities of the technology. Yet even as fictions, they help illuminate, question, and even shape the future of the field.
I don't think i've ever reviewed a book and recommended it to scientists. Synthetic Aesthetics, however, should appeal to the art/design crowd and to the science community alike. It should also interest anyone who is eager to look beyond overenthusiastic headlines that promise a world-saving 'green' technology and who would like to understand better the benefits, risks and uncertainties of a field that might sometimes appear foreign and abstract.
Synthetic Aesthetics brings together synthetic biologists, social scientists, designers and artists to talk about what it means for science, culture and society to not only redesign existing organisms but also to design new ones, constructing in the process completely novel biological entities. As you can expect from the avant-garde minds invited to take part in Synthetic Aesthetics, the essays discuss the possibilities, real and imagined, of a future in which 'synbio' is part of 'nature', design and everyday life but some of the authors also look at the historical and cultural precedents of human interference with nature, from The Island of Doctor Moreau to producing GMOs.
Synthetic Aesthetics doesn't offer any easy answer regarding the challenges and potentials of 'synbio'. What it does very well, however, is opening up a space to have a broad discussion about questions as critical as: Could reprogramming organisms answer the problem of the finite resources of the planet? How do you design what doesn't exist, not even in our imagination? When should we turn to synthetic biology rather than to political or technical solutions? What are the implication of applying an engineering mindset to life materials? etc.
Roughly one half of the book explores projects that resulted from a close collaboration between scientists and artists/designers. I'll just highlight one of them because it has a good balance of 'sci-fi' and everyday practicality.
Packaging that Creates its Content envisioned a probiotic drink that relies on bacteria to morph into a physical cup when exposed to a specific light wavelength. During shipping and storage, the cups remain dormant until water is poured inside, creating a healthy drink. After several uses, the cup's walls begin to degrade and it can be composted.
'Packaging That Creates Its Contents' helps people think about what the world would be like if packaging never created waste.
Get that book! I've searched high and low for a book that would explain synbio in a clear, engaging and intelligent way. I'm glad i've finally found it.
Views inside the book:
Image on the homepage: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, The Synthetic Kingdom: Carbon Monoxide Detecting Lung Tumour, 2009. Photograph by Carole Suety.
The Graphic Design Festival Breda, that event which explores current developments in the field of graphic visual culture and turned me into a super fan of everything graphic overnight is over but one of the exhibitions part of the festival is up until the end of next month at MOTI - the Museum Of The Image in Breda. And it's a good thing because that little show is really good.
Resolute - Design Changes shows the work of graphic designers who aren't afraid to come to grip with burning social and political issues.
Their work goes beyond protest. The designers make us confront problems we'd rather not think about, they turn complex issues into clear and limpid visual communication, and some of them even craft tools that can be used for immediate action.
Resolute - design changes explores the current state of social responsibility taken up by designers. In vigorous projects these firm designers are determined to contribute to the process of change in society and their profession. Based on moderation, inspiration and engagement they encourage people to shape their opinions and stimulate them to take action.
The show was curated by Sven Ehmann and Dennis Elbers. I don't know which blogs and magazines these two eat for breakfast but i'd better find out and subscribe to them because it looks like i've been living under a stone over the past few years. All the games, posters, publications, projects and campaigns selected were strong and many of them were entirely new to me.
Quick overview some of the most striking ones:
Since 2011, Kenji Nakayama has been hand-painting signs for some of Boston's homeless population. The hastily written slogans that homeless people hold in the hope to get passersby attention go from beige brown bits of cardboard to colourful design pieces.
The Occupied Times of London is a political newspaper founded in October 2011 during the first week of the occupation of St Paul's.
Free, non-profit and devoid of any advertising, the publication is dedicated to highlighting perceived problems with current global socio-economic practices: "Neoliberalism is bleeding society dry, feeding upon the worst instincts of human nature and destroying the best - the qualities of solidarity, altruism, interrelationship with nature, meaningful work, and respectful coexistence within our families and communities."
Tzortzis Rallis told Dazed & Confused "We use a typeface called Bastard designed by Jonathan Barnbrook. It's reminiscent of the typefaces used by banks and companies during fascist times. He wanted to create a typeface that no one in the corporate sector would use to advertise."
Papers, Please is a video game focusing on the emotional toll of working as an immigration officer, deciding who to let in and who to exclude from entering the fictional dystopian socialist state of Arstotzka.
The player earns money based on how many people have been processed and bribes collected. Money is taken out of the inspector's salary if they let terrorists, wanted criminals, or smugglers enter the country. Any money earned has to be invested in paying for rent, food, heat, and other necessities in low-class housing for themselves and their family. As relations between Arstotzka and nearby countries deteriorate, sometimes due to terrorist attacks, new sets of rules are gradually added, such as denying citizens of specific countries or demanding current documentation from citizens. The player may be challenged with moral dilemmas as the game progresses; such as allowing the supposed spouse of an immigrant through despite lacking complete papers, at the risk of accepting a terrorist into the country. (via)
Ruben Pater's Drone Survival Guide is a birdwatching-style poster designed to help you spot and identify drones. Silhouettes of the most commonly used drones are presented along with information about their country of origin and purpose: to spy or to kill. On the back of the poster, the guide details survival tips for spotting, hiding from, and interfering with the sensors of drones.
The poster was printed on a mirrored surface and could, in theory, confuse a drone's camera and be brandished as an anti-drone protection.
The Center for Urban Pedagogy collaborates with teachers and students, policy experts and community advocates, and artists and designers to turn complex urban-planning processes and policy-making decisions into engaging and visually appealing brochures. CUP's aim is to provide practical advice to groups who lack access to such information: immigrants, public-housing residents, and at-risk youth, to name a few.
November 2012, The Israelian - Palestinian conflict erupts in an outburst of violence. This time not only in real life, but also on Social Media, where both parties use propaganda to conquer the hearts and minds.
The Social Media War is boardgame designed to give a visual, analog presence to a conflict fought in virtual space. Players can use propaganda to conquer and defend territories and thus win the digital war over the Gaza Strip.
I didn't get a chance to attend the whole festival but hey, hurray, the organizers uploaded on flickr fantastic sets of images that document the event:
More photos on GDFB flickr page.
A book about the visual identity of some of the world's main terrorist organizations wasn't going to remain unnoticed. When it was published by MERRELL last year, every single design blog and magazine wrote about it. Yet, i only discovered the existence of Branding Terror last month, when i had a ridiculously great time at the Graphic Design Festival in Breda (NL.)
In a similar way to what happens with consumer goods, the name, slogans, and visual codes of a terrorist group are not only key manifestations of its identity, they also contribute to the reach and influence of the organization. An anecdote that appears in Artur Beifuss' introduction to the book illustrates the importance and impact of this visual communication. A few years ago, an Italian amateur league football club adopted for its players' shirts the logo of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, changing its name to 'Zassbollah' (a combination of 'Hezbollah' and the name of the team's captain, Luigi Zasso) in the process.
The book is authored by graphic designer and creative director Francesco Trivini Bellini and by writer and (ex)counter-terrorism analyst Artur Beifuss. Which means that the publication is obviously carefully designed but also that the information about the history, imagery, attacks, ideologies and capabilities of each of the 65 organizations has been meticulously researched.
The authors of the book are conscious that they are dealing with a delicate topic. They approached it in an almost clinical way while acknowledging the suffering of the victims of terrorism.
In his foreword to the book, Steven Heller, a design writer and former Art Director at the New York Times, wrote: The extreme violence committed in the name of these logos makes writing about them in terms of aesthetics or production values seem silly and irrelevant. Yet these terrorist groups are all brands, and are given a certain viability through branding methods. Branding is a tool that has no conscience or morality - it can be used for good or bad, and sometimes for both in tandem.
I contacted Artur Beifuss as soon as i came back from Breda and he was kind enough to answer my questions:
Hi Artur! Are there logos that stand out from the others? Which ones do you think are the most imaginative, the most efficient (strictly from a design point of view of course)? and why?
Yes, there are some good ones, the Hezbollah logo for example. It perfectly reflects the organizations history and ideology. It is interesting to compare the Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards logo. Allegedly the Iranian's founded and trained the group that later became to be Hezbollah. Both logos use the same elements to convey its ideological message. I think the Hezbollah logo is very powerful because it is memorable and easily recognizable.
But more important than the logo is what people will do with this logo. In the digital age, logos can go viral modified and used for all kinds of contexts. It is not uncommon to see fashionably dressed women and men wearing t-shirt with Hezbollah logos. Just google 'hezbollah' and 'girls' to understand what I am talking about. Seeing the logo in such a context tells the recipient that Hezbollah's ideology is indeed applicable in contemporary society. At least more than watching bearded men talking to a camera somewhere in the mountains of Waziristan.
And on the opposite hand, which one do you think is the worst conveyor of ideology?
All of the logos analyzed in Branding Terror make some kind of ideological reference. None of them really misses the point. However, there are some logos that are completely overloaded with references and elements, the logo of the Islamic Organization of Uzbekistan is a good example. It has so much Arabic text in it that one does not know where to look first. Also, this particular logo would be lost on all recipients that can't understand Arabic.
Does branding a terrorist organization has to respond to the same rules and requirements than branding any commercial product? Or do you find that other 'laws' are playing?
In a way it has to respond to the same rules, yes. People have to know what you stand for, and the logo should be easily recognizable. However, terrorism means violence and death in most of the times. Even terrorist groups find it difficult to advertise for that. In the letters from Abbottabad for example Al-Qaeda media advisors recommended Bin Laden to keep a distance to the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq because they started beheading people. This is not something that Al-Qaeda central - if you want to call it like this - wants to be associated with. They were losing followers over that.
You used to be a counter-terrorism analyst? Now that sounds really interesting. What did the work involve? And how did you use that background while working on the book? when did it come helpful?
My position involved searching and analyzing information about terrorism in five languages. Through this job I acquired a good understanding of transnational terrorism. This did help me to make the content of the book multilayered. Also, I knew how to find information that gets as close to the primarily source as possible and how to correctly assess them.
I read that you used the official lists of "designated foreign terrorist organisations" of five governments: Australia, India, Russia, United States and the European Union. First of all do the list overlap? Or do they have different definition of what a terrorist organization is?
The definitions slightly differ. And the lists overlap to some degree. But governments tend to put groups on their list that are of relevance to their own geopolitical position. For example many separatist groups from India you will not find on the list of the United States. Globally active groups like Al-Qaeda are listed as a terrorist organization on most of the lists.
After the book was finished, did you get emails from people sending you other logos? And do you now find yourself in front of a long list of logos you wish you could have included? Could you imagine publishing a second edition of the book for example or do you think that what had to be told has already been communicated in the book?
Yes, some people approached us with their own projects and ideas. And we are always happy to get in touch and exchange ideas. Branding Terror was exhaustive as it is at the time of publishing. All organizations that are on the designated foreign terrorist list of which it was possible to track down the logo are included in the book. Branding Terror was set out as an encyclopedia, a branding manual and a collectible item. We like to see it as a work in progress. There are always new groups emerging and designated as a terrorist organization. It would be nice to have the logos of these groups all in one place, preferably in a nicely designed book series.
Terrorism is a bit of a tricky subject. It is associated with subversion and violence and that often get people's attention. And it must be difficult not to pass any judgment, political or moral when dealing with the topic of terrorism. How did you approach the topic? Did you struggle to stay neutral? How did you manage that?
Branding Terror is based on information found in Open Sources. It is a technical analysis of the visual communication of terrorist and insurgent groups. The logo is the unit of analysis. Of course many so-called facts can be considered biased since they were collected and collated by people with a certain political and moral agenda in mind. These people can be ELN members in Colombia or Analysts in a Washington think tank. I used analytical techniques I learned in my profession to approach the topic. But of course it is not easy to read over hundreds of dead bodies every day. But I was not there to judge, just to simply collect, collate and analyze the information.
Have you ever received any feedback from any of the organizations you mention in the book?
No, I have not received such feedback.
What are you both working on now? Any new projects you could share with us?
Francesco is taking a creative break at the moment. In the meantime I speak on conferences, in design schools and advice marketing companies about what can be learned from Branding Terror. And yes, coming back to your questions earlier, I do systematically collect logos on the side. The next project is trend research, especially analyzing countercultures of the future.
Views inside the book:
HOLO - a magazine about emerging trajectories in art, science, and technology.
Published twice per year, and weighing in at more than 200 pages, each issue of HOLO provides intimate views into fascinating studios, workshops, and institutions around the world, as seen through the eyes of stellar photographers and talented writers. The pace, depth, and sensibility of print allows us to invest heavily in each story, and draw on months of travel, research, and conversation to craft nuanced portraits that you won't find anywhere else.
HOLO is what happens when enthusiastic minds meet and decide they'd like to use a paper publication to share their passion about creativity and digital technology. The magazine is ambitious, elegantly curated, impeccably illustrated and intelligent. It also manages to convey a feeling of warmth. HOLO opens the door to artists and designer's studios for in-depth conversations and intimate moments. I loved seeing a photo of some of the trophies won by David O'Reilly, dozens of them are casually crammed up on a closet shelf in his L.A. flat. And HOLO is full of little, human touches like that. The content and tone of the interviews in HOLO are not the ones you'd find in your run-of-the-mill interviews. They are incredible conversations between people who have a lot of respect and understanding for each other's work. I love reading about the working life and ideas of David O'Reilly (who wouldn't?), Semiconductor, Zimoun, Philip Beesley, Raquel Meyers. And Wolf Lieser! The founder of DAM, a Berlin gallery selling and championing digital art, has quite a few eye-opening comments on the relationship between digital artworks & the art market.
HOLO also contains essays, called 'Perspectives', that look at the 'emerging representational and perceptual paradigms'. I particularly enjoyed reading an essay on surveillance by James Bridle who manage to give a new twist on an already much discussed issue, and a text in which Greog Borenstein details 'debug view art'.
HOLO closes its over 200 pages on a brilliant and witty "Stream' that charts the most interesting moments of the Summer/Fall 2013, reminding us in the process that we're so absorbed by the now and the next that we've forgotten how exciting our near past has been. The time line mentions lab-grown burgers, discussion on conservation in the computer age, royal pardon for Alan Turing, a robotic petting zoo, etc.
So there you are! HOLO is a beautiful world inhabited by talented and enthusiastic people and I spent a great time immersed into HOLO but it's not my world. Which is both criticism and praise...
I'm obviously interested in "emerging trajectories in art, science, and technology" (i've been writing about it for 10 years after all) and it is stimulating to see that other people are covering the same areas of creativity from a radically different perspective.
I like everything i find in HOLO: the splendid photos and design, the dense texts, the people involved in the project. I could go on and on. But i do feel that HOLO could engage a bit more with the broader cultural context, it could develop a more critical voice while maintaining much of its contagious enthusiasm for all things digital and interactive. But maybe that's just me, maybe i should stop looking for the potentially worrying political, ethical and social impacts of technology everywhere. We are living maddening times and publications like HOLO allow us to think of something else than crisis, social inequalities, the NSA, speculation on the future of the planet, etc. Both criticism and praise, thus.
I need to add that i did feel a bit uncomfortable when i realized that very few women had been involved in the mag. Gender balance has never been a big concern of mine but i couldn't help but notice that only a handful of women are featured as artists/designers or are part of the editorial team. It would also be good to get outside of our comfortable Northern America/Europe/Japan media art bubble but i guess we all struggle with this.
Anyway, do get a copy. Really. It's ridiculously affordable, smart and entertaining. You'll cherish it for years to come.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest in the studio will be James Auger, a designer, researcher and lecturer operating at the intersection of art and industrial design. He is a tutor at the RCA: Design Interactions and visiting professor at the Haute école d'art et de design (HEAD) in Geneva. Together with Jimmy Loizeau, James runs Auger-Loizeau, a design studio that explores what it means to exist in a technology rich environment both today and in the near future.
In this episodes we're going to talk about James' PHD thesis Why Robots? which uses the robot as a vehicle to study how technology be domesticated. But the designer will also discuss preferable futures and electronic devices that know more about your partner's emotional state than you do.
The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 12 March at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud one day.
Check out also James Auger's essay in the Journal of Human-Robot Interaction: Living With Robots: A Speculative Design Approach.