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Imitation Chapter 3-1

Imitation, Imitation is another project exhibited at the RCA graduation show, this time in the Design Products department (Platform 13.)

Zhenhan Hao explored China's copy culture in an attempt to go beyond the 'illegal', 'vile' and 'evil' epithets that are usually associated with the practice. In the artist/designer's own words:

I have taken on the guise of an agent and am managing two research-practices simultaneously under different social contexts. In China, I have proposed a new production model for craftspeople in Dafen village and Jingdezhen, 'the porcelain capital of China', to imitate and create at the same time. Together, we co-produced a series of improvised products that sought to inspire the imitators to explore their imagination and creativity.

Hao asked artisan imitators to use their own imagination and customize the goods that would otherwise have been mere replicas of 'Western' artworks and fashion items. He commissioned a suit, a series of ceramic vases as well as oil paintings. He would suggest that the workers stick to what they are used to (imitating famous fashion brands or Impressionist painters) while adding something personal. A cobbler created footwear that mix the design of traditional Church's shoes with the bold colour of trainers. And tailors designed a suit by mixing western aesthetics (in particular the famous Barbour jacket) with traditional Chinese patterns and symbols:

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A painter specialized in replicating Van Gogh oils pictured his own bedroom in the style of the Dutch post-Impressionist:

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Imitation Chapter 5-1

The vases add another layer to the project as Hao asked the ceramists to 'document' their craft and its context by painting their tools and workshops on the surface of the vase:

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Imitation Chapter 4-1

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Imitation Chapter 4-1

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Imitation Chapter 4-1

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Imitation Chapter 4-1

The artist did some kind of reverse experiment in London where he introduced Chinese imitation culture through a workshop with the absurd aim of mimic-drawing perfect circles.

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Imitation Chapter 6-1

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Imitation Chapter 6-1

I'll leave the conclusion to Zhenhan Hao:

As a Chinese national studying in London, I attempt to exploit the cultural differences and normative principles to uncover the complexity of imitation in the contemporary Chinese context. However, rather than delivering value judgments, or repeating the platitudes of political relativism, I am committed to revealing unknown matters and unfamiliar processes and keen to exploring an alternative ethic and aesthetic of imitation through my commission as a methodology as well as participatory interventions and practices.

Related story: Err (or the creativity of the factory worker), a conversation with Jeremy Hutchison.

Sponsored by:





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The project that Owen Wells developed and exhibited at the Design Interactions graduation show this year looks at the Arctic, a region that global changes has transformed into the new El Dorado.

It is feared that Arctic summer sea ice is melting at a rate faster than predicted, and could be ice free as early as 2015. The loss of sea ice and innovations in exploitation technologies are making the Arctic region more easily accessible. And more easily exploitable. The Arctic is indeed home to the world's largest untapped gas reserves and an estimated 13% of the world's remaining oil as well as vast mineral deposits are thought to lie beneath the ocean floor. The resources expose the Arctic to corporate greed and to potential geopolitical tension caused by unresolved sovereignty claims.

Well's research project, Who Owns The Arctic, identifies the weakest territorial points and the legal loops in the status of the Arctic sea region to devise four subversive ways to overcome the legislation and shake the system that protects the Arctic.

Through an examination of the weaknesses of systems subversion can be seen as a form of critique - a deceitful narration of legitimate practices. With the help of several members of my own family who offered specific expertise, I have planned 4 subversive financial enterprises for the arctic. Each seeks to exploit the unique infrastructure, ecology, and legal ambiguity of the region to provide devious financial rewards. The project takes the form of scenes, maps and equipment. Through their planning, these schemes identify and expose the legitimate systems set to exploit the Arctic.

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The first scheme is called The Mineral Rush. Under the guise of a normal fishing routine on the west coast of Svalbard, Russian men feed Beluga whales with by-catch stuffed with lithium. Whales soon start to show the early signs of lithium toxicity and after 5 days, suffer seizures, organ failure, and eventually die. When the mammals are washed onto the west coast of Svalbard, experts conclude that the metal in their bodies indicates the presence of vast deposits of lithium off the Svalbard coast. These rumors ultimately trickling through to the 39 signatory states of the Svalbard treaty, countries who retain the right to undertake commercial activities on the island without discrimination.

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Crab pot

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Fishing dispute route

In the second scheme, The Fishing Dispute, Russian crab boats travel to the northern tip of the Bering sea. Once the ships have entered the Alaskan king crab fisheries, 20 icosahedron crab pots are deployed and the vessels return to waters within the Russian exclusive economic zone. 2 days later, they come back to tow the catch north, 1,600 km underwater. The pots are released in the Beaufort sea where fishing rights are still claimed by both America and Canada. After 5 days the cotton netting surrounding the pots dissolves, freeing the crabs. An anonymous press leak reporting catches of King crab far beyond their normal range is later sent to newspapers in both Barrow, Alaska, and Toktoyaktuk Harbor, Canada. The resulting scramble for the prized crab meat will greatly increase the opportunity for confrontation between Canadian and American fishermen, driven by confusion over fishing rights.

A third scheme involves an oil spill caused by devices placed on top of icebergs that travel from the northern tip of Greenland into to North Atlantic. On this journey they float past Hans Island and onto the oil fields of Baffin bay and the Labrador sea where, if spotted, they are usually towed a safe distance from the pipelines and oil rigs. But in this scenario the remotely activated devices would shake the iceberg apart. Still large enough to sink a ship or damage a rig, the smaller chunks of ice would not be detected by radar nor by the naked eye. The icebergs would thus float quietly onwards to the oil fields.

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The last scenario involves a man working for the Keystone Pipeline, a pipeline system that transports oil sands bitumen from Canada and the northern United States "primarily to refineries in the Gulf Coast" of Texas. The man's job is to operate a pig launching station. He makes extra money by smuggling goods across borders on board of a "pig", a devices used to clean and survey the pipeline.

More details about each scheme can be found in this PDF.

Hi Owen! You asked members of your family to help you create 4 subversive financial enterprises for the Arctic. What are their areas of expertise? And why did you decide to work with members of your family? To show that anyone can do it? 

Finding the true direction of the project was quite a painful process. After lots of research and deliberation looking for what I was interested in it dawned on me that specific friends and members of my immediate family had a really unique but highly specialised set of skills that I could hypothetically corrupt. I don't want to give too much away about them because I respect their anonymity, but the main area of expertise I was able to draw upon centered around aspects of the shipping industry. It was through this advice that I was made aware of the Arctic as an environment where climate change is in the process of rendering the region potentially prone to corporate profiteering and political tension. In the latter stages of the project I also had advice on finance, and icebergs.

The dialogue around the amount of sensitive information readily available on the internet is pretty visible, particularly at the moment. While there is undoubtedly a huge amount of inspiration for potential deviants on the internet (The UN website offers information on how to set up shipping front companies if you're willing to sit through some very dry videos) the opportunity to "physically" construct this kind of network, around the dinner table so to speak, was far too enticing. The implication that anyone can do it is defiantly a big part of the spirit of the project.

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Owen Wells, Who Owns The Arctic. Installation at the RCA graduation show. Image d_&_r

The texts describing the four enterprises in the show looked as if they were merely the start of a thriller. Why did you give just set the scene and didn't go further in the description of the scenario? 

I planned each of the four parts of the project pretty meticulously. I scouted locations, used google maps to plan how far and for long different actions would take. I produced inventories for different sections of the trips, found out how and where I get important pieces of equipment, and how many people were involved at any one time. Rather than display these as maps I decided to condense them into introductory texts. The scale of the schemes was far larger than anything I had dealt with before and so the texts gave me a way of contextualising them within the voice of individual characters. While specific locations might not be instantly recognisable I trust that the region is visible enough to begin to imagine what each of the schemes is suggesting.

In a way the schemes themselves serve as introductions - a way of describing the complexity of problems that climate change provokes beyond the environmental effects that everyone is aware of by now. There is room for them to be presented in more detail and I hope to develop the project beyond its current incarnation. Perhaps I might hold one of the arctic states to ransom in order to fund it.

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Ship Towing an Iceberg. Source: Randy Olson, National Geographic

Several objects were exhibited in the show. Can you explain the one linked to the oil spill? How would it work exactly? Which technology does it use? And could you confirm how it would eventually trigger an oil spill? Would it be through an encounter similar to the one that sank the Titanic?

Of the four objects in the show that one is by far the most speculative in terms of how well it would work in the field. Icebergs are such an ominous symbols of danger that I had to include them, but they are notoriously difficult to destroy. The mechanisms through which they are created make them incredibly tough - there are reports of dropping bombs on them and only making a dent.

The device that I exhibited was an amalgamation of a helmholtz resonator and an autodialing device. The autodialing device would cycle through frequencies until it found the resonance frequency of the ice, similar to the way autodialling machines could theoretically crack a safe. The frequency would then resonate though the Helmhotlz resonator into fracture lines that are formed when icebergs calve from the face of a glacier and fall into the sea. The resonance effect would eventually cause the iceberg to break itself apart through vibration, forming smaller but potentially far more dangerous chunks of ice. In practice it is difficult to predict the effect this would have on an iceberg because it is dependent on structure not dampening the effects of resonance. I couldn't confidently tell you if it would work in the field, but the object serves a narrative purpose so plausibility won out.

The weakness lies not in the icebergs themselves but in the system through which they are found and tracked. There are daily iceberg reports available through the International Ice Patrol (an entity whose existence was brought about by the sinking of the Titanic). Their main tool for finding Icebergs is Side looking Airborne Radar (SLAR), so if an object can evade radar (which smaller chunks of ice smoothed by the erosion of ocean are good at) then effectively it remains invisible to the system. Part of the current research on icebergs is about developing a way of towing them from collision courses with oil rigs. The actions of the individuals in the oil spill scenario are intended to make the icebergs invisible to radar by turning larger ones into fragments, flooding an oil rich area with ice that cannot be detected and hopefully (in this instance) won't be spotted in time to be towed from a collision course.

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Potential weak points map

I'm afraid i didn't understand very well the Mineral Rush scenario, the one with the Beluga whales poisoned by lithium. The start is crystal clear but it's the consequences of the perceived presence of lithium off the Svalbard coast that isn't so easy to understand. How are the 39 signatory states of the Svalbard treaty supposed to react to the lithium deposit? 

The Archipelago officially became part of Norway under the terms of the Svalbard treaty. This treaty also states that the signatory countries (whose exact numbers fluctuate depending on what you're reading) have equal rights to exploit mineral deposits in Svalbard. This scheme relies on the stock market to spread a rumor that there is a potentially valuable mineral wealth that has been made visible through its effects on the local food chain. Money could be made through buying land and the selling it once its value has risen due to the potential for prospecting. Alternatively the rumor could be used to engineer demand for legitimate infrastructure.

This one is by far the most complex of all the schemes and admittedly would benefit from a far more in depth demonstration of how it could function.

Finally, i was interested in knowing about antecedents for this exploitation of the weaknesses behind the laws and rules that protect the Arctic region. Did you come across similarly devious tricks from fishermen, speculators, businessmen or others? 

Around Australia there are lots of reports of people smuggling operations exploiting a part of maritime law that states that you must always help a boat in distress. If the authorities intercept them on route then they will feign distress and by maritime law have to be towed to the nearest port rather than turned around. This only seems to delay the inevitable rather than allowing them to achieve their goal.

As I previously mentioned you can find out from the UN website a process that allows you to set up what amounts to a collection of front companies through a relatively cheap corporate web. This is a practice that is legitimate, pretty common in shipping, and is openly advertised. You have nominee directors and have physical shares that can be handed to people rather than existing digitally, so the real owner can remain anonymous. To see how this system worked at a very basic level, I got a quote to incorporate a company in the Marshall Islands on behalf of 5 Norwegian businessmen I pretended to represent; it was a very convenient service.

In the open ocean laws and rules become a little abstract because the high seas are still the high seas - Jurisdiction becomes incredibly complex and in some places redundant. There are international waters where ships come under the jurisdiction of the state under whose flag they sail, but if that state has no interest in bringing them to justice then law becomes unenforceable. Piracy proliferates in these areas. It's completely anarchic in places, and forms a big part of international shipping discourse. Once the Arctic sea ice melts more thoroughly then ships will be able to pass through sea routes in the Arctic and avoid piracy areas, as well as save huge sums of money on fuel. This is why the Arctic is about to become so important to shipping.

If you want a good example of corruption at sea then have a look at the Salem case from 1980. It is too long to explain here but it involves government officials, a criminal sea captain and scuttling a supertanker during the South African oil embargo.

As for the Arctic I haven't heard anything specifically about exploiting the law in the region. That doesn't mean that there isn't anything, but it still won't be really accessible on a large scale for a number of years, so for now any underhand behavior is still hidden. At a governmental level the consensus appears to be to promote good relations between the Arctic states and protect the environment. This is fantastic, but the Arctic is a long way from prying eyes, so as a theatre of deviance (both "legitimate" and "illegitimate") it will surely become a very attractive prospect, if not already.

If I may I would like to say thank you to Alexa Pollmann, Hyung-ok Park, Lana Z Porter, Mohammed Ali, Shing Tat Chung and the family and friends without whom this project would not have been possible.

Thanks Owen!

All images courtesy Owen Wells.

Also at the graduation show: Post Cyberwar Series and Circumventive hybrid organs.

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

My guest tomorrow will be Ilona Gaynor and she'll be talking to us about forensic science, police reconstructions and the not so technically sophisticated (but very smart) way to rob a bank in broad day light on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Ilona is a young artist and designer who got the attention of the press - from blogs to the Financial Times- in 2011 for her RCA graduation project Everything Ends in Chaos. The work explored economics, finance, global markets, risk management, insurance and mathematics.

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Downtown Los Angeles, 20x20m Block

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Scale Model, One Wilshire

Over the past 2 years, however, Ilona has been working on Under Black Carpets. The research project is a thorough investigation and planning of the robbery of 5 of the richest banks located in downtown LA. Posing as a LAPD officer, Ilona has researched not only how to 'investigate, intervene and be forceful' but also how to efficiently rob banks.

Ilona Gaynor also runs the design and research practice The Department of No.

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Los Angeles Police Academy. Training ground

The show will be aired this Wednesday 3rd of July at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Introducing: Culture Identities - Design for Museums, Theaters and Cultural Institutions, edited by Robert Klanten, Anna Sinofzik and Floyd Schulze.

Available on amazon USA and UK.

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Publisher Gestalten writes: Introducing: Culture Identities features outstanding poster campaigns, publications, and cross-platform corporate design for international cultural institutions by both young designers, who are striving to prove themselves creatively, and established studios, who are experimenting with new forms of visual expression. In the book, readers not only hear from designers who are especially active in the cultural field, such as Bureau Mirko Borsche, the New York-based studio 2x4, James Goggin, and Johannes Erler, but also from notables on the client side including MoMA, the Barbican, Van Abbemuseum, and documenta.

With its selection of striking collaborations between innovative designers and visionary cultural institutions, Introducing: Culture Identities presents the field of visual identities for cultural clients as a continuous dialogue that pushes the limit of what is possible creatively.

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Les Graphiquants, Biennale de la Danse Lyon, 2012

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Jürgen Fehrmann, HAU Hebbel am Ufer, 2012

I like a book that influences the way i look at the city i walk through every day. Since reading Introducing: Culture Identities, Design for Museums, Theaters and Cultural Institutions, i've started paying more attention to the design of posters and leaflets advertising the programme of cultural institutions. And even if being more attentive to promotional material isn't exactly my life greatest ambition, there's some great graphic design and typography out there that deserves to be granted more than a distracted glance.

The book features tree main sections. The first one looks at graphic design from the point of view of the cultural institutions. The chapter reveals how some museums or art events select a design studio, integrate them as collaborators and how the internal team welcomes (or not) the proposals of the designers. Only 7 institutions are featured but their relationship with typography and graphic design is analyzed with a depth i wasn't expecting. That first chapter sometimes gave me the feeling that i was taking a peek behind the curtains of institutions such as the Barbican Art Center or Documenta.

The next chapter brings the perspective of the design studios, looking at the relationship they establish with the institutions and how they subtly tweak or break with the identity that cultural institutions have developed over the years. For some designers, a theater or a dance festival is a client like any other. For others, it's a particularly stimulating interlocutor who is receptive to experiments and has developed a similar understanding of creativity.

The last chapter is pure Gestalten: a fast and vast selection of success stories with plenty of images and über efficient descriptions.

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Daniel Josefsohn, Volksbühne, 2012

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Scandinavian Design Lab, The Theatre Republique, 2009

Introducing: Culture Identities, Design for Museums, Theaters and Cultural Institutions is a book that should inspire and inform anyone interested in graphic design and typography. It should also entertain anyone interested in uncovering yet another layer of their urban environment and in discovering some of the strategies that culture is using to sell itself to the public.

The only negative comment is a geographical one. Apart from a couple of exceptions, most of the design studios and institutions are based in either Europe or the US. I wouldn't have minded seeing some works from countries such as China, New Zealand, Mexico or South Africa.

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Helmo, Pronomade(s), 2011

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Helmo, Pronomade(s), 2010

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Cobbenhagen Hendriksen, Nederlands Instituut voor Mediakunst / NIMk. Corporate Identity, 2007-2012

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Côme de Bouchony and Vincent de Hoÿm, Fête de la musique, 2009

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DERRIERELACOLLINE, Deftig Barock, Kunsthaus Zürich, 2012

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75B, International Film Festival Rotterdam Campaign 39th edition, Old Luxor Theatre, 2010

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75B, International Film Festival Rotterdam Campaign 40th edition Poster, 2011

And now for the views inside the book:

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Image from the book Introducing: Culture Identities, Copyright Gestalten 2013

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Image from the book Introducing: Culture Identities, Copyright Gestalten 2013

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Image from the book Introducing: Culture Identities, Copyright Gestalten 2013

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Image from the book Introducing: Culture Identities, Copyright Gestalten 2013

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Image from the book Introducing: Culture Identities, Copyright Gestalten 2013

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Image from the book Introducing: Culture Identities, Copyright Gestalten 2013

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Electrostabilis Cardium - a defibrillating organ using parts from an electric eel that can discharge an electric current to the heart when it recognises it going into fibrillation (a heart attack.) Image courtesy Agatha Haines

I just realized that there is only a few days left to see the Degree Show of the Design Interactions department at the RCA so i'd better speed up and mention at least one projects i found interesting before the exhibition closes on Sunday.

Set in a medical context, Agatha Haines' project Circumventive Organs brings the whole "We are all cyborgs now" mantra into a new light. In the future, maybe the health and enhancement of human beings won't be entrusted solely to artificial pace makers and other embedded electronics or robotic parts. Instead, our bodies might one day be fixed and improved with the help of hybrid organs that will be custom-designed, printed and inserted into the body to overcome a specific illness.

With the introduction of bioprinting the possibility of new organs is becoming a reality. The ability to replicate and print cells in complex structures could mean different cells with various functions could be put together in new ways to create new organs we would take millions of years to evolve naturally. Frankenstein-esque hybrid organs could then be put together using cells from different body parts or even different species.

The organs are using animal parts to respond to the risk of suffering from a stroke (Cerebrothrombal Dilutus), a heart attack (Electrostabilis Cardium) or cystic fibrosis (Tremomucosa Expulsum),


Electrostabilis Cardium being installed during surgery

I had a quick online chat with Agatha:

I'm curious about the shape these organs have: does the shape reflect their function? The exact space they can occupy in the human body? Why didn't you make them look more appealing to the human eye?

Yes, I researched how these cells and tissues exist and look in humans and other species already and how they might look when they are joined to things they aren't usually attached to. I then tried to design the shapes they are in based on the functions they have to perform. I also spent a long time testing colors that could give a sense of what the organ does. So I hoped the form might be slightly descriptive of the function. They are also lifesize to show how much space they may take up when inside the human body.

After looking at lots of viscera I felt people may believe in them more as objects if they look more disgusting like the weird and wonderful things designed by nature that already exist inside us.

Could you detail to me some of these organs?

Electrostabilis Cardium is an organ designed for people with heart problems and is designed to act like a defibrillator. It has a suction pad that attaches to the heart and then a tube, which has walls lines with cilia cells similar to that in the human ear. These cells can recognize vibrations, and if the heart goes into fibrillation (a heart attack) these cells will cause the muscular wall at the base of the organ to contract. Behind this muscular wall is a series of blobs which contain rows of electroplax cells, which are similar to those found in an electric organ of an electric eel. When the muscular wall contracts these cells discharge causing an electric shock to travel to the heart which then defibrillates it causing it to revert back to its normal beating pattern.

Tremomucosa Expulsum is an organ designed to help people who suffer from cycstic fibrosis. It is surgically attached to the trachea with holes that form walls between. The top of the organ has a similar muscular structure to that of a rattlesnake, which can vibrate vigorously without using much energy for long periods of time. This vibration causes any mucus on the trachea walls to become dislodged and to move down the tubes into the new organ, which then moves down into the bottom opening that is attached to the stomach. This allows the mucus to then be dispelled through the digestive system.

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Tremomucosa Expulsum - an organ that uses rattlesnake muscles to release mucus from the respiratory system of a person who suffers from cystic fibrosis and dispel it through the stomach. Image courtesy Agatha Haines

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Tremomucosa Expulsum (detail). Image courtesy Agatha Haines

To me the project makes sense: having something organic rather than medical pacemakers that transform the human into a 'cyborg' seems to be more 'natural.' Yet, the organs would contain cells from leach, rattle snake or electric eel. Can these cells be made compatible to each other and of course to the human body?

There has been lots of research into using animal parts in our bodies and also a few noted existing procedures that have been successful.

Xenotransplantation (which is the transplantation of tissues or organs from one species to another) has become relatively famous with the possibility of transplanting a pig heart into a human. Yet there are problems with rejection, which are now being solved by genetically modifying the animal. This is a way of tricking the body to recognize these parts as human. So the possibility of altering the cells before they enter our bodies could mean they can be made compatible or at least our bodies may recognize them as compatible.

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Cerebrothrombal Dilutus - an organ that contains cells from the saliva gland of a leech and releases an anticoagulant when it feels the pressure of a potential blood clot in the brain as a way of avoiding a stroke. Image courtesy Agatha Haines

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Cerebrothrombal Dilutus (drawing). Image courtesy Agatha Haines

Does a human with these new, hybrid organ becomes a 'new cyborg' or something entirely different? Do you think it would be easier for someone to accept that these scary-looking new organs made with bits of animals will be part of their body instead of a clean, polished piece of electronics and metallic implants?

In a way the host may become like a 'new cyborg' as they are still being enhanced by a new technology, even if it is visceral rather than metallic. Another term often used for a human enhancement like this is 'transhuman.' Transhumanism is a movement that attempts to overcome the current limitations of the human body using emerging technologies.

Whether people are more likely to accept these organs is something that I am trying to question through doing the project. I have been interested in how people respond and relate to new body parts, whether it is a transplant or a prosthetic, and how sometimes it takes a while to accept this new part as initially it feels alien to the body. Yet I think if the organs are partly made from our own cells we may be more likely to accept them into our bodies.

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Electrostabilis Cardium, the defibrillating organ. Image courtesy Agatha Haines

Thanks Agatha!

If you want to know more about Agatha's work, you should check out Happy Famous Artists' take on Agatha's modifies babies or head to V2_ in Rotterdam on July 9, she will presenting her project at Test_Lab: The Graduation Edition.

EP Vol. 1 - The Italian Avant-Garde: 1968-1976 by Alex Coles, Professor of Transdisciplinary Studies, School of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Huddersfield and Catharine Rossi, Senior Lecturer in Design History at Kingston University.

Available on amazon UK and USA.

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Publisher Sternberg Press describes the book: EP is the first critically underpinned series of publications that fluidly move between art, design, and architecture. The series creates a discursive platform between popular magazines ("single play") and academic journals ("long play") by introducing the notion of the "extended play" into publishing: with thematically edited pocket books as median.

The first volume is devoted to the activities of the Italian avant-garde between 1968 and 1976. While emphasizing the multiple correspondences between collectives and groups like Arte Povera, Archizoom, Superstudio, and figures such as Ettore Sottsass and Alessandro Mendini, The Italian Avant-Garde: 1968-1976 also highlights previously overlooked spaces, works, and performances generated by Zoo, Gruppo 9999, and Cavart. Newly commissioned interviews and essays by historians and curators shed light on the era, while contemporary practitioners discuss its complex legacy.

With contributions by Paola Antonelli, Pier Vittorio Aureli, Andrea Branzi, Carlo Caldini, Alison J. Clarke, Experimental Jetset, Verina Gfader, Martino Gamper, Joseph Grima, Alessandro Mendini, Antonio Negri, Paola Nicolin, Michaelangelo Pistoletto, Catharine Rossi, Vera Sacchetti, Libby Sellers, Studio Formafantasma, and Ettore Vitale
Design by Experimental Jetset

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Ettore Vitale's 1° Maggio,1973, poster 
for the Partito Socialista Italiano

I've reviewed or simply read my fair share of books about the work of Archigram, Ant Farm and Haus-Rucker-Co.. It was high time i'd read more about the Italian avant-garde in architecture and design because the 1960s and 1970s in Italy is a creative period that needs to get more attention outside of the country.

The key events and concepts covered in the book are never dull. The designers and architects of the Italian avant-garde had bite and sometimes they also had humour. Intellectuals and artists were protesting about the conservative model of the Venice biennial and calling for its restructuration (which gave way to the Architecture Biennial!) Ettore Sottsass was putting tiny tv sets in nature 'for night butterflies'. Ettore Vitale was designing posters reminding of the dangers of fascism. Radical architects were holding seminars on a disused railway bridge. Gruppo 9999 were creating the Space Electronic discotheque in Florence as a 'progressive multimedia environment.'

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Cavart, Progettarsi Addosso seminar, held on a disused railway bridge in Colze, Vicenza, September 27, 1975. Courtesy of Archivio Michele De Lucchi (via Domus)

The book compiles commissioned essays and interviews. By people who were questioning and shaking up design, architecture and art then and by people who, today, are analyzing and discussing the impact of those avant-garde ideas and realizations.

EP Vol. 1 - The Italian Avant-Garde: 1968-1976 lays the solid basis for a deeper and more critical reflection on a key moment in the history of architecture, design and art in Italy. I would recommend the book not only for its historical perspective but also for the way it echoes some of today's interests and preoccupations. The architects and designers of the time too were raising environmentalist concerns for alternative sources of energy. They were already questioning the rule of the objects and the role of an art biennial. They too were exploring more powerful uses of 'new media' while looking for a more meaningful relationship between man and technology. And believe it or not, they were already inventing designs driven by concepts and encouraging 'non-professionals' to build 'spontaneous structures' and participate in ongoing debates. Surely there are lessons there that we could all make use of.

I think that the book would have benefited from a clearer presentation of the socio-economic and political climate in that time and place. But other than that, i'd say this is one of the most exciting and eye-opening books designers and architects could lay their hands on these days.

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S. Elena/Giardini, Pier Paolo Pasolini during the protest at the Biennale. On the right: Ninetto Davoli and Cesare Zavattini, 1968. Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche

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Berengo Gardin, Venezia 1968, contestazione alla Biennale d'arte


Views inside the book (more images at Experimental Jetset):

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Corridor8 has an interview with Prof. Alex Coles and Dr. Catharine Rossi. Rossi also published a general introduction to the Italian avant-garde in Disegno Daily.

Previously: A Guide to Archigram 1961-74 , Inner World / Innen Welt: The Projects of Haus-Rucker-Co., 1967-1992, The Sky's the Limit: Applying Radical Architecture, Clip/Stamp/Fold - The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X-197X, Book Review: Ant Farm - Living Archive 7, Casa Per Tutti, Other Space Odysseys, Ant Farm retrospective in Sevilla, Pioneers of conceptual architecture, etc.

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