Last week, i visited This Is War, the degree show of BA Design at Goldsmiths. There were a few good surprises. The best one being The Welsh Space Campaign, a project that launches ordinary Welsh people into outer space, by finding a cosmic context for Welsh traditional culture and skills. Except that it wasn't really a surprise as i had been told repeatedly beforehand that i was brilliant must-see work. And so i went to the Old Truman Brewery to see it for myself.
Hefin Jones, The Welsh Space Campaign, 2013
A few months ago, young designer Hefin Jones started touring the last remaining wool mills in Wales and asked factory workers and craftsmen to help him make an astronaut suit. The work is not solely about making a series of space garments, it's also about catapulting these people into entirely new ambitions and dreams and discussing with them the possibility of sending local crafts and skills into space. "The project facilitates participatory speculation, in which the people are invited into the construction of cosmic objects, and their experience during this process allows them to speculate about the different possibilities of their skill.," Jones later told me in an email interview.
The suit is made of the fabric woven in the last remaining wool mills in Wales. The astronaut boots are traditional Welsh clogs crafted by a traditional clog maker. The whole pressure system that will enable the astronaut to sustain life in outer space was built by a Welsh plumber.
The aim of the designer is to reveal that Wales has the capacity to explore space, and to show that off-world culturalisation can be achieved through a collective communitarian effort; as a way to allow the people involved to reconsider their role and skill in relation to these cosmic contexts.
Even the emblem of the space mission is a pure Welsh reference: the tail of the red dragon that appears on the national flag:
The WSC is Jones's degree project but he plans to push it further by involving other industries, communities and cultures that would normally never even think of engaging with space travel. The designer has also started to look beyond the space suit and expand into the different material culture of a space program, working with physics professors in Aberystwyth University to calculate how to send Welsh cultural artefacts into space. He is also collaborating with Poet Laureate Ceri Wyn Jones to write a ten to one launch countdown poem, with each number referencing an aspect of Welsh culture.
I'm going to leave the last words to Hefin Jones: "It's about the small engagements with the possibility of space travel, the tensions, the small steps towards an unattainable goal, and the feeling this series of actions creates within them."
See also: Cristina De Middel, The Afronauts series, Larissa Sansour's Palestinauts and The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility.
An exhibition at the Design Museum is proposing a fictional future in which the United Kingdom is broken into four counties that function according to radically different techno-centered models.
Each of their 4 scenarios looks at how innovations such as research about human-powered helicopters, integrated biohydrogen refinery or robots with jelly-like artificial muscles translate into politics, economy and lifestyle.
The digitarians live in the East of England and are governed by digital technology. The Bioliberals are the biotech-freaks, they occupy the West corner. The Communo-nuclearist, whose fate lays in the hands of nuclear energy, relentlessly travel up and down a single strip in the middle of the nation. And North of the UK are the Anarcho-evolutionists, they have turned their back on technology and self-experiment on their own body to turn themselves into powerful machines.
The counties are 'live laboratories' set in a future that will probably/hopefully never come. They are nevertheless so plausible that you are drawn into the fiction and wonder where you'd belong if you had to chose where/under which regime to live. The scenarios are sketched rather than neatly detailed which allows you to bring your own narrative and fill in the gaps.
To make the project tangible, the project looks closely at the modes of transport that the different tribes would adopt.
The Digitarians move around their tarmac-covered land in pretty pastel-coloured, self-driven pods. To save space on the road, the driver has to stand, a bit like standing-only plane tickets that Ryanair was hoping to sell its travelers. Pushing further the no-frill airlines analogy, the routes they travel are suggested by a computer system that calculates the best, most economic route in real time.
The inhabitants seem to mean little more than data that needs to be tracked, controlled and processed by the system.
Residents of the Communo-nuclearist micro kingdom live on a 3 km-long train that moves constantly up and down the central strip of land they occupy. The giant carriages are powered by nuclear energy and each has been assigned a specific function: auditorium, factory, swimming pool, farm, etc. Communo-nuclearists are rich, entertained and their lifestyle is rather fancy. The downside is that they are under constant threat of a nuclear accident. Their complete reliance on nuclear energy makes them pretty unpopular and no one likes to have them around.
Bioliberals fully embrace biotechnology. Each person produces their own energy according to their needs. Bioliberals grow plants and food, but also products. Which sounds pretty exciting until you have a look at their vehicles: they are covered in lab-grown skin made from yeast and tea. They are powered by anaerobic digesters that produce gas. The cars not only look and smell revolting, they are also as little aerodynamic as possible and won't drive you fast anywhere.
This leaves us with the Anarcho-evolutionists who strength train and bio-hack their own body in order to maximise their own physical capabilities. They believe that humans should modify themselves to exist within the limits of the planet rather than modifying the planet to meet their ever growing needs. Some of them have massive thighs to help them power the local public transport system: the VLB, Very Large Bike. Others are long and extra-lean, the ideal silhouette to travel by hot air balloons. The animals living in the area are not spared. The 'hox" is the ideal beast of burden, a hybrid between a horse and an ox. The Pitsky is strong like a pit bull and amiable like a husky.
The discussion doesn't stop at the models and photos on show. There's also a small space with suggested readings that go from sci-fi novels to Bldgblog Book: Architectural Conjecture, Urban Speculation, Landscape Futures and Thinking: Objects - Contemporary Approaches to Product Design. The website of the project also contains links to all the research papers and articles that fed the 4 fictional futures.
General views of the exhibition:
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm (that's London time.)
My guest tomorrow will be Patrick Stevenson-Keating, a designer who creates objects and experiences that communicate and make the most sophisticated theories in physics more tangible.
We will be talking about some of the objects he designed. Starting with the Quantum Parallelograph which explores the possibility of alternate realities and encourages people to discover their own alternative lives. We will also discuss the world's first handmade particle accelerator which Patrick crafted using hand-blown glass bulbs, a pump, a voltage of 45,000V and electrode. The device helps us understand better what the much fussed about Large Hadron Collider is all about.
Patrick Stevenson-Keating has graduated from the Dundee Product Design course, and he is now running his independent studio practice in Shoreditch as well as working as an associate at international design firm Superflux.
"A labourer over the course of an 8-hour day can sustain an average output of about 75 watts." (Marks' Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers.)
If 75 Watt had to be reduced to a brief paragraph, it would be described as a product designed specially by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen to be manufactured in China. Its unique function is to choreograph a dance of assembly line workers.
75 Watt seeks to explore the nature of mass-manufacturing products on various scales; from the geo-political context of the labour fragmented into minute, predictable gestures to the bio-political condition of the human body on the assembly line.
Engineering logic has reduced the factory labourer to a man-machine, through scientific management of every single movement. By shifting the purpose of the labourer's actions from the efficient production of objects to the performance of choreographed acts, mechanical movement is reinterpreted into the most human form of motion: dance. What is the value of this artefact that only exists to support the performance of its own creation? And as the product dictates the movement, does it become the subject, rendering the worker the object?
The work references many theoretical essays about capitalism, work management and industrialization. It also directly alludes to Frank and Lilian Gilbreth's use of time lapse photography to study and subsequently cut back on workers' superfluous motions. The images they created in their research are called chronocyclographs. A camera was attached to a timing device and photographs were taken of workers performing various tasks. The motion paths were traced by small lamps fastened to the worker's head, hands and fingers. With the technique, a complete work cycle could be reduced to the shortest and most efficient sequence of gestures.
The work began with a research trip in September 2011 to study the movements of production in various factories and assembly plants in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Back in London, Cohen and Van Balen collaborated with dancer and choreographer Alexander Whitley to design the product. All the parts of the final objects were then manufactured in China and early March 2013, Cohen and Van Balen flew back to China to film the assembly/dance in Zhongshan.
And because i never let a good project pass before my eyes without attempting to get at least a quick interview...
Hi Tuur! What drove the shape of the final object? Or is this a random shape meant to evoke modern electronic devices?
The final object's only function is to choreograph its own assembly: all of the dimensions, components and materials are designed to create specific movements when they're put together. The starting point in this process was a research trip in 2011, when we spent time in various factories around Shenzhen and Guangzhou to study the movements of production.
I was surprised to read that you designed the product together with a choreographer in London. How did he contribute to the design of the object?
We worked with choreographer Alexander Whitley to develop the design of the object through multiple iterations of making and dancing. Alexander is a fellow at the Royal Ballet so we were using the ballet studios in the Royal Opera House to test the models we made with ballet dancers. The dance of the assembly inspired the next iteration of the object and vice versa.
We wanted to re-appropriate the processes of mass-manufacturing that dictate the logic with which these products are made. And those are processes we are all inherently connected to, through the products we use every day.
How easy was it to convince the factory managers to let you organize this ballet? How about the people working in the factory line? Were they eager to participate? How did you explain them their role and the reason why you wanted to shoot the film?
Finding the right factory in China where we could perform (and film) the assembly turned out to be one of the biggest challenges of making this work. Exactly because of that logic of mass-manufacturing, every minute on an assembly line is worth a lot of money and in contrast with our budgets. Eventually, we were lucky to find a culturally minded factory manager who after some Chinese business dinner rituals could be convinced to collaborate.
It didn't take much time for the factory labourers to engage with the work. Most of them are young and keen; they didn't necessarily choose to become factory workers, neither will they be all their lives. We used their experience to organise final aspects of the assembly, like aligning the timings of different steps.
I'm also interested in how you made the final film: was it the result of many rehearsal? Or were the workers also half-improvising there some improvisation?
Because all the parts and components are also made in China, we spent a long time preparing the filming. We only had a few days for the actual filming of the assembly, with one day of rehearsal. Alexander, the choreographer, was there too to finalise, teach and oversee the choreography. Mass-manufacturing is no place for improvisation.
Related activities for the Chinese factories: Cao Fei's Whose Utopia? video fairy-tale, shot at OSRAM China Lighting Ltd. factory in the Pearl River Delta, shows the workers endlessly repeating the same gestures: they insert tiny filaments into delicate light bulbs, they test then pack them into boxes. Then there's Lisa Ma who sent factory workers in strawberry fields and Jeremy Hutchison who asked factory workers to make him faulty goods.
Available on Amazon USA. Sorry, I couldn't find it on amazon UK.
Book Description: The "Unpleasant Design" book is a collection of different research approaches to a phenomenon experienced by all of us. Unpleasant design is a global fashion with many examples to be found across cities worldwide, manifested in the form of "silent agents" that take care of behaviour in public space, without the explicit presence of authorities. Photographs, essays and case studies of unpleasant urban spaces, urban furniture and communication strategies reveal this pervasive phenomenon. With contributions by Adam Rothstein, Francesco Morace and Heather Stewart Feldman, Vladan Jeremic, Dan Lockton, Yasmine Abbas, Gilles Paté, Adam Harvey and many others, the book is in an attempt to recognise this nascent discipline within contemporary design taxonomies.
Unpleasant Design landed on my doorsteps a few days ago. I opened the envelope, grabbed the book and uttered a loud "Who's the idiot who designed this?!?" because the sleeve around the cover was made of sandpaper. Sandpaper!
I then read the title of the book and had to admit that it was a very clever idea.
Each of us has met examples of unpleasant design as we go through the city. The bench that is uncomfortable to sit on for more than 10 minutes, the trash can specially designed so that you can't sit on it nor stuff big bag of garbage inside, the anti-sticker coating on lamp posts, etc. I guess most of us don't really pay attention but they do coerce us to use the city in a prescribed, restricted way. And then there's unpleasant design for the unhappy few: benches with armrests in the middle so that the homeless can't lay down and sleep on it, blue lights in bathrooms and tunnels preventing drug users to spot their veins, an aluminium bar with spikes on it found in corners of buildings and alleys that is angled so that pee would end on your feet (a popular design in The Netherlands apparently), structures to remind pigeons that they are not welcome in town, or CCTV cameras that target specific race and age groups. And of course, there's that notorious mosquito device.
Unpleasant Design dresses the portraits of bullying urban furniture, looks at the specific strategies behind its design, comments on the use and control of public and semi-public spaces. After having had the book in your sandpapered hands, you won't look at your city with the same eyes, i'm sure.
The book documents and casts a critical eye on design motivated by policies of exclusion but, and that's what makes the book such an inspiring lecture, it also looks at how individuals, artists, activists are responding to urban unpleasantness.
Authors Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic have spent over a year researching forms of social unpleasantness, taking photos wherever they went, writing down ideas and talking with people who are also denouncing and resisting unpleasant design. The resulting essays and interviews are enclosed in the book. Among my favourite are: Survival Group's photos and comments about Anti-Sites (the spaces designed to prevent homeless people or simply weary passersby to sit down and have a rest), Vladan Jeremic's look at the hidden politics of garbage removal in Belgrade, an interview with the insightful and witty urban hacktivist Florian Rivière, a discussion with 'neo-nomad' Yasmine Abbas, another one with Dan Lockton of Design with Intent, the interview with Gilles Paté, the 'fakir' of urban spaces, etc. Add to that, plenty of case studies, examples of artistic devices and ideas that create and fight unpleasant design but also the outcome of a competition about unpleasant design.
Two of the winning projects of the Unpleasant Design competition:
A maze lock for public toilets, bars and restaurants to avoid drunkards entering the toilet and passing out or damaging the property.
SI8DO is a social-integration urban furniture designed to improve the working conditions of immigrants who work at the traffic lights selling tissues.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired tonight.
My guest at Resonance today is Austin Houldsworth, a young designer with whom we are going to discuss money, its physical disappearance and the financial crimes that could be committed within a completely electronic marketplace.
As you might remember from a post i wrote a couple of weeks ago about his project Crime Pays, Austin's research explores the near future possibility of living in an entirely cashless society. Today, card transactions are on the rise and it is also forecast that at some point over the next few years, mobiles will have overtaken cards to pay for goods and services. But it's not just banks who want you to go cashless, governments also want to see the end of coins and bills because a cashless society is easier to trace and control and they see cash as the currency of the black economy. Now the value of the black economy varies from country to country. In Italy, for example, the black economy is thought to be 27pc of GDP and to fight its expansion, the previous government has decided that any transaction of over 1000 euros has to be handled by card exclusively. Similarly, Spain has recently banned the use of cash in transactions of 2,500 euros or more. And the movement is spreading... Although the black market might be less widespread in the UK, the government is still spending 20 to 40 billion per year combating organised crime.
So we're going to talk more in depth about Crime Pays but also spend some time on a competition Austin is curating at the moment. The Future of Money Design Award has a pretty appetizing theme this year: artists and designers were invited to design a crime for the age of electronic transactions.