This one might be the last project i'll blog from the Design Interactions graduation show.

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Diego Trujillo had two interesting projects in the exhibition. The main one was The Generated Man, a software work that flips around the way Google usually creates a digital persona of web users based on their previous behaviour.

For some abstruse reason, i decided that i'd focus on his other project: the 300 Years Time Bomb. There's something both disquieting and strangely appealing about a bomb engineered to explode in exactly 300 years time. Even if none of us will be there to experience it.

The bomb's timer displays the years in seconds making us question what meaning such a large number holds and changing our dramatic relationship with countdown timers.

The explosive is found 100 years after countdown is initiated, by this time it has acquired historical importance and is put on display in a blast proof building. Several generations await for the moment when it finally goes off in this controlled and safe environment. Time and efficient electronics make the nature of the explosive change from an immediate threat to a spectacular display.

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Extracts of a Q&A with Diego Trujillo:

300 Years Time Bomb sounds like an action movie to me. Not just the title but also the drama, the fact that it is found 100 years after countdown has started. hence two questions:
One: Was cinema an influence at any point in this project?

The project is in fact very influenced by film, specially the design of the bomb as an object. I realized that the image of a bomb most of us have comes from action film. Real explosives are reserved to such a small portion of the population that most of us don't know what they might look like. Hence, common concepts of a bomb rely on fiction.

After I choose a time bomb as an illustration to talk about time, my research focused on the many ways bombs and countdowns are shown on films. This research is broad enough to write a book on. Some of my favourite explosion countdown scenes are from Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage, the card countdown from Last Action Hero and the spherical bomb rolling down the stairs in The Shadow. However I decided for a more standard Die Hard style or 007 explosive, as they tend to be easier to read objects in which the detonation mechanism can be read on the design.

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And Two: The project comes thus with the skeleton of a scenario. Do you want us to fill in the gaps and think about who created this bomb, to what purpose and why wait 300 years? Or did you elaborate a longer scenario?

There was originally a longer scenario. I consciously cut the maker and the purpose of the bomb out of the project as I felt it was getting too political. The same happened when I thought who would make a building to display it. The risk with a detailed scenario was that the focus could shift to a broader debate on terrorism, warfare, politics and economics rather then time. I feel there are many interesting implications that the existence of such an object would have, but I felt it was more interesting for an audience to imagine them under their own ideological standing rather then run the risk of going off topic.

Why wait 300 years was a question I answered quite thoroughly, but again it added many layers which were hard to fit in a gallery based installation. Several ideological and political stands are represented in architectural structures that do last hundreds of years. To a radical mind, many of these buildings would represent a threat to future generations. Another scenario would be manufacturing a perfect crime, if the explosive goes off after the maker has died and has been forgotten then there isn't even a suspect. Once more I felt that these two scenarios could be projects on their own and that there were enough elements for people to make up their own stories.

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Sorry for the silly questions but is this a working prototype?

As much as humans enjoy seeing things blow up, this is not a working prototype. I don't have the knowledge or materials required to make a real explosive. I do like that it is convincing enough for this question to get asked though.


What will happen to the time bomb after the show, are you planning to keep it at your house? put it in a super safe place in case an accident happens? (i guess this question makes sense only if you answer 'yes' to the previous question.)

I will keep it in my house. Since it is not a working bomb I am not worried about accidents. However, the home I will store it in is in Mexico City meaning that getting it on an air plane could get a bit tricky, I still have to figure that out.

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I suspect that as an interactions designer you're quite comfortable with working with electronics. But with this time bomb, you had to think extra long term. Pieces of electronics are usually not meant to last more than a few years or decades in some cases. So did you change anything in the way you worked, the materials you used, knowing it would have to last 300 years?

This was the thing I spent the most time with. I had to make electronics that would at least be perceived to last 300 years. The first thing I thought about was the battery (represented by a glass cylinder filled with black liquid). I found an experimental battery being developed at MIT called Cambridge Crude which is supposed to be efficient at storing and delivering electricity.

Then I thought about the display. This is where most of the attention would be as this is where the concept of the project is represented. I had to redesign the standard 7-segment display in a way that it would be read as energy efficient for my scenario to be plausible. I started designing a typeface based on it being energy efficient rather than readable or elegant.

When I started looking for materials to manufacture this, I came across organic LEDs (OLEDs) which are very energy efficient and can be printed in any shape. They are however still very experimental technology. By chance, I met with people from Polyphotonix, a U.K. based OLED company that sponsored and manufactured the display. They made all the individual panels for it by printing the OLED compounds onto conductive glass, this was particularly hard to connect as glass cannot be soldered and I had to come up with a mechanical way of getting electricity to the glass.

The nice thing about using custom made OLEDs is that they are very different from any existing display. Not being a standard part, no one really knows how long they'll last so the scenario becomes plausible as a result of looking at a new technology that people aren't used to seeing.

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Your text says "The bomb's timer displays the years in seconds making us question what meaning such a large number holds and changing our dramatic relationship with countdown timers." could you explain in more details what you mean by that?

Being heavily influenced by action films, I realized that any countdown timer has a dramatic element to it. That was the first thing I explored when I thought of the bomb, how will the suspense hold for so long? That would be the first effect very long lasting electronics would have on this system. I made a short animated video early in the project to explore how that 5-4-3-2-1 moment would collapse when the countdown has a massive number on display.

Thanks Diego!
All images courtesy DIego Trujillo.

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Question of the month: How often has that ugly toaster appeared on my homepage?

This is already the 8th episode of the art and science show i've been recording for ResonanceFM.

This week i'm talking to speculative designer Thomas Thwaites. We will discuss that toaster of course but we also look at some of his other projects. In particular, Unlikely Objects: Products of a Counterfactual History of Science, a work that explore what our scientific knowledge would have been like had the Darwinian revolution never happened.

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The radio show is broadcast today Monday 9nd July at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course we have podcasts (i just need to find a good place for them on the blog.)

I hope you like it!

7th episode of the art and science show i've been recording for ResonanceFM.

Just like last week, i went to Battersea to interview some of the new graduates of the Design Interactions department at RCA.

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Nimbus MkIII - a 'pareidolic robot' that identifies forms and faces in clouds

In order of appearance: Joseph Popper proposes to send one person on a journey into deep space from where they will never return, Neil Usher designed a robot that finds human faces in the clouds, Shing Tat Chung looks at what would happen if traders and estate agents gave free reign to superstition and Tobias Revell talks about the timeline that charts the history of power up to the early 22nd century and how that 24/7 banking ship fits into the picture.

The radio show is broadcast tomorrow Monday 2nd July at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course we have podcasts (i just need to find a good place for them on the blog.)

I hope you like it!

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Elvis's mouse model. 2 clones

One of the most curious, amusing and thought-provoking projects of the Design Interactions graduation show this year asks questions that range from 'What is more important in making us who we are: our genes or the experiences we go through in life?' to Can a mouse be Elvis? and Does buying a pre-owned item gives one the legal right to another individual's genetic data?

The project is called All That I Am and with it, Koby Barhad suggests that we could create an Elvis mouse using a specially-designed set of training cages and 3 online services.

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Installation view

The first online stop is Ebay where the designer bought a hair from Elvis Presley for $22. He sent it to a gene sequencing lab that advertise its services online. The scientists working at the lab are able to identify different behavioural traits (such as sociability, athletic performance, obesity or addiction) from one speck of hair. Koby then sent the data collected about the genes to another lab which is able to produce transgenic mice clones with parallel traits. The result is a mouse that is a genetically cloned model of Elvis.

In parallel to the works performed by these laboratories, Koby has been studying the scientific mouse model environments that have been used on lab mice over the past 100 years. The cages have been designed to study and manipulate psychological aspects of mice.

Koby then made his own cages. But his were intended to reconstruct some of the most influential moments in the life of Elvis. Each of these cages offers a specific environment that is designed to influence the psychology of the mouse and make it closer to Elvis'.

Some of the main themes that the designer identified as being influential in making Elvis are: his close relationship with his mother (and so the mouse is given a mouse companion), being the victim of bullying when he was a child (in this cage, the mouse is submitted to external stimuli that frightens it), the discovery of his talents, becoming a star (features a distorted mirror that makes the mouse appear bigger), the Graceland period (in every place the mouse pokes nose, it gets a positive reaction in the shape of food or toys and keeps filling the cage to the point making it anxious), the army, the death of mum, the divorce from Priscilla are events that are represented by a cage that functions as an isolation chamber. The last cage embodies the last three years of the life of Elvis, when he worked himself to death, that period is represented by a little treadmill at the top of the cages. The mouse would run, run, run and eventually fall down.

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Cage 01- Childhood

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Cage 4 - Commodity (Graceland)

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Cage 06 - Escape (end)

Koby didn't push the project to the point of having a genetically engineered mouse go though all these cages, that would have been far too cruel for the animal but his project do make us wonder if one day it will be possible to enter a new kind of pet shop and ask for a dog, a fish or a cat that no only has the same genetic traits as a pop icon or a historical figure but also behaves like them.

I had many questions for Koby when i met him at the show, here are the two that i later submitted him via email:

Hi Koby! Did you think of the ethical aspects of manipulating a mouse through this series of experiences that reflect the life of a celebrity? Or more generally of having one day the possibility of 'creating' a dog through a series of experiences so that it will behave like Madonna or Lady Di?

I think that the distance between producing purebred animals like dogs and cats and a "Elvis mouse" is unfortunately not to far. In approximately 70 years of experiment - Dmitry K. Belyaev showed how we, by selection, made a domestic dog out of an aggressive wild fox. I think that the only different with making genetically modified pets to fill some human needs (loneliness, compassion, social class etc. or pure entertainment ) is the time it takes.

Of course to my perception both are distorted and equally unethical, but what is more interesting to me is that by creating something like a "Madonna dog" we might develop bigger problems. In a society that imitate it's celebrity models, having your own living model of Madonna might start blur the borders between the two. Madonna as a model vs. Madonna's model. And this is, for me, the most important ethical question that seats in the heart of this project: Do we become our models or do we make them to become ourselves?.

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To develop your project, you contacted several scientific advisers. How did they react to your idea of making an Elvis mouse through genetic manipulation and a series of experiences that mirror the most significant moments of the life of Elvis?
And did they have their own answers to the questions your work raises? Do they feel for example, that genes are far more crucial than the experiences we go through in life to making us who we are?

All the scientists I was in touch with made a clear distinction between the scientific aspects of the project and the philosophical and entertaining qualities of it. For scientists, making an Elvis Presley mouse model is just a way to play or communicate some possibilities or processes but it has nothing to do with fixing a "serious" human problem. Some looked at the Elvis model and were amazed to see models that they have been working with, making them re-think and wonder for a short second...

The project takes advantage of different uncertainties to produce what seem to be a "fact", so all the answers were left open. In terms of the legal aspect of owning a DNA they didn't want to take any chance - In a lab you cannot use human DNA without his agreement. But as a lawful owner of one of Elvis Presley's hairs I would argue that I should make this decision. As for the Nature Nurture issue, It is an endless loop of debates that no one can give a clear and satisfying answer. For example, one of the scientists I worked with told me of a talk she had with a tennis instructor after our experiment showed that "Patient X" didn't have the ability to be an athlete (ACTN3 gene). The Tennis instructor insisted that anyone can be a great athlete if they'll make the effort, and she, looking at the molecular side of it said that he can try but the physiology would allow it. The work is a reflection of this never ending battle between genetic, epigenetic, psychology and circumstances.

Thanks Koby!

And because i believe that no one will ever be as cool as Elvis...

All images courtesy Koby Barhad.
The works of Design Interactions graduates remain on view at the The RCA show at the Battersea location (see map) until 1 July (closed 29 June.)

6th episode of the art and science show i've been recording for ResonanceFM.

For this episode, i went to Battersea to interview the new graduates of RCA's Design Interactions. The department has 16 graduates this year. Each graduate is showing 1, 2 or even 3 works in the exhibition. I selected only a handful of them which i introduce briefly before letting the graduates give more details about their project.

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In order of appearance: Koby Barhad will talk gene sequencing and Elvis Presley (more about that project in the coming days), Rapahel Kim is still working with rotifers but this time he designed a farm for them, Ai Hasegawa talks about the next frontier for Japanese love hotels and Angela Bracco who is from Design Products (platform 13) is of course answering my questions about If You Can Smell It It Has Mass.

The radio show broadcasts today Monday 25 June at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course we have podcasts (i just need to find a good place for them on the blog.)

I hope you like it!

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Lisa Ma is interested in the fringes of society. From the ladies who are mad about cats to the communities campaigning to stop the extension of Heathrow Airport. Lisa is a designer and her role is to create platforms of engagement with these groups which are otherwise ignored by society.

One of her latest projects drove her to a joystick factory located in one of the suburbs of Shenzhen. She spent several weeks with the factory workers, sleeping in dorms, sharing their meals in the canteen, making friends.

Because most of these young factory workers come from a farming background and because joysticks might very well become obsolete soon, she proposed to the factory owners that they'd allow the joystick makers to work part-time in a nearby farm. She called the experiment Farmification - using farming to keep the factory community together when work dwindles.

Almost everything about the project intrigued me. So i asked the designer to give us more details about Farmification:

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Hi LIsa! In your video you say that there are more than 230 million Chinese migrant workers? Why do you think we know so little about them? Is it because we prefer not to know about who they are and how they live? Or is it because it is difficult for an outsider to gain access to these factories?

We tend to be conscious of Chinese factory workers as a working mass. For example ABC's "Monday morning, at the Foxconn's recruiting centre over 3000 people have been lined up, desperate to work for Apple's biggest supplier", we hear about the impressive scale rather than relate to the workers as humans. When journalists write about factory salaries they are describing these workers in terms of economic values. Focusing on sensationalist extremes makes the workers difficult for us to relate to on a human scale and distances them, whereas I look into the workers' daily lives and highlight their mundane events to make them more emotionally accessible for the viewers.

The manufacturing of our products is really a very secretive process. We are starting to grow a consciousness about material and ecological costs in the items that we use but there's a huge part of how they are made that is still in the shade. The recent Foxconn stories have brought more attention to this but there are other examples of how the story of manufacturing affects consumption:

-In 2011, a luxury Italian furniture company called Davinci caused outrage in Chinese customers when it was exposed that their 'imported' products was in fact made in China. "By spending a day in the bonded zone, the furniture had changed from being classed as domestically produced" to being labelled as Italian-made." Robert Olsen, Forbes, 1/05/2012.

-The value of a workforce demonstrates itself (sadly) in any touristic craft store, where there's a supposed craftsman making spoons out of horn or glass-beaded bracelets for sale. The narrative process of the products becomes the main selling point.

-The village of Dafen specialises in making fake paintings. The process of faking a famous painting has actually become an tourist attraction. The point is that vendors can position their value in the craft process, even if it's faking a famous painting. (Ironically, due to Dafen's success, now other villages reproduce their own 'fake Dafen fakes'.)

One possibility is that products might have a "Responsible Life-Work Balance" standard, similar to the "Free From Animal Testing" labels that we've become accustomed to as consumers. However, this is a very paternalist view of our connection with the manufacturing process. The goal of my research isn't just to dictate what "good practice" should be. The stories I've been revealing hope to show the different threads of problems rather than a single answer that fits all. Through "Farmification", I'm giving a design suggestion that would invite more potential alternatives by making the issue more approachable.

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How did you manage to get access to a joystick factory in China? Was it a long and painful process or did it require little more than an email?

The best explanation is that "contacts of contacts" offered to me to stay in either a handbag factory or a joystick factory. I chose the joystick, largely because it was interesting as a technology on its way out.

It was a no frills package. I was literally sleeping in the dorms and eating with the workers day after day. At one point I was about to be covered in heat rashes and the factory owner, in exchange for some of the photographs, let me have his spare apartment. There were no glass in the windows and the air conditioning leaked over the bed. For a while I was sleeping with a bowl in my bed. On my third week I managed to 'bribe' a production manager, over a meal of duck congee, to link his broadband from the second floor window across to my window on the fifth floor, for 50rmb (£5). That was probably the best investment I've made.

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Ethernet cable

I thought the place was pretty secure, with guard dogs everywhere, but once someone tried to force open my lock in the middle of the night. They took so long that I managed to boil a kettle of water to defend myself. It was like the Three Little Pigs. Luckily for both of us, the door held.

Sometimes I was really questioning if I was doing the right thing but it was worth it. I stayed for about 6 weeks there and after half a year, returned to them with my proposal.

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Girl Dorm

What makes a joystick factory a fringe? Because surely 230 million people cannot be regarded as fringe?

Factory workers are fringe in terms of our awareness and industrial concern, not in terms of scale. There is in fact a huge amount of people in the peripherals of our vision. Joystick factory workers, specifically, are at the fringe of the innovation cycle. They are at the brink of being left out from demand for the products that they manufacture. They are an emerging group of people designed out by technology.

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If I understood correctly, you proposed to the factory owners that workers would work part time at the farm. But what benefit (financial and non financial) is there for the owners of the factory to see their employees desert the building to work in the field?

I'm proposing to encourage debate for all stakeholders, workers, owners, farmers, governments and internationally consumers. Farmification benefits the owners because it increases longevity in their businesses. Farmification would help the community that the owners invested time to build to remain alive through the cycles of a product. For the workers, Farmification stabilises their community as well as deals with their issue of disconnection with their origins. Farming is less alienating than manufacturing because the producers can be directly consumed locally, whereas in factory manufacturing the producers probably can never afford their own product. In addition, factories use shift-work so that the buildings are hardly ever left empty.

In Europe, there is a similar debate of "Farmification" for people to sustain themselves with direct food security. The allotments in the United Kingdom sustained the population against social unrest in the economic depression of in 1930s. Currently there are innovative farming movements with people such as Incredible Edible working to revive farming during the recession and making an impact on British policy-makers.

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Mini shrine where workers burn fake money to their ancestors

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Factory dormitory units

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Watching tv in the street

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Family picnic

What is going on at the farm nowadays? Are people still working there?

The factory is sadly downsizing and the farm is a strawberry field right now. I'm not sure if anyone will appreciate the irony of Strawberry Fields Forever.

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Image: 鸡爪图片 noiawin

Did you find the answer to that question you're asking in the video "who's making all the food now"?

China's importing huge amounts of food internationally. For example, the chicken feet, which are Chinese delicatessens are being imported out of American chicken factories as waste products. This is a nice story of recycling but depending so heavily on importation is not sustainable for the largest population in the world. China's importing grain in record numbers. There is a 500% increase since last year and it's having a huge impact on the price of food for the global community.

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And finally can you tell us a few words about the other fringes you've been exploring since the Farmification project or the fringes that you are planning to explore in the coming months?

Building up from a previous project, Heathrow Heritage, about a local airport community and it's activists, I explored similar possibilities in the airport of Shenzhen. A large proportion of Chinese airspace is militarized and passengers complain of the long delays, often abusing airport staff without giving the problem any further thought. I'm taking stranded passengers out of Shenzhen airport and into the snack streets of the slums surrounding the airport, where the staff live.

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Lunch break around Shenzhen airport

I'm also starting a collaboration with mindfulness coaches Headspace to break the stereotypes of the meditation community.

Finally, I'm finishing off workshops I hosted on The Future of Sex Education in a Beijing Love Hotel. This project investigates what a sexually active generation, that's never had its own sex education, demand of the future generation. As one of the participants in the workshop puts it: "girls learn from their boyfriends and the boys learn from porn". The collaborators and I had to get through every loophole possible, for example, the anti-nudity technology was so crude that Garfield the cartoon cat was banned because of its tanned body. How do these people evolve their own fantasies when their first points of reference are from Western pornography downloaded from illegal cafes?

Thanks Lisa!

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

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