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.

The fourth episode of the art and science show i've been recording for ResonanceFM is about to go live. It broadcasts today Monday 11 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 will have podcasts (still waiting for them.)

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Scrapyard Challenge Junior Noisemaker Kits, 2012

My guest on the show is Dr. Jonah Brucker-Cohen whom i'm sure you all know. Jonah is a researcher, artist, and writer. He is based in New York and received his Ph.D. in the Disruptive Design Team of the Networking and Telecommunications Research Group at Trinity College Dublin. Apart from his work as an artist, Jonah has been teaching in several universities in New York, lecturing internationally, writing essays for magazines focusing on technology and since he is teaching a course called Designing Critical Networks at Parsons in New york, i thought he'd be the perfect guest for a program which covers issues such as social media, subverting network experience, hacking, and internet censorship. We also took the time to focus on some of his own works, from the now legendary Wifi Liberator to Scrapyard Challenge Jr. 555 Noisemaker Kit and America's Got No Talent (two works he developed together with Katherine Moriwaki.)

Visual Storytelling- Inspiring a New Visual Language, edited by Robert Klanten, Sven Ehmann, Floyd Schulze (available on Amazon USAand UK.)

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Publisher Gestalten says: Visual storytelling uses graphic design, infographics, illustration, and photography to convey information in the most elegant, entertaining, and informative way. Today, the creative scope of existing visual storytelling techniques is being expanded to meet the formidable challenge of extracting valuable news, surprising findings, and relevant stories from a daily flood of data head on. Visual Storytelling is the first book to focus solely on contemporary and experimental manifestations of visual forms that can be classified as such. The rich selection of cutting-edge examples featured here is put into context with text features by Andrew Losowsky and interviews with experts including the New York Times, Francesco Franchi, and Golden Section Graphics.

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Francesco Franchi, visualization about military spending and armament

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Clara Kayser-Bril, Nicolas Kayser Bril and Marion Kotlarski, 100 years of world cuisine

Visual Storytelling was the big surprise of the last batch of books that Gestalten kindly shipped to me. I thought that volume would be merely lightweight and amusing but it turned out to be far more striking and informing than expected. Hundreds of works are presented in the book. Yet, there's no redundancy, no boredom, no weakness. It's a perfectly well curated collection of some of the projects that have spread over countless design/graphic design/interaction design blogs over the past couple of years. Some of the works presented are more narrative than others but page after page have brought me revelation and wonder. I must confess that i don't read many design blogs (up to zero actually) so it's probably not much of a challenge to amaze me.

In his introduction, magazine editor and journalist Andrew Losowsky defines 'visual storytelling' as a combination of narrative information and emotional reaction, he charts its history, explains its challenges, its ability to substitute data complexity with order and clarity and rejoices in its total absence of universally accepted rules.

The first part of the book contains interviews with a few creative studios: DensityDesign, Les Graphiquants, Steve Duenes, Antoine Corbineau, Carl Kleiner, Peter Grundy, Jan Schwochow and Francesco Franchi. Franchi is the art director for IL-Intelligence in Lifestyle, the monthly magazine of Il Sole 24 ORE, and his work is particularly arresting. Gestalten TV interviewed him recently:

The second part of the book is entirely left to images and short descriptions. The works range from graphic design to software pieces to installations to wall paintings and they are distributed over 5 themes: News, Science, Geography, Modern World and Sport.

Now for a quick selection of some of the works i discovered in Visual Storytelling:

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Antoine Corbineau, OPS2 - Almanach season's greetings 2011 poster

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MELBOURNE PUBLIC Restaurant

Roland Loesslein's installation, Digging in the Crates, uses modified turntables to navigate dynamic data visualization. The works also uses info graphics and sounds to allow the public to explore Sampling as a production technology of music.

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Digging in the Crates. Photo by Sebastian Buehler

Yuri Suzuki and Masa Kimura's Breakfast Machine is a Rube Goldberg contraption that makes and serves eggs, coffee or tea and a toast with jam.

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Yuri Suzuki and Masa Kimura at work - photography Johannes Abeling

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Yuri Suzuki and Masa Kimura, Breakfast machine

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Yuri Suzuki and Masa Kimura, Breakfast machine

Lang/Bauman gave an urban edge to a traditional village in Switzerland by painting lines on the streets that evoke a subway map.

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Lang/Bauman, Street Painting #5 (Vercorin)

For their film Immaterials: light painting WiFi, Timo Arnall, Jørn Knutsen and Einar Sneve Martinussen built a WiFi rod that pulses based on the strength of a selected wifi network.

Kali Arulpragasam's oversized necklaces pay homage to conflict-torn countries.

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Super Fertile, From the line "Tourism (Terrorism Affects Tourism)"

During 250 weeks, LAMOSCA did an an infographic commentary for newspaper La Vanguardia. Each infographic was inspired by the week's cover theme

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Data 75 - Homicides in Russia per 100 000 inhabitants

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Data 68 - Light efficiency


Wataru Yoshida's mock exhibition posters Composition of Mammals.

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Views inside the book (Images: Gestalten):

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Related book reviews: Visual Complexity, Mapping Patterns of Information and Data Flow 2: Visualizing Information in Graphic Design.

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