On Monday i went all the way to the Royal College of Art's new Battersea buildings to check out the graduation show of Design Interactions. As i'm sure you know by now, the department is exploring design in relationship to the latest technology and scientific developments. This year, however, several projects are dealing with what they call 'big design'. Big design gets to grip with complex systems and large contexts such as global finance and geopolitics. If you remember how much i liked one of the projects from last year, Everything Ends in Chaos by Ilona Gaynor, you'll understand how excited i am to see how ambitious political and socio-economic themes can be approached from a critical design perspective.
Which brings me to this year's 'project from hell'. It's one of my favourite works but it took me ages to half grasp its ramifications and elaborate structure. Tobias Revell has spent the year drawing up a timeline that starts at the end of the Roman Empire and closes in the early 22nd century. The timeline unravels the history of power in whatever form it takes. Most historical timelines will only highlight the financial crashes, the wars, the major upheavals, the groundbreaking innovations and the revolutions but Revell also takes into account the minor events that might take decades to manifest themselves into something more noticeable.
One of the works Revell is showing at the graduation show illustrates the timeline by zooming on one event of our not-so-distant future. The event is seen at the time as fairly insignificant but it will have huge consequence on the history of the European Union. In fact, it will be one of the motors of its dissolution.
The event takes place in the early 2040s, when an ex-Soviet Arktika class, one of the nuclear powered icebreakers traditionally used for clearing shipping lanes north of Siberia as well as for scientific and recreational expeditions to the Arctic, is recommissioned to host a barely legal experiment in global finance.
The icebreaker would be entirely refitted to welcome highly qualified traders on board and would circle at 88.7 degrees latitude - the heart of the arctic sea. By circumnavigating the world in twenty-four hours, the ship would thus stay in constant contact with trading zones throughout the world.
Such practice would undoubtedly be highly efficient and in Revell's scenario it is indeed a phenomenal success. The Arktika proved that growth in trade could be sustained beyond state regulation with lower risk due to its detachment from public and welfare infrastructure. In doing so it had brought support to the idea of a hyper-libertarian Europe.
The sheer volume of trade made possible by the continuous, rapid and deregulated system of the Arktika's movements and its elite traders invalidated economic theories of zero-sum growth in the eyes of the Equestrian Councils and business leaders - encouraging decades of power shifts throughout the financially developed world.
In September 2048, after almost a decade of transitional process, the European Equestrian Council was granted the control over European Parliamentary directives and began the process of turning Europe into a successful transnational business entity and away from historic national divisions. The Arktika was seen as a key component in this process. By 2055 - when China collapsed - there were no sovereign currencies or indeed Euros left in the European Equestrian Union.
At this stage, dear reader, i suspect that you've either left the building in horror at the third paragraph or have at least as many questions as i have for Tobias:
Hi Tobias! Your project 88.7 is set in the early 2040, just before the European Union and its nation-states are dissolved and become a uniform 'European Equestrian Union". Could you briefly sum up how the Equestrian Council comes into existence?
The original Equestrian Councils were a short-lived institution of the Roman republic - a council of business leaders with the right to influence and even veto government policy if it was felt it might damage merchant interests. In the not-too-distant future, Europe faces a continued dialectic struggle between the nature of high-finance and national economies so in 2025 Italy re-establishes its own Equestrian Council. Italy and notably Austria have uniquely insular economies, they're pretty self-sustainable but also economically jealous so I see them as a potential flashpoint for future economic progression.
The idea of the Equestrian Council begins the end of nation-states as global actors. I was inspired by something I read around 2008 about how states are the worst bodies to be put in charge of economies because they only know how to spend money, not make it and so there's no way to sustain growth if something that is expert in gathering rolling debt is in charge of regulating the flow of money. Not that I fully buy into that.
What i'd need more explanation about is how the right to trade has changed? You told me that right now, one has to be registered in a particular nation and only trade within that nation, right? So how has the scenario changed at the time of 88.7? Why is it allowed to trade 'transnationally'? And to do so in the Arctic?
I don't see it as a big change. It would be something infinitesimal, slipped under the mat at late-night sessions of senates and parliaments in a process that takes place over years. There are very few huge events that are themselves 'turning points' in history, more often they come after the fact. For example, the fall of the Berlin Wall was endemic of the crumbling power structure in the USSR, not the other way round. This legal shift was again inspired by real life events such as the relatively silent repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 that led to an explosion of complex high-risk instruments and the 2008 crisis.
So I see it as a loophole, it would be something that maybe no-one would explicitly legalise or even consider. There was a great defence from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs when the whole Vodafone tax-avoidance thing surfaced. HMRC pointed out that Vodafone had hundreds of world-class high paid tax-law experts on their team while HMRC was headed by a couple of guys with classics degrees from Oxford. So, it's a thin screen. In legal terms, between now and then, and no-one will notice when it's broken through until long after it has happened.
How has the boat been retrofitted? With special technology for trading or just with space, comfort and entertainment for traders?
Actually, that's one of the most thorough things and one of the least noticeable. I rigorously re-designed the ship based on real plans of the original Arktika fleet. Of course, it has a trading floor and server space, which is very high-tech since the entire operation is about brevity and intensity of trade, but the traders don't live in comfort. To me, this is an industrial operation.
In social terms I can see traders and bankers as our new livestock (and populist scapegoats.) But again, the 'greed' and brutality of high finance is not symptomatic of itself. It's like that because in the seventies and eighties, we - or our parents - wanted credit, growth, houses, holidays and cars we couldn't afford without paying the labour cost. So, the traders are a resource for this growth, just like an oil well or a herd of cattle and the ship treats them like that, they have little space, are intensely 'milked' for their risk-taking abilities and then are shipped off - back to pasture in the real world until they're called in again. They might not sleep for weeks and they willingly subject their bodies and minds to colossal amounts of strain because they get a hit from the trade in neuro-biological terms and the boat makes money.
Now North Korea remains under the same regime, right? Except this time it is with the benediction of the UNESCO that calls it a World Intangible Heritage. Why would the traders on the Arktika be such fans of the Arirang Mass Games, the yearly festival of giga-choreography dedicated to the regime?
It's an ideological clash. I suppose this is quite a personal part - I'm fascinated by 'alternate' regimes, especially socialist autocracies but I am especially deeply obsessed by North Korea. In 'western' or developed social economies we suffer from a resource shortage in attention. There are so many disparate demands on our attention - attention that represents both purchasing and labour power that we're nearly at a ceiling beyond which there is no more economic acting an individual can physically perform in their lives. Of course, making processes faster such as transactions and digitising product is helping but ultimately there are just too many things to do and look at. North Korea is the total opposite, in a way it's much like the Roman Empire in social economic terms, in that it is everything. A resident of North Korea only has one body to answer to, work for and gain from and that is the state.
So, in a world where states are beginning to or have already dissolved, where individual competitiveness is encouraged and we answer to less and less socially higher powers I imagine the idea of seeing two million perfectly choreographed performers in devotion (staged or genuine) to a common cause to be hypnotising - much like a flotilla of boats on the Thames, military parades, even ballets.
The traders on the Arktika are the peak of the hyper-libertarian Equestrian ideology while North Korea represents its opposite - the national project, the common homogeny, social harmony, etc. Even if it is forced at gunpoint. In the scenario investment from Japanese and South Korean media companies build the stadium and broadcast the games, much as is already happening in their exclusive economic zones and the Egyptian hotel construction work.
In which currency are they trading?
They're on the cusp of the changeover of currency. Currency is just a measure of trust or creditability, so it could be anything. The dissolution of states begins the collapse of the idea of sovereign currency - trust in nations - and it turns to the alternative global construct that guarantees growth overall which could be futures. So they use futures contracts which are derivatives of potential 'things that might happen' as a currency - if you want to call it that.
Your text mentions the intensity of risk undertaken by traders on board. Which risks are they taking that today's traders are not taking?
The same risks are faster, greater in value and more intense. Just like growing industrialisation - same product but more, faster, better. Technology can ramp up trade to the speed of light but it can't take risks. Trade needs the human factor - the intuition and guile that involves making trades. Computers can calculate perfectly but that, in fact, makes machines poor traders. The traders on the Arktika deal with a greater torrent of activity enabled by activity, they take more risks, with greater consequences more regularly. This the only way to guarantee growth, the one thing every human economy is obsessed with.
Finally, i'm very curious about the way you chose to present the work, using texts that detail the life and feelings of various characters involved at various levels in this transnational trading. Why did you chose to present the project through their voices? Did you write the texts yourself?
I wrote everything myself, I'm very comfortable with writing and all the stories as well as more intensive expositions on the economic theories were all written in parallel with the research and development of the project over the last year or more.
It's very hard to present huge, complex systems. In the mind or in the pub over a few drinks they can be beautiful and elegant as well as easy to explain, but communicating that without just standing and talking is very hard. I was talking with Ilona Gaynor, a graduate from last year who had a similar problem with presenting and a similar admiration of systems and we agreed that anyone who understood the financial crisis of 2008 would never criticise it because it was so elegant. But how can anyone present that understanding quickly and simply without talking it through step-by-step? Presenting such an intuitive understanding of the levels and dimensions of these events, their precursors and their systems is very hard.
I think by starting at the individual level, you can begin to draw strands from how one person sees and acts in this system and begin to thread it through the other artefacts, perhaps encouraging understanding of their place in them. When we talk about things like economics and finance we tend to nod to systems and constructs and then scapegoat individuals or point the finger. But the system and the individuals are not mutually exclusive.
Aesthetically, the stories lend the project a literary edge which makes it feel more real to me. When a character is talking about the way steam curls off above the ice from vents on the ship it's more real to me than any rendering and I think a much more powerful way of engaging with these huge ideas than often charts and diagrams can be.
Publisher The University of Chicago Press Books writes: There is nowhere else in the world quite like Chungking Mansions, a dilapidated seventeen-story commercial and residential structure in the heart of Hong Kong's tourist district. A remarkably motley group of people call the building home; Pakistani phone stall operators, Chinese guesthouse workers, Nepalese heroin addicts, Indonesian sex workers, and traders and asylum seekers from all over Asia and Africa live and work there--even backpacking tourists rent rooms. In short, it is possibly the most globalized spot on the planet.
But as Ghetto at the Center of the World shows us, a trip to Chungking Mansions reveals a far less glamorous side of globalization. A world away from the gleaming headquarters of multinational corporations, Chungking Mansions is emblematic of the way globalization actually works for most of the world's people.
Gordon Mathews's compendium of riveting stories enthralls and instructs in equal measure, making Ghetto at the Center of the World not just a fascinating tour of a singular place but also a peek into the future of life on our shrinking planet.
Chungking Mansions inspired Wong Kar Wai's Chunking Express movie. It is also where my literary idol of the moment, Harry Hole, is found smoking opium at the beginning of The Leopard. Chungking Mansions is a derelict 17 storeys high building located in one of the busiest areas of Hong Kong. It offers dirt cheap accommodation for tourists and traders, shops selling clothes, souvenirs or small electronics (copies and originals), curry restaurants, foreign exchange offices and other services. Mathews calls it "an island of otherness in Hong Kong." A place that Chinese people find to seedy to enter, where the lingua franca is english and an informal gathering place for ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, particularly South Asians and Africans in search of a better (or rather richer) life.
The book gives a perspective on globalization i had never heard about before. Not only because it talks about globalization from an anthropologist's point of view but also because it focuses on what Matthews calls "low-end globalisation" of which Chungking Mansions is a central node. The protagonists of low-end globalisation are relatively small fry compared to the corporations we usually associate with the word 'globalization.' They are traders coming from Sub-Sahara African countries who carry in their suitcases the goods they buy from Chinese manufacturers (the author calculated that a trader can fit 250 to 300 mobile phone within an airline baggage allowance), hoping to make a big profit from it back in their home country, once they have paid the necessary taxes and bribes at customs. Or they are young people from Kidderpore in Kolkota who land in Hong Kong because the ticket fare to the city is cheaper than any other destination where they could find work. They arrive with sari and basmati rice in their suitcase, stay on extended tourist visa, work for pitiful wages in a curry house and go back home with clothes to sell in their neighbourhood. In Hong Kong, these traders and illegal workers struggle to buy a Cup Noodle at the nearest 7-Eleven. Back in their home country, they are regarded as successful members of the middle-class or upper-class.
In "low-end globalisation", people still use cash and favour face-to-face business.
Whether they are traders, shop owners, asylum seekers, prostitutes, or temporary workers, these people end up in Chungking Mansions because it offers cheap accommodation, because it is located in a city-state that doesn't have strict visa rules and because Hong Kong is a gateway towards Southern China where mobile phones and textiles are manufactured at low prices.
Matthews explores the building through its history and location, the groups of people living there, the goods that pass through it, the laws that govern (with much laxity) the transactions taking place in the building. The final chapter speculates on the future of Chungking Mansions.
Matthews's passion for Chungking Mansions and the people that inhabit it is contagious. I read the book from cover to cover over the weekend. His writing is clear, entertaining, and it never verges on the intimidatingly academic. The personal stories collected from the traders, shopkeepers, asylum-seekers and other people who pass through the building make the book even more engaging.
"They [superstitions] give us a feeling of control over uncertainty and so it might be predicted that the current feeling of instability in the world would create an increase in superstition," said Prof. Richard Wiseman in 2003, just before launching his 'UK Superstition Survey'. The research demonstrated that levels of superstition in the UK were surprisingly high, even among people with a scientific background (full details in the PDF.)
In this time of crisis and confusion, are we going to resort more than ever to superstition and irrationality in order to get back an illusion of control? The project that Shing-Tat Chung was showing at the work in progress show of Design Interactions, explores a world in which beliefs and rituals emerge from the seemingly harmless private sphere to infect larger and more complex public systems. In times of uncertainty will the population demand an alternative logic to be implemented? This project imagines a stock market in which superstitions abound, producing uncanny algorithms and illogical bankers attired in green suit and Feng-Shui briefcases.
Questions to the designer:
I found surprising that your project associate people working in the Stock Exchange with superstition. I thought they were the only people who had control these days. What triggered this interest in 'illogical bankers'?
We're at our most superstitious in times of uncertainty, as we are hardwired to gain control of a situation by recognising patterns, even if they ignore current rationale. When I started researching superstition, I started to concentrate on looking at contextualising my project in scenarios that would best suit my project. This drew me to the stock market and thus bankers. Due to the high levels of instability and vast amounts of money at risk, it seemed the ideal economy to play out my project.
The stock market is in essence a breeding ground for superstition. We have this view that trading is done the rational way, almost emotionless, and then there is this whole other part that is hidden in the private sphere of the banker or trader, such as being buried in their lucky trading jacket or large hedge funds using financial astrology as a source of advice.
One of my favourite researched rituals is a 'reputable' trader who establishes his starting trading position based on the nipple direction of the Sun's page 3 model (up or down). Whilst these facts may be fun and whimsical, what really interests me is when these irrational beliefs start to emerge and become implicated into more cemented systems. For example, 70% of the largest lift supplier's orders, request that the number 13 is removed. So in question, how far will it go, and how far do we demand such beliefs to be implemented? What I want to do is extract these irrationalness and redesign a system which is governed by alternative beliefs. One in which all these beliefs that exist on a private level emerge to infect larger systems. In effect creating this parallel stock market.
With the economic and financial systems collapsing, will we seek an alternative logic? One in which will give us illogical bankers.
Do you think people would trust them more (or at least see them in a more favourable light) if they knew that bankers' decisions are influenced by superstition and illogical elements?
Maybe we would see them as more human and as a result vulnerable. However I think it says a lot more about us in general. The stock market is just another structure among many in which decisions are much more influenced by superstition. The same with extreme fishing, or even sports. That's why a lot of sports stars or even politicians deploy more superstitions than average.
In the early 20th Century, the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski noted that islanders in the pacific who fished in 'safe zones' carried out their jobs with a high level of rational expertise. However the fisherman who ventured off beyond the coral reef displayed many superstitious rituals and ceremonies to invoke magical powers for safety and protection. So it would seem reasonable that bankers would use more irrationalities. What I want to see is what happens when they solely use illogical elements.
Can you talk to us about the Power of 8 suit? Why the number 8? And what do you mean by "The suit provides the owner with the comfort that even the process of the making of the suit has accommodated relevant superstitions'?
The idea was to begin to question what, why and how the stock market is run. What bankers and traders wear, the colours, the organisation. My first objective was to imagine what it may look like visually, would all the bankers wear green because green represents a rise in the market. However, I wanted to take this a bit further, so working with a pattern cutter, we came up with a pattern that had all its dimensions tailored towards a multiple of the number 8 (cm). Whilst it may look like a regular suit, the cuffs are in fact a bit wider than normal, the sleeves stretch out a bit more than usual.
Why I used the number 8? Well 8 is a lucky number in Asia. (Translates as sudden fortune and prosperity). A number 8 plate in Hong Kong sold for around half a million pounds, where as the Beijing Olympics started on 8.2008 on the eighth hour, eighth minute and eighth second. Part of the project is not only to critique certain collective beliefs but also to see how far we demand them to become implanted and that's where the comment comes in. To what extent do we take our beliefs. Do we require that the current logic in manufacturing is replaced with alternative ones? So if all the measurements of products had to abide to the number 8, what would our reality shape to look like?
If I was rich and superstitious and someone came up with the proposal to convert the all my belongings to be tailored towards 8, I would probably go for it.
One of the experiments of Superstitious Thoughts involves an Uncanny Algorithm. What is this algorithm about? And what do people invest in when they invest in this Uncanny Algorithm?
The Uncanny Algorithm is a trading algorithm. One that is currently in stage 1, which is the call for investment and the creation of the actual algorithm. The algorithm will use a trading platform and buy and sell shares with the investors money. However, rather than using current rationale, the algorithm will use superstition as its principle logic. The rules or logic will be governed by collective beliefs such as the fear of the number 13. Buying and selling on a collection of numerological rules (that don't clash). Whilst it will acknowledge collective superstitions, it will also generate its own. Hopefully it will recognise hidden patterns whilst it is trading. So upon a successful trade it will seek for hidden 'charms'. Speculating a bit here, but if I could link this pattern recognition with, for example, the BBC sports webpage, it could potentially start to develop superstitions that are related to the performance, of say, Manchester United. It will then use this to govern how it trades. Or much more simply, if it made a successful trade at a certain time, it may consider the numbers in this time lucky and start computing these as the logic to trading.
So what will happen is that the algorithm will happily trade shares for one year, after this period, the result, whether it has lost or won money will be returned to the investor.
During the trading year, I hope to release quarterlies (reports) and AGMs where investors can attempt to raise trading performance supernaturally. At this very moment, £686 had been invested.
Essentially, what people are investing in is superstition. The experiment, rather than a tool to make money, is more about moving people into the thought space that an algorithm could operate with a very humane way of working and to also act as a live social experiment. As an experiment, that is why I am accepting investments as low as two pounds.
How do you feng-shui a briefcase?
I like the term 'to feng-shui'. Maybe I'll use that more. What I was trying to be careful with, was not to embody the briefcase with, all aspects of superstitions, but to sub divide beliefs into more manageable slices. Feng-Shui has a lot of rules to abide to. So I didn't want to use them all in one go (my project would be over in a flash). In this case, I wanted to take the iconic 'hole in a structure' that channels through chi. It still amazes me when I see those buildings in Asia that have huge holes in the middle of their architecture. Incidentally Feng-Shui is used a lot in businesses, I wonder how you could Feng-Shui a business plan.
Maybe I should go to a specialist and ask to Feng-Shui my thesis.
Did working on this project make you more superstitious than ever?
I would say I am on the half way line. I am pretty rationale, however I like to entertain myself with superstitions. But by working on this project, and unearthing all these wonderful superstitions out there and its effect on systems, it hasn't made me more of a believer, but it has definitely made me admire them more.
Although now that my superstition knowledge has quadrupled and that I now know of more beliefs and rituals, maybe they will slowly or subconsciously affect me.
In fact, I recently found out the time I was born which was 8.18pm. Combine this with 8th Nov 1986 and I am starting to feel pretty lucky.
'The Intel - Cyprus Merger' showed how the world's first merger of a country and a corporation might be possible, and advantageous for both parties. Moreover through the execution of due diligence, stakeholder engagement and communication, how such a merger could be enacted responsibly, and in the best interests of both, or how at least it might appear so.
At first sight, Zoe Papadopoulou''s new project is challenging and absurd, but dig deeper and you'll see how thought provoking it is. This is especially true, in the light of impending economic bailout measures being forced upon Greece, and how the Greek government has indeed found itself looking to corporations to buy assets from the State.
Merger was born in February 2008, in response to a brief at the Royal College of Art on 'The Future of Money' sponsored by Intel's People and Practices Research Group. Zoe reappraised the project for the ongoing Paris Design Week.
Merger, is told through a video in which a fictional character, Anna Rodgers, the director of overseas acquisitions at Mackenzie M&A, presents an overview of how and why the Merger came to be to other interested parties. She also describes how the merged corporation and country have generated economic and democratic benefits to both parties and turned around the fortunes of a nation. The project allows the viewer to ask why Intel might see an opportunity in Cyprus - a small island-state, with strong historic links to Greece, but with a separate economy.
Cyprus decided to take advantage of the EU precedent created by UK's Olympic and Paralympic Act in 2006, which made the words "London 2012" and "2012" protected trademarks, along with the name of the official LOCOG website, and "various derivatives". The Olympics were created in Greece, so Cyprus starts to protect the revenue made from products and services borne out of the inventions of the ancient Greeks.
That's where Intel, which built their revenue in no small part through protecting the Intellectual Property of their developments, intervenes. In this scenario, Intel would bring their expertise and lawyers, and look at every single aspect of modern life (from architecture to urban planning, from language to technological inventions) that borrow from Greek inventions, and claim a bounty from each. In so doing they create a sustained income stream that sees the Cypriots be the exemplar of economic growth, at odds with the fortunes of the rest of Europe.
By highlighting the ease with which the UK Government and the International Olympic Association use their power to protect something that originated in Greece, this project asks, with Intel's might, if the Island of Cyprus could challenge and regain their past glory and wealth.
Not content with protecting revenue, Merger also aims to revisit and update one of the Greek's most widely-adopted inventions - democracy.
Merger highlights the current lack of trust in politicians and in Governments too slow to tackle adequately the significant challenges that countries and their populations face. Surely this lack of responsiveness would not be tolerated in the corporate world. The lady in the video explains that Cypriots didn't want a Prime Minister or a President. They wanted a CEO, a businessman that would run the country like a successful company. I bet the Italians who now have a 'successful businessman' as their head of State would beg Cyprus to be very cautious about their choice.
Merger proposes a Real Time Democracy model that allows Cypriots to track how their Government is doing 24/7 - on a collection of metrics including the share price of Intel - which they now all, each, own a share in. One man, one vote becomes 'one man, one share.'
In the three years since Merger, this project proposed that the Cypriots and Intel have built the world's biggest monument to commemorate their union. The Antikytheran Monument, in the centre of the capital city Nicosia, recognises another Greek invention - the Antikythera Mechanism; the world's first computer designed between 150 and 100 BC to calculate astronomical positions.
This also reveals why Intel has gone to all the effort of merging with a country, that they could buy piece by piece if they had chosen to. In this brave new world, Intel owns the rights to all computers - their entire supply chain and competitors.
With this project, Zoe Papadopoulou questioned, via the power Intel and Cyprus yield as a result, what might be the implications of a "merger" of a corporation and a state. She also invites the public to question if this one day might be possible, or if by stealth it was an inevitable part of our futures.
Finally, the future of this project will be to curate an exhibition based on the evolution of this new national entity that further explores the changes it is likely to undertake in the next 20, 30 or 50 years. This will not only be considered from a design perspective but also a philosophical one with the help of Greek Cultural theorist and essayist Elia Ntaousani.
I've just had a long long day so please don't hold it against me if i take no more than two minutes to copy paste a plea that could help save Dutch new media art institutions. As you might know already, new media art institutions in The Netherlands are threatened with a 100% cut in their structural governmental funding. I believe that Mediamatic is right when they write that "The loss of funding will not only destroy the Dutch infrastructure, but will disrupt the international New Media Arts network as well." These institutions have been generous not only with Dutch media artists but also with artists from all over the world, offering them residencies, inviting them to give talks, to head workshops, to participate to exhibitions and perform in their space.
When the budget cuts for arts and culture are accepted by Parliament on Monday June 27th, all New Media Art institutions in The Netherlands will lose their funding. Institutional support for New Media culture will come to a grinding halt. From 2013 onwards there will be no development platform for New Media Art in The Netherlands. Please help us prevent this from happening by signing the petition. If you have a mailing list or a website, please spread the petition and this information. The loss of funding will not only destroy the Dutch infrastructure, but will disrupt the international New Media Arts network as well.
Sustaining the Dutch infrastructure for New Media Art requires a mere 1% of the national arts budget. Help us prevent this destruction and retain support for New Media Art.
Mediamatic also created infographics that puts arts spending in proportion to lots of other costs in dutch society...
Image on the homepage: Marnix de Nijs, Run Motherfucker Run, 2001-2004.
A couple of weeks ago, while i was visiting him at the School of Design and Crafts at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, Otto von Busch told me about an extraordinary experiment that architect Armin Blasbichler had carried out with 21 of his architecture students at the University of Innsbruck. I didn't get much details, except that Blasbichler's students had been assigned to pick up a bank in the city, study it, identify its Achilles' heel and plan a bank robbery.
The best way to know more about the project was to interview the mastermind behind it...
If i understood the project well, you ran a seminar at the University of Innsbruck where 21 architecture students, the famous "Blasbichlers Twentyone", were given the assignment to study the plans of the bank, spot their weaknesses and then take advantage of them to make a bank robbery in which however, they could not steal money. Is that so? Could you give us a few more details about the project?
The project is the result of a semester-long design research course at the Institute of Design/ Studio1 at the University of Innsbruck. The course was conceived as a laboratory to investigate in the continuing marginalization of the role of the architect, the sheer new mass of young architects produced by Universities trying to find a stand, the potentials of role play and last but not least the bold attempt to run an academic course as a profit oriented business model. For the motivation of a young aspiring architect I would put it a little more dramatic:
"...Yo, we gotta take the power back! Bam! Here's the plan." (Rage Against the Machine,
At first glance the attempt to plan a bank robbery might sound like a post-adolescent prank. But it's not, of course. Such a project claims most of the core competences of an architect. i.e. research and value the site (if of necessity), find out weak/strong aspects, think, imagine, anticipate, sense and develop a concept, sketch, think, design, rethink, reimagine etc., prepare action plan documentation, plan the time schedule, the costs. And well, in this case also an escape plan was asked.
I suspect that you didn't warn the banks about the performance. Wasn't the
The single banks where not advised or involved in the project simply because I wanted to provide an authentic general framework. At some point in the research phase some students came up to me, worried about the fact that they are going to do something illegal. However, the University's legal department approved the project with some formal and privacy restrictions. Any time you put to the test your own imagination of things with the prevailing parameters of the real, things become potentially illegal. Architecture is always illegal.
The results were presented within the context of an exhibition in an art gallery in Innsbruck. That was the moment where bank representatives and safety officers came to see the poster size "emergency plans", for the first time. There was a mixed feeling of incredulity about the feasibility of the plans and at the same time a sense of appreciation for the inventiveness of the authors. Though tailored for specific banks branches in specific locations within specific conditions all plans showed a general validity. As a thank-offering for their involuntary participation to the project they all received a copy of the emergency plans for free, as it wasn't intended as a blackmailing event. But the key question for me was: is this immaterial architecture, the information provided by unsolicited architects, is architecture itself of any monetary value? To my surprise most of the banks appreciated the outcomes and gave a financial contribution. With that money we were able to finance the exhibition, material expenses and partly the expenses for the publication of the book. All in all a leveled risk capital venture.
What did the students steal by the way? Do you have some examples of what they brought back from their break-ins? Any anecdotes about some of the most original/spectacular/curious robberies? Did they get to keep anything in the end?
The students didn't steal anything. Their task was not to steal but to examine and exploit the weak points for their purposes to provide feasible emergency plans. The objectives ranged from assets like time, space, image, future clients, electric power, etc. up to the one student, who celebrates with unbelievable virtuosity the theft of the typical chained ball pen on the counter, an icon of worthlessness and petty-minded communication strategies. In any case, cash money assets were of a subordinate interest. You can find all instructions plans in the publication "Blasbichlers Twentyone".
I'm particularly interested in the result from these performances and researches. A series of plans and a book. i saw a few examples over here but could not see the details. Could you describe the sort of graphics and plans that the students created?
You are talking about number 14 and number 17. These two students have been adopting business models and principles which are written into the genetic code of the banking sector, namely "make money" and "time is money".
Number 17 was, according to the bank officials, the most alarming one as it is achievable with no particular effort. Basically the student steals time. She shows how one can jam a banks activity up to a halt and at the same time bring along consistent losses of money. The effect of this apparently trivial approach is startling and I can't go to enlarge it at this point. Check the book for the "source code"...
One would expect architecture students to build banks, not to rob them. What did the students learn in this process of masterminding bank robberies?
Architecture is much more than designing a building, it's about the making of the imagination. In this sense architecture is more related to the arts and the financial sector than one might think. Banking and architecture are of a kin.
Nowadays i suspect that people have very little sympathy left for banks. Was there any political or ethical reason why you decided to target banks?
You can't do without banks in prevailing global societies. Banks are not the enemy; rather they have become the fortresses of desires, the keeper of dreams, hardly accessible and locked-off from the public, although propagating transparency. From this point of view banks are a rewarding topic of research, also for architects. Banks constitute an almost invisible net of power structures. To examine these structures is to bring to light something which has been buried and set out of balance. Unfolding a system is not a crime, it rather adjusts the attention.
The approach of the Twentyone is comparable with the attitude of hackers. Without the commitment of hackers today you would not be able to send an email without somebody reading along, you would not be able to make a secure online purchase or bank online. No Firefox, no Open Office, no Linux - just to name a few - would be available. Hackers usually are related to an information technology security context. Why not set their working method to other topics and disciplines - "hitchhacking"?
In this sense the Twentyone are a non-institutionalized, slightly profit oriented breed of security "hitchhackers". A 21-architect resides in anyone of us and when you team up with your hidden alter-ego you make 42. According to Douglas Adams, with 42 then you can answer the ultimate questions of life, the universe and everything.
Thank you Armin!
Blasbichlers Twentyone - the book