The title of the project that Ilona Gaynor presented at the Idea in Progress show at the RCA, London a few weeks ago could be applied to almost every single story that graces newspaper front pages nowadays. I've actually stopped counting the times the word 'chaos' has been used in connection with unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. What surprises me is how often the news of ongoing 'chaos' in Libya or Egypt is associated with 'Western' fears of a rise of oil prices or spike in immigration numbers.
Everything Ends in Chaos fascinated me because it is somehow related to all of the above and much more. The project attempts to design, then reverse engineer a single, spectacular Black Swan event. Black Swan events are unpredicted but of such magnitude that they have an important impact on history. Nassim Nicholas Taleb exposed this theory in 2007, in a book that has been credited with predicting the banking and economic crisis of 2008. According to Taleb, the rise of the Internet, World War I, and the September 11 attacks as examples of Black Swan Events.
Ilona's research topic is ambitious, it spans economics, finance, global markets, risk management, insurance and mathematics. I aim to explore the paradoxical nature of policy by examining and speculating on the 'invisible' negotiations and momentary instances that affect, compromise and twist policy for means of financial and / or political gain as well as its implications.
What are your body parts worth? By Insure.com, Dec. 7, 2009
For the work in progress show at the RCA, Ilona presented two fictional scenarios that intertwine real documents revealing actual insurance practices (such as the existence of kidnap and ransom insurance, of dismemberment insurance and charts listing the worth of your body parts, etc.) with imaginary stories. The result is an exploration of the seemingly fictional paradoxes that could occur and unfold as a result of precautionary bureaucratic policies.
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Could you take us through the scenarios? In the first one a bomb is hidden inside golden trophy hangs above the heads of directors in a boardroom. In the second scenario, the wife of a rich insurance broker is kidnapped. What lies behind those snapshots of the whole story? How are both scenarios related to one another?
Ilona Gaynor: The first scenario takes place within a boardroom at an underwriters firm called A-Corporation, the firm specialises in the insurance of military assets, from missiles to the transportation of assets between geographical borders. The 24 carat golden missile that hangs so delicately above their head's, was commissioned and hung by the CEO of A-Corporation as a commemoration, a beacon of hope, and inspiration, a celebration for the last profitable decade of underwritten contracts. There are 6 board members that sit within this room, all of whom are exceptionally well paid and each have a severance contract attached to their position within the company. A-Corporation is considering a merger and through its decision decides to blow up the boardroom, with the intention of killing its 6 board members, and therefore rendering the severance agreements null in void.
The second scenario takes place around a family called the Henderson's. Mrs Daphne Henderson is the wife of Frank Henderson, a wealthy senator. Mrs Henderson is kidnapped. She was taken from their family Mercedes state car on a highway in Arizona, which the kidnappers mistook for the Senators motorcade vehicle. The kidnappers cut off her wedding ring finger and sent it via FedEx to the Henderson's family Insurance broker Mr Bowery of Hiscox, along with their ransom demands. Upon receiving her finger, the broker was ordered by the senator for the ransom money to be sent immediately. In the expecting return of Mrs Henderson, the senator decided to throw a small party to welcome her back to their home. Not knowing how hideously disfigured she might be, he took the liberty of inviting their plastic surgeon.
In the exhibition the two video scenarios were accompanied by various artefacts relating to each of the stories. The artefacts are made up of designed and doctored legal contracts, mostly insurance related to pull the fiction back into the reality. The contracts, fine prints and stock snapshots are offered up to the audience as evidence, physical coordinates that lead to and highlight the very real motives involved and reveal the benefactors. The scenarios will eventually relate to each other in a larger narrative, made up of a series, 5 events to be exact.
Your scenarios are fictional but how do they relate exactly to the current economic situation? Do they have relevance on a global level or do they mostly apply to the UK situation?
Ilona Gaynor: Over the last 3 years, we have all been confronted by a global economic crisis. It seems to be all too easy to critically attack and lay blame to bankers, market traders and corporations.
I think it's more important if not more interesting to contextualise and frame the infrastructure that was able to facilitate such media projected 'atrocities' and make sense of something that has such impact on our lives and our future. The scenarios are hypothetical, an exaggerated microscopic look at a system that exists within our proximity, that often goes fairly un-noticed, or is deemed too complex to be understood. My research for this project has led to such potent content; that moving beyond the 'highlighting illustrative' and pushing it into the designed hypothetical is really important. We can all relate to insurance and the frustrating paradoxes that crop up within mundane bureaucracy, but we might not all be aware of the circumstances that need to occur in order for the various systems in play to spit out a sizeable profit.
EEIC deals with economic policy. What could be the role of a designer in the context of economics?
Ilona Gaynor: I think the role of designers in economics is crucial and could be one of reflection and scenario based strategy. It is becoming more evident that the role of human behaviour in systems design, particularly those designed to monopolize tends to be neglected. Human nature makes mistakes, not the machines. How could we possibly manage risk without the acknowledgment of this key factor? Design has the power to stimulate the imagination and make abstract issues tangible. If we can use speculative design proposals to imagine alternative trajectories and reflect upon current methodologies, it might allow us to open up a meaningful debate before policies are written. Designers have been starting to contribute to many important fields for years, from medicine to politics. I don't see why economics should be any different.
The project looks very cynical to me. The title itself is fairly daunting. What is the critical discourse behind the project? Do you really have such a dark view of economics?
Ilona Gaynor: I have a dark view of most things, but unlike most I don't think it's a bad thing... the world makes more sense in the dark... it's when it's viewed in the light that we should be worried. Economics, I don't think is necessarily so sinister... the Vatican for example is probably more riddled with corruption, scandal and greed then the banking sector. But I do think that as its complexity continues to grow and get increasingly denser, it starts to tangle and knots occur. It's becoming more and more difficult to control such a living organism and I don't think we can continue down a pathway that's so obviously treacherous. The critical discourse lies in my aim to celebrate such a system. It's a non-human entity with non-human goals, and it's deliciously destructive. It was designed for one thing only - to make a profit. The seduction is obvious, you only have to witness Oliver Stone's Gordon Gekko to empathise with such a honey trap.
We can do one of two things: we can witness it unravel and enjoy the complicated pleasure accepting that "greed is good", or we can move towards a rethink of how we design economic and financial systems.
EEIC is still a work in progress. How much research do you still have to do? And where do you think that it will lead you to?
Ilona Gaynor: The research will always be ongoing, I think it's important that the dialogue between the economics and finance communities and myself continues to be ongoing and stays strong.
But my quest overall, is to design and then communicatively reverse engineer a singular 'Black Swan' event. The work in progress (for the show in particular) was more of an exercise in communicating such complex abstract narratives viscerally. I intend to write a further three scenarios, drawing on the emphasis of which is to highlight the principal of cause and affect. The final project will take the form of films (five in total). The stories will highlight linchpin key moments that will merge to become a hypothetical Black Swan event.
A second layer to the project will then be an assessment made by five legitimate insurance underwriters. This will be carried out to determine how much actual profit (written in insurance premiums and contracts) in monetary terms is extractable from my hypothetical scenarios. Can we really insure for the highly unexpected? How much money is a chaotic collapse actually worth? Who might be the winner? And Is this something to aspire to?
I saw on your flickr set that you did some research to create a precise aesthetics for the project. What kind of feeling and ideas does this aesthetics try to convey?
Ilona Gaynor: The aesthetics need to be precise enough to pull you into a world. I'm interested in drawing upon the hyper-real, something that could be deemed uncanny, to reflect the hypothetical absurd nature of the world we are looking down upon. I want the audience to experience something voyeuristic, as if you were that third person in the scene, totally absent from participation but free to stand, observe and smirk... 'There's an elephant in the room and no one can see it but me'.
To give a sense of place, to me is thrilling. Places are made up of a very fluent language of detail and are therefore incredibly important and necessary in allowing you to dream and speculate beyond four walls. Taking into account color, perspectives, shape and texture... if all those things are correct and something catches your eye in certain way, with a certain kind of light and the right subtle movement you're gone, you're in heaven. I think the world I'm playing in is so distinctly un-explored, you can't go in and film it, unless you first build it first.
Thank you Ilona!
Other project from Design Interactions' latest work in progress show: Known Unknowns and BACK, HERE BELOW, FORMIDABLE [ the rebirth of prehistoric creatures ].
The National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) in Athens is currently hosting the painfully timely online exhibition Esse, Νosse, Posse: Common Wealth for Common People.
Curated by Daphne Dragona, the open platform takes a critical look at the economy of the network society and the tension between, on the one hand, a wealth of information, knowledge, code, communication freely provided by web users and on the other hand the market's attempts of to appropriate and exploit it.
A virtual sweatshop, a game opposing copyright and free exchange of knowledge, a documentary about gold farmers, a subversive web browser software, internet art for poor people , etc. Esse, Νosse, Posse offers a thought-provoking mix of artists' projects commenting on the new forms of networked economy, platforms based on exchange and collaboration everyone can contribute to and a series of statements and texts by researchers, critics, theorists discussing art, networks and economy.
In her curatorial text Dragona lists some of the issues at stake:
How is this new common wealth then formed? What are its mechanisms of development and support and which are the new forms of economy that emerge? What is the importance of new terms frequently mentioned such as the attention economy or the gift economy and of phenomena such as the sweatshops, the crowdsourcing or the merging of free and working time? Can free and open source software and knowledge exchange play a significant role?
"Esse, Nosse, Posse: Common Wealth for Common People" focuses on "posse", on the mode of production and being not only of the creators presented within this context but of all the contributors of today's common wealth , as well as on the possibilities of re-appropriation of knowledge that may occur only through knowledge itself.
So far, i've spent at least a couple of hours going through the projects, platforms and texts collected in Esse, Νosse, Posse. I also caught up with Daphne Dragona, the curator of the platform. And i had just one question for her:
This is not the first time you curate an online exhibition for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. I'd be interested to know more about your experience on this particular issue. How do you make this platform successful? How can an online exhibition reach the usual museum audience?
Esse, Nosse, Posse, Common Wealth for Common People follows last year's Tag Ties and Affective Spies, also hosted in the website of the National Museum of Contemporary Art. The two exhibitions connect on purpose actually as they both relate to the digital networks discussing principal questions and issues around their structures and their functioning. Tag Ties and Affective Spies aimed to present critical approaches by artists on the very features of the social media whereas Esse, Nosse, Posses focuses on the issue of networked economies and today's user generated common wealth.
Esse, Nosse, Posse is however more a platform rather than an exhibition. I saw it as a chance to discuss ideas, notions and opinions and not merely as an opportunity to present online art . For this reason, except for "net art" works, also videos, texts and collaborative platforms are included as initiatives that comment on the topic of common wealth in various ways. Moreover, the platform is open, anyone having a relevant project can submit it , enriching the content. It is an ongoing presentation of resources, of ideas, of inspiring efforts.
From this point of view, this platform will be considered successful if people can learn things from it, share the data and use it, if the works and texts by the contributors meet new audiences, if new collaborations and ideas are born through it. I do not know yet if this happens or if it will happen but my aim was to include interesting content against the info - noise of the social web.
In any case, "success" does not get any easier when you do online projects . The National Museum of Contemporary Art the last few years has shown an interest and a commitment for digital and internet culture. The online exhibitions are also hosted in the physical space of the museum but it takes some time to trigger visitors' curiosity and interest. Some people are still very hesitant when confronted with computers in an exhibition space. Even if technology is part of their everyday lives, even if they are connected at home and at work, still in a museum they are reserved. Maybe it's the remains of the white cube culture but this issue is still open for a country like Greece. On the other hand, no one expects visitors to spend an hour viewing an online exhibition in the museum. The point is rather to get informed and follow online activities at their own place and time. The virtual space does not negate the physical one of the museum or the opposite; they interconnect but different opportunities are given in each case.
Other exhibitions curated by Daphne Dragona: Tag ties & affective spies, a critical approach on the social media of our times, Mark Amerika retrospective at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. She also co-curated Homo Ludens Ludens.
Lars Müller Publishers says: In this important exploration of the sentiments of our time, World of Giving explains the motivations for why we give and offers examples of individuals, foundations, governments, multinationals and NGOs helping others. Jeffrey Inaba and C-Lab provide an understanding of the process of working toward a greater good by describing actions that build bridges between goodwill and need, intention and realization. The authors show that gifts form the foundation of all kinds of human interaction with each one establishing a unique relationship between giver and receiver. They illustrate that the gift too alters in meaning and value, detailing how it transforms as it circulates through what are at times a complex series of transactions.
In place of the pursuit of personal wealth, World of Giving presents a mindset that is based on generosity and revolves around the gesture of giving. The book argues that giving is a powerful act that gains social momentum, benefiting not just the immediate recipient but typically others as well. Acknowledging that each of us is inclined to give, this illuminating publication reveals how a beneficent deed contributes to an environment of increasing generosity in addition to enhancing the capabilities of its recipient. As a shared value, giving can grow to be a meaningful collective force that affects the world in surprising ways.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie donated $ 1 million to aid Haiti quake relief, Swiss supermarket Migros bestows 0.5 % of its retail and 1 % of its wholesale turnover to art and culture as part of a programme called Migros Culture Percentage.
On the other end of the generosity spectrum, Italy's billionaire prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, had proposed to put up in three of his own houses some of the thousands of people made homeless by the earthquake that shake Abruzzo in April last year. The offer has often been regarded as nothing more than a PR move (rumours has it that he never even respected his promise.)
The book World of Giving navigates the world of generosity with brio and erudition. Whether they are good old christian charity, sincere kindness or corporate philanthropy, acts of generosity are everywhere you'd care to look.
From the velvet monkey that puts its own life at risk by emitting calls to warn other troop members of the approaching predator to the welfare pioneers of the Calvinist Dutch Republic. From the rise of US philanthropy to Communism's re-conceptualization of the act of giving, etc. World of Giving explores generosity through times and cultures.
Philosopher, and historian David Hume described men as being fundamentally altruistic. Philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith believed that men are motivated chiefly by self-interest, even when they display some generosity. World of Giving has a more balanced approach. Far from being a mere attempt to substitute Gordon Gekko's 'Greed is good' with a call for openhandedness, the book uncovers the mechanisms and strategies of giving. And its economics, as anyone involved in thebusiness of giving away free digital goods can confirm.
* i can't recommend enough their Volume magazine.
Previously: Open City: Designing Coexistence - Part 1, Community and Part 2, Refuge.
Third part of my report on Open City: Designing Coexistence, the main exhibition of the 4th International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam.
The idea of the Open City is understood as 'an urban condition that enables diverse cultures and lifestyles to coexist'. The exhibition was subdivided in 7 sections, one of them was dedicated to Reciprocity - Urban Bartering Strategies in Jakarta.
In the Summer of 2007, the photo pasted above toured the blogs. Farmer Abu Hassan Ahmad had to move in order to be closer to his mother. He was so attached to his home, he decided to take it with him. "The 56 year old farmer said several village elders got about 150 villagers to help with the 'big move". Besides helping to carry the house half a kilometer to the new site, the villagers also took part in a "gotong-royong" (communal working together) to clear the land at the new location. It took an hour to move the house."
The picture illustrates in a striking way the concept that the Reciprocity section of the Open City exhibition explores. Before i go any further i need to mention that the exhibition design of Reciprocity was stunning. It was inspired by the Wayang Kulit, Indonesia's famous shadow puppets:
Reciprocity - Urban Bartering Strategies in Jakarta focuses on the capital and largest city of Indonesia. Curators Daliana Suryawinata and Stephen Cairns investigated the key role that bartering is fulfilling in developing countries. It is estimated that between half and 3/4ths of the economies in developing countries are based on reciprocity. Around 40% of the GNP is generated in shadow economies that rests on this practices of give and take. This kind of informal economy is not only often more important than the official economy, its importance will also increase dramatically in the coming years as the cities in poor countries undergo explosive population growth. Whether it entails physical goods or services, reciprocity often comes with an emotional, personal component.
Reciprocity examines how this system of barter and returning of favors affects the infrastructure and vitality of Jakarta where a large majority of its 23 million inhabitants receives its wages in kind, and creates its own alternative chain of supply and demand.
Because the practice has permeated all aspects of their society, Indonesians have an expression for this form of informal economy. They call it Gotong royong, an expression often translated into English as 'reciprocity' or 'mutual assistance'.
Through an idea competition called Gotong Royong City, the IABR in collaboration with Ikatan Arsitek invited architects and urban designers to reflect on the way Gotong Royong might be re-invented and applied to reform urban and architectural life.
The winning entry was the design concept "Jakarta Bersih!" by Dutch firm Nunc Architects.
Nunc's plan relocates a part of the overpopulated Kampung into two-sided high-rise
Making a living out of garbage is nothing unusual in Jakarta. The men and women who search through the 28,000 cubic meters of trash that Jakarta produces each day are called Pemulung. They look for valuable items, plastic, paper, metal which they can then sell for a few rupees (see also: Bas Princen, Mokattam Ridge (Garbage city)). They bring the trash to a local middleman who in turn dispatches them to an official recycling operation.
One of the facades of the buildings imagined by NUNC are designed as huge billboards. The revenue from this 70 meters high advertising could be used to facilitate and finance the cleaning communities in a scheme where commerce meets charity.
To read about the other winners of the competition, head to designboom.
In 1999, Andrew Lawrence invented the Skyscraper Index. According to him, there is a correlation between the construction of the world's tallest buildings and the impending end of business cycles. A good example is the Great Depression which followed a skyscraper boom. The Empire State Building was finished in 1929 but didn't achieve full occupancy for 40 years. Lawrence believes that the construction of a new record-breaking skyscraper goes hand in hand with speculation, over-investment and monetary expansion are raging. Some analysts found the interconnection unreliable but the Skyscraper Index gained some credibility back a few weeks ago when the press relayed the news that Dubai's economy is struggling to rescue itself from its debts. As a result, the construction of its most hysterical projects such as a skyscraper higher than the Burj Dubai (at 2,313 feet tall, it is poised to be 40% higher than the current record holder, Taipei 101) and an even bigger version of the Palm Island is faltering.
Whether they take the Skyscraper Index seriously or not, people agree that architecture is conditioned by the economical climate. Architectural projects were the first casualties of the current financial crash. Rien ne va Plus, an exhibition taking place at Bureau Europa (which used to be the Southern branch of the National Institute of Architecture) in Maastricht, delves into the economic crisis and its intricate relation with architecture. Started as a research by architectural firm Powerhouse Company, this rich, thought-provoking project also takes the form of a reader published in collaboration with the magazine A10 and a series of debates.
This crisis is particularly relevant to architecture for two reasons. First, because this last boom was caused by the financial structures of real estate loans and speculation; Architecture was a means of wealth rather than well-being, with the result that houses were being built to be resold rather than inhabited. Architecture became a speculation feeder and obtained a doubtful role as marketeer. Second, because of the evolution of the ethics of architecture as well as its position towards and engagement with the society that produces it. Now the pressing question is how can we create architecture that is based on long-term qualities rather than on short-term profits?
The reader that accompanies the exhibition reproduces some of the sharpest essays and articles written about the economical crisis, the effects of globalization, the eroded moral integrity, the flaws of our free market economy and their impact on architects and architecture. I've listed a few of them along with some images of the superb 3D-diagrams designed by Powerhouse Company for the exhibition:
"Globalisation allowed the US to suck up the savings of the rest of the world and consume more than it produced." George Soros, FT.com January 23 2008.
"Today, outlandish architecture and design-art are placed alongside Damien Hirst's Diamond Skull and the Candy and Candy's apartments as symptoms of empty extravagance." Kevin McCullagh, Plan, March 2009.
"Public housing, a staple of 20th-century Modernism, was nowhere on the agenda. Nor were schools, hospitals or public infrastructure. Serious architecture was beginning to look like a service for the rich, like private jets and spa treatments." Nicolai Ouroussoff, The New York Times, December 2008.
"And now it has come: people's houses really are earning more than they do, and as a result every householder has been turned into an untaxed selfemployed developer." Martin Pawley, The Architects' Journal, February 2005.
The 21st century starts indeed as one of owner speculation rather than occupation.
"Abstract projects solidified into Architectural form, and, sponsored by oil and stock market wealth, were "grounded" in the most socially unjust locations and in the most environmentally wasteful ways. Real-estate, disguised as Architecture, falsely credited with sustainability, turned out to become the profitable terrain-for-surplus capital, absorbing into its ever more elaborate shapes money that could have been invested otherwise." Zvi Hecker, January 2009.
Think 'starchitects' projects for the Beijing Olympics and in Gulf States. The Louvre opening a branch in Abu-Dhabi.
This exhibition doesn't try to predict the outcome of the bets that were taken in our global casino economy. It doesn't have the ambition to formulate answers nor to provide solutions. It is rather an opening to a conversation with architects and the general public. In the coming year we will be creating a series of events throughout Europe concerning this book, to initiate a dialogue about the possible solutions to these crises.
Rien ne va Plus opens until the 10th of January 2009 at NAiM/Bureau Europa, in Maastricht, The Netherlands.
All my images.
Previously at NAIM/Bureau Europa: Changing Ideals: Re-thinking the House at NAI in Maastricht, State Alpha, on the architecture of sleep at the NAI in Maastricht, Edible City - Part 1 and Part 2.
The year draws to an end and so is rhizome's fund raising campaign. I guess most of you know the fantastic work they are doing every single day to promote and support technology-based art. Culture tends to suffer more than many other fields in tougher times (but please feel free to disagree and prove me wrong), so please consider donating $25 or more. They will undoubtedly give it back to you in many forms.
Next on the list is Turbulence. They made it more pleasant to send the money in the right place by offering you the possibility to buy artworks by Jason Freeman, Yury Gitman, Michael Takeo Magruder, Michael Mandiberg, Mouchette, Preemptive Media, and Jody Zellen.
Paddy Johnson, the smart, inspiring and invaluable art blogger of the US scene is also launching an end of the year Fundraiser.
May i encourage you to write me if you think i should add an organization to this tiny list?
Image on the homepage by Dante Busquets, an extremely talented photographer i met last month in Sao Paulo.