Last June, while i was confusedly walking up and down the stairs of the Graduate Exhibition of the Communication Art and Design department at RCA in London, i suddenly found myself gaping at three stunning, large scale photos by Catherine Hyland.
One of the photos is part of her Wonderland series which documents what remains of an amusement park conceived in 1998 to become the largest of its kind in Asia. Built near Beijing, the spectacular theme park was left to decay after funding was cut and agreement couldn't be reached over the rights of the land. The other two photos were equally fascinating: one evoked the manufactured landscape of Edward Burtynsky, the other brought you to a much quieter yet somehow uncanny universe.
I had so many "why?" "how?" "where?" in my mind that i contacted Catherine and asked her if we could have a quick interview.
Hi Catherine! Could you describe the photos you were showing at the RCA show? What is the story behind them?
I was exhibiting three large format photographs as part of an ongoing body of work that aims to question the conventional view of the Sublime whilst critiquing the current state of our industrial landscape.
'Wonderland' shows the dilapidated skeleton of an abandoned theme park in China. Adopted by the local residents, it now exists as an unconventional playground within the town. To me it paints quite an intriguing picture of consumerism gone awry. The discarded structures of the half-built theme park have remained disconnected and vacant for over a decade. A spectacular contrast to the locals who continue to use ancient farming methods to tend the empty cornfields left surrounding it. At first glance you wouldn't be blamed for thinking you had walked into some post-apocalyptic scene straight out of Cormac Mccarthy's The Road. There is a strange allure to what the locals are doing here, that creeps up on you in the most unsuspecting manner.
The second image titled 'The Finishing Room' was shot in Sri Lanka where I was attempting to chronicle the new types of Eco-Factories that are emerging in Southern Asia with increasing frequency. What I was inherently interested in was documenting - from the inside, our attempts to rectify a manufacturing system that has already spun out of control.
In contrast the third image 'Inglenook' shows the outcome of an industrial process. Made in response to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in April - May 2010, which caused enormous disruption to air travel across Western and Northern Europe, the piece hopes to create a seductively sinister husk of the former event. A poetic meditation of the prodigious but overlooked where the mirrored imagery of a natural event is echoed within our man-made environment.'
Where is Wonderland exactly? Your photos show a deserted place, is it already open to the public?
'Wonderland' itself is in China, just outside of Beijing. It was left over after funding was cut on another of their legion of newly developed tourist attractions. The project first began in 1998 but was left when developers and local farmers were unable to reach an agreement over the rights of the land. The fragments are now left for all to see and wander around at their will, like some monument to post-boom consumerism. The aim of the Wonderland developers was to create the biggest theme park in Asia. We are left looking at the cusp of an unrealised plan and as a result a far more interesting object, in my opinion.
I think that like most visitors of the RCA show i was fascinated by your images and intrigued by their location. How did you encounter these places? Was it by chance or did you hear or read about them somewhere?
I used to just drive/walk/cycle around for hours on end in search of something that intrigued me. As my practice has developed I've begun to research places more thoroughly, through the internet, sweeping through the National Geographic or just talking to people about their own experiences. There are so many channels of information out there for us to choose from that it seems to make sense to utilise and celebrate them. After all it's usually the accidents that occur after the research that inform the final images anyway. Nothing compares to the more spontaneous aspect of it, stumbling into that moment that kind of stops you in your tracks. It's a much more overwhelming and special experience that way.
But as my projects have become more complex the necessity for organisation and negotiation has become imperative. Many of the locations I choose exist as functioning places of work, often remaining shielded from public view. Sub-stations, quarries and power stations often exist down narrow lanes and engulfing woods, rendering the quest for them idiosyncratic in nature which is makes them even more enticing, like hidden worlds just waiting for the layers to be peeled back.
And was it easy to get access to them? I'm thinking about Wonderland of course but also about the factory in Sri Lanka.
With Wonderland my only obstacle was the language barrier, I found myself copying Chinese characters off the internet, a lengthy process to say the least. Passing my unpolished scraps of paper to bus drivers/taxis/general passers-by in the hope that my instructions might make sense. To this day I have no idea what my writing must have looked like or exactly what it said. I imagine it perhaps looked like a very handy 3 year old had written it for me. It was then just a process of faith, hoping that I was heading in the right direction. This to be honest it what made it fun. The Sri Lankan Eco-Factories were much easier to get access to, as I was actually filming a short documentary for the Sri Lanka Design Festival at the time in which we got shepherded about from one place to another to experience the apparel industry firsthand - it was an incredible trip.
It looks like you are already an accomplished photographer so why did you chose to enroll in a Master in Communication Art and Design? What did you hope to gain there?
I had the best two years of my life at the RCA, I chose Communication because it seemed to afford its students the kind of freedom I was after within a course that adopts a complete mixed bag of people in terms of disciplines. I thought that was fantastic, I look around the friends I have gained from studying in this way and realise just how beneficial that can be. Specific genres or mediums become increasingly less important and as a result the emphasis is placed almost wholey on the development of ideas that then come into fruition in completely unexpected, wild and wonderful ways. I think being in that environment is a really precious experience. Although it did make me realise personally just how firmly my feet were planted within the realm of lens based work, something which I'm happy to admit.
What are your plans after graduations? Are you flying to new 'absurd' locations?
I hope so, there is a project I desperately want to do in Japan, I just need to find a way of getting out there.
Chris Moulin is a cognitive neuropsychologist at the Leeds Memory Lab who has recreated the sensation of déjà vu in a laboratory. Déjà vu is that unsettling sensation of feeling that you have witnessed a situation, although you know you never went through it before.
Moulin and his team in Leeds are working with sufferers of chronic déjà vu on a detailed study of the condition. Some individuals can develop the feeling of déjà vu to such an extent that it becomes distressing, even causing depression.
Designer Emily Hayes and jewellery maker Karen Mabon had the opportunity to meet and discuss with Moulin. The researcher described one particular case study of a female who suffered from chronic déjà vu. The woman didn't get much out of her house, afraid as she was of being continuously overwhelmed by the sensation of déjà vu. According to Moulin, the only method that enabled the patient to avoid the distressing illusion of familiarity was the paradox of repeating the same day and experiences over and over again.
As he said in an interview, "The most important thing for us, scientifically, is they're not confused by mundane, repetitive events. It's almost like the more novel and the more striking the event is, the more likely they are to get these sensations of déjà vu. That suggests they're not making it up."
Based upon the woman's story and Moulin's research, Mabon and Hayes constructed a film-style set for the chronic déjà vu sufferer, complete with marks on the floors, visual instructions and specially-designed objects.
They also created a very detailed schedule to give a feeling of continuity and help the woman go through the day with as few surprises (hence risks of déjà vu) as possible.
On the photo above, you can also catch a glimpse of a lipstick that comes with a very tall stand, it is gold to glamourise an activity in her schedule of the day, as everything else in her day is so mundane and ordinary.
When i asked her about the newspaper and whether it was a genuine daily that came with new content every day, Emily Hayes explained me: The newspaper is left open to interpretation for the viewer to decide what she would do with such items such as a newspaper, as this is a problematic part of her life. For the woman to succeed in having a life of consistent continuity and repetition she would need to keep everything the same therefore such elements of everyday life such as a newspaper, which are changing continually day to day, are unpredictable and inconsistent, so would this also need to remain the same? Would she completely detach herself from present life or be ruthless and remain in a non time and non space in order to escape her condition? How far would she go?
If this is the cure for the person suffering from chronic déjà vu, will it really lead to a better life?
Is such an experience of life sustainable, meaningful and ever possible to fully achieve?
The dream of self-sufficiency and sustainability has become true. Everyone is now able to produce goods, to communicate with anyone without being charged or tracked and to fulfill their basic needs without forgoing modern conveniences.
Cruiser Charisma intertwines extrapolations about the latest (and upcoming) advances in technologies with a series of research trips that designer Jonas Loh made into intentional communities, groups of people who attempt to establish their own society on a micro-scale. He visited Earthaven which is ruled by community consensus and divided in small villages, went to see what remained of the ethics and ideals of The Farm and even made a trip to Berlin, Ohio, to get to know the Amish lifestyle built around religious beliefs and resistance to modernity.
The project also professes faith into D.I.Y. and open source movement which could one day take technologies that are currently out of you and i -such as synthetic biology, genetic engineering, bio-printing and new form of production methods- out of the hands of venture capitalists and politicians and into everybody else's backyard.
The outcome of the project is utopian, yet credible: a caravan which will run on advanced biofuels, whose inhabitants will be able to produce all kinds of goods and organic materials thanks to a 3D printing production unit, eat synthetic protein rich meat that will be grown through a new generation of plants, recycle their poo to produce energy and experiment with new ways of community living.
Interestingly residents would communicate over long distance using the Earth-Moon-Earth, aka moon bounce, a radio communications technique developed after World War II. The system relies on the propagation of radio waves from an Earth-based transmitter directed via reflection from the surface of the Moon back to an Earth-based receiver. The residents of the caravan selected this form of long-distance communication because it is not yet privatized and because their personal data doesn't get tracked.
The project explores the possibility to reach a total state of self-sufficiency and with it a different social, political and economical system.
Cost is still a major limiting factor for low-carbon energy technologies. What if consumers were able to fund these technologies just by trying out some new and exciting entertainment experiences? The Energy Pilots, the project that Elliott P. Montgomery is presenting right now at the graduation show of Design Interactions at RCA (god, i really need to write about other schools once in a while), is a research program that develops hypothetical business models by borrowing proven techniques from other sectors, and adapting them to fit the financial challenges of specific low-carbon technologies.
The introduction video below explains the premise of the research initiative:
The research has been presented -as much as performed- at the Sparks Energy Symposium and at the Responsible Business Conference in 2011, catalysing a discussion around the future of energy business and the associated implications. The next presentation of the project is going to be decidedly corporate as Montgomery will be submitting his ideas to Shell. The designer's speculative devices are also demonstrated in public spaces to raise a discussion about the viability and social implications of these theoretical strategies. Some of them are purely provocative. Others, in particular the Extreme Tourism Model, are rather seductive.
While Richard Branson plans to send passengers above the atmosphere, Montgomery's Extreme Tourism Model follows Jules Verne's A Journey to the Centre of the Earth by offering thrill-seekers the possibility to travel deep into the crust of the Earth and witness its geological wonders.
The deepest hole in the Earth so far is the TauTona Mine, near Johannesburg. The gold mine reaches some 3.9 km (2.4 mi) underground. The Extreme Tourism Model will travel 5 kilometers underground. The cost of a ticket to 'the center of the Earth" would be slightly less elevated than the one for a trip aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip and will fund enhanced geothermal systems.
A second proposal, the Thrill Attraction Model would enable a solar energy company to attract customers by offering them a chance to win a prize each time the customer pays their energy bill. At the bottom of the customer's bill would be a unique number. Within each billing cycle, one winning number would be selected, and the corresponding customer would win the jackpot.
The thrill of winning money would be an incentive, helping consumers overcome their natural aversion to a higher priced energy service. If we aren't always dependably altruistic, maybe simple cash would bring us to make greener choices.
A key part of the Thrill Attraction Model, the Solar Lottery Ball Tumbler device would be used to hold test lotteries, in public spaces, as a way to study the model, to see whether people would be interested, but also to discuss the ethics of this possibly manipulative technique.
Much more appealing to corporations, the Advertising Capital Model aims to generate additional revenue by advertising using the energy infrastructure. 100m high wind turbines outfitted with smoke printing nozzles would spell out advertisement messages into the sky. The fees for these advertisements would help to finance additional wind farm construction.
This is what it would look like in theory:
And this is the state of the system right now:
Finally, the Alternate Service Model is a solar updraft tower tailored to the needs of a company developing a new solar technology.
The tower would allow people to launch objects into the sky using the vertical gust from the plant. An Updraft Replicator is used to study this model. So far, people interrogated about this new entertainment service have expressed the desire to send seeds or the ashes of their pets up in the clouds.
For other smoke systems: Smoke and Hot Air by Ali Momeni and Robin Mandel. See also SWAMP (Studies of Work Atmosphere and Mass Production)'s machine that blows miniature artificial house shaped clouds.
What should a robot smell like? Kevin Grennan has augmented three existing industrial robots with 'sweat glands'. Each uses a specific property of human sub-conscious behaviour in response to a chemical stimulus: one makes humans about to undergo surgery more trustful, another one makes women working in production line more focused and the third one is a bomb disposal robot that emits the smell of fear.
The contrast between the physical anti-anthropomorphic nature of the machines and the olfactory anthropomorphism highlights the absurd nature of the trickery at play in all anthropomorphism.
The 3 robots exist only as concept and graphic design works but Grennan also worked on robot parts that are decidedly too anthropomorphic for our human taste. At the show he is showing the prototype of a robot armpit, all hair and fleshy colour.
The Smell of Control: Fear, Focus, Trust also involved demonstrating the limits of anthropomorphism. The video of the android's birthday shows a lovely android attempting to recreate the most straightforward moment of a birthday celebration: blowing the candles of the birthday cake. Alas! the poor android has no lung and no matter how hard it tries it'll never disturb the flame and the candles will completely consume.
Quick Q&A with the designer:
You told me on Thursday that making anthropomorphic robots is probably not the best approach to robotics. Can you explain me why? What is wrong with anthropomorphic machines? Would it not be easier to relate to them?
Much current research into robotics is focused on the creation of anthropomorphic robots - machines that look and appear to behave like humans. Although there are valid reasons for this research (and a good deal of egotism), I believe that this approach is fundamentally flawed. As Sherry Turkle put it in her latest book Alone Together these machine are 'pushing our Darwinian buttons ... and asking us to love them'. Their ability to target our innate desire to nurture makes us exceptionally vulnerable to manipulation. Fundamentally our relationships with these machines will be based on falsehoods and ignorance. This is especially worrying if we also believe that these machines are to become more prevalent in our lives and more sophisticated over time.
The drawings of the robots are both charming (the graphics are very elegant, there are touches of pink) and repulsive. Why did you chose to add these flaccid shapes, creepy hair and bits of skin to the otherwise very industrial-looking robots?
The designers of android robots we see being developed today have concentrated on humanising them with very broad and obvious qualities; fleshy skin, bright eyes and teeth, with clothing covering everything else. I am interested it how the more complex and private parts of the human body would be translated onto the robot. These are the parts that we ourselves sometimes find disgusting but yet are integral to our humanity. I like to beguile the viewer from a distance drawing them in to the imagery to appreciate the detail only to disgust them as they draw closer. Conceptually I mirror this approach too, whereas initially the ideas I present seem innocent and functional, as the viewer learns more an underlying darkness becomes apparent.
Some of your robots emit smells and sweat. Is this something robot engineers are exploring right now in their labs? Why didn't you just design a perfume for robots? What is the purpose of the sweat and the smells exactly?
I was initially inspired by an idea from the 17th century French inventor De Villayer. He developed a clock that would release a different spice each hour. So if you woke up in the middle of the night and the smell of cloves was hanging in the air you could say that it was 3am. I was inspired by this mechanical communication to investigate whether robots could use smell to communicate in more sophisticated ways.
While there has been some research into chemical communication between robots and also into developing a robotic sense of smell, there is very little inquiry into the use of smell or chemicals in human-robot interaction. Jofish Kaye, currently a researcher at Nokia investigated the area in relation to human-computer interaction as part of his PhD at Cornell.
It was important to me that the odours and chemicals came from within the robots and that they were an integrated means for them to communicate with the humans who would surround them. Each robot that I have augmented with a 'sweat gland' emits a particular chemical that has a specific effect on humans and the chemical has been chosen to further enable the robot's primary function.
In the case of the bomb disposal robot the 'sweat gland' releases the smell of human fear. It has been proven that humans can identify this specific smell and it tends to enhance cognitive performance in. I propose that this robot would enable surrounding humans to work more effectively and to differentiate dangerous situations from false alarms.
In the case of the picker robot. It releases a chemical called androstadienone, which is found in male sweat. This has be shown in research to effect mood in females under certain circumstances. I have speculated that this robot when used on a production line could enhance the performance of female employees in it's vicinity.
The third robot is a surgery robot. It releases a mist of oxytocin, a chemical found in the human brain. This chemical when inhaled nasally has been shown to cause people to become more trusting. I speculated that a patient could meet this robot before surgery and the chemical mist would cause the patient to trust in its abilities to a greater degree.
While from a functional perspective these 'sweating' robots might be able to perform their tasks and interact with humans more efficiently I hope that the dark thought of robots taking subconscious control of humans will cause viewers to reflect on how we really want to interact with these machines in the future.
I'll come back with more projects in the coming days but if you're curious or can't make it to London before July 3, check out the website of their show where all the projects are documented.
Last year, stories of families forced to spend their holidays inside Heathrow airport due to bad weather conditions and volcanic ash clouds have made the headlines of newspapers. Inspired by the misery endured by the passengers, Lisa Ma, a graduate from the department of Design Interactions, is now offering stranded travelers the possibility to spend their waiting time in a tour of the area surrounding the transport hub.
Heathrow Heritage is a series of excursions run in cooperation with the activists, historians and residents of the villages around Heathrow. Most of the locations visited typically look like postcard pretty English villages but are threatened by the expansion of the airport. Lisa Ma also enrolled the complicity of the airport deacon who gets in touch with stranded passengers and informs them of the possibility to spend some time outside of the terminals on a bike tour around the ancient villages.
Passengers are first transport on a free bus then hop on a bike to cycle around and learn about Richard Cox, the inventor of the Cox apple, who was buried in the 12th century village church, to see a Medieval barn rumoured to be the oldest and largest in England....
visitors will be told about the astute plan Greenpeace hatched to protest against the Third Runway. The activists bought an acre of land and sold it to 100,000 people around the world for £2 each. The plot is now used as an allotment for locals and protesters.
The Heathrow Heritage activity brings two communities together: disgruntled' travelers passing through the airport on their way to other cities and local residents who are deeply affected by but rarely in direct contact with goings on the other side of the airport fences. The tour leaves entertaining and memorable experiences for the passengers and constitutes a new form of activism for the protesters.
While working on the project Lisa Ma also met Raj the homeless and 'unofficially authorised resident of Terminal 5."
The atmosphere inside the Terminals is miles away from the lovely cottages and pubs located a few minutes away from the airport.
Quick questions to Lisa:
How did the airport authorities react to your project? After all, it's both a lovely way to handle stranded passengers but it is also potentially annoying for them if you let activists point to the problems involved in the expansion of the airport.
You are absolutely right, we are very careful about approaching the airport authorities in case the project becomes prohibited or subverted. If BAA should take on the project, it would be under their campaign of being "committed to being a good neighbour".
Can you tell me again the story of the bank robber? How did you get in touch with him?
The bank robber is one of my favourite characters. When K first approached me at the squat site he asked if I was Japanese and wore leather jackets because he was following the instructions from a fortune cookie. I was terrified when I heard about his experience initially. But he's very sweet and lives in deep regret, even though everyone now thinks of him as a super hero in the recession. He is the drunken tour guide's best friend. With silvering hair a posture that looks like he should be on a Miami beach, K is a charmer with a philosophical approach. I hugged him the last time I saw him.
Is the project still ongoing? how many tours have taken place already?
The tours are dependent on me at the moment, so are pausing whilst I am exhibiting at the RCA show. I'm hoping to record the responses and prove to the activists that what the project is strong enough for them to take over and have a life of its own beyond my direction.
We've been aiming for at least 2-3 tours a week so that all the stakeholders could become accustomed to the routine. Some of the tour numbers are smaller than we expected -we were about the only people in the airport wishing for volcanic ashes to stay for longer. I've spent so long with the activists that they've asked me to look after their site when they left it to make hanging baskets in the village!
All images courtesy of Lisa Ma.