I just spent a few days in Ljubljana for BIO 50. It's a design biennial and i know i keep shouting around that i often find design dull and pretentious but that particular biennial was anything but boring. Or pompous. But more about that in later posts.
The event positioned design as a space for collaboration, experimentation and enquiry. Nine themes were explored and the one that i -surprisingly- found most fascinating dealt with the future of transportation. Called Engine Blocks, the project was led by designers Gaspard Tiné-Berès and Tristan Kopp of Re-do Studio who chose to work with Tomos, a Slovenian manufacturer of mopeds.
The result of the collaboration focuses on the mechanical essence of vehicles and uses one Tomos engine as an ever-adaptable, hackable and interchangeable element that can be transferred to different vehicles, machines and contexts.
The Engine Block group envisions a not so distant-future when instead of buying the latest model of a vehicle or machine, people will be able to take (post-)post-industrialisation into their own hands and use a unique modular engine that they can re-purpose and customize to their specific needs.
Re-Do-Studio, Engine block
Engine Block is for me what design should be: it is imaginative, critical and down to earth. It doesn't pretend to change and save the world but that doesn't stop it from suggesting valid ideas, scenarios and models.
I asked the members of Re-do Studio more details about the project:
I found it amazing that one engine could end up being able to power so many different tools and vehicles. But was the whole process as easy as it sounds? Can you really plug one engine into different context and make it work? Is there really no limit to what this engine and a bit of imagination can do?
Well this particular engine is quite a simple one so it wasn't such a big problem to make it work on the different machines, but it obviously needs a bit of time to attach it properly before you can run the machines. And about the efficiency, it's an engine that has been design to power a small scooter so obviously it's not ideal for the other machines, but our intention was not to make the most efficient machine more to talk about how industrial product can always be used for a different purposes than what it was designed for.
What were the most challenging moments and steps in the Engine Block project?
So, the project started with a Slovenian industrial partner, TOMOS the brand that produced the engine, and about 2 month before the opening of the show they went bankrupt and told us that they was not allowed to give anything from the factory.... not even an engine ...
So that was quite challenging, but it actually triggered a larger reflection and debates with the participants that enriched the project and helped us push the statement further, we then decided to change the scenography and to make a sci-fi style movie, enlarged the group and everybody had a great time conceiving and shooting the movie so we think that everybody actually made an advantage out of this problem, so it was great...
Why did you decide to show the final works as museum pieces?
The project is showing a close and apocalyptic future where the economic crisis destroyed the local industry, and a guy fixes old tools by using a unique engine to run all of them. This idea of standardised components and especially energy source has been there for years in the industry and it is the most rational way to run a range of tools, but lately industrial product tend to produce more and more unaccessible, unfixable and unadaptable goods. We basically state that humans will always finds ways to hack and tweak even the most complex industrially-made product, to propose more rational and sensible way to use them.
So the idea of showing the product as archeological piece was to express this idea of a important shift in the design world when people had to go back to put their hand inside the goods and finds ways to fix them, stating that even if the industry would collapse the people will still go back to the most logical solutions...
So to try to make it clear; we are showing a near future but in the past tense, with archeological pieces that express the importance of a big change or rupture in the relationship people have with goods and the moment we might have to go back to fix and hack them again rather then buying the latest versions.
Thanks Gaspard and Tristan!
Visual artist Melle Smets and researcher Joost van Onna followed the travel of discarded cars from Europe to Ghana and ended up at Suame Magazine, near the town of Kumasi, in Ghana. In this area, 200,000 artisans are working in 12,000 workshops, stores and factories to repair and give a new life to European disused vehicles.
Smets and van Onna then collaborated with local craftsmen and mechanics to build a African concept car in three months. The vehicle is called SMATI Turtle. SMATI because it is the acronym for the Suame Magazine Automatics Technical Institute, an engineering training centre for the artisans. And Turtle because the vehicle is strong and sturdy like the reptile.
The completed car was even inaugurated by Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II, King Asantehene of the Kingdom of Ashanti.
The show opens on October 8 and i caught up with project leader Melle Smets to have him talk about his adventures in African mechanics.
Hi Melle! The text describing the project mentions the Buafo. Was this pickup truck prototype at the origin of your project? Where did the idea for the Turtle 1 come from exactly?
The Buafo was a car from the 70ies. From this vehicle we extracted a lot of essential idea's of what a African car should be. The existence of this car was unknown to us until a old mechanic from the neighborhood told us this story. Then we started to look for it and found one around the corner of our workshop. The reason we searched for this vehicle was the fact that we don't know anything about cars, and needed a lead to start working from.
And once you had the idea for the Turtle 1, what happened? You and Joost van Onna just turned up in Ghana and put your project into a full working prototype?
The idea to build a car came much earlier. We wanted to research the potential of a society without formal structures. Suame Magazine looked like the most incredible example of a city which was also a working car plant. Something we could hardly imagine as we thought car assembling is a very high tech business. Because the place is very hectic we thought of a narrative to tell the story of the informal car assembly line. This is how the idea came to built a car from scratch and go from workshop to workshop to learn the process and tell the story.
How did you navigate the Suame Magazine and find the right people to work with?
We went there a year earlier to scout the area and try to find a partner. This became Suame Magazine Industrial Devellopment Organisation. They liked the idea as a PR stunt for their NGO. They are a umbrella organisation for all guilds.
Apart from being skilled and resourceful, what did local people bring to the project in terms of creativity, ideas?
The car is developed by the whole neighborhood in terms of storytelling, throwing idea's, bringing in their networks and their labor. We tried not to take the lead in design and organised every step in the proces as a communal decision. For example the car design is done by wooden sticks. On the other hand people started to use the project to draw the attention on SMIDO by the media. This free publicity was good for the project but also good for growing the network of SMIDO members. In terms of work, we had to pay people to actually do the job.
And conversely, what did you bring that the Ghana craftsmen needed? They were already repurposing car parts after all....
The most lucrative thing we brought them is a story. The Turtle became a National story which they used to get access in the highest networks of the country. And this is where the real business is done. Wright now they are making contracts with Danida (Danish devellopment organisation from Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark) for over 2 million dollars to set up a new land for a car production fascility.
The project involved building a car in 12 weeks. Why was this timeframe important to you?
Do you think it would make sense for western consumers to have a car culture driven by the moto "let's make things simple"?
We need to seriously start thinking in terms of what we really need and want, instead of try to build a paradise of things around us.
Of course our infrastructure is evolved in a way we need sophisticated cars to be save driving 140 KM/hour. But it would be healthy to keep rethinking the whole concept of traveling. There are a thousand ways we can go from A to B. Why we make ourselves dependent on this system? The concept of a highway is a hundred years old and in the time they made it up there were fantastic idea's to get from A to B in total different way. We would like to remind people on this freedom of choice but also responsibility to give meaning to our environment.
And is there any commercial interest for the prototype (or an adapted version of it) outside of Africa?
Not that I know of. But we also never put energy in this. I envision a car production future where every continent has its own species of cars. The climate, economy and landscape demand certain needs to a vehicle. Technology will make it possible to manufacture more on demand and more specific adjustments.
Turtle 1 is part of a broader project that looks at "the stream of discarded cars to Ghana in order to document their hitherto unknown destination." So which kind of images, videos and discourses do you bring to European destinations where you show the Turtle prototype?
We do lectures to governments, sit in advisory boards, work with industry on new idea's. Next to this we did some exhibitions on car shows, art festivals to show drawings, photo's and video's. Every member of the team had it's own medium. You will see on the exhibition. There was also a lot of media coverage on television, news papers and magazines in Germany and the Netherlands.
The prototype is called Turtle 1. Does it mean that there will be new and improved models of the Turtle? More generally, what's next for the project?
We are now working together with the Dutch car industry on a vocational training program. The ambition is to start this program in Suame Magazine next year. In the Dutch Design week we organise workshops around this businesses case. See Word doc for more detailed concept.
Check out the vehicle at the DISNOVATION exhibition, on October 8th- December 6th, at Le Bel Ordinaire, Billière, France. The 14th edition of the festival itself will run November 13th -16th, 2014, at Le Bel Ordinaire + associated venues in Pau & around. Programme curated by Nicolas Maigret and Bertrand Grimault.
In the second half of the 19th century, the Mexican government partnered with British companies to built the railway line that would connect Mexico City with the Atlantic Ocean. This iconic railway infrastructure now lies in ruins, much of it abandoned due to the privatisation of the railway system in 1995, when it was decided that transporting people was simply not profitable enough. Many passenger train lines were thus cut off, the infrastructure was left to rot and communities became geographically and economically isolated as a consequence.
Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, aka Los Ferronautas (from ferrocarriles which means railway in spanish), wanted to travel along the ruins of the passenger railway system and investigate the remains of what they consider a misuse of common resources and therefore a political issue.
But to drive around the rusty lines, they needed to build their own light vehicle. The result is a half car half spaceship hybrid called SEFT-1 (the Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada, in english Manned Railway Exploration Probe). But SEFT-1 is much more than a vehicle. Los Ferronautas call it a research tool because it allows them to investigate notions and promises of progress. The vehicle is also a transmitter of non-eletronic stories, it enabled the duo to visit and interview communities which the privatization of the railway has been left behind.
As they traveled through the country in 2010 and 2011, the artists shared their discoveries online, mapping their trajectory, archiving objects found by the tracks, writing down anecdotes, uploading photos and interviews with the people they met along the way.
I've been following the work of Los Ferronautas ever since i read an article about them in the always excellent blog Arte en la Edad del Silicio so i'm really happy that they finally have their first London exhibition, SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe: Modern Ruins 1:220, thanks to The Arts Catalyst and Furtherfield Gallery.
The show opens tomorrow 20 June between 6 and 8pm and there's a tour of the exhibition with the artist on Saturday. The vehicle will be on show of course but there will be more:
For this new exhibition, the artists are inviting British expert model railway constructors to collaborate by creating scale reproductions of specific Mexican railway ruins, originally built by British companies, exactly as they are now. One gallery becomes a space for the process of model ruin construction. The room's walls will show the pictures, documents, plans and other materials used as reference for the meticulously elaborated ruin construction. With this action a dystopian time tunnel is created.
I'm really looking forward to discovering what Los Ferronautas will do in collaboration with the model makers. Already, they have reproduced in photo and using their own vehicle a scene painted by José María Velasco in 1881. During a presentation they gave on Saturday at a London LASER04 session, they announced that the whole landscape would be recreated by British model enthusiasts.
SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe
SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe: Modern Ruins 1:220 is at Furtherfield in Finsbury Park from 20 June until 27 July 2014.
Few people would associate the words "English heritage" with car showrooms, repair garages, filling stations, traffic lights, inner ring roads, multi-storey car parks, and drive-through restaurants. Yet, the exhibition Carscapes: How the Motor Car Reshaped England draws our attention to the country's motoring patrimony and shows that the car's impact on the physical environment needn't be reduced to ruthless out pours of concrete and "wayside eyesores".
The first motor cars entered the country in the late 19th Century. New buildings, signage, rules and systems had to be invented for dusty roads that so far had only been crisscrossed by horse traffic. It is only recently that we have started to value the infrastructures that have facilitated their construction, sale and maintenance of cars. "It took the best part of 100 years for the railway infrastructure to be appreciated," argue Kathryn Morrison and John Minnis in the book Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture, and Landscape in England, "now it is the turn of the car."
Many of these buildings, road signs and infrastructures have disappeared, others are under threat of being demolished or are decaying beyond repairs but English Heritage has started to list motoring heritage sites in England. The exhibition at Wellington Arch shows archives images, contemporary photos and a series of motoring memorabilia. It also explores the impact that motor car have had on the planning of cities, towns and on the countryside.
Below are some of the most spectacular buildings and road systems i discovered in the exhibition:
Bibendum aka the Michelin Man!! Michelin Building on London's Fulham Road is now a restaurant but it was built to house the first permanent UK headquarters and tyre depot for the Michelin Tyre Company Ltd. It also function as advertisement for the company with its corner domes that resemble sets of tyres and the large stained-glass windows starring the cheerful "Bibendum."
The building opened for business on 20 January 1911.
When the Lex (now NCP) car park opened in Soho in 1928, its architects were catering for the rich men who could afford the luxury of a car. The Art Deco architecture thus also housed a cafe (for car-owners) and a separate canteen for chauffeurs.
The photo above shows one of the earliest filling stations to open in London. It was built by F.D. Huntington in 1922. Each pump was manned by a uniformed attendant.
This was one of the six filling stations built by the Automobile Association in 1919-20, the first to be opened in Great Britain, and originally selling only British-made benzole.
In 2012, English Heritage granted listed status on two 1960s petrol-station canopies - one on the A6 near Leicester (photo on top of the page but check out also this night view) and the other at Markham Moor, Nottingham.
When it opened in 1931, the Ford factory on the banks of the Thames at Dagenham was the largest car factory in Europe. The nearest building in this 1939 photograph is the power station. Behind it, fuel for the power station and furnaces is unloaded from ships via a double-decked jetty.
Coventry Inner Ring Road built between 1962 and 1974 is one of the most highly developed and tightly drawn inner ring roads of any city in England.
The Wellington Arch was built in 1828 but Victorian traffic jams meant that in 1883, the Arch was dismantled and moved some 20 metres to its current location. Between 1958 and 1960, to further ease congestion - this time from motorised transport - Hyde Park Corner was altered and the Arch separated from Constitution Hill by a new roadway.
Metallurgique was a Belgian company which opened the first car showroom on Regent Street in 1913
Carscapes: How the Motor Car Reshaped England is at the Wellington Arch until 6 July 2014.
On Thursday i went to Artissima. Turin's contemporary art fair lands in the agenda almost straight after Frieze and compared to the London's fair, it feels lighter, fresher, edgier. It also demonstrates a greater attention for the design -in all its forms- of the event. I'm a fan.
That evening I've discovered a dozen of artists whose works i'll mention in the coming days (or weeks given my propensity to write at the speed of a banana.)
Let's start with Tatsuki Masaru whose photos were exhibited by Gallery Side 2 (Tokyo). The artist spent a decade following the Decotora (an abbreviation for "Decoration Truck") subculture, photographing the trucks of course but also their drivers and in the long series of "Japanese do it better", these vehicles have a panache and extravagance that never reach bad taste.
In an interview to Photoeye, the artist explains that the phenomenon is subject to trends and economic woes: There was a peak in say 1980, that was the peak time in terms of the number of decorated trucks existing in Japan. This trend got started somewhere in the '60s when Japan's economy was growing and people were starting to spend money decorating their trucks. In the beginning it was like, "Who has the most number of lights on the truck," that kind of competition. But then in the '90s there started to be a little bit more specialization, and one area which became popular was Gundam, which are like Japanese transformer movies, and anime type of decoration, so there are some stages to its development. Recently, because of the economic difficulties like Japan's recession, and governmental regulations, traffic laws and all that, the [truckers] can no longer do the things they used to do. So in a way, they're sort of going back to the '70s style, which is a little bit less lighting, more heavy on the paintings, a little bit more subdued decorating style so they cannot get busted by the police.
Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City by Bradley Garrett, an ethnographer from the School of Geography and the Environment at University of Oxford working within the global Urban Explorer community.
Publisher Verso writes: It is assumed that every inch of the world has been explored and charted; that there is nowhere new to go. But perhaps it is the everyday places around us--the cities we live in--that need to be rediscovered. What does it feel like to find the city's edge, to explore its forgotten tunnels and scale unfinished skyscrapers high above the metropolis? Explore Everything reclaims the city, recasting it as a place for endless adventure.
Plotting expeditions from London, Paris, Berlin, Detroit, Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, Bradley L. Garrett has evaded urban security in order to experience the city in ways beyond the boundaries of conventional life. He calls it 'place hacking': the recoding of closed, secret, hidden and forgotten urban space to make them realms of opportunity.
Explore Everything is an account of the author's escapades with the London Consolidation Crew, an urban exploration collective.
The book is also a manifesto, combining philosophy, politics and adventure, on our rights to the city and how to understand the twenty-first century metropolis.
Like almost everybody else i guess, i'd like to be Bradley Garrett in my next life... Minus the troubles with the Transport for London, of course.
Bradley is a writer, photographer and researcher at the University of Oxford. He is also part of a group of urban explorers who trespass into derelict industrial buildings, sewer mazes, construction sites, deep shelters, drains, transportation networks, skyscrapers and other tall structures (mostly for the unique perspective they offer on the city below), and even in the (then) under-construction 2012 Olympic stadium. Urban explorers enter where they are not supposed to set foot, they avoid security guards and often operate at night. They never, however, willingly cause damage nor commit criminal offences. Bradley compares urban explorers to computer hackers: both groups assist in strengthening security by exposing systems' weaknesses through benign exploration.
The reason why Bradley's name might be familiar to some of you is that he is part of the London Consolidation Crew. The group were all over the English newspapers last year when they entered, one after the other, London's 'ghost' tube stations. They had already gained access to a number of them when, 4 days before 'the royal wedding', they tried to get to the British Museum Tube Station, starting at Russel Square station, running across the platform, down the piccadilly line, then switching to the central line tracks. They were caught but the British Transport Police let them off with a caution but Transport for London issued an ASBO forbidding them to talk to one another for 10 years, or to carry any equipment that could be used for exploration after dark.
They've also infiltrated many other fascinating locations (some of which we will never see, no matter how much we are ready to pay.) They climbed on foot the 76 stories of the Shard when it was still under contruction. Or Burlington, Britain's Secret Subterrean City, the place where the British government was to be rebuilt in case of a nuclear attack. They also visited several of the 33,000 derelict buildings in Detroit. The took photos from the roof of the closed down Sahara casino in Las Vegas. They climbed up the wings of the Angel in Gateshead to wrap a scarf around its neck. The played with the London Rail Mail, a miniature underground railway used by the Post Office to move mail between sorting offices. They walked around the unglamorous but rather interesting London sewerage system designed by Joseph Bazalgette in the 19th century. And they managed to move around unnoticed in the spectacular plane graveyard of the George Air Force Base (The Southern California Logistics Airport).
In his book, Bradley narrates the many expeditions of the LCC in London, in the rest of Europe and in the United States. It does sound dangerous (and indeed it often is) but, as he explains, UrbEx is not just about adrenaline. It is also about exploring the fractures in the city, working together as a group, gaining a deeper understanding and awareness of the city and more importantly experiencing the world in non-scripted, non-normative, non-capitalist ways.
The pages also come with the reflections and lessons that each expedition brought about: the social exclusion felt by urban explorers who become unable to connect with people living a 'normal' life, the direct experience of the authoritarian state, the realization that the city is built vertically as well as horizontally.
Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City is a lively book. One moment, you're exploring the architectural remains of the Soviet Union. Next, you are wondering along with the author whether or not it is ethical to visit drains when you know you might be disturbing the homeless who live there (as it happened in Last Vegas a city of 580,000 inhabitants that count 14,000 homeless people)?
I have severe vertigo and a reluctance to spend the night in a cold, humid bunker. But i'm grateful to Bradley for giving me an opportunity to live vicariously and comfortably through some of the episodes of his breakneck adventures.
Crack The Surface - Episode I, short documentary focusing on the culture of Urban Exploring