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.
There's only one week left to head to Newcastle, Sunderland, Gateshead and Middlesbrough and visit AV Festival, a biennial of contemporary art, music and film which main theme this year is As Slow As Possible.
One of the works on show is the extremely long-term project that sees Agnes Meyer-Brandis training a flock of young geese to fly to the moon. The whole training started last Spring and according to her schedule, the birds will go on their first unmanned flight to the satellite in 2024. However, the artist plans to accompany them on a later flight, most probably in 2027.
Meyer-Brandis' scientific experiment is inspired by The Man in the Moone, a story written in the early 17th century by English bishop Francis Godwin, a believer in the Copernican heliocentric system and of the latest theories in magnetism and astronomy. The book tells how Domingo Gonsales flies to the moon and gets to meet an advanced lunar civilization. The adventurer managed to escape the 'magnetic attraction of the earth' by harnessing a flock of birds called gansas, specifically trained for the purpose. Some critics regard the story as the first work of science fiction in English.
Since it has become so difficult to locate moon geese, Meyer-Brandis breeds her own moon geese. She acquired the eggs last April, named each of them after an astronaut, placed them in an incubator, watched over them, witnessed the hatching and imprinted herself on to them as their stand-in mother, just like Konrad Lorenz did with greylag geese.
The surrogate mother had to spend the weeks following the hatching in close contact with the eleven geese. The astronaut training started almost immediately, the young birds were encouraged to walk in a V-shape --the formation used to tow Godwin's chariot-- taken on expeditions into the mountains for high altitude training, taught how to use morse code devices for improved interspecies communication, and given lectures about astronomy and navigation.
The birds are currently continuing their training at Pollinaria (Italy), in an analogue that simulates the conditions of the Moon. Visitors of the show The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility in Newcastle can see a scaled model of the remote analogue site, admire the portraits of the astronauts, watch a documentary of the experiment and follow the birds daily life through the screens in the control room at the back of the gallery.
Documentation of the project and installation The Moon Goose Analogue:
Agnes Meyer-Brandis: The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility is part of the AV Festival and you can see the film and installation at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle through 31 March, 2012.
Also on view at the AV Festival: Slow Motion Car Crash.
You know how survivors of a car crash sometimes say that they experienced the few seconds before and during the collision as a stretched period of time and how cinema often depicts road accidents in slow motion? You might experience a similar feeling in Newcastle right now. The main difference is that the car crash is taking place over the course of a whole month.
A white VW Golf is currently hitting the wall of a shop painted entirely in white at the pace of seven millimetres per hour. So slowly you don't really notice that anything is taking place. You can enter and see the collision from up close during the opening times of the shop/gallery or watch the crash 24/7 from the street.
The car was emptied of any fuel that might spark an explosion and installed on hydraulic tracks that push and crush its front end against the wall.
The piece is a perfect match for the ongoing AV Festival which theme this year is As Slow As Possible. I'll blog a full report of the festival as soon as i've received more images from the press office. The ones i took are unfortunately as lame as usual. Besides i've deleted half of them by mistake. Hurray!
Time lapse footage of the first week of the collision:
Slow Motion Car Crash was commissioned by Locus+, a Newcastle-based art production agency for the AV Festival that takes place in Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland throughout the month.
Tim Miller has devised 101 ways to use a trailer. Yes, a trailer, that mundane, strictly utilitarian object no one would ever waste a glance on. The designer, however, sees the trailer as a blank canvas that has the potential to become a tool for the realization of collective as well as individual dreams. You can use trailers for anything, you can reinterpret them, you can use them to manipulate the world around you or better said you can 'pervert' trailers according to your desires and needs.
Miller has already put some of its 101 ways to use a trailer to the test:
- Trailers are routinely used as a rapid deployment devices that generate a zone of exclusion or control. The police turn trailers into mobile surveillance tools by mounting them with CCTV cameras. The military uses them as walls. Inspired by these practices, Tim Miller designed a trailer that emits a pink light that would deter teenagers from any area where the object is left. The choice of colour is not arbitrary. Pink lights have already been used in a Nottinghamshire housing estate because the colour is seen as 'uncool', emphasizes acne and as such rely on any personal insecurities young people might have.
- A film screened at RCA's work in progress exhibition showed another function for the trailer: the vehicle was used to simulate and film car driving in a similar way to the studios of Hollywood.
Pervert Trailer was exhibited at the Work in Progress show a few weeks ago at the Royal College of Art in London. Only 99 more ways to use a trailer to go!
Pervert Trailers was developed at Platform 13, in the Design Product department. The platform, which is by far my favourite in the whole department, is headed by Onkar Kular and Sebastien Noel. Together they look at how design can contribute to alternative models of living and production by engaging with, commenting on, and addressing issues currently beyond the usual scope of design - political, social, technological or ecological.
Utopia Forever - Visions of Architecture and Urbanism. An inspirational exploration of utopias and radical approaches to city planning. Edited by Robert Klanten and Lukas Feireiss (available on amazon USAand UK.)
Everything in this book is orderly and rational. Clean and clear design. Project neatly presented: title, name of the architects, envisioned location and envisioned completion date. Followed by a brief summary of the context for the project and a few paragraphs that describe its principles and the way it works.
Five themes govern the selection of projects. Great Scapes examines proposals of living in inhospitable spaces: deserts, caves, online, up in the sky, etc. As its name suggests the chapter Rising Tides is all about projects that responds to rising sea levels. Ecotopia Emerging presents projects that have distinctly (and at times, extreme) eco-conscious ideals. Technology Matters highlights the impact of innovation on the way architects envision utopia. The last section, Sky's the Limit engages with vertical architecture.
The dozens of projects presented in the volume are accompanied by six essays that vary from the pragmatic to the humorous: Dan Wood and Amale Andraos walk us briskly through architectural utopia of the 1960s and 70s while Geoff Manaugh offers a tongue-in-cheek but also remarkably spot-on game that would help you build every possible scenario of utopian architecture.
Everything in this book is orderly and rational. Everything but the subject of the monograph of course. But no matter how 'conceptual' and outlandish the works presented in the book might appear, they come with irony, lucidity and a desire to focus on society/the planet's most pressing needs and as such, they provide valuable food for thought.
Some are mere exercises in speculations while others almost have their feet on the ground. Some are strangely seducing, others will give you nightmares.
Of course you will find in this book what any respectable book about utopian architecture should offer: pods of all sorts, vertical farms a gogo, mobile living spaces, cities built in the air, on the water, in the water and of course flooded cities. But there were also a few scenarios i had never heard about:
David A. Garcia has a couple of exciting projects in the book. My favourite is the Quarantined Library located on a cargo ship. Its mission is to collect infected and radioactive books, a robotic arms that engraves secrets on wooden panels infected by termites, and historically censored books. I couldn't find illustrations online but i did find some for the South Pole living station for 100 visitors with minimum environmental impact. The space would be holed out in a super large iceberg which would eventually melt in 7 to 10 years time.
Mila Studio proposes to build a 1,000m tall faux mountain at the site of the masterpieces that is the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin instead of hotels and sky-high offices. The Berg would be the world's largest man-made mountain, covered with snow from September to March and would serve as a tourist attraction for skiers in the otherwise slope-less city.
London-based NaJa and deOstos office develops speculative, alternative urban concepts. One of the most attention-grabbing is the Hanging Cemetery of Baghdad which explore a possible response to extreme cultural and political challenges such as the crisis in the Middle East. Initiated in 2004, the project envisions "a gigantic presence of a hanging funereal structure [that] extends over the volatile city of Baghdad."
Nicolas Mouret's Phyte is a 380m high tower that would move in natural flow and offer a stark contrast to the city's static skyline. The mechanical energy of the rocking tower would generate enough electricity to supply the building's lighting.
Stéphane Malka's Self Defense hijacks The Grande Arche De La Défense in Paris and turn it into the 'Great arch of fraternity' at the service of the forsaken, the marginalized, refugees, demonstrators, dissenters, hippies, utopians, and the stateless of all kinds.
Where the Grass is Greener by Tomorrow's Thoughts Today envisions a group of Londoners who have chosen to segregate themselves from the rest of society, and has taken up the mantle of sustainability in an extraordinary way. Driven by a set of ethics that places them in sometimes radical opposition to the rest of London, they have adopted a lifestyle that effectively makes them a carbon sink for the remainder of the city.
Saturation City explores the future of Australian urban space in 40 years time. The proposal manufactured a crisis - a rise in sea level of 20m, tested around Melbourne and Port Philip Bay - that would require dramatic urban upheaval. The park/garden, the business district, the suburb and the coastline, are subjected to dramatic densifications in response to the 'flood'.
Views inside the book:
Image on the homepage: NL Architects, Cruise City, City Cruise, 2003.
Wodiczko is best known for his large-scale and video projections on buildings and monuments. Since the 1980s, he has been transforming the facades of official buildings and historical monuments into temporary spaces for critical reflection and public protest.
Krzysztof Wodiczko covers 40 years of the artist's extensive, and often controversial, body of work using contemporary technologies to form a commentary on politics, ethics, social responsibility and the urban experience. Comprising a collection of writing by some of the most critically acclaimed art historians, cultural theorists and commentators working today, along with both previously published and unpublished texts by Wodiczko himself, this book is the definitive study of the artist's work. Richly illustrated, the book includes a diverse selection of images, ranging from digital montages and preliminary visualisations to sketches and photographs.
If there's one artist whose innovative and socially-engaged work never ceases to impress me it's Krzysztof Wodiczko. Not even his 'oldest' pieces have suffered from the passage of time. They are still as relevant as ever, even if the context has changed. His 1969 Personal Instrument, for example, consisted of a microphone, worn on the forehead, which retrieved sound from the environment while photo-receivers in gloves filtered the sound through the movement of the hand: closing the hands suppresses the sound, turning the hands to face the light opens up the sound channel, the photoreceivers on the right hand control the low-pitch filter and the ones on the left hand control the high-pitch. The resulting sound was perceived by the artist only through his headphones. By emphasizing selective listening, vital to a Polish citizen's survival at the time, Wodiczko intimated the prevalence of censored speech, registering "dissent of a system that fostered only one-directional critical thinking - listening over speech." (Source: wikipedia.)
Wodiczko's projections and instruments reinstate the city as a space for discussion, relentless questioning and debate. Therefore Krzysztof Wodiczko is not only a monograph on the artist's work, it is also a book that offers readers the opportunity to reflect upon the unresolved and under-discussed issues that the artist's projects engages with: post-war trauma, plight of illegal immigrants, exclusion of homeless people from society, industrial pollution, profit-making real-estate redevelopment that forces poor residents to move away, gun violence, etc. It is also one of the rare books i feel like recommending to artists, activists and designers alike.
Presentations of the artist's individual artworks alternate with essays by Professors of Art History, Contemporary Art, of Architectural Theory as well as art critiques and curators that focus on particular aspects of Wodiczko's work and life: the political and artistic context of Poland from the 1950s till the 1980s, New York's urban redevelopment programme which involved raise in property value and displacement of the lower income population, urban guerrilla warfare, issues of identity, etc. Along with the texts by the various contributors, the study contains also excerpts from conversation the artist had with art critiques or homeless people, a selection of his own essays, chapters from exhibition catalogues and other original documents.
I'm sure many of you are familiar with his work but for my own pleasure, here's a couple of works i discovered or re-discovered in the book:
Homeless Vehicle Project provides homeless people with a mobile tool that responds to their basic needs (living, sleeping and washing) but also assists them in their 'daily job' as collectors and resellers of discarded cans and bottles. The vehicle was not designed as a solution to their housing problem, but it rendered visible to passersby the invisible: the hundred of people compelled to 'sleep rough' on the streets of New York City.
While he was in London for a commissioned projection in Trafalgar Square, Wodiczko decided to react to what he was reading in the newspapers: racial violence in South Africa and Thatcher government's refusal to apply economic sanctions against apartheid. Since the South Africa House, was mere steps away from the Nelson Column, the artist projected a Nazi swastika on the facade of the building, establishing an uncomfortable parallel between the racist policies of South Africa and that of Hitler's Germany.
South African officials contacted the police who put a stop to the projection after only two hours.
The projection of a cruise missile on the cliffs above Bow Falls, in Banff National Park in Alberta echoed protests that rose across Canada when it emerged that Alberta had been selected as a location for testing U.S. cruise missiles in the country.
Black Dog Publishing also has an art gallery by King's Cross St Pancras' station. They have recently opened the exhibition Krzysztof Wodiczko: The Abolition of War. It will remain on view at the WORK Gallery in London though 14 January 2012.