Afrikaner others

Jong Afrikaner
How can you tell a whitey from an Afrikaner? A dire matter in the context of international relations and national security, I know. I mean, who is a boer and who is a brother?

Bringing us that much closer to absolute racial transparency is Jong Afrikaner, showing at the Commune 1 gallery in Cape Town until 26 July. With the vim of a true ethnographer, artist Roelof Petrus van Wyk has drawn a scientifically objective sample group of Afrikaners from his friends and photographed them from all four sides with a stylistic emphasis on their surface physicality. So much beautified pinky-whiteness on a black background, I can’t say n-n-n-neo-Aryan without stuttering.

With the portraits together as a whole making up the artwork, this is the first time that the full experience of Caucasian hipsters and socialites is being shown in its entirety. Previously, a selection of the photos was shown on the Figures and Fictions exhibition of South African photography at the V&A Museum in London last year. Comprising the work of 17 photographers, it is noteworthy that besides isolated images by Jodi Bieber, David Goldblatt and Pieter Hugo, the only photos of white South Africans are Van Wyk’s.

To be frank, this is the only explanation I can give for why they were included. That and the fact that white-skinned head-and-shoulders shots floating on black nothingness perpetuates the easy-to-swallow concept of Afrikaners – and whiteys, since who can tell the difference especially if you’re not as finely tuned to racial nuance as a South African is – being completely decontextualized and not belonging in Africa.

When asked why he thinks he was included Van Wyk agrees: “All the work on the show was photographing black people and when there were photographs of white people, it was white people in relation to black people.” Okay, he’s level-headed I’m thinking, maybe I got it all wrong.

No: “My work is about white people in relation to white people and what it means to be white, not in relation to black people but within our own specific culture,” he goes on. Oh, of course you’re making art about white people for white people, what a noble cause. Not narcissistic at all. (“I’m an artist, what do you expect?” he replies to that accusation later).

“[The exhibition] is also a critical evaluation of white people and how I believe whiteness has become broken down to become much more inclusive, in an African way of looking and absorbing, and broadening what it means to be African.” Funny, seeing a whole bunch of white people in a room by themselves doesn’t exactly convey that message to me. It is also a sad indictment on South Africa that an artist would seek to “Africanise” by showing Afrikaners through a racist lens, as though being African is being the subject of racism.

Over lunch Van Wyk tries to explain by telling me the stories behind the photos: one Afrikaner married a Zulu man, another Afrikaner became a sangoma, an Afrikaner gay couple adopted a black child, and a teenage Afrikaner learnt to play the saxophone in the township. Really I’m not interested though as firstly it seems like clutching at straws and secondly no one who goes to the gallery is going to be privy to that information, since the works do not even have names, or explanations, beneath them – like old ethnographic photographs.

Unfortunately it’s a cliché, but one does tend to see this kind over-produced, under-conceived artwork coming from artists brought up in the advertising industry. Van Wyk himself boasts that he has about 25 Loeries to his name from his days as creative director and owner of Trigger, with Gavin Rooke.

Jong Afrikaner

“This is not an ad campaign for Afrikaners, you can quote me on that one,” he explicates, exasperated by questions of how this representation vindicates Afrikaners? How can he call his selection process inclusive? What preconceived ideas of Afrikaners are challenged by the work? And how would this exhibition would go down in Khayelitsha? He’s a nice guy and he bought me lunch. However, it just seems that the work simply does not stand up to rigorous questioning.

It’s easy to think that showing a historically racist ethnographic grouping, in a historically racist photographic format, is ironic and that irony is redeeming. To then hang these portraits of a historically racist ethnographic grouping, who are increasingly the victims of an ironic racism themselves – even though everyone knows that they are still financially and socially advantaged – in an elite inner-city gallery and invite everyone over for a glass of wine is… I have no words. It really just seems like a mockery of the grave dehumanization of ethnographic photography!

One point that I do concede to Van Wyk is that for the photographing of white people in South Africa to become less problematic, then we need a lot more varied representations than simply David Goldblatt’s open-ended empathy and Roger Ballen’s monsters. Maybe the question to ask is why there are so few photographic representations of white people in South Africa?

Published by Mahala, 29 June 2012

Tweets for sweets

South Africa seems keen on treat-based tweeting these days. On the heels of Bos’ “Tweet for Tea” social media-driven vending machine at Design Indaba, Cape Town welcomes another guerilla marketing installation integrating the mechanical with the digital to make you smile. Conceptualized by design duo Thingking (who created the Bos machine as well) and advertising agency DraftFCB, the Wonka-like pop-up machine occupies an unused storefront window and is based on bringing to life the Toyota Etios “Here to make you smile” campaign.

Visitors tweet the #etiossmiles hashtag and a unique pin to activate the Rube Goldberg-style installation, which releases a gumball that is put through about a minute’s worth of trials and tribulations before being dispensed to the tweeter. Using the drama of the extravagantly intricate machine to delay gratification just slightly, tweeters have become completely absorbed in the experience and, asvideo records show, leave with an ear-to-ear grin.

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The contraption was literally born from a bunch of junk, melding a hodgepodge of avelskoen, car central-locking motor, treadmill, plastic palm trees, xylophones, magnifying glasses, a mirror ball, a midi keyboard played by a rotating armed stick, a plastic shark tank, a polaroid camera, a bird house, a zoetrope of dancing bears and wobbly-legged wooden toys among other things.

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Sourcing the majority of the parts from Cape Town’s infamous weekly car boot sale, the Milnerton Market, the aesthetic is charmingly retro, upcycled and handmade. All of the switches and triggers are visible on the system that took Thingking’s Marc Nicolson and Lyall Sprong three weeks to make, and some tweeters have reportedly spent ages figuring out exactly how it works. Rather than the typical black-box approach of contemporary technology, this openness of the mechanics has certainly enhanced the magic of the situation.

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The machine is also prone to fail on occasion, mostly because not all gumballs are perfectly shaped and in an effort the keep the machine as open as possible, there are very few guides. However this element of chance only serves to make the receiver more grateful for their good luck. “Tweets for Sweets” is now up and running at Muti, 3 Vredehoek Avenue in Cape Town.

Images by Sydelle Willow Smith

Coolhunting, 26 June 2012

Revital Cohen on the design of “artificial biology”

Repurposing a retired greyhound racer as a human respirator or a pet sheep as a human dialysis machine represent the type of concepts that irreparably change your understanding of what design can do. How about an electricity-generating human organ that can be implanted to replace the appendix? Such is London-based designer Revital Cohen’s specialization: pushing the applications of design into the realm of what seems like science fiction, holding back just before it leaves reality. Fictional ideas might be all too easy to dismiss as flights of fancy, but Cohen does not just pluck them from the sky—hers are consciously based on the newest scientific research.

A 2008 RCA Design Interactions graduate, Cohen is now in the process of establishing a collaborative studio with partner and fellow graduate Tuur van Balen. Over the past four years, her work has been included in seminal exhibitions, such as MoMA’s Talk To Me exhibition in 2011 and the Why Design Now? triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt in 2010.

Her most recent work, The Immortal, entails a dialysis machine, heart-lung machine, infant incubator, chemical ventilator and a cell saver all hooked up to each other in a seamless exchange of air and “blood” (salty water for these purposes). We recently asked Cohen about this project and more. See the interview below.

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The Immortal has been in the making for quite a few years now, where did it all begin?

It started as a thought experiment and has now become a reality. I have been fascinated in these objects since my Life Support Project . They are so meaningful but we never see them unless we use them, which means we never really discuss them in the context of material culture or design — how they are designed, by whom and what their design problems are. They are one of the most important and significant things we will ever use but they never get much attention beyond the engineering and technicality. I wanted to do this experiment to make people see these things and think about these machines.

Your fascination with these objects also comes out in your video, The Posthuman Condition. Are these projects related?

Actually the video is the research that became Life Support Project and was shot in a dialysis ward in a hospital. These stories first inspired the Life Support Project. Secondly it made me think that there are these objects that live secret lives, which normally people don’t ever see. That stayed with me and has now become The Immortal. As a designer it is interesting to think not only about redesigning these objects and how they are made, but also about the stories they tell.

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What are the stories being told in The Immortal?

For one thing, these particular machines tell the story about how we perceive our bodies in Western culture. For example, this type of machine has never been invented in China because in Chinese medicine, their perception of the body is completely different. The machines in The Immortal emphasise that Western medicine sees the circle of life to be the heart and lungs. We completely ignore the digestive system. Chinese medicine looks at the body on a more chemical level and places a huge emphasis on the digestive system.

So these objects really tell social and cultural stories. They are also objects that make us think about ethics and questions of prolonging life, cheating death, living an artificial life, euthanasia, living on machines when electricity consumption is bad for the planet… They just have so much grey area surrounding them.

You have described this project as “artificial biology”. What does that mean?

These machines reflect human attempts at biology. However it can’t really be done through mechanics or, if it is done through mechanics, it is so removed from anything that is biological. The installation takes up a whole room and it’s not even all the functions we carry in our little bodies everywhere. When we try to replicate biology, it’s amazing how complicated things have to be.

What really interests me is the point of connection between the natural and the artificial — how we try to design organic things using artificial materials and how we try to control nature. All of the tools we have are designed — everything in our houses, as well as our cars and even roads. Once we have the tools to design the natural world, the question is how will we apply our artificial tools to biological material?

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Would you ever redesign the actual medical life support machines?

I have thought about that as a potential future project. Maybe, but at the moment for me it’s more about telling a story that makes the audience come out of the room thinking about these questions and objects.

What are the applications and purpose of your design practice?

That’s something I’m reviewing all the time. It’s always been to inspire people. To keep myself interested by asking questions I don’t know the answer to. To explore the nature of objects and the design of biology.

Design biology is still a very conceptual thing to look into, but it is going to become a reality in years to come. What my and Tuur van Balen’s studio’s work will engage with are the implications of these new applications, imagining how they will be used and looking into the grey areas of designing bodies, biology and nature, and the meaning of nature whether designed or not. We’re trying to bring these questions up and make them part of the design debate.

Coolhunting, 21 June 2012

Emo public furniture

Sitting, eating, lying, bathing, storing, arranging flowers, telling the time—these are the functions to which mainstream design reduces the sum of human effort, focusing on model houses with model users whose needs do not deviate from the essentials of living. But as Unhappy Hipsters highlights, humans are more than just objects in their own domestic showrooms and, moreover, we are more often than not lonely and horrible. Here, a few young designers creating furniture that addresses more psychological functions than simply sitting down.

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The Courtesy Table

The “Courtesy Table” by young Dutch designer Marleen Jansen came out of her thesis on table manners. She wanted to design a table that voluntarily forced people to remain at the table until everyone was finished eating. The bench beneath the table is hinged like a see-saw and requires both diners to remain seated if balance is to be maintained. You can’t help wondering if the second iteration will also somehow prevent diners from using their mobile phones.

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Homage to Karl

The “Homage To Karl” chair by Patrycja Domanska and Felix Gieselmann is a high chair to make it easier for writers in coffee shops to observe people and distinguish themselves. Literally elevating the status of cafe hacks and affording reticent writers with some narcissism, self-staging and even retreat, the chair was inspired by Austrian author Karl Kraus, known for his patronage of Viennese cafes.

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Confession

Swedish design student Nick Ross has also sought to design a micro-environment of discretion within public spaces. “Confession” is a bar with a sound-proofed hood that encourages confidential activities such as the sharing of secrets, office gossip, a personal story or even a quick business meeting in crowded areas. Like in Arik Levy’s similar atonement-orientated “Contemporary Domestic Confessional“, the privacy-seeking zeitgeist is providing solid inspiration for thoughtful furniture design.

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Modified Social Benches

Besides driving a throwback to confidentiality, it is also possible that Facebook is making the world lonelier than ever before. Danish artist Jeppe Hein has hacked the typical park bench to create alternative typologies, which encourage interaction and discussion about social behavior in public spaces. The almost dysfunctional benches demand that the user be engaged with their environment and turn sitting into a conscious act, rather than blending into the anonymity of the crowd.

Coolhunting, 11 June 2012

Cityscapes

What is a world-class city? This is the question that leads the second issue of the new urban-focused magazine Cityscapes, published by the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities. The center’s director and consulting editor of the magazine, Edgar Pieterse, features prominently in Gary Hustwit’s recent documentary Urbanized which explores city design and planning, as well as the fate of the Olympic city once the games are gone.

The notion of the city as a subject of design has come up in recent conversation once again—besides Urbanized, last year also saw the Cooper-Hewitt Museum’ssecond “Design with the Other 90%” exhibition, this time themed on cities. Meanwhile the World Design Capital biennale celebrating urban regeneration through design is also growing in profile, this year hosted by Helsinki.

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Most of these initiatives brandish the fact that more than half of the world’s 7 billion people now live in cities, and that the world population is predicted to reach 9 billion by the year 2050—80% of whom will be living in cities. However, what’s not been talked about as much is the prediction that 97% of that 2 billion will be born in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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This “Global South” is what the Cityscapes magazine concerns itself with, while discussing why the question of a “world-class city” is relevant. Are the exponential growth rates of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) going to result in blind urban mimicking of the aspirational qualities of “world-class” Western cities without pause for redesign and improvement?

Co-edited by Sean O’Toole and Tau Tavengwa, the team behind the heyday of theArt South Africa quarterly, the magazine doesn’t simply rely on design to answer the question, but looks to academia, art, philosophy, music, photography and on-the-ground reporting to paint a comprehensive picture. At the same time, its application of a design lens to unlikely bureaucratic subjects gives the publication a refreshing, totally unique angle.

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The result has been described as Africa’s answer to Monocle, something of a gritty, pensive, self-aware, counter-revolutionary alter ego of the British “city porn” Bible. As the magazine’s designer Tavengwa has applied a design-style sheet that balances sophistication and earthiness, which is rumored to have brought in fan mail from Rahul Mehrotra, the head of Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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The first edition is completely sold out, but the second issue is currently available from the African Centre for Cities (contact them through their website to receive a print copy). Content includes design reports on the “world-class” development of Johannesburg and Bangalore, and an interview with the mayor of the most dangerous city in the world, Mogadishu. Contributors include Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, Kerwin Datu, editor-in-chief of The Global Urbanist, narrative journalist Kevin Bloom and Congolese filmmaker Djo Tunda wa Munga.

Coolhunting.com, 4 June 2012