On Being Couplandesque

On the occasion of his first solo show in Europe, post-novelist Douglas Coupland talks about art and digital life.

Published by DAMn magazine, 5 November 2015

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His first novel, the 1991 international bestseller Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, is what first drew attention to Douglas Coupland. The Canadian has actually published thirteen novels, not to mention short stories, non-fiction books, dramatic works, and screenplays. But since 2000, it is in the visual arts that he finds most solace. Employing a variety of materials in his work, a common theme is a curiosity with pop culture and 20th-century pop art, in particular the corrupting and seductive dimensions thereof. Military imagery is also interwoven, the result of growing up in a military family at the height of the Cold War, much to his chagrin.

Bit Rot is a term defining the decay of digital information. All electronic files are under constant decay. Did you know that the thousands of mp3s, xvids, and jpegs backed up on the external hard-drive, whether double-saved in Dropbox or not (and probably not viewed for years) – like our memories – do not last forever? That even what happens on the Internet is not everlasting?

Slogans for the 21st Century (detail), 2011-ongoing Courtesy of the artist and Vancouver Art Gallery

Slogans for the 21st Century (detail), 2011-ongoing. Courtesy of the artist and Vancouver Art Gallery

Anyway, “knowing everything turns out to be slightly boring”, quips a Douglas Coupland slogan emblazoned on a fuchsia background in Helvetica all-caps. Just one such poster amid a multi-coloured wall full of other netspeak slogans for our post-Internet brains, it barely stands out from: So. Much. Porn., Waiting For The Singularity Is Getting Dull, Too Much Information, Or I Miss Feeling Clueless…

It’s the launch of Coupland’s first solo show in Europe. Despite it being about death and destruction, the cult figure – who baptised Generation X with his eponymous 1991 novel – says it is not dystopic: “Violence is a constant in human history, endlessly reinventing itself in new forms, so you can’t really say that one year was more or less dystopic than any other.”

“I don’t think we live in a dystopia. We live in an age of hundreds of millions of people trying to put their spin on anything and everything. Depending on time zones, politics, and geography, the present is distorted in ways that can seem alarming. Remember the Grexit? Remember how important it was? It was just an overhyped blip. Part of psychic survival in the next few decades involves developing the skill to see just how short-term seemingly devastating issues actually are”, continues the self-proclaimed pessimistic optimist.

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The Living Internet, 2015 A kinetic room-sized sculptural tableau / Slogans for the 21st Century, 2011-present An ongoing body of statements Photo: Cassander Eeftinck-Schattenkerk © Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art, 2015

Central to the exhibition is an installation that depicts the Internet as we type something into a search engine. “I wanted to create the sensation of opening a door and looking into the Internet and searching, and to give a taste of what that actually looks like. Not data visualisation; rather, a portrait of the Internet itself.”

Created during Coupland’s residency at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, the work comprises of rudimental, oversized polystyrene sculptures of a cat, a fist, a bust of Putin, Tetris pieces, a Lego man, a dinosaur scull, an AK47, and other popular search terms, each positioned on a hacked home-vacuum robot. Moving around randomly, collisions and juxtapositions abound, with white soccer balls scribbled with lesser random search terms bumping about in the goalless field.

“It actually takes an insane amount of work to make the interaction of the shapes appear casual. The robots are very finicky, and the mass, centre of gravity, and harmonic potential of the shapes above them has to be correct to the millimetre”, Coupland explains. “I will brag here: it took the robotics team weeks to achieve it.”

2_ HeadCMYK Colour registration head, 2015 Acrylic on b+w photo, laminated onto canvas, 51 x 71 cm Courtesy of the artist

The show also includes prints with heavy Andy Warhol references (such as his hairpiece), lots of slogans, pixellations made with googly toy eyes (including a copy of 1984), as well as works from Coupland’s personal collection. Working with curator Samuel Saelemakers to create spatial conversations within his collection surprised even Coupland himself: “The thing about this show that freaked me out was the room filled with staged group photography. I had no idea I was so obsessed with pictorial depictions of societal collapse and failure.”

Compared to his chaotic, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction, culture-defining novels, Coupland-the-artist is far more restrained and literal. He collects, he doesn’t curate. It is neighbourhoods that are the future, not cities. Cardboard furniture means stiffened-paper desks, chairs, and shelves. And there is no typical day at Google.

It’s a rare moment when Coupland reveals his personal narrative, whence the Couplandesque turn emerges. “Growing up, my father was in the air force, so I was surrounded by pictures of jets and rifles on the walls, and my brother is a taxidermist, so the insides and outsides of dead things were everywhere”, he told the audience at the launch symposium. “I grew up, became an adult, and got my own place with the complete opposite of everything I grew up with. I thought I’d escaped my family’s hillbilly curse, but my friend said there’s no such thing”, pointing out all the fighter jets and military images on the walls.

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Warflower Number Three, 2006 Digital print Courtesy of the Daniel Faria Gallery, Toronto

This subconscious discord has always distinguished Coupland: his writing is visual and his art textual. “It depends on your genetics and whether you’re a visual thinker, a verbal thinker, or both. I’m both. The literary world is mostly filled with people who can’t, and who will never-ever medically/clinically be able to think visually. It took me a decade to figure that out, and once I did, it spooked me. I need to be around people who can think both ways. This is why I began going visual big-time, starting in 2000.”

It might also be that Coupland’s post-Internet brain is no longer hooked on the book. Since the middling reviews of Worst. Person. Ever. in 2013, he has penned three non-fiction books, including The Age of Earthquakes, published earlier this year, and has co-written with cultural critic Shumon Basar and Serpentine Gallery curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Now, alongside the Bit Rot exhibition, a collection of short stories and essays have been published under the same name, in which he declares “goodbye to writing for the sake of writing” in the introduction.

“I have no patience for poorly framed ideas or characters”, Coupland pronounces. “And if you’re going to write fiction, please get to the point.” However, he’s quick to clarify that “it’s not a dumbing down, but there’s a lot of reformatting, and once you’re reformatted… it’s like going from Mac to PC, or learning a new language.”

As for Andy, Dag, and Claire – the main characters in Generation X, Coupland reckons they managed to escape to Mexico, known to have the worst Internet in the world. The state of their 50-something-year-old brains “remains unclear”. Perhaps it’s time to take a paperback holiday.

Bit Rot is at Witte de With, Rotterdam until 03 January 2016. 

More spectacles in Cape Town: Cyrus Kabiru

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An exhibition of the C-Stunners spectacles by Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru is running in Cape Town, expressing the multiple, one-of-a-kind perspectives on and from Africa.

His spectacles are wild and whimsical, serious and resourceful. Kabiru works with objects and recycled materials found on the streets of Nairobi. Bars evoke prisons, bullets evoke police brutality, bones and calabashes talk to tradition, wire satellite dishes and other elaborate metal constructions comment on technology and the future. Most involve many of these elements.

The press release lobs Kabiru into the Afro-futurism box, a philosophy that has increasingly become an empty populist label celebrating everyone from Sun Ra to Outkast and Janelle Monáe.

Frankly, it’s a patronising surface-level reading, as Los Angeles artist Martine Syms explains in her The Mundane Afro-futurist Manifesto: “This dream of utopia can encourage us to forget that outer space will not save us from injustice and that cyberspace was prefigured upon a ‘master/slave’ relationship.”

Kabiru is self-taught. In fact, he started making the glasses when he was seven years old and has forged his own path.

A fellow at TED’s The Young, the Gifted, the Undiscovered in the US in 2013, he explained: “They used to tell their kids ‘Work hard. If you won’t work hard, you’ll be like Cyrus.’ I was very different. I was always in my house doing art, painting and making sculptures. And no one understood what I was doing. I didn’t study. I wore shaggy clothes.

“To them it was a bit weird. I didn’t know Sunday. I didn’t know Monday. I didn’t know.”

Aside from a selection of the spectacles and selfies of Kabiru wearing his glasses, his Black Mambas are also on show.

These are sculptures made from fixed-gear bikes that have increasingly become obsolete with the advent of the scooter. As such an expression of extreme individualism and the celebration of multiple narratives – numerous perspectives, positive and negative – and a grounded presence in the now, Kabiru’s work is far more nuanced than “black sci-fi”.

Also worth comparing with these C-Stunners is Cape Town’s favourite talking point, the Perceiving Freedom “public spectacles” by Michael Elion.

Unfortunately, instead of being supersized and displayed in public, Kabiru’s work is hidden away in the obscure The Palms complex in Woodstock, where SMAC Gallery relocated to at the end of last year.

Published by City Press, 22 February 2015

Curated retail is the antidote

Luxury shopping at the V&A’s Watershed and Zeitz Museum is not about price tags but rather authenticity and limited editions.

The World Design Capital 2014 year has been busy for Trevyn and Julian McGowan. Having spent the past few years establishing Southern Guild, internationally and locally, as the go-to for collectable South African design that goes for fine art prices, this year was about using their reputation.

In February they hosted South Africa’s first international design fair, Guild, and in October launched the Business of Design seminars. In November they opened Southern Guild’s first permanent gallery in Woodstock, having shown the collection at fairs in Dubai, Basel, Miami and New York. They also curated and launched the Watershed design and craft emporium under the contract of the V&A Waterfront, which included their first retail space, Odeon.

“The [local] design industry has come of age just recently, and it’s now ready to go from weekend markets and once-a-year affairs to 365 days a year of retail and staffing,” Trevyn McGowan said of the Watershed, named to reflect this serendipitous moment.

Trevyn McGowan

More than 400 local brands are presented in a remixing of the exhibitors from the old Red and Blue craft sheds, with hip young emerging and exclusive established designers thrown in to ensure there is something for everyone in every category, with prices ranging from R20 to R50 000.

“If something is R20 or R50 000, I’m as interested in presenting it in the discussion because if the product is good, the impulse is good, and it’s not clichéd, tired, copied, crappy stuff, then there’s something worth looking at,” says McGowan. He confirms the world trend for luxury not to be about price tag but about authenticity, limited editions, and being handmade and unique.

The age of isolation

There’s something new to luxury, though, in a social media-driven world in which everyone is both more connected and more isolated than ever before: human connection. “Meeting the people behind the brands is the absolute definition of luxury for me in a world where everything is nameless, faceless and generic,” says McGowan.

Besides many of the designers and crafters staffing their own stands at least some of the time, the architecture is intended to foster cross-pollination, collaboration and interpersonal inspiration.

An industrial shed from the dry docks of the harbour, Cape Town’s Wolff Architects prioritised translucent building materials and clear lines of sight between the storeys. Looking like a street market on the ground level, floors suspended from a fortified steel frame host the University of Cape Town’s Innovation Hub for the Graduate School of Business, co-working as formal office space, and exhibition areas. It recently hosted the world-renowned Lego art exhibition by United States artist Nathan Sawaya.

With 24-million visitors a year, the V&A Waterfront is the most visited site in Africa, yet it’s hardly news that money does not buy happiness. As George Monbiot writes in “Materialism: a system that eats us from the inside out”, a Guardian article in which he sites research linking loneliness and shopping: “Social atomisation may be the best sales strategy ever devised, and continuous marketing looks like an unbeatable programme for atomisation.”

Curated retail is increasingly being touted as the bricks-and-mortar antidote to the online retail game, and it’s not just about products but about drawing the right crowd. For instance, McGowan explains, curating is not just about “editing, selecting and having an opinion” but also about “being a connector” and “curating people that you think will be symbiotic or who will get on”.

Artist’s impression of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa

“Selection is a minuscule part of curating,” agrees Mark Coetzee, executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which has set up an interim pavilion for itself, just down the walkway from Watershed, on the bridge towards the Cape Grace. “It’s also about defining how the conversations add to the work. So part of our strategy is to open things up so that all people participate, regionally and globally.”

A safe space for tough art

Coetzee, who has returned to South Africa after 15 years abroad as director of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami and programme director of PUMAVision, is using the pavilion as an audience research project to inform decisions regarding the museum. A refurbishment of the historic Grain Silo undertaken by British architect Thomas Heatherwick, the museum is due for completion in 2016.

Using facial recognition video technology, Coetzee says they have amassed readings of about 250 000 visitors in the past nine months. The technology recognises how long they’re spending in the gallery and rooms, and with each artwork, as well as their use of public space and ablutions. “Some people think we have to dumb the art down but I can’t compromise what the artist wants to say. If you start dumbing it down and making it populist, why have a museum?”

Coetzee says his team of curators are trained to be on their feet for eight hours, greeting everyone who looks in, inviting them in, offering glasses of water and initiating conversations. This emphasises the human touch as opposed to the aloof elitism of many galleries.

“The more difficult the art gets, the more user-friendly we have to be in every other aspect. If you don’t feel you’re in a safe space, you become defensive, vindictive, vengeful, angry. But if you feel you’re in a safe space, you’re a little more open to difference and dialogue. So I don’t think we must underestimate the role of service industry-orientated practice in public institutions,” Coetzee reflects.

The V&A Waterfront contributed R500-million to the museum and Jochen Zeitz bequeathed his collection of African and diaspora art and underwrote the running costs. It is a not-for-profit institution that holds the art “in trust for the people of South Africa”, says Coetzee.

The museum is a powerful statement of community. But should such a democratic institution be on private land, which can still control the right of admission?

“There’s something that’s particular about the V&A Waterfront – it’s private land, yet it’s the most used land in Africa,” Coetzee responds. “It’s also one of the few spaces in Cape Town that are shared spaces – black and white, rich and poor, Christian and not, etcetera.”

It’s a social inclusion that remains a luxury in the Mother City.

Mail&Guardian, 19 December 2014

Changing the world of art – to click or not to click?

Clicktivism – can logging into a website and adding your name to a petition really change the world of art?

If 2011 was the year that “clicktivism” made it into the Collins dictionary, 2014 is the year it made it into the art world, courtesy of Cape Town.

In September, a Change.org petition against showing Cape Town artist Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B at the Barbican Gallery in London drew worldwide attention – and 22 988 supporters.

The exhibition – a performance artwork that recreates a colonial human zoo in which black people are put on exhibit in historical scenarios – was again petitioned in November to prevent its showing in Paris, drawing 20 433 signatories, who believe that it is racist.

Meanwhile, right in the Mother City, an Avaaz.org petition calling for the removal of the Perceiving Freedom artwork from the Sea Point promenade has received just over 1 000 signatures over the past month.

The appeal to Mayor Patricia de Lille and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille demands a full investigation into the process whereby the controversial supersized Ray Bans by artist Michael Elion was approved.

Can logging into a website and adding your name to a list really change the world of art?

The self-righteous mob

The London showing of Exhibit B was cancelled, but only after protestors created a disturbance on the opening night. Immediately, prominent theatre, art and museum curators from around the world rallied around what was labelled an act of bottom-up censorship.

Bailey has labelled the protestors a “self-righteous mob”, and decried the fact that none of them have actually seen the exhibition.

In Paris, however, the show goes on, despite protestors having smashed the door on the opening night.

Just a month since Paul McCarthy’s inflatable Christmas tree that resembled a buttplug was vandalised, forcing it to be removed, Fleur Pellerin, the French cultural minister, has come out in full support of Exhibit B, saying that they refuse to give in to censorship and intimidation.

A Paris court concurs, with a judge ruling against a collective of artists calling themselves “Against Exhibit B”, who brought a case against the City of Paris on December 8, to close down Exhibit B on the grounds of it being humiliating.

On Tuesday the judge said that: “The artistic representation in question unambiguously condemns the enslavement of black people during the colonial period and their treatment, contrary to the principle of respect for human dignity or human rights in the contemporary world.”

“The huge city block-sized building is completely sealed off by 300 policemen. One has to go through a labyrinthine security rigmarole to enter the cultural centre.

“We are performing in the bowels of the building with no access to what’s going on outside: apparently 100 or so protesters … Somebody in security said to me: ‘Its costing a fortune, 300 policemen, outside, in the rain, on a Sunday’.

‘Is the centre paying?’ I asked. ‘No. We are. Our taxes’.

“‘Hmm’, I thought. Maybe if your taxes were used to provide better opportunities for disenfranchised second-class citizens in the first place, the harvest wouldn’t be so bitter,” wrote Bailey.

Yes, just 100 protestors from 20 433 petitioners.

The number game 

The organisers of the Perceiving Freedom petition, John Nankin, Candice Breitz and Lizza Littlewort, know that they can’t “play the numbers game”, given the niche interest of visual art.

Instead, they have aimed to make their 1 000 signatories really count. Rather than a self-righteous mob, they have curated a who’s-who list of art experts as supporters.

“Many really well-known and influential academics, curators, critics, artists, as well as prominent people in other fields of culture signed,” says Nankin, making a special point to highlight the support of the original selection committee of Art 54, the project that Perceiving Freedom forms part of, as well as other artists involved in the project.

Nonetheless, the fact that the petition calls for the removal of the artwork may be why there are not more supporters, since it can be perceived to be censorship.

However, despite the widespread criticism of the actual artwork and concept, the organisers stipulate that they are not calling for its removal because of the nature of the work, but because it has become clear that due process has not been followed.

As one of the original Art54 curators, Farzanah Badsha, explained to the Daily Maverick, neither the artwork in its current form nor its location is what was originally approved. In other words, the petition calls for some form of justice, not an insurrection of popular opinion.

Will that give the petition more clout? Now we wait. Nankin says that they hope to present the petition to the City of Cape Town early next year, and it is still open for signatures – uh, clicks.

Mail&Guardian, 10 December 2014

Tokolos Stencil Collective: ‘Crap’ art designed to unsettle

Guerilla art group Tokolos Stencil Collective poses dirty challenges to audiences and the art gallery.

Defacing the Mandela Ray-Ban sculpture is not all that the Tokolos Stencil Collective, who most Capetonians know for the ubiquitous “Remember Marikana” stencils throughout the city, has been up to lately. A soiled government-issue porta-potty filled the Brundyn+ gallery in Cape Town with the stench of human faeces on the opening night of the Plakkers group exhibition of street art.

This intervention by the Tokolos Stencil Collective was unsanctioned by the gallery, as were the “dehumanisation zone” stencils and scrawled “bourgeoisie gallery” slogan spray-painted on the building façade in the dead of the previous night.

“The intention of our ‘Non-poor Only’ stencil sprayed directly on to the ‘porta-porta’ was a critique of the highly problematic nature of the Brundyn+ gallery and bourgeois spaces like it across South Africa,” reads the anonymous collective’s statement, which described the gallery’s immediate removal of the toilet as censoring “the smell of decades of indignity and oppression meted out against Cape Town’s poor”.

The intervention was simultaneously replicated during the Open City event held in the public space of Church Square during the First Thursdays festivities. “We feel that the entire #FirstThursdays initiative is an exclusionary space meant to help the middle class pretend that their culture is significant and relevant,” reads their website, tokolos-stencils.tumblr.com.

“Instead, First Thursdays merely serves to exclude the poor black underclass. Many of the art installations talk about the poor but rarely, if ever, do they actually build space of inclusion.” Of course, this is hardly the first toilet in contemporary art. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain – a urinal signed simply “R Mutt 1917” – was voted the most influential art work of all time by more than 500 art experts in the run-up to the 2004 Turner Prize in Britain.

“Poor only” 

The work raises a number of questions, most basically: What is art? Is it whatever the artist says it is? A number of artists, including South Africa’s Kendell Geers, have pulled out all the stops to answer this question by urinating in Duchamp’s gallery-reified urinals. Artist, musician and original producer of U2 Brian Eno stored his urine in a test tube that was poured through a crack in the sculpture’s protective Perspex case.

In a less egotistical response, British pop artist Alex Garnett commodified the question with his “Conceptual Crap” sticker that sports a “R Mutt 1917” signature. It can be bought at most gallery shops in Europe for (relatively humble) £6.50 and encourages everyone to turn their lavatory into a replica of the work.

It is, however, unclear whether the anonymous collective considers their porta-potty art, as the statement reads: “Tokolos made no claim to professional artistic intervention. We are not engaging in this conversation as artists but as an anonymous and universalised image of the worker wearing gas masks and blue overalls, and carrying our luggage of shit to disrupt spaces in which poor blacks are not welcome.”

Unlike Garnett’s commodification, Tokolos’s “poor only” slogan is available as a stencil for free download with instructions from its website. Everyone is encouraged to get involved, anyone can be a tokolos. When I contacted Tokolos for comment, I was informed that I had to be complicit in the collective – spray a stencil somewhere or another agreed-on action that I could think of – before it would co-operate.

‘The motives also come under scrutiny’ 

This raises the question of who the Tokolos Stencil Collective is. According to an interview with Dave Mann in Archetype Online magazine, the collective itself is not entirely sure: “We are a loose collective. We don’t really have members, just participants.” If not even the participants know who is in the group, how does one control what the group stands for, or prevent enemies sabotaging its directive? The motives also come under scrutiny.

If it is not money or artistic acclaim, then it is presumably to raise awareness. Yet nowhere in the media generated has Tokolos highlighted the organisations rallying against the poor sanitation infrastructure in Cape Town. Just over a month ago, the Social Justice Coalition released its toilet audit to a defensive City of Cape Town. And the night before Tokolos’s intervention, controversial leader of the “poo protesters”, Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement, Andile Lili, was shot outside his house.

Without this element of social pragmatism, Tokolos limit their effectiveness to the art realm. However, unlike Duchamp or Michael Elion – artist of the Mandela Ray-Ban sculpture – who declare art is in the eye of the artist, Tokolos stipulates in its statement that “real art makes those with privilege feel uncomfortable”.

Mail&Guardian, 21 November 2014

A new language of resilience

cput-design-sydelle-0390-Large-800x600How can we move from the derailed ‘development’ train to adopt a system of ‘resilience’? By integrating it into our culture and language, says Ezio Manzini.

Widely regarded as one of the world’s top design thinkers, Ezio Manzini was speaking at a recent “Cultures of Resilience” seminar held by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). Virginia Tassinari from the MAD Faculty in GenkEdgar Pieterse of the African Centre for Cities and Ashraf Jamal from CPUT also spoke.

Behind the buzzword

According to Ezio, although the word resilience has been with us for centuries, it became a buzzword after theFukushima Tsunami in 2011. Not only was this a catastrophic event and the whole world watching but, because it was happening in a country that is perceived to be the epitome of rigour and control, it highlighted how fragile human systems are, particularly in the face of increasing climate change.

What brought the resilience buzz to the global conversation however, was Hurricane Sandy in New York in 2012. Although not as catastrophic, the fact that it was happening in New York made it very real to mass media. This also linked the word to the economic crisis, so that ‘resilience’ has come to be applied to more than climate and physical challenges, but also financial resilience.

What both these and other events highlighted is that the future is increasingly unforeseeable and the fallout radically more severe. Our ecosphere is fragile, said Ezio, and to make errors is human. We have to find a way to face the unforeseeable future that maintains the condition of life; more importantly, a good life.

In technical terms, Ezio described a resilient system as having:

  • A diversity of possibilities: Because we don’t know the future, diversity is a precondition and assurance on the future.
  • Some redundancy: To be able to choose different paths based on what the future throws us, the quality of coexistence gives the system fluidity and ability to change shape.
  • Feedback into the system: The capability to respond to and learn from messages from environment, changing direction if needs be.

The end of development

This is a dramatic departure from the current system based on the European tradition that human beings are at the centre of the universe, there is order behind chaos, and if we study and research enough, we will have progress, development (the structural changes needed to make progress possible) and economic growth (the resources for development to make progress possible).

However, Ezio pointed out, although the notion of progress dates back to the 18th century, the notion of development only dates back to about 1945, after the Second World War, when people started thinking that wellbeing should be brought to everyone, “like a train”. Development was simple, clear and successful – after all, we still talk about it today. It has become part of our perception and the way that we frame the world.

However, in an increasingly resource-scarce world with unpredictable challenges and complexities, the train is being derailed. Ezio quoted Wolfgang Sachs:

The last 40 years can be called the age of development. This epoch is coming to an end. The time is ripe to write its obituary… The idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape… Development is much more than just a socio-economic endeavour. It is a perception which models reality, a myth which comforts societies, and a myth which unleashes passions.

Professor Ezio Manzini outlined the contrasting approaches of development – that wants to control, optimise, be effective and come up with big solutions for big problems – with that of resilience – that is about being error friendly, acceptable and adaptable, and considers the biggest problem to be the need to come up with smaller adaptive projects.

New words make new minds

So how can we not only redesign our worlds, but our mental states? We need new words to model reality, and the words must “fulfil human tension for improvement”. That is, Ezio feels that the words of sustainability – reduce, use less, be quiet, be conservative – goes against the human spirit.

Drawing from a workshop that Ezio had conducted with faculty members and postgraduate students of CPUT, the presentation showed how through the four steps of word generation, word clustering, writing texts and, finally, new word generation had identified three words:

  • Togetherness: Progress as enriching human relationships through individuality, connectivity and inter-dependence.
  • Acting: Progress as increasing diversity and redundancy by being active, allowing for differences, conflicts and suppleness.
  • Reacting: Progress as safe spaces for experimentation, thereby encouraging learning, incremental change and jazz-like improvisation.

Culture refers to our cumulative deposit of knowledge, beliefs, values, time, roles, relationships, etc, said Ezio. That is, culture is how we imagine ourselves in the world and what we think our role in the world is. We all talk from the culture to which we have been socialised. Can these words help us reimagine ourselves and our roles to model a new reality of resilience, rather than development?

Published by the Cape Town Partnership, 9 October 2014

The secret is out

The new Spier Secret Courtyard pop-up in the Cape Town city centre is seasoned with some of VISI’s favourite ingredients: design, wine, food and creative collaboration. You can even make friends for life!

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An official World Design Capital 2014 project, the Spier Secret Festival that happens annually in October decided it couldn’t wait that long to start the party. They launched a temporary bar slash restaurant slash creative project space in a dreamlike courtyard space they uncovered on Wale Street – where designer Liam Mooney’s shop used to be, alongside Honest Chocolate and Commune.1 Gallery.

“The name Secret is not an elitist thing at all,” explains organiser Hannerie Visser of HV Studio. “It’s really about being generous, giving people a platform and sharing secrets – like chefs have secret recipes and ingredients. It’s a space where people can share that information.”

For the next three months, the space will host Secret Dinner nights on Thursdays, live music evenings on Fridays and outdoor movie showings on Saturday. A full range of Spier wine at cellar prices – including a very sneaky Chenin Blanc slushy – as well as Devil’s Peak ale and Dear Me snacks – such as buchu-and-chilli flavoured peanuts – are served.

The Secret Dinner nights, as in previous years, promise to push the limits of experiential eating with people like Caro de Waal engineering a few Food Jams, Thingking and Soma (both of whom are featured as reasons to love SA design in our WDC2014 edition) teaming up to make an interactive chocolate factory, and even a jazz and curry, among other surprises. The cool kids from Yoh! are also collabing with Honest Chocolate for a movie night.

“The best feedback we always get from the Secret dinners is that people say they come and don’t know anyone, but make friends for life,” Hannerie goes on. “It’s because a certain type of person comes – someone who loves and is passionate about food and wine, as well as being adventurous. So they’re like-minded.”

The space itself is also testament to this spirit of like-minded passion, collaboration and experimentation. Inspired by the original geometric tile pattern of the courtyard and the massive old-school copper bar behind it, interior designer Hendrik Coetzee worked with the Kinsmen Collective and Renée Rossouw  to incorporate geometric and copper elements throughout.

Architect and pattern-extraordinaire Renée’s “half-square” wall installation uses triangular tiles from Spier Architectural Arts stuck on a hand-drawn geometric grid to recall and play on the courtyard pattern.

Primarily graphic designers, Kinsmen did the corporate identity including the logo, menus and copper-and-black tessellated vinyl window decal. Particularly fun are their perforated paper placemat-slash-doilies that guests can fold into all sorts of shapes and creations.

Hendrik himself got resourceful with Spier wineboxes, which he painted copper inside and turned into pendant-style lamps. He also built tables for the courtyard from the boxes, and display units for the shop, which sells wine, cook books and other goodies. To go with the tables, Thingking made tripod stools that strap boxes as a seat onto copper-painted frames.

Guests can even watch pictures from their phone dry on the wall! Bridging the physical and digital social divide, 250 Gram is printing guests’ Instagram pictures tagged with #spiersecret. The poloroid-style prints are then hung on the wall to be claimed when you leave – quite uncanny watching one’s phone come to life!

Running for only three months in the build up to the Spier Secret Festival in October, Hannerie reassures that there are more exciting (secret for now) events on the cards. The festival itself will run over three days this year by incorporating the WDC2014 Food Indaba on the first day, which will have speakers focused on sustainability and food economy, followed by the more food design orientated speakers on the second day and the market on the third.

VISI, 14 February 2014

African studies

The continent’s first design museum starts as a hip hangout in a post-industrial Johannesburg neighborhood.

Photography by Jodi Bieber

In part, the thrill of living in South Africa comes from simultaneously experiencing the first world lifestyle of a country that successfully hosted the FIFA World Cup and had one of its cities crowned World Design Capital 2014, while still witnessing how simple developments in its threadbare infrastructure can become significant milestones. And so it is pretty exciting that near the end of 2013, just a few months before South Africa celebrates 20 years of democracy, the country’s first design museum—indeed, the first of its kind in Africa—opened in Johannesburg.

The Museum of African Design (MOAD) is part of the second development phase of the Maboneng Precinct, a privately funded urban regeneration venture in one of the most desolate postindustrial corners of Jo’burg’s central business district. Unfolding like a real-life Sim City since 2009 and spearheaded by the developer Jonathan Liebmann and his company Propertuity, the project has drawn comparisons to New York’s Meatpacking District and London’s Shoreditch. The first phase entailed renovating warehouses and old offices into housing, workspaces, and social areas, and drawing big name anchor tenants like the artist William Kentridge. The second phase has seen the creation of more entry-level housing and retail opportunities, as well as improved public transport links to the rest of the city. Detailed development plans and rollout dates for forthcoming phases are available, and there is a distinct sense of grand urban design, which is quite modernist in how it has elegantly avoided political agendas.

The necessity of a museum in this scheme is not obvious, but it seems to be Liebmann’s most self-conscious monument to the power of design to transform urban spaces. With its directive being on the entire continent rather than simply South Africa, there is also a nod to the residents of the surrounding area—many of whom are legal and illegal immigrants from all over Africa. “The vision for MOAD is to be a space that explores the rest of the continent through design and innovation,” explains the museum’s director, Aaron Kohn, a young Cleveland, Ohio native who came to this country to complete a degree in African Studies and subsequently launched an online store called African Lookbook. The 22-year-old’s appointment has raised more than a few postcolonial eyebrows. But it seems like Kohn’s international touch has already distinguished the museum’s approach: “The MOAD is different from other museums,” he says. “We don’t have any permanent collections, and we have no intention to start collecting. This space is purely for exhibitions, installations, and showcase events.”

Rather than simply putting the exhibitions in isolated white cubes, MOAD offers more opportunities after office hours—cocktail evenings, salon discussions, exclusive dinners, and music concerts. It promises to be a lifestyle museum that fits well into the urban regeneration around it, offering Maboneng residents exactly the kind of work-live-play trinity that these types of developments portend.

Metropolis Magazine, December 2013

Spill the coffee beans and get people talking

A machine that is “definitely not the most efficient way to dispense coffee beans into packages” has been unveiled at the Truth HQ in Cape Town.

The words are those of Cape Town coffee maverick David Donde, who co-founded Origin Coffee Roasting in 2006 but went solo and established Truth Coffee Roasting in 2009.

Last year, he cranked open the doors to the new Truth HQ, decked out in a bespoke steampunk interior by designer Haldane Martin.

Local costume and millinery specialists the Little Hattery were tasked with creating staff uniforms that rival an opera wardrobe.

Steampunk is an aesthetic that brings together Victorian analogue technology and fashion, and transposes a futuristic science fiction narrative on it.

Or, as the joke goes, “what happened when goths discovered brown”.

Most famously seen in Wild Wild West, the subculture started surfacing when visual websites such as Pinterest and Tumblr brought the images into mass circulation, and steampunk-maker websites such as Etsy connected artisans with steampunks all around the world.

Events such as Burning Man in Nevada and the South African variation, AfrikaBurn, in the Karoo, have drawn gatherings — as per the Steampunk Saloon at the AfrikaBurn festival in May.

Donde “is steampunk”, according to Martin, who proposed the concept; the caffeine-prospecting techie has spared nothing in bringing to life an entire world at Truth HQ. The design has been short-listed for the world Restaurant and Bar Design award, the only finalist from Africa. The winner will be announced in September.

Theatrical showpiece

“It’s been fantastic. We’ve taken a spot that everyone said wouldn’t work, in the Fringe, and we’re probably the busiest coffee shop in Cape Town,” enthuses Donde.

“We wanted a signature piece that really said: we’re about coffee.”

This is where industrial designer and artist Chris Jones got involved in turning the coffee dispenser into a theatrical showpiece.

After his first proposal to Donde, which was too decorative and not functional enough, Jones spent a week on YouTube watching elementary engineering videos. He came back with a Meccano-like contraption that was built using reclaimed bicycle gears, cranks and pulleys, and used lights, bells and whistles for theatrical effect.

For materials, Jones went dumpster diving at Fair Trading in Salt River and Sunshine Scrap in Woodstock.

“It was like treasure hunting through a mass of rusted old metal to find the right piece.” He then customised his finds at the Fab Lab in the Cape Craft and Design Institute.

Fab Labs are free-to-the-public design workshops, conceptualised by MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld, and are found all around the world.

“On July 1 2012, Chris gave me a three-week estimate [of completion]. One year and a day later, July 2, we began with beta testing!”

Donde is actually bragging. Steampunk time, after all, is relative — it’s the industrial revolution emulating space travel.

Looking across the coffee shop at the sea of averted faces lit by laptop screens, your gaze stops at the table right beneath the contraption. They’re all looking up, mouth agape at the retro-tech of a Rube Goldberg-like chain effect that fills a packet with 215g of beans. Time travels in those two minutes.

Such is the curious case of the inefficient coffee contraption.

Mail&Guardian, 19 July 2013

Things of beauty: Rock girl benches

India Baird is a human rights lawyer who has taken the bench out of the courtroom and installed it in public spaces to create safe areas for women.

Titled Rock Girl, after the slogan “strike a woman, strike a rock”, Baird got the idea three years ago when she was volunteering at the Red River School in Manenberg, Cape Town.

“Girls were not participating in the after-school running programme because they did not feel safe on the sports field,” she explains.

“[We] began documenting the conditions around and at school, and created a plan to make their environment safer, starting with a safe place to sit at school when the older boys and gangsters harassed them.”

This simple intervention has inspired artists and designers such as Paul du Toit, Laurie van Heerden, Aidan Hart, Boyd Ferguson and Tracy Lynch to get involved, resulting in some 17 benches installed in central Cape Town, each with a sister bench installed at a school in the township, over the past two years.

“Each bench is linked to a toll-free number, which connects women to opportunities, resources and support, as well as inspiring stories of 75 successful South African women, from Life and Soul: Portraits of Women Who Move South Africa, compiled by Karina Turok and Margie Orford,” Baird goes on.

Earlier this year, the first bench in Johannesburg was installed at the Sunlight Safe House, designed by Switch and sponsored by Investec. A sister bench is installed at De Waal Park in Cape Town.

Just after Rock Girl announced that they have been short-listed as an official World Design Capital 2014 project, the newest bench, designed by architect Mokena Makeka, was unveiled at the Prestwich Memorial alongside Cape Town’s fan-walk bridge — although this location is temporary.

“I thought of a piece of furniture that was quite elegant and tough; might seem angular or austere from certain perspectives, but quite forgiving when you come into contact with it,” says Makeka.

The powder-dusted grey steel bench comprises faceted planes that make it seem both modernist and futuristic. It comes with a padded weatherproof jacket that is securely fastened with very strong magnets.

Relying on corporate sponsors and goodwill for funding, the Rock Girl budget is tight and Makeka admits to having extended his stipend to up to R30 000 from his own pocket.

“There’s this discourse around making benches uncomfortable so that you don’t lie down on them because of prostitution, you don’t make them wide enough so that people don’t sit for too long.

“Instead I wanted a bench that was more like a chaise longue, rather than a bench that could only be sat on for five minutes. Three people can sit on it or one person can take a nap,” says Makeka.

The cover is adorned with line art infographics that relate the city of Cape Town to its larger context in Africa and the world — the distance to Kilimanjaro, for instance. This is the first Rock Girl bench that has no fixed location and is travelling around the city seeking a home.

“Benches have a very specific location but I also wanted people to think about the broader city when they sit on the bench,” says Mokena.

Regarding permission, Baird says “the city and in particular mayor Patricia de Lille have been great support”.

In a city that still doesn’t have a public art policy and is hosting the World Design Capital in less than six months’ time, these functional creative interventions with social good at heart uplift the spirit.

Mail&Guardian, 12 July 2013