Donkey Bite: Nastio Mosquito on what he is and is not

“I do think there are things in life that you must decide, but to be who you are is not a decision,” says Nastio Mosquito, following the group exhibition Positions at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven.

Art Africa: March 23, 2016

AA Newsletter 23Mar INT Mosquito3Installation view of Nástio Mosquito’s work at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. Photo: Peter Cox.

It’s pitch black in the front gallery of the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. After a few minutes, I still can’t see my hand in front of my face. Feeling around with my arms, there’s nothing; not even the door I came through is visible anymore. A moment of panic. How far did I walk into the room; are there others in here? A green light in the far corner beckons and I slide-walk towards it, still unsure of what obstacles the artist may have planted. The light starts taking the shape of a small screen, burning pink halos into my retina. The squeaks emitted by the screen starts sounding more and more like a voice. Up close, I can hear and see: it’s Nastio Mosquito and he is naked. Ranting about everything and nothing in a way that gives goose bumps. Just like the interview with him.

Winner of the 2014 Future Generation Art Prize, celebrated by the BBC at the Venice Biennale with a rhetoric “Is this the coolest artist at the Venice Biennale?”, the Angola-born Portugal-schooled Mosquito slips through questions and labels with the slight of tongue that has become his trademark. The award is “flattering” but he doesn’t know what the consequences are yet, and he’s “just grateful that there’s space” for him in the art world that has now opened up for him. When it comes to the labels game: he is not a video artist, he is not a spoken word artist, he is not a performance artist, he is not an artist. He is not African, he is not diasporan, he is not postcolonial, he is not political. He just is. This is Mosquito’s integrity. Then, just when you feel lost in the darkness grasping for theories, he gets very personal.

You’re part of an exhibition of four artists – with Anna Boghiguian, Chia-Wei Hsu and Sarah Pierce – at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven until 3 April, called Positions. Would you say integrity is your position as an artist?

It’s a position that I am consciously trying to live from. Staying close to my sense of integrity is important and allows me not to have to make decisions all the time, by being there I am just there. I don’t have to decide too many things, I just have to be obedient to my sense of integrity. I think becoming an artist was a position that I had to agree with. There was a particular time when I had to agree. What I was available to fight for, chase and commit to, was connected to doing these things with writing, song writing, video making. It’s what kept my head going at night. I just had to agree with it. It’s a bit of a fake truth that you have to decide. I do think there are things in life that you must decide, but to be who you are is not a decision. You have to agree with it. So I just agreed with it, in small doses, I don’t think there was a moment.

You resist labels and decisions, yet your work is very narrative driven. How do you make your work?

I think it’s the most natural thing for a human being to create from his supernatural, intangible point of view. We need to organize it, but things are born out of somewhere else. Then it is about serving that idea and finding the best way for that idea to come to life – is this idea better as a song, a film, a photograph or a performance? Studying jazz [for two and a half years in Portugal after school] gave me the capacity to relate to musicians and interact with them, and be able to construct a sonic palette to deliver a particular narrative. Going to study production operations [in media in London] gave me a few insights on how certain things work from equipment to script.

AA Newsletter 23Mar INT Mosquito2Installation view from Nástio Mosquito’s solo show at the Espai d’art contemporani de Castello, Spain.

The jazz background explains a lot in terms of your distinctive sound. Were you planning on being a jazz musician?

I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I’m just doing, I’m just agreeing with where things are. I want to know, I would like know, I would like to be connected to what I want to be when I grow up. But more than what I want to be, I want to know who I am – you know? And again, to come into agreement with that. The sense of purpose that is in my limitations – there are things that I am good at it, there are things that I like to do. So between what I’m good at and what I like to do is a natural tendency to do something. It’s not always very clear to me. But I’m still wanting to know what I’m going to do when I grow up. And I want to come into agreement with that. And be.

Wow, even the way you speak casually ripples with improv jazz-like pauses and repeated words. Are you a natural performer, when was your first performance?

Depends what you call performance! [laughs] The first ever thing I did was a donkey in the Christmas play in boarding school. I still remember it as being something relevant for me. It was not the most important role in that play, but I think it was the teachers who made me feel that it was important enough to give it my all and it felt very good. It felt very good to receive the compliments. And, strangely enough, it was a donkey. The donkey is not a very celebrated animal – even the cow gets more good vibes than the donkey. Donkeys are stubborn, ugly, smelly, extremely working class. It felt good to be that donkey, it felt good to commit to it, and do the hee-haw sounds. I don’t think I had any lines. There were just a few cues, blocking a few positions on stage and a hee-haw moments of some sort. The whole process just felt very generous. Very tangible, with people working together. There was a script, different articulations of things, things had to be working. An independence, but at the same time coordinated. There was a dynamic, but it was nice. It was not the most comfortable situation for me – some people like it I suppose – being in boarding school away from home, it was very tense. I was nine at the most. I confess I’ve never spoken about that like this. I guess I’m constructing on it.

Do you think the memory changes?

I think it does. Between becoming more clear and more foggy. Memories have a utility to them, they’re here to serve you. 

AA Newsletter 23Mar INT Mosquito4Nástio Mosquito, Ser Humano, 2015. Installation view Van Abbemsueum, 2015. Photo Peter Cox. video installation 4’08”. video by Vic Pereiró, courtesy Nástio Mosquito ©

What has been your “donkey” performance as an adult?

I don’t know, maybe it’s my personality or something like that, but I have a feeling that it hasn’t happened yet. In terms of performance, there are moments of pure joy. I’ve had tremendous privilege these past fifteen years in terms of how I’ve had the possibility and opportunity to live my life, but I haven’t done that performance yet. There are many important things in my life, there are many things I respect, but I don’t have a story to tell my grandchildren about yet.

Maybe it’s coming up this year. What’s next for you?

Besides the Van Abbe exhibition, I currently have a solo show of new work at the Espai d’art contemporani de Castelló in Spain. There’s another show coming up at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, Ukraine, this year. I’m also preparing a new performance – I have a new collection of songs that I want to bring out, but want to try them out on stage.

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.

21_Douglas Coupland_The Living Internet

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. 

10 Questions with Haldane Martin

Interior Design, 15 September 2015

How can you reimagine healthcare? This was the question posed to Cape Town designer Haldane Martin. Having not too long ago “reimagined” his own career from furniture designer of some of South Africa’s most heralded pieces—such as the Songololo Couch and Zulu Mama chair—to interior designer with each project on a completely different trajectory—from steampunk to futuristic minimalism—Martin is intimately familiar with mental gear changes. In his recent project designing an Innovation Hub in the Groote Schuur Hospital, however, he had to create an interior that sparked those mental shifts in other people.

Interior Design: What an exciting opportunity to see design starting to creep into public institutions. Groote Schuur may be the most acclaimed teaching hospital in Africa—where the world’s first heart transplant took place—but it was built in 1938 and it’s labyrinthine! How did this project come about?Haldane Martin Portrait 2014, Photo Guido Schwarz

Haldane Martin: The project was initiated by theBertha Centre, which is a part of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town, but a separate unit all to themselves focusing on social innovation in healthcare, education and finance. The healthcare team has been working with Groote Schuur to do service delivery innovation, not so much medical or technical innovation. This ranges from things like wayfinding, how a patient’s folder goes from one place to another, and other little irritating hiccups that happen in the hospital and decrease the efficacy, to more serious ones like mobile referral platforms, orthopedic data management systems and so on.

ID: Did you work from a brief, or was that an innovation process itself?

HM: It was more collaborative. I met not only with the Bertha Centre about their vision for the space, but also hospital administration, students, nurses, and staff who would be directly involved in the space. While there was an appetite for change, there was a sense of inertia, which is how my brief came about. The guiding principle was that the interior design had to encourage people to breakout of their normal mindset of the big bureaucracy and hierarchy, and doing things by the book. In this space they needed to push the boundaries and be more innovative, so the interior had to stimulate it.

ID: A hospital has so many different users, how did you take that into account?

HM: We stayed away from institutional or corporate visual language, and tried to keep it more humble. To keep it inclusive and welcoming it couldn’t be too opulent or high-tech as it would just be out of context in a state-owned hospital.

ID: How did this manifest into a visual language?

HM: The concept was to give it a workshop feel, like a maker’s workshop. There’s a lot of pine and little details like the plywood crates, threaded adjustable tables, workbenches for desks, oversized bulbs and the work-in-progress chevrons that you would expect to find in a workshop.  Everything is also on wheels to keep the configuration flexible—with the fold-up chairs, small symposium setups are even achievable.

ID: The first impression walking in, after snaking through those long dreary indistinguishable hospital corridors is the light freshness of the space. But then one starts to notice all the clever little details and surprises in what could otherwise just be a meeting room. Can you explain some of these design situations.

HM: Well, we never went completely radical—for instance, we stuck with the typical hospital colour of green, but made it a very loud acid green. The round tables are where people meet and collaborate in groups, but we made them higher than a normal table to encourage people to stand, move and be more active than passive. The surfaces can also be written on with whiteboard markers. Then there’s a large glass meeting table with a paper roll that can be pulled over it for brainstorming, and easily torn off to take the records of the meeting away with you. A loungey café space is flexible with it modular cushions and plywood shipping palettes. The enclosed couches enable more intimate one-to-one meetings, or when facing each other, a larger private meeting.

ID: Did you design all of this yourself?

HM: Everything is custom designed, except the stools are made by a local design duo called Sutla, and the fold up chairs are store-bought and spray painted green. Needless to say, the main challenge is always to come in on budget while still producing innovative custom designs.

ID: There must have been other challenges working in a bureaucratic hospital?

HM: Yes, the humility of the project was also tempered by how difficult and frustrating a process it was to get authorization, even just to bash a hole through the wall connecting the two rooms. We had to apply to provincial government for permission! In addition, we weren’t allow to redo the carpet, ceiling or electrical wiring. Luckily for us the Bertha Centre handled most of these negotiations, but we also had to keep in mind that the project could be moved at any point, meaning that everything had to be reusable, mobile and reconfigurable.

ID: How has the transition between from product to interior designer?

HM: It’s a lot more work and a lot more stressful, but it’s more financially viable for me. With all my interiors, I am still doing furniture design, and the more successful pieces being born are put under license and into production. Although the pieces from this project will probably be kept exclusively for other hospital innovation labs, we did a custom desk range for the Environ office that has been picked up by an office furniture manufacturer. The other plus is that I get to try out different design languages and styles—and I do otherwise just get bored easily.

ID: Tell us more about exploring different styles. No one expected to ever see steampunk coming from Haldane Martin, but you did it so well thatTruth has become one of theworld’s most famous coffee shops.

HM: The furniture under license is more my style, but otherwise all our interiors are very different—I mean, we did a girly beauty salon that is really not me at all. We really listen to the client and try to express and facilitate their identity, rather than being the kind of design studio that has a house style and clients must take it or leave it. I prefer listening to the client and creating something original for them, which enhances their brand experience and context.

ID: What’s next?

HM: We’re working on a big beer brewery in Johannesburg, which will be our first significant project up there. There’s also talks with Nando’s to do a specially license chair for their global chicken franchise—they’re doing really exciting stuff with design at the moment.

Design memo from Cape Town

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“What is design?” In Cape Town, this question has as many answers as species of “fynbos,” the low scrubby plants that thrive along the Western Cape of South Africa. Located in the smallest and most biodiverse of the world’s six floral kingdoms, around the feet of Table Mountain—one of the seven modern wonders of the natural world—Cape Town is a city of contrasts, both natural and humanmade.

Offsetting its geographical splendor is one of Africa’s most recognizable urban skylines as well as the continent’s most-visited site: the V&A Waterfront, a retail, commercial and residential hub established on the old docks. Topping many of the latest lists of places to see, Cape Town is just as much home to Hollywood stars and world leaders as to refugees, hipsters, nomads, born-and-breds and the urban poor. Though the city boasts the nation’s most expensive houses, the legacy of the apartheid-era’s economic and racial ghettos prevails. Just on the other side of the mountain are acres of corrugated iron shanties with limited to no plumbing.

Design, with its creative approach to seemingly intractable problems, has increasingly become a rallying cry for how change and equality can be realized. Craft groups are engaging under-educated communities in the economy. Architects and industrial designers are considering living solutions for those at the bottom of the pyramid. A growing cadre of brand-name designers are producing high-end and collectible wares that are feeding an export and manufacturing industry. And, in 2014, as Cape Town wore the title of World Design Capital, the mayor and city hall itself attempted to adopt a design thinking attitude—resulting in some rather contentious public art and an award-winning skate park.

The long-term legacy of Cape Town’s design capital reign remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that the design world sat up and noticed the southern-most tip of Africa.

New builds

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Given Cape Town’s environment and the resource-scarce African context, it is no surprise that green building has always been a priority.

Celebrating the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden’s centenary, is the unusual tree canopy walkway designed as a structural skeleton by Mark Thomas Architects. Creating this construction without disturbing the ancient trees was quite a feat!

Based in Cape Town, the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) has rolled out its green star rating system since 2007, but in 2014 had the pleasure of awarding its first six-star as-built rating to the No 1 Silo, built by VDMMA for client Allan Grey, at the V&A Waterfront.

The V&A Waterfront also saw the completion of the Watershed, in which Wolff Architects converted a centuries-old dock warehouse into a creative market and innovation hub that prioritised passive cooling and minimal materials. Similarly retrofitting a heritage site, is British starchitect Thomas Heatherwick’s currently under-construction Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art.

The first skyscraper built in Cape Town since 1993, the Portside FNB Building by dhk architects was also completed in 2014 and is regarded as the tallest green building in Africa (with five stars from the GBCSA).

On the low-cost housing front, Stephen Lamb’s co-designed “green shack” approach that incorporates vertical gardens to address issues of food security and nutritional deserts is a game changer. Lamb has pioneered insulated corrugated iron panels for easy construction.

Also exploring the possibilities of alternative building materials, the Design Develop Build initiative saw CS Studio and a group of students from around the world collaborate with a community theatre in Langa. The result is the Guga S’Thebe Children Theatre built entirely from shipping containers, straw bails, recycled pallets and other waste materials.

What’s trending

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Nicknamed the “Rainbow Nation” South Africa has 11 official languages—which is not even all of its indigenous languages. Adding to these multifarious African cultures, Cape Town is a port city that thrives on constant cultural influence from the East, West and Global South. Not to mention its still visceral British and French colonial heritage.

For a long time South African design struggled to find its identity between all these influences. African crafts were considered touristy and contemporary design to be Westernised. Without a manufacturing industry or consumer demand of which to speak, design also never reached mass-production, relegated to weekend markets and specialty stores. The consumer and the designer needed to grow together.

Following some 20 years of the Design Indaba conference and expo sensitizing market tastes, and the global artisan-maker movement, South Africans have begun to appreciate the value of the handmade, resourceful recycling and objects with narratives. Product and industrial designers such as Haldane Martin have also found ways to express indigenous craft more subtly in luxury furniture and collectible design.

This economy of scarcity and veneration of the unique has resulted in boldly idiosyncratic interiors that show resourceful and unusual use of materials—as in Etienne Hanekom’s offices for the World Design Capital team; multi-disciplinary collaboration—like knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo’s work with Leon at CCXIX; and a nostalgic textural and narrative layering of old and new. Global trends such as untreated wood and Scandinavian chic—especially Skinny LaMinx fabrics—are also popular. Somewhat ahead of the curve, a spate of office interiors by Inhouse aims to increase connectivity among employees while referencing the city’s geography—shipping containers, nests and views of Table Mountain have all influenced the firm’s projects.

Insider’s take

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Design curators Trevyn and Julian McGowan will look back on 2014 not only as the year Cape Town was World Design Capital, but as the year their business went into orbit.

Since 2008, they have been establishing Southern Guild (SG) as the go-to for collectable South African design at all the right international design fairs – Design Dubai, Design Maimi/Basel, London Design Fair and more. In 2014, they invited everyone they had met at these fairs to participate in South Africa’s first international design fair, Guild.

They established SG after noticing that the South African design industry needed a stimulus to create more work at the very top end. Their insight was based on their work through Source SA, through which they work as buyers and suppliers in small-scale South African design and craft for international department stores such as Anthropologie, the Conran Shops and, even, the White House.

Interior Design: 2014 was a huge year for Cape Town design and for your business ventures. What is the most significant thing to come out of it?

Trevyn McGowan: A focus on the incredible design work that is coming out of Cape Town. Interest in African design is at an all-time high and the World Design Capital validated this fascination in the continent. For us, to have held the inaugural Guild Design Fair during the historical year, means that we can now, with our second edition, build on this legacy. We also opened our first physical Southern Guild Gallery in Woodstock at the end of the year, which indicates that Cape Town is ready for more design exhibitions. In addition, Watershed at the V&A Waterfront is a great new retail concept that we curated, where visitors can purchase the best local craft and design in one space.

ID: What is the importance of the role of curator in design?

TM: I find that my role as curator allows me to showcase the best that South Africa has to offer. I love this role because it means I’m able to share my passion for craft and design in this country. In fact, as programme coordinators of Design Network Africa, we’re tasked with linking designers across the continent in order to raise the standard of design and assist in providing platforms for these designers internationally. The most important aspect of curation is that we’re able to provide opportunities to designers who might not otherwise have had them without our support.

ID: How did the Watershed come to be?

TM: The Watershed was a vision by the V&A Waterfront, the most-visited destination in Africa. Being housed in a revamped shed alongside the dry dock, it’s now seen as a ‘Watershed’ moment for craft and design in this country as for the first time some of the country’s top designs can be found under one roof, while many other designers are for the first time going from weekend markets and once-a-year affairs to 365 days a year of retail and staffing.

ID: How will a physical gallery for Southern Guild affect the initiative?

TM: Having a gallery of our own means that we’re now able to exhibit design work in South Africa throughout the year. Before, we used to have to exhibit in other people’s galleries for limited periods of time, and have always shown at international design fairs such as Design Miami and Design Days Dubai. We’re excited about the opportunities that having our own gallery presents us with.

ID: You typically travel to and exhibit at international shows around the world, but Guild saw the world come to us. What have been some of the effects of that?

TM: Guild was our inaugural design fair, and besides the great reviews it gained from the press and public, it’s the actual exhibitors who have been our best ambassadors. The Los Angeles-based Haas Brothers were here exhibiting with their New York gallery R & Company. During their time here they were part of an exhibitors’ off-site programme we arranged that had them visiting different local designers, among them Monkeybiz and Bronze Age Foundry, who they have now worked with to create their next body of work for Guild 2015, called ‘Afreaks’. This came about from them witnessing first-hand the incredible talent present in Cape Town. We also have Beirut-based designers, Mary-Lynn and Carlo Massoud, coming to work with Andile Dyalvane, one of our Southern Guild ceramicists. Collaboration has really become a keyword for Guild.

ID: What will your focus be for the year ahead?

TM: We’ll be exhibiting at Design Days Dubai and Design Miami again, and are looking forward to the second chapter of Design Network Africa as it runs into it’s next two-year phase with some new designers from east and west Africa. And, of course, we’re looking forward to cementing ourselves as a gallery in Woodstock’s energetic community of creatives.

First published on Interior Design, 30 January 2015

Rhode to fame well travelled

Incognito, Robin Rhode uses South Africa’s streets as his canvas – but his path to renown was international.

“Contemporary artists see me as a street artist and the street artists see me as a conceptual artist,” says Robin Rhode, sitting in the atrium at the Stevenson gallery in Cape Town. Around him, his “crew” is setting up his first solo exhibition in South Africa in about 13 years. “I use the same space [the street] but I use it so differently.”

The last time South African audiences saw a dedicated Rhode exhibition was at the Market Theatre Gallery in 2000, where half the shoes from his installation were stolen. That was the same year he moved to Berlin “for love”, where he still lives with his wife and two children. However, if you are to read his life according to the international press, they would have you believe that his first solo exhibition was in New York in 2004, shortly after a residency at the Walker Art Centre in 2003 where his performance brought the house down and saw his first work sold straight into the prestigious Rubell Collection.

After that, Rhode was the youngest artist to participate in the Venice Biennale in 2005 and has been included in high-profile group exhibitions around the world by institutions that include the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2008, he presented a solo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, alongside a retrospective of Andy Warhol.

“What has brought me back is not ‘South Africa’ or the people, it’s the work. The concept of this exhibition, which I’ve been engaging with for the past year or two, had to be realised in South Africa.”

Titled Paries Pictus, which means wall drawing in Latin, the exhibition turns half the gallery into an oversized colouring-in book. In the days leading up to the exhibition, kids completed the images on the walls using oversized crayons. From the Cape Town-based arts education programme for disadvantaged communities, Lalela Project, the children were all “strictly under the age of eight”. At the opening, the audience saw only the completed work, not the children or any other form of performance or intervention.

The evolution of the project first began in 2011 at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, where Rhode worked with Italian kids. It was realised again this year at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York. “Working abroad made me realise how much my own country needs to access this working process, especially our youth. To plant a seed in their minds that visual arts or contemporary art is a way to nurture their growth and creativity.”

When Rhode talks with such philanthropic zeal about the impact of an isolated two-day gallery intervention on the youth of South Africa, I become sceptical. Who is this prodigal son of South Africa with his contemporary art cure-all? Is he even still South African — besides his 100% Mzansi accent?

Beyond the gallery

As the interview continues Rhode explains the origin of his art — the signature street art illusions that he has become known for. The second half of the exhibition comprises this work — photographs, drawings, moving images and sculptural works, ranging from abstract drawings made in Germany in 2007 to a new photo series done in Johannesburg in 2013. From talking about this work, I begin to understand the self-referential significance of Paries Pictus and the true impact of Rhode’s work being beyond the gallery.

The fact is that Rhode is making about 90% of his work in South Africa. About five times a year he returns incognito and heads straight to the Jo’burg streets to make work for eight- to nine-day periods. Berlin, he says, is too risky with the cops — he feels much more comfortable engaging in the local graffiti crew turf wars.

“It’s more theatre than graffiti,” says Rhode, who is known for whiting-out his work after he has captured it on film. Nonetheless, for the brief time in which he is executing it, he amasses an audience of “other street art crews, kids coming home from school, workers coming back from the factory, the junkies, the homeless people,” all who watch him.

“When I started out as an artist, I wanted to change the notion of the audience, so I started working outside on the street” — which makes one wonder whether the work, the photograph hanging in the gallery, is actually the real art or just a souvenir. But it’s impressive that such a high-profile artist still manages to keep such a large aspect of his work completely underground, beneath the radar of the art scene or the blogosphere. I ask why he doesn’t tweet it, secretly hoping in the future that he will at least tweet me. But Rhode is not into spectacle, he says, which is also why he has almost completely stopped doing performance art.

The invisibility of this rich community context of his work is part of the theatrical quality of his work — it’s the backstage of what the audience sees in the gallery. Just as the audience did not see the kids completing Paries Pictus, it is up to our imaginations to fill in that aspect, says Rhode: “Invisibility is the narrative that the audience needs to make.”

Generally, in his work the South African — and Jo’burg — context is completely framed out by the camera. It could just as well be Mexico City (which is where some of them were created). But Rhode is fundamentally a South African artist. “My art has to come from a lived experience. The only way I can make it is to find something inside myself that leads to my visual language.”

Childish pranks

This struck him in his second year at art school when he was learning about Duchamp, Dada and performance art. He recalled a teenage experience that has become the conceptual basis of all of his work: the Americans call it “hazing”, he says. The matrics in high school initiated the new kids by forcing them to interact with life-size drawings of everyday things — a bicycle and a candle, for instance — drawn with chalk on the bathroom walls. The kids were humiliated and then accepted. (It has nothing to do with William Kentridge’s stop-motion work, he claims, adding that he has started looking forward to interviewers asking him about Kentridge’s influence on him when actually he slept through that part of his art school lectures.)

“That moment meant so much,” Rhode says. The chalk was apparently stolen from the classrooms. So it makes reference to the basic material of education. The drawings were life-size and rendered on a wall, so somehow they also take us back to the historical art of the Bushmen. Furthermore, the physical act of engaging with his drawing leads Rhode into performance art.

One of the recurring images in the childish pranks he recalled was a bicycle, although none of the kids could afford one. The significance of the two-wheeler in the work of Duchamp, and throughout art history, shines through. Rhode marvels that “all of those [contemporary art] discourses formed my subcultural experience as a South African youth”.

He relates it to Paries Pictus: “I’m working with children, to educate them about artistic processes and introduce them to the notion of creativity. Contemporary art is a space that is overly refined, more adult, learned and institutional. I thought that working with children could inject a new energy into the process.”

Mail&Guardian, 12 April 2013

Stepping on toes

Leanie van der Vyver says her designs are a reaction to the things that bother her about modern society.

‘High heels make you look like an easy conquest in the animal kingdom,” Leanie van der Vyver told a receptive audience at the Design Indaba Conference in Cape Town last week. Van der Vyver was talking as part of the graduate students’ PechaKucha session, in which top students from around the world present their design work.

Van der Vyver was born in Bethal, raised in Paarl, and completed her design degree at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam last year.

Her graduation project, Scary Beautiful, a concept piece exploring how high high heels can go, hit the internet and went viral with 2.8-million views on Vimeo. It even popped up on American talk-show TV, and she got a call from Lady Gaga’s wardrobe assistant.

“They all wanted to know who this sadistic, chauvinist designer was,” Van der Vyver said. “None of them read further than the images to see I was critiquing the very beauty system they were accusing me of fuelling.

“Shoes have become an accessory to posture,” she said, showing her earlier work — the Limp Shoe, which gives wearers a gangster swagger. “There’s extreme power in accessories.” What Van der Vyver did not tell the audience is that she had been a fashion model for six years before deciding to study design.

What did you dream of becoming when you were a child?
I wanted to be an artist-veterinarian. I wanted to paint and sculpt sick ­animals back to health.

What was the first thing you designed?
My first design was a ninth-grade assignment to make handskoene, and “hand shoes” was what I made. With the help of a leather artisan friend, Fred Liebenberg, I crafted a pair of sandals complete with soles that fit my hands perfectly.

Do you think of yourself as a ­fashion designer?
I am a critical designer. I am very influenced by my personal frustrations with modern society. My designs are a reaction to things that bother me.

Do you consider yourself an ­artist?
Maybe. My work teeters on the edge of art and design. I like the grey area.

What is your design philosophy?
I have two at the moment. The questions I ask myself when designing are, one, why should people care? And, two, does it make sense?

Who are some of your favourite designers?
Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, John Kormeling and Hussein Chalayan.

What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading two books. One, for looking at pictures, is called Shelter, edited by Lloyd Kahn. The other is for theory and is called The Unfashionable Human Body by Bernard Rudofsky. I don’t really like reading fiction; theory books are a kind of sensible fiction.

What’s on your playlist at the moment?
I have a terrible confession to make: I don’t really enjoy listening to music, I love silence. But if I have to get down, I like to listen to Tyler the Creator and R Kelly. I am going through a weird R&B phase because I was a metal- head teenager and totally missed out on that side of things. At home we like to listen to music like the Eagles and the Doors. My dad is a serious jazz musician so he won’t really approve of this answer.

Are you getting involved in the World Design Capital 2014?
I don’t know. I’m not planning anything especially for the event just yet. The city of Cape Town needs to stop demolishing heritage buildings. Soon Cape Town is going to look like a Los Angeles strip mall or, even worse, a Las Vegas strip mall.

What is your favourite building in your city?
The foyer of the Nico Malan Theatre at the Artscape is the nicest place, with the most beautiful chandeliers. I don’t think Cape Town has any nice buildings left; they all get modern upgrades or demolished. The most beautiful, enormous rose window in Orange Street was smashed to build another generic trying-to-be-something-it’s-not hotel, the African Pride. This makes no sense to me. It might be the inspiration/frustration for a new project about authenticity and what that means to our young nation.

Mail&Guardian, 8 March 2013

Redesigning Cape Town: Interview with Richard Perez


Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrade in Khayelitsha, Cape Town

Cape Town has officially accepted the title of World Design Capital 2014(WDC2014). It’s a first for Africa and a first for the Global South. Another World Design Capital first is that Cape Town’s mayor has appointed an industrial designer to help the municipality to internalise design thinking, taking the WDC2014 program beyond simply a year-long festival.

An industrial design engineering Masters-graduate from the Royal College of Arts in London, Richard Perez also holds an engineering degree and a MBA from the University of Cape Town. In order to facilitate this design-enabled environment within The City, Perez will be taking a three-year leave of absence from his position of director at …XYZ industrial design consultancy. …XYZ has distinguished itself internationally with its 4 Secs Condom Applicator and Freeplay Wind-up Radio.

However it is unlikely that Perez will be designing any gadgets in City Hall. In fact, we ask him, what is there for an industrial designer to do in City Hall?


Retreat Railway Police Station. Designed by Makeka Design Studios

Core77: What is the design brief for your new position at the City of Cape Town?

Richard Perez: There are two sides to the job. One is very much focused on identifying and showcasing existing design-based municipal projects for the actual WDC2014 program. These projects such as the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading project in Khayelitsha and the Biodiversity Garden in Greenpoint Park.

The other aspect is about bringing design thinking into the organization. South Africa is going to be 20 years into democracy and we’re still faced with the same problems. Executive mayor Patricia de Lille has bought into the concept of design as a tool to try something different. She really believes that design, and I would agree with her, can enable us to look at these problems through a different lens and really understand new ways of solving these problems.

What are some of these problems?

The mayor is interested in things like densification and the speed of urbanization, in terms of how we deal with that and solutions that accommodate that sort of growth. The city is also still very segregated, so the mayor would like to see how we can use design to make it more of an inclusive city.

These are really big “wicked problems” and the thing about wicked problems is that you can’t solve them. The key is to understand them and then manage them through design interventions. We’re not looking for silver bullets to solve these problems forever. It’s about using a design thinking mind to understand the problem, engaging with the stakeholders, engaging with the people that live in the system and then starting to look at solutions.


MyCiTi Bus Service reconnects a divided city. Photo by Bruce Sutherland

Can you explain wicked problems a bit more?

You get tame problems and wicked problems. You can solve tame problems by creating some sort of model or formula that helps you identify and address the root cause.

Wicked problems are generally systemic problems and have a lot of social elements. If you change something in a system, something else in the system goes wrong or right. So the key in any problem-solving process is to first identify if it is a tame or wicked problem, because once you understand that it is a wicked problem and has social elements to it, is systemic and completely interrelated, you can map the problem.

Design is a fantastic tool to help with mapping and understanding systems and interrelations. Then you can implement design interventions that work over time. Within the iterative design process, you introduce an intervention to a wicked problem with the understanding that something else will change and, because you’ve mapped out the system, you can be pretty sure what that is.

How does this compare to the current way that the municipality approaches problems?

It is a completely different way of thinking. I was told throughout my engineering education to solve a problem through reduction—you reduce it down to its components and then solve it. In systems thinking you solve the problem by looking at the system as opposed to looking at the individual part. It’s a mind shift. It’s a space of uncertainty and touches on the concept of uncertainty management—how well do people function in an uncertain space. Design is all about that, about managing an element of chaos.

Designers don’t know what the problem is from the outset. We know what the system is that we are trying to address and what we are trying to achieve at the end of the day, but at the start of the design process we don’t know what the problem and solution is. Designers have to be comfortable with that and a lot of people aren’t comfortable with that—they want the solution before they start so that they can map it out, determine how long it will take and identify the risks. Design thinking says that we know what we want to achieve but we don’t know what the solution is, so we are going to go through a process to identify it and it’s an iterative process that builds as you go along.

You learn a lot through failure. All the companies that innovate celebrate failure because you learn a lot, but it’s got to do be done in a controlled way. It’s very important to go through these learning cycles and, as you go through these learning cycles, build a much more appropriate and grounded solution at the end of the day. As opposed to thinking you know what the problem is, defining a solution, spending four years implementing it and at the end discovering that it’s not the right solution.


Inwenkwezi Seconday School designed by Noero Wolff. Photo by Dave Southwood

It’s a brave approach, but also very risky for the mayor. Do you think that voters and citizens will appreciate and forgive failure as part of an innovation cycle?

Moderating the expectations of the citizens is going to be one of the biggest challenges. If we can turn the perception of the municipality to one of being innovative, the citizens will embrace it. It will make mistakes because that is part of the innovation process but understanding, reflecting on and admitting mistakes is all part of the design process as opposed to trying to shovel things under the carpet to hide the perceived failures.

The critical achievement for me will be to create an awareness of design and that design can add value. It’s quite an abstract concept to say that design adds value because it will add value differently to you and to me. It’s not just a better signage system, bus shelter or mobile phone. Those are the tangible artifacts, but design goes right up to the systems level of processes and service design, which is about the experience of a customer. Within a city environment, it could be the experience of paying your rates including the information that is given to you, the call centers, the backend system, the way the form is laid out etc. Service design is big in the banking sector, but in a city’s case it can extend as far as service delivery in terms of sanitation and water, for instance.

What’s also important in terms of managing their expectations is in using a participatory design process. It is a difficult process and involves listening to all the stakeholders to get an understanding of what they want to get out of this. So you may have five or six stakeholders each with a different requirement, but that’s the challenge for the designer—how do you create a solution that addresses all these? If it’s not going to address all of them, then it’s about going through a process to see how we can accommodate or come up with a appropriate solution that suits the system and then iterating through design thinking.

Core 77, 18 July 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.

Immortal-2.jpg Immortal-3.jpg
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.

Immortal-4.jpg

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?

Immortal-5.jpg Immortal-6.jpg
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

Paint the town with poetry

Lemn Sissay turns words into monuments, literally. Spending some time in South Africa, the poet gives Nadine Botha a verbal whiplashing.

Lemn Sissay is a seasoned interviewee. At 21-years old, he published his debut collection of poetry to critical acclaim and, in as many years, has since published seven anthologies and four plays. Telly-watchers will recognise him as the youngest Grumpy Old Man on the first four seasons of the hit BBC sitcom, as well as the subject of the documentary Internal Flight. In 2007 he became artist-in-residence at the Southbank Centre. Sissay has been turning poems into landmarks since the late 1990s.

Yes, this is a rare poet who has had enough interlocution with the media to remember his own catchphrases, yawn at the boring questions, predict my oohs and aahs, laugh at his own pull quotes and interject himself with a shake of the head – “I can see the article now”, he mumbles to himself throughout the interview.

But where the reporter always gets hooked, he says, is on the subject of his gruelling childhood. “And who can blame them?” he shrugs off the stark tale of an Ethiopian student who lost her son after placing him in temporary foster care in the UK. What happened was that the care worker renamed the infant Norman, after himself, and allowed a British family to legally adopt him. Religious zealots from Lancashire, the foster parents believed that God had sent “Norman”. When “Norman” was 11, the family came to believe that he was evil and was promptly returned to the foster care system to spend the next seven years of his life in-between children’s homes. The first time he met another black person was when he was 14. He reclaimed his name, Lemn Sissay, at age 18.

“It was an emotionally violent existence and I had to find a way of interpreting the world into a place without violence, so that I could see wonder, because I deserved to see wonder,” Sissay explains his turn to writing.

Since he was 18, however, Sissay knew that he had to find his family. “It’s become the narrative of my adult life,” he smirks at what has become one of his catchphrases. After finding every last one of them – from Ethiopian mother and dead Eritrean father to siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents – by the age of 32, he coined another of his catchphrases: “I now have a dysfunctional family like everyone else!”

Sissay’s humour is so self-aware, so to-the-bone and so subconscious, it is often intestinal. “You know like a child who is laughing and then is kicked. They don’t understand the pain, but they do understand that they were happy. So their relation to laughter is really in contrast to the punch. But we all deserve to laugh. And… I’ve never said this before…” He breathes in: “Laughter is a shortterm hit, not the answer. Only a fool thinks it is!”

He beams, shakes his head at himself and rambles on: “The poems and writing for me are totally beyond my narrative. It just happens that I was lucky enough to find this great ship that can carry pretty much anything. There are small quarters on the ship that is my family story and every time I speak to a journalist, they want to go to that room. That’s okay.”

Turning to gloat, he says: “But actually, I’m rocking out to sea, riding the waves, putting up the sails and fishing.” Gloating because now, in his early forties, Sissay has come to realise: “My poems are my family.”

He lowers his voice: “I found my family all over the world, my actual physical blood relatives. But my poetry has been with me for longer. So when there wasn’t family, there was poetry. And to be honest, there’s more truth in my poems than I will ever be able to extract from my family.”

Imitating Dr Evil, he raises his eyebrows a couple of times. Sissay’s incomparable ability to wear fragility as armour is dumbfounding. We’re sitting in a coffee shop off Long Street in Cape Town, shortly after the Africa Centre’s Badilisha Poetry X-change, and Sissay flags down a passer-by only to find that he’d mistaken them for someone else.

Electrifying audiences with a mind that runs faster than his tongue, a few weeks later, Sissay headlined the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and went on for a run at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. None of these are Sissay’s first visits to South Africa. He has been visiting regularly since 1994 when he participated in a Robben Island project. Of the country, he says: “I always find the greatest communities in the world have a very complex set of arteries surrounding their hearts.”

Similarly for this “first generation Ethiopian Eritrean Brit”, as he calls himself, the question of identity is like the colour of the sky. “It’s like saying the sky is blue, but it’s not actually, it’s a reflection of the sea. So you could say the sky is blue, the sky is invisible, the sky is grey… it’s all of those things. Stories aren’t simple, which is why we have creatives. And we’re all creatives,” he reasons.

Going on, he insists that “creativity is an integral part of society, it’s not on the periphery but at the centre”. This is the power of the arts for Sissay, beyond the needs for context, narrative or legacy, he vehemently continues: “We have never lived without art, yet society perceives art to be an addition to life and the fact is, if you look at our religions, they’re all told through great stories, literature and art – physical art. The artist is often employed to carry the message, but sometimes I wonder, isn’t the artist itself the message?”

Taken from a man who has transformed poems into physical landmarks throughout the city of Manchester, now infiltrating London, such talk is only mildly alchemical. What is gratifying about his poetic interventions is that, as Sissay says, “The beauty of a landmark, is it’s not a landmark by you, it’s by other people. You can’t build a landmark, people have to choose it.”

The first landmark was the result of a taunt from some mates in a local pub and Sissay decided to “show them”, resulting in Hardy’s Well being branded on the eponymous pub. Since then he has inscribed Rain above the Gemini Take Away, Flags on the cobblestones along Tib Street and Catching Numbers in the Shude Hill Bus Station, all in Manchester. Last year, he unveiled The Gilt of Cain in London. This collaboration with sculptor Michael Visocchi commemorates the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

“The beauty of a poem in the landscape is that you suddenly start to notice a building that you always pass without noticing. It’s not about finding the biggest spire, but about discovering your neighbourhood and bringing people to an environment that they might not have discovered by their own eyes and ears,” says Sissay. He shrugs: “The poems are architecture.”

Visible creativity is an urgent message for Sissay, as he reemphasises: “There is a structure and anarchy that an artist acknowledges and we need that, even if a lot of the time we are afraid of seeing it.”

“Why are we scared?” I ask rhetorically.

But this man of woven words has an answer: “Because art has always gotten to the truth of the matter and we have been taught to be frightened of the truth of the matter.”

ARCHITECTURE

Each cloud wants to be a storm
My tap water wants to be a river
Each match wants to be an explosive
Each reflection wants to be real
Each joker wants to be a comedian
Each breeze wants to be a hurricane
Each drizzled rain wants to be torrential
Each laugh from the throat  wants to burst from the belly
Each yawn wants to hug the sky
Each kiss wants to penetrate
Each handshake wants to be a warm embrace
Don’t you see how close we are to crashes and confusion,
Tempests and terror,  Mayhem and madness,
and All things out of control

Each melting Icecube wants to be a glazier
Each wave wants to be the smooth stroke of a forehead
Each cry wants to be a scream
Each carefully pressed suit wants to be creased
Each midnight frost  wants to be a snow drift
Each mother wants to be a friend
Each night time wants to strangle the day
Each wave wants to be tidal
Each subtext wants to be a title
Each winter wants to be the big freeze
Each summer wants to be a drought
Each polite disagreement wants to be a vicious denial
Each diplomatic smile wants to be a one fingered tribute to tact
Don’t you see how close we are to crashes and confusion,
Tempests and terror,  Mayhem and madness,
and All things out of control
Keep telling yourself.
You’ve got it covered.

REMEMBER HOW WE FORGOT

We don’t cram around the radio anymore
We have arrived at the multidimensional war
Where diplomats chew it up  spew it up
And we stand like orphans with empty cups
‘There will be no peace’ the press release
Said  that  war is on the increase
We  are being soaked with a potion
Massaged with  lotion to calm the commotion
That hides in  the embers of the fire
There’s nothing as quick as a liar
Don’t you learn your lesson
Are you so effervescent that
When they say day is day and its dark in your window
You say ‘ok’ and listen more tomorrow?

Seems you heard the trigger word
Are you space to be replaced – dreams defaced
Heavy questions  quickly sink
Leaving no trace – a spiked drink
What kind of trip are you on
Don’t you remember the last one?
Remember how we forgot about Vietnam,
Afghanistan, will you fall or stand
For a dream you haven’t seen?
I’m afraid you will, you have taken the pill
And you are totally stoned on war.

Media Hype and the slogans they write
Is that all it takes to set you alight
There’s nothing better than a doped up mind
For a young unemployed man to sign up
Figures go down young men sign up
What better when losing votes than to erupt
Into the uniting sound of war fever
“We need unity now – more than ever…
We shall only attack to defend…”
Paranoia infiltrates…
“Are you one of us or one of them!”
Slogans fall like hard rain as government calls
For someone somewhere in some country
That is suddenly so vital to our history
More than ever we should pull together
These are the days of stormy weather
Patriots show  faces, nationalists recruit places
As the fear of the foreigner rises
The race attack count arises
Victims of the small island mentality
England is no mother country
He holds the fear of the Awakening
Of his shivering shores breaking
Like the those in the Middle East did
When he raped it –
will you take it – take this, without question
Fall in line with the press poet or politician
Remember how we forgot about Vietnam,
Afghanistan. Will you fall or stand
For a dream you haven’t seen.
I’m afraid you will, you’ve taken the pill
You are totally stoned on war.

Design Indaba magazine, 1 August 2009

Fabulous fantasia

Marcel Wanders has designed more than a lifetime’s worth of knotted chairs – he’s designed himself.

Once upon a time there was a young man who went to Eindhoven Design Academy. It was written in the stars: He would be a designer. But disaster struck when an evil professor flunked him out of the school and the young man was banished to labour in the provinces among the jewellers and craftspeople of Maastricht.

The young man was very determined to succeed however and worked doubly hard at not only impressing his teachers but also doing his own interpretations for his personal advancement. By the time the young man had finished his studies, he was spoken of across the land in competitions, exhibitions and magazines.

Now, some 20 years on, the man has come to be known as one of the world’s hottest designers – not only for his humorous, fantastical theatricalities but, well, for himself. Infamously his girlfriend has poured champagne for guests at an opening while swinging from a chandelier, he has amassed over 40 speeding tickets in Amsterdam, stripped down to his birthday suit in presentations such as the Naked Designer and named his daughter Joy Faith Love Wanders.

In the vein of modern artists such as Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Wanders himself is a work of design. “Fabulous!” he says.

Nadine Botha: You say you design from mentality. What does that mean?

Marcel Wanders: A lot of designers work from a strictly stylistic point of view or they have some fundamental idea about how they want their shapes to be. I work from a mentality in that there is an endless vocabulary of form, but still my work is recognisable because it has a mentality – it is something that you can feel. There is a mood and personality behind the work. Perhaps personality is a better word than mentality: it’s a personal logic.

Is it your personality?

Yes, yes I have to move the ship, so it’s driven by me. But there’s a logic behind it: We [the Marcel Wanders Studio] do things in a certain way, putting more import into strategy and communication than maybe other designers. It’s not strictly stylistic, which a lot of designers are. I don’t think we have that much of a style.

Is this a constructed public personality?

Yes, I think so, but it’s unavoidable. If you put your name on an object, you communicate who you are and that there is a person behind the object. Then you need not only to create a personality, but it should be a fabulous personality as well – this makes the product or family of products even more interesting. If you forget this, I don’t know why you would put your name on something. People who put their name on something and then think that they should be quiet, do wrong.

You in particular seem to embrace a “rock star” lifestyle, while many other designers seem rather staid and even preppy. Is it expected that designers be conservative – maybe to match their minimalist work – and are you consciously challenging that?

If you put your name on an object, you are responsible for the content of the person behind the object. And that has to be fabulous – you design the object, the design and the person behind it all. If your products are boring and you are a boring designer, that’s fine, I understand, but then there’s no reason to put your name on the product because it just won’t get any better. To make exciting products, you have to be an exciting person – there should be a consistency with who you are and what you deliver. For me, I am just me – it is theatrical because I like to live my life in an exciting way. I dunno, it’s who I am. What can I do?

Even more than your name, your Airborne Snotty Vases must be your most notorious work. How and why did you come across running airborne boogers through a 3D scanner?

The Airborne Snotty Vases was a project that started from a theoretical basis in that I really wanted to study digital scanning technology because it promised to make things possible that were otherwise completely impossible. I am sure that this technology will win a space in the future because it is so unique – you can do things that are completely free in form. So I wanted to study what it would be used for in the future.

This became a challenge to not only design something with my mind, but to find something that was really spectacular and had never been seen before. So instead of making a shape, we tried finding a shape that was already there but had never been seen. At some point while we were thinking, someone sneezed and I thought to myself that it was a very interesting action – we do it all the time and we don’t know what we create. So we decided to find out by looking through a 3D scanner, where we were able to capture a fantastic form and then replicate the form to produce an object.

I think this is nice – by using this incredibly new and advanced technique, we were able to find and create very advanced shapes. But also, I think it’s nice when things are beautiful as well as ugly. It’s interesting to me that people sometimes like the vases until I tell them it’s a virtual airborne snotty. It’s important that the things we do touch people – whether they hate it or they love it.

Is that what you mean when you talk about how the industrial age has seen designers “celebrate the poor possibilities of the available machinery”? (In the introduction to 21st Century Design by Marcus Fairs.)

For 100 years, designers have been listening to machines when making something for people, whereas I think that they should listen to people and then use machines to make something. We should be humanist instead of technocrats. If I use a machine technique to make something that is unimportant to people, that’s terrible.

I think that we are born to live our lives as princes and princesses, and I feel that we can rise to this position if we use technology in the right way. But we have to start with thinking that we deserve to live a fabulous life and that it is not impossible to do, but entirely technically feasible. I mean, technology like 3D photography can make crazy, beautiful dreams come completely true. And that’s not thanks to technology, but because humans love to create dreams and poetry.

Is realising these crazy, beautiful ideas what informs your rejection of environmental design in preference for durability?

There’s a lot to be said about environmental concerns and, of course, we all think about it in different ways. One of the ways that we concern ourselves with is through durability, which is a way to create objects that people will never throw away because they are so important to them. This is good for the environment and humanity. In creating durability, I started thinking differently to the rest of the design world a long time ago.

Let me tell you a story. A long time ago, about 15 years ago, there was a group of people called Eternally Yours that I was involved in. The focus was on new ways to create more durability. At one point there was a girl who created a velour fabric – the type where the hair stands right up. In the velour that she developed, a floral pattern would appear when the hair wore off. Everyone was excited. But I was not so excited because I thought that what she was saying to the audience is that the normal wearing of velvet is not right, beautiful or a good thing. This made me realise that instead of durability being a material problem, it was a psychological problem.

In our culture, the words “old” and “new” have completely different importance. We really love the new and are afraid of the old. The strange coincidence is that it is designers who create the new world and who are, even more than the average people in the street, excited about the new. These people create objects with metaphors of the new, forgetting the metaphors of the old. The first scratch on this object would be seen as its first sign of deterioration, which is a negative thing.  I call this the “baby face fixation” – wanting everything to be clean, beautiful and new.

Instead, I decided from that moment that every project I do, every object I make, will always have the metaphor of the old and the metaphor of the new. So it will always be in between my father and my daughter – and that’s my face. I want to be in this position to make sure that the objects I make will not be thrown out fast, instead living a long, durable life. For me it’s an important way to address environmental concerns, as well as create objects that are more meaningful to people.

Durability in terms of material is quite defined, but what about in terms of style, where people’s aesthetic tastes change much faster?

I think it’s important to change, but everything moves in waves and the wavelength is very different for certain objects. This is fine; we have the need for change and the need for durability. So perhaps if you buy a postcard, it feels very new and it will be new every time you buy it. But if you buy a wedding ring, it feels very durable. See, they have different wavelengths in terms of being new or exciting. So every object has its own logic. I like to make the type of object that is a durable object. For instance, we’ve made a few items of clothing now, but I would never call it fashion because I’m sure it will still be fantastic for the next 10 years, no problem.

With works like the Knotted Chair, the Fishnet Chair and the Crochet Series, you’ve taken traditional craft techniques and used technology to make them more durable. What do you think of the so-called craft debate?

What is the craft debate? I don’t know. Let’s say 20 years ago, design was industrial design. We started to make chairs and stuff that was difficult to make. For 100 years, designers have made things that are easy to make and that’s all we’ve given the world. To make something that is difficult to make is not worse or better, it’s just another way to make things and at least the end product takes effort from the maker. That’s why I’ve been working on a lot of things that involve craft.

The strange thing is that even the industrially produced furniture has tons of hand labour involved in it – it just tries to look like it’s machine made, but it’s not. In fact, if we’re talking about craft I think we have to talk about why China is the country that all the products in the world come from. It’s not because they have better machines there, it’s because they have more hands. The fact that China is the biggest producer of products proves that industrial design has completely failed. Why else is it that the country where people work with their hands all the time is the biggest producer in the world?

And I think it is a pity that we don’t show the hand labour of these people, because then we would actually feel that the products are more valuable. So I don’t think that it should be the one or the other, but that both hand and industrial production can be very interesting.

You design, promote, run a number of businesses, collaborate across the creative smorgasbord, invest in property, experiment and have a good time to boot. How do you manage to be good at everything?

I think that as a creative person you are best at what you don’t know how to do. If you have to do something new and you don’t know how to get it done, what comes out is your creativity and you find a way to do what you can’t. So I’m always going into areas that I’m completely uninvolved in and have no idea how to get it done – I will always go to this fearful place because that’s the place where I am best.

Do some roles come more naturally than others? I heard that you had to really work hard to get your degree in design after flunking out of Eindhoven.

I think that if you don’t have to work hard to get it done, you didn’t do it well. You just didn’t give enough energy for it to become fabulous. Everything you do in which you want to be fabulous, you have to give everything and more. So nothing comes easily, because it should not come easily. If it comes easily it’s not worth it.

You’ve called Philippe Starck the greatest living designer. Why don’t you consider yourself the greatest living designer?

I would love to one day live in Philippe Starck’s shadow. I think he is far beyond me and instead of me getting closer to him, I feel he is running away very fast. The man is a genius – more than anyone else in design, he is able to look at himself and what he is doing in a very open-minded way and then change it. The man has reinvented design three times in different ways and right now he is doing the same – tomorrow we will find out how far ahead he is.

You’ve been working with him and John Hitchcox from Yoo on the Mondrian in South Beach. How has that been?

No, we don’t do projects together, but work in the same field. Starck is a part-owner of the company and I work with the company. I would never work together with Philippe again – it’s terrible to work with him. He’s just as terrible as I am. And selfish – just like me. I want to do everything myself and know everything better, of course. The thing is, though, if you can do something on your own, why do it with someone else? If you can’t do it on your own, of course you do it with someone else. But I think Philippe is very capable of designing whatever he wants and, to be honest, I feel the same. So, there’s no reason to work with him – I’d rather have a drink or a great time with him.

What was the brief for the Mondrian and how did you interpret it?

The brief was to do a fabulous hotel, which would establish the Mondrian brand and be a fabulous place for Miami and the people who visit it. Of course the Morgans Group developers have their own type of client but they gave me carte blanche to do a Marcel Wanders hotel.

You know the story of Sleeping Beauty? At the moment that it ends, that’s the moment you arrive at the hotel. I wanted to create a space where people see themselves and others with new eyes; as though they’ve been sleeping for a 100 years and now wake up. It’s very a romantic place, very royal, very theatrical. We’ve played with all kinds of things to make this happen – whether it is bells in the lobby area or superhero women inviting you in. But you have to see it…

Why don’t you like being called a Dutch designer?

I design for the world. But, to be fair, I was much more sensitive about that in the past. I understand now that it’s like making a unique gift. One of the reasons I like design so much is that I liked making gifts when I was a kid. A good gift will say something about the person who gets the gift – you don’t give something that doesn’t resonate with this person, it makes no sense. Also, you hope that the gift says something about who you are, how you see this person and what you think is important in life. That is how I like to see my design – I like to make things that are both for the whole world as well as speaking about who I am. And yes, I’m Dutch. Yes, I’m born here in this country. So, if you can recognise that I’m Dutch from my work, then that’s fantastic – I hope to give something beautiful from my surroundings.

Design Indaba magazine, 2 February 2009