Estranging the everyday

Designer Nelly Ben Hayoun relishes extreme projects, doing things like coaxing you to become an astronaut in your living room while dark energy is being created in your kitchen, and a volcano is erupting on your sofa. By devising subversive events and experiences, it is her mission to bring chaos and disorder into the world of branding, science and design.

Published in DAMn 57, July/August 2016

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“The Event”, writes conspicuously contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek is something that “shatters ordinary life”. This can range from a celebrity scandal or political uprising to a new art form or something as personal as falling in love. The Event might seem disproportionate to the outcome, but “after an Event, nothing remains the same.”

Designer Nelly Ben Hayoun is such an event. With her bustling energy barely zipping into her astronaut suit, her beguiling French brogue and self-described “tiger eyes”, she has pushed her way into the nonparaeil conservatories of science such as the NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute in the United States, the Super Kamiokande neutrino collider in Japan and the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. The results have been unprecedented. Who would ever have dreamt up pooling the amateur musical talents of scientists to put together the International Space Orchestra that not only retells the story of the 1969 moon landing, but plays alongside Damon Albarn and Beck, records the opera in George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch where Star Wars was shot, and releases the recordings into space to orbit the earth on board the International Space Station. Never mind who, to what purpose?

“My friends and family call me the hammer, because when I have something in mind, I will never stop until it comes to fruition,” Ben Hayoun laughs. Her intention with this approach towards the haloed halls of science is not only to rock the pedestal of the world’s esteemed untouchables, but also to make them human: ““I’m not working for scientists. I’m working for the public to access the sublime in science,” she explains that she refuses to defer to the scientists’ authority, especially since 70% of space scientists are male. “And I take the public places members of the public haven’t been.”

Besides being an event in herself, Ben Hayoun also designs events that allow the public to experience the world of science. These include Super K Sonic BOOOOum in which the audience donned helmets, white rubber shoes and boiler suits before being rowed in dinghies through a water and balloon-filled installation that simulates the Japanese neutrino observatory. After being addressed by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, a light and sound show emulating a neutrino collision is witnessed. In a similar vein, the Soyuz Chair simulates what it feels like to lift off in the Soyuz Rocket.

With her The Other Volcano project, Ben Hayoun worked with a volcanologist and pyrotechnic designer to create a domestic appliance that would randomly go off, just as a volcano would, but in one’s own home. She advertised for volunteers who would live with the volcano. “Obviously we are not giving you a volcano as it’s filled with gunpowder, but let’s engage you in a debate of why you want to risk your life!?”exclaims Ben Hayoun.

“I prefer the process of accessing the impossible than to actually seeing it happening,” she goes on. One might say she is designing our imaginations then, and she does constantly refer back to the big influence that Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty has on her work. The theatre of cruelty is based on the principle of viscerally overwhelming audiences’ senses in order to evoke an unmediated response directly from their subconscious. “And I get quite violent with them,” Ben Hayoun points to the Super K Sonic BOOOOum.

Inspired by Jean Paul Sartre’s book No Exit, The Other Volcano is also about domestic mundaneness that leads to existential disinterest. In Žižekian terms, the volcano is an event used to disrupt the everyday life, create a near death experience and embody thy self again.

Ben Hayoun loves her French philosophers, however, and it is armed with Jean Baudrillard that she goes in search of the reality behind our Hollywood-constructed hyperreality of doomsday in her latest project, Disaster Playground. By exploring the 20-people long chain of command between the first sighting of an asteroid attack and the decision to act, it becomes apparent that it’s nothing like Bruce Willis with a drill or the president with a big red button in their drawer. In fact, it’s rather ordinary and everyday things could go wrong, such as someone not having their cellphone on them. A multi-platform initiative that includes a book, an app, a video series, an exhibition and an experience, it is through the Netflix-distributed film that it is most widely known.

“I engineer situations by looking at systems, how I can design and modify them, how I can engineer for social actions,” Ben Hayoun responds to whether she is increasingly becoming more of a film director than designer. For instance, she explains that the giant red telephone and plastic dinosaur prop in the film are based on Bertoldt’s Brecht’s epic theatre, designed to create an imaginary estrangement and reintroduce wonder into the everyday. This “empowers intelligent agents” to see the artificiality of the disaster system and “render it visible”, she explains.

Ben Hayoun’s work is as far removed from the luxury chair and lifestyle industry of the Milan Design Week as one gets. In fact, the last time she was there was in 2012, performing “A Milanese Foley” in which she used the craft techniques of Foley Artists, sound film artists, to perform the sound of sitting on a Barcelona chair, typing on a Valentino typewriter and so on. “It wasn’t easy,” Ben Hayoun confesses that people didn’t understand what she was doing, and even the London Design Museum turned down her residency proposal. Four years later and the overriding trend of Milan Design Week 2016, according to Het Nieuwe Institute in Rotterdam, is performance becoming recognized as a medium of design. Yes, this little pioneer is an event with unforeseen consequences.

It’s first thing on Monday morning. We’re sitting in Shoreditch House in London. Ben Hayoun has barely gulped down her earl grey tea and butter-and-jam bread, but she’s got a plane to catch. Her next project is about outer space colonization and looking for new life forms, she says gathering her things. “And it’s got a Viking ship, but that’s all I can tell you,” she kisses both cheeks, and she’s gone.

Kitchens, kids and kaleidoscopes at Milan 2016

Between the sea of countless chairs that typically characterise a visit to the world’s largest design festival, Milan Design Week, three trends spoke to VISI’s passions.

VISI.co.za: April 20, 2016

Smart Stone Kitchens

Kitchens were king in Milan this year, not least because of the biennial EuroCucina exhibition at the Salone del Mobile, where the undeniable star of the show was a sink that disappears when not in use. The sink was part of the Tuler responsive kitchen by Offmat, an experimental kitchen project of Italian design studio Marmo Arredo, which also featured concealed stovetops. Indeed, more than just finishes or lifestyles, the new kitchen was barely visible – what Miele’s conceptual installation named the Invisible Kitchen.

Powered by digital technologies, projection mapping and gestural controls, the result is sculptural forms free from messy details and buttons. Rebooting the kitchen with the aid of Caesarstone, Tom Dixon said that he wanted to get away from a “series of equipment” arranged to “hug the walls”. The result is four kitchens based on sculptural forms and the elements – water, air, earth and fire. Using cutting-edge equipment from Electrolux, he also introduced newfangled means of cooking: blasting, vacuuming and large-scale steaming.

Italian food designers Arabeschi di Latte interpreted these modes into black pancakes, freshly dehydrated fruit and roots and aromatic stock with frozen leaves. Similarly peculiar food was served at Lexus’s Anticipation installation. Chef Yoji Tokuyoshi served an aperitif of fish broth, agar agar and mandarin, as well as a nasturtium leaf with a spot of prune, shiso leaves and blueberry relish. Miele too served sweet potato ice cream – the recipe for which can be found here.

Going just beyond the kitchen, the Sapienstone Smart Slab Table by Reed Kram and Clemens Weisshaar for Iris Ceramica includes facilities to heat and cool food.

Kids Design Is Growing

From Kartell to Marcel Wanders for Cybex, design for kids and babes made a big splash, not to mention at least three rocking horses – by Front for Gebrüder Thonet Vienna, Nendo for Kartell and Alvin Tjitrowirjo from Indonesia.

“What a challenge to design a collection for babies, so we thought maybe we should design it for parents,” said Wanders about the Cybex range of embroidered rockers, high chairs, bouncers and toys inspired by his iconic Monster chair. “Going from a couple to a family is already quite a lifestyle change, so maybe you don’t have to change your whole apartment.”

Kartell’s easy-to-wipe plastic is a natural fit for children’s furniture, and it has explored this territory tentatively before. This year however it launched a complete kids collection, including a building block table and series of racing cars (which we featured as a recent Pick of the Week).

Kaleidoscopic Colours

The hue of this year was undoubtedly every shade of pastel pink – pretty on the money for Pantone’s Rose Quartz Colour of the Year. Vitra’s Soft Modular Sofa showed how to snuggle into the colour, while Formafantasma showed that it works just as well in hard-edged minimalism at the Lexus Anticipation exhibition.

What the show-wide palettes of dirty pastels really achieved however was to make the unapologetically rich velvety reds and kaleidoscopic geometric patterns pop out even more. On the red front, Fabio Novembre showed a round leather-clad interior in the Rooms: Novel Living Concepts exhibition at the Triennale Museum, while the Mindcraft exhibition of Danish design spun in a crimson set of turning decks.

A celebration of Ron Arad by Moroso and Javier Mariscal, Spring to Mind included an installation of red chairs in a mirror room. Mirrors, red and geometrics also featured in the Scarlet Splendour collection at Rossana Orlandi, with its striking vanity table. Also at Orlandi, KIGI from Japan showed its Mirror Cup and Saucer.

Patricia Urquiola teamed the salmon and red in her exquisite stained glass collaboration with Federico Pepe for Spazio Pontaccio – Credenza. In her debut as creative director for Cassina, Urquiola further showed her finesse for colours and patterns.

The result of 10 years of research by Hella Jongerius, the Vitra Colour and Material Library drew the crowds. Besides the swatches, an installation of furniture turned into wheels, dropped jaws.

To find out more about this year’s Milan Design Week, visit salonemilano.it. Browse the gallery above to view some of our favourites.

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.

From gut to gallery

Everything we were taught to believe about fearing bacteria is being upheaved by a growing movement of designers and scientists.

Published in DAMn 55: March/April 2016

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Some 40 trillion invisible organisms cover every surface of our body, inside and out. This microbiome of bacteria, yeast, viruses, and fungi that we have accumulated throughout our life, since birth, is especially concentrated in our gut. The role E. coli plays in digestion is well known, and sometimes our candida or staph levels will get a bit boisterous and we’ll have a yeast infection or a sty. But up until recently, these mysterious personal squatters have not been given much attention, based solely on the assumption that the microscopic organisms live in neutral harmony with each other and with us. But what if our bodies are, in fact, made up of more microbiome cells than human cells?

Since we are truly more microbiome than human, what does it even mean to be a person anymore? As opposed to our obsession with everyone being an individual, are we actually ecosystems or superorganisms or conglomerate ecological corporations? This is the inspiration behind Austrian designer Sonja Bäumel’s current project, which involves researching the social interactions of bacteria and of other microorganisms, in collaboration with a scientist and a cultural historian. Research has linked depression, mood-swings, stress, cravings, diabetes, heart disease, and weight management with our invisible cohabitants, meaning that they could very well be contributing to our consciousness and decision-making. Scientists at Virginia Tech have announced that they may soon be controlling a robot brain using E. coli. Bäumel has been working with bacteria for over seven years, since graduating from Design Academy Eindhoven with a project exploring bacteria’s relation to fashion, which earned her top honours. Since then, others have developed bacterial fabrication techniques, such as New York fashion designer Suzanne Lee, who produced a Biocouture range of leather jackets.

In the same vein, German design student Julia Krayer recently showed Honingleder at Cologne Design Week. Translated as honey leather, it’s a skin-like material produced by bacteria that, during the fermentation process (of the same sort used in the beverage industry), metabolise sugar and secondary plant compounds into cellulose fibres. The result, says Krayer, is “a range of materials that can be slotted somewhere between textile, leather, and paper.” By incorporating the positive associations of honey and leather, she also hopes to challenge people’s perceptions of bacteria as ‘disgusting’ and ‘dangerous’.

How do you do?

It is this question of our relationship to and perception of bacteria that has also taken over Bäumel’s original fashion-based practice: “Now I’m figuring out that it’s more about finding alternatives for the platforms surrounding the body, not necessarily about finding solutions for the existing fashion system.” Recent works have included an agar cast of herself imprinted with her own microbiome and allowed to grow during an exhibition at the Waag Society in Amsterdam last year, and continuous explorations into visualising the bacteria on our body through dyes in petri dishes. Destigmatising bacteria is an important component, and for her on-going Metabodies project she obtained the handprints of a couple after exercise, after sex, and after showering, collecting these in petri dishes. People were surprised to discover that the most bacteria were present after showering, challenging our perception of what ‘dirty’ means. Bäumel explains that our skin’s pores release a new layer of bacterial protection each time we wash.

The importance of preserving our bacterial pals in order to maintain healthy immune systems and prevent the increasing threat of antimicrobial resistance and superbugs, is the message behind a fun, pop-up Pet Shop by the Waag Society – an institute that has been facilitating trans-disciplinary experimentation and research in the fields of art, science, and technology for over 20 years. Friendly, adorable micro-organisms with names like night-owl photobacteria, cool-cat spirulina, and fluffy fungi, as well as a range of DIY hardware that includes a microscope and an incubator, aim to appeal to kids, creatives, and hackers alike. By anthropomorphising microorganisms, the hope is that we’ll resist the temptation to use antibacterial household cleaners and toiletries.

Who’s watching you?

Not destroying our microbiome is a good thing, unless you’re trying to hide from Big Brother, as designer Emma Dorothy Conley explored in her Microbiome Security Agency project. Conley latched onto the discovery that each person’s microbiome is completely unique, like a fingerprint. In theory, it can provide information about our lifestyle, the people we’re living with, and where we’ve been – this is how shoplifter spray works, by intentionally adding trace-DNA to the suspect’s microbiome. “As soon as something is touted as being so specific to an individual that it can identify us, we need to ask how this will infringe on our personal privacy”, says the Ireland-based American. Winner of the 2015 Bio Art and Design Award in the Netherlands, she had collaborated with scientist Guus Roeselers to work out how one might camouflage the bacterial traces one leaves everywhere. The result is a range of pseudo cosmetics that adds so much raw DNA data to your microbiome that it would overload an identification test with too much information. An installation at the MU Artspace in Eindhoven allowed people to contribute bacteria – the more bacterial-DNA data included in the cosmetics, the more effective they were – and to apply it to themselves in powder form.

For Bäumel however, bacteria and microorganisms are not simply inert DNA; she is therefore pushing to adopt the methodology of metagenomics in her practice. This means that rather than looking at a single species in isolation and from the perspective of DNA, the emphasis is on trans-species social interaction and communication. In short: bacterial intelligence. “Only because they’re smaller – scale is a very interesting aspect in this project – are they seen to have less value than us”, says Bäumel.

Growing concern

A typography project by Ori Eliasar called Living Language unpeels some of the philosophical layers embedded in the notion of humans having an intelligent microbiome. Eliasar created ancient Palaeo-Hebrew letters in petri dishes using bacteria, and then added algal proteins in the shape of the modern Hebrew alphabet. As the bacteria grow, the initial shapes change into the new letters. “Using my research, experiments, and results, I am hoping to infuse nature, culture, character, and language with some new theories of my own”, says the Israeli about his graduation project.

Working in a school comes with certain liberties; however, for galleries and institutes moving into the realm of art and design utilising the medium of bacteria, from inert DNA to actual living matter, things are less obvious. This is unchartered terrain and it raises an entirely unexplored field of ethical and technical presentation issues. Bäumel experienced this first-hand when her installation at the Waag Society last year was removed prematurely because the results had not been anticipated by the organisation. Although disappointed, Bäumel is anything but put off; instead she appears incentivised by the challenges posed by being a pioneer. It would take such a spirit to be drawn into the field to begin with, but it’s Bäumel’s slow, methodological approach and her evolving personal attachment to microorganisms which indicate that her work is not gimmicky. “Caring about them is caring about us”, she smiles.

 

Making Africa – we need new names

City Press: January 15, 2016

Kenya’s cellphone micropayment system, M-Pesa; Beninese artist Meschac Gaba’s architectural sculptures made of hair braids; Umlilo’s Magic Man music video; Zanele Muholi’s portraits of black lesbians; Nigerian celebrity and lifestyle magazine Ovation; Cyrus Kabiru’s eyewear sculptures; the Diesel + Edun’s Pantsula vs Puppets advert; Robin Rhode’s street art animations; Vlisco fabric; and fashion website That Skattie.

These are just a sample of the range of work by more than 120 artists and designers included in the Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design exhibition, which is now showing at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Originally curated by Amelie Klein for the Vitra Design Museum in Basel, Switzerland, it is arguably the first major museum survey show of contemporary design in Africa, and neatly avoids stereotypes of humanitarian design and cultural craft by positioning itself within the “Africa is rising” narrative.

However, as the art world learnt with seminal exhibitions such as Africa Remix by Simon Njami in 2005 and The Short Century by Okwui Enwezor in 2001, survey exhibitions are inherently flawed because Africa is not a country, and any showing of Africa in Europe will evoke the spectacle of the other, raising the question of who this exhibition is really serving, and to what end.

Nigerian-born Enwezor also played an advising role in Making Africa, which originally opened just before his centrepiece Venice Biennale show last year. There is a feeling that his name gives the exhibition some sort of stamp of approval, particularly since his curatorial fingerprint is not discernible. However, in his catalogue interview, his call for a new design vocabulary that interrogates the power relations of Western-imposed concepts such as recycling and informality is to the point.

These etymological questions about design in Africa are echoed by everyone from Joburg-based Ghanaian architect Lesley Lokko to Edgar Pieterse, the founder of the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town, in the interactive video component of the exhibition. Featuring interviews with 12 art and design thinkers and practitioners, this gives meaningful intellectual context to the exhibition and is also available as an invaluable online resource.

It is disappointing that the richness of the design etymology conversation is not continued throughout the rest of the exhibition, comprising four seemingly superficial sections – Europe’s perceptions of Africa, social and cultural identity, urbanism and products, and future visions.

Obviously, there will be gaps in any exhibition that attempts a continent-wide scope (the most obvious being the iJusi magazine from Durban), but the selection criteria for what was included are not easily discernible.

At worst, given the show’s impetus to show a perspective on Africa divergent from the usual poverty and desolation themes, the uniting thread leans towards trendiness – something Jim Chuchu of The Nest decries in his video interview.

At best, the exhibition shows how, as Klein describes in her curatorial statement, design can begin to rethink itself beyond being in the service of the market economy.

Showing this achingly contemporary side of Africa to the rest of the world is important to inspire people to look further than the doomsday headlines and stereotypes. As a South African, however, I would have appreciated more interrogation of the premise that Africa is rising.

Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design runs at the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain until February 22

DDW: Topical concerns

Metropolis, December 2015

One of the ambassadors at Manon van Hoeckel’s “In Limbo Embassy”

Every year, the students of the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands take on thorny social, political, and cultural issues with their graduation projects. Here are three of this year’s standouts, exhibited in conjunction with Dutch Design Week 2015.

In Limbo Embassy

Even before Angela Merkel’s 180-degree turn on the Syrian refugee crisis, the issue of undocumented migrants had become a pressing concern in Europe. For refugees whose application for asylum status had been rejected, Manon van Hoeckel created a mobile pop-up safe space for dialogue and interaction. Formerly in-limbo immigrants are enlisted as volunteer ambassadors to explore legal loopholes. For instance, while they can’t legally work, refugees have rights to freedom of expression and the press, allowing them to participate in the embassy’s activities as a performance and sell a range of portraits (top) called “Printed Matters.” The project was a finalist in the Dutch Design Awards, and its online platform is now used to promote a variety of ways that people can help refugees.

Fish on Dry Land

Going against the grain of her generation’s cityward migration pattern, Marta Sif Ólafsdóttir moved out of Reykjavik to the small fishing town of Ísafjörður in Iceland when she turned 20. While she discovered a satisfyingly full life—contrary to her family and friends’ expectations—she noted the lack of economic opportunities as a reason for the brain and youth drain from provincial towns. Drawing on the visual language of local fishing equipment, she developed a product range comprising a coat stand, table, stool, and lamp that add a nautical twist to the otherwise utilitarian Nordic design language. By producing the range in Ísafjörður, she hopes to inspire locals to look at their surroundings differently.

Man’s Best Friend

Other than slobbery friendship, the function of the world’s millions of dogs has slipped since our hunter-gatherer days. Our canine companions need a new purpose—a 2009 study by New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington revealed that the environmental impact of pooches is worse than that of SUVs. With this and an underserved elderly population in mind, Archibald Godts from Belgium has explored pup-enabled frail-care solutions. The four products he has designed are a pillbox that helps seniors schedule their meds, a pouch around the dog’s neck to protect an owner’s valuables or help them carry medications, saddlebags for weighty groceries, and a cart that can be hitched to dogs as a way to assist mobility-impaired owners.

Canine companions do more for their elderly owners in Archibald Godts’s project.

Four fishing-inspired products designed by Marta Sif Ólafsdóttir.

We need Afrofuturism more than ever

There must be more intersectional visions of the future that include all races, genders, sexualities, species and religions.

Originally published by Dazed&Confused, November 2015

charl landvreugd

Charl Landvreugd

Ever noticed how few black characters there are in sci-fi flicks? How those that do exist are sidekicks, baddies or set up to die? How the attitude towards space exploration is markedly similar to colonisation? That the robots are almost always slaves to human masters? (no wonder they end up coming after us in the other handful of narratives) How economic and racial inequalities either magically become non-issues or are aggravated even more while everyone remains nonplussed?

These are some of the questions that Afrofuturist writers, artists and filmmakers from Philadelphia to Lagos, Rotterdam to Cairo and beyond are highlighting, inspired by the likes of interstellar jazz musician Sun Ra (famous for Space is the Place), and black feminist sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. By using science fiction to unpack hard-hitting social issues, these voices are saying we need more intersectional visions of the future that include all races, genders, sexualities, species and religions that make up humanity.

APOCALYPSE NOW

What is different to traditional science fiction is that Afrofuturism generally doesn’t play out in the distant abstract future but is set in the impending present. After all, technology-wise we’re living in the future that many of us grew up reading about – except for the flying cars. Many are also living the proverbial apocalypse. From the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Burundi and Baghdad to the earthquakes in Japan and Mexico, and the continued need for Americans to be reminded that #Blacklivesmatter, how much more catastrophic does it need to get before we agree that it’s time to reimagine our collective future?

That’s not to ignore the lived experience of everyday domestic apocalypses such as sexual abuse and violence. This is what Philadelphia-based social worker Ras Mashramani and lawyer Rasheedah Phillips translate into Afrofuturist fiction. Along with musician and writer Camae Defstara aka Mother Moor Goddess, the three women spread their work through photocopied zines that deal with issues like gentrification using the space invader metaphor, and domestic and sexual abuse through the lens of alien abductions.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

For many, along with the one in nine people in the world that go hungry every single day, even the notion of thinking about a future beyond the existing apocalypse – their next meal – is a provocation. Here Phillips, also the founder of the Afrofuturist Affair, proposes revisionist historical narratives that recast people of colour, women and LGBTI people as heroes of their own destiny.

In mainstream sci-fi, the time-travel paradox – in which changing something in the past might erase your very existence – trips up any attempt at changing history. However, says Phillips, this is a linear sense of time in which we are all slaves to the clock. In Black Quantum Futurism, she bends space and time in order to see into alternative futures.

TECHNOLOGY WON’T SAVE US

Unlike the externally imposed Western sense of time, an African sense of time is innately human and “it’s time” when everyone gets there. Egyptian graphic novelist Sherif Adel stretched time in his satirical depiction of Cairo in 1,000 years. Spoiler: he reckons it will be about the same – one giant traffic jam. This dystopian future expresses the disappointment following the Arab Spring revolution euphoria when mobile messaging technology was heralded as a rallying cry for the masses to bring down every corrupt state. And then the dust settled and the same people were still in power, only worse than before.

It is for this reason that novelists such as Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor is addressing political complexity with magical realism, best seen in Who Fears Death, winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. This year she published the prequel, The Book of Phoenix. The books engage with issues of ethnicity, female genital mutilation, gender equality and colonization.

Sherif Adel

EUROPA EUROPA

Charl Landvreugd’s Movement Nr 8: Destination Inner Space looks at a future vision of art in which a black body can talk about humanity in general, not just ethnicity. He says that he is from Rotterdam and the city is his home, but he has multiple homes, as with increasingly more people, regardless of ethnicity, impacted by migration. “Through the black body I’m trying to give a glimpse of us in the future.”

“I see the urgency of Afrofuturism for Rotterdam as a postcolonial, multiethnic city with a strong presence of the black diaspora. It is the speculative and non-white vision that this city needs, against the currently dystopian rule driven by angst-ridden white nostalgia,” Florian Cramer, says. Because of its experimental DIY countercultural avant garde quality, Cramer places Afrofuturism in the same realm as the punk, Fluxus, hacker and net.art movements. “It’s like being in London in 1977 and witnessing the beginnings of punk.”

Still, Afrofuturists are slim on the ground in Europe when compared to the US and Africa. However, as the neoconservative hatches come down in response to terrorism, there has never been a better time: what we know from punk is that fascism fuels counterculture. The time is now to make #Blackfuturesmatter.

 

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. 

Dutch Design Week 2015: 7 home trends

VISI.co.za, 30 October 2015

Design is one of the national pastimes of the Netherlands. Some 275 000 people descended on a town of 216 000 during the nine-day Dutch Design Week that ended on Sunday 25 October 2015 in Eindhoven.

Here are seven ways that the humour, romance, innovation, and sometimes just plain weirdness, of what was on show will soon be coming into your home.

1. Furniture gets a life

Embedding a touch of personality into furniture makes it come alive. Yksi showed how cabinets can become urban elements, or at least fantasize about a higher calling. Lucas Munoz turned the speaker into a fluffy creature. What artist Margriet Craens and designer Lucas Maassen did to normal domestic chairs will not soon be unseen: The Chair Affair book asks just how intimate our furniture likes to get.

2. Contemporary romantic

Also practically breathing were Studio Drift’s diaphanous Shylights, shortlisted for a Dutch Design Award. These utterly exquisite dandelion-like flowers open and close as they plunge down. Similarly harking back to old-fashioned whimsy was the bent-veneer and ceramic Viola coat hanger by Roos Sanders and Tijn van Orsouw intentionally made to be too beautiful to hide in the closet. Reviving the classic art of hand-caned chairs with exciting new patterns was Jonghlabel.

3. Candles in the wind

Romance without candles is nothing – clearly Europeans don’t need load shedding as an excuse. A plethora of all manner of holders and candles were on show everywhere, including the royal blue porcelain Bubble Collection by Jorine Oosterhoff and strikingly utilitarian Elbow by HeetmanPatijn. By Thomas van Rongen for Puik Art, the Candela brings a new shape to wax. Yet, why are we using wax, asked Tijn van Orsouw with his Vet Pot that burns on used cooking oil.

4. Textured textiles

Beyond simply fancy prints, intricate weaving and production methods are making textiles three-dimensional. Sanne Muiser needle-punched latex with wool and sisal to create a second, fur-like skin. Combining organic and synthetic materials, hand craft and machine techniques, Roos Soetekouw’s fabrics are each multi-dimensional masterpieces. Machine-knitted fashion, blankets and throws were seen throughout, best exemplified by the Plaids by Hella Jongerius, Simone Post and Studio Truly Truly for the Textiel Museum.

5. Food food food

Designed food experiences and concept pop-ups included Aart van Asseldonk’s indulgent banquet in a church, The Allegory of the South, and sustainable food practices from around the world at Age of Wonderland. Product-wise, Michal Avraham showed how to use chocolate to make design rocks that look almost too good to eat, and Mickey Philips’ tessellated plates insist on an intimately communal mealtime.

 

6. Tricks of the eye

Besides introducing an element of seeming magic into homes, optical illusions can also beneficially change the space. At the Design Academy Eindhoven graduation show, Ward Wijnant showed the Spacelamp that with its curved mirror surface reflects light and enlarges a room during the day. At night, when the light is switched on, the mirror is turned translucent and the room becomes small and cosy again. Also playing on the changing light were the ethereal clocks by Daan Spanjers that use evolving colour combinations to show the time, like the sky.

7. Weird and wonderful

From chairs grown from mycelium fungi by Eric Klarenbeek to fashion made from human hair by Anouk van Klaveren, design materials are simply not what they used to be. Winner of the Young Designer title at the Dutch Design Awards was Teresa van Dongen with her bacteria-powered light installation showing that we’re already living in science fiction. The brand new future we live in also has 3D-printing producing personalised bras by Mesh Lingerie, woven vases and lamps by Atelier Robotique, and intricately detailed ceramics with fabric-like textures created by musical vibrations by Olivier van Herpt and Ricky van Broekhoven.

 

Find out more about Dutch Design Week at ddw.nl/en.

Highlights from Dutch Design Week 2015

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Aart van Asseldonk’s the Allegory of the South

A young Eindhoven-based designer, Aart van Asseldonk’s epic wood, metal, fur and flower installation in the celestial surrounds of St Augustine church evoked complete aesthetic awe in every visitor, both in execution and in the sheer scale of his vision. Pieces from his range launched at Plusdesign Gallery in Milan earlier this year showed how he is contemporising the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century.

Screenshot 2015-10-27 13.46.05
Conversation piece

Ten years after the original London Calling exhibition, Maarten Baas, Joost van Bleiswijk, Kiki van Eijk, Graham Hollick, Kranen/Gille, Tomáš Libertíny, Lucas & Lucas en Marc Mulders reprised their punk design philosophy to a present a new exhibition of design objects that engage with the changing times. Drawing on inspiration from The Clash and the Memphis design group, Van Ejik’s Conversation Piece demands that we just stop, think, talk and ask why again in design.

 

Big Chair Affair

The new book Big Chair Affair by Margriet Creens and Lucas Maassen was launched in conjunction with publisher and gallery Onamatopee’s new, more expansive space. Showing the suggestive coupling of furniture in a humorous way, the book talks to the intimate lives of our material possessions. It also represents the meeting point of art (Creens) and design (Maassen) methodologies.

 

That the bacteria-powered light installation wonTheresa van Dongen the Young Designer title at the Dutch Design Awards points to the groundswell of biological design applications – in particular mycelium (mushrooms) and bacteria – at DDW. The installation uses her Ambio light that works by supplying the bioluminescent micro-organisms that make waves glow at night with oxygen.

 

Days of Need and Greed
Days of Need and Greed

How can we live better with less? This is the essence of post-recession design, the counterpoint to Van Asseldonk’s opulence. Kristina Schultz explored this by empty her Stockholm apartment of all possessions – including her partner and child’s – and starting again, making one essential new thing every day. Roughly hewn, with austere ingenuity and personal preciousness, the results are delightfully surprising. The theme was also pervasive in the Age of Wonderland food projects from around the world.

 

Screenshot 2015-10-27 13.41.19
Thing Nothing

Also raising questions about value, substance and materiality was the group exhibition at the Van Abbe Museum, running until 15 November, curated by Thomas Widdershoven. Ordinary household objects lent to the museum by the general public were juxtaposed against design by the likes of Ai Weiwei, MVRDV, Dunne&Raby, Studio Drift and more. It is the final exhibition in a trilogy with Self Unself (2013) and Sense Nonsense (2014).

 

Limbo embassy

When design is no longer about fetishised things, its utility is increasingly interrogated. By Manon van Hoeckel, the Limbo Embassy is a mobile safe-space for refugees who seek asylum in the Netherlands. It as a finalist at the Dutch Design Awards and showed on the Design Academy Eindhoven graduation show, among other projects that engaged with issues such as dyslexia, khaki ethics, public space engagement and loneliness among pensioners.