Reflections on Helsinki

This is the blog post I wrote for the British Council and Helsinki International Artist's Project. It will be published on both their sites shortly. At the bottom, I've also included a recently published video interview I did for the Finnish Institute about the residency.


There was a point sat in my studio in Helsinki's Kaapelitehdas (Cable Factory) while trying to coax a small, hacked Chinese WiFi router into doing my bidding that I considered the irony of my position. The massive Shoreditch-in-a-box Kaapelitehdas cultural centre was, prior to its conversion and during the mid-twentieth century, charged with the manufacture of electric and telephone cables and here I was earnestly and doggedly pursuing a line of research into alternate forms of communication network with just a laptop, eight or nine cups of tea and a cheap Chinese router at 3AM.

This wasn't the only cultural shock of a month in Helsinki. I haven't done a residency in a long time, due mostly to the nature of being an active designer and artist; the week-to-week improvisation of activities and short-notice assignments. Taking a blanket period from this is almost unworkable. Moving from highly-social working environments with a web of dependencies and relationships to one where I was a relative stranger, in a strange city with no deadlines, no dependencies, no demands was daunting for the first week. I found myself sleeping until midday and staying up sometimes until daybreak, lost in my own small projects.

There's also the shock of the city itself. Helsinki is a stunning city, especially in the summer, but one of what Dan HIll, formerly of Finalnd's SITRA calls 'absolute flatness.' A few hundred thousand people of relative homogeny spread over a metropolitan sprawl. I realised how used I was to London's dense slow-motion apocalypse; the devastating hypocrisy of the politics and the horrific inequality and injustices of London's new-found position as the one of the world's least liveable cities.

My mission while in Helsinki was largely to mingle, to talk to people, to build bridges between my own practice and Helsinki during the hyper-activity of Helsinki Design Week. Some of the designers I spoke to found the 'flatness' of Finland in itself incredibly frustrating; challenging the status quo was hard if not impossible and they felt that Finland spent more time revering its dead design and architecture heroes than looking for new and exciting renegades working on the fringes.

The incredible Heslinki Design Market during Helsinki Design Week, hundreds of small design companies and thousands of visitors.

That said, Helsinki has an incredible and legendary design history, breeding some of modernisms' greatest creators and works. Looking at the Design Market - a central highlight of the Design Week - I was taken aback by the vibrancy and fervour for home-grown design. Everything from small home brands to international startups with clever products was present amongst what must have been hundreds of stalls and thousands of visitors and nothing was bad. Wondering around, none of it had the nauseating charm of kitsch amateurism. It was all beautifully worked and finished, well produced and solid, from tableware to chairs. But that in itself was a stalling point: From tableware to chairs. Perhaps a part of FInland's 'flatness' is that it doesn't have to deal with the urgent political questions that London's design scene is having to, sitting as it is at the eye of a storm of global political change. If you're looking for some of the most beautiful, well-produced tableware and charis in the western world then look no further. If you're looking to have your politics challenged, you'll have to dig.

And dig I did. One of my first contacts was Martti Kalliala, Martti and Jenna Sutela are architect-designers from Helsinki responsible for one of my favourite books, Sternberg Press's Finland: The Welfare Game; a series of speculative fictions of how Finland might proceed into the future. This book has been a big part of my practice for the last few years and meeting Martti, it was also interesting to see that our work was moving in similar directions despite having never met or spoken before. Martti and Jenna represent a real fringe in the Helsinki design scene, of practitioners crossing areas of architecture, design, art and technology with a highly political mindset, something that's now relatively common in London. One of the side effects of the excellent education system is the inadvertant siloing of professions which has apparently made collaboration and crossovers rare.

Helsinki's Urban Workshop, an actual working maker space.

Later I made a trip to the Urban Workshop, a maker space in central Helsinki near the central station. Maker spaces, no matter how one feels about them (and I'm most often I'm skeptical) mark an important change in the design world. The ability to rapidly produce small scale one-off designs without the need for time or great expertise are a marked shift in the system that supports design, one with many unanswered questions and one that is responsible for at least a handful of the things on display at Helsinki Design Week. Walking into the Urban Workshop, expecting the usual sneering grubby white males, making in-jokes and maliciously belittling newcomers, I was overjoyed by what I found: A gender-balanced group of staff and attendees with ages running from the ten or so seniors being taught how to use iPads to the teens on the video editing suite. A genuinely open environment for anyone to use with an actual sense of community: 3D printers, laser cutters, a small CNC machine, high-end computers, classes, workshops, lectures and exhibitions. This was the dream of maker spaces that never quite ported to the jealously competitive neo-liberal environs of London. I asked how much 3D printing was;

'40 cents'
'Sorry, how much is the 3D printer to use?'
'40 cents'
'40 cents?'
'40 cents'
'For how long?'
"However long, it's 40 cents.'

I think there was excited profanity at that point. One of the biggest barriers to these spaces, apart from the sneering white men, is the cost. Though not expensive, £50 for something that might not work is a big risk for austerity culture. The reason for this amazing maker culture is that the spaces are supported by the libraries. Staff time is paid for and managed by the state and so the only cost is materials. I found a similar story at Aalto University's maker space which was open to the public once a week but with public university funding.

As an ex-pat friend of mine now living in Helsinki told me towards the end of my stay; 'Remember libraries? They actually work here.'

Later I visited Aalto's Media Lab, a semi-legendary technology and design research hub up in Espoo. The work the students were pursuing was interesting and thoughtful. I sat in on a sound arts class and asked the students where they came from; there were engineers, graphic designers, artists, a handful of musicians and linguists. Though I found the range of students and their interests surprising, I was most interested in what I saw on screen - from Day 0 the students are taught open-source software. While in London, the entrenched system of lobbying from software companies results in only being able to train students in hardware and software they have to pay thousands for once they graduate, the state-backed education system was teaching the students cutting-edge open source stuff, which they were actively developing.

The Design District is Helsinki's design hub, full of boutique stores and stunning works. Very occasionally you find an odd juxtaposition.

It's easy to do, as I did at first, to look at Helsinki's design scene and see it as a bit backwards, a bit reliant on the names of dead designers and established traditions. The cutting-edge is there, but in unexpected ways, and much of that edge is pushed by the state, from open-source software education to maker spaces that work like they do in the fantasies. There's criticism of course, and designers and architects attempting to emulate the violent froth and churn of London find themselves frustrated but there's an inexorable and subtle advance of change sweeping Helsinki that steps lightly across the whole city without the obnoxious showiness of London's burning lights.

Seen on the wall of Putte's Pizzeria.


Below is a video interview with the Finnish Institute about the residency:

Notes 21: The Return.

I have returned from Finland with a quick stopover in Venice for the UrbanIxD symposium and it's straight back to work. Teaching starts next week with greeting new students on Tuesday. I'm excited to be surrounded by people again from the calming but at times trying solidarity of my Finnish exile. However, it is crushing to be back into the slow-motion apocalypse in London after spending time in such a beautiful and wholesome city.

I'll be writing a post about my time in Finland which will appear here and in various other places, particularly the blogs of the sponsors and hosts in the next few days. There's also an interview with the Finnish Institute which I'll post when it's out. 

Digital Sketch

Towards the end of my time I topped off another Digital Sketch. This one is based on a favourite Japanese print of mine, The Komuso by Wada Sanzo (1940) (above). I was reminded of it while reading Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space which features a character who dresses as a Komuso. The Komuso were notable monks in that they were allowed to move with relative freedom around feudal Japan which made them excellent spies and assassins.

Internet of 404
Following the end of BERG, I began thinking a lot about this new type of object that the Internet of Things would leave behind. Discarded toasters, smart fridges and autonomous cars with their startup service layer suddenly extinct will litter the future landscape. I though it would be a good idea to document this as it happened so I've started a tumblr at where I'm totally up for taking suggestions. There really aren't many examples of these ghost-less machines yet. But I think in the months to come we'll begin to see more and more of them. Please email or submit things though, for full credit of course.

Web Directions South 2014
This is the thing I'm most looking forward to at the moment. Doing the keynote at Web Directions South 2014 with some pretty luminary folks on October 30th-31st. Monopoly of Legitimate Use is also being shown. I'm doing a new talk called 'Haunted Machines':

The relationship we have with our technology is becoming divorced from the master-slave relationship predicted by the past and marketed by the present. As our technology becomes more advanced and more connected, it begins to act on our behalf out of our control and often without us knowing. It begins to construct and project realities and worlds that we couldn't have predicted for. This talk will outline and consider some of the side-effects and conflicts that have risen from pervasive networked technology and show indications of how artists, designers and technologists begin to critique and combat them.

It's Nice That Social
I'm taking part in the It's Nice That Social at the Design Museum with the designers in residence on October 14th. I'll be doing a little bit of a chat about my work and doing some sort of discussion.

Into Your Hands at Z33
Into Your Hands Are They Delivered is on exhibition at Z33 in Hasselt for a while as part of what looks like a pretty damn luminary show - Future Fictions. The rest of the Blueprints For The Unknown projects are there too.

Extinction Marathon at The Serpentine
I'll be taking part in the Extinction Marathon at the Serpentine on October 18th. We're going to be looking at The Ongoing Collapse sight and potentially speeding it up, using it a little more collaboratively and adding some new data sources over the live weekend. Still need to tighten up the PHP anyway. Thing moves like a tanker.

Monopoly of Legitimate Use at Aesthetica Short Film Festival
MoLU is being shown as part of the Aesthetica Short Film Festival in York November 6th - 9th. If you're 'tup north then it looks like a great festival and a load of good stuff on. Unfortunately I'm away in Brussels for...

KIKK Brussels
I'll be giving a talk at KIKK Brussels after my time in Australia and Singapore. It's less time so will probably be a shorter version of the Web Directions talk with a little bit of Critical Exploits thrown in.

Yeah this is going to be one of the busiest and most intense months in a while, which is refreshing after being away so long. There's also still more news that I can't quite full-beam broadcast yet but you probably already know or at least have inklings about. One day I'll make this thing more than just 'what I'm doing at the moment' and actually offer some considered opinions on things. Until that point I've been greatly enjoying the plethora of mailing lists and daily bites that people have begun to start using. I can only read in envy.


Notes 20 something something.

I've been in Helsinki taking part in a residency with HIAP, The British Council and Helsinki Design Week for just over two weeks now. It's really feeling quite homely now. I know the town pretty well now, I've met quite a few people and have been going in and out of my studio to various Design Week events pretty regularly.

At first it was quite lonely, I knew no one here on the ground and although it is by no means hostile, it's not the most inviting or tourist-focused city, so it's hard without a guide to do more than wonder around poking your head through doors.

Last night I did a small presentation at Frame, next door to my studio to other residents, assembled guest and Helsinki design luminaries about my practice as well as hearing about the work of Angela Washko and Alex Young who are also in residence here. Presenting some of my work, including some smaller projects in the context of the Finnish design scene rose the question of the artist/designer divide, which is a bit more predominant here than it is London. There was also interesting discussion afterwards of how the financial and governance systems of Finland demand much more rigorous career definition than the vague, hand-wavey definitions one might get away with in the UK.

(photo via Juha Van 't Zelfde)

There'll be more reporting towards the end of my stay here, including some blog posts for the British Council. Until then, I'm doing a Pecha Kucha this evening and then a lot more hanging out with local designers and artists.

There's also a load more photos from my time here over on flickr

Digital Sketches
Something I did while I was talking last night was show some of the digital sketches I do every few weeks. To me they're my equivalent to drawing, just producing mindless visuals that require a certain amount of patience and concentration for no-one's benefit but my own. However I thought I'd share the latest one with you all. I've got the rest over on my vimeo and flickr.

Future Everything
The talk I gave at Future Everything back in.... March(?) is finally online. I was sort of vibing off the back of that great China Mieville talk about monsters as well as Near Future Lab's ongoing work on normalcy to introduce the idea of monsters as part of that normalcy and thus a necessary part of good design fiction. (Starts around 3:15. They didn't cut up the talks for some reason, go figure.)

Straight from Helsinki, I'm going to Venice for the UrbanIxD symposium. It's a bit sad seeing this project head towards its end, I've met some great people, done some great work, and had good times since first taking part in the summer school last summer. 

I'll be doing a talk at Brussel's KIKK festival in early November which actually looks like an amazing lineup. This follows on from Sydney's Web Directions South keynote in late October, which I'm a bit properly excited and terrified of.  There's also a few bits of writing to coming out soon, Monopoly of Legitimate Use is being exhibited in a couple of places and some other things.

What an anti-climax.

(In honour of the demise of BERG and the fact that these things that never happened weekly anyway will not be weeknotes anymore.)

The President as themselves

A night on Photoshop I've been meaning to have for a long time...


The President as himself is a composite image of almost all the actors to have played a fictional President of The United States of America in cinema according to this Wikipedia page (many of these characters are listed simply as 'The President.) The 74 faces are combined using Photoshop stacking to produce what could be interpreted as an image of the ideal US President through a cultural lens.

Of the eighty listed actors, eight black actors have played the the President. The first was Tom 'Tiny' Lister Jr. who played the President in the 1997 science fiction film, The Fifth Element.

The President as herself shows the only seven female actors to have played the US President on a cinematic release.

The President is almost always charecterised as the cornucopia of 'goodness' in films - either as a hero in themselves or as something to be protected at all costs, something that represents the sanctity of what is being fought for by the protagonists.

I've always been thrown by the mixed realities that the US President seems to put into film and television. Many cinematic films chronicling solely fictional characters and events make reference to the real US President. While watching The Siege (1998) I was struck by how the story of how dramatic, overtly Islamic terrorist attacks on New York City was apparently 'sanctioned' by the appearance of stock footage of Bill Clinton - introducing a real-world anchor of believability and characterising that ineffable 'goodness' to a wholly fictional plot. 

Fictional presidents or almost always slightly more fallible but nonetheless good. Because of the obvious difficulty of casting an actual President to anything more than a cameo, there is much more opportunity to open up and explore characters. In this case, the President as themselves could be said to be the most fallible and human President as well.

Incidentally, the most interesting shock of mixed reality I've had was during the TV show Homeland (TV Presidents aren't included here) when Osama Bin Laden was suddenly referenced quite late in season 3 (I think).  For a show that laid open a pretty gorey slice through the whole US defence infrastructure without a single reference to a real-world person or event, the sudden anchoring of Osama Bin Laden was actively destructive to my suspension of disbelief.

I'm particularly interested in how long it is until some lobbying group backs this up with composite soundbites and video footage and fields an algorithm as the perfect candidate.

The Algochurian Candidate.

Weeknotes 19

Connecting Cities Urban Media Lab
Having just written up my notes from the talk I gave at IMAL's Connecting Cities Urban Media Lab, the video is now published in which I joyfully bumble my way through 45 minutes of categorised extracts from the Designed Conflict Territories tumblr and try to think to myself about why anyone might care and why it might be important.

School of Tomorrow, Venice Biennale
Next week I'm leading a summer school for RCA Design Interactions students (and recent grads) at the Venice Biennale's Swiss pavilion as part of their program 'School of Tomorrow' a series of design-schools-in-residence happening throughout the period of the Biennale. There's some info on the brief I wrote for it here.

UrbanIxD Stuff
The guys at UrbanIxD just hosted an exhibition in Split, Croatia as a run up to their show for the Venice symposium which I'll be attending at the end of September. There's some photos here which look pretty cool. They had James Auger over to deliver one of his guest lectures and exhibited Blackspot from the Monopoly of Legitimate Use as well of a couple of films from the students at the summer school I taught on last year.

The Venice Symposium - City Data Future - is on from the 24th September in Venice and there's a symposium on the 25th which I'll also be attending.

In addition to this I was also part of an online conversation about UrbanIxD, what it is, what it could be etc, with Han Pham and Manu Fernandez which is online here. To round it off, we conducted a live twitter chat for an hour last Friday as well which has been storified here.

Web Directions South 2014 Keynote
This year I'll be giving a keynote at Web Directions South in Sydney. The conference is 30th-31st October and I'm hoping to come up with some brand new and mega fresh stuff to talk about particularly following some of the plans I have for the summer to start messing around with mesh networks and so on.

Bracket: Takes Action
I'll also be producing a paper for Bracket's latest issue on politicisation and space. Here's the text from the submission:
Exit Spaces: From Koreshan Cults to Wireless Mesh Networks By Tobias Revell
This paper examines the modern potential for exit spaces, places of exile and protest, disengagement from the mainstream and agonistic practice, with reference to historical precedents. Taking Albert O. Hirschman’s concept of Exit, Voice and Loyalty as responses to political upheaval, the paper examines a history of the securitisation or ‘flat-packing’ of protest through legal restraint, the militarisation of the police and political manoeuvring.
Three case studies are used as examples of alternative modern responses to the desire to create exit spaces outside of the standard political hegemony. Firstly, the rise in neo-Randian libertarianism among the Silicon Valley elite, in which increases in private funding for space programs, earnest seasteading startups and rhetorical conflicts with government and legal bodies show a distinct desire amongst the ‘custodians’ of modern technology to flee or exist outside of the restraints of government. In this example, the ideas of Mars colonies and artificial islands as tax havens are representative of a real and pressing drive to break the state’s regulatory bonds over business. Secondly, the Silk Road provides an example of extra-statecraft operating from within the network, where, through the use of anonymising technology, a narcotics marketplace actively traded, utilising state infrastructure such as postal services and public wi-fi in the sale and distribution of illegal drugs. The third case presents the rise of mesh networks in Athens as a response to government shutdowns following public protests against austerity and its role as activist network infrastructure. The popularity of these ad-hoc networks has since been further accelerated by the Snowden revelations of NSA surveillance. Though mesh networks are relatively slow and inefficient, they represent the construction of a new class of territories, wherein the relinquishing of state-backed infrastructures of pipes, routers and wires promises a space of free discourse and political empowerment.
We face a new age of political upheaval, chronically lacking in space for polities to act without corporate power or illegal subversion. Chantal Mouffe highlights that we lack agonistic spaces for real political conflict that enable us to feel that our Voice (in Hirschman terms) is valuable or caries power, while David Graeber speculates that political apathy is born of an 'apparatus of hopelessness.' These Exit Spaces present examples of how new apparatuses might lead to new kinds of political action might be built in an adversarial role.
I'd better get on with it. x