Cormier, Brumaire, 228

I’ll confess to sinking more time into the Playstation than I should at the moment, something about these early dark evenings. I’ve decided to lay off Death Stranding until I’ve done a big chunk of other work I can reward myself with. Did you see that Valve announced a new Half-Life? But the thing is only going to be VR and probably on Steam's own platform? Millions of people hesitantly let out a sigh of relief they've been holding for 15 years this morning. Still it's a good technique to push us all into VR gaming. is still working. Remarkably. I went to visit it to see how messed up it might be but most of it, apart from the Air Quality indexes, were all there. I’m going to spend some time at Christmas improving it, adding new data sources and figuring out a better scrolling mechanism.

WTF Targeting

I came across this fascinating targeted post on Instagram from a housing developer. I suppose the targeting is pretty easy to figure out: As a recent homeowner I’m still targeted by things related to a search history of someone who has recently bought a flat. The image falls easily into the remit of rendered development images we’re used to and isn’t anything particularly remarkable in that regard. It has that aesthetic that we might call ‘instructions to photons.’ From a distance it appears real enough but the execution is all wrong: As usual, the selection of render ghosts have light coming from different directions, the lack of contact shadows and ambient occlusion means they appear to float just in front of the image, they have no reflections in the glass. The textures on the black metal and paving slabs repeat too regularly and are too clean to be believable. It’s as if you’ve taught someone how light works really well but they’ve never visually experienced it.

I’m used to seeing these images and have talked about them quite extensively. To be honest, I find them remarkable in their unremarkableness. An aesthetic of rushed imperfection against the noisy ur-reality of CGI cinema has been normalised. However, I then read the text:

Join us in Chinatown for the launch of our brand new development on the 26th November. Chinese experts will be on hand 6pm-9pm. Discover more about life in an unrivalled, Zone 1 location. RSVP to confirm your place.

Well goddamnit if that isn’t the most remarkable little bit of marketing guff I’ve ever read. Let’s unpack the obvious errors and park some of the further questions they open up:

  1. Tottenham Court Road station is not in Chinatown. It’s arguable that it’s at the North-East corner, but even according to Chinatown’s own map, it’s nowhere near.
  2. The follow up question is then, why is Chinatown the point of appeal and not Soho which is geographically more proximate?
  3. So in that case what are ‘Chinese experts’? Are they Chinese folks who are experts in London or London folks (Chinese or otherwise) who are experts in Chinatown? And why would you need that?

Anyway, I'm in the midst of trying to do some digging to find answers. I spoke to Wes about it and suggested the text was fil-in-the-blanks algorithmically generated. He reckons it's just a bad intern and Instagram thinks I'm a Chinese oligarch. Either way, I figured the reason it struck me is it's basically spam mail. There's no attempt at sophistication or individuality. It's just a meaningless sentence that for one very specific group of people (that I'm clearly not in) will make sense. The transaction cost for the developer is so low that for every 10,000 people that see this, they just need 1 to click so they can afford to be completely nonsensical to 9,999 people.

Attitude, Formafantasma, Art and Deisgn.

I started reading Alice Rawsthorn’s Design as an Attitude at the weekend. I never read her columns but like anyone in design am deeply aware of her significant and positive impact in the field. The book seems to offer a pretty coherent overview for folks from design and perhaps even non-design fields of the shift from functional or decorative practice of the industrial eras to ‘attitudinal’ practice, drawing on Maholy-Nagy’s notion of design as contributing to social good and ‘being generally resourceful and inventive.’ It’s not pitched super high and it is littered with great historical and contemporary references so it’s definitely going on my student reading list.

However, something in it is making me uncomfortable; I often run into a problem with these texts, conversations and exhibitions where the sense of the subject doesn’t align to my own. Perhaps it’s where I sit at an intersection of media theory and media art and design ‘thinking’ and that needs some reconciling with design literature but to me Rawsthorn’s book (so far) draws heavily on the materialistic version of design that litters Salone, Clerkenwell Design Week, Dezeen newsletters and Instagram. She spends the opening chapters of this book exploring design's journey form the crafts to industrial production, through decoration and now into critical practice but with little reference to how the methods and intellectual frameworks have changed: From ceramics to machines to recycled furniture but with (so far) no reference of piecework, Fordism, cybernetics, ecological theory and even design thinking as the theories with which these practices were/are in dialogue.

To explore an example of this division, which reductively could be seen as a focus on practice at the cost of theory; almost every chapter (sometimes every page) in Rawsthorn’s book (so far) makes reference to Formafantasma. I have no particular issue with this apparently renowned studio I’d never heard of until about six months ago. I really like their work, I think it’s clever, challenging and insightful. However, in the long established discourses of critical technology and media studies I’ve been engaged with throughout my career they just don’t figure - not in exhibition, conversation or text despite their clever exploration of critical technological issues like e-waste. This isn’t in anyway to undermine the importance of their work but simply to say that there is a very apparent dissonance in orientating points which – looking at Formafantasma’s follower count – would imply it’s more my ignorance than anything else but nonetheless speaks of a design world that is not acknowledged in this book.

In the design world of Formafantasma's value often seems to be captured in the production rather than the process. What I mean here is that the object itself is the thing to be celebrated as a sort of idol of intellectual enquiry. Time and effort is invested in perfecting the aesthetics of a product to slide it into the high-end world of luxury design. This is a clever subversion but at the same time undermines the criticality of the work: The response is; ‘oh you made something beautiful and it says something’ rather than ‘oh you created knowledge which we can now use to improve the human condition.’ This fetishisation of design outcomes occludes the intellectual frameworks, varied, complex and contested though they are that design has birthed through an understand of materials and how these frameworks are applied elsewhere. It makes these designs remarkable and headline-worthy but the knowledge they produce unreachable.

Formafantasma's Ore Streams. Found with the caption 'formafantasma uses electronic waste to create office furniture concepts' on Designboom (2017)
Formafantasma’s work remains highly exclusive in its audience of European design students and bloggers. Take, for example, Ore Streams. It’s clear from first glance that the primary consideration is aesthetic. Clean, beautiful, viral aesthetics in concept furniture are a great way to bring people in to the ideas of the project, but the subject and issue is still beyond reach. It tells me nothing about what I can do about e-waste, no data about my devices or products or organisations I can go to. There are a series of interviews on the project's website with almost entirely white male academics and industry leaders prevaricating on the issues but no clear designerly guidance on how to improve the social condition that Rawsthorn stipulates in her introduction as the responsibility of design.

Going back to this idea of production versus process, Rawsthorn mentions Fixperts (now FixEd), another design-led organisation dealing with e-waste. However, rather than focussing on a high-end engagement with the boutique design world, Fixperts develop iterative policy, education and technical methods and interventions that engage ‘publics’ in a real way with e-waste. Again, Rawsthorn mentions these folks so it’s no criticism of the scope of her work, but Fixperts (so far) get none of the careful analysis of Formafantasma; their work is brushed over as simplistic and functional.

Again and again, I don’t want to criticise Rawsthorn’s excellent work here but there’s a mismatch in what design is in my perception. So far, the book has made little reference to the significant impact of service and policy design methods in impacting e-waste at governmental and corporate levels or the work of critical and investigative practitioners in unveiling and communicating systems which produce e-waste. I would argue that these processes are firstly much more ‘designerly’ in their approach of design as investigative and probing tools and secondly much more impactful than the work of Formafantasma.

Rawsthorn ends this chapter by glossing over the art/design argument. That's fine; I’m not particularly interested in this argument either. When it comes up I tend to dismiss it as I find the distinction relatively meaningless so I agree with her rhetorical question that ‘does it matter whether a piece of work that explores a theme equally adroitly is described as art or design?’ However, there’s an insistence at this point in the text that Formafantasma’s projects epitomise a design ‘attitude’ because they are functional and something is understood about design in their production. But this function and understanding is incredibly exclusive. Formafantasma themselves have begun to understand something of the design process in the production of their work but they’ve done a terrible job of communicating that understanding. A beautiful concept chair made from e-waste tells us nothing about the financial systems that perpetuate e-waste’s production nor does it provide a pragmatic, scalable solution, nor does it expose the means of its production. And their chair is functional only theoretically; I doubt they’d allow you to perch on it for a break while stomping around Salone for hours on end. Its function is a statement piece in the context of an incredibly wasteful luxury design industry. Ore Streams is an idol to Formafantasma’s own exclusive understanding of the work that bears little of the generosity and clarity of what I understand design to be. In this I would make the argument that it sits more firmly in the art camp - exclusive both physically and intellectually; requiring an aesthetic sophistication (read: level of understanding) in its audience to insinuate meaning and a physical proximity to examine.

I guess this leaves me looking at my own hands a bit. The work I’ve done in the last few years; Charismatic Megapigment for example, which I’m trying to figure out how to write about, is also exclusive. It can stand in for any of the art projects I’ve done recently; exclusive, elusive, intellectual. I’m quite open about this and I call it ‘art.’ I make these projects because I want to learn more about the technical and intellectual processes behind, in this instance, robotics, machine learning and working with a proper fine artist. I don’t consider it a communicative piece in the same way as a great piece of data visualisation or even a policy document – it’s not meant to be generous. This doesn’t relegate it or promote it above designerly practices but I certainly wouldn’t, in a discussion on designerly, publicly meaningful and impactful discourse on greenwashing, hold it up as an epitome, (except for selfish reasons).

Charismatic Megapigment draws on the same mechanics as Ore Streams for engagement with subject and audience and in the use of a designerly (read: inventive, resourceful, methodical) process for production, and maybe a handful of people were impacted by it, but that’s not what it’s for and I would feel uncomfortable pitching it that way.

Gee, thanks for getting this far

That was exhausting and still not quite right but perhaps has helped me untangle this knot of practice a bit. Even just a slight budge is good.