Too Much by Too Many?
In search of a role for Design in 2010.
A lecture by Heitor Alvelos, Ph.D (RCA)
Poltecnico di Milano, May 2010
Revised for publishing August 2010
in Guerrini, Luca (ed). Notes on Doctoral Research in Design. Milan: Politecnico di Milano, 2011.
The phrase “too much by too many” was googled up on May 25, 2010, as a starting point for this attempt to keep the finger on the pulse of a rapidly changing and expanding activity: Design, it seems, is a buzzword everyone adopted, to the point of vacuum. I self-digest and regurgitate: the ongoing access to cutting-edge technology and the constant surfacing of ever-so-sophisticated creative tools often means that aesthetic and communication parameters are now taken for granted, seemingly employed by all, anytime, anywhere: so much so, that we often find ourselves wondering if Design as we have known it still matters. To add to the conundrum, Design seems to be the new interest of so many professionals situated outside its area of expertise. Design now speaks of street culture and web sites, museums and iPhone apps, just as it has spoken of campaign posters, haute couture, heavy industries, exercises in retro-kitsch and typography.
What came up under the “images” option of the aforementioned Google search interface would be an evocative, up-to-date tool for an analysis that was meant to be intuitive, as so much of contemporary cultural and technological production means to be, both at its root and in terms of its accessibility and use: the googling up of a given concept may thus serve as a ready-made exercise in rendering complex statistics into cultural syndromes.
Image number one that popped up on that day, under the aforementioned phrase, was a cartoon of Moses gone fishing, splitting the river in the process. Humour aside (in itself a very evident contemporary syndrome, a self-driven state of continuous entertainment), Moses gone fishing spoke of a core human activity (fishing), as well as the miraculous subversion of laws of nature and physics.
Where could Design be found in this seemingly innocuous exercise? One possible path could equate Design with fishing, not so much in a metaphorical sense as much as one could argue that Design could (should) belong to that ever-evasive list of core human activities: one could argue that we´re all designers, in the sense that we all communicate through media of one kind or another, and Design could simply be an attempt at perfecting that compulsion to reach out, to transcend contextual immediacy and linguistic determinism through affection, allure and metaphor. Yet this all seems simultaneously a bit too self-evident and far-fetched as far as Moses and the fishes go.
A more fruitful (albeit even more oblique) path could begin with Moses splitting the river. A biblical reference turned on its head may lead us to complex territories, infinitely more ambiguous, yet a lot more thought-provoking. It may refer us to the ways in which digital culture gradually proposes a world without physics, a universe of “free signals”, devoid of principle, meaning or intention, as long promised by Baudrillard. It may just as well invite us to the territory of Taleb´s Black Swan Theory, the territory of extraordinary events that irreversibly change a given historical paradigm to the point of seemingly defying the laws of physics. September 11, 2001 was such an event, no questions asked, the image of unthinkable catastrophe first printed then woven into our collective DNA.
If September 11 was most likely the black swan of our lifetime (and may it be so), it further rose to the status of a meta-black swan, casting an indelible shadow of the constant possibility of catastrophe and implosion, anytime, anywhere, its tangible impact on our fragile selves deemed irrelevant. Natural catastrophes have been abundant throughout History, yet our reading of them now feeds on a cultural perspective, political standpoints, a vague sense of social mission (often betrayed by the digital wonderland that supposedly turns wishful thinking into mission accomplished through the simple click of a Facebook “like” button – in our dreams, sucker). Catastrophe has come to be expected, a given, a sort of regular visitor we anticipate once a week, via BBC, front pages, newsfeeds of some kind or another, under a multitude of guises and narratives, ready (ready-made?) for speculation, conspiracy, catharsis, futurology, paradigm shifts, bad jokes, spirals of what-if and abysses of what-if-not.
For a while, in early 2010, anticipation rose high in face of the prospect of a world without planes (and the subsequent collapse of our world of RyanAirs, weekend breaks in Budapest, and G8 summits) due to the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokul. It never came to be, as a Black Swan could never be anticipated, and certainly not in slow motion – but for a brief while it did invite us yet again to face the prospect of a socio-cultural and economic abyss.
This volcanic prospect was predictably and abundantly dissected on essays, blog posts, photos, anecdotes, news trivia. Catastrophe is no longer the exclusive of media tycoons, it is now covered in faster and more tangible ways by social media, anonymous footage, eyewitness reports. The allure of authenticity, one could argue… but that is a different path, we shall attempt to keep this short. From flickr to iReport, from WordPress to Facebook, Eyjafjallajokul reaffirmed the Great Event as a collective delirium of sorts, a primal ocean of fears, allusions, projections, the stuff of psychoanalysis. It likewise reaffirmed this emerging paradigm of the anonymous citizen as content producer, of the production of information, knowledge and aesthetics vastly scattered throughout endless webs devoid of center, hierarchy or structure (in this sense, amateur photography was one of the first casualties of the massive rise of digital accessibility – digital photography once called “the new nicotine” by yours truly, a catchphrase no longer applicable since virtually everyone seems to have quit smoking in the meantime. I digress.)
A more effective historical reference for the contextualizing of this explosion of content production by the average citizen could be the deeply anarchic, Do-It-Yourself manifesto of Punk in its British, 1970s incarnation. The classic Punk motto “this is a chord, this is another chord, now start a band” could easily be translated these days as “this is a username, this is a password, now broadcast your boring life for the world to see”. Yet is anyone watching? In truth, it all became a bit stale and irrelevant in the process, but boy do we still pretend otherwise.
Back to Punk. A certain Mr. Rotten would soon enough explain that the only reason he wore safety pins in his clothes was to keep them from falling apart, since he was too poor to buy new ones. Whether this was simply an alibi, in order to distance himself from the bad joke Punk had become in the meantime, could be the subject of endless debate, but the evidence surfaces over and over again – D.I.Y. aesthetics and content tend to gravitate towards consumer gear, from haute couture all the way down to the tackiest bling. In a sense, it is quite ironic that bling becomes the final byproduct of lifestyle consumerism, as, often enough, lifestyle consumerism cannibalizes junkie narratives, extreme eroticism and sublimated suburban teenage solitude in order to produce consumer narrative, therefore closing the loop – bling cynically sold back to its original inspiration. And forward the teenagers march, the latest bling proudly worn on their latest youtube statement of solitary delusion of stardom. They become bling, one degree further down the spiral, ready to be celebrated among their peers (do they have any?), turned into caricature on mainstream TV if they ever get lucky (Chris Crocker, Katyzinha, Vicki Pollard, Star Wars Kid. Google them up AYOR. Time magazine did, South Park did – to great results).
Meanwhile, as teenage single mothers and Star Wars nerds become the talk of the week, graffiti writers struggle with the conundrum of selling their “keeping it real” ethos to soft drinks and clothing brands, while a fancy book called Guerilla Art Kit becomes a best-seller in hip London bookstores, and “reverse graffiti” (google it up) is itself appropriated by viral marketing agencies. The spiral proceeds as it would, slightly entangled by Chris Anderson´s “long tail”, slightly blurred by overabundance and simultaneity. Banksy paints the Gaza Strip (either a symbolic redemption of sorts or the fulfillment of the proverbial creative need for “bigger, better, faster, more”), preceded by the crowning of Churchill as the ultimate punk on the London May Day riots of 2000, followed by Bruno Aleixo, a viral animation series that portrays Napoleon as a call center operator. In the wonderful world of Bruno Aleixo, a sort of Disney World gone bad, the Creature from the Black Lagoon is now a Portuguese university student on an Erasmus exchange in the Czech Republic, an amateur theater group reenacts classic scenes from hollywood movies side by side with TV ads for laundry detergent, just as Bruno Aleixo himself, originally a Star Wars Ewok, subsequently subjected himself to virtual plastic surgery once his series became hot stuff and migrated from youtube to cable TV – the surgery a move designed to avoid trouble with Star Wars, one presumes.
Bruno Aleixo´s virtual plastic surgery is telling of the online legal ambiguity, loopholes still available, still possible (explore them while you can). His distancing from the Star Wars brand only occurred when Bruno became fringe mainstream – he could safely remain an Ewok on youtube for years to come, we would imagine. Likewise, music networks abundantly explore this ambiguous territory, often fueling this ambiguity to the point where we could sit down and discuss for days whether what the so-called online “Sharity” networks is in essence piracy, or a public service of cultural preservation: Sharity devotes itself to digitizing and disseminating old vinyl recordings that never got released digitally, CD or otherwise. Technically speaking, these musical artifacts are copyrighted, but often the reason why they were never re-released is simply because they would not be profitable, thus doomed to cultural and historical amnesia if it wasn´t for a handful of online guardian angels. Thankfully, the labels seem to understand this and have so far turned a blind eye for the most part.
With a bit of intelligence somewhere along the line, the way Sharity operates could become a blueprint for a business model that could rescue the music industry from its current, slow, too-painful-to-watch, agony. Yet it all seems hopelessly noised up by iTunes, Lady Gaga, the vicious iPad and the like. Good riddance to them all: grime networks are too busy for iTunes, endlessly remixing each other around the globe, sharing it all continuously and freely, no strings attached. Ninety-nine per cent of their production could reinforce this malaise of overabundance, but it is still infinitely more exciting than Lady Gaga could ever aspire to be. Grime is to Punk as Lady Gaga is to bling. Get it?
So… back to Design. Given the overabundance of “things that make things look good”, as well as the scope of said “things”, we begin considering the possibility of regarding the designer as a strategist, if not a socio-cultural psycho-analyst. Following the ethos of participation, dissected somewhere above, and back to Design as a basic human activity, we have futurefactories; thingiverse; project H; oncologiapediatrica; memoriafutura. We have so, so many more. Google them up. Follow the links. Understand how all of the above ramblings translate into what Design is, what Design could be, what Design should be. This is the role that Design faces, the role of translation. It´s not about the profession: it´s about the work. So do the rest, will you?