Technologies as Cultures
Essay for We are Wanderful: 25 Years of Design & Fashion in Limburg by Pablo Hannon, Christophe de Schauvre, Heleen Van Loon (eds.). Published by Lannoo. Martin Born, 2016.
Technology as label
When invoked, as in this segment, as a perspective or lens through which to survey the productive merits and potency of a design Standort such as the region of Limburg, the term “technology” does not refer to the historical, joint treasure of techniques available to a community. As a diacritical label separating “technological” artifacts and undertakings from such others that supposedly are “not technological,” it draws a circumference that includes certain technologies, while excluding others. It is the truncated meaning of the term that we have gotten used to expect in our contemporary media discourse. Our attention is directed to the “high” and “new” technologies of our time, and to their appreciation as beneficial for a progress measured commercially.
Setting off from this specification I will try in this essay to lay out on somewhat of a gravel bed of remarks a position for the relationship of design towards technology as one of its important media. I will do so from the perspective of a practicing designer, and a viewpoint, thus, developed through project experience, in particular with cooperators.
A technically elevated platform
Today’s “West” looks onto Earth from a technically elevated platform to which our appreciation and imaginations of actions are bound. If even we look to a rock or a river, a technically informed “buffer” exists in between them and us: Should it be fishing we think of, we think of the swirl of the reel with its ball bearings and the die-cast rotor, the nylon line, a pier or a rubber boat, watertight waders, colorful lures and the injection-molded tackle boxes they are kept in — all of which high-technological devices that direct our experience.
The North Face founder, Doug Tompkins calls this condition of life in the West, the “technosphere,” an analysis valuable especially for its diagnosis of the interpretative bubble. If we call the biotope we exist in, the “medium” of our lives, may we, with McLuhan, say that our telos is inscribed in its makeup? Tompkins, I assume, would agree: Setting off from a technological platform we will likely arrive only at technological responses. Yet Tompkins’ metaphor is elucidative also in its suggestion of the perimeter. Other than e.g. the age of technology, the image of the technosphere provides the idea of an outside. What can this outside be, and how could we get there?
Super Normal, to actuality
A resounding experiment was undertaken by Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa with their 2006 “Super Normal” exhibition. Gathering objects that, bare formal pretense or emphatic authorial originality, fulfilled their duty in “normality,” the two designers removed a notion that had long been a most popular demand onto design, namely that its production be astonishing, extraordinary.
A notable fruit of this venture into un-interestingness was Morrison’s Crate Series of the following year. Were one to disregard the color highlight of the fabric hinges (a fossiled nod, I feel, to media/audience attention), the elemental makeup of the board-based furniture had done away with anything spectacular. Let us assume it had, where would one go from there? Clearly, the answer cannot be sought on an aesthetic terrain, for else the question would follow suit, must we now make only rectangular pieces? The door that Morrison pressed open was another. He did not delete aesthetics out of design, but design out of aesthetics. His path thrusts not towards a new way of discussion, but to the abandoning of a way of discussing. After Crate and Super Normal, design rationale cannot be guided anymore by “shape that is attention.”
Discussing the concept themselves, Morrison’s and Fukasawa’s vocabulary widely stayed on the plane of the aesthetic. Yet the exhibition and the subsequent production of the two hint a wider horizon, long veiled by the usurpation of design by the industry which, after the satisfaction of need, has glossed over the question of the object’s propitiousness in and to its surroundings with sales-propelling seduction — a path that designers have come hiking along on. As by the New York Times: “Both Fukasawa and Morrison resent the mediatisation of design and the tendency of young designers, in particular, to fall into the trap of creating superficially spectacular objects to generate media coverage, rather than to be used.” (1)
When Morrison’s defense of the objects he chose for the show remains on the level of the “atmospheric,” I believe he is missing his best point. (2) In the normality of the objects presented, their merging in with the various dynamic dimensions of their environment is excavated, amounting to a focus on the object’s “performance,” in a sense of adequacy and relativity. Raised into view is the plane of the context in and to which the object “makes sense.” In a term recurring frequently in discussing the show, the “every day,” contained beyond formal “ordinariness” is the object’s existence outside of creative-professional-only scales like authorship or originality. The “every day” points to a quality that one may call embeddedness or, actuality: the object’s inclusion in the complex that is “life,” to which, besides its use, belongs its generation, including all temporal, economical and epistemological structures it activates.
The distinct orientation present in designers’ (and others’) strife for attention that Fukasawa and Morrison criticize is a call to their (work’s) recognition and sanctioning (its “communication,” in the catholic sense) by social strata imagined as “higher” — the hope for social ascendance. The sociologist, Lewis Mumford describes this ambition as a characteristic of what he calls the “machine”-type of human organization: the thrive upwards on society’s vertical plane. Bound in with the appearance of a hierarchical social order through the coalition of the violent force of the hunter with a mythology provided by the clerical cast, Mumford calls the vertical a dedication vector standing orthogonal to a “horizontal” commitment, in his example to the village or the family, i.e. the immediate social surrounding. When Fukasawa and Morrison protest vertical aspiration, what remains with their proposal is then precisely this: a, so to speak, regained attention to the environment in which the object finds both its use and has its origin, and that including in full the concern for all use, production, economy, aesthetic-symbolic and technical value, exacted here only in an orientation to the communal, not leveraged for social ascendance.
This upward inscribed in the commerce-technosphere and Mumford’s machine society is the trajectory prescribed by the myth of the new, of progress, or the future. It is a drift readily bought by the industry: “Shaping the Future Together“ is an actual claim of an actual (“technology”) company, yet effortlessly will the reader translate it into any and all such industries’ claim, discovering, effectively, their mythology.
If we call the techno-commercial trajectory vertical, Hella Jongerius folds the arrow over and bends it onto the lateral, planar by a minimal, yet ever so powerful semantic move. In visually striking out every occurrence of the word “new” in the “Beyond the New”-manifesto she co-authored with Louise Schouwenberg, a fully different plane for progressable directions opens, and the blinder that the word is becomes strikingly clear. Consider the difference: “An industry that is willing to embrace new challenges” versus, “an industry that is willing to embrace challenges.” In the first case, one can almost see one “industry” trot alongside a like-minded pal down the path pre-described by their consensual new, where in the second case, no direction is given, and more importantly yet, the impact of the challenge is not anymore limited to the bucket catchphrase. Challenges now reach the foundation of the industry, and mobilize it in every direction. One can see what a corset the new is, and the idea of a progress we have bound into it: The new, indeed, is not, as it appears, a category of time, but a cautious, because containing, security phrase.
Of his visit to the office of Konstantin Grcic, Mateo Kries notes in his text for the Vitra exhibition, Panorama: “[…] Grcic does not regard technology as an end in itself: repeatedly, the camera pans over plain everyday objects that are scattered throughout his studio […]. Such encounters seem to create frictions with the past, which are essential to Grcic’s work as a designer […].” (3)
Deserving special attention here is Kries’ mentioning of the notion of “friction.” This figure can only be understood in the existence of some sort of delineation plane, which I believe must coincide with the distinction made in the beginning of this text between the “new/high” and the “other.” Although Kries places the plane in a temporal location (a presumed interface with a presumed historic past), it shall be more accurate to speak of the remembered here grating against the forgotten, and more precisely yet, of the communicated against the excommunicated.
Kries calls Grcic as a designer “a man in space.” By this, he neither just refers to Grcic’s sensitivity for architecture, nor alone to his insistence on sharing the same reality with the subject of his work. (4) Instead, what appears is the lateral attitude that characterizes Grcic’s mindset, his attention outside and across a streamlined up- or forward. The way that Grcic’s work, from Missing Object through Avus and the Champions tables to Sam Son, has kept stepping sideways and up and down cultural planes shows how he navigates not just for visual excitement a long memory. Essential to his work is the conceptual latitude he cultivates by letting his rationale be affected by his ventures outside the linear progressive — breaking, as it were, any membrane to the excommunicated.
Digression: My practice
In 2013 my first design commission in Finland took me on a tour around a number of cabinetry workshops in the Helsinki region. I encountered a great deal of skill visiting them, which made the banality of the commissions they all said to largely depend upon for economic health all the more dispiriting to see. People around me, who knew their material and how to give form to it so well, made kitchen cabinets mostly while indifferent companies like Hay would rule the market with their ever-conventional, ever-converging, picture-happy aesthetics.
Returning from the trip I drew up a research project for myself to try and find out how I could utilize my practice to put to work these skills and create income for these studios. My motivation was economic at the outset, however cultural by intent. Money in these craftsmen’s pockets would mean money spent in the communities they live in, and tax paid there. Bringing them in contact with my clients would open their workshops for potential future commissions, and the simple knowledge of their existence would establish a living sign of the hand in the city, a topic I had worked on earlier and that I consider crucial for a democratic citizenry.
Additionally, as the study progressed and became my main path of work, there were many more things to find for me as a designer. As most commissions revolved around one-off pieces or spaces to be designed, I noticed how the individual response to space in my medium of furniture became an impulse I had not earlier known in my design work, but had come to appreciate in some curating commissions I had done. Further, I began making some pieces myself, which opened up a sculptural approach that, as a trained industrial designer, I had never known.
Today I work mostly with architects, in correspondence with whom on the spatial plan I design furniture, lighting and other items in a production network of cabinet makers, blacksmiths, glassblowers, a motorcycle builder, stonemasons and a movie prop studio. For me the most notable benefits in this are, that, one, as we feed the vitality of skill around us we provide for a production cluster that also is our direct, municipal environment and, two, as we work directly with our clients we engage with them in a bidirectional questioning of their spaces and life organizations, enabling us to react with creatively more intimate responses.
Technologies as cultures
I began this text with a remark on the term technology as a concept abridged today, and have used the subsequent paragraphs to try and show how its truncation is but an example of a more global discriminatory ”tactics,” exacted onto and by means of a range of concepts for the sake of a cultural alignment onto industrial culture’s ideological goals.
My aim with this is two-fold. One, to show how these abridgments are specific, i.e. how their existence proves that industrial culture is a culture to which there exist alternatives. Any abridgment is specific in that it is directional, and everything specific has a negative space by definition, i.e. an outside. Two, that our taking position onto the terms abridged is of cultural value: If industrial culture indeed prefers, i.e. depends upon, a certain regard of technology, or a certain attitude vis-à-vis the concept of the new, our positioning onto these concepts is of cultural momentum, i.e. of the power to enforce or disenforce a certain or another arrangement on subsequent levels such as the organization of work, skill, memory, distribution of profit, forms of communication/interaction etc.
Even though and as much as this position is in movement lately, design is for its history strongly rooted in industrial practice. The multiple as one of its defining moments is based in the logic of capital investment, mass communication and output, and on the model, which is a step in the process as much as a token of cultural primacy. From Ford through Loewy to Starck and Roosegaard, technological ideology has commanded the discipline to such a degree that today it has come to appear as identical with industrial culture.
Revealing this complicity and, as I have tried to do, producing an understanding of that alternative modes of operation are possible, may give the profession renewed cultural leverage, however this requires the detachment from elements thus far considered integral to its (self-)conception. As previewed in my opposing lateral with vertical aspiration, the commitment of the designer to her immediate surrounding detaches her from the mediated market of attention, and allows her to relate to the economic and social viability of her “society” first. Detaching ourselves from the strife for the fascinating frees us to behold the object’s actuality in its context as in ours, and its validity as a functional object as well as the subject of human work, before considering its impact on the global screen of the market.
Choice of technology is pivotal here, as it is the compositional medium unlocking all such re-arrangements. Each technique in operation locates the object, its designer and the practice of creating differently (physically, figuratively) in relation to a society that itself is internally arranged differently each time by different communicational, monetary, physical etc. modes of exchange. With this exhaustive faculty for mediation in mind, an unabridged reading of the term technology that can work as an operable for design practice will succeed better in the plural: technologies, as cultures.