It was sometime in the early 21st century that it happened. Culture had become so saturated with different versions of the future, something inside our collective imaginations just shut off. We forgot how to imagine the future. The ramifications were broader than we first thought. By 2015 the whole planet had lost the ability to imagine change. It didn’t happen all at once, like Gibson’s future, the loss wasn’t evenly distributed.
This time two years ago I was sat in the Oncology lounge of Watford General Hospital waiting for my Dad to receive his first dose of chemotherapy. It struck me then, a feeling I still can’t shake, that the number of discrete decisions, actions, objects and processes that converged on that moment of time defied understanding: the eternal human endeavour to survive meets the unknowable complexity of a system on the brink of collapse.
I’ve begun to think of this feeling as a form of the infrastructural sublimity; standing on the edge of a complex human and non-human system so in awe of its complexity, that one becomes overwhelmed with both fear and hope.
As we waited there, for a bespoke mix of chemicals to be made, by a highly trained set of people, to be administered by a kind and caring nurse, in a space designed (in all its material complexity) to give comfort and reassurance, with a set of tailored objects designed to give relief of specific diseases, all free on the point of access, through a massive system of taxation, wealth distribution and public health care, to act on the out-of-control cells in my father’s lungs, I was in awe of what humanity had achieved.
I have come away trying to fathom how we (designers) start to navigate, mediate or manipulate these impossibly complex and messy infrastructures. Is this just a form of dark matter, that we need to find the correct instruments to detect, measure and affect change through? How do we model, prototype and predict the consequences of our actions? How do we not lie down in the face of such complexity and give up?
Our first difficulty arises when we try to ‘understand’ the scale and complexity of the systems we face; instead of creating a ‘children’s book version of reality’, we need to map the extent of the network, to chart all the access points and actors in order to make sense of the relationships that are forged within the messy complexities of our socio-technical systems. But even the act of mapping or diagramatising these infrastructures is difficult enough.
This can be broken into two main problems; the issue of representation (or the gap between the map and the territory) and the problem of truncation (or falling off the edge of the map).
Like the 17th Century portolano makers, the difficulty found in the art of cartography has been fully explored. Problems of ‘truth’ within our systems of representation has been interrogated by scholars (see Denis Wood’s The Power of Maps), and the power relations written into cartographic systems have been uncovered. Whether through the issue of selection (what is included or left off the map), language (the codification system used to symbolise reality) or projection system (the ever present problem of converting 3D objects into 2D representations), drawing a map has its own discrete set of politics that are difficult to navigate. We all know that Cartography is an act of colonisation, through the drawing of borders we define identities and write laws. So when we begin to evaluate ‘where’ to act within a system, we must first need to ‘understand’ through drawing out the spaces of agency.
One of the key moments in mapping is knowing when to stop. If we pay heed to a Latourian sense of interconnectedness, then our actions as designers are linked to a growing network of human and non-human actors. Where do we draw the line, when do we turn our heads away from the page and decide to act. With our students, this can be seen in the compulsion to ‘research more’ to make more and more connections, until they have a full picture of the situation. But sadly, this is reminiscent of the Borgesian Map, where the act of cartography becomes so obsessively detailed it is eventually abandoned and lies in useless tatters on the borderlands of efficacy. As designers we need to make the leap into the material unknown.
Design and the articles of change
Once we have mapped our territory and unpacked the web of human and non-human relationships, we then need to identify our place to act. In service design these are often called ‘touch points’, but I don’t really like this term, it bases it too neatly in the material domain of ‘the user’ or (more sinisterly) ‘the consumer’. I want to identify the sites of concentrated agency, the material and non-material actors that can affect change. It’s here that we find our place of design intervention. This is were a post-disciplinary design practice comes into its own; instead of trying to affect change through the medium of your training (web / product / graphic / interior etc), you move to place of action / the site that is pregnant with possibility and choose the tools necessary to be most affective.
I’m currently struggling with a book chapter titled; rapid prototyping politics. It’s for a Birkhauser publication on ‘Transformation Design’. In the piece I’m trying to highlight the necessary changes needed in design education to prepare students for this new type of design. The article explores the idea that through design we can prototype normally slow, large scale problems – such a policy implementation – in a rapid and agile fashion. I think there are many ways to ‘try out’ and prototype new forms of political and material engagement. Here, policy is transformed into the ‘object’ of design and experience design into the ‘randomised control trial’ to understand impact of your strategy.
As design expands beyond a purely material or functional role within society, we need to come to terms with the boundaries of our reach. How we re-conceptualise and build tools for change needs to be considered within an ethical framework. How to ‘reduce harm’ when we are trying to change the lives of people. How is ‘behaviour change’ (although I’m very sceptical about this whole field, but that’s for another post) understood within a positive, humanist approach to our discipline that doesn’t tie people to systems of consumption? How do we resist the feeling of uselessness when faced with the infrastructural sublime?
I was asked to run a drawing workshop at Röda Sten Konsthall in Gothenburg by the lovely people at ADA. The workshop was in conjunction with the current exhibition of Ylva Ogland‘s work. In the workshop I aimed to collectively explore the ideas found in Foucault‘s Of Other Spaces. In his essay, a piece of work that sits slightly outside of his opus, Foucault identifies a type of space that is diverse in nature, but strange in character. A space that operates under different rules to normal space, a space of social, cultural and political otherness.
The concept of heterotopia can be mobilised to examine many different spatial dynamics found within historic, present and future spaces. The work of Ogland’s in the exhibition takes the heterotopia of the mirror to unearth spaces of identity. For my workshop I focussed on a geo-political space, something I hadn’t done before.
I chose a contemporary heterotopia of crisis, where space, boundaries and borders are created, policies written and futures are condemned. For an hour and a half we be investigated the heterotopic space of global health epidemics (and other geopolitical issues); we used drawing as a tool to map the issues concerning the Ebola crisis, calling into question the objects, politics and articles of controversy. In someway, this was a hybrid workshop, bringing together ideational drawing with a Latourian approach to issue mapping. I’m not sure how successful it was, but I think it’s something I’m going to develop further.
This was the introduction text from this year’s BA Design degree show catalogue at Goldsmiths. The basis of this text was a conversation between myself and Laura Potter. The intro is authored by both of us.
MATTER – the title of this year’s degree show – may be read in different ways. Depending on what you put with it, the word can be moulded and manipulated towards different meanings. It spans the ideological and material, the conceptual and the practical, the idea and the thing. It acts to join these often (falsely) disjointed entities; highlighting how materials act in the world. Within the humanities there has recently been a ‘material turn’: an acknowledgement that MATTER is not inert, not waiting for humans to activate and act upon it: it has agency. As Jane Bennett describes in her book of the same title, it is Vibrant Matter. This year’s show is full of vibrant MATTER, ready to move out into the world and change it.
What these students have experienced, and what we do here at Goldsmiths, MATTERS. This interpretation, which places importance on the process and ultimate aim of education, is especially significant. As a teaching team we are aware that there has been a gradual ‘dematerialisation’ of design across the programme. For years we have been trying to understand how to dematerialise, how to de-emphasise the ‘shiny product’ at the end of the process, in order to grant the designer a different kind of power. Initially, we prioritised the abstract. We did a lot of thinking, a lot of talking and the making came at the end as a synthesis of what we were trying to understand. It was an attempt to make the ‘shiny things’ more thoughtful. However, what staff and students have come to understand is that the value of design happens in the stuff – in the MATTER – and that it must be part of the process. We believe that ‘design thinking’ should not exist without ‘design making’.
In the early years of the course we had students who suffered moral crises. We encouraged a ruthless questioning of what design should be, and some came to the conclusion that designers are responsible for perpetuating levels and patterns of consumption. These students decided they did not want to be designers, because they did not want to make MORE MATTER. What we now know is that the material investigation does not need to come at the end: it is not necessary to move towards a ‘product’. The making of stuff, the realising of ideas in three dimensions, can be part of a process that helps us understand, change and eventually take action. A design outcome might be immaterial, but you can still be a designer in the way you approach the world. Of central importance here is the idea of ‘thinking through doing’ or ‘thinking through making’.
These students have attempted to investigate and articulate the complex significance of contemporary MATTER. What they hope to demonstrate is that when design ventures deep into abstract territories, when designers move beyond the goal of the ‘shiny object’, they can generate valuable insights by engaging with all manner of MATTER(S). We are not limited to post-it notes.
Within design education, there’s little shared wisdom about how to conduct a tutorial. The tutorial is the bread and butter of design learning; the main pedagogic object of interaction. But we, the design community, rarely share the nuts and bolts of how to navigate and steer a student through a successful project; how to encourage, provoke, inspire and lead a designer into new and fascinating territories.
In this post, I’d like to outline a few basics. It’s me, stating the obvious, in what I consider good pedagogic practice; how best to support, guide and get the most out of students and their work.
I believe the things I’ve learnt over the last ten or so years are applicable to other disciplines and within the professional context of design. Whether as a Creative Director or a Design Manager, the following points are a good place to start when it comes to directing creativity;
Listening is Key
At the heart of a good tutor is their ability to listen. Understanding ideas, position and intent allows for more connected, meaningful feedback. Asking questions to clarify is key to aiding your understanding. Sometimes students take a long time to get to the salient point, they can skirt around the topic due to a lack of confidence, confusion or perception of expectation, so be patient, let them ‘talk out’, only respond when you understand what’s in front of you. Wait until nerves die down to get to the heart of the matter, then you’ll be in the best position to advise.
Ownership and embodiment
It’s all to common for design tutors to try to design vicariously – to direct a student in a way that they would do the project. This, in my opinion, is a flawed approach. It has a history in the master/apprentice model of education; watch, copy, admire, repeat (where learning is a happy side effect). However, it rarely allows the student to feel ownership over the content and learning experience.
Within Art and Design, intellectual ownership is a tricky subject to navigate. The messy and complex network of ideas become distributed across a number of different references, conversations and people, the genesis of an idea is difficult to locate. Tutors that have a ‘that was my idea’ attitude rarely survive or remain happy and motivated. Intellectual generosity is an essential quality of a good educator. Having the humility to understand and value that the adoption of ideas ‘as their own’ is an important part of learning – it allows for the embodiment of the ideas into the identity of the designer.
However, in the age of the Internet, the tutor as gateway to all knowledge is long gone. The ability (or illusion) of a Professor having read ‘everything’ in their discipline is a distant memory. When knowledge is acquired and disseminated in such a radically different manner, it calls for educational revolution. Sadly, the rise of the MOOC isn’t the revolution I was hoping for.
The abolishment of levels and the flattening of hierarchies are at the heart of how I believe education needs to change. Breaking the often fictitious boundaries between teaching and research to allow for the mutual exploration of ideas is a fundamentally different model of education. Sadly, due to financial scalability, this remains relevant only to an elite. But as a tutor, see your conversations with students as a space to explore ideas, be the learner as much as the teacher. Reframe higher education away from the hierarchies of expertise towards mutual exploration of the distant boundaries of your discipline.
Expanding possibility space
It’s important to remember that a tutorial should be expanding the cone of possibility for the student. They should leave, not with answers, but with an expanded notion, a greater ambition of what they were trying to achieve. It’s important to be ambitious and set tough challenges for your students, otherwise boredom or (heavens forbid) laziness can take over. Most student’s I’ve met love being thrown difficult challenges, most rise to the occasion, all learn a great deal. In order to move towards the goal of a self determined learner, the student should control the decisions of the design process. If you’re telling them what to design, not opening up possibilities and highlighting potential problems, you’re probably missing something.
Understand motivation, vulnerability and ‘learning style’
Every student we teach, learn in a different way, have different hopes and desires, react to feedback in a different way. Navigating and ‘differentiating’ these differences is really difficult. Some tutors take a distanced intellectual approach, where the content in front of them is a puzzle that needs to be solved, this is the classic personae of the academic, distanced, emotionally arid, intellectually rigorous. But this doesn’t alway mean a good learning experience. Other tutors operate on a more psychological level; the try to understand the emotional context of the situation and adapt their advise accordingly. Whatever happens, understand you have a individual in front of you, they have lives outside of the studio, they are going through all manner of personal shit that will effect their attention and engagement. They come from different cultures, different educational backgrounds, so their response to your advice is going to shift like the wind, be adaptive, read body language and don’t go in like a bulldozer (I have definitely done this in the past!).
In terms of learning style, without this becoming a paper on pedagogy, understand that your advice need to be tailored to different students. Some (a lot) need to learn through a physical engagement with their material, others needs to have an intellectual structure in place in order to progress. Throughout a project, course or programme, try to understand this and direct your advice accordingly.
Tutorials shouldn’t just be general ‘chats’ about the project or world, they should give direction, tasks and a course of action. I have a rule: Don’t end the tutorial until you’ve both agreed a direction. This can be pretty tough to manage in terms of time, as I get more experienced, I get better at reaching an agreement within my tutorial time allocation, but I still often can overrun by hours. The important thing to work towards is the idea that you both understand the project, and you both understand how it could move. End the tutorial when this been reached.
Read and respond
It’s really important, in design, to respond to what is in front of you. To actual STUFF. It’s far too easy to let students talk without showing evidence of their work. This is a dangerous game. Words can deceive, hide and misrepresent action. Dig into sketchbooks, ask to see work they’ve done. If they haven’t done anything, ask them to go away and do something to represent their ideas and thoughts. Production is key to having a productive tutorial. Only through responding to actual material evidence of action can a project move forward. At its worst, students can develop the skill to talk about stuff, making it exciting in your mind, but fail to produce the project in the end. But this isn’t the main reason for this section, it’s more about the ideas of design residing in the material production, not just the explication. You can tell me what you believe something does or means, but it’s only when it’s in front of me that I can fully grasp this.
The art of misinterpretation
Another reason why it’s important to dig into sketchbooks and look at work, is that looking at something and trying to work out what it means – the space of interpretation – is an important space of learning. By interpreting and indeed misinterpreting work, you and your student can find out things about the project. If the student intended one thing and you understand something else by it, you’ve at least learnt that it was poorly (visually and materially) communicated. But the exciting stuff happens when misinterpretation acts as a bridge between your internal mental processes (with all references etc) and your students. Your reading of a drawing acts as a way to generate a new idea or direction. This is when there is genuine creative collaboration.
One of the roles of a tutor is to point students towards relevant and inspiring resources. In the age of the internet, when student’s roam the halls of tumblr and are constantly fed inspiration by their favourite design blogs, the use, meaning and impact of tutor driven references has changed. Be focussed with reading, ensure students know why they are looking at a particular reference and make sure that you contextualise the work within the ideas that they have.
It was a year ago that I wrote ‘The Matt Ward Manoeuvre Part 1’, with the good intension that I would write this post soon after. As life gets busy, I find myself having done another year at AHO, teaching a new and improved class on design ideational methods. So here are some of the techniques and exercises I’ve developed over the last 7 years to aid the drawing process. Many of my drawing exercises have been influenced by my colleague Terry Rosenberg who continues to be a brilliant drawing teacher, so this post is a big nod to him.
I’ve ran these classes in different forms and situations for over the last seven years, what you see here is a selection of highlights that try to give a overview of the approach. Ultimately, I’d like to write a book about the approach. Until then, a blog post will have to do.
The warm up; reconnecting the hand, eye and brain
I start my workshops with a drawing warm up; A set of exercises that are common on foundation courses and life drawing classes around the country. The idea of the warm up is three-fold:
First, it acts as a diagnostic; giving me insight into the skills and abilities of the group. It’s allows me to assess the levels of the participants, whilst starting to see the good and bad habits they have evolved in their drawing practice. It’s important to know their strengths and weaknesses in order to pace the session. Strangely enough many people with very good drawing skills find these classes harder – I think this is due to a more developed (entrenched) way of using their hand, eyes and brain.
Second, it allows me to set out the relationship between the hand, eyes and brain within the drawing process. The exercises isolate each part of the body to explore the role it plays in the drawing process. It gives people insight into how practice builds strength in all three. By isolating looking, thinking and moving I highlight how each contribute to the production of ideas. Deconstructing the physicality of drawing identifies the bodily nature of the imagination.
Finally it allows me to discuss the difference between representational and ideational drawing. Drawing to make a representation of something that already exists and drawing to generate the new. It is here that I argue that drawing, even at a representational level, is the construction of ideas. Therefore the conscious manipulation of ideas through the act of drawing becomes highly fruitful for a designer.
The exercises are timed (between three and ten minutes a drawing) and are delivered with a sort of military charge (I was once accused of being a Sergeant Major of Drawing “Drop and give me 50”). I do this on purpose, the tight time restrictions give people little time to think and critique their own work. This means they relax and become less precious with their marks. This is essential, as it’s impossible to generate ideas through drawing if you spend your time fearful of ridicule and critique. The students are asked to draw portraits of each other, this also acts as an ice breaker. They laugh at each other with mutual generosity.
I move from finger tips to shoulder, isolating parts of the body to highlight the effect of bodily movement on the mark and mode of representation. I show how shifts in bodily relations change the nature of the mark and therefore the idea of the drawing. I end the warm up with a series of ‘continuous line drawings’, again these act as a great leveller. It gives everyone the same ‘style’ and aesthetic, relieving tension and expectation. It helps remove hesitancy and nervous ‘hairy’ lines, building a form of false confidence. It also forces the participants to locate their subject within their environments. The web of lines move across the page connecting disparate objects and ideas, they form a visible network of things, aiding connections and relations.
Investigate and deconstruct
After the warm up we move on to drawing things. I normally ask the students to bring a collection of interesting and unusual objects, it starts with the familiar feeling of a ‘still life’, a pile of unusual objects (found, scavenged and treasured) ready to be observed and documented. I start with a series of continuous line drawings, at this stage it’s really important to keep the momentum going, it becomes easy to fall back into old habits. It’s also important to emphasis detail and dimension; things are made from materials, they have weight, density and texture, using continuous line technique it’s easy to make shorthand assumptions about an object; a slow abstraction towards an icon.
Once the objects have become familiar, I ask students to draw an exploded diagram, still in continuous line, we deconstruct the constituent parts of an object to see it in its complexity. Obviously, at this stage, it’s not possible to break the object to pieces, it’s here that the drawing moves from observation to assumption. By asking for an exploded diagram, I challenge the students to deconstruct the object in their imagination, giving them an access point into understanding manufacturing and construction. A form of engineering fiction.
In our current climate of conservative ‘design research’ it’s hard to imagine how a drawing practice can be rigorously investigatory; how it can shed light on ideas, objects and forms, how it is part of knowledge production. But I’m keen to encourage our students to use drawing as a way of knowing the world. It’s through the act of drawing, the to and fro of idea to observation, that objects can unravel their meaning. Drawing acts as a process of forensic examination of materiality, demystifying meaning and generating new.
Conjoin and mutate (bridging reality and the imagination)
My next activity centres around the move from representation to ideation. From drawing things in the world, to inventing things. I get students to select and draw two objects, one on the far left of the page and one on the right (see diagram above). I then ask them to fill the gap with 3-5 new drawings/objects. As their drawings move towards the centre, they should imagine a hybrid form, a mutant offspring of the two objects either side. By the time they reach the middle, they have a 50:50 hybrid, but either side of the centre is a less dominant mix. I commonly ask the students to use continuous line, this allows them to drift from one form to the next.
As with most of my drawing exercises, the outcome is often not the main goal. It’s the thought process that the act of drawing evokes. In the example above, we start from the familiar and move towards the strange. Drawing allows a space for the careful consideration of materials, construction and form, whilst opening opportunities for the examination of function. By trying to splice together incongruent objects, a slow consideration of their context and use comes into play. Again it is the fluctuation between objects as they are and how they may be.
Infection and connection
The last process that I’m going to explain, is probably at the heart of the ‘The Matt Ward Manoeuvre‘, it’s the most challenging to master and the hardest to teach. In this process my aim is to unlock a state of mind that allows the designer to make connections, interrogate ideas and invent new objects. It becomes hard to describe without falling into theories of ‘flow‘, ‘unconscious cognition‘ and ‘radical plasticity‘, but I’m no neuroscientist or psychologist (although I think there’s a killer PhD in there), and the theoretical reflection of this work has never been the drive for my engagement (I’ll leave it for another time/post/life/paper).
First, I ask student’s to compile some lists. If working on a brief, the lists should be related to a central topic, if not, random lists can suffice (but can lead to difficult dead ends). I ask for five lists containing at least ten items of the following:
- Objects (artefacts related to their interests/context of investigation)
- Sites (places where interactions occur)
- Situations (events that take place in the network of culture that surrounds their objects)
- People (professions, personalities or characters relevant to their object/context/project)
- Qualities (adjectives describing of the interaction, behaviour of material involved)
Making lists is an important part of this process, it gives participants the chance to draw up an ecology of ‘actors‘, understanding the constituent parts of the context for which they’re designing. It allows for the mapping of places of action and ultimate the opportunities for design intervention.
I ask the participants to select an object from their list and draw it at the centre of an A3/A2 page. The central object should be something that resonates, something they can imagine designing, enjoy drawing, or something that is key to their interests. I then ask them to write one word from each of their lists in each of the corners of their page (see diagram below).
I then ask for the object to be re-drawn 3-5 times toward the edge of the paper, as the object moves towards the word, it becomes infected by it e.g. as the object get redrawn toward the ‘site’ it becomes more site-specific. This allows for students to start to re-imagine objects through the cultural complexities of the context, it allows actors to merge and agency to become physicalised. In this process form gives way to environment, context becomes reflected on the surface of the world.
As I describe above, the important outcome of the drawing isn’t necessarily the objects that emerge, it’s the thoughts that are triggered, it’s drawing as ideational practice. Therefore, it’s important to jump straight into drawing, I encourage a leap of faith, where the drawing is started without knowing the direction or outcome. If time is spent pre-thinking the outcome, the power of the process is lost. I try to encourage the embracing of dead ends, the power of ideational drawing is in the new beginnings and monstrous births.
These processes can be morphed, adapted and mutated, highlighting different elements of the design context with each iteration. The activities need repetition and practice, as with all drawing, it is through practice that familiarity and flow occur.
This post was first published on Medium.
In March 2011 my Dad was diagnosed with vascular dementia, in the following October he discovered he also had inoperable lung cancer. With a prognosis of 12 months and two terminal conditions, he still manages to struggle on. Those that know me, have seen that the protracted and gradual loss of my father has had a profound affect on me. Unable to mourn him, I instead have to watch him slowly loose his dignity and identity. This form of loss is something that many people experience and with an ageing population it will become one of societies greatest challenges.
Beyond the emotional, medical, economic and social problems dementia presents, I think it’s important to reflect on what we can learn from those that are loosing purchase on reality. To understand, when our mental lives are slipping away, what do we grasp onto. To reflect on how our actions in the world today may shape the way we react to this terribly cruel disease, if we’re unfortunate enough to succumb to it.
On loosing reality
It’s a common myth that dementia is purely about memory loss. The most common response from someone finding out about my Dad is; ‘Does he still recognise you?’. The answer is yes, identifying his family has never been a problem. However, he’s also completely insane. I mean in a proper ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ way. Dad lives in an alternative reality — his perception of the world, his role and agency within it are fully fictional. He spends most of time living in a different time, but his new reality is saturated with the media of today. Most recently, he’s been obsessed with my Mother having an affair and being pregnant by Simon Cowell. My Mum is 68 and has never met the renowned R&R executive. His anxieties are re-lived in a perpetual loop, he’s stuck, replaying fragments of a fictional life.
Insanity, is something that people are very uncomfortable with, ‘forgetfulness’ is far easier to understand and ignore. Seeing dementia suffers as old people that forget names, faces, where they live, gives us a way to empathise with them without feeling threatened or terrified. Sadly, the reality is far more disconcerting. Believing you are in a different place, time and space, doing tasks that are never complete, battling demons that never show themselves is a far darker place to be.
Last week I attended Improving Reality. I throughly enjoyed listening to smart people discuss the possibilities of change within our socio-technical complex. However, as with many provocations, the word REALITY, once said over and over started to loose meaning and impact. I left the day with only a scant understanding of my own reality, never mind the opportunities to improve it. In talking about design, I often use language about ‘reality’, ‘change’ and ‘alternatives’ with little scrutiny about what we actually understand as the representation and manipulation of our reality (or realities). When confronted with a group of people who live and perceive the world differently, you can start to understand the role of media, narratives, conversations and relationships in a different light. My Dad’s reality is his reality, through gentle conversations you can start to uncover the boundaries of his world, you can give texture to the everyday frustrations of living apart from the rest of us.
Souvenirs, aide memoires and the materially sentimental
The reason I started writing this post was an overall sense of sadness about my Dad’s room in his care home. In their original states, the rooms are scantly decorated, institutionally bleak, to allow residents and their families to ‘make it home’. Most rooms have trinkets and ornaments, photographs and keepsakes, scatter cushions and familiar furniture. Everywhere around the care home you see evidence of residents’ families making efforts to remind their loved ones of who they once were, hoping that the objects they once loved would somehow create an anchor to this reality. My Dad’s room is empty. Even the draws are empty. It looks like a hotel room on the morning that you leave; signs of life, but one of transience and departure.
The lack of stuff in my Dad’s room is due to his capacity to distribute his material possessions to the furthest (and strangest) parts of the home. Within 24 hrs any object that enters his room (including his false teeth!) will disappear. I sometimes wonder if his rejection of his possessions are in someway a protest to the reality he finds himself in. By repelling his belongings he can keep a distance from the place he finds himself, seeing it as a temporary stop-over before he returns home.
Dad has always been a very un-sentimental man, he has little time for reflection and reminisce. Whether through friends, photographs or objects, he has lived his life in the perpetual present, loving new experiences and carrying little with him. This approach to life has in someway become amplified through his dementia. Sadly, he isn’t left with the positive affects of his life philosophy, only the negative.
He has become obsessed with the idea of someone stealing his things. He’s also turned his hand to occasional larceny. Many residents in the care home also appear to be obsessed with the loss and theft of their possessions. Obviously, as a family member your first reaction is to worry about members of staff abusing their positions of power. Recent media coverage has done little to build the trust you feel for care homes. I’m sure that theft and abuses of power occur, but in this instance, I don’t believe it’s the case. I think this phenomena is linked to the relationships we build with commodities.
Contemporary living seems to be largely based around the collection and consumption of material things, much has been written on the psychological effect of our modern obsession. But it is when sanity is stripped away, we see the unsettling remainder of conspicuous consumption. Material possessions give little solace to my Dad, instead he’s left with anxiety and paranoia. When all the glitz and glamour gone, we’re left feeling hollow.
It’s all detritus
I’ve been approached countless times by the residents clutching small collections of objects muttering about someone stealing something or things being lost. On Wednesday, an elderly man approached my holding a nail file, an elastic band, some scissors and an Ikea pencil. These things hand been stolen from him, he’d being trying to find them all day. No matter what objects enter the care home, they’re consumed on the same level. Semiotic chains of meaning are disrupted and broken. Objects are washed up on the shores of memory as fragmented links to a reality long lost.
All of this has made me try to rethink how the meanings of things are created and maintained. How do I select the things that I hold dear to me? What will these things mean if I suffer the same loss of reality as my father? And most importantly, if I loose my grip on reality, will I be left with a continual and unsettling feeling of material loss? If so, how do I live my life to strengthen and nurture relationships with people and not things.