Archive

Monthly Archives: August 2012

Over the last few years at Goldsmiths, I’ve seen and encouraged a fascinating trend towards an engagement with performance. Within other disciplines (and in design theory) this has been called the ‘performative turn‘, but I’ll leave it to others, far more rigorous than I, to explain the theoretical genesis.

What I’d like to do is show a few projects and talk about their implications on design practice. I’ll also try to make initial steps in trying to connect design to contemporary art practice.

Performance has always played an important role in design (I’m not talking about performance in terms of functional efficiency). The communication of a project – be it in front of a client, a peer group, conference audience or general public, requires a level of performance. How the story behind a project is constructed and told makes an enormous difference to its reception. I’ve always encouraged my students to embrace the performative nature of project crits and presentations. If you design, direct, practice and perform your presentations you’ll go far. It’s a skill, that if mastered, will make you invaluable to a design consultancy.

Forbidden Tourist: Nelly

Last year, with our second year students, I developed a brief with Nelly Ben Hayoun (you can read Nelly’s write up of it here) to push the performative/experiential part of our student’s design practice. It was a called The Forbidden Tourist:

In William Burroughs’ text The Invisible Generation he describes hidden operators, agents of change and design that sit behind the scenes forumulating and curating new events, experiences and interactions. Acting as the “Invisible Generation”, this week you are tasked to create ‘domesticated events’ in which tourists will be invited to experience new forms of landscape / sports activity / warmth / environment / diet / language / beach / sound / inhabitants etc…

The final presentations had to be ‘live and real’, performed, experienced and directed. The project was a great success with some fantastic ideas. One of the most important things I learnt throughout the process was that through ‘performing’ ideas – including getting members of the audience involved – it was evident whether or not the experience/idea/design would be valuable, exciting or intriguing. During the presentations, you could instantly tell if the project was a success. In some ways this combines presentation with a form of fictional user testing, they were performing to know. Here, prototyping is taken to another level, where ideas are exposed to an audience, events are ‘acted out’ and success is evaluated. Performance as a prototyping medium.

Forbidden Tourist: Bare Knuckle Tours
In this example, performance is placed at the end of the design process, where an object, service or experience is performed to convince an audience of it’s validity.

In the act of designing we set up certain behavioural trajectories, these have been described as ‘scripts’ by Madeline Akrich. Implicit in every ‘technical object’ is a set of assumptions (or predictions) of how a ‘user’ will behave and what ‘specific tastes, competencies, motives, aspirations, political prejudices’ an actor has through their agency in the world. What we need to be aware of is how this ‘inscribing’ takes place and the extent of influence a designer has over the inscription process. So by performing and prototyping the behavioural and social relations intended in a design, the designer can start to gain insight on the process.

If we abstract the ‘script’ from the object and focus purely on the social interaction, we have something close to the work of Tino Sehgal. His dematerialised approach to his art practice means that he makes ‘constructed situations’ – live events where ‘interpretors’ are given oral instructions by Sehgal and the event unfolds beyond his direct control. The work lives only in the memory of those that witnessed the event and in the media reaction to it. His current piece, in the Tate’s turbine hall, These associations, is well worth a visit. The work consists of a group of 70 volunteers walking, running, singing and playing. They move around the space as if they follow an untold set of rules and instructions, every now and again one of the participants breaks off to tell a member of the public a story. During my two visits I had a man tell me about the time he lived in a house boat on the Thames, a really close community, where once he fell into the river and nearly drowned. The other story was from an American woman who told me about her recent experience at the Olympics, and how hearing the national anthem uncovered a lost sense of national pride.

Tino Sehgal
I love the work, it feels awkward and strange, familiar and uplifting. When listening to the stories, I was genuinely interested, when watching the movements of the crowd I was confused and amused. I like the fact that I’m currently participating in the work right now: my text is part of a network of appraisal that constructs the media memory of a fleeting work of art. In terms of its relationship to design, I feel it fits perfectly. As designers we set up frameworks of action, then the messy reality of people shift and change our intensions – this is akin to Sehgal giving instructions, the allowing the work to evolve throughout its life.

It reminds me of a piece of work by Matt House and Martin Turner, for their final presentation, in response to a live brief set by Imagination, they designed a ‘rain dance’. In this project, the performance is both outcome and communication, it’s a way to express the essence of their idea, but it is also a proposal for a possible solution – a physical jingle to promote the appreciation of the British weather. Like a meme it’s released into the world to change and effect peoples attitude. It is through performance that we see the world change.

I’m also interested in how designers use performance as both a critical and generative tool. This year we had two great third year projects exploring ‘performance as method’. Larissa Seilern investigated how the ‘performative act’ could be used to ‘interrogate specific social phenomena and potentially instigate social change.’. In the video she tried to normalise the media view of beauty in the context of the streets of south east London. The activity calls into question the representations of women within advertising, but beyond that it allowed for Larissa to evolve her ideas and understanding of a space and topic.

The other project, Micro-rituals by Tom Marriot, elevates everyday action through video recording into  a performance to be used as a resource for design. Here, performance is integral to the design process. By isolating, editing and remixing banal activities into the beautiful and ridiculous, Tom unearths a rich seam of material to work with. His method looks to deconstruct the everyday in order to reveal the extraordinary. The performance is less in the ‘acting up’, but more in the editing of action.

This reminds me of George Perec’s idea of the Infra-ordinary:

The daily papers talk about everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask.

What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?

Georges Perec, Approaches to What? 1973

This is where performance comes into it’s own, it acts like a mirror to the actions, relationships and events that make up our daily lives. It gives us the necessary distance to examine, reflect and understand what we do and why… surely a useful activity for design and designers.

Advertisements

Since writing my post about the architecture of dementia and reading the wonderful Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon, I’ve been thinking a lot about how spatial scales change throughout our lives – from childhood to old age.

Caution Keep Clear of Riverbank #parentalfail

Having a toddler has heightened my awareness of the boundaries and thresholds of exploration – the limits of safety and adventure. Every blindspot within the urban landscape becomes a possible escape route – life becomes a real-time replay of The Great Escape, but with no tunnels or Nazis. Then, as your child gets older, you become aware that they should be exploring and pushing boundaries. That their spatial freedom in some way equals mental freedom – the unseen, unsupervised allows for growth and development.

As Chabon wonderfully describes, in adolesence it is the ‘wilderness’, those part of the landscape – either rural, suburban or urban – that are derelict, abandoned and free from adult management, that allow for a space of the imagination. A landscape of performance and play, where scenes of adventure and misbehavior are acted out, where new worlds are constructed and occupied, where rules are made by kids and the adults are the enemy. It is in these spaces where we grow and foster our creative imaginations.

As we enter young adulthood our spatial boundaries dramatically increase, we move away from home, travel on our own and explore the places of our future lives. In fact, I would go as far as saying you’re identity becomes defined by the scope of your spatial experiences – how many students have maps on their wall proudly displaying pins of their travelling conquests. During this period, the desire to travel is high, the atlas becomes a manual of possibility. In the UK it’s become a middle class, western walkabout.

Into our middle age, the cartography starts to shrink, we ‘settle’ and ‘put down roots’. As we move towards old age – our personal cartographies shrink, sometimes to an impossibly small scale. My dad is currently occupying two rooms and a corridor (although in his mind he travels frequently by boat, train and plane), it is this limited map that he traces with his feet, caught in an ever-changing, always constant, space of frustration.

As we start to develop new technologies that augment our spatial existence – how we move, navigate and experience space – we need to be cognisant of the physiological and political ramifications their effects. This reminds me of Tom Loois’ project Blank Ways (via Adam), here Tom looks for the unexplored in our environments as spaces of mental calm. Our desire to explore is supported by the systems of telecommunications and geospatial surveillance.

[image: Tom Loois, Blank Ways]

This poetic project opens up the undiscovered within our environments, it supports a move towards a fully-lived spatial practice. However, my continuing concern about locative media, is still present. How do we build systems of serendipity and openness on the structures of profit, capital and control? Will our spatial experience be neatly packaged and sold back to us, with adwords included, to commodify the space of our imaginations? How do we build technological systems to trace the networks of our personal cartographies without closing down the creative potency of the unknown?