February 29, 2012

Regarding The Pain Of The Planet: A Reader


Do you simply love iPhones, wind turbines, cloud computing, and electric cars? Good, because the following may be of interest.

Last week at ZDHK in Zurich I saw some well-made and sometimes shocking visualizations of resource flows in the globalized economy. These flows, we were told, have grown 1,500 times in just fifty years - but their often horrific environmental and social costs tend to remain out of sight and out of mind.

A discussion ensued: Why is it that, even when we are exposed to shocking stories and images, nothing seems to change in the system as a whole? What are we as designers to do if we create a powerful piece of communication - and it has no impact?

These are not new questions. Susan Sontag's classic text Regarding the Pain Of Others raised similar issues, for photography, two decades ago.

All writers learn, however, that questions only get answered when they are ready to be answered. They have to ripen, like fruit. In that horticultural spirit, there follows below a selection of readings that we have found insightful whilst waiting for the world to be interested in the question.

Your suggestions of other texts or resources to enhance this Reader will gladly be added.


Global Witness
"In 2008, exports of oil and minerals from Africa were worth roughly $393 billion - over ten times the value of exported farm products ($38 billion) and nearly nine times the value of international aid ($44 billion). More often than not, the main benefits of resource extraction go to political, military and business elites in producer countries, and oil, mining, timber and other companies overseas. The continued scramble for valuable mineral and other resources poses ever-present and increasing risks of corruption, instability and conflict".

Witness uses video to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations. These empower people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change. Witness has embraced the peer-to-peer movement by creating the Hub (http://hub.witness.org/), a YouTube for human rights activists who can quickly post and disseminate videos of human rights abuses. This online advocacy network works in tandem with long-term on-ground networks. Coordinating online and on-ground advocacy strategies is key to the training provided.

The Advocacy Project
AP helps marginalized communities to tell their story through blogs, video, podcasts, photos and the written word. This puts a face on disempowerment and provides partners with content for their campaigns and websites.

Ethical Metalsmiths
Susan Kingsley and Christina Miller began working together because of their dismay on learning how precious metals were sourced. Each had researched the social and environmental harm caused by gold mining and they shared a deep concern about the field of jewelry and metalsmithing. Virtually no one in their field was aware of environmental impacts of the materials upon which they depend. As metalsmiths themselves, they decided to take action.

Earthworks protects communities and the environment from the impacts of irresponsible mineral and energy development while seeking sustainable solutions. Earthwork exposes the health, environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of mining and energy extraction through work informed by sound science.


Coltan, the 'blood mineral' of Congo
A mineral that's used to make mobile phones is helping to finance the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Global Witness it's time to investigate the trafficking of coltan, a mineral which they say is extracted in the east of the country through exploitation, and which partly finances the rebels, along with the equally deplorable gold and cassiterite (tin oxide) trades. After Liberia's "blood diamond", here's the blood mineral of Congo.

Pandering To The Loggers
WWF’s flagship scheme to promote sustainable timber – the Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN) – is allowing companies to reap the benefits of association with WWF and its iconic panda brand, while they continue to destroy forests and trade in illegally sourced timber. A new briefing by Global Witness reveals that while GFTN is intended to reduce and eliminate such practices over the first five years of membership, systemic failures blight the scheme’s ability to deliver for forests.

War on Women in Congo
Eve Ensler is the playwright of "The Vagina Monologues" and founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls. V-Day has funded over 10,000 community-based anti-violence programs and launched safe houses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Kenya, South Dakota, Egypt and Iraq. This commentary was adapted from remarks Ensler made Wednesday to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs.

Mineral Conflict In Congo
We wear gold jewelry, eat out of tin-lined cans, and babble into our cell phones. How many dead or violated bodies did it take to bring these things to us from the heart of Africa?  Most of us do not care to know.  On television, we see people in Central Africa killing each other and patronizingly assume that it is all due to some backwards tribal animosity; however, we often fail to question Western demand for resources in Central Africa that may support instability and violence.

How European ships dumped nuclear waste into Somalia’s Ocean
In 1991, the government of Somalia - in the Horn of Africa - collapsed. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died

Guns Money and Cellphones
The demand for cell phones and computer chips is helping fuel a bloody civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt has myriad applications in things like high temperature magnets, rechargeable batteries in hybrid cars, high strength steels, carbides, catalysts for petroleum refining and gas-to-liquid technology, catalysts for automotive exhaust systems and of course super alloys. It is this latter category that requires the vast majority of Cobalt. The next time you are on a plane taxiing down the runway, stop for a moment and think that the turbine blades in a typical jet engine require up to 130 pounds of Cobalt.


True Costs Of Wind Energy

A toxic lake that poisons Chinese farmers, their children and their land is what's left behind after making the magnets for Britain's latest wind turbines.

Monster Footprint of Digital Technology
The energy consumption of electronic devices is skyrocketing. The electricity consumption of computers, cell phones, flat screen TV's, iPods and other gadgets will double by 2022 and triple by 2030. And that's just the start. The embodied energy of the memory chip alone already exceeds the energy consumption of a laptop during its life expectancy of 3 years.

The Need For Green Librarianship
Digital libraries offer unparalleled access to information in comparison to older analog information systems. Yet, without a cheap, abundant electricity supply, digital access to information would not exist. This article explores the hidden implications of ecological overshoot for digital libraries in the form of climate change, failing electricity grids, power outages, shortages in hydrocarbon energy sources, resource wars, and the specter of financial collapse. The author calls for the development of "green" librarianship in preparation for future energy shortages.

Peak Oil and the Preservation of Knowledge, by Alice Friedmann
Within decades, we’re likely to lose many of the books printed on acidic paper between 1850 and most of the 20th century. Knowledge stored on computer is no more secure; computers will be the first to go when supply chains fail as global trade diminishes.

Clive Matthew-Wilson, Electric Cars a Major Environmental Threat
Despite their ‘green’ image, electric cars are often less efficient and more polluting than the petrol cars they replace. The car industry is selling a false image of efficient, environmentally-friendly electric cars powered by ‘green’ energy. In reality, electric cars often aren’t very efficient and aren’t very green.

Juha Huuskonen, Consumer Electrronics and Mining In Congo
Policy makers at the national and international level seem to care more about the reputation of foreign companies interested in buying Congolese minerals than in the well-being of the people living and working in and around the mines. It is high time to tackle problems such as the use of physical violence, the establishment of predatory taxation systems, and the creation of illicit trade monopolies by military actors. Policy makers need to do something about other mining related issues such as land rights, forced labour and sexual violence against women, that had only received scant attention.

Earth Calling: Environmental Impacts of the Mobile Phone
The vast mobile phone sector impacts the environment through extracting the raw materials that are used in phones and network equipment; manufacturing phone components; running the networks; managing phones and network equipment at end-of-life. Processes with lower, though still significant, environmental impacts include behaviours enabled by phones, rolling out network infrastructure; constructing and managing offices, retail stores and call centres; servicing mobile customers.

E-Waste FAQs
Of 53 million tons of electronic waste generated worldwide in 2009 only about 13% of it was recycled. 14 to 20 million PCs are thrown out every year in the U.S. alone. Over 99 million TV sets, each containing four to eight pounds of lead, cadmium, beryllium and other toxic metals, were stockpiled or stored in the U.S. in 2007, and 27 million TVs were disposed of in 2007 either by trashing or recycling them.

Doors of Perception 3 on the theme "info-eco" Back in 1995 we learned that although hundreds of organizations churn out a flood of reports, graphs, studies, punditry – and lists - our collective behaviour does not seem to change at all. What would it take, we asked then (and keep asking) to monitor and measure our planet’s true condition – its vital signs - in real time, and in such a way as to change the way we inhabit the planet?


Supply Lines (Ursula Bierman)
This visual research project explores human interactions with natural resources such as water, oil, and silver, and the spatial and social relations ensuing from them.

Monument of Sugar
Documentary footage explores, in long slow takes, hidden production landscapes of global trade, like crop fields, sugar refineries, flow-bands, harbors, and the different sites where thebartists performed their drifting studio practice.


Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain Of Others
Do visualizations, however powerful and evocative, actually change anything? And if not, why not? Susan Sontag writes: “Compassion is an unstable emotion...it needs to be translated into action, or it withers. [. . .] People don’t become inured to what they are shown — if that’s the right way to describe what happens — because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling.”

Rick Poynor, Should We Look At Corrosive Images?
Rick quotes John Berger: “The picture exists to prick our consciences and provoke action, but if no action related to its origin in a specific political situation occurs, then the picture is depoliticized. It becomes “evidence of the general human condition,” says Berger, accusing everybody — including the demoralized viewer — and nobody.

Roland Barthes: Image, Music, Text
“The traumatic photograph (fires, shipwrecks, catastrophes, violent deaths, all captured from 'life as lived') is the photograph about which there is nothing to say; the shock photograph is by structure insignificant: no value, no knowledge, at the limit no verbal categorization can have a hold on the process instituting signification...Why? Doubtless becausein relation to society overall its function is to integrate man, to reassure him”.

States of Shock & Unknowing: On Documenting the Wake of Katrina
These writers also quote Sontag: “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering … are those who could do something to alleviate it or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs...Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated".

Strategies for Representing the Pain of Others: The Video Advocacy Institute
Liz Miller & Martin Allor at Concordia University ask: “How can human rights activists best reach audiences in a multichannel universe that is increasingly inundated with images of war, tragedy and suffering? How to avoid having your campaign lost in the sea of nonstop reality media? The Witness model of advocacy promotes “narrowcasting,” the idea that it is not always how many people see a video but who sees it and what they do with it.

The participatory character of landscape, by Harry Heft
Heft recalls that in 1908, the American philosopher John Dewey described mainstream perceptual theorists of his day as being in the grip of a "Kodak fixation." Dewey was expressing deep reservations about the adoption of a photographic attitude toward the nature of seeing, and more generally, knowing. He was critical of approaches to perceiving that operate as if the individual confronts the world as a spectator, in effect, standing passively and detached from what is experienced -- much in the way that photographers stand apart from their subject.

Doors of Perception texts on art, ecology and perception

Of you know of other texts or media resources that can enrich this Reader, please email me at john (at) thackara dot com I'll publish an updated version soon.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:52 AM

December 19, 2011

Why Walls Need Floors


When he was sixteen years old, Floor van Keulen made a wall painting in the stairwell of his mother's beauty salon. For the next 43 years, the artist has worked with the knowledge that most of his site- and time-specific specific works are destined to disappear. Why?

"When one works in a large format the framework disappears" van Keulen tells an interviewer. "When all goes well, there is a culmination of forms, and the distinction between form and content fades".

At various times, van Keulen's approach has been labelled as action painting, or Wild Painting. He took part in several 'poetry explosion' events at Amsterdam's fabled Paradiso during the 1970s.


Later, Van Keulen experimented with video projections in theatre spaces, and onto buildings. By 2005 he was drawing directly onto buildings using intense rays of pure light. These projections were even more immaterial than a temporary wall painting.

"You need a lot of practice before your hand can can cope with all those turns and subtleties" understates the artist.

At a certain moment, Van Keulen was ready to reflect on what remains from his work so far - principally, photographs and film stills. The result is a 376 page book called Lost Paintings

Floor Cover.png

Two insightful texts, one by Tom Rooduijn and Annerie Smolders, the other by Rudi Fuchs, are delightfully free of art-speak. The rest of the pages are like photo-journalism applied to art: the often-grainy images are at times poignant, sometimes dramatic, but always fresh. The energy of so many different moments is almost tangible - even though the moments have passed.

floor dancers.JPG

Is there a single theme in the book? van Keulen is asked. "I have tried to understand and bring order to an unbridled stream of images" he replies - and recalls the words of of another Dutch artist, Cor Blok: "art has the primary function of a eureka moment".

Such moments may be fleeting, but they can nonetheless endure. I'm reminded of David Mamet's words in Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama: "the good play will not concern itself with cares that can be dealt with rationally".


Posted by John Thackara at 07:11 AM

March 30, 2011

Utopia is here


Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner, made in 1982, portrays a dystopian Los Angeles as it might be in 2019. In just eight years from now we are due to discover find out whether or not the film was an accurate prediction.

Do we have to wait that long? Many urban sites today already are at least as disturbing as those in the film.

Volker Sattel's film about nuclear power [above], to be previewed in Berlin on 6 April, is filled with disturbing shots of a future gone wrong - only his images are not fiction.

Neither is this shot below from The Zone of Alienation - the exclusion area around Chernobyl. An area the size of Switzerland, it will be uninhabitable for the next 300 years.


When Sweden lifted its ban on nuclear power in 2009, Centre Party leader Maud Olofsson said she was doing it "for the sake of my children and grandchildren"

In Fukushima, today, here is the terrified grandchild of a nuclear family that was promised a utopian energy future once before:


For that little girl, and her family, the uncertainty of her future will be as much a burden as the sure knowledge that she will become ill. Nobody can know.

What we do know is that energy is never free. We just act is if it were.


Unter Kontrolle [Under Control] will be previewed at Haus der Kulturen der Welt on 6 April

Posted by John Thackara at 08:13 AM

March 20, 2011

Collapse of civilization tango


They say that the last days of Rome were culturally rich - and the same seems to be the case in our own times.

Choreographer Valerie Green and Dance Entropy, a New York City-based experimental dance troupe, will shortly premier a new work, Rise and Fall, that's about collapsing civilizations, the raw ugliness of industrialization, and gross consumption.

The dance is inspired in part by John Michael Greer's book The Long Descent whose cover, it must be admitted [above], has definite dance-like qualities.

[Greer is by no means a dramatizer. On the contrary, he is scornful of those 'doomers' who say that a sudden civilizational collapse is imminent. Greer's argument is that said collapse is already well underway and is likely to become the new normal for for us all].

Rise and Fall, which sets out to develop 'a non-traditional movement vocabulary', charts a non-linear path through industrialization, modernization, terror, decline, population dissipation, and 'the knowledge to begin again'.

If Rise and Fall sounds like a challenging work of dance, its music appears to be well-matched. It's by a group called the Tone Casualties. A former record label, their most celebrated album was Wake Up Gods by the Macedonian band Kismet.

Under the slogan 'INSANITY IS FREEDOM COMFORMITY IS DEATH' Kismet's music is described as 'industrial-ethno-gothic for following Millennium'.


If you are in the NYC area, and in search of a family night out, see Rise and Fall on 31 March at Dixon Place Experimental Theatre at 7:30 pm, or on 8 and 17 April at the Green Space Studio.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:59 PM

March 11, 2011

Can thermal perception change behaviour?


A premise of Joseph Giacomin's new book Thermal is that global warming is hard to ignore when you view the world through thermal eyes.

Hard, but not impossible, to ignore. We humans are skilful evaders of uncomfortable truths.

The premise of the author's reseach group at Brunel University in the UK, Perception Enhancement Systems, is that leveraging our sensory systems through the use of advanced technology can enhance our understanding.

Our dilemma is this: although technologically-enhanced images can, potentially, enhance our understanding, human behaviour is more complicated. Misleading 'gut instincts', and personal associations and biases, can be more influential than perceived facts in influencing our energy habits.


It emerged at Garrison Institute's climate, mind and behavior conference last year that enhanced perceptual tools are only part of the answer.

We also need to draw on knowledge emerging from behavioral and neuro-economics, and cognitive science research. Researchers in those domains - often in a businesss, not environmental context -are investigating ways to steer individual and group decision making.

As this writer has discovered, too, in exploring the relationship between metrics and aesthetics, it is not a simple matter of cause [an evocative image] and effect [changed behaviour].

This is not to diminish the affective power of some images in Thermal. There are *so* many things we do not see - for example, the contribution of chldren to global warming....


Besides, I also learned in the pages of Thermal pages that the average street light or home lamp emits less than three percent of the inputted energy in the form of light, with nearly all the rest ending up as heat.

Technical note [from the author's website]: These 20x240 pixel JPEG images were shot using a 60 Hz thermal imaging camera; it is similar in appearance to a camcorder. Pseudocolour is used to indicate the variations in temperature - bright red-orange for the hottest temperature and dark blue for the coolest.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:16 AM

February 13, 2011

Bangkok Cable Ways


On of the reasons we underestimate the sheer physical mass of our power and information networks is that they're hidden from view. But not in Bangkok. The German photographer Thomas Kalak has spent ten years decade capturing images like these.They feature in an exhibiton at Munster Art Museum from 19 March to 3 July.


Posted by John Thackara at 09:55 AM

February 09, 2011

Ultra Modern


I dislike the word 'glocal'. It's an ugly word used by high altitude thinkers to add zest to another word - local - that they find tedious on its own.

I also dislike the word 'creative'. It tends to be used by uncreative people to describe people like themselves. Its bastard child, 'cultural creative', is twice as bad because ...well, you fill in the gaps.

Now a new word has come along to bug me: 'Sustainism'. It adorns a new book that celebrates the glocal and the creative. Not a good start.

The word sustainism has been invented by two design eminences from The Netherlands, Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers. They've created the new word as a "replacement for modernism".

Sustainism as a new cultural era is described in two ways. The first is a series of quotes and aphorisms, two or three to a page. Familiar words flutter across the folios: connected, local, digital, ecology, community, interface, collaboration, crossover, social, and so on.

The book's second channel, if we may call it that, is a confetti of colourful logos [including the ones above]. These intersperse the aphorisms. The effect is visually pleasing - the book reminds me of an illustrated diary I had as a child - but I reached the end feeling I had read a contents list, but not the content itself.

The idea, say its author-designers, is that Sustainism's "graphically dynamic aphorisms, quotes and symbols" capture the zeitgeist of our culture and "name the new age".

I'm not so sure. The word sustain - whether attached to an -ism, or an -abiity - speaks too much, to me anyway, of bailing out a leaking boat as it drifts towards a waterfall. It's got to be done, but it's not a joyful prospect.

Sustainism is rather like a butterfly collection. Many of its specimens are renowned, and some of them are beautiful - but they are also - how to put this delicately? - lifeless.

Sustainism, in consequence, achieves the opposite of its ambition. It's a very Modern book.

Sustainism Is the New Modernism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era by Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers is published by Distributed Art Publishers.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:22 AM

December 07, 2010

Use fewer words - or less ink?


From drinking bottled water, to a single search on Google: even the most innocuous action seems to have a dire consequence for the planet somewhere down the line.

A new example, to me at least, concerns typefaces; the way a typeface is designed determines how much ink is needed when it's put to use - and some kinds of printers' ink turn out, on close examination, to be toxic as hell. Hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), heavy metal content, and carcinogenic ingredients, are a major problem.

Various projects to develop environmentally friendly and non-toxic printers' ink are underway - but I, for one, will think twice in future before inhaling the smell of a freshly-printed book.

But smart sustainable design always heads upstream - and so it was with last weekend's workshop in Treviso on how to make typography sustainable run by Henriette Kruse Jørgensen and Alex Saumier Demers of Fabrica. The challenge to participants was to create a font family that could be reused and printed on recycled newspaper. After just two days, they came up with alphabets of different style using just three simple shapes.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:44 AM

December 01, 2010

This is not an object


and neither are these:


Well I know they *look* like objects, but that's because you have not read a new book called Nonobject about the design philosophy of Branko Lukic.

Branko's collaborator on the book, Barry Katz, cites respected commentators in support of his proposition that although these images appear to depict objects, they do not. Among the experts called on are: Claude Debussy. Dieter Rams. Ettore Sottsass. Charles Eames. Philippe Starck. Louis Sullivan. Alvar Aalto. Antonio SaintElia. Filippo Marinetti. Pablo Picasso. Jorge Luis Borges. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. René Magritte. Alexander Rodchenko. Friedrich Nietzsche. Claude Lévi Strauss. Leonardo Da Vinci. Beethoven. James Joyce. Walter Benjamin. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Plato. Michelangelo. Pablo Neruda. Ortega Y Gasset. John Donne. Le Corbusier. And Sosigenes of Alexandria.

Speaking of calendars [Sosigenes was a calendar designer] it's now 22 years since I, too, did a book about design along the lines of Nonobject. Mine was called Design After Modernism: Beyond The Object. Now it's not that I'm bitter and envious - Oh no - but back then, nobody compared my philosophy to Goethe, Wittgenstein, or Nietzsche. If the truth be told, the number of people who noticed the book at all was modest.

In retrospect, I made a strategic error. My book about design beyond the object contained words, but no gorgeous pictures of nonobjects. Perhaps if I had included more gorgeous images like this one


people would have understood what I was getting at.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:45 AM

November 25, 2010

In the air of Madrid

intheair landscape-frontis.png

in the air screencapture.png

Ever since we organised Doors of Perception 3 on the theme "info-eco" in 1995, we've been preoccupied by the dilemma of environmental data. Our world is awash in eco information, we concluded then, but starved of meaning.

In the worlds of science and policy, hundreds of organisations churn out a flood of reports, graphs, studies, punditry – and lists - but our collective behaviour does not seem to change at all.

What would it take, we asked, to monitor and measure our planet’s true condition – its vital signs - in real time.

Over the years since then, a variety of sometimes beautiful perceptual aids has been designed to help us understand the conditon of the invisible natural systems that surround us. The latest, In the Air, is a visualization project which aims to make visible the microscopic and invisible agents of Madrid´s air (gases, particles, pollen, diseases, etc), to see how they perform, react and interact with the rest of the city.

The Madrid team track five of the key pollutants that most detrimentally effect health and quality of life:
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) Carbon monoxide (CO) Nitrogen oxide (NO) Particulate PM10 and Ozone (03.

As well as the visualization, In The Air includes a prototype “diffuse façade” at in Medialab-Prado. There, water vapor diffusors inform passers how much of each component in the air.


[The water vapour mildly cleans the air as and the the water dye/colorant is organic - so the installation does not add contaminants to the atmosphere].

The next step is to integrate the prototype into the entire facade of a building. At this scale multiple pollutants could be monitored and displayed at the same time, allowing for more complexity in the visualization. The building would become "a 24 hour active indicator of environmental conditions, blurring architecture with atmosphere, informing and mediating the bodies that come into contact with it".

In the Air is on display at Medialab-Prado in Madrid through January 11th. Its creator is Nerea Calvillo "along with the best team possible"

Posted by John Thackara at 06:06 AM

November 15, 2010

Look - or connect?


Each year 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness and on any given night, over 700,000 people are without a roof. In Houston alone, some 15,000 homeless people live in abandoned buildings, on cardboard makeshift beds, under freeways, and in shelters throughout the city.

In Western Europe, too, the number of homeless people is at its highest level in 50 years. Homelessness has reached levels not seen since the end of World War II - and this is before the main impact of public spending cuts has been felt on social housing.

In a photography and book project called Shelter Henk Wildschut documents found shelters: roped-up and tarped in Calais, cardboard-boxed in Patra, thinly-sheeted sheds in Malta, found-objects collaged in Almeria, and simply under trees in Rome.



But who is in them?

Susan Sontag's Regarding The Pain of Others reflected on the role of war photography in shaping how noncombatants respond to its human cost - or not, if they have become numbed.

Sontag questioned the way that fragments of the world were often torn from their context and history, and mixed together in a way that Sontag compared to surrealism. "That kind of promiscuous aestheticizing of experience", she wrote, "makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own."

Do contemporary images teach us about suffering, Sontag famously asked, or do they numb us over time and simply cause us to turn away?

Sontag's question is a live one today. Human beings are labelled loosely as "the homeless"- but we seldom learn who 'they' are.

Happily there are exceptions. In Seattle, Erika Schultz, has documented what she calls Invisible Families. Parents with children are the fastest growing yet least visible sector of the homeless population. Families stay hidden away — doubling up with friends or staying in emergency shelters.


Schultz gives a name and a narative to her work. The above image is accompanied by a caption: "Here, Jack Ahern, aged nine, marches with a bamboo stick while staying at a city, located in Skyway. Sometimes, Jack would enlist fellow "Nickelodeons" to help him look for worms. On other days, he'd play on a pogo stick, in mud puddles or with the resident camp kitten that had six digits on one paw. The bamboo stick was a gift".

In a recent combined oral history and photography show in Minneapolis, Homeless is my address not my name visitors learn more than usual about the people in the portraits. Underneath about a third of the portraits are phone numbers visitors can call to hear the person in the picture tell their story. These recordings begin with their name, and where they stayed last night.

But bad journalistic habits are hard to break. The headline on the Seattle Times website still reads: "Voices of the homeless featured in photography show".

This writer is ill-equipped to add new insight to the ethics of photojournalism. [An online book called Photojournalism An Ethical Approach covers the ground well; and a study commissioned by the University of Illinois lists some two dozen different codes and guidelines]

But with an exhibition of artists' and photography books opening this week in Paris, the position of 'the other' in such work is as alive as ever: Is it enough for these images to be striking? Or is there a danger, as we we saw with climate porn that we will become sensitized?

Perhaps even those are self-centered concerns. Perhaps we should judge these images not by what they make *us* feel, but by the extent to which they cause to connect, one-to-one, with the people they portray.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:58 AM

July 31, 2010

The economics of attention

(Summer re-run: first published 8 October 2006)

In his review of Richard Lanham's new book The Economics of Attention, Adrian Ellis says that "its core argument (is) that everyone is straining for distinction in a late capitalist global economy jammed with commodities and information, and that culture and creativity are what affords the producer the possibility of distinction.

(This) explains the universal prevalence of shock tactics in both art and advertising (and) offers insights into the changing role of the creative artist and the artist's sensibility in contemporary society".

I'm not so sure. Are attenion-seeking artists really a new phenomenon, economic or otherwise? After all, it's 135 years since artist Emile Zola assured the world, "I am here to live out loud" - and few artists before him were shrinking violets.

Ellis goes on to attribute the phenomenal increase in the number of people describing themselves as artists, in the past half-century, to "the changing balance of power between the technical and the creative (and) the inexorable logic of The Economics of Attention".

Surely traditional job market economics are a simpler explanation. As I've been telling everyone recently, a Dutch survey found that only two percent of those with a degree in art or design consider themselves to be unemployed.

The government should introduce compulsory art education for all - and thereby abolish unemployment at a stroke.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:02 PM

May 05, 2010

"Only connect..."


Global flows of money


Global Thermohaline Circulation


Posted by John Thackara at 09:52 AM

April 07, 2010

The Abbotshaugh Sentinel


old estate tree.png

Could you create an earthwork of significant scale using excavated spoil? The site is in Falkirk, Scotland (56 01 20.95 N / 03 44 30.74 W).

Christian Barnes and landscape architect John Kennedy have written a thorough and thoughful brief on behalf of Falkirk Council. The document is a good example of how artists can spot hidden qualities and potential in places.

Deadline for submissions (details are on page 14) Monday 26 April 2010, 12:00 midnight.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:12 AM

March 04, 2010

Polish Art in Beirut


An underground exhibition of Polish art in Beirut looks like a specialised event, even for me - only it features the work of the Polish photographer Nicolas Grospierre which makes it definitely worth a visit. Grospierre's modified architectural photographs were a highlight for me of the last Venice Architecture Biennale: a persuasive portrayal of what today's urban contexts could well look like in the near future.

But Grospierre does not just do Bladerunner-ish images. He also shoots amazing structures at the edges of Eastern Europe. These range from bus-stops in Estonia...


to this...


I don't know how many of our readers live in Beirut, know someone in Beirut, or are going there soon - but for all the above, please note that the show ends on 16 March:

'Fitting In Space: Contemporary Polish Art' is being presented in Zico House and 98 Weeks Research Project Space: Naher Street, (Jisr el Hadid) Chalhoub Building, n 22 - Ground Floor, Beirut.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:05 AM

February 18, 2010

Electrosmog Festival


Preparations for the ElectroSmog International Festival for Sustainable Immobility are gathering pace. An Electrosmog blog has been launched, and Doors of Perception has agreed to co-host a session on Friday 19 at deBalie, in the afternoon. Our focus will be on the practical design steps to be taken now. ICT developers have been working on videocommunication since 1946 - but the experience still sucks. If massive amounts of bandwidth are not the answer, are there more artful ways to enhance remote communication? We're hoping to discuss promising approaches with a game designer, a theatre director/designer, and an artist and/or poet/writer.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:51 AM

November 15, 2009



The highlight of my visit to Musashino Art University's 80th Anniversary was this stunning fashion show called epa! (Thanks, Tatsu, for the pictures). An incredible amount of fine handwork was involved in the clothes and acccessories, but what struck me most was the energy of the staging and choreography, and the pagan storyline: these reminded me of a design-school graduation collection I saw back in 1984 called "Les Incroyables". It was by a young designer called John Galliano.

Even earlier than that, back in 1954, Musashino art students moved in different ways....


Posted by John Thackara at 05:02 PM | Comments (1)

October 05, 2009

The Buckminster Fuller Challenge


I'm extremely honoured to be on the jury for the next Buckminster Fuller Challenge. More importantly, there's a $100,000 prize at stake - so do check it out. I quote the introduction: "There is a movement afoot--of highly motivated individuals all over the world seriously engaged in coming up with solutions to the mounting set of problems we face. These design pioneers and social innovators are not waiting for large scale institutions to deliver us to a sustainable future. They understand the critical role they play as the change agents for the future we all want to see. These are the people and projects we are excited to see submit an entry to the Challenge".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:17 AM

March 21, 2009

It's Saturday, we're busy here...

...so I'm simply going to post this chart, which I've been sitting on for ages, without further explanation or analysis. Why don't *you* tell *me* what it means, or what global dilemma it may help resolve? Refer to global warming, the financial crisis, peak indium, or any other grim peak that you see fit to choose. I will invite the most insightful commenter to lunch.



btw I got it here.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:13 AM

March 06, 2009

Patricia de Martelaere


The incredibly sad news has reached us today that Patricia de Martelaere has died.

Many readers of this blog may recall her presentation at Doors of Perception 7 on flow: "A philosophical tale about our time." Patricia was already a rising star of European philosophy at the time, but our eagerness to hear her speak at Doors was prompted especially by her book What Remains, in which she asks what we can and should sustain in a world of processes of perpetual change and becoming; and by her collection of essays, Wereldvreemdheid (Unworldliness).

Patricia studied philosophy at the University of Louvain where her doctoral thesis was on the scepticism of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Since then, in addition to becoming a much-loved professor at the universities of Brussels and Louvain, Patricia also published two award-winning novels, and four collections of essays on philosophical, literary and psychological subjects; these works also received major prizes. She also made an impressive début as a poet, in the Belgian literary magazine De Gids; and in 2002 she published a poetry collection entitled Niets dat zegt (Nothing that says).

Her prodigious and original talent as a writer and philosopher is only one aspect of the loss we all feel today. Kristi and I were fortunate to know Patricia as a friend, and Patricia and her husband Tom were our guests here in Ganges several times. We have fond memories of her learning Chinese on the terrace in the sun, surrounded by books and papers - in between inspiring, but light and joyful, dinner conversations when ideas, and the inner life of dogs, competed for our attention.

She was only 51, and Patricia's own words are especially poignant today: "The universe is perpetual change. Things are ephemeral and ungraspable. We want to get hold of them, but they escape through our fingers like grains of sand or running water. Living reality seems to be utterly beyond our control. Reasons enough to cry".

Posted by John Thackara at 06:24 PM

March 05, 2009

Confused? Anxious? Need a place to think?


Some close friends of Doors have just completed 20 months work doing up Café de Tannay. It's an authentic 16C town house two-and-a-bit hours south of Paris. It's in the ancient center of the Middle Ages wine village of Tannay, whose name is derived from Celtic ‘tann’, oak. Tannay is in the western part of the Burgundy region 20 kilometers from UNESCO World-heritage site Vézelay on its ‘eternal hill’ dominating the Morvan National Park. If you are one of these poor souls or just feel you need a break from too much input - then we warmly recommend a sojourn in this beautful place.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:19 AM

March 03, 2009

The internet can be *so* useful sometimes


I often use pictures like this one, in my talks, to denote the crisis. But the crisis seems to be perpetual, and it becomes boring to repeat the same image. I therefore thank Matthew Ray Robison, a public-spirited person who has helpfully started The brokers with hands on their faces blog.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:01 AM

February 05, 2009

Playing chicken


On a visit to this week to Z33, an amazing art centre in Belgium, I learned about the Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen and his Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (TCCP). It's wide-ranging investigation of what it would take to create and manipulate scores of chicken breeds from whole over the world into a new species, a universal chicken or Superbastard. The site is full of reflections on genetic manipulation, cloning, globalisation and multiculturalness are found throughout his work. Vanmechelen likes to describe his work in Hegelian terms: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Or, the chicken and the egg as a metaphor for the human race and art. Me, I think this photo is fab.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:32 PM

October 27, 2008

Moths to the flame


I was mesmerised by last night's tv ad for Westfield, a vast 150,000 square metre shopping mall that opens in West London next weekend. The ad features attractive and horny young people who turn into fairies. Fair enough, but they then start taking off and fly across the city's rooftops in ever-denser swarms. Their destination is the burning light of....."a new and innovative shopping experience".

Please reassure me that I did not imagine the whole thing. Go, check out their ad . Is it, or is it not, a film about moths to the flame ?

Posted by John Thackara at 07:11 AM

October 22, 2008

Alternate Reality Game?


I saw this poster outside St Etienne station. It portrays The Mongoose who is "an infamous hitman hired to carry out assassinations and other evil deeds...the cruel and cold-blooded murderer carries out his orders with eagerness and glee." It says it's a game, and that it's is powered by "Unreal Engine".

Now is it me, or.....

Posted by John Thackara at 07:52 AM

October 20, 2008

I told you so


"We will not have any more crashes in our time."

"There is nothing in the situation to be disturbed about."

"... the outlook is favorable..."

I couldn't resist reproducing this 1927-1933 Pompous Prognosticators Hall of Fame

Someone should stand by to make a similar chart plotting, against actuals, today's confident statements that we should not worry about climate change, or peak oil, or peak protein....

Posted by John Thackara at 05:31 PM

September 10, 2008

Drops in the ocean - and in the sky


Steve Messem (who led our sustainable tourism design camp at Dott 07) writes with news that his next installation - Drop - takes up residence beside Crummock Water in the Lake Distrrict, UK. You'll find his 7 metre (20 foot) reflective raindrop near Haus Point between Buttermere village and Lorton from 7am tomorrow morning (11 Sept). It will stay there - or so Steve hopes - until the end of Saturday.

This the second amazing droplet I've heard about today. Just before Steve's email arrived, I was reading about "cloud albedo enhancement." This is the proposal, first made in 1990 by a scientist called John Latham, that controlled global cooling - sufficient to balance global warming resulting from increasing atmospheric CO 2 concentrations - might be achieved by seeding low-level, extensive maritime clouds with seawater particles. The sprayed seawater droplets, Latham proposes, would "act as condensation nuclei, thereby activating new droplets and increasing cloud albedo". Latham reckons that spraying clouds with seawater on a large scale could help hold the Earth’s temperature constant for many decades.

The scheme is ecologically benign – the only raw materials being wind and sea water - and "if unforeseen adverse effects occurred the system could be immediately switched off, with the forcing returning to normal within a few days". Latham acknowledges that "questions and concerns would need to be satisfactorily examined before any justification would exist for the operational deployment of the technique" - but I reckon he can speed up that process by going into partnership with Steve Messem. If Latham's planet-wide aerosol spraying looked as gorgeous as Steve's Drop, surely none of us would complain.

I'm not being unserious here. I learned about Latham's proposed feat of "geo-engineering" from a book called Kyoto2: How to Manage the Global Greenhouse by Oliver Tickell. Kyoto2 is basically the blueprint for a new global climate treaty. Based on the latest climate science (summarised clearly in the book) a replacement to the existing Kyoto protocol must achieve a level of atmospheric CO2 below 350 ppm. Otherwise stated: if we are to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent "dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system", the North will need to reduce its carbon impacts by 98 per cent.

Put baldly like that, most of us will feel like giving up on the whole enterprise. I know I do. The thing is, Kyoto2 describes a plausible path from here, to there in policy terms. What's missing is the aesthetic-cultural impetus that we'll also need to make that change happen at a political level.

That's where projects like Drop come in: 98 per cent less has got to feel like 98 per cent more.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:45 PM | Comments (1)

July 29, 2008

Be heard, call a fjell!


Is this the next-generation telephony solution I've been looking for as an alternative to physical travel? Its creators, Unsworn Industries (Magnus Torstensson and Erik Sandelin) have created a sublime piece of communications landscape art, or something along those lines. Saturday 2 August is the grand opening of Telemegaphone Dale, a seven-metres tall loudspeaker sculpture on top of the Bergskletten mountain overlooking the idyllic Dalsfjord in Western Norway. You'll be able to dial the Telemegaphone’s phone number and your voice will be projected out across the fjord, the valley and the village of Dale. Your call will go through directly, and a bright light at the top of the pole will be lit as your voice rings out across the valley. The phone number for Telemegaphone Dale will be published here during the opening on 2 August. (The installation will be open for calls day and night until 6 September 2008).
Hint: my birthday is on 6 August....

Posted by John Thackara at 11:19 AM | Comments (2)

July 28, 2008

Michel Waisvisz


Very sad news reaches us that Michel Waisvisz has died peacefully in his home after fighting the mean cells in his body for the last eight months. Michel was known around the world as a musician, visionary and the source of an enormous energy as Director of STEIM for 27 year; many readers of this blog will remember Michel's extraordinary presentation at Doors 6 on 'Lightness'. He was also the source of enormous behind-the-scenes support for our work. He will be remembered with respect and love by many many people.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:39 PM

April 24, 2008

Travel without moving: jacket from Djibouti please


Luca Pizzaroni has been working for three years on building a sculpture which is made of garment clothing from every country in the world. For the artist, this this is a "mind travel escape" - and I know we have visitors from most countries at this blog - so I'm happy to pass on the fact that the labels project still needs an item of clothing each from: Angola, Azerbaijan, Central African Republic, Djibouti , Eritrea, Gabon, Iraq, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Libya, Mauritania, Moldova, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Zambi.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:15 AM

May 06, 2007

Beauty, mortality, presence.


I don't know about you but I'm off mapping today (and hope to see many of you there ). While I'm away, here's another of the Belsay projects, this one by Francesca Steele. Her work engages with beauty, mortality, and presence.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:33 AM

May 05, 2007

Bluebells at Belsay


You missed a truly gorgeous day: The opening of Picture House at Belsay. Here is Dott's Beckie Darlington playing with the installation by UVA, which (the image) I borrowed from Pixelsumo (Chris O'Shea) who has posted a ton more on Flickr. Uber-blogger Regine Debatty was there, too, so you don't need any more from me. Regine's pix are here. The Picture House team worked three years to make the event happen and usually they'd now have to start work again on the laborious task of disseminating results. But in the age of Flickr, publishing the results of an event has become easy as..... this.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:27 AM

May 02, 2007

The point of it all


This is a big week for Dott. The Picture House exhibition at Belsay Hall Mansion opens with a Digital Dinner on Thursday. The exhibition features three projects curated for Dott by Juha Huuskonen / Pixelache: a new work from Golan Levin; Adam Somlai-Fischer & Bengt Sjölén; and UVA. Adam-Somlai Fischer and Bengt Sjölén have documented the making of their installation at Belsay, a kinetic reflection display system called Aleph. The name Aleph comes from a fictional point of singularity by Jorge Luis Borges, "a point in space" (explain the artists) "that contains all other points. Anyone who gazes into it can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping or confusion".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:54 AM

April 03, 2007

Digital dinner at Belsay

So you think you know what an English country house feels like? Well think again. Judith King for English Heritage and Dott 07 (with Juha Huuskonen) have invited experimental film directors, artists and designers to transform Belsay Hall in Northumberland with a series of cutting edge art and new media installations.The specially commissioned exhibition will feature fashion, sculpture, music, design, poetry and video filling Belsay's vast empty rooms, spare castle and Grade 1 listed gardens. On Thursday 03 May Dott's Explorers Club is organising a visit and dinner at the site for a maximum of 50 people. You need to book (and pay 16 euros) by Friday 20 April. It's first-come first served at this one-off event. contact: beckie.darlington@dott07.com

Posted by John Thackara at 07:08 PM

March 14, 2007

Comment unfree

In response to spam attacks we've had to turn off the comment function here. Apologies for that: If you've had a comment blocked, please send it to desk at doorsofperception dot com com and we'll post it manually.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:52 AM

December 04, 2006

Jeremijenko in Glasgow

A rare opportunity to meet Natalie Jeremijenko in Glsagow. Voted as one of the Top 100 young innovators by the MIT Technology Review, Natalie is a design engineer and techno-artist who creates large-scale participative experiments in public spaces. She produces multimedia installations that use robotics, genetic and digital engineering, electromechanics and interactive systems. Her work focuses on the design and analysis of tangible digital media to bridge the divide between the technical and art worlds. 11 January 2007, 11am-4pm, The Lighthouse, Glasgow. Cost: £40 + VAT includes lunch and all refreshments. Contact: Gillian@urbanlearningspace.com or telephone +44 141 225 0105.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:20 PM

December 01, 2006

Eeks a mouse!

The website of the conference in Boras now has videos of the speakers including Jeremy "hydrogen economy" Rifkin, Saffia "Free Trade" MInney, Oliviero "1,000 slides" Toscani, and John "oh no not a mouse!" Thackara. Back in Newcastle, we explored the relationship between design and sexual health.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:17 PM

October 23, 2006

Weakness in numbers?

Paul Hawken reckons that over 1 million organizations, populated by over 100 million people, are engaged in positive activity designed to address climate and other environmental issues. "Collectively this constitutes the single biggest movement on earth, but but it flies under the radar" he writes. Paul's new project, a book and tv project called Blessed Unrest , will reveal the depth and diversity of this worldwide ‘movement of movements’. For Hawken, "the power of this movement is that it is not directed". But therein, it seems to me, lies danger, too. It's proving hard to organise a decent database of all these enties - let alone for them to work easily together. Our experience in Designs of the time is that it takes an awful lot of time and energy to herd organisations together around a shared agenda. Some of our public commission projects involve ten, fifteen different partners - and that's just for a time-limited collaboration in a small European region. I have a strong feeling the dilemma of entropy will rise up the agenda in the coming period.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:51 AM

October 05, 2006

Designing Interactions

When we first did a Doors conference in 1993, the concept of interaction design was still in its infancy. Today, designers of digital technology products shape not just what the world looks like, but what it's like to use. In his eagerly awaited book Designing Interactions Bill Moggridge, designer of the first laptop computer (the GRiD Compass, 1981) and a founder of the design firm IDEO, tells us stories from an industry insider’s viewpoint. The book is based on interviews (there is also a DVD) with forty of the influential designers who shaped - and shape - our interactions with technology. Gillian Crampton Smith answers the question, “What is Interaction Design?" The original designers of The Mouse tell us why and how they did it. There are fascinating encounters with Brenda (Computers as Theatere) Laurel and Will (The Sims) Wright. Larry Page and Sergey Brin describe how they made the ultimate less-is-more interface for Google. Service designers Live|Work, Fran Samalionis, and Takeshi Natsuno describe how they derive useful purposes for all this tech. Hiroshi Ishii, Durrell Bishop, Joy Mountford and Bill Gaver describe their ongoing efforts to design multi-sensorial computing. Moggridge concludes by discussing "Alternative Nows" with Dunne and Raby, John Maeda and Jun Rekimoto. I count ten Doors alumni in the list, so don't expect this notice to be unbiased. Besides, Don Norman puts it best as usual: "This will be the book".

Posted by John Thackara at 09:19 AM

October 04, 2006

So now you know

Random.org run by Mads Haahr, offers true random numbers to anyone on the internet. Their most important use is the generation of cryptographic keys. For example, one Danish TV station runs an online backgammon server which generates more than 300,000 dice rolls per day. A dice roll is a random number between 1 and 6, so a Java program accesses Random.org's web interface. Another user is Ian Pitcher, from the American band Technician. He uses numbers from Random.org to generate unique covers for the band’s CDs. Ian says the numbers' origin as atmospheric noise is particularly appropriate because their music is "loosely inspired by the work of Konstantin Raudive ... [who] ... believed he had discovered a way to communicate with the dead by recording white noise on magnetic tape." Aaah: So now I know why my teenage daughter used the word “random” so often last year. (Thanks to John Chris Jones for alerting me to yet another sublime morcel).

Posted by John Thackara at 07:52 AM

August 30, 2006

New job title?

I was perplexed to find myself billed as a "designberater" at Monday's Rosenthal Design Convention in Frankfurt. Now in my dictionary, berate means "to rebuke or scold angrily and at length". That can't possibly mean me, I thought, self-righteously. It turns out that the German word berater means, more prosaically, advisor or consultant. Still, I can't help thinking that someone was trying to tell me something. And maybe they are right. I will only ever say sweet, short things about people from here on in. Hummmmmm.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:24 AM

August 11, 2006

Seven 9/11s a year in Europe

Apropos the security situation in London: "Loss of life might have surpassed the 2,700 killed in the attack on the twin towers in New York five years ago. "This was our 9/11," a British security source said.

It's a good thing that a lot of people were not blown up yesterday. Sadly, our security services were unable to prevent the deaths of 20,000 people last year on Europe's roads. That's seven 9/11s in a single year. As I wrote here yesterday the death toll from the Madrid bombings represented twelve days of death on Spanish roads.

Yesterday's plotters, say 'unnamed sources', planned to carry liquid explosives onto planes disguised as Coca Cola bottles. This danger, too, is not new. As I reported here a year ago, 67,000 people are injured each year, in the UK alone, trying to open a ring-pull can or peel the cellophane off a packet of sandwiches.

Quoting statistics may sound like a flippant response to a serious situation in which peoples lives are at stake. But what's the alternative? My proposal in Designers and the Age of Fear was that designers can use their communication skills to help people judge risk in a rational way.

I will publish here - and pass on to some newspaper friends - the best visualizations you can come up with to put different kinds of risk in perspective.

Meanwhile, one or two designers are doing well out of the fear business. Googling "design" and "homeland security" yielded 600,000 hits in August 2004. The score last year was 3,220,000. Its score today? 24,900,000.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:48 AM | Comments (1)

July 15, 2006

Sonic allotments

The avant garde of music and sound art is a good early indicator of social change; sound is a fluid and rapidly changing medium. That's why this year's Futuresonic looks well worth a visit. In three days of talks, demos and chat, an international crowd will explore how mobile, locative and mapping technologies, often created by independent developers working collaboratively with open source tools, are opening up new cultural possibilities. A project called Tactical Sound Garden, for example, enables people to cultivate "sound gardens" within cities that are inspired by traditions of urban community gardening. The project uses mobile audio devices like the iPod to explore gradations of privacy in public space. In a session on Radio Frequency Identification Tags (RFID), Rob van Kranenburg is on a panel that explores strange alliances between fundamentalist Christians and left leaning artist-activists. There's a session on how models of behaviour derived from games, anthropology, sensors and mobile devices, can feed back into the design of buildings - real and virtual. The programme also asserts that an activity called scrobbling is "the basis of everything we do". Futuresonic runs Thursday 20 July to Saturday 22 July, Manchester, UK.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:18 AM

June 14, 2006

"Carry the love"

Jet Blue's new credit card slogan wins my vote for the 2006 meaningless bollocks perpetrated by a creative agency award.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:44 PM

March 01, 2006

The first critic of "creative industries"

The Situationists were early critics of the creative industries. They rejected the idea that art is a specialized profession, or that its task is to produce spectacles for consumption. The only time their leaders came to London (in 1961), one of them, Guy Debord, was to speak at the Institute of Creative Arts - a place that is awash in creatives to this day. In the absence of a platform speech, an audience member stood up to ask: "What is Situationism about?". Upon which Debord replied: "We're not here to answer cuntish questions" - and the Situationists walked out. I love this childish story, but repeat it here by way of a public service announcement that a retrospective, in New York, of all of Debord’s six films is to take place on Sunday 5 March 5 at Chashama.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:00 AM

February 23, 2006

In search of fuzzy time

The Guardian is flogging an absurdly over-the-top watch on its website. Because the watch is radio-controlled, accuracy is guaranteed to "within one second in a million years". The watch also boasts five daily alarms, a 1/100 second stopwatch, and world time. The Guardian promises that "you should never be late for a meeting or over-run on your parking meter ever again". Wisely, the paper does not promise that you will stop being a sad person.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:53 AM

February 22, 2006

Out of order?

Many of you probably know about Michael Darnell's website Bad Designs - but it's always growing, and always worth a re-visit. If there are other bad design collections out there, please let us know: we want to organise a Worst Design In The World Oscars. Meanwhile, because this blog likes to bring good news and not just whinge constantly about the iniquity of material things, my partner Kristi came across a glorious German mail-order catalogue called Manufactum whose English edition is now online. Their motto: "the good things in life still exist".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:14 AM

January 22, 2006

Risk assessment as a design issue

I've been called priggish for insisting that some issues deserve more design attention than others. The trouble is that we are not good at judging risk - especially long-term ones - as a society, and when big issues get overlooked at the expense of insignificant ones, we end up mis-spending our creative energies. An example of skewed risk assessment from last week: British newspapers - and television followed meekly along - have been filled with terrifying stories about the danger to children of pedophile teachers in schools. Now I have a teenage daughter in an English school, and even one molestation of a child is a crime too many. But this lurid coverage is clearly motivated less by concern for child safety than by the urge to sell newspapers. Fact: according to government statistics, the number of cautions or convictions for sexual offences against children has been declining steadily in recent years - and of the sexual crimes against children that do take place, a third are carried out by adolescents, and 80 per cent take place in the child’s home, or in the home of the perpetrator. Now, compare the danger posed to children by "pedo teachers" to the fact that 4,863 children under 16 were killed or seriously injured in road accidents or as pedestrians last year. Do the papers denounce cars as a present threat to children? No, they don't: They run endless stories and ads promoting cars. And the number of children killed and maimed by cars is itself insignificant compared to the environmental degredation billions of children will inherit as a result of design actions taken by all of us today. I know, I know: I'm being moralistic again - and tedious bad-news eco-stories don't sell papers. But I don't have to like it.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:57 PM

January 16, 2006

BT's tinpot dictator

"Enjoy the future" raves British Telecom, in its Technology Timeline for 2006-2050. BT spoils the effect by warning of wildcards, that "may happen at any time", that include "international financial collapse" and "the possible rise of a machine dictator". I'm sanguine about the second of these problems: the rise of a cyber-Stalin will be welcome after the totalitarian regime of Wanadon't that persecutes us today.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:19 PM | Comments (1)

December 29, 2005

In praise of poetry

Thanks to Europe's most horrible company, Wanadon't, our internet connection has again been down for days. So we have had to access our email by telephone. Your warmly-meant illustrated seasons greetings have taken literally hours to download. Next year, maybe think about sending us a poem?

Posted by John Thackara at 01:23 PM

December 19, 2005

Shops as museums

A typically excellent piece by Karrie Jacobs in next month's Metropolis discusses "how hard it is to mount a really innovative contemporary industrial-design show these days. The problem--and it's not specific to MoMA--is that the products one can find on the shelves of almost any store are likely to be as varied, sophisticated, and inventive as the objects a museum can pull together".

Posted by John Thackara at 10:32 AM

December 14, 2005

Semiotic pollution

My attention was drawn by offbrand to an article by Owen Gibson in The Guardian entitled ‘Shoppers eye view of ads that pass us by’. Owen used a recently developed set of spectacles, connected to a video camera and recording device, to monitor the quantity of marketing messages to which the modern consumer is exposed. "To cut to the chase" says offbrand, "Owen saw 250 adverts during a 90 minute journey through central London - for more than 100 brands in over 70 different media - and this is before you factor in any spam texts or emails that might have fallen into his inbox during this period. And the number of adverts he could recall, unprompted? One". This is excellent ammo for my periodic rants about the semiotic pollution (a term coined by Ezio Manzini) perpetrated by the morons of adland. Until now, I've been quoting a rather old study by Absolut Vodka, in NYC, which discovered that Manhattanites are exposed to 250 messages in a morning.
What I also want to know is this: what are the physiological consequences of the large, high intensity LED screens of the kind that gave me a headache in Kings Cross Station in London this morning? I'm collecting evidence that push media in public spaces are bad for our bodies as well as what's left of our minds.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:55 AM | Comments (2)

December 10, 2005

Amazing minihompy moment

Now here's a tale to warm the heart. Mine, anyway. An email arrives from Emil Groh, in Seoul. Two nights ago Emil was on the subway there when a friend he was riding with took a book out of his bag and recommended Emil get it. It was "In The Bubble". Then, yesterday, another friend - unrelated to the first one - sent Emil the link to the story I wrote here about minihompies and Emil's work thereon. Amazing eh! Well, Emil and I think it is. "It's quite a different world here when it comes to people's relationship with communication tech. I love it!" Emil writes. And here, never before published anywhere in the world, is Emil's minihompy next to his real apartment.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:44 AM | Comments (1)

December 08, 2005

Creativity in business

Design policy is itself a globalising industry. I arrived back from Korea to be greeted by my copy of the Cox Review of Creativity in Business. This startling document has been eagerly awaited by the design industry. Many creatives in the UK (as in other industrialised countries) fondly believe that while manufacturing and call centres may emigate to cheaper countries, their brand of 'creativity’ is immune. They expected the Cox Review (it's written by Sir George Cox) to confirm this warm and cosy feeling. Instead, it will feel more like bucket of cold water. “The model of the UK becoming an all-service economy, the world’s leading repository of professional skills, is enormously appealing - and totally unrealistic” writes Cox. “The now rapidly advancing developing economies have no desire to remain as suppliers of cheap, low-skilled labour to the world. And indeed, why should they?”

As my own visit last week to South Korea confirmed, what’s impressive about emerging economies is not where they stand today, but the scale of their commitment to knowledge-intensive industries, including design, in the near future. The Cox Review is admirably global in its scope, but even he underestimates the speed with which things are changing. The report refers to “a window of opportunity – perhaps five or ten years – while the new economies develop the kinds of creative skills necessary to compete across the board”. I don’t think those years exist. Pretty much the same words greeted me when I joined the Hong Kong Design Task Force in 2001: we had "ten years to move the Hong Kong design industry up the value chain", we were told. A single visit to the Pearl River Delta, and an encounter with a room full of PhDs developing acoustic software for Bose, persuaded us that the gap in capability between Hong Kong and the mainland was was nearer two years, than ten.

The story in India today is similar. Cox states that GE has 1,000 scientists doing top level research in India. But my own understanding is that the number is already nearer 3,000. The site, which is always shrouded in construction equipment, has a capacity for many more again. I have a feeling that that GE would happily base all its 7,000 researchers in India were it not for fear of the political backlash in the US. As Cox rightly emphasizes, it’s not just about cost. Yes, an Indian PhD can be hired for 10 percent of the cost of an American or British one. But GE’s Indian PhDs, I was told, have also reduced innovation processes that took 24 steps in the US to seven steps in Bangalore. They are cheaper, and better.

But back to Britain. I was an early critic of the implication that only ‘creatives’ are creative, and the Cox Review wisely eschews that approach. Its subject is creativity and innovation among thousands of small and medium sized companies (SMEs) in all sectors of the economy, including public services. It’s also refreshing that Cox does not limit creativity to the production of new (and, for me, often pointless) novelty. On the contrary: He insists, on page one, that creativity includes new ways of looking at existing problems.

Having set out to discover what stops SMEs making greater use of the country’s creative talents, and what might be done about it, Cox arrives at a series of recommendations for action. These, for the most part, strike me as well-reasoned, innovative and relatively inexpensive. (I should declare an interest at this point: the Design Council, of which Sir George is Chairman, is a client of mine). Having evaluated no fewer than 70 existing initiatives which, one way or another, have the aim of linking creativity, design and business, he recommends that one of these, a Design Council programme called Design for Business, should be developed natonally. Around 6,500 SMEs could be reached over a three year period if the right resources were mobilised and focused. Based on early testing of the programmme, Design for Business would transform the performance and prospects of around 1,800 of these firms.

The Cox Review also emphasizes public sector procurement. British public services spend around £125 billion each year (getting on for 200 billion euros) on goods and services. For Cox, "all of the major problems facing society today – such as healthcare, education, security, transport infrastructure, or sustainability – require a high degree of innovation if they are to be addressed effectively". The public sector should be an intelligent and demanding buyer of goods and services, not simply looking for long-proven products and yesterday’s solutions at the lowest prices.

These are wise words, marred by the fact that this is one of the few places in the report where the word sustainability appears. This is a missed opportunity. Sustainability is the most important driver of innovation of all. SMEs represent over 99 percent of companies, and permeate supply chains: The fact that most SMEs are far less advanced than most multinationals in their environmental policies and practices is a fantastic opportuniuty for design-led innovation.

Cox also recommends that universities should develop multidisciplinary masters programmes that would bring together different elements of creativity, technology and business. He reminds Britain’s design schools that they face new competiton from programmes such as IDBM in Finland, or Stanford’s new D-School in the US. (The latter has been funded by a reported $25 million grant from SAP, the European software firm). Cox recommends that at least one of the new UK centres of excellence should embrace service design within its curriculum.

It looks as if most of Cox's recommendations will be implemented. According to the Design Council's website the UK's chancellor, Gordon Brown, has backed its key recommendations from the Cox Review, including a design support programme for businesses, a review of the tax credit system, and a network of design centres.

The Cox Review has one weakness, which is easily remedied. This is a proposal for no fewer than six showcase buildings in different parts of the UK that would “create greater visibility for the UK’s creative capabilities” and be a hub for creative industry gatherings.These shiny edifices would enable networking between them and regional SMEs, the report argues. Running costs for a London centre alone would be “around £4.6 million”, but the centres “should become largely self-sustaining” with income from letting, retail activities, grant, and sponsorship.

I don’t buy the value proposition, and am suspicious of the business model supplied to Cox by consultants. Cox is right that networking among SME’s, and with designers, can foster innovation – but you don’t need shiny and expensive buildings do it in. On the contrary: the most intense and creative encounters I experience usually occur in edgy, derelict, un-shiny old industrial buildings, or in tents, or in Starbucks. New institutions to foster networking are a good idea – but what’s needed are support and connecting organisations – and small ones at that - not great big edifices.

If if the prominence given to glossy photographs of the project is any guide, Cox's team was unduly impressed by Singapore’s £158 million Fusionopolis creative centre. Fusionopolis, which is due to open in June 2007, is a massive development - dedicated, says its brochure, to “fostering knowledge transfer and providing a vibrant work-live-work-play environment”. For me, at the end of the day, Fusionopolis is a government-subsidised real-estate project. Fusionopolis is the latest in a series of grandiose Singapore projects (others include Biopolis (biotech) and a Technopolis) that have been backed by billions of dollars of government money. They look futuristic, but these projects are based on an old-fashioned, technology-focused, and therefore unsustainable, understanding of innovation. Singapore bureaucrats are now promoting “Global Entrepolis”, the concept of Singapore as an entire city-state dedicated to, and filled with, high-tech entrepreneurs. This last brainwave, said one local critic, “confirms Singapore’s position as a ‘Polis State’ “.

Innovation needs to be situated in reality - not segregated from it. Projects like Fusionopolis (and New Songdo that I learned about in Korea last week) are gated communities for subsidised scientists. So much development money is sloshing around in them that their inmates are fated to become inward looking and self-referential. And that's when the innovation stops. Look what happened at Interval Research in the US: it burned through $100 million of Paul Allen’s money but, being isolated behind smoky mirrors up a Palo Alto hill, it so lacked interaction with the real world that it produced no innovations that the world wanted.

A simple win-win solution is available: Redirect the money earmarked in the Cox Review for showcase design buildings, to the greening of SMEs.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:58 AM | Comments (5)

November 18, 2005

Re-mix of Psycho

How's this for a sublime location? A media arts festival in Huddersfield next week called Ultrasound takes place at Bates Mill. No, not motel: it's a traditional nineteenth century industrial complex. The performances of electronic music, software production, new technologies, and audiovisual stuff, take place in the Blending Shed.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:08 AM | Comments (1)

Shamanistic flying rats join Bavarian Pigeon Corps

I've received the following invitation from Marcus Kirsch and Jussi Ängeslevä and other friends at V2 in Rotterdam. The text is so well-crafted, and the project is so insane, that I'm simply reproducing it here as is.
"The urban rock dove (columba livia) is part of every cityscape. More hated than loved due to malnourishment based on fast food left-overs, the "flying rat" is very likely here to stay in our urban scenario. The urban pigeon population can be seen as an indicator of the city's atmosphere. Bottomline is, just as every other behaviour pattern and network in the city, we are connected to it as we share the same space. In a mixture of revived shamanism and panoptic view that might challenge the artificial network of CCTV cameras, the pigeon population's unpredictable movement patterns offer a set of eyes that could offer a unique view onto unknown places. Based on the Bavarian Pigeon Corps from 1903, where homing pigeons were equipped with tiny cameras to take aerial shots from behind enemy lines, Urban Eyes uses RFID and wireless technology to turn the once able urban pigeon into a chaotic agent and messenger of visual impressions from the road you never took.Perceived as a critical design concept and public art installation, Urban Eyes accesses the live network of pigeons to expand what you know about your own city and reclaim the exploring stage of citylife. In 2004 the project proposal of Urban Eyes won 3rd prize at Fusedspace, an international competition for innovative applications for new technology in the public domain.On Thursday 24 November at V2_, media artists Marcus Kirsch and Jussi Ängeslevä will present Urban Eyes with an introduction to the project's origins and concept and the findings of Kirsch' research during his V2_residency. The presentation includes an example run of the prototype built in and with the help of the V2_Lab over the last two months as well as perspectives on Urban Eyes' future".

Posted by John Thackara at 08:50 AM

October 27, 2005

Decentralised power generation breakthrough

The nuclear lobby is trying to portray nuclear power as the inevitable solution to Britain's future power needs. But their campaign has been dealt a potentially lethal blow by a schoolboy called Peter Ash. The young inventor attached a generator to his hamster's exercise wheel and connected it to his phone charger - thereby meeeting the most important power need of a whole generation in an environmentally friendly way. Some sad adult examiners gave the teenage inventor a miserly C for this brilliant project when, by rights, he should be knighted for services to sustainability. (Thanks to Jennie Winhall for the lead).

Posted by John Thackara at 04:34 PM | Comments (3)

October 11, 2005

Doors backs another winner

The main prize of the UNESCO Digital Arts Award 2005 “City and Creative Media” goes to Indian artist Ashok Sukumaran, one of the featured presenters at Doors 8 in Delhi earlier this year. Sukamaran's “poetic yet pragmatic” project, Switch, was selected out of 242 project proposals by an international jury through an online selection process. The grand prize winner will receive 5000 US dollars and is invited to present his prize-winning project at the International Workshop on Urban Play and Locative Media (18-20 October 2005, Seoul, Republic of Korea), organized by Art Center Nabi , the co-organizers of this year’s edition of the Award.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:30 PM

October 07, 2005

Hypocritical, moi?

The latest edition of the Dutch architecture magazine Archis is on the theme "doing almost nothing". The new Archis (which is now published jointly with AMO, the research arm of Rem Koolhaas's design office) includes a diatribe against people who "travel to conferences around the world to talk about global warming, design and sustainability". I do not deny my own membership of this club - indeed, it cannot have many other members - so I take seriously a challenge by Archis to "ponder on the critical question: whether you are an environmentalist, an ecologist, or a hypocrite". It's a fair question: every time I fly, I contribute my share to the 600 million tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year by air travel. I started mentally to prepare an answer for my debate next week with Rem Koolhaas, Archis' main backer. But Koolhaas has just cancelled: he has to fly to China to attend to a Big Project. Don't cancel your trip to London: the debate goes ahead. We'll just have to discuss hypocrisy in design among ourselves. 14 October (14h-16h) Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (bookings.office@vam.ac.uk)

Posted by John Thackara at 06:02 PM | Comments (1)

September 13, 2005

Yell when you hear a whistle

I'm running a workshop at Experimenta in Lisbon this Friday on 'designers in the age of fear'. The design research economy is being massively distorted by our inability to make sound judgements about risk and priorities. For example, Googling "design" and "homeland security" today yields a score of 10,900,000. Enormous research resources have been flowing towards homeland security (HS) and its European equivalents since 9/11. Estimates are that total HS outlays—by federal, state, local, and private entities in the United States—grew from $5 billion in 2000 to $85 billion in 2004, with a forecast that they will grow to $130 billion—and possibly as high as $210 billion by 2010. Yes, three thousand people died horribly on 9/11 - but that same number perish every single day as a result of road traffic injuries - and if you Google "design" and "road traffic injuries" the score is a pitiful 12,600. And guess what: these massive HS outlays on design are often ineffective. For example, I learned today that safety symbols designed to instruct American citizens how to react if terrorists strike may confuse them. According to an article in Ergonomics in Design, the HS symbol meaning 'Use a whistle if one is available. Shout only as a last resort' was interpreted to mean, 'Yell when you hear a whistle.' Based on published safety standards, the journal authors conclude, up to 79 percent of HS safety symbols are 'unacceptable for communicating hazard-related information.' I suppose a few billion more will be now spent to fix that problem and then, when the next disaster strikes, millions of Americans will be instructed to....whistle. (I write about this topic at greater length in the November edition of Interactions).

Posted by John Thackara at 07:19 AM

August 25, 2005

Carbon neutral art

What would it mean to organise live art events that did not require large concrete museums or that people travel long distances to particpate? In early 1980s Moscow, private apartments were turned into collective immersive experiences during a project called APTART. I learned about APTART, (which someone should revive) thanks to the fascinating East Art Map. EAM documents previously overlooked moments in Eastern Europe contemporary art between 1945 and the present. An East Art Map Newsletter is supposed to have been published from October 2004, but I can't find it. Has anyone seen it?

Posted by John Thackara at 07:24 AM

August 03, 2005

What you don't know with a mobile phone

It was thanks to the new blog for Wikimania - the first international wikimedia conference which starts tomorrow in Frankfurt - that I learned about the latest exaggerated claim about contribution of mobile phones to knowledge.Cellphedia is billed as 'the 1st Ubiquitous Social Encyclopedia...(it) creates the ability to carry all the knowledge of the world in your pocket'. All? Or some? Or a tiny bit? I'd buy into Cellphedia like a shot if only the word 'written' were to be inserted before the word knowledge. A lot of what we know, we know by virtue of having bodies - and cellphone displays do not lend themselves to the transfer of that kind of knowledge. Some philosophers argue that the knowledge we take in by reading is about one millionth of the total quantity of sensations we experience through our bodies. It sounds to me as if Cellphedia's designer, Limor Garcia, would enjoy meeting with Paul Dourish: he wrote an excellent book about the design implications of the proposition that knowledge is embodied.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:50 AM

July 28, 2005

Now hearing at the Odeo

Creating and distributing podcasts doesn't sound easy. As a potential producer, I'm hesitating. But Evan Williams (who started Blogger and therefore, presumably, helped start blogging) has co-founded Odeo as a one-stop site where non-technical people like me can find and subscribe to podcasts, and create new podcasts of their own. It's still in beta, so now is a good time for you to check it out. Please let me know if it works for you. A background story is here in Business Week

Posted by John Thackara at 08:11 AM

July 23, 2005

Podcast heaven

It's so thrilling to be modern. My interview with Moira Gunn on the US radio show Tech Nation is now online and thereby downloadable as a podcast. The idea of podcasting Doors-type conversations is attractive, and I'd be interested to hear your response to the idea. (The complete Tech Nation archives are online if you need a wider sample). Gunn's show was not a low-tech business. My interview took place in a professional recording studio (rented from a Seattle broadcasting company) complete with sound-proofing, expensive-looking microphones and equipment, and at least one professional sound engineer.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:29 AM | Comments (1)

July 22, 2005

Vital signs

Half of all the energy consumed by human beings is used in or by buildings - but for the most part invisibly. Worldchanging has profiled a neat monitoring system by David Vogt at Kondra Systems that sets out to answer the questions: ‘how much power does that microwave take to pop that bag of popcorn? What about your toaster or coffee maker? How much power does that 'energy efficient' refrigerator actually use? And does it really make a difference if you turn all those lights off all the time?’ Vogt's project answers these questions elegantly - only to raise a new one: having made the invisible visible, how might the users of buildings respond meaningfully to the information it reveals? I recently abandoned a half-finished book about knowledge maps because of this dilemma. I discovered that thousands of affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times including many to do with buildings. Physicists have illustrated quarks. Biologists have mapped the genome. Doctors have found ways to represent immune systems in the body. Network designers have mapped communication flows in buildings. Managers have charted the locations of expertise in their organizations. Our world is filling up fast with representations of invisible or complex phenomena. But most of them are made and used by specialists as objects of research. The design challenge is not just how to design them, but also how to deploy these representations in such a way that they change behaviour. A brilliant book by Luis Fernández-Galiano called Fire and Memory: On Architecture and Energy puts this second challenge into historical context: visualizations of complex phenomena can attract attention—but the development of a shared vision of where we want to be is the harder part. (My book on knowledge maps morphed into a chapter on systems literacy in my new book. An extract is online).

Posted by John Thackara at 07:38 AM

July 13, 2005

Watching the watchers

“The anthropologist starts by observing everyday life, with all its odd little patterns, and tries to work out how computers might fit into that”. (That was Gillian Tett in the FT). It sounds innocuous if you believe the insertion of computing into a daily life activity to be an ethically neutral act - but is it? In one of the livelier debates at Doors 8 in Delhi, some people found innovation enabled by anthropology to be neutral, others did not. I later ranted about amoral practices in adland. An opportunity to continue this debate is the first Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) which takes place in Redmond (hosted by Microsoft Research) in November. (The deadline for papers is 17 June, so don't delay if you want to contribute). The Epic website states that the conference will "promote the use of ethnographic investigations...in corporate settings" - and I found a picture of anthropology students at work in a particularly grim corporate setting in this paper. But the experience of our colleagues in South Asia at the Centre for Knowledge Societies (CKS) seems to be different. Their business clients usually ask them to look at 'ordinary' people on the street, or at home - not, per se, in offices.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:13 PM

July 11, 2005

Designers on the breadline

I like to keep track of the total I get when Googling "design" + "homeland security". The number six months ago was 1,310,000. Today, the score stands at 3,090,000. By a complete coincidence, the budget for Homeland Security rose to $41 billion by the end of 2004. Commenting on this paltry amount of money, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox said that the budget "represents good progress," but leaves some efforts "badly underfunded." Too true. After all, designers have to eat, right? If you're hungry, too, check out this list of design appetisers. Opportunities await sociologists,too.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:19 PM

June 21, 2005

On the map, off the wall

Is this happening a lot? I've been sent a map,"The Creative Map of Arnhem and Gelderland". (It's a pleasant area in the west of the Netherlands). The map plots the street address of every member of the creative class. It informs me that a fine artist named Stolker lives in Koningstraat, as does a graphic designer named Beltman; he (or she) lives just round the corner from a dancer named De Zeeuw. And so on; the map includes 4,386 names. The map is not the work of a lone crank; it is well-executed, and has been sponsored by the chamber of commerce, several local art schools, and by two national design organisations. Its blurb says the map aims to improve the visibility and accessibility of the creative sector - although to judge by the density of names they (it) are pretty hard to miss. If you think that I am whingeing endlessly, then do say so. Perhaps these mapping exercises are a modern form of trainspotting: pointless, but harmless. If that's your opinion, you'll probably enjoy the the map's festive opening party on Saturday. Curiously, I have not been invited.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:21 AM

Silent sneeze

I like the sound of the Romanian pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. The artist Daniel Knorr is responsible for an installation called European Influenza: the Pavilion is left empty, with only the traces of past exhibitions remaining. Sadly, not all critics have taken the hint: one burbles that Knorr's piece is about "the process of European acculturation ...the question is how new cultures of assimilation, liberated identities, and options for action can emerge in the prospect of Europe’s future self-definitions." And so on. One probably should not mock: Knorr specialises in invisible artworks that exist only as oral information and narration. Besides, art critics in Venice have huge expenses to justify to their editors; writing nothing is not an easy option.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:37 AM

June 08, 2005

Ethnography and service design (cont.)

Understanding context - especially if the context is New York City - is easier said than done.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:40 AM

May 21, 2005

How design evolves

Every year the Institute For The Future publishes a map of the decade (ahead). The 2005 version is not yet online, but I was delighted to learn, during my visit to Palo Alto this week, that Jason Tester, an alumnus of Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, is helping IFTF enhance its maps by the development of 'artefacts from the future'. At Ivrea, the design of enticing representations of imagined futures was regarded as a core process, and a technique was introduced there by the English service designers Live|Work. Live|Work called their technique evidencing. One of the roots of evidencing, in turn, was the development by Tony Dunne and Bill Gaver of "cultural probes" at the Royal College of Art during the late 1990s (where the Live|Work guys studied interaction design). I don't suggest that a linear history is playing out here - but every now and again in the chaotic blizzard of life one briefly glimpses tracks in the snow.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:38 PM | Comments (2)

May 15, 2005

Vote for Reverend Billy

The most entertaining challenger to Michael Bloomberg for Mayor of New York is the Reverend Billy , leader of the The Church of Stop Shopping. The Reverend has announced plans to conduct his entire campaign on premises of the Starbucks Corporation; he will offer 258 sermons in 258 locations in the five boroughs of the city. Reverend Billy is banned from Starbucks world-wide, possibly because he describes the firm as a "community-destroyer". Or maybe it's because he is often accompanied at Starbucks by a 40-strong gospel choir that sings "Put That Latte Down".

Posted by John Thackara at 05:19 PM

May 11, 2005

Collective intelligence

The notion of collective intelligence, a term coined by the French philosopher Pierre Levy, continues to engage original thinkers. In France, Jean-François Noubel has published a paper called Collective Intelligence: The Invisible Revolution . And Michel BauwensI has sent me the draft of an essay on Peer to peer as the premise of a new mode of civilization . I'm on the road right now so act only, on this occasion, as a signpost.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:56 PM | Comments (1)

May 09, 2005

Hermetically hived-off homes

A group of artists in California called Heavy Trash has launched a guerrilla war against gated communities, the self-contained housing estates that are walled off from the outside world but ring more and more American cities. In a stealth operation, carried out at dawn, a group of 20 architects, designers and urban planners deposited 12ft bright orange viewing platforms at the gates of three of Los Angeles's most exclusive developments. Heavy Trash says that gated communities are the fastest growing type of housing development in the United States: more than eight million Americans now live in hermetically hived-off homes. The impact on the public domain is generally malign, of course - but remember this: the gates which keep us out also keep them, in.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:33 PM | Comments (1)

April 10, 2005

Gates memory project

Bob Stein writes to inform me of a fascinating experiment in creating a collective memory of an ephemeral event - albeit one which promises to be the most photographed art work ever. Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Gates project in Central Park was dismantled after a brief run of just sixteen days. "But during that time, millions of people experienced them, spending hours upon hours out of doors during the dark, frozen, improbable month of February. In the first four days alone, more than one million visitors passed underneath the billowing orange banners that wound like a ribbon through the park. Trips were planned, picnics were arranged, parties were thrown, days were unexpectedly re-routed. The Gates were as much an event, a happening, as they were a work of art". Now that the Gates are gone, says Stein, we begin the process of remembering them. "But it is not just the objects themselves that we recall. It is what happened while they were here: the conversations, the crowds, the impromptu visits, the unexpected snow, the long ambling walks, and the various artifacts - photographs, sketches, films, swatches of fabric - that were amassed. Memories often begin with an image, and the Gates project is almost certainly among the most photographed works of art in history. So it is with images that the Gates Memory Project will begin". It's a project of Flickr and the Institute for the Future of the Book.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:16 AM

March 31, 2005

Re-mix as a design process

A personal "Aha!" moment in Delhi was the realisation that re-mix is not just about new music and vj-ing. Re:mix also signals a broader cultural shift away from the narcissistic obsession with individual authorship that have rendered everything from art to management so tiresome in recent times. (In architecture circles the concept of "recombinant design" has been doing the rounds, but re-mix is a much better word). Our visiting re-mixer at Doors 8, the modest but amazing Juhuu (Juha Huuskonen), ran a fantastic workshop on VJing in Delhi; he is also behind an event in Helsinki (14-17 April) called PixelACHE which is about this broader cultural shift. "Dot Org Boom (as the event is called) is the non-profit version of the Dot Com Boom (RIP) says the site. "The essential ingredients of this rapidly growing phenomenon are open source community, open content initiatives, media activist networks, and myriad NGOs around the world. PixelACHE Festival will bring together a diverse group of artists, engineers, activists, architects and designers to discuss and develop the future of Dot Org Boom". The four programme strands are: VJ Culture and Audiovisual Performances; Experimental Interaction and Electronics; Interactive & Participatory Cinema; and a Particle/Wave Hybrid Radio Workshop. The media art collective Juhu works with, katastro, has also helped produce a book called Demoscene: the art of real time which looks very interesting and yes I would like a copy.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:12 AM

March 29, 2005

Acoustic interlude

Ten days offline, but not in silence. From my New Delhi lodging house in Defence Colony I heard no airconditioning roar or traffic. What I did hear was: Pigeons fidgeting in the metal box above my window that used to contain the airconditioning unit. The long moans of freight train horns as they slowly cross the city. Dogs fighting. Monkeys monkeying. Birds, I think cranes, that miaaow like cats while swooping overhead. Countless insects that shout loudly at each other. People sweeping leaves off their drive. Other people saying “ssshhhh” in an effort to persuade cows to move out of the way. Sometimes they do. There are also the cries of street traders on a variety of bikes: the man with eggs; the man with the pink and red fruit; the knife sharpener man; the man with brightly coloured brushes and feather dusters who looks like a huge electrocuted parrot as he moves with his wares up the street. Later I hear there is a mattress rumpling man, but I had no need of his services.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:02 AM

March 02, 2005

Have we unleashed a monster?

A full-page story in yesterday’s Financial Times (March 1, page 9) waxes lyrical about ‘reality tv for the boardroom’ – and goes on to describe the use of video footage to ‘reduce the growing distance between the corporate elite and consumers’. Executives in multinational companies, understates the FT, ‘often find themselves doing business in places they know little about’ (but) ‘corporate reality tv enables highly paid executives to cross the class divide and get a glimpse into the lives of regular people – that is, their consumers’. In one example cited, Singapore-based Ogilvy RedCard videos ‘the secret lives of consumers’ – for example, by following young Japanese women into bathrooms at discos, where they are seen to reapply makeup a lot. ‘Video research has struck a particular chord with executives at pharma companies’ the story concludes; ‘they are intrigued with witnessing suffering’.The thought of corporate leaders ‘crossing the class divide’ by watching videos of sick people in distant lands is not a pleasant one – but do we share some responsibiity for this grotesque outcome? At Doors events over recent years, we’ve showcased what designers call ‘video ethnography’ as a promising but uncontroversial tool for interaction designers. Indeed, we’re running a workshop on the subject in Delhi as part of Doors 8. The FT story is a wake-up call: video ethnography is not a neutral activity: we must be much more critical about the way it’s used, and by whom.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:40 PM

February 20, 2005

New media art at Doors 8

Bangalore Badarpur Border, curated by Pooja Sood at the Apeejay Media Gallery, explores the myths, landscape and imagery of Bombay. It features the work of Shaina Anand, (from Mumbai, trained in film in New York);Ashok Sukumaran (from Simla, trained in architecture in Delhi, and in Media Art in Los Angeles); Mukul Patel, sound artist and dj from London, and cofounder ofAmbienttv.net.. Then on the Wednesday (23 March) Mukul Patel curates the sound, Juha Huuskonen (aka Juhuu) from Helsinki, media theorist master vj, curates the light. Other Indian and international artists will participate. If you are not already raving after all the content of the previous days, you will, here.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:04 AM

February 13, 2005

Little Boy: look at me!

I like to keep track of a possibly meaningless statistic: Googling 'design' + 'homeland security'. Today's total, at 1,310,000, is up 20,000 on a month ago. But I have a feeling the the security-through-fear bubble may be deflating. One sign that people may not be as scared as the industry would like: Jason Coster-Mullen drove a 600-pound, shiny steel replica of "Little Boy," the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, 800 miles across the United States in the back of his car and no one stopped or questioned him.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:44 PM

December 21, 2004


The threatened flood of post-election refugees from the US to Europe did not materialise - but many of our US friends do still sound nervous. So we found the perfect Christmas gift: a high-level security system designed for maximum protection in various hostile environments. "With this unit you don't have to run to a Safe Room, you're already in it" promises the blurb.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:12 PM

December 10, 2004

Do surveys make you blind?

The world is awash in reports, from think tanks and research companies, telling us what the next social or tech trend is going to be. Europe's research policy makers had a good idea: aggregate the best of these, and see what picture emerges. They created the Fistera network to bring together national foresight exercises on information society issues in the Enlarged Europe. Fistera recently asked 505 experts to prioritise research issues for 2010. The resulting report contains dozens of bar charts but, at the end of the day, it's like reading 50 blogs that all link to each other: the gamekeeper/fox conclusion that emerged was that the number one priority is "establishing more user-friendly systems". It's a great business model: first, you fill the world full of clunky systems that don't work properly, and stress out the citizenry - then you demand a ton of money to make them "usable".

Posted by John Thackara at 06:28 PM

What don't I get?

I found some amazing new numbers in a 2004 survey of attitudes to consumption in the United States. More than eight out of ten Americans believe that society's priorities are "out of whack" and 93 percent agree that Americans are too focused on working and making money and not enough on family and community. More than 8 in 10 say they would be more satisfied with life if they just had less stress. 40 percent of Americans have made conscious decisions to buy less. since 9/11. 95 percent agree that today's youth are too focused on buying and consuming. 83 percent agree that the way we live consumes too many resources. 81 percent agree that protecting the environment will require most of us to make major changes in the way we live. 71 percent of respondents say that our dependence on oil leads to conflicts and wars with other countries. And so on and so on. So what I don't get is this: why are the markets not nosediving?

Posted by John Thackara at 06:03 PM

December 09, 2004

Market density

The picture shows the number of fairs and markets per year, in 1732, in the Occitania region in the south of France (where I live). The small blobs denote three fairs per year, the biggest one, 13. I've decided to perceive the picture as a visualization of two things: street life intensity, and infrastructure for small-area food distribution. Please send me your nominations for social infrastructure graphic of the year (which we'll show in Delhi).
Source: Pierre-Albert Clement. 'Foires et Marches d'Occitanie.: de l'antiquite a l'an 2000'. Montpellier, Les Presses du Languedoc, 1999.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:47 AM

November 08, 2004

Crash test dummies

For many veterans of early Doors of Perception conferences, Rick Prelinger's talks were a highlight. Illustrated by American movie and advertising ephemera, Rick's presentations featured American children, animals, farmers, industrial workers, superheroes, pioneers heading West, crash test dummies, and many others. Now Rick works at the Internet Archive and has made a

Posted by John Thackara at 02:58 PM

November 06, 2004

Message in a bottle

It's been a tough week. There's a lot of anguish about. Do something small, like

Posted by John Thackara at 09:46 AM

October 31, 2004

Flying Blind With Unisys

Last week I commented on the puerile computer game imagery being used in corporate advertising by firms like BT. Its now Unisys' turn to insult our intelligence with its "3D Visible Enterprise" campaign. Every sentence is sententious. "It’s more predictable because it’s visible". "Imagine any change, and know how it will affect every layer and process of your organization". "You can see cause-effect relationships that were hidden". "A highly predictive tool that allows you to see the results of your decisions before you make them". This laughable guff flies in the face of 2,000 years of philosophical enquiry - not to mention more recent insights into the hard-to-preduct behaviour of complex systems. Dear Unisys: cancel this absurd campaign and give Doors of perception ten percent of the un-spent budget: it will save you from ridicule, and make you a smarter company.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:06 PM

October 29, 2004

Miffed Missive From Massive

Bruce Mau has written to say he is "surprised" by the tone and content of my email newsletter piece last week about his new exhibiton, Massive Change.

What I said originally was:
"We will build a global mind. We will design evolution. We will eradicate poverty". No ifs and no buts are discernable in Bruce Mau's new exhibition, Massive Change, which has opened in Vancouver. The website boasts that "few things remain beyond the reach of our fantastically augmented vision" - but it's nonetheless hard to see from a distance whether such proclamations are meant ironically. The masculine, can-do, rhetorical style of Massive Change seems on first encounter to be a conversation stopper rather than starter. That said, the book promises a "cautious look at our limitations" as well. To January 3 2005, Vancouver Art Gallery. http://massivechange.com/

I did not mean to sound cynical - and if that's what came across, I regret that. I spend much of my time telling non-design people that, although many of our problems are the result of poor design decisions, designers, as a group, should not be blamed. But a real backlash is brewing against the perceived notion that designers are arrogant and pay far too little attention to the possible downsides of their actions. Harry Kunzru's new book Transmission, for example, (it's about Bollywood movies and computer viruses) includes a pretty sharp attack on "Design". Design is bound to get hammered by a NoLogo type of book in the near future.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:21 PM | Comments (1)

October 16, 2004

Care and time

Britain's National Health Service has identified five "key dimensions of patient experience" - and time and speed issues dominate. The top two issues are first, waiting times for appointments, and access to services; and second, time given to discuss health/medical problems face-to-face with health care professionals. A third priority, "safe, high quality, co-ordinated care", included a need for out of hours calls as a major determinant of satisfaction. Read the whole story:

Posted by John Thackara at 02:16 PM

October 05, 2004


Has anyone else noticed how the tv ads of tech companies are becoming indistinguishable from computer games? IBM, British Telecom and Hewlett Packard have all released TV commercials and print ads that feature young professionals floating, gravity-free, in abstract urban spaces. High altitude, low-bandwidth thinking in action.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:21 PM

June 17, 2003

Pros and cons of Dutch design

I was asked by the main Japanese design magazine, Axis, to write an 'afterword' for their special issue on Dutch design. I took the opportunity to reflect on trends in design policy in other countries.

Dutch design has enjoyed tremendous international success and prestige in recent years. Can it last?

One reason ifor its recent success is that The Netherlands is possibly the most intelligent market for design in the world. Sophisticated public and private sector clients know how to commission and manage design. And most cities and government agencies have procurement policies that enable projects to be awarded to the best design, not just to the cheapest proposal.

But profound changes, now happening in the world at large, raise an important question about the ability of Dutch design to respond to new challenges.

We are in the middle of a transition to an economy in which services are more significant than stand-alone products. Can thing-based designers, or for that matter architects, make this transition too - or are they doomed to be left behind?

In reflecting on these questions for design in The Netherlands, I draw positive - but also some negative - conclusions.

Dutch people take it for granted that they will redesign the landscape - and even nature itself. The whole country is a never-ending design project. Continuous and heavy investment in transport and logistics infrastructures has been part of an economic strategy nicknamed 'Holland Main Port'.

The big idea of the last 10 or 15 years was to make the entire country a transport and logistics hub for Europe. At Schiphol alone, tens of thousands of square metres of new buildings were developed to support the booming air-freight business.

But Schiphol is only one element of a bigger transformation. All over the country, enormous warehouses and freight interchanges have been built at the intersection between rail, road and water routes. The result: one of the busiest and most integrated - but also most congested - multi-modal transport networks in the world.

This enormous investment programme is a break with the country's cultural heritage as a trading nation that travels light.

This break with the country's mercantile tradition is not easy to reconcile with the promotion of a knowledge-based economy fuelled by higher levels of investment in software than in hardware.

The 'mainport Holland' strategy is controversial with environmentalists, too, who argue that the ecological impact of high-density and high-value mobility (such as air freight) is nearly always damaging.

Many architects and designers have benefited from these massive investments in buildings and infrastructure. But they, along with government policy makers, now have to change direction.

The Dutch are globally renowned experts in the development of physical infrastructure - from dykes to airports - but the challenge now is to design ‘knowledge infrastructure’ - and that won't be easy.

New times, new design policy

Around the world, new ways to think about, and do design are emerging.

Therere is growing poressure to understand natural, industrial and cultural systems - and the interactions between them - as the context for innovation. Clientrs – and regulators –are steadily forcing innovators to consider the sustainability of material and energy flows in all the product-service systems we design.

Tomorrow’s solutions will not be based on products on their own, in the old sense, but by product-service systems.

An example would be a car-sharing scheme, such as the Green Wheels service, that I use in Amsterdam. I do not own a car, but I subscribe to a mobility and car sharing service. When I need to use a vehicle, I locate one via a website and pay by the hour.

The design, integration, and operation of such product-service systems is where the greatest value will be created in the future. If a country does not make product-service systems the focus of its design policy, it runs the risk of falling behind.

Holland is well-placed to play a leading role in the development of product-service systems.

The situation in new media also remains positive.When CNN described Amsterdam as as ‘Europe's Cyber City’ during the mid-1990s, it was in response to the fact that many global players were making Amsterdam their European centre of operations. This was in part because of a lively multi-media and internet design scene. Despite the dot.com meltdown, the Amsterdam New Media Association has many hundreds of active members.

Dutch artistic and cultural practice is, by its very nature, diverse, independent, and interdisciplinary. Doors of Perception, for example, is a member of the so-called ‘Virtual Platform’ of organisations busy with design and artistic research in new media. Our fellow-members include a media arts lab, V2, which produces the Dutch Electronic Art Festival; Steim, a celebrated music and acoustics research lab; Montevideo, an archive and production centre for video art; deBalie, a centre for debate and discussion in the centre of Amsterdam; The Waag Society For Old and New Media; Paradiso, a famous rock-and-roll venue that also stages new media programmes; and so on.

None of the member organizations of the Virtual Platform has more than 10 or 12 staff, but we collaborate with each other on a regular basis. Later this year, for example, (October 2003), we will jointly organise the E-Culture Fair - a two-day ‘bazaar’ of experimental new media art and design projects.

Design research in Hollland is often initiated by small but collaborative groups. Eternally Yours, a Dutch foundation, is organising Time in Design, a round-the-clock, 24-hour event in October, to look at a crucial question: if the throw-away society is over, how do we design for longevity in products and services?

Important design innovation also takes place in the big universities. In the environmental domain, for example, Kathalys is a Centre for Sustainable Product Innovation run by TNO and Delft University of Technology. For more than ten years, Kathalys has led the way internationally in initiating and realising sustainable product innovations.

The need for institutional innovation

These positve developments - Kathalys, VIrtual Platform, and so on - exist on the edge of mainstream Dutch design. Edges are Dutch design's strong point.

But, as an institution, Dutch design - in common with many professions - has been slow to learn and adapt in a fast-changing world. I

Its schools and universities, its professional associations, and its specialist media, are still struggling to escape from an essentially nineteenth century understanding of design practice.

A persistent focus on what things look like in design academies is exacerbated by structural divisions between design disciplines - and between those disciplies, and other branches of knowledge.

Connectivity between people and ideas is further hindered by the turf-protecting way professional organizations, and design businesses, are organized. The result is that many designers lack the expertise to tackle the complex and multi-dimensional social questions that confront us.

The Netherlands’ Design Institute (1993-1999) was an impoitant attempt to promote institutional innovation in design. Its aim was to help the design profession evolve from a closed and inward-looking system, into an innovation support system within interlocking networks of people, companies and educational entities.

Sadly, the Design Institute closed at the end of 1999 following the arrival of a new chairman. But Doors of Perception emerged undamaged as an independent organization, and through Doors the spirit of innovation, and the international networks, created by the Design Institute have survived and continue to grow .

Also a new organization, the Premsela Foundation, has been set up as a platform for Dutch design policy on a national basis.

Some other aspects of the design situation in The Netherlands are not so rosy. The country's economic situation, for example, is weak today after a decade of seemingly effortless growth.

Government budgets are under severe pressure, and it inconceivable that more money will be made available for culture or research for the next few years at least.

Another problem is that Dutch professional design associations, although well-organised, remain conservative in their thinking and actions. Far more attention and investment is given to old-fashioned design prizes, for example, than to the renewal of design knowledge.

At a government level, too, there are worrying signs that some officials in the Ministry of Economic Affairs want to copy the UK and promote a ‘creative industries’ policy that will include design. This writer is resolutely opposed to the idea that design and advertising are ‘creative’ whereas all other industries, by implication, are not.

In other countries than Holland, more innovative design policy is emerging.

Sweden, for example, is way ahead of The Netherlands in the extent to which different ministries collaborate. A group of Swedish ministries recently allocated two million euros for the development of a new design policy that focuses on new concepts for care. In Holland, despite years of effort, different ministries hardly talk to each other about design policy.
"Sweden is finally about to approach a point where we can leave behind egocentric design," says Ulf Mannervik, an author of the new policy

Korea is also ahead of Holland in design policy. Korea's “Industrial Design Fundamental Project” of recent years supports systematic research, and enables 95,000 design students for a population of 45m - a high percentage by any standards.

The llevel of design research in Korea is aalso high. Korea has far more postgraduate design programmes – 66 - than The Netherlands. Samsung, alone, is hiring 100 interaction designers - a huge number.

The British Design Council has also developed innovative design policies in recent years. It proactively makes design proposals for unexpected domains, such as places of learning, or prisons. The Design Council has also developed innovation process tools that help high-tech companies turn technological inventions into profitable products.

Perhaps the most innovative design policy comes not from national governments but from the European Commission.The Intelligent Information Interfaces programme (:i3”) of 1999-2001 was more advanced - in terms both of content, and of project form - than anything supported by constituent EU members.

i3 - and its successor programme, The Disappearing Computer - delivered scenarios for people-centered services, enabled by interactive systems, that are rooted in European culture and tradition.

The EU has now launched a new network of excellence called Convivio. This European network of excellence for social computing gathers together research institutions and universities, of which Doors of Percepion is a member; we are responsible for vision building concerning the design of services to meet everyday life-needs in new ways.

Can Dutch design and architecture stay on top? The glory days of the 1990s are probably over – if only because spending in the coming years will be so much lower. Dutch design will prosper if now takes a “breather” to refresh its thinking and institutions. If it does not do that, the way ahead will be downhill.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:58 PM

January 22, 2001

The new medicis

Those were the days. This text, which was written for Japan’s Hakuhodo advertising agency, is a reflection on the changing nature of sponsorship. At the time (1990) I was convinced I had invented a killer business concept - ‘cultural engineering’. Unfortunately, when Japan’s bubble economy abruptly collapsed in 1992, so, too, did my concept: it turned out that the ‘cultural imperative’ lauded in my text was not an imperative after all - it was an easily dispensed-with luxury. Japanese companies cancelled all such activities (which included 70 per cent of my then company, Design Analysis) in a matter of weeks when the economy went bad.

1 The cultural imperative

Passive, hands-off patronage of the arts is a modern invention. And a short-lived one, if you believe the signs. Profound changes to the nature of modern business - some of them dating back 40 years, some unfolding within the last five - have created a 'cultural imperative' for advanced organisations. For them, culture can so dramatically enrich business performance that cultural policy is moving to the centre stage in discussions of strategy; it is no longer segregated from other marketing or communications tactics.

It is a dramatic change. After all, the notion that 'culture' should operate in a privileged, protected realm, free from interference by state or business, is deeply rooted in 20th century industrial culture. A few years ago, imagine the outrage if John D Rockerfeller had commanded Jean Dubuffet to paint 'The Glorification of Standard Oil': such things simply are not done by modern patrons who claim to be motivated by notions of disinterested civic duty and public service. All mention of marketing, or corporate identity, is rigorously excluded from the traditional scenario.

But things were not always so clear-cut as the American critic Joseph Alsop recalls: "During the 17th century Cardinal Barberini, whose uncle was Pope Urban VIII, commissioned Pietro de Cortona to paint the ceiling of his new palazzo - a space the size of an (American) football field - with a vast narrative glorifying...Pope Urban VIII! 'Cortona did not flinch, nor hanker to paint something more relevant; instead, he cheerfully produced one of the most marvellous works of decorative art of the seventeenth century'. From the first Babylonian, Chinese, Greek and Roman civilisations, through to the Middle Ages and the industrial revolution, bankers, politicians and potentates have employed culture overtly as a weapon of policy: the arts were always involved intimately in the articulation and exercise of power.

It is in this context that the time has come to look critically at the contemporary myth of 'passive' patronage. We would argue that it is only with the modern concept of 'artistic license', and the growth of a market which derives value from the idea of artistic autonomy, that art entered its privileged realm, supposedly protected from the venal ambitions of the less enlightened patrons in earlier historical periods.

Various factors sustained the myth of passive patronage for much of the twentieth century: the decline of religion; the rise of the merchant classes; changes in the techniques and tools of artistic production; new patterns of consumption; the emergence of a museum culture; the rise of the curator, the dealer and the critic. Above all, the art marketing system has moved from the margins to the centre of society, and has successfully given artefacts the status of financial instruments, like banknotes, or gold bars. Critics have already noted that this superheated financial context questions the freedom of the artist: what price artistic autonomy when paintings sell for $40 million?

This much, many have observed already; the past 30 years have been punctuated by a number of important critiques of the 'art system.' Today, however, things are changing once again. Profound changes to the nature of competition in world markets, combined with the steady 'dematerialisation' of business, is changing, fundamentally, the relationship between patrons and artistic production. Cultural patronage has become a powerful weapon in competition between firms, cities, even states - and it is this business imperative, rather than the brickbats of critics, that, in our judgement, will destroy the myth of passive patronage.

Culture and commerce have been on convergent paths throughout the past 40 years, as a change in emphasis occured in the advanced economies - from production to information.

During the 1950s and 1960s, advertising emerged as a potent means of modifying consumer behaviour. With the growing sophistication of mass production systems, differences between products of functional performance diminished; even as cars, appliances, even washing powders became more technically sophisticated, the emphasis in marketing on their function decreased. In this sense, it was advertising that began the so-called 'softening' of the Western economies, as companies realised that managing perception, not just improved product performance, was the key to competitive success.

Then, during the 1970s, the development of marketing provided business with new tools - research and statistical skills by which it could analyse the composition and behaviour of consumer groups in ever greater detail, and with more subtlety. Marketing soon altered the parameters of discussions about business strategy: the convergence of information about the profile of consumer markets, with the growing flexibility and responsiveness of production, and the new tools of global communications, rapidly increased the 'dematerialization' of business. With marketing, information - in the form of data about consumers, or programmed production, or communications - became more important than matter.

After advertising and marketing, a third transformation occurred in business during the 1980s when design - which had, until then, been a specialised, technical activity, moved to centre stage as the new agent of perception management. In particular, one offshoot of old-style design, corporate identity, boomed: by 1990, it had become a $30 billion communications niche sector by itself. The explosion of interest in - and spending on - CI, reflected a move away from the marketing of individual products to a more global concept of 'branding' in which fashioning a company's image became as important as fine-tuning its products, or its product advertising.

During the late 1980s, the process of corporate identity management became steadily more sophisticated. For many years, corporate identity remained essentially a matter of visual identity - and in particular a company's logo or letterhead.

But steadily, our understanding of identity has broadened.

It is no longer enough to introduce a new visual identity - a complete combination of strategic, organisational and behavioural change is required. For example, management structures need to become less hierarchical and more 'horizontal' to improve the dissemination of know-how. 'Identity' also involves innovativeness, both within a company and between the company and outsiders. And 'identity' does not just influence a company's staff - it is also a powerful element in the attraction of new recruits, an important issue as labour shortages increase. For all these reasons , changes in accounting procedures in Europe and the USA led to the formal valuation of brand identities: thanks to the tax inspectors, and M&A boom, intangible concepts like the name of Coca Cola, or Sony, are now ranked on a world scale. With this objectification of their value has followed, inevitably, a further increase in investment.

Just as the value of a company's intangible assets, and in particular its corporate identity, has been reassessed, so, too, the tools and tactics available to manage and improve such intangible assets have multiplied. For two reasons - both technological. First, information technology has provided business with an ever more detailed and up-to-date picture about consumer behaviour - its the audience has become fragmented, but business has a clearer understanding of the fragments. With new database segmentation, for example, it is now possible to predict the performance of certain kinds of direct mail before it goes out. Secondly, the mediums of communication have become fragmented - with the result that mass communications, such as television advertising, are proving steadily less and less cost effective.

The phenomenon of 'niche markets' will be familiar to readers of this book, and does not require further detail here; but a note about the decline of mass communications is warranted. In the UK, for example, the total amount of television viewing declined by 6.5% between 1985-1990; among wealthier consumers, the decline was more pronounced - socio-economic AB consumers watched 9.3% less television during this period. In the words of The Independent, a London newspaper, 'television is simply becoming more peripheral to more people'.

The irony is that many business strategists thought the spread of mass communications would create a new class of 'global consumer', and the 1980s concept of the 'global product' was a direct result of this expectation. Unfortunately for this theory cost savings from economies of scale in manufacturing global products, even where they have been achieved, tend to be offset by the increased costs of the specialised marketing communications that have to be employed in different markets

Now, the trend is towards what I have called elsewhere (*) 'deep marketing' - a complex, multi-faceted, constantly changing strategy in which a wide variety of communications tactics are combined with a growing integration of research, design management, production and marketing processes.

Deep marketing addresses not only the outside world of consumers, but also the inside world of a company's own people. And the range of tactics to be used (see Table XX) grows longer by the day. Today, specialised marketing and communications are a $650 billion industry world-wide.

Deep marketing is a response to a shift from products to services which has transformed the nature of competition in the following way: firms now compete for the attention of consumers who are more visually literate, more sophisticated, more culturally aware, than at any time in history. In buying a car, a pension plan, a computer, or a box of muesli, consumers have come to assume that competing products will probably perform more or less equally well - where they discriminate is in the value added to a product, and a product's firm, by intangible factors such as its image and style, service, or perceived sophistication.

But if the 1980s were dominated by the sophisticated use of visual imagery to enhance the brand identity of whole companies, the 1990s and beyond will witness a new industrial culture based on learning and creativity within, and between, companies and their customers - the 'aestheticisation of business'.

As the business theorist Charles Hampden Turner explains, 'we are all, now, in an economic race to learn. The wealth-creating capacities of a nation are no longer contained in their physical resources, nor even in their comparative economic advantages, but in the innovativeness and learning of their culture...the more knowledge that is organised into a product, the less the likelihood of competition'.

Hence the cultural imperative. Companies - and the argument holds just as well for cities, or indeed states - can no longer compete only with products, or with their image: they must find another way to express their intelligence, their individuality, their sophistication. And their new tactic? It is cultural engineering, as this following sections explain.

2: Cultural strategy

A great deal of confusion has been caused by the failure to distinguish between three quite different uses of the words 'corporate' and 'culture': ONE: among management theorists during the mid-1980s, 'corporate culture' became a fashionable term to describe aspects of a company's socio-technical psychology; 'corporate culture' was a way of describing a whole company's 'state of mind'. Although an imprecise discussion at best, the content was important; the way in which managers related to each other, their ability to innovate, and the ability of a company's structure to support innovation, was seen to be as important as technological or marketing prowess in the battle for competitive advantage;

TWO: a second use of the word culture referred to sponsorship of arts events; as we described earlier, the concept of business funding artistic enterprise dates back centuries, but in the USA, in particular, the notion of strategic philanthropy was strong during the 1970s and 1980s. The traditional disinterested patron of grand cultural events still existed, with the great foundations - Carnegie, Mellon, Ford, Rockefeller, Getty - continuing to dominate the arts funding scene; but they were joined by hundreds of other corporate patrons, many of them operating at a local level, who helped expand the 'cultural economy' dramatically: in the USA, corporate donations to the arts broke the $1 billion a year mark in 1988. In recent years, the more savvy players (IBM, Mobil) have repackaged their philanthropy and patronage as social policy, creating quite detailed criteria for the distribution of funds not just to artists, but also to community groups, educational bodies and health. Strategic philanthropy produced a new breed of sponsorship consultant who matchmakes the Big Culture producers (opera, theatre, art shows) and corporate or private sponsors. Various techniques are employed to make sure the sponsor gets his or her money's worth - from the selection of appropriate events to minutiae of the opening night party. THREE: Now, a third interpretation of 'culture' and corporate strategy is emerging in which the internal 'state of mind' of the company is perceived to have entered a new, synergistic relationship with the 'outside' world of consumers, technological change and exploding communications. A new industrial culture of continuous innovation has been identified in which cultural projects are transformed into a medium for communication between the company and the external environment. In other words, because the concept of a learning organisation, described by Charles Hampden Turner, entails a constant relationship between staff, consumers, consultants, scientists, and so on, a new communications medium is needed to support that relationship. The medium is culture in both senses - internal behaviour, and external cultural event - but the combination is entirely new. Managing the creation of this new medium is a process we call cultural engineering.

In most business literature, the parameters of cultural engineering are drawn rather tightly around sponsorship of traditional categories of 'culture' - fine art, opera, theatre, music, and so on. Even within these traditional categories, spending on cultural projects has exploded. In Europe, for example, it is estimated that arts sponsorship in the UK, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands has reached $400 million; this level of growth is attributed to the growth of arts sponsorship associations, and the introduction of fiscal incentives by national governments. But these figures tell only part of the story; the emphasis on financial contributions, donations in kind, and specialist advice, varies from country to country, with UK businesses giving mainly money, and West German companies concentrating on goods and advice. Given that professional sponsors usually spend up to three times as much on marketing support, as they spend on the art event itself, then the total sponsorship economy in these five European countries alone is probably nearer $2 billion.

Although reliable world-wide figures are not available, the world-wide sponsorship economy - the sum of cash grants, help in kind, and back-up marketing budgets - is probably $5-8 billion. Add in capital grants to infrastructure projects, such as museums, art galleries and theatres - many of which receive free land, or low-rent premises in otherwise commercial developments, and the figure rises to nearer $20 billion.

New categories of cultural engineering

Restricting the category of 'culture' to traditional art events - even when it produces a $5-8 billion niche marketing activity - grossly underestimates the real size of the investment by business in culturally-related programmes. For, if one accepts the lessons of the corporate identity movement that all a company's activities contribute to its image - from the state of the office interior, to the quality of its advertising - then the size of the cultural economy explodes.

Consider the advertising industry. According to the British marketing services conglomerate WPP, the world-wide fee income for the advertising sector is over $100bn - and according to many cultural critics of the 'post-modern world', advertising and mass communications have become so pervasive that they must be judged in part at least as cultural activity. In the UK, for example, more than 75% of art school graduates go on to work in advertising or the media. The most effective advertising not only exploits existing cultural references in its contents (pop songs, artists, famous designers, fashion concepts, are all regular subject matter for advertising).The best advertising creates new cultural forms of its own: one thinks of computer graphics wherein artists have created a whole new experimental aesthetic in the course of their work in advertising.

Of course, the theory that business is becoming more 'aesthetic', in the broadest sense, does not mean that these billions of dollars are perceived by the corporate business people who spend them as cultural expenditure. On the contrary, the great majority of companies still make a big effort to segregate sponsorship from other marketing activities - and in the whole world, there are probably no more than 30-40 companies that consciously integrate all these aspects of their business into a unified strategy. But this is not the point. In our view, these 30-40 companies are the most advanced in the world, and in many respects are useful models for the future.

Interestingly, the concept of a new industrial culture, in which producers, consumers and experts are united by a continuos process of innovation, is understood by meta-industrial organisations rather better than ordinary companies. One thinks, for example, of city governments which, in recent years, have found themselves forced into intense rivalry and competition with other cities around the world. Some of the ways in which these non-traditional cultural activities are managed are introduced in the following sections.

The Cultured Company

In this brief survey, we described a progression from advertising (1960s) , through marketing (1970s), to Corporate Identity (1980s) and 'Deep Marketing' (1990s); in Deep Marketing, wherein companies employ a constantly changing mixture of communication techniques, Cultural Engineering plays a central role as the medium for communication between the company and its external environment. We also explained the important way in which this definition of Cultural Engineering combines the two earlier uses of the words 'corporate' and 'culture': 1] corporate culture as 'corporate state-of-mind' or 'the way we do things around here'; 2] the hands-off, philanthropic of arts events by corporations. By combining the two ideas in Cultural Engineering, we proposed that a company's involvement in external cultural activities would, in itself, change the company's internal culture.

Despite our argument that 'hands-off' sponsorship is in decline, this model remains highly influential, particularly in Japan and in Europe; (in the USA, there are some indications that the recession is causing some big sponsors to question the value of these activities). But in Japan, in particular, the concept of disinterested philanthropy is strongly reinforced by a tradition of civic duty. Long before arts sponsorship was discovered in Japan, the owners and leaders of companies felt a collective responsibility to repay to the community some of the profits gained in their business lives - a concept more-or-less completely absent from most Western industries, in the 20th century at least.

Our argument is not that civic duty or social responsibility is wrong - but that, when applied to sponsorship of the arts, it cannot be 'hands-off'. The sheer scale and importance of corporate funding for the arts will influence culture, whether the donors wish it or not. In the 1990s, corporate leaders will have cultural responsibility forced upon them; they cannot escape it.

Some corporations solve this problem by refusing ever to donate large sums to a single cultural activity: in Britain, for example, companies like Shell, or the Midland Bank, donate large sums each year - but in small quantities to large numbers of recipients. This process requires considerable in-house management: selecting from among many thousands of applications each year takes a lot of expert work.

In the USA, corporations have solved the 'responsibility problem' by devolving the sponsorship to local branches, which often choose to concentrate on social or educational activities, such as schools, parks, and public amenities. This policy can be highly effective in helping a multi-national company integrate itself into local communities (and markets). This policy of distributed sponsorship', with a strong social emphasis, will certainly appeal to companies for whom the Cultural Engineering concept is unattractive.

But for many sophisticated, knowledge-based enterprises, the use of culture to create an innovative, creative and learning organism - the company of the future - offers tremendous opportunities. The question for them is this: how to manage the transition?

One must distinguish, here, between the American concept of Strategic Philanthropy - or the slightly different French concept of mecenat - and cultural engineering in the sense we have described it.

In the former situations, external cultural projects are selected on the basis that they meet clearly defined objectives set by the sponsoring company. So, a company may wish to develop its image as an intelligent company, in which case the choice or selection of event is crucial. So is the mechanism by which the identity of the sponsor is conveyed. In sports sponsorship, and increasingly in arts sponsorship, sponsors typically devote 300% more than the cash subsidy to promotion of their own role as sponsors. Increasingly, the French mecenat model emphasises the development of in-house expertise in cultural management, so that companies need not just react passively to proposals from outside producers, but may proactively develop projects, jointly with museums or theatres. Shiseido's new Culture Division offers an advanced model of this kind, with a Senior Manager reporting directly to the President. But in Europe, the opposite phenomenon may also be observed - the management of arts sponsorship drifting down the management hierarchy, away from the President and towards the Brand Managers who are better placed to target arts events at specific consumer groups. This phenomenon is paralleled by a decrease in the influence of the CEO on the choice of events: the President's personal preference for opera is giving way to the Brand Manager's more intimate knowledge of what turns on his customers.!

But there are two new challenges for top management: first, how to integrate external cultural events with the internal development of its own people - using external sponsorship to change inerenal 'state-of-mind'; and second, how to extend the management of culture from traditional arts events to the various components of Deep Marketing: architecture, design, advertising, corporate communications, training, and so on.

There are no simple answers to these two questions. Managing cultural policy is like managing change (another business buzzword of the 1990s): a complex process operating at different levels and changing through time. That said, certain components of a Cultural Engineering strategy may be listed:

A] Involve all levels of management: For an organisation to change its state-of-mind, it is not enough simply for the CEO or President to issue edicts: junior and middle managers need to be involved in commissioning, organising, and exploiting cultural projects - in collaboration with artists and cultural producers. This is not to say that managers should interfere with the artist's independence - but he should be intelligently involved as a partner in the creative process.

B] Develop in-house expertise: It follows that companies should not rely on sponsorship consultants to tell them what to do; consultants have a crucial role to play as 'brokers' or contact-points - but they should be used as support services for work rooted inside the organisation. Cultural training will be needed to help managers; at the moment, such training is almost non-existent (*) - companies will need to work with museums, universities and art schools to create the training systems needed.

C] Integrate traditional culture with other mediums: many of the managers who will be required to get involved in cultural work (art exhibitions, concerts, theatre and so on) will also be involved in design management, advertising campaigns, research policy, corporate communications, and so on. The whole essence of a 'learning company' is that these different subjects are connected. Practically, this means a company's management structure must promote interaction: * when a building is commissioned, the most culturally advanced managers should be involved in briefing the architect; * when an advertising campaign is developed, the company's involvement in an art exhibition should be included as part of the research phase * in new product development, designers would benefit from exposure to craftsmen, sculptors, or other artists; * when a company is developing training policies, it should include contact with cultural institutions, as well as universities and management schools, in the mix * art and technology can interact with each other in surprising and profitable ways - but such interactions need to be organised, and not left to chance, or to the initiative of artists. Research managers, in particular, will need to begin using artists as a new breed of researcher D] Treat cultural programmes as an investment, not an optional extra: The concept of '1% for art', in which companies promise to spend 1% of their gross profits on arts sponsorship - is good for artists and cultural producers - but it is not, in our opinion, a valid policy for business. The reason: if cultural engineering is to be taken seriously, some companies may need to spend more than 1% - and others might validly spend less. The problem with '1% for art' policies is such budgets are separated from central research, training or marketing programmes: '1% budgets', by their nature, tend not to be monitored, managed or evaluated. Cultural budgets should be included with research, marketing, training, or corporate identity, and not segregated as a special case. Cultural programmes create new knowledge, and new values - therefore they should be treated as an important investment.

E] Cultural engineering is only one of the answers: To repeat: in future, companies will develop Deep Marketing expertise, in which many skills and tactics will be used simultaneously. Cultural Engineering is a key element, but it is not the only one.

F] Every company's culture policy will be different. In today's most advanced companies, there is already considerable integration between Cultural Engineering, Design Management, Corporate Identity and so on. For companies such as Seibu Department Stores (retailing) Olivetti (information products) or Armani (fashion and merchandising), these different functions are already deeply 'cultural'. These companies possess a culturally advanced 'state of mind'; they are the prototypes of 'the cultured company'. But each one is also different: none of these companies has adopted an abstract model of cultural policy, but has exploited its history, and its existing skills, as well as new external opportunities, such as changing consumer tastes, new technologies, and so on.


Posted by John Thackara at 05:09 PM

January 22, 2000

What are artists for?

(A comment for Cumulus, the European association of design schools).

In order to do things differently, we first need to see things differently; the imaginary can be extraordinarily powerful in shaping expectations.

In order to do things differently, we first need to see things differently; the imaginary can be extraordinarily powerful in shaping expectations. New services and systems will be needed to support new ways of living; we need to develop a shared vision of what an improved quality of life for Europe’s citizens would be like. The problem is that traditional visions of the future tend to be filled with gadgets and devices – with more artificial life than real life. Goethe warned us about this problem back in 1817 when, writing about technological visions of the future, he warned that "one faces the danger of seeing, and yet not seeing". New technology is the means to deliver services, not an end in itself. Technology requires the cultural imagination in order to emerge as economic and social success.

The artist's critical intuition, and the designer's powerful representations, can help us helps us shift our focus away from the material world and its artefacts, towards alternative future ways of living based on new concepts of culture and community. We know this from what happened during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, which was seething with possibilities. The motion picture industry is a vivid instance of how a nineteenth century technology simultaneously gave form to, and was shaped by, artist-driven conceptions of space and time and event. Cultural enthusiasm for speed and simultaneity pre-dated the technology of film, together with the telephone and phonograph, that later extended our perception of events and locations beyond their physical and temporal bounds. (William Uricchio).

Posted by John Thackara at 05:29 PM