What a weird/ twisted/ paradoxical world 'we' live in. I sometimes browse through design blogs when I feel bored. I don't remember which blog I saw this on but about an hour ago I watched 'Can City' by Studio Swine. I say 'watched' because, after seeing images of the project's outcomes, I looked for the studio's website to understand the concept/ the idea) behind the pieces. The 'outcome', a series of sandcasted aluminium stools, reminded me of a project by a designer whom I used to work for, so I was interested whether this project was related to the one I knew.
I first found a video about the project on the studio's website (1), which shows the concept, the context and the process of the production of the series. Beautiful/ Seductive/ Sedative. 3:53 minutes of design eroticism – self-made tools, waste-materials, trash aesthetics, irreproducible imperfections, one-off pieces. I was about to send the website's link to a friend of mine who'd appreciate the 'spontaneous' and 'unplanned' aesthetics of the project, when I decided to watch the last minute of the video again. This time, its sedative effect had vanished and I saw more than the beauty of the process. I saw the sharpness of the video's images, their resolution, the clarity of colours. I heard the music that was playing in the background, a high quality production of up-beat electronic music, which must have felt 'natural' the first time I watched it while, now, the video just seemed so artificially 'cool'. I saw the changing focus of the camera's lens, the short field of depth in macro shots of surfaces, the craftedness of the editing, the tight timing of each sequence. I clearly saw the structure/ construction of the video. And suddenly, I felt more repulsed than excited. I realized that just a minute ago, I was sitting in the cinema on the cover of the 1977 edition of Guy Debord's 'The Society of the Spectacle'.
Nothing against Studio Swine. I, too, am fond of vernacular aesthetics, processes of design and making which rely on my own skills and locally available, preferably cheap materials. But, clearly, the desire for 'well-made' presentations/ representations/ advertising stands in contrast to the seemingly honest belief in uncomplicated, ad-hoc, self-made, low-profile design. Isn't this pure hypocrisy, wanting both 'pretty, shiny, seductive' and 'vernacular, ad-hoc, trashy'? The project seemed so 'honest' a few minutes ago.
[I will now exit the frame of political correctness. I feel like I need to mention the fact that I perceive a specific stereotype/ image) of 'Non-Western' poverty referenced in 'Can City'. This manifests itself in the aesthetics of the tools used, the objects produced, the process of making and its performance in public, which the abovementioned video portrays in the context of, what feels to me like, an urban Non- Western street environment; needless to say that the 'glossy' documentation and presentation of the project supports this stereotypical imagery just as well, by giving 'poverty' a colourful and glamourous touch. “Oh, Mexico/ Brasil/ India is so beautiful, so colourful.“
I refrain from assuming that the designers have consciously chosen to evoke these semiotic links, but if they did, the project should be read more thoroughly than how most design blogs suggest. Might Studio Swine actually, in a cleverly subtle manner, point towards a social critique, referring to the paradox of Western consumer society, supposedly, being in 'crisis' while still praising and reproducing values of glamour, style and prestige in that context? Might they express a humble comment about the current inadequacy in using the term 'crisis' in the context of consumption and production in Western societies, by themselves taking the hypocritical role of 'glossy designers in crisis'? Google “poverty chic“ (2) (3). Zoolander (2001), a prophetic document?]
'Poverty Chic' is an attempt towards planned gentrification. It seems as though the trend of importing 'vernacular' aesthetics and, therefore, aestheticising poverty through artificially polished-up representations continuously grows, in the West. It wouldn't be difficult to point at a number of recently published works that fall in the category of artificially aestheticising poverty.
[I find it important to point out that I'm clearly making a distinction between 'honest' depictions of poverty which embody certain aesthetic values, which I certainly don't dismiss as irrelevant to be shown outside of their natural context. I also want to distance myself from the assumption that the cultural import of 'Non-Western poverty' was fetishised more commonly than poverty in the West. The difference is simply, that poverty is an issue that can only be addressed locally. Which value does the stereotypical image of 'African poverty' have, other than economic profitability to the benefit of the West? I can't help but get the feeling that most representations of the Other's 'poverty' purport charitable myth set up for the economic exploitation of their subjects. In case you haven't seen it, watch Renzo Martens' Enjoy Poverty (2008).]
At this point, I could discuss popular examples of the perpetuation of artificial images of 'poverty' such as LifeStraw (4) but, instead, I think that it's important to notice that not only 'high profile' projects contain this strategy, if it is applied consciously as such. Local, 'small-scale' events or projects tend to follow the trend of 'Poverty Chic' and might choose to serve a soup of bread and water with a side of raw vegetables wrapped in newspaper together with a glass of champagne.
[Maybe my humour is overpowering this interpretation but, to me, this is a comically ironic, though critical statement.]
Last year's academic symposium 'Design, Poverty, Fiction' organised by three European universities, one of them the Sandberg Instituut, or, Mediamatic's 'Freezing Favela' highly romanticise 'Poverty' and 'Otherness' on a fundamental conceptual level, starting with their titles. The fact that even on a local institutional level poverty is romanticised and portrayed as purely 'beautiful' points towards an unhealthy imbalance between the focus on the representation of images and their applied societal value.
A motivation behind the perpetuation of romantic, nostalgic images of poverty might be the idea of 'giving hope' to others. 'Hope' might be a 'positive' sentiment, but how useful/ adequate/ appropriate is a 'positive spirit' if the sentiment is based on an artificially constructed, manipulated and, therefore, surreal image?
[I don't want to direct this discussion towards the evaluation of the practicality/ relevance of surreal images but a few words on this seem apropriate. I see a strong value in the expression of subjective realities; it just seems invaluable to be aware of the inherent subjectivity of images, of reality. It can be highly 'useful' to understand the world from the perspective of another individual, who will most probably see the world through a different filter, as truely empathetic and honest interactions enable well balanced communication and interaction with others. Still, it's important to notice that those individual 'filters' are present, in order to recognize and act upon one's own subjectivity, and to lessen the manipulative potential of those created images.]
It's almost as if most recent cultural production in the West was a counterpart to Renzo Martens' 'gentrification plan' for the Democratic Republic of Congo which is taking the shape of the Institute of Human Activities, a centre for cultural production which applies Western strategies of gentrification to a former Unilever plantation the DRC, in order to maintain close ties between local cultural production and economic profitability. While the Western gentrification plan, knowing- or unknowingly supported by emerging and established professionals in a variety of creative disciplines, replicates 'Otherness' with a Western twist, Martens chooses to apply Western economic and aesthetic models with an African smack.
Martens' honest de-mystification of cultural production by means of his work made me see the underlying social and anthropological significance of current tendencies of 'cultural imports' that go beyond seemingly superficial characteristics of aesthetics and style. Let's reconsider 'Design, Poverty, Fiction' as an example. In 2012, the Sandberg Instituut organised a symposium which addressed “poverty as a raw material and examined the fuctionalization of poverty“(5). Ernesto Oroza was one of the few speakers at the symposium who addressed the definition of 'poverty' and 'necessity' which, I was glad he pointed out, differs immensely depending on national context. Oroza has gotten international attention for his documentation and analysis of Cuban vernacular design and has, since then, repeatedly worked in European and US-American contexts. There, he chose to take a highly empathetic step towards the analysis of the cultural contexts he worked within, instead of simply replicating and displaying Cuban vernacular culture. There is a fine line between the honest appreciation and valuing of vernacular developments as a vital part of contemporary culture and its hypocritical carricature. In my opinion, Oroza's work is one of the examples which should be analysed in comparison to the hypocritical 'imagery' created by others. Contexts can't be replicated. Therefore, the reproduction of artificially constructed and stereotypical images doesn't seem to make sense for other than economic or socially oppressive reasons. By choice, those are far from the values which my actions are directed by.