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Play = communication = fun = creativity = design = events = blah - click opera
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Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 11:01 am
Play = communication = fun = creativity = design = events = blah

Today sees the culmination of three Tokyo design events, Design Tide, Tokyo Designer's Week and Design Touch at the Tokyo Midtown shopping centre. As in the art world these get-togethers get bigger each year. The latest Art Forum Berlin spawned into four mega-events spread across the city (one of them in an airport). Tokyo Design Tide puffed up so much this year it was moved to the National Stadium. Designers from all over the world blew carbon into the upper atmosphere in order to come and talk about "creativity now" or how "play = communication".

It would be hypocritical of me to say anything against this international art and design waffle circuit -- I was happy for AIGA to fly me to Denver last month (I took the stage declaring "Wow, I never see this many people at music shows; design really is the new rock'n'roll!") and I'm happy to be flying to Gothenburg later this month to do a Pecha Kucha event. Flying six hundred miles for a six-minute design presentation seems quite reasonable at this point. Why the hell not, in a world where play = communication = fun = creativity = events = design?



But sometimes I wonder what the hell we're all playing at. Is all this waffle about "communication" and "play" just what post-industrial societies do when they've lost all productive sense of purpose? Where, in all this, is the relationship between design and production -- which means, in today's world, the relationship between the post-industrial nations hosting these endless design conferences (the USA, Sweden, Japan) and the "sweatshop" nations actually producing things?

There are signs that ethics -- and particularly the relationship between post-industrial and industrial nations -- matters today, but you'll find those in the newspapers rather than the design conferences, which are essentially junket parties for privileged gadflies (with the occasional reference to recycling). In today's Observer, for instance, Gap (prompted by critical reports in the newspaper, and, perhaps, by the anti-sweatshop policies of rivals like American Apparel) promises new "sweatshop-free" labels which will allow concerned consumers to track exactly where their garments are made, and -- presumably -- by whom.

Here the ethics gets a bit tangled, though. The West, too, was built on child -- and slave -- labour. Maybe our anti-child-labour initiatives are based on guilt, on a desire to stop the developing world making the same mistakes we did. Or maybe they represent nothing more than the West's desire to impose a belated level playing field in labour practice when we aren't so keen to introduce one in other areas. In other words, child labour is seen as unfair competition giving nations like India a trade advantage over a Europe and a US struggling with aging populations and red tape labour restrictions, rather than merely a human rights issue. And "human rights" here means that children should be stripped of their right to be productive, and to enter the labour force when there's work available.

What's foregrounded, in other words, is the right not-to-work rather than the right to work. Children are, in this Western view, entitled to 16 years in which they, precisely, are assumed to have no productive function, no responsibilities; to have economic needs but not the ability to meet them through their own labour. And they're supposed to have this inalienable right to play (which of course involves the alienation of their right to work, and a commitment to lack a productive function for a set time) wherever they are in the world, and whatever the local conditions are. Human rights are "universal", remember? They ignore context. They come from above.

I'd prefer to say something much more symbiotic is going on. Just as economic hardship makes children in developing countries adult (and productive) before their time, so its opposite (wealth and ease) in post-industrial countries keeps Western people childish -- and non-productively playful -- indefinitely. That would certainly explain what Pingmag describes as "the essence of this year’s DesignTide message – “PLAY = COMMUNICATION,” meaning it’s not design if it’s not fun!"

Really? No fun, no design? When did design switch from being about making things that work to being about making things that play?



Listen to Radio OK Fred's podcast from Celine Omote Sando and it's impossible not to be struck by a certain twee playfulness, a wallowing in the shallows of gentle irony, a self-congratulation, and a vacuum in the area that should be occupied by things like mission, ethics and purpose. All the participants are asked "What is creativity now?", but only Digiki even half tries to answer the question. As for the Marxy PowerPoint presentation 25 minutes in, "The Ideology of Micro-Ideology", it's a wasted opportunity, a joke neither funny nor serious. It's as if, even for a bright and usually-critical observer, the combination of Japan and the design world (plus, perhaps, a certain Gen Y tendency to meta-irony and injokes) results in a multiplication of the same basic aversion to critique. There's nothing left to do but revert, endlessly, to childhood, to play.

"Setting your alarm by clicking with a joystick? What a clever idea!" proclaims the ever-positive Pingmag in its Design Tide coverage. But surely we only set an alarm because we have to work? Why turn that into play? And what are my friends in Abake doing, bringing their "limb typography" project to Tokyo? Well, it'll make a great audience participation event -- stick your arms and legs through the stocade to make letters! But where's Abake's ethical edge this year? They have one. Has it been sacrificed to design's increasing need to be an event, to be playful, to be fun, to be eternally childish, and to remove itself as much as possible from production -- that is, from the turbulent world where an industrial revolution is still going on, where populations are increasing, where global warming and AIDS hit hardest, where water is increasingly scarce, where disasters happen and where resource wars are fought? And yet where, despite all this, the huge majority of the world's stuff actually gets made?

Sure, there are places where children are forced to be adults, and that's bad. But there are places much closer to home where adults are forced to be children.

(The photos I chose today show slightly more purposeful creative environments than the ones I'm describing. One, by Jean Snow, is of an architectural practice on the Kanda River. The other, by Roger McDonald, shows a temporary artists' initiative space in Okinawa.)

44CommentReply

anashi
Space Hobo
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 10:25 am (UTC)

Oh wow. Very insightful. I've been watching the design community for a while and I think you have it spot on. Pingmag is the worst of the offenders. Their article 'Capturing a Typhoon' completely baffled and upset me in the way it casually talked about international issues and money.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 10:44 am (UTC)

I only say this because creativity is, in a sense, my religion. And I think creativity divorced from production and divorced from social concerns is a neutered, castrated creativity. I hate to see this redemptive and transformative value being turned into a sort of events-management, peergroup networking pretext, a carbon-emitting, critique-free mega-spectacle, at once globally massive and utterly trivial.

Maybe these design events should be hosted in developing nations, and have serious-minded curators, as they tend to do in the art world.

Actually, I think the same kind of mistrust and misunderstanding exists between the art and design worlds as I've seen in the theatre world between writers and actors. Writers always see actors as craven, opportunistic, shallow, insincere, lacking in ethical fibre, and so on. I identify more with writers, obviously, and with the art world. But the art world is getting more like the design world in some ways. And of course it's possible to see the very thing I'm decrying here -- the disconnect between design and production -- being an attempt on design's part to get more like the art world, in other words to become more rather than less critical. To free itself from the client and the immediate task at hand. What's important, though, is that in that attempt it shouldn't lose everything -- both productiveness and critical distance.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 11:07 am (UTC)

How did you see my presentation? About 80% of the jokes were visual. I am going to write a review of your next album from the cover art alone...

Marxy


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 11:19 am (UTC)

About 80% of the jokes were visual.

It's the fact that you're happy for it to be all just a joke that I'm worried about. You're one of the few intelligent critical voices out there, and yet you had nothing intelligent or critical to say about design during a design event.

At best you made a meta-critique for your friends (and bling brand Celine) about meta-critiques for one's friends. I'm disappointed; and I speak as someone who's also delivered a terrible lecture in the last month, and wishes he had the chance to do it better, and say the things he should have. What I want, above all, is the sense that design and creativity matter in some way that goes beyond Facebookery. In the podcast, only Digiki got anywhere near giving me that impression.


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westfearneon.com
westfearneon.com
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 11:35 am (UTC)

Who doesn't think the design world is utterly self-congratulatory and mostly trivial, except designers themselves? While Tokyo waffles, the planet shrugs.

Momus, you employ coy phrasing like "Sometimes I wonder..." to shield yourself from accusations of hypocrisy when you should have been brave enough to admit that you simultaneously hold two opposite beliefs true (that design is the saviour/scourge of the earth) which is after all the sign of a great intellect.

How about the rampant deification of the scissors 'n' tape Shinjuku Station signmaker across the design blogosphere (and, if I'm not mistaken, here too) recently? Isn't that the play obsession in design, right there? A person using deliberately obtuse methods ("lo-fi") when a more obvious technological solution is available is that most modern of folk heroes, an adult at play, but a person using the same ingenuity out of necessity in a developing country where materials are insufficient ("scarcity") is hardly worthy of your time.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 04:58 pm (UTC)

I celebrated Sato-San not as a playing child but a refreshing folk hero, a stylist outside the professional design world who was suddenly recognized. His story almost fits the mold of the socialist worker hero we see in so many Berlin statues: the Unknown Electrician (or Nurse, or Teacher). He stands for many, many unsung design heroes. A little more attention to people like Sato-San would do the design world a power of good, I think.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 01:28 pm (UTC)

LOL couldn´t you have said design was stupid without being against child labour laws?

The fact that children are sent to school instead of to work has to do with brain development, not with ´the right not to work´.


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theantisuck
theantisuck
Rachel!
Mon, Nov. 5th, 2007 08:17 am (UTC)

maybe mostly for children, but the right not to work is a major theme in labor laws for children and adults, for example modern western laws requiring breaks, limits on working hours, HRW's current campaign to give migrant workers a right to weekly rest days.


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trickseybird
trickseybird
Bruce Springsteen, you're not the boss of me
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 01:32 pm (UTC)


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 04:47 pm (UTC)

LOLOLOL. OMFG this means Momus is going to kidnap David Sylvian to kill... people.. and... fashion. EHM.

DO I GET TO BE HANSEL?


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 01:58 pm (UTC)

Very interesting. It came to me that in some religious circles they believe in intelligent design, that everything is designed with a purpose and doesn't come out of natural selection. But is there a similar concept in the design world? Not everything made by designers have a real purpose other than being aesthetically "perfect".


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alvaroceb
alvaroceb
alvaroceb
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 02:09 pm (UTC)

Without a specific interest in design, I'm glad to read the posting of today. I was concerned about the enthusiasm you usually expressed about that lighthearted way of life many artists and designers seem to live. Even if your position may be somewhat contradictory, what I cannot judge (you seem to consume way less than many others, which could help to keep a balance), I'm glad to know that you see the big picture.


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 02:37 pm (UTC)
lighthearted way of life

i think you've got it somewhat wrong here.
as much as i'd personally rather have time-traveled to 1980something Monsters of Rock festival than do the 10 min bikeride to any of these events, i think most of these people have to carry the double cross of corporate crap and the pain of their own fragile creativity.
not an enviable position and no wonder an escape into infantile fantasy is necessary. and the fact that they get away with it is not their fault really.


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mme_furiosa
mme_furiosa
Francesca Fury
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 02:58 pm (UTC)

Momus, where in the hell do you get off being so design savvy AND so insightful on international labour equity?

Seriously, I was literally shocked to see your very astute analysis of child labor restrictions imposed by the West being exported to the developing world. It's a real pickle for social theorists and policy setters: how can we claim the "justness" of prohibiting the vary same practices upon which our own empires were built?

Thank you for another razor-sharp attack on poorly though out practice (both in design and otherwise.)


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kabuki2point0
kabuki2point0
kabuki2point0
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 03:07 pm (UTC)

Dear Nick

I've just got my hands on the 'Journey to the Centre of Me' EP because I was fascinated by the last three songs on what I deem as your mastepiece Folktronic

I was wondering, we've heard Momus vocals versions of every song on that EP except 'The Seventh Wife of Henry VIII', and I was wondering whether this exists? It's certainly an amazing song with Karie's vocals added, but loses a little something lyrically, I imagine, compared to if you were singing

Can a version be found anywhere?

Many thanks


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 04:19 pm (UTC)

Life for Jean Snow or the average design conference attendee is about sensual gratification and play. Design and gadgets are an escape from political concerns. We are trying to spoil the party here.

Guys like us, we don't fit into the design world; but we fit right into the art world, because the whole focus of modern art is the rejection of authority, of hierarchy--"social progress." Beauty and skill are ethically troublesome because they point out difference. They are undemocratic and have to be rejected in order for people like us with a social conscience to create art.

But guess what I found out? Nature is thoroughly unethical. Everything in nature, down to the smallest detail is arranged in a hierarchy. A hierarchy can never be "fair" in the modern sense. If we reject this essential feature of life, we must reject life itself. The only escape from hierarchy is suicide. I am looking into it as we speak.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 04:48 pm (UTC)

I'm not about rejecting beauty -- or hierarchies -- in the name of ethics, though.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 06:08 pm (UTC)

And "human rights" here means that children should be stripped of their right to be productive, and to enter the labour force when there's work available.

As always, brilliant analysis. Because the alternative that anti-child labour groups are campaigning for is to let the little buggers go and watch telly and play all day. And not perhaps, go to school, learn to read and write, or things like that. Bad bad western ethics!

der.


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eeuuugh
eeuuugh
eeuuugh
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 06:09 pm (UTC)

It's a little inaccurate to say that the West "was built on child labour". It is built on child labor: the sweatshops run by poor women and children were gradually exported from metropolitan centers to ethnic ghettos and the colonies of the Empire as shipping became easier and the sight of them started to disturb people. Current child labor in the Third World is still in service to the West, and contributes little to the infrastructure of the countries it's in. Having an "information economy" just means that you've located your production economy somewhere else.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 06:50 pm (UTC)

"Flying six hundred miles for a six-minute design presentation." You call ozone-busting work? Pfff. In my day, we had to go down the asbestos mine twenty two hours a day before we coughed up Observer-style hypocrisy.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 08:15 pm (UTC)

I'm a lot more comfortable criticizing people like myself than criticizing people who are different. I think that may be a definition of liberalism. You're probably rather like me too, which means I should take your criticism of me as self-criticism. I hope it's been useful.


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microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 08:49 pm (UTC)

And "human rights" here means that children should be stripped of their right to be productive, and to enter the labour force when there's work available.

Are you saying that children should work in the labor force in "the West"? Have you ever thought that they go to school to learn, staying for 7+ hours a day? When they grow up, they will certainly make up for their "un-productiveness" by using what they've learned in life, and in school. I don't agree that children should have to work in the labor force at so young, because developmentally, they aren't well suited for the job.

Plus, in developing countries, the conditions are absolutely terrible. Have you seen the photojournal where the reporter went into the sweatshops and interviewed the workers? They work for at least 12 hours a day, and are exposed to harmful chemicals (without proper safety measures set). Children shouldn't be forced to work in such conditions.

(Oh, and I found this article about American Apparel, and I don't think I can look at the store the same again.)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Nov. 4th, 2007 09:19 pm (UTC)

I'll say it again, since some seem to think I'm saying children should work: "there are places where children are forced to be adults, and that's bad."

What I mainly found interesting in today's entry was the idea that a productive developing world -- a world in which everybody works, even children, who therefore become adult before their time -- might be the corollary of the advanced post-industrial world most of us know, a world where nobody makes anything any more, we play all the time, and we remain children long into adulthood.


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theantisuck
theantisuck
Rachel!
Mon, Nov. 5th, 2007 08:48 am (UTC)

The guilt / competition thing totally valid

its interesting that the labor we protest - sweatshops, industrial work which actually can allow countries in Asia to compete in the global market, and eventually do well (vietnam, india) are those we protest.

This is opposed to children working with their families and not attending school working at stands, sustenance farming, and huge numbers of unemployed city youth in actually poor nations (mali, niger)


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