May 8th, 2005


The secret life of eating and bathing

The body and culture intersected twice yesterday in interesting ways. First, Hisae and I ate a four hour lunch organised as part of Designmai by konzeptkunst design group Abake. We sat with about forty people in a workshop in Kreuzberg. Everyone paid €15 and basically ate course after course of mushrooms, cheese, leaves and cous cous, washed down with beer. Hisae and I were sat next to a couple who make Berlin-based style magazine Lodown and a photographer who's now working on The Wire magazine thanks to James Goggin, the new art director (who also happens to work in the same building in Dalston as Abake).

Abake's design didactics are refreshingly askew. They'd just come from Stockholm, where they'd done a presentation based on the idea of libraries (including some videos of me performing in a library in London last week) in an art school with no library, and they fly today to Lausanne, where they're getting first year art students to find out from second and third year students what they did with Abake in previous years, and hoping that a sort of Chinese Whispers effect will happen and new ideas will emerge. For last year's IdN conference in Singapore they put together two things they'd heard were local taboos, yellow T shirts and the "difficult" durian fruit, succulent yet cursed with the odour of sewers. The result: a yellow T shirt depicting a durian. This isn't the repetitive, formulaic kind of thing we've come to think of as design culture (cute characters, skateboard imagery, PowerPoint presentations of briefs and pitches), but instead something closer to the free-floating problem-finding activities of conceptual art.

When we got home something just as brilliantly skewiff was waiting for us: a documentary about Russian baths on Arte. Les Bains is a 65 minute film by David Teboul without commentary or music (apart from one brief sequence of pixel-zoomed body parts accompanied by a cello score). The film quietly scrutinised the naked bodies of old Russian men washing themselves in the evocatively shabby, steamy ceramic surroundings of an old Russian bath-house. The men's intimacy with each other, and the incredible variety of their bodies, was mesmerising. The sounds of water, or low fatalistic singing, the cool objective camera work, the strong sense of place, the "otherness", the refusal to clutter the spaces with talk or manipulative music, all made this very much a documentary of the new school. Just like Abake, David Teboul startles by the formula-breaking simplicity of his ideas.

Eating and bathing... what could be more straightforward, more universal, more bodily? And yet to put one on TV, and to propose the other as "design", makes us see them with new eyes. And lest this stuff look like it's happening in a tiny bubble where creatives enact creativity for the benefit of their peers and a few art students, let me counterpose this article in The Guardian, in which Miranda Sawyer spends four months with Coldplay as they finalize their "keenly-anticipated new album". The article reminds us that:

* Chris Martin thinks his songs are "sent", not composed.
* Chris, who's dating a famous actress and thinks the people who take pictures of him are "cunts", considers Tony Blair BRILLIANT and sends him a letter saying so, with his mobile phone number attached. Tony reads it.
* Chris' friends tell him the album lacks "a heartbreaker" so he writes one in five minutes (wearing no clothes) and "it's brilliant".
* EMI's shares dipped 17% on the news that Coldplay's new album will appear in the next tax year rather than the current one.
* Coldplay are not competitive, but want to "take out U2".

Now, this article and the attitudes it reflects are dismal, dismal, dismal in their staleness. Abake should produce Coldplay's next album to jump them out of their dire, boring, uncreative attitudes. Coldplay and Abake will probably never interact in any way. Coldplay don't realise it, because they're rich and successful, but they need Abake much more than Abake needs them.