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.)