An (in)visible grid
The Current Age Project within the oeuvre of Studio Plastique
For Archibald Godts (1990) and Theresa Bastek (1990) of Studio Plastique, we live in exciting times. Our current era is characterized by changes, challenges and wicked problems. Studio Plastique focuses on topics that range from resources to production processes, and always try to understand the materials they work with from the bottom up. In their practice, they are very aware of their role, impact and possibilities as a designer in reshaping the world around us. Studio Plastique sees the most value in using curiosity to question or lay bare the impact of larger systems and infrastructures, and are therefore known for research-heavy investigations into the material origins and wider technological infrastructure of our everyday lives.
The path of Studio Plastique
Studio Plastique is a design and research studio based in Brussels. Theresa Bastek (1990) grew up in the east of Germany, studied 3D design at the University of The Arts in London, and at Design Academy Eindhoven. Archibald Godts (1990) was born in Hasselt, studied Silversmithing in Antwerp, before also enrolling at the Design Academy Eindhoven. Studio Plastique’s work received international recognition and has been exhibited at the Design Museum Ghent, Design Museum Holon, Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven and at various international fairs and platforms.
In 2020 Archibald and Theresa won the prestigious Henry Van de Velde Award for Young Talent. Their way of working sparked the attention of the jury as it is thoroughly built up from the researched resource as its base. The importance of the award as a recognition for their laborious and transdisciplinary work cannot be overestimated. Studio Plastique works with many parties like stakeholders and researchers for their projects, taking many different research and prototyping steps towards a final result. This can be a fully developed new material, a complete range of products or a reworked speculative scenario.
In their resource-based projects, they create new scenario’s for human interactions, production alternatives, technological advancements, educational upgrades, the role of designers, the impact of consumers and the relationship with nature, … The researched material is the baseline. It is looked upon from the widest angle possible, to include all elements involved.
In previous projects Studio Plastique also worked on the topic of resource exhaustion, creating renewable materials, and the plausible scenario’s for using them. As designers who see a challenge in critiquing the current state of affairs, and reinventing new modes of doing, we live in an era where a lot is possible. Studio Plastique research-based projects and material investigations always aim to position design as “a tool for a world that is in transition”.
For example in their project Common Sands, Studio Plastique researched the waste of silicates deriving form tossed electronic household devices like microwave ovens. For the industry, there is no use in recycling the glass components as the coloring of the material is seen as an insuperable pollution. By taking up a design perspective and researching the material, Studio Plastique presented as a solution a set of glass tableware made via a new material cycle which uses the inherent coloring as an added value.
Also, in the Out of the Woods project, resources from our forests are being reassessed. The focus in this project is on pine resin, an age old product, which does not have many applications anymore in our modern world. Via the project, the integration of pine resin in several processes is researched, which has now led to the development of a material that has specific valuable qualities for which applications still are to be designed in collaboration with researchers, other designers and the industry.
The Whistleblower project finally investigates our fear for, and yet neglect of invisible sources of radiation. In collaboration with the Technical University of Eindhoven, Studio Plastique researched the pollution created by the waves of our communication devices. The object designed in this project visualizes and measures electromagnetic smog, by lighting up due to radiation. It functions as an agent to create awareness, and move people away towards less polluted spaces to minimize interference with their bodies.
The Current Age project
Studio Plastique starts with Current Age at Z33 a new journey into their research on our resource dependency. The new chapter in theire oeuvres works with electricity as the driving force of the current way of living of human kind. Without electricity, the world, our production systems, our social lives and the way we live together would not be able to exist. Communication, food preparation, festivities, production, traffic management, data storage, etc. would all take on very different forms. Electricity shapes our Western society as we know it today. It enables and feeds our current identities as (Western) human beings.
But also, electricity is a killer. It is involved directly or indirectly in many of the wicked problems in our current Anthropocene world. As electricity contributes to, and even constitutes our current way of living, it also enhances and drives the destructive forces we see happening in the world today. The generation of electricity is linked to climate change, it’s distribution systems through cables and storage in batteries to modern slavery and the exhaustion of rare earth materials, and it’s usage in household appliances and the industry to pollution and waste, …
As electricity facilitates our comfort, constructs our identity and sustains our lifestyles, it is an addictive resource on which we collectively overdose. The element, which in itself is clean and facilitating our lifestyles, is also possibly one of the most toxic elements of them all. The relationship of Westerners and their electricity dependence is however not a the forefront of public debate. Studio Plastique is therefore focusing for the Current Age project on our often unconscious power dependency for sustaining and maintaining our current way of life. The designers want to act as a matchmaker between us as spectators, and a world we do not see and hardly grasp.
Regarding the amount of touchpoints we have in one day, we are constantly connected to the electric grid for a perceived normal way of functioning in our society. We want plugs for our computers and phones, enjoy lighting at night, toss without reflection clothes in the washer or a meal in the microwave. Electricity is an immaterial commodity that we take for granted in our environment. It is often intangible, and invisible for common users. But omnipresent. Only when the power runs out, we realize the instant comforts it brings. The magic of this resource is hidden to us: cables in the wall, remote production, technical terminology, obscured trade and economics, dangerous waste, … Although always present, electricity stays quite abstract.
If most consumers are unaware of what it means to consume, use and produce electricity, then relating to this power supply in a responsible manner is hard. Studio Plastique wants to reshape our relationship with the electric current in a way that is less impactful for our landscapes, environments and society. Bringing back a focus on electricity back might contribute to more curiosity and awareness, more discussion and a more responsible way of using the resource.
Studio Plastique is therefore designing in Current Age scenario’s to consume and distribute electricity in alternative manners. What are the future options of generating electricity that are more environmentally friendly or more disconnected from the current grid? Studio Plastique maps the challenges by critically questioning the current possibilities. The exhibition develops in three chapters future visions for electric use, generation and distribution. What are the options for redesigning this system? Can we live more disconnected from the grid?
Chapters of the Current Age project
In the first space of the exhibition we are confronted with consumption of electricity, via heat pictures of household appliances at work. When turned on, our domestic objects generate warmth as a byproduct of their operations. In normal circumstances, heat can be perceived through various senses, often through touch, but sometimes also via smell or sound. These are however secondary senses to our sight, which is often resulting in a neglect of this information.
By choosing to visualize the heat production Studio Plastique wants to place an emphasis on the electricity consumption process which often escapes our attention. On top of that, by showing the pictures on electricity consuming screens, Studio Plastique creates an art piece which refers both to the world as is happening currently around us, yet also to itself as the screens are producing heat while being used in the exhibition. It takes us simultaneously back to memories of heat production by household appliances we all have experienced when using them, and reminds us that we are looking instantly at this same production happening live in front of us by the electric screens used for display. Heat is produced everywhere when using electricity. This first chapter is very characteristic about the work of Studio Plastique, which often starts with mapping and documenting the case in original ways.
In the second chapter the distribution of electricity is being researched. We know about the cables in our homes, and the big high voltage lines crossing the fields. Electricity as a mainly intangible, immaterial and invisible resource namely needs a vast material infrastructure to be conducted. No matter how ephemeral electricity in itself can be, there is an omnipresent mega-structure of cables in precious materials influencing our landscapes and build environments.
Studio Plastique uses here the visual language of botanical mappings on metal sheets analyze the features of the grid. The creation of a classical herbarium and the documentation of botanical specimens has a rich history whose threads intersect with artistic imagination, imperialism, technologies of preservation and representation, and scientific study. The specimen used here however are not plants, yet samples of cables highlighting different typologies of the grid. No other medium is as suited to map an array of species and capture their various features, usages, and varieties. The beautiful metal drawings feel familiar in lay-out, while at the same time convey intriguingly new stories. Studio Plastique is namely not only collecting these typologies for documentary reasons. By creating these collections, they also critique our vast collection of cables and accessories in the landscape. Making up a vast and systemic grid that acts as an irrefutable inheritance from the past.
Also, in the exhibition spaces we see a night map of the world, strongly visualizing the sparse parts of the world that are actually connected to a grid. It stresses visually that a constant flow of electricity is a privileged commodity, mainly reserved for the so called developed world. It is quickly seen as a sign of progress, that could and should be brought in the next decades also to the now disconnected parts of the world. But is this the most plausible scenario? The amount of material resources needed – often precious earth materials, mined with immense impacts on the environment and social structures – would be immense, if not impossible to provide. Also the construction time, issues of maintenance and the morality of this undertaking in remote areas should be considered.
The artwork therefore ponders on alternative scenarios. Should we want to develop the rest of the world modelled to our own experiences? Or should we not rather skip this step, and rely on more modern and advance technologies to implement a systemic design that is more fit for the 21st century? Common sense implies the usage of different strategies and technologies depending on the local specificities in order to allow humanity to have access to electricity in a more equal manner.
In the third chapter the generation of electricity is being researched. Our dependence on the current material grid places a high toll on the current possibilities. The infrastructure we use to transport electric energy nearly exists for 150 years. All these times we have been rebuilding, expanding and maintaining an infrastructure which originated in the nineteenth century. Not only is the very thought of building this extensive grid outdated, also the environmental and social costs that come with the mining of the needed rare earth materials is becoming very high.
Studio Plastique proposes therefore to reconsider our dependency from this grid. By designing and building five small explorers, to be running freely in the exhibition space, self-sufficiency is both researched and questioned. The six explorers use possible technologies for this more local and adapted electricity generation, such as solar and wind energy, chemical or hydrogen drive, or human energy. All explorers are generating their power on the spot and use it immediately, independently from the grid. The design projects a world in which we produce and consume electricity on a smaller, decentralized and local scale is envisioned and poses fundamental questions. Do we need the electrical mega-structure? Should it nowadays still pose such an impact on our environments and social lives? Can we redesign a world in which we live more independently, and more self-sufficiently from the grid?
Current Age in a broader context
Mainly in the West we have become addicted to inconsiderate consumption of valuable resources like water, land, oil, minerals and power. Often we consume mass-produced products to sustain a self-induced lifestyle without understanding the amount of effort that went into making them. This results in a regardless disposal of products when they are slightly used, damaged, broken, old, or simply are in our eyes not fashionable enough anymore. By tossing them, we do not only waste valuable materials that can often be re-used, but also the energy that went into producing and transporting them. Many consumers are not aware of the energy needed to create and sustain our man-made world, and the way in which e.g. electricity is shaping and constituting our daily lives. This is for Studio Plastique the main reason to develop the Current Age project.
But Studio Plastique are not the only designers working on these themes nowadays. Designers are more and more aware, because of tools and schooling of what they can do. They are taught to be part of a bigger whole, and to be in touch with other people and disciplines to search for their answers.
This movement is made up out of several different viewpoints, however all looking at the same direction: making our way of living more sustainable. We see as such designers looking for new raw materials, like the algae project of Studio Klarenbeek & Dros, the explorations into using fungus as a building material by Mae-Ling Lokko, the Botanica project on pre-Bakelite materials of Studio Formafantasma, or research towards a seaweed-paper composite of Jonas Edvard. Others are mainly creating alternative pathways for resource usages: like the circular visions of the materials developed by BC materials, or the recycling projects of ROTOR DC. Finally designers are also looking at the impact the used resources have, such as some textile works by Nienke Hoogvliet or the Linen Project of Pascale Gatzen.
They all lay bare hidden structures and systems in order to make other choices, which is enriching for both industry and consumers. Studio Plastique is fully embedded in this larger stream of designers, questioning and redesigning the way in which we deal with materials and resources nowadays.
All photos by Selma Gurbuz