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Nurturing the Fast-expanding Phenomenon of Self-production
A conversation between Jan Boelen, former artistic director of Z33 and curator of The Machine – Designing a New Industrial Revolution and Matylda Krzykowski, one of the project managers of the exhibition. The talk covers the context of the presentation, the choice of location and why now is the most apropos time.
MK. ‘The Machine’ testifies that the development of the idea and the production of the object are coming together. What was your curatorial process?
JB. The idea emerged less than a year ago. I was member of the jury of The Great Indoors. In such a moment you see hundreds of projects. Jurgen Bey was also on the jury. He had just finished an exhibition called ‘INDUSTRIOUS|Artefacts, the Evolution of Crafts.’ The context of the exhibition at its location in the Zuiderzeemuseum in Holland was unsatisfactory. It is an open air museum; most designs that were exhibited were more craft related due to the context. Right now, all designers are working with laptops. They are working in networks and they collaborate. I found it very strange that that evolution isn’t yet a significant part of exhibitions or projects.
MK. So why didn’t you think about it before? Have you already completed projects on the subject?
JB. In 2010, we did an exhibition called ‘Design by Performance’ in Z33, including functional machines. Since then I have been continually fascinated for projects that are oriented in that direction. That’s where it started.
MK. Did you think that the outcome—the actual design—was not enough and that the process and the converging technologies were missing? What exactly were you looking for?
JB. For me, a dialogue concerning the relation with the digital world was missing. In 2009, Belgian designer Thomas Lommée developed the ‘OpenStructures’ project, which gave me an insight into the mentality and practice of the online world and what that could mean for the tangible world. The digital revolution is a revolution of attitude and of mindset. For instance, by producing open-source software, people demonstrate that they want to share and collaborate. That’s how the computer operating system Linux was developed. It was made by a whole community of people.
MK. Is this revolution comparable with Facebook? A social network service that evoked global change?
JB. Yes, this is an example of shared user- and producer-generated content. Everyone uses and produces.
MK. This makes me think of a comment from Chris Anderson of TED, who describes this as ‘crowd accelerated innovation.’
JB. In a recent article in Wired magazine, they call this phenomenon social design or social manufacturing. Both work. But there was one project that was a tipping point for me; the Masters thesis of a Design Academy Eindhoven student, titled ‘Design for a New Consumer.’ At that time—in June 2010—we were working on ‘Design by Performance’ at Z33. In our exhibition and in Tal Erez’s thesis I found elements of what I had been thinking about for a long time. From that moment on I started to bring it all together.
MK. What triggered you in his project? What was it about?
JB. It sets out to frame the emergence of a new consumer and a likely future, and asks designers to consider a new theoretical framework for their work today. By overviewing social, technological and cultural occurrences in the past, present and future, it targets the product design profession and — at its core – its relationship with the consumer. This time, the consumer is dealt with not as a source of inspiration, as someone to educate or even someone to passively benefit from, but as someone to engage with in conversation, someone to work with. This is not just to benefit the consumer, but also to maintain the validity of a profession that is facing serious questions on one hand, and the imminent arrival of home manufacturing on the other.
MK. In short, it deals with the need of the product designer to adapt to home fabrication.
JB. Exactly. A while later — in September 2011 — I had a conversation with Jurgen Bey and saw other projects that were related to Tal’s theory, completing the whole picture. I started editing and focusing in my head. In the beginning, you start with a framework and then eventually, you have an image.
MK. It is a natural process that stands in contrast to the crowd thinking and crowd sourcing we were talking about. It’s a very subjective process.
JB. After a while you develop a selective view. If you look in a magazine, in the academies or on the Internet, you see ten different projects but you instantly know which one works within your concept; which fits within your matrix. I knew what I was thinking, but kept on researching until I began discussing it with my colleagues at Z33 and the Design Academy Eindhoven: Joost Grootens (Master Information Design) and Louise Schouwenberg (Master Contextual Design). The three of us spotted a tendency to research projects around the appropriation of materials, tools and systems. Most of them we saw in the Master department.
MK. Did the combination of these three items—materials, tools and systems—lead to the title of the exhibition? Or is ‘The Machine’ something that you had in mind from the beginning?
JB. It was obvious from the beginning. ‘The Machine’ is a metaphor; it’s not only about machines or about the traditional, deterministic machine, but more about the machinery. It’s about how designers appropriate tools, material and systems and use them to design a new society. For this reason, the subtitle ‘a New Industrial Revolution’ was also an obvious choice.
MK. As obvious as choosing studio backdrops for the scenography?
JB. The historical machines become a set for the exhibition; like actors in a science fiction movie. We are using Pantone Process Cyan for these backdrops because they refer to the blue screen (blue key) used for production techniques in the film industry.
MK. Let’s go back to the machines and systems. What is it that you observed?
JB. I saw that designers were designing machines with the intention of making tools for their ideas. Additionally, I think that the mining industry is like a machine that is transforming the landscape. This was actually the result of discussion I had with urbanist Peter Bongaerts, who inspired me with the preparation of the education letter to get accepted for Manifesta 9. It was called ‘A Landscape in Transformation.’
MK. The tools designers and people use are transforming too. Can you name an example for one of them?
JB. The best universal tool would be probably the iPhone. It is a device and platform that we adapt to our own needs.
The interview was originally published in the exhibition catalogue of ‘The Machine – Designing a New Industrial Revolution′ in June 2012.