241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

It was easy to revive the dead in the 18th century: just insert a tobacco resuscitator into the rectum and deliver a quick puff of smoke. The body would be stimulated back to life.

The kit comprised a bellows ­­– originallya pig’s bladder – a tobacco pipe, a mouthpiece, and a cone for insertion. The technique gained popularity in 1746, when a drowned woman was resuscitated courtesy of a rolled piece of paper and a sailor’s pipe; a success story that saw ‘The Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead from Drowning’ install the kits at various points along the Thames, and build a centre by the Serpentine in Hyde Park to rescue drowned skaters.

Doubts about the credibility of tobacco-smoke enemas led to the phrase ‘blowing smoke up your arse’, no doubt after experiments, including a mass resuscitation effort in a Paris morgue, failed. Yet the object was standard medical practice across Europe and America for over a century, not just for resuscitation, but for treating constipation, strangulated hernias and intestinal obstructions.

A surviving example of the tobacco-smoke enema sits in a display case at London’s Wellcome Collection. This is the accompanying description: ‘There are no known accounts that the Tobacco Resuscitator worked.’ The label may be short but it has a subtext that says: ‘Look how foolish they were. We know better.’

But do we? Just down the road from the museum, British model Kelly Brook’s derrière is the focus point of a billboard. She is wearing Reebok’s EasyTone trainers: a type of shoe that supposedly tones the buttocks 28 per cent more than regular shoes when you walk in them. The shoes are Reebok’s most successful new product in five years. Even when the Federal Trade Commission forced Reebok to rein in its claims, the shoes continued to sell.

This puzzle plays in my head later when I am flicking through TV channels and land on Pitch TV. Celebrity builder Tommy Walsh is demonstrating the Paint Pad Pro, a painting tool with ‘the speed of a roller and precision of a brush’. The paint glides over the patterned wallpaper, giving instant coverage: ‘It uses less paint than a brush, with minimum effort!’ I stare at my grubby walls.

Next channel: A woman delicately throws vinegar, oil, eggs, orange juice and a can of tomatoes onto a tiled floor. She picks up Whizz Mop, and moves it over the puddle. ‘Look at that! All gone and no streaks! And what do we do now?’ The male presenter smiles at the pretty assistant. ‘Whizz!’ she says, and places the Whizz Mop into a bucket, pumping a pedal to give the mop-head a spin dry.

Flick back: ‘And get the detachable extension pole too. No ladders – no splatters! And wait! We’re so confident that you’ll like this that we’ll double your pads for free!’ I go onto the Amazon website. Customers gave the product a blanket one star, except for a suspicious two who gave it five.

The tobacco resuscitator was administered in good faith; both the physician and the patient believed the product worked. But it is fairly obvious that the EasyTone shoes are not going to make you thinner, that the Whizz Mop and Paint Pad Pro are no faster, and no superior, to average mops and paint-rollers. So why, with the resources and knowledge available to us, do we continue to buy them?

Buckminster Fuller asked this question back in 1947 when he set up fictional company Obnoxico, to criticise those who make money selling worthless objects. The outlet was a faux mail order catalogue, and the star product was a gold cast of a baby’s last worn nappy; a memento of the moment a child is toilet trained, in object form. ‘Somehow or other the theoretical Obnoxico concept has now, twenty-five years later, become a burgeoning reality,’ Fuller reflected in the 1970s. ‘As the banking system pleads for more savings-account deposits (so that they can loan your money out to others at interest plus costs) the Obnoxico industry bleeds off an ever greater percentage of all the perennial savings as they are sentimentally or jokingly spent for acrylic toilet seats with dollar bills cast in the transparent plastic material.’

We live in a world filled with Obnoxico products, accompanied by a marketing industry highly skilled at mass manipulation. In 2004, two Czech film students created a supermarket, Czech Dream (Ceský Sen), in a Prague field. They employed a leading marketing agency to produce TV and radio ads, distribute 200,000 pamphlets and build a website, all boasting products at unbeatable prices. The project was filmed, and culminated in the opening of the building. The students, masquerading as businessmen, cut a ribbon, triggering 3,000 people, laden with shopping baskets, to run towards the hypermarket, only to reach a canvas façade supported by plinths. Their faces slowly turn to anguish as they realise they have been duped. The entire project was a fiction.

But marketing is not enough in itself to keep us buying Obnoxico products. Often, products with a dubious use-value have another, less obvious function that keeps them in the market. The useless tobacco resuscitator became useful for something else: to ritualise – in a rather unfortunate manner – the end of a life. The process gave a purpose to the doctor who arrived to pronounce a man dead, and set the grievers on their path, knowing that ‘we did everything we could’. For the survivors, the shock of the events quite possibly caused a psychological and bodily effect that aided recovery. Similarly, people who buy Reebok’s EasyTone shoes do so because they feel they are investing in their wellbeing, and this improves their state of mind. They may notice an improvement to their derrière even if there isn’t one.

This is called the placebo effect and has been defined by psychiatrists as ‘any therapy prescribed… for its therapeutic effect on a symptom or disease, but which is actually ineffective or not specifically effective for the symptom or disorder being treated’. In medicine, our belief in a pill’s ability to work sends a message to the pituitary gland to release its own endogenous pharmaceutics. The effect causes many red faces: when the pharmaceutical industry’s new wonder drugs are tested against sugar pills, half fail to beat the placebo. The same has been found for medical procedures. When physician Edzard Ernst performed an electrocardiogram diagnostic procedure on one of his elderly patients, the patient responded: ‘That was great. I feel much better, my chest pain has completely gone.’ Placebos are so effective, there’s a regular debate between government parties, doctors and psychologists as to whether they should be available on the NHS.

That unquestionable faith we once had in God, nature and even witchcraft to make us better is today transferred to science and technology. Functionless things, pills and procedures can improve our wellbeing simply through our belief in them. And they can easily be designed. That thermostat in your office probably has its wires cut, and is connected to nothing but your imagination. Turn the dial up and you’ll feel warmer; Wall Street bosses admitted that this act saved them a fortune. The ‘close door’ button in the elevator only works when the engineer plugs his key in; some say it exists to give us the illusion of control. Have you noticed how if you hit it repeatedly it seems to work?

So if the effects are good, is it right to deceive people, and wrong to tell people the truth? Perhaps sometimes, but because we don’t always know which things are placebos and which aren’t, we can’t critique them. They are an irreversible equation; they switch instantly from useful to useless once we know. We can’t decide at which point we need to know we are being duped – because then it’s too late. So should we allow people to orchestrate these elaborate spectacles in our mind?

Placebos – Latin for ‘I will please’ – work to various means; but as often as the intentions of duping us are good, they can as easily be driven by unsavoury goals. There is also the placebo’s evil twin to contend with: the nocebo, meaning ‘I will harm’. Voodoo curses that lead to death have been explained as extreme nocebo reactions. More recently, an autopsy of a man who died of terminal cancer revealed that his tumour was not large enough to cause death. Was it, the doctor suggested, the expectation of death that killed him?

Zwart licht, 1984

Zwart licht, 1984

Art Unlimited made a postcard out of “Nightlight” that sold well. Philips had objected greatly and made many attempts to take the postcard off the market. The following correspondence between lawyers covers the, lawful or not, use of cliché.

Mr. M.J.M. van Kaam, Letter to Mr. PR.M. van de Kroft

Philips International B.V. Corporate Patterns and Trademarks Eindhoven
Subject: Philips shield emblem

Dear Mr. van der Kroft,
(...) Regarding the Philips shield emblem, Philips possesses two trademarks registered within the Benelux. (...) The said trademarks both include, among others, class 16 to where the postcards in question belong. On the basis arising from the rights of the above mentioned trademark, which derive from 1938, and on account of the Philips brand’s great worldwide reputation and renown, we are of the opinion that Philips can, within right and reason, oppose your client’s use of the Philips shield emblem.
In this case, we have established that your client, without the permission of Philips, is selling postcards depicting the Philips shield emblem and is thus profiting from the appeal of this brand. Therefore, your client is making use of the Philips shield emblem for promotion of his own merchandise in addition to the sale of this merchandise (...). Furthermore, we must reject your view that, besides for scientific and informative use, artistic use is an additional legitimate use…
On the grounds of the above, we believe that your client must cease the offending use of the Philips shield emblem. Moreover, we trust that you will understand our position. A firm such as Philips should at all times prevent its brands from possible damage to their primary function as distinguishing feature.

Mr. PR.M, van der Kroft, Letter to Mr. M.J.M. van Kaam, 23.10.1987

(...) Of course, my client understands that Philips, in principle, takes action against each use they deem infringement of trademark. The question that divides us is whether this is, concerning this case, justified (...)
I am aware that Philips produces and distributes a multiple of goods within the Benelux. However, I am unaware of Philips manufacturing and distributing printed matter, in particular, postcards. For this reason, I must rely on non-usus in the merchandise concerned. In my opinion, my client is not using the brand to promote her business nor the sales of her own merchandise. (...)
In regards to neutral and non-offensive use of the Philips emblem, I would like to compare the postcard with the use of the image or word Philips within a literary publication, against which action would neither be taken, so long as this occurs in a non-offensive manner.
How interesting this question may be theoretically – and I remain curious of your opinion concerning aforementioned, I consider it wiser to choose a practical solution. From my client, I have understood the edition to be very limited. I will request from her a proposal, which I hope to promptly present to you.

Mr.P.R.M. van de Kroft, letter to Art Unlimited, 23.10.1987

(...) I hope to somewhat stretch the discussion, until your edition has been sold out. Could you give me an indication of how long this might last? After this, we’ll dutifully promise Mr. van Kaam that we won’t print any new editions, on the premise that the artist will be allowed to exhibit the work freely and include it in exhibition catalogues.

Frank Lloyd Wright built the Robie House in an era where the Internet did not yet exist and travelling was still a true adventure. During an excursion through Robie House, a guide told me that after the house was finished and inhabited, Frank Lloyd would often visit to make sure that the furniture hadn’t been moved. He had designed the house, including the furniture, on the basis of his own ideals of how to optimally live in the space. Ikea’s slogan, are you just living or are you alive (woon je nog of leef je al, translated from Dutch), might very well have originated here. In light of the social relations and available knowledge of his time, F.L. showed an incredible, arguably dictatorial, commitment that surpassed the responsibility of designing a house. F.L. developed an entire concept and assumed responsibility over the lives of the inhabitants by being the director, as it were, of their domestic space.

A hundred years later, the Robie House is a museum and the status of the architect has shrivelled to a consumer of projects. Projects that comprise of little more than designing the money flow controlled by banks, insurance companies and project developers. During these hundred years, capitalism underwent a transformation that is reflected in the profession of the architect. The last decades of the previous century saw modern social capitalism exchanged for a predatory capitalism that, within current globalisation, is developing into brutal indulgence capitalism. McDonalds is recycling, Shell makes use of clean energy, and the Rabobank is sustainable? On paper, global problems like climate change are being braved with technological marvels. If we were to combine all the energy networks of the world or connect wind turbines in the North Sea to solar panels in the Sahara, we would have constant access to energy produced by the sun, wind, or water. Or, if we stack pigs in high-rise buildings, they could always roam free.

Of course, these plans still need to be conceived of, designed, and developed, but that should be allowed in today’s polluted conditions. A better world begins tomorrow.

Frank Lloyd Wright also had grand ideas. Broadacre City, for example, was the manifestation of his vision of a society where individual happiness was found in and around the yard. Technology was subject to this form of social living. What is most fascinating about this is not the technological aspect, that’s merely development done by engineers. What is particularly admirable is the engagement with which he applied his ideas in daily life. Moving around furniture in a house where the inhabitants have long moved in, can you imagine? In my thoughts, I can see Frank Lloyd walking past Broadacre City’s vegetable garden with a hoe, a straw hat on his head, pushing a wheelbarrow before him, checking all around to make sure there aren’t any weeds growing among the potatoes, that the beanstalks are neatly lined up, and that the chickens are clucking about happily.

What does this sort of engagement entail today? Rem Koolhaas sailing over the North Sea to turn the turbines himself to face the wind, or a Winy Maas feeding pigs on the 27th floor of pig city? These images don’t quite conjure the same romantic engagement as a hundred years ago. Nowadays, all global injustice is uncovered with a click of the mouse, rendering all form of engagement implicitly insufficient. We should also check building sites for slave labour or child labour, for working conditions, the building materials for how they’re produced and their origins, the waste, the air quality, the food, the money flow etc. It’s an impossible task that the current management society would rather “outsource” to external experts. As a result, even our responsibilities have become commodities. In order to reach a new Utopia, the architect must, as an independent thinker, free himself from the prison that he has locked himself in as a consumer.

An independently thinking architect takes responsibilities himself; an independently thinking architect practices insourcing. The “Moral Balance Sheet” is an experiment to apply the wide definition of prosperity to the architect’s practice, an experiment to locate one’s own responsibility and to take it. A Ton Matton, who produces his own energy, wears second hand clothing, slaughters his own chicken, and plants a tree himself. The tree is a beech tree, planted on my yard. This tree absorbs more carbon dioxide than is needed to write this article. But for every Google search, the same amount of energy is used as for a car to drive 400 meters. Should we wait around to see how many hits there will be and how long that tree will have to grow for it?