241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

The purchase of my first digital camera meant the sudden end of any inhibitions I still had when it comes to taking pictures. It marked the beginning, however, of my transformation into a full-time Japanese tourist, relentlessly clicking at the sight of anything even remotely close to being interesting. It resulted in an endless amount of photos of endearing kitties in the streets, women with big butts walking ahead of you, of yourself in every setting imaginable in this world, of everybody you have talked to for longer than five minutes and of your own legs on the bed of your hotel room. Suddenly I had a picture of everything. Which, of course, seems very nice, but isn’t.

I remember only taking two 24-shot film rolls with me for a month’s vacation. Was the rice served on our plates in the shape of a little bear worth a picture or not? Now I thoughtlessly take twenty in one go, assuming that the ideal picture will surely be among them in due time. The euphoria of taking as many pictures as you like has long faded now, although I shall never again be able to go back to limited photographing with film rolls, it’s simply too late for that. What I had to figure out, then, was a new way of handling my digital camera.

My first priority was to bring some order into my picture archive, which already consisted of thousands of photos. I decided upon a Flickr account. For all of you who have been living underneath a rock: Flickr is a website on which people manage and share their photo collections, making it also the world’s biggest online photo archive. About five thousand new pictures are uploaded every second and the total amount of photos is estimated at around 300.000.000.

Putting my archive online, thereby making it freely accessible to anyone, even my potential future loved one (you never know), made me look at my pictures critically again, eventually uploading only my best photos. A collection appeared that, with regards to selectivity, equaled the one that would have resulted if I had shot on film.

But something else happened as well. Pictures that I had shot out of sheer boredom, such as the photo of my own hairy legs, on a bed with a pink flowered sheets in a sad hotel (in which I stayed all by myself since I had to attend a boring congress in Bergen op Zoom), appeared to have survived the selection process.

It was a picture I would have never shot if it had required any thought, but which I found interesting nevertheless by virtue of the immense sadness that spoke from it.

A couple of days later I received an email. On Flickr there are different groups that gather photos around a theme. I was emailed by the administrator of the group ‘Sitting in my Hotel Room’ asking me if I would add the photo to the group. I took a look first, finding almost two thousand pictures taken by people alone in their hotel rooms. Most of these were very ugly, uninteresting pictures by themselves. For example, some show only a television screen with a painting of a mountain landscape above it, or a view of a city full of skyscrapers, captured from the hotel window. Pictures that look like you have seen them a thousand times before, and many of them are of very poor quality.

Nevertheless, something magical happened when I saw all these photos together. All of a sudden I could see the thousands, millions of people before my eyes who spend every night somewhere in an anonymous hotel, alone in the world except for the company of their digital cameras. By seeing all these photos together the sadness was enormously magnified, for in this photo archive the world seems to contain lonely hotel guests solely. At the same time it consoles: all these people are not alone, but convene on this site.

I found another group that fit the same picture: ‘Bored Leg Cult’. In this group one mainly finds photos of people who took pictures of their legs everywhere in the world, sometimes standing, mostly lying down and, for obvious reasons, always without torso. Interesting was how this group completely changed the context of that same picture. In the midst of all the hotel pictures it became a sad picture, but in this group, among all those other legs severed from their bodies, it became happy and funny.

It quickly transpired that I could find groups for almost all my photos. There are groups for pictures of dogs photographed as humans; deserted shopping carts; food items eating themselves; cats with hats; the colour red; people with aids; you name it and there’s a group for it. And the strange thing is that every time I added a photo, the context changed completely. The photo is no longer autonomous, but part of a series. How else to interpret my picture of a shopping cart left behind in a field when seen among more than a thousand pictures of carts in deserts, marshy canals, gorgeous beaches or hanging from trees?

And thus a collection emerges that a sole photographer would have never been able to make, because who manages to find so many shopping carts? A collection that consists only out of pictures that might have been shot without much thought, and yet all of them together create something bigger.

Imagine, you live in the 14th century, and somebody tells you the printing press will be a catalyst in a scientific revolution. You would probably think this person is exaggerating. You do understand the principle of reproduction and distribution of thought, that's not the problem. However, you can't imagine that such a simple thing as a change in medium can have such a profound impact.

The inability to understand the transition to a newer medium can have severe consequences. From the moment the printing press made its first appearance a new group of disadvantaged became apparent, the illiterate. This group was unable to read, spell and write and could therefore not interpret the new medium. For them the world became more and more a place they could not understand.

In the 21st century not only the illiterate are the ones that are unable to understand the new current medium. A new group is created, those who cannot understand an ever changing medium. With the arrival of the internet it becomes relevant to ask if a human being and the graphic designer can really cope with an ever such changing medium.

The modern illiterate

There is a new group of disadvantaged because of the nature of a developing or established medium. This, in essence, is what happens with every new medium, as it asks of its user to undergo a process of unlearning and learning. Besides vocal language, people had to learn how to interpret written language, they had to unlearn to write the same as they spoke, not to mention any refinements that were expected along the way .
What happens if a new medium is introduced that is not only different from its predecessor but also constantly changing? The process of learning and unlearning becomes a constant state. Alvin Toffler wrote the following about this:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

If we take a look at which medium might be the biggest change for the printed word, the internet is likely to be picked. Our environment is more and more designed for quick communication in which we are hardly limited to geographical location; our social relations are maintained by platforms and applications, and the amount of people that use smartphones, tablets and laptops is growing exponentially. All developments largely dependent on the internet.

With our daily and sometimes even uninterrupted use we’d like to think that we also understand. We use a smartphone so we "are" on the internet, we use google so we use the internet. But do we truly understand what internet is? Is using applications that are on the internet the same as understanding? Maybe we are fooling ourselves, and maybe we are the new generation that does not understand its environment. And perhaps worse: we aren't even noticing it.

From solid to liquid

An important cause of if we do or do not understand the internet is most likely the wrong interpretation of its nature. Up until we had internet all our media was invariable, as soon as they were produced. A book, newspaper, flyer or poster: as soon as they are produced they are solid. The internet on the other hand is not solid at all. For example news-websites can add and change content at any moment of the day. If you look at a news website you merely see a snapshot of an ever changing image. But if internet knows no solid state which state does it have then? Maybe liquid?

In core the difference between solid and liquid is easily described, however it is very clearly defined by Zygmunt Bauman “[...] in simple language [...] liquids, unlike solids, cannot easily hold their shape. Fluids, so to speak, neither fix space nor bind time. While solids have clear spatial dimensions but neutralize the impact, and thus downgrade the significance, of time (effectively resist its flow or render it irrelevant), fluids do not keep to any shape for long and are constantly ready (and prone) to change it; and so for them it is the flow of time that counts, more than the space they happen to occupy: that space, after all, they fill but ‘for a moment’.”

Not only the visual qualities but also time plays an indispensable role. A picture of a liquid form needs a time indication, because when the picture is taken, the liquid form has already changed. A solid shape however is hardly affected by time. As easy as liquid shapes change they manoeuvre around solid shapes and hardly feel impact. They can 'flow', 'spill', 'run out', 'splash', 'pour over', 'leak', 'flood', 'spray', 'drip', 'seep' and 'ooze'. Even better, just as it takes energy to hold a liquid form stationary, it takes energy to make a solid form move.

The comparison between solid and liquid is highly relevant when we are talking about internet. The internet doesn't know the solidness as we have known in media up to now. The internet does not feel any friction when being moved: it flows from one side of the world towards the other in a fraction of a second. Images can be duplicated with a friction that is almost negligible. News-reports don't have a specific moment in time: they are only snapshots of a liquid form.

Liquid Design

The underestimation of changes and their impact, and the wrong interpretation of the nature of the internet, can have profound effects, as Toffler indicated: the rise of a new generation that can't interpret the media around itself. Especially because of these factors it is very important to address a group that is extremely dependent on the medium of this time and its interpretation: the graphic designer.

The printing press was on its own nothing more than a technique; it was the human who by a (specific) implementation gave value to it. He duplicated documents, made books, made posters, flyers and derivatives. From this development the graphic designer evolved, a person who has the task to visualise a message in the media of its time.
Here arises a paradox: the graphic designer is rooted in history of solid forms, but it's his task to use the medium of nowadays which is mainly liquid. Because the medium is so different, omnipresent and growing, it is the graphic designer who should critically review himself. The graphic designer must go from solid (static) design towards liquid design. We shouldn't learn to write and read differently in order not to become subordinated; we need to learn a skill to handle the constantly changing state of our new media. This is not a simple task for a graphic designer, because he is inclined to think in terms of solidity, rules and grids. It is almost an inhumane transition. It is in our nature to think in heuristics in order to make our daily life manageable: who are and are not our friends, what I do and do not like, etc.

Maybe the transition to liquid design is still ungraspable and we should take a step back and realise that we underestimated the internet, it's nature and impact. Even language limits us.
Comprehending, grasping, materialising are conceivable descriptions of a change in thinking in which statements are still made in terms of solidity.

Factors like these make it an excellent task for a graphic designer to rove the internet in a visual way. By not only understanding it and holding it down but also by letting it 'flow', 'drip' and 'ooze'.

Liquid Design resulted out of his graduation project The New Public Space where he researches the interesting interaction between the rapidly changing media and graphic design which depends so heavily on it. The text is researched by Gilles and written together with Ruben Verkuylen.

Alvin Toffler, Rethinking the Future, London, 2008

Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge, 2000

Clifton 6
Clifton 8

During the sixties and seventies, many Surinamese people made their way to The Netherlands. One of these was Clifton.

In Holland, the Surinamese introduced us to a whole range of novelties: besides peanut soup, an exotic new vocabulary, different perspectives on life, swinging rhythms; moreover, they presented us with a remarkable fashion sense. I became acquainted with Clifton the through the visual artist Saskia Jansen. At the time, he was living on the streets and always carried a bag under his arm in which he kept his photo albums. He entered the room carrying his brown briefcase, unzipped it and placed five photo albums on my desk.

In every photo, Clifton was to be seen striking a pose with great care, in various settings from his first communion to a party in the homeless shelter a few months earlier.

The photos document his life like a sample card of the fashions and music genres of the last decades.

Clifton as Ray Charles, Boney-M’s Bobby Farell, as Lenny Kravitz, Michael Jackson, Milli Vanilli. Wearing a high-tech sliver body warmer with built-in speakers, or a bright yellow shirt standing next to a bright yellow mailbox.
Clifton wears a different outfit every day, and he’s been doing so for his whole life; as a child, as a visitor to Paradiso, regardless of whether he had a roof over his head. Always a different outfit, without fail.
Clifton 6
Clifton 8