241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

I recently read a news article critical on the way social media is used by the public after disasters occur. It questioned whether sharing intimate tweets and photos originally posted by victims of a disaster on online social media platforms expresses genuine sympathy or is merely an act of voyeurism.

It was in response to the social media activity following disasters such as the Boston bombings of 2013 or the recent tragedy of flight MH17 in the Ukraine. In both cases graphic and intimate images and messages regarding victims emerged online and were shared en masse by the public without any accountability. Although the article's main question seems to describe an activity that can be justifiably criticized, the piece ended with a disappointing conclusion, stating: “the line between sympathy and voyeurism appears to be wafer thin.”

The problem with openly sharing photos, information, assumptions, etcetera on social media platforms isn’t necessarily that others will turn out to be misinformed – although this is still a legitimate point to make. Arguably, sharing the photo of a ‘Syrian boy’ in between his ‘dead parents’ as an illustration of the horrors resulting from the civil battle in Syria could have had a benefit. Though erroneous, when that image spread it got a reaction from the West that no longer could ignore the atrocities in Syria. The fact that the boy in question was neither Syrian nor actually orphaned (it was a Saudi boy posing for a photograph by Abdul Aziz al Otaibi) didn’t take away the fact that many Syrian children are suffering. What does this newly found awareness from Western citizens really mean? It doesn’t mean anything to the Syrians - the conflict is still raging - so does it mean anything to us?

This brings me to a different side of the story; the moment that the West is hit by catastophe. After the disastrous turn of events surrounding Malaysia Air flight MH17, social media outlets flooded with horrific images of clothing, airplane parts, and bodies strewn across a flowery field. Images of the contents of ripped open luggage. Images of stuffed animals. It appears that disasters do have the effect of luring many into the realm of voyeurism. This voyeurism isn’t a pleasurable gaze into the private space of another, but its fantasmatic, internalized counterpart.

I would like to argue that so many of us in the West live in relative safety, freedom, and prosperity that it becomes increasingly difficult to identify with people affected by disasters and suffering around the world. Let me take the example of stories of monsters told to children. The older children or adults tell stories of monsters and ghosts coming to haunt you in the night. As the stories pile up you have yet to encounter your first sighting. One evening you are in bed and the pile of clothes on the chair in your room appears as a silhouette of the monster you have created in your mind. This is the type of fantasy at play. Not a yearning for the monster to be real but knowing that it, in a sense, is real without knowing what it looks like and having the need to define the monster. Seeing the monster, acknowledging it, in this way becomes a subversive duty defying the reality that there is no monster for you to see.

Sharing graphic images and messages online can express a genuine (but perhaps misplaced) feeling of sympathy. However, more likely they express a need to free oneself from the burden of living in safety and not having a real idea of what disaster and collective suffering really are. We constantly hear ghost stories so our duty becomes to seek out what our nightmares look like. In order to try and grasp the feelings of those affected by the tragedy, onlookers share intimate tweets from victims, photos of the disaster area, speculate about culprits, etc.

This digging into the world around a disaster happens immediately after the first glimmers of the news are out there. The online presence of victims or possible culprits is excavated and spread (note the circulation of false accusations directed at innocent people regarding the Boston bombings). But all of this happens in the name of sympathy for those affected. In this way the wafer thin line between sympathy and voyeurism doesn’t need to exist; sympathy requires voyeurism.

Let’s be clear; this is not a polemic engaged in a struggle to dismiss genuine grief. It is to try and show the duality in trying to remedy those suffering by freely spreading images and accounts of suffering. The harmful aspect is that this act of sharing replaces the moment of reflection immediately with a moment of activity, or rather pseudo-activity, an act that merely serves the status quo, or as Theodor Adorno put it: (..) Pseudo-activity; action that overdoes and aggravates itself for the sake of its own publicity, without admitting to itself to what extent it serves as a substitute satisfaction, elevating itself into an end in itself.

The act of sharing horrific images means, “look at these atrocities! Share if you care! I care!” Implicitly leaving anybody who doesn’t share as though they don’t care. This is the pseudo-activity within burden of collective suffering; the act overdoes itself and aggravates its intention (that of offering support to victims and affected families by ‘raising awareness’). It doesn’t show support to grieving families of victims but a need to partake in their suffering – sympathy comes from the Greek words syn meaning “together” and pathos meaning “feeling”, and pity derives from piety, which comes from the Latin pietas meaning “dutifulness.”

The burden of our position of relative safety in comparison to those in grief requires us to define suffering the moment we encounter it. This implicitly makes collective suffering a duty. However, to “feel together” becomes an impossibility almost if you are not directly affected by such a tragedy. There is no line between voyeurism and sympathy. The latter depends on the former. Perhaps instead of relentlessly confirming and repeating the stories of monsters one should silently provide a flashlight for those hiding under duvet, petrified for what might happen during the night.

At the brink of a new century in which less is more has a bio-political connotation, paradigm shifts will dramatically alter the boundaries and limits of social, economical and media-landscapes and therefore the discourse on the opportunities and the responsibilities of the designers involved has become exceptionally urgent. It is obvious that tomorrows design-problematique demands an integral and responsible approach. No longer can the role of the designer be limited to obeying the rules of functionality and aesthetics. Although the impact of the latest rapidly evolving developments in media-usage cannot be measured in full effect yet, we now have reached a state where the best of both of social and mobile is being combined, enabling anyone to operate on a global scale, from the comfortable setting of our personal phone. New applications are being put on the market every day and new functionalities of usage are being discovered by users as well. Everyone has become a photographer, a video-artist/journalist, editor , news/content-caster and a graphic-designer.

The professional designer (or design instructor) has two options during this media-avalanche. The first is to join the masses, but maintain some leverage. This implies that the level of involvement in the new media-landscape is more or less the same as the large group of participants, but the trained eye of the professional will spot strengths and weaknesses sooner than the masses and could therefore take a leading role within this community. This person will adapt to new developments very quickly and could gain momentum by riding on the front-end of this wave. Authority will be generated by knowledge of the present, and therefore has to be maintained carefully. We will call him/her the Shepherd.

The second role the professional could assume is that of the outsider. Standing firm in the midst of the storm, keeping a strong believe in concepts and originality. Is much more theoretical based and chooses types-of-media as they seem appropriate for the process. Will stick to outdated systems and analogue techniques if necessary. Claims that quality will always have a market (and is probably right), but misses large scale connection with the public. Will behave very critical towards the revolution, but does not theoretically oppose to the development of new media-systems. We will call this type the Wolf.

Note that both types have abandoned the notion of objective media-design. Designing without a clear and well profiled opinion on the urgent global matters is a violent and destructive act. To look or not to look is a political matter.

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?



Last night, our new-found friends from Chicago came to visit us in our little house on Farnsworth street in Detroit. We talked a lot about art, and again (as it often does here in the Midwest) the discussion turned to the virtues (or not) of community art and audience participation. Kevin was talking about an artist colleague of his who did a project where she would install plastic containers at the toilets of friends and collect their leftovers to produce manure, which she would then later return in a cup, ready to be used in the nearest flower pot.

We talked about how LONG she would be able to sustain this practice and if that was important or not for the project. Or if it was maybe enough that the art worked on a more metaphorical, symbolic level. Apparently this woman was also a great communicator and had managed to get support from powerful people (Patricia Arquette) in high places (Hollywood).

Surely this could be a very useful, green and worthy art project with many possible positive benefits for mankind and the planet as a whole?

And it is usually around this point in the discussions surrounding community art that I fall asleep spiritually and mentally. And it's not ONLY because I am a mean spirited, jaded cynic, who can't value utilitarianism. But because it is so different and alien from my own experience of art and culture. If I look at my own experience of culture I think about what was important to me, what changed me as a human, and what helped me to develop.

I value and respect Greenpeace, the Red Cross (and the Crescent) or Médecins Sans Frontières just as much as the next guy. I just don't think it's art, and I don't think that they see it as art either. It would take some truly hardcore relational aesthetics guy or girl to claim that as an art piece.

There were very few utilitarian reasons for me to listen to Sex Pistols or Throbbing Gristle, or read books by William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski or Jack Kerouac, or laugh myself silly reading Robert Crumb…au contraire! There was NOTHING healthy about it. Which of course was partly the reason why I got into it in the first place. Does anyone seriously believe that people listen to Death Metal or experimental Jazz for any hidden health reasons?

Jack Kerouac

But it did help me to become a more complex person, it did challenge my beliefs and it did force me to open up to new ways of looking at the world. And it did fuck up my mental hard disk and after that I can't process information and ideas in the same way as I did before and I think that's all you can ask of art.Here in the Midwest (as I have written about before) a lot of the little support there is for art, is tied to educational projects. I have no problem with this, I TOO teach, but I don't call it art!

In the 60's and 70's there were huge debates in Europe and USA, usually from a leftist perspective. Wasn't it time for the artists to fianally get off the fence and make themselves useful for the workers and join the revolution? Every artist and writer joined either the Communist party or the RAF, except Salvador Dali who just wanted to make precious GOLD!

"Make yourself useful, go into Bijlmer and help some poor Suriname kids," was the mantra (until very recently) from Dutch politicians who felt that maybe they could finally get some economical and social returns from the parasite artists that they had subsidized for much too long. I am already doing this by the way, but for other more "culturally perverted" (=sound) reasons.

Now the calls come from the cultural right (or maybe the cultural nihilists would be a more correct description). Go and entertain Henk and Ingrid in Apeldoorn (the Suriname kids are of course out of fashion). I don't mind being useful or utilitarian, but I rather call that teaching, giving lectures or workshops to be able to keep my art free, dirty and perverted.

And if you haven't paid attention, most poor, uneducated people ALSO prefers their culture dirty and nasty. See Baile Funk in Brazil and Gangster Rap in the States, etcetera. And they find it condescending when we honkies come up with another well meaning do-good-er project in the Bijlmer, Rio or Detroit.

So let's keep real culture sick ‘n’ nasty and leave the do-good-erism to Greenpeace. And if you absolutely can't restrain yourself and just have to do some good, just call it a workshop and you're off the hook....

Peace Out!!!!

Jonas Ohlsson reporting form Detroit thanks to Expodium