Naked bodies, suicides and earthquakes
Friday December 07th 2012, 7:22 pm
Filed under: Some ranting
I was enjoying the rusty, salty local onsen (hot springs) with Mum yesterday. It was early afternoon with a light breeze and wonderfully sunny for a winter’s day. As we bathed in the outdoor area we saw many local women, usually in pairs, all sizes and ages. Short, fat, skinny, bow-legged, wrinkled, freckled… its actually very humbling and heart-warming seeing the diversity. It reminded me that there is no ‘normal’ person.
On the NHK Japanese news today, they reported that the number of suicides for this year has gone down for the first time in 15 years, dipping below 30,000. I know. 30,000. It’s a crazy number. The highest being Tokyo. The journalist said that the government are working out a strategy to deal with the situation. What a palarva.
7th Dec, 5:25pm, there was a mag. 4 earthquake. We were watching the telly at the time. The warning came on, and then for a full minute, the whole house shook, throwing things off the shelves. I half picked up my laptop, Mum went to clutch the porcelain doll and Dad turned the kerosene heater off. It was pretty scary – the lights swung around and the pendulum clock stopped working. Once it had passed, we contined to watch the seaside town, Kesennnuma further north evacuate to the hills – the tsunami was on its way. Since the Great Eastern Japan earthquake, the language used to warn people has shifted from ’suggesting’ to evacuate to ‘telling’ people to do so. The urgency of tone used by the news broadcasters was very persuasive. Though, it was comical to see them on the TV with hard-hats on.
I’m meant to be going there next week… with continued after-shocks, maybe I might get to experience the ‘real’ thing and add another dimension to the disaster research I’m doing…
This experience has caused many to recall the horrors of the Great Eastern Earthquake last year. Later, it was reported that many people did evacuate, but in their cars, causing heavy traffic jams on highways, despite being told to leave on foot. The authorities are re-examining their messages and strategies again.
With the general election coming up on the 19th December, many people (including my vocal parents) are angry and dispirited by all candidates and parties. The mood is incredibly dark and negative. Electroral turnout is still very low, particularly among the young generation (below 50%). This has led to interesting initiatives where schools are conducting ‘mock’ elections for highschool kids to experience what it means and feel like to take part in an election.
Some are promising to get rid of all nuclear power stations, reflecting the wishes of most Japanese citizens. Though none have come up with a viable alternative energy source, making their promises hollow and unreliable. Even a previous Prime Minister Abe (who threw in the towel before) has come back to run again, vowing to rebuild the economy, making empassioned speeches about not forgetting those affected by the disaster. Its laughable how naive and ridiculous they all sound. How will they rebuild communities, especially in Fukushima, and why would they trust the government when they’ve done so little? These residents have become immigrants in their own country, having found a temporary shelter or a relative to live with elsewhere but all desiring to return to their homeland. Some related this to purgatory, unable to start new businesses and a new life.
A broken public system
A week in Pittsburgh has flown by and I realise how much this place is a car-culture. Some places have a ‘prohibited’ sign of humans – we laughed at that thinking whether it meant that ‘no people are allowed’, but it’s simply a sign that means no pedestrian crossing. Sometimes, there is no traffic lights for pedestrians, and this is where it gets hairy because you have to dart across whenever there’s a gap in traffic. And there’s a crazy Pittsburgh-only rule of turning on red… I wonder what the statistics are on traffic accidents here.
Bus stop signs are very obscure, a medium-sized blue rectangle simply tacked on to electric poles. There’s one on the corner of Friendship and South Atlantic that we took to the strip. I wondered why were were hanging around on this corner until Laurene told me that we’re waiting for the bus. As any cities, their timetables are unreliable. $3.50 buys you a return ticket that’s only valid for the next 3hrs. That’s kinda expensive, especially for low-income families. The only thing I liked about the bus system is the rack at the front of the bus where you can load your pushbike onto. The School buses are mainly empty but for a handful of children – that must guzzle some serious amount of petrol.
Tom took Cameron, Sophie, Laurene and I on a tour of the steel works today. Having grown up in Pittsburgh most of his life and taking summer jobs in the steelworks, he knew a great deal about them and its history. He pointed out the massively long ‘coke’ trains that brought the materials to the smelting factories, and the hills dotted around the place that were made from slag heaps. He took us to a neighbourhood (equivalent to our suburb) called Presston where there were factory-owned cottages for the workers in Press Works who were paid in company credits, so they could only buy from company-run shops, trapping them in that job and life forever. The rich factory owners would live high in the hills where the air was less polluted. Basically, a tough life for the ordinary family.
He also took us through Braddock, a pretty scary suburb that partly looked like a ghost town. Houses were dilapidated and general neglect hung in the air. Though the story is fascinating – a gung-ho Mayor who looks like the Hell’s Angel gang member has adopted Braddock as his own (the word is that he tattoos the names of those who had died in Braddock on to his body) and is leading the battle on injecting some love into this neighbourhood through community projects.
Pittsburgh is a fascinating town, full of paradoxes – there is a resilient beauty in its chaos and industrial ugliness. The houses originally built by the steel works wealth is still evident in the wonderful architecture of Penn Station building, the Cathedral of Learning and the residential houses such as those in Friendship or Oakland. And this butts against the long coal trains, the abandoned warehouses, disused steel factories and ramshackled streets. The dirty rivers (a health hazard when in rains, because of the combined sewage overflow) confluence here but the concrete and steel bridges are magnificent, often pained in light yellow and blue.
What is it to be a designer..?
When I was in London recently, Alison and I had a mammoth discussion in the British Library about service design (since we were attempting to write a paper together) and one of the things we touched on is something that I’d like to write more about another day – so here’s some thoughts to get me going (for later).
I can’t quite remember how our conversation began, possibly from me recounting the discussion from PDC12 where there was a concern about the literal separation between ‘designers’ and ‘users’ (and even the term ‘users’ is also problematic, but this will do for now). There is an underlying ideology in participatory design that desires ‘users’ to become ‘designers’, so that the ‘users’ can design for their own context and keep designing after the ‘designers’ exit. This is seen as a form of empowerment.
Alison, in her classic ways, then took a whole detour telling me about her encounter with a dad in Scotland – he was massively overweight, Yorkshire working class, unemployed, chaotic, loud but friendly, his wife also had all sorts of health-problems – long and short of the story is that a middle-class impression of this man could pull him down as a parent lacking aspirational qualities, but he adored his children and they were bright as a button. And here was Alison who had come to the library with me for most of the day, leaving Tate and Flo at home alone, and one could say that she’s not a good parent if asked, what’s more important? In fact she’s a fantastic parent and her brilliant kids are a testament to that. Notions of ‘what is a good parent’ is shaped by class and culture (again – Bourdieu). Alison’s role as a ‘parent’ are qualities that you can’t separate out objectively to name it as a ‘parentness’ thing. Its not fixed.
Could the same be said about ‘what is it to be a designer’? We are shaped by so many things (remember the stew / bolognese pasta sauce analogy) and so how can one separate out certain bits like choice cuts in beef – rump, oyster blade – its not that simple in a person. So, when ‘users’ and ‘designers’ are separated out, I think similar things happen. We point at things as if they can be separated. Sure, technical skills and experiences in designing do count. But when it comes to closely examining what is really design and what is it to be a ‘designer’, I reckon we are deluded by thinking that it can be pointed at. When in fact, its design, because it can’t…?
How tools have shaped our hands, and us
Being a knackered after work and vegging out in front of the telly, I came across this TV program called ‘Origins of us’. I love natural history documentaries and in a parallel universe, I am sure I would’ve been a geologist, archeologist or a biologist (is this long intro is a reflection of my guilt for watching so much TV…!?)
Anyway, the bit that was most interesting was when the scientist was comparing the skeletal bones between a chimp and a human. They said that chimps often need to eat their fruit with two hands, because their hands aren’t very good at gripping objects, often using their lips and teeth to do the maneuverings when humans would do this with their fingers. The reason why humans evolved (over 3 million years from Australopithecus afarensis to Homo Erectus) a thicker bone in their thumb was because of the tools they were using.
The presenter compared two tools – one that used a stone as a hammer to shape another stone, and another that used a sharp stone blade to slice through meat. The sensors in the hand indicated that the more ‘evolved’ tool – ie, the sharp stone blade, involved more force on the thumb, because it had to grip the smaller tool to undertake the complex process. This strongly indicated that these tools that our ancestors designed were the reason that our hands developed the thicker bone in our thumbs. And so our hands have evolved to do very complicated things, which also evolved our frontal lobes (for thinking).
Its quite astonishing to think that human evolution was not only to do with external causes (ie, change in climate, environment, food, predators) in the way that most species would’ve been forced to evolve, but driven by what early humans created and used. This evolutionary process is on-going now – the things we design make us who we are – we are continually ‘becoming’.
The singing revolution
I was watching the ‘history of Eurovision’, a brilliant SBS program that tells the story of Europe (its political struggles, civil wars, and human rights oppression) through the Eurovision song contest and they showed the country, Estonia, who literally sang the country to independence from the Soviet Union. Former Estonian Priminister, Mart Laar, says in this program, ‘They decided no to send the tanks. It’s hard to send the tanks against a singing people who are just singing together doing no harm.’
Oh, how wonderful!
East vs West
I’m in the midst of writing a paper called ‘A way of being in design practice: zen and the art of being a human-centred practitioner’. The gist of it is firstly, critiquing dogmatic and prescriptive approaches of being a socially-concerned, ethical designer, to bring in another orientation to practice based on reflection, that transforms oneself through self-awareness and one’s relationship to others and the world. In bringing in my Eastern, cultural perspective (Shinto and Zen), I started to notice how uncomfortable I had felt in even writing ‘Eastern’. This immediately sets up an opposition to ‘Western’. East is not the opposite of West, and just as Edward Said argues, it is just a paradigm set up to understand ‘The Other’. This then led me to think how this has been the uncomfortableness that I have been dealing with all my life, something that I thought I shall write a book about one day, and publish it in Japan. I am a product of a hybrid of many cultures (Japanese, British and Australian) and I cannot think things in a dualistic way, especially about culture, very easily. It just doesn’t make sense to me who have grown up embodying all aspects of three. But the Japanese have a particular sense of identity – ‘the we Japanese…’ that culturally pronounces differences. The Japanese are really sensitive to it – and the ‘we the Japanese…’ is a phrase that you hear often as a way to reassure themselves of that cultural identity. True, I am also guilty of it – a card that I often pull out (in Australia, its particularly comical because cultural identity is so stereotyped) when asked about what I do or what I think, attributing it ‘to my kulcha’. The most recent was when Adrian asked me ‘why I was so good at origami’, and I said ‘its my kulcha’. In a way, it is my culture. I don’t recall being formally taught how to do origami, just as one doesn’t recall how to throw a football around (in Australia), and I can’t attribute to why I am so good at it, or why I like it. It conforms to such a typical cultural stereotype that it does sound quite bizarre (especially because I am also not really Japanese Japanese…).
Laurene thought how that ‘we the Japanese…’ is the resilience that had pulled them through the recent Hokuriku disaster. Even though this ‘we’ is a far more human quality, it is very much a Japanese thing, irrespective of which part of Japan one is from. One literally ‘feels’ the pain, because one shares the same ethnic genealogy. Its much more than sympathy or empathy. It is bizzare – and really took me by surprise when I found myself bawling my eyes out when I first heard the news. I really felt the pain in my body. So maybe I am more Japanese Japanese than I thought I was. Perhaps this hybridity of cultures doesn’t really make things all equally generic ie, I have 33.3% British, and equal amounts of Japanese and Australian or a mashed-up version of all three. Maybe it accentuates these differences more. Maybe I have developed a stronger expression of each of these cultures…?
To be continued…
Oh Dear – the future of the RCA
Thursday March 18th 2010, 10:50 am
Filed under: Some ranting
Tim had sent me this link today which pricked my curiosity. The RCA’s communication, art and design course is looking for a new leader and Dan’s name has popped up as a likely candidate (I can just imagine him freaking out). I was a bit annoyed by this article, it touched on so many things that I was frustrated with, that I simply HAD to write something!
There are several themes to this discussion, which I think will be productive to keep separate for fruitful examination. These threads are too intertwined with one another that its obfuscating the argument.The article is provoking the tired-old art vs design debate which is also oversimplifying the issue. To me there are three distinct threads which will be productive to discuss separately (though, they are undoubtedly linked). Firstly, it questions the role of graphic design and its positioning as a profession; secondly, it raises issues of the value of postgraduate education and what could be taught to ensure its survival as well as the kinds of graduates it could/should produce; thirdly, a political discussion of ‘how to promote RCA’.
The first thread, on the role of graphic design and its positioning as a profession has been in question for more than a decade. Graphic design has always been the poor-cousin of the other design disciplines and it had struggled to claim legitimacy of its skills, knowledge and contribution it makes to society. The debate in graphic design regarding this continues to be poor, without much energy and vision to challenge how it can evolve and adapt to the current condition of the world. For too long, it has been punished for over-emphasising the commercial role it plays. It is indicative of the low confidence and optimism of this field – it feels like its lost, not sure what to do, and its only comfort is to cling on to its most celebrated crafts, typography and image-making, and the ‘rock-star’ designers of current and past. The innovative, exciting and challenging work done by every-day graphic designers who bring value to, and contribute to their world in meaningful ways is often at the fringes, remain hidden and rarely made visible for all to see. Do we really know enough about what we, and others do? Perhaps we need to start from there.
Postgraduate education in graphic design surely needs to begin tackling some of these questionings that bubble up from within the field – and not be seen as a finishing school or a safe-haven to sort one’s shit out before going out into industry. The author of the article sound confused and ill-informed when he talks about ‘retreating into textbooks, research methodology and critical discourse’ as an over-theorising activity that ‘got it into this mess’. The work done by Helen Hamlyn centre is all due because of the literatures, discourse, critique and research that takes place there. Each of these activities may sound ‘academic’, but what is postgrad education without scholarship? Graphic designers who are willing to challenge themselves, as well as their peers and the broader field need to engage critically with their world. Books, discussions, critique and research methods are ways to fuel and accelerate that process. I would quickly add also, that these activities are not antithesis to art either. Arts-based research is a legitimate field of activity that produces rich, applied, real-world knowledge in a variety of creative, visual ways. Research, whether they are arts based or design method driven, is not ‘navel-gazing’ or a retreat into academia either – there are numerous examples of projects around the world that, through collaborative partnership with industry stakeholders, community members, designers and researchers are tackling serious issues and challenges that people face day-to-day. Again, do we know enough about these, and does that come into the mainstream discourse of graphic design?
The comments posted here indicates a community of designers, academics, postgraduate students who flocked to this space because they care and feel passionately about the future of the RCA. It is an institution that we do all care about, and it is the design community’s responsibility to make sure that it can still be regarded as one of the best postgraduate courses in the world. Good luck to the interviewee panel – and the chosen candidate.
It’s really interesting reading a ‘book’ written and designed by someone else. Its as if you question the thing (in this case, the book and its contents) to see whether it matches the person who you thought you knew. In Luke’s case, it did, and probably much more. I particularly liked the obsessiveness and details into which he would go to, to talk about one thing. This interrogation is very much the Luke I thought I got to know. His overt self-criticism had manifested itself this way in the obsession to tell, guts and all.
What I am most impressed about is his confidence in telling the story of his design research. There’s a lot of bits and pieces, odds and ends that make up the whole. In that chaotic assemblage, his voice does come through very clearly. The practice that he describes in his exegesis is about his personal struggles in giving a difficult birth to a new way of practicing.We (as the audience) had to patiently give him the benefit of the doubt that this would come eventually. Read into the juxtaposed text and images. Be puzzled by odd references to his girlfriend. But this book had the magnetism and a ‘power’ that pulled me to his side, walk beside him for the story to be told. In the end, everything made sense.
But of course, I am biased. I wanted to count how many times he harped on about my ‘problem-solving user-centred design’ research and how much he disagreed with it. And being someone who likes to be liked by those who I like, his disagreement had been a source of concern at times. A bit like a pebble in a shoe. Uncomfortable. But now I realise that he had given me one of the greatest flattery in taking my research so seriously. And in turn, his provocation had assisted my research journey.
Maybe it’s just me. Because of my upbringing in different cultural and geographical locations, I have always been painfully aware of the differences of me and others. So I sought comfort in finding similarities. Even though Luke says how ‘different’ we are, its never been a concern for me. I actually think we have a lot in common, which he acknowledges but doesn’t talk about. In fact, my nature has a lot to do with what my research is about. This ‘being liked by others’ might be a symptom of having had to change schools regularly and making friends quickly. And so, the concern I have of other people in my research is partly because I often find other people fascinating (the more different, the better), and also understanding and knowing someone quickly is a way to see whether you can get along and play together.
I think Luke and my research is essentially about ourselves, but at a very transparent and honest level as humans, and how we manifest that ‘human-ness’ in our practices. Lately, those underlying ‘values’ that we each have is something I have come to recognise. Its not my values, or his / her values, or anyone else’s values that are more important than the other, but its in how we negotiate them. In working with others, we discover the similarities and the way we ‘click’, to finding out the annoying habits of others and ourselves. In working with others, we discover expectations and assumptions that may have not been obvious from the start. Design is about those relationships, that human-stuff that happens in our daily lives all the time. Its there between our boy/girlfriends, families, colleagues, neighbours etc, so why would design be any different?
In his DVR, Luke is painfully and lovingly honest to himself and of others. He mentions how it is a ‘cathartic’ as well as an ‘illuminating’ process undertaking this research. The letters definately were. Even though I found the letter addressed to me with the apologetic generalisations slightly annoying, I think they ring true only because Luke has said them. That sounds strange, but if he thinks I’m doing a ‘problem-solving’ approach to design research, its because I kinda-know where Luke is coming from that I can accept his comments (and probably not so if someone else had said it). I also think that there’s a lot happening between us based on perception. I know from early on that he was ‘disturbed’ by my research project. He hurled comments at me like ‘pouring concrete onto grass’, which I took with mild yet bewildered amusement. He says, ‘my projects were all over the place, unfinished, abandoned, they left a picture of a certain kind of practice in their wake. Whereas yours all build systematically, one project upon another, until you get to some tangible outcome.’ I think that is his perception of how my research had gone. Maybe I appeared to know what I was doing, and maybe I had appeared to have been systematic. This sounds typical of me. People who are not so close tend to misunderstand that I do things ‘well’ all the time, when there is a great deal of mucking about that isn’t visible to others. In comparison to how Luke works, my research probably seemed more ‘formal’. What’s interesting here is not about how ‘truthful’ his accounts are of our research, but it illuminates more about how we had perceived of eachothers’ research, and how much we had influenced eachother.
I think this DVR is an excellent, truthful and engaging outcome of his research. No doubt about that. I think other design researchers would find it helpful to read as an empathetic experience. A lot of what he wrote about, like his disenchantment with industry, his anxieties etc, are I believe, common to many researchers. I also believe it will also encourage design practitioners to undertake research to change their practice, as in the way he had learnt how to provoke himself through design research. Is there a sense of a self fulfilling prophecy here though? Have I missed something? How did Luke become the ‘monster’, or was he one to begin with? Did he become re-engaged in practice through the research, or by becoming a ‘monster’? How do others become one though? If there is a critique to be made, maybe this is it for me. I guess I really wanted Luke to unpack the provocation chapter more, and get to the bones of it. I felt like I was being teased a lot with peripherals rather than being given the ‘meat’ of it.
But in defense of Luke’s research though, I think its a good Masters level of research. As the criteria for a Masters is to ‘be a Master of your practice’, I think (and hope) he will get the tick of approval…
Perhaps a change of title…
Thursday February 16th 2006, 1:28 pm
Filed under: Some ranting
Who do you want to ‘participate’ with?
What do you want them to participate in?
Is ‘participation’ a word that mis-represents my topic now?
Is it a word that is ‘loaded’ and ‘boring’?
Does it have connotations that is misleading?
Maybe it’s time I changed my title to,
Designing for you, for me, and with other people
Designing for people, designing for you and me.
We’re all in this together – you, me and designing with people
Designing for me. Designing for you. Designing with people.
Honey, I’ve shrunk these people
People as subconcsiousness
My gawd, there’s people in designing!
The hototogisu – the untranslatable bird
You, me and everyday people in designing
What the f*** is this piece of s*** about?
Tissues of kitten