I was honoured to be invited as a media guest to the 2018 Design Indaba Conference two weeks ago by the main sponsor, financial services company, Liberty. Three days of presentations by some of the world's top-level creative individuals was like creativity on steroids. Inspiring, overwhelming, and a bit like engaging in a multi-course meal in which the tastes, textures and smells eventually begin to blend into one intangible experience that you can't quite put your finger on.
Reflecting on my experience of this world of art and creativity, I felt a need to find a different way to write about the conference, that didn't simply praise the pursuit of creativity as an end in itself. That would somehow feel gratuitous, because in truth art is intimately connected to society, culture and politics. I thought back to art history at school where we learnt about the concept of the zeitgeist, or the “spirit of the time”, of which art in society is always an expression. Art's entanglement within the mire of socio-political and cultural concerns sets up a simultaneously harmonious and antagonistic ambiguity that makes us question our reality in subtle invisible ways. Art is both commentary on these, but also a connection to the essence of the core of humanity. Art transcends. Art is powerful. Even here, words can't quite grasp it.
For me the conference was a tremendous reflection of Cape Town's commitment to encouraging the arts. Design Indaba's founder, Ravi Naidoo has, since 1995, contributed to creating an institution that lauds and supports design and the creative arts. I realised the huge importance of patronage of the arts. Involvement in the creative world is not just about the actual product, which of course in itself is inspirational and exciting, but also about the essential backbone which holds it together, nurtures, and helps it to grow. All of the sponsors whether corporate companies (like Liberty) or public institutions are vitally important and so essential to keeping creativity in our city (and country) alive. Evidence of this was on display at the Emerging Young Designers Exhibition supported by the Department of Trade and Industry. These aspirant young designers and artists, from all walks of life, were given the opportunity to present their unique takes on industrial, textile, graphic and fashion design, and more. The foothold that such an opportunity provides for them aspires to bring inclusivity to the design world. A society which values creative expression at its core and honours the value that it gives back is one that will be richer for it.
ART IS POLITCAL
Art at a heightened political level usually packs a greater punch than words could ever do. I was quite enamoured by the work of visual artist, Edel Rodiguez. Born in Cuba, Rodriguez moved to the United States at the age of nine. His work has been heavily influenced by images of Cuban socialist propaganda and American pop culture. A signature exhibition called Agent Orange, of some of his political posters and magazine covers of US president Donald Trump, was on display at the conference. Simply depicted in a “pop-art” graphic style, these posters cut deep criticism into Trump's controversial ideologies.
ART MEETS DIGITAL
In contemporary times, art is no longer simply a painterly pursuit in the classic sense, but encompasses the realms of digital art and production, and sometimes automation – the kind of art that involves hovering over a laptop instead of an easel. Here art is a product of cutting edge technologies. Architect Neri Oxman's work as associate professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab in the USA, explores this. She works with her students on the borders between the physical, digital and biological worlds; engineering inspired by nature. Some unusual projects included 3D-printing glass, using a biological cellulose material to create 3D lattices, and some curious death masks which are 3D-printed out of a liquid polymer designed to contain air pockets, representing the capturing of the user's last breath. Colourful swirling organic patterns are created as the computer software models the movement of the breath across the face. Complex computer software was developed to model these masks yet the result is an abstract artistic interpretation which explores the connection between the digital world and nature (i.e. the breath).
The work of computer programmer/digital artist, Zach Lieberman explores the relationship between computer code and the iterating patterns that it can generate, creating a new mode of artistic expression. He refers to himself as a poet, yet in this case a poet in computer code! His work also explores human-computer interaction. One such project looks at the relationship between sound and sight where sound is augmented in real-time by custom interactive visualisation software.
NATURE AS ART
Moving away from the digital world to the built form and its relationship to nature, landscape architect Peter Veenstra, partner and founder of LOLA Landscape Architects, presented a body of his work. Veenstra's designs question the relationship between nature, man and technique, and present the idea of nature as a “man-made ecology”. His projects include sensory experiences, freedom in movement and conscious use of water. Ravi Naidoo invited Veenstra to propose a design for the unused Luthuli Plaza adjacent to Cape Town's civic centre. Veenstra presented a proposal called Dome of Plants which brings “life” to this space. It takes the form of a locally-produced bamboo domed structure that creates a multi-use space for concerts, expos and other events and uses. The bamboo lattice will incorporate hydroponically grown plants which will use filtered urine from the civic centre for watering!
Drawing deeper into the landscaping world I watched a film, Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf, about Dutch garden designer renown for the garden design of the New York High Line – an elevated linear park on top of an unused railway. The movie follows several of his gardens over the four seasons in order to explore how the plants change in colour, texture and size over time. Oudolf's planting is almost painterly. He chooses plants based on structure, texture and colour to create an organic interplay that comes to life as the garden grows and changes with time. Such plants would rarely exist next to each in the wild, so his gardens are extraordinarily unique and other-worldly.
BEYOND DESIGN THINKING
Taiwanese graphic designer, Natasha Jen tore apart the current concept of “design-thinking” (listen to her talk Design thinking is bullshit) which has, in recent years, become a popular method for problem solving. It is very easy these days to “learn” design-thinking in a quick online course so Jen criticised design-thinking for being a kind of fast food approach to design. In reality there is no quick fix. To really learn to think like a designer takes years of training and Jen likened aspiring design-thinkers to wanting to become athletes without being willing to train hard. For those who do train hard the evidence is not always immediately noticeable, but there is something intangible in the experience of really exceptional design that speaks volumes.
Chilean architect, Alejandro Aravena is one such “athlete” who goes beyond design-thinking. Aravena is principal of Alejandro Aravena Architects and the executive director of Elemental, a “do-tank” focusing on projects of social impact. Elemental have developed a concept for low-cost housing solutions which involves building the "good half of the house". One such project in Monterrey, Mexico, won an Index Award in 2011 (international annual awards which recognise excellent design that promotes the improvement of human lives worldwide). In order to fit within budgetary constraints, the concept was to build “half” a house on a footprint double the size of the limit for public housing (36m²) which allows the occupants to build the other half themselves slowly over time. Occupants are able to add individuality to their houses and work within their own financial constraints. The final result breaks down the monotonous repetition of conventional solutions for social housing models which are generally unable to accommodate the diversity of needs and expectations of people. To me this project is an example of how the boundaries of design can be expanded to provide more than just an aesthetic solution but also help to address complex social needs.
Other notables for me were:
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My thoughts as I go about visiting interesting places, attending exhibitions and conferences, and the architectural world we live in.