It is a polemical starting point for a design project, yet Rosario Hurtado – one half of the London-based design studio El Ultimo Grito – is known for her willingness to engage with difficult subjects. Working with her partner Roberto Feo, Hurtado recently challenged MA design students at the HEAD school of art and design in Geneva to examine society’s perception of crime and how it affects society on a social and political level.
The participating students were all from the school’s Spaces and Communication MA, a course that Hurtado and Feo direct. For We Are Criminals, El Ultimo Grito challenged their students to examine the concept of crime and to produce graphic, video and written works resulting from their research. The final projects were displayed last weekend at Geneva’s Pavillon Sicli, exhibited within inflatable spaces created in conjunction with the artist Gabriel Klasmer.
“It is important to ensure the students have a strong grasp of what is going on around them, not only in the world of design and commerce, but also the reality of the real world, and what design can do for the future and how it influences everyday life,” says Hurtado. “You always need to design within a context and ensure you are engaging with the reality of the real world. We wanted our students to engage with the idea of how crime shapes the world we live in, and how everyone has to position themselves in relation to crime.”
Early on in the project students were provided with material such as excerpts from Adolf Loos’ Ornament and Crime and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, as well as being posed questions including “What constitutes a crime? Is crime defined by action, omission or even just thought? Does the law make the crime? Or does the crime define the law?” The intention was to provoke the students to reconsider received wisdom on crime and to inflame their critical engagement with the theme. The emphasis of the project was on individuality, with students encouraged to pursue and develop their own interests within the field.
One student, Anne-Sophie Richard, produced a piece exploring the historical notion of criminality as a kind of mental illness. Drawing on her background in graphic design, Richard produced a series of monotone geometrical patterns – stimuli that can cause epileptic fits.
“I wanted to explore how there could be a link between people with epilepsy and how their fits can be provoked through the medium of vision and sound, and how criminals can also have “criminal attacks” triggered by the same stimuli,” says Richard.
The project drew upon historical research, such as the geometric patterns employed by Richard in her design referencing the Medieval belief that stripes were symbolic of evil. Richard projected her images within a circular inflatable structure, her project seeking to understand the notion that criminality may be directly triggered by stimuli from the external world.
Another project, Dystopia Monteforno, was created by Fabio Stefanoni, who chose to explore how lust for success and happiness can result in the proliferation of crime. Stefanoni, originally from Biasca in Switzerland, returned to his hometown in order to make a film centred on the industrialisation of Biasca around its Monteforno steel plant and how this development relates to his perception of evil and crime.
“Dystopia and industrialisation are two arguments that work very well together,” says Stefanoni. The film opens with an animated shot of a man seemingly experiencing troubled dreams, before giving way to lingering shots of Biasca’s bleak industrial landscape. Throughout, the accompanying music is oppressive and overbearing.
“The development of a dystopia using industrialisation harbours an unbelievably vast and topical range of possibilities,” says Stefanoni. “The factories and silos that have appeared in place of small rural villages should be interpreted as the exasperation of an unpleasant reality, and one that the people of Biasca do not want to talk about.”
Alongside the development of content for the student’s projects, El Ultimo Grito also encouraged innovation in both the research process itself and the way in which the students' works would be presented. The use of inflatables at Pavillon Sicli, for instance, was intended to produce immersive exhibits, where the spaces housing each exhibit were closely tied to the visuals and sound work within, with Hurtado describing the pavilions as "'Total Objects' made of space, moving image and sound."
Perhaps most critically, We Are Criminals introduced its students to the notion of a design essay – a combination of physical work and theoretical reflections – as a potential outcome for a design project. Alongside their video and graphics work, students were asked to write essays reflecting on their topic of choice, with the pieces now published in an accompanying book.
Such an emphasis on theory is typical of El Ultimo Grito, an experimental practice that places great stock on critical engagement and experimental thought within education. Speaking to Disegno in 2012, Hurtado stressed the need for universities to serve as centres that encourage original critical thought. “People go to university and think that when they come out they will be ready to serve the existing market,” she said. “But that is wrong. University is a place where you go to create alternatives to a market that is clearly not working and has failed. It is a place for investigation.”
This spirit of investigation is visible throughout We Are Criminals, a project that encouraged its students to expand beyond the conventional horizons of design and to instead apply their skills and expertise to some of the wider issues that affect society. “Design is not just something you view, but also something that helps you makes sense of the world,” says Hurtado. “Design is a way to explore a society and understand reality.”