OPINION

Design Beyond Production

Hasselt

18 May 2013

With the exhibition Design beyond Production curated by Karen Verschooren, Z33 aims to add critical reflection to the production of objects, services and information in a networked society.

It does so not so much by focusing on the end result of the production system, but rather on the position of the maker or worker, a figure who is often neglected in the recent discourse on new production methods and systems like at-home 3D printing or crowdsourcing.

“Design is politics. The products and systems we design have an influence on how we live, how we organize our society, even on how we think. In the design of our production systems, the values and norms of our society become visible,” argues Jan Boelen, the artistic director of Z33, writing in the exhibition's catalogue. “The design world cannot ignore this and carries a tremendous responsibility.”

Upon entering the former béguinage houses in which Design beyond Production takes place, one is immediately greeted with the grim, dehumanizing future scenario of Mercenary Cubiclists by Tobias Revell. In a set of manipulated photographs, flanked by a video installation and a 3D printed model, Revell depicts the fictional British town of Galtham, an old miners city where digital data is harvest by "taskumers". In exchange for these digital goods, the exploited taskumers receive points with which they can buy resources in their city.

In a twist on reality - but contemporary with current shifting geopolitical realities - the consumers of the harvested data are the inhabitants of the Chinese eco-city of Desert Heaven, the western knowledge-based economy turned into a crowdsourced intellectual sweatshop.

Bande à part by Israeli designer Tal Erez similarly investigates (albeit in a more subtle fashion) a near-future scenario in which every home has a 3D printer linked together to form a distributed factory. As traditional roles, such as "consumer", "worker", "producer" or "designer" are changing and becoming more obscure, the project questions what this will mean on ethical, social and political levels for both consumers and designers.

Both projects implicitly criticise and question existing production and trade platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, at-home 3D printing or carbon emission trading. With three of the four works in Design beyond Production born out of the digitization of our society, one can read the exhibition as a critical reflection on works such as In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits, the optimistic 2010 essay by Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine.

The documentary film from Harun Farocki, Ein Neues Produkt (a new product), reflects on the work of the German company Quickborner Team, a consultancy business specialised in optimising the efficiency of work environments in the knowledge industry. The recognisable use of flip-charts, post-its, simulations and hollow, semi-intellectual language, leaves the visitor with a disturbed but fascinated feeling. Labour is seen here as a good that can be produced more efficiently; something that can be optimised to maximise profit.

Farocki has a recognisably neutral style. He only documents, he doesn’t interfere; there is no commentary voiceover, no information beyond that which is said in the meetings of Quickborner Team. As a result, the documentary is far more disturbing than the extreme fiction of Mercenary Cubiclists.

For his ERRATUM® project, Jeremy Hutchison invited workers to insert an error into the products they typically produce, with the resulting objects presented as a dysfunctional luxury brand. The results are trumpets with missing tubing, misshapen footballs, collapsing walking sticks and cheese graters with no serrating edge.

Yet the useless products aren’t the most interesting part of the installation. The real gem is in the long conversations Hutchison had over e-mail with factories and their workers. Hutchison used the trade platform Alibaba to get in contact with several producers in China. Initial reactions to his request to produce a product with an error are disbelieving, the factories not understanding what Hutchinson wants.

But the message chains grow into very personal conversations, peeling away the corporate facade and showing the insides of far away production facilities, something that has not been possible with such ease before. The project tells a story about communication, and about making an anonymous factory worker into an artist and a human being by giving them the freedom to produce something unique in their own way.

Design beyond Production clearly opens the debate on the place of the maker within existing and new production systems. For people who are not well trained in the design discourse, Farocki and Hutchison's projects are more open, yet all projects create an unease about the way in which production may develop.

This exhibition particularly addresses designers, telling them to be aware of being too optimistic, without being critical. Designers often try to predict the future, but we rarely succeed.