Utrecht Manifest

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UM5 - 26 juni 2015

UM slotmanifestatie 26 juni 2015

Dromen of niet dromen, dat is de kwestie

Na tien jaar kwam er op 26 juni officieel een einde aan het programma van Utrecht Manifest, op de plek waar het ooit begon, de Pastoe fabriek in Utrecht. In de oude loods die nu dienst doet als conferentiezaal luisterde op deze warme zomerdag een publiek van rond tweehonderd – van veteranen van het sociaal geëngageerd ontwerpen tot bevlogen jonge wereldverbeteraars – naar antwoorden en vervolgvragen op het centrale thema van Utrecht Manifest: hoe draagt de ontwerper bij aan een betere wereld? Met de geur van vers gebouwde kasten als een subtiel parfum op de achtergrond, zoomde een rij sprekers het weefsel van vragen, antwoorden en de discussie daartussen af, dat het afgelopen decennium was gesponnen uit de tentoonstellingen, debatten en publicaties van vijf biënnales voor Social Design.
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UM5 - 06 juni 2014

Het ontwerp van het sociale - Een gesprek over social design tussen Henk Oosterling en Nynke Tromp

Waar het in het jonge vakgebied van social design vaak aan ontbreekt, is een scherpe visie op wat nu de unieke bijdrage van de ontwerper zou moeten zijn. Dat stellen filosoof-activist Henk Oosterling en sociaal ontwerper-onderzoeker Nynke Tromp vast in vurig tweegesprek over de verhouding van ontwerp en maatschappij.
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UM5 - 06 juni 2014

Designing the Social - A Discussion on Social Design between Henk Oosterling and Nynke Tromp

There is one thing that the philosopher and activist Henk Oosterling and the social designer cum researcher Nynke Tromp agree on without any reservation: the recently developed field of social design still lacks is a clear perception of just what the designer’s unique contribution should be.
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UM5 - 05 juni 2014

Facing Papanek

The program of the kick-off event of the 5th edition of Utrecht Manifest in December 2013 may have been a bit too dense, Rosa te Velde writes in her impression of the afternoon. On the other hand, the event made a welcome exception to the rule that social design may exclusively be discussed among designers.
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UM5 - 05 juni 2014

Proposition for a ‘Skeletor Methodology’: The Curious Case of Holmes’ ‘Smart’ Murder Castle

Boris Čučković observes a rupture between the discourse of the creative industries and the critical framing of socio-economic issues in the humanities and social sciences. In this contribution Čučković speculates on the possibility of bringing into view the unchallenged problem-solving premises of contemporary design practice through spooky cases of crime design ingenuity. Surprisingly it is Skeletor, the ultimate villain in Mattel's Masters of the Universe franchise, who acts as Čučković' guide on his speculative expedition through design history.
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Proposition for a ‘Skeletor Methodology’: The Curious Case of Holmes’ ‘Smart’ Murder Castle

Boris Čučković observes a rupture between the discourse of the creative industries and the critical framing of socio-economic issues in the humanities and social sciences. In this contribution Čučković speculates on the possibility of bringing into view the unchallenged problem-solving premises of contemporary design practice through spooky cases of crime design ingenuity. Surprisingly it is Skeletor, the ultimate villain in Mattel's Masters of the Universe franchise, who acts as Čučković' guide on his speculative expedition through design history.

By Boris Čučković

A skeptic of the creative industries is in for an arduous journey. Disciplinary boundaries that separate creative practice from the humanities and social sciences, especially at the level of educational institutions and their programs, make it difficult to communicate in-depth forms of socio-economic critique within the field of design. This is particularly acute in recent attempts to engage with social issues through design practice. Critical tools developed in the humanities can prove indispensable when attempting to grapple with issues such as the exploitation of cheap labour, conflict-zone corporate profiteering, or ecological travesties in their full, systemic scope. However, the pervasive format for presenting such issues to the design world involves the application of a sleek TED Talk-like formula, which combines infotainment with persuasive rhetoric. Such a format can hardly express the socio-economic relations that underpin global capitalism. When translated to the field of social design, the critique of complex social and economic processes (e.g. rising income gaps or worldwide market instability) is often flattened to fit into this discursive format, rarely resulting in much more than a generic criticism of consumerist culture. In other words, when satisfying the demands of rhetorical ‘clarity’, the socially manifested effect tends to be favored over a thorough examination of its (systemic) cause. In this context, a social problem, such as homelessness or urban segregation by class and race, is taken up in isolation – apart from the compound conditions in which it exists – so as to be deftly solved through innovative, ‘smart’ design. All it takes is a creative genius to crack the problem, while business elsewhere can continue as usual.

Yet perhaps there are other ways to trigger the necessary criticality of social design practitioners. Design for Crime, a recent master class taught at Witte de With in Rotterdam by Alexandra Midal to accompany the contemporary art exhibition, The Crime Was Almost Perfect, is one such example. The workshop made use of the liberties taken by the exhibition, which explored the provocative topic of ‘the aesthetics of crime’, extending it to concerns of design practice and history. Midal, a Geneva-based design theoretician and a filmmaker of visual theory, is also a serial-killers enthusiast. As such, Design for Crime introduced an account of the ingenuity of serial killers as a kind of a speculative counter-point to the conventional narratives of design history. The course approached ingeniously ‘designed’ crimes through the lens of various design and architectural histories, including the accounts of well-known figures in the field such as Nikolaus Pevsner, Sigfried Giedion and, the more current, Jasper Morrison. Among the many intriguing examples introduced, the case of H. H. Holmes’ late 19th century house in Chicago stands out.

Holmes, born as Herman Webster Mudgett, was a pharmacist who built and operated a three-story hotel that became known in its neighborhood as ‘the Castle’. It was built on the occasion of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and included Holmes’ own drugstore on the ground floor. The rest of the Castle was organized as a labyrinth of rooms (many of them windowless) and secret staircases, with some doors leading nowhere and others that could only be opened from the outside. It was in this house that Holmes would murder his victims. Among its various rooms, the Castle featured a heat-insulated room with a mechanism capable of starting a fire via electric sparks – a kind of a remote-controlled inferno that would not spread to the rest of the building. Other rooms included a soundproof suffocation chamber, and one with hidden vents that expelled noxious gas. As Holmes contracted a large number of builders and engineers for specific parts of the building, he was the only person who knew the precise floor plan of the house. His employees were his primary victims, and he would require them to sign a life insurance agreement before hiring. Holmes also had a kind of a surveillance mechanism that used light bulbs to signal when doors were opened inside the building. All of these contraptions led Midal to speculate that Holmes’ Castle was a ‘smart house’ well before its time, as well as one of the first examples to employ electricity for domestic use, stretching the functionalist narratives of design history to their limits.

Holmes’ Castle is clearly a perverse example of ‘efficient’ design, yet I would argue that such an example could have a potentially cathartic effect on contemporary design practice and discourse. This effect can be compared to the popular ‘Skeletor is Love’ meme, in which Skeletor, the skull-faced villain of the 1980’s ‘He-man’ franchise, dispenses positive mental health messages. These motivational self-help lines humorously collide with the insidious appearance of the villain and his questionable intentions. In my view, the Holmes’ case reflects similarly on made-to-measure, problem-solving design practice. How would do-it-yourself or fair-trade principles resonate in the case of the Murder Castle? More broadly speaking, in light of the creative ingenuity of crime design how can it be tenable to make a claim for progressive social innovation on the basis of ‘better’ design solutions? The purpose of such a ‘Skeletor methodology’ in this context is not to propose alternative solutions, but to employ compromising examples so as to question the underlying assumptions of social design, those unchallenged and unconsidered modes of thought upon which such practices rest (to paraphrase Michel Foucault). There is by no means a universal panacea to be applied: diverse forms of social design require the identification of their own specific ‘Skeletors’ (or Murder Castles) in order for critique to remain effective in the midst of narrow and restrictive formats for discussion.
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There is more to this ‘methodological’ proposition than merely the meme effect. It comes full circle when it captures attention in such a way as to fold back the discussion in the direction of more intricate socio-economic embeddedness, and away from one-dimensional problem definitions. Midal accomplishes precisely such a feat by establishing links between, for example, the very emergence of the term ‘serial-killer’ and the rise of assembly line production processes. Her criminal design cases thus perform a double role: apart from igniting doubt about contemporary design trends by reading them in light of alternative genealogies (in this case, of smart solutions), they also position forms of design practice in relation to the modernization of the means of production. What is the place of social design in such a wider historical constellation? It would seem that cases outside the realm of law – cases that go outside systemic boundaries – can at times make us wonder in the right direction. Heading there, we will likely encounter a few Skeletors.
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Author bio

Boris Čučković is currently finishing the Visual Arts, Media and Architecture MPhil programme at VU University, Amsterdam. He studied art history at Leiden University (Master's) and Zagreb University (Bachelor's). Čučković’s main research project deals with the relationship of contemporary art and digital production forms. He will continue his studies next autumn as a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

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