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Emancipation by design

When Sam Jacob hears the word ‘culture’ he reaches for his candy dispenser gun

It is always hard to see beyond our current predicament. We are trapped by the trajectory of history on the one side and the perceived limitations of the present on the other. The urgent question is always how to escape from the status quo.

The escape route is not something you’ll find in design magazines, in museums or among the selections of award committees; these are final destinations rather than route maps. Rather, we glimpse hints of escape in unlikely places. Two things I’ve seen recently have given me that momentary thrill, when horizons open up and the road seems to lead somewhere we’ve never been.

First: a candy dispenser in the shape of a gun. To operate, you simply place the barrel of the gun in your mouth and pull the trigger. The way the motions of a particularly violent form of suicide are played out by a child is completely vexing. The frivolous, ephemeral pleasure of candy is juxtaposed with the darkest thoughts of existential despair. What might the psychology of this sweetshop apparatus be? Does it tell us that all design somehow embeds similar codes of behaviour in how it demands that we perform; that objects have a kind of agency within them, which shapes and forms our behaviour?

That we were shooting ourselves in the mouth with candy bullets at the Lisson Gallery, among videos of performance pieces by conceptual artist Dan Graham (pictured), which confront relationships of social power, is a coincidence, but one that seemed to confirm a particular idea of design and architecture as devices for manufacturing political relations.

The more sophisticated the design, the further it buries its political or social content

Equally freakish was a cigarette lighter doubling as a micro-projector of an image of Osama bin Laden – an everyday object juxtaposed with something extreme. Its ‘secret’ – the image of the world’s most wanted man – reveals how the most innocent of objects can conceal charged ideological content. We wonder what the real function of this lighter/projector might be.

In general, the more apparently sophisticated design is, the further it buries its political or social content. Elegance in design might be characterised by its ability to detach itself from the world. But sublimation of worldly content does not mean that that content vanishes, only that its significance has been absorbed completely. In ‘fringe’ objects from the realms of novelty, the vernacular and kitsch, design’s resolution is less considered, and the internal agency of design is thereby revealed, via jumps in form and function, lurches from material to form, collapses of a consistent logic of construction, and so on.

These are the kinds of objects that have consistently motivated the avant-garde, from Picasso’s tribal gleanings, to Le Corbusier’s souvenirs, the Eames’ ephemera, the Independent Group’s love of consumerism, Warhol’s embracing of pop culture banalities, etc. These things ‘outside’ high culture act as a kind of battering ram to demolish the assumptions that underpin traditional cultural activity. Through such objects, the avant-garde glimpses possibilities beyond the consensual parameters of cultural production. Embracing worlds beyond our own, we might alchemise a moment of freedom from the tyranny of taste. Taste here does not stand for niceties of proportion, colour, nor other aesthetic choice, but rather the way aesthetics encode highly-charged politics into the fabric of the world around us.

A quote from Picasso underlines the way in which this embracing of outsider aesthetics operates: ‘Good taste is the enemy of creativity’. This recouping of otherness is part of the modernist project of emancipation. It argues that we must escape from the conventions of design because it consistently fails to deliver this emancipation. Now, whether we are still concerned with emancipation through design is open to question. Meanwhile, the horrific joke of the candy revolver or the crazed terrorist-fundamentalist cigarette lighter reveal design as a paranoid congealing of cultural meanings, which projects psychologies and ideologies out into the world.

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