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  Don't Panic
Emergent Critical Design
The Yard Gallery, London

Sarah Snider
posted 18 June 2007

‘Don’t Panic’ – this seems to be the imperative of the summer. Whether denoting the fear of imminent danger or immanent limits, the problems of risk society or the concerns associated post-punk subcultures, ‘Don’t panic’ implies that there is, indeed, cause for panic.

However, instead of displaying active but senseless behaviour, where fear replaces thought and muscle memory proves more useful than rationality, recent graduates and tutors from the Royal College of Art have consciously organised a reasoned response to contemporary pessimism and generalised darkness. Invoking fantasy, protest and decay, the exhibitors have picked up on fetishisations of ‘fear, danger and the fragility of human behaviour’ and pushed them over the Deleuzian threshold into their logical, objectified conclusions. Creating a new world of possibilities out of a single news story and social necessity out of an intangible anxiety, the exhibitors revel in an absurdity of the everyday. Beckett and Kafka are never far away.

Asking, ‘Who are we designing for?’ and, ‘What will their values be?’ many of the pieces in the exhibition describe and cater to an assumed passive audience, instead of creating an audience or, more revolutionarily, letting the audience act with intentionality. Gerrard O’Carroll curated this exhibition in light of

a world full of contradiction and complication, a society obsessed with youth, beauty, media and celebrity, a society where what we believe to be true has more value than empirical truth, a society obsessed with itself and its own desires, a society searching for instant gratification, a society in which fewer than 50% of us describe ourselves as happy.

This is a panicked population. So what, exactly, do they need?

At the entry to the Yard, Tomas Klassnik’s breezeblock shed-cum-villa intended for the interior lifestyle is coupled with Mathias Megyeri’s Sweet Dreams Security™ systems, typified by a bunny-eared spiked fence. Bringing attention to the arbitrarily imposed boundaries of inside and outside through a stylisation of security, the pieces simultaneously proclaim an ambiguity between belonging and exclusion, highlighting the cagelike quality of our defences.

These defence systems continue with Sally Quinn’s ‘Blood Sense’ structure, mounting clean blood and laying plain the workings of a blood bank to highlight our dependency on life-extending transfusions. Elio Caccavale takes this further, developing a personal organ bank in a ‘Utility Pet’ upon which we can – and presumably should – rely for transplants and transfusions. This eliminates the need for caution and, much like Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, posits one’s physical existence outside of the body, leaving an independent consciousness to think and act toward gratification. At the same time, it appears as the ultimate form of dependence.

More bodily inquiries arise with Dunne and Raby’s ‘Evidence Dolls’. The dolls become objects around which to discuss the implications of genetics on dating practices. A rather blank and interchangeable slate, the dolls act as magnets for all sorts of concerns, from desire to descendancy, from courtship to copulation. And yet, the question arises as to why this is even necessary when designer babies seem to be all the rage. Andrea Goecke made political toys as well. ‘Cute Politics <Party Zone: A Political Adventure>’ seems to beckon to the perpetual adolescents we have all become, asking if politics can become pop – and the disaster that confirms for both.

Tim Simpson’s ‘Subversive Sightseeing’ shows how we engage in disaster as a voyeuristic practice, offering a telescope showing apocalyptic visions of London from our collective imaginings. Similarly obsessed with disaster, Joel Dunmore’s ‘I Didn’t Know You But I Miss You’ develops, through an interactive stage, a performative engagement with misery that induces the contradictory pleasures of the collective. Instead of reflecting on the loss of life, David Pierce looks for new ways to deal with death that are perhaps more fertile: his frozen, ‘Shattered Corpses’ will purportedly make great mulch, and his ‘Exquisite Corpses’ will preserve a frozen beauty. In both cases, it is death that ‘freezes’ or interrupts life and allows beauty and productivity to subsist.

Throwbacks to uninterrupted life appear in both Yu Jordy Fu’s ‘Hallelujah Family’® and Nicola Koller’s ‘Driving with the Jones’. Fu’s commodification of family moments may appear as a viable venture, but it is also a magnification of the sickening imposition of the nuclear family. Koller’s piece examines another seemingly natural apparatus – the world – and asks how it would look and how we would experience it if it was only necessary for aesthetic purposes. But in the realm of aesthetics, technology can give us so many variations – why harken back to a golden age of nature? Why not embrace the technopolis? This is where Tanya Rainsley brings us with her diorama entitled ‘Mother Hackney’. Moving beyond the constraints of practical science, citizens of Rainsley’s Hackney bask in an alternate future energised by sweet, nuclear relief. Noam Toran’s films bring a certain amount of relief to men – yes, ‘men’ – allowing them to work through desire and the need for expression by drawing on cinematic episodes rather than real life.

Desire pops up almost across the board at ‘Don’t Panic’. Even the flier to the event, a smaller version of the exhibition’s exterior designed by Catherine Guiral and Quentin Walesch, shows how objects of desire seduce people into self-expressive action. When scratched, the black board reveals a hidden rainbow – almost as colourful as the phrases that have been etched into the gallery façade over the past few days.

The specifically purpose-built items in ‘Don’t Panic’ seem to have no future and relatively little past, acting as nodes for the crystallisation of a few news stories and a thin history. But this is the way design must work if it wants to continue to develop as a platform for debate, pinpointing one moment of outrage, highlighting one taken-for-granted word, and concretising it in an object.

These choices are inevitably political. The designers choose not to escape from these ideas of fear and danger, but to embrace them to the bitter end. They are motivated by the everyday and, conversely, act upon it, catapulting the everyday itself into a narrative of repetition and eternal presence. By speeding up the processes of this supposedly pre-existing life-world, the designers’ works change the very definition of this reality. We are moved into a world without end, where exaggerated innovation becomes the only relief from cycles of boredom and anxiety, from stasis and imposition.


Till 13 July 2007. For more information, see www.architecturefoundation.org.uk.

 

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