Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Homeward bound

[cc image by luigi53]

Variations on this picture of Wellington's cable car seem to be the obligatory tourist photo from my soon-to-be new home. Pretty, huh?

Now with only a week to go before the official move I find myself thinking about how much I'll miss my friends and family, but I honestly don't feel like I'm leaving home.

Growing up overseas taught me that home is where you live. I remember quite vividly that the people who were always comparing where we lived to some far-away (and often idealised) "home," or who were always waiting to "go home," were never actually happy where we were.

I don't want to be one of those people, always wanting and waiting to be somewhere else. And I don't want to miss out on finding and making a new home where I am. So instead of focussing on where we're leaving, I'm going to focus on where we're going.

I'm imagining that I'm actually homeward bound.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Shaping things, spaces and emotions

"Soft-Maps are quilted maps of neighborhoods and parks that represent someone's unique place in the city. Each map is meant to be used: wrap your children in them, have a picnic, pull them close during the next Nor'easter. Not only beautiful, these blankets can be used as a mnemonic tool. As your child grows up with a Soft Map, they learn to read their neighborhood and its landmarks in a tactile, easily remembered way.

Handmade custom Soft-Maps can be designed and constructed at any scale: the small town you grew up in, the city or country you're lonely for, or the college campus where you met your mate."

I love Emily Fischer's blanket maps because they represent lived space in such a mundane but rich way.

I like that the maps can picture any place: somewhere you've lived or somewhere you'd like to live; somewhere real or somewhere imaginary. I like that the maps can include stable structures like streets and buildings, as well as more transitory elements like a particular path taken through a place on a given day.

But any map can do that. What makes these maps special, I think, has everything to do with being soft and flexible, made to wrap the body and comfort it. Intimate objects for intimate spaces.

Leah Evans' textile maps are also gorgeous:

Left to right: Blue Satellite, Soil Survey and Energy Isthmus 

But it seems to me that these quilts ask to be hung on a wall, rather than wrapped around a body. It can't just be the bird's eye view—the maps above have that too—so maybe it's the map content? Evans explains:

"It is the use of maps in organizing our ideas of land that interests me most of all. Often, people ask me for specifics about the places and symbols in my work. Most of my pieces are not based consciously on specific places. For me they are intimate explorations of map language and imagined landscapes. Through my research and experience, I have decided that maps create more questions than they answer."

I guess what I'm trying to understand is how the materiality of something affects how we experience it. Both artists' quilts are soft maps, but they aren't affective in the same ways. This suggests that material alone isn't enough, or rather that the affective significance of an object depends on more than its materiality.

It depends on the shape the material takes, the content or meaning expressed, the ways in which is can be used, and...?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Taking on material, empirical and conceptual objects

Colleagues from the Interaction Research Studio, the Department of Design, the Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process and the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths have organised what looks to be a fascinating seminar series on the overlaps and disjunctures between design and the social sciences. If you're in London, please check it out - and then tell me all about it!

Design and Social Science Seminar Series 2009-2010
The Objects of Design and Social Science

Common to both design and (parts of) the social sciences is a shared pre-occupation with objects. On the one hand, design is concerned with making and interpreting objects including the finished article (e.g. consumer products), ‘experimental’ design aids (e.g. prototypes), and projective representations (e.g. scenarios). Recently, design has also begun to re-engage with more speculative objects whose ambiguous functionality contributes to the exploration of the social and the material, the political and the aesthetic. On the other hand the social sciences also work with objects, including categorical objects such as race, gender, and health, empirical objects ranging from the mundane to the exotic, and conceptual objects such as the notions social scientists use to understand and theorize the social. Here, the sociology of science and technology has been especially productive, introducing notions such as boundary objects (Star & Griesemer, 1989), epistemic objects (Rheinberger, 1997), immutable mobiles (Latour, 1990), quasi-objects , black boxes (Latour, 1988) to name but a few. Accordingly, a focus on material, empirical and conceptual objects brings into sharp relief overlaps and disjuncture between the two disciplines and a rich space for dialogue.

This seminar series will seek to bring into view and explore existing objects of both design and social science as well as draw out objects of novelty for both disciplines. In doing so we will seek to engage with emerging issues and topics in both disciplines such as the outputs of speculative and critical design, participation, engagement and publics as well as addressing notions concerning heterogeneity, process and event. This series will continue to serve as a platform for opening up interdisciplinary research futures.

Seminar 1 | Wednesday October 14th
Introducing the Objects of Design and Social Science
With: Bill Gaver, Tobie Kerridge, Mike Michael & Alex Wilkie, Goldsmiths

Seminar 2 | Wednesday November 4th
Buildings as Things
With: Albena Yaneva, University of Manchester

Seminar 3 | Wednesday November 18th
Speculative Objects
With: James Auger, Royal College of Art & Jimmy Loizeau, Goldsmiths

Seminar 4 | Wednesday January 27th
Objects and Services
With: Chris Downs

Seminar 5 | Wednesday February 17th
From objects to issues?
With: Noortje Marres, Oxford University

Seminar 6 | Wednesday March 10th
Object fair
With: Bill Gaver, Tobie Kerridge, Mike Michael & Alex Wilkie, Goldsmiths

All seminars run from 4:00pm - 6:00pm and are hosted by the Interaction Research Studio, 6th Floor, Ben Pimlott Building, Goldsmiths, New Cross, London, SE14 6NW.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

People possessing objects possessing people

In 1920 Virginia Woolf published a wonderful short story called Solid Objects. It's most often described as a tale about a politician who sadly gives up politics, but I prefer to think it's about a man who happily takes up other things.

It begins with his discovery of a piece of glass:

"It was a lump of glass, so thick as to be almost opaque; the smoothing of the sea had completely worn off any edge or shape, so that it was impossible to say whether it had been bottle, tumbler or window-pane; it was nothing but glass; it was almost a precious stone. You had only to enclose it in a rim of gold, or pierce it with a wire, and it became a jewel; part of a necklace, or a dull, green light upon a finger. Perhaps after all it was really a gem; something worn by a dark Princess trailing her finger in the water as she sat in the stern of the boat and listened to the slaves singing as they rowed her across the Bay. Or the oak sides of a sunk Elizabethan treasure-chest had split apart, and, rolled over and over, over and over, its emeralds had come at last to shore."

I love how such a mundane object, just by being touched and taken in, becomes precious.This is transformation in the true sense. But I'm even more taken by Woolf's description of how a person can become possessed by objects as well:

"Looked at again and again half consciously by a mind thinking of something else, any object mixes itself so profoundly with the stuff of thought that it loses its actual form and recomposes itself a little differently in an ideal shape which haunts the brain when we least expect it. So John found himself attracted to the windows of curiosity shops when he was out walking, merely because he saw something which reminded him of the lump of glass. Anything, so long as it was an object of some kind, more or less round, perhaps with a dying flame deep sunk in its mass, anything - china, glass, amber, rock, marble - even the smooth oval egg of a prehistoric bird would do. He took, also, to keeping his eyes upon the ground, especially in the neighbourhood of waste land where the household refuse is thrown away. Such objects often occurred there - thrown away, of no use to anybody, shapeless, discarded. In a few months he had collected four or five specimens that took their place upon the mantel-piece."

What a lovely way to be reminded that if we are able to transform objects, then objects, too, are able to transform us. Continuing with the story, we can further witness John's almost ecstatic transformation:

"One day, starting from his rooms in the Temple to catch a train in order to address his constituents, his eyes rested upon a remarkable object lying half-hidden in one of those little borders of grass which edge the bases of vast legal buildings. He could only touch it with the point of his stick through the railings; but he could see that it was a piece of china of the most remarkable shape, as nearly resembling a starfish as anything - shaped, or broken accidentally, into five irregular but unmistakable points. The colouring was mainly blue, but green stripes or spots of some kind overlaid the blue, and lines of crimson gave it a richness and lustre of the most attractive kind. John was determined to possess it; but the more he pushed, the further it receded. At length he was forced to go back to his rooms and improvise a wire ring attached to the end of a stick, with which, by dint of great care and skill, he finally drew the piece of china within reach of his hands. As he seized hold of it he exclaimed in triumph."

And eventually, we see that his possessions come to possess him:

"[T]he meteorite stood upon the same ledge with the lump of glass and the star-shaped china. As his eyes passed from one to another, the determination to possess objects that even surpassed these tormented the young man. He devoted himself more and more resolutely to the search. If he had not been consumed by ambition and convinced that one day some newly-discovered rubbish heap would reward him, the disappointments he had suffered, let alone the fatigue and derision, would have made him give up the pursuit. Provided with a bag and a long stick fitted with an adaptable hook, he ransacked all deposits of earth; raked beneath matted tangles of scrub; searched all alleys and spaces between walls where he had learned to expect to find objects of this kind thrown away. As his standard became higher and his taste more severe the disappointments were innumerable, but always some gleam of hope, some piece of china or glass curiously marked or broken lured him on. Day after day passed. He was no longer young. His career - that is his political career - was a thing of the past. People gave up visiting him. He was too silent to be worth asking to dinner. He never talked to anyone about his serious ambitions; their lack of understanding was apparent in their behaviour."

And so, in the end, John was left to his things. One abandoned; the other kept. Both transformed.

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