16 minutes reading time (3118 words)

In conversation with... Toby Barnes and Matt Ward

Toby Barnes at ODEC 11 by Sebastiaan ter Burg, CC licence http://www.flickr.com/photos/ter-burg/5914515223/sizes/l/in/photostream/  and photo c/o Matt Ward


The view of what "design" is, and does, within society, is constantly changing. The role of artists and designers as shapers of society, and shapers of thinking, has become linked to particular periods and eras: sometimes positively, sometimes less so. What is the role of design and designers, and how can design help to create an optimistic future, when we are in a pessimistic present?

We caught up with Toby Barnes and Matt Ward, in advance of their talks at the tenth "This Happened" event to take place in London.


Please introduce your forthcoming talk for This Happened.

TB: I'm going to talk about Chromaroma; it's my first talk where I have reflected on it. Most of my talks have been about demonstrating it, so here I'm talking about the "why" and what we could have done that was different. I'm going to talk about three layers of design that I am interested in at the moment: the real world; the network underneath the real world: the data, the mirrorworld; and a level of storytelling and imagination that I think has been forgotten about.


MW: I'm talking about a project with two colleagues, Jimmy Loizeau and Laura Potter, called Green=Boom. It is an interactive installation, installed in a gallery in Peckham in April. The objective was to create an environment that encourages people to imagine themselves within a cinematic identity. The example we've given is: imagine yourself disarming a bomb. I'm going to talk about the project and process. it's part of an ongoing series of works about how technologies and experiences can be designed to allow you to both question media, and rethink the novel applications of it.


Is there a wider opportunity here, regarding the bringing of human emotions to the surface?

TB: I was at Picnic last week, and the first day of the conference was really strange. A lot of the talks were top-down, featuring geeks looking at design and how you put screens in places. A lot of the talks were about "this is what we're going to do, and this is how the environment will be better for people". It felt like we had forgotten that the reason that a lot of people participated in building the Internet, was because it was bottom-up. There's an essay on HP Lovecraft as a psychogeographer, possibly the most hipster essay I have ever read. It was referring to self-actualisation and understanding what it is to be a person. At a time when the economy isn't doing well and there are tensions all around us, we seem to have forgotten how we are meant to feel about these things. I have been to a lot of VC meetings and they are all about making things as quickly as possible, getting as much money in and out. We have lost some of the emotional stuff and we need to know how to bring it back.


MW: As the Internet has developed and the people that made a lot of the really interesting, cutting-edge stuff develop and get older, and they start to move on to the "real world", there has been an emotional detachment from it. It has been flattened, and our experience of the Internet is flattened further by the way we are meant to consume media. To see artwork is about how you can bring that into the physical realm, and how that bodily experience makes you question things. That links back to physical experiences; starting to allow you a different sensory understanding of the world, which hopefully allows you to question it in different ways.


TB: One of our directors, our CCO, described himself as an 'artist' until recently; he went to art school and spent most of his career being funded by the Arts Council. Recently, he decided to call himself a designer. That's because I have been pushing him, as I felt that he was using the fact that he was an artist as armour. "I can do whatever I want, it's art". A lot of digital and interactive art has failed us as, technologically, it is not up to what else we see every day. Personally, it has not helped me to understand the world. The role of art is based on somebody slightly outside of the general burr of life, to help me to answer those questions, and to ask more questions. Until very recently, art seems to have failed that. It did very well when it was able to throw paint at a wall and develop soundscapes, but when it became digital... I don't want any more HTML stories.


MW: I see it from the opposite direction - not just about art failing, but how design has developed, while not being purely focused on the idea of problem-solving. We're starting to see design in its double action: of both reflecting on the world, and thinking about the problems of the world. It is a function of art - but it also opening up possibilities of change. One of the issues with art is that it's wonderful at throwing up these questions, but often offers very little directions and solutions to where to go - at least with visions, if not solutions. However, once you start to think of the world in a different way, design allows you to imagine that slightly more clearly.


TB: I did an interview very similar to this before my Interesting North talk, which riffed off some of the things that Matt Sherrett and Russell [Davies] were talking about - my general malaise that there is no good science fiction any more. I grew up with Chris Foss, and big Star Wars-lie vistas of fiction. I went through a cyberpunk phase, as all teenagers did, and ended up with this mundane science fiction world. I understand why and I understand the mechanics of it, but I hadn't thorough about how it relates to my practice. We talk about visions, and there aren't enough visions.


MW: I've looked at this quite a lot. One of the things that happens within design is that designers became a bit scared of creating visions. When you look back, the Modernists were wonderful at it. They created great, Utopian visions of what they wanted the world to be like. It all failed and became really conservative, and with that came a resistance; a reticence to be bold enough say "This is where the world is, and this is how we want to get to it" because they got it so wrong. You saw it in the Renaissance; then, with people like Archigram and Archizoom. Since then, technologists have failed to be, other than within banal corporate settings, brave about the transformations that design can bring to everyday life.


TB: In my way of thinking, I did a talk about Dave Carson as somebody that didn't know what he was doing, but was so influential at the time. It was a reflection of the Internet, it was a Geocities thing; anyone could rip fonts, not use the rules, put a flashing "Under construction" on a site, and that's OK. We have a 21-year-old designer in the studio, and I enjoy showing him things that occurred not that long ago, but what he knows about, is the swish stuff. He knows Joseph Mueller, but that's his thing. I ask him "What's 'the new'"? And there isn't a new. It is the same design.


Under Construction


MW: There are small pockets of [innovation] emerging, but it falls into certain ways of working, and certain technological drives. For example, the work of Dunne and Raby is fantastic. They propose these fascinating and provocative images of, in some ways, the world gone wrong. There's another part of that in terms of how to experience the world now, and to have the critical faculties to change the world; to go beyond a critical discourse of the world, into an actual practical, physical engagement of it.


TB: The person that has made the biggest impact on me recently is James Bridle. What he's looking at with a new aesthetic. There are alternative ways of thinking that are new, and they have filled me with a sense of excitement again. 


In terms of structured language, we tend to talk less about the big, the imaginative, and more about process: a 'design practice'. What are the implications in how we use language, and the perception of it?

MW: Yes, but there's also history around how design emerged as a discipline, and where it sees itself within the industries it's placed. I run an undergraduate course which is all about placing designers in strategic positions in order to affect the world in a larger social and political way - not just in a pragmatic, aesthetic way. Design will only develop when it moves itself into a new territory, into a new direction and place in the world. A big part of that is about how we talk about design in a different way, and see how designers approach the world, and offer those big ideas and strategic thinking, and innovation and invention rather than the prettying-up of other people's ideas. We have to move from that really quickly.


Where should we be moving to?

TB: I listened to Russell on the radio last night; he's great at taking the stuff that we talk about in the pub, and making it accessible to everyone. He talked about how he thinks it's interesting that we're going to move to a world where you're going to be able to play with the environment. I think that it's a long way away, but like all technology, you expect it to be further away than it is, but when it comes, it comes sooner than you expected. 

If we can enable people to feel like they can make things that work - to physically make things, or allow people to do something beyond just commenting on other people's stuff - then that's going to be good. A problem with social media at the moment, is that everyone's getting very good at commenting on other people's things and filling a big river up, but not so good at building little things. It goes back to what Russell says regarding Clay Shirky: The thing that you make is still more powerful than the thing that you buy. I hope that it will start to happen more and more, so we see more bottom-up development again.


MW: One of the things that I see as being important, is empowering people to make different decisions about how they consume, how they live their lives, and how to engage with the world in a social and political way. that sounds massive, but if we look at what Toby said regarding making things, then the important part for me about people making things in different ways, is that they are not buying things that have a negative global impact. Part of that is to recondition our values about how we think about the world. We have some big problems in front of us, so where are we going in trying to deal with them?


Now is clearly an interesting time to look at that. There is a re-emergence of "make do and mend", supported by a growing belief that we should not live in a consumer economy as we had originally perceived it, because we now see that the effects are not all great.

TB: I had an interview with a think tank about innovation. I was thinking about Matt Edgar's post from Laptops and Looms, and what he has been talking about  regarding the speed of change, and how, if you look back at peoples' lives over the past 50 years - fridges, toilets, televisions in every room - they seem to be slowing down. If you look at my parents and grandparents and what they had, compared to the things that we have now and over the past 20 years, they are just different: different fridges, different televisions. We have reached "peak stuff". It needs to be different, rather than just "more".


MW: And better.


TB: And better, without using the word "Smarter". Up until recently, it was up until about "more" - more televisions, more trainers. Actually, that doesn't give happiness; you need better trainers, not more of them.


MW: To keep all of these different scales and social contexts in mind, whether it's from austerity, climate change, or riots... there does seem to be a number of large-scale things that are not working. It becomes easy to sneer at people that say "Capitalism is wrong, let's try to find an alternative", but we have to manage our way through a massive time of change in a different way. Part of that is about re-assessing our values with the material world - how much we need, when we need it, what quality it will be, and how long it will last for... and our involvement in its production.


Is there a reframing going on - a moving out of this endless consumer cycle? If so, how do we ensure that people feel empowered within society, to make?

MW: Education is key to how people understand the decisions and choices which they have in the world, and how to go about some of these activities. At the moment, it is still to do with the marginalised, affluent elite that are playing with these things that we are talking about. Only through the dissemination of this information and knowledge across different types of people through different ages, is when we will we start to see change.


TB: We also need to be as open as possible in terms of what we are doing, and to use easy-to-understand language. One of the more stealthy things that we did with Chromaroma was to educate people into RFID; letting people know that this is where you go, and we know this because of a card in your pocket. And that's fine, and it's not scary or bad, but you need to know it, because there will be more of it, and I don't think that the general public are always aware of these concepts. We need to make sure that it's in general discourse.


MW: ... which comes back to science, technology and public engagement; how we can enrich a debate about the bigger decisions in the world about where we are taking it through new technologies and different types of science. Perhaps one of design's greatest skills is the ability to communicate some of these quite complex issues: whether it's about the development of a new arm of science, or a new economic system... designers are good at communicating, in an understandable way, if they work with the right people.


Making something entertaining, and building engagement with it, is key to both Chromaroma, and Green=Boom. Do you see there being an increased potential to build participation through entertainment?

MW: To some extent, we thought that the people that went through our project would be more ethically challenged about what they would experience, but most people just had a lot of fun - it was more like entertainment. We found it more disturbing than the people that used it! I remember one person that went through it, and asked them if they consider it to be distasteful. His response was "No, because it isn't real". He created a boundary where because he had not experienced it in reality, it was fine to pretend that he was disarming a bomb, even though the implication of that is quite horrendous. We were expecting more of a challenge; a genuine exploration of how people experience these situations, and what they mean.


TB: I used to work with video game companies, and we were brought into a lot of debates about their violence. One of the most interesting things about these debates, were that the people who would argue that video games are violent and would affect people, didn't play video games. They were sat in a room watching someone play a video game, and draw a conclusion. They watched somebody, with a controller, kill. But if you do play, or talk to people who play video games, then they know, subconsciously, that they are not killing anyone. They can blow up millions of people in an airport, but they are not people in an airport.


MW: People are sophisticated in how they understand these things.


TB: ... and so are children. A car doesn't crash; it's the pixels that "crash". Because they actively engage with it, because they have a controller in their hand and press forward and know that if they had not pressed forward then it would not have happened, they are in absolute control of the situation.


MW: This reminds me of a book by Steven Duncan, Reimaging progressive politics in the age of fantasy. He looks at Grand Theft Auto and its experience; how it's so engaging, but politicians don't like it because of its extreme violence. He encourages people to look at why it's so successful, to almost capture some of those qualities to allow for social change in different ways, rather than make people feel that it is negative to experience that. There is something to pull out about how we engage in entertainment, and how it reflects back on how we think about the world.


TB: Interactive entertainment is something that we have only just got to the edge of now. Passive entertainment, whether books, films or TV... interactive entertainment is completely different. The person who is consuming the entertainment content is in control of what happens. The author of the work isn't. Because of that, it's such a huge fundamental change, I don't think that any of us have really come to terms with it yet.


MW: Knowing how one individual might engage with it is one thing; knowing how hundreds of people engage, in different ways, is almost impossible to know.


If there's one thing that the audience would take away from your talk, what would it be?

TB: I hope that people will be encouraged to daydream more.


MW: I hope that they come away and question how we design things, and how we in some way can design things that can push the boundaries of our experience.


Toby Barnes is the Founder and MD of Mudlark. Matt Ward is Programme Leader of the BA Design course at Goldsmiths College, and Co-founder of DWFE.

They will be talking at This Happened #10, taking place at London Metropolitan University on 23/09/11. For further information and to book, visit the This Happened website.

Gaming: the system
London Weekend