I'm a designer, artist, researcher and educator. I'm interested in the expression of destructive, restorative, and transformative forces. Especially, that which responds to destruction: repair. For too long and for too many, repair is seen as a second-class practice, something mundane or lacking glamour, but it doesn't have to be. In this issue of Wild Air I'm going to discuss that, and some other things.
is In Wild Air
In Asia there is a particular tree, the Toxicodendron vernicifluum with a sap the Japanese call urushi. It's a polymer that behaves like both a lacquer and a glue, and it's pretty much stronger as a glue or painted surface than any other material prior to the discovery of synthetic petrochemicals. It was used to repair and protect ceramics and other objects as far back as the Jomon period of Japan, thousands of years ago. It's been coated on the paper of books from the middle ages, preserving them for hundreds of years. It's most commonly used to produce durable and beautiful lacquerware, but is notable for it use in traditional Japanese practice of ceramic repair known as kintsugi or kintsukuroi. Prior to the development of synthetic petrochemical glues, the rest of the world used metal staples to repair ceramics, but the Japanese used urushi.
Urushi is hard to work with and difficult to source. But these are opportunities for slowness in life, a point of difference from materials that are very fast or easy to work with. There is a kind of inverse relation between effort and harm. Tricky, temperamental urushi doesn't have pollutive issues because its a naturally extracted tree sap – its biological and chemical characteristics have developed in an ecosystem measured in step with the timescale of the earth. Conversely, petrochemical polymer glues (but also petrochemical plastics and solvents) are engineered for easy and powerful human applications, but disrupt their environments, infiltrating and harming ecological systems. I mean, really, the whole thing about microparticles disrupting ocean food chains is insanely fucked up. There is a garbage truck of plastics being dumped into the ocean every minute, and it has the potential to ruin our life on this earth.
Deleuze & Guattari
I'm in love with everybody. It amazes me how differently people think. I love trying to get outside my own head and view the world from the perspective of another. Thats hard though.
Right now I am analysing a series of interviews I conducted for my repair project Object Therapy. I'm using a Deleuzian-Guattarian concept, the concept of assemblage, to help me understand how people make decisions to act. Assemblages are productive intersections of expressions (being affects, sensations, perceptions and emotions) and content (being actions and events).
In the case of repair practice, an assemblage is initiated by content; the breaking of an object is a consequence of force or effort. A vase slips through the fingers, or material fatigue propagates a crack after years of use. An expression of uselessness – that may trigger sadness, apathy, anxiety or discontent – guides the assemblage towards action. If that action is disposal, there is an environmental cost, but also an affective loss: the damaged object is no longer present and able to impact those that may otherwise experience it. Likewise, if the action taken is a repair that restores function, but hides the expression of its own repair – for example, by using transparent glues or replacing broken components invisibly– then the assemblage dissolves because the breaking event has been neutralised. There no longer a perceivable expression of that damage or repair in the object.
But what we did in this recent project was repair broken objects with visible, creative repair. This has an altogether different consequence for the assemblage. Function restored, anxiety or discontent disappears, but a sensibility of repair persists. This is expression of repair in the assemblage is productive of new expressions. Possibilities for new styles and types of repair may form as ideas, and these may lead to new content – the practice of repair. This is to say that creative, visible repair has the potential to reproduce itself culturally.
In our interviews we observe this happening, commonly expressed in a new awareness that possessions can be repaired or reused in unusual ways.
Recently I've been thinking about the concept of a place and people called Zomia. Zomia the place is the semi-connected ranges of the south east asian highlands, in which hill people have for centuries sought refuge from oppressive forces of the agricultural flatlands.
An easily recognisable feature of flatlands culture is that they have rulers; either a statist or proto-statist heirachy faciliated by the wealth accumulation – wealth that is itself made possible by farming and grain storage. The Zomia resist this rule, to remain free. They hide and resist in the mountains, in places inaccessible to armies, and practice customs of kinship and debt-sharing that inhibit the accumulation of wealth.
Zomia is an anarchist concept – a way of understanding the practice of remaining stateless. It interest me in how it can connect the tribal past to resistance in the social present, especially in relation to labour under conditions of wealth inequality unseen since the Gilded Age. Its a concept that gives vitality and desirability to the possibility of true freedom, the ability to drop-out from the governed world.
I'm not going to write much here. Though I am a product designer, a maker of objects, I believe it is the perception of products as inherently self-contained, and defined by surfaces that distinguish them from the surrounding world, that had lead to a big, planetary scaled, destructive mess. If we perceive a product as a discrete thing, we can't see its connection to its origin, its materials, its past or future, its cultural or political legitimacy or illegitimacy. Better to see products as massive, cloudy, fuzzy tentacled meta-objects* with stringy relations that extend outwards, penetrating and wrapping around us en masse.
* I'm not specifically referring to the term metaobjects used in computer science, but nonetheless that definition, 'an entity that manipulates, creates, describes, or implements others', indicates the agency of objects in their extended relations, feeding and informing the systems of their own genesis.
An interesting thing about 21st century philosophy is the shift towards ecological thinking. How do we think beyond the human and consider the vast interconnected ecologies of the world? How dow we think beyond our bodies and join our consciousness with the matter of the earth? Obviously this is somewhat paradoxical, because we are constrained by our human bodies, and because, as some critics put it, rocks and trees don't think. But we are changing the planet so fast our very survival is dependent on breaking through that paradox and having better conceptual tools for understanding our power to change and shape ecologies. I'm interested in the material origins of products – how resources are mined or grown, extracted from the earth, sky or soil, and transformed incrementally into usable, consumable things. We actually know a hell of a lot about those processes, if we consider all the work done by material scientists, engineers, botanists and chemists, etc, but we are not so great in comprehending what happens on the waste side of things. This isn't just something that results from consumption, but happens persistently throughout extraction and production – waste materials from mining, farming, machining etc and from making energy for those practices. I don't believe consumers should bear much responsibility for making ethical consumption choices: in most cases, its impossible because consumers don't know enough about what is in the products they buy. What is needed is better tracking and tracing. Just as governments find out where all the money in an economy goes, via entrenched conventions of accounting, auditing, budgeting and taxation, so we need powerful embedded practices to track and trace materials.
My two most recent works for Melbourne Design Week, a chair for the exhibition 26 Original Fakes by Friends & Associates, and furniture and jewellery with Kyoko Hashimoto for Design Works 01, play with this concept. Their materials listing details every little thing used, broken down and cross-referenced to their constituent components at the elemental level. The idea is to experimentally apply intensive material tracing in a work of design, as a proof of concept for commercial products and regulatory practice. While this idea can and should stand by itself, the engagement with materiality also concerns repair and maintenance; I don't believe you can or should repair an object without a reasonable understanding of its biological/chemical basis.
So I've been thinking a lot about repair as a catalyst for creativity. My project Object Therapy introduces the concept of creative, transformative repair to professional visual artists and designers, many of them very experimental and at the forefront of aesthetic change. This is what gives their practice an aspirational quality, and thats very important. But the creative potential of repair can and should be embedded in daily practice at an institutional level. I don't subscribe to the notion that only artists or designers are creative. We all, millions of us, benefit from creative practice. Just for example, everyday building managers and tradespeople fix things that break – taps, doors, paving, electrical systems. These shouldn't be seen just as jobs to restore function, but seen as opportunities for creativity, an opportunity for people to maintain and repair to push a creative identity into the world. How amazing it would be if every time something was repaired it became a little bit better, a little bit more colourful, or playful, or entertaining. We shouldn't just let architects, designers and engineers control the expression of the built world.