This is the story so far, and it might sound preachy but it's something I feel rather passionate about, so do get yourself in a nice and comfortable position where you can spend a couple of minutes going over this with me.
It all starts with a phone call, at the time I was in Cuba indulging in the nomadic life of the uncomformist guy who gets out of high school and has absolutely no plans due his views of the linear system of life in America; high school then college then job then white picket fence and death. Then this phone call comes from my dad in Mexico, telling me that they just received a letter from Otis College. I ask my dad to open it and read it, and as I thought, it's an acceptance letter. Did I apply to College? Not quite, it was more like a well-planned conspiracy by my high school art teacher to whom I'm grateful because that shitty portfolio I put together against my will made it to the right hands and this is where the word scholarship comes into the story, you can imagine the rest as I fast-forward through three years of getting in trouble and out of trouble and other nuisances that you probably don't want o hear about, so let's just jump to senior year because that's the core of the story.
Senior year means thesis year. At this point, the sound of the word thesis only makes me think of feces, but only because they rhyme and nothing else, it also rhymes a little but with Jesus which might be ironic to some. The simple meaning of a thesis, or dissertation paper is "A statement that declares what you believe and what you intend to prove. A good thesis statement makes the difference between a thoughtful research project and a simple retelling of facts." Things are not linearly certain.
Wow, way to go, a paper in which I try to prove something, with lots and lots of research of course (not my favorite part.) And just what am I out to prove? Well this took a while to figure out. My first thought came from my uncomformity with the design world (again that word, I think sometimes it makes me sound like a bitter old man who wants people to keep off his lawn but I promise is nothing like that).
I had spent over two years now studying design (product to be more specific) and was already fed up with the current state of it...too much ego/pretension.
It bothered me that everything nowadays is "designed to death"; it bothers me that the main and most important quality of a product designer is the supposed ability to problem solve, yet most of the designers out there are solving meaningless problems, charging a fortune and creating empires from those who can afford this so-called design, while the people with real problems just suffer in silence because they can't afford to solve their problems.
Anyone with a slight sense of aesthetics can make a product pretty, but can they make it meaningful? Can they truly solve a problem that goes beyond form and function? Let's make an example with one of my favorite contradictions "Design within Reach." I guess the name of the store makes sense only in relative ways, Reach as in within your grasp, something that is close enough that you can just extend your arm and...reach, but then you look at the prices and Reach becomes that wild goat on the top of the alps while you are sitting on a wheelchair with buckets instead of arms. Does it seriously cost that much to re-create an Eames chair? I doubt it, especially once you see the quality of the work, it's nothing compared to an original chair that you can find at one of them big flea-markets, quality and craft is what they used to believe in back in the day, what I like to call the golden age of design because craftsmanship ruled over mass production, the attention to detail was overwhelming in the best possible way. ("God is in the details."- Mies van der Rohe ) The time when the absence of ornamentation and by harmony between the function of an object or a building and its design, products that were made to last forever, quality over quantity, I'd be more than willing to pay for that, but instead I find myself breaking that cheap Ikea coffee-table every time I place something over 50 pounds on top of it, why? Because craft as it existed is lost in this American culture of mass consumerism where it's all about making the process and materials cheap for a better monetary profit, thus sacrificing the overall quality of the end product.
So, while searching around for more information and fellow artists and designers who felt trapped like me and shared my beliefs, I stumbled on few but powerful texts and extraordinary people with enough guts to stand up and do something about the issue. My first find was the art of Banksy, (who I knew about from before high school) his art was a sharp yet intelligent critique on social issues and culture. Graffiti and stencils with meaning and a strong message, his art interacted with the surroundings as well as with the people who noticed them, layers that absorbed the spectator and created in you the emotional confusion in which you don't know if to laugh or cry. I'll let the BBC give you a small idea of his work: " Banksy's stencils feature striking and humorous images occasionally combined with slogans. The message is usually anti-war, anti-capitalist or anti-establishment. Subjects include animals such as monkeys and rats, policemen, soldiers, children, and the elderly. "
It was then that I knew that there were people out there who I could relate to and even look up to in times to come. Banksy led me to Adbusters and the whole issue of culture jamming which defined and popularized by Mark Dery is "an individualistic turning away from all forms of herd mentality -Culture jamming is not defined by any specific political position or message, nor even by any specific cultural position or message; Media hacking, information warfare, terror-art, and guerrilla semiotics, all in one. Billboard bandits, pirate TV and radio broadcasters, media hoaxers, and other vernacular media wrenchers who intrude on the intruders, investing ads, newscasts, and other media artifacts with subversive meanings are all culture jammers. " The tornado that took me to OZ.
There are silent and passive ways to fight back, (although I don't feel good about using the word passive and fight in the same sentence) A standup to corporate America and the modern plague that is consumerism, I knew I had to be part of this and in my Junior year of product design I dedicated an entire project to BLACKSPOT, a branch of Adbusters dedicated to shoes and bringing an end to the corrupt empire of Nike as well as other shoe brands that support the ways of new-slave-labor.
That same year I found the book "Design Anarchy" by Kelle Lasn, founder of Adbusters and Blackspot, that book became something of a personal bible for me as I started calling myself a Design Anarchist. I wanted to create something meaningful and not just product after product. I became obsessed with the idea that I could change the world with my design (an idea that prevails to this day, thank God.) Do notice that at this point I still felt rather outraged about everything that was happening in the world (of design) and I still do but back then it was somehow more like anger; I felt like my design had to be aggressive and on-your-face, something that wouldn't really respect the sensible part of design, and I mean sensible as in human senses related, not as in touchy-feely. My quest was leading me through the dark path of anti-design in which my creations would become aggressive and unapproachable at times. I wouldn't care about the form as much as the function, as long as it looked far from sleek, I felt accomplished. I had the need to stand up against the over-designed flush-sleekness of the iPhone and the iPod and every other iObject that was exactly the same pristine white box with rounded edges. And even though I still think that most of the design that's coming out these days is too Applefied, I've learned to deal with it in better ways than opposing it by making black, sharp, dangerous objects.
Our next assignment in design studio was to design and make a chair, and when the boundaries of the assignment were final, I hit the ground running with every single ideal I had worked up until that moment and the result was successful in the ways that it was quite different from most of the chairs my classmates made, Applefied chairs. My design was sharp and angular; I deliberately made a chair with arm-rests and no backrest, a chair that seemed to challenge it's own structure and was based on the concept of origami cranes. I took great care in the crafting of this chair by refusing to use any metal such as nails and screws. Instead I researched deep into ancient Japanese wood joinery which creates firm structure by relying only in the structural integrity of the material and the design. It worked.
Enter Senior year, most of my classmates had strong ideas on what they wanted to base their thesis on as every one of them had a set path on the branch of product design they wanted to follow: shoes, furniture, lamps, kitchen utensils, you name it, everyone was set on something except for me. I still had to find more meaning to being a product designer; there had to be something more than making functional things pretty, so I went back to the books. I started reading about other artists that were heavily involved in social issues. At first I was intrigued by Andre Malraux the French author, member of the anti-Fascist Popular Front in France, leader of an air force squadron that became something of a legend after his claims of nearly annihilating part of the Nationalist army at Medellin during the Spanish Civil War. Awarded the Médaille de la Résistance, the Croix de Guerre, and the British Distinguished Service Order for his efforts during the Second World War, all of this while still writing books, what a badass. With the possible exception of Malraux, no individual associated with the arts has been involved more in-direct political action than David Alfaro Siqueiros, a student agitator, soldier, leader of an assassination squad, all of that while also being one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, one of the three most famous Muralists in Mexico who was exiled two times and spent great time in prison. Truly one of the children of the revolution in both political and artistic ways, he kept experimenting with materials and paint thus revolutionizing the mural-techniques of the time. Siqueiros' art is everything but subtle, the imagery of injustice and violence that is often found in his murals has been censored once and again. Somehow I had to live up to Siqueiros, I had to prove myself worthy of my history.
No other artist I would read about could compare to these two, yet I had to keep reading, the thirst for knowledge was insatiable at this point, I was spending every chance I got behind pages, I learned about Joseph Beuys, a German artist who produced sculptures, environments, vitrines, prints and posters, and thousands of drawings. He was a rather committed teacher and increasingly devoted much of his energy to German politics. But what most interested me about Beuys was his advocating of the healing potential of art and the power of a universal human creativity, or as Beuys himself stated in "Caroline Tisdall: Art into Society, Society into Art (ICA, London, 1974)": "Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art [to] provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build 'A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART'... EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who - from his state of freedom - the position of freedom that he experiences at first-hand - learns to determine the other positions of the TOTAL ART WORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER."
Beuys sounded crazy claiming he was going to change the world through his art, but his way of trying to change things was more metaphysical than the kind of easy manipulation of popular images that we're into today.
All of these amazing artists that came before me and were somehow laying the path for me, changing the world through art? can that be possible? Will I end up sounding like a crazy old artist or will my effort create an impact on the world? Only one thing is for sure, I'm not the only one trying to achieve this.
Earlier this year I got an amazing hint (Thanks Debra) to check out the work of two inspiring women in the field of (product) design, the first one is Emily Pilloton; "a product designer, writer, critic, and humanitarian entrepreneur/nomad from San Francisco" who started Product H Design "a charitable organization that supports, inspires, and delivers life-improving humanitarian product design solutions. We champion industrial design as a tool to address social issues, a vehicle for global life improvement, and a catalyst for individual and community empowerment." I was amazed by the views and ideals of this woman, and just seeing this put to work in such ways as she had, wow.
And at this point I will evoke the words of Emily Pilloton on her Anti-manifesto as she expressed that "We need the design world (particularly industrial design) to stop talking big and start doing good; to put the problem-solving skills on which we pride ourselves to work on some of the biggest global issues; to design for health, poverty, homelessness, education, and more." I mean...what else can we say about that other than I do believe that design can change the world, (and now more than ever) or at least create a strong impact that will topple the current situation, and as much as I'd love to just rise and tackle the biggest issues of this world, I also think that even the smallest effort can become something of gargantuan proportions. Here come the metaphors of the small snowball that when rolling down a hill can become an avalanche, or my most favorite from the theory of chaos, the butterfly effect which states that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly here in America, can create a Tsunami in China. But I digress, within my thesis I want to break away from the stereotype of "Designer." I want to create change that is really meaningful through form, I want whatever it is that I create to have a positive impact in the world. I will in some way or another redefine space, material functionality or context while giving back as much as possible to society, and it might sound like way too much, but like the greatest man I have met once told me "First, we go wide. Then we go deep." He also said "Aim way higher than you mean to hit the ball" he is really into baseball in that sense.
"Baseball is an allegorical play about America, a poetic, complex, and subtle play of courage, fear, good luck, mistakes, patience about faith, and sober self-seteem." -Saul Steinberg
The second designer I learned about was Valerie Casey, head of IDEO, and founder of the designers accord " a global coalition of designers, educators, researchers, engineers, and corporate leaders, working together to create positive environmental and social impact." Most of the Designers Accord speaks of Sustainability, but what exactly is this magic word that people often throw here and there without really sticking to it?
Sustainability: According to the Brundtland Commission "is a characteristic of a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely. The term, in its environmental usage, refers to the potential longevity of vital human ecological support systems, such as the planet's climatic system, systems of agriculture, industry, forestry, fisheries, and the systems on which they depend." A rather complex definition for a word that is used more than three times a day with a wrong context. Sustainability is the key to our survival as the "reigning" species of this planet; we are supposedly the most intelligent creatures on the planet, well it's time to use this so called intelligence to save ourselves from the doom that we have created. They say it is wise to learn from your mistakes; well we have way too many mistakes, so why can't we stop making them and start learning from them? (Give me an answer and I'll build you a temple.) Valerie Casey. head of IDEO stated within her "Designer's Accord" that "The vision of the Designers Accord is to integrate the principles of sustainable design into all practice and production. Our mission is to catalyze innovation throughout the creative community by collectively building our intelligence around sustainability." Very powerful and inspirational if I may say, and my favorite context for sustainability, the context in which we get to use the word instead of just throwing it here and there to seem concerned. Because the truth is that "green" is trendy and overrated, you can save the planet, but who's gonna save us? A bit selfish of me to think that way, but I love humanity just as much as I hate it, and that's worth designing for; it's like on the airplane when they tell you that in case of loss of oxygen in the cabin, air-masks will drop and you must put yours first before you put one on your kid or the old man who can't do it himself. When I was young I thought that was the most awful and selfish thing that anyone could do, then my mother in her infinite knowledge explained to me that the adult must put the mask on first because if the adult passes out then there will be nobody to take care of the kid or the old man. I think our situation is something like that, existence is coming to an end, and we the humanity must put our masks on before helping the animals and plants, because if we go first, who's gonna save the planet?
I believe we're at the border of something totally new and truly meaningful, all it takes is some courage to jump off the ledge and embrace the fall into a new era, collapse the current structures and change the current paradigm. And yes I do realize how epic and maybe even over-dramatic that sounds, but we need to realize the importance of it, so I won't apologize for the substance of my words.
"I am a very powerful Person
I am the info age. What engineers were to the age of steam
What scientists were to the age of reason
I set the mood of the mental environment
The look and lure of magazines
The tone and pull of TV
The give-and-take of the net
I create the envy and desire that fuels the global economy
And the cynicism that underlies our postmodern condition"
And this brings us to my thesis project: to create a basic building material using a non-renewable material such as used car tires.
This project is split in three stages. The first stage is in which I experiment with the material, in this case the rubber from used car tires, during this first stage I will find ways to turn the rubber into a substance or material that can be mixed with another substance to create a new composite that can be used to create a "basic building block." The second stage is finding the process to make this composite, the trick here is that the process must be sustainable in the ways that it cannot use more energy than it creates, it must be a simple process that does not pollute and that is affordable. The third stage of project is to create a whole package out of the process and the material, a package that can be shared and re-created anywhere else in the world so that this process and material can be made virtually anywhere, but with special aim to third world countries that could benefit from this package by building their own economy based on the re-using of the rubber through the sustainable process.
Yet is not as easy as 1,2,3, I've already made a couple of people wary as I've set fire to the metal shop thus ruining the alleged "23 years without a fire" reputation of the shop. But that's not going to stop me, not by far. You gotta break a couple of eggs to make an omelet right?