The Climate Clock

«A slow-motion carbon time-bomb we are dropping on ourselves and all of Nature»

At the time of writing, there is six years, 267 days, 16 hours, 25 minutes and 57 seconds to stop the clock, so to speak, before the environment faces catastrophic events. Of course, by the time this goes to print, that number will be less. And in September 2020, when two artists, Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd, unveiled their ‘Climate Clock’ in New York, there were seven years remaining. The clock, plastered on the side of a building in New York’s Union Square, shows two figures. The first, in red, shows the time remaining to reach the 1.5 degree target, set by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, which would provoke devastating environmental disasters around the world. The second, in green, shows the percentage of energy produced using renewable energy; our lifeline, as it were. 

The clock replaces Metronome, an LED public art installation unveiled in 1999 by the artists, Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, that shows the length of time to, and from, midnight in a 24 hour cycle. As it happened, the artists behind the original public artwork had been looking to address the climate crisis through this work. Utilising the existing technology, the display was temporarily reprogrammed for the duration of Climate Week, ending on 27th September. For now, the Climate Clock remains in situ – that is, of course, unless it reaches zero.

Following the birth of his daughter (igniting a sense of urgency around the climate crisis) Gan Golan approached Andrew Boyd, to collaborate on the project. They had previously made a Climate Clock before, but on a much smaller scale. Nine days before the activist, Greta Thunberg, appeared at the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019, the pair were approached by email. “Greta wants a clock,” it read. They were able to band together enough coders, designers, artists and the like to make the clock in time for the summit, which was ultimately barred from being brought into the event by UN security. As the affair is summarised on Climate Clock’s website: “Oh, come on! It’s just a block with LED digits furiously counting down. Does that really look so much like a bomb?! Oh. Right. Well, that’s probably because it is a bomb! Or at least the symbol of a bomb. A slow-motion carbon time-bomb we are dropping on ourselves and all of Nature.”

The launch of the Climate Clock in New York chimed with the world in a much bigger way than Gan and Andrew had perhaps anticipated. And in the six or so months since its unveiling, smaller Climate Clock initiatives have launched across the globe. The first clock in Kazakhstan was turned on in January, another is planned in Glasgow to coincide with the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November, and there are plans for one in the Bay Area – to name just three. Climate activism is not a recent phenomenon, but the past few years have undoubtedly seen an acceleration in their coverage, influence and engagement. 

The first Earth Day was marked on 22nd April 1970, during which 20 million Americans mobilised to voice their concerns for the direction in which the climate was headed. Every year since, Earth Day has taken place on the same day. The origins of Earth Day date back further, however, arguably to the publication of Silent Spring in 1962. The books author, Rachel Carson, rang the alarm bells that the twentieth-century way of life was having a devastating impact on the environment. Petrol guzzling engines; the acceleration of mass-production; the use of pesticides. Up until that moment, the world was somewhat unaware of the consequences of their behaviour on the environment, the eco system and on their own health.

Ahead of Earth Day 2021, NR Magazine partnered with Gan, Andrew and the Climate Clock team to highlight the urgency of addressing the climate crisis. We spoke with representatives from three of the satellite projects, in Kazakhstan, Glasgow and the Bay Area, to learn more about what drew them to the Climate Clock, and how their involvement is creating change within their local environments. The full video discussion, which took place over Zoom, will be unveiled on 22nd April, but below is a condensed and edited summary of the issues covered.

The three representatives, Meruyert from Almaty, Kazakhstan, James from Guildford, UK, and Kim from San Francisco, US, are all at different stages of their Climate Clock journey. ‘I saw the clock that they’d set up in New York over social media […] and it caught my attention,’ James explains. He recognised its huge potential to raise awareness about the upcoming COP26 summit throughout the country ‘because,

«not many people in the UK actually know it’s happening or what it is, which is not a good sign because that means that people around the world probably don’t know it’s happening either.»

For Meruyert and Kim, seeing the New York clock on social media helped sow the seed amongst their teams, too.

‘One of the team members, Galiya, found out that we could also put a Climate Clock in our city – in our country,’ Meruyert says. They began as a team of four, working to put up the ‘third biggest Climate Clock’ and the first in Asia. ‘It was crazy, it was huge […] And now, we’re doing new movements [and] projects in our community and getting into the eco activist life.’ Not long before the Zoom call, the Kazakhstan team welcomed their sixth team member. For Kim in the Bay Area, though, it’s currently just her and her friend, Hannah, involved. They’re still early on in the process, but are committed to doing something about the Bay Area’s lack of any ‘[real] substantial symbol of action towards the climate crisis’. 

Though the ultimate goal of Climate Clock is to “flatten the climate curve” it’s interesting to hear the immediate concerns of the respective teams. The shadow cast by Silicon Valley over the Bay Area is one that needs to be addressed, quickly, for the local environment, as well as the world. ‘[These areas] have a such a large sphere of influence. There’s so many corporations and companies that can work towards a more sustainable future.’ Kim hopes a ‘butterfly effect’ will occur, and so her goal is to put pressure on those companies. 

For both Meruyert and James, their action is aimed more at politicians. As James explains, the hopes for the Glasgow Climate Clock around the time of COP26 is that it will address the ‘huge disparity between current levels of political ambition and what needs to happen.’ The idea being that the clock will help mobilise the public, and put pressure on politicians to draft up seriously-considered strategies and policies; words that have actions behind them.

«We have a big problem, in the UK at least, with politicians talking the talk and saying things at these international summits, but then actually, domestically, not really living up to that.»

That’s a sentiment Meruyert shares, and it was the empty words of political leaders in Kazakhstan that energised the team to get to work. ‘The interesting thing is the people in political power say that they need to take action, but they want us – the younger generation – to save the world, to save the country. But they’re the decision-makers.’ This disconnect spurred Meruyert and team on; ‘that was the urgency. And after researching all the information we were like, “We must get it. We need to do it.” So, we did it.’  

Another issue that all three teams have had to address is criticism that, if real change depends on political power, the Climate Clock only scares and intimates the public. ‘We’ve definitely had some tough questions and concerns raised,’ Kim recalls, adding that a community college she contacted about adding the Climate Clock’s widget to their website were worried it was ‘too similar to a Doomsday Clock and would actually push people away.’

After the installation of the clock in Almaty, Meruyert’s team approached officials in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, about installing a clock there. The response was that they didn’t want ‘negative energy in big public places.’ But as all three point out, what’s more terrifying is the fact that the 1.5 degrees threshold could be crossed due to global inaction. ‘I feel that the climate issue [is at] a point where such an urgent symbol is needed,’ notes Kim. ‘We don’t have forever to fix the issue, and I think that the Climate Clock is meant to be intimidating because it’s supposed to pressure people to take action.’ 

Collaboration comes before fear-mongering, within the Climate Clock community and beyond. The teams meet virtually every Wednesday with Gan and Andrew and have access to training and mentoring to help them get their local campaigns off the ground. Kim mentions that herself and Hannah, for example, received advice from the Kazakhstan team on how to reach out to local partners. Unlike Kim and Meruyert, James has been a climate campaigner since the age of 13, and the team in Glasgow have also had discussions with other climate activist groups in the city and beyond, including Fridays For Future and YOUNGO, the UN’s youth climate constituency.

Acknowledging his relative experience as a climate campaigner, James asks Kim and Meruyert whether they’ll continue to be involved in similar work after Climate Clock. Both agree that, in one way or another they will – because the issue isn’t just going to disappear. But as we approach Earth Day 2021, what do the three team members hope to have achieved by Earth Day 2022? 

‘I hope we’ll have managed to successfully use [the Climate Clock] to mobilise young people in the UK ahead of COP26, and managed to push for ambitious enough action – and start to have that filter through into policy around the world. But hopefully, we can still use it to continue to generate momentum around the country and the world to hold politicians accountable to the decisions they’ve made at that summit, and make sure that actually translates into physical action rather than just words that were spoken that once, in November in Glasgow.’ – James

‘To change people’s minds at the local level. All around the world, people want to change the climate crisis. But a year from now, I guess, first of all, on a local level, we want as many people as we can to join our movement; to know and to educate themselves and to realise that it’s real. And second, is to get our team bigger and bigger. One year from now, I hope our movement will grow to a bigger movement, to bigger projects and to stop climate change.’ – Meruyert 

‘I really hope to grow the Bay Area team too. Right now, it’s just a team of two people, so having that help would be great. But, on a local level I think there needs to be more education, especially for the younger generation. Our goal with the Climate Clock on a local level is to educate those people and bring awareness to these issues. In a larger sense, the corporations and companies that I talked about earlier, just helping them, pushing them, towards a more sustainable future is […] one of our main priorities.’ – Kim 

Credits

Images · THE CLIMATE CLOCK
https://climateclock.world/

David Caon

«equally useful, simple and beautiful»

CAON is a multi-disciplinary design studio based in Sydney, Australia and founded in 2009 by David Caon, a graduate of Industrial Design at the University of South Australia. Specialised in industrial, transportation, aviation, product, graphic and interior design, CAON provides innovative solutions. From aircraft interiors, tableware to furnishings for the workplace and home, Creative Director David Caon has mastered the art of applying design thinking to industrial design across different disciplines. The CAON philosophy is simple: precision analysis and bespoke response lead to unique outcomes appropriate to each individual case. Collectively, they believe that in the right hands design has the power to heighten human experience and enhance quality of life.

NR delves into the studio’s projects and partnerships with the likes of Qantas airlines on multiple occasions (whether it has been or the airline’s tableware or its fleet’s interiors), the studio’s take on sustainability as well as their plans for the future.

CAON is a multi-disciplinary design studio specialising in industrial, transportation, aviation, product, graphic and interior design. Did you study anything related to any of these fields? Did you study product design, architecture or interior design?

I studied Industrial Design (product design) and commenced a masters of transport design which I left after about 3 weeks in.

Caon studio seems to be very focused on industrial design. What led you to create your own practice? What is it that you are exploring or tackling with your work?

My ambition in the early days of my career working for designers was always to one day have my own studio. I spent my initial years working in Europe. Once I returned to Australia, I decided to realise my goal after working for a large multinational architectural practice. I realised that I liked being part of a smaller, more familiar unit. My focus is to create designs that are equally useful, simple and beautiful. I’m trying to create things that avoid trend and thereby stand a chance of being timeless. You can’t create something that’s timeless, you stumble upon it by chance, which I kind of like. But you can try for it.

This is not the first time that CAON is doing projects for Qantas Airlines (for instance the Qantas Airlines Economy Seatings and the interior of Qantas A380). How did the collaboration come about? As a designer, do you enjoy doing collaborative works?

I’ve worked with the airline in some form since about 2003. My first introduction was whilst working in the studio of Marc Newson. Once I started my own studio, they were almost my first client. So there has been a wonderful consistency and evolution in the relationship. As a designer, having a long term collaboration with a client is a wonderful thing, and in some ways a bit old school. When it comes to new projects, it means that we are already on the same page, speaking the same language. The brand also means a lot to me, it’s been such a big part of my career for so long. I want them to do well out of every collaboration. 

The colour palette and material palette both feel very relaxing and wellness focused. Was this something you wanted to make a point of? Travelling does take a toll on the body but well- designed spaces can heighten human experience and enhance quality of daily life and it feels that the Qantas First Class Lounge Interior in Singapore has achieved that. How did the collaboration with Akin Atelier unfold?

I try to limit the interior design projects I take on because I’m very detail-focused which isn’t necessarily efficient when designing spaces. My general design approach is guided by industrial design practice, so I’m quite aware that I’m biased towards smaller scales. I know its best if I collaborate with designers that are able to take a broader view. The collaboration with Akin was born out of my friendship with Kelvin Ho, who is the director of Akin Atelier. These projects are important to Qantas and I want to make sure they are as good as possible and as enjoyable as possible, so bringing Akin into the project ensured that and also meant that I had a sounding board. The feeling we have tried to create was a conscious decision to make the space feel more like a sophisticated lounge room, part Sydney, part Singapore. Functionally, space is very food oriented as well because lay over times tend to be short and we wanted to give the passengers as much opportunity to refresh and reinvigorate before the next leg.

What have been some of the responses to your projects? Is there a particular project you have worked on that was particularly well received and did this inform your future projects? As your method of design seems to rely or be influenced by the relationship between people and their surroundings, how does the way people react to work affect the way you create? You have also designed tableware products such as bottle openers and furnishings for the workplace and the home, which is a nice way to connect people to the things they use in their daily lives.

The Premium Economy seat for Qantas was really well received but it didn’t mean that we didn’t think it could be evolved when we came to update it for the A380. It’s funny, as a designer, people are a bit reticent to tell you anything that might be wrong with your design, but I’m keenly focused on progressing our process and honestly evaluating our work. I’m wary of praise and I try not to rely on it as a measure of whether a design has been successful. So I guess I’m saying that no, reaction to one project hasn’t driven the direction of another project. I try to involve my colleagues, from across a range of disciplines, in my design process, as a way of stress-testing ideas. And when I’m designing I tend to think of my friends and family, people that I know well, and imagine how they might use the objects or what they might think.

Do you have a particular effective method to approach projects as they seem to be quite bespoke and tailored projects?

The basic structure of our methodology is quite a traditional one. Research, ideation, prototyping and development. Given that we are often heading into unknown territory, we try to learn as much as possible about the type of product or object or space that we’re working on. With a lot of our projects, especially the more specialised transportation projects, design is a cog within a system, so we are working within a framework. Critically, I think our role is push beyond that framework somewhat so that we can introduce new ideas and find space for innovation. Depending on the structure of the project and our role, we will adopt our process.

How has been in Australia influenced your design method?

It doesn’t so much influence our method as it does the reality of our business. Design studios in Australia do not necessarily have the immediate connection to the broader world of clients, whether they be furniture houses, big iconic brands like Nike or the tech giants like Apple. We’re in a funny time zone and quite remote. And its a shame really because due to those limitations, studios here tend to be quite inventive. We have to manufacture a lot of our own work in order to have an output. I think this approach could bring a lot to the bigger clients out there.

Sustainability has been very much on a lot of companies’ radars in various fields whether it be fashion or design and architecture. As you are dealing in a few of your projects with an airplane company and air transport, which is one of the most polluting means of transport and thus has a consequential environmental impact, what are your thoughts on incorporating a more sustainable approach?

I’m 100% for it. Air transport is a challenging arena for innovation because of how careful manufacturers and suppliers need to be around safety. So innovation happens slowly within the bounds of certification and the like. Introducing new materials is a complex process, something I have tried on a number of occasions with limited success. That said, there is a desire to be more sustainable across the board which is palpable. We are making things as light as we can in order to be more and more efficient, burning less and less fossil fuels. I think the industry really does need a couple of technological step changes to really begin to contribute to reducing pollution.

What are some of the projects that you are working on for 2021?

There are a few things. CAON operates two brands in-house at the moment and we’re busy developing new products for those. Additionally we’ve established a brand in partnership with my friend Henry Wilson called Laker. Laker has been in the works for a number of years but we officially launched at the end of 2020. We’re also doing a new restaurant for Neil Perry in a beautiful part of Sydney called Double Bay. We’re doing that in collaboration with our friends ACME. Finally we’re continuing our explorations into the future of transport with a couple of research projects. 

Credits

Images · CAON STUDIO
https://www.caonstudio.com/

Nonotak

«what drive us was the experience, the moment, to feel physically connected with a space»

NONOTAK was born from the collaboration between architect musican Takami Nakamoto and visual artist Noemi Schipfer back in late 2011. The duo embodies that merge of architecture, spatial design, music and sound. From creating dreamlike environments to performances using light and sound installations, NONOTAK present their own format of art to the world.  Combining Noemi Schipfer’s experience in kinetic visual and Takami Nakamato’s approach of space and sound, the studio creates ethereal environments immersing the viewer.

NR discusses with the duo about the creative process behind some of their works, how the Covid crisis impacted the arts and music industry but how also it gave the two artists time to reflect on themselves and on the meaning of creating art and ultimately the studio’s plans for 2023.

Noemi and Takami, you both come from different creative paths, respectively illustration, visual arts, architecture and music. It is always very interesting and inspiring to see how two worlds merge. How did you meet and what inspired you to start Nonotak Studio in 2011? 

Noemi Schipfer: We first met in highschool in Paris at the Japanese class ( Tak have both parents Japanese and I’m half Japanese half French so it was a way to have good marks at school. Then we lost sight for few years and we met back in Tokyo during summer holiday. Tak was studying Architecture at that time and I was already graduate from Art school. We spent time walking in Tokyo and it was really inspiring to listen to his approach on Architecture and Space.

Tak was also playing in a metal band and I had the chance to follow them on few shows to take tour footages. In the late 2011 Takami was working in an Architecture studio called Bigoni-Mortemard in Paris and they were looking for an illustrator to do a mural painting in the entrance hall of a new building in Paris. To work on this project was intense & fun and it give us the will to do more together and to create our own space. We wanted to merge our backgrounds all together : visuals, space and sound. The installations format came pretty naturally and the first idea was to develop an immaterial space were everything would be intangible and in motion.

Takami Nakamoto: As Noemi said, we have known each other for a long time and the purpose of collaborating together was mainly because we had the same vision on what format of art we wanted people to experience, and how we were going to merge our backgrounds in order to create a particular environment where light, space and sound collide all together.

ISOTOPES V2 is a light installation experience that was inspired from Fukushima’s nuclear disaster. Could you tell us more about the creative process behind creating a dematerialised space? I love the concept of making something tangible out of a feeling or something that disappeared and that no longer exists, making it almost part of something fictitious. It is also a way to sort of immortalise the individuals that had and have been affected by Fukushima and it adds a commemorative and contemplative feel to it. Is that something you consciously wanted to convey?

NS: Fukushima’s nuclear disaster is something that personally really touched me.  I was in Paris at this moment but I remember I was shocked and afraid about the news. Japan is my second country, it is a place that I used to go since I’m born and I have so many memories there and part of my family. When the nuclear central exploded I thought I would never be able to go back there again so it was heart breaking. At this moment I felt really strange how one part of your life could feel like it was almost just a fiction. Everything could change or even worth, just disappear.

Time is a notion that fascinated me a lot even when I was a student in art school. Memories are a notion that is so immaterial but so strong at the same time. When we develop our first installation ISOTOPES V2 we wanted to represented this different notion of immateriality by creating a space that is constantly changing and where the audience would be able to travel through.

TN: I think this project is special to us as long as it was our first piece being exhibited in an international exhibition like the Mapping Festival in Geneva. First time we were able to share the experience of our work to unknown public and it felt like a new chapter in our career. It also made us look at our work in its actual scale, as long as we have been working on small scale models to work on the composition. This really brought another dimension to the purpose of our hard work.

LEAP V.3 at Wave Of Tomorrow Festival 2019 in Jakarta, I loved this piece which I thought was such another great work of yours in terms of translating feelings or emotions into sounds and lights. Could you tell us a bit more about this piece? 

NS: The first time we developed our installation LEAP was in a festival called Electric Castle in Cluj Romania and the exhibition space was really specific and historic. It was in an old stable of a castle, so the space itself was really atypical and the celling had beautiful bricks arcade. It was important for us to keep this strong architecture so we decide to invest the ground as the canvas. We wanted to deploy the installation in the maximum surface of the space and the light to cover every corner of it. That’s how we design those custom panels where 4 indirect lights are hidden behind and pointing 4 different directions. Light is a very flexible medium that has a huge impact on it’s environment. By controlling lights it’s not only the source itself that is moving but the entire space gets affected and painted by the shadows it creates.

LEAP V3 in Jakarta is the biggest version we did of this installation. We wanted to keep the massive volume of the space and highlight the length of it with the speed of lights and sound.

TN: In fact it was important to actually stay and program the installation on site, considering this unique context in Jakarta we were immersed in. We like the fact each site specific installation is about experiencing it through the build of it, the space itself, the people who are helping us with construction with the same goal of looking at something special at the end.

Last spring you revealed a large-scale installation in Porto Alegre, Brazil, titled GIANTS. The audio visual light and sound installation was set inside the Farol Santander building which was reminiscent of Nonotak’s first commissioned project in the lobby of a public housing building in Paris. Exploration of sound and space is at the core of GIANTS. Was also being in Brazil informative as to how you wanted to conduct this piece? It feels like a lot of your pieces are connected to the spaces they inhabit and are quite site specific like LEAP V.3. The interactions from the visitors in some of your pieces such as PARALLELS with the lights and by walking through the space, adds a very important element to that connection.

NS: When we get commissioned for an art installation, the starting point that drive us is the space that will host the piece. When we got the floor-plans and pictures of Farol Santander building we were struck by the verticality of the space and the massive columns. We wanted to accentuate this characteristic by adding more columns with light. The space offer a 360° view so it was important for us to include this specific in our piece as well. The columns included lights in the 4 directions, like LEAP installation concept. This space was also really interesting because there was two floor levels. You were able to see it from the ground levels, but also from above at the second floor. The rhythm of GIANTS is really contrasted. You have the first part were the ambiance is really dreamy, light dots are floating like fireflies are dancing together and then suddenly the sound get more violent and solid lines appear and move in the entire building like an army.

TN: I think the way we named the installation also speaks by itself in a way. When we saw the spatial context of the exhibition space, we immediately thought about experimenting with verticality and create an experience where people would feel like these massive totems of lights are taking over the space like Giants. The scale of these totem gave us the possibility of affecting the space with light so much that we could both create a feeling where we felt both “compressed” by it. The fact they are deployed along the whole space made these totems feel like they were ruling it.

Your work revolves around making visible, moving objects, forms, large-scale AV installations and spatialized sound. For instance with Parallels at STRP Biennale, you have used the whole space as a canvas for light which must also be quite difficult technically. That must result in a lot of experimentations and research behind each piece. Could you both tell us a bit more about that process? 

NS: At the beginning of NONOTAK we were a lot exploring light through projections and semi-transparent screens.

The semi transparent screens allow us to catch the visuals but also letting passing through the light and create duplication of the same visuals into several layers. It was our way to materialise the light at this moment. We develop few installations and a performance using this concept and explore different set up to see how we can create illusions playing with the positions of the projectors etc.

When we get commissioned for STRP Biennale, the theme of the exhibition was “Outside the screen”. We were working on the concept of the piece we wanted to present and at some point of the night we just realise why not just take literally the theme of the exhibition and get outside of our screens. That’s how we develop a concept that would materialise the light through space itself by using haze and would only have the space as a limit of the installations.

The first time we were able to experiment on this new concept was during the few days we had to set it up before the opening of the exhbition. We had preparations and expectations in our mind before coming but the first day we were there we just realise the effect wasn’t working as planned. We had to change everything, move completely the position of the projectors inside the room and start from zero all the composition of the visuals at the last minute. It learns me how important it is to be in front of the piece when you program it and how dangerous it could be to work on something by simulation when it comes to something as sensitive than light.

TN: This is actually one of these projects that really drew a line on the approach and the personal relationship we have with the work we create.

We realized that imagining projects in small scale or simulating them was helpful to visualize projects but nothing felt more real than getting to our exhibition space, spend time with our new piece and work on the composition in relation to the space. Living within the project and make it an intense experience. That’s how we like to experience our installations, and we should never forget that the reason we started all of this was because of our love for materiality in light, and we do think this can’t be replicated virtually and we treat it as a material in itself.

Your 40 minute audio visual piece SHIRO was ranked by the New York Times as one of the top 15 performances at Sónar Electronic Music Festival in Barcelona in 2017. I could not find the whole performance online but watched various extracts from it. In contrast to your other works, you both are taking part on stage so to speak in the performance. How did that feel? Would you want to do more of those kind of perforrnances in which the public get to actually see you? 

You have performed this piece in different places over the years, was there any in particular that you keep a fond memory of and if so, why? 

NS: When we were working on our installation we also realise it was cool to see people silhouette passing through it. The relationship with the human body scale and the installation was interesting. Tak as a musician was interested to extand his background in electronic music. That’s how in summer 2013 we worked on our first performance called LATE SPECULATION. The concept was us performing inside a translucent structure with 2 projectors and use our silhouettes as part as the visual effect. One projector was placed from the front and the other one in rear. By alternate which projector was on, we were making a visual illusion of us appearing or disappearing. SHIRO is our second performance in continuity with LATE SPECULATION.

Installations and performances are really different experiences. The first big difference is the fact that we are sharing the same moment with the audience and have a direct reaction from them. The dynamic is really different. It’s really powerful to hear the audience during the show.

TN: In addition to Noemi’s answer, I think we simply like the fact to not really limit ourselves to installation artists but also performances where music takes another dimension and also the way we directly interact with the audience and experience something in real time with them.

Stage is a special and unique place to express yourself and we enjoy switching from installation projects to live performance projects.

The 2019 pandemic in which we are still in, has obviously impacted quite harshly the arts and performances industry. The past year has definitely been difficult and for some more than others but I feel like we have all in some sort and in different capacities being able to plant the seeds for the present year. It feels as though there has been a lot of self-reflection and introspective work done at an individual level which will then enable growth, which is the theme of this issue. How do you both feel with this? How does Growth resonate with you? 

NS: During 7 years we had the chance to be able to live for our art and been able to showcase it in so many extraordinary places. I would be for ever grateful for this. The rhythm of our travels, exhibitions, live shows was intense and we never really had breaks at all. When we had our first show cancelled and the first lockdown was announced I was a little bit puzzled but at the same time for the first time since years, I would have a break and time to step back about NONOTAK.

Now that it’s been a year we are in this situation and seeing how it evolves I’m more than sad and anxious about the future. With NONOTAK what drive us was the experience, the moment, to feel physically connected with a space, exchange emotions with an audience, share a stage with people. And when I see the art scene going more and more only online it deeply depress me.

TN: That “covid” crisis really affected the touring dynamic of our collaboration and it is pretty sad, but we know it is also reflecting in many other people’s lives. That crisis gave us the time to reflect on ourselves, the meaning of creating art especially in this type of context. But it also gave us the time to reflect on society and the power the government has over people’s lives and their freedom but more importantly, the way they are able to fragilise culture and normalize it out in the open.

Questioning the narrative became politically incorrect, aspiring for freedom makes you feel guilty and this is the society we allowed ourselves to live in. What kind of future does Art expression have in this “new normal” we are submitting to? I don’t really know about that.  But it seems to me that being a sovereign individual is the starting point of any form of expression and we feel like we are totally losing the value of what it means to be free. It is pretty scary to me and I guess it is for many other people.

I think growth is still possible in this context. being adaptive is key to finding a path you feel comfortable with in terms of creating and growing. Since “covid” started we got ourselves in projects that required lot of learning and we at least feel like we took advantage of this a little bit.  We don’t know when we would have stopped touring without any interruption if this did not happen as well.

We are doing this interview during the first few months of 2021 and the issue will be released this spring. Are there any projects you are looking forward to be taking on and that you could share with us? 

NS: We are working on permanent installations that will take place in 2023. It’s a different challenge than working for events or temporary exhibitions but really exciting about the idea that the piece will last for ever.

Alexandra Leese

Me + Mine

My body. My limbs. My hair. My nose. My skin. My heart. My lungs. My breath.

Much of what we are taught about ourselves as women is that our bodies are not ours. As if we are someone else’s to keep, to define, to use, take pleasure in, and to hurt.

Loving our bodies is not as simple as it sounds when we are still finding a home within us. When we’re alone in nothing but our skin.

While nudes have traditionally been used to display our bodies for the pleasure of the male viewer, these portraits of us are distinct in that they evoke the safety we feel when no one is looking. We do not produce images for the gaze of patriarchy or to compete with other women. We don’t seek to empower people — we know empowerment happens when we take control for ourselves.

Across many regions and cultures, though it doesn’t represent every kind of body and beauty out there, this project is us sending nudes to ourselves — not to be consumed but to be revered. Each woman has a unique, evolving relationship with her body. What we have in common is being alongside one another on the path to loving our bodies how we choose, despite the battles we may face.

So we dream along our journeys. We touch each hair, each fold, each wrinkle, and each scar, remembering that we belong to ourselves.


Credits

Words · Alexandra Leese and Xoài Pham
Me + Mine is available for purchase via antennebooks.com
Proceeds of Me + Mine will be donated to the organisations Black Trans Femmes in the Arts, Trans Law Centre and Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre.

Sumayya Vally

Sumayya Vally From The Johannesburg-Based Architectural Studio, Counterspace, On Amplifying The Lived Experiences Of Those Who Have Historically Been Overlooked

When Sumayya Vally founded the Johannesburg-based architectural studio Counterspace in 2015, it was against the backdrop of a deeply entrenched narrative of western hegemony. As an architectural student in South Africa, at the University of Pretoria and then the University of the Witwatersrand, Sumayya found the curriculum pivoted around a western worldview. And as the name implies, Counterspace seeks to redefine such a narrative, to amplify the lived experiences of those who have, historically, been overlooked. Earlier this year, Sumayya’s efforts to incorporate marginalised and underrepresented architectural ideas into an existing lexicon were internationally recognised when she was included as one of the TIME100’s most influential people.

Sumayya’s architectural perspective is one shaped by her experience growing up in a place less openly inclusive, though equally diverse. Now 30, Sumayya’s early life was spent in the final years of Apartheid-era Pretoria. And as child, she experienced first-hand the impact that architecture and design can have on people’s lives. As South Africa nears 30 years since Apartheid’s end, it’s a country that remains deeply segregated by race, class and wealth. Architecture and city planning is not an innocent bystander here and have been used throughout history as tools for control, subordination, and exclusion. Sumayya’s exposure to this complicated reality informs the interdisciplinary, and often imaginative, work that Counterspace does.

In 2019, the studio unveiled Folded Skies – a series of three sculptural structures made from interlocking tinted mirrors. The iridescent glow captured in the surfaces of the structures appears to represent the history of a city built on the vast gold deposits discovered in Johannesburg in the 1880s. While the legacy of this glittering past is reflected in the city’s colonial architecture, Folded Skies recalls instead the ecological aftermath of the gold rush. The city remains blighted by toxic pollution emanating from the equally vast number of waste dumps left behind from abandoned gold mines. The presence of these dumps is a reminder both of the aphorism that ‘everything that glitters is not gold’ and of the country’s history of segregation and suffering.

Johannesburg was a city divided right from the start, with mine-owners, wealthy from the gold rush, living separated, then segregated, lives from a black population who were eventually forced into townships in the city’s suburbs. The hangover of that gold discovery continues to wreak havoc. The large domineering heaps act as a physical barrier between rich and poor, black and white neighbourhoods; a reminder that segregation still exists. Toxic fumes from the dumps, which are themselves now being mined for the fragments of gold they may contain, are carried south by the wind, poisoning the black communities who live in their path – environmental racism in practise. Though human-made, the waste heaps demonstrate how materials can be used to control, to divide, to enslave people; as tools to construct a built environment, or as resources to build global trade.

By engaging with Johannesburg’s complicated history, Sumayya and Counterspace’s practice is as much social history as it is about designing for a better future. Uhmlaba, a film made in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum, will explore South Africa’s history of segregation using soil (as land) as both its catalyst and focus. The studio often uses film and photography (archival and contemporary) to animate their ideas; visual evidence to demonstrate the fluidity of life and people in an urban environment. And if Johannesburg exemplifies how the architecture is used to control and segregate, the architect’s plan cannot always anticipate the unpredictability of the lived city experience. Counterspace celebrates, and designs, with small acts of subversion in mind. And so, as Sumayya explains in our conversation below, a new approach to architecture and the way we look and engage with urban spaces begins with interweaving unheard and overlooked histories into the fabric of our built environments.

Would you be able to share some insight into the upcoming film Umhlaba?

Umhlaba translates to land in Zulu. The land in South Africa, like many places in the majority world has been implicated in our histories of movement, dispossession and displacement, empire and extraction. The film considers the depths, scales and layers of connection (and violences) in our relations to land – through the narration of recipes, stories and ingredients that become part of our cultures and constructions of belonging – to the violence of breathing toxic dust and the zoomed out segregation and separation of bodies from land in Apartheid city planning. The film is a collage of these various scales and entities, and weaves together connections and links between what was assumed unconnected and innocent.

How did you develop the approach that Counterspace takes through research, practice and pedagogy?

Johannesburg has served as a source of immense inspiration for the practice. Because so much of the city exists below the surface, so many ritual, economic and other practices have developed incredible resistances and are able to surface and exist, despite being excluded by our city’s histories and infrastructures. There is so much that lives beyond the limits of traditional planning, design and beyond the tools of the architectural plan, section and elevation. These ways of being invite us to imagine different ways to draw – to find tools to learn, absorb, understand, listen to and interpret our conditions. Many of them are aural, oral, atmospheric – which has given rise to drawing through film, performance, choreography, the digital, sonic and atmospheric field notes, temperature, colour, etc., to develop an expanded lexicon and ways of reading and seeing Johannesburg.

What informs your approach as an architect to incorporate performance, the medium of video/film, cultural histories into the practice?

Rituals, ways of being and the lives of people in my city – and this intent to draw, make visible, amplify and sharpen aspects of our histories and cultures that cannot be included in the traditional tools and ways of archiving that the discipline and the profession of architecture has inherited.

Counterspace’s work delves into materials like sand, soil, everyday detritus, so I’d love to know what you see as the cultural importance of “material”? 

I very much see materials as shifting earth and land; constantly being negotiated, reconstituted and reconfigured. Whether implicit or explicit, all projects stake a political claim in their approach to materials. I am very interested in the use of detritus, in traces and reconfigured leftovers, in how these give us a reading of our relationships to the earth. Materials are not neutral – everything, from cane and cotton, to concrete and gold – is a reading of our ties to each other and our histories (and consequential futures). I am also interested in blurring the binaries that we have drawn between ourselves and the world we are in, and a part of. Johannesburg has also given me an implicit desire to be resourceful and to piece together a lot with very little.

How do you navigate the kinds of architectural malpractices/Western authority that shaped the studio’s raison d’être?

I see my practice as an effort to realise design languages from places of difference – different ways of being and seeing, different histories and stories – and in that sense it has always existed tangentially to the dominant canon. I think things are changing now, but for a long time this meant that the work was quite invisible to the dominant canon. I very much see myself as part of a generation and a movement working to translate and embody our own positions of difference and bring a critical mass of them into the world. Any identity that is different to the dominant discourse is a lens with which to see the world from a different perspective – which is so needed, now more than ever.

It’s interesting to think of spaces where people gather as places that weren’t always envisioned as serving those very purposes. How did growing up around Johannesburg shape your understanding of this?

Our city, of course, has a history of clandestine meeting and organising – from pirate radio setups on kitchen tables to underground jazz during Apartheid. The city has such a divisive understanding of what public is and looks like. In many regards, we never had public spaces that are truly designed for everyone and that have truly drawn on our ways of being and our understandings and cultures of what ‘public’ is and looks like. But, in many other ways, the resilience of practices and gathering that exist outside of, and despite formal limitations, has been a revelation. Being able to see and read these, and learning from the atmospheres and spaces that are created by people and their practices of gathering and constructions of belonging – whether at a carwash, at a petrol station, for a lunchtime gathering, or church on a patch of leftover veld grass in the centre of the inner-city – has been deeply fundamental to my practice.

 

Ishiuchi Miyako

«Photography is the work of evoking time using light»

The photographer, Ishiuchi Miyako, grew up in the Japanese port city of Yokosuka in the aftermath of the World War II. Yokosuka is one of the largest overseas US Naval base, and it was against this backdrop that Ishiuchi Miyako grew up. She went on to study textiles and weaving in Tokyo in the late 1960s, and whilst there, discover a passion for photography. Ishiuchi Miyako returned to Yokosuka in the 1970s to confront the place that brought joy (in the form of American exports like jeans and pop music), fear and anger, as a city overrun by the – sometimes sinister –  pleasures of the military occupation. Once there, Ishiuchi Miyako began documenting the city in grainy black and white images that capture a place shrouded in confusion surrounding its identity. Her images are scenes of a Japanese urbanscape, that much is clear, but the lingering presence of Americanisms here and there in oftentimes deserted scenes feels alienating and menacing. Ishiuchi Miyako titled this body of work Yokosuka Story after a hit Japanese pop song, and its release as a book in 1979 launched her career in a male-dominated field. 

Ishiuchi Miyako would later create a series of work around the time of her 40th birthday, in which she contacted women of the same age to photograph their hands, feet and bodies up close. The work, 1∙9∙4∙7, captures imperfections, wrinkles, and scars as evidence of the life’s impression on the human form, not quite young but not old either. What is striking about Ishiuchi Miyako’s photography is that many of her projects seem to inform the next body of work. After the book publication of 1∙9∙4∙7 in 1990, Ishiuchi Miyako turned her attention to another series, Scars – a tender exploration of scarred bodies. One particularly striking image, Scars #13 (Accident 1976), shows a woman’s torso in soft focus; a lengthy scar etched into the natural dip of her stomach. ‘While a person hopes to remain unblemished through life, we must all sustain and live with wounds, visible and invisible,’ the photographer explains in the afterword of the 2005 book, Scars; ‘It is an imprint of the past, welded onto a part of the body.’ 

In 2000, when Ishiuchi Miyako had been working on the Scars series for almost a decade, she persuaded her mother to take part – hoping to document scars from a cooking accident that left their mark on a large part of her body. Unbeknownst to both Ishiuchi Miyako and her mother however, the latter would be diagnosed with liver cancer not long after the photographs were taken and died within a short space of time. Left with her deceased mother’s belongings, Ishiuchi Miyako began working on her next series, Mother’s. In attempting to grapple with the grief she was experiencing, coupled with a complicated relationship with her parent, Ishiuchi Miyako turned to photographing the shoes, underwear, dentures and make up left behind. A hairbrush is captured with strands of her mother’s hair still entangled in its spokes. In one image, Ishiuchi Miyako photographs a snapshot of her mother from the 1940s stood in front of a vehicle. Her mother drove an ammunition truck during the war; another reminder of Japan’s fraught history.

Mother’s was shown in the Japanese pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale; it was after that that the photographer was approached by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to photograph clothing and accessories belonging to the victims of the atomic bomb. Without the familial connection to the belongings of a parent, in hiroshima, Ishiuchi Miyako forges a relationship with the objects themselves. For the series, the photographer carefully positioned each item of clothing – sometimes talking to them, the curator of the museum told Getty in 2015. The images are beautiful, affording an almost anthropomorphic feeling to a dress or a blouse. But these images are hard to look at too; after noticing the detail of a collar, intricate needlework or the vividness of a print, the eye turns to the tears and charring in the fabric. As Makeda Best, Curator of Photography at Harvard Art Museums, wrote in 2015, ‘These “scars” on the fabric serve as metaphors for the bodies of bomb victims and of a nation.’

Following hiroshima, Ishiuchi was commissioned by the Museo Frida Kahlo in 2013 to photograph 300 of the artist’s belongings, sealed in the bathroom of her home in Mexico until 2004. The result is a body of work that both forms a bond with the clothing of someone the photographer never knew, and begins to build an impression of a woman’s life. Over the course of her career, Ishiuchi Miyako’s photography has worked to leverage an intimate portrayal of women and womanhood, of time, suffering, loss and memory, into a world of brutality and hardship. 

Has your outlook as a photographer changed over time? 

Photography has always been a product of its time, and has always changed with the times. My photographs may change in superficial terms, but what I am basically expressing and my mentality remain unchanged.

You mention that it was photographing your mother’s lipstick that led you to take colour photography. What difference is there between shooting in B&W and colour, and what impact does this have on the final image? 

I can do every step by myself when I’m working in black and white. My ideal here has been to take full responsibility for every stage: shooting, developing, printing. When I’m working in colour, I just take the photographs and have the rest of the work done at a lab. When I started doing this, it was very refreshing to have the works be out of my hands and be able to look at them more objectively.

With black and white, I felt like I was clinging to the photographs throughout the entire process. When I started working in colour, I felt in a way as if I had been liberated from photography. Black and white is a world of artistic creation, while colour is the world of everyday life. At the same time, both black and white and colour are just approaches, and it doesn’t matter which you use.

The photographs of Yokosuka are commended for their grainy texture. What are the attributes that make a powerful image? 

The Yokosuka photographs are not intended to have a powerful impact. When I printed my first photograph, I realized that a photograph is a collection of ink grains on paper. I wanted to print those particles properly, so I developed the film at a high temperature. Grains are like units of time, and I tried to make prints as if I were counting them one by one.

I like the analogy between your background in weaving and the process of photographic development.

Do you think there’s something similar with the photographs themselves; weaving moments of time into history? 

Photography and textiles are very similar – they are both water works. It was a revelation to me that the colour-fixing liquid used for dyeing yarn and the stopping liquid used for photography are the same thing. Making textiles is very labour-intensive work. Photography is the work of evoking time using light. Both of them are jobs done by hand.

A lot of your work involves photographs of objects and possessions. Do you see photographs as being objects and possessions too? 

«A photograph is a narrative that documents and renders memory visible in two dimensions, transcending objects and possessions.»

Photographed subjects are given new value and meaning, and by becoming part of a photograph they become almost eternal.

Did you take a different approach photographing the possessions of your mother and Frida Kahlo, compared with the clothing of Hiroshima victims (whose identity we might not know)? 

/hiroshima, Mother’s, and Frida all share the same intent in that they focus on what has been left behind. I took the same approach to photographing these three subjects, but Mother’s began as my own personal project, then after being shown at the Venice Biennale it became a photographic work that transcends my own personal concerns, expanding from the private to the public. This later shaped the specific development of /hiroshima and Frida.

I find it interesting that you don’t attach messages or captions to your photographs. How does that relate to the objects (clothing/possessions) that you photograph? Do you try to interpret the meaning that their original owner gave them? 

I consider my photographs to be creative rather than documentary, and I take them from my own point of view and with my own values. I believe that adding a message or caption to my photos would take away the viewer’s freedom of thought. I want people to be free to see my photos from their own perspectives, and to attach their own words to them. 

I cannot photograph the past. My work is based on encounters with things left over from the past, but which are in front of me, in the same space and time, in the reality through which I am living in now. In particular, the bombed artefacts of Hiroshima cannot become part of the past.

/hiroshima is very different to Yokosuka Story – how do they capture the aftermath of the war in Japan and the country’s relationship with America? 

I made my debut with Yokosuka Story, a series that is kind of a personal sentimental journey.

«I was born in the post-war era and spent my adolescence in a community with an American military base, and I enlarged these prints to exorcise emotions like scars I felt I had received from the Occupied Japan city of Yokosuka.»

There is a connection between Yokosuka and the history of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which played a huge role in ending the war, and which I documented about 30 years later. Yokosuka still serves as the home port for Asia’s largest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The post-war period is not yet over, and the reality is that Japan is still under US control. My photographic work, which started in Yokosuka, inevitably turned toward Hiroshima, and /hiroshima is still an ongoing project.

Credits

Images · ISHIUCHI MIYAKO
Special Thanks · THE THIRD GALLERY AYA

Ewe Studio

«A horizontal approach of mutual learning, to promote and to translate a skill or knowledge into new meanings and possibilities»

Based in Mexico City, EWE is a design studio that celebrates the country’s rich history of artisanal practice. Tradition is interwoven with new ideas, combining innovation with heritage. The studio was started in 2017 by the Estonian curator, Age Salajõ, Mexican designer Héctor Esrawe, and Spanish industrial designer, Manu Bañó, whose varied backgrounds and expertise allow for their creative approach.

Their work falls somewhere between furniture and sculpture; beautifully-crafted objects that are also technically functional. By amplifying the skill of craftsmanship and the craftsman, their work is inherently collaborative – working with Mexican specialists to create ornate, yet organic, objects. The forms, shapes, colours and textures of their pieces recall the natural elements, something that is reflected in the studio’s approach to using four main processes – glass, stone, foundry work and wood.

EWE Studio’s limited-edition collections are part of a move in recent years to put Mexico on the world stage of design. Here, they explain how their process works and the inspirations that inform the studio’s approach to craft, heritage and their objects.

How do your different backgrounds and experiences influence the work of EWE Studio? 

What has made EWE a unique project is that combination; our origin, the skills, our individual knowledge and sensibilities. Our background and experiences are reflected in the way we approach everyday solutions, and through an open dialogue where those individual differences work towards a solution. 

How does collaboration tie into your work as a studio, and also with artisans in Mexico? 

Collaboration is an essential part of our philosophy, it is the axis of our project. A horizontal approach of mutual learning, to promote and to translate a skill or knowledge into new meanings and possibilities.

How do the four main processes you use (glass, stone, foundry, wood) individually and collectively represent the ethos of EWE Studio?

Those four have, so far, represented the expression of EWE, which by being a young company has created an aura focused on those materials. [That said] we are experimenting with many more materials.

What inspires the form and textures of your work at EWE Studio?

The forms and textures come from many angles; our heritage, the material itself, the sensibility to understand new possibilities out of a “found” moment or expression during visits to the workshops. We forge our inspiration from Mexican history and create new meanings and languages from that inspiration point. We love to mix raw and pristine textures and often keep parts of the stone surfaces as we found them. 

Since the studio began, have you adapted your processes for working together? How do you see the studio progressing and growing?

We have maintained the same creative process, with a deeper understanding of the soul of EWE. The studio has evolved, allowing us to integrate a small team in our everyday life besides design activities. We have assigned the efforts of production, administration, sales to each one of us. 

The three of us work very tightly together and with our team. We communicate throughout the day and are very much in the loop with different aspects of the studio. We regularly hold design meetings to create new work, but after that we all have different roles we play. EWE is a young studio but we have been fortunate to work with different galleries from around the world who are promoting and selling our work. 

Your pieces are a mix of sculpture and object – how do you see them being used?

They are pieces with an iconic and strong expression – pieces with character. Most of them are reinterpretations of an utilitarian background or a reminiscence of it. Many of our clients use them; some of them have them for contemplation. Even though we aim to create sculptural design, they are all functional. Even if the line between design and sculpture is blurry.

And how do you distinguish these pieces between art and design – does that matter?

From the start, EWE has been focused on promoting the skills of the artisans and create a dialogue with our heritage. Most of our inspirations comes from a utilitarian background, from elements that were used in ceremonies and/or worship.

Credits

Images · EWE STUDIO
https://ewe-studio.com/

Rina Yang

«the pandemic happened, and I think the drama world struggled more than commercials»

When she was younger, Rina Yang would keep in contact with her best friend in London by making, editing and sending ‘video letters’ from her hometown in Japan. Rina later moved to London to study and while there, saw an ad for a film school. The course was mostly theory with very little practical work, she told Lecture in Progress in 2017, but nonetheless gave her a reason to remain in the UK. Rina’s first roles in the industry involved working as a camera assistant on short projects. ‘I only did it properly for a couple of years,’ because as she tells me over the phone, it was a stressful role. But she did find common ground talking to directors during breaks about the creative processes behind the work. ‘I was better at that, than looking after the camera.’ And so, she pivoted – cutting her teeth in music video and short films jobs that her friends would ask her to work on. ‘One thing led to another,’ Rina adds – and she was able to carve out a space for herself as a director of photography (DP), a notoriously difficult role to break into and succeed in.

As a DP, Rina has worked on music videos for artists including Kamasi Washington, Vince Staples, Björk and FKA twigs (including the “controversial” and “risqué” ‘do you believe in more’ advertisement that twigs directed and soundtracked for Nike in 2017). Rina regularly balances projects across music videos, commercials and narrative work, a crossover she tells me is quite uncommon. And though her approach may differ depending on the project, her work consistently demonstrates an aptitude and eye for capturing the people and characters in front of the camera. A scene from the BBC’s Windrush drama, Sitting in Limbo, from last year, or the third series of Top Boy (for which Rina shot a number of episodes) are as beautiful and captivating as, say, a Rimowa commercial with Adwoa Aboah or her work for Sephora. 

Rina’s talent and vision as a DP have made her a sought after name in the industry – even at such an early point in her career. She was named by British Vogue as one of the 14 rising stars in the creative industries back in February, described as a “New Wave of boundary-breaking visionaries bringing fresh, exciting perspectives to the creative industries”. Her portrait to accompany the piece was shot by Campbell Addy who, like Rina, is part of a new vanguard of young talent. Last year, Rina was also included in the BAFTA Breakthrough list for 2020. Being recognised by organisations like BAFTA is great, Rina tells me, but it’s not something she’s had much time to think about, ‘I haven’t properly got my head around it.’ But, she adds, she definitely feels as though she’s at an interesting point in her career. That said, having faired the storm caused by the pandemic, Rina is now remarkably well-placed to continue to grow and nurture her skill. 

You’ve done a lot of commercial work with the likes of Nike, Rimowa and many others, and TV work for shows like Sitting in Limbo and Top Boy. How do you balance the different projects you work on? Is there something specific that draws you in?

I think the selection of the projects really comes down to your personal taste and what you find interesting. When I do commercials, I’m less selective because it is a very short commitment, and it’s a good opportunity to meet new directors and new collaborators. So I’m less picky and I’ll take the risk to work with new people. When it comes to narrative, it’s a whole different conversation. There’s a lot more boxes to tick to see if it’s the right project to do. It’s a different process, but I do like doing both. With my narrative work, you get paid less but I think it’s more of a romantic thing.

With that said, I love that your commercial work don’t just feel like adverts. They’re like short stories in their own way.

The directors and all the creatives I’m drawn to tend to have that kind of style. I don’t find the very straight up advertising that interesting. I mean, to be honest, sometimes we just do very boring commercials. You just don’t shout about it. But I think the ones that I get to shoot, they tend to be creative ads with slight narrative threads. And I’m grateful that I’ve been able to shoot some of them. You kind of flex your narrative muscle a little bit, but it’s a very different working environment in commercial compared to narrative. 

You’ve got a very distinctive use of colour, texture and lighting. How did you develop that style? 

When I started out my style was a bit more documentary because it’s hard to afford to do a big lighting setup. But even with documentary style, I don’t want it to look like what it looks like with the naked eye. So I try to heighten what you see, by using different lenses, or how you expose the sensor or the film – to add your take on the reality you see. 

As I progressed in my career, I could afford to have a good crew with me and all these big lights. And I guess that’s when I started using a bit more colour. I did go through a period of using a lot of colours because I kept getting asked to do that. I think with any artist or DP, we’re versatile so it’s nice not to get pigeonholed into one look. In general, I like to heighten the reality of a scene, and I think, “what if I did this” – I talk about a lot of what ifs, and still do some colourful lighting here and there.

So as a DP, how do you tell a story and create narrative?

How would I tell a good story? First of all, there has to be a good script, and there has to be a good director to execute that. I can only advise how I think we could shoot things, or collaborate with the director. In the beginning when I started out, it was quite hard to find directors on that level. One the hardest things in the beginning is to find a director who can execute the narrative in the way you see it, or better than how you imagined it. So I think I really collaborate with my directors, talk about how we see it. 

I guess it’s such a collaborative process; you’ve got to be able to work together well.

Yeah, definitely. The level of collaboration is different in music videos, commercials and narrative. With commercial, they tend to come with already established ideas –  with exactly how they want it to look because they’ve gone through a lot of chats with the clients and agency, and they tend to have have every exact visual references that I will need to execute. So there’s no huge room for us to create the look from scratch. And then music videos, you can be a little bit more funky with it. And with narrative, if it’s a TV show and you’re the first block DP, you can create the look with your director and showrunner. If you’re coming into the TV show in the middle of it, then you have to replicate what’s been established. And then if it’s a movie, there’s a lot more room to experiment. That’s why a lot of DPs prefer to do movies and the first block of TV shows. 

Has the pandemic changed your work process and schedule much over the past year?

Before the pandemic, I was going to shoot TV shows or films in 2020. I was shooting a lot of commercials early in the year because I was going to work hard on commercials until the spring, so I could afford to do a film or TV show that I like. But then the pandemic happened, and I think the drama world struggled more than commercials, so they’ve been on pause for a lot longer than advertising. Now, I’m reading scripts and trying to decide what narrative projects I should do next. This past year has been an interesting switch I think, because I was going to shoot a drama this year, and after doing commercial for a year, I’m really ready to shoot another long project, TV show or movie. 

Does it help having the balance of both commercial and narrative work, and being able to fall back on one or the other?

For sure – I take influence from both commercial and narrative. But, you know, I do switch my brain; if I’m pitching for a film, I’ll switch my brain to a narrative aesthetic and approach. My visual references would be quite different from what I would put in for commercial work because I think the commercial world is more like eye candy. It has to be catchy because we only have a minute or so to tell something. You have to say something in a very short amount of time. But when it comes to narrative, there’s a lot more room to grow and develop.

Credits

Images · RINA YANG

FormaFantasma

«we position ourselves to be real ignorant but in turn this motivates us to get out of this ignorance»

Formafantasma, led by Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, is an Amsterdam-based design studio that focuses on investigating the ecological and political responsibilities of their discipline. By placing research at the core of their practice, they create a holistic approach that aims to reach back into the historical context of material used by humans, and outwards to the patterns of supply chains that have been constructed to support and expand its use. Formafantasma’s work often investigates material’s effects on the biosphere and their survival in relation to human consumption.

NR had the pleasure to speak to Andrea and Simone for this issue. The conversation explored their practice’s journey thus far, the processes behind the research and commercial sides of their practice, and what they’re looking forward to in the future. They spoke in depth about designers responsibilities to understand the impact of the materials they use, and that they should be more transparent about the impact of their work. The duo placed emphasis how the lack of communication between practices, corporations and consumers often prevents meaningful large-scale changes to shift the industry towards a more sustainable future, and highlighted the role that designers can play in facilitating better communication in this process. Our talk also covered the Geo-Design masters course the pair currently lead at the Design Academy Eindhoven, which started its first academic year this year.

Andrea and Simone it’s a pleasure to have you with us today and thank you for this opportunity to have this conversation with you. I want to start by asking you about how you met and your journey together as Formafantasma so far.

Simone Farresin: Me and Andrea met in Florence during our bachelors studies. Andrea is younger than me and he really cares to say that. I was in my final year and I was starting to lose interest in design in terms of product design and object based design. When we started to hang out we were looking at many other things. We were going to art exhibitions together, we were traveling around in Italy checking out things we were both interested in. We started living together and realized most of our conversations were design related.

Andrea Trimarchi: And he was helping me throughout my projects. So we started to work together on projects, starting mostly with ones related to graphic rather than product design, which was quite fun because it was something we were doing in our free time. We decided to make this into a more programmatic experience, and while this process was happening we decided to apply to Eindhoven together. Strangely enough we applied with one portfolio for both of us, so the only way to take us was as a duo. And of course we were really interested in what was happening in design in the Netherlands, specially at Eindhoven, because there was an entire generation that were our generation that had studios there, and had created a community around the design field.

SF: It was different in Italy were although there was a fantastic history in design that continues till today, nevertheless the heritage from the past felt extremely heavy. And the Dutch have a tendency of looking forward instead of looking back. This was a reason were we wanted to come here, and its been an extremely informative period. Specially our time in the Design Academy (Eindhoven) were we always say that we received just the questions we needed. We were full of energy and potentiality, but we didn’t know were to channel that, and in the design academy the questions were raised were extremely critical, and in Dutch fashion quite brutal at times. Nevertheless it was invaluable experience because we were asked existential questions for designers rather than focusing just on how something is produced. For example “Why would you produce this in this moment in time?”, “How does it relate to the past development of the design discipline?” and “Where do you position yourself in the world as a designer?”. Although these questions can be overpowering for some, we felt that they were empowering us and encouraged us to establish an agency, and therefore became quite formative for us.

AT: And it really prepared us to the extent that the day after we graduated we opened our studio, and we started Formafantasma and so on.

I realize that its the 11th year anniversary of your studio so congratulations on that. As an aspiring designer it’s quite informative to look at your progression throughout these years, and how you’ve managed to position the research and commercial sides of your practice in a way that they inform each other. My most recent experience of your work was Cambio (Serpentine Galleries, London), and the project focuses on the use of wood as a material in the industry, and the impact it has on the environment. To me this project highlights the emphasis you place on reaching across different disciplines, and engaging with a variety of practitioners in your research development process. Can you explain why this outreach is vital to this process, and what quality it brings to your research driven work?

SF: I think it’s because when we look at the macro picture within which design preforms it becomes inevitably vital to reach out to other practitioners outside of our field to understand that macro view better. We are more and more interested in looking at design as not only a means to deliver services and products, but rather looking at design in a much bigger infrastructure. Which in relation to materials includes resourcing, distribution, refinement, transformation, recycling and so on. When you start to look at design within this broader system you can begin to question what design can do and cannot do, and in this process reaching out to other practitioners is a way to better understand the implication and consequences of design.

AT: Also because there is this big narrative that design can solve problems, and in a way it can. But it is important to acknowledge that it’s also true that it can’t simply because we don’t know a lot of things, and the only way of acting on this is to reach out to people that are much more informed than us. So in a way we position ourselves to be real ignorant but in turn this motivates us to get out of this ignorance.

While going through Cambio and the series of interviews you conducted, one of the things that resonated with me is that it was felt in some way that your interest in these ecological issues is driven by the consequences of being designers. This idea that a sense of responsibility transcends into establishing a holistic approach throughout your practice. To further understand this dynamic, what outcomes do you aim to achieve from your research driven work? and what is your process of reaching out to your partnerships to input this research into practice?

AT: Firstly I want to say something, I believe a problem within design is that it is complicit in a way in the disaster we are witnessing. This in turn makes the discipline quite interesting, and whatever we do that is not perfect it can’t be perfect because it sits between exploitation and the destruction of the world. It is in this liminal position were we see all things happening.

AT & ST: Potentiality and also disaster.

SF: Some of the projects we’ve done recently, for example Cambio and Ore Streams, are good models to display our way of operating when we do research. For us it is a way to present ourselves with an expertise that not necessarily people think we have. What I mean by this is that in a way these projects are responses to the questions we never receive from our partners. 

The questions we pose ourselves when we develop those projects are the questions we would wish to receive, and the challenges we would wish to be asked. But we are using this to show that we hope that the conversations we have with our more commercial partners , and partners in general, can grow in this direction. I think the more people get to know us, the more the questions we receive become sharper and pertinent for what we can do. Of course it is still a struggle because the infrastructure we were talking about before is not necessarily easy to penetrate, so even when you work with a partner, that does not mean that partner can make a change in that system even if they show willingness to. Nevertheless we always know that there is plenty that you can do as long as you accept the limitations of your own discipline.

AT: I want to add that while in Ore Streams it was much more difficult to get in contact for instance with electronic companies, with Cambio it made a complete difference because it was much more possible from a design perspective in terms of design companies. For instance, right now we are in discussion with a company that we are essentially continuing Cambio as an internal RND (Research and Development) were we are trying to apply the same ideas we discussed in Cambio within the industrial production realm. Even if a percentage of our research would be re-applied in this context we would be in any case really happy. We are beginning to see this shift in mentality.

Companies are starting to approach us because of the ways in which we work, as opposed to before were they were more interested in the more superficial side of the business and how our products were looking.

Nevertheless I think the a balance between the two needs to be established, and platforms were research is shared are definitely important. For example when we did Cambio we conducted a lot of interviews, read a lot of content and we could have kept to ourselves. But then what is the purpose? So when we put together the website we wanted to say that we’ve only represented a percentage of the topic, but it is up to the audience, if they are interested, to continue to look more in depth into the topics presented in our work. It is also a responsibility we must have to current and future generations, to be much more generous.

I think that this process of sharing was truly felt in the on- going conversations happening throughout Cambio, whether through the digital material or events taking place at the Serpentine. This seems like a good point to discuss the Geo Design masters you are currently running at Eindhoven. What a time to launch a course considering the current situation we’re living in!

SF: Tell me about it!

It would be great to further discuss your experience in Geo design thus far and your ambitions for the course. Also, to ask you how you think the pandemic has effected our relationship with ecology as designers, and shifted our approach in resourcing materials?

AT: It is unlucky to start this year, but in the Netherlands we’ve been lucky to do a lot of in person teaching considering the current situation. We had a whole first semester in person and now we are starting to do that again. Our experience of teaching has put more urgency on us on speaking of these certain issues and bring reform to the way in that we teach. 

SF: I would wish that more journalists would talk about Covid in relation to ecology and the climate crisis. I think most of us are aware that they are linked, but a great outcome of this situation is that it’s made the climate crisis physical and embodied. We are taking a virus around and because of it closing our environments, which has made it physical and this point is important. Sadly not enough discussion is going on about it. The conversations have been more about what you can do with a virus, and again compartmentalizing knowledge. It has not been about the ecosystem but it has been about the virus. But how can you look at the virus without looking at the ecosystem? It is clearer and clearer that entanglement is the way to look at things in terms of knowledge, development and so on. This is the most visible part of the pandemic.

In terms of design education the pandemic has made it very clear that design is an extremely humane discipline that needs physical interactions. Therefore, I think education online doesn’t work for design because it is not only about the passing of knowledge, but more about conversations, interactions, exchanging energies and having a connection to materials. I went back to teaching physically the other day at the design academy, and it was a joy to be able to do that again.

I think it has so much to do with human-scaled exchanges and the body language through which we communicate in a physical environment. As a student myself, these types of proxemic interactions are something I miss the most. I wanted to ask you on behalf of myself and many other aspiring designers at the early stages of their practice, what climate do you see us going into? and what insight or advise can you share with us to help shape our mindset for moving forward from this point?

SF: It is a difficult question. I think that it depends how you look at education. If you look at education in terms of forming professionals, I don’t necessarily believe in that. We don’t believe in professionalizing someone for a Job or a task. It is not the way we consider education, although there are other institutions that do that. I think as an advice it is important to keep the discipline closer to yourself.

AT: Don’t Compromise. For me this is extremely important because when you graduate you tend to gravitate towards whatever work comes into your hands because you need to survive. But most of the time this causes you to shift focus on the things that matter to you, and especially in the beginning you should never do that. I believe the most radical things you can do in design thinking should happen in the beginning because things get more sophisticated as you move forward.

SF: Some people think that you should be humble in the beginning and aim higher later, but it is the opposite way around. Because the more you grow the more you have necessities than in the beginning. When you graduate you have less compromises and responsibilities towards others than later on in your practice.

AT: It is really important to analyse with a clear focus the reality of design. When we started it was 2009, right after a huge economic crisis, and we knew that to us it wasn’t even important or interesting to work in big companies. Of course we enjoy collaborating with certain companies, but it is important to realize that system of design is more based on royalties and lower pay. I think that this has become more relevant now than even before. I think it is important to understand that design as a discipline is tough and not for everybody, and it is also quite important to say this as a teacher to your students. The ones that go to much more of a authorial side are maybe the one percent, and there is nothing wrong with being in the other 99 percent and working for others. It is totally fine. The problem with universities nowadays that they aims to fulfil this idea that everyone can be an author.

I wanted to conclude by asking you about what you’re looking forward to in the near future? And what direction do you see your practice moving towards from this point?

SF: Let’s start from what is very close by. Cambio will travel, and its expanding in the way it was mentioned before by Andrea. It is travelling to Tuscany and it will expand there, and then to Switzerland and it will expand there as well into a new section, were we will do a extended third version of the catalogue. We are hoping for it to also make it to Mexico, but with the current situation that is a bit more uncertain and difficult to plan. But there is a touring of the exhibition. In terms of our practice in a much longer term, lets say the next ten years, we wish to continue working in the way we currently are, but possibly making the research projects more radical, and the commercial projects more commercial so we can make the radical projects more radical. And in the meantime find ways to input the research that we do. So not only present them and make them available to others. But also find applications for them.

Andrea and Simone I want to thank you both for your time and for joining us for this issue. It has been such an insightful conversation, and I look forward to following the development of your work and practice.

AT & SF: Welcome! it’s been a pleasure and we look forward to the issue.

Anne Holtrop

«The driving force behind both temporary and permanent work is similar; it’s about the performance.»

Dutch architect Anne Holtrop started his eponymous studio in 2009. Anne designed the Bahrain pavilion for the World Expo in 2015, without having visited the country beforehand. Now, the architect divides his time between his hometown, Amsterdam, the Kingdom of Bahrain, where he is working to refurbish heritage sites, and as a Professor of Architecture at the ETH in Zürich, Switzerland. Anne’s work spans temporary installation to permanent structures, but it is his use of tactile and organic materials for which the studio is both recognised, and recognisable. Having started out as an assistant to Krijn de Koning, the Dutch artist known for his site specific installations, Anne’s first project was the Trail House in Almere. As part of an exhibition by the Museum De Paviljoens in 2010, the installation consists of a series of paths that make up the house’s structure – described as ‘A house that curls, bends and splits through the [vegetal] landscape’ surrounding it.

Alongside his work in Bahrain, Anne has worked with John Galliano since 2018 to redefine the brand identity of the Parisian fashion house, Maison Margiela – culminating with the remodelling of the label’s London store earlier this year. The curved gypsum walls and fabric-cast surfaces are evocative of both the studio’s signature feel, and of Margiela’s recent in-store presence. But, as Anne explained over Skype back in February, his work process is limited to neither the studio, nor Galliano’s vision for Margiela. Rather, he heralds the disappearing craftsmanship of specialists and family-led artisans. ‘For Margiela,’ he explains, ‘almost everything is produced in Italy. Around the time I started working in Bahrain, I started working a lot in Italy with small workshops that were specialists in the different materials I’m interested in.’

The gypsum casting that embodies Anne’s work with Margiela? It comes from a small company in Veneto; the profession almost died out, I’m told, because house molding is no longer en vogue. When Anne started working with the company, they had only two employees; they’ve since re-hired former collaborators. That’s not to say that irreparable damage hasn’t been done to artisanal craftsmanship though; despite enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years, Anne is quick to point out that ‘because of our lack of interest for a long time, these industries, which are often small family-based companies, have died out.’ The aluminium that features in the Green Corner building in Bahrain (2020), was cast at a foundry in the Netherlands, where their specialism allows for the experimental techniques that Studio Anne Holtrop employs.

Central to Anne’s design approach is an innate belief in the ‘gestures’ that define materials; the source of those very materials, and the ways in which they’re used to construct spaces and the architectural environment. And as our conversation below demonstrates, these are themes that inform Anne’s vision for the temporary, the interior and the exterior.

Does your practice take on different approaches depending on whether you’re creating something temporary versus a permanent?

With [Maison] Margiela, we did a catwalk show in 2018, shop windows in Osaka and a pop-up store in Tokyo. So these exist for one week, one day, a month – and in architecture, that’s a very short time. What I like about temporary work is it can be more radical in a way, because we have less to fulfil for a permanent use. So for instance, with Margiela, the [display] in the shop windows in Osaka, we made them out of very thick felt that we let hang. So it was a kind of architecture that’s literally soft; that has no rigidity. To make architecture that is literally soft is very difficult to maintain or to use. Although Margiela would love that idea, the practicality of it is just more difficult to manage. The driving force behind both temporary and permanent work is similar; it’s about the performance. You know, how can we form space and how can we also discover space?

The Margiela store in Paris has crooked columns (textile-cast gypsum), which was a process of making, where we deliberately searched for an undefined outcome. It redefined the process of making, and the outcome is different every time you produce it. In that sense, we can discover and invent spatial conditions. John Galliano describes this kind of pyramid where everything starts with the artisanal collection, and then it trickles down. With architecture, we build maquettes of projects with the materials that we want to construct with. So that’s also a kind of temporary building – to scale, but it exists. It has a reality. Even if a project is permanent, that’s its temporary state.

I was looking at images from your work with the Charlotte Chesnais jewellery store in Paris from late last year; the acrylic sheets you use have these really organic shapes. I’d love to know a bit more about the kinds of materials you work with, and how you translate these into organic forms?

I have a liking for irregular forms like the Rorschach inkblots, the butterfly inkblot tests that are basically just ink on paper. But because of its form, you imagine things in it and for me, the irregular or organic forms of things have more possibility than a purely rectangular form. You can project more into it. That’s the way that we work because we have form that is not necessarily architectural. So, we can start to imagine how we’ll use something; how can we read the architecture? And for visitors, that happens [all over] again.

With the Charlotte Chesnais store, [the approach] came from a project before that, where we started casting materials directly in sand, using sand as a natural relief. So we cast another material in it and it takes the imprint of it in the material. We started doing that with gypsum, concrete and aluminium. For the store, we used acrylic but we didn’t cast it; we scanned a 3D relief of the sand. The irregular relief diffuses the light a lot more than it would a flat surface, which works more as a mirror.

[But] the irregular relief starts to diffuse the light so you cannot see through it anymore; the ceiling has this irregular form, and that diffuses light into the space and onto the display. Then we repeated the exact same thing with the display table, which works as a backdrop for the jewellery. So with the specific treatment of a material, we benefit from certain characteristics of it. By changing the relief, we have different characteristics that we can work with. So the material is the same, but the way it is formed and treated enhances, or brings forward, other properties. That is something I call material gesture; to work with the gestures that are intrinsically bound to a material, but also the gestures that, in the process of making things, are formed with the material.

And this is the same process you used for the Green Corner building in Bahrain?

Yes – in the Green Corner building, all the concrete (so, the façades, the walls, the floors) are cast on land next to the building. So we cast it directly in the sand; every time the sand has been worked on by the workmen on the site, and so every time we had different reliefs in the concrete. It was also very efficient, so in that sense it contributes to an idea of sustainability because most of the form work is just in the sand, in the ground that is already there. We didn’t have to transport building materials, just the concrete. I think up to 50% of the energy [to build] is used in making form work, and the other 50% to cast it. So, by shortcutting that first 50% of formwork, we reduced the energy consumption used to make a building. But that’s not the only driving force.

The driving force is that we can building something that feels very local, and very [site specific]. The site itself produces the building, and leaves its mark on the building. With the façade, each one is a fragment of the landscape, but also a moment in time. One was done in March 2019, another in April. So you have this time recording in it as well. The building isn’t static; it becomes a time document and a process. With the Green Corner building, we also have aluminium doors and windows that are also sand casted, but we did that in a foundry. But with aluminium you can’t cast solids so, with the doors, the front side is an imprint of the sand and the back side is hollow.

By changing the material, you get something else. Suddenly you have the negative of the sand that you could never see in concrete. For that reason, we placed the doors and window shutters facing the other way. So when you see the sand cast concrete, you see the aluminium as a hollow version, so they are in a kind of juxtaposition with each other.

You’ve been living and working in Bahrain for seven years now – how has this time allowed you to use different techniques like, for example, the sand casting?

I mean, I was already doing that when I was [still] in Amsterdam. I was visiting Jordan, and going to Petra, a few years before I moved to Bahrain. So, for me there was definitely an interest in the type of landscape and conditions there. It’s very minimal – it’s rock and sand, and that it’s base. And I like that base because that’s also the base of building material; when I see a building standing in that landscape, I just see two versions of the same thing. And I was very excited to work in a place where I can research that kind of relationship.

So the Green Corner building is a very clear building for me in that way because it builds hat relationship between the soil in which it is built, the material, and the matter of it – the building itself and its construction.

The aluminium was also chosen because Bahrain has one of the largest aluminium smelters in the world. I saw it as being a local material, a vernacular material. When we look back in history, we say, you know, we built with clay, stones and things like that. But over the past 50 years, aluminium [has become] one of these materials. It’s a process [rather than a material], but nevertheless still part of it. And I like to build up that relationship. It’s all part of that investigation of material gesture; from the sourcing of material, the process, the craftsmanship of working with the material.

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