It’s been two days since we drew our last screws into the two projects that became the outcome of this workshop. The first thing I want to do is to thank our dedicated students Song Yating, Zhai Jingyang, Wu Yulun and Yangyang Seunghee. Without their adventurous choice of joining this speculative workshop, it would not have taken place. The fact that we had a group of students pushed us to do our homework and prepare a rigorous theoretical framework for our exploration, presenting a wide range of precedents and references from many different fields. The point being that we are operating in a field that crosses over to many other disciplines, and the two pieces that came out of the workshop also constitute an ambiguous result in terms of definition.
Defining what it is we made is perhaps not the most important issue here, but it still one of the crucial points of criticism that we are now facing. Early Sunday morning I received a phone call from our landlord saying that a group of neighbours had gathered in the courtyard in protest of the installation of sticks and string designed by student Yangyang Seunghee. The problem was not only that we had failed to inform all the neighbours in the courtyard behind, but also that these suspended objects were hanging at a height where you would have to crouch down to avoid collision, creating an especially precarious condition because of the lack of lighting during night time.
In a different context though, this installation might have been understood as a temporary artwork which could be spared a few hours of existence, but in the context of one of the few remaining preserved Beijing courtyards, it was seen by the local retired residents as a threat to their security and therefore must be taken down. To make it simple, we were naive towards our neighbours’ capacity to accept a temporary piece which would force them to take a different route, and they were perhaps overly dramatic in their reactions against this alien object. Nevertheless, it is worth reflecting on the consequences and how they could have been avoided.
Which leads me back to the main topic; the content of our exploration and conclusions which can be drawn from it.
There was a series of underlying notions in the formulation of the framework this workshop, and by extension in the research project that now has started. From my own side, I would like to stress the ideological aspect of our project: Addressing the prevailing issue of the credibility of our contemporary consumer society. The workshop addresses this issue in two direct ways: By limiting our source of material to used or discarded matter, things that would have been disposed of in landfills or incinerated, we would not impose unnecessary pressure to the environment for the purpose of developing a specific new knowledge. The fact that these objects have unique variations in terms of form, colour and texture as well as possessing their own latent history, make them all the more gratifying to work with. In addition, we explored the social aspect of how these objects can be retrieved and harvested in the specific context of Beijing’s old city. The second point is the fact that the tool we used in the reconfiguration/design of these materials, Processing, is a free, open-source software and coding language. This of course means that while you as a designer first have to design and customize your tool in order for it to become efficient, it also brings a lot of advantages. During the past two weeks we only scratched the surface of the possibilities offered by using this environment, but the future process will be directed towards developing and streamlining the code to our use.
Another major aspect is of course that of using our abilities as designers to propose and speculate on solutions for local and global issues. This aspect of the workshop is perhaps where we failed. Despite an ambitious level of research in the way some materials are used and how they are instrumental in the accretion of small reclaimed spaces in the hutongs of Beijing, the connection between our design process and these issues became increasingly blurred in the second week. In many ways, it is just as important to learn new tools as to be critical to them while they are being applied.
With better planning and stronger focus for the Processing classes, we would probably have come further in the form explorations on an earlier stage, giving more time to establish a solid relationship between our materials and the environment in which they were found. To resume to our mission statement, we wanted to explore the intersection between design, computation and public space. By designing without specificity in neither user nor site and erecting the pieces in a sheltered, semi-private courtyard we not only avoided confrontation with the public, but projected an sense of arrogance towards the local community. Instead of allowing our neighbours and our initiated friends from outside to meet inside a common fascination for our research, and despite good intentions, the works provoked a sense of alienation from the point of view of our neighbours.
To conclude, I would like to see this experience as part of an ongoing process, in which we tap into a wide range of material flows in the city, in production processes and socio-economic systems and reformulate unwanted output into operational synergies. In other words, turning waste, in whatever scale, into desirable matter.