Distance and Proximity

The following excerpt is taken from the essay ‘Distance and Proximity’ by Rebecca Lewin, first printed in the catalogue published by Serpentine Galleries and Koenig Books, London, on the occasion of Formafantasma’s exhibition Cambio.

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Formafantasma, Charcoal, 2012. Image (C) Formafantasma 2019, courtesy of Formafantasma. Photo: Luisa Zanzini

'Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science… must be responsible all the way from the geographical points at which the raw resources occur in nature, and that means in remote places all around the world.’[1] – R. Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller’s pronouncement promoted what he called ‘Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science’, a vision for the teaching and practice of design that demands rigorous examination, depth of knowledge and transparency between source material and user. These standards, however, run counter to much of the experience of most Western consumers up until very recently. Contemporary surveys of the origins of the history of design have argued that the gradual expansion of its remit beyond the realms of art and architecture needs to continue, to expand its presence and functionality within culture and society,[2] but rarely point to Buckminster Fuller’s crucial observation of an expansion that follows processes and geographies.

Why, then, should the Serpentine Galleries, a space and site that has (with a few notable exceptions) centred its programme around the work of contemporary art and artists, be renewing and re-evaluating its interest in and focus on design? And why should we be working with Studio Formafantasma in order to do so? It might be possible to answer both questions at once, with recourse to the ecological. Firstly, art can learn from design and its prerequisite to adhere to technical functionality – not because art cannot be functional, but rather that design is always already embedded in the world at large, and this tentacular expression of creative thinking could be seized upon further by artists, in the manner of the 1960s collectives the Artist Placement Group[3] and Experiments in Art and Technology[4]. And in parallel, design can learn from art: the space of the art gallery is above all one of experimentation, of dreaming, of shifting expectations and perceptions in presentations that do not always need to be applied or mass-manufactured. After such an encounter, our understanding of the world is coloured a little differently, perhaps forever. Furthermore, now that social and political thinking is shifting towards the foregrounding of urgent and imminent environmental dangers (or reappraising the efforts of creative practitioners from half a century ago), it is even more crucial that we use this space in ever more expansive and exploratory ways to imagine together towards alternative futures.

Studio Formafantasma’s approach can be located in this interstitial space, recognising as it does Buckminster Fuller’s demand for a thoroughgoing responsibility that focuses our attention less on the definition of or references to a history of design and more on its processes. They do, however, go beyond the connection of source materials to their uses. Through their work, we are given the tools to comprehend that the history of the process of design is one of dislocation and distance, and that the most urgent design of today is one that looks for ways of either collapsing or highlighting these separations.

If we are to be truly successful at reducing unnecessary consumption, we must better comprehend the continuum that becomes apparent when separation and dislocation is interrogated by the kind of research undertaken by scientists, anthropologists, and philosophers and brought together by designers like Formafantasma. In this light, at the moment of writing, I can perceive my laptop as a grouping of mined minerals, the wooden table under my laptop as the limb of a tree, the jumper I am wearing as the pelt of a sheep, or the plastic soles of my shoes as oil extracted from the sea floor. I begin to understand my existence as the nexus of a myriad of globally sourced natural resources. In fact, I have never been separated from them, nor from the mechanisms or hands that provided them[5].

It is worth adding a note on the reflexiveness that this project has also called forth from the Serpentine as an institution. It was prompted by a desire to continue the thinking initiated by Formafantasma, but also responds to the organisation’s aim to begin to enact longer-term decisions that respond to the historically wasteful demands of exhibition- and book-making. Can objects be shipped on part loads rather than dedicated trucks? Can people be interviewed remotely rather than be flown to London? How can we avoid unnecessary waste? Almost all of these decisions have required additional research, discussion, and a kind of weighting that often provides only a choice of the least deleterious option, with the intention that the information and imagination presented in the exhibition justifies it.

It is just such information and imagination as can be found in Cambio that offers both design and the art institution a way forward. As the forester Peter Wohlleben writes, ‘we are made in such a way that we can survive only with the help of organic substances from other species.’[6] We cannot, therefore, regardless of what we do, avoid consumption. What we can do is to heed Papanek’s warning against poor choices of materials and unnecessary mass production, and look instead for ways to educate ourselves, and to demand better options. The site of the art institution is a space in which both of these steps forward can take place, and Formafantasma’s Cambio project is an exemplar of holistic design that reaches back towards the beginning, out towards the patterns of supply chains, and forward to the future of a material and its relationship to human survival, collapsing our false sense of separation as it does so.

[1] Buckminster Fuller, ‘Introduction’ in Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World, Bantam Books, Toronto/New York/London, 1973, p.8.

[2] See Alexandra Midal, Design by Accident: For a New History of Design, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2019.

[3] The Artist Placement Group was initiated by Barbara Steveni in 1966 in collaboration with John Latham, and sought to place artists within industry, the civil service, and organisations not otherwise directly connected with visual art.

[4] Experiments in Art and Technology was formed in 1967 by Billy Klüver, Fred Waldhauer, Robert Whitman and Robert Rauschenberg, to make connections and foster collaborations between artists, scientist and engineers.

[5] While the labour of humans and plants is not the principal focus of this text, it is of course inextricably linked to the use and distribution of resources, and is the invisible network that underpins this description.

[6] Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, p.242.

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Distance and Proximity

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