Category | Design

Žižek on toilets and the Christchurch rebuild

A few years back, I was wandering through an art gallery and came upon a room with a video projected on a large white wall. The video was short, only a few minutes long, and since it repeated on a loop, I watched it several times. The video was of a speech given by a wild-eyed man with a shaggy beard who I later learned was the modern philosopher Slavoj Žižek who has since become an intellectual hero for members of the Occupy movement.

In the video, Žižek talks about the connection between objects and ideology using, as examples, the different types of toilets he encountered while traveling through Europe. He reflects on three types: the French, the German and the British toilet. For the uninitiated, I shall briefly describe each. In France, the toilet is designed with the hole at the back of the bowl so the waste falls immediately into water and can disappear unseen and unacknowledged by its maker. The German model is the exact opposite. The Germans place the hole in the front of the bowl with a raised shelf behind. When you use the toilet, the waste collects on the dry shelf below you, affording the opportunity to inspect it for disease before you flush it off the shelf and into the hole in the front. The English design is a compromise that places the hole in the center of the bowl with a larger amount of water. This lets the user decide whether they wish to confront their waste or not.

Noticing these things, Žižek wanted to know how these different designs had come about. Architect friends supplied him with technical books on the subject and he describes how each designer tries to prove their design is the best in a purely functional sense. Since they are all ultimately variations on a theme, Žižek says this argumentation merely reflects the cultural ideology behind the features of each design. While there may be technical arguments for one design feature or another, the best combination is ultimately a matter of cultural taste. To those who would argue we live in a post-ideological world, Žižek says you only need to go to the toilet to find you are literally sitting on ideology, so to speak.

While it may seem ridiculous (and perhaps a bit gross) to spend too much time pondering toilet design, I find his argument compelling on a number of levels. Every man-made object is, in varying proportions, both utilitarian and symbolic. We have items that are almost entirely symbolic which, like a king’s scepter, have almost no utilitarian purpose whatsoever. At the other extreme are things like the humble toilet, which are so banal and commonplace that we can forget they carry any symbolic baggage at all. The toilet is an especially extreme example since the act of using the toilet is considered by most cultures to be a vulgar necessity, to be done in private and not to be discussed, further negating any potential symbolic value. A designer wanting to make their mark on the world is not likely to choose the toilet as their medium. But there it is: holes in different places, shelves, different water flows, and we haven’t even left Europe.

These small differences can have lasting social impacts. To this day, most German men urinate sitting down, precisely because any attempt to pee directly on the German shelf from a height results in urine being splashed all over the room. Although the German-style toilet is disappearing (perhaps understandably) from German homes and public places, the culture of seated urination for men is alive and well. Foreign men living in the country for any length of time are likely to encounter signs urging them to sit down and it is not uncommon for a German host to ask for this directly, even if they have an English-style bowl. It makes me wonder how many habits I carry around from objects now gone or completely different from their antecedents (the QWERTY keyboard I’m typing on comes to mind).

To point out that objects carry cultural and ideological values with them is perhaps to state the obvious. But I think that objects and buildings have the potential to develop multiple layers of ideology that can, with time, eventually build up like geologic strata.

Take the example of an apartment building. There is the original mix of utility and symbolism infused by the designer and the builder of the time (and likely the funder as well). On top of this, users of the building add their decorative flair and periodic renovations from new owners leave architectural time stamps in the form of a 19th century banister here, 70s carpet there, and modern windows that open in and out in every direction imaginable.

Historical events and movements add a layer as well. I have been living in Berlin for the past year and the city is full of apartment buildings with abrupt endings and odd gaps, likely the result of Allied bombs. The plain architecture of the new buildings erected in these gaps show the urgent need for housing at the time, communist leanings, or both.

It is on the more meta-scale of the building scape where these ideological features are most pronounced. In addition to the scars of war, many of Berlin’s surviving buildings have blank spots where swastikas once were (or the hammer and sickle for that matter). These added layers of historical symbolism reveal the past struggles of identity and belief and reflect them back on the current users. The rebuilding of Berlin since the war and after the fall of the wall forced Berliners to reflect upon who they were and what they believed. It has also played a strong role in creating the feeling of possibility and reinvention that is a hallmark of the town.

Berlin is perhaps the most extreme example, but I think a similar struggle for identity is underway in Christchurch at the moment. In a city where people still care about which of the four original ships their ancestors came on, the brick buildings lost in the earthquakes are not only a matter of heritage but are also symbols to Cantabrians of how they have traditionally seen themselves—the most English of English-New Zealanders.

English is what most Pakeha have considered themselves, with people as recently as the 1950s still referring to Kiwis traveling to Britain as “visiting home”. New Zealanders only really began to define themselves as a separate national identity after WWII and were forced to confront this issue through a series of events: the loss of colonial trade links in the late 60s and early 70s, the rising legal recognition of the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Springbok tour in the 80s, and the continuation of anti-nuclear policies to the present day.

Discussions about New Zealand identity are few and far between these days and tend to be mixed in with racial issues (the “kiwi, not iwi” National slogan and Paul Henry’s breakfast show comments come to mind). The Christchurch rebuild therefore provides an important opportunity not only for current Cantabrians to consider what mark they want to leave on their town, but also for all New Zealanders to envision themselves more broadly in terms of bricks and mortar (or rather wood and steel, considering the circumstances).

It is interesting that these changes are happening in one of New Zealand’s more conservative cities. This is likely to mean that innovative designs, if they are to be accepted, will need to have both a vision for the future, and a connection with the past. I hope New Zealand’s design community is successful in this regard and is able to shape something positive out of what has been one of New Zealand’s most traumatic natural disasters. It certainly won’t be easy.

I wonder what sort of public toilets they will have.

 

Picture of a German toilet.

 

Picture of a please sit down sign.

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35m2 pas plus…

It is the thin strip of light piecing through the barely opened shutters that wakes me just before 10am. It’s Sunday, traditional day for the grasse matinée, French for ‘sleep-in’, but literally translated as ‘fat morning’ and what I have ingeniously termed as having a “Fat Martin”.

Next to me Nicolas is reluctant to wake, odd seeing as he is generally always the first to rise. I quietly jump at the opportunity to grab the first shower and enjoy breakfast in the kitchen undisturbed before he plonks his large, lovely, French feet on the floor and proceeds to wake himself up. I haven’t felt the morning time boost since I moved in with him and I realise that it has a lot to do with our living space.

Come in Space Control…

Nicolas and I live in a 35m² apartment in the south-west of France in an equally smallish sized town, oddly named Pau. Before moving here I lived in a 37m² 4th floor apartment of my own with a view of the Pyrenees mountains and the grey tiled roofs of the town, their terracotta chimney pots dotted in sporadic lines. Being high up has it’s advantages in adding a rare sense of space as you look out over the pointy a-frames and shadowy eaves of the buildings below. The vide from the balcony also gives you a sense of free-falling, which is fine as long as you don’t suffer from vertigo that is.

Living in such a small space takes a lot of self control and discipline, plus order, and if you’re sharing then add to that a great deal of mutual respect and self-ease. Most importantly is being sure to constantly clean up after yourself, for as the mess grows larger, the space you have to hide grows smaller. Over three days leading up to my moving in here, Nico took on an epic ‘remodelling’ of his apartment, in order to offer me some space of my own and to make things easier on both of us with regards to those stock standard daily gests such as moving, sitting, standing, eating and of course, breathing…

Feng-enuity

Battered from jetlag after a trip home to Oz, I arrived to find Nico’s one-room 35m² apartment had been split in four designated “areas” segmented by a small crossroads! There was the sleeping area (bed on the floor with bookshelves proffering the tell-tale classics… notably in comic form), the working area (a desk in the corner with vintage leather one-seater cornered off by mid-waist open-backed shelves creating a ‘bordered space’), the dining/entertainment area ( large, low, square coffee table with bamboo poofs, cd player and speakers and Nico’s guitars) and finally… would you believe it.. a walk-in wardrobe and dressing area, ingeniously created by taking the doors off the existing inset wardrobe and surrounding the space exterior with easy build shelves where we store out clothes.

Sadly, as much as I appreciate the “feng-enuity” of Nicolas in creating a more habitable abode for us and his clever ideas to create a more user-friendly room, never in my life had I imagined myself living in such an elfin space, not to mention sharing it with an Ent. Australian houses are enormous in comparison to 1-2 room French apartments in which around 45% of the country’s population live; my family home would have covered at least 200m²!* I can’t say I didn’t profit from every fresh-aired opportunity, as I fiercely appreciated that wide open space. Having grown up in country Victoria, I was left to run wild with an innumerable count of bugs, birds and beasts as my companions across 5 hectares of land, and so I live evermore intensely the claustrophobia from being in such a small residence now. You can no more stretch 5 hectares from 35m², than you can stretch 36m², and the absence of my never-ending green horizon, the field attached to my backdoor, haunts me slightly with the feeling that I know longer have a parcel of my own.
* family home : http://www.homehound.com.au/listing/details-popup.php?id=3560581&pos=3560581_02As

Jaunty Suprises

To deal with this claustrophobia, Sunday mornings are not often filled with “fat martins” for Nicolas and I, as we go in search of hill pastures and hiking trails to expire our town legs and expel our cooped up apartment ambitions. The French countryside is always full of little surprises and today is no exception. Despite the showers predicted for the afternoon, we grabbed our jackets, jumped in the car and headed out to find Le Chappelle de Rousse and a vineyard trail we had noted a few months back.

Arriving at the Chappelle after dodging several cows coming back from pasture and stopping off to say hello to some baby donkeys, we got lost (a French pastime) within the first five minutes of stepping out of the car. We had of course ignored any sign of direction in our haste to move and took the first muddy path that presented itself to us. After taking the steep turn down the hill and struggling back up again, we re-examined the placard, actually read the directions and set off between the vines.

At the domain Lapeyre, a small vineyard falling inside the Jurançon appellation, the Larrieu family has been cultivating wine for three generations, with the most recent generation taking the farm down the path of organic viticulture. They have opened up their land so that people like us who lack field exposure can wander through their property and learn a little about the cultivation of the grape at the same time. We set off taking our time to wander through the vines and read the panels of information informing us of the history of this quaint little cepage, hoping the rain would hold off long enough to walk the hour long trail. We regrouped at the bottom of the hill and followed the arrows around, climbing back up the other side. With the air warm and humid and the dirt soft underfoot, you could almost mistake yourself for being in a plantation in Africa, the noise of crickets in the grass and the smell of clean earth.

Following the arrows, we rose midway up the hill and admired the hawks circling in the mottled grey sky, sporadic drops of rain glancing off our cheeks. We looked up the hill to survey the climb and notice a small wooden bank with a blue box underneath it… Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Practical Work
1/ Take the bottle of wine from the icebox
2/ Serve yourself 5cl of wine (and not 7!)
3/Look
4/Smell
5/Taste
PS : Even if the best wine is always that which we want to repour ourselves,
don’t fall into the temptation, rather… take yourself off to the cellar!
Salute!

As we sat back, chinked our glasses and looked out over the sloping hill covered in lines of sprawling spring vines, my thoughts trailed back to my own adventures in paddocks, crouched down in long yellowing grasses, enjoying goodies I’d pilfered from the kitchen. These thoughts lay far from the cramped conditions of our apartment as we giggled and raised our glasses, cheekily pouring out even more than 7cl each and praising our luck for having passed by on this day. In hindsight however, it was not so much luck that aided us to happen upon the bottle of fine dry white, but more so our apartment and our need to stretch our bended limbs; to seek out new horizons which traverse the space of others and cultivate territories softly with our feet, as they cultivate our minds with the memories they replant.

Nicolas : the evolutionary chain, from grape to man
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The Social Life

Once upon a time I made my living by writing copy for advertising.  Until I fled from it, screaming. I was in my early twenties then, and worked for an international agency whose Australasian offices were on the frontier of an empire of crap. We were like the French foreign legion of crap. I was just a tiny cog in a vast crap-making machine.  It was a terrible time in my life. I’d wanted to be a writer since I was fourteen, and this job scared me away from ever writing for money. However, I’m an okay writer when I can make myself interested in the work, and there’s a pleasure in doing anything you’re good at that can make up for the silliness of what you’re doing. Especially if you’re being paid. So I’ve recently returned to it in a very small way. But this time without the creative lectures from professional motivators, or the lunchtime corporate volleyball, or the art directors who shoot paint balls at me. (Because being shot in the back is obviously going to make me into more of a team player.) * Once upon a more recent time I purchased a number of one-dollar ski-lift passes from a website called “Living Social”. I wasn’t meant to purchase these bargain-basement lift passes. The website is for Australians, and I’m a New Zealander living only a few hours from Mount Ruapehu, whose snowy flanks they were auctioning off for peanuts. But no-one seemed to care. In the end I gave every lift pass away and never even visited the mountain. But because of that purchase Living Social now sends me a daily email, each email resplendant with a brand new offer, each offer a newer and shinier solution for living. For living some sort of life anyway. I can’t even imagine the socialite whose social life is rapacious enough to need to take full advantage of the bizaare whirlwind of crap that they clog my inbox with : Home Surveillence System; Lip Plumper; Ultrasonic Slimming; Ezy Pest Control; Four Super-Dry Hair Towels; Sydney Harbour Jetboat Ride! It goes on and on and on and I get filled with a kind of wonder at how the world can fit so many useless things. * I also wonder about the poor shlub or shlubbette sitting in some cubicle in some open-plan office somewhere in the light-industrial part of some Australian city writing all this inbox-clogging crap. Because I’ve been that schlub, and amongst the offers that Living Social sends there’s the odd inspired attempt to make pointless things sound wonderful. And then there are these sort of desperate gems that someone in the gray depths of commercial despair must have slipped past their editor:   “So how do you differentiate yourself from the masses? You have two choices. You can program your ringtone to sound like a screaming child, which is unlikely to make you friends, or you can create a customised, one-of-a-kind…” You used to be an upright citizen, but long days stooped over the office desk have left you bent out of shape. Straighten up with this deal from…” The journey of a thousand miles is said to begin with a single step. But when you’re chained to your office cubicle you probably can’t remember the last time you stepped out anywhere…”   I suspect that there’s a person writing this stuff who is on the point of snapping. The avalanche of nothing that they’re required to be incisive and inspirational about has become too much, and a brutal cynicism has begun to develop. * I know how this works. A close friend of mine completed his masters in English recently (the exact same qualification that I have) and discovered (just as I did) that he’d been rendered unemployable for anything but teaching and commercial writing. So after years of studying Nabokov and Joyce, he’s now gainfully employed as consumer reports editor for a mystery shopping company. He drinks a lot, his laugh has developed a sick edge, and I’ve heard him describe what he does as “Taking badly spelt bullshit and correcting the spelling”. His cynicism is so robust and fierce that sometimes I want to bathe in it. Or drink it neat. So it’s not because I’m hungry for bargains that I’ve kept reading the emails from Living Social. It’s for the little whipcrack ways that some of their bargains are, in their copy, expressing a sort of deep bipolar outrage at their own pointlessness. I love this. I love a world where tiny pieces of commercial crap fight against their own brief in the sort of way that conscripted soldiers in the Spanish civil war used to fire over the heads of their opponents. The people who design crap and market crap are, for the most part, aware that it’s crap. You don’t often get a job selling things with words or images unless you can at least pretend to be clever, and if you’re half-way clever you’ll know that what you’re doing is crap. It is, by definition, an empty life. * So the time I find that I go deepest into Living Social is after a day of commercial writing. My copy deadlines tend to be at five, so by five-fifteen everyone in the office is sitting round looking at the mistakes we’ve all made and wondering what we can do about them overnight. By five-thirty someone from our studio has wandered along the street to buy beer (usually crap beer, but that fits with our theme) and then we sit around drinking and checking our emails for the final time and wondering how all the creativity we had at fourteen has faded into this gutless commercial whimsy. I tend to drink one beer while just not thinking of anything, as Hemingway would say. By my second beer I’ll be clearing out my spam folder, doing the electronic equivalent of unblocking the shower drain. And there amidst all the other bits of gunk I’d rather not see are those Living Social offers. And now each offer I’ve received begins to seem more rich, more full, more interesting, and more bespeaking of the better life that I should be living. I quickly forget I’m meant to be hunting for guerilla copy hidden within the commercial whole and just begin to bask in all these luxury bargains. This state reaches it’s glassiest around the third beer, when weird products that belong in a life I can’t even imagine achieve their own kind of poetry. It’s somewhere after this I can lose myself completely within the hypnotic nothing of the Social Life. My senses float unachored in pale regions of commercial stupor. My (implied) partner and I are infiltrating the Seven Course Japanese Banquet disguised by Two Full Body Shaper Suits and the Complete Hair Makeover Package. We board the Scenic Helicopter Flight incognito. I slip into the cockpit and incapacitate the pilot with the One Day Introduction to Massage Course while my (implied) partner dominates the other passengers using her One-Hour Hypnosis or NLP Session training. We bring the helicopter down on the Island Getaway! and I use Three Sessions of Hydroxi Body Shaping on the CEO until he breaks and gives me the secrets of the Online Writing Course, which I store safely on the Magnet Heart-Shaped Crystal 2GB USB Flash Drive. Hah! I laugh, slipping it into my (implied) cleavage. They’ll never suspect that. The CEO’s bodyguard is already incapacitated thanks to the 90-minute Wine-Tasting Session For Six, so we wreck the helicopter completely with the Revlon Romantic Makeup Pack, unfold our Three Folding Water Bottles, and then my (implied) partner and I escape the island on the 90-minute Paddleboarding Course For Two, dissappearing into the untraceable chaos of the Two-Hour Floristry Course and Flower Market Tour. * Whilst writing this I’ve been reclining in the Gold Coast Jaccuzzi Special wearing my Crystal Birthstone with Swaroski Elements and considering seeing Icehouse LIVE in the Barrossa Valley because their Great Southern Land was actually my favorite song when I was fourteen and foolish enough to want to write for a living.   Marcus McShane.   http://www.livingsocial.com/cities/848-sydney-inner-west http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mkidP2OUCk

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Proposals for a Resilient City: Christchurch Design Ideas Competition

Design ideas are sought for Christchurch, that address any or all of the following concerns:

Regeneration:
Activating regeneration of the built and social fabric of the city, building social capital, encouraging economic activity.

Memory:
Recognising the earthquake sequence and its effects as a part of Christchurch’s future history and identity. Proposals for Christchurch’s future may different to a business-as-usual approach, due to the unique situation of the post-earthquake environment and the collective experience of its people.

Resilience :
Enhanced resilience of buildings, urban fabric, and communities. Resilience against future natural disasters, providing social benefit through resilient communities; and as a leading example for other cities in NZ and around the world to follow.

The designs may be addressed from the perspective of a range of disciplines, including but not limited to: Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Urban Design, Engineering, Social science, and Event and Performance Design. They may be at any scale, and the site(s) must be in Christchurch City or its suburbs.

Documentation of real world projects under way are also acceptable as entries.

Entry requirements and conditions:

1. Entries are required to be single A1 landscape format. Digital and paper versions are required. Digital versions can be pdf or jpeg, sent by email or file transfer. 10MB max file size. 150dpi maximum recommended resolution.
2. Entries should be predominantly visual, and contain no more than 150 words of paragraph text.
3. Entries due by 4pm Wednesday 11th April 2012.
4. Open entry, group entries accepted.
5. Winner and runner up determined by a panel of four expert judges. Entries will be judged anonymously, and will subsequently be displayed with entrants name, location and affiliation.
6. Prize money $1000 winner, $500 runner-up. Special honorary commendations may also be made.
7. Entries will be judged according to how the proposal convincingly addresses one or all of the stated concerns of Regeneration, Memory, and Resilience.
8. Entries will be displayed at the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering Conference, Canterbury University, Christchurch. 13-15th April 2012; and published online. Entries may also be displayed at other additional locations following the conference.
9. Paper entries are unable to be returned.
10. Copyright remains with the author of the work, and the organiser has the right to display and publish the entries, crediting the named authors of the work.

To register contact luke.allen@gmx.com providing your name(s) and email address, location (town), and any affiliation you would like to state. You will be assigned an entry number to be displayed on the work, and given the address to send paper entries to.

This information is also contained in the competition website http://conference.nzsee.org.nz/designcomp.htm

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Make-Space for Architecture : Draft One

On March 28 we’ll be unofficially opening the doors on a shifty new architecture dedicated gallery for Sydney named Make-Space for Architecture. Unofficially. Officially we open in May – and not a day sooner with all the work still to be done – but in the meantime we’ve been generously offered a space in Sydney’s historic Rocks to (confusingly) pre-open in.

We’re setting up this gallery to be an independent venue promoting the agency of architecture in Sydney, focussing particularly on engaging the public in thinking and talking about architecture. We’re also playing with – at least initially – making the gallery mobile so that it can temporarily inhabit various places around Sydney.

In line with our tentative developmental state, we’ll be ‘not opening’ with an exhibition called Draft One – an informal series of events loosely forming a month long conversation about contemporary Sydney, architecture, what Make-Space could be and who would like to be involved (this involvement invitation extends to all freerangers, of course). Documenting this will be an on-site drawing (inspired by Byron Kinnairds wonderful ‘The Institution of Architecture’) collating Make-Space’s draft documents with anything that gallery visitors feel compelled to add around 3 themes: The Way We Live, Architecture/Make-Space and Utopia.

A series of small events will provoke and support this conversation:

  • An evolving 3-dimensional drawing that engages the public and visitors in 3 topics: The Way We Live, Architecture/Make-Space and Utopia.
  • Online conversation occurring across Facebook and Twitter
  • 3 public conversations with local experts: Politics in architectural production, Ethical/Critical Praxis and Experimentation
  • A series of public meetings discussing organisational aspects of Make-Space
  • Hosting screenings for BLDBLOG’s Breaking Out and Breaking In Distributed Film Festival
  • Continuous streaming of videos and podcasts about architecture
  • Hosting student design studios

We’ve also compiled an over-ambitious and broad set of goals to simmer and reduce over the next four weeks:

MAINTAIN INDEPENDENCE : Agility to respond. Support diverse and pluralist points of view.

CATALYSE CREATIVITY : Seed creative moments through events. Unlock creative potential.

NURTURE CRITICAL PRACTICE : Use design as a tool to challenge the status quo. Explore the extremes of practice modes.

FOSTER PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT : Engage and inform communities and the public about the agency of design and architecture in the city.

AGITATE POWER STRUCTURES : Publish and support alternative positions on established power structures.

DEMYSTIFY DESIGN PROCESSES : Open up the priorities and processes of architectural production to public view and scrutiny.

RECALIBRATE VALUE : Explore alternative value structures within the city.

SUPPORT URBAN EXPERIMENTATION : Learning through failure. Incremental development.

EMBRACE DIVERSITY : Retain an inclusive and diverse platform of opinions. Examine pluralism in urban society within a framework of rigorous debate.

POLITICISE DESIGN : Expose the political nature of design and it’s use in the manifestation of ideologies.

If you’re in Sydney in April, come visit us in the Rocks – otherwise our progress can be tracked here (www) and here (twitter) and here (spacechook)

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Calling for expressions of interest for Freerange Vol 5: Dangerous and Wrong!

Expressions of interest to our guest editor Nick Sargent by the end of March please! nick@projectfreerange.com

The topic of Freerange Vol 5 is Dangerous and Wrong! – a phrase lifted from the angry rant of passionate moralists, concerned parents, confused bureaucrats, environmentalists, anti-drugs campaigners, presidents and other generally authoritative but well intentioned souls. Its emotive double negativity strikes beyond reason to a land of certainty. The person wielding this phrase is powerful, she understands! Someone actually know what’s going on! Praise!

Dangerous and Wrong has a magnetic appeal. In mathematics a double negative becomes a positive. The mythic folk hero always travels to lands that are ‘out of bounds’ to learn a lesson that can only be brought back from beyond the horizon. As adventure tourism operators understand, in the dangerous death is summoned into being to reveal life. Just as it is often pleasurable to do things dangerously, it is also not always wrong to be wrong.

But lets not be subtle about this. For this issue and this issue alone we extend a warm welcome to subjects that should probably be avoided. I want to read things I don’t want to read. Go wild or get tight … say it like you wish you hadn’t.

Some starting points may or may not be:

cannibalism / the war against drugs / science fiction / disasters / communism / moralising / guns / TV / God / aetheism / sharks / coffee without caffeine / narcissism / vaccination / monsters / the man / silicone implants / riches / copyright / conspiracy / iPhones / terror / BP / erections / occupy / hate / shadows / the nuclear family / nuclear weapons / doe-eyed girls / charity / scented toilet paper / death / happy endings

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The Frisson of Monocle Magazine

It’s those jaunty, perky, banal headlines that usually set me off. “Be Friendly: We all want a bit more warmth” “Smile: A small gesture transforms transactions and makes them matter.” These are the cover of Monocle magazine’s tips for “Charm, the next offensive: Why businesses, brands and nations need a new buzzword for 2012 and beyond.”  There’s a hideous moment where I stop and stand there, slackjawed, in the magazine aisle of the airport WH Smith, and think about to  which kind of smarmy preppy-wannabe creep these trite tidbits might appeal, which hyper-mobile, faux-aesthete might be the least bit interested in “Locking up your money in Milan, a Stockholm ‘hood and an Austrian culinary classic.” And somehow in that timeless moment something snaps in the reptillian quarters of my brain and I see my hand reaching out and prising the exquisitely typeset black cover off its rack between Newsweek and TIME. I place it under my arm and the next thing I know I’ve bought the damn thing and a snack size pack of pringles and I’m on my way.

So goes my ongoing relationship with Monocle magazine, Tyler Brule’s astonishingly successful foray into the world of luxury lifestyle publishing. For those unfamiliar, Monocle has recently celebrated its 5th year of monthly publication – no mean feat considering the perilous state of all things print – and has begun to extend its M-branded tentacles into television and radio (or whatever it is you call radio piped through the internet).

A quick disclaimer: Despite my previous evisceration of who I imagine to be the prototypical ‘Monocle reader,’ I, too, am also exactly the type of person you could also comfortably imagine reading the magazine. I am a 29 year old communications designer, living in London and working for a global design firm. I have quote-unquote ironic facial hair (not my quotes, btw). I have black framed spectacles. I am not unknown to wear a plaid shirt every now and then (top button done up, no tie), and I ride to work on a bicycle that although has 15 gears has often been mistaken for a fixie. I own several Apple devices. Oh, the shame of my teetering tower of lifestyle cliches. But that’s the way it is and I’m in no way apologising for my wearing the colors of my tribe.

So when Monocle makes it’s conspicuous appeals for my attention, my antenna vibrates reflexively. I am interested in politics, design, food, culture, travel. I’m a modern urban human and these are spheres that I regularly interact with. So amid the swamp of printed detritus at your airport WH Smith, which ranges from a bafflingly large number of magazines concerned exclusively with a single gadget or application (iPhone tricks and tips or 101 word processing applications for your PC! ) to gossipy pap, to the tired, culturally withered dad-like music magazines reliving every golden era except for the present one, I’m increasingly drawn to what’s broadly called the Business & World Affairs section. Here you’ll find the general interest American big names still coasting off their reputations (TIME, Newsweek), The Economist (essentially, in paper form, a drunken old Tory who talks at great length about anything that seems to cross his mind, and is by turns startlingly interesting and so dull you’d sooner impale a sherry glass through your eye). There’s the heavy breathing of the CEO-fellating triumvirate: FastCompany, Harvard Business Review and Bloomberg Businessweek, and the rather quaint, shrivelled presence of National Geographic. Wired is the occasional interloper in this heady, capital ‘I’ important section of the newsagency, but its presence seems slightly like an embarrassed teenager in a hoody turning up at his dad’s work during school holidays. Amid all this, without fail, is Monocle. And partly its the astounding greyness of it’s competitors that makes it stand out. Wow! I can read about being charming rather than how China is going to take over the world and enslave us and feed us only on our own ground-up consumer electronics – mixed with shit. I’ll take the magazine about Charm please!

There are a number of things that Monocle has going for it. It has a startling,  unique, editorial voice – a kind of suave, cocksure authority that in these relativistic times seems quaint and almost colonial. No other magazine, quite frankly, has the balls to sum up a country’s entire public transport agenda in a snarky aside. The strength and clarity of this voice is, my opinion, the magazine’s most endearing feature. It’s clean-cut, tightly gridded, neo-modern layout and design is beautiful, and has been massively influential both in the magazine industry and beyond, and its crisp, understated lines have become as much a signifier of luxury as they content that they carry. Add to that a liberal smattering of cheery (yet stylistically on point) illustrations, a hearty splash of photography and you’ve got the best looking mainstream magazine by a fair margin.

Which is handy, because beyond the aesthetic sheen, the actual written content of the magazine is … well, it troubles me. It’s vision is not my vision, and yet it’s ‘Now’ is so undeniably, totally, certifiably ‘Now’ that I tremble at the thought that the future will be more and more like the values espoused between its pages.

It is shallowness that is packaged up as an ideal, and it’s designed to appeal to our shallowness, our portentous need to feel informed, even when we aren’t.

Who is it, for instance, gives a shit about the metro system in Jakarta a small bakery in Melbourne? One of my most tiresome irks is how Monocle strains ever so hard to present local issues as having international relevance. Their rationale is, I presume, that this reveals a global sense of interconnectedness, a 21st century ‘It’s a small world after all.”  The answer of course, is no one cares about one city’s local metro system and another’s bakery. But the other answer is that we would all like to appear to be the kind of person that does care. So Monocle’s prescription for this mild quiver of cultural dissonance is to wave it’s Burberry-sheathed, Starke-designed wand, give you a sentence or two about said metro system and bakery and say, “There, there, poppet, now you know.” And the aesthetic quality of worldliness is thus bestowed.

Monocle doesn’t really present news: its articles read more like succession of facts, free floating, lacking sustenance and connective tissue. It presents these fact in brief. In teeny, tiny little pieces. Like tasting samples that are gone down your gullet before you’ve really gotten any sense of their actual flavour. For example:

While the rest of Europe chases austerity, oil-rich Norway has no such worries. The government can spend up to 4% of the country’s sovereign wealth “oil fund”, valued about $500 billion.

Okkaaay. Thanks Monocle for that stringy, tasteless fleck of knowledge. So there are a number of questions I’d like answered. Why only 4%? Why not 5%? What does Norway like to spend its money on? Why is this being published now? Why is this being published at all? Outside of those who keep themselves up to date with Norway’s relative riches, who would actually care? And for those who do care about Norway’s oil wealth – well, don’t they already know this? It’s just a fact. Banal. Mundane. And stripped of any meaningful context as it is, it’s a fact that is utterly useless. To me, at least, the problem with Monocle’s entire 100-odd page ‘briefing’ section is this: it’s fact after meaningless fact, and all it adds up to is an affected form of middlebrow channel surfing, a mindless skimming of random irrelevancies.

The trouble with having such a strong editorial voice is the single mindedness that it by definition requires, and the blindspots it produces. There is a vary particular bias at the heart of the Monocle Way that seems to not only revere commerce as an end in itself (not an uncommon fallacy, that one), but seeks to elevate commerce as the ultimate expression of creativity. Now I don’t want to get bogged down in some kind of anti-capitalist rant – I like stuff. I like buying stuff. I don’t have a problem with people wanting to sell stuff. Our relative worth is defined through our economic value – that’s an unpleasant fact that bombards us every day – but do we need to be so damn sycophantic about it? Shouldn’t our heroes be those who do things with the promise of no reward rather than those for whom reward is the reward? Monocle reveres stuff – and the producers of said stuff are treated with sanctity of Mother Mary’s birth canal. Monocle is a commercial entity first and foremost, which means its loyalties lie to its advertisers first, and its audience second. I get this. But it’s the near invisible line between advertising and editorial – the profiles patter with in the same taut, chipper PR-friendly language as the cleverly integrated advertorials – that leads me to the thought that in the world of Monocle, what is PR and what is news is interchangable. Worse, that they’re actually one and the same.

There’s a strange thing that you won’t find in Monocle. Every news and current affairs outlet thrives on it but you’ll hardly find a dash of it between Monocle’s 300 pages. It’s doubt. Mistrust. Cynicism. Monocle has no edge. It’s a spoon. It’s a giant ladle designed to feed. Spoon-ready, without the knife, without an edge, it’s all too easy to gorge on shoes, destinations,leatherbound notebooks, frequent flyer programs, architecture, et cetera, without stopping to ask questions, to debate, to disagree, to be heretical, to fight. This is what scares me about Monocle – its total acquiescence to the status quo. It’s utter prostration to the God of Consumerism. It’s shallowness in the face of depth. It’s beaming orthodontically-perfected smile in the face of it all.

Maybe it’s some kind of moral outrage that made me write this, or maybe it’s just what the reading of aspirational magazines is simply designed to provoke: envy.

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Why I’m voting Green in the New Zealand Election.

(Disclaimer: I’ve been doing a small amount of unpaid volunteer work for the Green Party this election.)

In less than one week in New Zealand us citizens get the chance to share in the once-every-three-year opportunity to action on democratic right to vote. This is important. Representational democracy has lots of problems and is far from perfect, but if nothing else it plays a critical rule in ensuring we don’t ever have to live in a dictatorship.

Compared to going out and ‘doing good things’ in the world around you, voting probably isn’t the most important democratic thing we do. But it is the most symbolic, and like the occupy protests occurring around the world, you somewhat lose your moral right to have an opinion if you don’t participate.

There is a bunch of freedom’s that we have and often forget about, one of these is the freedom to express political views. I think in New Zealand political discussion is treated a bit like religion, something we avoid so as not to accidentally offend. Today, I’d like to use this freedom to write about why I am voting Green.

I’m deeply suspicious of branding, and the green brand is like any other in that one needs to scratch beneath the nice posters, smiling politicians, and nice niceness that branding creates. The Greens are a made of people whose reason for getting into politics is because they give a fuck about certain issues and since these issues are the volition, the reason for them acting, they continue to take precedent. A journey with the Green Party has never been a journey to the seats of power so the lure of ‘being-on-the-end-of-the-phone’ is a lot less powerful. So, yes the Green brand is a brand, but fortunately when this is brand is examined there is a healthy depth of knowledge and policy below the surface.

There are three policy that important for me at the moment, and the Green’s Position on these that is deciding my vote.

1. Urbanism.

Design literacy in this country is sadly lacking. It’s the curse of being a frontier country without thousands of years of built precedent and trial and error of built form. As the Green party is part of an international movement, it understands that public transport and well designed public space are integral parts of the good citiy, healthy society, and an innovative economy. The often cited need to choose between cars and public transport is a false one. We will always need and use cars, however the last 40 years of international research and precedent (London, Copenhagen, New York) show us that planning cities around cars instead of public transport is a failed idea. We fail to recognise this because we alway view the problem from the viewpoint of the individual rather than the city. There is an idiotic article in the NZ Herald today arguing that rail will always fail in New Zealand. What this fails to appreciate is transport decisions don’t just respond to the present needs of a city, they powerfully alter the behaviour of a city in a future and how it grows and changes.   Increasing roads, esp to marginal areas of land leads to low density of housing, which leads to inefficient infrastructure, high rates, destruction of important agricultural land, and an unsustainable reliance on cheap oil to move around the city.   Improving public transport, through all means, bike, bus, rail leads to increased density, this is better for business, and more diverse business, more efficient service delivery, protection of agriculture and natural systems.   All the cities in the world need to re-invent themselves in the next 50 years, and the battle for Auckland and Christchurch is very much on at the moment.

2. Child Poverty.

That a country as rich as New Zealand has a significant poverty problem is an outrage.  That this problem is allowed to affect thousands of children is even more outrageous. That the large majority of these children are Maori and yet we claim to be a healthy post-colonial country is outrageous.  That the solutions to the problems of child poverty exist and are evidenced based and affordable and not enacted is even more outrageous.  This isn’t a political issue, it’s a moral one.   A curse on the houses of both Labour and National for allowing this to happen, and good on the Greens for having the most comprehensive strategy to work with this issue.  For more in depth information about this topic please visit the Every Child Counts website. 

3.    Other

I was going to discuss that I like the Green movement because, popular to contrary belief, it basis it’s humanist policy on evidence and research not by fulfilling the wishes of cashed up lobby groups like the truck, farmer, and alcohol lobbys which write most of the current governments policy.  But actually, I’d be happy if a government could just fix the first two no-brainers on this list.   If we can get agreement on things like 21st Century transport and Child poverty issues, then after that perhaps we can start talking about the more difficult areas of governance, until action is taken on the easy and important issue the Government is a farce.

The fact that the Green’s consistently and patiently argue for these sensible solutions to  long term problems is why I am voting for them on Saturday.

 

 

 

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There’s nothing plain about the rail in Spain

Autovia 8, west of Bilbao, where it finishes

Spanish rail is a delight.

It’s cheap, about as difficult as getting on a bus, and more or less on time, and you can travel locally at our train speeds (for about two euro an hour) or at 300km an hour if you’re going cross country and want to spend a little more. It’s a goddam pleasure at that speed to just have a glass of wine, lie back, and watch the train unzipping the countryside. Barcelona to Madrid is roughly the same distance as Auckland to Wellington. In Spain that’s less than three hours, from the moment that you dive into one underground until the moment that you emerge out of another.

It’s a similar distance to travelling, say, between Queen Street in Auckland and Lambton Quay in Wellington. With our check-in times and the quality of our transport to and from each airport here in New Zealand you’re lucky to make that sort of time if you fly. And we easily the have the population density to support just one train line between our two main north island cities.

For years our transport policies have focussed on getting more land under tarmac and more vehicles in and out of cities faster while refusing to invest in any reasonable alternative. The revolution in communications seems to be happening, but surely our bodies need to keep pace with our minds?

Grumble mumble mumble.

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Key to my Selection Criteria

ABOUT ME
For the past four months, I’ve been looking for part-time work, ideally as a graphic designer. To keep myself occupied in this depressing downtime before I once again being a fully productive member of society, I have been responding to precisely one metric fuck-tonne of “Key Selection Criteria”.

For those of you that haven’t had the enjoyment of looking for a job in the past decade, KSCs are the “must-have skills” potential employers lay out like a poison-laced bear trap to keep the unworthy from cluttering their MS Outlook inboxes with pathetic pleas for acceptance and attention. They’re a lovely idea in principle: often listing specific role requirements, KSCs can help you get a handle on the true nature of the job and organisation. But the problem I’ve found is that some KSC writers get a little — ah, how to put this delicately — over-enthused with their questioning.

One of the most recent KSCs I put together a reply to had the following demands, pretty much sequentially:

I must have:
1. The ability to prioritise multiple tasks and keep to schedules
2. Excellent organisational and time management skills
3. Demonstrated ability to organise a demanding workload and set priorities in accordance with the objectives of the position

I’m not sure about you, but I’d almost consider that the same question, rephrased three times, possibly to meet some arbitrary demand from HR or management. So I’ve spent the recent days thumping my head on my desk, wondering if these questions themselves form the real test, which will be, “hey pal, how much senseless busy work can you pull off without saying ‘fuck this’ and going outside to play?” And the truth is, heaps.

As a small exercise (before I get back to responding to some more KSCs) I’ve decided to put together my own KSCs, and answer them as truthfully as I can (coz yes, I lie on the other, “real” ones). Maybe this will help me see the other side of the waterfall I’m chasing, or maybe it’s just a good excuse to procrastinate before I write about how good I am at te photoshops for the 87th time…

KEY SELECTION CRITERIA
Essential skills and experience

List your favourite sort of jam.
I’m not sure it’s technically a jam, but marmalade. And if I had to pick a jam specifically, I’d say…that three berry one. Next!

Who was the best Doctor Who?
And for extra points, the worst James Bond
I’ve always had a soft spot for Tom Baker, that dude with the big scarf, curly hair and jelly babies. Probably because I was at the right age for that kind of “funny” Dr. Who at the time: eleven or twelve I’m guessing. Oh and he had K-9 as well, which is pretty cool when you’re a tween*. A robot dog, man! Hey, and do you remember that episode when the Doctor gave K-9 away to one of his assistants (who was leaving the show/TARDIS)? And it was all sad for about four minutes, but then he had another K-9 in a crate he pulled out just before the end credits? Pierce Brosnan.

Do you prefer digital watches, or those ones with hands? Why?
Hmmm, tough question. I guess the ones with hands, if I’m totally honest with myself here. I don’t know why, it’s just a feeling I get, when I look to the west, and my spirit is crying for leaving. (boy, I wish I could quote Stairway to Heaven in my real responses to these things…)

 

Name your three best cures for nausea.
1. a spew.
2. a big glass of water and some painkillers, and then a spew if that doesn’t help. Try not to spew up the painkillers though; and if you do, eat some new ones, not the ones you just spewed. That may make you feel like spewing again.
3. laying on my back with my feet slightly elevated, rubbing my stomach with both hands and saying “urrrgh, arrrgh, I’m never drinking again, etc.” And then a spew, and some KFC, and then another spew.

NB: isn’t “spew” an odd word, when you type it out (and read it, I assume) eight or nine times?

 

Do you know what this keyboard shortcut does?
(cmmd+option+L+Z; cntrl+caps lock+6+: on a PC)
Shit! I just tried that in Bean (a simple text edit application for OSX) and it actually fucking did something: a dialogue box came up, asking for a web address to connect to. Ah right, it’s insert a link, and the z doesn’t really do anything. And the other one didn’t do anything when I just tried it just now neither. Try cntrl+option+cmmd+8 though, it’s hilarious.

 

If you were on the run from “John Law” and needed a new name, what would you pick?
I’ve always been partial to “Teddy Ruxpin”. Yeah, so: Teddy Ruxpin. Or Big Ted, or Old Man Ruxpin, depending on how close we are.

Have you ever ridden over something you shouldn’t have on a ride-on mower?
No, but I do enjoy pushing those push-mowers over dried up dog shit, and seeing the explosion of white poo powder. And once I ran over (well, pushed over) a stick that hit my aunty in the leg.

Greatest high score in Frogger:
I haven’t kept track of my “real” high score, but I can say with some self-doubt I’ve made it up to Level 3 at least.

Rank your four favourite fictitious animals, from most-preferred to least-preferred:
1. Basilisk
2. Pegasus
3. Oscar the Grouch
4. Frodo

 

If one of your friends was going to describe you as a power tool, which one would they pick?
I’d like to say jackhammer, but more realistically: hot glue gun.

 

Please recall your earliest recollection of using a ViewMaster™
I have quite a vivid memory of looking at a Muppets slide reel and being shocked at seeing Fozzy’s legs and feet. He looked really, really strange. I wonder how they did that? Probably just models, huh?

 

You have three minutes. List as many metal band names converted into pet food types as you can.
Shit, this is hard. Why did I write this one for myself? OK here goes:

Metalliver (um, this one is meant to be “Metallica”. Not a great start.)
Rage Against the Pedigree Meaty Bites
Limp Brisket
Lamb Morsels with Korn and other Misc. Vegetables
Insane Clown Pussy Treats

 

That was three minutes: not a great effort. Please send through any job offers you may have, I’m off to donate blood.

*not that tweens existed back then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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