Age of Wonderland
One of the highlights of this year’s Dutch Design Week was Age of Wonderland, in which young artists and designers from across the world came to the Netherlands to develop their visions on social innovation and co-creation, and exchange ideas with local companies, artists, scientists and other creatives
Dutch Design Week, Eindhoven
18–26 October 2014
by NICOLA HOMER
Eindhoven is a grey, unprepossessing city in the Netherlands, yet it has a vibrant culture for art, design and technology. The city plays host to rising stars from the creative industries, who gather each year in autumn at Dutch Design Week. There was an upbeat energy at this year’s event. The optimism reflected the city’s success story. Where others floundered during the international financial crisis of 2008-09, this smart Dutch tech-hub lost few jobs. The city’s economy continues to grow steadily. Such is the cluster of big technology companies and the proliferation of patents at the heart of what is known as the “Brainport” region that it is a beacon for investment in Europe. This success stems in part from the social innovation that it has nurtured at the Eindhoven University of Technology and the Design Academy Eindhoven – hailed by Time Magazine as the “School of Cool” – which this year held an excellent graduation show.
Global innovation was the subject of an international research and design project entitled Age of Wonderland, the result of a collaboration between Dutch Design Week, the Baltan Laboratories and a non-governmental organisation, Hivos. The NGO supports people in Africa, Asia and Latin America by working with civil society organisations in developing countries. Guided by humanist values, Hivos wants to contribute to a fair and sustainable world. Over the past 17 years, it has funded all kinds of creative initiatives, but recently it has changed its cultural policies by starting to think in a global way, as could be seen in Age of Wonderland. The curator and artist Arne Hendriks said: “We cannot isolate what happens here from what happens there. We need to cooperate with creatives around the world. The world is a tiny place.”
Hivos initiated the project by asking its different international organisations to suggest an artist or designer with an innovative frame of mind, for whom it would be valuable to come to the Netherlands to work with the local networks of Hivos and the Baltan Laboratories. They were connected by the collaboration. Six young creative talents from Indonesia, Uganda, Kenya, Guatemala and Nicaragua focused on conceptual, social and technological innovation, and presented the results to the public at Dutch Design Week, at the Baltan Laboratories in the Natlab in Eindhoven.
In the Lab, coloured Post-it notes dotted the walls, tools covered the tables, and the noise of spinning bicycle wheels resonated across the space. They were all part of the creative process staged in this collective exhibition, where artists and designers worked together and exchanged ideas with visitors at workshops. Hendriks said: “This is the new way of exhibiting. It is inviting people in. A painter who puts a painting in a museum also wants to invite people in. If you are lucky that happens and then you are drawn into the painting. But here it is more humane. It is literal. You are invited in.”
In a central space, an artist was talking animatedly to visitors about her environmentally friendly installations. This was Sandra Suubi, an eco-artist from Uganda, who discussed with young visitors her ideas behind recycling everyday items to make a colourful Dream Lab. This is the kind of lively collaboration that the curator of Age of Wonderland intended to encourage. As Hendriks explained: “It sounds very simple, but it does not happen a lot in the creative industries to have a designer from Uganda come and create a project here, to work with local waste-disposal companies, to work with children and to make workshops, to even work in Uganda when she goes back, with the things that she has picked up here, to have this kind of exchange.”
Suubi said: “The Dream Lab is a platform for young people to talk about their dreams. It is made up of eggs that are in this incubation space. Within each egg is a young person talking about their dream. The piece is completed by these young people who put their heads into the egg and listen to these dreams. It is beautiful. I know that if we grow into a culture of talking about our dreams from a young age, then the people and environment in which we live will help to bring these to fruition through the constant input of ideas, sharing and different forms of support.”
The eco-artist worked with recycled materials to build this dreamscape to show that you can create opportunities by starting with whatever is around you. She believes that this facilitates action by people with similar visions. Suubi also wanted to demonstrate the possibilities that can be found in the things that are thrown away, such as plastic, which pollutes the world’s deepest oceans. Suubi said: “Plastic is a danger to our environment because it can last for more than 500 years. If it stays with us, it must work for us.”
Artists can contribute to the debate on global environmental issues by showing how re-used materials can be enhanced as functional items or forms of communication, to raise awareness of communities’ habits and their effect on the environment, said Suubi. Having learned from the highly developed recycling system of the Netherlands and how that contrasts with the system in Uganda, Suubi was optimistic about her creative practice. She now hopes to build Dream Labs all over the world.
In the face of global issues such as the need for a sustainable way of life, Hendriks suggested that international artists and designers must connect with each other, and embrace different values. “We have tried out the values of the west over the past few hundred years, but it has led to the society we have right now, in which we are over-consuming,” he said. “We tried out systems, we tried our way of thinking… But if you are living in a Sahel country in Africa, if you are a species of bird in the Amazon forest, if you are a tuna fish, the system is failing. So we need other value systems. We need to look around the value systems of other cultures, which could be put in place.”
One activist in this exhibition was the artist and scientist David Marín from Guatemala. He seeks to go beyond the colonial systems that have endured in Mayan culture. When he observed that tourism was leading to a growing demand for Mayan incense that was putting pressure on the eco-system, he turned to the idea of bio-mimicry, the imitation of models of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. He resolved to make a perfume that would create a sustainable business through a network of small, localised micro-enterprises devoted to the regeneration of patches of forest. Marín said: “Only when you get to the point where it is more profitable to take care of nature than to destroy it, then nature will be taken care of because as long as somebody can make money out of that, then somebody will do it.”
It is exactly this kind of small-scale activity that the new media artist and co-founder of the citizen initiative Lifepatch, Andreas Siagian, from Indonesia, considered to be vital to his workshops with the local community. They belonged to his project Lab-in-a-Lab, which explored how artistic practices have renewed the meaning of the idea of a lab. This project was based on the global language of hacking, the process of programming a system – a hacker is a person who can code, who can create, in the world of technology. Siagian said: “In a country like Indonesia, hacking becomes natural, because the infrastructure is very limited… I think we always ‘Do It Yourself’.”
His experience in Europe is that there is a bit less flexibility in working patterns, compared with Indonesia, he said. So he shared his knowledge of how to live with scarce resources. As part of the cultural exchange, he taught people how technology works by using simple electronics, which he made in response to biological elements, such as touch, light and humidity. Siagian said: “I connect with these people through knowledge. The output is something that they have to decide. The knowledge is that they get more understanding about technology, something that I try to deliver to the general public, young kids and old people.”
A simple idea resulted in the project Happy Feet by Roy Ombatti, a young student engineer from Kenya. His mission was to design customised shoes for thousands of people who experience foot deformities, primarily as a result of infection caused by a flesh-eating sand flea known as a jigger. He said: “These people are very, very poor, but they get infected because they cannot afford water for cleaning. For them, water is for cooking and drinking… These people cannot fit into a normal shoe, let alone afford one. Even if shoes are donated, they cannot wear them.” So the engineer came up with the idea of making customised shoes from recycled plastic using 3D printing technology. But through a process of experimentation in Eindhoven, he discovered that the plastic shoes were hard and uncomfortable. He is now designing a Do-it-Yourself toolkit that will enable people to make practical shoes with locally sourced materials. His time in the Netherlands has been a good learning experience. Ombatti said: “Technology, as fancy and exciting as you can see, sometimes is not the solution. It has taken me a lot of effort, but sometimes you just have to stop and look at everything differently.”
This idea of active learning was central to this collaboration, through the cultural exchange between international innovators and the community of this smart tech-hub.
The lab was a space where people could exchange different perspectives on local systems within a global framework, which holds great importance for young artists and designers. What came across was the resilience of participants such as Ombatti to develop a career within the creative professions despite significant adversity. They had forged their practice while living in difficult conditions with few support systems, and reached out to people, young and old, to facilitate new ways of thinking.
Hendriks said: “These are people where the value of the work they do is in working together with people: sharing their knowledge. So they are constantly present in their work. They do not hide behind smart, superficial beauty. They are here. So that means it is a learning environment for everybody.” It may even provide a model for a new type of collective exhibition, which invites people to engage with the creative process. With the project set to be the first in a series that will run until 2017, in which Hivos will invite more innovators from its global network to participate in the programme, it seems that, like Eindhoven, this kind of exhibition has a bright future.