September 2010, TechnoCRAFT @ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Do Hit Chair by Marijn van der Poll, photo courtesy of Droog

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
703 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
July 10 through October 3, 2010   

San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is known for organizing exhibitions that cross into interdisciplinary territory, unearthing and engaging the various relationships between the fine arts and technology, music, dance, performance, craft, history and politics. This has become especially true over the last two years with the appointment of Betti-Sue Hertz as Director of Visual Arts in 2008. Open through October 3rd, TechnoCRAFT fulfills the institution’s edgy expectations while also pushing beyond their tenuous limits in alignment with Hertz’s avowed goal. Curated by Yves Béhar, the Swiss-born, San Francisco-based design guru and founder of fuseproject, TechnoCRAFT unhinges YBCA’s art-centered axis by focusing instead on how design is permeated by contemporary currents in business, technology and, of course, art. As indicated in its accompanying literature, the exhibition’s stated objective is to illuminate the increasing collapse of the traditional top-down relationship between designer and consumer – creative power and buying power. In examining these shifting paradigms, the exhibition widens its dialogical scope to suggest the parallel breakdown of a traditionally closed system of big business and manufacturing, ultimately alleging a new age of consumer liberation and empowerment.  

Two centuries ago, the Industrial Revolution ushered in an era of machine-based production that disgorged a deluge of low-cost, mass-produced, mass-consumed goods. The Fordist paradigm of the mid-20th century further augmented productive efficiency by standardizing parts for interchangeability and by restructuring the assembly line to secure the expendability of labor. While such technological innovations gave people greater access to a greater variety of useful, affordable goods, they also ultimately uprooted craft and alienated people from the things they consumed. With the turn of the last century, however, Béhar observes an upwelling of desire to re-establish these practices and relationships. He christens this last decade or so as the “Age of Individuality” and identifies different collaborative and empowering vehicles (henceforth described as “themes”) – Hacks, Incompletes, Modules, Platforms, Blueprints and Crowdsourcing – to prove his case. 

The network of illuminating relationships he attempts to draw between these different themes, however, feels stunted, as if he ignored the rhetorical power of the curated space. Instead, each theme occupies its own discrete territory within YBCA’s commanding galleries – an über-sexy, tragically sleek analogue to the 6th grade science fair. Despite this unfortunate oversight, Béhar does successfully engage the individual inner-workings of each theme, perhaps most industriously with the Hack. 

High Chair designed by Eames Hack Team: Andrew McCandlish,Tom Reynolds, Jared Delorenzo, Alexandra Powell, Tim Peet, and Alie Thomer
Photo credit: fuseproject

The Hack was undoubtedly the original DYI intervention. Though the etymology of this usage first gained notoriety with the advent of the computer hacker, today it more broadly encompasses the quest to gain access to something in order to manipulate, change, or divert its function or outcome. Why anyone would want to mess with an Eames chair is hard to comprehend, but then there is the Eames Hack on display at TechnoCRAFT. With its seat partially cut out to accommodate two little legs and a plastic tray installed at stomach-level, the juxtaposition of this classic piece of furniture with its new high-chair functionality lends it an unexpectedly endearing quality. The re-coding of mass-produced goods, however, need not be so dramatic. The multi-national, mega-conglomerate IKEA has seen its products re-purposed in simple ways it could never have anticipated. Not only can parts of a Stolmen storage unit be used to create bike racks, but bookshelves can easily be transformed into media units when flipped on their side. Aesthetics can also be tweaked without changing basic functionality – Rudiger Otte and Roman LindeBaum demonstrate this in Low Waist, their spliced and diced bookshelf. 

Unlike Hacks – which are defined by an outsider’s intervention on a static object – Incompletes and Modules are two schemes that provide users with pre-made building blocks that are meant to be pieced together in ways that directly address a specific need. A particularly sartorial Incomplete comes from design partners Issey Miyake and Dai Fujiwara, whose A-poc product consists of a continuous tube of frayless fabric that can be cut into skirts or shirts according to one’s size and fashion sensibility. Modules function in a similar manner, the difference being that each unit is more or less discrete or “finished.” Created for the design house zumtobel, Olafur Eliasson’s Starbricks are modulated LED-embedded lighting units made of molded polycarbonate that can be assembled in a manifold of geometric configurations. Suspended in the high-ceiling rooms of YBCA’s lower gallery, the Starbricks are reminiscent of Futurist cloud accumulations.

As a prominent contemporary artist known for his immersive installations (such as his 2007 One-Way Colour Tunnel at SFMOMA) Eliasson’s Starbricks exemplify the current debate over the relationship between design and fine art. In recent decades, there has been a push amongst certain institutions and historians to elevate design to the level of the fine arts, revealing not only the importance of aesthetics within design but also the way in which the two disciplines both inform each other and borrow from a shared realm of visual culture. The objet d’art does not – can not – occupy an autonomous category separate from life and its many shifting contingencies, a discussion the YBCA has been having for years. In many ways, the maker-user, designer-consumer debate functions at a commensurate level: if design is for the usage and benefit of the everyday person, must the creative impulse driving design occupy a realm removed from that of the everyday person? 

Low Waist by Ruediger Otte and Roman Lindebaum
Photo courtesy of the designers


Aesthetics aside, Béhar argues that a climate of cultural sameness and a detachment from the consumed product encouraged people to “[take] matters into their own hands.” While this desire to individualize and tailor the marketplace is indisputable, many of the channels TechnoCRAFT identifies were formulated by companies as a means of accommodating certain burgeoning technologies – not by laypeople taking matters into their own hands. In a post-Fordist world where open source technology (which gained initial traction by satisfying a growing need for knowledge sharing amongst coders within the digital realm) is now ubiquitous, companies need to reassert their value in new ways in order to stay afloat. As these themes demonstrate, they do so by harnessing people’s sense of agency under the pretense of collaboration. 

Crowdsourcing is perhaps the most obvious way companies leverage this desire for participation and personalization. Threadless, a web-based company predicated on open source technology, crowdsources creativity by inviting users to upload designs with the intention that their design may be printed on t-shirts if the community “elects” it for that week. Hopefully this reasoning does not reek of a certain opium-laced aroma – the underlying impulse driving Threadless is far from pernicious – but then again, how true is it to say that it is empowering to buy something, even if the product is “of the people.” A more dubious manifestation of this capitalization scheme is embodied by Jones Soda, a company that crowdsources its labels in a process that blatantly mines people for creative insights that are then literally re-packaged and sold back to them as marketing materials. 

As hinted at earlier, the perverse duality of crowdsourcing is that it is also incredibly populist. The success of such companies is predicated not only on welcoming everyone’s input, but by heeding a mass of opinions – which is more than can be said of certain politicians these days. The economy is an essential factor contributing to the larger health of a society and even if these companies do make money on people’s ideas, at least they figure as forces of democratization not only within the realms of design and production but also within those of aesthetics, creativity and usability. Blueprints and Platforms, such as PUMA’s Mongolian Barbeque, are especially indicative of this democratic shift and growing awareness of the individual.

Despite some rather nebulous moments, TechnoCRAFT successfully suggests various potential impacts that innovations in design and experience-making might impress upon the future. In an interesting twist, Marjin van der Poll’s Do hit chair, a piece displayed separately in the exhibition’s receiving atrium, almost self-reflexively embodies the contemporary climate TechnoCRAFT grapples after. Manufactured by droog and for sale on the company’s website, the Do hit chair is a hollow box crafted of thin stainless steel that you pound and smash with a sledge hammer until a chair appears to your liking. Its functional aspects aside – there are none, the final form is usually full of rents and sharp edges – the Do hit chair is like a piece of conceptual art that both teases and applauds this impulse to personalize and invent. In this burlesque comedy of creation, the sledge hammer comes included in your purchase.

Joyride by Per Brolund
Photo credit Per Brolund

Frances Malcolm

Frances Malcolm is a freelance writer and art critic based in San Francisco, where she also works as the public relations manager for a contemporary art gallery.  She completed her Master's Degree in Anthropology at the London School of Economics.

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