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Un Magazine 10.1

How to: do the work

Deirdre Cannon

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Curator: Simone LeAmon. Design: Simone LeAmon and Edmund Carter. <em>Design Wall: Design in Everyday life</em>, Melbourne Now 2012–2013. 7000 × 15000 × 500 mm. 40 design projects by 21 Melbourne design studios. Photo credit: Nicole England. Image courtesy Simone LeAmon

To be con-temporary does not necessarily mean to be present, to be here-and-now; it means to be ‘with time’ rather than ‘in time’… To be con-temporary … can thus be understood as being a comrade of time.1
— Boris Groys

In his 1925 essay ‘Everyday Life and the Culture of the Thing (Towards a Formulation of the Question)’ Boris Arvatov announced the need to dissolve the dualism between everyday life and modes of production. Do this, he claimed, and a new system of exchange between modern citizens and the trappings of existence would ensue. The challenge? To make a thing that would function not as a commodity, but as a comrade.2 Examples of how that conceptual ideal was to be realized? Scarce.
However idiosyncratic his premise, the lure of this transgressive logic endures. The recent proliferation of curatorial departments and scholarship dedicated to design has engendered a renewed institutional interest in the cultural capital and discursive possibilities entrenched in quotidian objects. As such, Arvatov’s central thesis of the subject formed as much through the process of using objects in everyday life as by making them in the sphere of production is as pertinent now as it was in the Constructivist era.3

Boris Groys’ notion above can be used to repurpose Arvatov’s idea for critical means. Now that the display and interpretation of objects is increasingly at stake, how effectively do cultural producers ‘work with’ these items in order to communicate the impact they have on contemporary existence?

Simone LeAmon and Edmund Carter’s Design Wall: Design in Everyday Life in Melbourne Now (National Gallery of Victoria, 22 November 2012 – 23 March 2013) and the Rapid Response Collection in All Of This Belongs To You (Victoria and Albert Museum, 1 April – 19 July 2015) represent the attendant tensions, oscillations and possible resolutions of exhibited responses to Arvatov’s proposition.

LeAmon and Carter’s flagship exhibit comprised 678 projects, many in multiples, originating from 21 Melbourne design studios. The curators hoped audiences would see these objects — which included footballs, eskies, sustainable coffee cups, satchels, wetsuits and bike locks — as they passed on their way into or out of the exhibition, in everyday life. This doppelganger effect was intended to communicate the local creative intelligence, emotion and resonance with the city of Melbourne with which these objects are imbued.4

The universal mounting system used to display these items brings a taxonomical approach to the integration of objects of consumption and production that Arvatov prescribes. A key passage of his text describes the various tenets necessary for a modern Western citizen to have a meaningful existence. Meaning is brought about by the fluid use of personal objects, like a cigarette case and cap (or in the case of Design Wall, centrepiece bowls and coffee cups: porte paroles for objects of consumption), as well as technological advances like the skyscraper and revolving door (or, tram grab handles and brooms: objects of production) in a seamless ‘new world of Things’.5 According to Christina Kiaer, Arvatov does not envision a one-way passage from the sphere of production into that of everyday life, but a more complex integration of the two.6 The formal assemblage of Design Wall reflects such an idyllic existence, as the seriality of luxury items blends seamlessly with the relatively mundane in an infinite number of combinations and patterns.

While LeAmon and Carter’s installation reflects Arvatov’s proposed integration, it falls short of acting on Groys’ advocation. It is illustrative in the sense that these items were selected because they garner meaning from their site of production and consumption: they were created in Melbourne, for Melbourne, by Melbournians. Design Wall frames its components as a hyper-local survival kit, where humble subject matter and functional appearance can belie innovative materials, a global demand or new attitudes to sustainability.7 Objects capable, as Kiaer points out, of responding formally to the ideal experience of everyday life in their portability, flexibility and transparency.8 The universal mounting system forms an integral part of this mechanism, bringing numerous visual triggers and possible lived experiences to the fore. But ultimately, as a sum of many so-called everyday parts, Design Wall relied heavily on the logic of an ideal, design-conscious crowd for its curatorial objective to manifest.9

What becomes significant at this stage is Arvatov’s desire to rework the commodity fetish in order to return a kind of social agency to it. The impetus should not be on doing away with the object altogether but to reciprocate by working within its prevailing limitations. In other words, regarding it in socially productive terms by virtue of its material form and use value, rather than its exchange value.10 Stephen Duncombe’s notion of the ethical spectacle helps us picture such an object experience, and therefore, how Arvatov’s conceptual ideal could become an actual. Duncombe theorises that the ethical spectacle is achieved when the power of the commodity is retained but re-endorsed as a transgressional apparatus in order to achieve progressive goals. Similarly, the purpose of an ethical spectacle is to remind viewers of the spectacular nature of their conditions. This is done not as a form of critique that creates distance from the situation, but rather brings spectators back to the real conditions they are in.11

Through this prism, the accent Design Wall projects onto the commodity is unequivocal. Mobilising familiar objects in an unfamiliar gallery context encourages unadulterated enjoyment of formal congruence rather than reflection on the subject matter. Arvatov’s proposal demands more of LeAmon and Carter’s offering. Instead of bringing into focus the tipping points that exist within the commodity and spectacle that could be leveraged to create a productive camaraderie, a closed circuit between cultural capital and an audience assumed a priori is revealed. The ethical spectacle has not been achieved because its objects’ conventions have been reinforced rather than displaced by contingency.12

While the work that went into Design Wall didn’t ‘work’ towards reifying Groys’ retooled conception of the institutional comrade, the Rapid Response collection in All Of This Belongs To You might be considered a more robust attempt at reworking the conventional object and the subject’s relation to it.13

Cody Wilson / Defence Distributed, <em>Liberator Gun</em> 2013. Image courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In his address at the University of Melbourne’s School of Design in August 2015, Victoria & Albert Museum curator Rory Hyde framed the exhibition’s title both as a generous invitation and gentle provocation: if all of this really does belong to you, what are you going to do with it?14 In contrast to Design Wall where the audience’s participation is a presupposed element through which meaning is transmitted, this exhibition title acknowledges that the public’s collusion in curatorial tactics is not a given. ‘All of this’ has a particular urgency when considering objects in the exhibition acquired under the museum’s Rapid Response collecting strategy. Signalling a new strand to the V&A’s collections policy, the Rapid Response Collection commenced in 2014 and allows curators to respond quickly to events relevant to design and technology.15

This agile approach to collection development was initiated after the museum printed a replica of Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed gun, The Liberator, and has resulted in the acquisition of the hard drives which held documents leaked to the Guardian newspaper by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, Katy Perry–branded false eyelashes manufactured in factories that contravene labour laws, and Lufsig, an ikea toy wolf that became a symbol of political dissent after being thrown at Hong Kong’s president, CY Leung (locally nicknamed ‘the Wolf’). Hyde has dubbed these items ‘vector objects’: agents that carry pressing social, political and cultural issues as a result of their very materiality, whether this be the intention of the producer or more likely, circumstantial use.16

These are objects that ‘do the work’ (another Hyde term), that are functional because they reel you in with a story or enact a social service, and, it could be argued, are ‘connected like a co-worker with human practice’.17 Having these objects in the museum forces a debate of this notion, supposedly activating the elitist structure of the museum as a locus for conversation: the hallmark of a truly ‘public’ space. Responsiveness is carried through in the exhibition of these items, which are uniformly displayed in functional metal cases with magnetic didactic labels that can be printed in the curatorial office, meaning the object can be acquired and installed within a matter of days. By circumventing the processes associated with conventional exhibition protocol, the activist qualities of these items are gainfully exploited by the museum and used to punctuate the permanent collection with their transient immediacy.

The traditional way that the V&A, indeed any institution, collects objects is based on the idea that an object would prove its value over time.18 But, according to Hyde, objects acquired under the rapid collecting scheme illustrate that the object itself provides a site for this debate to take place, reminding audiences that there is something physical predicating even the most ephemeral contemporary paradigms. Phillip Glahn’s theory that ‘in the digital era Arvatov’s thing-as-comrade has neither dissolved nor automatically come to fruition; it holds renewed promise amid an increasingly image saturated and technologically driven society’, adds a new dimension to Hyde’s speculation.19

Glahn’s assessment allows a threefold response to Arvatov’s challenge to emerge. Firstly, an attempt to convert objects’ orthodox conventions by declaring the ‘not unimportant culture’ of low tech or mass-produced items, according to their influence on or contribution to important contemporary events, is evident. Secondly, through their exhibition as a vestige of contemporary culture, audiences are encouraged to reconsider their relations to these objects. Lastly, the museum captures the way that technology and artists have outstripped accepted tenets of cultural production, for example, by acknowledging the gravitas of open source plan for a low cost, 3D-printed gun which demonstrates how sharing networks can trump traditional notions of individual ownership. Transgression has been put into praxis via the acquisition and exhibition of these ‘vector objects’.

In his interview for the exhibition, Julian Assange was asked what role state-funded institutions play in responding to contemporary issues. He replied that it should extend beyond creating a participatory democracy where institutions deal in the common good and, rather, the focus should be on the fact that ‘social and political spaces everywhere are being shut down, meaning that activists operating in the cultural sphere have migrated to calling themselves artists in order to liberate their practice under the guise of freedom of expression and censorship acts’.20 Almost as a response to Assange’s claim, Duncombe’s concept of an ethical spectacle is again useful in understanding Arvatov’s ideal as a contemporary actuality. To be politically effective, activists need to enter the realm of spectacle and moreover, spectacular interventions have the potential to be both ethical and emancipatory.21

Laura Poitrus. Film still, <em>The Art of Dissent</em> (film still) 2015. Image courtesy Studio Praxis. Photo credit: Yoni Golijov

This concept is poetically materialised in Jacob Applebaum, Ai Wei Wei and Laura Poitras’ Panda to Panda project. Wei Wei and Appelbaum stuffed twenty toy panda bears with public, shredded NSA documents that were originally given to Poitras by Edward Snowden. Inside each panda they placed a memory card containing a digital copy of the physical documents and sent them to fellow activists all over the world, in what Applebaum calls a kind of ‘distributed back-up’.22 Applebaum astutely notes that the safest place for these is a museum where this information trafficking is rendered an object that will be protected. The panda present in All Of This Belongs To You was given to Assange who in turn donated it to the V&A, thus giving all parties, most of whom are political enemies of their own countries, a presence in the room.

What is reflected in these rapidly acquired objects and dialogues is the demand, both from the producers of the objects and the institutional rationale guiding their acquisition, for new social formations and systems of exchange. Technology has simultaneously provided and precluded these, as evinced by Panda to Panda’s interlocking underpinnings of freedom of information and censorship. The V&A’s ‘activist’ acquisition of vector objects provides a model, albeit from a curatorial standpoint, for a reification of Arvatov’s ideal.

The ways in which these two exhibitions elicit Arvatov’s Constructivist idealism in the realm of the current everyday can be further précised by Groys, who intones that being ‘a comrade of time’ means:

…collaborating with time, helping time when it has problems, when it has difficulties. And under the conditions of our contemporary product-oriented civilisation, time does indeed have problems when it is perceived as being unproductive, wasted, meaningless.23

In this context, Arvatov’s theory encourages institutions to work in the space between, in order to remedy ‘unproductive’ time. Whilst the local example may have languished in such a state, its London counterpart’s triumvirate of explicit transgressive logic provides a particular institutional framework for communicating the importance of contemporary design objects as part of a critical and rigourous curatorial standard. Recognising the use-value of the resulting tensions or partial-resolutions of this universal travail, however, doffs a cap to the perennial quest of cultural institutions to achieve con-structive moments, that continue to form responses to Arvatov’s self-confessed, almost-formulated question.

Deirdre Cannon is a writer and independent curator based in Melbourne.


  1. Boris Groys, ‘Comrades of Time’, Going Public, Berlin; New York: Sternberg Press, 2010, p. 94. 

  2. Phillip Glahn, Socialist, Digital, and Transgressive Objects: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2013/06/artseen/socialist-digital-and-transgressive-objects, June 3, 2013. 

  3. Christina Kiaer, ‘Boris Arvatov’s Socialist Objects’, October, Vol. 81 (Summer, 1997), p. 105. 

  4. From a promotional video for Melbourne Design Now, http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/multimedia/melbourne-design-now-simone-leamon/. 

  5. Boris Arvatov and Christina Kiaer, ‘Everyday Life and the Culture of the Thing (Toward the Formulation of the Question)’, October, vol. 81 (Summer, 1997), p. 126. 

  6. Kaier, 1997, p. 108. 

  7. The yacht cord system by Ronstan, Tom Kovac bowls for Alessi, and the Keep Cup respectively. 

  8. Kaier, 1997, p.113. 

  9. Maitiù Ward, ‘Dossier: Melbourne Now’, Architecture Australia, Jan/Feb 2014, p. 61. 

  10. Kaier, 1997, p. 110. 

  11. Stephen Duncombe, ‘Imagine an Ethical Spectacle’, Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, New York: The New Press, 2007, p. 126. Available online http://tinyurl.com/ngz6hnf. 

  12. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. Cited in Duncombe, 2007, p. 136. 

  13. Glahn, 2013. 

  14. A recording of this delivery can be found at https://msd.unimelb.edu.au/all-belongs-you. 

  15. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/r/rapid-response-collecting/. 

  16. https://msd.unimelb.edu.au/all-belongs-you. 

  17. Arvatov and Kaier, 1997, p. 126. 

  18. See Hilde Hein, ‘Philosophical Reflections on the Museum as Canon Maker’, Journal of Arts Management, Law & Society, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 293–310. 

  19. Glahn, 2013. 

  20. https://msd.unimelb.edu.au/all-belongs-you. 

  21. http://beautifultrouble.org/theory/ethical-spectacle/. 

  22. Art of Dissent, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/09/opinion/the-art-of-dissent.html?_r=0. 

  23. Groys, 2010, p. 94.