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The Manifestoby Guy Keulemans

Why did the chicken cross the road?
To get to the “other side”.

The most conceptual retelling of the chicken joke I’ve heard doesn’t change the actual joke, but draws attention to its poetic allusion. “The other side” is the other side of death, the afterlife. The chicken, in a refutation of its own instinct for survival, crosses the road to commit suicide by car.

Given the current state of the planet, environment, industrial agriculture and chicken farming, this isn’t that surprising, though science assures me animals don’t willingly commit suicide in any human sense, even if bees die defending their colony, depressed dogs can starve themselves to death, and mice infected with the toxoplasmosis parasite lose their fear of cats.

It’s a human projection, placing our dank conceptions of life and death upon a hapless chicken protagonist. We do this all the time with designed objects too, narrativising their birth, life and death through stories of creation, use and waste. Materials have a soul, homewares have a heart and chairs have a life, often constrained to one family or a sequence of office rotations prior to retirement. Many objects find their lives trapped in the styles of the past, in the habitats of past decades or centuries and most people are happy to keep them there.

We make sense of the complex world of objects by giving objects a story, tapping into human instincts for family, community and personal relationships. This is the premise of sustainable design theories that asks designers to make products ‘emotionally durable’ or give them narratives that appeal and (hopefully) provide opportunities for love so they are not instantly consigned to the graveyard the moment they’ve lost their shine for life.

(Some of the lucky ones might even get a trip to the doctor! An operation at the object hospital, despite our ever dwindling capacities for repair.)

But does the anthropomorphic narrativisation of products actually make sense? At the level of matter and physics, it’s kind of nonsense. Life is just a fleeting, exclusive property of some organic matter. A more dispassionate view can see objects just as chemicals and molecules in flux - a flow of protons and neutrons sustained in electrochemical structures that aren’t even that solid. This is a flow happening for billions of years since the Big Bang. A broken chip of plastic from an old vinyl chair - birthed from matter made in the supernova of a star!

In June 1962, a Freedomite woman torches her home as a protest against materialism. The Vancouver Sun.

In June 1962, a Freedomite woman torches her home as a protest against materialism. The Vancouver Sun.

I’ve got a box filled with e-waste. Old phones, cables, modems and computer junk. I once threw it out on a table in class and exhorted my students to “take a look at the world we’ve created!” (well, not the world they’ve created, but the one of waste created by their boomer and gen X parents). I really should get that shit recycled. Somehow I don’t. Beyond some minor hangups about data privacy, it feels like a keepsake of a perverse material wealth. It’s dark narrative features child miners in east Africa, sleepless fingers twisting screws in Asia, and dock workers unloading load after load from fossil fuel powered cargo ships. A global life. I suspect I value that copper, yytrium and other rare stuff in the e-waste more than the recyclers do.

Which suggests that the material of an object has a value above its market value, but also, I think, above and beyond whatever form it occupies. This may be anathema to designers trained and qualified to give form to matter. We stage these formal tricks as the main show. But in the journey of our planet, all our stuff can transform endlessly, rocks become metals that rust back into rocks. We need to pay more attention to this material flow to better understand the life and death of products and their impact in the world.

Perhaps it’s a question of understanding objects more as an atheist would, and less like the devout. The secular conception of death is essentially one of evaluating biochemical processes. The chicken’s corpse decays in the ground and provides food for worms and bacteria. But drowned and forgotten in a water tank, a dead chicken can harm. Likewise our objects transform and change, in both good and bad ways that need scrutiny.

It is not just an issue of recycling. Recycling has a place, but knowing a material should also mean knowing the energies required to transform that material, and a lot of our recycling is wasteful. My local council in Sydney boasts about crushing glass bottles into asphalt for roads. They claim they are a sustainability leader, but apparently haven’t heard you can wash, sterilise and reuse glass bottles.

Maybe our feelings of love and attachment for objects gets in the way of reducing consumption and waste... If we could be less passionate, we might be happier with less, and feel less threatened about sharing it or seeing it transform into something else.

Life & Death curator Dale Hardiman sent me a neat example of how this doesn’t happen well in the world of high-end design: Harry Nuriev’s clear plastic sofa filled with fashion house Balenciaga discards. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more acute symptom of wealthy people wanting to own clothes they don’t need and can’t wear – it’s so acute they store it in furniture. On the plus side, it’s a jackpot for the starving marauders of the future to find, once they’ve satiated themselves on the bodies of their Balenciaga-loving hosts.

Death isn’t the end of life anyway is it? The ‘other side’ is a place we can go. We can go there in our minds and imagine all sorts of afterlives and reincarnated creations for our departed devices, expired appliances and fallen furniture. The role of the 21st century designer is now to create all sorts of wonderful creative worlds for products with expanded lives: afterlives, beforelives and current lives.

In December 2019, Bella Hadid relaxes on Harry Nuriev’s Balenciaga sofa. Instagram.
Written by Guy Keulemans

Guy Keulemans is a designer and researcher at UNSW Sydney and represented by Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert.