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Column: Death to algorithms, long live the witches!

20 October 2021

8 min. to read

The performance of a digital reading — © Design Academy Eindhoven; photo by Pierre Castignola
The latest design generation escapes into an occult fantasy world. Tarot cards and modern sagas are used to create a safe space without data capitalism and filter bubbles. Because why can't augmented reality be analogue?

Column by Jeroen Junte | 

Designer Ginevra Petrozzi's fingertip flicks across the smartphone screen. In a corner of the Design Academy's Graduation Show, she has created a mysterious little nook where visitors can join her table one by one. Here, she interprets the advertisements and pop-ups that appear on Instagram or Facebook with the whispered diction of a real fortune teller. Instead of tarot cards, she uses data capitalism to predict our life path, which is reassuring, in a way. In the end, it is not the invisible algorithms of techno-determinism that shape our existence. It is fate. Or whatever Petrozzi, the modern witch, makes of it with her cryptic project Digital Esoterism.

In a world changing at lightning speed, we can create a safe space without data capitalism and filter bubbles by falling back on centuries-old folklore and pagan rituals. Petrozzi is not the only designer at the Graduation Show flirting with the occult. With her enigmatic project The Cult of a Smart Home Assistant, Carla Alcalà Badias gives religious significance to smart devices such as Alexa. What if these home assistants have free will - and therefore perhaps even a soul? We would be at the mercy of their divine whims. This spiritual idea is taken to the extreme: ultimately, these devices are merely manifestations of Vesta, the domestic god who rules our intimate home life. Again: no algorithms or computers, but higher powers watching over us. 

It goes without saying that woke ideas are prominent here. If we build an alternative reality without surveillance capitalism and political disinformation, then let it be an inclusive world. Ines Borovac, for instance, strips Croatian folk dance of its restrictive gender stereotypes. She exchanges masculine dominance for a new choreography with a female leader, based on movements that express vulnerability, sexuality and self-expression. Techno music and tie-dye embroidered clothing fit the project into the contemporary rave aesthetic. 

Why leave virtual reality to digital software or artificial intelligence? Indeed, why not give real life an augmented layer? For the yet-to-be-built Van Gogh park in North Brabant, Miles Worner, with his Park Legends - From the folk, invented an ancient saga of a terrifying monster that lives here, like a recreation of the Loch Ness monster. While some animals are facing extinction, a new life form is being created here in a land that does not yet exist.   

The Design Academy has a formidable competitor in Class of 21, a large exhibition of the best graduates of (almost) all Dutch academies. Here, too, the young designers - inspired by fake news and conspiracy theories - take refuge in a self-created fantasy world. Nuriya Bouwman graduated from HKU with her digital dreamscape The Verge, full of invented tribes and illusionary landscapes. If you can't believe anything anymore, why can't Stars Wars and the popular game Assassin's Creed combined with the dark Middle Ages become a thing? At least we wouldn't have to take an aeroplane to go on a polluting and pre-programmed holiday. Instead, we would be able to travel to faraway places full of new impressions and unexpected encounters at the click of a mouse. This is how an up-and-coming design generation well-versed in digital disinformation uses human fantasy and imagination as a scrutineer of data and algorithms. Perhaps not reliable either. But at least it is a lot more human - and exciting.

Want to read more?

Check out Jeroen's previous column: Designer seeking industry.

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