Marcos Kueh is one of the five Creative Voices selected to both preview and review Dutch Design Week 2023 (DDW23) from their own, unique perspectives. Through an Open Call, international creatives were invited to reflect on current issues and the role designers can play in them. The programme narratives Marcos was asked to review for Dutch Design Week are Signature & Collectable Design-perspective and the Achieving our Equal Society-mission. In An eye for design - perspectives of a young designer, Marcos reflects on how he experienced DDW23.
We apprehend our individual realities and truths through our personal reference points. To form a review of the Dutch Design Week 2023, it is therefore, in my opinion, important to declare my positioning: I am a 28-year-old South East Asian textile artist who grew up on the island of Borneo. As a “person of colour” from “another land”, the concept of inclusivity demands deep work - because of the cognitive dissonance I feel in trying to bridge two worlds, in an attempt to include myself into the diversity standards of western canon while flipping through my limited knowledge of the English vocabulary to express my thoughts .
When it comes down to analysing perspectives of design, specifically in the framework of The Netherlands, my opinions will be entangled with my own reflections about what it means to be a product of colonisation. Any proposal for solving the end of the world will be in constant friction with my indigenous values inherited from my grandmother. As I traversed through thousands of projects presented in one of the largest European design festival, descriptions of projects are interwoven with personal flashbacks of my past life practicing as a graphic designer and my brief moments of being a labourer in advertising firms from a developing country into the fabric of sentiment towards the objects I am trying to discern.
I too, am a graduate of a Dutch institution. In my graduation last summer, I presented huge, eye-catching works with clear intentions to capture the attention of art galleries, curators and collaborators in hopes that I can secure an artist visa to continue to practice and access the powerful resources in this country. This is by no means an attempt to brag, but an attempt to bring light to the many layers of complex, expensive decisions we have make to dedicate ourselves into making sure that our investments as graduates can find a landing to start our careers here in the Netherlands. While my European peers are taking a gap year from the same exact burnout we all face as graduates, the rest of us need to figure out how to solve complicated, expensive bureaucratic legislations, completely all in Dutch within the year itself. Discrimination and alienation from this process feels more like a slow, silent burn rather than an explosive event when it comes down to the stakes on the table for Europeans and non-European graduates.
All these specific considerations are the threads tangled into the analysis on how I sit with the projects in relation to the contemporary culture of design.
Signature & Collectible Design
Projects in the Signature and Collectable perspective can be defined by their unique expressions through objects that stir up interests in the act of collecting. In my reflection, I approached the traditional idea of acquiring as a notion where the collector is not only paying for an object, but also purchasing an agreeable viewpoint that is to be included in their personal lives. Many of the objects that are showcased in the perspective, however, are not always mass produced and available for sale. They rather function as contemplative in betweens. Perhaps the charm of seeing in betweens in the context of signature and collectable design is also in the project’s reluctance and hesitation to fit into the familiarity of what we consume in a design festival. If we shift the idea of collecting objects to something less tangible, such as concepts, experiences and ideas, can it still be considered a collectable?
When I first encountered Arthur Guilleminot’s Piss Soap project in Het Nieuwe Instituut’s New Store 1.0, I wasn’t sure if I was more amused, fascinated or disgusted. The premise is simple: The public is invited to donate their pee in designated cups. A full cup can then be exchanged for a piece of soap, created using urine from previous donors (note that it takes up to 30 cups for a batch of soap to be manufactured) and recycled cooking oil. The soap takes three months to cure and is designed to be odourless. The high ammonia content in the urine is the science to why the soap is effective in breaking down dirt and grease. It is also sterile. The layered connotations on the intentions towards producing soap from upcycled piss, however, feels irrationally grounding and genuinely raw in contemporary times.
Lathering a piece of odourless soap, knowing that it is made with the harvested piss of 30 other humans, can feel pretty unsettling. It is deeply threatening to consider the idea that we have to go back to living like a utilitarian – what do you mean that there is no scent, like lavender essence, in my soap? Do I not work hard enough suffering a day of making sure capitalism is functioning today to request for at least some nice scents in my soap? Even if were transparent about the production process – mica harvested by child laborers, dead orangutans from palm oil plantations, microplastics from packaging in the oceans… the standard solution to many of our contemporary problems seems to be a nice packaging, better copywriting and a competitive price point. It is easier to work harder to afford more than to work the other way and give up our powerful access to convenience.
On the other end, I am also reflecting on my reluctance to share my piss to clean another stranger’s body. In our hyper-individualistic society, privilege comes in the form of differentiation and having your own private space so that you can have the mental comfort of not needing to share and interact, or at least have the power of choice over who you extend your generosity to.
Perhaps at the core of this project, the ironic reason to why capitalism has yet to commodify this powerful resource, might be the glaring fact that piss, in itself, is collectively understood as a disgusting material. Projective disgust is described in Martha C. Nussbaum’s Political Emotions (Belknap Press, 2015) as a decisive subordination for people in power to impute animalistic properties to other groups of people to inspire disgust and a reason to refuse contact. Disgust, as the author suggests, concerns the idea of contamination: it expresses an anxiety that the self will be contaminated by taking in something that is defiling. Objects of disgust remind us of our own bodily excretions, which remind us of our commonality with animals and other nonhuman species, and corpses, and in turn our mortality and fragility.
When I reflect deeply on the piss soap as a product, I contemplate its contemporary existence versus the ideologies of luxury fashion brands; I also speculate what the near future will look like if projects like these were to be adopted by big luxury brands looking for the next big narrative. There is much to ponder upon on this tiny bar of soap, where this project extends and what it could potentially mean for society as a whole.
Hidden in the corner of the gift shop of Kazerne lies a humble tent like structure hosting works from the weaving factory of EE Exclusives. One of Europe’s oldest textile companies and one of the last surviving weaving factories in the Netherlands, the family run business has been in operations since 1900 and will be celebrating their 125th in two years.
The factory holds a special place in my heart, not only because it was where I did my internship and currently produce most of my works, but also because of its rich resource of inherited weaving knowledge and history. As a textile artist and designer, I have lost count of the times when strangers from the public came up to me to share personal anecdotes or childhood memories of their grandparents working in the textile factories. Those were times before most of the factory operations got moved abroad to developing countries like India, China and Vietnam in favor of cheaper labor and less pollution for the Netherlands.
It is in this context of the explicit relationship between designer and producer that I was contemplating under the tent of WEEEF. Karl Marx introduced the concept of alienation as a phenomenon related to the structure of societies where the producer is separated from the means of production. The separation leads to the domination of “dead labour” (capital) over “living labour” (the worker). In our collective hustle to create work, inevitably under the system of capitalism, what does it mean when the public only sees the genius of the designer without being able to see the Indian workers the in cotton plantations, the Chinese factory handling highly toxic dying pigments, and the many entanglement of logistics to make all of this possible?
When I dissect the word signature, it points towards the myth of prodigal individual and the word collectable in the direction of creating products solely for the public collection, the whole concept starts to feel daunting.
The two programme lines I cover - Signature & Collectible and Achieving our Equal Society - seemed to be far apart, but that might not actually be the case.
Achieving our Equal Society
How we experience design, in my opinion, is always tied to our personal perspectives in regards to contemporary politics. For me to build a narrative around achieving equal societies, I have to first identify the politics of the oppressor and the oppressed. It is most convenient to just assume that the oppressor is just an entity – ‘western corporations’, ‘the Dutch government’, ‘the military force’… establishments that we would like to differentiate from and think that we are ethically superior to. But it takes a deep level of self-reflection to consider the possibility that many of the oppressive forces in the world are tied to relatable human emotions that reside in all of us, like fear of change, our will to expand and a need to feel the comfort of belonging. The projects I am diving into here are my personal ponderings of the works of non-European Graduates from Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE). As a fellow non-European who also graduated from a Dutch art institution, there are many things that I found fascinating about the project in the framework of achieving an equal society.
It’s Delivery Time
In the gallery space full of graduation projects where giant sculptures and shiny fabrics are competing for your attention, the masters project of Ankit Kumar Singh, might not be the first to catch your eyes. Titled It’s Delivery Time, the project addresses the daily struggles and dehumanizing experiences of food delivery riders through providing them with a dedicated space in Eindhoven’s public life. By pushing a cart around the city, the designer personally offers refreshments to riders with the aim to create meaningful encounters and provide a small sense of comfort amidst the often alienating encounters faced by the laborers. Ankit’s project might seem mundane when it appears at a design festival; I for one am completely convinced by the sincerity he has put into his labor.
As someone who has worked in the advertising field, I understand completely the validation and appeal of an award-winning project, but I also understand very well that the campaign has more merit to attract prospects for the client, and potential of new investors for the advertising firm rather than benefit the subject of the campaign. There is no actual time for deep social work, no extra hours outside the campaign period to spend with the plantation workers, clean up plastic from the beaches for the sea turtles or sit in the old folk’s home because there is a new campaign pitch meeting to head into instead.
With the presence of Ankit’s work the illusion of the festival seems to crack a little: where the designer actually spends his hours serving for society, instead of building a sculpture about serving society, a different proposal on how we understand design is put on the table. Perhaps it is the unwillingness for the public to be reminded of labour – a kind of “labourphobia”, when you have spent the rest of the weekday toiling through assignments. We would all rather just spend some money on a weekend to look at design as a form of entertainment, so we all look away.
At least in the small moments we spoke, I was touched by the deep sense of care for society Ankit has in his character, one that is beyond borders, stereotypes and hopefully one that expands beyond any design festival. Ankit hopes to see his project develop into something that would eventually lead to a collaboration with the local municipality. I wonder if there is a difference if projects like these were carried out by a Dutch person rather than an Indian by nationality – small intrusive thoughts that hint towards nuances in the context of understanding an equal society. I know from experience, that there are specific projects in the Netherlands that you as a non-European are advised not to venture into studying.
The Mutaba Spirit
DAE graduate Michelle Akiki Jonker’s project The Mutuba Spirit fundamentally speaks of the bark cloth material from the Otter Clan of Uganda. Strips of bark from the Mutuba tree are traditionally collected and made into bark cloth. The indigenous production process is regenerative in the sense that the tree doesn’t get killed in the process and more bark can be harvested from the same source over time. With the colonization by the British empire in the 19th century, the material itself was stigmatized, being associated with witchcraft, dark magic and the notion of being primitive through targeted campaigns in attempt to encourage the use of cotton – a material explicitly tied to African slavery.
Disgust, again, can also be used as an effective tool for social engineering to serve the needs of elites. Here I would like to consider that idea in relation to contemporary advertising. Commodity fetishism tells us that the influence of advertising is more than just the way products are being sold. In Ways of Seeing by John Berger (BBC2 and Penguin Books, 1972) the author proposes that advertising is never really just about the product itself. Advertisements work upon our envious nature, longing for more power. Consider how we treat people differently based on what they have, how keywords such as glamour, adoration and idolization come into play.
When you sit with the materiality of the bark cloth, what keywords come into mind? The line between primitive, poverty, dark magic and sustainable luxury is subjectively interchangeable, depending on how the material is being advertised and presented. Perhaps what is more fascinating to ponder upon are the political agendas behind the salesperson; to reconsider why specific decisions are being made and how we as designers participate in the process. ‘It (advertising, red.) is design that can serve to signal and reinforce the caste marks of a class system’, notes Dejan Sudjic (designer and former director of the Design Museum in London).
The object in Michelle’s graduation presentation is ambiguous – it doesn’t seem like a traditional design project with a proposed resolution, nor is it fully developed as a project aimed for art galleries. And I get that. Doing decolonial work is hard. Google bark cloth and cotton and you can compare the amount of scholarly articles, references and statistics available between these two materials. As a product of post-colonization myself, it takes generations of privilege for me to learn the tongue of my colonizer, and be able to access information about my own identity. It takes more years of resilience to be able to describe and unlearn systems and develop critical perspectives of my own. Independence is something that we the oppressed will always have to consciously work for, beyond just the passport we hold. It is the journey to find autonomy in how we think, liberation in how we culturally behave and permission we give ourselves to practice the traditions of our own. If the journey feels more arduous or takes more time, perseverance is not allowing the rest of the world to shame you into thinking that this is not a good calling to devote to.
At a fundamental level, State Crafting by Daniel Garber and Amalia Magril is a material investigation into pine, both as a tree and wood. Expressed in various sculptures shaped like shovels and a moving image, the designers use the act of tree planting, an activity that has shaped the Jewish identity in Israel, to expand and explore on the topics surrounding the complex landscape of politics, culture, and ecology in Israel-Palestine.
The project is both sophisticated and poetic in how it tries to decipher complex human conflicts from the perspective of a very typical non-human entity – the pine, and an activity that we can all understand – gardening. The humanizing aspect of the project for me, perhaps, is the grim consideration that no matter which party prevails in the end, nature will always be the loser. In our seemingly confusing political climate where real life events can be easily manipulated and edited into bite sized clips and spread all over, it is understandable why we can only feel a sense of security in extremely polarizing point of views – the grey area in the middle causes cognitive dissonance and discomfort. Daniel and Amalia’s bravery to sit with the trouble, and their generosity to share their creative perspectives on how we can reconsider complications within hard situations, feels like a welcoming invitation for the public to slowly ease into grey areas in our search for criticality.
Daniel expresses his sentiments about how optimistic and encouraging the public has been towards their project, despite the deep anxiety he feels in relation to everything that has been happening in the world at the moment. As designers, it can sometimes feel as if we are carrying so much responsibilities and expectations to provide solutions for the common good of society, with the risk of our work being called disgusting, political or mundane. When the public objectifies the designer into just content providers, without a deeper contemplation on the nuances that goes into the presentation grounds, criticisms can become demanding, destructive and dehumanizing.
In an equal society, I hope that the courage and openness of us designers can come from the trust we develop with the public to be critically reassuring, respectful and supportive. The healthy balance between the co-existences of responsibilities from both the public and the designer is something worth investing more kindness in. Something to constantly remind myself as I interweave myself gently in these roles.
Marcos Kueh is a textile artist with a background in graphic design and advertising. Growing up in a post-colonial developing country, he has always been fascinated about his identity as a Malaysian and his place in the larger discourses in the West. His practice is about safeguarding contemporary legends onto textiles; to use fibres to string together day-to-day narratives he encounters for storytelling - just as his ancestors in Borneo did with their dreams and legends, before the arrival of written alphabets from the West.