What is design ‘in the expanded field’? Below, Noel Cheung, M+ Curatorial Assistant, Design and Architecture, explains this concept through two works by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen.
London-based artists Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s practice explores a contemporary culture of design, technology, and biology through experimental ‘fictional’ projects. Their work investigates the roles of art and design today and directly addresses relevant social and cultural issues, from fragmented labour and modes of manufacturing in Asia, to resource extraction and ecological conservation.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the development of design culture informed new typologies in design practice. A growing number of designers started exploring and experimenting with different formats for design. Attention shifted from the design itself towards its social, conceptual, and speculative (that is, looking towards the future) contexts, as well as its effects on culture, economy, and politics.
This expanded field of design challenged conventional understandings of design in terms of forms and methods. Design became a tool to interrogate and reflect on ideas around current ways of life, as well as to question up-and-coming ideas concerning science, emerging technologies, and material culture. Today, designers and artists often initiate speculative proposals for hypothetical future scenarios, rather than for actual use. These critically engage with design and challenge assumptions about the role that objects play in our lives.
In this post, we will explore the concept of an expanded field of design through two works from the M+ Collections.
In 2013, Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen collaborated with British choreographer Alexander Whitley on the project 75 Watt. The collective created an object with familiar yet unfamiliar features, including a handle, switches, and ventilation outlets; however, the product itself is non-functional. Its sole purpose is to choreograph a dance of its own production.
The design of the product was developed through multiple iterations of dancing and testing of the movements of the workers when assembling the object. The product gradually took shape along the assembly line, where each worker/performer who has been specially trained to perform Whitley’s choreography carried out monotonous, repetitive tasks of assembly. At the same time, their choreographed movements created an act of collaboration.
In the course of looking into the social and political implications of global supply chains, Cohen and Van Balen inspected mass-manufacturing processes in factories and assembly plants in Shenzhen and Guangzhou in Guangdong Province. As a result, the product was designed to be manufactured and assembled in China, in reference to the country’s capitalism and industrialisation. The production/performance took place at the White Horse Electric Factory in Zhongshan. Cohen and Van Balen shot a ten-minute film documenting the workers/performers’ production of forty objects. The project ultimately spans the realms of design, performance art, and moving image.
The title 75 Watt is derived from the statement, ‘A labourer over the course of an eight-hour day can sustain an average output of about 75 watts’, from Marks' Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers. 75 Watt reflects on the ways in which scientific management has mechanised human labour in the name of efficiency by reinterpreting labourers’ mechanical movements into dance. By reappropriating the process of manufacturing, the project probes the question of how products we use in everyday life are conditioned by standard methods of industrial design.
H/AlCuTaAu is one of a series of works in which Cohen and Van Balen reverse-engineered discarded electronic equipment back into ‘natural’ minerals by harvesting metals and precious stones from the electronics’ components.
In H/AlCuTaAu, the metals were harvested from a range of electronic machinery and tools salvaged from a bankrupt furniture factory in Amsterdam. These included computers, monitors, walkie-talkies, and power drills.
After being extracted, the constituent metals—aluminium (Al), copper (Cu), tantalum (Ta), and gold (Au)—were aggregated with chunks of whetstone also obtained from the same factory, forming a composite rock. Consequently, the electronic equipment was ‘transformed back’ into its mineral forms. The project acts as a critical investigation into the impact of human activity on our planet and the impossibility of reversing the harm we have caused.
With both 75 Watt and H/AlCuTaAu, the artists incorporate numerous references and allusions into what at first glance look like ordinary objects. Design has become a critical praxis that is able to generate awareness and ask questions about how we understand the world that we live in, through contemplating the very products that surround us everyday.
Want to see more dancing inside of Chinese factories? Learn about Cao Fei’s video work Whose Utopia. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.