The Designer Without Qualities – Notes On Ornamental Politics, Ironic Attachment, Bureaucreativity and Emotional Counterculture

Tear Gun by Yi-Fei Chen, 2016.


Some months ago I found myself in Berlin attending Re:Publica, an international conference on innovation meets politics meets branding meets tech. On the main stage, just after the vocal intervention of Russian chess master and activist Garry Kasparov, it was the turn of Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun, experience designer and "manufacturer of the impossible". Ben Hayoun is unanimously described, by the likes of Hans Ulrich Obrist and Micheal Bierut, as a force of nature, "an inexhaustible source of renewable energy". While the sheer scale of her design experiences for clients like NASA, MOMA or Airbnb implies the work of a team ("we work, "we believe", etc.), Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios is evidently framed around a charismatic leader. Their productions are truly impressive, often including two dozen lines of credits. Faced with such a vast and energetic orchestration of talent, any practitioner blanches.

Nelly Ben Hayoun was there, in prime time, to present the University of the Underground, a new postgraduate course created by "dreamers of the day" with the goal of forming the "very hard working" critical thinkers and radical designers that our world is so much in need of these days. A school for the "the Willy Wonkas of modern times, the contemporary Joy Division’s, JG Ballard’s, Marie Curie’s and Rauschenberg’s, action researchers and designers, mythologists and makers of new worlds!" The experience designer stayed faithful to her endorsements: the performance was cheerfully chaotic, with an often giggling audience and multiple plot twists (speaking of charismatic leadership, at a certain point there were three Nelly’s on stage).

The University of the Underground, hosted in Amsterdam by the prestigious Sandberg Instituut but implanted in London as well, is just one among the copious amounts of shorter or longer experiments in alternative education and pedagogy. To stick with the field of design, the Scuola Open Source in the south of Italy comes to mind, as well as the Parallel School or the nomadic Relearn sessions. And, to zoom in the Netherlands, I can mention Hackers and Designers or Open Set. So, what makes the UUG a particularly fascinating case study? Besides its laudable commitment to tuition-free education (more on that below) and the ambitious plan to run the MA for 100 years, the bombastic branding, positioning and charismatic leadership of the University of the Underground, winking at grassroots movements and do-it-yourself experiences but at the same time emphasizing free will and personality, represents a good opportunity to reflect on the meaning of counterculture today and evaluate its potential role. As someone who is intermittently involved in design education, I’m interested in the ways in which institutions are able to seamlessly neutralize, regurgitate and later administer or even steer countercultural expressions. The main motivation behind these notes is an attempt to provide a multifaceted articulation of this process and understand some of its consequences.

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Work – and Everything Else You Do For a Living by Lucia Dossin

This contribution by Lucia Dossin is part of the special issue of the Pervasive Labour Union zine on the Entreprecariat. Read it here and download it for free as PDF or EPUB.

This is the story of a creative worker who needs to find a way to supplement his income. Ricardo is an architect. Some years ago, he and his friend Marcelo –with whom he studied– set up a studio (these names are fictional). Recently, he found himself embedded in a fundamental inversion of his work-life routine: in order to be able to pay the bills, he moved into the studio and rented his home via AirBnb. The perversion of the logic in his story doesn’t only revolve around the precarious condition of the creative worker, but is topped with a layer of bitter-sweet irony made of a mix of the ‘work from home’ model and something of the self-gentrification attitude that reminds me of the horror movie Get Out. I found his gesture quite interesting and was curious to hear some of his considerations about his profession. This text was meant to be a conversation – but he never replied to my email.

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Steadily Precarious by Giacomo Boffo

This contribution by Giacomo Boffo is part of the special issue of the Pervasive Labour Union zine on the Entreprecariat. Read it here and download it for free as PDF or EPUB.

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The Funding Machine

I have made a new piece. It’s called The Funding Machine. Despite being fully conceptual, the artwork has a very practical aim. All that the machine does is transforming applications into grants or, more banally, text and images into money. Although the machine is smart enough to understand what can be transformed into money and what can’t, it is not perfect yet. It consumes quite a lot of body energy and produces waste: paintings, sculptures, installations, books, catalogues, etc. Luckily, some people seem happy to feed the machine with their energy, and to my surprise, many people appreciate its waste: they even pay a sum to admire it, take pictures of it, or bring it home. I’m starting to think that I shouldn’t attempt any improvement, the Funding Machine is fine as it is.


The Futures of Work by Nefula

This contribution by Nefula is part of the special issue of the Pervasive Labour Union zine on the Entreprecariat. Read it here and download it for free as PDF or EPUB.

The Future of Work is a Near Future Design project which focuses on the theme of ‘work’. In line with the Near Future Design methodology, it constructs Curious Rituals, different scenarios about possible futures, each one ironically exaggerating current phenomena, to provoke reactions to issues which may seem paradoxical, but are in fact simple amplifications of actual reality. The project consists of six different scenarios composed through world-building processes, with a speculative approach and a Future Map which includes all of them and suggests their network of relations. The project provides answers and opportunities for discussion around the following question:

How will work transform when Artificial Intelligence, Robots, Algorithms, Drones, and other technologies and related practices (such as Social Networking, Quantified Selves, Ubiquitous and Pervasive Computing, Domotics, etc.) will enter our workplace or, in more extended ways, will become commonplace?

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Quantified Precarity by Phoebe Moore

This contribution by Dr. Phoebe Moore is part of the special issue of the Pervasive Labour Union zine on the Entreprecariat. Read it here and download it for free as PDF or EPUB.

An unstable matrix emerges with the rise of exploitative work contracts, digitalised management interfaces, and intensified tracking capacities which negatively impact working conditions and provide an attempted means to capture and control the totality of life and work in conditions of precarity. New technologies offer the possibility to measure emotional and affective labour, including variable moods and subjectivities, reactions to situations, tone of voice, gestures and other movements that are seen to reflect people’s emotional states and affect as well, as I argue in the book. The measurement tools for all-of-life, in workplaces come in the same packages as health and fitness as well as productivity tracking devices.

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Frank by Alina Lupu

This contribution by Alina Lupu is part of the special issue of the Pervasive Labour Union zine on the Entreprecariat. Read it here and download it for free as PDF or EPUB.

I fell in love with Frank overnight. It was easy.

Our food delivery bike courier group has a common means of communication: an instant message exchange channel. It’s the perfect substitute for presence. I’ve only ever met three of my supervisors in person: during my onboarding, and during the last 5 months we’ve relied solely on out of person messaging instead. This common channel is perverted to the core by a constant stream of irony, self-deprecation, bouts of rage and the occasional mention of schedule sign-up reminders, city-wide alerts and policy changes; it’s also always available. This is where I learned about Frank, it was from some of my colleagues, but even before that I had the comforting feeling that he was there.

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Tough Shift by Max Dovey

This contribution by Max Dovey is part of the special issue of the Pervasive Labour Union zine on the Entreprecariat. Read it here and download it for free as PDF or EPUB.

This summer I decided to take my Deliveroo uniform to deceive festival-goers into believing that they could get food delivered to their tents. Deliveroo’s ‘Ride with us’ page states that you can ‘work around your life with flexible hours’[1], so as long as I have my phone charged and my jacket I figured I could turn some of my free time into earning a few extra drops. Uncertain whether I was on shift or in fancy dress, curious festival goers would either ask me when their pizza would arrive or if they could order meals from the festival food stands. I spent the weekend walking round Glastonbury festival in my uniform, repeating a joke that immediately became old, endorsing an idea that has yet to be sold. Reactions took a familiar turn, a common emotional response reminiscent of most disruptive start-up ventures, one that begins in shock and ends in demand –

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“Subjectivity in the ‘Gig Economy’: From the Entreprecariat to Base Union Militancy” by Jamie Woodcock

This contribution by Jamie Woodcock is part of the special issue of the Pervasive Labour Union zine on the Entreprecariat. Read it here and download it for free as PDF or EPUB.

Contemporary work has been transformed. This can be seen most sharply with the rise of the so-called “gig economy”, which involves workers tying together of different forms of short term and unreliable work in order to make ends meet. Instead of long-term (or even reasonably short-term) work contracts, contemporary employment is becoming more precarious and increasingly mediated in a digital context. These kinds of arrangements are facilitating the rise of the Entreprecariat, which ‘refers to the reciprocal influence of an entrepreneurialist regime and pervasive precarity.’[1] The entrepreneurialist regime is an ideological construction that promises freedom – often pitched as flexibility – achieved through sheer willpower and hard work. It builds upon the idea of Homo Economicus – that people are rational and self-interested agents who will seek to maximise their own utility and profit. It is an attempt to convince workers that their own conditions are not due to the structure of society, but solely down to their own agency. Take, for example, a recent advert from Fiverr – the ‘Freelance Services Marketplace for The Lean Entrepreneur’[2] – featured a portrait of a gaunt and tired-looking worker with the following text:

You eat a coffee for lunch.
You follow through on
your follow through. Sleep
deprivation is your drug of
choice. You might be a doer.

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Some Thoughts on “The Medium is the Mirror” by Sebastian Koseda

Jonas Berthod asked me on Twitter if I have any thoughts on the article “The Medium is the Mirror: Automation in Visual Communication” by Sebastian Koseda, recently published by Creative Review. Despite the fresh 280 characters limit, I’m not able to compress my notes into tweets, so here they are.

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