Friday, September 21, 2012

Brompton Design District, 4 Cromwell Place Open House Event, 21st September 2012

When I attend art events I generally end up in dank basements, industrial warehouses or rooms above pubs.  So it’s a bit of a change of scenery to be invited to 4 Cromwell Place in swanky Kensington.  The building is a 19th century townhouse in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods around.  This week it’s being inhabited by what are billed as some of the most exciting new experimental designers, thinkers and makers from the UK, Europe and Africa.

The building is labyrinthine, four stories of rooms each with a separate installation within.  I arrived on the night of their open evening and the place was packed out with thin, fey, immaculately coiffed studenty types with the thickest glasses frames imaginable.  The place was perhaps a little too busy, and at least on the ground floor it was pretty difficult to navigate your way through to the pieces on display.

The first room I entered showcased food related design in a project called ‘Kopiaste’ by designers Haptic Thought and DesignMarketo, exploring the Greek cultural relationship between food and how this relates to their current economic strife.  Unfortunately by the time I’d arrived most of the food had was gone.  Had I arrived sooner I would have seen a model of the Acropolis in Athens constructed of feta cheese but unfortunately someone had eaten it.  It’s a pity I missed it, as I like both feta cheese and ancient buildings.  The justification for this is that it represents a confluence and mangling together of the Greek identity, the cheese monument becoming an emblem of the resurgent nationalism that’s growing in Greece.  They also had some delicious bread in the shape of a Euro, which I ate dipped in some honey.  I’ve eaten quite a bit of political art food of late (most memorably a delicious cake version of Marx’s Communist Manifesto), and I think I like the concept.  If regular art misses the mark, it just sits there being bad, but if it’s edible and delicious then at the very least it’s a decent meal. 

It's like I'm IN Mongolia.
In the next room was an installation by London cashmere clothing brand OYUNA.  Now, when doing write-ups of things like this I try and evaluate it fairly in terms of what the installation or piece is trying to achieve.  There’s no point in resorting to hyperbole, and nearly everything can be analysed maturely and  have some meaning gleaned from it.  With this in mind, OYUNA is a load of winky wanky bollocky bollocks of the highest degree.  This is a company whose slogan is “cashmere for global nomads”.  Try saying that with a straight face.  To quote from their literature this is a “symbolic installation which brings alive the beauty and artisan craftsmanship of the cashmere pieces while capturing the brand’s Mongolian nomadic spirit”.  Oh fuck off!  You’re selling DRESSING GOWNS (for £799!) and BEDSPREADS (for £1650!!!).   This is a company that has completely disappeared up its own arse.  I guess if you’re the type of person who’s going to go out and spend a thousand pounds on a throw rug you’re probably stupid enough to fall for this rubbish.

Alright, moving swiftly on (and via the somewhat incongruous giant barrel of ‘Farmhouse Cider’ sitting in the corner). 


 Occupying a similar space is a series of multi-disciplinary pieces based around a found photograph of a slightly dumpy young girl who they’ve named Vera eating candyfloss on a seafront.  Designers have then been tasked to create objects based on their interpretations of the photograph.  So we have an earthenware pot, with the caption “As the Ferris Wheel reached the top the wind started to pick up, huge black clouds began to form over the end of the pier, goosebumps appeared on Vera’s arms and legs, she went to reach for her cardigan but it was no longer there.  She desperately peered below looking for a mark her cardigan would still be there, there was no sign.  She knew her mother would be cross.” 

It's at this point that I twig why this is annoying me so much.  This isn’t art.  It’s wearing the trappings of art, and using the language of art, but it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing!  This is marketing.  And pretty lame marketing at that.  Recently I was at an art event where someone was simulating sex with a folding chair, it was a completely half-baked concept but dammit, at least it was sincere!  This stuff isn’t sincere, it’s trying to fool me into engaging with it on the level of art in order to empty my wallet.  I suppose gussying these objects up with meaning is the only way you can convince people to buy them.  When you’re buying an expensive pot, it’s far more attractive to think you’re buying a slice of a conceptual art installation based on a mysterious, lost girl’s childhood rather than a plain old pot to put your keys in. 

I don't know what it does, but it looks nice.
Things improved a bit after this.  Coincidentally this was around the time I realised that the beer was free.  In the back rooms were objects of a more technological nature.  Their purpose mostly remains a mystery to me, but at the very least they seemed to be doing something.  The most interesting thing in the room was a keyboard which was in some manner hooked up to a fancy looking record player.  When a record was played on the turntable, the keyboard sprang to life, and actuators clicked away as the keys played themselves.  The guy in charge was handing out headphones to people, and while I’ve got no idea what was being played through them, the listeners looked happy enough.  In the corner were some lightbulbs whose switch consisted of conductive ink.  The idea is that tilt the bulb and it turns off and on (or rather it didn’t, because it wasn’t plugged in).  Further back was another room, but the purpose of this place I couldn’t work out.  It was full of people nodding attentively while a guy talked about making the internet spherical.  I took that as my cue to move on.

I passed by the bar again and headed  up a nice spiral staircase.

 This level was a lot more pleasant than the hustle and bustle of the ground floor.  In a huge, ornate room was the “exhibition within an exhibition” ‘StudioInsights’.  It’s a series of desk like cabinets showcasing each designers working method and cultural context.  Frequently setting can inform my enjoyment more than content, and the fact that this room was much more spacious and less crowded was a breath of fresh air.  The walls were covered in floor to ceiling mirrors, making light bounce around the room quite nicely.  Each individual cabinet was neatly laid out, full of tiny details and intricate design choices.  I would have liked to have had more of an explanation of who these artists were, but even so, the sheer variety here was fun to explore.

 On the first floor landing was another kind of food display, although again when I got there most of it had been eaten.  I think it might have been to do with coffee, although there didn’t seem to be anyone around to explain.  There was a bowl of kumquats on the table, so I helped myself to a few of those.  To whoever was running this exhibit, I’m sorry I can’t really review it as I don’t know what it was about, but thanks anyway for the kumquats.

Further upstairs was a room full of baskets; the fruit of a two year design partnership between Kingston University’s Business and Design Schools, the National Gallery Zimbabwe and the basket weaving enterprise Lupane Women’s Centre.  It’s laudable stuff, promoting social empowerment of marginalised groups and allowing the basket weavers to explore their creativity, craft and identities.  It’s a bit of an interesting example of mini-globalisation, baskets being weaved in Zimbabwean communities, and then sold in Conran shops on the high class streets of Kensington.  I don’t know anything about basket weaving so I’m not best placed to evaluate the baskets themselves, but they all looked pretty sturdy and aesthetically pleasing.

Generating the headline.
In the final room, and what I’d actually come to see in the first place, was ‘Out of Print’.  It's an attempt to digest the chaotic, lightning fast world of online media using traditional print techniques.  The process works like this: there’s an iPad set up that allows you to generate random headlines.  You pick your news sources (The Daily Mail, The Sun, BBC News, Vice Magazine and so on) and the software generates a headline.  These naturally tend to the bizarre; “GIANT PANDA IS NUCLEAR”, “GHOST WAREHOUSE REFUSES 14 PEOPLE” or “BRITAIN KNIFED A COUNTRY”.  When you’ve decided on something suitably weird sounding you send it off to the printer.  The “printer” is a beautiful, hand-constructed wood block affair that looks almost Victorian.  The printers set each letter individually, place a piece of paper on top, fasten it down and then pull a giant rolling pin over the top.  It seems to take a surprising amount of effort to print just one page, and everyone working there seems to have ink-stained hands. 

Setting the type.
This is all pretty far from clicking the ‘print’ button on a computer and having a piece of paper neatly slide out a few seconds later.  The complexity and strenuousness of the process seems to make a mockery out of the fluidity and speed of the online news world.  The fact that their printing press looks so solid lends what comes out of it a kind of inherent importance too; if people are going to this much physical effort to make copies, then the product must be worthwhile somehow.  This importance is then humorously undercut by the bizarre nature of the headlines they’re printing.  Of everything on display here, ‘Out of Print’ might be the only thing that succeeds both conceptually and practically.  After so much po-faced design wankery, it’s good to see something that’s not afraid to be a bit silly.

The result.

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