Ai Weiwei – The Political Artist

We recently learned about China and the censorship of its media, so I want to write about Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist who was recently detained for tax evasion, but probably more realistically detained for his political opinions and activism in China. According to the New York Times, Ai now owes the Chinese government $2.4 million in taxes. Not only has there been buz over his recent release, but now he is receiving money contributions from thousands of people wanting to help him pay the debt and it’s causing even more of a stir. “More than 20,000 people have together contributed at least $840,000 since Tuesday,” according to the NYT article.

Because we’d had the discussion in class about China’s censored media, I looked at its news site Xinhuanet.com, and found only a very short piece from back in June, right after Ai’s release, mentioning his release and that he’d been detained for not paying taxes. There’s nothing about the contributions he’s receving, which is news on every other large news site. According to the Global Times, a state-owned paper in China, Ai had asked on his Weibo blog site to “borrow” money from the public. Western news sites have mainly portrayed the contributions as random and unasked for, but Chinese media continues to mention Ai’s Weibo blog, which was taken down, and how he asked for funds. Also, very unlike in the U.S., the money he’s gaining could possibly be considered illegal fundraising because it’s money borrowed from the public, according to the Global Times.

The media attention Ai has gained from the “illegal funds” and charges against him has also brought attention to his political cause. In an article from The Guardian, Ai is quoted saying, “We don’t need the money, but we need attention for the public to understand what is going on.” And according to a Reuters article, many of the contributions come with supportive messages, some of the most moving being that it was the first time they’ve had a chance to vote. The article calls it a wave of spontaneous activism. NPR also compares the money to votes. It said, “Ai says he thinks people are sending money to support his bold attempts at free speech — and because they don’t like how the government is treating him.” Ai said in the article, “People started to release their anger [by] sending their money in. They just send their money as a voting ticket.”

Ai Weiwei played a large part in designing the centerpiece of the Beijing Olympics — the “Bird’s Nest,” where the games opened and closed. As part of his protest he later criticized the stadium he had had so much to do with. I find it peculiar that he criticized it after designing it, and probably after being paid for his work, but this video explains his opinions and criticism. It said he felt that the stadium and the image China was portraying before the Olympics wasn’t a true portrayal of the country.

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Building with Bamboo

Bamboo isn’t the first material most Americans think of to use when they need to build something, but for many countries in Asia, it’s a very common building material. I’d never pictured bamboo being used to build anything more than a little hut, but this plant has been, and still is, used for a variety of structures that are much more than huts. AP has an article about a chocolate factory being built from bamboo in Bali. It’s three stories, 23,000 square feet and is made from over 3,000 long bamboo poles. It even has a near 50-foot sloped ceiling.

Bamboo is an extremely sustainable building material, and it’s very easy to work with. After earthquakes hit Indonesia in 2009, survivors were taught how to build bamboo structures by the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI). The structures were relatively easy to construct and very durable. PMI also built these structures after an earthquake hit the same area in 2006, when building 12,500 bamboo structures cost them about $170 all together. The structures gave people shelter for about five years. It’s remarkable that a structure with such simple design and made of such a simple, cheap material would be so durable and practical. Structures like this seem perfect for people displaced by hurricans, but to benefit from the material I guess you have to be growing it nearby, and most communities in the states often threatened by hurricanes don’t grow bamboo.

In Hong Kong, bamboo has been long-used for scaffolding, and the majority of the skyscrapers in that city were built by workers using bamboo scaffolding. Although the scaffolding might have to be modified throughout the day, the video said it’s actually considered by many builders to be stronger than steel. What is so interesting about using bamboo for building is it’s an ancient material being used today in very modern ways. The skyscrapers in Hong Kong can be 80 stories high, and the city is a global city. The scaffolding isn’t used on traditional houses out in the farmlands of Asia, they’re used to build a city internationally recognized. 

In addition to its use in constructing a modern city, the flexibility and sustainability of bamboo has put it on the map as an actual material when building new, “modern” homes. Scandanavian countries are known as leaders in modern design, and the woven bamboo house designed by Danish architect Søren Korsgaard is just one futuristic example of modern bamboo construction. This article from WebEcoist shows 13 more sustainable, futuristic and modern bamboo structures. Most of the structures seem to be found in Southeast Asia, where building with bamboo has always been used traditionally in some way or another, but there is one bamboo farmhouse barn found in Indiana that made the list.

Bamboo probably isn’t practical everywhere, but the areas that can utilize bamboo  have found a material that’s as packed with functional uses as an egg is packed with vitamins. For those who don’t know, that’s a lot!

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The Design of a Name

Just like architectural style tells an idea about a building, and coreography gives an idea about the dancer, the name of something gives an idea about the product. The name is more than marketing, it’s part of the product’s design. This New York Times article is an editorial rather than a news piece, but it brought up points about product names that I hadn’t really thought of and caused me to think about marketing as a form of design.

The point of the NYT article was that many product names aren’t good. Either they don’t describe the product, they’re just letters that don’t make sense, or they’re too cheesy to attract a broad audience. And according to the article, a main reason for the lack of inspiring product names is that the good ones are already taken. He wrote that it’s “increasingly difficult to find new names for them that are appealing, memorable, appropriate, unique and make (some sort of) sense in different countries with different languages.” It’s too hard to imagine that people’s creativity can’t push past what’s already been used, but I think there is validity to the increasing difficulty in having to account for different languages and having to market to a more and more diverse market.

A popular example of the language issue seems to be the naming of the Buick LaCrosse. A Forbes article said the vehicle was to be available in Canada, but car’s name is the French-Canadian slang term for masturbation. Another example in the article was the VW Touareg, which was “named after a tribe of north African nomads that, it turns out, traded slaves well into the 20th century.” It’s interesting that companies have to take into account what their product names might mean to other countries. Companies who make these mishaps are often ridiculed, and I do feel like it shouldn’t be that difficult to hire someone who knows the language of the country you’re launching a product in, but maybe with so many products being circulated to so many countries with so many different languages, maybe it’s a little harder than it looks.

In the NYT article, the author wrote about digital cameras and some of their non-classic names. Examples were the Nikon Coolpix and Sony Cyber-shot. He suggests that the names reflect our changing desires and concerns, and perhaps they do. Products aren’t made to last a long time anymore. Upgraded models come out at least every year, and products aren’t made to last much longer than that anyway. Maybe the names aren’t classic because the product isn’t classic. Names are often stamped onto products, making the names part of the design. They reflect the product and create an image for it. Especially with car names, that name design can make or break its marketing.

Some of the best cheesy names seem to come from Japan’s auto companies. Another Forbes list with “The Best, Worst & Weirdest Car Names” said the list was “dominated” by Japanese automakers. Shiotsu Auto Trade Japan even has an article dedicated to it.  

Similar to the movement away from long-lasting, quality products is our increasing interest in technology and “tech-type,” which is communicating through shortcuts. It really could help explain odd names like “the Th!nk in Norway, the G-Wiz in Britain and the (utterly baffling) Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which hails from Japan,” which were also in the NYT article. The names look familiar to the generations hooked on technology and perhaps appeal to them more than a name like Ford Mustang.

Just for fun, here’s a list with international name bloopers. American companies seem to dominate the list, but there’s a few others who made it as well.

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Design With the Other 90%: CITIES

The designs in the show “Design With the Other 90%: Cities” are simple and economical. Their beauty comes from their functionality and ability to change the lives of millions of the world’s most poverty-stricken people. The New York Times article “Rescued by Design” described quite a few of the designs, so I’ll write here about my three favorites.

I was most impressed after reading about “bus schools” popping up in slums of India’s largets cities. The NYT article mentioned Pune, a large city in India where workers move around following work and move their families around with them. Because of all the moving, children aren’t enrolled in school. The solution was to provide buses, equipped with classrooms, to the children. The buses even pick the children up from their homes so they can make it to school. Students are given handbooks that track their progress, so when a family moves, parents can find a new school and the child can pick up where he/she left off.

This article from The City Fix mentions a few different programs, all with the same school bus classroom idea, but slightly different approaches. Delhi has a program that opens schools in areas that don’t have schooling facilities because about 25% of the children there don’t attend school. Another is the “Door Step School” mentioned in the NYT article. A third program is “School-On-Wheels,” which is designed specifically for children who live and beg on the streets. These children are also mobile, so the buses provide a realistic alternative to the traditional classroom. The article also said that similar programs are being implemented in parts of Chile.

The Guardian also had a good article about the buses. I think it’s about the “School-On-Wheels” program. It includes quite a few pictures and quotes from students, which helps enforce how successful the program seems to be.

Another design that I was impressed with was the renovation of the slums along the Bang Bua Canal in Bangkok. The homes there used to be flimsy and hanging above polluted floodwater, according to the NYT. Architects from Sripatum University, one of the country’s schools, were called in to design new houses. The old, rickety structures were torn down and the new homes were built, “often from recycled doors and timber, on solid ground and near the former stilt houses, so that communities would not be broken up and families uprooted.” The project also included low-interest loans and renewable 30-year leases for residents, which made them, for the first time, “legal stakeholders in their properties.” This website from the program said the area never would have been able to negotiate the leases if each community along the canal had tried to negotiate on its own, but collectively they were able to “convince the authorities that redeveloping their communities in the same place is good for the people and good for the city as a whole.”  This is what the area now looks like: Bang Bua Canal.

Lastly, South Africa has benefitted from a design from XYZ Design. The NYT article didn’t mention this one, but it’s included in the exhibit, and this article from Design With Africa explained the concept. The design is a modular bicyle and cart. They’re “easily and cost-effectively modified” for use in areas that don’t have good access to public transportation. The modular bicyle and cart are easy to assemble and maintain. Providing transportation to these areas is supposed to help start “sustainable economic development and improved access to services and economic opportunities for under-served areas.” This video shows the bikes and the process of designing them.

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Beyonce Accused of Plagiarism

In the world of dance, your choreography is your words. I guess each move can’t be considered your own, but, like a sentence, the sequence you arrange them in is your design. Beyonce was recently accused of plagiarism by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. The music video with the plagiarized dance moves is to the song “Countdown” and does very obviously copy the choreography. I first read about this in the New York Times, which said Beyonce borrowed from two of Keersmaeker’s pieces, and borrowed not just dance moves but also some costumes, the set and even some specific shots. The article said Keersmaeker is not mad, but feels it’s rude, especially because they copied so explicitly.

But the entire video is a combination of copied art. According to the article, Beyonce’s response was that Keersmaeker’s work was clearly a reference. “It was one of the inspirations used to bring the feel and look of the song to life,” she said in the article. Furthermore, Beyonce said her music video for “Countdown” was “also paying tribute to the film, ‘Funny Face’ with the legendary Audrey Hepburn,” and “My biggest inspirations were the ’60s, the ’70s, Brigitte Bardot, Andy Warhol, Twiggy and Diana Ross.” And when you watch the entire video, those other inspirations are clearly evident. It’s not mentioned in the article, but with so many other popular references, it’s obvious that the lyrics “killing me softly,” originally used by The Fugees, are used in the song to make an impact.

This article by The Telegraph said the dance company is “currently looking into launching legal proceedings against Beyonce.” The article also includes another video with more side by side comparisons of the videos, and also includes an interview with the original video’s filmmaker, Thierry De Mey, who according to the article said that, “If tomorrow I were to look for the music, the videos by Beyonce or any other pop or rock stars and use them in my movies without asking for their authorization, I think Exocet missiles would fall over the Charleroi dance festival and myself,” which I thought was funny and interesting. I also think it’s interesting how, without our technology and without globalization, some aspect of this event wouldn’t have happened. Either Beyonce never even would have seen foreign dance for inspiration, or her video never would have reached as far as Europe. Just interesting.

The situation is made a little more clear by this article from The Guardian, “Beyoncé v De Keersmaeker: can you copyright a dance move?” which said the codirector of Beyonce’s video, Adria Petty, brought Beyonce a lot of European dance references and she may have been “under the impression that she was referencing the work of the late Pina Bausch, rather than that of the Belgian (and very much alive) De Keersmaeker.” 

So really, how offensive is it to have pieces and elements of your artwork copied to create a new piece? Isn’t copying someone the biggest compliment you can give them?

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Art and Social Change

Just like music has the power to alter the mood of its listener, art and design have the power to change the minds of their viewers. During this past year, art coming out of the Middle East has been the subject of many articles as it continues to reflect, and perhaps propel, political unrest in the region.

Most recently, a New York Times article titled “Arab Art as an Early Indicator of Revolution” talks about politically-charged art at the Marrakech Art Fair in Morocco. The article said the artists freed themselves of traditional formats and “managed to break taboos to show the simmering discontent that led to explosion, while at the same time expressing a craving for personal freedom.” According to one of the curators, the artists were trying to convey messages reflecting the demands for freedom of speech, social justice and emancipation coming from people all across the Arab world.

Earlier this year, especially around February, March and April, similar stories were coming out about art and its reflection of politics in the area. The article “Political Artworks Reflecting the Middle East’s Unrest Electrify Art Dubai,” published by the Huffington Post, mentioned a few areas. The article is a little hard to follow, but it mentions issues in Palestine and how a piece of art titled “Kite” summarizes “the Palestinian cause.” It says the piece shows “no blame or bitterness, there is simply hope.” The article ends with a quote by an art collector, “Being Arab is almost a genetic disposition, we have to react to political turmoil and, thankfully, most of our artists do it in very poetic ways.” These articles do a good job showing how important artists are in reflecting their countries’s issues, which is really cool since I hadn’t really ever thought about how important art, rather than just photos, can be in capturing moments in history.

On a little bit of a different note, the article “The Middle East’s Other Revolution,” published on Forbes, mentions how Iranian artists have “busted open the seams of their repressive society with works that denounce the plight of women in the Muslim world, or expose the homophobia pervasive in a land where homosexuality is a capital offense, but sex-change operations, paid for by the state, are commonplace.” The other articles mentioned state and political issues, but I feel like this artwork goes into social issues affecting people on a personal level rather than on an over-all national level. It says they have to express the “unspeakable” in ways that convey their message to the world, yet remain “cryptic” enough to pass censors. I think it’s so interesting that artists are underground social changers. It ends with a quote from an Iraqi from New York that I found moving and interesting because it seems to portray art as something concrete rather than an abstract idea, “I sure do hope that art has inspired people to act. If so, then art has served its true calling.”  

Lastly, I thought these articles were cool because they show multiple examples of revolutionary art, graffiti and graphic design: “Art of Revolution” and “Art and Revolutions in the Middle East.”

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Design is Design is Not Design

Design can be anything. I’ve written that before and the idea comes up again. The Gwangju Design Biennale in South Korea  fully embraces this idea and has six exhibits, all of which abstractly define design. The event is described as, “Moving beyond the established distinctions of the design industry, the six sections of the 4th Gwangju Design Biennale explores the dynamic of design that is placed, un-placed, and displaced, design that is named and un-named, and the communities that are woven through these relations.”

One of the exhibits, “Un-Named Design,” is to “challenge the myth of the designer.” Meaning, is there such a thing as a professional designer? That question is addressed in the article, “If Everything is Design, What Then is a Designer?” It’s written by a designer in Sweden, and concludes that one of the distinctions between design as a general activity, and the design of professionals, is that while design as a process can be seen as a general human activity, design as a profession relies on an understanding of aesthetical practice. Maybe South Korea’s attempt to show that everyone is a designer, and the Swedish view that there are in fact design professionals who have a stronger grip on the entire concept of design, lies in design differences between the two countries. The curator for the “Un-Named Design” exhibit, Brendan McGetrick, mentions in an article that, “The beauty of being in Asia is that a concept like design is much less claustrophobic than in the West, where everyone has an idea of what design is.” I feel like maybe that distinction should be made because while it’s interesting to delve into design as more than furnishings, clothes and engineering, the “Un-Named Design” exhibit actually even throws away the whole idea that design needs to be driven by aesthetics. McGetrick said that while selecting for the category they looked at things like politics and science, “things that we thought were interesting and creative, but were just not necessarily aesthetically driven.” Interesting, but is that really design or is it something else? Maybe it’s another innovative process but not necessarily design. Shouldn’t aesthetics be required for design?

The whole concept reminds me of something similar happening in the world of journalism. There’s the idea that anyone can be a journalist because everyone can capture a significant event on his or her phone, and everyone can write a blog or tweet. But does that make them journalists? Is there more to journalism than just telling the news? Similarly, is there more to design than just making something new? I think that the aesthetic element is necessary to make something more than just something that everyone can do. A good piece of writing requires story-telling skills, and it requires pulling readers in. Good design also pulls people in. It makes them wonder why they can’t stop looking at whatever was designed.

The idea that there is no designer, and that everything is a form of design, is interesting, and the fact that the Gwangju Design Biennale doesn’t exhibit any traditional forms of design makes its point. But I can’t help but agree with the Swedish article that says there is a special quality and element to something designed rather than just formed and integrated. Aethetics are necessary.

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